Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Mythos We Live By: Uncolonising Our Imagination

Last week a new series began over on the Dark Mountain blog about the role of mythology in uncertain times. As the series editor,  I asked six writers who work with story  – as teachers, storytellers, anthropologists, poets, performers, activists  – to choose 'a myth we live by' to explore what  a mythological response to an age of converging crises might look like. It began with a conversation with storyteller and mythologist Martin Shaw...

A different drum: Martin Shaw elling the Siberian tale of 'The Crow King and the Red Bead Woman' at Base Camp, Embercombe [Photo: Warren Draper]
A different drum: Martin Shaw telling the Yakut tale of 'The Crow King and the Red Bead Woman' at Base Camp, Embercombe, Devon [Photo: Warren Draper]



There was a moment at Base Camp when it happened: Martin Shaw was reaching the end of the long Siberian story and the whole room was learning forward. We were waiting to catch the moment when the once-broken King and the wild sovereign Earth would finally be reunited. The atmosphere was so intense you could hardly breathe. All the logistics about climate change and consumerism, alt-right politics and Hollywood illusion, all our shattered dreams of progress had disappeared, and suddenly you knew what fundementally, urgently, crucially, mattered was for us to make this same reconnection in our deep collective soul. And that nothing, absolutely nothing, would get us back on track as a people until we did.

In the coming six weeks as spring approaches, we will be looking at several 'uncivilised' ancestral myths that have connected people and the land through generations, to rediscover what Dougie Strang, in his autobiographical tale woven around the Gaelic song, Am Bron Binn, called the 'rich feast of our birthright'. We've asked six writers who work with the world's indigenous tales and teachings, how can the act of storytelling liberate us from our narrow, data-driven perception of the world and shift our attention towards what Iain McGilchrist calls the vast universe of the ‘right hemisphere’? How can myths give us a language, a technology, to navigate a time ruled by dragons and ugly sisters, in a culture that is 'broken open by its own consequence'.

Martin Shaw has been telling his wild alchemical tales to Dark Mountaineers for years now, in his books, his teaching (at the Westcountry School of Myth) and most strikingly at our events – and from all these emerge a depth, a heart, a clarity, a connectedness, that you cannot find in modern collapse narratives. When you pay attention to these archaic stories you realise they were never there to reflect the power and glory of an empire, to provide escape or entertainment at the end of a hard-working day. They exist as a reminder of our place and meaning on the Earth; a reminder of what we have to undergo to become truly human.

It is this core act of remembering we hope to show and tell over the coming weeks. So do draw up a chair by the fire and be ready to be transported in time and place, from the deep forests of Siberia to the snowy mountains of California to the inky blue waters of the Mediterranean. We're going on a journey that starts with a conversation with Martin about 'the radical power of story' that opens us to reclaiming an uncolonised imagination' (a full version will be published in Dark Mountain's spring Issue 11):


CDC: Do you feel mythology plays a role in a world which has become increasingly fragmented and meaningless?

MS: Myth has something very direct to say. Many of the stories we need now arrived perfectly on time about 5,000 years ago. Old mythologies contain not only stories about our place on the Earth, but have the Earth speaking through them, what the Islamic scholar Henry Corbin termed the mundus imaginalis –  where the human imagination is open to what David Abram describes as the more-than-human world. So with myth, you are working not just with imagination but with the imaginal, what many aboriginal cultures would call the Dreamtime. In other words, as we turn ideas around in our head, we’re not just thinking but we are getting thought.

For the last 20 years I’ve been taking people out into very wild parts of Britain, and for four days and nights they are absolutely alone, and often towards the end of that time, the participant will touch the edge of that experience. It’s very hard to talk about the imaginal in conventional language. The most fitting language to address it is poetry or imagery or mythology. If the language is too psychological it reduces the mystery. It makes the mysteries containable and safe.

Myth is a robust and ancient way of addressing a multiplicity of consciousnesses that abide in and around the Earth. What is so powerful about an uncolonised imagination, a mythic intelligence, is that it connotes but does not denote. It doesn’t tell you what it is. Its images have a radiance that reveal different things to whoever is beholding them. In storytelling, I know that when I say even something as definite as a crow in the room, we are all seeing 30 different crows. It is important that I don’t hit a PowerPoint presentation, and say this is the crow we’re talking about. Everyone’s imagination is being stirred, where they are remembering and catching a glimpse of crows in their lives before that.

CDC: So storytelling and myth also have a relationship with time?

MS: Yes, and memory. Stories with weight to them have what C.G. Jung terms ‘the lament of the dead’, which in our frenetic culture we can no longer have time to hear. Most indigenous cultures will tell you that this world belongs to the dead, that’s where we’re headed. So mythology for me involves a conversation with the dead, with what you might call ancestors.

Whatever we are facing now we need to have a root system embedded in weather patterns, the presences of animals, our dreams, and the ones who came before us. Myth is insistent that when there is a crisis, genius lives on the margins not the centre. If we are constantly using the language of politics to combat the language of politics at some point the soul grows weary and turns its head away because we are not allowing it into the conversation, and by denying soul we are ignoring what the Mexicans call the river beneath the river. We’re not listening to the thoughts of the world. We’re only listening to our own neurosis and our own anxiety.

CDC: Much of your work calls for a return to bush soul and for us to remember. Do you feel these myths are resurfacing so we can relearn our ancestor training that has been shut down for a very long time?

MS: I would say: if you don’t have ancestors you have ghosts. At the moment many of us are so impoverished and lacking in a cultural root system that what is around us are not ancestors supporting us but ghosts depleting us. So one of the things we could do is to reach out to stories, to practices – such as working on the land or a good art form – that require skills, diligence, a willingness to be bored and to lose our addiction to constant excitement. Myth and story put you into the presence of the old ones who have told the story before you.

CDC: When you told the story of the ‘The Crow King and the Red Bead Woman’ at Base Camp there were certain points where people were feeling very moved and in tears. What is that upwelling of sudden feeling in us all when we hear the story being told like that?

MS: One answer would be that this is a moment where we collectively experience what William Blake used to call ‘a pinprick of the eternal’ or the anthropologist Victor Turner ‘communitas’, where often through grief there is a kind of permission given in the room to feel something deeply in public. These days that’s quite rare. We tend to grieve and emote away from other people. But that’s not the way traditionally it’s done.

