Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Parzival Weekend - final places available now

Brueghel's Dog (oil on canvas, 2006)

Great blasts of sunshine down here in Devon. Air still chilled, but radiant skies - a thrilling spring, and it's still only March. Not that i have seen that much of it, having been painting the front room for the last 6 days. Starts quick, and then just gets slower and slower. Still, good to get out on Monday afternoon to Schumacher college and enjoy a few hours talking with students - see you at PARZIVAL, a week friday! Something from the new book this week - it will be tucked right back in the epilogue. The lead up to this segment is looking at logos and mythos, village and forest - ideas we have explored here before, so i won't repeat them, rather just drop us straight in.

# We have updated the COURSES page on the website, which now contains more details on individual weekends, and several hrs of radio interviews, youtube clip and book reviews. So please check it out - also news on July's wilderness fast in Snowdonia - and please spread the word. Dates for year course coming soon.

Polyphony and Homophony
In his essay ‘Singing with the Frogs’, Robert Bringhurst lays out some ideas around these two areas. Polyphony is music that is insistent on multiplicity; of several differing patterns, vocal structures, arrangements. One is not seen as superior to another, but they relate in the cave of the listeners ear, it is there they find their uneasy den. Homophony is a far more relatable experience: there is a clear melody, and a supportive progressions of sounds and ideas that lead us, sometimes predictably, to their conclusion.

In our day to day life, we are surrounded by polyphony – whether wandering that backwoods of Wales and experiencing bird song, river singing and the occasional chainsaw, or traversing Piccadilly Circus with hoots of taxis, bursts of radio, and snippets of language. The difference is that we rarely rate it as a form of art. It’s just something we put up with.

The genuinely shamanistic route of polyphony, to tripwire the senses till the spirit lurches from the body into the consciousness of sparrow or cobra, is not widely commented on. Dancefloor’s from Land’s End to Grimsby are empty of its disorientating charms.

As a storyteller, you are aware that the story you may seemingly tell the same way hundreds of times seems to have a distinct mood of its own, a wild horse breaking out of the coral of scripted intention. When you reflect back on this snorting menagerie of tellings, it is impossible to place one mono-theme over the many. They are a scruffy, magical happening, which seem to be unfolding all at once in the tellers mind. It’s not tidy.

Roy Franklin Barton, the anthropologist, witnessed something that relates directly to this. Whilst staying with the Ifugao, he saw 16 priests telling over forty myths – all at once. There was no spotlight on a lone reciter, no raised platform supported by music, but this collection of priests incanting like the humming of bees in front of an appreciative audience of woman and children; who were letting this seeming collision of words and images land where they might in their eager ears.

Who knows who heard what, who caught what. In the Seneca story, ‘The Listener’, the main character warns his men that there are some voices it is not appropriate to listen to. That each of us are tuned to certain frequencies, certain sonic panoramas, and to open to that which is not meant for us will lead to misfortune. So what to you or I, or Barton, or Bringhurst, could be a muddle of sound and gesture, to the life-long attendee may not be the case: they could be selectively drawing from it a distinct line of story, some understood progression. Even in the west we have the ability when called for to single out a certain pitch, phone ring, child’s voice amongst the wider hub-bub. What is sweet is the honouring of the many, and how pleased the stories may have been to be brushing up against their brothers and sisters in the telling. What new story emerges from the moving collective, squabbling cluster of sound?

Barton tells us that these mythteller’s learnt their stories by ‘talking with the water’ of a nearby stream. Not talking ‘at’, but ‘with’.

The Ifugao seem to have a remarkable insight into what a bundle of simultaneous energies that stories are – even that something else was born when they were told together. Those hearing from a distance claim that it sounded like birds, or insects - chattering and rattling and tweeting.

We get a sense of the beginnings of the old oral mythtellers again – when the human voice was not 'gatekeeper' but embroiled, utterly.

