Wednesday, 19 November 2014

post-progress poetics

** News of a five day Mythteller intensive on Cortes Island (Hollyhock) on Canadas west coast May 22-27th 2015 coming soon - **

It would appear that we in Devon are peering balefully over our goat skins and embroidered covers at the handover between Autumn and Winter; the denizens of the Oak are laying their cloak at the feet of the victorious gods of the Holly. I love this time of year so much. Hard to get me from the fireside. Here's a few smoky lines of Lorca, straight from the shepherds hut where Stephan Harding and i continue our twilight translations; Stephan provides flamenco guitar and the linguistic rigour, i provide wine and wayward thoughts.

No one could comprehend
the perfume of the
dark magnolia of your belly,

No one knew you martyred
Love’s hummingbird amongst
your teeth.

A thousand little Persian horses slept
on the moonlit square of your brow,
Whilst i, for four nights stayed close
to your waist, great enemy of the snow.

It's been a busy few weeks. Some richly rewarding gatherings in Lewes and London, and then onto a weeks teaching: "Myths At The Edge of the Fire: The Initiation of Eloquence", three hours break, and then a weekend teaching with Paul Kingsnorth, "Prophets of Rock and Wave" (thanks to Jini Reddy for photo) - a raised glass to the hundreds of new allies that showed up to these lively happenings. I don't forget you. I will be telling the startling, deep-frieghted and dark eyed Yakut love story of "The Crow-King and the Red-Bead Woman" at Bridport Arts Centre in Dorset this Friday. The last few weeks have seen some disappointed folk on the night, so please get tickets in advance.

So in all these road miles, I imagine the beginning of 2015 as the blessed, shadowed, antler-curve of the moon rather than its fat bellied fullness, as i craft final love notes on the cave painting which will be my next book. The below is from it - i think a fledgling version wobbled out onto the page here about a year ago.


When we grope back far enough we hear the clinking bells and animal croon of a vast migratory journey. Way back, through the blue smoke. Press your ear to the mud and you will hear them.

From Africa, the Caucasus, the steppes, we hear the creak of the great wagons, the lively yip of reindeer song, the crackle of the fire. Movement has been one key display of our temperament. And not always on the run, not always adrift in ghosts and oppression, but often styled with tremendous elegance.

In the remote burial cairns of high Dartmoor, beads originating from the Baltics have been found. A sign of great veneration. Four thousand years old. So migration and especially trade have often been at the heart of even what we regard as intrinsically local.

We know that many nomads travel for pasture (the word comes from the Greek nomas - meaning the search for pasture), they are usually rooted in the wealth of the word herd - the fed bellies of the animals in turn dictate happiness to the wanderers. The sustenance of the four legged ones is a homing device for the tribe, a humbling incentive.

Numbering still some forty million worldwide, some travel to collect wild herbs, whilst others - like the Lohar blacksmiths of India - are craftworkers and travel to trade. It was nomads - the Mongols - who gave birth to the largest land empire we have ever seen. Under the unification of Genghis Khan, the land of these nomadic tribes stretched the great flank of Asia. It was nomads who carried the banner of Islam across North Africa, Spain and Iran in the early Seventh Century. In early books of the bible they are claimed as god's children, it is the city folk who are outcasts. They have made a substantial hoof print on what we think history is. Intense pragmatism, intricate social networks, and an often dazzling degree of weaponry ride alongside.

It’s too loose a connection to claim them as hunter-gatherers: they are not. They have entered the business of movement, of proximity to and cultivation of herd. They clack with their staff directing the migrations, not just following the chomping amble of the animals. There is a tangible back and forth between the desires of both. Venkatesh Rao (Rao 2011 p.35), claims their bounty as the invention of the wheel, falconry, leather craft, rope-making, even sewing (from the construction of hide tents with needles of bone and gut strings). If mobility is the pressing issue it’s likely a nomad designed it.

We could ask; what does local mean to a nomad? Proximity to a fireside or dwelling under a ragged canopy of stars, cradled in the soft fur of the desert grasses? They seem to represent a modern aspiration - a perception of the wider earth itself as home. But still they maintain their song-lines; their passage is still deliberate, often worn into an ancestral groove under their hooves, paws and feet.


When nomads claim the rich soil of farmers, we often locate a growing change in their thinking. What George Monbiot calls “a belief in progress” Transformation and salvation become an arrow cutting through the previous hard-wrought perception of the cyclic seasonal world - loss and gain, abundance and scarcity. So where once was the spiral, now exists the gleaming road of future security. The crops are dry stored, nature's grip is to be overcome. We get to dictate some terms. The greater purchase we have over nature’s whimsy, the better.

Professor Greg Retallack claims that differing soils dictate the religious emphasis of the people who work them. Whilst collecting samples from ancient Greek temples, he observed that thinner soil existed where nomadic herders worshipped Artemis and Apollo, but as it gets capable of supporting a robust farming life, the gods in the mix are Demeter and Dionysus, deities of harvest and the vine. It becomes less about hunting more about planting. The gods do not just exist in lofty Olympus, but wander the fields in the evening light. They reflect the intricate concerns of the local, maybe they guide those concerns.

The nineteenth century writer, Thorstein Veblen (Veblen, New York:MacMillan, 1899), makes a distinction between two different kinds of pastoral nomad: lower and higher barbarian stages (barbarian is high praise in Veblens eyes). the lower stay pretty much to the lifestyle i’ve described, whilst the high gradually become civilisation’s whilst maintaining an eyeball in the direction of their roots - an example being large herds of animals maintained for sport rather than sustenance. They in turn get deeply settled, forgetful and comfortable, till nomads from the edges charge in, kick over the applecart and claim dominion. Then over time they make exactly the same moves towards surety as their predecessors.

Venkatesh claims that one on one, the nomad displays more innovation, street smarts and flat out aggression than any civilised person, but en-masse, the porridge-thick, comfort-sucking horde will almost always win the battle. The Mono trumps the feudal.

Traditional nomads rarely worshipped much local in the way we understand it, rather they hurled their praise up at the vast tent of the sky. The sky enclosed all. The Mongols loyally offered libation to vast Tengri, god of the air. Everything under its great sway was related. But, as we see, this old view is impacted with the knowledge of life’s inherent fragility, the seasonal patterning of what is stripped away, and the green buds of spring's recovery.

We have in large part inherited “the belief in progress”, and now stand in the debris of its consequence. Maybe we are on the verge of becoming a post-progress society. There’s enormous relief in that.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

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