Sunday, 24 November 2013

Book Reflection - Branch from the Lightening Tree by Martin Shaw

I don't have a great attention span, especially for reading. I have finished many a first chapter of many, many books but rarely reached far into the second before being distracted by one thing or another. I do, however, have an ever growing reading list identified as I continue on the rewilding journey... So I'm going to post a few book-reflections (not book reviews) to help me keep focussed!

Branch from the Lightening Tree by Martin Shaw

This poetic analysis of myth was a fascinating read. Through well-known and lesser-known traditional stories, from the wastes of Siberia to the mysterious world of the Red King, Martin presents them through the eyes of a wilderness-rites-of-passage guide, demonstrating how the initiation phases are reflected in the journey of the hero or heroine of the story through image, metaphor and characater. Using personal and professional anecdotes, we see a real-life rendering of these stages and a suggestion as to the dangers of starving our lives of true myth and the addiction to our 'toxic imitiations' of ancient laws.

Here are a few of the gifts I received from reading this book:

"The boundless choas of living speech"
Samuel Johnstone

Martin Shaw writes beautifully about how oral-tradition story is a sort of collective consciousness of the tongues that have told it, the listeners who have heard it and the place in which it is told or is born. In the live storytelling setting, it is not just my story told in my way - that would be a presentation or a performance where the audience passively receive my images - rather the oral story exists within and between the myriad of minds in the audience and the teller's imagination, intonation and diction all held in the imagination of the place that the story is shared.

As a storyteller (or storycarrier) who works in the oral tradition, Martin Shaw demonstrates in his authorship, there is also a joy in hearing or reading a carefully written and crafted story- a version of the tale unique to that teller or writer that can then be boiled down till only the bones remain and be reformed and refigured by a new teller in a new time and place with new listeners. The written word has kept many of these stories in a kind of stasis between a loss and a revival of oral telling. Martin's clear passion for the written and spoken word is a lovely permission to love with wild abandon the "boundless chaos of living speech" and value and find joy in the written word.

Myth is "the power of a place speaking" 
Sean Kane as quoted by Martin Shaw

Here is a book that moves lovingly through the individual psychological map that myth can present, through archetypal analyses and towards a greater reading that begins to encompass society and our relationship to the wild. In his exploration of story, Martin finds a communication between man and the world he inhabits in the strange symbols, actions and encounters in these tales. After reading this  book, I'm finding myself pondering on the messages murmured by the starlings across the Sussex skyline or the running of a deer pack across a road rather than just admiring their beauty and otherness. Martin seems to write with an underlying assumption that the wild-world wants to communicate with those willing to listen. Mary Oliver's Wild Geese kept coming to mind as the wild geese overhead 'over and over announc[e] your place in the family of things'. Maybe myth and story are a way we can learn once more to listen to the earth.

Quantum physics teaches us that we cannot observe without affecting the outcome. To take this out of the laboratory and into our day-to-day living, when we see something in nature - a kingfisher's dive, a swallow's swift flight through a highly hedged hollow, a fox's footprints - then it is not as a detached observer but as the implicated observer -  we have interacted. To take this one stage farther, why not understand the movement of an electron through a specific slot or the movement of a crow as a message, as speaking a language specifically to us, at that moment? And as each electron's path through one observed slot rather than another has a power  to change the outcome of an experiment, maybe we should allow that which we observe to affect our individual path through life - look beyond the literal and find meaning.

"The place they are returning to is far more deadly than four nights on the hill, and stories become a place to both reveal and protect something of their experience out there in the bush. Bush soul is what we need, and then enough real human beings around us to craft that into some kind of significance."
Martin Shaw

If you love myth, nature, wildness, stories or are interested in the development of human beings and their relationship to the world, I can highly recommend this book. If you aren't, I would still give Martin Shaw's soundcloud a listen or check out for a taster of his ideas and work.

Next on the reading list - Spell of the Sensuos by David Abram


  1. This one is on my TBR pile! I'm just waiting (hoping!) for some quiet time, some peaceful time, to be able to sit, read, absorb and ponder. I know what you mean about distractions, I find it's hard to dive right in and go deep into a book these days, and I don't want to skim read. I read 'The Spell of the Sensuous' a couple years ago now, I think. It's an extraordinary book, and makes you look at everything differently. Enjoy!

  2. Hey Abbie, I am half way through A Branch from the Lightning tree too, it is an amazing book and has led me off into so many directions that I am taking a very long time to read it. I have also started reading Wisdom of the Mythtellers by Sean Kane, recommended in Martin's book and on his blog, on order is another book on the myth of deformity by Daniel Deardorff. Martin's writing style is amazing and infectious, I am loving the journey through the book as much as anything, it feels like I am sitting next to the camp fire with him ;) I am looking forward to his next book about Parzival, out soon I believe.

    I have just finished reading A Spell of the Sensuous for the second time, which is another truly amazing book, you must read David's follow up 'Becoming Animal' as I think in a way it is even better than the first. Do you have a reading list posted anywhere? it would be great to see what you have read and are going to read. my list is here if you are interested:

    have a lovely day,
    and thanks for the blog, it is very interesting ;)


  3. Hi Louisa,
    I'm so awful at staying focussed on anything that it is rare for me to finish books! I do love Martin's writing style - have you seen him speak or tell tales? I've snaffled a place on his west country school of myth course this year which is massively exciting.

    My reading list currently features:
    Lewis Hyde - Trickster Makes the World (highly recommend this after reading your blog)
    Prose Edda by Snorri Sturlson (and Poetic Edda by anon) - Norse myths
    British Folktales - Katharine Briggs
    Finding Earth, Finding Soul - Tim Macartney (check out and his TED talks too)
    Joseph Campbells Mythos series (available mostly on youtube - I find his books horribly dry but he speaks wonderfully!)

    I'm also attempting to wade my way through the book list that Martin sent us for the course. I'm happy to forward you this reading list if you like (my email is