Wednesday, 23 March 2016

a counsel of resistance and delight in the face of fear

“We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”
Jack Gilbert, A Brief For The Defence

Europe is ablaze again. Paris, Brussels. That ancient, ghastly monster has lurched grotesquely up, and shovels terrified parents, families, lovers, down into its maw. And it will never feel sated. It could never be enough. Never. Fundamentalism is, yet again, eating its own young. I mean, to weep for a thousand years wouldn’t be enough.

I am going to say some simple things here as a counsel of delight in the face of fear, and an absolute defence of love. And to keep love as a lintel over head, even as fear shudders its addictive and corrosive and manipulative and damaging way through our communities. Well fuck that. It’s time for a story.


Once upon a time there was a village in the far north. A place of blue snow, hard
thoughts and far distant seal holes.

A man grew angry at his daughter’s refusal to marry. But no suitor flew at her altitude
or could witness her many immensities. He grew ashamed of her. He took her out in his
kayak and chucked her overboard. As she tried to claw her way back on board, he cut her
fingers off, and she sank under black water.

From each finger sprung fish, whales, seals. Down in the coal-black depths, she learnt to live in a different kind of way. A kind of house built around her, she became a Goddess of the sea-beings: all those that know the dark, the cold, and can survive at great pressure.

When travesty to the world above occurred, she would grow furious and the hunting would not be good. The village would starve. A rough cloud of anger would appear around Sedna. She would be obscured from view, but her wrath was everywhere. When the world is on fire, to lose contact with Sedna is a terrible thing. A dangerous thing. So the village would send the shaman down to see her.

The shaman has a seal-hole in their heart where magics rise and fall.
The shaman ghost-dances through history.
The shaman refuses not the perfume of Gethsemane,
The shaman bleak-shudders through strata’s of mucky-water,
Through the world’s own conscience to get to the very bottom.

It is a long journey, sometimes climbing and descending ladders of blades that cut
your feet till blood clouds the waters. Know this: it is not a journey that anyone would
ever want to make. But suddenly, there they are, attending the blurry clouds of Sedna’s
anger. And it is there that the One-Who-Is-A-Light makes a covenant with Sedna, courts
her with drum-thump and the grandeur of their ordinary tears. Such courting causes a
hole to appear in her wall of anger, and the shaman climbs through.

Their sweetness becomes a comb, and there in the dark the shaman combs all the
tangles out of Sednas hair, and gently braids it. Her anger simmers, then settles, and
paths open up again from the deep freeze, move their divine tendrils up and
out over the land. Many hours later the shaman will be pulled half-dead from the black
water, with their arms full of wildflowers.



When we are frightened it can feel like we are trapped under water, under ice. The mythic directive in such a moment is unusual. It says this: go deeper. Attend to the Goddess underneath the unfolding. There’s no restoration without courtship. Don’t smash your nuckles raw on the ice, but dive down further - seemingly the opposite of what everyone on the surface wants you to do. But of course, the diver swims down not just with their terror, but with their stories, their artfulness, their skill. Most importantly, most wonderfully, their love. Ironically, only by diving deeper can the ice melt. In such times, attend to your soul-ground. And that is not some interior - unless everything is interior - it radiates out to a related field of kiddies, sickly elms at the edge of a motorway, the distracted young mum at the food kitchen, the galloping ecosystem of your nightly dreaming.

We are living in a time when every one of us is going to have to make that descent. All of us. Not in some inflated way, but "with the grandeur of our ordinary tears", because it is what defines us as true human beings. It is simply the right way to behave. If we can’t find our mythic ground, then we have little ground. When you swim down to Sedna you are in the business of alchemy: the tributary of your own fears meets the ocean of your artfulness and suddenly you are giving a gift, not seduced by your own wound. It is quite wonderful. We could learn the home-making skills again to welcome such stories back into our lives. We can’t stick plasters over the Fisher Kings wound.



Call out to the whole divine night for what you love. What you stand for. Earn your name. Be kind, and wild, and disciplined, and absolutely generous. It’s the astonishing business of beauty-making, as well as the possibility of victory. Most have glimpsed hells chambers, and the fact is that much real initiatory work is to bear it. To bear the unbearable. To walk though hell. I mean really, that’s what much of it’s about. That’s where most of these elaborate, taxing rituals and three day stories come from. We’re in it. Right now.

