Tuesday, 17 November 2015

back


Devon weather is not for everyone, I admit. Today sea, hill and sky are all the same churning grey and the rains jagged like a lively slash from Zoros blade. A day for a woodpile and pots of tea and maybe a visit from a friend or two as darkness falls. I've been on the road; first Sweden and then Canada: grateful for the experience and grateful to be home to catch the moment when Devon curves from autumn into winter. This weather will take the last leaves from the trees and then a drop in temperature and - boom - we're in. In honour of my absence from writing here, this is something brand new; the first section of my telling of Pwyll and Rhiannon - to long to lay out in one heave.

(first section)

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed,
had it in his mind to hunt.

And not just in his mind, but his heart, his whole constitution, to plunge deer tracks deep into the precinct of his kingdom they call Glyn Cuch. Compelled that day to push further, to loosen himself. Over the crunch of hazel nut and dying bracken he galloped, each green gully a station further from his everyday life. Each acre a doorway into the dreaming.

Supported by entourage, with hounds padding his hooves, when he blew his horn he became suddenly separated from his men. It was if he banished them with the note. What arose in their place was the Wyrd - the thrumming hurl of chase, the crash of stag, the yap chatter of mutts elevated suddenly to the power of a choir, but sung by beasts that were not his own. And it was those dogs that caught him, halted him, it was their ghost shape. White as milk, almost glowing, ears scarlet, like jugs of blood.

But still he pushed on, making passage for his own hounds to take the prize. Rallying his horse in circles to scatter the other dogs. Greed overrode occult knowing. As he squatted in the gutting river of blood, feeding his hounds, it was also some dying part of himself he was beholding. From the trees, a Grey Rider cantered to him: austere, otherly, clearly a noble. A visitor from the Other Place.

‘I know you but I will not greet you.’ He spoke. ‘That you would take another ones hunt. That you would drive away such hounds. Tsch. I will not take revenge, but know this: I will bring shame upon you to the value of a hundred stags.’

To avoid such horror, Pwyll took a strange penance. The grey rider was Arawn, King of Annwfn, and he swiftly reported a way of culling the debt, though not without labour. You must know that Annwfn carries more than the scent of faerie. It is the nearest Otherworld to ours.

Arawn laid out terms: ‘A chiefs territory crashes against mine, crashes like storm waves on Anglesey, he’s like a gull that break the necks of chicks. A bully. I can't endure it, but I can’t quite win either. But you: I note your hero shape, how the woods bend towards you. With my magics I will give you my form, and no one, not even my wife or warriors will know it is not me. For a year you will share her goodly bed, taste clear wine in cup, enjoy chops on your plate - and then you will go to the ford and meet him in single combat. His name? Hafgan.

You will defeat him with one death-blow. Just one. Resist the heat of a killers arm. Because he will bound gladly up again, prick-stiff and laughing if you rain the blows down. They will revive him. I know this through sour experience.

I will go to your land and preside, I will take your posture. No one will know’.

And from then on, the strange twinning began.

And it was just as Arawn said it would be.

Arawns wife was a magnificence; it was hard to look at her. But at night, when she lay, warm and attentive in the dark next to Pwyll, he lay not one finger on her body. All year it would be the same. During the day he would be more than civil; engaging, friendly, a wit - but at night he would turn his face to the wall and that would be that. And all around the court the forest would breathe with the Queen in her loneliness.

The day came for the
meeting at the grey ford

Pwyll no longer
in the jaunty silks of court

no longer heartened
by harp and keg

but leathered, trained, terrible
no weakness anywhere

as it must be
when you meet
at the grey ford

Each day in Arawns shape had given one drop of luck and strength to Pwyll, so his road in the fight was of fire and swiftness, an absolutely unconquerable thing. His blow split the boss of Hafgans shield, there was a wrench-grind-and-shatter of armour, and he flew the length of his nag and spear-shaft till he thumped vicious ground. From the tree line, Death the mid-wife tilted her head.

Hafgan bartered: ‘there is no way back to life for me after such a blow. No more spring bloom, no wine-maidens, no wintering tales. Please. Finish it.’

Pwyll countered: ‘the surety of your death is for you to negotiate. I will not bless your lustre with a second blow, sorcerer.’

With that, Hafgans nobles, encouraged by their lord, swore allegiance to Pwyll, and in doing so saved their lives. Hafgans closest officers removed him from the ford for his dying time.

All shame lifted, Pywll as lion shook obligation from his shoulders and made his way back to Glyn Cuch; lighter, confirmed in some way. The Grey Rider was waiting. In old, sing-song magic, the two man shifted shape and shot back into their true frames, blinking and laughing at their bodies right feeling.

Arawn was happy to meet his warriors, to ruff the head of his hounds, to settle in his chair by the fire, but happiest of all was he to meet his wife. None, of course, any the wiser that they had not truly seen him for one year. He looked from the corner of his eye: there was no largeness of the Queens belly, no sickness at the feast. And when later he reached for her in bed she came to him like a powerful, long rumoured but rarely glimpsed river meets an ocean.

When the Grey Rider realised the quietness of his marital bed that last year, he confessed the strange arrangement, and absorbed the depth of his new friends surety. His wife was never more luminous to him than that night.

On Pwyll's return, he found he had never ruled so well by not actually being there: never so generous, even-handed, like a high kestrel in his far ranging perceptions. The land, the animals, the people flourished. From that day, a rare thing leapt between the two chiefs: genuine friendship. They would send each other favoured hounds, horses, hawks, jewels. Goblets are still raised to their fellowship. Dyfed itself was twinned with Annwfn, the Otherworld, a braided knot. A pressure-point in the ancient body of Britain.

copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

curating echoes


October comes waltzing, and the open road beckons for this teller: Europe and then onto Canada for the Mythteller Intensive at Hollyhock, Cortes Island. This will including an co-hosted evening of conversation, wonder, speculation and occasionally unfounded opinion with me and my friend Stephen Jenkinson. There has been a rush for tickets for the wider intensive, but if any still abide, here is the link:

http://hollyhock.ca/programinfo/mythteller/

For North American and Canadians I especially recommend it: a distillation of twenty years work, a glimpse into the well of soul we perch by at the West Country School of Myth.

THE TIME-WRESTLE

Skin, Flesh, Bone

There must be different kinds of memory. There’s the sort that you can trace back to a certain age and then proceed rather like a C. V., like peering through ice. It provokes no great pathos, just a four square stomp through the years. A checklist. It’s not without its uses. We could call this skin memory. Pops up at job interviews. Reveals a mind not ravaged by substance abuse. Skin memory hovers like a buzzard over the creek-trail of our own lives. We need skin memory, especially its emotional distance.

Then there’s another kind. In this squats a greater sense of the interior: your wider senses lurch into range - you can feel the deathly cool of the telephone in your hand as your lover breaks faith with you, the reek of the phone box (a scent you have become almost fond of as you associate it with your nightly attempts at courting) and the crazy weight of the dark as you stagger out into that fresh March night of 1989. Now that recollection is quite a different animal to the first. That shoots that buzzard right out of the sky. Gets these adrenals moving. Shirt sticky on the back. First love memories have a little more boom and clatter - either that or they are placed well and truly in the deep freeze. So it’s all a little more holistic, edgier, a flesh memory.

But over many years now as a mythteller I have found there’s another kind again. Bone memory.

This is the tears unbidden, the clench of the gut, the wild-sky-waking of some story that lashes its great sexy tale straight round the table legs and pulls all the crockery to the floor. And you bend your head and thank it for the trouble. Alive a live-oh. Amen the thunderbolt in the dark void.

It’s as if in the dust of your collagen and calcium is a secretion of alchemical deposits that can't be readily accounted for in the push-pull of your years. It’s not to do with a Lincolnshire high school, or a leery husband or anything you really can claim to have experienced, it doesn't quite add up. Where did it come from? Be sure, it has spook attached. But you’ve always sensed it at the edge of your vision. Maybe you don’t talk about it. Maybe as a child, just before sleep, with your eyes closed you beheld hundreds of faces you’ve never met. Remember that? Who are they and where do they come from? If someone tries to explain them away, it’s vital you tell them they’re an idiot.

But what is this terrible treasury, so magnificent and elusive? Is bone-memory the way into a religious life that we are not supposed to believe in anymore? Why does a chick raised in a laboratory shudder when the cardboard shape of a Hawk swoops its shadow over the babe, despite never being in the presence of a predator?

The greatest storytellers curate echoes. They can feel them in ancient stories, and if there’s no echo, no stirring of bone memory, then they won’t tell them. But if the echo trembles its blue bell in the teller, then their work has begun. This isn’t a simple as maintaining that a moment in the story is a metaphor for something that happened when you were six. That’s a cop out if that’s where the enquiry ends. This is participation mystique. This is a time-wrestle; when as a teller you know things you should not know, bear witness to the moment where the horses of past, present and future all drink from the deep trough which is the story being told in its ordinary and tremendous fullness. You commence holy seance with trees and saints and croft. You change your shape. If that sounds grandiose then you’ve understood exactly what I’m trying to communicate. A great time-wrestler will push you out of the normal range of reference without for a moment belittling the lived human experience; they will render you completely to its vastness.

I know what i’ve just written lacks some connecting tissue, allows a degree of misrule into what’s presented. So I’ll try and come at it again. We have the general recollections of a life, then we have the deeper, more emotive reservoirs - the endings, the betrayals, the happiness, and then we have chthonic memory and from that erupts the word soul. And I do mean erupt. You respond to certain wild views, grand old castles, the delicate swoop of the goldfinch. You walk into a Finnish church and you stop still. You know you’ve been there before. But not this time round.

