Thursday, 11 December 2014

last call for 2014: alongside MARK RYLANCE this Sunday, Northcott theatre, Exeter.

ten years

Well, the tenth year of lively scholars left the rambling confines of our Dartmoor HQ four days ago now, and i still feel like i've been shot out of a old time ships cannon and into some strange, warm-muddied slumberous swamp. Exhausted. Exhausted in a very bespoke, ritually acute, rather fine kind of way. I'd be highly suspicious if i didn't. We call it The Bite, and its just part of the down payment for something real arriving in the fluctuating polemics of our own lives.

I started teaching from the fluttering doorway of my black tent eleven years ago this coming January - tho' had ten years of working with the wilderness vigil afore that. At that point i was more in the diviner and ceremonialist line of work; it was over the next few years that i cottoned onto the extraordinary notion that the mead-hall of my tongue was a place where some of the energies i served could find a landing strip out into the spluttering confines of the early 21st century. I confess to not being always a good steward of that realisation, but the aspiration holds firm.

I rouse my hide in a few hours to teach at Schumacher College this afternoon on creating a Culture of Conviviality, and i'm very honoured to be performing alongside Mark Rylance and others this sunday at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. For those of you that may have been wintering on Mars these last ten years, Mark is the finest stage actor of his generation - by several well leapt roe-buck leagues. Tickets are not cheap for this event, but it will be something to witness.

I think this will be the last entry for 2014. I just want to create feasts, coax the fire and uncork a really good red.

There's lots of coming down the chute in terms of gatherings and teaching in 2015 - i'll put it all up next time. What will i be (re) reading over Christmas? Well, in no particular order or year of release: Memory and Landscape by Simon Schama, An Endless Trace by Christopher Bamford, Night and Horses and the Desert by Robert Irwin, The Islandman by Tomas O Crohan, Confession of an Irish Rebel by Brendan Behan, The Wake by my friend and colleague Paul Kingsnorth, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, Romanticism and Esoteric Tradition by Paul Davies, Kiviug by Kira Van Deusen. I can't give a list of highlights for 2014 because there've been so many, so diverse in nature and so outrageous it may come off like bragging. So i won't. Lots of utterly normal stuff transpired too.

But before you or i start claiming to much ancientness in our creaking bones, let's go back a little to where maybe one place the stories come from. I wish you well as we enter winter, and hope you claim some time to rest, dream, and nourish.

Slange to all.


I am in my writing hut now. Very late summer, the cusp. There is a good natured wind-shake of the frame every few minutes, tottering on its wheels. I can hear the drone of the last harvesting going on in a nearby field, but today the winds dictates primacy, ushering in the change from corn-time to dying time.

Somewhere the Holly King is sharpening his blade for his soon-come meeting with the Oak King, and his long wintering reign.

But i’m not in the hut. I open up the wood burner, chuck in the kindling, settle under my furs and step out of my usualness.

A fire is a road to
pre-historic mind.

Into the immensities of deep time.
Flames make nonsense crumble and we are gone:

We are 4,600 million years ago.
In vast space itself, where we
hang in the firm claws
of the Hawk of the Well,

Earth is a humming chunk of rock, thrashed by meteorites and hurtling comets, a sublime attack, laden with gifts we cannot yet see.

Story churns and gargles
bellows its dramas.

Already the mythos: without chaos there will be no eros - no succulent, vital, devouring, troublesome life. Earth absorbs the carving, accommodating the rupture. But this dance is but a parade of minnows when a vast planet collides like a drunk at a wedding with this baby planet. Their great impact causes both a melting heat and shards of debris to hurl out into the inky blackness - shards that over time twist and bind into the elegant breast of the moon.

Snow Palace.
Dream Guardian.
Vast White Belly
Tide Keeper.

Our scrying shifts to 500 million years. The rocky animals that are continents, blissful in their solitudes for so long, come to seek a herding warmth, and start a slow cluster together, though the proud cloak of vegetation is still to spread their bony shoulders. The continents share gossip in the way that they do. Shallow seas hold life in its gurgling waters: sea scorpion, well-armoured trilobite, starfish. The thin waters are not like ink but luminous with sun, a glowing churn.

Salty Ale of Scales
The Glittering Beginning
The Sewing Needle of the Moon.

250 million years. We behold one vast stretch of land now, it’s face lush and hairy with plant deities. The continent confidently stretches its wing span from both high latitudes of the equator; the horsetail stretches its roots into succulent swamp, palm trees catch the breeze, as dragonflies claims residence to the hot air. Scaled beings - amphibians - lay their eggs in crusts of river beach.

Verdent Lushness
Grey Ladies of the Bank
Sweet Flurry of the Dragons Wings
Damn Handsome Rock

100 million. Time of snapping jaw and the belly-scrape-of-the sandy places, the broad and wide ranging dinosaur. Round their claws scuttle a red sea of termites, and skirting their shoulders those great survivors, the dragon fly. The continents continue their archaic shoulder rub,and their vivid dreaming continues - the moon-milk of the earths braided
intelligence, behooving us its intricate and delighted diversity, crowned with silver and white clouds, a-flower with elk and butterfly, whittle-tipped mountains of snow, brown leafed copse and urging flanks of red sand.

