Scatterlings: An Interview with English Storyteller Martin Shaw on Nomads, Being Local and Belonging

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Martin Shaw is currently doing a book tour across Canada. You can find more information on that here.

You can listen to the interview here.

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Tad: Hi, everybody. This is Tad Hargrave from MarketingForHippies.com and various other endeavors. And I have the good pleasure and the good fortune of being here on the phone with Martin Shaw who is a storyteller and award-winning author who has written the book, A Branch from the Lightening Tree, Snowy Tower, and Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia, his most recent.

He is director of the West Country School of Myth in the UK and he has also devised and led the oral tradition courses at Stanford University. And I’m sure many other things.

I had the pleasure to meet Martin and see him at work I guess earlier this year on the west coast of Canada at Hollyhock Retreat Center. And was suitably impressed and amazed to be in the presence of one such as this with so many old-time stories brought alive in a new way in the world today. And so Martin and I were just chatting before we got started. He’s been working on his current book, Scatterlings, which we’ll be talking about today, for the last five years.

So, Martin, reading the write ups and seeing the video that you made about it, it seems like such a poignant book at these times. Because we’re in a world where localism, where shopping local, and local food are becoming more important. But we’re also in a world of immigrants. We’re in a world of digital nomads where it’s become sort of this idealized lifestyle that you can have the laptop lifestyle and travel anywhere, where home just becomes a feeling. But also this world of refugees because of the destabilization of climate and political realities. And here you are, this traveling English storyteller, with something to say about it. And so it seems like such an important time for a message such as this. So I guess I lay that out as the overture.

And I’m curious why the title Scatterlings, what that word means for you?

“I realized to be honest that although my family were from a place, they weren’t necessarily of it.”

Martin: Scatterlings for me really is a term for everywhere and nowhere. When I was growing up, I think like a lot of people I come from a place — I come from the west country of England, from a county called Devon, where variants of my family have been there for 200 years.

But I realized that although my family were from a place, they weren’t necessarily of it. And so I began to suspect that being from somewhere might be a little bit overrated. I think by the time I was 20 I had lived in 14 different parts of Great Britain. And I would always use overly romantic terms to describe it.

I’d call myself a nomad or a gypsy.

But the truth is I wasn’t either of those things. I was a scatterling. And really what that means is, as I said, of everywhere and nowhere. You know, it was as though I had traded depth for endless growth. In doing so, my knowledge was three miles wide and two inches deep.

And as a storyteller and a mythologist, which is a very sort of endangered species type of profession these days, I realized that stories from everywhere are now available to us all the time. And with that, I realized that they are somehow ruthless and in fact as a storyteller I felt weightless to some degree.

So, about five years ago, I effectively drew a sort of chalk circle of about 10 miles around where I grew up. And I said, “This is going to be my mythography. This is where I’m going to dig in. This is where I’m going to begin the labor of finding out what wants to disclose itself to me right here and now.”

What does it mean not to claim something, but to be claimed by it? What does it mean to behold a story or a stretch of land, not just to see it? You know, when you and I, if I took you for a walk where I live, we’d go for a little while. And you and I would see a thistle. But William Blake didn’t see a thistle. He saw a small, gray, glowing man waving at him.

That’s called beholding, and that has a visionary aspect to it. And you know, one of the kind of modern hysterias is this feeling about how do we become indigenous again? Like it’s a pill that we can pop. And funny enough, I’ve never met anybody worthy of calling themselves indigenous. I’ve never heard that phrase being used.

“a huge difference between being from a place and of a place is your capacity to behold it.”

But one of the things that I think makes a huge difference between being from a place and of a place is your capacity to behold it. A long time before I became a storyteller, a long time before I wrote books, when I was about 23, I took myself to a stretch, what we optimistically call a mountain.

You wouldn’t call it a mountain. You’d call it a hill. It was in Snowdonia in Wales, there’s a mansion called Caer Idris, the Seat of Arthur. And if you spend a night alone on Carta, you come down mad, dead or a poet. And so I went up for four days and nights without food to make absolutely sure, to see what would happen.

And I had quite unexpectedly, a deep and protracted mystical experience. I had an experience that doesn’t fit in the self-help books. It doesn’t fit in modern books about rites of passage. It was like something out of some Siberian anthropological report from the early 1900’s.

And it happened to a white kid on a Welsh hill in 1996. And so I was left in the detritus of that experience, wondering how on earth — how can a doorway like that still be open? A doorway where you can walk out of this century altogether? That’s what I did really. And the last 20 years has been a slow walk back from that into the village. Because you know, the epiphany of the wild is not enough.

“Don’t make a marginal life out of a marginal experience”

I say to my students, don’t make a marginal life out of a marginal experience. Initiations tend to take place on the fringes of things. But there is a secure route back into the middle. You know, people like Yeats was political his whole life. He didn’t just sit there as a poet at a great distance. He got amongst it.

