Turning our fairy tales feral again
There are some stories that have weathered the ages. Weathered them, literally— from the mouth of an old man around a fire of peat, smoking until the story he is telling is black and tobacco-stained, to the girl who heard it and carried it with her out into the sheep fields, then into the city, working two jobs to feed her children, all the while touching on the strength of wild swans in her memory; from the ancient fire pit around which it was first told and shaped, maybe as far back as the making of bronze things, maybe just at the time the priests came and built churches, to the anthology of Irish Folktales in which some semblance of it was written down in the late 19th century, and the subsequent re-printings, slightly changed re-writings, the battered pages, the dunks in bathtubs, the days left out on the porch in the rain. We may call many myths fairytales, now, as if to diminish their seriousness; whatever we call them, they are old and powerful, when we peel them back. They are full of the magic of animals, land, and people.
Humans are storytelling creatures. We need story, we need deep mythic happenings, as much as we need food and sun: to set us in our place in the family of things, in a world that lives and breathes and throws us wild tests, to show us the wildernesses and the lakes, the transforming swans, of our own minds. These minds of ours, after all, are themselves wild, shaped directly by our long legacy as hunters, as readers of wind, fir-tip, animal trail, paw-mark in mud. We are made for narrative, because narrative is what once led us to food, be it elk, salmonberry or hare; to that sacred communion of one body being eaten by another, literally transformed, and afterward sung to.
The narratives we read, and watch, and tell ourselves about the relationship between humans and nature have cut out the voices of all wild things. They’ve cut out the breathing world and made us think we are alone and above. If these narratives don’t change—if the elk and the fogs don’t again take their places and speak—all manner of policies, conservation efforts and recycling bins won’t be worth a damn. We live in a world where, despite our best intentions, the stories we read—literary, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, poetry—are almost wholly human-centric. Wild places and animals and weather patterns are stage sets, the backdrop, like something carved from plywood and painted in. They have no voice, no subjective truth. In our dominant narratives, we are not one of many peoples—grass people, frog people, fox people—as the Hupa Indians of the Klamath River region say. We are the only people.
This makes sense on one level, as we live in a world in which we believe the only things that are truly and wholly animate are ourselves. Mostly all of what we have been taught is predicated on this assumption. On another level, this is complete lunacy, complete insanity. At what point did we loose the sense of stories and myths actually arising from the world around us, its heartbeats, its bloodflows, its bat-eared songs?
In January, on a cold, star-filled evening, my love and I drove out from the bright suburbs of San Francisco, through first the San Geronimo Valley, full of gentle cows, then the Samuel P. Taylor redwoods, so dark it was like driving into mystery, then through the Olema Valley, right on the eastern edge of the San Andreas Fault, until finally we found ourselves in the small parking lot of a church in Point Reyes Station, a little hamlet where once the North Pacific Railroad passed, bearing redwood lumber, milk and butter. At that small church, Dr. Martin Shaw, mythologist, wilderness rites of passage leader and storyteller sat in a big red-cushioned wooden chair, like some throne of old, in front of a motley crowd.
We were pink-cheeked and grinning with excitement as he began to tell us the story of Dame Ragnelle. The room was so crowded that my love and I had to sit on a piano bench with a big candelabra behind us, almost at Dr. Shaw’s feet. We were rapt. All of us leaned forward in our chairs like schoolchildren. It wasn’t just that he told the story with poetry, with humour, with grace and with fire. It wasn’t just that he beat the hand-drum when the horses ran, that the story, in his hands, was alive and utterly his own as much as it was medieval, rooted in some Arthurian dream. It was also that, as he began the telling, Shaw invoked the story as a living thing. He said it had hooves, it had smooth flanks; it might even have claws. He said that we were inviting it in through the windows, doe-eyed thing; that at the end, we had to offer back to it the parts we liked best. And truly, it felt like a glowing, long-tailed prancing creature in the room, one we threw golden apples to at the end, the kind of story-creature for whom you’d leave out offerings of special drinks — beet kvass, kefir, limoncello — in the garden, hoping to keep it sated and nearby.
