Walking the Story
A Story by Martin Shaw
What follows is a ‘walking the story’ – Martin Shaw walking the land (in this case Dartmoor National Park in England) – covering a physical geography that features in the Devon folktale; ‘The Raven of Chaw Gully’. It is part of a wider forthcoming book where he explores the relationship between story and place.
On a day of mist and below freezing temperature, the land seems defiantly un-scored by agriculture. This rain ruins the fields, turns the hedge to vertical slurry, tips the thresher into the mire, pushes cows flat to the lichen covered boulders, piss wet and numbed. The big handed sons of bailing twine, the farmers, are washed clean away, sloshed across the bruise-flecked downs. The land grapples with the forthright energies required to give us spring some time later. Wet branches hold such ideas fast.
In the distance, the north moor. There is a nordic band of light – clear, gold, framing maybe twenty miles of near treeless land on the very horizon line. Underneath are the more familiar Prussian blues and endlessly varying heathers. It is almost like a Rothko painting still drying, with linseed sluiced through it – wonky horizontal gold, blue, green strips – every colour utterly translucent with moisture. After a time I arrive at that distance.
Snow. Wet flanks of it, half covering the crumbling stone walls of the high moor, making these domestic field arrangements appear like Aztec glyphs, concealing some great and burdened secret. Sky is iron, utterly.
Gazing out from the ice ridged tarmac that separates the north and south moor, my eye struggles to truly recognise the landscape. Certain curls of granite are simply missing, or walkabouts. This new seeing is quite a development, especially considering I had deliberately neglected to bring a map.
The absence of map is not haste or a deliberate foolishness, but a desire to walk these stories in the old way, to hold in mind rather than language or grid, the root to and from my destination. Like the oral mythteller’s handling of a story entirely through memory, I intend to do the same in the walking line. For some stories this is easy, for others, less so. When I had started up from the southern ridge of the moor all was green – cold – but green.
Within minutes there is a pronounced dip, the first of many. What appears a flat, easily negotiable landscape from the road is nothing of the sort. It is layered, mystically sliced up with sudden descents and bogs. What has seemed a straight forward walk to the gorge and back is now a very different scene: with the winter covering I’m lost as to where to go.
Deer Almost as I am having that thought I notice fresh deer tracks on the crisp snow in front of me. Looks like a doe roe deer, possibly fallow. The cloven hoofed print is delicate – the two sides of the hoof curve inwards like two sides of an arrow head. Were they branching out I could have continued a brief fantasy that it was wild boar returning to the high moor. There are rumours, but not today. There are pellet droppings – dry – and as I impulsively decide to follow the tracks I start to pass trees with frayed bark here and there, a sign of trees used by stags to rub the velvet off their growing antlers. It’s a couple of months after rutting season but it still makes me glance quickly about.
The prints shove my thinking out from my numbed icy skull. I see my old tent, wood burner blazing with dry ash, the floor three skins deep with red deer, goat, rabbit and sheep. I remember years of living in a circle. It was following tracks like these that got me into all that trouble in the first place. I can hear hail on canvas like a hymn of god, and see dusks when the new darkness bristled with the return of the roe just feet from my thick felted door flap.
Or are these hooves another magic? When I travel with my crane-skin bag of stories across America, I hear Natives tell of a Deer Woman – sometimes deer, sometimes maiden or brown eyed crone –always hoofed. She belongs to those charged tribe of feminine animal powers – the Xana from Spain, the Lara from Brazil, La Llorona from Mexico, even the Naag Kanyas – the serpent women of India. She loves to dance, arrives at times of transformation, but will not hesitate to kick with those hooves if you look a little stuck. Today she feels jaunty, and I follow.
So now I’m clearly off map-time. If I’m going to find this gully I’ll find it with a mixture of instinct and animal trails. In this weather that gully must provide good shelter. The tender prints meander but slowly lead to a fast flowing stream. Next to the stream are the remains of an old cottage and some recent tangerine peel left on a wall. Tracks start to converge here, and it’s clear the action was happening around dawn, just after the snowfall. There’s plenty of wintered bracken and brambles to munch on, as well as couple of seedling trees which must have seemed like high feasting in this iron-cold month.
Raven Raven sweeps overhead. Silent, ebony against the freezing grey. In a second I trade trails. It heads northwards, over the other roe tracks and far beyond, just disappearing at a slight dip in the granite tumped horizon line. Seeing raven is a big lift. I am now stomping through thick, dead bracken with a crusting of snow and ice on top, facing a long incline. My breathing is shallower, but I feel a charge seeing those casual black wings marking tracks in the bone-cold air. The wind gets up. That low, elemental moan. My ears are red and Levis soaked to the knee.
Raven carries the Nigredo black of the alchemist on its wings, beak, body. It is like some charcoal stain on the optimists blue horizon. Fifty thousand years of gobbling scat and flesh, a constant at the battlefield, make it a companion to putrefaction. Black is strong medicine, even when denied that it is a colour at all. It is the robe of choice for any decent occultist, the black of night is the cover for illicit liaison, to be ‘in the dark’ is to be wandering, confused, un-settled, it is a soil that produces the fragrant oriental lilly, it is a hint of what could await at the moment of death. Raven is a spiritus rector, a guardian deity.
