Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Wilderness Quest: July 14th - 22nd, Snowdonia, Wales.
is the link to information about the Wilderness Quest: The King and Queen Must Wed The Land. Please contact us today if interested. Places are very limited.

I have been heads down in the finishing of this new book - which keeps uncurling into new and shadowy areas - so forgive me for no entry last week. Here is a little piece from the commentary on the Brutus of Troy story - the commentary should not hold too much in the way of problems if the story is not familiar. The below comes from a general awareness of a changing and probably turbulent times ahead. From artistic and philosophic communities there is talk of 'otherness' 'liminality' 'fragmentation' - in mythic terms, Trickster talk. This is healthy. But Trickster is trying to get us to see re-see holy things; if there is no divine edge then Trickster is simply not present. So this is just a little on that - and really trying to re-emphasise the idea of certain myths as an echo location (see last entry) from the earth to us. If there isn't this earthy pulse in an idea then i suggest we leave it alone. The soul won't be convinced.

Where is the Altar in Altermodern?
It is clear, just like the story, that culturally we are in a period of huge but incredibly speedy transitions. Old Kings, old notions, old fixities are taking arrows to the heart on an almost hourly basis. The writer Nicolas Bourriaud claims the post-modernism is over, done. The corpse is stiff, waxy and congealed. This new emerging he calls the Altermodern.

The modern and post-modern attention to a primarily western fixated culture is at an end. There is no clear centre anymore, but an emerging polyglot. The velocity of exposure to endless varieties of society, opinion, texture, is cooking up an enormous creolisation, at the expense of multiculturalism and regional identity. For the emerging generation, culture is resolutely globalised, slow ground is no ground.

Bourriaud sees this new universalism as being based on subtitling and generalised dubbing. How could it be any other way when the heavy task of actually learning a new language, or being immersed long term in another culture is a ridiculous labour when compared to clunky, un-nuanced, sub-titled, un-informed, but an absolutely instant montage of image appearing on the glowing laptop screen? This is one aspect of the Protean Age I mentioned in the introduction. We are receivers of a vast backdrop of information, but identical to the vastness is thiness of relationship. And out of that vast panorama, roughly two inches deep, can only arise modern art.

Whilst the turning from a western fixated centre should be celebrated, celebration is halted when we realise the replacement is not rich diversity but globalization. This is the very opposite of a mythline- something found slowly by diligence, place, reaching out into history, myth and the wild thought of a landscape. This is more like the smoke streams from an aeroplane, briefly visible with but with long term affects.

The ‘Alter’ in ‘Altermodern’ refers to multiplicity, and also notions of otherness. What happens to otherness when everything is subsumed into the blinding light of the new creole? Will otherness become the new constant? It would appear so.

Of course, we can see Hermes, Coyote, and Loki scampering around in this new dis-located, un-Olympian, flattened out barrage of instantaneous connections, but how long will it keep their interest? – all three are in service to speed and a little chaos,but only when it serves more than profane. No matter how grubby their appearance, Trickster is pushing us back into encountering divine forces. But this thiness of knowledge, this denial of the local, where does this place Saturn and his candled study of long term goals? What of the loving construction and steady logic of Apollo and Athene, or of home loving Hestia? Have we forgotten the Altar in the alter? I worry that we bore the Gods.

Eras of time used to be seen within a kind of straightline history; but the Altermodern is no straightline, it is a maze. And a maze with no centre to locate, no flag to be embedded. Like (and I do stress ‘like’) Coyote, its life force is not really gathered in one place, like a heart, certainly not in Old Europe, and that is one of its positives. There is a starting from scratch at work. Realms are no longer stratified and boundaried, but gateway riddled plateus. We have information but do we have meaning?

We would do well to remember: Coyote requires settled areas for his wider travels to take on real significance, he needs something to run up against. He enjoys some sovereign heft. If everyone travels, then we encourage a form of his demise. Occasionally Trickster establishes as well as transgresses boundaries. But if the boundaries no longer exist at all, then where is Trickster?

The issue is that the Gods are a complicato. Hermes is at his best when relating to other forces; fierce Hera, Aphrodite, Zeus’s kingly gaze. The rough and tumble of their shared intrigues create culture, they are not to be separated. Globalisation is monotheism. Hermes within this format is not Hermes at all, but a mimic. Bernard Neville talks of ‘Hermes inflation’, as a psychological, not mythological, alignment with the western ego.

An attempt to reorient could be to remember the specific form of Hermes communication – to communicate the gods messages by psychic means –from soul to soul. So if the soul does not open, then Hermes is not present. If there are no other god's to send messages back and forth to, then Hermes is not present. Remove the flowers and the bee is taskless.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2011

Friday, 17 February 2012

Hot from the Stove

More fresh words this week. This comes from the book i am just finishing, and should be self- explanatory. It is taken from a wider section on the notion of associative mythology, a term from Daniel Deardorff, that seems to point towards this kind of thinking. I will place a larger section on the website in the next few days. More soon, just out the door clutching a mug of italian coffee, and with news of a great magazine about to be launched......

