Sisterhood of the Bones

It’s been quite a year. Moving country is always more complicated than you imagine, but happily we’re now installed in the beautiful hills of Donegal, rooting and rustling away by the river. In case you’ve missed it, David and I have been blogging about migration, digging into a new place, and the act of belonging over at our Riverwitch website. This kind of upheaval also offers a really good opportunity to re-evaluate where my work is going. And so I’ve cut out some courses and activities, and will in future be focusing on those that seem to make sense in this life, here in Teach Dhoire an Easa (the house by the waterfall of the woods).

The bottom line is that I’m going to be closing down this particular blog, though the website will remain as a central place to draw together all the threads of my work. I have a new site and a major new project, and you can find it over at my Singing Over the Bones website. ‘Sisterhood of the Bones’ is an exciting new project I’m now offering, which has evolved naturally out of the ‘Singing Over the Bones’ creative retreats I’ve been running for the past couple of years. It is a unique year-long course for women who want to delve deeply into wild stories, myths and archetypes, and so to connect more deeply with the cycles and seasons of the year. Find out more about it here - it’s already proving to be popular. And do please sign up for my new blog, The Bone Garden. I look forward to meeting you there!

Transforming stories: an interview

I did this interview with Jeppe Dyrendom Graugaard back at the end of 2012, as part of his PhD research. The original is here. Do visit Jeppe’s other site, Re-figuring, for lots of fascinating stuff.

JDG: On your blog Re-enchanting the Earth, you write about the relation between myth, narrative and sense of place beginning from the insight that it is in stories we come to make sense of the world. My research on the Dark Mountain Project takes as a similar starting point, so it is really interesting for me to follow your writing about this. You are also editor of the magazine Earthlines, which is explicitly about building a culture of nature and explores ways of being in the world that acknowledges that culture isn’t separate from nature. What do you see as the foundational myths or narrative behind the metaphor of ‘culture as nature’ and where do you look for stories about culture as nature?

SB: The concept of the culture of nature, to me, is about seeing ourselves as just one part of the planetary whole, and the rest of the natural world, while at the same time recognising what is unique about humanity: about our own species’ culture, or what Robert Bringhurst called ‘the thin but sometimes lovely web of answers we keep spinning for ourselves’. It means celebrating both our connectedness (or ‘kindredness’, as Richard Mabey once described it) AND, equally importantly, our otherness. Stories of course are a crucial part of that culture, and they’re an aspect of the culture that, if used correctly, can bring us back to an understanding of nature and our part in it. Stories are like a bridge between those two worlds that two thousand years of Western philosophy has insisted on separating. Stories can help us reconnect.

There are many, many myths and stories that portray the unity of culture and nature. Many people will automatically gravitate to indigenous mythologies, and it’s easy to see why: they still use their stories in meaningful ways. ‘I will tell you something about stories,’ the Laguna storyteller Leslie Silko says, ‘They aren’t just entertainment/ Don’t be fooled/ They are all we have, you see/ All we have to fight off/ Illness and death. You don’t have anything/ If you don’t have the stories.’ For Native Americans like Silko, a story is an intricate part of a web that cradles all the past, present and future events, ceremonies, beliefs and traditions of their culture. In the centre of this web is the land. Each story is part of another story which is linked to yet another one, and all these stories are connected back to the very origin of creation. That’s very powerful stuff!

The problem with indigenous mythologies from elsewhere is that those that are often most loved – Native American mythologies, Australian Aboriginal mythologies, for example – don’t relate to our European culture. And if you want stories to have traction – by which I mean if you want them to really dig deep inside a person (or a group) and be able to create change – they need to be built on images and symbols that are relevant to a culture, and that bring a sense of cultural continuity. And many of our old Western fairytales and mythologies do indeed demonstrate that unity and continuity.