There must be many books that extrapolate on this theme. I’m not going to, but to just raise up the notion that we know more than we should be able to know, and remember things that don’t always fit into the time frame of our paunch and greying hair. It is, some would say, a little baffling. Maybe once in every hundred years or so you may meet someone who has the same subterranean pressure points as you, but it’s as rare as the white-skinned deer in a far Northern forest that the hunter weeps for when he takes its life. You and they share bone-memory somehow. Maybe that is what a soul-mate actually is. A bone-mate.

So an echo in an old story has the effect on me that I have been claimed by it. Sometimes a rough and disarming experience. Wrestled into the dark grasses of a mightier imagination. It doesn’t have to be a neat fit with my own life exactly, but, in some fashion, we are kin. Otherwise the sensation of being claimed simply would not have taken place. The passport to a modern life is often to drift through without the difficulty of such an encounter. But that passport becomes wretched when we realise that those very difficulties and their bullish prickles remind us that we are not alone. We aren’t designed to do this alone, no matter what they say. We’re not here to glide through.
It’s a contact sport.

Study of folklore, mythology, fairy tales are a way of strengthening your capacity to vocalise bone-memory; to evoke not just pastoral but prophetic information. To reach back into history and realise it was riding alongside you all the time. You just had to reach over and touch its bridle. A way of becoming proficient at your particular form of echolocation. This must not be kept entirely in the hand of the specialist anymore: the times are far too pressing. To have the capacity to not just carry but communicate bone memory is a talismanic activism against forces that do not wish you well. And yes, they’re out there.

Chaos stands at the gate of this statement, I know that. Not much I can do about it. Licence for every eye-quivering mystic and low grade channeller for a thousand miles to bellow their celestial reports uninvited into your weary face. Sorry about that. But I will persist in my endeavour, not to encourage the lunatics, but in the hope that one or two may read this carefully and that it could deepen the practice of becoming a true human being. And it does take practice.

Where were we? Memory. That thing so vital to a storyteller. That clouded buff of image that you plead to, to crowd into your jaw and then be loosened into the world like a scent we’d almost given up ever catching again. You have to enchant the story to come as much as the audience that receives it.

But I have a confession.

It’s memory that flees me as I sit in the green room of a Manhattan night club, or stand in frosty-dark outside a Dorset longhouse as I prepare to speak. It goes away. Always. There’s no memory at that moment. Or at least not the flesh kind. Or even the body. Just blankness. A kind of weakness too. I feel unsubstantial. There’s no A to B, no recital, no incantation, just a kind of nothing. It’s not a good sensation. Only prayers to gird the way at that moment. Then, sure enough, someone emerges from the dark and says its time.

You glance around but there’s no spirit-companions. Nada. Just some bad coffee and an article on Nick Cave stuffed down the back of the sofa. So be it. So you stand up and shake yourself down, snorting like some shetland pony still waiting for its load. And somewhere out there, under the lights, that little pony will have to become a Lion. The stories won’t show up for less. And then, and only then, as you croak your greetings to the murky strangers does bone-memory show up. Pushes all the other gradients of recollection aside and speaks its rough-rattle of beauty to the second, secret heart of those gathered listeners.

High risk strategy, circus work really - tight rope, no net.

Over the years i’ve had plenty of time to think about this moment of absolute absence that arrives -without fail- before I teach. And how the atmosphere that, praise allah, tends to arrive afterwards, is so often to do with my capacity to stay open to the bones of things, rather than any flash peal of speech I may have in my back pocket.
Keep listening to the bones.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

wandering

As i've wandered through this summer, I've brooded on the migrations of stories: we've had hundreds at Calais recently, trying to get into England. So, below is a repeat of a post I put up when this year was but a fledgling. It's really part of a wider questioning on the perennial role of the nomad amongst the local - within story and landscape.


Efficacy, Frontiers, Migrations

It’s rough weather up on Haldon Hill. As one of the main routes through Devon and into Cornwall, its exhausted motorway is straining to the very limit as truck after truck groans and grinds its load up and over this ancient tump. The motorway air is a churning menagerie of sound; the thick flap of the wheels, high whines from frustrated engines, and the steady put-put-put of the exhaust pipes. In the darkening light of late afternoon, a curling snake of headlights stretch all the way down towards the city of Exeter.

Up here, Haldon has its own weather. There can reside an arctic frigidity, quite unlike the hidden villages and hamlets below. As the rain hurls its ravenous fangs down on the shining cars, only half a mile away I’m tucked into a thin scattering of wood, deep into ceremony.

I’m as dapper as I’m ever going to get, regardless of freezing downpour: grandfather’s cufflinks, sash, tailored knee length tweed, rings on fingers, waistcoat and bespoke old-time boots. An elaborate horse strap from the Hindu Kush is firm woven into a large leather bag, which weighs heftily from my right shoulder, filled with gifts. Doesn’t stop that rain though, sleeting sideways though the gloomy verticality of the blue pines. For a second I gingerly remove my trilby and slosh out the gathered moat of rainwater under its up turned brim. Than back to it, the weather begets efficiency.

The story-hut is looking almost ready for business. In the midst of the pines there is the rotted base of a very old oak, still rooted in crumbly black soil. A small bed of bracken has been diligently assembled, and on top resides a stash of dry kindling, a hip flask of Irish whisky, three strands from a blanket, money, and a slow-whittled antler-tipped staff, ornate at its handle with the carved appearance of a local denizen.

Above that is a simple woven roof of grasses and branches. And most importantly, it’s near flowing water, otherwise I fear there’s no possibility of the guest arriving. Fretting like a concierge at some fancy hotel, I pace the soil and glance through the dripping tree line for just a hint of their arrival. Just a few rustles in the glittering bushes. This story knows how to make an entrance.

I should tell you, this tale brings a very old arrangement with it. Though I’ve encountered it told as a local story, and through a local mouth, I intuit immediately that it’s taken a migration across the Irish sea to get here. I can just smell it. It’s a wanderer amongst the steadies. There’s a subtly different magic to it, that, I admit, settles wonderfully amongst the tussocks and green lanes of Devon. It works. I don’t know if it arrived on a fishing trawler, on the back of an eagle or squeezed itself out into the confines of Newton Abbot library, but it’s here. And it works. Some know it as “The Storyteller at Fault”, one of its many names.

Stories have always done this. Some of them do like a wander. This touches on one of the most salient nerve endings in this book. There can sometimes be a ruction between those that insist on locality as prime for folklore, and those that perceive the land as a fluid backdrop, fluid enough for the story to hop from country to country with nary a scratch.

The truth is, of course, that there are examples that will readily back both position. But for as long as people have loaded the wagons or set out across the ice flow, then stories have been traded, migrated and weighted. Weighted for their purchase, for their wisdoms, for their disclosures. True wealth.

But we already know enough of this commons of imagination, it’s a note struck frequently down in the orchestra pit of modern story. That all myths are talking about the same things at the same time. It’s simply not true. I’m sick of it. As if the pitted cliff face of East Prawl is chanting the emerald song of Sherwood forest. Different lands provoke different stories. Everything I’ve learnt from stripping down the black tent and moving a little way tells me this.

When we herald only binding agents we lift the human experience artificially above the earthy psyche it resides in. We hang, loosened entirely from the tendrils of place, remote and universal, and wonder why we feel so discombobulated. The clinic of the existential. When faced with personal transition - with trouble - in a culture worthy of the name, you would extend your attention out to seek the worthy council of the wider psyche, the broader body that you were part of. We are not designed to wade through crisis without it. It makes us crazy. It makes us appear deeply alone. Rowans, dog-rose and the crescent moon always had the facility to keep busting open our cloistered thoughts, interweaving with our feelings.

So I focus on the local. The specific. But then this happens. Just like it always did. The nomad is back. A story rolls in, spits once on the ground, and beds in. Claims some turf. Like some charismatic loafer crashing the party, by the end of the evening they have everyone dancing on the tables and a new blush to aunty Ruth’s cheeks. They get claimed. Naughty as they are, they get recognised as saying something new about the old place. I can’t let this kind of messiness pass, it’s too real. It’s like life. But I suspect the story has not been deeply welcomed. There’s an old way of doing these things you know.

So, my task is twofold: to visit the land and barter some relationship to the story, to visit the story, and barter some relationship to the land. What happens after is not my business, but I can’t be slack in my duties. That’s why I’m up Haldon hill with my bundle.

Storytellers have always had a hinge-vocation; between worlds, cultures, spirits. But, as I write elsewhere, there has usually been a gradient of protocol attached, a sensitivity, a way of doing things. It’s not appropriate to grab some far off tale and expect it to show up ready for business in a climate not suited. However, if the story itself has something of the migrational about it, then a courtship begins. A testing of the ground.

And that courtship requires a few standards: no Erin tale will settle unless its near fast moving water, if it doesn’t have dry wood for the fire, if there’s no dram for the lip, no emerald bed, no staff to lend its heft when the feet are weary and the road is long.

You have to be loving, generous and attentive when a story arrives. You have to make a home for it. Give it shelter.
The three strands of blanket were part of a late night gift from a storyteller representing some of the Tulalip people of the pacific north west. A blanket that held one of their sacred paddles and was now freely given in exchange for a wild old Celtic story that they recognised and claimed as useful. It’s always been done. It’s a kind of magical practice. But the way in which it is done, is paramount. You don’t just grab a prize pony from a neighbours paddock. That’s how you get scalped.

Too many assume that oral stories are all up for grabs: as long as the story is repeated then all is well. All is not well. When a story lands beautifully, we witness not just the spirit of the tale, but the long apprenticeship the teller has served to it.

The turns in language, the lifting phrase, the moments of rapid improvisation, are defining marks of service in the temple of the tale. To mimic such a diligent practice without the involved, cautious and daily maintenance of a big story is theft. It’s not ‘continuing the oral tradition’, it’s theft. You simply didn’t earn it, and as a friend of mine says, “you are still on the take”. Stay in that groove and you may leave the west, but the west will never leave you.