From the Comparative to the Associative

Myth in the way i am thinking about it is a form of echo location coming from the earth itself.

In the animal world, when a wild call collides with another being, it sends a subtle echo back to the caller, giving even an almost blind creature a sense of what is in their surrounding field. I think the earth has always done something similar.

It transmits certain pulses, certain coded information, certain images, dreams, and thoughts, and then sits back, like the toothed whale, or the shrew, or the megachiropteran bat, or the owl, to see what echo’s return from its messaging. Occasionally a hunter, or a wandering ecstatic, or a woman alone in garden at dusk will experience one of these sonorous emerging’s. These pulses tell us something about how to live.

Tribal cultures have been far more advanced at honouring this messaging, and gradually crafting art around it till it becomes a two-ways-looking form of mytho-natural beauty that creates deep relationship between humans and the animals, minerals, rowans and willows. This mystical morse code is the true underlying pattern of any myth deserving of the name. It is the sound of the earth and its inhabitants, thinking about itself.

When the call hits the red tailed hawk, wandering magus or whatever is tuned to receive it, it sends an echo back to the source of the messaging; it confirms relationship, and in some way edifies that source. These pulses can get picked up when fasting on the mountain top, in the temple during a silent retreat, whilst grieving for an old love by a deep lake. It is very mysterious, and requires a certain aliveness to pick it up. It’s not fashionable to admit it, but the kind of rapid multi-tasking that modernity celebrates is a direct hindrance to receiving it. Any healthy culture has celebrated and expressed these transmissions with rituals, storytelling, slow emerging mythologies, crafty art.

When this form of echo location is lost, we fall out of myth. We fall out of relationship. We start to get an atrophy of image, thinned out allegories that are a fallen, Barthian, attempt to promote and control ideas of the state. The hallucination of empire emerges.

The subtle ears that receive the earth’s pulse keep it lively, add some of their own animal-flavour to the transmission, allow a constant re-visioning to take place. By their spontaneity, Oral telling’s especially, cannot help but assist that constant re-seeing of an eternal image. In doing so, it doesn’t become religion, it doesn’t try unduly hard to anchor its deepest meanings in historical time and space. There is great hope in this.

So to follow a wild mythology involves a lot of listening, a stilling, to get connected to this ancient form of calling. It is a love story really. Some old lover is gently trying to call us home. When confronted with panicked ideas about ecological ‘narratives for now’ – I suggest that this awareness is paramount. We need bush soul.

(the book continues with a review of three modern thinkers ideas about what a myth is - here is one from my old sparring partner Roland Barthes)

The meaning of the myth has its own value, it belongs to a history, that of the Lion or that of the Negro (examples of objects): in the meaning, a signification is already built, and could well be self-sufficient if myth did not take hold of it and did not turn it suddenly into an empty, parasitical form. The meaning is already complete, it postulates a kind of knowledge, a past, a memory, a comparative order of facts, ideas, decisions. When it becomes form, the meaning leaves its contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished, history evaporates, only the letter remains.
(Barthes 1957 :117)

Barthes is clearly not sentimental, and rather than relegating myth to ancient history, views it as alive and well, suggesting manipulation and vivid damage when its influence is detected. Rather than myth as an expression of insights into consciousness, he places it in the centre of modernity, of advertising. Myth takes the personal meaning of an object and places its signification over it, almost as a form of possession. He views the moment when myth claims an image as the movement from ‘meaning’ to ‘form’ - it has become something else, and he implies a terrific loss in this.

So that's a long way from my own thinking, and for me speaks to the absence of myth in a culture, not its presence.

I would like to give a different image
Myth as Eco-System:
Within the valley of story exists clusters of oak trees, thin but lively streams, brightly splashed jungle birds. It is a mythography - meaning that the story cannot be apprehended entirely from one angle - if you only speak of the oak, then what about those birds? What is all that divine sounding about? To get nearer to this charged polyphony you need to get dreamt by the place, by the story. You need blistered feet, cooled by the mud of the waterhole, eyes reddened by an all night vigil in the ancestor burial chambers, mouth full of language wrought sweet by the pear wrestled from the trees low boughs of emerald leaf. You need to get into it.

In this time of climatic movement, of being close to receiving the terrible legacy of empire thinking, then old ways of approaching myth, entirely human-centered ways of approaching myth, just don’t cut it. We need to forget old and get ancient. If we approach myth in this old way, then in some way we confirm the idiocy of consumption. We still keep the forest out.

We are moving from the comparative to the associative. From doggedly and exclusively comparing one myth to another, and expanding into a much wider framework - poetry, biology, theatre, animal-lore, anecdote, the arts, ritual. Holistic is paramount, and the swiftness of its associations bring a kind of linguistic or oral wildness into the frame. From the point of view of a working storyteller, this is something that arises naturally when working with a group of students on their own reactions to a story. They all enter a different points with a collision of angles but are all held tight within the muscle of the wider story. Associative mythology in this sense allows polyphony as well as harmony. That is very important. It is a container for paradox.

