Tuesday 21 November 2017

Life and death on the Sussex Downs

Last month I travelled to Brighton to discuss the new Dark Mountain website and afterwards went with fellow ed Nick Hunt to meet some of our Brighton subscribers for a drink in The Foundry pub.  It was a lively evening that brought its own return invitations: Nigel Berman, founder of the School of the Wild, asked me to run an Earth Dialogue event at the beginning of  next year and Clare Whistler to create a burial installation (above in action!) for an art show she is co-curating at ONCA gallery both of these acting as collaborative markers in the compass of the turning year.

As I tackle the material for The Book (my winter task!) one thing has become clear: to answer the question DM's Issue 13 sets 'What an Earth are we doing here? we need to locate ourselves in time and space. We need to remember who we really are, where we really are.

And sometimes, as this darkling decade advances, it seems only art and encounter can point the way.

SAMHAIN: Ancestors 

Proper Burial

Temescal, Chihuahua High Desert, Arizona
Luna de los Muertos, November 2000

This is a memory of a ritual I took part in years ago. It took place on my friend Mimi's land on the borderlands between Arizona and Mexico. Her partner, the curandero Fransico Ozuna, built a temescal in the back of the garden, so we could hold a vigil through the night of the Moon of the Dead (the full moon that occurs around the Day of the Dead). One of its intents was to bury the ashes of a dead friend.

A temescal is an underground sweat lodge and Fransisco spent days creating the small chamber, shovelling red earth and constructing a roof and steps. That afternoon we had gathered different kinds of branches (palos muertos)  from the nearby creek bed: hackberry, black walnut and agave stalks, as well as mesquite wood from the desert. Huge bunches of wild marigold he found on the way to the ranch were placed on top of the earth mounds flor de muerto, traditionally offered on the Day of the Dead and which grows abundantly in Mexico after the late monsoon rains.

As modern people we don't observe the dead: we shunt them aside with awkward funerals, and this ancestral doorway of the year that was once celebrated in our own islands, has become a commercial children's party. But indigenous people (Fransisco was part-Apache, part-Yacqui ) know the dead are part of the Earth. Once mourned properly they can assist the living, rather than hinder them as forgotten shades.

Shovel (for earth and stones)
Wood for fire (mesquite and other dead branches)
River stones (these are flat and smooth) 
Branch of juniper (for brushing off sparks and ash from the stones juniper is used world-wide as a banisher of negative energies)
Ash (to delineate the fire circle)
Osha root (for endurance). Other ceremonial herbs include sage, sweetgrass and copal
Creosote tea

Inside the small space is exciting.  The desert night is cold but under the earth where we've taken the heated stones. naked under moon and starlight, the heat embraces you. The tea is bitter in your mouth, the osha root is sweet. We  are silent and then sing and howl and chant until our bones shake. Afterwards we throw buckets of cold rainwater over each other and dance round the fire. Fransisco chants all night.

The ritual is there to burn out the dross you hold and cede it to the fire as fuel and then as ash to the ground. Ghosts can cling to you, the dead that have not been mourned. Some of these phantoms are yours and some are not. Some are parts of you and your lineage that need to die in order for the new to flourish. Proper burial means burying something at the correct depth, so that it can feed the living and not haunt the earth.  That is a work. 

Only the elements of the Earth can transform these invisible bonds in this way; only your self that is connected to this Earth can undergo that process and walk that path. Most would rather do the ritual without the suffering and endurance that it demands which is worse than doing nothing. Because you feel you have done something meaningful, when you have not.

Seventeen years later in England we still grow those marigolds that burn like bright orange suns until the frosts come. Their name in Nauhatl is cempoalxochitl, and their vibrant colour represents the sun, which guides the dead on their way to the Underworld. The strong scent of the flowers attracts the spirits when they return to visit their families on this day, helping them to find their way. 

The roots in this circle are from the angelica plant which is a substitute for osha or bear root, traditionally used in Native American sweat lodges to purify the air as well the body. A bear medicine from the mountains, the root assists dreaming and connection with the ancestors. 

I remember this ceremony as if it were yesterday.

Clare Whistler's installation is part of the exhibition Extinct Icons and Ritual Burials that runs alongside the Rememberance of Lost Species Day at ONCA gallery, Brighton, 22nd Nov-10th Dec. 

Image: The Witch of St Kilda by Mother Eagle.

Imbolc: Emergence

Earth Dialogue

How can we connect and communicate with the non-human world, how can we feel at home in the wild places, on Earth? 

Earth Dialogues are essentially communications between the natural world and your own physical intelligence.

Part discussion, part encounter, part perception exercise, an Earth Dialogue is an opportunity to engage, individually and as a group, with a wild place - the Downs, at a certain time of year, the time of emergence, sometimes known as Imbolc
as well as the challenging times we are living in. It enables you to shift your attention away from a busy mindset and sense of isolation, and instead behold the planet as a key participant.

An Earth Dialogue is a way of experiencing the Earth not as ‘landscape’ or ‘the environment’ but as a meeting place of many elements, in which human beings form one particular strand. Its core act is learning how to swiftly tune into and physically connect with a place and all its inhabitants
plants, creatures, wind, stones.  It involves sharing your experience afterwards, using the tools of listening, speaking, holding space, keeping time and remembering; and finally, turning those insights into images or words and creating a collaborative 'dreaming map' of the day.