These are words for those in the trade of speech to consider, those that claim a little prestige or maybe coin for their tellings. Now, for those on the front line of telling stories in the raising of kids, helping the sick and the poor of heart, to returning veterans, assisting the spell breaking of addiction, whispering tales into seal holes and across grey waters to a heron, well that is something else again. Long may you ride. But a similar education is required in the power gradient of the stories you tell.

They are medicine, so understand the dosage. But, firmness of tone is reserved here who stake some claim as working storytellers. It’s just a call to do things right. Your heart has a true-north, a sense of efficacy: use it.

The rain has hushed, and a second wind has joined the first, a different tone entirely, this time coming in from the east. The air is so fresh it feels like it’s soaking, like you could squeeze it out like a rag. The rocks and pines are an almost hallucinatory green. I reach into my bundle and pull out a couple of horses brasses - heavy amulets used for display and protection of the Devonshire heavy horse of the last century. I start my shake. The low clack of brass on leather, and a third wind enters the small glade. As all myth-tellers must, I beat down cloak time with the clatter-pulse of my amulets until little pinpricks of somewhere-else-entirely show up. We are now at a proper crossroads.

So I bring language. Hard-wrought speech, gathered from caves and clouds, kestrels and the hoof print of a roe-buck. Gathered from sitting at the feet of women and men in service to language. Curated from all the ordinary heartbreaks and woeful betrayals we will surely face. And it’ll still never be enough. But I bend my head and I try. I try to barter conversation between the tale and the land, that the story and its beings recognise, if not a home, a place they could occasionally shack up when over this way, that they can get a fire going, have a dram, get a sweet bracken bed like the old times.

This particular ceremony is quite a protracted affair, and requires complete sincerity as well as little touches of fine, fluttering speech that the stories find charming. But the heart must be tenderised too - not aimless flattery. What happens between the land and the story afterwards is something only they can negotiate, but right now, in this spirit-mediation, I am accountable. This matters, it’s not free-form.

At a certain point, my knee drops to the grasses, and I realise its time to give voice to the story itself. They’ve turned up, one at time, over the last few minutes, and, although at a discreet distance, they’re ready. I can see the glint of copper on their chariots, the hounds breath-steam in the dusking. It’s getting dark, crows caw from across the copse, and a car passes in the far distance, lights twinkling.

copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Thursday, 30 July 2015

lions


** fridays event in london completely sold out. Maybe some returns on door. Check Crick Crack Club for details" ***

Been missing Coleman recently. I have my very favourite Rumi book of his: "Feeling the Shoulder of the Lion" right next to me on this early-morning desk with my coffee and mug and the cat wriggling round my leg telling me I have to feed her. Ok I have to feed her. A little black lion. Back in a minute. Back. This old computer I am using today has no comma button - as you will see.

The soul is that way in the body
a royal falcon put in with crows.
It sits here and endures what it must
like a great saint - like an Abu Bakr
in the city of Sabzawar.


This little book has a different kind of intensity to it. Tremendously compact - austere - wild even. Not likely to make it to a greetings card anytime soon. Coleman says: "The power of the appetites is in the lion - the power to control them or indulge them. The lion is also associated with the sun. The lion wants more light. Sometimes that means fasting sometimes feasting. The spirit-lion is the dawn presence - the one who calls out - announcing the next."

I followed something of this in Snowy Tower: "the story of Parzival says that there is a lion in us: a lion who opens its vast jaws to the feasts of court - the intrigues of culture - the thin road of the pilgrim. The lion consumes emptiness and space with just the same vigour as it settles on fresh meat."

Coleman again - for all of us: "the chief lion attribute is his authority. It is an authority over himself - and it is also an authority that comes from living close to a deep sense of self that he will not betray..."

The farmer went out late at night
to check his ox. He felt in the corner
and rubbed his hand along the flank of the lion
up the back - round the shoulder - and around
the chest to the other shoulder.

The lion thinks "If a light were lit
and this man could suddenly see
he would die of the discovery.

He's stroking me so familiarly
because he thinks i'm his ox.


The greatest lion I know in any language is Mirabai. She's gets to it:


To be born in a human body is rare
don’t throw away the rewards of your past deeds.

My beloved has come home with the rains
and the fire of longing is doused.

At the first thunderclap
even the peacocks open their tails with pleasure
and dance.

Like lillies that blossom under the full moons light;
I open to him in this rain; every pore of my body
is cooled.

Mira’s separation and torment are over.


And she's clear to her lord:

Be with me when I lie down; you promised me this
in an earlier life.

If you come anywhere near my house
I will close my sandalwood doors
and lock you in.

Mira’s lord is half-lion and half man.
She turns her life over to the midnight of his hair.


(versions Hirshfield and Bly)

copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Thursday, 23 July 2015

the old, low note



The room is to walk from moonlight to sunlight.
Like a womb, glowing like the yoke of an egg.
In its centre is the small painting,
which seems the source
of the luminosity.

The rug has been pulled,
an ember leaps from the fire -
the king’s heart strikes an old, low note,
and he will never be the same.


From fairy tale "Faithful John", telling Martin Shaw.

I love the old, low note of the fairy tale. Tomorrow we gather at the school for our next deep immersion in the old stories and their florid tangle with the wider world we call the earth. It's in this wet and woven treasury that I hear the dark-root wisdom of Rilke again, speaking out:

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.

...Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

The Man Watching (trans Bly)

The telling and carrying of stories is being in the presence of constantly greater beings; and showing fidelity to the tremors of your own soul when you wrestle one that has absolutely claimed you. That's when submission appears, in its old regal fashion; about as far away from our contemporary fixation with isolated individuation as it's possible to get. We can guzzle all the wheatgrass smoothies we want and still be absolutely bereft in our wider psychic health without the arrival of this bigger event. Well, that's what the old folks say.

So looking back at Snowy Tower, I found a little of the introduction spoke to this 'wet and woven treasury' that we will be exploring. Here we go:


Certain myths, certain stories, are a bridge to the muscled thoughts
of the living world. These thoughts we could call the pagan imagination.
Pagan from the Latin—country dweller. When I write of the pagan imagination,
it is to illustrate the earthy spaciousness that really grounds
a human: not as a remote island to themselves, but a charmed, invested,
lover of place. Pagan not as a religious persuasion, but the feel of one
who strolls, complete, under the grey teeth of the rain, or who places a
hand on red turf and feels the subtle disclosures of an old friend; or who
points at the night sky and knows not unutterable distance but that the
stars are shield-rivets of the sun, and that they themselves shelter under
the vast indigo tent of the sky. They are one who dwells.

Some stories these days do not offer that kind of relationship. Like
a genetically modified crop, their intrinsic design is so shaken up, so
bent only to allegory, that this root connection is lost. Their taste is
briefly sweet but lacks texture and weight. Nuance is ironed out. The
story we are about to explore is not one of those. If the hand of the
human community is too impacted, then story becomes only pastoral,
an affirmation of what we already know. I don’t believe we need stories
like these. Many of us long for the prophetic, the unruly, the stories that
awake the bristling, tusked edges of our imagination.

At the same time, stories gathered from the wild places, if authored and
spoken by just one person, will lack the psychic weight that many fairy tales
hold. One human’s testimony was never meant to hold the entire soul-story
of the tribe. That’s too much weight for anyone’s shoulders.

Having sat round hundreds of campfires for twenty years hearing
powerful, transformational stories pour from the mouth of returning
wilderness questers—visionary—I have wept at their mythic truth, but
have not quite heard a myth. A subtle distinction, but important. They
carry the ‘I’ elegantly, but not always the ‘We’ that the great stories reveal.
They are beautiful rivers, but they are not the ocean. It was the waiting
tribe, many years ago, that would help the initiate dig the tributary that
took their river to the bigger tribal story. The ancient stories, rather
like our vast, majestic seas, may have occasional temporary pollutants,
but are not to be abandoned. They are to be cherished, worked with,
carried, honored. They carry silvery shoals of insight, slow moving crab
wisdoms that survive at great depth and under intense pressure, aquatic
revelations that give themselves up for our nets, time and time again.
Though on one level myth is not really about ‘a long time ago’ (but a
kind of numinous present), we know that the opening up to its images
through many communities and over long stretches of time deepens the
power and intricacy of its disclosures. Repetition has enormous weight. So,
although the myths usually refers to eternal concerns, the repeated practice
of invoking that very ‘timelessness’ is one of the elements that gathers psychic
vigor to the telling, like moss around a stone. It’s very mysterious.

Although some would rather be done with myths and folktale and
swiftly produce new stories of harmonious and stress free relatedness to
the living world, it is like trying to out run your own shadow. Naive. All
those power games, betrayals and paradoxes that myths and fairy tales
engage with—they keep revealing to us difficult inner-material, material
that comes with the labour of being a human—a human with a history
of betrayal, urbanity and a tricky lower intestine—and not always the
pristine mind of the elk or starling. That’s useful as we turn our head
towards wild intelligence. Its rather domestic grit reminds us of the
village we come from as well as the forest we long for. Human initiation
always calls for the messy business of dwelling in the crossroads of both.
With a great deal more investment and community (as well as solitary)
focus on wilderness, those individual stories from the wild may
indeed collude into something lasting. Meanwhile, the great stories—of
six swan brothers, a young girl riding the back of a goat waving a spoon,
of raven feathers that hang from the yurt of a Giant—the ones that challenge,
mystify and wake us up—to this very day contain vast doorways
to the Otherworld.