When horror sweeps our world, we sometimes risk it cutting the cords to our soulful waters, and the restorative Goddess - Sedna - that lives there. The monsters cause us to lose hope. A huge victory for them is when you no longer look for nourishment. We look around and nothing is growing, the sky is bleak even if blue, secretive animals no longer move to the yellow moon of our heart. Friend: it’s deadly there, be very careful. So when we fight - and sometimes we must - we can carry Sendnas anger as an energy with us. Soul-anger is far, far less brittle than the more superficial kind.

Let no day pass - especially the shattering, scary and super busy ones - where you do not spend a little while combing the lice from her locks. When I am tired, I allow the great soul-criers to do it for me, I read aloud from Anna Akhmatova, Pablo Neruda, Virginia Woolf, Galway Kinnell, Shakespeare. And again, look to the old stories, they’ve turned up perfectly on time.

We do not live myths out as some kind of horrible karma. We don’t brush by them and become infected. But they do have a habit of riding alongside when life turns up the volume. They synch up. But that’s as an aid for deeper understanding, not as a kind of prophetic set of ever tightening knots on your liberty. Just thought I’d mention that.

Ok, and while we’re in deep I’m going to say something else. Become a prayer-maker. Why? Because what you face in your life is bigger than you can handle. It is. Go to a place with shadows and privacy, and just start talking. There is some ancient Friend that wants to hear from you. No more dogma than that. Use your simple, holy, words. Then sit. Listen. Go for a walk. Let in.

Then you fight like a lion for what you can affect, and you surrender the rest. Self-help at its worse will pump you into a kind of Herculean mania of self reliance, and will most likely leave you grievously burnt out.

Be around truth. Here’s why. Mystics claim (especially Sufi), that when we are surrounded by lies it creates so much activity and nervousness in our head in some subtle way we can’t properly enter our own bodies. Hence the need for friends where truth is a given, anything can be said, nothing need ever be concealed. We lose touch with our wingspan when we hunch.

This is a way you comb out the lice from Sednas hair. It’s also a way you don’t get possessed or stuck into one groove - especially anxiety, paranoia, terror, despair. It crashes through you but cannot be a squatter. You have to find the seal-hole in your heart.

You can numb yourself with wealth, or glut yourself empty on sex without love, or illusive and transient strategies of power, but when the door to the firebirds longing closes, all the animals within us turn to stone. My friend, that is too high a price to pay. Way too high. That’s the terrain of the Sorcerer. Have no part it.



Still here? Well, bless you for that.

Here again are things we know, but I’m repeating them:

What I’ve seen on my rounds is that if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to reflect at the end of a life, then love is revealed as the great currency. It’s the thing. The treasury. It’s what mattered. Few gloat on a business success, or property portfolio at that point, how they royally screwed someone over.

How well did I love?, who did I love?, and how was love central to the life that I made for myself? And I have to say, sometimes folks don’t like the insights they receive at that latest of moments.

But if we’re reading this, than anything is possible. It is. The doorway to mercy is still open.

When the lots are counted, when we are gathered in, we will find that it was love that mattered. Love expressed, given, received, fought for. So for those of us fighting right now, I say; keep going. As a culture, as an individual, believe in the full life that is your bequeathed inheritance, not the subterranean half-life that terror and impoverished minded bullies will try and spike your wine with. You are too good for that. Remember Rilke: “wherever I am folded there I am a lie”

Love derails world-weary strategy, loosens cynicism from your heart, laces every single one of your bones with a complete re-boot of wonder. You guide your cattle through the Altai mountains in just one night and arrive at a green, slow-swishing Irish sea with moon-white sand between your toes. It is the greatest thing. Stay away from anyone that tells you otherwise. I mean turn around and walk away.

Love gives us our stories.

So we could prepare well. Wander your oak valleys, linger in ornate chapels at dusk, get thrown out of the tavern at midnight, be kind, kiss the wounded, fight injustice and protect, protect, protect all the trembling bells of delight that you notice out of the corner of your eye when everyone else is oblivious. Value yourself, know yourself, don’t be naive, but don’t be afraid of love. Carry it.

If you are frightened, or tired, or sick in heart,
then let these words hold your hand in the dark.

Happy Easter. It is time to come back to life.

