In the Land of Western Dreaming
Well, here we are. The returning of the light. A long, fresh piece this week. Taken from the book i’m just finishing – which includes glimpses of my own relationship to story and its telling – (scroll down an entry or two for more – there are a few references to an earlier section). America as Otherworld – there’s a great deal more about the mythos of its wilderness that i simply can’t squeeze into this entry. But it’s coming.
Ah yes: lots of enquires about the gatherings above – but please get in touch with Tina at firstname.lastname@example.org TODAY or you may not get a place. Saturday 7th February, Dartingon Village Hall, Devon is the first (above).
The room is gently rocking. My throat is clogged with rusty nails and the scorched and prickly fleece of a hundred furious rams, all charging deeper into my lower intestine. This is the language in which a storyteller announces they have flu.
But that regardless, the room is still rocking. It takes a minute or two of the sway before i can place myself. I’m not in the tent, or caravan, or crumbling Victorian house on the edge of Ashburton my family and i now call home. I’m half a world away. On a boat.
I aim my hot bones northwards, head up the fuzzy bees nest that is my brain and shakily peer out of a window. Oakland harbour and the wider San Francisco bay leers back. This is a long way from what i know. A long time has unfolded since those days in the tent.
In those passing days i had become reasonably known as a teacher of story, and it had become a tangible, demonstrable form of work that tied together my love of both the forest and the village.
This gift gifted me too: always something of a diviner, i learnt by glancing at a burning candle – at its splutters and rasps or steady evenness of decent – just how a story was working its way into a room of people; or the moving wispiness then density of shadows on the back wall would tell me something acute of the particular ancestors that had rolled up to listen that night. Both would influence what i had to say. I was a diligent student of these things. Powerful, rather extraordinary moments happened when these old stories entered the hall, tapping their canes, adjusting their elaborate cloaks and fluffing up their feathers. The way i was able to witness stories seemed to have become something of an event. Before i knew it, word was out, and a trail of sorts opened up before me.
So I’m a week into an extended foray of American teaching; all the way from Santa Fe in New Mexico, up to Port Townsend in Washington state. Seven nights before i’d flown through a red-skied lightning storm into Albuquerque and, not warned of the change in altitude, wondered why i was in a permanent state of mild breathlessness. Still, the land and the warm reception had acted as a stabiliser to my wooziness. The bleached recesses of that antique ground felt like teaching on some cherished ridge of the moon, unutterably different.
As is so often the way, i was just beginning to find a little conversation – or at least a phrase or two – between the water snakes and low bushes, before it was time to clamber back into a plane and be propelled over the simmering dust of Arizona to Northern California. I remember resting my head against the seat, squashed intimately and scent-close to a buzz sawed young man with “I Love to Cage Fight” on his t-shirt. Beautiful.
It was around then that i’d felt the first tightening of the throat, the first dew light bead of moisture on the forehead, the ache when i blinked that indicated the Lord and Ladies of Head Fever where plumping up the pillows and setting up residency in my skull. I rapidly closed my eyes as my neighbour cranked up Slayer on his earphones, grunted twice and had a nice, slow scratch of his crotch.
As the plane tilted, I wandered through some recent memories. I found myself back in Santa Fe, the very day before. I had been wandering the market and ended up just off the main drag, waiting for a lift to the cabin that a few miles out in semi-desert that was providing a temporary home. Feeling dislocated from the familiar and straight up lonely, the notion of weeks of teaching without the rough and tumble of my little family was weighing heavily on me. Too many trips away. Burdened.
I was sitting on a wall, admiring the low-slung quality of the towns adobe buildings when i caught the scent. That same stuff, that years before and thousands of miles away, the medicine man had lit for his ceremonies (*earlier section ref) – a very particular, especially fragrant sage. I jerked around and glanced up and down the street. Just normal stuff transpiring, the slow drizzle of traffic, a heat haze crowning distant hills. But man, i could smell it.
I turned completely round now, and the scent grew acute. From between two buildings there was the tiniest of alleys, and walking steadily out from between them came an old indian holding a lit bowl of the sage. Probably late middle age, mirror shades, baseball cap, Levis, skin resolute witness to a life led in the full glare of the sun.
He didn’t look left or right, didn’t indulge in conversation, didn’t ask for change. Just produced an eagle feather, leant down, and wafted the smoke from my boots to hat. When he got to the top, he tilted his head and finally spoke. But what came out was not everyday words, but a song. Something traditional? Yes. Something stirring? Yes. Something from the depths of his peoples tradition? Not exactly.
In the glaze of that spring day, with my own startled reflection mirrored back in his shades, the Indian cleared his throat, and in a gorgeous, tobacco-strewn timbre sang:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me,
I was was lost and now am found,
was blind but now i see…
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
i have already come;
’Tis grace hath bought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home…
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing Gods praise,
Than when we’d first begun.
(John Newton 1779)
I’ll never hear the hymn quite like that ever again, its quiver of blessings couldn’t release their arrows with such mysterious lustre again. It was like getting skewered on raw beauty. A sound made before Eden.