It is certain fairytales that carry the dreamtime of what came to
be called Europe, bedded down in the blue green forests and the nomad
lines from India and the Caucasus Mountains, its rich loam carrying
the loose wild fields of pagan thought clear of the accelerated logos of
Descartian advance. These stories are our chthonic shadow that stayed
close to plants and animals when we tried to become Sun Gods of
Empire. Things survived, down there, in the spidery gleam of the hearth
fire tellings, images of such animistic intelligence that they shoot brilliant
shivers of recognition into the orbit of anyone who gets near them.
They are Yeats’ “Wild Swans of Coole.”

So do we just tip toe away from this complex inheritance, and rattle
off endless cut and paste ’new’ myths after an afternoons brisk walking on
the Brecon Beacons? I think this would prove to have little sustenance. It
would lack authenticity. We need the experiential, the great unshackling,
but bardic thinking would entail that encounter then challenging and
deepening the existing mythos, not abandoning it completely. This is
where study arrives. We won’t get into heaven without it.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Monday, 6 July 2015

current tracking device

the muddy crust

This is a recorded message: I'm currently out in the forest guiding a wilderness vigil. Here's a dish I prepared earlier.

..I will be up at the Edinburgh books festival on Sat august 22nd, collaborating with Mark Rylance and Paul Kingsnorth on an event called LOST GODS. I wish I could suggest you get a ticket but they've all gone i'm afraid. Our time together will circle around the relationship between imagination and the old gods of England, Paul's novel THE WAKE, some readings from it by Mark, and an unearthing i've made of a strange english fen story that is clearly the swampy twin to the old Grimms tale Iron Hans. In some lively manner we will weave readings, tellings and opinions between us and see just what arrives in the room.

You will probably know Robert Blys book, Iron John (a telling of the Hans story). You will be sympathetic to my surprise as I realised there was this muddy, seemingly east-anglian telling of the same story, with just enough exquisite changes of emphasis that it's rehydrated that wonderful old tale for me. Remember that feared place in the forest where a hunters dog gets pulled under the water? Pleasingly, no mutts were harmed, or even occurred in this telling.

Swamps are not forests, especially to the english, and the notion that we require an education under the immensity of mud, silt and slow moving water has been deeply moving to me. The story has something of Beowulf in it too. Seeing a story through the monsters eyes. It's the very same ground where Finn MacColl over in Ireland learns to swim with a dagger in his teeth - but this tale goes even deeper, under the swamp. It's this place of underlings, under-speech, under-thought that I think gives Kingsnorths book its power, and Marks fragile and eerie readings from it. There's something down there. Edinburgh will be my first proper unveiling, though students at the school may get more than a rumour at our next gathering. Having told the Grimms variant alongside Bly and with Daniel Deardorff for the 20th anniversary of the book, this is a lovely little gift to be curating.

So for all of us on our sunken ships, or hunkered down and wrapped round breaking timbers glimpsing a new, tender possibility of life, here's a few moments that may hint at what could be below the muddy crusts of grief.



***

(the arrival of the swamp-being, and his invitation to us)

As if out of the ground,
a great shuddering lump
sloughed with water
the source of all rivers
the tears in every eye
the mighty current,
the true drop.

Come get up on my back

He runs,
Wudu-Wasa
the ruddy bear,
fire-spark under moon
till at dawn he slowly
places the lad down
on firm soil.

little hands find ruddy cords of hair
like rope or binding vine, to keep him
secure as the beast-man starts
to lope further and further
into the ward

deeper stranger darker
till of a sudden the two sink
beneath the waters, the silt,
the mud, the rough grasses.

A crows wing
is wrapped around
the boy

mouth ears nose
fill with black sound and dark water
a churning sound a hundred wild geese
amok loose over ocean

And then he can breath again,
behold again.

Down below is a kingdom.

Below the waters
is a mead-hall:
kegs, storytellers, servants,
meadows, wild horses,
intricate walled gardens.

This is the residence of
the one-eyed-man.

This?

(the boy receives an almost renaissance education under the salt marsh, and then finally begins a life on the surface. He experiences all the un-witnessing, betrayals, occasional malice and divine complexities that comes along with lifes passport. He's finally beaten and dumped in the swamp by a couple of high borns, not realising that they've actually dropped him in his ground of true psychic sustenance. Not the grand forest of the nobles, but the slow shifting waters, flicker-lights, and moisty fog of the swamp. It, in the end, is that energy that saves the east-people from the Norseman. Something truly marginal, something wyrd, not typically heroic by any shot, though this has a taste of it:)

***

He alone with the cattle of his fists
reaches into sullen northern waters
by sheer will
tips the dragon-boats back down
the whale road they come from
in his vast spasm
the norse-bandits flee they flee
into the seas foaming cum

Holy christ. The chief has never seen such a victory.

He is carried on the backs of the men
to the mead-hall.

They sing low
through the rising light,
a gentle scattering of rain
.

To this day their feast continues,
in the hill inside the hill.

We see this

as through a dark glass

but we see it

***

So here's to you and your swamp times and your victories and all the blessed rest.
Don't go easy. See you soon, wanderer.


copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Friday, 26 June 2015

things to love

familiars

great mother conference 2009

a culture of giving


This little piece I put out here some months back, but I've had a deal of folks asking about it, especially new scholars at the hedge school developing their own practice. So here it is. In a weeks time some of us will be taking to the forest for WILD LAND DREAMING - the wilderness vigil - so again, this is good preparation.

THE MANY WAYS THINGS HAVE OF BEING WHAT THEY ARE

I’ve always loved copses, and defiant little grubs of hedge and tree that sprout unbidden from the backs of council estates. I grew up playing in one, and it had been there as a kid I had first heard the sound of ghosts. That low sound in beech trees, when an elegant, late summer wind moves through the slender branches. You just know that’s the sound of the dead. I knew, even as a five year old, that some part of my story was being told through that sound. That I’ll hear it again someday.

Later, a little older, I would gaze at the dark bow of trees leaning over our brick wall at the back of the house, dropping succulent looking, possibly dangerous red berries onto the uncut grass. It wasn’t exactly sinister, it was magnificent. I knew every berry was a story from the forest.

So, as a young man, I took myself out to a little stretch of old growth wood, mostly oak and elder, and dug in. If myth really was the power of a place speaking, then I had to bend my head daily to its murmurs.

The vast majority of time I spent over those years outdoors was not in full voice but in listening. A kind of tenderising of the heart. A shaggy equilibrium painfully wrought, where I felt - and could maintain the sensation - of being flooded by a place. Not an emptying, but a filling.

And as weeks would unfold, this roving ecosystem gradually settled its shape somewhat; out of the ravenous floods cascading through my frame, things calmed and the few same birds, animals and insects would start to show up, and, occasionally, certain regal energies that stand alongside them.

The time for this work was usually dusk, I would wait for a frittering of delicate lights to lace the air, and they would denote whether it was time to settle back on my goatskins, or to cross the rickety bridge and back up the hill to my tent. This kind of vagabond sit took place hundreds of times over those years. I was in the presence of mighty things, and, in their way, they presented me with the Big Thoughts. Over and over again.

This is weft and the weave of story for me. The endless lyrical emerging of the earths tremendous thinking, and the humbling required to simply bear witness to it. And the extraordinary day, where for an hour or so, you realise that you too are being witnessed. You are part of the big sound. You have pushed the coats aside and walked through the back of the wardrobe.

When my mouth had chewed on enough silence, and my body had located its fragility in the face of winter, when darkness and sorrow had bruised up against solitude, I began to taste, fully, the price of my labour, and slowly I began to speak. And what came what praise.

Inventive speech appears to be a kind of catnip to the living world. Especially prized was the capacity to name, abundantly and gracefully, dozens or even hundreds of secret names for beings you had spent your whole life strutting past, and muttering; “willow” “holly” “bat” “dog-rose”. They are not their names. Not really.

So the first big move was not one of taking anything at all - I’d done that quite successfully my whole life - but actually re-organising the detritus of my speech to formulate clear and subtle praise for the denizen I beheld in front of me. Not “The Goddess of the River”, but “River Goddess”. The moment I squeezed “of the” into the mix, thereby hovered an abstraction, and the fox woman fled the hunters hut.

Green Curve
Udder of the Silver Waters
The Hundred Glittering Teeth
Small Sister, Dawning Foam
On the Old Lime Bank.


This wasn’t even particularly imaginative. It wasn’t flattery. And most of all, it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t comparing myself. It was simply describing, acutely, what I witnessed in front of me. Some things I realised I was never going to behold clearly. I wouldn’t have language for butterfly, birch, ivy and clay. There it is, they remained indistinct. Admired, but indistinct. But, grindingly slowly, some beings made themselves known to me, became a lintel overhead, a den in which I could claim a degree of kinship. Not what I would choose, but what chose me.

So the first part of my apprenticeship to story began in a tiny stretch of woodland glade - a corral of about twenty foot - tenderising my own nature until the beings that wished stepped forward, and gave me the slow and halting opportunity to name just a few of the hundred secret ways they have of being themselves. Maybe four thousand years ago they weren't so secret.

It was apprenticeship to the swaying unfolding of the earth’s imagination, an endless permutation of Psyche touching the fire-tips of Eros’s fingers and creating life. The interior was everywhere! Concerned friends would worry that I had travelled too deeply into the tangles of myself, that I wouldn’t find a way out. I would laugh and gesture out towards the valley. That was where I was. I was already out.

I went looking for stories in dark places. In caves, hundreds of feet into the base of Welsh hills, the immensity of tree root and stone suspended above my fragile head. I learnt slow words down there. Words flushed deep with water and boulder-vast. I took myself to dreaming places, forgotten places, places deserving of shrines. I built small shelters in ancient, solitary haunts and sealed myself into the dark for days and nights. It was in those places I learnt many holy names for time. Time as malleable as a concertina, as robust as Irish cattle, as slippery as the trout escaping the hook. Each of the secret words was true wealth for my parched tongue. They required payment in full and I was not sad to give it.