On the drive home, back through those dark, dark woods — so dark the headlights felt like the fire in the skull that Vasalisa won from the Baba Yaga and carried back with her home, casting a glow only a little ways ahead, so that we were well and truly swallowed in the night and tree dark — we couldn’t stop talking. The story sat with us in the car, preening her grey and gold feathers, feeling pleased, leaving behind a claw. Back into the bright suburbs we drove and talked, but all changed, and so very much alive.
That night I woke up near dawn, smiling. I felt like I had the story in my body, like it was swimming in me, and I in it. It was exactly the same feeling I had after my very first animal tracking class out on the sand dunes of Abbott’s Lagoon. That night, a year and a half ago now, I woke up around three a.m. brimming with joy at the thought of a coyote and her perfect side-trotting tracks. I couldn’t stop thinking that this was an individual coyote whose prints I’d touched, one who had a very specific story and life — a thicket of brush in which she was born, favourite hunting techniques and places to try them out, a set of lovers stretching back through time, maybe a tilt to one of her ears.
The feeling was exactly the same the night after we heard Martin Shaw tell his wild-pawed tale. It’s the kind of happiness you wake with when you have just fallen in love. Full, irrational at three or four a.m., giddy. Like an ember you are holding in your belly. Something so good, so rich, it’s like you are lying in a meadow in the spring sun, and wild irises are touching your hands, and your animal body is at utter and perfect ease.
Why is it that this story, and my first animal tracking experience, nestled into the same part of my dreams and woke me with the same glee? How do we track and trail the stories that are wild? How do we keep them furred and toothed and breathing, our stories of the world, our selves, the more-than-human denizens with which we share it all? What is the relationship between myths, a fox hunting woodrats and leaving behind her perfect prints in the damp dirt, our own psyches? If prints in mud are the letters standing in for the living body of a wild creature, how do we re-establish reverence for, and awareness of, the living bodies of the stories whose prints we read on paper? How do we make sure they stay wild-hoofed, not shod?
I think it’s a relationship that can only be understood, alas (or thank goodness), through metaphor; that old trickster; that tried and true tool of any wandering bard; that shape-shifter. For the November 2012 issue of Earthlines magazine, Martin Shaw wrote an article called ‘Walking the Story: the Raven of Chaw Gully’. The title refers to a practice he holds of walking with old Devon stories in his mind through the landscapes in which they are literally from, the tors and moors and wild-pony-thickets, seeing how they come alive in the physical context from which they were born (and in which he was born, too). Shaw followed deer prints, he followed ravens, the signs of wild ponies. As he walked the story, he also tracked the wild landscape around him, deeply.
‘It is 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.’ How has the story, in other words, become a metaphor for the wild landscape, a pawprint that represents a larger body? How do the stories in our bodies come alive in the lands around us?
When we walk, holding stories in us, do they touch the ground through our footprints? What is this power of metaphor, by which we liken a thing we see to a thing we imagine or have seen before — the granite crag to an old crystalline heart — changing its form, allowing animation to suffuse the world via inference? Metaphor, perhaps, is the tame, the civilised, version of shamanic shapeshifting, word-magic, the recognition of stories as toothed messengers from the wilds. What if we turned the old nursery rhymes and fairytales we all know into feral creatures once again, set them loose in new lands to root through the acorn fall of oak trees? What else is there to do, if we want to keep any of the wildness of the world, and of ourselves?
As Stanley Kunitz has written, in his book The Wild Braid, ‘poetry [is] a meta medium—metabolic, metaphoric, metamorphic — articulating shifts of being, changes and transfers of energy.’ So too are the old tales — the ones we have cinched up into the corsets of fairytale language, of ‘fantasy’ (itself rooted in older words for light, making visible, and imagination) — full of metamorphosis. Literally, when bear-husbands become men, when maidens turn back to swans. Metaphorically, in the sense that these stories feed the parts of ourselves where wonders dwell, where the boundaries of the world are fluid and all things speak, keeping fed the metabolisms of our wild souls.
