Tuesday, 14 October 2014

lamps lit in the belly of the castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

on the snowy hill
with nothing left
but my praise.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

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