There are stories on Dartmoor that come up singing through the stones. There is a silence underneath the wind on the tops of the granite tors that is ancient with human song. I could feel it, just underneath the skin of green. The wind and the stones and the pulse of story came in like a hallowing, and I was changed.
What I mean is, I felt seen by some Dreaming underneath the moor. Like that Dreaming wanted to be known. It was new to me, but not to the many dreaming artists who live in and near Chagford, on Dartmoor. Their work is in conversation with it; with the stone crones and the rooty doors, the elven folk and the Bronze Age queens, with the bones of primordial horses and the ghosts of the Wild Hunt, with the long dead Bear and the scream of the kestrel, who has been screaming and diving here for hundreds of thousands of years. I have never visited a place like this before. Where you can see the land Dreaming through so many of the humans who live there— in their painting, in their weaving, their story-telling, their singing, and their dancing, in their sculpting, their metalwork, their felted textiles, their clay.
I came because of Rima Staines, and because of Tatterdemalion. (You know this already, those of you who read my last post.) To meet the woman and the land with whom my stories and therefore a part of my soul had been in long conversation. In many ways our meeting was like the gathering up and dusting-off of an old friendship newly discovered again. Something you might sift from out the stones at Grimspound; a gleaming, flint-dark kind of kinship.
Perhaps I was able to hear whispers of the moor dreaming, to feel the weight of its myriad and ancient eyes (granite, heather, moss, hawk, mouse, root, ghost, bone, tin-vein, thorn) because it was Rima and Tom (and the Boy, the truest little shouter and moor-whisperer of them all) who introduced me. Surely, this made a difference. The vast difference between meeting someone cold on the street, and being introduced by a dear friend by the warmth of the fire.
For Rima and Tom, in their painting, their story-making, their performances, and also the daily rhythms of their lives (close to the quick, to the fire, of the soul's hearth)—they are dancing with the moor. They are letting its Dreaming through in any way they can—out their brushes, their pens, their words, their bones, their (soon-to-be) wheels. And so being brought by them across hill and dale and down among the stones and Bronze Age circles of Dartmoor was a sacred kind of introduction.
At Grimspound, a Bronze Age fort (named thus by Viking settlers much later), I felt the stories come singing up especially strong. I saw them; glimpses of a skirt-hem, a leather shoe. Did women once come walking down those hills through the old stone gate with sheep at their heels, bells clattering, talking about the old wolf someone saw down at the river; the long labor of someone else's sister; the ripening of the sloes? Did they go down to the river valley, to the damp and forested places to gather berries in well-woven baskets? Hawthorn, blackberry, wild rosehip, sloe. Did the brown bears forage for sloes nearby, and did the women take care to never speak badly of them while in their hearing?
Did they gather yarrow from the meadows and the sides of pathways in summer, to give to their daughters in childbirth, their sons with wounds from hunting or battle?
What did they murmur to the heather when they gathered it for tea, for ale?
On the muddy paths, what pawprints did they encounter, and how did they tell the tales of them back home, around the hearth? What did they say of Badger, heading home to her sett at dawn?
Some say these smaller circles of stones within Grimpound's wall are the foundations of granaries; others believe they were little houses. The stones are laid in such a way at the entrance—a sharp turn on your way in—that whatever was inside would have been protected from the elements, from wind and rain. Their shape and size is reminiscent of the clochán huts (the beehive shaped stone buildings) on the Irish coast used by monks and priests as religious hermitages. What was it like, to sit by the fire in here while the wind blew hard; or alternately, to duck inside for a bushel of grain?
A little leat wound along the outskirts of the ruin, dug by Bronze Age arms to convey water to the settlement. It had a sweet voice like copper bells, all hung with bracken and heather. It is still here, these thousands of years later, like the stones ringing Grimspound, and like the stones it holds whispers, threads of human story, scraps of Dreaming come up from the underground, where the groundwater swells, where the heather roots, where the badger sleeps. Whispers that found their way right in, and rooted, so that I couldn't seem to stop thinking about story, and how it is held in a landscape, and how it arises through the people who live there.
At night, I slept in Rima and Tom's arctic bell tent in a cow pasture, in the deep dark of that round and heavy canvas. Strange birds sometimes called in the small hours, and everything smelled green though I could hardly see until poking my head out the flaps at dawn.
My sleep was sound, and round, and soothed by the damp ground below my bedroll and skins, by the creature-dark, by the smoke from my fire (and a lot of smoke it was at first, for this California girl used to dry kindling, and not the ever-damp of England!) At first, I didn't dream, or nothing that I could recall very well. Perhaps it takes a few days to settle in, to let the stories waft up from the underground and into your sleep.
For suddenly, there they were, vivid and strange. Dreams that I can remember still. In one, I ran through an apocalyptic city with an old childhood friend, chased by gunfire, but everywhere underfoot there were hawthorn berries, and we were slipping on them as we fled.
In another, I hoisted myself up bareback onto a paint mare, wrapped my hands up in her mane, and galloped like I have never galloped before, knowing that the horse would not stop until she felt like it, not minding at all, feeling that for once I was completely unafraid.
In another, I found a hazelnut with the distinctive chew marks of a dormouse, a little treasure on the floor of a silvery hazel grove. This dream must have come from an overheard conversation about the endangered English dormouse, and how its presence can be tracked by examining hazelnuts for a certain pattern of toothmarks—a perfect hole made in the nut, like the opening of an owl den, with a smooth inner rim and tooth-marks at a particular angle.
