An apprenticeship to story

Grey Wethers by Simon Blackbourn

I've been following a thread over the last two weeks leading into the magical heart of story: the stories we tell, the stories we write, and the stories in the land around us. David Abram spoke on the relationship between story and place, Martin Shaw on stories for our time and stories that carry the tang of wild, Robin Wall Kimmerer on listening to the stories the land tells about itself, and David Whyte on finding poetry in close attention to the world around us. Now I'd like to give you one last passage from Martin Shaw's book Scatterlings, describing the path he followed to become the extraordinary storyteller, mythographer and cultural historian of Dartmoor that he is today:

"It was a labour born and rooted entirely in my openings in the wilds," Martin writes. "There were no courses to attend, no elocution lessons, no lines of ink to memorise till I could scattergun the first row with my literary recital of the oral tradition. It just wasn't going to come from there. At least not at first. It had to come from the source: the living world....

Grey Wethers Stone Circle on Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"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, the I had to bend my head daily to its murmurs.

Scorhill Clapper Bridge by Simon Blackbourn

"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 the weeks would unfold, this roving ecosystem gradually settled in shape somewhat; out of the ravenous floods cascading through my frame, things calmned, and the few same animals, birds, and insects as well as, occasionally, certain regal energies that stand alongside them, started to show up.

On Sittaford Tor by Simon Blackbourn

"The time for this work was usually dusk. I would wait for a frittering of delicate lights to lace the air; they would denote whether it was time to settle back on my goatskins or to cross the rickety bridge and make my way 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.

Zig Zag by Simon Blackbourn

"This is weft and the weave of story for me. The endless lyrical emerging of the earth's tremendous thinking and the humbling required to simply bear witness to it. And the extraordinary day, when 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.

View from Hound Tor

"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 was praise.

Dartmoor Pony by Simon Blackbourn

"Inventive speech appears to be a kind of catnip to the living world. Especially prized has been the capacity to name, abundently 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.

Sentinels by Simon Blackbourn"So the first big move was not one of taking anything at all -- I'd done that quite successfully my whole life -- but of actually reorganising 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 hunter's hut.

  Green Curve
  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 remain 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.

The Lone Tree bySimon Blackbourn

"So the first part of my apprenticeship to story began in a tiny stretch of woodland glade -- a corral of about twenty feet -- 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...

Black-a-tor by Simon Blackbourn

"If I'd believed the propoganda 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 deep natural function anyway. Small pockets of absolute aliveness, greenness, riven-deep mystery are all over our strange and bullishly magnificent isle.

Highland Cattle on Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"So my first move towards story was to give one up, beginning the slow move from a society of taking to a culture of giving. The living world was not there for my temporary edification or a transitory backdrop 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 spoken but know the teller never took the journey to get them. The teller just squatted by the well and stole the words when one who had made the journey crawled out of the Underworld. 

The Freedom of the Moor by Simon Blackbourn

The North Teign River Flowing Over Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"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."

* * * * *

Scorhill Tree by Simon Blackbourn

Once again, I have paired Martin's words with Simon Blackbourn's evocative Dartmoor imagery. Simon is a photographer and moorland wanderer who lives down the road from me here in Chagford. You'll find more of his work in this previous post, as well as on his Instagram page. The title of each photograph can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) 

Both words and pictures have caused me refect on my own long apprenticeship to story...which was different to Martin's in many ways, but oddly similar in others. It was not an easy path by any means, but it's brought to place I am now, to hill and hound and husband and family. It gave me the tales I hold, and carry gently, and then pass on.

Sunset at Hound Tor by Simon Blackbourn

Delilah by Simon Blackbourn

The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Related posts: The mnemonics of words (Robert Macfarlane) and In the story made of dawn (David Abram).


The tang of fox

The North Teign River by Simon Blackbourn

As must be evident from my last post, I've been re-reading Scatterlings by storyteller, writer, and mythographer Martin Shaw -- and finding it just as rich, insightful, and magical as I did the first time around. Martin, who grew up a stone's throw from Dartmoor, runs the West Country School of Myth on the other side of the moor from us, and is soaked in the mythic history of the West Country through and through. In the pages of Scatterlings, he rambles the moor, shares its lore, and describes an apprenticeship in storytelling that is earthy, tricksy, and rooted firmly in the land. His work is geared to storytellers working in the old oral tradition, but it has much to say to those of us writing land-based fiction and nonfiction too.