A paradox is something that appears self-contradictory, a thing that at some time, or from some point of view, appears to be what it is not…our ability to accept this ambiguity is also fundamental to our recognition and signification of change.
(Napier 1986 :1)

It is a tricky discipline because it is not a labour of assurance or platitudes, it places story as primary, as being, rather than relegated entirely to allegory or illustration. It trails rather than traps. We live, whether we like it or not, in an environment of
overstimulation and odd amalgamations of influences coming together.

This IS the era of the Bricoleur. The one that grabs something from here, something from there, and crafts something new from it. But as we have experienced, much of what we experience has little nourishment in it, little soul. We have the commons of the imagination but not always the slow ground this book has pursued to give it grounding.

Associative mythology honours the intensity of these times - not a Zeus time, a Goddess time, but a Trickster moment, by also making rapid openings between disciplines. In this it also relates to the ghazal form in Islamic poetry. It is an attempt to find the God behind the mood – to re-find the sacred to the spirit of this era. And the one that carries messages at lightning quick speed? Well, that’s the god of the storytellers, the trickster Hermes. When something is brilliant, nourishing, full of colour, then Hermes is present. Far from a tranced out, consensual Barthian harmony of impressionable masses, we entertain polyphonic, awake, contrary image, but all held firm within the wider arch of the story. A place like this has room for the crafty intelligence of the Wren, or a hot eyed old woman who knows she can flip into the gingery coat of a fox anytime she wants.

For those seeking an opiated society then this all makes life a great deal more complicated. The difference is a relishing of that complexity. Associative mythology recognizes that certain complications inflame a latent imagination – the Gloria Duplex of the Renaissance.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Friday, 10 February 2012



Another walking of the story entry: Very fresh, a little tangled. It's from a version of the Grey Wethers story. The important detail for below is that it involves a desperate man, Lynhur, attempting to wrestle for personal wealth an old ritual that is really designed for worship of a sun deity, Belus. It's about hearing an instruction badly.

Walking the Story: Third Time Lucky
I’m leaving early. Nestling a cup of good coffee I scrawl the destination of my walking and its likely route on a note and leave it on the large wooden table. The car is an ice-shell, an Inuit’s bad dream, a dragon of frosting.

We tilt northwards, with huzzahs! and a firm whip hand, up into the solid wave of blue sky and frozen green hills beneath. My breath steams onto the window as Ken Bruce witters quietly from the radio. Gears feel thrashed, muddied spurts of earth cake the doors, every piece of plastic on it is hanging dainty from its righteous position. Good. I’m just starting to get comfortable with this motor.

It’s third time lucky for this story walking. First time, some time back, I got within site of the remote rings but got called away due to a sudden darkening of the sky – night fell quick with a forest to negotiate. Second time I got turned around by jagged weather, so this bright day I am grimly determined.

Without a map I descend into the plethora of muddied lanes and dirt tracks between the Postbridge road and the descent into Chagford. There is hay bound in black lining like huge sticks of liquorice. Somewhere on route I am looking for signs left for Fernworthy reservoir, and the pine woods that surround it. It is through them that I will eventually get to the open moor and the circles. Today, all signs seem to suddenly stop, and I am almost on the descent into Chagford before I realise that something must be up. This can’t be right.

I’m hot and irritated. Why is it so hot? I have been up and down this steep road more than once, assuming I would get spoon fed by signs showing the route to the forest. As this sits angrily in my sizzle-brain, a large hawk bursts from the low cover in front of me. It is to my left, and sweeps across my path, only several feet ahead, initially at shoulder height. Epic wing span, mottled with dashes of exposed white, fierce mouth; that’s about all I can take in. I could have reached out and touched it. And lost a finger.

It is a great, thrumming blast of feather and clarity; cutting utterly through my pouty mood. Wing span clears five foot, easy. It’s not a buzzard – I know the colourings of the common and rarely seen rough legged buzzard, even have a fair idea of the even more obscure honey buzzard. This is something else again. (The buzzards have grown more visible on the moors since a lessening of game keeping aggression, large ‘wakes’ of them being reported, the largest with over forty four birds gathered)

Hawk hefts itself upwards, catches a current, and forces my head far right. In the distance I can see the formal shape and ‘cut out’ pattern of a conifer forest, past more lanes, dips and old growth copses. Thank you. Hawk, friend to Hera, Isis, Circe, clawed instructor of patience but companion to lovers – King Lover Gawain means ‘Gwalchmei’ – Hawk of May. Its vigour makes me done with my whines.