The day will start inside by the fire with introductions and instructions for making contact with the land, followed by an hour of solo time outside. You will then return to the fireside to discuss your encounters and together we'll create a shared map. Working as a group allows us to makes more sense of the land we live in together and strengthens our connections, as well as our presence, within it.

The Earth Dialogue is one of a set of practices developed over a decade that explore the territory of dreams, myths, places and plants. It has been shared with people in many locations: up a mountain in California, around a loch on Rannoch Moor, in the Calder Valley in England, in the depths of a winter forest in Sweden.

Once learned it can be practised anywhere with anyone. All you need is time.

Part of this session will be outside, so bring warm clothes and something to sit on in case of wet ground. And a winter picnic lunch to share afterwards!

The School of the Wild runs outdoor classes in the woods and wild spaces of Brighton and Sussex, 'to pull you out of the city and reconnect with the land'.  Earth Dialogue will be taking place at Saddlescombe Farm on Sunday 4th February 2018, 10am to 2pm. All details can be found on School of the Wild website.

Images: snowdrop woods, Dunwich cliffs, Suffolk,; by feral apple tree, Thorpeness dunes, Suffolk (see last chapter in Roger Deakin's Wild Wood). Photos: Mark Watson

Friday 15 September 2017

Under the Volcano

Last week the new Dark Mountain collection, Walking on Lava - Selected Works for Uncivilised Times was published. We held a great launch at Juju's Bar at the Old Truman's Brewery, Brick Lane where I put on my not-quite-famous red coat and read from The Seven Coats, alongside five contributors and fellow editors, Nick and Dougald. This is a piece I wrote for openDemocracy to introduce the book and the project.

On a mountain in Wales in the teeming rain, we sit in a yurt packed with people, the five of us, on hay bales, dressed in black suits and bowler hats. One of us has a pack of cards up his sleeve, another an African folktale, another a guitar and a song by Nick Drake from the 1970s. I have oak leaves in my hatband to signify an instruction circa 600 BC from the Sibyl who once guarded the door to the Underworld in the Campi  Flegrei outside Naples. A link to the pre-patriarchal ‘uncivilised’ world, she guides a lineage of poets to the territory under the volcano where all deep transformations take place: Virgil, Dante, T.S, Eliot, Mary Shelley, Sylvia Plath. Denied immortal youth by the autocratic god Apollo, her desiccated body kept in a jar, only her voice is still left for us to follow.

Dougie stands up and invites the audience to take part in a demonstration of two figures from the ancient world: one is Chronos, the inexorable march of linear time; the other a young man with a lock of hair over his forehead, who intervenes and interrupts him. His name is Kairos, and sometimes ‘Possibility’.

We’re giving a performance called ‘Testaments of Deep Time’ to introduce the work of The Dark Mountain Project - itself an intervention into the linear narrative of ecological and social calamity  As the rational world attempts to control the dominant narrative against its Hadean consequences, cracks have begun to appear. Through those cracks, archaic, indigenous knowledge, hidden for safekeeping against Roman and other empires, slips through; fleeting glimpses of another future reveals itself. Some of this is stored in the literary project we have all stumbled upon in similar ways, in tents on mountains, around fires, in the inner caldera of ourselves.

This encounter, we know, is what changes everything.


Walking on Lava takes its title from the manifesto which spearheaded the Dark Mountain Project in 2009. Written to challenge the contemporary lack of response by culture makers to ecological overshoot in the aftermath of the financial crisis, it was called simply Uncivilisation. 

Many people picked up this gauntlet recognising it, not as a challenge to a duel, but an invitation to explore a territory yet unmapped. It has led to collaborations with writers, musicians and artists, which, alongside the books and weekly blogs, has generated five festivals, a year-long theatre workshop in Sweden, teaching encounters in the mountains of Spain and moors of the West Country, performances built around the celebrations of the solar year by the river Thames and the ancestral wilderness of Scotland, as well as this kind of curated space in Wales, where the 24/7 broadcast of progress can be switched off and other voices apart from the mainstream can be heard.

Of course, grassroots Earth-defending organisations and progressive movements can claim these alternative platforms also, but what singles out Dark Mountain, what can grab people’s attention in a rain-soaked yurt, is that it is 1) a creative response to prevailing crises and 2) lacks an evangelical agenda to fix them. The maniesto can act as a frame, but there is no drive to act in the space that frame creates. There is no pressure to shut down power stations or convince your neighbour to stop flying, or your community to reduce its carbon emissions. In other words, it provides a space that has space and time in it, the opportunity to look at things differently, and for other slower realisations to occur - for interactions, connections, deep thought, as reader, listener or contributor.

‘Are you against environmental activism?’ I was asked recently by a television researcher. ‘No,’ I said ‘We’re not against anything. It’s a conversation not an argument. We’re a creative network.’
 If this manifesto has travelled further than we imagined, one explanation is that it has helped people to get their bearings in a world where the thin, shiny surface of prosperity has cracked. Trying to make sense of our own experience it seems that we put words to a feeling that others shared... a feeling that there is no way through the mess we find ourselves that doesn’t involve facing the darkness, and being honest about the scale of the unravelling that is under way, and the uncertainty as to where it will end. A feeling that it is time to look down. 
(Dougald Hine from the Introduction to the 2014 edition of Uncivilisation).
This rallying point, the agreement to look down, to acknowledge we sit on a crater’s edge rather than a firm foundation, creates not only a different literature, but a very different feeling towards that literature and those who write it. If there is one shared response to the contacts made by people towards the Project it is the sense of relief and comradeship in a world where a possible eruption to the status quo is  manifestly denied.

