Tuesday, 28 October 2014

with tony hoagland, NY

on the road

Hello friends - back from a whistle-stop time in New York teaching and meeting. Many friends made, not forgotten, seeds planted for future work. I had a birthday too, thank you for your ribald and touching notes.

Next week i'm on the road again: looking forward to bringing ideas and stories to Zu studios in Lewes on November 4th, and then the Crick Crack club in London on November 5th. LINKS:


here's a couple of ideas i will be working into at Lewes : with story, poetry and good old fashioned wild speculation. I am aware that this is just a brief sketch, but you'll just have to come see us to find out more.


What if the family you were born into, the place you live, the body you steward, the artfulness of your day - what if all were of great significance? More than some exotic, faraway life that you are meant to be having. Not obviously heroic and individuated. What if they were the essential tuning from which to steward your life? What if you accepted your place in the difficulty of your family as having a sacred design, and that patch of street outside your window as requiring tending, the drooping skin under your chin as the soulfully elected terrain of your descent into the true depths of the lived experience? Sounds ghastly. But this is not to suggest martyrdom, but rather to attend to its depths.

From Platonic sources and confirmed in much hermetic material, there is an insistence that we do not float in some arbitrary sea of circumstance, but that the strange ordinariness of our surroundings is the very ground we were always searching for. And that this ground is not telling us we can be “anything we want”, but that we maybe required to be something quite specific. Destiny and fate fight for the scraps under our table, which is often piled with junk. This grounding does not exclude great voyages and abrupt changes of fortune, does not exclude fighting tooth and nail for a life you regard as significant, but is insistent on attending to the immediacies of our body, family, land and artistry. These four modes can provide sacred parameters, like a magicians circle.

1. The Bone-House
Growing down and accepting the stoop of gravity and decay that comes with aging. We settle into our body and the enormity of its passage through our time. Plastic surgery is usually a form of lying.

2. The Parental Bow
The reluctant admission that you abide in the same strange tree as your wider family, with its young buds, sturdy roots and many rotted branches.

3. Rooted and Tasked
The anchoring into a specific landscape by the uses of custom, duty, obligation. You don’t own the land – the land owns you.

4. Circumstance and Display
Giving back just what circumstances gave you by a full, creative declaration of attachment to the world. The very impossibility of repayment dictates true humanity.

Here’s a second image:

Your Abandoned Twin

On the day you were born, minutes before you arrived, your mother had another child. It slithered out from between her thighs, and its dark shape was not pleasing to those gathered. Someone gathered up the hairy little bundle, opened a window and threw it out into the roughness of this world. All present knew that this must never be spoken of.

The ancients knew about this wild twin, this companion, and that when you signed up for your arrival here, this very being was the one that would whisper its mantra of remembering into your ear, to re-orientate you to the shape you had elected to grow into. So the assembled acted out the part of aborting that very twin. After all, if they didn’t, how would you begin the adventure of trying to find them?

The twin sometimes takes up residence in a piece of music, woods at bottom of your garden, a muttered phrase from a London tramp, or a dreaming-wind that alights just moments before you wake up - reminding you of your pre-birth settlement, to accomplish yourself in some display of attachment to the sobriety of living in this world.

Alignment with the lost twin is what Blake had, and is the root of our capacity to behold. In this light, the “local” - where we find ourselves - is more than a fluke. Egypt, chakras and Ayahuasca smoothies may have to wait, we have a garden and some growing to deal with, there are rowdy kids in the town that could do with a trip to the wild. James Hillman’s beautiful image of this is of a tree upside down: its roots in the heavens, intermingled with star constellations and succulent darkness, but its branches descending deep into the fertile stuff of earth. The stuff of earth is specific, named, imaged - without it our own tree will get no purchase in the mud of living. He reminds us of the direction a child’s head is heading at birth: down.

Relationship to the wild twin creates a firm grasp on what James Joyce called “aesthetic arrest”. In other words, the images, scents, emotions, colours, appetites that deeply touch us; the full sensual range. Not the stuff we got trained to like en-masse, but the thrum of cello, lift of lap-wing, or slug of dark beer curling round your mouth. Loyalty to the road of the senses is what marks out the ground of the artist.

