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.
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
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