The Anxious Forest
I get into some focused walking, almost a slow jog, to cut through the time spent on tarmac. All Devon lanes are crooked and seem to lead you round on yourself before you get anywhere near your destination. Rather like a Devon conversation. When I finally enter the forest at its sweetest spot, I see that the dry stone walling at its entrance is almost entirely covered – the old stones appear like mossy loaves of bread, or the curls of a green sea. There is a briny scent, up from the coast, that only leaves when I move further into the shadowed forest, and the unmistakable aroma of pine seems to rise out of the very ground. At the centre of the dirt track is a wide ice ridge, although most of the ground is without snow. I can’t help but enjoy jumping from puddle to puddle, breaking the iced top. There seems to be no one about.

Tracking the ice ridge I slip, scamper, and steady myself on this white arrow of intention leading, some miles ahead, to the Grey Wethers stones. Was Lynhur so enthused on his walk to the stones – was it a glory swagger he carried with him? Had his winter starvation’s burnt all caution from his whip-thin frame? Today my companions are invisible, but they stomp alongside – the peat diggers, the solar worshippers, the transgressor of the sacred. I am many.

These pine trees, planted out of necessity for wood in the first war, carry war-paint – dashes of white horizontal against the steep trunks and endless shades of black. They seem poised for the chainsaw, to suffer without complaint. Occasionally, in the soldiering lines of timber, a strong gold light warms small areas of earth. It is strange to think that these non-native forests were planted out of a sense of anxiety. Maybe it can be sensed, I see no animal tracks but the occasional horse and sheep scat as I get nearer the moor.

These trees are voracious wanderers. Read the statistics: from the Canary Islands to the far East of Russia they are found, from Africa to Scotland, from New Zealand to Chile. They have become a tree of empire, of building, they have a knack of wiping out the local. Like most invaders they are tall. Tall and long living – some going for as long as a thousand years. A god stands behind them, the immortal Prometheus, the stealer of fire from Zeus. Well, like their inspirational deity they too have spread like a wild fire. A pine found in California was a true ancient, and aged at almost five thousand years old, and was named after the God who’s liver is eaten daily by an eagle and regenerated every divine night. The woods feel efficient certainly, but lonely. They absolutely do not hold the panache of an old growth stretch of oak and ash.

I come to an earlier stone circle. twenty seven small stones, roughly twenty metres or thirty strides in diameter, probably four thousand years old. When first discovered the inside face of the stones were black with charcoal – from ritual: funeral or feasting. Hair, teeth, flickering flame, lurching figures, raised incantation, tears, offering. As I make my way towards them I can see sunlight glittering; taking my attention to something placed by one of the entry stones to the circle. There is a bundle - letter, photograph, map – curled now through weather, but clearly a message to a lost and young friend. The photo is taken at what seems to be a rock festival, a group of young men, handsome wide open faces, lean together in camaraderie. It’s clear one hasn’t made it.

There are water logged and now ice stiffened pieces of cloth here and there, purple and red. And then more - witching gear, fifth fath. A bound rough figure in lightning struck wood, placed on the top of a stone. I leave the wood, the letters, the map, all of it, well alone. The very publicness of the offerings seems a little clumsy. This strange charcoaled circle, so far from anywhere, is clearly in use, in some form. Maybe not with the elegance and precision of original design, but there is something here that drags the bereft, the mystically ambitious, the straight out curious, to its humours.

Bone Pile
The track rises, passes a crossroads, more air, more blue sky. Like all these walks I relish the sheer aloness. I can see for miles and there really isn’t a soul. Some part of me uncurls into that space as I start thinking about having turned forty some months ago, of my father’s illness, or my life now. As these unwieldy but not unpleasant thoughts crash about I re-focus my attention to the present. I gaze around.

Stacked up, probably a dozen on either side of me, maybe fifteen foot high, are stacks of bones. Bone Hills. I blink, and look again. It’s not bone, but erratically assembled piles of bleached wood. They look like Mongolian shrines; I await the yip of the swift ponied Asian rider. Where is the dark Altai cry? Each skulled hump looks like it deserves orchids, bowls of frothing beer, silks tied to branch, rough slabs of jungled chocolate, quiet attention, goat meat for the circling hawk. Each one looks like a little death, some small ending that has occurred during my life. All the grieved and un-grieved moments I have dragged my still limping frame through. It’s a kind of review of all sorts of passages I simply have not recently allowed myself time to feel. Really, it’s a very strange moment.

And oddly, it’s ok. In this sudden graveyard I can map my own travels, places I have lived, erratic betrayals, crooked loves, emphatic healings, street brawls, lonely Sundays counting the hard cards of grief. In the smaller piles I see many little routes I have not taken; friendships cut short, choked at the hilt, strangled, mashed and bruised with bill hook flails. There are kindling piles of hubris and simple stubborness. We can’t follow every trail. We are not meant to hear every voice that speaks to us. So it is. Things pass back into the composting earth. I feel a strange pleasure that there is something to show for these few decades. There is a story. The brightness makes it all visible, concealment no kind of option. I have preferred moonlit nuance on the piles before now. The wind is up, and freezing, I keep going. Apart from that insistent wind, it is deeply quiet.