It was in the ebony world that luminosity came. Great stretches of images from a future I was yet to have. Of people, and estuary maps, and animals, of beings we rarely have the names for anymore. It was in that place that I was shown a discarded set of antlers, that I was soon to find in clock-time at a local rubbish dump. Those bone wands were big story for me, and formed the centre of many negotiations and ceremonies with the soulful world. And yet, one day I would have to give them away.

I went looking for stories in the palace of the birds. The pastoral murmur of the wood pigeon, the thrilling blue call of the tawny owl in their midnight kingdoms. I learnt feathered words up there. Sounds that whittled a new and fragrant shape to my jaw. For a little while, I was a boy of the moonlight, cloaked and rooted by the base of great trees. It is no great brag to say that a part of me is still there.

If I’d believed the propaganda of our times, I would have seen England as too farmed, too crushed-tight with humans and their history, soil too poisoned, forest too hurt and impoverished for such an education - better to turn to the vastness of Siberia or some other pristine wilderness. Thank god I didn’t. The eye of the needle is everywhere, abiding patiently for you to quilt your life to the Otherworld, which is really our deeply natural function anyway. Small pockets of absolute aliveness, greeness, riven-deep mystery are all over our strange and bullishly magnificent isle.

So my first move towards story was to give one up. The slow move from a society of take to a culture of giving.

The living world was not there for my temporary edification, or a transitory back drop for my ‘healing’, it was home. A home that scared me, rattled me, soothed me, shaped me. Without the investment of time and focus, the words I longed to speak would simply be phony on my tongue. The worst aspect of storytelling is when you hear the words spoke but you know the teller never took the journey to get them. They just squatted by the well and stole them when one that did crawled out of the Underworld. Well, I sure wasn’t much of a teller at that point, but I knew I had river-mud on my boots and green vines in the wine of my blood.

Later in this book we will touch upon just how a storyteller could sift through the unbridled rawness of such experiences, and find stories both broad and wily enough to carry them. If you try them too often as ‘I’ statements, they will, in the end, get just too straight up lonesome and wander off to die somewhere. There’s a greater vehicle waiting for them. They need those ancestors peering in, leaning on their staffs, not quite cheering you on, not quite telling you to stop.

copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Thursday, 18 June 2015

this weekend: stories of the deep drop

approaching otherness

a thousand little Persian horses slept

The sun beats its unutterably beautiful cadence down onto the wriggling and delighted wild things of olde Devon. I am gathering: goatskins, peculiar essays on rarely-glimpsed green skinned deer of remote forests, tortoise shells, clothes for a feast, rugs for a hearthside, smoky wine, and a gathering of stories so potent they make flames become flowers that spark loose and lively from the wayward clang of hammer and anvil in the unconsecrated dark of our secret souls. Tomorrow we gather on the moor again, the little school, my secret darling - holding up its part of the world in the way that it does. See you soon scholars.

So, i must be swift. Lots of news coming, of trips to Sweden and Canada, encounters with National Theatres and distant islands on the pacific-north west, and a collaboration with the magnificent MARK RYLANCE (Wolf Hall, Jerusalem) and PAUL KINGSNORTH (The Wake, Dark Mountain Project); entitled LOST GODS on Sat 22nd August as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival - google for details i'm sure. Tickets will go fast if not immediately i think. I'll also be teaching and telling in the wondrous confines of a Yurt on the side of the Thames for the Crick Crack Club on July 31st: COMBING THE DRAGONS HAIR. I will give this all more stately run through soon. I've also got to submit to the requests to come one day to Australia: i really will start to think about it. A good advocate of the country (literally) emerged out of a hedge near my hut this morning and reiterated it, so the runes are gathering their emphasis.

Some Lorca lines straight from that very shepherds hut: especially dedicated to anyone that recently attended the astonishing Great Mother Conference in Maine. What a time.


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 swept close
your waist, great enemy of the snow.

Somewhere between gesso and jasmine,
Your gaze was a pale branch of seeds,
i roamed through my heart to offer you
those ivory words which say:
always.

***

Man, that is panache.


Manana (Morning)
7th August 1918 (Fuente Vaqueros, Granada)
To Fernando Marchesi

Waters song
can’t die.

It’s the erotic sap
which ripen the fields,
It’s the blood of poets
who’s souls got lost
in the paths of nature.

Harmonies spill
from her welling crag,
sweet rhythms
she abandons
to us.

In bright morning
the hearth smokes,
and its plumes are arms
Lifting up the mist.

Listen to love affairs
erupt in the water
of the poplar grove,
wingless birds
abandoned in the grasses!

The serenading trees
with their snapping and cracking -
the rough plains becoming
mountains of serenity -
they change;
but waters song
won’t quit.

It’s a song that curls
with light,
loose with dreams
firm and soft,
one moment tame,
then full of sky.

In the rosy bliss
of dawn
she is mist;
the moons honey
flowing from
buried stars.

Is the holiness
of baptism
not god become water?
Glinting our heads
with the blood of grace?

There’s a reason
Christ confirmed himself
in her.

It’s the reason
stars rest in her depths,
the reason
why ample Venus
engendered herself in her breast.

We drink love
when we drink water.

This love
streams both
tame and divine,

it’s the story of the
whole world,
the wily old tale
of her soul.

She’s large with secrets -
from human mouths,
let’s be honest; we all kiss her
and she quenches our thirst.

She’s a casket
of kisses
from the mouths of the dead,
captivated forever
with the sisters heart.

Christ could have been
more direct with us:
confess yourself with water
told us to turn in
our fears - all that pain
and meaness,

who better, brothers
to hand in our trouble
than to her who rises to the sky
draped in
sheaths of white.

When we drink water
we become kids again,
and that’s no bad thing,
it’s a pure moment:

our sorrows drift before us
in rose garlands,
our eyes consumed
by acres of gold.

No one can ignore their destiny.
It’s the sweet water in which
we drench our souls.

Nothing compares
with your sacred shores
if deep grief
has given us its wings.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Thursday, 14 May 2015

still here

hare and the madrigal

If it feels like an age since I last wrote, that's because it has been. Life has not been easy of late, a harrowing winter and a few body blows with the arrival of the apple-blossom too. Grief to chew on. Just didn't feel like putting pen to paper. But time is a flying arrow, and the season is in its turning, so i'm glad to offer a little something today. Something on a very holy animal for me, the Hare, and some of the Lorca i've been slowly translating in the Shepherds Hut with my spanish speaking, Cante Hondo guitar playing co-worker to all divine things, Stephan Harding. More sooner, promise.

Hare

Who is queen of Dartmoor?
how does the salmon or white doe fare?
Who is the one to ask for?
lay your gifts at solitary hare


I’d seen her first from the window of the shepherds hut. And then sometimes a glimpse when I was outside throwing coffee granules onto the soil.

Late autumn, a sleeting rain, and, bold as brass, hare in the long grasses. Bounding, darting, lying low like a small earthy tump. Hairy, toothy, wet backed, utterly wild. An emissary from an entirely different century, or even outside time altogether.

By spring there’d be rabbits on the grass, and she’d be gone. But, for a little while, hare was in my life. Come March I’d search but wouldn’t spot those long ears in the scrub, those great jugs of sound. But I remember her jubilance in the rain. I remember.

It’s a mild afternoon, the very first snow drops flower by my boots, the sun like a dulled bronze coin behind a slightly glowing flank of grey cloud. I enter the wood behind the hut. I bow under the first gateway of holly, then oak, then into that always unexpected grove of redwood trees. I never quite get used to them.

Today the wind is like foam breakers crashing on a distant beach. Immense, protracted roars up in those high branches. I stretch my neck to see if there’s any fishing boats wrapped round the timber. I pass a smearing of bloody magpie feathers enmeshed in wire fencing. There’s been a scrap of some kind. Magpie did not dust itself off. Crow continues to drill-the-road overhead, and underneath there are little clusters of songbirds.

Today I love hare like I love pirate ships, old maps of Scotland, and pipe smoke in autumn. A kind of love without thought. Just a great, affectionate lurch of the body towards what claims it. So in the absence of my teacher, I give praise to air that it may carry these words to those vast, twitching ears.

Hare.

Taken into battle and used as divination by Queen Boudicca. Erupting from the folds of her skirt, the way it leapt gave sacred information to the Iceni. Takes a woman to understand hares powers: as long as you expect it to behave as a swaggering hero you will be disappointed. But let it be its nature and you are in the presence of wisdom.

Hare.

A body suffused unusually and liberally with blood. A royal dish. The people of the fields prefer rabbit to the bucket-blood, dark flesh and strong stink of its meat. For the rich this can all be negotiated by servants in far away kitchens. Then, magically, it becomes highly desirable. But Robert Burton in Anatomy of Melancholy warns against it: ‘Hare is a black meat, melancholy and hard of digestion; it breeds Incubus often eaten, and causeth fearful dreams…’

Hare.

The leaper. The hare-brained swift who’s time is spring: of buddings,
and sudden emerging’s, there’s no plod with this one. The Algonquin have knowledge for us moor-people: they say hare is Michabo, Great Hare, maker of sun, moon, earth. Hare is ruler of the winds: the reason Dartmoor is so filled with chills is because of the daily coming and goings of tribute laid at hares feet.

Hare - here are some of your far-away names.

Lord Hare, Lord of the Day, Manabozho, Hiawatha, Manabosho, Manabush, Manibozho, Nanabozho, Winabozho, Great Hare, Minabozha, Nanaboojoo, Nanabush, Abnaki Gluskap, Iroquois Ioskeha, Menominee Manabush, Montagnais Messou, Messibizi, Messon, Missabos, Missiwabun, Wan

Hare - here are some of your close-up names. These I whisper.