After 20 years of stories, 20 years of witnessing and traveling stories from all around the world, it felt important in the time I had to realize I had been claimed by a small stretch of land, a place called Dartmoor. And to do something about it. To do the labor and do the work.

In some small way, I wanted to be a good little Shetland pony for the 10,000 secret things that riddled around me all the time. And so that’s what Scatterlings is.

Tad: Now I can imagine some people pushing back and saying, “Yeah, but part of the benefit of the time that we live in is it’s this globalized world. We exchange cultures and it’s so diverse and so eclectic. I can eat food from a curry shop over here, I can have a burrito over here and then I go to an African dancing class over here. Then I go to my Zen meditation over here. We’ve got this big, eclectic global world. And so globalization is wonderful. We get to travel, and that’s part of the benefit of being in these times. We don’t have to be so rooted anywhere. You know, we get to have this globalized experience, and isn’t that adding to the richness of our life to be in this more globalized world?”

And I’m curious what you would say to that?

“It’s easier and easier and easier to walk away from situations, from relationships, from people and from cultures and from ideas that we don’t see them through anymore.”

Martin: I’d say all of that is true, but it is also leading to an addiction to severance. It’s an addiction to severance we get. It’s easier and easier to walk away from situations, from relationships, from people and from cultures and from ideas that we don’t see them through anymore. We don’t see anything down anymore.

I think when I meet many people bereft in their emotional lives I see them as almost sort of paralyzed by choice. There’s a tyranny, actually is the word I would use. A tyrannical element to choice that is distinctly unerotic. It doesn’t feed life. It actually paralyzes you.

And the kind of globalization you’re describing means in the language of the romantics, and I’m definitely a romantic, it means you experience a lot of eros, but you don’t experience amor. A lot of eros, but you don’t experience amor in the sense that I can travel to Marin County or I can travel to the tundra of Siberia.

I can travel with the Kalahari Bushmen and I am moved and thrilled and interested. But when I am on Dartmoor, I am in the presence of something entirely different. And my body feels different. The tempering of my heart is different. And I’m very grateful that I have that relationship and that I can discern the difference.

Without that, I will move from flower to flower to flower to flower, experience to experience to experience, and I will marry nothing and my hands will touch nothing. And then I wonder why I want to blow my brains out when I’m 50. So, for me, that is part of the entanglement that comes with all of this endless opportunity.

I’m not an idiot. I understand all the good things about it. You know, it will be a long time before I’m rude about growing up on Sesame Street or listening to John Coltrane or going to the cinema or any of those things. I’m not a ludite. But I am aware that there is a tremendous price tag attached.

“I am aware that there is a tremendous price tag attached.”

Tad: That opens up a lot of loops. But one of the things that occurred to me as you were speaking is, certainly in a lot of circles I work with, there’s a sense of — of course most of my friends want to go to India because you have all the sacredness there and the Ashrams.

You can meditate there. And a lot of them want to go to South America and of course in South America you can do ayuhuasca and you can hang out with Mayan shamans and you can hike the Inca trail. And then people want to go to Asia and Thailand. Meditation! The full moon parties! All these other places.

Especially it seems for people of European descent, but maybe there’s something about this modern world. Because I imagine there’s a lot of people of a lot of different cultures that could relate to this sense. There’s always somewhere else.

And I can tell you that when I think of spiritual Mecca’s in the world, places you might have a transcendent experience, Devon is not one that would come to mind.

Martin: Yeah, and I’m relieved about that because that means it’s a secret.

Tad: There’s a woman named Grace Lee Boggs who was an Asian woman in the States, an activist. And one of the quotes she said, there are two that come to mind. One of them was, “The most radical thing I ever did was to stay put.”

The other one was, “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it; unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”

But this notion of being in a place, that you found something extraordinary in a place that other people might look at and see as ordinary in some way. And it seems like there’s an invitation in what you’re saying for people to perhaps stop seeking the sacred in these far-off places and to draw that imaginary chalk circle around a certain place for themselves and to find something there.

13838583_10153778182205980_337657412_o (1)Martin: Yeah, that is true. That is true. Scatterlings is the end. You mentioned the other books, A Branch from the Lightning Tree and The Snowy Tower, and then this book Scatterlings. Scatterlings is the one, and it’s very much the end of a trilogy. It’s the most urgent of the three.

And it is a very gnostic book. It is a very esoteric book. It pulls no punches. But it absolutely does offer, in its own strange, circuitous way, something of a map that whether you are living in Detroit or in a fishing village or you know, in a city or anywhere else, there is something you can do with this. I don’t quite know what, because I don’t like franchises and I don’t like bullet points.

It doesn’t do any of that. But it’s got a taste to it, it’s own undomestic language. And language is important to me. The guy that you would have seen me with in Hollyhock, Stephen Jenkinson, is a great pal of mine. And he’s someone who really relishes his language. He believes that language has moved like reindeer over tundra to get into the meadhall of your jaw.

