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:


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: 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.

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:

‘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: 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.


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:

The lessons of place

Cailleach2 moon LR

When it comes to writing about place, there are certain books which so captured my imagination that I find myself referring to them time and again. Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places is one such book. The book emerged out of his anthropological studies of the Western Apache people, and it focuses on the ways in which place names are associated with stories which not only convey the history of these people, but which are used to illustrate good and appropriate ways of living and being. Basso’s story of the Western Apache people is primarily a story of place-making: of multiple acts both of historical remembering and transformational imagining which inform each other in complex ways. ‘If place-making is a way of constructing the past, a venerable means of doing human history, it is also a way of constructing social traditions and, in the process, personal and social identities. We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine’, Basso tells us. And the stories – again, a mixture both of history and of imagination – which the Western Apache tell about specific places, inform their daily lives. ‘Knowledge of places is therefore closely linked to knowledge of the self, to grasping one’s position in the larger scheme of things, including one’s own community, and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person.’

In this sense, Western Apache place-lore resembles a similar Irish concept, that of dinnseanchas, though it can be argued that the Western Apache variety is much more overtly focused on stories of place as methods for teaching societal mores and promoting certain ways of being in world, as well as offering a cultural history and associated sense of identity. ‘The land is always stalking people. The land makes people live right’, and ‘I recall stories of how it once was at that mountain. The stories told to me were like arrows. Elsewhere, hearing that mountain’s name, I see it. Its name is like a picture. Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself’, say members of the Western Apache community in Basso’s book.

The web of complex place-making woven by communities such as the Western Apache can only spring from a long and deep rootedness in place. And yet most of us now live in a world and a society from which that kind of rootedness seems to have long since disappeared, along with the sense of belonging that accompanies it. Does the idea of ‘place’ have anything to teach us, then, those of us who are more prone to moving on; those of us who are migratory birds? That sense of rootedness, of ‘digging in and digging deep’, is something I’ve written about on several occasions. But in spite of my admiration for the ability to root oneself in place, and wanderlust associated with Irish travelling genes apart, I have found myself throughout my life moving on from place to place much more frequently than I had ever planned. But this is not because I’m looking for the perfect place, just as I might once have thought of searching for the perfect love; rather, it’s because at each of those different stages in my life I’ve felt that different places have been needed. That different places – yes, the purely physical aspects of these places, as well as the various and varying human cultures that have been associated with them – have different things to teach me. And so in each place I’ve lived, for however long I’ve lived there, I’ve found myself for the duration of that stay digging as deeply into it as I can. Because this is another way in which we can learn the lessons of place, whether we’re inclined to rootedness or not, and whether we can derive a sense of belonging and identity from the places in which we stay or not.

Yes, I have come to believe strongly in the lessons of place. And so, as we prepare to leave this wild and extreme land which we currently inhabit in the Outer Hebrides, and to head next spring for the Gaeltacht of Donegal in north-west Ireland, I have been very focused on what I have learned from this place, and on the results of that learning. I’m exploring both what drew me here at the time, and also the precise reasons why I feel it necessary now to leave it, and move on. Because this won’t be an easy place to leave. I have merged so deeply with the old rocky bones of this place – and of one specific wild coastal location in particular – that I have sometimes feared I would myself turn to stone, sink right into this hardest of all landscapes of gneiss and schist, become it once and for all.

But that is precisely the problem, and precisely the learning which must be taken away.

It’s hard to explain, but in a curious way it’s all to do with elements. Yes, those elements: air, water, earth, and fire. As Meg, the elderly storyteller from the islands, says in The Long Delirious Burning Blue: ‘everyone has their element: the element to which they are drawn, to which they are bound.’ In the novel, my character Cat is drawn to air, and the lightness and crisp clarity she finds in flying; she struggles with the idea of earth, and associates it with heaviness: ‘Everything is so simple up there. Just you, and the sky, and the will to survive. Everything comes down to this: you balance on a knife-edge but it’s a clear, clean cut and what bleeds away is doubt … I am immunising myself against the earth and all that would weigh me down.’ In contrast, her mother Laura is drawn to water: to the sea and seals and selkie-stories. For me, it has always been air and water, and in particular that misty liminal place where one becomes the other – what is usually referred to as ‘the distance’. And so it’s not surprising either that it was those grand mergings of sea and sky which led me to this beautiful place on the edge of the known world – or that it was the extremity of the cold, old hard earth which in the end almost broke me.