Back to the Stone by Simon Blackbourn

The passage from the book that I'd like to share today begins with a story:

"Once upon a time," he writes, "there was a lonely hunter. One evening, returning to his hut over the snow, he saw smoke coming from his chimney. When he entered the shack, he found a warm fire, a hot meal on the table, and his threadbare clothes washed and dried. There was no one to be found.

Nun's Cross Farm by Simon Blackbourn

"The next day, he doubled back early from hunting. Sure enough, there was again smoke from the chimney, and he caught the scent of cooking. When he cautiously opened the door, he found a fox pelt hanging from a peg, and a woman with long red hair and green eyes adding herbs to a pot of meat. He knew in the way that hunters know that she was Fox-Woman-Dreaming, that she had walked clear out of the Otherworld. 'I am going to be the woman of this house,' she told him.

"The hunter's life changed. There was laughter in the hut, someone to share in the labour of crafting a life, and, in the warm dark when they made love, it seemed the edges of the hut dissolved in the vast green acres of the forest and the stars.

Christmas Day Rainbow by Simon Blackbourn

"Over time, the pelt started to give off its wild, pungent scent. A small price, you would think, but the hunter started to complain. The hunter could detect the scent on his pillow, his clothes, even his own skin. His complaints grew in number until one night the woman nodded, just once, her eyes glittering. In the morning she, and the pelt, and the scent were gone. It is said that to this day the hunter waits by the door of his hut, gazing over snow, lonely for even a glimpse of his old love.

Dartmoor Hawthorn by Simon Blackbourn

"We are that hunter, socially and, most likely, personally. The smell of the pelt is the price of real relationship to wild nature: its sharp, regal, undomesticated scent. While that scent is in our hut there can be no Hadrian's Wall between us and the world.

"Somewhere back down the line, the West woke up to the Fox Woman gone. And when she left, she took many stories with her. And, when the day is dimming and our great successes have been bragged to exhaustion, the West sits, lonely in its whole body for her. For stories are more than just a dagger between our teeth. More than just a bellow of conquest. We have turned our face away from the pelt. Underneath our wealth, the West is a lonely hunter.

Dartmoor Pony by Simon Blackbourn

"Around halfway through the last century, something wonderful happened. Mythology and faerie tales regained a legitimacy amongst adults as a viable medium for understanding the workings of their own psychological lives. By use of metaphor, tales of sealskins and witches' huts became the most astonishing language for what seemed to lurk underneath people's everyday encounters. The use of metaphor granted greater dignity and heightened poetics to the shape of their years.

"What was the glitch that lurched alongside? A little too much emphasis on these stories as entirely interior dramas that, clumsily handled, became something that removed, rather than forged, relationship to the earth. The inner seemed more interesting than anything going on 'out there.' We and our feelings still squatted pretty happily at the center of the action. There was not always that sharp tang of fox.

Resting by Simon Blackbourn

"When the Grimms and others collected folktales, they effectively reported back the skeletons of stories; the local intonation of the teller and some regional sketching out was often missing. Ironically, this stripped-back form of telling has been adopted into the canon as a kind of traditional style that many imitate when telling stories -- a kind of 'everywhere and nowhere' style.

Bog Cotton on Branscombe Loaf by Simon Blackbourn

"Now, while it's certainly true that there are stories designed for travel, for thousands of years even a story arriving in an entirely new landscape would be swiftly curated into the landscape of its new home. It would shake down its feathers and shape-leap a little or grow silent and soon cease to be told. No teller worth his or her salt would just stumble through the outline and think it was enough; the vivid organs would be, in part, the mnemonic triggers of the valley or desert in which the story now abided. This process was a protracted courtship to the story itself. It was the business of manners.