I think part of the problem is that we don’t always see our own stories in the same way as we see stories from other places. People are used to hearing our own fairy stories, myths and legends presented simply as stories, as entertainment for kids; we don’t use them any more in the way that indigenous cultures use stories, for teaching and for healing. And so people tend not to think of them in the same way as they would stories about Grandmother Spider or Coyote. But picking up on Coyote: if you take Irish fairytales just as one example, the leprechaun is a classic Trickster character! – and yet he has been so diminished as a cultural icon by so much shallow Disneyesque characterisation and jokey emerald ‘bling’ that we forget where that character came from, and what he had to teach. There are many similar examples: the unity of human and animal worlds in myths and stories that have shapeshifting as a motif, for example. My ever-favourite Scottish selkie tale springs to mind: the loss of one’s skin representing the loss of a connected self, for example. The folk and fairytale culture of most European countries – certainly the Celtic fringes – show ‘fairies’ as nature spirits, representing the natural world, and give us stories about the ways in which humans approach it, interact with it that recognises a much more deeply interwoven relationship than we have today. The ‘grail’ legends are absolutely perfect metaphors for connection and disconnection with the natural world.

So you don’t have to look very far. The problem is that we have forgotten how to approach such stories: both with reverence, and with understanding of their various meanings. The good thing is that there are people out there who’ve made a lifetime’s study of those stories and their symbols and images – all kinds of people, from academics and storytellers like Marina Warner and Sean Kane, to psychologists like Clarissa Pinkola-Estes and Bruno Bettelheim – who can teach us and remind us of what we stand to lose if we let these stories degrade any further.

JDG: One of the points you make in your writing is that ‘stories work from the bottom up’. That we arrive at a larger, coherent meta-narrative through our ‘smaller’ stories. A meta-narrative isn’t simply something we can make up, or decide on, that then will make sense of everything for us. Working with stories, and narratives, as a process of change requires more than simply choosing a story of the world that we like. What do you see as the dangers of what you call magical thinking around narrative, the idea that all we need to do is to invent a new or better story and then our problems will be overcome?

SB: What I fear is very simple: a shorting out of the batteries. I fear that people – for a bunch of very good reasons, and armed with both enthusiasm and talent – will waste their time and energy trying to create something which can’t be created. That they’ll go running off down paths that ultimately don’t lead anywhere, and we don’t have enough talented people who understand the problem that we can afford to lose a bunch down some dark alley. I also fear above all a killing of the magic. Because that’s what this process is, of changing the story that a person or a group or an entire civilisation tells about itself. A curious mixture of magic and alchemy is required to create a story, with all its depths of symbols and its imagery, that buries its way into a person’s heart, and then the heart of a community, and then the heart of a whole culture. And magic and alchemy have to be learned. And given time to work. You can’t short-circuit the process. We’re too quick these days to want to fix things. But some things can’t be rushed. They have to grow. Slowly. And deeply.

I remember when I first wrote about this issue of how meta-narratives are created on my ‘Re-enchanting the Earth’ website. I had an outraged email from someone who said to me ‘You can’t say that it doesn’t work like that. Who has the right to tell other people how stories should be understood?’ And I found that curious, because of course there are people who spend their lives researching stories, and how myths and meta-narratives develop, and working with them in various ways, just as I have worked with and studied them in the context of literature and of psychology – and it’s a great pity that that is all too poorly understood, that there is sometimes resistance to it, because there is treasure to be found in that work. There’s a tendency to dismiss academic work on stories and narratives as dry, scientific, missing the point – but that’s far from the truth. Wonderful people – poets, storytellers themselves – like Robert Bringhurst and Sean Kane are writing about how cultural narratives are formed. Kane in particular has written about this process:

“A new story [may be] released into the social repertoire … But the release cannot be sudden … The story has to be told and retold until it passes the test of narrative art, and then the further test of the society’s repertoire of acceptable mythological experience. The story has to conform to the patterns of narrative pleasure and the patterns of being in a society. Only then is the society ready to move mythically in the direction indicated by the story. Even then, the society shifts its overall mythological memory subtly, not in a way that disrupts its hierarchy of narrative experience.”

Often, the fact that there is even such a thing as ‘narrative art’ is ignored; often it’s assumed that creating a culture’s ‘myths to live by’ is really no different from sitting down at a desk and writing a short story. As a culture we have a tendency to want the quick fix. We want to believe that we can change the world, and change it right now! But we don’t always want to put the work in, the long and necessary and very disciplined work, to do it in a way that will stick. That’s the danger, to me. I worry that people, all excited by the transformative power of storytelling, won’t take the time to understand how those superbly transformative stories develop. The kinds of stories we’re talking about are filled with archetypal images and tropes that have been growing for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. The idea that you can sit down in a workshop one day and write a new story that has that kind of transformative power just doesn’t make any sense to me. Which doesn’t at all mean that people should stop trying, or stop writing stories! Stories are life. But we need to approach the process with reverence. As an apprenticeship. Stories are magical. They have to be seduced, cajoled. Stories are the basic constituents of the world – at least, of the way we perceive the world and our place in it. They deserve to be treated with respect.