After hearing Dr. Shaw speak, I got to wondering, and I got to walking, following a pair of courting coyotes and a bounding jackrabbit out at Limantour beach: what if those old stories, the ones that some way or another are my blood heritage (as a complete European mutt — Russian, German, Austrian, Swiss, Welsh, Irish, English, Dutch, Romanian, Polish), got walked on this land, the only land I really know? What would happen if my tracking eyes, ravenous for pawprints, bits of fur, old bones, the contours of thick manzanita chaparral and all the trails it holds, collided with my myth and folktale-loving imagination? How would the stories I know fare in this place? I live in the Coast Range foothills of central-northern California: redwood canyons, northern coastal scrub of coyote brush and bramble, red alder riparian corridors, buttercup and Douglas iris strewn prairies, groves of oak and fir and thimbleberry, wild thrashing foamed Pacific strand. Where mountain lions hunt, where tule elk graze, where coyotes and gray foxes court, where orange-bellied newts and red-legged frogs swim and sing.
There are deep stories already sung right up from this land. In this region, the oldest ones are Coast Miwok, Pomo, and Ohlone. Throughout California stories were once told in over three hundred different dialects, each dialect corresponding to a specific region—a specific watershed, as we think of it now. This land was so abundant that often no one needed to venture even over the next mountain for food—it was all there. Imagine how rooted those stories were, even as they shared themes, characters, and plots across the state and across the continent.
I wish that the heritage of my immediate ancestors in this place was not predicated directly upon violence, slaughter and oppression of a people and a way of life that had been grounded here for at least 9,000 years. A people who had words for every kind of fog, and grass, and twitch of the fault-zone. This is not to say that no one is left to keep those traditions alive — oh no. There is a growing cultural revitalisation of tribal peoples in California — there are kids born with the Klamath language in their ears because their moms held tape players up to their pregnant bellies. There are Chumash bear-dances and Winnemum Wintu initiation rites and old Pomo ladies squabbling over the leadership of basket-weaving associations. There is zest and vigour, adaptability, humour, changefulness, wisdom, and also a lot of hardship, poverty and abuse of every kind surrounding these communities.
But the thing is, their stories, all of them that are left intact, are not mine to touch. I have no right. My people have done enough meddling, enough ruining, enough destroying, and it is not my right now, a white girl made up of almost every imaginable white European culture, in my longing for rootedness, in my longing to belong to the land into which I was born, to go adapting and adopting the sacred stories of a people who my direct ancestors very likely discriminated against, probably even killed.
This is a source of shame and anger and humiliation for me that runs very deep, like a vein. I don’t really like to address it at all, as it makes me feel uncomfortable, like crying, like hitting a wall with my fist. Certainly those are stories to be learned, revered, respected; but not retold, not in my voice. That’s too easy—taking stories from others about the land you live on without listening and learning its stories yourself. Those were stories gathered and earned over millennia. We need to work for our own wild myths, break ourselves open to let them in.
But I am here. This land is my home now too, whatever baggage that statement carries with it. I have a duty and a longing to learn it and to belong to it and to sing out its strange, wild magic songs. And I wonder if the stories that my ancestors brought with them in their blood and their bedtime-tellings — the Irish ones, the Russian ones, the English and German — can find a new wild home in these lands too. If there is some transmutation in order, some shape-shifting, as tale-types have been doing the world over since the beginning, getting passed on and changed as people migrate. There are Snow White tales from West Africa to Chile, from Albania to Iraq and France to Louisiana. And while, yes it’s true, tales are born from specific landscapes, languages and cultural contexts, can they not be re-rooted? Reincorporated, re-patterned, returned to their wildness in a new place?