Scorhill Stone Circle by Simon Blackbourn

"Oral culture has always been about local embedding, despite the big human dilemmas that cannot help but sweep up between cultures. This may seem an unimportant detail when you are seeking only to poke around your childhood memories in a therapist's office, but it falls woefully short when this older awareness is reignited -- the absence of wider nature becomes acute, the tale flat and self-centered.

"I don't think we have the stories; the stories have us. They charge vividly through our betrayals, illicit passions, triumphs, and generosities. Pysche is not neatly contained in our chest as we scuttle between appointments; we dwell within psyche: gregarious, up close, chaotic, astonishing, sometimes tragic, often magical.

Dartmoor Foal by Simon Blackbourn

"Well, something piratical is happening. It is time to rescue the stories, rehydrate the language, scatter dialectic inflection amongst the blunt lines of anthropological scribbles, and muck up the typewriter with the indigo surge of whale ink. We're singing over the snow to the fox-woman."

As, indeed, we are -- in hedgerow storytelling and nature writing; in mythic arts and land-based fantasy fiction; in paint, puppetry, music and other mediums; in creative forms of environmental activism; and in the stories we craft of our lives.

Scorhill Stone Circle by Simon Blackbourn

I Am Sheep by Simon Blackbourn

Lone Tree at Fox Tor Mires by Simon Blackbourn

The very beautiful art today is by Simon Blackbourn, who lives and works here in Chagford. He has spent the last ten years immersing himself in Dartmoor, photographing its colours, shapes, textures and moods, its trees, rocks, bogs, rivers, wildlife, and weather. To me, this is the perfect pairing with Martin Shaw's words, for both of them illuminate the soul of the moor through the mediums of language and light.

To see more of Simon's photographs, please visit his Instagram page. The title of each piece here can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images.) 

Brent Tor by Simon Blackbourn

View from Greater Rocks, Hound Tor by Simon Blackbourn

The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Related posts: A skulk of foxes, Fox stories, and Making sense of the more-than-human world.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Hissy and Jack, the pet dogs of the Army Service Corp in France, 1916

The music today is from Devon's great folk & roots duo Show of Hands: singer-songwriter Steve Knightley and multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer, often joined by bassist Miranda Sykes. They've released over twenty albums since the late 1980s, and are much beloved here in the West Country.

The first two videos are from Centenary: Words & Music of Great War -- a two-album set that features classic World War I poetry (read by Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton), re-workings of songs of the period, and new songs written for the project.

Above: "Gameskeeper," the poignant story of a gameskeeper from Devon who fought in the Battle of the Somme. The song was played in Exeter this past Friday -- the 100th anniversary of the first day of the battle -- at the opening of an art installation by Rob Heard, consisting of 19240 shrouded figures representing each of the Allied soldiers who lost their lives on that single day.

Below: "The Lads in Their Hundreds," with lyrics from A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad. Though published in 1896, this section of the poem works beautifully in a WW1 context.

In this time of political turmoil, I'm drawn to the combination of passion and compassion underlying the band's more political songs. "Company Town"  (above), for example, looks at America during the Depression and Dust Bowl days...and relates aspects of that era to our own.

"Country Life," below, is a song about left-behind farming communities in the West Country today, ravaged by the affects of corporate Agribusiness, the Foot-and-Mouth Disease crisis, and years of neglect by urban-based politicans. (The band's long commitment to rural issues reminds me of the musicians behind Farm Aid in America.)

And last, in a different vein, from the "folk ballad" part of their repetoire:

"Cruel River" is a song based on the local folklore of the River Dart. Knightley discusses the song's genesis at the start of the video below, then performs it, starting at the 2:22 mark, with Beer, Sykes, and fellow Devonian Seth Lakeman on hammer dulcimer. (We listened to Seth's wonderful music just a few weeks ago.)

Devon river drawing by Alan Lee

The photo at the top of this post is from "Dogs of War," photographs of soldiers and dogs from WWI. More vintage hounds here. The drawing at the bottom is a Devon river sketched by Alan Lee.