And at the other end of the scale of argument … to me, it’s really not disputable that stories come first and meta-narratives come later, because it’s very embodied precisely in the definition of meta-narrative – it’s what the word means (the bold type is mine for emphasis): “A meta-narrative … is an abstract idea that is thought to be a comprehensive explanation of historical experience or knowledge … It is a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience”. The prefix meta- means “beyond” and is here used to mean “about”, and narrative is a story constructed in a sequential fashion. Therefore, a meta-narrative is a story about a story, encompassing and explaining other “little stories” within conceptual models that make the stories into a whole. In postmodern philosophy, a meta-narrative is an untold story that unifies and totalizes the world, and justifies a culture’s power structures. Examples of these stories are nationalisms, religion, and science, to name a few. Meta-narratives are not usually told outright, but are reinforced by other more specific narratives told within the culture.’

JDG: As an alternative to ‘top down’ meta-narratives, you talk about letting a multiplicity of narratives grow into a coherent whole. I would like to quote you one this, because I find this vision very compelling. You talk of this as:

“A web of myths and stories that, by being so deeply interrelated, will lead automatically and organically to that new metanarrative that everyone wants so badly, but that can never possibly derive from the top down, like some new unelected political regime”

I wonder if you could say more about how you see this process of how smaller stories grow into a larger, coherent narrative?

SB: I’m not sure it can be very simply defined. But to me it’s predominantly about inspiration, and a process of accumulation. If we take as an example the current meta-narrative that most people in Western countries subscribe to: it began with people exploring ideas which seemed to them to offer a superior vision of the world and of human nature compared to the story that had been told before. Plato is just one example of those who pitched different stories, one of human superiority to ‘nature’, of the superiority of the spiritual world rather than the physical earthly world … and you can trace historically the detailed structure of Greek mythology and the role of the Greek gods and goddesses, and see it change as Greek thinking began to change. Then, putting it very simplistically, other stories combined with the Greek philosophers’ stories, and that whole dualistic narrative grew over time, became entrenched in people’s thinking, informed their language, their assumptions … And what happened is that these stories informed and were informed by events and processes in the world, so for example the stories of superiority and growth and wealth were reinforced by developments in medicine and civic infrastructure and so on … there’s a feedback loop. And that narrative turned so easily then to a narrative of human domination over nature, a story of progress, of rationality and technology, of growth, growth, growth … That meta-narrative took time to develop, and along the way it changed and grew, and new stories were told that fed into it and embedded it so deeply in the ways in which people were educated that it came to seem so obviously ‘true’ that it couldn’t be challenged.

But it was challenged. It was challenged all the way in one form or another. It was challenged by various groups, like the Romantics after the Enlightenment, by other writers and poets, by scientists. By people who didn’t want to live like that. And over time, as the flaws in that meta-narrative began to become more and more apparent and dissonant with events in the ‘real world’ – let’s take industrial pollution, overpopulation, climate change just as one example – those challenges to the story became more and more frequent. Meanwhile, more and more people began to live alternative stories, and to communicate them more actively. We start to tell stories of reconnection with the natural world. Not regressive stories that hark back to a past that can’t come again, but stories that reflect where we are and how we got there, and propose a better way forward. We make people want that way forward. We make them see how hollow their life is now, and show them alternative ways of being. We make them want to change it. And little by little the meta-narrative changes, so that over time the dualistic narrative of growth is displaced by this new story – again, a story not of reversion to some mythical Golden-Age past, but a story that both consolidates and moves beyond everything that we now know. The new story grows. Slowly. Assisted by events in the real world which reinforce it.