I linger awhile on the edge of the forest, and note a reluctance to come out from its shades into open moor. My lunar, forest, silvery stream nature is developed, instinctive, but this appointment in the palace of the Sun God is making me nervous. I’ve avoided it many, many times.

The Courtly Stones
I finally cut out from the forest entirely and head across open moorland, keeping in the tree-lines shade. Although cold, the sun is fiercely beating, too much for my pale wintered face. The grasses are stumpy bolts, blown into extreme clusters, meaning a constant meandering, no straight line kind of way across broken down walls, more moorland, over small, semi-frozen streams until finally the stones.

There are two circles. I count twenty stones in the northern circle, the southern has twenty nine. This second circle seems far more substantial, large, strangely shaped chunks of rock. Someone has placed a black stone, glittering with crystal, in a worn spot where a stone must have once been. Somewhere in Birmingham, an occultist feels pleased with themselves. Between the two courts of stone is a gap, a grassy runway, heading way off into open moor. The sky is criss-crossed with plane fumes. Again, my attention is drawn to the unusual late winter heat. Then it hits me. Belus! This is his place. No wonder the rocks bake on a February day in a sub-zero wind.

And how did I get here? Not ordinance survey map, not compass or grinning local, but by the sweeping grandeur of a Hawk. A Hawk- messenger of the Sun Gods. Friend to bright Apollo, head of Ra, feathered loyalty to Armenti, the Great Mother. Friend to Belus. The Celts said truly that a Hawks feathers carries sunlight with them. The Hawk is more than a familiar of choice for Merlin, but actually the power he would skin-crawl into it. Dear Hawk, bold pathmaker where there is no clear path, what the Seanchai storytellers fiercely name as the oldest animal of the Celts. Fly above me, fly above me, always.

Here, like the other circle, is signs of ritual use. This rather more charged. There is the remains of a flesh offering, just a scrap left, and some bloodied icicles, hanging off a particular distinguished stone.

This place was here during the battle of Hastings, the witch hunts, the Tudors, the Great War. It sat steady through the reformation, Cromwell, 9/11. Businesses go bust, empires go haywire, proud people make love, have families, dream, fight, die. Endless thousands of dramas played out. And still the circle, the wind, the great empty hold their eternal council. It is a constant scene. There is no stagnation here, only permanence. I’ve never been in such a place that seemed so entirely to itself, almost its own ecosystem, it’s own consciousness. These stones seem vast and elemental, the current ceremonial detritus I have witnessed scratchy and without consequence. But they bring some ghost memory from our guts, the real excavation is not of them but something inside of us. It is like arriving at an extraordinary theatre set without a description of the play, the actors gone for lunch, but a fierce longing to see it. It is as if older eyes watch from the tree-line, seeing us puzzle over the jigsaw. It is not a strange thing that we bring our brokeness here, our fragmented imaginations; we have to have something to lean on.

On this day I am not confronted with the drama of the Lynhur story but something of my own. The times I have shied from light, averse to clarity. My own scepticism of bright things, of success. The bone-piles I carry with me. That it is alright to follow a birds grand flight rather than a badger’s earthy snuffle sometimes. The blessings I have squandered into a slow drip poison.

Alone, in the vast, baking and windswept wintering moor, I pray to the one I hold dear, the Friend, and try to make good. I accept, and step into certain long denied energies. When, hours later, I emerge from where I began this walk, my face is salty, scorched by the sun.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Tuesday, 7 February 2012


PARZIVAL....ahh, it's getting to the time of year again. Please ring bells, waft smoke signals, uncork the brandy for this mightiest of stories..and told over the Easter weekend no less! (Auspicious for the story). Kudos for the design and swift delivery of this poster by the talented Ian Forster over at www. graphic I will throw in some sweet tasters of this story as we get closer.

Something on the Greenwood spirit this week -as cover while i continue to climb the crags and wander the wintering dells of the moor 'walking the stories'. This is another section from a commentary on a very obscure Berry Pomeroy tale. I do like the below notion of 'leaf bowed morality' -that the outlaw spirit of Robin Hood is not opposed to the order of the village but actually offers a higher mirror of the inner-behaviour of real chivalry - something so rarely practiced by the Sheriffs and Feudal Lords.

I had a wonderful time at the weekend at the Wood Sisters great storytelling festival, and the 'Tasting the Milk of Eagles' myth weekend - i feel mildly ablaze with story this week, despite the chilly turn.

Wandering the Haunted Forest
Many of us reading this will remember another walk through a lonely forest to a grandmothers: Red Riding Hood. We know from the trembling excitements of our childhood that the forest is a-teeming with rapacious wildness – both in supernatural form and slathering animal guise. It is resolutely not the cheery market square of collective certainties. It is oppressive, ghoulish, otherly. The verdant trails between settlements were scenes of both robbery and epiphany, empty saddlebags or occult revelation, depending on your motivation for travel. For the aspiring druid or magician it was a testing ground for growth and spiritual expertise, but to the working farmer or weaver, it represented a place beyond the edge of reason, unruly and brooding.