Widdershins 2016

About the exhibition:

Dartmoor, a landscape steeped in mythic and legend, is home to a large number of artists inspired by mythic themes. The works in this show explore myth, folklore, and faery tales in diverse ways, ranging from earthy to ethereal, sensual to spiritual, and frightening to whimsical...shaped into paintings, sculptures, assemblages, magical clocks, handbound books, and more.

Participating artists:

Alan Lee, Marja Lee, Virginia Lee, Brian & Wendy Froud, David Wyatt, Rima Staines, Danielle Barlow, Angharad Barlow, and me (all from Chagford); Hazel Brown (from Torquay); Pauline Lee (from Ashburton), Neil Wilkinson-Cave (from Moretonhampstead); and Paul Kidby (from Hampshire, but with strong Dartmoor connections).

In addition to the main gallery show, Green Hill will display mythic art and crafts throughout the art centre (by Alexandra Dawe, Leonie Grey, Sally Hinchcliffe, Meg Meg Connolly, and others); and books and prints will be on sale in the Green Hill shop. They've also organized a program of related events to run throughout the summer: workshops, talks, film showings, etc., for both adults and children. Please contact Green Hill Arts, or visit the Calendar section of their website, for more information.

I'll be at at the Meet the Artists evening on August 6th; at a Coffee Morning with three other women artists (Wendy Froud, Marja Lee, and Hazel Brown) on July 11th; and I'm giving talk on August 20th on The Power of Story: Healing & Transformation in Folk & Fairy Tales. Do come if you can.

For photographs from the first Widdershins exhibition in 2013, go here (via Virginia Lee) or here (via Rima Staines).

A swarm of fairies by Alan Lee


A Dartmoor Beltane

Beltane 1

Since one of the underlying themes of Myth & Moor pertains to folklore in art and life, the folkloric celebration of winter's end here in Chagford seems right on topic. Last year, we held a public May Day Procession, and a  grand green time was had by all  -- but we haven't yet got enough volunteer organizers to run a public event every year, so the next one is scheduled for 2017. (If you're local, mark your calendars.)

In order to keep the thread of the ritual aspect of May Day unbroken during this inbetween year, a few of us gathered in a quieter way to call the Jack and the Obby Oss in from the wild -- marking the end of winter with pipe and drum, poetry and prayers, with mischief, mead, and merriment. Here is a taste of the day: a story in pictures, folklore come to life.

Beltane 2

The Obby Oss emerges from the trees, to be welcomed and smudged, or blessed, by the smoke of white sage......and then the whole gathering is smudged as the Oss enters our circle.

Beltane 2

Beltane 3

Beltane 4

The piper plays, a drumbeat sounds, and three women in green (representing the goddess of spring in her triple aspect: crone, maiden, and mother) lead a simple Beltane ceremony, addressing the human and more-than-human communities that share the land. I won't go into the ceremony itself, for mythic things are also private things in this and many other sacred traditions -- but it involves gratitude for life, re-balancing oneself with the rhythms of the natural world, music, and laughter. Always laughter -- for as the Hopi in Arizona say, no ceremony can properly begin until somebody has laughed. Joy and ribaldry are a part of life too.

Beltane 5

Beltane 6

Beltane 7

The ceremony is simply, short, and includes everyone in the gathering, from the youngest, strapped to her mother's back, to the oldest of a family in which three generations are present.  Then the Piper breaks the circle...

Beltane 8

...leading the way over a stream...and through a gate...

Beltane 9

...and up the slope of a field full of sheep. Lambs frolic on the hill, or chase their mothers bleating for drinks of milk, reminders of spring's fertility, new life, and new beginnings.

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The Obby Oss leaps and frolics too,  jaws a-clacking and bells a-jingling. The sheep and lambs give him wide berth. Sometimes he's a frightening creature, and sometimes comical and rather endearing.

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Beltane 13

We crest the hill and turn on to a village street, the pipes leading the way. The street is quiet and only a few come to their doors to watch the Oss dance by, spreading the "luck of the May" from house to house with every jingling step. At the outskirts of the village is an old stone barn. The Horned Man stops, opens the door, and the raggle-taggle parade goes through...and out another door into a field, where the Beltane fire stands ready.

