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