It’s that you matter. That you have a degree of consequence. And that when you are feeling things deeply, you need to elevate that to a point where you nourish more than yourself when you speak it. That doesn’t mean it has to be high faluting. It just needs to have a kind of truth in it that the old gods recognize.

So staying still for five years, you know, and I travelled, but my psychic world was here. You know, the intensity of my creative life was here. Raising a child was here. You know, that’s the most important part of anything that I do, is being with my daughter.

“… many of my friends like yours were gobbling ayahuasca or hanging by their testicles off trees in Sri Lanka or whatever the hell it was.”

So all of these things were relatively undramatic, undramatic. And you know, many of my friends like yours were gobbling ayuhuasca or hanging by their testicles off trees in Sri Lanka or whatever the hell it was. Raising kids, dealing with the ignominity of living in the west. These are kind of private but very real mythological struggles for me.

They are what I would call ordinary grandeur. And I just knew that that was what I was going to focus on, rather than anything else that seemed too dramatic. I wasn’t going to get thrown off the chase anytime soon.

Tad: So a lot of people I can imagine who are hearing this would say, “Well, I haven’t left my damn neighborhood in 20 years. I would never have this kind of mythical experience.” I’ve been traveling and I’ve been in a place and there was no chalk circle, but if there was, I wouldn’t have left it. And yet I haven’t had this experience of being of this place, rather than just being from this place.

And so what do you make of that?

Martin: Well, they sound tacitly or explicitly depressed. And one of the things that I would have recommended is, as I sort of referred to briefly at the beginning is that this all comes out of an experience called wilderness rites of passage. Where I got profoundly shaken.

I was shaken to such a degree, I had absolutely no idea whether I would come out of this alive or not. So when I talk about the process that’s in Scatterlings and actually long before I wrote Scatterlings, I spent four years living in a tent on a succession of English hills. Exploring the notion of does wildness and wilderness even exist in Britain anymore?

“if your idea of your neighborhood is waddling down to Starbucks and back, no we’re not on the same page.”

So I did the hard yards and that kind of thing. I turned my head in that direction. So no, if your idea of your neighborhood is waddling down to Starbucks and back, no, we’re not on the same page. We’re not talking about the same thing. Absolutely not.

You know, the book asks more from you than you will want to give. That’s for sure. And I can talk about that on the phone, you know. But the main thing is to read the book and see the price tag attached. And most people would not want to do it. You know, Rilke the poet, he says really the function of poetry, real poetry, is saying this to you, “You must change your life.”

“The function of poetry, real poetry, is saying this to you, ‘You must change your life.'”

You must change your life. And so the book and my particular stance in the world is not designed for a mass market. But what it is saying is that mythological intelligence, in other words, your capacity whether you’re living in a city or a suburb or out on some farm or you’re part of a traveling circus, your capacity to recognize not just that you are in the presence of the gods but that you recognize which gods are speaking to you at which particular times through conversations and circumstance. That is a skill that you can develop. What Seamus Heaney would say, he’d say, “You need to tune your ear.” You need to tune your ear. And if you are living in a place and you are profoundly stuck, your ear is not tuned to it. And there are many different ways that people go about that.

And again, in the ’90’s and the early part of this century, anybody that I met that presented themselves as a spiritual being thought language was rather out of fashion. Everybody was trying to get to the place beyond language. And so to become a storyteller felt a very antiquated act. You know, a very strange thing to do. But because I believed that language was a kind of holy currency, it was a way of bartering with weather patterns and claiming some sort of intimate relationship with oak trees and ravens. And I believed also that when you did that, in some strange way, what we loosely call ancestors would roll up and have a look. This all seemed to be part of the move from the fromness to the ofness. Language was actually a bridge into that for me.

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Tad: Speaking of language, you made a distinction in the video. You referenced it here between wilderness and wildness. That had me wondering. Because some people live in the concrete jungle, and there is no wilderness around them. And yet you seem to be suggesting that wildness is still available.

Martin: Yes it is. It is. Now there are different types of wildness. You can be thinking of wildness like the long grass that is growing up between two tenement buildings. You can look at, if not a wild environment, then a feral environment, when you’re looking at street gangs.

I’ve spent, many, many years working with what we loosely call at-risk youth, and in prison sometimes. And you see versions of wildness or attempts at wildness trying to show their hands all the time.

I mean, interestingly for me, I believe that discipline is the dance partner of wildness. That actually I don’t want to be experiencing expressive dance or interpretive dance all day long. Sometimes I want to see a flamenco. I want to see steps. I want to see discipline. I want to see homemaking skills. You cannot be a decent storyteller without homemaking skills.

Because in the Gaelic and Celtic tradition, if your life isn’t beautiful enough, if you are not a kind of little trembling bird of sound, then stories simply will not land on your shoulder. There’s a whole maintenance program designed to curate and look after stories. Otherwise they’re simply not interested in turning up.

