Reconnecting to a Mythic Mycelium of Place

Filmmaker and land guardian James Murray-White delves into the narratives of place in his reflection on two new books by ecological storytellers that invite us to immerse ourselves in the 'deep life' of our heartlands and imaginations.
is a filmmaker, whose documentaries explore humans in landscapes - from the Bedouin of the Negev Desert, to walking ‘In the footsteps of John Clare’, the life of a chalk stream - ‘Waterlight’, and the legacy of ‘artist - poet - prophet’ William Blake. He is also a warden at a chalk downland reserve in the Gog Magog hills of Cambridgeshire.

A review of Sophie Strand’s ‘The Flowering Wand’ and Hugh Lupton’s ‘Dreaming of Place’

 

‘The old superstitious fragments of legends and stories in rhyme … are engrafted on the human mind ’til they become part of its existence; and are carried from generation to generation on the stream of eternity, with the proudest of fames, untroubled by the insect encroachments of oblivion which books are infested with.’

John Clare, 1800

 

As spring arrives, through frost and mist, and humans and the more-than-human emerge from winter retreats, two extraordinary new books appear to immerse and dream with: Sophie Strand’s The Flowering Wand – rewilding the sacred masculine, and Hugh Lupton’s The Dreaming of Place – myth, landscape, and the art of storytelling. 

In these times of climate anxiety and biodiversity crisis, it feels urgent to create a deeper reconnection to myth, and particularly myths that root us in landscapes of the physical earth – our lands, or places of birth and death – where our knowledge body is truly anchored, rather than purely within intellectual materiality. Both books promise this. With real spades, in deep soil.

US educator and poet-activist Strand, who has become a powerful and innovative voice through her conversations and talks on various online philosophical platforms such as Advaya, and Science and Non-Duality (SAND), challenges herself and her readers in this new work to find the living roots of masculine identity, and to turn current stale and rigid thinking about it on its head. 

By unpicking many well-known and some lesser-known myths and stories, and re-imagining them in the light of our contemporary search for meaning, she pushes at the edges of old gender tropes. She has poured eight years of scholarly research into this work, and her writing shines with shimmering intensity, probing light into the dark dusty corners of old myths, to bring out new possibilities and ways of being in the world.

Hugh Lupton is well-known in the UK for his work as a storyteller – I first saw him at the Hay Literary Festival many years ago, at a powerful telling (with Daniel Morden) of The Odyssey – and this book is a gathering together of his thoughts on what stories are and why we tell them, coupled with examples of stories and myths from around the world, reviews, and reflections. His selection is both local and international – one minute we find ourselves walking with tigers on the Indian subcontinent; the next rooted back in Norfolk, or Wales, travelling between the sacred and the everyday. 

Cambridgeshire chalk pits in golden light (photo: James Murray-White)

The Dreaming of Place explicitly explores stories in their physicality – we grew up a few years apart in nearby villages in South Cambridgeshire, and I resonate with Lupton’s references to those villages and the childhoods they offered us, within this flat, chalk land topography, particularly the Gog Magog hills, that is etched into our souls, and the waters that etch through East Anglia. (I’ve also produced a film, Waterlight, about the eight-mile-long chalk stream, the Mel, that meanders through the villages Lupton refers to as his ‘growing up patch’). Being of this place, more than simply from an area, brings greater meaning and a care for all that similarly are rooted through soil and soil narratives. This is also playfully and brilliantly reinforced early on by Strand as she introduces her hopes for the work men must do:

What would it look like for men to ask plants, fungi, flowers, and landscapes for wisdom about how to deal with the oncoming climate collapse? What if dreaming of plants was a mystical, masculine birthright?’ And later: ‘Let’s offer men a new archetype – what would it mean to go outside and begin to woo the trees? The foxes? Let us acknowledge the world is a green bride.’

The issue of land rights and land access is rising to boiling point in the UK, with a recent Right To Roam protest on Dartmoor in Devon attracting thousands, against the potential legal banning of wild camping on much of this ancient wild moorland. All point back to the essential need for humans beings to connect. Movements that form around the playful erotic energies of the Green Man – and an acknowledgement of our shared wild spaces, moors or city edgelands – are found in all our stories and local ballads across the British Isles, and despite the polarities of ‘modern life’ in this industrial gloomy age, resurface to give hope and as a pointer to keeping faith that life has value and meaning. 

For me, the English poet John Clare is the writer who shows how intricately a human mind is connected to its heartland, and the beneficial value of being in relationship with place. His life on the edge of the Fens in and around the village of Helpston seems to have been idyllic, and then he experienced class-based colonial land grab through successive Enclosure Acts of the late 18th Century, which so tragically drove him ‘out of his mind’. Clare stands out as a beacon of connection to and connecting with land – soil, sky, tree. Hugh Lupton has done a great service in furthering Clare’s life and writings, and ‘On Common Ground – a praise song for John Clare 1793-1864’ is included here in Dreaming Of Place. I highly recommend seeing Lupton do a live performance of this, or listening to it on an audio version.