However there is no mantra or belief system to take refuge in here. Dark Mountain is a collective work-in-progress, initiated by ‘recovering journalists’, disillusioned by the green movement and its mice-like approaches toward change. It doesn’t offer a road map for a sustainable future. It can offer you a place by the fire, an opportunity to dig beneath the distracting surface of industrial late capitalism, to produce work that asks the question: how can we reclaim the voice and body of ourselves, suppressed by civilisation for millennia?  The deadline is never far away.

The fact is we have all taken the red pill, we all know the boat is leaking and the captain lied. We know the stats about climate change and acidified oceans and decapitated mountains. The news that the numbers of kittiwakes on St Kilda have plummeted or the ancient trees of Sheffield have been felled pains us. We don’t numb out that pain, nor do we indulge it, in the see-saw of hope and despair.

We know the Earth is not an abstract concept of environment or ‘nature’ and requires a very different relationship, one that wrests the material of life out of the hands of the ‘quants’ and economists and gives it due respect. The question we face is always: what do you do when you know, when you allow yourself to see and feel what is shut out by that broadcast? Because you can’t keep writing conventional love stories and detective novels, or hoping Hollywood will get in touch once you know.

What kind of literature and art does this awareness produce?  A diverse body of work that does not fit neatly into a monocultural, corporate bookshelf or gallery wall. Inspired by the inhumanist poetry of Robinson Jeffers, its voices do not come out of a narcissistic and alienated highbrow culture, discussed by the chattering classes of Boston or London, but from a library of stones, from the desert and forest hermitage, from conversations around convivial fires.

The space is existentialist, ringed as it is by urgent questions about what kind of human being can be so numb, so dumb in the face of catastrophe; its tone elegiac, rather than trimphant. In many ways it returns the artist and writer to their original function, as the people who push the edge and keep the door of possibility open. People who embody and stand by their words, for whom those fiery brimstone fields are home.

It's in this spirit that we have created this collection is drawn from the first ten hardback journal as a showcase introduction to the Project. Following their shape it is made of work of contrasting voices and genres – poetry, flash fiction, essays, artworks, photography, interviews – and structured around the manifesto’s,Eight Principles of Uncivilisation.’

Here in these pages is Robert Leaver walking along Broadway in New York on his hands and knees; here is Christos Galanis shooting a thrift store copy of the Iliad in the New Mexico desert; here is Emily Laurens sweeping the brown sands of the Welsh peninsula in honour of the disappeared passenger pigeon and the millions of species now going extinct. Testimony, encounter, protest art and praise song of a different kind.

I imagine the people I have seen on Broadway, and maybe the world over, feeling a weight on their backs, in their hearts and souls. Maybe this weight is the burden on modern life, the burden on being conscious in a world gone mad. Crawling seemed to be a way to maybe show compassion or solidarity, to make a metaphor of this collective burden we all share. Instead of crawling I could have curled up in a foetal position in perfectly chosen locations. But this crawl was never about surrendering. I went down and kept moving, kept pressing on as so many humans are doing every day. The idea has always been to keep on, to get through this journey, to make it home safe and sound.
(Robert Leaver – Crawling Home).

What happens when you get bitten by a squirrel, or when you return to your homeland now crawling with bulldozers and fracking trucks? When the story you were told by your teachers and parents is broken, when the Earth makes contact with you, you may stumble upon art with a different kind of attention: a feral stew of roots and road killed pheasant in the highlands of Scotland, a dreaming woman carrying a horse in her womb in Cornwall, a meditation on graphite in the winter-wet Cumbrian hills.

In this collection, we  invite you to a few places the Project has visited in these last eight years, to encounter some of the material that has fleshed out the principles on which the book is based: to whisk you in your imaginations to the mountains of Bolivia, to the tribal areas of India, to the coast of Greenland, to walk you through the Mahabharata, through a history of the future, to 18th century England, to medieval Florence to the Younger Dryas.

Kairos, daemon of opportunity, had a shaved head, meaning that you had to grasp the opportunity that faced you, for once the light-footed one had disappeared the chance to see in all-at-once-time had gone also. In the long count of civilisations, stretching from the early city-states of Sumer towards the modern global metropolises, there are only so many opportunities to sense the volcano that rumbles beneath us. Rarely do we find the way to the cave where the Sibyl sits, or pay heed to those who struggle to return from the darkness of the Stygian lake.

We live, as Marshall McLuhan once noted, in a third world war of narratives, of competing controlled ways of perceiving the world – all of them hostile to people and planet. In the quiet, in the depths, in the wild places, in the struggle of our hearts, those who always kept a true link to the wider, wilder world, writers and artists, are forging another story. It is our hope and our intention in these pages to show how some of that new collective tale unfolds itself. 

Walking on Lava – Selected Works for Uncivilised Times (Chelsea Green) has been edited by Charlotte Du Cann, Dougald Hine, Nick Hunt and Paul Kingsnorth. www.dark-mountain.net

Images: Cover of Walking on Lava. ‘Where from? Where to?’ Mount Patterson from the Wakupit Range, Alberta, Canada by Garrett Hupe; Extinction Cabinet’ by Richard Kahn and Nicholas Selesnick from ‘Truppe Fledermaus: 100 Stories from a Drowned World’; writer and artist Robert Leaver in his performance ‘Crawling Home’ in New York. Photo by Larrey Fessenden.