“The stories in Scatterlings are not auditioning for our contemporary polemics. They don’t care. They do not care.”

You know, you’ll see this in Scatterlings. The stories in Scatterlings are not auditioning for our contemporary polemics. They don’t care. They do not care. They have an agency all of their own. I travel about and people are always saying to me, they say, “Oh, you know a bit about stories. Can you give us one mono story for now? Can you just procure it out of the ether with all of the complexity of everything we’re living through? Can you do that for us?”

And my feeling is the stories we need arrived really perfectly on time about 5,000 years ago. They’re stepping forward now. The first thing that I recommend is, if you’re interested in stories, you need to live a life efficacious enough, humble enough and beautiful enough for stories to actually show up. Stories are not interested in us just beholding beauty. They want to see us make it. They want to see us make beauty and then they get interested and then they show up. And then they start to, as I said earlier on, arrive in the meadhall of our jaws.

“Stories are not interested in us just beholding beauty. They want to see us make it.”

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Tad: Is there some relationship for you between beauty and wildness?

Martin: Yeah, there is. There is actually. And I think most people can understand that very quickly. But civilization is also not the dirty word for me that it is to a lot of my contemporaries who would just be done with it. They would just like Rome to burn all day long and that would be the end of the matter.

And I’m not interested in that either. You know, it is a paradoxical time that we’re living in. You know, there’s no one that I know that on some level is not a hypocrite. Nobody. And you know, I would say this: at this point, for you and I, our incompleteness is our authenticity. It is. You know, I’m not saying we stay there. I’m not saying we stay there, but for me anyway, my incompleteness is my authenticity. Anything else is just hubris. And then I try to work at it in my own stumbling fashion.

Tad: Well, you mentioned the relationship between storytelling and homemaking. And I’m curious, because that word ‘home’, of course, gets used in a lot of different ways in this culture. And it’s come to mean a lot of different things. So I’m wondering, what does home mean for you? And what does homemaking mean for you?

Martin: I think there’s some practical stuff attached to that. Seven or eight miles from where I’m talking to you now, my dead are buried. You know, my aunt is buried, my grandpa is buried. My great-grandfather is buried, my granny is buried. My other aunt is buried. So there’s something to do with bodies in the ground. That’s partially to do with home. I can’t access that sensation by the Pacific Ocean. I can’t access it in Norway. You know, I have to be in a particular place.

You know, it’s funny how we talk about the difference between a house and a home. ‘Home’ I have to say for me is also a lot to do with books. I’m an enormous reader and I’ve lived in different places. But certain books, certain images, certain paintings, they orientate me, but I do not mistake that for what someone would call an axis mundi. That’s not my Yggdrasil. That’s not my holy tree.

So I have a sense, wherever I go, to some degree, I feel stabilized. But without question, when I am entering Devon, it’s to do with the smell of the air. It’s to do with the seasons I have witnessed over and over again. It’s to do with the child that I’ve raised. It’s to do with the rain in my face. It’s to do with all the failures that have landed on me in this place over the last 44 years. It’s a really nuanced confluence of things that for me give me a sense of home. And it’s not even a comfortable sensation. It’s just a thing. You know?

Tad: So is homemaking a skill, do you think, that we have to develop? Is it an innate human capacity, this idea of making home? Because for some people of course, maybe they’re a refugee or something else, or maybe they’ve moved for a different reason and now they find themselves in a new place that is not home. And some people have never known home in the way you’re talking about it: the bones of their ancestors. So then we’re left with this, I guess we have to make home.

“when you go deep enough into the local, you find the nomad.”

Martin-Shaw--224x300Martin: You do. And how does one do that? One of the things I found so fascinating about spending five years ruminating on your home ground, from where I come from, Devon, is when you go deep enough into the local, you find the nomad. There’s always a nomadic agency at the very center of the local. For example, a few years ago on a hill very near where I lived, a place called White Horse Hill, we discovered the burial cairn of a young girl. She was 14 years old. And she died about 4,000 years ago, or had been ritually executed. I’m not sure. And there were bearskins in there. And there was all sorts of jewelry. But the reason why we knew she was a big deal was that there were 200 little amber beads right there on this remote Devon hillside. And where did those amber beads come from? The Baltics. The Baltics. So that was going on 4,000 years ago. Trade was going on 4,000 years ago. One of the things I do in Scatterlings is I collect language that has remained outside of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, but was being used by farmers and sheepherders sand rural people in Devan for hundreds of years. And without question the root of their language for calling animals is Aramaic.

“And without question the root of their language for calling animals is Aramaic.”