And we can see it now: the chipping away at the old meta-narrative, the different stories that some of us choose to live. It’s happening now, that transformation in the meta-narrative, and we’re a part of it. Group after group is springing up around the world – the non-defeatists, the groups that speak positively for change, for action, for getting out there and doing it differently – groups like Transition, like the Occupy movement, like Peaceful Resistance … gosh, so very many, and growing all the time. It’s happening already. But note this: we don’t change the meta-narrative by sitting around thinking up new stories. We do it by getting out there. By not only seeing in new ways, but living in new ways. By being the subjects for those stories. More than that – by being the stories. We ARE the stories. That’s how it’s always been. It’s part of the dualism that we’ve forgotten it, that we see the transformative myths and stories as something separate from us, that we can create – simply conjure up. It makes me want to weep. It isn’t like that at all. If we approach it in that way, we’re still in the old paradigm. We’re not understanding how stories work.

JDG: I know you have worked as a narrative psychologist for a number of years. You describe the process of transformation in individuals as a process of personal mythmaking which shifts the way they view themselves, their place in the world, and the story they’re living out. In what ways have you found in your work as a psychologist that storytelling can aid this shift and how do you see the role of stories in wider social change?

SB: Of all the techniques I used in my practice – and they were all based in some way on creative imagination – hypnotherapy, for example – narrative therapy was far and away the most powerful. Because the right stories hold the power to transform. Stories help us to make sense of things: they are ways of organising information and constructing meaning. Again, you have to be careful, because it’s entirely possible to concoct an inappropriate narrative about your life – one in which you’re a victim and it’s all someone else’s fault, or one in which you’re the only person who knows all the answers. That’s where the psychologist comes in – to help construct a realistic and appropriate story! But you can break down the different components of a story into critical parts: characters and their motivations, plotlines and subplots. You can use different voices to tell the story; you can switch point of view; you can change settings … you can use images to stand for things that you can’t or don’t want to name, for traumas, for things lost … or things to be gained … Knowing how to deconstruct the stories people tell about themselves into those component parts and reconstruct them into something magical that not only accurately reflects the past but offers a way forward for the future, and a set of values and images to light the way, is a wonderfully magical process.

The power of stories in wider social change is more complicated, but at the most basic level, it is clear that if you can change individuals, a few at a time, social shifts will occur. I’ve really dealt with that aspect in my answer to your question above, I think. We are seeing it all around us now … Once you’ve figured out what your own story is, then you can start to take that out into the community. And then, once you have a bunch of different individuals, groups, communities, each living a new narrative, then some time, somewhere, a new meta-narrative will be born. There’s nothing especially original about this thought, of course: it’s classic bottom-up, grass-roots thinking.

JDG: One of the findings that is emerging from my research is that the co-production of stories within a community of interpreters gives rise to new opportunities for collaboration and simultaneously create new social institutions. It seems to me that a core part of this process is about re-imagining what is possible but also re-imagining what is home. Thinking about grassroots social change, it seems obvious that connection with place is key. Myths and stories also construe our relationship with social and ecological place. Given a wider cultural meta-narrative which values a certain kind of cosmopolitanism or nomadism, both in terms of where we live and what we do for a living, how do we begin to develop a sense of belonging without simply appropriating places for ourselves?

SB: This whole question of place and belonging is one that I am very focused on, and it’s a core concern for EarthLines too. So much so that I’ve just written quite a long article on it for the February issue of EarthLines! I’ll summarise it here, and when the magazine is out we’ll post the article on our website and perhaps you can add a link to it [08.04.04 see this link].

Certainly, belonging seems to be a big issue. Wherever you go, and whatever you read, people will tell you about that curious sense of dislocation that comes from a lack of belonging, and the feelings of meaninglessness, alienation, homelessness, rootlessness which accompany it. One of the things I find curious about the argument that we are nomadic now, and so this whole concept of place and the idea of belonging to it is static and irrelevant (an idea beloved of Modernist intellectuals), is the assumption that if it is so it must be right. Rubbish. If we’ve created a Modern hell for ourselves, let’s uncreate it! Mobility isn’t automatically a good thing, associated as it is with progressive globalisation, uncontrollable ecologically unsound migrations and excessive urbanisation. From a psychological perspective, rootless wandering may be a consequence of Modernity, but that doesn’t make it a healthy one, or one that we should actively advocate. Mobility can just as easily be translated into restlessness at best; an inability to commit at worst.

But there is also an idea of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ which imagines that it will descend on you one day, kind of like the Holy Ghost. And that if you have to work at belonging then somehow it can’t be authentic. That there is a ‘perfect place’ for you in the universe, just as there is a ‘perfect love’ or a ‘soulmate’ that you are meant to find before you can fulfil your ‘destiny’. I see these ideas as pernicious. We don’t have the luxury of time, of waiting until we find the fabled perfect place for our real lives to begin. We’re alive now, here, in this moment. This IS our real life, wherever we are, whether it’s ‘perfect’ or not. We need to learn to find home and to belong in the place we are now, wherever that may be, and for however long we might be there.