Friday 19 May 2017

The Uneasy Chair

'How do you prepare yourself to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?'
Annie Dillard The Writing Life

The sea glitters like a mirror, the hedgerows are bursting into flower, the garden is running wild and it's time to get out there... but first a dispatch from the Lane!

Lately I've had my head down devising new creative works (book and performance) and working at the Dark Mountain depot, with a brief appearance as a heron and deep time instructor in Reading alongside my friend and co-curator Dougie Strang and his Spring Equinox ensemble. Somewhere along the way, probably with a notebook on the island of Portland (see above) I got the idea about a new teaching practice called The Uneasy Chair. Well, I say it's new but in fact I've been talking about it for a long time now. It's underpinned two Arvon courses I've run with Lucy Neal on writing collaboratively in difficult times, as well as grassroots media skill-share. You could say my whole life has been about sitting, or avoiding sitting, on this chair which is the paradox position all writers have to put themselves in in order to file good copy. You don't want to sit there of course, but you don't get the story if you don't.

Mostly you are so busy negotiating the chair you forget the deal you made when you fist made that move. Writers don't learn to write at school or university. They teach themselves from the words of dead writers who went before them. Writers devour books when they are young, and learn their trade 'on the job'. I learned to write as a young journalist with the clock ticking behind me. I realised a deadline and a word count are the best guidelines you can hope for in a topsy-turvy life and that sometimes the most unlikely people will pass you an unforgettable tip out of the blue.

And then one day you find yourself doing the same, editing pencil in hand, recommending rigour as the way to go. Or you find yourself, as I do now, with a lot of editorial experience and tricks up your sleeve, but you're no longer in that features dept. You haven't been for decades in fact, and the culture of blogging has left you metaphorically marooned in a submarine from a Tarkovsky movie, cut off from real time encounters and exchange which are the stuff of all good non-fiction work, your own voiceover echoing off the metal walls.

The Uneasy Chair is not really about teaching people to be professional writers, which god knows can be a tough and soulless way to earn your living in these days of spin and self-marketing. It is about writing as an existential practice, as a way of perceiving the world and your place in it, about putting your feet on the Earth and a crooked thing straight, about collaboration and time and imagination, and many other things besides.

Oh, and not forgetting the deal you make as a creator, which has everything to do with giving back and not much to do with having a quiet life.
The Bearers rehearsing The Night Breathes Us In, Reading, Spring Equinox

Now as the summer advances I'm keeping this practice in mind as I head out to a couple of events you might like to know about. The first one is at The Fire in the Mountain festival  in Wales with fellow Mountaineers (Dougie, Steve, Nick and Ava) where we are holding two experimental sessions within the Dark Mountain frame: 'Cafe Apocalypse - The Conversation at the End of the World' where we will discuss the latest anthology and what happens when we stop pretending everything is fine and 'Testements of Deep Time', a collaborative workshop exploring the ‘deep time’ underlying our moment-to-moment existence in industrial civilisation (with performance, song, storytelling and more).

The second is a weekend class in writing (creative non-fiction) and editing, organised by my old friend from Transition days, the musician and permaculturist Carol Hunter. She was keen to set up a practical intensive that was affordable and based in our heartland of East Anglia. So here is the low-down.

Reimagining the Future: A Writing-for-Life exploration

Do our words matter? Can the act of writing redirect the course of our lives? By activating our imaginations and speaking out, can we change the cultural stories and myths by which we live, individually and collectively?

This creative non-fiction weekend course is for all those looking to discover some key tools for navigating rocky times, from making meaning and broadening our collaboration skills, to laying down some tracks to restore the world and co-create a different kind of future.

During the course of the weekend we will explore how to listen to different voices (human and non-human), how to work with real life material, how to find our own 'medicine story', and how to sustain a writing practice in times of urgency. The weekend will include writing 'tech share' and exercises, myth telling and story-sharing, and combine group work around the fire, by the river and under trees and stars, with time for individual contemplation and writing.

Suitable for all writers who want to develop their craft, changemakers, artists, activists, designers and community workers. Bring your brilliance and your swimming costume!

Venue: The Grange, Gt Cressingham, Norfolk IP25 6NL 
Time: Friday 21st July 5pm to Sunday 23rd July 4pm
Cost: £150, including organic vegetarian food and accommodation.  
Booking: to register email  ben@thegrangenorfolk.org.uk
Further info: Carol Hunter unpavingparadise@outlook.com

Meanwhile here is the front cover of a paperback anthology I've been co-editing for US publishers Chelsea Green with the Dark Mountain editorial crew (Nick, Dougald and Paul). Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times  is a potent mix of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artworks from ten of the Dark Mountain issues, The collection will be available from mid-August.

Sunday 5 March 2017

Interview: Uncolonising the Imagination

A different drum: Martin Shaw elling the Siberian tale of 'The Crow King and the Red Bead Woman' at Base Camp, Embercombe [Photo: Warren Draper]

Here is the orginal conversation I held with the mythologist Martin Shaw for the latest Dark Mountain journal #11. We ran a shortened version for a DM blog series on the 'mythos we live by' in March, asking six writers who work with story to explore what a mythological response to an age of converging crises might look like. Follow us as we traverse a territory that includes underworld metis, praise-giving and the dynamic skill of storytelling. Oh, and a dragon of course...