You know, so in other words, one of the things as I’m trying to get soaked into the local, the further into it I go, the more and more scent I get from cultures from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. You know, I mean Dartmoor itself is 365 square miles of wilderness, but, for a long time, it was the bottom of an ocean. For a long time, it was a redwood forest. For a long time, it was covered by hyenas and elephants. I love the idea that an elephant is more indigenous to Dartmoor than I will ever be. I think that’s very charming.

So I don’t lock in too quickly. I stay curious. Put it that way, Tad. I stay curious about what the word ‘local’ is. Because actually, and I’m sure this is the same way you are, there’s a hysteria around the word local that after a while I find unattractive. It’s just become another word, you know. So actually one of the things that Scatterlings has to own as a book is local stories, local myths, local legends. They do not do what a Russian fairy tale does. They do not do what a big Irish saga does.

They are much more low-key. When you really do get a story that is based and locked into a particular stretch of the dark river, that oak tree with the moss on the northern flank, the information it gives is discrete and quiet and really requires you as a storyteller to bring people into what I call the mnemonic triggers, the landscape triggers of that story.

“You don’t tell those stories to 4,000 people.”

You don’t travel the world with those stories. You don’t tell those stories to 4,000 people. There seems to be an invitation the other way in saying — and that’s what happened with the book. It felt as if the land was saying, “We will disclose these stories to you, but the condition is if you’re actually going to tell them you have to tell them in place.”

And so that’s what I can see as part of my practice over the years with this book. It’s actually working with quite small groups in Chaw Gully or by the great weatherstones or wherever these stories actually arise out of the ground from. There’s a wonderful phrase from a writer called Sean Kane and he says myth is the power of a place speaking.  is the power of a place speaking. Not that myth is people speaking or an oak tree speaking or a jack door. It’s the place. And you and I can be part of that place briefly, sometimes. But I’m touched by that. That’s enough for me to go on.

“Myth is the power of a place speaking.”

Tad: That reminds me of an experience I had 10 years ago. I was at the Gaelic College and I ended up connecting with a storyteller, George McPherson up there. And he had all these stories that were so particular, like this rock. You know, what you were saying has me thinking. So much to say.

One is how this culture becomes very — identities can become so Puritan and so pure. So “I’m from this country,” or “I’m from this,” with no sense that the ancestors of those places came from other places at some point. And there’s been all this migration over the years.

People say, “I’m Scottish,” and it’s like from this place. But you know, where? When exactly? So there’s that. And, of course, we see the toxic bloom of that coming out in the United States right now with the rise of white supremacy. Which is this sort of toxic white as a pure thing, which of course has a larger story of often coming and fleeing from Europe.

And then a sort of freezing of this cultural identity of you know, Scottish or Irish or whatever it is. And it makes me think. One of the things Stephen Jenkinson said once was that the main capacity of storytelling is actually story hearing. The ability to hear stories.

So part of what I’m hearing of what you’re saying is there’s this notion that people in their communities, when we really look at our communities and neighborhoods and where things came from, each of those things has a story. And that if we can look at everything and say, “Where did you come from?”

Look at the dandelion in North America and know that they came from Europe. They got brought over. I’ve even heard people make claims that earthworms were not here, that those came over from Europe. You know, cattle and all these things. So there’s a capacity, even in looking at one square mile or one square foot almost, one could want to know, “Where did you come from? How did you get here? What’s the story of you? What’s the story of us?”

And then it just seems like there’s some — that seems connected to the capacity for homemaking.

10515116_10152921283898336_362192035662851658_oMartin: I agree. In this book I wrote, Snowy Tower, the epilogue of the book is called Foundational Stones to Myth Telling. And it’s all about that. It’s just saying, “Try this out, try this out, try this out.”

It makes people a little worthy for a while. Do you know that expression? Worthy? So you’re a bit anal. You’ve got people kind of wandering around with jackets that are sort of pressed in vats of their own urine and things like that. They’re a little humorless for a little while, but you get past it.

I mean, I have students who for example, there will be a small room in their house and everything that is in that room they know entirely the story of that table and how it was made. Or the shoes or the musical instrument. They can go right back to the source of it usually because they made it themselves. So, that’s a mighty task. It’s a wonderful task. But if people want to work in that manner, that’s a place that you can go. You can just say, “I’m really going to get to know how it is to handle wood, or to build a boat. I’m going to dig into this.” And the further you go, as I’m sure you’re aware in your own life, you get paid back pound by pound exactly what you put in. And you will know that you are on the right trail with it when you are no longer enjoying it for a period of time. And you continue. I mean, that’s one of the things in Scatterlings I’m talking about for a lot of this book. The book was not written on a crest of euphoria. You know, the book was a very diligent, slow, trucking through four very difficult winters.