Folk tales told well have the power to be tacit ritual. In other words they have the strength to put their arms around the whole room and create a container that for an hour you can cook in the images of the story. You can allow yourself, bidden or unbidden, to be provoked by the images. And somehow it is safe to go deep within it. So I think it’s partially to do with the way a room is held, the feeling that you’re in the presence of something ancient, which these stories are, and a readiness in the listener to allow themselves to just be carried by the power of the thing.

CDC: You wrote once that we were not sure what story we were in as a culture. If there were a story that could speak of our present situation, that held in its talons, if you like, or in its heart, a feeling for regeneration or return, for making sense, for bringing together, for waking us up, what might that be?

MS: I do have a story. It’s called the ‘The Lindwurm’. It’s a story that suggests that you and I have an exiled, slightly older sister or brother, who was hurled out the window the night they were born, and has sat brooding in a forest for many, many years, and has now returned. And somehow contained in the psychic nerve endings of this story, I feel is a lot of information about what we’re living through both ecologically and politically right now.

CDC: It has an active female protagonist who transforms everything, is that correct?

MS: Oh yes. Without the ingenuity of a young woman working in tandem with an old woman (who’s really a spirit of an oak tree) we are going to be incinerated by the furious returning sibling, who devours everything that comes into its grip. It takes the ingenuity of the young woman, with the advice of the older woman, to not just defeat the serpent, but to free the serpent. That’s what’s so beautiful about it.

The days of conventional hero myths are not serving us. What is being called for now culturally is a word you find often in Ancient Greece: metis. Metis is a kind of divine cunning in service to wisdom.
We can’t be naïve in times like this, because we are in the presence of underworld forces that will do one of two things: they will either educate us, or annihilate us. And in fairy tales whenever the movement is down – and the movement culturally is down right now – you have to get underworld smart, have underworld intelligence, underworld metis. I have a strong feeling that a lot of what wants to emerge through many ancient stories is a kind of wily, tough, ingenious and romantic force that needs to come forward at this point in time.

So my challenge for anybody is to regard themselves as a kind of a mythological scholar in training. And to go out and to look through the old anthologies, get a library card, and try and collect these stories that are waiting to say something vital about the nature of our times.

And the second part of that challenge, the most crucial part of the research, will be your individual expression of that story. It doesn’t have to be an oral storytelling. It could be something you write down, or paint. You could craft a boat from an image within the story. But one way or another you need to let the story have its way with you.


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CDC: Ah yes, so that it becomes creative and externalised rather than inward and psychological. You also ask, in respect to medieval culture: 'What replaces the chivalric viewpoint and creates anchoring for humans?’ There are not many myths that consider a band of people working together, except perhaps Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In terms of the future, it’s clear we can’t be held in an individualist story, but one that brings community into it, or a bigger relationship. And I wondered if you had any thoughts about that?

MS: In many tribal stories and indigenous tales, there is an implicit understanding that what we call psyche or soul does not live in a person, but that we live within the psyche or the soul. And the tribe, collectively, respond to and develop their lives through that awareness, which is usually a very ordinary experience. It’s not a question of belief, it’s a question of experience. However, in the West, we have had such a different fate over the last few hundred years that there is now a collective amnesia to the idea that we have a soul at all – whether there’s a soul inside us, or that we dwell within one.
So when someone talks about the individual journey of someone in the West, they’re having to make that journey because they do not have around them the cultural certainties that a tribal group would have, to affirm that yes, we are living within this wider thing, the mundus imaginalis, the soul of the world, and your dreams and your opinions are connected to waterfalls and jaguars and lightning storms.

It is a lonelier place for us to be because what is surrounding us does not confirm an Earth-centred consciousness. So that’s why I think the individual has been such a pronounced thing in myth and story over the last few hundred years. But if we cannot get back to a more collectively understood relationship with psyche, with Earth, with matter, with trees and rocks and wolves and bears, with our neighbours, then we will be caught in an enormous malfunction.

CDC: This brings me to a question I’ve wanted to ask about the wild setting for such psyche and soul, as you have described it. When so many of us are living in cities and urban areas, in depleted and industrialised landscapes, how can we recover our relationship with wild things and reconnect with that world?

MS: It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot from people who are reading my books and are living in Detroit or Birmingham or Prestatyn. Initially my response is ‘don’t be size-ist’. Twenty years ago I was living in southeast London, and it was a great consolation for me that William Blake had found a lot of what he needed, as a human and a thinker, in London. He could kneel down and see a little grey thistle and he knew it was a smiling little man waving at him.

It was a way of not just seeing but beholding things. And when I lived in cities I would pay particular attention to what we rather naïvely call weeds. Or I would go out to a small park next to the video shop in Brockley, where there was a rather dejected-looking rowan tree. And I would spend an enormous amount of time just attending to this rowan. There’s a lovely line by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, where he says something like ‘the Earth seeks to be admired by you’.

So if you do nothing else, admire the thing. Learn to give it praise. Learn to speak its 12 secret names. You hear about the Inuit having all these different names for snow. Well, I thought, what are the 12 secret names of those old-growth oaks that I see down near Greenwich docks? My advice really is what the Hindus call the ‘joyful participation in the sorrows of the world’. You have to get amongst the cities. You have to glean what you can, praise what you can, raise up what you can.   My attention has been on the diminishing tracts of wilderness in Great Britain. But it can’t stop there for many of us, because that’s simply not the environment we are living in.

CDC: I wanted to ask you finally about breaking enchantment, about breaking the spell, which is a predicament in so many fairy stories. Many of the illusions that we’ve been brought up with are now being cracked open. Do you feel that the myths contain insights that we might reach out for, not as a handrail but as a tiller, so we might steer our way through these choppy waters ahead?