Red Riding Hood’s encounter with wolves could have been very real. The Saxon King Edgar, Anno 959, used to receive a yearly payment in wolf-skins from Welsh hunters, from the ‘Walds’ themselves – woods that harboured wolves and foxes. The term ‘forest’ was originally a juridical phrase; a designated area outside the castle walls, most likely meaning “outside”, from the Latin foris. This also clarified a difference between walled but spacious royal gardens that were on occasion referred to as silva, meaning wood. To a working class Englishmen, the forests were off limits on pain of all sorts of nastiness.

These noble glades and thickets teemed with coney, pheasant, partridge, grouse, hind, hart, buck, doe and fox. They were both in a state of preservation and pursuit: the peasants were kept out and so the woodland creatures enjoyed primacy until the nobles took the saddle and went mad for roving the emerald glades. It was a kind of early conservation act, Robert Pogue Harrison (Harrison 1992 :70) arguing that these very enclosures could have prolonged the life of extended woodland in an ever more industrial Europe. In this light, William the Conqueror is a kind of rough ecologist. In this way not every wood was a forest – it needed this royal designation, but almost every forest had woods within it. The writer John Manwood, who, in the Elizabethan era was a gamekeeper of Waltham forest, gathered and laid out this system of wilderness preservation in what he called ‘The Forest Law’.

It is no secret that Manwood hankered after an earlier era, when the law was kept with a dread fist for poachers. By his time, the great royal forests were degrading into hiding places and leafy refuge for all variants of wolfs-head and bandits. In Manwood’s Arcadian reverie, we are back in the time of the Saltus sacrosanctus, the sacrosanct wood. Any den of near-do-wells would be viscously plucked from the hide outs. To become an outlaw – a ‘wolfs head’ (the price of your head was equivalent to that of a wolf) – was to be civiliter mortuus, or civilly dead.

It was a banishment that could only be undone by suing for pardon from whoever condemned you in the first place. This would prove difficult if your only hope of survival was staying un-caught and out of sight. And the best place for that was the greenwood.

What critics of the royal hunting privilege refused to accept, is that an essential part of the kings personhood belonged to the forest. The wilderness beyond the walls of his court belonged every bit to his nature as the civilised world within those same walls…the hunt ritualises and reaffirms the king’s ancient nature as civilizer and conqueror of the land…as sovereign of the land, the king overcomes the wilderness because he is the wildest of all by nature. (Harrison 1992 :74)

So Harrison implies that the king must be aligned to and leader of all wildness, and so these royal swathes of green wood were ritual quadrants of the ancient, magical hunt. The hunt was a nod back to a time before delicate tea cups, four poster beds and foreign policy, it was to fill the kings head with hot blood, that he was a kind of king of the animals. Without this leafy machismo the worry would be that he was an effete man entirely of court, and that the land underneath his feet was actually out of his control. So these vigorous charges into the green pursuing the stag were a remnant of a pagan cosmology. And it is not to presume that it was just an empty gesture to archaic concerns; a poem from the Peterborough Chronicle reports the William the Conqueror “loved the stags as much/as if he were their father”.

William certainly kept such paternal instincts entirely within the forests his reign imposed, slaughtering, decimating and terrifying the English inhabitants of his new country for decades to come. It is an irony that the very forests he established became rugged homes for on-the-run nobles – becoming furious guerrilla bandits that would set the scene for the likes of real life outlaws Fulk Fritzwarin and Eustace the Monk, and the move over several centuries into the folk-mind of local story, with Gamelyn and Robin Hood. The association between woods and a certain rebel English spirit was established for good.

Leaf Bowed Morality
This sense of injustice creates an interesting dynamic in the rebel spirit, that it somehow represents the true conscience of the English, that not corrupted by wealth and greed. So, true nobility takes a dwelling place in the margins rather than the centre. In this light, the forest represents not the opposite of the steady village, but actually a higher mirror: of right doing, justice, fairness and equality. Whilst this has rarely been demonstrated by a flesh and blood wildwood bandit, it none the less stays central in the dream-consciousness of English folklore, a central tenet. In a dangerous kind of way it can be trusted. It may be that the older ‘Walds’ were more oppositional, a Dionesian uproar, darkly unruly.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Thursday, 2 February 2012


A long excerpt this week, so i will be brief. Hope to see you on saturday night at the Winter Storytelling festival. Mines a pint of Guinness and i'll trade you a drop of Lagavulin. I am deep into my book of Dartmoor myth-lines, and i thought i'd drop in this 'walking of the story' that i am doing - traveling the geography, psychic and literal, of the tale. The story itself involves Raven, a gully and an ancient and edgy group of underground Dartmoor entities called Knockers. That's all i'm saying for now.

Walking the Story
On a day of mist and below freezing temperature, the land seems defiantly un-scored by agriculture. This rain ruins the fields, turns the hedge to vertical slurry, tips the thresher into the mire, pushes cows flat to the lichen covered boulders, piss wet and numbed. The big handed sons of bailing twine, the farmers, are washed clean away, sloshed across the bruise-flecked downs. The land grapples with the forthright energies required to give us spring some time later. Wet branches hold such ideas fast.