Trying to find my way across Dartmoor without a map. So in other words, I would find a story or a story would find me that still had a beginning and middle and end that was describing a particular section of the moors. And I would go up there and I would walk — I hesitate to call it that, but you could see it almost like a song line. I would try and find my way from one end of the story to the other. And the commentary on the stories was not a kind of exegesis in comparative religion or comparative mythology. It’s what happened on the walk. It’s the belief that when you start not only listening to a story — you know, the suggestion you were saying about how we listen to stories, not just tell them — it’s also how we walk them. You know, to walk a story, to walk the geography of a story. To try the myth line of a story. And you do it in such a fashion that what discloses itself on the walk, whether that’s animals you encountered, people that came towards you, you know the way the weather turned, it’s all a form of divination, for me anyway.

And that’s kind of my disclaimer really, is that I am of a mystical disposition. And so it’s not necessarily that these are things that would work for anybody. But they are sincerely laid down in the book as well as I can, as well as I can do that.

Tad: Do you think that not being at home is connected with not knowing the stories of things and not knowing the stories of a place?

“The result of not knowing the stories of things means you do not know the story of yourself or your place in it.”

Martin: Yeah, I do. Because the result of not knowing the stories of things means you do not know the story of yourself or your place in it. And when you don’t know the story you’re in, you in the end will be victim — and I do say victim — to enormous floods of anxiety. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. None of that matters. It’s absolutely crippling and debilitating. So you know, you end up in a very bleak place. I mean, I’m sure with pals of yours one of the discussions at the moment is around the word despair.

People are saying to me, “Is it legitimate? What do you think about the word despair? Is it good to feel despair for the world?” And I’m cautious about that word actually. I’m cautious about it. I think sorrow is one thing. But true despair, true despair, that is a very, very terrifying proposition.

And to bring it back into the realm of stories again, you know, the myth teller — there is such a thing as a myth teller’s contract. In a tribal community, stories are the nutrient that are going to hopefully get you from one end of the winter to the other. You know, it has survival at its core.

And the stories that we remember are the ones of significance. Someone asked me the other day, they said, “Why isn’t there a story about the day that nothing really happened?” And I said, “Well that’s a good question.”

The reason why is that stories that come from oral cultures come from a time where we didn’t have an iPad that we could continually put down information into. We had a finite memory. So the stories we remembered were impacted with really important, vital information, psychic information about how to function in this world with dignity and a little bit of style.

And with all of that in mind, the contract of the myth teller is to get a group into as deep a place as you possibly can. In other words, into the arena of ritual. To the bottom of the well if you’re going to use a fairy tale term. But you are contractually obliged to get them out again. That doesn’t mean you say, “Ah, you know, and then it was just a dream and then everybody woke up and la, la, la.” It’s not that. It’s not that. And it’s not quite hope either. Or if it is hope, it’s a very sophisticated version. But to some degree, you do not leave people in the wound of the story as if that alone is enough. Because it isn’t enough.

“Your wound does not edify the gods.”

Your wound does not edify the gods. You know, again something I think in the book I talk about is I meet a lot of folks these days and I say that they are experiencing what I call the seduction of the wound. If you’re growing up in an anesthetized culture where nothing really is happening, to get in touch with something that feels painful feels truthful.

You know? So, for me, the first place that I wanted to go when I was a kid was the mosh pit. You know, that’s where I wanted to go. If I was launching myself off a PA system 12 feet in the air above a screaming bunch of punk rockers, I was alive. And it was going to hurt when I landed, but it would be a trance-breaking kind of hurt.

And it was a form of contact, because I was banging up against people in a peculiar kind of dance. But that in itself is a move towards waking up, but it is by no means the end of the story. You know, that might have temporarily edified me, but it didn’t edify anything else. And with my own students, part of homemaking skills — we’re coming back to that theme again — part of homemaking skills is saying — say you’re a writer– waggling your pen around in the ink of your pain is a seduction. It’s a seduction. There has got to be a more vital form of nutrient than that.

And so with the stories that I’m involved with, the stories that have claimed me, the ones that I’m telling, they have some very hard, what I would call prophetic, not pastoral information. We don’t need more pastoral stories telling us we’re doing all right. We’re not doing all right. If Trump has a possibility of being elected, we’re not doing all right. If England is under the hallucination that leaving the European Union is a good idea, we’re not all right. So I’m curious about how we raise our game with our artfulness in the years that we’re here.

“waggling your pen around in the ink of your pain is a seduction.”

Tad: You know, when you talk about wounds, it strikes me that one of the ways we can deal with wounds, certainly there’s directly addressing them. But there’s also giving them some bigger context that they’re in, which seems like one of the roles that myth has played. You’re not the only person to have felt this way and that there’s a bigger story at work around this thing.

It’s not just that. And so there’s this notion of being inside of a story. And yet, that seems so antithetical to our times, which our times — we’re so hungry for freedom and yet the way we define freedom in this culture, this modern world, seems to be about a lack of limits. So freedom means no limits.

Which of course has the consequences of a rootless and weightlessness. And so I’d be curious to hear your understanding of freedom. Because in the words of Stephen Jenkinson again — we’ve referenced him a few times — he has a line he says, “We are modern and we are confused by freedom.” So I’d be curious to hear your understanding of freedom.