Deep time. Old time.

Boulder slow, loosened underworld immensity, grinding forever chords of glacial singing, bedazzled green-sizzle of the jungle rump summer lands. We are the bone pile, the swan road, the bitter dark berries in the belly of the wolf.

And on.

And on.

And somewhere, just a minute ago really, something opened its eyes that looked a little like your or I. And what we heard were the stories. The ancestors were diligent in this regard. Dragon fly would not hesitate to grace us with its buzzing saga of the wind road, bear would dictate the terms of how we padded the snowy forest. These are the stories our bodies were tuned for, that still grind quietly away in our bones as we peer at the computer screen.

And for a long long time we listened.

As the rain slapped the moss-strewn roof of an orkney shelter we listened, as the dream-rattle of the cicada poured through the dark we listened, as our lungs ripped a blood-flurry in our chest as we leapt over boulder and decaying brush pursued by boar, still we listened.

We listened to the Old Time, and knew our brief, majestic, terrible
place in it. We were just the latest in a long, long line of storytellers.

Come Ice-Giants, and Eight Legged Horses, come Blodeuwedd of the
Flowers, come Fenryr, Cinderbiter, Bertilak, Gringolet, Ossian, Scathach, Gwynn Ap Nudd. The land shudders and births you, like the sea erupts lava that becomes mountains, forests, graves. Come Psyche.

Come Goemagog, Wayland Smithy, Rhiannon of the Mares, Chaw Gully Raven, Robin of Loxley and all the laughing boys of the Greenwood.

Let your names be called, as precious as meat.

And one day, just a moment ago, an old woman came from her place at the edge of the village, her ears replete with listening, a mouth of fresh-cut meadow flowers, and told us to light the kindling.

Once it was dark, and the little ones were drifting under the antelope robes, the strange one loped forward into the light of the flames and stood in front of the village.

She says:

Once upon a time.

Once upon a time.

Once upon a time.

So she says.

And she tell us the story of ourselves back to ourselves.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Has anyone seen the boy?

I've had so many enquiries about the above gathering if felt useful to give a few words about how i came to think about teaching it. An over night decision of about twenty years.

Back in the last century:
the timber heaved with orange slashes of flame then crashed down around the rocks. All afternoon a small band of us had laboured under uncertain Welsh skies to build a substantial fire, substantial enough to heat to a red glow the rocks required for entry into the sweat-house later that day. The house is small structure, close to the ground, just enough to squeeze in about twenty five folks, made from hazel, its roof at about chest height. It’s heavily covered, to block out any light. At its centre is a small fire pit. The real hot spot is opposite the door. It’s a place of singing, prayers, story and healing.

So the fire is cooking the rocks good - “cherry reds” is what the medicine man wants - and it looks like he’s going to get them. Our small crew are blearily proud of ourselves and then stop short. The sky is changing. This is not the usual uncertain scudding of a British sky, this is a coal black entourage of alpha-clouds, ready to sluice emphatically our blaze. We won’t stand a chance against this billowing ensemble of soon-to-chuck rain-gods. I see the first drop drip from the slightly out-sized trilby rim of a startled work mate. “Bugger”.

Through the dusking comes the old man. Plaits to his waist, a head taller than anyone, immeasurably ancient, from some other place, Turtle Island. Everybody stiffens and throws themselves more fervently into the work of keeping the flames in excitement. There’s the first peal of thunder.

Old man pulls me away from the fire a moment and glances up through the strangely glittering light. “Have you told them a story yet?” he croaks in that otherworldly badlands drawl. I don’t understand. Who? The crew? I haven’t told stories since i was a kid. “Sorry grandpa, what do you mean?” I think i blushed as i spoke, wriggling with ignorance.

He points upwards to the dark wings of the air. “Them beings. That’s what they’re here for. Charm ‘em. Barter for us.” With that he hurled some language into the fast coming night. Elegant language, a storied tongue, using the currency of his jaw to claim relationship to raindrops, weather patterns, and the old and secretive desire of a darkening sky to be held for a moment in the fragility of the human imagination. I’d never seen an adult doing anything remotely like it. I just did not know such a thing existed. It touched me deeper than all of Shakespeare.

Then he stopped. “You come from here. You have to continue. Keep talking to them.” He turned, kneeled and inspected the antlers we would soon be carrying the rocks in with. Oh no. So i squinted upwards to the assembled gallery of deities and began. It was pitiful, bereft of any remote shred of courtship, just my stumbling pony of words, making it quite clear that any significant vocabulary i possessed had long since been shuffled off to the abattoir. It was kind of heartbreaking. Lots of un-earned confidence with nothing beneath it. I mean zero. All hat and no cows.


