When Words Were Like Magic: The Shaman and the Storyteller – Feb 7th, Devon.
Yesterday there was another flurry of emails regarding the ‘When Words Were Like Magic’ gathering in early February. Rather than wading through them, i think the most salient course is to just direct them to the below – Fresh from the pen this very morning. If this speaks to you, then maybe you should consider attending. If not, steer clear. I especially dedicate it to all the ferocious and fragile folks finding their way into the tangles of nature and story – i know some of you read these notes, and i’m always touched by that. Astonishing. Long may you ride. So, this a little bit on the first rung of the ladder i continue to descend as a myth teller. This is where i come from.
THE MANY WAYS THINGS HAVE OF BEING WHAT THEY ARE
It was a kind of labour entirely born and rooted in my original openings in nature. There were no courses to attend, no diction to hone, no spindly lines of ink to memorise sharp till i could scatter-gun the first row with my literary recital of the oral tradition. it just wasn’t going to come from there. It had to come from the source; the wild places.
I’ve always loved copses, and defiant little grubs of hedge and trees that sprout unbidden from the backs of council estates. I grew up playing in them, 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 large, 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. As a grown man carrying many wild, lively fairy tales, i often feel my saddle bags are full of those very fruits.
So i took myself out to a little stretch of old growth forest, 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 great 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 gloaming air, and they would swiftly denote wether 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 felt its fragility in the face of winter, and darkness, and sorrow, had bruised up against isolation as well as solitude, and had tasted, fully, the price of my labour, 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 particular 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, and most pivotal, 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 earths 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.
I went looking for stories in the palace of the birds. The pastoral murmur of the wood pigeon, the exquisite blue call of the tawny owl in their boughed 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 sitting 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, to crushed-tight with humans and their history, soil too poisoned, forest to 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, humble pockets of absolute aliveness, greeness, riven-deep mystery are all over our strange and 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 phoney 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 essay i 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