In the distance, the north moor. There is a Nordic band of light – clear, gold, framing maybe twenty miles of near treeless land on the very horizon line. Underneath are the more familiar Prussian blues and endlessly varying heathers. It is almost like a Rothko painting still drying, with linseed sluiced through it – wonky horizontal gold, blue, green strips – every colour utterly translucent with moisture. After a time i arrive at that distance.

Snow. Wet flanks of it, half covering the crumbling stone walls of the high moor, making these domestic field arrangements appear like Aztec glyphs, concealing some great and burdened secret. Sky is iron, utterly.

Gazing out from the ice ridged tarmac that separates the north and south moor, my eye struggles to truly recognise the landscape. Certain curls of granite are simply missing, or walkabouts. This new seeing is quite a development, especially considering I had deliberately neglected to bring a map.

The absence of map is not haste or a deliberate foolishness, but a desire to walk these stories in the old way, to hold in mind rather than language or grid, the root to and from my destination. Like the oral mythteller’s handling of a story entirely through memory, I intend to do the same in the walking line. For some stories this is easy, for others, less so. When I had started up from the southern ridge of the moor all was green – cold – but green.

Within minutes there is a pronounced dip, the first of many. What appears a flat, easily negotiable landscape from the road is nothing of the sort. It is layered, mystically sliced up with sudden descents and bogs. What has seemed a straight forward walk to the gorge and back is now a very different scene: with the winter covering I’m lost as to where to go.

Almost as I am having that thought I notice fresh deer tracks on the crisp snow in front of me. Looks like a doe roe deer, possibly fallow. The cloven hoofed print is delicate – the two sides of the hoof curve inwards like two sides of an arrow head. Were they branching out I could have continued a brief fantasy that it was wild boar returning to the high moor. There are rumours, but not today. There are pellet droppings – dry – and as I impulsively decide to follow the tracks I start to pass trees with frayed bark here and there, a sign of trees used by stags to rub the velvet off their growing antlers. It’s a couple of months after rutting season but it still makes me glance quickly about.

The prints shove my thinking out from my numbed icy skull. I see my old tent, wood burner blazing with dry ash, the floor three skins deep with red deer, goat, rabbit and sheep. I remember years of living in a circle. It was following tracks like these that got me into all that trouble in the first place. I can hear hail on canvas like a hymn of god, and see dusks when the new darkness bristled with the return of the roe just feet from my thick felted door flap.

Or are these hooves another magic? When I travel with my crane-skin bag of stories across America, I hear Natives tell of a Deer Woman – sometimes deer, sometimes maiden or brown eyed crone –always hoofed. She belongs to those charged tribe of feminine animal powers – the Xana from Spain, the Lara from Brazil, La Llorona from Mexico, even the Naag Kanyas – the serpent women of India. She loves to dance, arrives at times of transformation, but will not hesitate to kick with those hooves if you look a little stuck. Today she feels jaunty, and I follow.

So now I’m clearly off map-time. If I’m going to find this gully I’ll find it with a mixture of instinct and animal trails. In this weather that gully must provide good shelter. The tender prints meander but slowly lead to a fast flowing stream. Next to the stream are the remains of an old cottage and some recent tangerine peel left on a wall. Tracks start to converge here, and it’s clear the action was happening around dawn, just after the snowfall. There’s plenty of wintered bracken and brambles to munch on, as well as couple of seedling trees which must have seemed like high feasting in this iron-cold month.

Raven sweeps overhead. Silent, ebony against the freezing grey. In a second I trade trails. It heads northwards, over the other roe tracks and far beyond, just disappearing at a slight dip in the granite tumped horizon line. Seeing raven is a big lift. I am now stomping through thick, dead bracken with a crusting of snow and ice on top, facing a long incline. My breathing is shallower, but I feel a charge seeing those casual black wings marking tracks in the bone-cold air. The wind gets up. That low, elemental moan. My ears are red and Levis soaked to the knee.

Raven carries the Nigredo black of the alchemist on its wings, beak, body. It is like some charcoal stain on the optimists blue horizon. Fifty thousand years of gobbling scat and flesh, a constant at the battlefield, make it a companion to putrefaction. Black is strong medicine, even when denied that it is a colour at all. It is the robe of choice for any decent occultist, the black of night is the cover for illicit liaison, to be ‘in the dark’ is to be wandering, confused, un-settled, it is a soil that produces the fragrant oriental lilly, it is a hint of what could await at the moment of death. Raven is a spiritus rector, a guardian deity.

At the same time, archaeology tells us that black is the place to go. It’s long been known in England that any place name with the word black in it – Black Meadow, Black Woods, Blackingstone Rocks – is a place of worth of digging. The reason? The darker coloured soil will indicate an old settlement – generations of fire ash, food remains, and general use. To a certain eye black means to dig deeper. To a certain eye it offers reward.