Old Turpin, Puss, Light Bringer, Hidden Quiet of the Byre, Long-Flank, Tremble Heart, The One They Track With Silver, The Way-Beater, The Stag of the Stubble, Get-Up-Quickly, Flincher, Dew-Beater, The Furze-Cat, Lurker, Squatter in the Hedge, The Swift As Wind, Shagger, The Fellow in the Rain, Wide-Eyed One That Lurks in Broom, The Low Creeper, One Who Turns To The Hills

and a tribute to the coming summer:


Summer Madrigal
August 1920 (Vega de Zujaira)

Estrella, you gypsy.
Crush your
red mouth
onto mine.
Below noon’s
bright gold,
i will bite that apple.

In the greeness of
the olive grove,
high on the hill,
there is an ancient
Moorish tower.
The colour of your
peasant flesh
your peasant flesh,
which tastes of honey
and the dawn.

You offer me in
your sunburnt body
divine food which
flowers the river bed,
and gives stars to the wind.

Brown light -
why do you give me
full of love,
your lillied womanhood,
and the murmur of your breasts?

Is it because of my body
full of sadness?
(oh my fumbling steps)
Did my song withered life
touch you with pity?

How can it be that
you have settled for my laments
over the sweaty thighs
of a peasant Saint Christopher,
handsome, and slow in love?

You are with me, Diana of pleasure.
You are Goddess of the Forest.
Your kisses smell of wheat
parched in summer sun.

Confound my eyes
with your song,
let your hair fall down
solemn, like a
cloak of shadow
on the meadow.

From your bloodied mouth,
Spit me a sky of love,
a dark star of pain
in its fleshy depths.

My Andalucian horse -
my Pegasus,
is captured by your eyes;
his flight will be of desolation
when their light dims.

I know you never loved me.
But i loved you -
for your
serious gaze,
like the lark loves a new day
if only for the dew.

Estrella, you gypsy.
Bite your red mouth to mine.
Under a clear noon
let me ravage
that apple.

copyright Shaw (and Harding) 2015

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Spring Sap Rising: come study on Cortes Island, Canada

MYTHTELLER INTENSIVE, HOLLYHOCK, CORTES ISLAND

May 22 - 27, 2015

sign up at: http://hollyhock.ca/programinfo/mythteller/

The great old stories always did something more than just soothe a troubled brow. They were provocative, mysterious, wild and deep. They insisted on a relationship between people and place, animal and dream. They were often introduced as a counterbalance to wilderness initiations designed to enable the skills of someone 
aspiring to be a true human being: a noble task, and not easy.

The cry for new stories, stories that apprehend the challenges of our time, has never been so strident as it is now. Work with the notion that the stories we need now arrived, perfectly on time, about five thousand years ago. And that these stories could be central to some of the major conversations of our time: the re-building of culture, the ecological imagination and the capacity for paradox.

We ask:

How can the mythteller deepen these great issues? We explore the role as well as the stories.
How could we bring a wider understanding of myth into our own lives?
What is this ancient alignment between land and tale?

Dr. Martin Shaw is an author, mythologist and storyteller. Director of the Westcountry School of Myth in the UK, he lived for four years under canvas, exploring wild pockets of the British countryside. He is principal teacher at Robert Bly’s Great Mother Conference, and devised and led the Oral Tradition course at Stanford University in Northern California. His work has been described as “an outrageous piece of magic” by David Abram, and “the wide-sky-waking of a spring dawn” by Coleman Barks.

Request a Reservation for This Program

Register early to ensure your program and accommodation choice.

TUITION: $525 CDN / 5 nights (meals & accommodation extra)

Friday, 13 March 2015

with tony, NY autumn 2014

the comb of a fighting dragon

Something to wave farewell to late winter with, and, I have to admit, give praise as spring starts to reveal her elegant hand. One of the lyric poems I have been working on (with Tony Hoagland), and a local story with a touch of walking its bones. Year course is now FULL with big waiting list - the ONLY available School of Myth event for the next 12 months is the Ted Hughes weekend with myself and the brilliant Hugh Lupton (1-3rd May scroll down to flyer). I will be at Crick Crack lecture series on May 6th, THE ONE THEY TRACK WITH SILVER - my lecture and telling on Trickster. Google i'm sure is hoarding all relevant details - London, Swedenborg House my memory is telling me.


Snow
From Dafydd ap Gwilymn, Welsh, c. 1325 -1380, and Irish, unknown; eleventh century.

No world but white.

Even words of a girl won’t
shift me from the peat-fire.

Here's what I say to her:
that I would arrive
as white as the clothes
of a miller.

Not a grand look
for romancing.

Flakes land like feathers,
ridged down my back
like the comb
of a fighting dragon.

God has issued his decree -
from January on,
we are to be hermits.

This winter, my Irish cousins
tell me of the misery
of the wolves of Cuan Wood:
so bent with cold they cannot rest;

The eagles of Glen Rye
are breaking icicles
from the bitter winds
with their deadly beaks.

Full lakes
are frozen seas;
tiny meres are full lakes,

Horses spin
on the these iron fields
like priests with brandy;

fishes plough the grey waves
just to keep warm.

Snow mounts higher
than the mountain.

Bells are frozen in the black chapel.

The shield hangs idle on the warrior's shoulder.


What Price to Lay an Eye?

The Church House Inn stands firm at the crossroads of Holne, whilst a silver torrent churns down past its solid oak door. Everything I survey is dripping, soaking, has had any possible shred of warmth drained from it. Through a shrouding mist plods one horse rider, replete with luminous top; other than that the hamlet seems utterly contracted.

It does not seem, I admit, the perfect beginning to a great Dartmoor spirit-story. The story begins in an old cottage at the edge of the village, but as I glance round, all i’m seeing is an array of satellite dishes racked precariously up on small, shuttered up, modern houses on the road out of here.

I start up the road from the village, past the old red-phone box, past the barn that briefly held the trellis, ribs, roof and neatly folded greying canvas of my yurt when I could no longer find a quiet place for it.

It is always a longer journey than expected up to the cattle-grid that is really the guardian stone for that entry point onto the moor. That slight tightness to the thigh, the deep gulping of oxygen-fat air - you feel that you have earned the unfolding views. The yellow of the western gorse pokes through the mists. To the right arches valley after valley, tor after tor, a rippled blur like a buzzard's wings skimming the surface of a grey pool, all feathered browns and cool teal. Punk rock sheep wander around looking miserable, blue fur sprayed as identification for farmers. It’s really cold. Again. And I have many miles to go. So, as I walk I begin the story, speaking its myth-line to underneath the tarmac. The occasional car passes, school kids pointing and laughing at the muttering man with his odd gestures to buzzards and far off hills.

***

THE MID-WIFE AND THE BENJI

Night. A storm on the moors. Rain battered a harsh tune on cottage windows, cattle sheds shuddered as if needing rope. The old midwife, Morada, had stoked the embers, had just crawled between her blankets, was settling to sleep. It was then she was disturbed by a knock at the door of her Holne cottage.

She pottered down through the flickered shadows of the creaking house and opened the door. Peering into bright rain and flooding track, she was greeted by what she recognised as an earth-soul, a Benji, a fairy. A slim figure on horseback, he leant down - a murmur in the agitated night - and offered her ten gold guineas to deliver his child. His voice was strange, like water passing over stones.

She swiftly agreed. That was a great deal of money. He bound her eyes in a handkerchief and they took to the green lanes, up to the high moor and into mighty gusts of wind and rain. Past Vennford lake, over the bridge at Hexworthy, past the old chapel and then on in the general direction of Bellever Tor.

Old arms grip
a slim waist,
alive in the surge.

This rooted oak
now hugs tight
her fey chauffeur,.

A girl again
straddling the rain-horse,
the glitter bright track,
this clattering night.

Somewhere out in the fusty acres of grizzled weather they got to the Benji’s cave. A few waxy candles spluttered next to pools of brackish water and mossy humps, indeed the entrance was little more than a small hole, deep ridged with brambles.

Inside it was utterly different, like the longhouse of some ancient moorland king. Ornate patterning skilfully hewn into thick pillars, the floor cosy with animal skins, a fire glowing, its smoke was sweet, like dried herbs. And there was music: music so tender it would have pricked tears from your eyes. Morada crouched by the fairy-wife and settled to her task. Fairy or not, this ritual she knew. By candle light she delivered the baby, wind screeching through the sodden branches outside. The whole moor was a-shake that night.

Part of her instructions were to rub an ointment – a kind of mud - on the baby’s eyes. She did so, but, of course got antsy to try a little herself. Just the one eye. What could be the harm? Well, it stung a little but that’s it. After a time, she was delivered home to her door, pockets heavy with gold.

Hard to forget
such a meeting
with the
hidden dignitaries
of Dartmoor.

Fairy.

Sometimes in the
furthest stable,
or
the last field
between the farm
and the forest.

Who horses never tire,
who’s musics never cease,
who’s food must not be tasted.

Quite a secret.

Like tasting the kings wine.

A day or two later she wandered down the lanes and into the market town of Ashburton, and everything was different. The stars were clearly visible in the daylight, cats were as large as hounds, salmon leapt from the river Ashburn with the faces of foxes – the whole world was rocked, luminous, awake. She tried to steady herself with a whisky in the snug back room of the Exeter Inn, just off the market, but even that didn’t work. Maybe buying supplies would sober her eye. But at the bustling market she, of a horror, spotted the fairy rider ambling slow and unseen through the throng. In a fraction of second he turned his attention to her. She almost stopped breathing. He cantered forward and leant down on his saddle, his face obscured by a battered old hat. “Which of your eyes can see me?” he breathed. When she slowly pointed to the left he, in a flash, scooped it out with an icy blade.