MS: First of all, I would say again that the word enchantment, which ironically is often used about hearing a myth or a story, is the opposite of what’s actually taking place. A story like ‘The Red Bead Woman’ and its effect on a room is not an enchantment, it’s a waking up…

CDC: A disenchantment…

MS: Yes, if you’ve done your job well as a storyteller, your story itself has a magical sensibility to ward off enchantment and to raise up. Secondly, people often prefer to dismiss myths, saying: it’s not true. But a way to think about myth is as something that never was and always is. Or as a beautiful lie that tells a much deeper truth. But one way or another when we lose our mythic sensibility, the powers in this world that may not wish us well have a greater purchase on us, a greater hold.
I notice that several times a day I go into what you could call a mild trance state. I’m not talking about ouija boards here! I’m just talking about falling under the influence of advertising, or various politically engineered neuroses that might be floating around. But I recognise I have come into a kind of enchantment. And the way I recognise it is that I feel less than grounded. I feel I’m not in the realm of imagination, I’m in the realm of fantasy. So the imaginal is not present; the Earth as a lived, breathing, thinking being is not present. What’s happening is I’m simply fretting – to use my mother’s language – I’m spinning my wheels. And so actually I think stories have a capacity to wake us up.
We are living in a time when we need symbolic intelligence, not just sign language. We are being fed signs, and signs that frighten us, and then paralyse us, and then colonise us. And imagination, through myth, wants to give you symbols to raise you up.

A story is not just an allegory, or a metaphorical point. It’s a love affair, and one of the most wonderful ways of breaking the trance states being put on us at this point in time, is to figure out what you love. Figure out what you’re going to defend. And develop the metis, develop the artfulness, to bring it out into the world.
--
Martin Shaw is a writer, mythologist and teacher. He has recently co-designed (with anthropologist Carla Stang) the upcoming MA in myth and ecology at Schumacher college, as well as being the creator of the oral tradition course at Stanford University and the author of A Branch from the Lightning Tree, Snowy Tower and Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia. schoolofmyth.com

Next week 'The Mythos We Live By' series will continue with a post by Californian writer, artist and animal tracker Sylvia V. Linsteadt: Riding on the Back of the Bear-King.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Reveal

A story I wrote for the 2016 series on the Dark Mountain blog where seven different writers have been  stepping outside the bubble of instant opinion to reflect on the wider significance of a turbulent year. 

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‘I used to care but things have changed’ – Bob Dylan

‘The dead lie in layers beneath us,’ said Tony Dias, ‘and influence all our actions.’ We were in a schoolroom in Ry in northern Denmark, and I was teaching a class about deep time. The students were sitting in a circle, each taking up position in the calendar of the year, discussing how each station affected them. It is the end of October and the writer and philosopher is sitting in the position of the ancestors, also known as Samhain or Halloween. I am at winter solstice. We are holding a conversation about the end of things, which makes sense as people who met through Dark Mountain and as the oldest people in the room. I talk about restoration and composting the past and he talks about the oceans, how oil has come out of an anaerobic process, so doesn’t break down and feed life. ‘It is a zombie fuel,’ he says.

Afterwards we will  climb into canoes and silently cross the lake to the woods where the class will fan out and encounter the wild spaces on their own. The copper leaves of the beech trees will shower down on our endeavour to connect with the living, breathing planet.  A lot of the students will have problems getting beyond the whirl of their technology-driven minds.

‘Everything is hitting against that zenith of the summer solstice and resisting the fall,’ remarks Tony. ‘The  violence and destruction happens, so everyone can jump the process and begin again.’

For the last two weeks I have switched off the computer, and tried to look back at this tumultuous year from the perspective of where I live, a small lane in East Anglia on the edge of England. Most of my working and social life is done via this machine, so when I go offline the world and its headlines vanish. The physical place comes closer, and with it a depth of perception that all the buzzy discussion about politics and celebrity, about money, about the end of globalisation, never allow in. You get a sense of the mood of the times.

One thing is clear: you can’t skip the fall, no matter how much you try.

***

The growing year came and went down the lane. The machines thundered past our windows, wresting commodities of peas, sugar beet, maize and wheat from the clay. The hawthorns and wild roses put on a beautiful show in the hedgerows, though the cold spring meant many of the growers’ roadside stalls would be closed by September. On May morning Mark, Josiah and I went to a tiny meadow of frosted green-winged orchids, marooned in an industrial prairie of barley. When the sun rose a hare bounded past and the skylarks sang above us. We realised that none of us could call ourselves community activists anymore. Our attention was on other things, but the place still connected us, in ways we had no words for.

The lane is one of a series of lanes behind the village church, skirting reed beds and broads that were shaped by the Ice Age 12,000 years ago. It houses a few indigenous Suffolk families who have lived here for generations, but mostly well-off incomers who live in converted barns and cottages and have a penchant for lacquered willow fencing. This year the suburbanisation continues its mission creep, replacing bird-singing scrub with ponies and crunchy driveways. Delivery trucks chew up the verges. The outdoor lights flare a ghoulish green into the night, on the once elegant Queen Anne facade of the big house on the corner, now owned by a multi-millionaire clothing entrepreneur from Jamaica. The field opposite our house, known as Hare Field, has been enclosed with a rabbit-proof fence, so now we look at meshed wire where once we caught sight of the wild creatures bounding past. The big ash trees have begun to die back.

It is not what it was when we came. It has devolved, said Mark.

I don’t like to think about that much and keep my eyes up into the sky, tracking the geese coming in from Siberia, the fly past of jackdaws at dawn, the light which reflects amber and gold on the trunks of the oaks as the sun goes down. But I can’t not look. The lane is part of brutal Britain, the rabbit-proof fence is all fences in Europe that keep out the unwanted, the pesticide-wrecked soil, every industrialised arable field in the world, the felled and dying trees, all forests killed to maintain our zombie lifestyle.

And he is right. It was more beautiful. There were more creatures – hedgehogs and stoats and hares. You could hear nightingales singing in May. Butterflies once covered the buddleia in August. David Moyse, the village’s history man and steeple keeper, would wave to us as we cycled by and give us green tomatoes for chutney. It was wilder, more country, sweeter.

It was still feudal though. You still had to deal with a frequency loaded with ancient snobbery and hostility. Us, the landowners with our gamekeepers and huge cars and you, renters, with your second-hand boots and pesky questions about RoundUp. Some things don’t change. Some things haven’t changed in England for a thousand years or more.

There was a period in the community activist years when there was a kind of bridge with some of the people in the lane, where I could be enthusiastic about non-threatening subjects like give and take days and community gardens and share jars of foraged damson jam, so long as I didn’t push the climate change, fossil fuel dependence thing, or talk about factory farming or flying. So long as I could say how calm and blue the sea was this year, the best swimming year in a decade, and not mention the sandy cliffs at Easton Bavents that continued to fall into the waves.