The bone-house dictates a beholding, not just thin-lipped seeing of the shape of our lives, whilst loyalty to the wild twin instigates the discipline required to move towards being not just from, but of a place, whenever you arrived there. Discipline was always the dance partner of wildness.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Just out the door to Heathrow, but some news i'm very happy to relay:



3rd to 10th July and 11th to 18th September 2015

(two separate sets of dates)

Led by wilderness teacher and mythologist,
Dr. Martin Shaw

£650 (£200 non-refundable deposit) all enquiries email
tina.schoolofmyth@yahoo.com (places fill quickly)

For just a little while, we ask you to consider trading comfort for shelter. To ask; what does it mean to be dreamt rather than dream, or to be claimed by a place? For some of us, these are yearnings almost painful to contemplate.

The wilderness vigil is something immeasurably ancient, and the way our ancestors tuned their ear to the furry emanations of the living earth.

Here, under the emerald bough of Dartmoor forest, we invite you to seek what they sought. In this place they called Dumnonia, or Defanscir, on the island they used to call Albion, we invite you to walk out of this century

What does that look like?
Four days and nights alone in the forest.
Just like the fairy tales.

Everywhere people are talking about the desperate need for a new story. We suggest that the stories worth attending to arise from the earth itself. We don’t need commentary about the earth, we need disclosures FROM the earth.

The wilderness vigil is a moment when the grinding of your ambitions and your griefs settle into the ground of something far deeper. This is always the place we have gone to mark transition - from one stage of life to another. It can be difficult, wonderful, resolutely un-ecstatic, and absolutely life-changing. Tribal folk have always known it was where you go to die and get born. A place where big questions get asked, things bend their heads to die and green shoots spring up.

Four days to maybe, just for a moment, behold Wild Land Dreaming.

This is not a teaching from a human realm. This is the old bones of the mountain as teacher, the swift raven overhead as guide. This is ancestor time. They can be tough instructors, but hold slow-gold-blessings in their beaks.

These vigils involve a re-calibration of what some of us understand by the words wilderness rites-of-passage. There has, we believe, sometimes been a little to much emphasis on the possible psychological transformation of the participant, and the wilderness itself as simply an encouraging backdrop as they work on their issues.

We join the voices of many before us and say we believe it’s really about the move from the psyche that lives in your chest, to you dwelling within a wider psyche of lapwing, oak root and lightning storm. That’s the big move.

We are out there to hear more than the whirring cogs of our own drama.

That is the journey from dreaming to getting dreamt, getting claimed by a place. It’s usually a slow, sometimes difficult and often mysterious process. Without a long term commitment to stewarding the experience afterwards, it can be hard to grasp quite what transpired. Friends, that's where the work begins. Don't come looking for honey if you don't want to become a bee.

These vigils are the beginning of a long standing engagement from the School of Myth to offer deeply experiential work with the living world. We are really interested in a deepening conversation with a specific stretch of land over a long period of time.

Having long been in love with oral culture we are paying specific attention to the local, rather than an emphasis on the pan-global relevance of the ceremony. This will grow straight out of the dark soil of Dartmoor.

The West Country School has a particular way of approaching the wilderness fast; to develop what has been called “a community of wild ethics.” (Abram) The school places an emphasis on mythological literacy as
a profound medium with which to deepen understanding of what actually transpired out there out the hill.

It sees these forages into the bush as a dialogue with a kind of dreamtime, and such an experience needs subtle handling. What makes this experience so nourishing is in part the holding - the professional support, the telling of your story to trained guides who have both fasted themselves and can assist you in the locating of the deeper story within your experience.

Dr. Martin Shaw has been involved in wilderness rites-of-passage for twenty years, including four years living under canvas. His ancestors have lived in the west country for several hundred years. A mythologist and teacher, he is the author of “Snowy Tower: Parzival and Wet, Black Branch of Language” and the award winning “A Branch From The Lightning Tree”. Director at the Westcountry School of Myth, and visiting fellow of Schumacher college, he has facilitated hundreds of peoples experience into wild nature. His work has been described as
“the wide-sky-waking of a spring dawn”
by Coleman Barks.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

lamps lit in the belly of the castle

"To be of means to be in. To have traded endless possibility for something specific. That over the slow recess of time you become that part of the land that temporarily abides in human form."

Something on the difference between being "from" and being "of" today.