I’m wondering if I could walk with old stories over these landscapes, plant them here, see how the bobcats, the Douglas firs, the manzanitas and the kestrels, the red-legged frogs and brush rabbits, how they take to them. I am not Russian, Irish or German. I am not California Indian. My heritage and the traditions of my ‘people’ are vague, and so I (and many others around me) have no set of tales to turn to as a way of relating to both the wild world in which we live, and the hunger for wonder that we all have in our souls, the hunger for magic. Can we break open old stories like you break open an egg or a fruit, find the ember, the seed, the heart, and regrow it here, with respect and with reverence and with great curiosity, in the places where we live now?
I, for one, am going to take them out with me, walking alongside the courting coyote prints and the place where brush rabbits come to graze the long grass in the early morning next to the salmonberry canes. I’ve read lots of fairytales, folktales and myths since I was a girl — Irish ones, German ones, Russian ones, Italian and Siberian too. Some were told by my ancestors. Some I’m sure were not. I’m going to carry them out of the books and into the wind. It’s pretty dry in there, pretty old-fashioned, pretty tame, to be stuck between pages. Catskin, East of the Sun, West of the Moon, The Wild Swans, Rapunzel, Vasalisa the Wise, Bluebeard, the Frog Princess, where are your grey fox whiskers, your elk hooves, your red-legged frog songs? How will you shapeshift with the redwood-coastal fog on your necks, the resin of chaparral on your tongues? What do your wild bodies look like and how will they run, set loose from the prints they’ve left on the page?
It’s simple, really. The way we relate to wildness, otherness and magic in our everyday narratives needs to change. New versions of stories need to be made that let the starlight in, the wingbeats of bats, that allow the mountain lions to leave their pawprints, to hunt the deer and drag them under the boughs of Douglas firs, and be not afraid. Until our narratives allow the more-than-human world in again, as a host of subjects rather than a host of objects, we will have no chance of healthily re-treading and re-creating our relationship to nature. We will have no chance of protecting much of anything at all.
I like the idea of stories being weathered, in all senses of that word. Stories that withstand the winds and rains of time, different tellers, journeys by boat, new hearths, and are still with us. Stories as landscapes that we ourselves must weather, that can touch and change us as tangibly as walks through nettles in the red alder-shade, where tule elk graze and startle at our coming. Stories as having their own weather systems, their own mountain ranges were the clouds hit and drop rain, where the fog gathers, where the winds get going strong. Stories weathered like human skin gets weathered, crisscrossed with lines from sun and cold and being outside.
I am throwing golden apples and scraps of dreams to the story-creature trotting with me as I write this, blue-hoofed, black-eyed, feral.
Remember, the myths written in black ink that we have so often read have wild bodies sprouting moss.
Remember, the paw-prints you see in the dust belong to an individual grey fox who breathes, who cries out to the night, who suckles her young and guards them with her very heart and her very life.
I’ve started a story-by-mail project that explores all of this. It is called the Gray Fox Epistles. It is named in honour of that graceful and cunning North American fox, Urocyon cinereoargentues, black-kohl around her eyes, red tail, ‘ashen silver’ fur, more ancient in lineage than the red fox, more closely related to cats, tree-climber, cricket and berry eater, dusk-walker, quick as light. It is also named in honour of that old Western tradition of epistles — so popular in ancient Greece and Rome among scholar and sage and later saint as a way to share pedagogy, philosophy, treatise. These are tongue-in-cheek epistles, bringing, via physical letter, tales that are offerings of the wild, that subvert the idea of ‘right–teachings’ in favour of the lessons that we most need, the ones that only a walk in the alder wood will give us.
Subscribe to the Gray Fox Epistles, and once a month, a gray fox will trot through your living room with a beautiful letter in his teeth, hand-addressed, with a tale inside. Each tale is a re-telling of an old myth, fairytale or legend, re-rooted and re-imagined in the land I know. I invite you to walk these stories out to your nearby meadows. Let your backyard birds sing through them, your particular moon-shadows. See what shape the paws are that they grow, how they take to the water.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
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