But in 2016 that bridge fell down. What do you do? had became a conversational mine-field:

‘Oh, an editor, how interesting, and what’s the Dark Mountain Project?’
‘We’re a network of artists and writers looking at social and environmental collapse...’

Not a great opener over the canapés and Chardonnay.

Which is why I can’t really tell you what is being discussed this season down the lane. I have to  travel elsewhere to have those conversations.

***

Here I am today in Colchester in early November meeting Christian Brett for the first time. For three years we’ve worked together shaping and producing the Dark Mountain books via the telephone, long conversations between a tower block in Rochdale and a tied cottage in East Anglia. He is setting up an installation called ‘The Sound of Stones in the Glasshouse’, a work he conceived with the artist Gee Vaucher whose ‘Introspective’ is about to open at the town’s modern art gallery. It’s a bold, uncompromising work: a glasshouse made of panels engraved with the names of every intervention the US military has made in the last 100 years. Around the walls are excerpts of presidential inaugural speeches talking about freedom and democracy and the numbers of the dead caused by wars on their watch. In the centre of the glasshouse a video of soldiers emerging out of a trench plays on a loop, and a patch of bare earth.

We go for lunch and talk and it feels the same as it does on the phone, except we’re not looking at computer screens, we’re looking at each other. The rain falls down on the capital of Roman Britain, now a nexus for the modern Armed Forces. The show was opening on the 11th.

If you are an artist, or a writer, you have to see differently from the conventional world that appears to own and control everything. You have to look outside the echo chambers, beyond the burning issues of the day, beyond the headlines, into something deeper, more intrinsic, not bound in time. You have to see what Sebald once called the 'Rings of Saturn', as he walked down the Suffolk coastline, the machine of history that crushes us in its talons.

‘Have you got Mr Trump in the wings?’ I ask.
‘We have them both ready,’ he replies.


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***

In the space of a year two people I used to be close to took their own lives. What struck me when I remembered them wasn’t to do with their brilliance as editors and designers, or their long struggles with mental illness. It was about their presence and their intensity, a certain kind of intimacy you rarely experience with people. It felt as if their spirits had burned out of control, like a forest fire, and no-one knew how to deal with the blaze. It felt that whenever you leave out what you most love about people,  our deep feeling natures, what used to be called the soul,  something always crashes. It crashes in individuals and in collectives and in nations. The spirit of this trauma lives in all of us by virtue of being born into the system. No one escapes that, not the rich, not the poor, not the powerful, nor the meek. The question we face as Rome falls is: how can we speak with each other and get out of the cycle?

When I switch off the machine and the headlines recede, I realise we are not in a political crisis; we are in a spiritual crisis, an existential crisis. We don’t know what it means to be human anymore. We have lost contact with the meaning of time, our presence here. How can we be human in a collapsing world? How can I be female outside the patriarchy? How can I matter in a community where I am one of the unnecessariat, the precariat, part of the low-income, left behind, just about managing, tax credited, zero-contract gig economy?

When I switch off the machine, I step out into the lane and walk into the twilight. You can feel everything more closely in the dark, especially the trees, your senses open up, your feet feel the ground, the wind coming from the south. Venus outshines the glow of the brewery distribution centre on the horizon. That’s when I realise that to this place, I matter. My presence, my intense engagement matters. To the dead, to the ancestors I matter. To consciousness, to the fabric of life I matter. We matter. That is no small thing.

What we need is a new social contract.

***

In the spiritual years – I guess that was mostly the '90s – I slept in moon lodges and dreamed of medicine people and Cathars and Indian gods, and I sang and danced alongside a band of fellow seekers moving through the great landscapes of the Americas. We were searching for a deeper relationship with the world and our ‘hard yoga for the earth’, as Gary Snyder once described it, pushed us into some very difficult corners, not least among ourselves. We spent a lot of time dealing with the karma of our families and connecting with indigenous medicine plants. We all thought, foolishly, that the collective shift of consciousness we yearned for would somehow just happen.  We were coming from the future and had been born into the past. We thought we could travel forever and live in bamboo huts on the sides of sacred mountains, but history or destiny dragged us back to our home countries. The ancestors told us: those who caused the problem have to deal with it. And then they disappeared.

The problem, we knew, wasn’t going to have a neat solution, like a mindfulness class you could do every Tuesday.  I am another yourself was not a mantra: it meant going through all the files your cultural history threw at you, being treated like an exile, losing most of your dignity and your spending power, and then having to start over again. Few of us wanted to go through the emotional mangle that would make us human. Most of us resisted the fall in our own ways and stalled.

When we said we were looking for a new narrative, we meant we were looking for a new language. At some point we knew the theory would have to become practice. We were waiting for something to move.

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***

'Strange attractors' are so called because they make a particular shape in phase space which radically alters the dynamics of a system, sometimes called the shape of uncertainty. Strange attractors allow chaos to break up rigid forms and create new ones. Civilisations by their design are fixed systems living within vast non-linear systems. Fatal attractions are their undoing.

Strange attractors, as we might have noticed in 2016, don’t always look like the pleasing butterfly shapes you see in chaos theory manuals. They have bad haircuts and bad attitude and send shockwaves through social media. Their chief characteristic is that they hold all the missing information, so when they exert their influence they challenge the order that is dependant on certain things kept out of the picture.
In 2016 a lot of missing people suddenly appeared in the picture that had excluded them for aeons and did the only thing that the Establishment allowed them to do: they voted. For decades the dispossessed of North America’s Rust Belt and England’s factory towns have held the collective shadow of the classes above them, so the multicultural hi-tech uberfolk of the metropolis could shop and tweet and travel with impunity.

In 2016 a lot of those '90s words like transformation and chaos became a way to look at the string of political events that had crashed the world views of the privileged. The shadow had reeled into the open. Nigredo is the first stage of alchemy, bringing to light the dark materia that needs to be transformed. The nigredo is a scary moment. You have to know how to negotiate it. When the hidden rage of millions is unleashed – generations of people humiliated, derided, told they are worthless and have no future – you have to hold fast to your humanity. Here be dragons. You can’t be righteous and float above this scary territory, because that fury is in you and me. No-one in the system escapes its hostility. You can refuse to carry the shadow of your culture, only if you have dealt with it yourself, only if you are not still blaming mummy and daddy and your first boyfriend and that prick in HR who doesn’t recognise your true value. Only the system wins in the system.