It has been an absolute delight to be in the shepherds hut of late. I write and the wee beastie rocks joyfully with the winds, the roof clatters with the sharp daggers of Devon rain, the fire hoofs up its warmth. Bliss. But i'm packing my crane skin bag and heading for New York. I'll be reading some of my Celtic translations with Tony Hoagland this sunday night at the Bookcourt in Brooklyn, and Monday night i'll be teaching from the story of "Faithful John" at the Proteus Gowanus Gallery (a line or two in the photo above) - i know this will all be googlable for details. Here's a few lines from one of the poems - "Arthurs Hidden Men" - if you like this kind of thing, maybe you'll consider coming along one of the nights.
It's the right kind of year to hear the old stories.

And what of Cai?,
Cai of the strange gifting.

Nine nights and nine days he could lie
under the breathless waters,

a moon-track on the sea bed
Nine nights and nine days he could live
without sleep

When caught by storm,
such was his body's heat,
that a whole circle around him would remain dry.

When frozen in the iron-numb
gullies of Snowdon,
we would gather close
round Cai to dry our kindling.

Great ones, are you safely gathered in?
Let wild fawn
always be at your bow.

Let your white-bronze rings and broaches
glow by the yellow candle

Let the women
with the dark river hair
be your companions.

And I,
with my few wintered logs,
alone and old,

on the snowy hill
with nothing left
but my praise.


One of the most earnest desires i've encountered in recent years is folks wanting to feel an indigenous relationship to the earth. Well, i guess we all know that indigenous is a complicated word. I’ve seen whole gatherings grind to a deathly halt as growingly more red-faced folks try and get clear about what the word could mean. Funnily enough, i’ve never heard anyone who could qualify for the word actually use it. We turn up at the gate of the Crow reservation with our arms open and expect to get a warm reception.

So how do we work with this longing? Maybe let’s dial it down a little. I won’t be using anything so inflammatory as an offer for you suddenly becoming “indigenous” over night, that’s distasteful, but i will gamble a little, throw my hat in ring and say that i think coming “from” somewhere can be highly overrated.

I can’t tell you much about being “from” a place - i meet people who are so “from” a place that they are bigoted, numb and miserable. I also suggest that if you don’t have the bones of loved ones in the ground of that land, then you have no legitimate aboriginal claim for from-ness. Until the wiggling denizens of the soil have a good chew on the composting lump of aunt Agatha or grandpa Terry, then any sense of from-ness is pretty abstract.

I know this stuff can make your head spin. Feel impossible to calibrate, not worth the time, just another paradox. Well i suggest a re-tuning of intention, a slightly more sober directive: to be “of” a place. To labour under a related indebtedness to a stretch of earth that you have not claimed, but has claimed you.

To be of is to hunker down as a servant to the rumination’s of the specific valley, little gritty vegetable patch, or swampy acre of abandoned field that has laid its breath on the back of your neck. Maybe it’s a thin crest of swaying weeds between broken down sheds. As David Abrams extraordinary work reminds us, earth is air too; the myriad of wind tongues, the regal pummelling of the clouds - regardless of being in a city, hamlet or tent on a Norfolk beach. Remember to look up.

To be of, means to listen. To commit to being around, to a robust pragmatism as to what this wider murmuring may require of you. It’s participation not as a conqueror, not in the spirit of devouring, but of relatedness. I think this takes a great deal of practice. It doesn’t mean you never take a life, live on apples and peas, or forget that any stretch of earth holds menace and teeth, just as it does the rippling buds of April. You learn from the grandeur of its shadow as much as the many abundances.

To be of means to be in. To have traded endless possibility for something specific. That over the slow recess of time you become that part of the land that temporarily abides in human form. That your delightful curvature and dialectical brogue is hewn deep, wrought tough, by the diligence of your service to the sensual tangle you find yourself in.

It means not talking about a place but with a place - and that’s not a relationship available indiscriminately, wherever you travel, but something that may claim you once or twice in a life time. It means staying when you don’t feel like staying. Cracking the ice on the water butt, climbing into your mud incrusted boots and walking out into the freezing dark with a bail of hay. It’s very little to do with how you feel, because guess what? feelings change.

Knowing the stories of a place is bending your ear to its neighbourly gossip. One of the ways that i've approached the moors is to get a sense of what's underneath it - so that's what i set out to do.


