Myth and story as an act of placemaking: the transcript

For those of you who requested a transcript of yesterday’s audio file, here it is.

It’s not quite dawn in this green, fertile valley; there’s just the faintest glimmer of pink in the sky to the east. The moon is waxing, its light silvering the river which winds through the land, soft like the curves of a woman’s body as she stretches out to dip her toes in the sea. At the crossroads, three hares are sitting quite still in the middle of the road; they scatter when they become aware of me, tails flashing white in the moonlight then fading into the dark.

Up I go, as I do every morning, along the stony, uneven track to the high bog, face to the Seven Sisters mountains, silhouetted now against a gradually lightening sky. They are the guardian spirits of this place, gathering around the fringes of the bog like a semicircle of elders, enclosing and protecting the land as it stretches across to the sea. An Earagail, or Errigal, the oratory; Mac Uchta, son of the mountain-breast; An Eachla Mhór, the great horse; Ard Loch na mBreac Beadaí, the heights of the loch of the canny trout; An Eachla Bheag, the little horse; Cnoc na Leargacha, hill of the hill-slope, and old sow-mother An Mhucais, or Muckish, the pig’s back. Every name tells its own story; every mountain holds its own secret; every secret whispered down the scree slopes and sinking into the bog below.

I wind back along a tiny path to cut home across the fields, but first I have to navigate the ford: a shallow pool in a sheltered hollow through which a deep and fast-flowing stream can be crossed. The ford froths blood-red at the edges with iron precipitates, and I creep down to it carefully, half expecting to catch a glimpse of the bean nighe, the Washer at the Ford – the old woman of Gaelic legend who scrubs clean the bloody clothes of slain warriors.

Behind the ford is a single, clearly defined hill, a green breast rising from the soft contours of the land. It is crowned with heather, wiry and dormant now, spreading across its crest like a wide brown nipple. We call it a fairy hill, for these are the places which lead to the Otherworld – the beautiful, perilous dwelling-place of the Aos Sí, the people of the mounds who lived in this land before us. Once upon a time, inside a hill like this on the Isle of Islay, Celtic women were transformed into the wisest creatures in the land by the Queen of the Aos Sí. In the Otherworld, wisdom is largely possessed by women, since they are the ones who hold the Grail. But that is a story for another time. Here in Ireland, the Otherworld is as real as any other, and exists in parallel with this. The Otherworld, in many senses, is what French philosopher Henry Corbin called the mundus imaginalis: the world of the image, a different level of reality which lies between the empirical/physical world and the world of abstract intellect, and which communicates itself in the form of myth and symbol. So it is that the Irish landscape is a landscape steeped in stories, and those stories stalk us still. They have seeped into the bones of this land, and the land offers them back to us; it breathes them into the wind and bleeds them out into streams and rivers. They will not be refused.

I moved here two and a half years ago, and this land and the creatures who inhabit it are beginning to know me as I know them. They know me because I walk every morning in the same places. They know me because sometimes when I go down to the blood-red ford, I sit for a while and I sing. Because sometimes, I sit and tell a story to the giant boulder on top of the hill which I call the Story Stone, because on every side of it I see a different face, and all the faces have their mouths open as if they are telling stories. They know me because each morning, in the same place, I stand and I say the names of the mountains. It is an incantation, a summoning. Naming is important. Be careful what you awaken with your naming; be aware of what you’re calling into being.

So it is that the mountains come to know me as I know them. And I do know them. I know their voices: the different sounds they create as the wind swirls around each one’s unique shape. I know them by the way the clouds gather on their crests and mist lingers in their folds. An Earagail has a penchant for small puffy clouds which perch on top of her conical head like jaunty bonnets; An Mhucais likes lenticular clouds, all the better to see her beautiful long back reflected in the mirror of the sky.

On the way back home along the lane, a grey heron sits, as she always sits, stock-still on a large boulder in the middle of the river. In the Irish language, the word for heron is corr, which is also the word for crane – undoubtedly because, just as cranes vanished from Ireland, the grey heron arrived to take their place. In my native mythology, crane is a powerful bird who guards the gates to the Otherworld. She is possessed of longevity, and associated with the Cailleach, the fierce old woman who made and shaped the land. That is my mythology. I imagine her looking down at me sometimes as she flies off, and wonder what I am in a heron’s mythology, giant earth-bound creature with a strange blunt little fleshy object that passes for a beak, and an appallingly ungainly gait.

Connection comes by showing up. By putting yourself in the same place over and over again. By allowing it to know you as you come to know it. Connection is about falling in love with the world, and at the same time, letting it fall in love with you. Connection isn’t just one-way.

Connection begins with knowing a place – its ecology, geology, how it presents itself in all weathers, its physical characteristics. Connection continues with knowing its social and cultural history: the history of humans in that place, and the relationships we’ve had with it over time. Connection is well underway when you understand the land’s myths and stories. Because they don’t come out of our heads, you see. Myths, as Canadian professor of Cultural Studies Sean Kane once wrote, are the power of place, speaking.

