Essay written for latest edition of Dark Mountain on Techne
I am lying on the belly of a grassy mound that moves through the winter silence like a whale. Below me lie the bones of my island ancestors in two burial chambers, stacked one on top of the other, ringed by tall beeches and flanked by an ancient track. We are in the first days of a new millennium. A robin sings in a spindle tree: red breast among pink berries, tiny dots of colour in a sere, frost-bitten landscape. The barrow was built at the advent of Neolithic agriculture, a technology that would change the dark leafy face of these hills forever. The place, however, is named after a later technology, the working of metals, and the arrival of bands of Nordic Saxons in the fifth century. It is called Wayland’s Smithy.
That night back in the city I have a terrifying dream. I dream I have a giant safe full of treasure but am being kept in a dark house by a group of men. I escape to France, but am betrayed and wake just before I am murdered with a knife. It is then that I remember the sentence that came to me as I lay on the mound.
The treasure is in the living, not the dead.
Sometimes you think you follow the wrong god home, and sometimes you know you have no choice. Wayland is the lamed blacksmith of the Saxon pantheon and forger of the famous dragon-killing swords wielded by Beowulf and Siegfried. He is not the kind of mythical being you would necessarily choose to go on a journey with. He is not an elegant Minoan goddess in a beehive skirt, nor a heroic Greek warrior, nor an exciting blue-faced deity with eight arms standing on top of a tortoise. His maker skills do not bestow wisdom and healing powers like the Celtic or classical patronesses of craft, nor does he promise Hadean transformation or ecstasy. He is a blacksmith who kills boys and eats bears. Like Vulcan and other mythical lamed smiths, he is very rough and very gruff.
In 2000 I wanted to connect with the ancestral fabric of my native land, an England I could love with my heart, that was not its modern Empire or bloody history but an ancestor place that would make sense of everything I saw happening in the present. I didn’t think much about Wayland at the time. It was just a name that I found myself repeating when I remembered the Smithy during the years that followed.
But when you are stuck and need to break out of the chains you feel all around you, you don’t go to the mythos for an elegant or noble solution, you look for the man who has the right tools for the job.
Deep in the Northlands, Wayland lies on his bear rug by the hearth at the end of a long day. He is dreaming of the swan maiden Hervor who has flown away with her two sisters after nine years in Wolfbane. While his two brothers have gone in search of the maidens, he has wrought 700 rings of red gold for her return. When he notices the original ring is missing from its slender thread of bast he wonders: Does this mean she has returned ? Will I find her tomorrow retting flax by the lakeshore where I first stumbled upon her?
Wayland awakens the next morning to find he is in chains, bound cruelly by hand and foot. Over him stand Vidud, lord of the Nijars, and his warriors who have stolen upon his tower by the light of a waning moon. The king has given the missing ring to his daughter Bodvild. He then casts the lord of the elves on to an island and commands him to make jewellery from a large casket of gold and fine gems. The queen orders that the smith is hamstrung so he cannot escape. Everyone is forbidden to visit him.
In 1976 an off-set litho press breaks down in the English department of Birmingham University Art Faculty. It is midway through a print run of an arts magazine called Arnold Bocklin (after the typeface), the first publication I have ever helped create.
Billy Foreman laughs: ‘We will leave it,’ he says, ‘and something will resolve. We’ll come back and know what to do.’
Billy Foreman, assistant editor from the bluecollar North, is an advocate of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I am a rookie reviews editor from the whitecollar South, learning how to get my hands dirty. I know nothing about machines or class politics or journalism, but I have read a lot of books by the time I find myself at the Flat Earth Press with a staple gun in my hands. We are all students of bibliography and this is our fieldwork. The literature of England is a land we have in common.
‘The problem with Narnia,’ says Billy, as he shows me how to roll a cigarette with one hand (so the other can be free to work with machinery), ‘is that there are no women. The only woman is an evil witch. It’s the same with Tolkein’s Middle-earth. They are lop-sided.’
I stare at him amazed. I have lived within these otherworld tales all my life and never thought to look at them objectively, like an engineer.
‘Why do you think that is?’ I ask.
‘Maybe you should take a step back and see for yourelf,’ he replies.
For millennia people have known that to walk true in the world is to walk with ‘one foot in the logos and one in the mythos’. Our mythologies help our imaginations make connections between the fiery spirit of things and their physical expression. They engineer a bridge between what scientists call the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of our brains and enable us to negotiate their different territories. Since industrialisation however, these myths have become refuges from the ‘reality’ of materiality and science, escapist fairy tales that enliven our lives of hard mechanical labour.
We have lost our techne for crossing the bridge. Medicine and initiation stories that once instructed us how to live on the Earth are seen as fantasies or children’s stories. At best they serve the psychologist’s couch and the self-help manuals that tell us if we deal with our inner stepmothers you and I will be OK.
But we are not OK because the world is not OK. Those agrarian and metal-working technologies have now crawled across the entire face of the Earth. Vast machines dig and shift mountains and forests and seas, imprison and process millions of creatures. We look at the living world through pixelated eyes, talk like machines and defend our industrialised, scanned, irradiated, genetically modified with a tiny fraction of our consciousness.
Wayland the barbarian stands at the edge of his folktale, his eyes grim as a snake’s, resisting any Freudian and Jungian readovers. He is not an archetype you can befriend in a workshop. He is smarter, older and more ruthless than any hero or goddess you might fall for or identify with. He knows exactly who has captured him and what he has to do to make his escape.
I’m not a lover of Norse sagas, to be honest. I am not thrilled by thralls moving through Mirkwood with their shiny white shield bosses. And though I can breezily tell others to let the barbarians into the city to bring a new narrative, I am not sure I want to let this elven smith into my worldview any more than anyone else.