Lupton writes how the dreaming of a sacred Welsh well, at the foot of Carn Pentyrch, revealed itself to him, and yet how this needn’t be over-mystified or a sanctimonious awakening: ‘The collective stories are the shared creations of those tens of thousands of human beings, who have evolved them, carried them, passed them on and allowed them to seep into the spirit of the place – the stories at the back of the seen world, the stories of what happened once…’

Throughout the book he returns to describing myth as a ‘continuum’ of memories, through ballads and folk stories that live alongside our personal narratives ‘to the great accounts of creation’. Referring to the writings of David Abram, contemporary academic and philosopher, as delving into the matters of the physical and metaphysical, Lupton writes:

‘The storyteller’s job is to enter the dreaming – to salvage the stories, to recharge the landscape with its forgotten narratives’.

‘The storyteller’s job is to enter the dreaming – to salvage the stories, to recharge the landscape with its forgotten narratives’.  

A particular favourite that jumped out, again because of the local and ‘Deep England’ resonances (from the chapter of the same name), is ‘The Pedlar of Swaffham, John Chapman’. It’s a story of questing – a storyteller treading far from home. His intuition, deep listening and sensing shapes the man, and he trades stories far and wide, until one day, on a bridge in London, he hears a trader tell their dream about him – which sends him finally to his glorious return to Swaffham, a small Norfolk market town. There digging his own overgrown garden he unearths a golden hoard of thousands of coins which he generously bestows to the place and community that has held and nurtured him. It’s a story of caring for where we come from, who we are, and epitomises this key sense of being rooted in a place, which will in time bring its own reward.

I’ll tread differently in Swaffham next time I’m travelling through.

‘He understands the kingdom not by conquering, but by teaching how to come into relationship with a biodiversity of stories.’

Strand frames this rootedness slightly differently, in her exploration of the tale of Merlin: ‘Merlin keeps flexible by making kin. He understands the kingdom not by conquering, but by teaching how to come into relationship with a biodiversity of stories. Go to the woods. Make new kin. Tell new stories.’

Beech avenue at Wandlebury in golden autumnal light  (photo: James Murray-White)

Strand takes a dozen known myths of the masculine, including Pan, the horned god, Dionysus, Merlin, Joseph, Orpheus, Tristan, and others, and explodes what we think we might know of them or the interpretations of the stories have been told, seeking to create ‘a biodiversity of masculinities, a holobiont that can thrive, flexibly dance with change’ and her language seems to dance into a sacred cosmology of mycelium and rhizomatic networks. The book fast becomes a gathering place of necessary questioning, every chapter concluding not with a summing up but with a turning back outward and asking the reader to think more deeply, to respond, to check our thinking and stratified knowledges and interpretations. She challenges the patriarchal/macho hero myths in favour of a vegetative god.

Her work builds to a resonant conclusion: ‘These days I’m much more interested in the dirt, so I’m offering a new gnostic maxim: ensoulment is enrolment. Soul is soil.

Strand’s writing re-directs the reader’s mind and the human and masculine vision towards the vegetal world, and into the senses again, as if reaching down through composting layers, feeling decomposing leaves, peelings, the slippery touch of earthworms and red brandlings, ants, gnats, protozoa, springtails until our hands find in the lower levels words pulsing and coalescing into stories that emerge through the rich peaty matter. ‘We don’t need a grand spiritual awakening in order to come back into this Edenic consciousness. The garden is just beneath our feet.’ ’

The Flowering Wand asks more questions of readers than it gives answers, which is a refreshing engagement. Reading this book made me feel softer, more celebratory and connected: I want to keep looking deeply at all that grows, all that lives and all that dies. 

Composting through the storying process of our lives, acknowledging the polarities and dichotomies awake within the universe, knowing that the myths present to us are alive as we are

Composting through the storying process of our lives, acknowledging the polarities and dichotomies awake within the universe, knowing that the myths present to us are alive as we are, and that both Sophie Strand and Hugh Lupton, in different and beautifully convergent ways, are urging us all to find old and make new connections, to use and live with old/new stories – to re-invent, to question, to make and be in community, with the rhizomes, and our neighbours, and all the beings of the Earth. Both tellers and talkers are myth weavers, offering good medicine for these times.

What if there was a world before words? Before wounded gods? A world full of pine trees and old-growth forests and violets and roses? A world where forgiveness was not something that we earned but as ubiquitous as air, inhuman and plentiful, tender and pleasurable, suffusing every day, every waking hour?

– Sophie Strand

 

Hugh Lupton The Dreaming of Place: Myth, Landscape & the Art of Storytelling (Propolis, 2022)

Sophie Strand The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Sacred Masculine – Lunar Kings, Trans-Species Magicians, and Rhizomatic Harpists (Inner Traditions, 2022)

 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 25

Our Spring 2024 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself.

 

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