There is that mingle of slight panic mixed with excitement as I do nothing but follow the bird. My logic is berating me every step, assuring me that the gully is several miles to the west, that I even started the walk in the wrong place. I’m no longer tucked in by field walls but right out in the wide flank of the rise now, directly in the impact of the wind. I catch my breath and glance back . I can see roughly five miles in each direction. The thrill of seeing not one human being - no sudden red of waterproofs and the glint of a compass - is a deep one. I can see pines clustering on my far left like a dark army and acres of pistol-hard ground to my right. There is the sudden sense of behind these hills are other hills and behind those are moor and mountain, all empty of human snare and ambition.

Raven takes me a long way. Further than my body wants. I miss the delicacy of that roe track and the stream bank. My Northface jacket is stuck with sweat to my shirt and unzipped, I’m taking handful’s of snow and letting them melt in my mouth as I climb. Following this air trail is spinning me out.

I look down, to gather, to ground. A third trail: hoof prints of the Dartmoor pony, fresh scat too. It seems that there is almost a tangible warmth to them, that snow has actually melted around the shape. They and raven’s trail are now aligned. I climb the last section of hill and turn again. I’ve come some distance.

There have been bones of these wild little ponies found up here dating back to around 3500 BC: immeasurably tough, kind hearted beasts. Small head, large, wide eyes, full mane, with the foreleg rising to the shoulder. They have carried hard yards of tin across moorland, descended as pit ponies into water, darkness, and scraped ribs, escorted prisoners with guards to Dartmoor Prison. This is their place. No wonder the snow melts with tenderness when it feels those resolute hoofs bless the white flakes.

I find a small gully, is that it? But no, the sides are far to brief. I don’t even bother descending, and fighting some disappointment continue along the ridge a little further. I sense rather than see, a drop off to my right and wade through a final section of frosty long grass.

There it is.

Raven did its thing. I look down the steep and long gully, longer than I expected, but, as the locals recount, a savage gash in the ridge, and very hidden until you are almost on top of it. The few photos I have seen tend to be of its entrance, but I have come at it from the side. The sky is threatening another flurry, a few flakes drift down past my nose. I look around at possible routes downwards, at this point I am above it.

It may have been exhaustion, or exhilaration at suddenly finding it, or some other thing, but I find myself simply swinging onto a canopy of brambles and clusters of bracken that feather the drop on my side, and freefalling down the frozen foliage. I’m simply too tired to negotiate a more sensible way down. Feeling like a slightly wayward sleigh ride, I hurtle down the brambled cape, and enjoy the discreet padding of the snow till I land, crumpled and exuberant at the bottom. I have entered another world.

I have rarely felt such an impacted shift in consciousness. I did not expect it. I feel like Gawain entering the valley of the Green Knight’s chapel. The wind has utterly ceased. The death-moan that has accompanied me the whole walk is just memory. Even the quality of the air feels different. Utterly quiet. Holy. There is no aggressive squawking and conks, no sense of malevolence. The steep banks, the handsome granite outcrops, the icicles hanging in row after celestial row, the leisured silence, the firm bounce in the ground underneath the flakes.

Having followed such a gut-low-instinctive path to get here, I feel like I have walked through the back of the wardrobe. I start to pray, steam leaving trails in the air, and place offerings appropriate to a raven in the snows crust. After longer than I expect, I pick my way through the gully, feeling a sweetness of spirit I could not have predicted. I need goat hooves for the breaks in surface under the snows crust, but I love the experience. I feel light, like a kid.

About half way down the gully I come to a triangular shaped opening, near the ground, opening right into the maw of a side wall of granite. Suddenly all is vivid green, ferns and ivy literally crown the entrance, melting snows causing silvery droplets. There is no end to the opening, it twists and disappears, way beyond the reach of my arm. It feels gorgeously un-human, lively, charged. I know I have seen it before, but I don’t know how. Here it seems more even more silent.

What irritated the Knockers seems gone, maybe they have returned to their shape as Fey, Benji, Gentry. This place is so un-trammelled there is a reluctance to describe it much further, or to leave too precise instructions on how to find it. I move on with few words, but more pockets emptied.

The pony trail leads me back to the roe deer trail. I feel cleaned out somehow. I yelp, and even run awhile, intoxicated by the sheer space and aloness. Soaked, hot, and at peace, I climb the original incline from the beginning of the walk. From behind, right over my shoulder, sweeps raven, then down into some low-slung bush. From the corner of my eye, I see two fly out and away.

When I finally make it home I sleep for hours. But even now, as I write this, it is utterly vivid, this time with the Ravens gully. ‘Dropping the map’ I realise is the same way I tell stories – holding the bones, but letting the trails of words, or roe-deer, or raven, leads us an earthier way, so we always arrive in some way we hadn’t quite been before. Maybe the gully is like some Tibetan deity – you go for plunder you meet trouble, you go with reverence you meet blessing. I can’t be sure.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012