Martin: Yeah, I mean I don’t think about the word very much to be honest. It doesn’t register. You know, as long as I remain curious, curiosity is a more interesting word to me than freedom. Because what does freedom mean? Does freedom mean that I’m not indebted anymore? You know?

Does it mean that I don’t owe people stuff? I hope I owe people stuff. I want to owe people stuff for the rest of my life. You know, the old Platonic — in Greek thinking there are these modes that they call growing down. Growing down into the business of living. And one of them is you know, that strange troubled nest that is your family.

Accepting that there is some sort of divine principle at work. Or if you’re an orphan or wherever the hell you grew up, there’s some dynamic principle working from the beginning trying to get you to remember something. And there’s an indebtedness to that. There’s an indebtedness to a small stretch of land.

And it goes on to these four modes. But it culminates in creating a life to approach the unpayable astonishment that one should have at the experience of being gifted a life at all. So I want to be in the presence of unpayable things and I want to try to pay them anyway. So freedom, in any conventional sense, it’s just not on my radar I’m afraid.

Tad: It just strikes me that in this modern world we want to be free of everything, which includes free of a story. You know, “I just want to be my own person. I want to be an individual. I’m not a part of this bigger story that you want to tell. I’m just myself.” And yet the loneliness that seems to create in these times.

It means they’re dead. It means that guy died in this experience.”

Martin: I know. If you really want to make people uncomfortable when you’re having a gathering and people are talking about words like ‘initiation’ or words like ‘indigenous’, talk to them about the word submission. The function of submission in a rite of passage worth its salt.

There comes a point where you have to find out what it is like to bend your head. And at that moment, the polemic of your feelings matter not a jot. I remember a few years ago a guy rang me up and he said, “Yeah, I want to do your wilderness fasting, but I have to eat all the way through. We’ll just clear that up now so I can eat.”

And I knew the guy and I said, “Do you have a particular book on your shelf?” And I knew he would. And I said, “Go and open the book up.” I had it too. And I said, “You see page 82? You see this aboriginal ritual going on where all those guys are lying on the ground and every third or fourth guy there’s like a white stick coming out of the ground?”

He said, “Yeah, that’s really weird.” He said, “They’re out in the desert doing something like what you do.” And I said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Do you know what the white sticks are?” He said no. It means they’re dead. It means that guy died in this experience.

“And you’re telling me you’re going to rock up with a McDonalds and a Frappachino and expect to have an equivalent experience?” You know, ring me in eight years. Which is actually exactly what happened. He went out last summer.

So you know, I don’t know. Strange times that we’re living in. And you know, I’m very aware with Scatterlings and I’m very aware as a British person living in Britain, my situation with landscape is not the same I would suggest as an American of European origin living on Turtle Island. It’s different. And we have all sorts of gradient of relationship up until the present day, that Scatterlings has to tackle. It’s not as if I’m sitting here thinking, “Well you know, 300 years ago the red man was sitting in the forest next to where my house is.” It’s a different crisis. It’s a crisis of equal weight, but it’s slightly different. So one of the things the book has to do is deal with what I call English liminal culture. In other words, even through the Industrial Revolution, even through the political spheres, where were the pressure points? Where were the acupuncture points in British history when people were trying to reach out to the mysteries?

They were trying to reach out to what David Abram calls the more than human world. When was that happening? So one of the things is I hope for folks whose names maybe end in MacGregor or Vaughn or O’Brien, there are all sorts of clues in that book about this is a place you could go. This is a place that you could check out.

This is a place where you could raise your game, raise your wisdoms about what stands behind you.

Tad: I suppose that leaves me with one more wondering, which is a big one. It seems like so much of this coming to understand and find this bigger story that we’re in, this capacity for homemaking, this capacity to be of a place, has a lot to do with the relationship we have to the particular things of the place.

I didn’t get the sense you were sitting in Devon on a hill overlooking everything from a distance. But you talked about really walking through it. And in particular that moss on that rock and this tree and the way the branch is broken and that way.

And so there’s something about particularities, which of course could be just as true in a concrete inner city environment. There’s particular things to be seen there too. And yet one of the things you said in the little video you made for the book is this whole thing is about courting.

And one of the things you said earlier in this conversation was, you used the phrase what wants to disclose itself to me? And you made the distinction between beholding and seeing. And so it seems like there’s something about our manner of approach to the particularities of where we find ourselves that determines what we find.

“there are whole new growth pine forests on Dartmoor that were entirely planted for the construction of warships.”

Martin: Yeah. I mean, for the longest time, the forests where I come from have all the glittering, gleaming eyes. You know, when you go into a wild place, there’s many more eyes looking at you than anything you think you’re looking at. You’re always being looked at.