He tilted his head in that curious way again, like a fox, as if to make sure what ever had needed to land had landed, then turned around, and disappeared down the alley. Astonished tears. Well alright then Señor, i’ll continue. There we have it.
America. A place of many blessings for me, many friendships, much learning. Only a few hundred years ago the People of the Boats had sailed from Plymouth docks, just a few miles down country from me. Into the west. The dreamers, the rowdy adventurers, the slick entrepreneurs, the unutterably desperate, the pale faced kiddies, the villains, the mystics, the mean ones with squint eyes and vast jaws, ready to tough out whatever was coming. They wanted a new story.
The New World. That’s what they called it. But i want to give it another name. An older name. A name that, deep down in the barley-dust of our bones, back in pre-history we would have known. A word that squats firm in the understory of the pagan imagination.
A name that would have resided in the mythic memory of us that waved the boats away. The old belief that when you sailed west you sailed into the Otherworld. This is a belief with teeth, nerves and vital organs. A belief that swishes its dragonish tale underneath all our literalist banter of acreage, start-overs and opportunity. To the Welsh, even Ireland was Dreaming Across the Waters. The place our great heroes sailed with the wounds of a culture about them. All the wounded of Europe sail west. It’s where they go to dream and also to die.
So in some archaic way these pioneers sailed into the land of the dead whilst attempting to outrun their own. To outrun the fates. Somewhere in my fever, i realise that i have arrived in a kind of Otherworld.
It was in America that i realised that if we were in the Otherworld, then deep down many of us secretly suspected we were ghosts. What other reasoning could i find for the way so many seemed to glide through their lives, touching little? Of course i’d grown up with in England too. The media bleats its message that a substantial life is one viewed by thirty million, and when we don’t receive that the only conclusion is that we don’t deserve it. And so begins the inelegant contortion of trying to fit in. Every layered numbness, every cryptic cloak disguising honest speech is a step towards thinned-out ghoulishness. Ultimately deep lostness. That’s where despair lives.
There comes a point where a society in this kind of trance will consciously un-witness anyone that behaves differently. They will stare through you. Try and make you the ghost that they themselves are becoming. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Amongst the eco-set, the premature intelligence, even strident wisdoms of many of the young people i met also disturbed me. It meant in some way their parents had let them down. It was if twenty year olds were having to squeeze into the britches of elder-hood, due to a mass abdication of the task by their parents. They were adopting enormous spiritual attitudes that have always traditionally been held by much older folks. I just didn’t hear enough about hell raising, unrequited love and shitty jobs. I didn’t smell enough life on them. Those polished little ‘I’ statements just kept rolling off the tongue. Every time i heard the phrase “going to India” it meant their mythology was in pieces around their feet.
I spent a lot of time listening to people talk, and a large part of that was witnessing what stands behind them. Not in some psychological sense of agenda, but to literally witness the deities that crowded around the back end of their syntax. I wanted to see what temple they served in.
No matter how agile the speaker, how impassioned, how coherent, how current, i rarely caught that little crosswind flicker that meant their little story had a tributary way back running to the big ocean. That’s a whole other soak, the water is way deeper out there. So, over time i started to name whatever fairy tale that the speaker was unconsciously rubbing up against in their story. Not as a diminishment but as ballast, as firmament, as real fire power, as confirmation, as the beginning of a mythos they could carry in their jaw. As soil.
A clear argument could be that these younger folk are in an accelerated time frame, and don’t have the luxury of a misspent youth, that they are facing admirably complexities their parents never did. I’m prepared to absorb that polemic, whilst not letting their parents off the hook. But advice regardless is the same: your insights through brilliant cannot yet carry the chthonic weight of the antlered herds of image that have trawled countless thousands of years to lay their treasure at your very door. It’s the old distinction between spirit and soul. Learn to bend your head, otherwise you’re just another kid with a laptop and point to prove. Let the story elegantly break you.
But i admire the intensity of the search. I really do. It’s something that the English – still so constipated by history – would do well to consider. The notion of America as the orphan of Europe is a mythic one. It’s always the orphans that become Culture Heroes in the old stories. Don’t take too much inflation from that, just consider it awhile.
Ancestor worship won’t carry you too far either. By all means find ways to authentically and sometimes imaginatively ground yourself in the the traditions of your people, but maybe don’t fantasise too often that they had one foot on Mount Olympus.
They, to a large degree, are the ones that got us into this mix in the first place. As has been said better and more acutely by others, in the end you have to become some kind of nutrient rich, many boughed tree of splendid crookedness to the ones coming. If you achieve nothing else, create some shade for the seedlings to grow. Practice becoming an ancestor. Outrageous and maintained generosity, a degree of useful wiliness, and workers hands are all identifying characteristics.
And in all this, i still say get out on the hill. Before you become farmers, activists, travelling circus people, reindeer herders, temple makers, green politicians, actors, silversmiths, writers: get your ears tuned in case it’s just yourself that you’re listening to. The wilderness vigil is not a call to create a generation of pale faced magicians or anything of the sort. What it offers is an invitation to bend your head to the thinking of the earth. I promise, true culture can arise from such an ordinary act.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2015