As I walk, An Eachla Mhór, the Great Horse, shrugs off its blanket of mist and rears up its head in the sun-speckled bog. The Little Horse stirs at its side. Donegal is a land of horse-dreaming; the old tribal goddess Macha forced to race the king’s fastest horses while pregnant until, beating them easily nevertheless, she dies after giving birth to twins at the finish line – but not before she has cursed the men of Ulster to weaken like women in childbirth at the hour of their greatest need. That’s another story for another day – but is it Macha that the Little Horse was dreaming of? Macha, part woman, part horse, as the rising heron’s great shriek pierced the morning, and both horses opened their eyes? Looking down at heron as heron, flying, looks down at me, and in that moment, as horse dreaming meets heron dreaming meets human dreaming, a new myth is born. Old Crane Woman is born, part woman, part heron.

If you creep out down to the river in the light of a full moon, you’ll see her there, Old Crane Woman. She’ll be standing on one leg, still as can be, and you’ll know her by her long nose, her frayed grey and white dress, and her long, thin arms with the sharp, sticking-out elbows. She’ll be staring into the river, for Old Crane Woman knows that inspiration comes always at the side of the water, there on the edge, in that troubling threshold place between one element and another. Don’t startle her: she’ll be gone in a flash. If you wait there, just as still as she is, for as long as it takes, maybe you’ll hear her whispering a story. Listen to her story; Old Crane Woman is the power of place, speaking.

The myths and stories which arise out of our relationship with the land bind our imagination with the land’s imagination, draw us in, enchant us, make us fall in love with the world all over again. If we are enchanted, we are connected, because enchantment by my definition has nothing to do with fantasy, or escapism, or magical thinking: it is founded on a vivid sense of belongingness to a rich and many-layered world; a profound and whole-hearted participation in the adventure of life. Enchantment is intuitive, embraces wonder, and fully engages the creative imagination – but it is also deeply embodied, ecological, grounded in place.

Ultimately, to be enchanted is to fully participate in the world; to be open both to its transparency and its mystery. At the beginning of the twentieth century, French philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl used the term participation mystique – ‘mystical participation’ – to represent the worldview of what he then called ‘primitive peoples’. Participation, he suggested, is a feeling of identification with the world which is so intense that any sense of separation from it vanishes. But although it’s perhaps more easily recognised among indigenous peoples, this sense of ‘participation’ is actually an innate, spontaneous human tendency which we all possess. Our way of being in the world is naturally participatory when we are children, but then we lose our facility for enchantment as we grow older, and learn to conform to the social and cultural mores which require us to actively disenchant ourselves so we can be thought of as fully adult.

I believe that enchantment is a state of mind which can be cultivated, and that myth and story place us more firmly into the wider life of the world: our personal story is enmeshed with a greater story of which we’re a part. We feel as if we belong, as if we are part of a wild-hearted community in which animals always have something to teach us, trees and plants can save or cure us, wise old men and women are waiting in the dark woods to help us, and a well may be a doorway to another world. Myths and folk tales can weave us back into the seasons and cycles of the year, and they can help us to accept the necessary, sometimes challenging, cycles of life. That sense of awe, of connection, of belonging to a mysterious world which has many depths and layers to explore, is what is missing in so many people’s lives today. It is what we need to cultivate in ourselves, encourage in our children, and offer up generously to others.

Because connection isn’t about nature in our service, a slave to our needs, a commodity for our use, a sticking-plaster for our stresses. Nature isn’t there to provide us with therapy; that isn’t what connection is about. Connection is about love. Enchantment. Wonder. And a necessary and appropriate sense of awe.

Imagine that the land is a great living creature. Imagine that creature is sleepy sometimes, and dreams. If you show up, and listen, you might catch the residue of those dreams. You might fall into the land’s dreaming, and who knows then what new thing will be born?

Who knows then whether nature might decide to reconnect with us?


The image is by Catherine Hyde: www.catherinehyde.co.uk

11 thoughts on “Myth and story as an act of placemaking: the transcript

  1. THANK YOU for posting this transcript — audio is not accessible for so many of us, from those like me who don’t process spoken words very well, to those who straight-up can’t hear em.

    This is beautiful & I thank you for it. It’s … it’s SO important to not just forget that we are a part of everything, to not disconnect from the rest of the world just because it’s ‘different’, somehow. I’ve been thinking about differences lately, how anyone or anything different is so terrifying to so many people, & it’s just … frustrating. Why fear what’s different? There’s so much to connect with, so much to learn!

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  2. I am in love with this essay because it speaks to what I know – the mystery of interconnection which is not a mystery at all – but the result of “showing up” – over and over. The earth and her creatures are always telling stories that we can begin to hear if we listen with an open heart. Thank you for this wonderful essay

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    1. Yes, indeed. It’s not something you can get from a book, or a workshop – though such things can provide clues. It’s about being there. Sitting or walking in the same place each day. Turning off the shouting in your own head and looking outwards rather than inwards all the time. Thanks for reading!

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  3. Thank you! Your words are so inspiring for me. I love how you describe Enchantment, it is so full of those things that make me want to become part of the world again.

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    1. The world is hard and it is so easy to withdraw from it but it needs us to participate, I think. There’s plenty of good, grounded enchantment left to find. We have to engage, though. Go looking. Go listening … Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Thank you for posting this transcript 🙂
    After reading this and some of your other work – I’ve started to wonder whether I fall into the land’s dreaming sometimes when I write – in the meantime – I’m listening …

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