Nigredo is all about the reveal. When the US election result is announced it feels less scary than 2008 when everyone was whooping with joy and hope about the future. Trump entered stage right, the pantomime villain, the bad cop, to loud hisses from the gallery, but the exiting good cop with his suave saviour style had been less easy to discern. However, as the Glasshouse reminds us, all cops are cops when it comes to ‘full spectrum dominance’. The Empire is the Empire whatever country you now live in. We are all Romans and all slaves.

This alchemical moment has nothing to do with social justice, or environmentalism or any of the grassrootsy stuff I have found myself advocating during last decade. There are initiatives and networks around the world focussing on these worthy things, but none of this transforms anything if we are the same people inside, if we haven’t dealt with our stuff – as we used to say in the '90s –  if we haven’t uncivilised ourselves, made contact with the layers of dead under our feet, in the sky, in the rivers. If we haven’t stood with the Lakota, or with the yew trees, with the rainbow serpent, with the glacier, with the tawny owl. If we haven’t found a way to dismantle the belief systems that keep us trapped in the cycles of history, if we haven’t dealt with our insatiable desire for power and attention and found ways to live more lightly on the planet, we are not going to make it through this stage. And it is a 'we' because, in England at least, we are on a very crowded island and no matter how much we say we don’t like our neighbours, they live next door.

***

In 2016 I am 60 years old and do not collect my bus pass.

‘In the old days we would be putting our feet up by now Ellen,’ I say, hauling another sack of Issue 10 into the Post Office.
‘Don’t get me started,’ says Ellen.

On my birthday I go in search of foxgloves on Walberswick Common. It has been a peerless year for bluebells and primroses and seakale, the wild flowers I track each year. But foxgloves are nowhere to be seen. I curse as I stumble over burned gorse and birch tree stumps. Bloody management systems! If I had been more attentive I would have remembered that foxglove is a heart medicine and this was the site of a brutal enclosure in 1624 and known as Bloody Marsh. I hear their strangulated voices first, and then I see the group, walking down the old railway track as if they owned the whole planet, and before I know it a fury surges through my chest: why don’t you people fuck off back to London!

‘It wasn’t just me,’ I say when I find Mark again. It’s not just the repressed violence inside ourselves that roars out of our mouth in the nigredo, it is the rage of the dead. We have a task to recognise that. Take notice.

That night I watch moon daisies swaying under the starlight, under the influence of the tiny English liberty cap. The silver sea is breathing in and out, you can taste the salt on the night air. It’s summer solstice and everything is peaking, reaching its ultimate growing moment. The 12-foot hogweed at the end of the garden lifts its giant head to the full moon. Hooligan flower, outlaw flower, shining with light. En-ger-land En-ger-land!

‘What?’ says Mark.
‘Something is revving up!’ I say, laughing.  Something is shifting gear.

I can’t say we felt the shock about the referendum vote to leave Europe in the lane a few days afterwards. Nor about the result of the US election later in the year. No-one spoke about it. People were no more racist than before, nor any less fond of French wine or Danish crime thrillers, or Ravi the baker, or Señor Vila the dentist, or the Polish bus driver whose name we don’t know on the 99 bus to Lowestoft. The white and blue postcard town carried on serving the rich weekenders from the city. The day-trippers kept eating the disappearing cod and chips down by the pier. The small shops, hammered with higher rents and rates, continued to be replaced by chains and boutiques selling high-end sailor tops and children’s clothes manufactured in China. The hospital and the police station remained closed. The Post Office lost its crown status and the staff had to wear corporate-style uniforms and work on Sundays. The delivery drivers looked more and more harassed as they took our boxes of books from the door. The Library held sales to keep open. Nothing was secure.

In May the asparagus, once picked by the women from the surrounding villages, was gathered by bands of young Eastern Europeans. They pick and sort fast and are gone when the season is over, carrying home pay packets that are worth more in their own countries – a scenario that is played out across the flinty vegetable fields of the Eastern seaboard, in Norfolk and Lincolnshire. No one knows where this will end. If you have been to the jobseeker centre recently in Lowestoft you might guess who will be picking asparagus in the future and for whom. No-one will care however if this person is you.

***

When I boarded the boat train at Harwich I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a moment of homecoming that I never had when I was a traveller, when England was a country I wanted to get away from. The carriage was shabbier than any in IKEA Europe, and air on the platform smelled of winter, of salt and rain and green. The conductor walked down the passageway and three men who were travelling together and drinking beers laughed out loud. No-one had laughed on those Dutch and Danish trains and no-one had made an entrance like that, a deliberate music hall swagger down the aisle, like a rolling English road, like the curve of the Oxfordshire hills, almost, you could say, hobbity. Not of this time, nor of this dimension.

A door that seemed shut in the schoolroom in Denmark suddenly swung open. A joy ripped through me. The mythos was still here!

You can look at nature,  the writer Richard Mabey once wrote, as a tragedy or a comedy. It depends on your point of view. The character of a people is not the same as a society hamstrung by a corporate global economy. As the curtain closes on 2016, it’s worth bearing in mind that the drama changes tack the moment we give up our high tragic roles and become ordinary players. It’s true, comedy is used to paper over the dark things, to make light of serious matters; the Empire has used entertainment to distract people forever. Strictly Britain is not very militaristic, as George Orwell once noted. We’re more interested in theatrics which is why we are such dismal suckers for Punch and Judy politics and royal parades, even as the joke is so often on us. That’s the way to do it!

However comedy is not just about laughing, or poking fun, it is seeing life from a certain perspective, with heart. It gives an agency to situations where tragedy can only offer a solitary death, it reminds us above all that life is an ensemble act that brings affection, even in the hardest times. We are in this show together. Tickets please, ladies and gentlemen.