So I would like to think that a doorway to polyphony is open, even as I present the idea in a strident, homophony type of way.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Monday, 19 March 2012

Inky Thinking

A little more this week from my just finishing book on the Dartmoor stories. I also live in a house within which each corridor is stacked thick with enormous canvas's of mine, brooding away, and so there has been a family banning on me making any more for the time being. Hence having to utilise things that i have no knowledge of- watercolours- that i have had the temerity to place above. So the below briefly mentions that the books stories - i call them a patterning - form a kind of circuitous line from the opening of the river Dart up to the hamlet of Scoriton.

The second section: 'Hut Poetics' just briefly refers to some of the steps i went to find this patterning, and the notion that there is a Hermits Hut within every modern house.

A Myth-Line

Culture seems to be beyond the rational control of civilisation.
James Hillman

This myth-line is a subtle hive of nerve endings just under the turf of Devon. A line confirmed by three decades of a life caught up in its stories, a body washed clean by early mornings in the freezing Dart, dozens of nights by fires on the south moor, an empty belly and no tent fasting in its wilds. There is a patterning – starting where the Dart arrives into Old Totnes and ending in Scoriton on a twelfth night, the hamlet where we first starting the raising of Dulcie, our daughter.

Dulcie would be often carried in the folds of my battered Harris Tweed into the fiery warmth of our local, The Tradesman’s Arms. We would drink the local beer and eat vinegary chips whilst she slept, wrapped in my coat, us listening to folks play music and to swap stories awhile, before stepping out into crisp Dartmoor air amok with history.

To the south is Torbay graveyard, and Leonard, Monica and Lee, my grandparents and aunt – away down the crow road. To the north, up Tony the farmer’s track, is a crooked treasury of Dartmoor story, drifting down in the sharp air and just tickling the tip of the baby’s nose. We catch the scent of fresh manure and diesel oil as we pick our way carefully over the cobbles of Rosemary lane with our precious bundle and all pile into bed. And around us the great ship Dartmoor creaks and groans under the indigo heavens, the unattached stars drift like long distance runners above our small cottage.

I mention Dulcie because there is nothing like becoming a parent to get you think about what really sustains you, and how you pass that on. I slowly absorbed it into my body as a child through rough dens in the elm woods, surreptitious midnight feasts, delicious nibbles of spoken poetry, just as I urge her to reach out and tenderly find her lines of connection across this archaic county.

We know a little of the Aborigine’s song-line. The visual, mystical, pragmatic tracks left by what they call ‘the Ancestors’. The song-line creates a kind of trail across geographic terrain. They elucidate history, water sources, food and magical no-go areas. This almost unbearably sophisticated web of information is so potent that the locals regard pregnancy not as matter of sex but of traversing a spirit-child spot that leaps up into the womb of the crossing woman. That is where the action is really taking place. A place so potent that many years later that local may well seek out the land where their spirit first leapt up from the dirt to die there.

To be in touch with this singing requires incanting the activities of the Ancestors in certain tuned-up spots, as well as the lone walkabout in the bush. You face your brothers and sisters in ritual as well as solo time focused on the invisible world. It involves being a cultural historian, a historian of what I will call liminal culture – the tipping point out of the everyday, forward thrusting clock time (clock time being something that will be familiar to almost all but a very few now), and into circling, truly hallucinatory, flushed upswings of consciousness. This great dream is more than just an individual epiphany, but is confirmed and drawn closer to this wide old web of relationship between elder, watering hole, and deity. It is more than just a monitoring of human, tribal behaviour, but holds a spacious ear to the spirit-emanations of the land.

We hear tales of those travelling with Aborigine’s by truck and being told stories from a song-line at break neck speed, due to the velocity of the truck’s movement. The emphasis is that the stories are to be told at a walking pace, a pace dictated in large part by the physical response of the land to having you in it.

This image gives us a worrying insight in a possible price for the progress of wheels and gears: the old alignment becomes garbled, “the centre cannot hold” bellows Yeat’s over a violent wind. The human language – the storying - that assists these song-lines becomes hysterical at the pitch required for modern life. It simply stops working. More than just a human tragedy, an enormous intersection of magical reality shudders and starts jump back into the forest, lake and tussock – the Sidhe (the people of the hill), the Fairy, these Ancestors, seem to slide from view in seconds. There are almost no spots left in the world where some variation of this is not at work.