“That’s how we measure out our real respect for people - by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate.”
Ted Hughes, in a letter to his son Nick

For the people of Brussels and the memory of John Moriarty

Copyright Martin Shaw 2016

Friday, 4 March 2016

looking for stories

I be coming
from wistmans wood sir
and I fell into dreaming
under the scrubby trees
till the trees dreamt me sir

Hey there, hello, it's good to see you.
Scatterlings is coming later this year; and here's a small excerpt:

On Mythtelling:

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.


Praise for Scatterlings

“The heart has a true-north, says Martin Shaw. He uses it. His work combines a magnificence of soul with a deft acuity of intellect, portraying a quintessential comprehension of the human spirit in its mythic path. He writes in a rare register of an earthy seer and I am in awe.”

Jay Griffiths, author of Wild: An Elemental Journey and Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape.

“Martin Shaw is, without exaggeration, the most powerful writer of prose that I have read. In Scatterlings Martin casts off the domesticated language with which we have been inundated since our birth and something wild, ancient, intelligent, and incredibly strong enters his words. And as those meaning-filled words penetrate us, deeply sleeping parts of the self begin to awaken. We see again with luminous eyes, hear again the shimmer of Earth in language; a portal opens and the power of out there begins moving through the in here. A wild light begins to gleam in our eyes, our hair grows long, our language begins to shift, and in some inexplicable way, as humans long ago understood we could, we begin to become old growth ourselves.”

Stephen Harrod Buhner, award winning author of Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm.

“I can still remember the first time I heard Martin Shaw tell a story. The tale that emerged was like a living thing, bounding around, throwing itself at all of us there listening. I had never heard anything like it before. Shaw is a one-off, his work is urgent and necessary, and Scatterlings is his testament. Scatterlings is told in a way that makes it unlike any other book I have read.”

Paul Kingsnorth, author of The Wake

“I will say this about Mr. Martin Shaw: I wish him protection from the saints and something like a pardon from the Lucid Gods. He is now as much and as good a teller as there probably is among those of us adorned and afflicted by the English tongue, and he has lingered a while in the old caves, as he says. He knows that things can happen when the word is nailed to a tree, to be read. Things do happen.

And yet he's done it, and done it so very well, and so much in thrall to the chant that you can hear him. It may be wisdom he's done here. It may be something wiser.

I know that if I had to choose kinship, Mr. Shaw the dowser and scribe on my left or the Old Gods of Song who have granted me my tongue and my days on my right, I'd be pressed. Hard pressed. Probably I am.

So hail this Scatterlings, this treasure. Barley and love for its burdened, heathen son, the one who's come down from the hills with this Relic From the World Tree and from it has carved his plume and a way home. Would that this this plea for a better day and its maker be granted not the cliff face but the long road, and peace for his earned, learned days. Now, homeward”

Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise.

“One of our most gifted oral tellers is paying necessary homage, offering his attention and capacious intelligence to the Devonshire land of his begetting…quietly tracking earth’s own imagination, the dreaming of the high moor and the meandering river, the edge where the cliffs meet the strand and both are washed clean by the tides” 

David Abram, author of Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology.

“A great work of imagination: Scatterlings will nourish the soul of those who read it. Shaw’s wonderful book weaves together the history, mystery and mythology of Dartmoor. The magic of the moor and spell-binding stories told from the heart is a delightful combination.”

Satish Kumar, Editor-in-chief, Resurgence, and author of Earth Pilgrim.

“Shaw has a poet's sensibility and a poet's voice.”

Ann Skea, author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest

“Scatterlings connects us with the land under our feet, and stories to take us to the home we have forgotten about. It is time to remember where we have come from, where we belong, and these words speak the spirit of place. Listen to them, hear the call to remember, to come home, back to the soil, back to soul. Allow the magic of Martin’s words to reach deep into you, into your gut and your heart.”

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Sufi teacher and author: Spiritual Ecology, The Cry of the Earth.

“This book will tear away the veil that has separated us from our past and our future. It will rekindle hope and an infinite trust in our being and becoming.”

Anne Bearing, author of The Dream of the Cosmos: A Quest for Soul

“With great skill, agility and elegance  Martin Shaw takes us deeply to the mythic life-blood of his beloved Dartmoor – Scatterlings word-magic will embed you ever more powerfully in the soul of your own land, wherever on Earth you happen to be.” 

Dr. Stephan Harding, author of Animate Earth.

copyright Martin Shaw 2016