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A Branch from the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace of Wildness

by Martin Shaw

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Martin Shaw's writing rattles the cages of souls. InA Branch from the Lightning Tree, Shaw creates links between the wildness in landscape and language, with myth being the bridge between the two. Shaw uses four great myths from Welsh, Norwegian, Siberian, and Russian territories that explore the process of leaving what is considered safe and predictable and journeying out into wild, uncertain areas of nature and the psyche. Shaw's work focuses on both men and women's movement into wildness as part of the bigger awareness of climate change and ecology. It presents theold stories as keys into any debate on these issues, showing how the ability to think metaphorically and mythologically "re-enchants" our perspectives.… (more)
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Red, Black, White

Myth and Meaning in "A Branch from the Lightning Tree"

I've been skirting around the work of Martin Shaw for many years now. While reading this book, I was also rereading Bill Poltkin's Nature and the Human Soul - a different way of engaging some of the same inquiries. They both deal with the descent into soul and the return to community. Shaw sums this up as the "red, black, white" process, which might be summed up as passion, moving into darkness, maturing into integration. I'm also currently reading Lord of the Rings; to get a sense of initiation, take a look and the transformation of Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White (although we don't get a strong sense of the red in Tolkien's telling).

Where Plotkin's approach towards soul and the wild is through depth psychology, Shaw comes at the inquiry through myth.

Akin to the Benedictine Midnight Mass I attend on Christmas Eve, Shaw is as a cleric, reciting passages from the Bible followed by interpretations of the metaphors therein.

Having spent just a little time reading through collections of myths from my ancestors, the question I'm left with is, how do we begin to gain a competence in meaning-making through myth? How do I begin to select the myths that will become my blood and bones (or that already are and I have yet to realize)?

As a friend humblingly reminded me, Shaw's been at this for most of a lifetime, and competence may require a decades-long commitment. In the meantime, I'm going to start reading the second book in this Mythteller Trilogy, The Snowy Tower.

In the following I'll speak to a few quotes that stood out to me.

First, Shaw calls out that in the West, we're often fail to give the third phase of initiation (the white) its due:
"The Return in any great story or initiation ritual is a place of blessing, encouragement, celebration, and integration." (XXV)

The way I've been holding this question is to ask, as I contemplate my next vision fast, how can I be carrying the longing of my community out with me, and have them greet me on my return?

And to speak more to what longing might mean, "Longing means staying in the hard wisdom of our life's troubles, resisting the societal urge to just sever immediately from its tricky invitation." (XXVI)

He also discerns between how society might step up in holding the energy of success through blessings rather than affirmation, although he doesn't say a lot about this. "Even the so-called success stories can end in violence. Rothko, suicide at the foot of a canvas; Pollock in a car crash. One perspective is that they were given the wrong response to their work, an affirmation - wealth and prestige - rather than a blessing - a culturally understood act of holding and honoring the visible thread of an energy whose roots are in the invisible world." (27)

Part of how I parse this is through scope of considering: are we holding our egoic individual as the self, or the community or even bioregion as self?

In Courting the Wild Twin, Shaw looks carefully at raw, untempered desire. Following this sort of desire can lead to integration, but only through an initiation, never directly.

"To meet the Hag is a move towards the articulating of real desire, not the consensual wants of an already designated kingdom." (157)

Again, Shaw touches on this theme, but doesn't explore it deeply here.

In past months, having recently celebrated my thirtieth birthday, I've been reflecting on the unexpected and unpredictable ways in which periods of time continue and end. We get used to routines like having dinner with our parents, driving our kids to school, or talking with our business partners. Each of these things will end; sometimes much sooner or much later than we would like! There is a poignance to these musings which Shaw captures well in the following quote when speaking of a Russian folktale, the Maiden Tzar; "'There is a Goddess who doesn't love you anymore…' Some opportunities, if not seized, fall away forever." (210)

The richness of mortality is also hinted at in the first chapter in a quote from Cesar Vallejo:
"Ruben Dario has said that the grief of the gods is never to attain death. Regarding men, if they were, from the moment they are conscious, certain of of attaining death, they would be joyous forever. Unfortunately, men are never certain of their death: they feel the dark anxiety and the yearning of dying, but always doubt their death. The fried of men, we can say, is never to be certain of death." (12)

This is palpably useful information during the small death of a vision fast, although I can't quite put my finger on why, aside from aligning ourself with hazard.

In the end, Shaw leaves us with the question, "How do we reorient to the great dark caves of story that live beneath our feet?" (219) I have been asking myself this question in my own way wondering, what is it to have myths of my place? I'm interested in learning, what myths (Native American and possible other) speak of the Connecticut River, or other notable features of my home place. ( )
  willszal | Oct 6, 2020 |
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Martin Shaw's writing rattles the cages of souls. InA Branch from the Lightning Tree, Shaw creates links between the wildness in landscape and language, with myth being the bridge between the two. Shaw uses four great myths from Welsh, Norwegian, Siberian, and Russian territories that explore the process of leaving what is considered safe and predictable and journeying out into wild, uncertain areas of nature and the psyche. Shaw's work focuses on both men and women's movement into wildness as part of the bigger awareness of climate change and ecology. It presents theold stories as keys into any debate on these issues, showing how the ability to think metaphorically and mythologically "re-enchants" our perspectives.

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