This mystical-historical reference that the Aborigines have had is not readily available in this culture. The social memory is not strong enough. As soon as we associate land with property then consciousness dramatically tips. We in the west hold the grief – consciously or not - of this severing from a consolidated canon of earthy relationship. And yet, my work as a wilderness rites-of-passage guide these last two decades tells me (and confirmed by many of my colleagues), that it is still quite possible to be rooted into a relational awareness to the wild that many presume is entirely lost. It is not. We cannot replicate over night, or decade, or century, a kind of Aboriginal song-line, but a powerful doorway into both the land and the latent regions of your own psyche is available. A place to start. Not glamorous, inflated or grand, sometimes utterly at odds with modernity, but available.

When presented with even an echo of this aboriginal relationship, or Native American, or Scythian, there can be for many of us a sense of diminishment about our own relationship to nature. That subtle change in awareness as we walk our dog through a frost white meadow on an autumn morning, or the exhilaration of thickening clouds before a winter storm. Even worse than diminishment is a sense of helplessness – that all is lost in the face of industry and enforced ‘progress’. Again, I say this is not so. But it involves valuing, not diminishing your own story within the luminosity of the wild – right where you stand today. Whilst it is true that it takes a focused intent to deepen it, the book suggests that we have the facilities and opportunity to make great steps towards an involved dialogue with the earth and its budding mysteries.

Hut Poetics

O Light im schlafenden Haus!

O Light in the sleeping House!
Richard von Schaukal

In my tent years I would enjoy tufts of grass sticking out from between the faded canvas and the trellis. Robins would fly round the tent ribs then out again. There were always drafts; no feather could ever fall straight. Summer months you could sleep with the tent ajar to the nights dreaming, the roe buck trail nearby, the badger discovering last night’s dishes in the grass, old seasonal spirits shuffling about. Winter required muscle: canvas frozen on the inside, endless scouring for kindling, sleeping under a leathered mass of skin and blanket, throat creeky with sudden temprature drop, only mouth revealed from the dark pile, gasping wintered air. The place, the circled hut, was a conjunction, a polyphonic murmuring, a den of natured languages. It was psychoactive. All this made visitors, sometimes even other yurt dwellers, uneasy. “Why not do away with that tent entirely and have done with it?” muttered one. But I needed the tent. The tent was the ritual marking out; the frontier inn that invited all the chattering denizens in for a drink and a gossip.

That white bearded genius Gaston Bachelard knew well that all of us have such a hut. That a house, flat or apartment contains a kind of Russian doll set of other containments. The further down we go we finally get to our own hut. All it takes is a lit candle, or a snowflake at the window, rain a blissful-clatter on the roof, and the hermit wakes, with their immense ‘in’-ness, from behind our daily face.

Bachelard reminds us that the hut is no monastery, or semi-detached, it offers solitude. But outside the human universe it can be a busy place- solitude can be lively. He also poses the challenge of interiorization, that the spacious of the imagination rather than a literal change of location is key. We all know what it is like to end up on a foreign beach and to your horror you realise that you have bought yourself with you.

So, you can put this book down, light a candle, lie under a blanket and find the hut anytime you want. What a relief. The hut is a vast image of poetic reverie, it seems utterly alive - the spluttering peat fire, the coming storms, the story as axis-mundi in a volatile situation. Bachelard rightly loves the image of the lamp in the window of the hermit’s hut, as a symbol of the vigil, the diligent listener, that someone is keeping watch, studying hard, a friend to night, while I sleep on. Our image (from story this is commenting on) is even shaggier; it is the gasp of relief when a stranded walker sees a distant light in the mist and knows their life is saved. The madness of the fog increases ten fold the warmth of the fire.

Rilke describes the experience of seeing a lit hut at night from a distance with three friends as so powerful it could not but separate and isolate the experience for the friends, as their individual interior worlds all lept up and went “see! see!”. The inner-life, so long brooding in the embers of such an image could not share it around like a common item. Rembrant is extraordinary in somehow invoking and protecting this sensing in his paintings.