How then do we learn to belong to a place? It’s one of the things I often think about here in the Outer Hebrides where we live, and where so many incomers come who have no history here. How do you develop a sense of belonging, without taking over or appropriating?

Some people will argue that ‘proper belonging’ isn’t possible unless you were born in a particular place, or have lived there for a large portion of your life, and no-one really does that very much these days. And it is of course true that the longer you are in a place – if you are attentively, lovingly committed to it – then the more you know it. The knowledge and sense of belonging that I derive from my three years in this particular Outer Hebridean landscape is only partial compared to the knowledge and deep-rooted connection of people who were born here, and whose families have lived and crofted here for generations.

But belonging can be grown nevertheless, and people who move into new places are perfectly capable of forming deep and committed bonds with them. Those bonds are formed in two ways: through knowledge of the place’s ecology – the land, the structure of the soil, the wildlife, weather – and through knowledge of a place’s culture – its history, language, myths and folk tales, social and economic background: in short, its people. You need both, of course; if you’re going to live in a new place you owe both it and its inhabitants that much respect. That’s how you learn belonging, and if it’s a different kind of belonging from the people who were born and who grew up in your place, it’s no less valid. (And if your life should move you from place to place, it is no less important to develop that sense of belonging in each of them. Because, yes – many of us are rooted in several places – an interconnected meshwork of places with which we’ve had relationships.)

But just learning about the old stories and histories of a place isn’t where it ends, either, because that is where stasis really does set in. A place – and you in it and with it – can only be in the process of becoming when you go on to make your own stories of that place, as a new and unique contributor to its ever-evolving natural history and culture. You bring your own points of reference, and you will tell new stories of the place based on your own way of seeing it. There is always, then, an ongoing and reciprocal relationship between a place and the people who are in it or who come to it.

The question which remains, perhaps, is why belonging matters so much in the first place. Isn’t it all just about humans feeling good – about personal growth and ‘wellbeing’? And when we occupy a planet that is clearly in an advanced state of crisis as a consequence of human activities, aren’t those just luxuries that we can’t afford? For sure, the continuing emphasis that so many self-help gurus, therapists and others place on personal growth and wellbeing is often little more than paradigmatic fiddling while Rome burns – but for me, the key reason why we need to develop a sense of place and belonging isn’t just to make us feel good. It is because the critical value that we can derive from a sense of place and belonging entails more than just knowledge of a place: it entails responsibility for it. The sense of responsibility that comes from a deep understanding of a place, and caring about the consequences of our actions in it and on it. True commitment to place – love for a place – should lead inevitably to ecological stewardship: if you are devoted to a place, and know yourself to be a part of its ecosystem, then you’re more likely to protect it – and to fight for it, if necessary. And these days, it’s too easy to walk away. If we genuinely connect with our places, and genuinely connect with our stories, then walking away simply isn’t an option. It’d be like walking away from life.

The patron saint of bees and beekeepers

I’m a week late finding out about St Gobnait, a saint in the early Irish church whose feast day is February 11. A friend and fellow beekeeper on the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry just told me about her, and it was lovely to find some more Celtic lore about bees and to add to my store of bee stories and mythology. It was particularly heartening, because a couple of weeks ago we found out that our own bees had died, having survived through so much of a long, hard winter. But in this wild and barren place they are at the very limit of their viable habitat, and there is so little for them to eat in the early months of the year. Nevertheless, the loss of bees is a hard thing for a beekeeper; each hive is like a little universe, complete in itself, and now it no longer exists. We will have bees again when we move to Donegal in late spring – in a much richer environment where they are more likely to thrive. And when we install our new hive, we will think now of St Gobnait …

Nell & the beesLRGobnait was believed to have born in County Clare in the 5th or 6th century. The story goes that she fled her home because of a family feud, and took refuge on the Aran Islands. An angel appeared to her, and told her to settle and begin what would become her life’s work in a place where she would find nine white deer grazing. After traveling around the south coast, she eventually came upon the nine deer in Ballyvorney, Co Cork.