In spite of everything, I realised I wanted to go home to the lane. Though the Empire will keep telling me I do not belong, I know that I do. And no kind of politics will take that relationship away. I am not going anywhere else. I am not a nationalist, a flag waver, a patriot, I don’t know what ‘British values’ are, I can’t tell you the names of any football players or newscasters or the kinds of questions aspiring UK citizens are tested on. But I can love this place, these marsh birds, these oaks. I can cohere in a fragmenting time, I can remember in a forgetting time. We don’t need a grand vision, another story right now, we need to get through the nigredo, the seismic shaking of the jar, and allow the seeds we hold inside us to break open their coats.

Afterwards will come the albedo, the deep memory of water, and the rubedo, the solarising forces, the warmth and light of the sun. We will unfurl ourselves then. All is good, all is return, all is regeneration in alchemy. We just have to have the stomach for the work. We have to trust that whatever happens in our small lives, whatever move we make to undo the unkindness of centuries will affect the whole picture, that we are not on our own. Everything matters. The ancestors are behind us: all good comedies end in a dance, they say.   


 

Pictures: ‘Midsummer Eve Bonfire’, after c.1917, by Nikolai Astrup (from Painting Norway at Dulwich Picture Gallery); 'The Stones in the Glasshouse' by Christian Brett and Gee Vaucher (photo: Douglas Atfield/Firstsite’ ); feather at Base Camp, Dark Mountain gathering at Embecombe, Devon (photo: Warren Draper); excerpt from the documentary, Human by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

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Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Red Thread

 A piece written for the new Dark Mountain Issue 10 on Uncivilised Poetics about Ariadne and her Labyrinth and how poetry can lead us out of history into deep time.

‘Women are imprisoned in the image masculine society has imposed on them; therefore if they attempt a free choice it must be a kind of gaolbreak.’ 
Octavio Paz (Labyrinth of Solitude) 


1962, London, England. Give me my scallop-shell of quiet, / My staff of faith to walk upon, / My scrip of joy   
‘Tell us about Raleigh!’ we plead. We are in a history class, heathens all, in a dancing school in Knightsbridge. Lady Lisle takes off her pale blue glasses and flicks them in an agitated manner. She takes us to the Tower where the poet and New World adventurer is imprisoned for treason and recites the poem he writes before his execution. A tear falls down her wrinkled cheek. 

Tell me the line of poetry you first remember and I will tell you about destiny. 


THE THEME 

The story of the Minotaur you know. Probably. Half-man, half-beast, he is kept in the centre of the Cretan Labyrinth, a prison system so complex it has even trapped its architect, Daedalus. No one who is sent into his Labyrinth gets out. The beast feeds on the flesh of young Athenians sent to him every seven years. Except for the hero Theseus, who has encountered the King of Crete’s daughter, Ariadne. She has given him a thread, so that once he has vanquished the bull-man, he can find his way out again.  
Ariadne will flee with Theseus to the island of Naxos and there the story ends. Usually. But in other versions it continues: Ariadne is abandoned by her lover on the shore, or her husband the half-god Dionysus reclaims her, or she hangs herself from a tree, or is killed by Artemis or Perseus, or is rescued from Hades by Dionysus, along with his mother Semele, or there are in fact two Ariadnes, one who dies and one who is immortal, and so on.  However you tell the story, Ariadne is a secondary player. She only knows the way out because she is the king’s daughter. The red thread was bequeathed to her by Daedalus. She waits for the hero to do his heroic task and then disappears from view, leaving confusion in her wake.  
But this is not the original version, where Ariadne commands the Labyrinth which is not a prison, but a map, named after her butterfly-shaped axe the labrys. To find that map, you would have to ask a poet. Because Ariadne’s ur-story is not a story at all.  

This is a short piece about poetry and its ‘true function’, which the poet Robert Graves famously described as religious invocation of the Muse, and a warning to man 

that he must keep in harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born, by obedience to the wishes of the lady of the house.’ 

It is about the function of modern human beings, caught in the web of time, who try to find their way back home on Earth, out of the labyrinthine mind of civilisation, and what this has most urgently to do with the work and lives of poets. It’s an instruction of sorts – though you might not read it that way. 


THE MISTRESS OF THE LABYRINTH 

She holds two snakes in her raised hands and wears a cat on her head like a bonnet. Discovered amongst the rubble at Knossos in 1904, the faience figurine was found in several pieces, and it was not clear whether the cat really belonged on her head. Still the Edwardian archaeologist placed it there instinctively, perhaps associating cats and female deities, as the well-catalogued civilisations along the Nile had shown him. He called this civilisation he unearthed ‘Minoan’ after Ariadne’s father, King Minos.  
Alongside the murals of dancing women and acrobatic men, red bulls and blue dolphins, she displays an elegance and fluidity unlike any found in later classical times. Sir Arthur Watts called her the Snake Priestess and sometimes Snake Goddess, though the highly organised culture she embodied left no evidence of temples, male hierarchy or stamp of war. It remains mysterious, its system of writing undeciphered to this day.  
There is a fragment of a later script however that gives a clue: 
To the Mistress of the Labyrinth, honey 

This is a piece made of fragments. Of lines that pull you in different directions, flashes of memory and warning, threads poets leave behind to remind us that this world is not as it is made to appear. 


THE FALL 

When the world fell, the yoginis in the meditation chambers spoke to me in lines by Rilke and Rumi.  
We shall not cease from exploration, they said.  
When the world fell, the intellectuals in the libraries quoted lines to me by Blake and Brecht.  
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold, they said.  
When the world fell, I fell with it. I was without lines for a long time. And then out of nowhere I began to remember:  
My mother laughs. She comes bearing branches of hips and haws and a whiff of turpentine; parties follow in her wake, music and bright dresses.  
There was once a path through the woods, she says.  
My father sighs. He is writing into the night, stacking reams of legal papers, bound by pink ribbon, on his study floor: 

I never saw a man who looked 
 With such a wistful eye 
Upon that little tent of blue 
 Which prisoners call the sky 

‘Every time I pass through that prison gate, I shudder,’ he tells me.  
My teacher weeps. She laments the death of the Elizabethan poet, even more than the death of Jesus.  
I don’t trust those tears. I do not write Tread softly for you tread on my dreams on my rough book like my fellow pupils. I scorn romantics who worship queen and god and country, and love all dissenters and metaphysicians. The first poem I print with my own hands is in the shape of a butterfly:  
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.  
When you fall you don’t find a new story or drama to live by. There are no tales when you are already at the ending. You grasp the thread because the line glints in that moment of darkness, like a coil of copper wire. It cuts you but still you take hold of it. Because it is the only thing that makes sense, as the world cracks you open. The line was written from the place of cracking – from the mad house and the gulag, from the dying rooms.  
Eyeless in Gaza.  
Only poetry speaks from this metaphysical realm. Novels with their worldly characters and clever entertaining plots, plays with their tragic and comedic turns: none of these serve you. In times of falling you won’t remember those masterly passages that once gripped your attention. You can only a grab a line, and that line is no longer the literature that you once studied. It is not a comfort in a moment of self-pity or remorse.  
It is something else. 