In the writing of this book I found notes and drawings from this time in the tent I’m referring to – including these few scrawled lines that seem to have been incubating many years for this exact moment. I’ll drop more line in now and then if appropriate.

Crumbling autumn comes
The hermit lets the water spill from his hands
the papers drift into the leaf banks and the frost
No publisher or Abbot will coo over his smoulders,
gaze at the legacy of sixty nights by the angry cairns

He made a vessel of problems
collected from theology and old magic
built humming structures around their thick air
made love with ferocity to what many thought forgotten
His isolation was the hardest song he ever made,
sent to the moving herds of the open plains

Snow will come soon
and the small doors let in hail
but for now the only heat is from the papers fed into the stove
radiating small circles of red into the dark,
and the fox moving at distance
stills herself, and moves forward towards the glow.
(notes from tent years)

The last stanza is almost a re-write of the sentiment of Hughes’s ‘Thought-Fox’ poem, although I have no idea if I had read it at this point on not. His is brilliant, this less so. The phrase ‘isolation’ reminds me of the darker strands to the experience, and the general feel helps me remember my longing for an elder, a hermit, a magician. I was trying to dream such a person closer to me. it worked too.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Tuesday, 13 March 2012


Danger's in the Artist's Life

A long piece this week, as more encouragement to down tools and make it to the westcountry for our telling of Parzival just a few weeks away.

I promised some time back i would put up some books i've been enjoying over the winter - so here they roll:

Frances Yates Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
David W. Anthony The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World
John Moriarty Turtle was Gone a Long Time
Ann Skea Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest
Joseph Sobol The Storyteller's Journey: An American Revival
Ed. Adam Fox and Daniel Woolf The Spoken Word: Oral Culture in Britain, 1500-1850
Alessandro Falassi Folklore by the Fireside: Text and Context of the Tuscan Veglia

PARZIVAL WEEKEND: APRIL 6th to 8th - do not miss!!! Please cut-and-paste link below for more details.

The below is from my Parzival commentary - as will be obvious, the jumping off point is from Parzival's wandering in the wasteland.

# to all painters, sculptors, genius fiddle players, loopy and brilliant actors reviving ritual theatre, and more, please note that the below is not having a pop at your good selves, more a kind of deadening atmosphere that has grown up around what is considered modern art. As i say below, there are many exceptions.

When It All Gets Flat

The grieving chest will find honey

For five years, Parzival is on auto-pilot. One battle after another, accolade for his skills falling daily on his shoulders. But always the lonely bed, the restlessness, the continual moving on. His armour is pristine, no outwards decline, but something definite happened with Cundrie, and he wanders in some vast, interior forest, sun always hid by the fog.

He is in a terribly difficult situation. How to find something by sheer will that you found by accident before? Everything outside Camelot, those great forests, is like some obscure dream, hard to steer or control (remember the earlier image of Parzival's horse leading the way?).

He’s no longer quite the boy, seeing everything with new eyes. He’s witnessed great twists in his personal fortune – feted, shamed, married, but now wandering alone through life. He is looking for something just out of view.

It seems in our own lives we can end up right where here is. We, like Parzival, may have all our armour in place, do all the right things in public, but secretly sleep in a bed of crow feathers. ‘We have lost the Huntsman guile’, says Robin Williamson. We lay the offerings, sing the old songs, but no partridge gives itself up for the pot. Things that thrilled us once, do so no longer. Everything is flat.

The wasteland can be seen as a world that has lost its way, when a culture has declined into a mass-civilisation. Those implications are vast, so vast, that I want to focus in on a smaller case of loss, one that I feel is to do with art.

As I write this, if I glance up I can see my old postcard of Bruegal’s “Hunters in the Snow” (1565), stuck to the wall and sent to me by my sister Anna. It’s very famous – three hunters with a pack of dogs returning from the forest to the village. In the distance we see the river frozen with ice, a bird framed forever against a sky threatening snow. Despite the warming red flash of a hunter's cloak, the mood seems subdued, muted. The only forest gain we can see is a scrawny fox hung on a staff, slung on a shoulder. Villagers chuck a table onto a roaring fire for warmth.