Metamorphic layers

I’ve written before (see ‘Stone Teller: extracting stories from stones‘) about the location which I call simply ‘The Rocky Place’. Vast fields of metamorphic rock pierced with rock-pools sweep down to the sea, with cleanly carved cliffs behind. Here it is again:

It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of it from a photograph, but it goes on and on. And it’s filled with treasures of the imagination, all of which spring from the stories I’ve constructed about this place. (Here is one such tentative storied photographic journey.)

But the stories that this place mostly evokes for me, and which haunt my own newer imaginings, are the old stories. These are the stories which exist both in Scottish and Irish mythology, and which tell of the old Celtic goddess of the land in her two aspects: Brighid (or Bride in the Hebrides, who was later Christianised by the church as St Bridget or St Bride) and the hard, stony blue-faced Cailleach (the Gaelic word for old woman, crone or hag). One version of the story says that the old woman of winter, the Cailleach, dies and is reborn as Brighid the spring maiden on the old festival day of Imbolc (February 1). She is fragile at first, but grows stronger each day as the sun rekindles its fire, and turns scarcity into abundance. But as winter approaches and the light begins to fade she weakens again, and her sister the Cailleach begins to awaken. And by the old festival of Samhain (November 1) it is the Cailleach who rules this season, and Brighid who sleeps quietly in the hills. There are many stories about this battle for the seasons which takes place between Brighid and the Cailleach, but they can clearly be seen as two aspects of life in balance, of the need for both darkness and light, summer and winter, the cyclical nature of the world.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was the image and symbology of the Cailleach which interested me most as I tried to root myself in this unfertile, rocky land. Indeed, in the old mythologies she is in some sense a personification of land like this. She is associated with mountains and large hills, which she is said to have created (in some stories, to have formed from stones dropped from her apron) to serve as her stepping stones as she dances across the land, bringing winter in her wake. There are a number of locations in Scotland in which the silhouette of the reclining Cailleach can be seen in the shapes of specific mountains or ranges. The best-known of them is probably Lewis’ ‘Sleeping Beauty’ mountain (known in Gaelic as Cailleach na Mointeach – the old woman of the moors), but many others exist. There is one in the mountains to the east of our house, and I look out at her every day from the window of my study. Here she is, looking away from us, arm flung back and up above her head, burning in a midsummer sunset:

Sleeping beauty sunset

There is also a silhouette of the Cailleach in the Rocky Place, though it is a standing silhouette rather than reclining. Appropriately so, because we know from the old stories that it is in places like this that the Cailleach stands and stares out to sea, perhaps looking for her husband the Bodach, otherwise known as Manannan, the sea-god. (As a digression, what is interesting about this photograph is that you can see both the silhouette of an old woman with a hard, chiselled profile, facing left, and the face of a man, larger and full-on, just to the right of her. You have to stand back to see it, but once you see it, it’s there forever and you may well find yourself switching interchangeably between the two. He has a very short nose and a very large space between the nose and his upper lip, and his left eye is lower than his right. David pointed this out to me the first time I showed it to him, and it gave me some comfort to think that although I had seen her as a solitary figure in this harsh place, maybe her husband the sea-god is there with her, after all …)

Cailleach1 LR

Such locations and the stories associated with them – both those that are old, and those that are new, of my own making – bind me to this place, and whether I stay or go, and in whatever shape or form I might emerge, I will always carry them with me and they will in some sense bind me here. They may be stories, by which we often mean fiction, but they make the place more real to me, not less. They give it texture, layers, meaning … and both through these stories and through the direct physical experience of living in the places from which they spring, I am taught many lessons.

