Wolferland: A Balm For Widdershins

At the moment I’m reading a host of books. Who could say how my mind and attention is being torn or tanked, stretched or shorn? The screen time is shocking. The capacity for long term attention has, by my own compass, turned widdershins, which is to say the opposite direction it normally goes.

So I try to break the banks of obligatorily forming Habit River by doing work outside and reading books that ask something of me. One of them is Martin Shaw’s “Wolferland”

Here is what the back cover reads…

“For 101 days a man walked into a Dartmoor forest and called to it, then listened for a response. No agenda, no spin, no manifesto. As messy or poetic as need be.

This is a very ancient way of approaching an emergency.

The world is on fire and the fear is real. In response to this reality, Martin Shaw underwent an ancient ceremony, in fact reversed it. There is a whisper that says if you are bitten by a wolf, 101 days in domestic confinement could wash you of its infection.

But what if we are living in times that need more fur, more teeth, more howl?

So Shaw reverses this encounter. For 101 days he takes himself back and forth to a forest to see what the wolf has got to say to him. To take its bite, not rid himself of it.

Shaw enters a haunted landscape at a haunted time of the year. Up in the forest he will encounter ancestors, animal powers, visions and finally be left with just nine words from a midnight vigil in an ancient hill fort. He will track the perimeters of dream, loss, vision and surrender. He will record what comes, not what he hopes will come.”

It is a mesmeric book. It is almost feral, that is a domestication gone wrong. Not wild but not housebound either. The book is part tellings of old myths and stories that all involve wolves somehow and part journal of his rotted leaf-litter and mushroomed mind and lichened heart. His language is broken branch snap and rattling corvid call.

Song 11 starts as a story about King Arthur who makes a romantic faux-pas, when he was drunk, towards his queen during a religious festival. Because of this his queen says that he knows nothing about the nature of women. Arthur vows to learn this by going on a quest to remedy this gaping hole in his kingly knowledge by venturing to meet an ancient and distant king who was “famed for thinking not as other men did” and could “breathe in knowledge like ocean sucks tide” – Gorgol. King Gorgol.

The ride there was hard but my eyes perked up when Gorgol was described as “a man most comfortable between tallow wick and shadow. Never to be seen in full display.”

Now I’m not giving the story away to say that Gorgol doesn’t have the answer to Arthur’s question and Arthur needs to go on searching deeper into the wilds. The story starts with the conceit about “the nature of women” but that is a diversion. It is about much more. Don’t be distracted by this.

But I wanted to stay on this tallow wick for a second. This King Gorgol had candles made of rendered cow fat, just the same as your skincare, and that means that he had cows and lived in a remote but accessible place. A place where cows could live. Despite his great wisdom this man had to send Arthur on his way because he didn’t know enough to help in this vowed quest. I’d like to make a case that just maybe, mythologically speaking in the Celtic world, tallow is a liminal substance. A substance you must reckon with to go further, to go deeper, to learn more, to get undone.

I wrote a few months ago about tallow in the Norwegian White  Bear folktales. Take a look if you missed it!

If that is so, and that is an if, then maybe you using tallow on your skin is an old longing for a gambol down a grown over path full of gorse and overgrown hedge, sticky but still traversable. And maybe me writing all these stories of times and places gone by and not gone by but full of meaning and heartbreak and proper labor is my part of the old mythological deal  – tallow means a doorway into another world. A learning. An undoing of something.

So if that is so, thank you for walking still. I’ll try to keep my end of the bargain.

I recorded myself reading the entire story and I pray you take a few minutes to take a listen.

Tell me where you find yourself in the story. What words or images stuck with you? Do any questions arise from hearing it? As always, your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

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