The angel had also instructed her to find her “resurrection place” where the soul leaves the body. Celtic lore held bees in high esteem; the Celts believed that the soul left the body as a bee or a butterfly. So Gobnait added beekeeping to her work, developing a lifelong affinity with bees. She started a religious order and dedicated her days to helping the sick, most probably using honey as a healing aid.

Many stories exist about how Gobnait prevented invaders (said to have been O’Donoghues of the Glens) from carrying off local cattle. On their approach she let loose the bees from her hives and as a swarm they attacked the invaders, forcing them to flee. One slightly more colourful version of the tale has the beehive turning into a bronze helmet and the bees themselves turning into soldiers.

With bees under such threat, it’s lovely to think of a patron saint of bees and beekeepers.

You can find out more about St Gobnait at these links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gobnait

http://greenjamjar.com/2013/02/11/st-gobnait-patron-saint-of-bees-and-beekeeping/

http://www.dioceseofkerry.ie/page/heritage/saints/st_gobnait/

Riverwitch

For the pasrwgravatart several years, taking care of the writing of others (through Two Ravens Press, EarthLines, courses …) has meant little energy and space for my own writing. But since we have sold Two Ravens Press, and re-evaluated what is important in our lives, and as we begin our great migration from Lewis to Donegal, the pendulum is swinging strongly back in favour of creativity. Since the same is true for David, we have decided to join forces and to collaborate on a new writing project that will map our journey: a project about migration, place, belonging, displacement, re-emplacement … The project is called ‘Riverwitch’, and it has its own website: http://riverwitch.org. I hope you’ll join us on this real-time journey of discovery and follow the blog.

 

Some stories on SoundCloud

For those of you who may be interested, at the request of some of my students and course participants I’m beginning to make recordings of me telling some of my favourite stories and uploading them to SoundCloud. You’ll find a couple of sound files of stories which I’ve already written on this blog at the link below. I’ll be adding more from time to time; to keep up to date, please ‘like’ the Re-enchanting the Earth Facebook page, or sign up for my newsletter.

https://soundcloud.com/sharon-blackie/

Singing over some Irish bones …

Clo 2I’m excited to announce my first ‘Singing Over the Bones’ creative retreat for women in Donegal, next September. It’ll be at the beautiful premises of the art workshop Cló Ceardlann na gCnoc, just around the corner from where we’re going to be living. Please do read all about it here: http://reenchantingtheearth.com/singing-over-the-bones-21-27-september-2014-gortahork-donegal-ireland/

‘The Story of Dog': on giving without counting the cost

Robert Bringhurst is a Canadian poet and academic whose work I’ve referred to quite a bit in previous articles on this blog. A kind friend (thank you, Norma) recently sent me an old book of his poetry, Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, and in its pages I found, in poem form, one of the saddest and most poignant stories I’ve ever come across. It’s a story that resonates with me now for many reasons, but not least because it is a story about giving without counting the cost, and that is such a relevant notion as we approach the consumer-driven lunacy of Christmas.

The Gathering by Celia Garbutt *

The Gathering by Celia Garbutt *

The story-poem resonates mostly, though, because I love Dog – not just as a creature who shares my life and my house (we are fortunate enough to have two working border collie sheepdogs, Nell and Fionn) but as an archetype, a totem animal – and not just as Dog, but as canine. And so I include in this Dog’s canine relations, Wolf (as you may have noticed from the many howling wolf images around this website) and Fox. Dog as a symbol of so much that is good and beautiful and true in the world has been with me ever since I was put in front of a television showing the old black-and-white movie ‘Lassie Come Home’ as a four-year-old, and sobbed so bitterly and for so long that I had to be carted off to the doctor.

Bringhurst’s poem about the story of Dog came back to my mind this weekend, after I’d just viewed the astonishing video ‘The Animal Communicator’, about the work of Anna Breytenbach. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it free online while you still can: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/11936/The-Animal-Communicator. Breytenbach’s experiences reminded me of how much we take for granted in our dealings with animals, and how little we appreciate their complexity. The video reminded me too of one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read about human-animal relationships, Mark Rowlands’ The Philosopher and the Wolf. Compared to wolves, Rowlands doesn’t think much of apes and their descendants, humans. Apes, he argues, are the only creatures whose intelligence is characterised by the need to understand our peers so that we can deceive them and use them for our own purposes. ‘When we talk about the superior intelligence of apes, we should bear in mind the terms of this comparison: apes are more intelligent than wolves because, ultimately, they are better schemers and deceivers than wolves.’