I never get bored looking at this painting. It’s a doorway; a generous mix of straight up expertise interlaced by very human concerns and wider elemental associations. I went to art school for four years in the hope that someone could help me unlock the sheer apprenticeship to paint required to handle the understory of the work – feel, perspective, handling of colour. I got nowhere near it, and neither did anyone else. If you added up the amount of focused personal tuition I got over that period, it would have come to about three weeks.

Now that degree had people with many different ambitions on it, and I have no desire to insist that everyone go through some kind of renaissance apprenticeship to their discipline. It seemed that, when all was done and dusted, the degrees handed out and the studios cleared for the next wave of students, that we were facing a wasteland. 90 per cent dropped out of making work entirely within twelve months. We had no framework and little tools. We were drip fed ambition certainly, and Warhol’s devastating, ironic, reductionist approach to making ‘statements’.

The show that established Warhol and those Campbell soup cans in the early 60s also featured the young Cy Twombly, a young painter beautifully adrift in a mythological landscape, but using a very contemporary language to express them – scrapes, blurs of cadmium red, loose sketches and half written sums, snakelike twists of prussian blue, clusters of poetry hurled at raw canvas. Next to the flatline irony of Warhol, Twombly was laughed out of the show, received terrible reviews and staggered off to Italy to recover, which is where he stayed for a large part of his working life. Recently, I watched a video of Warhol towards the end of his life, filmed in his own home. Whose paintings, twenty years on, did he have on his walls? Twombly’s. Epic, sprawling Twombly’s. Seems the dark father of pop art knew how to nourish his psyche after all, on the quiet.

I want to get back to Bruegal’s painting and the notion of returning from the forest. For these many years of peering at it, those returning hunters for me were sometimes Georgia O’Keefe, Goya, Turner or Francis Bacon. They had been somewhere difficult, dangerous; hidden to many villagers - the forest. It was a high stakes game, and you needed your hunter's bag of skills with you. That’s how I viewed being an artist.

History tells us that a pre-requisite of creating great art or culture is forest knowledge – to tear down the navigated walls of tradition into the fresh winds and creative dangers of the wild. However, with insufficient preparation we are lost to navigate the combination of artistic discipline and creative impulses that lead to Robert Graves, Titian Vecellio, Emily Dickinson and William Blake. To wander into the tangles of the visionary requires a shield, a bow, a courting flute. Why dark? Because it is connected to what we now call the unconscious, and the many dragonish energies that abide there.

There seems to be a growing lack of preparation for these journeys. By this I mean that word apprenticeship, boundaries, elders. There is almost a grim expectancy that the artist makes huge leaps without adequate grounding. Without some grounding, the tendency in the youth is to rush into waters it can’t swim in, or use drugs to mimic the experience of expansion whilst never really leaving the court at all. It’s possible to think of Charlie Parker, Paul Kossoff, Jean-Michel Basquiet, Janis Joplin, Bon Scott. Rock’n’roll eats its young. We are poised to see who will drown next. We love to feel that edge. The altar of the dead artist is inches from the altar of our dead warriors. The image of the unequipped warrior and artist entering their own private forests is a huge cultural betrayal. It points to some disturbing energy that stands behind both, polishing the red shrine.

To succeed, the artist should hold some knowledge of history, practical application of a craft, a sense of continuum in their work, an inherited legacy- not an isolation. More art schools, grants and poetry programmes are not the answer, if the fundamental relationship between inherited knowledge and occasional sparks of originality is what is being lost. James Hillman talks about this as the relationship between the senex and the puer - Greek for the old and young man. The forest eats the puer dead. But without the puer, the senex grows brittle and his knowledge never becomes wisdom - it has to be handed on for that transformation. Modern art is a puer writ large.

The senex brings hawk-like discipline and the support of history to the puer’s sparkle and sense of uniqueness. These two energies live within us: forget the old man at your peril - we float too near the sun without his ancient grip on our ankle.