At the same time, archaeology tells us that black is the place to go. It’s long been known in England that any place name with the word black in it – Black Meadow, Black Woods, Blackingstone Rocks – is a place of worth of digging. The reason? The darker coloured soil will indicate an old settlement – generations of fire ash, food remains, and general use. To a certain eye black means to dig deeper. To a certain eye it offers reward.
There is that mingle of slight panic mixed with excitement as I do nothing but follow the bird. My logic is berating me every step, assuring me that the gully is several miles to the west, that I even started the walk in the wrong place. I’m no longer tucked in by field walls but right out in the wide flank of the rise now, directly in the impact of the wind. I catch my breath and glance back. I can see roughly five miles in each direction. The thrill of seeing not one human being – no sudden red of waterproofs and the glint of a compass – is a deep one. I can see pines clustering on my far left like a dark army and acres of pistol-hard ground to my right. There is the sudden sense of behind these hills are other hills and behind those are moor and mountain, all empty of human snare and ambition.
Raven takes me a long way. Further than my body wants. I miss the delicacy of that roe track and the stream bank. My Northface jacket is stuck with sweat to my shirt and unzipped, I’m taking handful’s of snow and letting them melt in my mouth as I climb. Following this air trail is spinning me out.
Pony I look down, to gather, to ground. A third trail: hoof prints of the Dartmoor pony, fresh scat too. It seems that there is almost a tangible warmth to them, that snow has actually melted around the shape. They and raven’s trail are now aligned. I climb the last section of hill and turn again. I’ve come some distance.
There have been bones of these wild little ponies found up here dating back to around 3500 BC: immeasurably tough, kind hearted beasts. Small head, large, wide eyes, full mane, with the foreleg rising to the shoulder. They have carried hard yards of tin across moorland, descended as pit ponies into water, darkness, and scraped ribs, escorted prisoners with guards to Dartmoor Prison. This is their place. No wonder the snow melts with tenderness when it feels those resolute hoofs bless the white flakes.
I find a small gully, is that it? But no, the sides are far to brief. I don’t even bother descending, and fighting some disappointment continue along the ridge a little further. I sense rather than see, a drop off to my right and wade through a final section of frosty long grass.
There it is.
Raven did its thing. I look down the steep and long gully, longer than I expected, but, as the locals recount, a savage gash in the ridge, and very hidden until you are almost on top of it. The few photos I have seen tend to be of its entrance, but I have come at it from the side. The sky is threatening another flurry, a few flakes drift down past my nose. I look around at possible routes downwards, at this point I am above it.
It may have been exhaustion, or exhilaration at suddenly finding it, or some other thing, but I find myself simply swinging onto a canopy of brambles and clusters of bracken that feather the drop on my side, and freefalling down the frozen foliage. I’m simply too tired to negotiate a more sensible way down. Feeling like a slightly wayward sleigh ride, I hurtle down the brambled cape, and enjoy the discreet padding of the snow till I land, crumpled and exuberant at the bottom. I have entered another world.
I have rarely felt such an impacted shift in consciousness. I did not expect it. I feel like Gawain entering the valley of the Green Knight’s chapel. The wind has utterly ceased. The death-moan that has accompanied me the whole walk is just memory. Even the quality of the air feels different. Utterly quiet. Holy. There is no aggressive squawking and conks, no sense of malevolence. The steep banks, the handsome granite outcrops, the icicles hanging in row after celestial row, the leisured silence, the firm bounce in the ground underneath the flakes.
Having followed such a gut-low-instinctive path to get here, I feel like I have walked through the back of the wardrobe. I start to pray, steam leaving trails in the air, and place offerings appropriate to a raven in the snows crust. After longer than I expect, I pick my way through the gully, feeling a sweetness of spirit I could not have predicted. I need goat hooves for the breaks in surface under the snows crust, but I love the experience. I feel light, like a kid.
About half way down the gully I come to a triangular shaped opening, near the ground, opening right into the maw of a side wall of granite. Suddenly all is vivid green, ferns and ivy literally crown the entrance, melting snows causing silvery droplets. There is no end to the opening, it twists and disappears, way beyond the reach of my arm. It feels gorgeously un-human, lively, charged. I know I have seen it before, but I don’t know how. Here it seems more even more silent.
What irritated the Knockers seems gone, maybe they have returned to their shape as Fey, Benji, Gentry. This place is so un-trammelled there is a reluctance to describe it much further, or to leave too precise instructions on how to find it. I move on with few words, but more pockets emptied.
The pony trail leads me back to the roe deer trail. I feel cleaned out somehow. I yelp, and even run awhile, intoxicated by the sheer space and aloness. Soaked, hot, and at peace, I climb the original incline from the beginning of the walk. From behind, right over my shoulder, sweeps raven, then down into some low-slung bush. From the corner of my eye, I see two fly out and away.
When I finally make it home I sleep for hours. But even now, as I write this, it is utterly vivid, this time with the Ravens gully. ‘Dropping the map’ I realise is the same way I tell stories – holding the bones, but letting the trails of words, or roe-deer, or raven, leads us an earthier way, so we always arrive in some way we hadn’t quite been before. Maybe the gully is like some Tibetan deity – you go for plunder you meet trouble, you go with reverence you meet blessing. I can’t be sure.
copyright 2012 Martin Shaw