But also I think that dream drifted up from some longing to meet the quiet and ancient ones of this land more intimately, to follow the wise old mouse through the hazel grove, and into the place of Dreaming, where the Salmon of Knowledge swims under the hazel trees and eats the Nuts of Poetry as they fall into that Well.
The land here, from Dartmoor west and south into Cornwall, was a Celtic holdout, a place where the old ways and the old stories were safe and harbored for a little bit longer than elsewhere in England. Where the stone circles got sung and danced, where people kept their ears to their earth and listened, and perhaps whispered the things they heard back to the stones for safe-keeping, so that when the time was right, another soul, ear pressed to granite, might hear them, and keep the fire lit.
In his book of essays, The Voice That Thunders, the intensely wonderful English writer Alan Garner (turn to him if you want to know how a human being can listen to a place his whole life, and shape those listenings into words) says that even if no one speaks them anymore, and even if no one writes them down, myths are never lost. Not in the Eternal Time of stones and moors and bones and dreams. Only in linear time can they be lost, for a little while anyway.
They can always be recovered again, in some form. Not by "scavenging" them by tooth and nail, as Garner writes, but by earning their trust again. By sitting for hours, for days, for years, by the river that has carried the souls of moor-creatures for millennia (horse, vole, kestrel, ancient bear).
....and while walking to dream on ancient acorn harvests and why it is that the river gleams like bronze, and all the things that it has seen.
Trust is earned again by leaning on the stones, and waiting for the faint murmuring of their mica-voices, and the things they have been protecting there.
By going out in misty weather to listen to the wind. By introducing your children to that wind, that mist, that granite, that river-gleam, as Rima and Tom and so many of the wonderful folk of this community seem to do.
This is the work of a lifetime, not a single visit, and so my glimpses and my musings of the Dreams of Dartmoor are only that; threads gathered up in a traveler's pockets. A little wooden box of rememberings, like compass points: a string of hawthorn berries, a chip of granite, a sprig of heather, a shard of pottery, a pouch of dreams full of dormouse-chewed hazelnuts. More to the point though is the shape of this place, and this journey, and what it is we bring home. As I wrote in my journal after our afternoon at Grimspound, "There's something I'm trying to work out around story and myth here; how this is to be carried; why this land so cultivates mythic thinking and dreaming; what to do about it in my own life."
How, in other words, to care for the stories of my own place, this bit of coast on the edge of California, near the Golden Gate, where I am from.
How to listen for the stories in the blood, the ash-house tales just beyond the gates of memory, back in the bones where my ancestors sing.
How to hitch the oak trees of my bloodline, the oak trees of old England, old Ireland, old Russia, old Austria, old Hungary, old Germany, to the oak trees of this homeland I love with all my heart, this California of coast live oaks, black oaks, tanoaks, valley oaks, the memories of grizzly bears coming to feast beneath the trees in autumn, the thousand thousand generations of Coast Miwok and Ohlone people singing for the acorns as they fell, and eating thousands of generations of bowls of acorn porridge.
How, most importantly, to do this not just for myself, but together, here in the Bay Area, in Point Reyes, in California, on the edge of the continent, on all the lands we love; excavating our own myriad ancestries at the same time as we are out by the trees and rivers and stones, listening for theirs, and honoring the people who were here before us: that fraught and tender terrain.
After only eight nights with my head to the sweet earth in a dark round tent in a village nestled on the great hill-rounded moor, a week driving and walking the tall, close hedgerows of Devon with Rima and Tom and the Boy, I felt as though time had closed into a circle, and that I had been there always. That I had always slept in a tent in a field and spent evenings in a round yurt by the fire with new-old friends talking of things ancient and close to the heart. That I had always felt the snug arms of the hedgerows, and the old voices of the stones, and the big winds of the moor where ravens flip and croak their velvet words.
When I was a little girl, I dreamed that I would one day live in a stone cottage in England. I have since developed too much of a love for the land I was born to, its mountain lions and coast live oaks, its coyotes and buckeyes and bay nuts and wild irises, to uproot myself in such a way, but I believe that I have discovered the root of this dream. That I found it when I first beheld Rima's artwork. That I found it when I stood at Grimspound, and put my hands to the old granite, and wondered what stories the First People told here. If the leat or the amber River Dart still remember them.
That here is a community carrying the stories of the land as best they can, and with much beauty and care and heart (think of the incredible folkloric work of Terri Windling, of the mythic art of Alan Lee, of Brian and Wendy Froud, the magnificent story-telling and myth-carrying of Martin Shaw, not to mention of course the truly transformative and deep-rooted painting of Rima Staines and the powerful storytelling and poetry of Tom Hirons, to name just a very few!). That here is a seed of inspiration to bring home again.
And of course, it is our Tatterdemalion which did the threading, which brought me to England, to Dartmoor, to the stones. This book born out of many years'-worth of Rima's paintings, each one a conversation between her heart and the world around her in all of its storied and sad-strung glory, and what happened when I walked through their doorways into my own place here in California, and saw it all anew. (And dear friends, if you would like to be part of our novel's birth, to have your name in its back pages and a hand in its blossoming, you can do so here. We are now over three-quarters of the way there; come race with us across the final hillsides!)
To finish these musings properly, and not on a parenthesesed note, I will leave you with the words of Alan Garner, from his essay, "The Voice in the Shadow."
By reciting a myth, the storyteller remembers a creation and, by remembering, is part of that creating. It is best understood in that dreadful solecism 'walkabout.' In walking, the Australians speak the land. Their feet make it new, now, and in its beginning, by step and breath that meet in its dance, so that land and people sing as one. It is a symbiosis of multiple times.