THE CROSSING PLACE 

1987, London, England. Tonight I can write the saddest lines. I am in your attic room under a mosquito net and the storm is rocking the capital. You are visiting a glamorous place, dressed in your black armour and war paint by Chanel.  
Outside the wind is lashing the plane trees and the floor is covered in their leaves. My face is wet with rain. I don’t know at this point that I will leave you and this city behind and never return. I don’t know that years from now you will walk into the sea and not come back.  
I have picked up a book by your bed but there is something hollow about these lines we used to read to each other. The poet will also put them away. I don’t know that yet.  
‘My poetry stopped dead like a ghost in the streets of human anguish and a rush of roots and blood surged up through it,’ he will write from war-torn Spain. ‘From then on, my road meets everyman’s road.’ 


1990, Palenque, Mexico. Bid farewell to her, to Alexandria who is leaving. / Above all, do not delude yourself, do not say that it was a dream  
One bright morning, I followed the path through the woods that led away from the temple, and a man emerged naked from a pool. He said: a queen swam here once and gave me a jar of honey. 
That night the forest came to our door and a jaguar lay down beside me. He watched an ancient civilisation rise and fall on the ceiling of our hotel room. I flew out on his eagle wings. I had to let everything go. There was nothing in the howling darkness that could take away the pain, or the poison that racked my body. I am going, he said, but I am always here. Remember that. I felt every bar that had shut down tight, pressed hard against my body, separating us. I realised I was trapped. Even my own name trapped me. 
You realise everything up to that point was a rehearsal. That the real task was not finding the path you longed for, but the way out of the prison, where the gaoler lives inside you, and everyone else you meet. 


1991, Antigua, Guatemala. Pero yo ya no soy yo / Ni mi casa es ya mi casa. 
I am in another white room, only this time the storm is crashing through me.  This time I am calling on it to do its ferocious work. Outside the world is coloured parrot green and pink. The volcanoes are snowy. The women laugh as they wash their clothes in the fountain. 
There is a crisis point. You could call it 'the Theseus moment'. You were on your way to the Minotaur with your companions, brave Athenians all. You meet someone unexpected who hands you a red thread. When you stumble, you realise that thread you now hold to steady you does not come from any story you know. 
There are no words to describe the feeling, as the forgotten files your education hid away, your culture hid away, stack up upon the cement floor. You cry out as you encounter this sunless place where your spirit has been locked up for aeons, where you have been kept in a small drawer, taken out occasionally to shine like a genie in a lamp. Where you pace like a creature in a trap, trying to find a way out. 
The crossing lasts for days in the bare room, as you name every unkind thing that binds you. You are not the same person when you emerge finally into the sunlight. Your history is broken. The people who kept you captive are no longer with you.  
You imagine that this is the end, when it is only the beginning. 


Love is not servitude. This is what I learned in these encounters. It is neither obeisance to a moon goddess, nor enthrallment to a cruel queen. I knew that at eight years old. And yet to fall under your spell and break it was the way I could escape my own sacrifice. You were terrifying and captivating. You made everyone matter. You exuded the archetypal power of the Muse that Graves once wrote about: magnetic, intoxicated, sea-foamed, desirous of worship by poets and the hip bones of kings. But this power devoured you. In the end you wrote you were defeated by the struggle to stay alive. I looked back across time and saw you. You were like a lioness in a cage, maddened by captivity. The sea was your only escape. 
Tonight I can write the saddest lines. But I am not going to. This is an instruction. This is not all there is. 


THE RETURN 

For a long time now I have wanted to write about the Nostoi, those who return to their homelands after the Trojan War. Return is not what you think it is, a glorious heroic odyssey full of wondrous islands, but the time when you know that we have all had our finest hour and we can no longer do to each other what spring does to the cherry trees. When the question becomes how to endure our fall as a people, how to keep our dignity, our sense of beauty, our capacity for intelligence and the strength and grace of our bodies, as the world crashes and the story we once believed in no longer makes sense. 
What everyone avoids is feeling how that endless siege crippled us and trapped us in these thoughts. The terror comes when you sense the bars and know you no longer carry a sword. When you face the beast you will have nothing, except the very thing he wishes to devour. 
If you hold fast this is the moment she appears in his blazing eye. Here she is with her laughter and her companions. Here they are in the alder grove, dancing in their beehive-shaped skirts, panels overlapping, with their bare feet on the earth. 
Welcome, she says, to my dancing floor. The hard walls of the Labyrinth vanish and in its place are lines that loop around in an intricate pattern. They are of all colours and intersect in ways you can feel but cannot articulate. There is a hum you cannot tell whether is on the inside of you or the outside of you, it burns like a slow fire through your chest, and the scent of a thousand small flowers… 
‘Focus,’ she says, ‘for this time is limited. 
‘Oh, you are a bee!’ I exclaim, ‘And the bull is a star...’ 
‘This is your task,’ she says. ‘Find your way back.’ 