And this resonates deeply: we humans are so clever with our language, with our psychobabblish tricksy word-games and our Catch-22s and all the other ways in which language allows us to manipulate reality and each other. Language allows us to lie, to confuse, to confound our senses. To tie ourselves and others in knots so that we no longer know what is true. To me, as to Rowlands, there is a strong sense that Wolf, and Dog, are true. At least, that’s what they represent to me: the truth that is inherent in a wildness that stays close to the earth, just like the women who ‘run’ with them, as in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ wonderful book, which is the inspiration for much of the psychology work I’ve done in the past and still do today. Nose to the ground, following the track, focusing on what is there, Wolf/Dog just carries on, staying alive, looking out for her pack. She’s not interested in playing games, and has little patience with bullshit. She doesn’t inhabit this human world of me-me-me – MY place in the world, MY territory, what I need … And so it is no surprise to me that in Bringhurst’s story, Dog is the creature who sacrifices his own gifts for the benefit of his humans. Time after time, he just heads on back to the old woman who made the world and, without counting the cost, says Grandmother, do you think you could give … and in the giving of those gifts to his humans, he gives the most precious thing of all: himself. In this story, Dog reminds us that this life isn’t about us, it’s about the world; it’s about others. It’s about giving, without scheming, or deceiving, or withholding and resenting, and above all, without counting the cost.

The story which follows is my version of that in Bringhurst’s poem (which in turn was derived from a native Canadian story), adapted to the places to which I belong, and in prose form.

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The Story of Dog

The old woman who made the world had only just made it, and everything was strange and new. The wind picked up, and the sunlight cut through the air, and the old woman who made the world pitched her camp on a green meadow above the cliffs of a wild and rocky sea-coast, close to the edge, but not very far from the middle of things. She made a fire, and she looked around her; she looked at the world, and she said to her dog, Well, Dog, do you think it’ll do? And the dog said, Grandmother, yes. It’s the way I have always imagined a world might be. The spruce trees look like spruce trees, the mountain larches look like mountain larches, the balsam firs have the unmistakable odour of firs. But grandmother, these and the others seem to have places to be in the world. The rabbit, the red deer, the seal, the sea eagle and the pygmy shrew all have their places, like the mosses on the base of the trees at the edge of the meadow and the sage-green lichen clinging to the rocks by the shore. I’m the only one here, Grandmother, with no one to run from or run to, and I’m lonely in this world.

The old woman poked up the fire and sighed and said Dog, I will make you someone to love and look after, if that’s how it is. And she made men and women, then, as a gift, to cure the loneliness of the dog. And the dog said, Grandmother, thank you, and guided his humans out into the world.

The old woman sat there, thinking, alone in the meadow, tending her fire, watching the spring squill and tormentil sprout through the snow, and the milkwort and lesser celandine. A sea breeze whipped up, and she thought she saw something travelling across the valley, dodging the fallen-log bridges, sloshing through the burns and the lochans. The dog reappeared at the edge of the meadow and then trotted up close to the old woman’s fire, where he lay down and licked his paws.

You’re back for a visit already, said the old woman. Dog, is anything wrong?

The dog said, Grandmother, now that you ask me, yes. It’s those humans you gave me. They listen, you know, but they don’t seem to learn, and I came back to ask you to give them something I think they should have. Grandmother, please, would you teach them to speak? Would you teach them words, so they can tell one another their lies instead of keeping them secret?

The old woman took a burned stick from the fire and dug with it into the ground. She found a jagged, black stone, and washed it in the burn, and set it in the north end of the meadow. And then she said, Dog, that stone is the stone of speech and storytelling. Those humans will be able to say what they choose to say as long as it’s there. And no one I know would want to disturb it.

Grandmother, thank you, said the dog, and he turned and headed back through the valley to be with his humans again.

The old woman sat in the high meadow close to the edge but not too far from the middle of things. She watched the emergence of the kelp forests in the sea and saw the ripening willow buds on the trees at the far end of the meadow down towards the valley, and she listened to the wind. She watched the thrift and the self-heal and the butterwort, until one day she saw a way off, once again, a dark shape making its way across the grassy floor of the valley. The dog reappeared at the edge of the meadow and ambled up to the fire, his long tongue wet and dangling among the tall meadow grasses.