‘The thing about Finnish is that it’s not linear, it’s orbital,’ said the ticket collector on the 10:35 train to Leeds. ‘The language comes from the land. You have to find the object in the sentence and then everything else around it will make sense.’ 

We sat open-mouthed, as he then changed linguistic tracks and recited a verse from a Sami poem where an old woman is singing out to the dark forest. 

What you have to remember is that, in both these languages, the word for art and knowledge is the same… the train to Hebden Bridge will depart from Platform 12.’ 

One thing I knew for sure was that a conversation with Martin would not be straightforward. That although we would be speaking in English, a language hewn from a mix of many cultures, his stories come unexpected, feathered, leaved, rain-wet and roaring, from a collective language that has no borders. Mythologist and writer, he has been telling his wild alchemical tales to Dark Mountaineers for years now, in his books, his teaching (at the Westcountry School of Myth and Storytelling ) and most strikingly at our annual events - and from all these emerge a depth, a heart, a clarity, a connectedness, that you cannot not find in modern cynical end-of-the-world narratives. 

I have a notebook page open on the topics in order but of course they get mixed up, as his answers jump like roe deer out of the thicket and twist like a shoal of lapwings in a darkening sky. You gaze in wonder at the shape and movement of it all and then you laugh, realising you are already there, right in the thick of it.  

Here is a question that I hold like a ticket to the North in my hand: how can the act of telling and listening to a story liberate us from our disconnected, data-driven perception of the world and shift our attention towards what Iain McGilchrist calls the vast universe of the ‘right hemisphere’? How can myths give us a language, a technology, to navigate a time when dragons and ugly sisters rule, in a culture now broken open by consequence?

When you pay attention to the archaic stories that Martin relates, you realise they are not there to reflect the power and glory of an empire, to provide escape or entertainment at the end of a hard-working day. They exist as a reminder of our place and meaning on the Earth; a reminder of what we have to undergo to become truly human, with a culture where art is the same as knowledge.

Where in order to find the answer to that question you must sit, like a hare in a field, listening to the landscape all around you, and wait for the object to reveal itself.

CDC: Martin, at Base Camp you said: ‘The radical power of story is to open us up to our uncolonised imagination.’ How is the telling of a myth part of that?

MS: The thing that distinguishes oral storytelling from, say, modern novels or theatre, is that the listener has to do an awful lot of work. Good storytelling is a skeletal activity and what is happening in a room is a hundred people are leaning forward, because their imagination is having to work very hard to conjure flesh out of the wider story. Even listening to stories is not a passive experience. You are meeting the energy of the teller and the images within the story, so the energy is triangulate.

CDC: Do you think mythology plays a particular role now in a world which is becoming increasingly fragmented and meaningless?

MS: Yes, myth has something direct to say. Many of the stories we need now arrived perfectly on time about 5,000 years ago. Old mythologies contain not only stories about our place on the Earth, but have the Earth speaking through them, what the Islamic scholar Henry Corbin termed the mundus imaginalis –  where the human imagination is open to what David Abram describes as the more-than-human world.  So with myth, you are working not just with imagination but with the imaginal, what many aboriginal cultures would call the Dreamtime. In other words, as we turn ideas around in our head, we’re not just thinking but we are getting thought.

What does it mean to get thought?

For the last 20 years I’ve been taking people out into very wild parts of Britain, and for four days and nights they are absolutely alone, and often towards the end of that time, the participant will touch the edge of that experience. It’s very hard to talk about the imaginal in conventional language. The most fitting language to address it is poetry or imagery or mythology. If the language is too psychological it reduces the mystery. It makes the mysteries containable and safe.

I’m tired of tame language addressing wild things. We seem to be frantically creating handrails in and out of desperately mysterious situations. And so to come back to the question: myth is a robust and ancient way of addressing a multiplicity of consciousnesses that abide in and around the Earth.

What is so powerful about an uncolonised imagination, a mythic intelligence, is that it connotes but does not denote. It doesn’t tell you what it is. Its images have a radiance that reveals different things to whoever is beholding them. In storytelling, I know that when I say even something as definite as a crow that is in the room, we are all seeing 30 different crows. It is important that I don’t hit a PowerPoint presentation, and say this is the crow we’re talking about. Everyone’s imagination is being stirred, where they are remembering and catching a glimpse of crows in their lives before that.

CDC: So storytelling and myth also have a relationship with time?

MS: Yes, and memory. Stories with weight to them have what C.G. Jung terms ‘the lament of the dead’, which in our frenetic culture we can no longer have time to hear. Most indigenous cultures will tell you that this world belongs to the dead, that’s where we’re headed. So mythology for me involves a conversation with the dead, with what you might call ancestors.

Whatever we are facing now we need to have a root system embedded in weather patterns, the presences of animals, our dreams, and the ones who came before us. Myth is insistent that when there is a crisis, genius lives on the margins not the centre. If we are constantly using the language of politics to combat the language of politics at some point the soul grows weary and turns its head away because we are not allowing it into the conversation, and by denying soul we are ignoring what the Mexicans call the river beneath the river. We’re not listening to the thoughts of the world. We’re only listening to our own neurosis and our own anxiety.