For a couple of weeks i travelled on and off with the old man - nothing special - just part of his loosey-goosey ensemble. Lots of carrying water, chopping wood, building sweat-houses, witnessing ceremonies so archaic, so vivid, so extraordinary it was like watching a cave painting peel itself off the wall, and dance in vivid colour right through the soul-black dark of the sweat-house. No metaphor here, not a jot.

So my time is up. The old man is going back across the waters and i’m carrying my sore little heart back to the rinky-dink caravan that i called home. Its gently mooted by a few that i could save pennies, cross the pond, and properly apprentice. As you can probably imagine, that’s a dizzying proposition. Like getting airlifted out of hell
into a place where real live human beings exist and remember the old arrangement we used to have with the earth. The old man’s people need a response, so i take a few hours to go mull in a nearby copse, after we’ve prepared the final sweat.

I'm just struck dumb with it all. Can’t go. Just can’t. Want to. Want to so bad my shoulders are shaking as i make the decision and my throat is hurting with all the tears i can’t quite get out. I come from somewhere else. This place. The country we used to call Clas Merdin - Merlins Enclosure, goddamit, to bring in the big speech - Albion. I can’t go the road of the Red Man, it’s simply not mine. My bones stay here.

It’s getting dark again, and the old man comes through the glimmer to hear what’s what. I tell him. He’s not happy or sad or anything, he just is. Final words; “keep talking to your bush-friends, and don’t expect your teachers to be human”. That night he sang the old songs in the lodge and i felt very foolish. I never saw him again.


I didn’t expect it to be nearly twenty years of labour before i would be prepared to talk about some of what transpired publicly. Hints of it are in the books - four years in a black tent, indeed continuing to talk to my “bush-friends”, and learning the elaborate courtship required to just attempt to carry stories in such a manner where this lively, heart-sore kind of elegant magic that the old man demonstrated could, just for a moment, appear in a way that felt authentic to someone from here.

Living in a circle, bent by weather, stewarding grief, apprehending the powers that still stalk the old fields and gullies of this gorgeous island, wearing my mistakes like a gaudy cloak, it’s exacting.

You probably remember: in the nineties everyone wanted to be a shaman, now they all want to be farmers. This is a very good trade in my opinion. Immeasurably more healthy, more real, visceral and properly more spiritual. I can’t stress enough the wisdom in losing our seduction to be the one wielding the rattle. (other than little babies of course, which is a scary analogy for the west).

Shaman is a word that has been ripe for hallucinatory levels of personal inflation, tyrannical behaviour, and a lot of nonsense. We try it on like a hat in a junk shop. At the same time there seems to be a little protein on the bone, areas of mystery left to the term that can prove useful in a strip-lit, sound bited world. They are kind of hard to pin down. Maybe with everyone now knee deep in kale and sacred grains we can have a slightly more useful conversation.

My own work has not entertained the paraphernalia of shamanism too much, but the shard that cut me so deep is this vitality and generosity of language. That thing that happened as we peered up to a story-starved thunder being and began to use the dusty old language of praise. That's the shard that will go with me into the ground.

Cautions: Stories that have this kind of currency come with a price-tag: they are not one-size fits all, they claim you not the other way round, and to speak them prematurely is rash to put it mildly. I’m still fifteen years into the courtship of some of them and have not yet uttered a word. So there’s a little apprehension about even shimming the word storyteller and shaman into the same many acred corral.

But in a time when many storytellers pride themselves at being “professional” or “performance” storytellers, it feels salient to remember the older arrangement that tellers used to have, and the skill (i.e. labour, time and discernment) required to steward such a position without recourse to too much hubris and premature flowerings. Swimming and drowning can look like the same thing from a distance.

So i’ll be teaching as much about Dylan Thomas and Lorca as i will be Black Elk. What’s at the centre of it is a lot of love, study, and a great lintel of language under which us and our kids and their kids may grow.

Ok, that’s the disclaimer.

WHEN WORDS WERE LIKE MAGIC: The Shaman and the Storyteller

Sat Feb 7th, Dartington Village Hall, Devon. £50 to book email:

From the bardic schools to contemporary Turkic storytellers, there has long been an understanding that speech elegantly crafted has the capacity to “drink down the moon”, and in doing so revives culture, steals fire from the gods. Language, with its capacity to bless or curse, is magical currency: words are alive.

The tradition of the storyteller has almost always faced in two-directions; to both the village and the forest. They are a hinge. This edge position has jostled up against such vocations as a hedge woman, cunning man or even the shaman. We will court the words and images such characters used, and see where they hide out in fairy tales and tribal stories. Why do this? to rub up once again to the warm flank of antlered language, to track the immense distance such energies have hoofed
to get to our flowered tongue.

Over a day, myth-teller and author Martin Shaw will use story, rumination, humour and that high art - conversation - to open up the power of words. Witnessing Inuit incantations to the brilliance of Dylan Thomas we will ask: if mythology is the heart of ecology, then how can we use story to bring an animistic universe right into the very centre of our times? Expect electrifying myth, troublesome ideas and a widened palette. Speech is how we taste our ancestors.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Wednesday, 19 November 2014