Modern art generally ignores this dynamic, hence the corpses. It produces work that often lacks weight and dynamism. Other words, like irony, sarcasm, and emotional distance, replace any aspiration towards the complexity of beauty. We forget how hard it is to create beauty and how easy to create chaos. What could we possibly do with Blake in the 21st Century?

My mother groaned, my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt,
Helpless, naked, piping loud
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

The forest can be a place of lunatics, robbery, nightmare, and quick, final descents. It is not entirely sober. Not entirely friendly either. Without some agile quality of mind the hunter is simply unequipped to live in relationship to the forest. This relationship requires some diligent, repetitive consciousness. We think of Philip Guston and Franze Kline serving decade apprenticeships as draftsman before their extraordinary leaps into abstract painting. The shadow-king doesn’t want this, he wants the brilliance of youth as a frozen moment. It’s a very old rhythm, and many starving energies are leading it on.

At a recent lecture on landscape painting I attended, it was revealed that all of the artists on show painted either from photographs or from the internet. Not one of them was in a localised, primary, difficult relationship with the landscape. Brilliant exceptions to all this (of which there are always many) is the work of Cecily Brown, Olli and Susi, Tim Stoner, Lucy Gunning and Ellen Gallagher.

Expectations around what art does have changed dramatically, and if you hold old associations then you will probably feel very discombobulated. Don’t come looking for an emotional charge, a lift, a high, it’s unlikely you will find it. It could be this sense of crossed wires that leads to that rather empty feeling as we death-stagger around another private view, gallery or degree studio. We’re not even in the realm of existential angst – that’s so twentieth century. We have to give up that particular type of investment, the one that connects art to deep feeling. That train has long since left the station. Where it is useful is as a kind of snap shot of now, its disassociated undertow and occasional flashes of beauty. But beauty and emotion are not the same thing.

So that seems to me one kind of wasteland, one kind of impoverishment. It may be worth taking time and seeking out a Bruegal or Twombly painting and really studying it. Although they reproduce well, a photograph rarely illustrates its true psychic resonance. In the room, Twombly’s paintings can seem thuggish, violent – what seems like a coy blending of oils in a reproduction, is, when you are standing in front of it, a hectic blur of movement, inches thick in paint from the canvas. They are fully involved; heated exchanges, the paint refuting the ‘idea’ of the painter's composition and hurling back some other possibility. It is a shouting match with blustery energies, and requires the eye of an old sea captain to know the signs of its completion.

Recently I got into the private collection of Bruegal’s at Windsor Castle, and again, there was a restlessness I had not anticipated. Rougher to the eye than I had ever expected, they seemed bullish and dark in the wider range of the royal collection. There was a struggle in the work.

So in all of this is the good news that vast ranges of art - both intellectually exacting and emotionally stirring - wait in art galleries and museums, for the blessing gaze of the viewer. Like the elder in the old people's home, the eye of the viewer animates something in the work that is ready to step forward, to say something specific to this particular generation. In this spacious perspective we are no longer making work in the linear world of our contemporaries but part of a much wider, constant unfolding, as art reanimates itself psyche after psyche. Bruegal’s painting is saying strange things to unusual people all over the world right now. We are in wasteland thinking when we forget this, when we think that this is all from some distant past. The mood of the wasteland is of a kind of disassociated disappointment, but moods can be broken by feeling and thinking, and this is part of what the treasury of art offers.

Years ago, I worked for a very famous British artist, so famous he employed a large army of people to help him bring his ambitions to life – we often made many versions of the same idea. His ideas were smart, tough and simple in a way that spoke to millions. The part I never understood was this – he had the idea, we made the idea, the finished piece looked exactly like he pictured it. But nowhere in this production line experience did the work bite back, take him another route, force him into the uncertain ground that Bruegal and Twombly faced daily. It’s in that moment that the art lives, what we were doing was a kind of architecture. As long as he persisted in this, the critics loved it. When he finally did some expeditions into the forest himself, made one off paintings showing influences of art history – and an occasionally uncertain hand - the ghost of the critics from that old Warhol show surrounded the work and laughed him out the door. He had been a true son of Warhol, but his seemingly rash move to the oil paint brought those kings of the wasteland – modern art critics - out in droves, knives raised. He had tried to enter the old apprenticeship model but hadn’t either the practical chops or nuance of the painter's eye, and the immediacy of the works' exposure robbed it of many stages of private development.