CDC: Much of your work calls for a return to bush soul and for us to remember. Do you feel these myths are resurfacing so we can relearn our ancestor training that has been shut down for a very long time?

MS: I would say: if you don’t have ancestors you have ghosts. At the moment many of us are so impoverished and lacking in a cultural root system that what is around us are not ancestors supporting us but ghosts depleting us. So one of the things we could do is to reach out to stories, to practices – such as working on the land or a good art form – that require skills, diligence, a willingness to be bored and to lose our addiction to constant excitement. Myth and story put you into the presence of the old ones who have told the story before you.

When I’ve been with the Lakota Sioux or other Native American groups, I’ve seen that rather than telling stories from beginning to end like a Western narrative with a wedding at some point, they can enter the story wherever they want, like walking into a stream, and at that moment an image or scene in the story gets told and that is the story. It’s just that glimpse that gets into the lion’s blood of your imagination.

So I would say don’t worry about the whole of the story. Look for the moment  that speaks directly to you. Because like an acupuncture point, that is your entry point into the great stream of the story. You don’t need to dam the thing off at the beginning and the end. It’s more promiscuous than that, there are buddings everywhere.

CDC: When you told the story of the ‘The Crow King and the Red Bead Woman’ at Base Camp there were certain points where people were feeling very moved and in tears. What is that upwelling of sudden feeling in us all when we hear the story being told like that?

MS: One answer would be that this is a moment where we collectively experience what William Blake used to call ‘a pinprick of the eternal’ or the anthropologist Victor Turner ‘communitas’, where often through grief there is a kind of permission given in the room to feel something deeply in public. These days that’s quite rare. We tend to grieve and emote away from other people. But that’s not the way traditionally it’s done.

Folk tales told well have the power to be tacit ritual. In other words they have the strength to put their arms around the whole room and create a container that for an hour you can cook in the images of the story. You can allow yourself, bidden or unbidden, to be provoked by the images. And somehow it is safe to go deep within it.

It’s really also to do with the skill of the teller. You might be an accomplished storyteller technically but if you haven’t lived through some of the travails of the story, there will be a gap between the telling of the tale and what actually transpires. When those feelings happen in the room you know the storyteller is synched up to this story: she’s not saying it’s her story, but she has moved through the dark wood. She knows what it is like to carry precious red beads in her mouth. She knows what it’s like to be ignored and left for dead. She knows what it’s like to discern the difference between a seduction and a courtship.

When you see somebody effectively trying to tell the truth, it seems to have a deep, profound effect. So I think it’s partially to do with the way a room is held, the feeling that you’re in the presence of something ancient, which these stories are, and a readiness in the listener to allow themselves to just be carried by the power of the thing.

CDC: Are these complex Siberian myths ones that you’re focusing on at the moment, or do you have many myths that you’re working with at a time?

MS: I work with a wide variety of myths. Over the years, I have told a lot of stories that have come out of the Gaelic or Arthurian world, or European fairy tales, Russian fairy tales and Siberian folk tales. When you go into Siberia, you’re not really in the same terrain as the Russian fairy tales any more. There’s a different quality to them. You are dealing with stories that carry a lot less of a European influence in them and more of the kind of nutritional complexity that you find in Native American or Inuit stories. 

One of the ways you notice it is that their stories end in unexpected places. They do not follow the  kind of climactic Western narrative that we’re used to now. 

I read a lot of stories for example from India or from Africa or from South America, but I don’t feel equipped to tell them. When I’m working with people who are training as storytellers, one of the things I say is find out what kind of weather patterns live within you, find out what kind of animal you are, find out what your ecosystems are. Because some stories you will find yourself naturally attracted to, and others you can simply respect and admire.

For example, in a lot of Scandinavian or Icelandic stories, a formal, incantatory, memorised way of telling the story really suits it and is encouraged. But because I’m so improvisational as a teller, because I have such a long-standing interest in wild things, one of the wildest things I think you can do is to go on without a script. So that is why lots of unexpected things tend to erupt when I’m telling. There’ll always be a beginning and a middle and an end. But how we get there each time can be slightly different.

The sense of the story is what you as a teller bring that day. You’re watching how the audience is responding, you’re seeing their eye contact, the moments where they are leaning forward, when they’re pulling back. And that to some extent tunes the telling of the story. Also you have the story tapping you on the shoulder all the way through, and saying ‘Ah, ah, ah… I really want you to slow down now, and describe in detail the yurt of the old woman.’ And so I follow the direction of the story itself, but also what’s happening in the room.

CDC: You wrote once, in your book Scatterlings I think, that we were not sure what story we were in as a culture. If there were a story that could speak of our present situation, that held in its talons, if you like, or in its heart, a feeling for regeneration or return, for making sense, for bringing together, for waking us up, what might that be?

MS: I do have a story. It’s called the ‘The Lindwurm’. It’s a story that suggests that you and I have an exiled, slightly older sister or brother, who was hurled out the window the night they were born, and has sat brooding in a forest for many, many years, and has now returned.

And somehow contained in the psychic nerve endings of this story, I feel is a lot of information about what we’re living through both ecologically and politically right now.

CDC: It has an active female protagonist who transforms everything, is that correct?