And what they have seen for a long time is us coming and looking at ancient trees as 2×4’s – as planks rather than a tree. They’ve seen us planting. There are whole new growth pine forests on Dartmoor that were entirely planted for the construction of warships. And so the very reasoning for those things to be there is for an act of war.

And so for 20 years I have often gone into wild places and I’ve stopped eating. One of the reasons you do that is because it is a primordial set of manners the wilderness understands. Because it means you say, “For a while, I am no longer devouring, but being devoured. I will be devoured.”

And I place my sword on the soil, and I bend my head. And you recalibrate yourself for a while to the humors of that place. To the hearing and the listening of that place. And so that’s why my relationship began to change.

Because quite frankly I was vulnerable when I was out there. I was cold, I was frightened. I was unpractical. I’m not a practical man particularly. So it was always a struggle for me, that kind of thing. But I did it with a particular type of humility because the old ones can smell if you’re on the take. They know. And they go, “Oh, it’s you again.” And so the manner in which they disclose things, the manner in which you move from seeing something to behold something is simple. Lay down your arms. Lay down your arms. And that is the beginning I would say of a different kind of conversation.

Tad: Thank you. I’m wondering if there are any last words you’d like to say. You’re about to go on this huge tour of Scatterlings all across Canada and be sharing this book with a lot of people. It will be a part of your life the next little while. So I’m just wondering, are there any last thoughts that you’d like to share?

Martin: I’m thoroughly looking forward to coming. And I’ll read you something from it.

Tad: That would be wonderful.

Martin: This is just a little bit. Two or three minutes. And it’s really the beginning of going out and looking for stories looking to get claimed.

I went out looing for stories in dark places. In caves, hundreds of feet into the base of hills. The immensity of tree roots and stones suspended above my fragile head. I leant slow words down there. Words flushed deep with water and bolder dust.

I took myself to dreaming places, forgotten places. Places deserving of shrines. I built small shelters in ancient solitary haunts and sealed myself into the dark for days and nights. It was in those places I learnt many holy names for time. Time is malleable as a concertina, as robust as Irish cattle, as slippery as the trout escaping the hook.

Each of the secret words was true wealth for my parched tongue. They required payment in full and I was not sad to give it. I went looking for stories in the palace of the birds, the pastoral murmur of the wood pigeon. The thrilling blue calls of the tawny owls in their midnight kingdoms. I learned feathered words up there, sounds that whittled a new and fragrant shape to my jaw.

For a little while, I was a boy of the moonlight, cloaked and rooted by the base of great trees. It is no great brag to say that a part of me is still there.

So yeah, there’s a bit of the book.

Tad: Thank you so much. So if people want to know more about the tour, they can go to — there’s a website DrMartinShawCA.wordpress.com.. And if they want to find out more about you and your work and about the school and learn more about you beyond this tour, where should they go?

scatterlingsMartin: There are two websites. One is called DrMartinShaw.com and that has a lot of my wider work. I do a lot of work with Celtic translations. I’m just finishing a book of translations of Lorca the poet. Various sort of stuff I’m involved with. I also lead a conference called the Great Mother Conference every year in New England.

And then the other website is SchoolOfMyth.com. And that’s my little school, my little hedge school that I have down in the west country where people come and study with me from really April to December. We gather five times for three days at a time. And we go very deeply into the kind of areas that we’ve just briefly discussed this evening.

Tad: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much. I know it is now 11:00 PM your time and you’ve been very gracious with your time. May your travels be wonderful and full of unexpected delights in every stop, and the seeds of many good things be planted in your life and the life of everyone who comes to your events.

Martin: Okay, thank you so much.

Tad: Take care. Bye.

About Tad

  • Pamela

    Thank you for sharing this piece that provides such opportunity for resonating, inquiring, wondering. As I divide my time among the western two provinces of Canada, deciding where to be in the longterm, I am cognisant of one of the double-edged gifts of our time, i.e. that we might, in theory, choose a place that calls to us, and begin this inquiry there. That choice might have the outward appearance of “freedom,” and yet: where would the place be? Those beautiful parts of France & Switzerland my ancestors came from some 300 years ago? They don’t want me back. Nor does my husband want to go back to India, where he was born. The First Nations people, understandably, might wish that none of us had ever arrived on these shores. And as much healing as I’ve done, remaining in my hometown near Edmonton would likely and literally have killed me. “Beholding,” as Martin calls it, has been a powerful practice for me. As has “making,” in the sense of making art that feels like it belongs to the place, or comes out of beholding the place, or out of the inquiry “What is Home?” I feel there are specific challenges around this for all people living in a country that has been “recently” colonized. In fact, for my whole generation, many of whom arrived as children in Canada in the 70’s, or were torn from their complex family structures and placed in residential schools, or would have preferred to remain on the land they were born to but were chased out by skyrocketing cost of living.

  • Ria Baeck

    Thanks for sharing! and taking time and effort to write this up!
    from an indigenous Flemish lady.

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