The betrayal of apprenticeship is not just practical but soulful, it robs the student of the eye of the ‘old sea captain’, something developed by many years riding the salty waves of wild forces.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Monday, 5 March 2012

Sunday, 4 March 2012


Sketches, Tents, Fairy Mountains

Something on the slow road up to Snowdonia this week: if you scroll below you will see brief news of the wilderness quest, July 2012. Our small group is limited in numbers (very), so we have to know soon if you are thinking about attending. The book i have been working on all winter is getting a proof read before another read through in a week or so. I am enjoying some sketches (above) working out of what will probably be the title:

The Bird-Spirit King:
Myth as Migration, a Wild Land Dreaming

The title is not completely abstract, but comes from old westcountry folklore i will write about here soon.....anyway..

I’m not fond of waking. But, if I absolutely have to do it, then I like best to wake in my black tent. It’s early morning, and I can see spots of light through pinpricks of thinning black canvas. Even with two quilts, goat and reindeer skin piled high, I can feel the chill of early autumn. Tea. My thoughts turns to the woodburner, iron saviour as we move into the wintery time of the year. My hand reaches out from the skins and catches a handful of kindling from the wooden bucket, swiftly opens the burner's door – hanging by one screw by now – and chucks it on the embers. I’m in luck, it's ash, a good burning wood. The high whistle of the kettle atop the burner wakes me up again some minutes later.

Stacked up by the door of the old yurt are boxes, boxes full of kit. Lanterns, six, glass cleaned and heavy with paraffin; two coils of good rope; a billhook; a splitting axe and saw. With a belly full of hot tea, but still under the skins, I gingerly pull across the floor my Mongolian camel bags, lately having become my wardrobe. Several pairs of levis, thick socks, old flannel shirts and a Harris tweed gradually emerge. A battered trilby, Mexican boots, burgundy scarf, hipflask of lagavulin and I’m ready to go. I start carrying the boxes out to the car in the early morning mist, careful not to spill the paraffin. The cat follows me out, looking displeased - she can tell I’m away for a week or two.

I’m in love with an artist who lives three lanes and half a dozen fields away, and she’s gallantly offered to feed the cat whilst I’m gone. There is something cooking between this woman and myself, and at least one child, but that’s all up ahead somewhere. Right now it’s time to take the old familiar trip, up to Snowdonia.

Towards Exeter there is always the resplendent opening of Dartmoor just glanced on your left as you approach Telegraph Hill. By now the bracken is brown and losing height, giving more space to the robust granite hilltops – the tors. Once upon a time it was an unbroken canopy of oak and ash. Before that a giant redwood forest grew on the higher ground, and before that it was an island in a tropical sea, many millions of years past. I imagine I can catch a glimpse of Ponsworthy, where my parents honeymooned, or the scattered rowans above Hexworthy, but that’s all it is, my imagination – I have to keep my eyes on the wheel. The moor-edge towns of Ashburton, Chudleigh and Bovey Tracey are but a blur in my left wing mirror. I have many miles to go.

Just outside the cathedral town of Gloucester I pull over into a service station. There they are. Dave and Jonny, my companions on this trip. Jonny has bought bacon butties and a flask of coffee. Perfect timing. I’ve known him since he was five years old, a good man Jonny. Guitar player, poet, student of the fiddle – financial and musical. Jonny and I have erected sodden yurts in blizzards, watched in horror as the roof flies off into the night, cut fingers and bust knuckles hauling gear on our backs up treacherous mountain paths, wept over lost loves, and thrown countless coins, notes, cheque books, days, months, years and sanity into the gaping mouth of this nomadic life.

Dave, well, Dave has a lot to answer for. Ten years before, he, a wilderness rites-of-passage guide, had got me up on the mountain to fast for four days and nights. He lived with the consequences of that when I returned. Still, he held his nerve and has remained a source of warmth, intelligence, encouragement and mild anarchy. No one in Britain knows the wilderness fast better than he does. Dave is puffing on a roll up and asking if it’s too early in the morning to go for a quick pint. It is.

