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....
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
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.
"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...
"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.
"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.
* * * * *
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.
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.