The lessons? Well, when we moved to this place in the spring of 2012, it was exactly what we were looking for. We had had enough of the world, and of what passed for civilisation. We wanted not only remote but remotest; we wanted fewer people, fewer frills. We wanted instead to dig ourselves deeply into the land, to be with, stand with and to witness what remained of one of Britain’s last wild places. And so we came here, to one of the most beautiful and remote places on this part of the planet. We had found exactly what we thought we needed back then, and we immersed ourselves in it – David in his rocky, boggy fields and his fencing and his farm animals, and me in my beloved bogs and my hidden rocky places by the sea, trying all the while to create the Garden of Eden in a place with poorly drained acid soil that bears the full brunt of salt-laden prevailing south and westerly gales. Both of us were by nature creatures of air and water, but we tried to transform ourselves into creatures of this harsh, bleak, old, stony, solitary piece of stunningly beautiful earth. We learned to live without trees and fertile ground and green grass. We learned to live without people. We turned inwards into ourselves and into the land, all the while believing in some strange fashion that we were turning outwards.

I immersed myself in those stories of the Cailleach, a solitary old woman carved out of age-old gneiss. It was the utterly magical Rocky Place to which I was drawn time after time, and which in some strange (but beautiful) way I came to believe defined me. Here, I have become Cailleach for a time; I have become Storm; I have listened to the stories of stones – some of the oldest stones on the planet. I have stood for long periods of time by the side of that silhouetted Cailleach in the Rocky Place and stared out to sea with her, imagining the long ages and the unyielding rock and the unending power of the sea. I have learned about endurance. I have learned about standing – and more than I ever wanted to know about making a stand. I have learned about digging in, and for sure I have learned about digging too deep.

From a cultural perspective, I have learned other things too – though in truth, I think they’re probably the same things. I learned that the pendulum of our lives had swung too far: that I do after all need other people – and in particular, real, live, in-the-flesh people who I can talk to about words and stories and music and art. I have learned that for all its failures and horrors, for all the things that I find abhorrent in this civilisation, I am nevertheless a human being and human culture is something I can’t seem entirely to eschew. I have remembered that the Cailleach, for all her seemingly harsh ways, danced her way across the mountains even as she brought the onset of winter, and I have remembered that I too have always loved  to dance. But I have learned above all else that it is good and fine and very probably necessary to be out of your element for a time – but yes, only for a time. I have learned that I am not after all a creature of rock, or stone. I am not gneiss. I am still a spirit of air and water: mutable, changeable, transforming. And when you dig yourself too deeply into an element that is not your natural element – as I dug myself into this hard, dour, peaty earth – then if you are very, very lucky it will spit you out rather than swallow you up.

It was a close thing, but she spat me out. Back to the horizon, and the distance; back to that clear light place where water meets sky, moving on, fluid, transforming, migrating.

And so the idea of migration is uppermost in my mind right now. And migration is informing my writing, which has been stagnant for too long, and which is dancing its way back to life in new forms: always a prose writer by instinct, I seem to have fallen into poetry. I’m especially glad during this new migratory phase to be involved in a collaborative project on this very subject of migrations, organised by a wonderful new friend, Tasmanian artist Desirée Fitzgibbon. The project, towards infinite horizons, is ‘a celebration of islands, migratory species, vessels and journeys across the seas with artists, poets, writers, storytellers, migrants, performers and seafarers’ which will culminate in an event at the Australian Wooden Boat Festival in Tasmania in February 2015. A new poem, Peregrina, is my first contribution to the project.

The truth is, I’ve often written about migrations. The Long Delirious Burning Blue is about many things, but it is very much about migrations and transformations. A few years ago I wrote a handful of short poetic prose pieces (not quite prose poems; I’m not really sure into which genre they might fit) about migrating sea-creatures: eels and salmon and sea trout (see for example, ‘Here’, which I posted recently and which was originally published in Waterlog). Clearly, it’s been a preoccupation for many years. But there’s still a strong part of me which hopes to find itself beached up in a place where it’s possible to settle and stay forever. And a part of me now that fears it, too; as if the end of migrating might become the end of transformation and of fluidity … But I don’t think that is necessarily so. Whether or not we plan to go on learning new lessons of place through all of our days, in ongoing wanderings and wayfarings, or whether we hope finally to come to rest on some richly textured meant-to-be shore, maybe the best lesson of place is simply the lesson of how, and how not, to be. Something we can carry with us, wherever we might go, or wherever we might stay.