She carried a dark pit where her left eye should be for the rest of her life. Children would run to the door of her cottage and then away again, just to say they had. When she finally died of old age, they cleared her house and found those ten gold guineas under her pillow. As the villagers gleefully picked them up they became oak leaves, withered and fell apart.

what price to lay an eye?

***

Monday, 2 March 2015

this weekend: very few places left

late winter light



Some Lorca fresh from the hut:

The Six Strings

Escaping the
round mouth
of the guitar,
is the bellied-sob
of roaming souls:

And like a tarantula,
she spins a great star -
to catch sighs that float
in the guts
of her
black-wooden-dungeon

trans Shaw/Harding

A couple of years ago i got a late night call from New Mexico from
David Abram. You almost certainly read him, and I bashfully confess I
hadn't up until he brokered a conversation -
a conversation i'm pleased to report has continued to this
very day. So here's something about an area of his work that rubs
up clearly against my own. As usual, be prepared for a few references
for things that are not in this small piece. As should be clear,
his work is a swell place to visit.

NARCISSUS AND WORD-POWER

To David Abram, the move to the vivacity of alphabet is not something
dismissed, or even quite disapproved of. It’s held in appropriate awe. But
awe can highlight danger, and his work choreographs - like a fox
weaving a minefield - the losses and the gains involved. Both The Spell
of the Sensuous (1996) and Becoming Animal (2010) are land mark texts.

Rather than banishing the written word, David amplifies its potency:
the work gets us conscious of its power. That the human animal has
woven it’s steady way to a truly bespoke form of animism, but a kind of
aliveness that only reflects our nature. Like Narcissus transfixed by his
own reflection, written words give us a swift insight on ourselves - what
some call a mirror - but at the same time can trap us to a wider picture.
Oral culture - when speech volleys up and into the wider canopy of bird song
and hedge-rustle - catches glimpses of a shared conversation wider than just
the grind of our own mental kingdom. Speech gets tenderised and inflected
and challenged in a manner most unlike when squatted over the glowing
screen of a laptop.

But let’s own up. Isn’t it glorious to do just that? In a world seemingly
growing so abstract, a universe so unutterable vast, the split-second
reward of a finely crafted sentence can feel like something tangible,
robust, something to shelter under. And hours later, glutted by language,
doesn’t sometimes the wider world seem a little greyer, a little further
away in comparison? That’s the word-power of the alphabet.

It enables me a wonderfully false sense of security.

Do you remember, a few pages back, talk of the medieval universe?
Remember the moves of Copernicus to seemingly reveal the wizard
behind the curtain, that we revolved around the sun, rather than the other
way round ? That kind of thing rattles a sensual being. As Abram writes,
it replaces qualities with quantities (Abram 2010 :155-56). Our own
emerging, scenting, intuiting, way of being in the world is, in a moment,
absolutely secondary to the mechanisms of an exterior universe,
quantifiable but staggeringly huge. Who are we to presume our little
stories of the oak with the moss on the north flank, or the night that the
river Exe became an adder are anything but whimsy? But stories are like
cobwebs; they collect a hundred secrets in their net. Impacted, intentional
secrets between wolves and pines, trouts and river people. Well, that
storied world and its implicit relatedness has mostly fallen around our
feet. A few hundred years of this and it’s not surprising we are nervous
wrecks.

And where does that vast, aboriginal interior go? Entirely into the
confines of a human body, a frame woefully too small for its majesty. But
we have to get a sense of an interior, of being held, from somewhere, and
so we finally draw it reluctantly into the bone-house of our own body.
And it’s there that we enter the temple of Narcissus. There that we
build our little house of words to cope with a cosmos wrenched asunder.
It makes us feel better, at least for awhile. But down the line, are we not
busy devising a kind of hallucination? In Devon there is old folklore that
insists it is fatal to catch to catch your reflection in still water. Dartmoor,
and its preponderance for fast moving streams and rivers is more like the
oral tradition - words fly by you - but the still pool of literacy is more
like the magicians circle, a greater compression to the conjuring. And, as
with all magic, there is a cost.

When I go to the trees, and the long pale beaches of our south coast,
and the rutted little streams of Dartmoor, they don’t provide me with easy
mirrors. They do away with me feeling in control, or on top of
something. I don’t necessarily feel powerful. So, let’s be pragmatic a
second: what does that look like?

It looks like me walking a stretch of ground telling a story and bearing
witness to how the earth reacts. The long fettered silences, the moment
when a buzzard lurches from a tree, the bubbled sigh of foam on sand
enable me (to use literary terms a moment) an entirely different sense of
punctuation, full stops and adjectives. They get to work on my
imagination, they seep into the spoken words and re-arrange some of the
rhythms. I don’t see myself mirrored back to me. I see myself flooding
into some far bigger. The mirror has cracked from side to side, and I slip
through the eye of the needle.

I leant over the side with my fisherman's net, and got pulled into the big
sea.


So much of anything worth admiring in my own work I can’t take much
credit for - other than being a faithful witness. In the living world the
stories don’t immediately bounce back to me, they don’t reflect
necessarily what happened with me at my kindergarten when I was five.
They take me on Walkabout.

Hours later, soaked, sobered or a little high, depending on the journey,
I may arrive at my little hut and scrawl a few lines. But when I glance up
there may not be that tin roof any more, but a hundred million stars
whispering in their high, cold language, and no solid timber underneath
my boots, but a fragrant rug of pine needles.

Nature will show more than ourselves, back to ourselves. That’s one of
the inestimable privileges of a life. A core of aboriginal thought. No one,
least of all Abram, is calling for book burning, or unthinking hysteria.
But I think he calls for a proper appreciation of power, and how,
somehow, written words could actually enable ways to re-hydrate the
terms of our Narcissian relationship to the alphabet. We need breathing
holes for the seals in our syntax, lush passages of word-grass for Scottish
cattle to bend their hairy, gingered skulls to.

This is not just a flight of fancy, this can be practice. Localised,
maintained practice. When i tell a story to a group of people, i’ve already
been soaked in the responses of the natural world to it. Wit has arisen,
tensions have been defined and unexpected flights of imagination
negotiated by the sturdy presence of the Dart river. So a kind of braiding
to the living world can take place before a wider human sharing. There’s
already the fragile print of a starlings claw in its mud, the perfume of
apple-blossom some way back in the odour of the telling. Your conscious
mind may not catch it, but some way back, your animal body shifts in the
bracken and says yes.

Another move from Abram. At some point in this kind of conversing,
a good soul will often stand up and berate the speaker for attaching
any kind of human characteristics whatsoever to the living world. That
it’s all still anthropocentric to claim a cloud as grumpy, or the wiggle of
a bush as ebullient. They have a point.

If our emotional education has stretched no further than our fiercely
protected inner-self, they have a point. That it’s nothing but a land grab to
start prodding plants and passing rooks and describe their moods. Cheap.
But that’s not what David says we did. For thousands and thousands of
years, that’s not what we did. When you wander freely in the wider
psyche, then a ruby dark sky filled with juddered thunder is inexorably
bound to the sharp thump of feat in your gut. It’s not an affectation, not a
metaphor even, but immediate, beautifully devastating relatedness. That
very thunder is the initial educational image for a young girl on the
plains, a-swarm with anger for her sister. Earth is where she draws self
knowledge from.

If we listen, first, to the sounds of an oral language - to the rhythms,
tones, and inflections that play through the speech of an oral culture - we
will likely find that these elements are attuned, in multiple and subtle
ways, to the contour and scale of the local landscape, to the depth of its
valleys or the open stretch of its distances, to the visual rhythms of the
local topography. (Abram 1996 :140)

This is wise thinking, properly spell-breaking syntax. The use of alphabet
to actually wake us up from its often-trance-capacity. We witness here an
enormous clue as to how to re-braid ourselves to the living world. To
take ourselves out into, I suggest, a fairly small stretch of earth and
simply re-consecrate our speech to its contours and grit.

Again, I say this isn’t whimsy, this is something that can be learnt.
This is a tangible skill. Re-read the section about telling stories as a way
of them being shaped by the earth and start there maybe. Move back into
the sensing range of your own body. Commit to a decent stretch of time.
Not an afternoon, not a workshop, but real damn slow. Like a rock is
slow.

This reason why Abrams work is so arresting is because it’s not just
startling poetics, not just philosophy, but that it instigates something in us
honestly deep. It does chthonic work. Something rare. It instigates, dare-I-
say it - remembering. A remembering that is hard when beset by the
twenty thousand things you have to do before lunch, but it’s there. Now
that’s magic.

In the caribou-dust of your bones, it’s there. In the pre-history of the
flames that lick your hearth, it’s there. We’re old y’know. Whatever they
like to tell you on the television. When we bend our head and sob
without reason entering an old oak grove, that’s not sentimentality,
it’s animal memory.

copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

the aisling

A longer piece this week. I've had a few requests to add more on some writing i put here before christmas (just scroll down a page or so). It involved my introduction to story as ritual by an old medicine man and the long road that took me on. This includes why i ended up in his company, and some of what happened next. Coming from my next book rather than a specific essay for here, it may reference elements that don't immediately appear in these words.
I know this won't phase you.

***

Some time ago i’d gone up to a hill in Snowdonia and sat for four days. Without food, tent, company, watch. I call it a wilderness vigil, but you may know it as a vision quest. And if you know it at all, it’s probably due in large part to the incredible work of Stephen Foster and Meredith Little. It was they, and the school they founded, The School of Lost Borders, that re-introduced the practice back into a non-native climate in the early seventies. Without them, this book would not exist.