After the usual shifting between cars of tent pegs, bags of rice, fruit, vegetables, pasta and an ice box full of meat, we set off. We skirt the border of Wales for a while, past Ross-on-Wye, Leominster and into Hereford, then take a left out into the wild country. Something happens at the Welsh border. The fields steepen up into dark pine forests, distant rooks hop from sodden branches. ‘Croeso I Gymru’ - ‘Welcome to Wales’ – says the battered sign as we pass. Large drops of rain hit the windscreen. Somewhere I stop for chocolate. The day rolls on. We head to Rhyader, and then right across green country to the coast and the town of Barmouth, before one last rather savage turn right and up into the high country of Snowdonia.

This has been David’s camp for many years, several hundred folks have been thoroughly cooked in its tangles. The locals know it as a fairy place, and many stay well clear. The word ‘fairy’ has links to ‘fate’ and surely enough people meet that here. But picture if you can the scene – directly opposite the camp is old Caer Idris, the mountain herself – ‘The Seat of Arthur’, hypnotic and magnificent. To your right is the Irish Sea, that ancient stretch of water. A salt breeze still touches our noses, even inland. The valley holds mixed forest - douglas fir, norway spruce and several oak groves. Every now and then a merlin or goshawk catches that breeze and glides out, high above the estuary. If you keep your eye on the heather you may see a black grouse – white tail feathers, rounded shape, defiant wattle of red over the eye. Had we been earlier in the year we may have caught their dawn courtship rituals. The males, the black ones, strut around singing and generally drawing attention to themselves -–it's called a lek, they are lekking. The females, the brown ones, who have seen all of this before but don’t mind a show, look on with a steady eye.

David and I are leading a retreat. Within the hour of striking camp, we see the familiar scene of cars laden with gear struggling up the track and over the cattle grids. Eyes blinking from the long drive from London or further, folks of all ages, races and dispositions stretch, get out of their vehicles and take in the view. After several days intensive preparation, they are loosened out into the nooks, crannies and secret parts of the valley to begin an epic descent of the psyche, what some call the wilderness fast. For us at base camp, watching them wobble off with their backpacks into the early rising sun, the hard end of our job really begins. The waiting.

It’s often in the waiting that the stories come. Not the human fireside banter, but a kind of slow emergence from the tree line – a mist of story. This is the earthy fulcrum from where stories of a place emerge – about that cave, that estuary, that Rowan tree. Not in the clipped tempo of the written sentence, but a galloping, roaming, rampant language that tears into the soul like the vivid colours of a jungle bird.

At a certain point in time, that specific, local image glows with a translucent truth that is more than just the place, it has moved into myth, it is its own axis-mundi. It is the job of the myth teller to simply help, for awhile, the story move into the stream of human language before heading back into the ground.

The valley is an interlaced consortium of mythic imprint- the peregrine’s wing cutting a new story into the touch of the breeze it grazes upon. Some distance away the leisurely bellow of long horn cattle gently re-orientates a calf back to their emerging story of the trip to the watering hole. Watching it all, Caer Idris holds the shadow of scudding clouds gracefully in its lap. Caer is also a good thief, capturing differing colours as the day progresses, sometimes golden crested, sometimes muddy red and green - the mountain is telling a story of the value of shape-shifting for anyone ready to behold it. These stories are the legacy of time bent open to the archaic hymns of the land. But this non-usual language, this barking cluster of processional chant, how can it be spoken of to the rinky-dink world, the world we can see glittering below in nearby Barmouth?

Over ten years up there, both fasting and then in the labour of becoming a guide myself, such stories from place arrived and decided they wanted to be told. I could be taking an early evening walk and return with the impact of another encounter. It seemed the rivers were singing chords of deep music. I moved in and out of a kind of land dreaming for many years. But a dreaming of clarity, a waking up, not delusion. It’s a hard thing to put in a book, or into everyday language. Possibly a little rash. The old nature powers are not metaphor.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012