The cave glows. Like a child loose with glitter, scattering the limestone. I bend my head and enter. There it is. Before my eyes adjust to the dark, i can see luminous hurls of algae flecking the mottled browns and greys of the cave wall. Moon-milk they call it.

I’m inside the south moor, by just a few feet. The Buckfastleigh ridge. Underneath. Underworld. Air is chilled, sour, and as i gingerly move forward into cramped space i can sense the capacity for disorientation. The old man gestures to various sandy lumps and asks us to guess what they may be. Well, i know they are going to be old. Deer scat, possibly bear or even wolf?

The guides eyes briefly flair with triumph. Hyena. The hound of Africa seems to have once had residence in cosy old Devon. It doesn’t stop there. In the half light, his hands point out other clusters - not just scat this time but bone. He gives a roll call of the animal remains collected in the cave: rhinoceros, straight-tusked elephant, bison, cave lion.

Seeing his cue, the guide moves into proper storytelling mode, his arms curve up into the moist air and he expands upon the mutable nature of something as seemingly permanent as Dartmoor. That the caves were formed under the immense weight of the Dart river, that the moors themselves were once a vast crust of mountains, that what we consider Dartmoor is merely the gums of the proud grey teeth that jutted towards the sky. That these bone-piles tell us of a once balmy climate where the hippopotamus and wild boar thrived.

Just as my mind scrambles to keep up with this steaming tropical underbelly, the old man delivers his coup-de-grace. Descending just a few more steps into the cave, he turns, and with a grave expression notes; “we are entering a dead zone now, no bones, no life of any kind here”. This is an even older layer, long before curious wolves would have found themselves trapped in this fusty holt. This passage belongs to the river goddess; thick dark with iron and mangansese, a place of the uneasy cold, just as the first cave was curator of warm bones. Almost within arm stretch is the two worlds of ice and heat. The great flowing crush of time, unimaginable pre-history, bears down on my peering skull. I am already dust.

These are tomb-animals: this is not a den but a cemetery of beings that fell or wandered into the small opening and never got out. There are is no human imprint, no owl-man scratched, blown or ochre’d on the rib-curved walls, no wide-eyed boys squatting on fur, no torchlight beckoning us into yet deeper tunnels, just the immense stillness of a realm that never expected our company.

This is a place of deep time intelligence, i recognise it straight away. Why? because i’m a storyteller, and know that the most impactful dimensions of a story are always underneath, chthonic; their creaking bucket carrying us down to the bottom of the pit, where alligator skulls and stored honey reside.

The emotive connections we cannot help but make with myths are rather like the entrance to this cave - a way in - and then our imaginations crash through the yellow bracken, crash down a tumble into the hard cut of limestone and we find ourselves in another world. A realm we may not escape from. Day intelligence; the place of lists, outcomes and schedules is not the deepest home for story. Elevate stories there to often, and they grow pasty, truculent and finally sick. They are not to dance for us like disgruntled bears in a Lithuanian market square.

As i gaze up at the firm, glistening crust of ceiling i see the glittering moon-milk in a new way; as language, and not just human, dripping down through these slurried layers of time back into the keeping of the womb of pre-history.

This is not one of the great initiation pits, those places of unshackling into the dreaming of rock and fur and salt-wave, those places where the tribe that was the hill and the bird and the river carved its manifesto into your fledgling imagination, it is older even than that. My own thinking seems to have run aground, can go no further back, the tart air is sharp clumps of sacred breath. I make my speechless gestures of prayer and leave. As i come blinking out into drizzly grey light, i have just glimpsed a far older, toothier, stranger world. A world turned upside down.

I walk awhile, and surely enter the convivial atmosphere of the river-side Abby Inn, just a short walk from this Underworld and order a pint. Dark beer gathered in, i take my seat on a wooden bench and enjoy its robust settling on my tongue, chewy with plenty of malt. I lose myself watching the rapid scatter of the Dart river over the stones. Despite the knackered chatter of local builders over my shoulder, the aura of the cave still has me, leaves me blurry with questions as i sip the brew.

There’s a lot going on. I can’t quite get a hold back on the world upstairs just yet. I’m sick of things making sense. I thought i knew the moor, but down there, in the brown light flickering on an elephants tooth, i wasn’t so sure. The long departed cave-lion is more indigenous to the moor than i will ever be.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Monday, 6 October 2014