Beltane 14

But first, before the evening festivities begin, the ceremony must be properly closed off: with prayers,  the ritual passing of the mead, and the formal thanking of the Oss. He disappears into the trees and won't be seen again until next year.

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Beltane 15b

And then the Beltane "need fire" is lit.

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Beltane 17

Now the merry-making begins! Shared food is spread over tables decorated with jars of flowers from the woods. Beer, wine, and homemade mead flow freely (May Eve is a drunken affair by long tradition), while friends and neighbors catch up on village news, children play on an outdoor trampoline, dogs chase balls through the grass and stormclouds threaten but never break.

Howard returns from the Otherworld where he'd been transformed into the spirit of the Oss. He is wide-eyed, exhausted and sweat-soaked, his faced still blackened by masking chalk; the transition takes time, and while he's in it, he's a creature of the In-Between.

Beltane 18

The willow frame worn by the Jack in the Green sits empty by the fire, crowned with leaves. Last year a frame like this, worn by our Jack, was entirely covered in greenery, then burned in the fire at the end of the event. This year, the frame acquires its greenery and flowers bit by bit. All are invited to decorate the Jack; all are invited to be the Jack. A bare winter wreath hangs on the frame, and each of us ties scrolls of paper to it with green ribbon and string, containing all the things we wish to leave behind as the old season turns into the new. The wreath will be burned at the tail end of the night, and all our old troubles with it.

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A group of drummers gathers by the fire to play for all who dare to dance the Jack. Howard is one of those drummers but he's also eager to to dance the Jack himself -- so he passes the drum, enters the frame, lifts it up (it's heavy!), and tap-dances his way around the fire like a leafy Fred Astaire.

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Beltane 21

Jason removes his horns to have a go. He was the Jack for the public parade last year, strong enough to carry the frame with ease...

Beltane 22

Jason heading around the fire, Pig (he dog) behind him

...but women too are dancing this year. Here's Sarah, dancing with joy...

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And Rowan...

Beltane 23b

And Susie...

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Beltane 24b

And even Susie's daughter. Too small to lift the frame by herself, but fiercely independent, she sits inside the Jack for a spell and then crawls out, satisfied.

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Andy, our piper, takes a turn, and when he's halfway around the fire he brings his wife, Nomi, and their child into the Jack and the three of them dance together.

Beltane 26

Alan Lee takes a turn around the fire...

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....and then his daughter Virginia does as well. One by one, throughout the evening, everyone who wants to dance the Jack takes part, helped into the frame by Sarah and Ruth, spurred on by the drumbeat and our cheers.

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I'm still convalescing from a serious illness, and I know I cannot lift the Jack; I content myself with watching and cheering, though I really want to dance. Howard can tell (he knows me well), so he pulls me up to take a turn. "We'll do it together," he says. "I'll be your strength."  And so I dance too.

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And now the story must end, for although the celebration carried long into the night, I didn't last much past dusk, and those starlight tales are not mine to tell.

Today, the sun is bright and it's warm at last. It finally feels like spring. Did we really drum up this glorious weather? Magic isn't as direct as that. Magic is the warmth that binds friends, neighbors, and the living earth together...and that's the luck of the May.

Beltane revellers, human and canine

Beltane 33

Hawthorn tree in bloom


        Drumming Winter Away
         by Jane Yolen

        Boom, da-boom
         the brrr of the year,
         the burring of skin
         stretched ear to ear.
         The grin of spring,
         the ground of spite,
         the rise of fern,
         the shortened night.

         The well-ruled month,
         the lengthened day,
         less time for sleep
         more time for play.
         The pearling buds,
         the shafts of green,
         the fuzz on trees,
         as twigs all preen.

        The waft of perfume
         in the air,
May blossoms on the hawthorn         the warp and weft
         of spring weave there.
         Boom, da-boom,
         we beat the drum
         for spring to come.
         For spring to come.

 

Beltane 34The photographs here were taken by David Wyatt, Susie Violette, Jason of England, Suzi Crockford (the hawthorn tree) and me. The poem by Jane Yolen is copyright © 2016. All rights reserved.