You’re back again, Dog. Is something wrong?

Grandmother, yes. It’s the humans again. You remember I asked you to teach them to talk? Well, now they just talk and talk all the time. It isn’t much, and yet it’s too much. Grandmother, please, would you teach them to laugh?

The old woman who made the world picked up a stick and poked at her fire and reached a little deeper down into the ground with her long, bony hand, and took a crooked, yellow stone and scrubbed it in the stream and set it in the east end of the meadow. Then she said, That stone, Dog, is the stone of laughter and the stone of dreams. Those humans will be able to laugh just fine, and maybe have a few new things to talk about too, when you see them again.

Thank you, said the dog, and he went right back to his humans again.

The old woman who made the world sat watching the purple heather begin to bloom, and the willow leaves turning yellow and red, and the fir scales floating down out of the firs, and then one day she saw something far off, moving slowly through the valley. It had four feet and a tail, and it was headed straight for the meadow. The dog came wearily up to the fire.

Here you are again, Dog, said the old woman. Is something still wrong?

Yes, Grandmother. You remember I asked you to teach them to talk and to laugh? Well, they talk and they laugh just fine, grandmother. No matter what happens, they keep on talking; no matter what their stories say, they just laugh.

Grandmother, please, would you teach them to cry?

The old woman who made the world looked a long time into the fire, and she sighed, and then she reached down deeply into the ground and found a smooth, grey pebble, and she cleaned it off in the stream. She set it in the south end of the meadow. And then she said, Dog, that stone is the stone of weeping and the stone of prayer, and those humans’ll have tears in their eyes when you see them again.

Thank you, said the dog, and he vanished into the trees at the far edge of the meadow and made his way back to his humans again.

The old woman who made the world sat in her camp in the meadow, listening to the wild geese honk in the darkness overhead, watching the golden plover busy among the stones in the shortening afternoon, and the flocks of blackbirds stripping the blaeberries bare. The first snow fell and melted, and after many days the old woman saw something slogging up the valley, through the leaf litter and new snow, breaking trail. The dog reappeared at the edge of the meadow and came and curled up close by the fire, chewing his paws.

You’ve been gone a bit longer this time, the old woman said, but you’re back so. How are the humans doing?

Better, Grandmother, said the dog, but something is missing.

The old woman who made the world stirred her fire and watched as the coals glowed pus-yellow, blood-red, bone-white and grey before finally turning black. Choose carefully, Dog, she said. Choose very carefully, Dog, because the circle is closing.

Grandmother, said the dog, heading up here today, wading through the deep snow, I knew what I wanted to ask. They sit and they talk and they laugh and sometimes now they cry, but something is missing still, Grandmother, something those humans need really badly. Grandmother, please, would you teach them to dance?

The old woman shifted a glowing log deep in the fire and reached down a great distance into the ground with her bony hand and grabbed a half-round, blood-red stone, and rubbed it with snowmelt and set it in the west end of the meadow. Then she sat back down by the side of the fire and shifted another log.

That stone, Dog, is the stone of dancing and the stone of song. Those humans can dance now, and sing. And they can talk and tell stories and laugh and dream and cry and pray, and I hope it is enough, because the circle is closed. And those were your gifts, Dog. They were yours, and you gave them away. And the circle is closed now, Dog; the circle is closed. Whatever those humans say from now on, you’ll only hear the pain and pleasure in the music of their voices. Soon you’ll forget you ever heard the words. Nothing now but barks and yips and howls will form in your throat. Now when they laugh, you’ll make no sound. They’ll weep, and you’ll whimper. Now when they dance, you’ll scamper between their legs. You’ll jump up and down, but the music will never enter your body. The words and the music and the tears and the laughter and the joy of the dance will all be theirs.

They owe you all this, Dog, and I somehow think they may never remember to thank you.

Adapted from Robert Bringhurst’s poem ‘Tending the Fire’, in Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music. It is based on a native Canadian story.

* The Gathering — An Trusach — is by my friend and ex-neighbour Celia Garbutt, and a print of it has pride of place in my kitchen. For more of her work, please visit this website: http://www.rhueart.co.uk/Artists/Celia%20Garbutt