I’d gone up there ready for certain things. Some time of deep reflection. Enjoying the beauty of the Welsh wilderness. Maybe a little ceremony, a little marking of life’s stages. A psychological spring clean. Things that, although edgy, felt explicable to a western person - a rite-of-passage. All I heard about was the universality of the experience, every culture seeking the same thing. What I had not expected, and could not really have been prepared for, was for what transpired. What was waiting was powerfully local, powerfully specific.

By the end of the time on the hill, I was so far past my own sense of myself and my issues it’s almost impossible to write about. In my common parlance, i got dreamt. My own dreaming took a hike. I got taken to a place that almost every sinew of my being would cry out as impossible. Where my nature got humbled, wrenched, wilded, and finally scattered over an area of about three miles.

I beheld things out on the hill. Impossible things. The kind of things you read about in far-distant anthropological journals on initiation and put the book down shaking your head. Well, i’d had one. An ancient place choosing a particular style to communicate itself. It’s not bragging: it was a messy, exacting, beautiful ordeal, which did not leave me with much in the way of wisdom at the time. I just didn’t think this kind of thing went down in Britain any more.

Twenty years on, I still have my journal from over those days and a couple of years that followed. There is little in the way of a considered therapeutic process about it, few insights that have even the merest whiff of profundity about them. What they do seem to have is the taste of someone slowly being devoured by a place. Touching the aboriginal.

As the days deepened, something else entirely gripped me. Something that, by its very nature, would not be confirming the ‘me’ that had turned up to do a little soul-searching.
It kicked the shit out it.


***

And then before I knew it I was standing at Birmingham New Street station in blistering heat trying to navigate a change of trains back to South London. Where variants on this kind of opening continued, in their startling, life-will-never-be-the-same fullness. Now a mountain top in Wales i could almost comprehend, but it appeared I had arrived back in London with a slippery trajectory in and out of regions that were unutterably mapless to a white kid. This is the reason i’d ended up in the company of the medicine man.

The experience was clearly not typically “inspirational”, not something to be quoted on a C.V., or gain government funding for a wilderness programme for at-risk youth. But Christ, it mattered to me, it was me that had to sit in its consequence, me that had to sweat it out, and ultimately me to forge some kind of gift from it. A message through the dark. From way back. It was my life now. So, as I sat in the lodge with the medicine man and told him the full, halting story I really didn’t know what he’d make it of it. Well, he didn’t think it strange in the least. He just played with one of those great braids and started to talk about the powers of a place. Turned out, there are stretches of the world where such experiences are not so unusual. He got me working. It was long medicine, that first fast: years of brooding as it slowly, properly, revealed its hand. Most everything that I initially tried to make of it fell away.

There’s an old irish word, aisling, which touches on something of the experience. You go to the mountain and are led to a powerful place. The spirit of the place will arrive - often in the shape of a woman - and for a period of time, reveals something of the nature of the land. When you return to your village you, usually through poetry, reveal your instruction. It’s a job for life.

Important note: As it goes, my experience, though having a kind of intensity to it, has proved no more extraordinary than any of the fasts for others i have supported. The gradient of so-called otherworldliness can oscillate, but that’s really not the point. The point is becoming a true human being. Many get there in subtler, more elegant ways. Whilst it’s important for me to state pretty baldly some of my own story (in wider book) I ask you not to fetishise it or start a game of comparisons. The aisling will arrive for anyone that learns to listen long term in the wild places. I just needed more of a kick up the arse than most. I was always a slow learner.

Some of this story is known in other books. I ended up leaving London, returning a large record contract, and heading out to the woods, my only offering a cradled grief manifesting as a battered heart after the end of a youthful marriage. Looking back, I realise I took a lot of hits in fairly close succession.

It’s useful to tell I suppose, because this is the story of someone experiencing big, old-time instruction and then being set adrift in a society of deep forgetting, amnesia and hostility. That’s a hard gig. But it’s also the root of almost every story worth telling.

I’m a kid from a Torquay estate, I don’t have a name like wolf-bites-owl, or tracker-in-the snow. I come from a place that in part is very brilliant, very sick and very lost. I come from the west. And my task these few years has been to abide in exactly that. To not lose the scent of it. To find what is still regal, and mystical, and generative in it. Twenty years ago its land claimed me, and I will not refuse it.

It’s also important for me to state publicly that old powers still reside meshed in the hills and cliff faces and the streams of England. It is an entirely understandable misnomer when eco-folks insist this could not possibly be the case, that the industrial damage is too impacted. That the land is simply to angry, to exhausted. Well I carry a simple message: it’s not so. Test my statement.

My time in the tent was just before the emergence of the pulse of a cell phone in your pocket, or the omnipresent luminous squat of your laptop on the table, so when the tent flaps were sealed against the March squalls and the oak gave itself to flame, you could claim a resolute, triumphal aloneness.

I never gave a damn about being an obscure poster boy for alternative living, I eat vegetables because people I love tell me I have too. But i’m a straight up, unredeemed, never quitting romantic - that’s one of the few things of which i’m certain. So when I decided to live outdoors, well, man, Genghis Khan himself was going to be envious of my tent. A trellis of thick ash, ornate, steam bent roof poles, canvas as black as the ace of spades, a floor of fur laid three skins deep, and books: gorgeous, obscure, fiery, heartbreaking and making books. Books everywhere in wobbly camelot towers. You’d loved it.

Cut wood from the lightning tree without the farmer noticing, crawl twice daily under a barbed wire fence, continually elongate stew to last a week, live in a circle, get buffeted by weather, hit the books, and lots of time out in the crow dark of an english copse, that was the drill. I drifted into a prophetic frequency.

So there I stayed, out on the edge. I visited people, maintained friendships, earn’t a crust when i had to, but my real focus was elsewhere. A ruddy cheeked apprentice to barbarous weather, medieval texts, a hurting loneliness, edgy dreams, animal tracks in dewy grasses and frosty mud. I would sleep in the winter months with batteries under my clothes, under my sheep, goat and deer skin covers. In the morning there would be enough body heat to get about ten minutes of a tape recorder working before they succumbed to the icy cold again. The sound of the sitar, or a genius poet, or Mongolian horse music, would charge through the yurt as I coaxed the burner, drank my coffee and peered through the felted opening at sloughing sheets of grey rain moving steadily over the valley’s oak garland.

Dragging bashfully behind though, was speech. Story. That thing that happened with the medicine man as we peered up to a story-starved thunder being and began to use the dusty old language of praise. That's the thing that will go with me into the ground.

So I was gone for good, punch drunk in love with the sound of brave, fragile language. So I went to see storytellers. Surely that was the place to go. Here’s the thing: i’d only really experienced story as the moment in a ritual where your tongue became the antler-tip of the collective happening, speech was exquisitely tied up with the temperament of the grasses shuddering under your feet, the strut-caw of the distant cockerel, the moment where you glance into the shadows and you realise you ancestors have strolled up and are leaning of their staffs, not quite cheering you on, but not telling you to stop either.

So, peering over a cup of weak tea in a black box theatre as a recital wended its script-inflected anecdotal way through a tiny crowd failed to convince i’m afraid. In fact, it evoked a little more than that. I thought it was absolute, unutterable bullshit.

The notion that supposedly full grown adults engaged in this activity provoked a whirling sea of suspicions about mental health issues and hurt teenagers that never quite made it into drama school. I’m not proud of this attitude, but that was the business end of my thoughts at the time. Had I encountered the likes of Hugh Lupton, Jan Blake, Ben Haggarty and actually many other tellers, I would have re-forged that opinion.

So, as you may be sensing, I wasn’t quite cooked. Still not quite ready to place a hoof back in the market square. Well, its one thing to cock-a-snoot, but what can you deliver oh mighty one? So, In the end, I realised I had to learn a story and tell it myself.

The night came at the black tent. Old friends rolled in for whisky, Guinness and song, not realising under my hosts grimace, there was the quaking reality that at some point I was going to attempt this thing called telling a story. I waited. I’d clear my throat. Bottle it. The party would continue. I think there was bagpipes. I’d wait.

By around 3 am, the tent was just a pile of bodies snoozing under goatskins, the burner was now so roasting the door flap was open on a freezing February night, the moon was out and glinting on the empty bottles, and I was finally ready for my story. Pretty sure i was speaking to no one I began. Now remember, this wasn’t speech procured from deep inside the sweat lodge, or hurled into the grey mouth of Welsh rain, this was me speaking to a human audience. Well an audience working on their dreams at least.

So by lantern I warbled. Like a toddler leaping from wet rock to wet rock across a stream, it would have been an alarming proposition had anyone witnessed it. A crazed prisoner amok in the word labyrinth. Um and ahhs, over-wrought phrases squatting self consciously in a muddy sludge of half-memorised images. I sat stock still, probably with my eyes closed till i showed mercy to the story, took it out to the pasture and ended it. Finished.

Then, out of the darkness, from one of the slumbering lumps; “that was…eh..quite good.”

God almighty. Gavin was awake. It was the voice of the village speaking back to me. Y’see, sincerely pitiful though it was, this was the first time I had been able to offer anything that remotely resembled a gift to other people since i’d left the city. Ceremonial work was not really about humans so much, it was a daily, unremarkable, labour intensive maintenance programme to the unbearable wonder of all things. How you “felt about it” was not a going concern for me, that just seemed to perpetuate the tyranny of our own, fluctuating feelings.

But this odd little story was different. It seemed to be a crossroads between the out-in-the-woods space i’d been abiding in, and my friends, good natured, slumped and snoring in the dark. It seemed generous. I loved that. Stories seemed generous. And they looked both ways. It was tacit ritual. I saw for the first time a track back to the village. Another kind of work had begun. And during it, I would take on a great deal more respect for the art of storytelling.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2015