MS: Oh yes. Without the ingenuity of a young woman working in tandem with an old woman (who’s really a spirit of an oak tree) we are going to be incinerated by the furious returning sibling, who devours everything that comes into its grip. It takes the ingenuity of the young woman, with the advice of the older woman, to not just defeat the serpent, but to free the serpent. That’s what’s so beautiful about it. The days of conventional hero myths are not serving us. What is being called for now culturally is a word you find often in Ancient Greece: metis. Metis is a kind of divine cunning in service to wisdom.

We can’t be naïve in times like this, because we are in the presence of underworld forces that will do one of two things: they will either educate us, or annihilate us. And in fairy tales whenever the movement is down – and the movement culturally is down right now – you have to get underworld smart, have underworld intelligence, underworld metis. I have a strong feeling that a lot of what wants to emerge through many ancient stories is a kind of wily, tough, ingenious and romantic force that needs to come forward at this point in time.

CDC: Mythology often has what I call the Princess Problem. You know where there is a passive, beautiful young female being, and then the man, the hero, appears and does the noble thing. So I’m always alert to stories where there can be a female protagonist to balance out all the hero action and worship that got us into this fine pickle in the first place.

MS: I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes when I’m telling ancient stories though I become aware that people in the audience are almost auditioning the stories for some contemporary concern. And while I’m sympathetic to the concerns of the time, the story itself is a living, powerful, breathing ancient being. It radiates its strange, troublesome intelligence out into the hearts and minds of everyone there and does its work.

But there are stories that are explicitly about the resurgence of a feminine that is not defined by what the troubadours call ‘the far-distant lady’. So you’re not the lady in the tower, where some young man is singing madrigals to you day and night; you are up-close, wild, occasionally brilliant, filled with opinions, big gnashing teeth, appetite, desire, with hooves that have trodden the ground of the underworld.

snowy-tower-book-coverMy book Snowy Tower looks at the Grail story of the knight Parzival,  which superficially could be seen to be about a young man becoming an older man. But underpinning that story is his relationship with powerful, potent, active females, the most extraordinary of which is a being called Kundrie. Kundrie has tusks. She has breasts that lactate deadly nightshade; she has eyebrows so long she has to plait and tuck them behind her ears; she has the snout of a boar and the ears of a lion. But she speaks three languages, and (I rather love this detail) she has a hat from Paris. And most importantly she is the one who, often in a fairly harsh manner, pushes Parzival in the directions he needs to go to be in the presence of the Grail again.

So those stories are there. When I see people chopping up, cutting and pasting ancient stories to make a new story with a very active female character that has been taken out of three other stories, what we get is a mythic image, but we don’t get a myth.

Now mythic is something that can be created in the imagination of a Jeannette Winterson or a Tolkien. But myth itself is connected to time and space. It has to pass through many mouths and many communities, until it takes on the kind of weight that means it’s authentically a myth.

So my challenge for anybody is to regard themselves as a kind of a mythological scholar in training. And to go out and to look through the old anthologies, get a library card, and try and collect these stories that are waiting to say something vital about the nature of our times.

And the second part of that challenge, the most crucial part of the research, will be your individual expression of that story. It doesn’t have to be an oral storytelling. It could be something you write down, or paint. You could craft a boat from an image within the story. But one way or another you need to let the story have its way with you.
CC: Ah yes, so that it becomes creative and externalised rather than inward and psychological. Talking of Parzival, there’s a line in Scatterlings where you ask, in respect to medieval culture: 'What replaces the chivalric viewpoint and creates anchoring for humans?’ There are not many myths that consider a band of people working together, except perhaps Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In terms of the future, it’s clear we can’t be held in an individualist story, but one that brings community into it, or a bigger relationship. And I wondered if you had any thoughts about that?
MS: It’s as if they are folk memories of times when we were living in much more closely knit relationships, both with each other and the Earth; where at some point the leader, the king or the queen, has to marry the wild for the health of the land. But you’re right, not only should we accept that we need other people around us collectively, working and banging into each other with our ideas, our feelings and our passions; but also that myth says that within you is a multiplicity of intelligences, who all want different things from you.  

In many tribal stories and indigenous tales, there is an implicit understanding that what we call psyche or soul does not live in a person, but that we live within the psyche or the soul. And the tribe, collectively, respond to and develop their lives through that awareness, which is usually a very ordinary experience. It’s not a question of belief, it’s a question of experience. However, in the West, we have had such a different fate over the last few hundred years that there is now a collective amnesia to the idea that we have a soul at all – whether there’s a soul inside us, or that we dwell within one.

So when someone talks about the individual journey of someone in the West, they’re having to make that journey because they do not have around them the cultural certainties that a tribal group would have, to affirm that yes, we are living within this wider thing, the mundus imaginalis, the soul of the world, and your dreams and your opinions are connected to waterfalls and jaguars and lightning storms.

It is a lonelier place for us to be because what is surrounding us does not confirm an Earth-centred consciousness. So that’s why I think the individual has been such a pronounced thing in myth and story over the last few hundred years. But if we cannot get back to a more collectively understood relationship with psyche, with Earth, with matter, with trees and rocks and wolves and bears, with our neighbours, then we will be caught in an enormous malfunction.

CDC: This brings me to a question I’ve wanted to ask about the wild setting for such psyche and soul, as you have described it. When so many of us are living in cities and urban areas, in depleted and industrialised landscapes, how can we recover our relationship with wild things and reconnect with that world?

