Re-storying and belonging

This last weekend I ran a session called ‘Re-storying the Earth’ at the Carrying the Fire Festival in Biggar, Lanarkshire, in the context of myths from the Outer Hebrides. There are a couple of ideas which I talked about at the session that I’d like to share here, and so here is a small part of the text of that talk.


Any storyteller will remember that a long, long time ago, and through all the years between then and now, and indeed, even now, and for sure, in the future, at midnight on every 31 October a big change comes over the world. On that night, a recumbent figure rises from the contours of the hills of the Hebrides. She rises from the hills, her skin blue with cold, and her long white hair straggling behind her. If you didn’t know where to look for her, you’d never have known she was there. And even if you did know she was there, you’d have thought she was dead – or sleeping. She wasn’t ever dead, or sleeping. She was just biding her time.

They call her the Cailleach – the old woman. She’s not just any old woman, though – she was here before the land itself. Indeed, they say that she was the one who created the hills in the first place: she made them for her stepping stones as she danced across the land. And as she dances she carries a hammer, to shape the hills and the valleys. Sometimes she’ll herd the deer and the sheep as she dances, and wherever her staff touches the ground, it freezes. And if you look out onto the hills in the darkness of the night throughout the long winter season, chances are you’ll see her there, dancing from hill to hill, leaving a trail of cold white frost behind her.

You don’t mess with the Cailleach … she’s our very own Kali, dancing to create. Because it’s not death that she brings to the land with her dancing: it’s the renewal of sleep, the renewal of creativity as the hard bones of winter lay bare all that is inside us. She culls old growth, brings transformation. She’s the guardian of the seed as it builds its strength for the next summer’s growth.

When the long hard days of winter are done, and she begins to tire of her labour, the hills become her resting place, and she sleeps in the hills for longer and longer periods of time. And as she sleeps, at dawn on Imbolc – February 2 – her sister begins to wake. Her sister is Brighid, or Bride: the spring maiden. Bride has a bright green mantle that has been tightly wrapped around her all winter; as she begins to waken, little by little she shrugs off the mantle, and it begins to spread out over the fields and flowers spring up from the place where the mantle rests. Bride looks after the cows and the sheep – but more than that, she inspires poets and storytellers. Until, on August 1 – Lammas – she begins to tire, and she sleeps longer and longer, withdrawing her green mantle as she falls into the deepest sleep of winter. And as she begins to sleep, her sister the Cailleach begins to wake …

And so the cycle goes.

Every morning when I wake up and open the shutters I look out onto one of those silhouetted sleeping forms in the hills. I can see the contours of her face in profile, the rise of her chest and the roundness of her belly. It reminds me that the land is animate in its own way, and that, as explorer of oral traditions Robert Bringhurst tells us, ‘Stories are one of the fundamental ways in which we understand the world … some of the basic constituents of the world.’ It reminds me of the story of the Cailleach and Bride, and so of cycles, and of balance. As I walk our wild and windy headland each morning with the mountains to the east of me and the sea to the west, sometimes I talk to that sleeping form. I tell her my stories, and she tells me hers.

Because the only true stories spring directly from the land. They don’t come from our heads: we’re not talking about sitting down at a computer and making up fiction here, we’re talking about living stories. Alan Garner tells us that such stories are how a nation dreams.

The reality is in the land, in the earth. That’s where the true stories spring from. These are the stories that contribute to our sense of belonging in a place, and belonging springs in good part from understanding the land in all its seasons. Which in turn comes from getting out there and being in it, from understanding some of its history (not just of the people, but of the land itself). From understanding its stories.

In most Western cultures, we’ve lost those stories. Unlike many of the world’s indigenous peoples, who never let them completely die. The Australian aborigines, who walk the songlines singing the stories of the ancestors in the Dreamtime, and by so doing believe that they keep the land in existence. Like the Native Americans: ‘The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,’ says Native North American writer Thomas King. ‘I will tell you something about stories,’ the Laguna storyteller Leslie Silko says, ‘They aren’t just entertainment/ Don’t be fooled/ They are all we have, you see/ All we have to fight off/ Illness and death. You don’t have anything/ If you don’t have the stories.’ For Native Americans like Silko, a story is an intricate part of a web that cradles all the past, present and future events, ceremonies, beliefs and traditions of their culture. In the centre of this web is the land. Each story is part of another story which is linked to yet another one, and all these stories are connected back to the very origin of creation.

But we have lost the power of our stories. We’ve relegated them to fairy stories: stories that we tell to children. We think they’re just there for entertainment. We don’t believe in them any more; we certainly don’t believe they have any power. We’ve dispossessed our stories; we’ve disenchanted them. Max Weber talked about western Modernity as a ‘progressive disenchantment of the world’. Part of that disenchantment is the loss of our belief in the importance of stories. This is important, because it is stories that provide ways to test our hypotheses about the nature of the world, that attach us to place, to the land, to the earth. The folk tales, the fairy stories, the legends, the myths. These are the stories that hold a real power to transform, the stories that reveal the world to us in all its complexity. That peel layers of the world away like an onion.

What can you do when you’ve lost your stories? Well, you set about finding them again. That’s why the title of this session is ‘Re-storying the Earth’. We have to find our stories again. But it’s not necessarily about making up new stories; the old stories still have their power. Simon Schama put it this way: ‘An understanding of landscape’s past traditions is a source for illumination of present and future.’ The old stories never left, you see. We just need to remember them.

What do I mean by re-storying? Well, I wonder how many of you have read Toni Morrison’s beautiful novel, Beloved. If you have, you’ll perhaps remember that she uses a concept called rememory. Rememory is about reimagining one’s heritage. Revisiting a memory, and reconstructing it. “Rememory” differs from “memory” in its active force, which is independent of the rememberer. The continued presence of that which has disappeared or been forgotten, as when the novel’s main character Sethe “remember[s] something she had forgotten she knew”. Re-storying, in the same way, is revisiting a story, reconstructing it, remembering something we have forgotten we knew. Re-storying, then, is in some sense not only about keeping the old stories alive, but about keeping the old stories fresh by transforming them. In Silko’s novel Ceremony, medicine man Betonie talks about changing stories and ceremonies, and the need for them to change as the world changes: ‘In many ways, the ceremonies have always been changing … only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong … things which don’t shift and grow are dead things.’ Re-storying isn’t about reinterpretation of the old stories. It isn’t about interpretation at all. It’s about growing the stories, transforming for the times.