Because I am with you in Rockland 
Because Beloved be the one who sits down 
Because Some people know what it is like to be called a cunt in front of their children 
Because You took away all the oceans and all the room 
Because Girls you are valuable, and you, Panther, you are valuable 
Because The darkness around us is deep 


THE MINOTAUR 

You think the Labyrinth is something you get free from, so you can live in the bright spaces. But that’s not how it works. The volcano of Thera erupted and a tidal wave destroyed Europe’s first civilisation, and it disappeared from view. Or so the archaeologists have told us. The Greek hero myths turned the great triple goddess of the matriarchal age into a foolish princess and started to straighten her looping songs and dances into linear, rational storylines. 
The Labyrinth hid Ariadne’s intricate dancing floor and her once-beloved bull became a child-eating monster. The patriarchal maze clung like a varroa mite on the back of a honeybee and infected the colonies of the Western world. Born configured still to dance and give honey, to love light and space and sea, we were confused by the dark place we now found ourselves in. Few of us remembered our way home. 
And yet some of us cannot but attempt otherwise. The thread was put into our hands at the start. 
The Minotaur waits in the Labyrinth, like Moloch, greedy for the flesh of young men and woman, sucking the minds and hearts of all who sacrifice their youth, their brilliance, their sacred groves, their own offspring. This place is powered by his appetite. 
How do I know this? I am my Mother’s daughter, a child of space and air, who loved to dance, to go for a picnic on a summer’s day. Who still goes for a picnic on a summer’s day, with the sound of the sea in the distance. But I am my Father’s daughter first, indentured, duty-bound, to live another kind of life. While my playmates listened to children’s stories, he instructed me: on how the Bastille was liberated, how to decipher a brief, how to look for the detail in everything and outwit everyone in the court, cleverly with words. 
At night I would hear him tap-tap-tapping into the small hours, fighting to keep a man or woman out of the prison he feared. Only writers know this kind of deal: you get to glimpse the paradise in everything and you get to feel the hell of everything. You work to bring back Ariadne’s dancing floor by deconstructing the Labyrinth. It is the deal that drives poets crazy on the top of mountains, and sometimes costs them their lives, their sanity and their liberty. 
For prose writers ‘poetic’ is an insult word. It means you are foolish and flowery and none of your arguments stand up in the witness box. But it is hard not to write about the beauty of the house. Even now I am trying to find a way to not get beautiful, not tell you about the colours of the garden; these roses that will become my mother’s hips in September, and the bees that cluster about the clover leys, the sound of the wren singing, the way the wind moves through the barley and wild grasses in late June. 
The poet loves beauty but is condemned to write about the Labyrinth and shake all who read his lines. Here he comes with his window of blue sky, with his words that break down the door, between the city and the forest, between politeness and reality. Here she is tapping a code that you work hard to decipher in your solitary cell, scraping a tunnel underneath your feet, leaving graffiti in her wake on the stony wall. 
Here they are with their access to realms you cannot see but sometimes sense, swinging between history and myth, between life and death, only listened to, like gods, in moments of fall and destruction. 
I am not a poet. I am condemned to write prose, urgent pleas to reverse your sentence. 
A Daedalus daughter, unwinged. 


2004, Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Times are bad. I take an oath of loyalty to the table / coated with white Formica. 
‘No one wants to know about the Wall, Charlotte,’ said Aharon Shabtai, as we stood balancing glasses of wine and plates of salad at the festival reception. That afternoon the Israeli poet had thrown down his poems mid-sentence, smashing the wall that separated him from the audience. He spoke about the wall that is being built to separate the Arabs and the Jews of his country. ‘You have to hear this!’ he cried. 
Everyone clapped politely: ‘How dreadful!’ they agreed, as they sat in their neatly pressed clothes, as the wind screamed past the church hall and over the bay, where 200 years ago one of the most anguished figures of English poetry pointed his fishing boat towards the horizon. 
I live in George Crabbe country now, a flat, salty place where I have learned to wear a shabby coat and live among the lowly and dispossessed, the small weeds crushed underfoot he once catalogued in his unfashionable heroic style. I know we can’t afford to be romantic anymore. To get out of the Labyrinth is our most urgent task. 


2016, Ipswich, Suffolk. Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate; / Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end 
There are soldiers everywhere on the platform, dressed in wool khaki. ‘What are you doing here?’ I ask one of them. The boy gazes into my eyes and something like terror and grief jolts through me. He hands me a card that reads: Rifleman R.G. Cole. London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles). 
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘you cannot speak!’ I don’t know it yet but this is a performance being acted out in railway stations all over Britain to mark the Battle of the Somme. It is a show, except it does not feel like it. 
In the carriage the ghost riflemen sit silently among the passengers. Opposite me the poet Luke Wright, famous for his rollicking political satire, looks up from his computer screen and watches them. 
A hundred years ago on this day 19,240 young men died in a war that is remembered as much for its poetry as for its bloody sacrifice. Thousands from the small villages of Suffolk boarded the trains to France and did not return. You can still feel their absence in the fields when you go walking. Loss is not a personal matter anymore. I have learned that too in these sandy waterlands, where time becomes unmoored. 
I look at the card in my hands and shudder: we are here, it says. 


This is an instruction. The way back is hard. It is populated by the dead, the ones you know and the ones you don’t, and you cannot be afraid of them. You cannot be afraid of the unconscious that craves to devour the heart and the light that lives inside you. Your journey liberates them, as much as it liberates you. 
Return does not mean back in time as you understand it, along the linear lines of story. It means we return to a place of feeling and spirit, untrammelled by war and hierarchy, even if it takes us aeons to get there. Poets hold the fragments of that place inside them, as they have always held the line, a long line that stretches back to a time where there were no fortresses or prisons, when the bull was not a beast. 
The Labyrinth traps us in history, and keeps us from the dancing floor. We have to remember that as Western people, as people born in captivity. We have to know we were not abandoned. 
Her threads are everywhere. 


With thanks: Sir Walter Raleigh, Robert Graves, Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, C.P. Cavafy, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, George Herbert, John Milton, Allen Ginsberg, César Vallejo, Rita Ann Higgins, Osip Mandlestam, Stevie Smith, William Stafford, Aharon Shabtai, George Crabbe, Edward Thomas.

All images from Dark Mountain Issue 10:  Uncivilised Poetics cover by Nick Hayes; Mantle by Caroline Dear; Inside The Green Backyard (Opportunity Area) by Jessie Brennan; Limatour 1, Point Reyes Beach by Katie Eberle; Creatures Carrying Humans by Kate Wallters; Home by Lucy Rose Kerr. The mantle, made from dandelion stems and bog cotton, was inspired by the archeological site, High Pasture Cave or Uamh An Ard Achaidh on Skye. This site has a record of human use since the mesolithic, 5000BC, and it is where the body of an Iron Age woman was ceremonially buried. She was laid on a bier with a mass of willow flowers and small amounts of red campion, white lily and holly flowers.