MS: It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot from people who are reading my books and are living in Detroit or Birmingham or Prestatyn. Initially my response is ‘don’t be size-ist’. Twenty years ago I was living in southeast London, and it was a great consolation for me that William Blake had found a lot of what he needed, as a human and a thinker, in London. He could kneel down and see a little grey thistle and he knew it was a smiling little man waving at him.  

It was a way of not just seeing but beholding things. And when I lived in cities I would pay particular attention to what we rather naïvely call weeds. Or I would go out to a small park next to the video shop in Brockley, where there was a rather dejected-looking rowan tree. And I would spend an enormous amount of time just attending to this rowan. There’s a lovely line by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, where he says something like ‘the Earth seeks to be admired by you’. 

So if you do nothing else, admire the thing. Learn to give it praise. Learn to speak its 12 secret names. You hear about the Inuit having all these different names for snow. Well, I thought, what are the 12 secret names of those old-growth oaks that I see down near Greenwich docks? My advice really is what the Hindus call the ‘joyful participation in the sorrows of the world’. You have to get amongst the cities. You have to glean what you can, praise what you can, raise up what you can. I used to bemoan the fact that I didn’t have 400 acres of prime old-growth forest on my back door, until I realised that this was just a surly child in me – one of these mythic characters I was talking about.

So, I told myself: ‘you’re going to go out and become a praise-maker. You’re going to go out and praise and be generous to things.’

You asked a question about chivalry or gallantry earlier on, and when I was a little kid, one of my favourite books was called The Book of Chivalry, and I got my mum to make me a little cape. And I would wander around, constantly throwing this cape over puddles – it’s very embarrassing...

CDC: Oh, that’s sweet!

MS: But I now realise I was right. I wasn’t throwing  capes over puddles to maintain a patriarchal system of domination over women, I just wanted to behave in a beautiful and good manner to the Earth and its inhabitants. In the face of 1980s Thatcher’s Britain that was my response – to get my little cape out. And I realise now in my mid-40s that absolutely nothing has changed in me.

CDC: Your cape is still on the back of the door, Martin?

MS: Yes, it absolutely is. Anybody with a cape gets into the School of Myth!  

So, what I’m saying really is: soul doesn’t end with a tree or a stream. If you’re interested in animism, everything is alive. So how is a city alive? There’s a wonderful storyteller and mythologist called Michael Meade, who grew up in New York. And he has a great description of being a kid on the subway. And every time he went up the stairs of the underground, he was in a different district of New York with a radically different ethnicity. So he goes up one set of stairs and it’s Little Italy; he goes up another it’s China; he goes up another it’s Poland. And he said: I realised that the city itself was teeming with its mythologies, that over a couple of decades, those two cultures of the Poles and the Irish would inexorably start to weave parts of their lives together, and this third thing would happen.

My attention has been on the diminishing tracts of wilderness in Great Britain. But it can’t stop there for many of us, because that’s simply not the environment we are living in.

CDC: I wanted to ask you finally about breaking enchantment, about breaking the spell, which is a predicament in so many fairy stories. Many of the illusions that we’ve been brought up with are now being cracked open. Do you feel that the myths contain insights that we might reach out for, not as a handrail but as a tiller, so we might steer our way through these choppy waters ahead?

MS: First of all, I would say again that the word enchantment, which ironically is often used about hearing a myth or a story, is the opposite of what’s actually taking place. A story like ‘The Red Bead Woman’ and its effect on a room is not an enchantment, it’s a waking up…

CDC: A disenchantment…

MS: Yes, if you’ve done your job well as a storyteller, your story itself has a magical sensibility to ward off enchantment and to raise up. Secondly, people often prefer to dismiss myths, saying: it’s not true. But a way to think about myth is as something that never was and always is. Or as a beautiful lie that tells a much deeper truth. But one way or another when we lose our mythic sensibility, the powers in this world that may not wish us well have a greater purchase on us, a greater hold.

I notice that several times a day I go into what you could call a mild trance state. I’m not talking about ouija boards here! I’m just talking about falling under the influence of advertising, or various politically engineered neuroses that might be floating around. But I recognise I have come into a kind of enchantment. And the way I recognise it is that I feel less than grounded. I feel I’m not in the realm of imagination, I’m in the realm of fantasy. So the imaginal is not present; the Earth as a lived, breathing, thinking being is not present. What’s happening is I’m simply fretting – to use my mother’s language – I’m spinning my wheels. And so actually I think stories have a capacity to wake us up.

We are living in a time when we need symbolic intelligence, not just sign language. We are being fed signs, and signs that frighten us, and then paralyse us, and then colonise us. And imagination, through myth, wants to give you symbols to raise you up.

A story is not just an allegory, or a metaphorical point. It’s a love affair, and one of the most wonderful ways of breaking the trance states being put on us at this point in time, is to figure out what you love. Figure out what you’re going to defend. And develop the metis, develop the artfulness, to bring it out into the world.

Images: A different drum: Martin Shaw telling the Yakut tale of 'The Crow King and the Red Bead Woman'at Base Camp, Embercombe, Devon [Photo: Warren Draper]; cover of  'Snowy Tower'.

Martin Shaw is a writer, mythologist and teacher. He has recently co-designed (with anthropologist Carla Stang) the upcoming MA in myth and ecology at Schumacher college, as well as being the creator of the oral tradition course at Stanford University and the author of A Branch from the Lightning Tree, Snowy Tower and Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia. schoolofmyth.com