And yet his capture speaks to me. Because he is kept and treated the way all makers, all creators are, hamstrung by elites and forced to produce glittering objects and fables to enhance their glory and supremacy.
Somewhere in my bones I know that to get the barrow of time, to return to the ancestors, you have to liberate yourself from the sovereign who has fettered you and for whom you have toiled against your will. You have to stop making the jewellery that delights and empowers them.
You need to tell another story.
Wayland seizes his chance. Lured by the casket of red gold and gems, the king’s greedy-eyed sons secretly visit his island forge. As they peer into the treasure he strikes off their heads and hides their bodies under his soot-blackened bellows. He then fashions a brooch from their teeth for Bodvild, jewels from their eyes for the queen and makes drinking vessels from their skulls for Vidud.
‘Where are my boys? What has befallen them?’ asks the king, as he drinks from the grisly goblets.
Wayland tells him that he will reveal their whereabouts if the king swears an oath he cannot break on his treasured tools of warfare:
Oaths first shall you all swear me,
By ship's-keel, by shield's rim,
By stallion's-shoulder, by steel's edge,
That you will not harm the wife of Volund.
Nor cause the death of his dear bride,
Who shall in the hall bring up our child.
WH Auden and Paul Taylor’s translation of the Icelandic edda, The Lay of Volund, ends with the king’s daughter confessing that the story is true. She is indeed great with child, though it is not clear whether or not this is of her own choosing:
Against his wiles I had no wit to struggle.
Against his will I did not want to struggle.
However Wayland’s story does not end here. He has fashioned a pair of wings from swan feathers and, as he ascends into the sky above the kingdom of the Nijars, he laughs triumphantly.
Some say he flies to Valhalla where Odin and the swanwinged Valkyrie gather the warriors of Middle-earth for the final battle of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods. Others that he flies to the British Isles and sets up his smithy alongside the Ridgeway, where every 100 years he shoes the hooves of the White Horse of Uffington.
Either way this Saxon saga is placed on top of a vaster and older story and hides it from view, in the same way that Daedelus’ Cretan labyrinth obscures Ariadne’s hive-shaped dancing floor. The Smithy appears 4000 years after the first Neolithic burial mounds were established on this grassy hill. For a long time now, sitting beside this story, I have been wondering what I should do with it.
Then one day I know.
In 1991, I break away from the glossy magazines I have spent my youth working for as a chronicler of master carpenters, designers, jewellers and craftsmen. I switch off the television, unplug the radio, and walk out of the city. I go in search of a world where the Earth is sovereign, where myths are still tools that help us open the door to other dimensions. I forge practices that can link the world of dreams and visions to everyday life.
In 2007, I change tack and begin to write about a grassroots culture that is breaking free from fossil-fuelled technology. As the corporate world tightens its grip, I chronicle the people who are saving seeds, making their own bread, keeping bees, foraging for medicine, exchanging skills and knowledge, learning how to split wood with an axe, gaining sustenance from the trees and hills again: people who don’t want to live in smart houses and hyperreality.
But in 2015, I am encountering a limit.
The limit isn’t in this physical world, it is in the mind. No matter how many changes we make in the way things are produced or shared, we are still seeing the Earth with our left hemisphere, our rational minds. We are still stuck on the island of Saeverstod. How can we see the world through mythological eyes, where each thing – each cupboard, knife, pair of boots – has its life history embedded within it, its counterpart in story and myth. How can we fly free?
That’s when I realised I needed Wayland’s sledgehammer.
I live in flint country now, far from the rolling hills of middle England, where large glassy stones crouch in the agri-industrial fields like birds. On the eastern cliffs beyond Pakefield I sit and hold a flint that could be a tool from hundreds of thousands of years ago. To the north, ‘Gulliver’, the coast’s first wind turbine, moves slowly in the breeze; to the south the dome of Sizewell’s nuclear power station gleams white in the sun. This is the oldest inhabited place north of the Alps, and on certain days you can close your eyes and feel how it was when the hyena and rhinoceros gazed upon a blue tropical ocean, a sea that is still sparkling on this late summer day, though far colder and greyer and emptier now.
Accessing deep time is a clifftop activity. You think it means digging below your feet, a place that physical effort and academic knowledge will take you, but it doesn’t. Time is a broad thing you can feel in your imagination, like the blue sky opening above your head, when the Earth becomes at once larger and more mysterious than you think, a space in which all times converge and make sense of this one present moment.
The mind on its prison treadmill prevents our seeing beyond the hostile broadcast of Empire. It keeps us stuck in a history where its rulers are always in command. But sometimes you encounter a strange being, who is neither man nor god, who shows you a way out, though it takes you a long time to realise it.
To make the future, he instructs you, you have to attempt a kind of gaolbreak. The mindset of Empire is a ruthless vampire on the human imagination and to see clearly, to be free in your thoughts, to live in real time with your feet on the real earth, you have to kill the mechanical thinking that blinds and traps you: self-pity, control, the feeling of doing something wrong, of owing, of being lesser than the people who hold you captive.
Only when you are free can you see. Only when you see can you act, and trust your every action will affect the fabric of the world.
The wind drags light across the ocean. WG Sebald walks past the cliff on his way to the Sailor’s Reading Room in Southwold. The rhinoceros moves away through the yarrow flowers. Wayland laughs. His is a master swordsmith and jeweller, but his true art is flight.
I wanted to tell you about the things I have loved dearly in this world and the makers who have made them. I wanted to tell you about the teaching house of Tadao Ando in Osaka with its empty tearooms designed in stone and wood and glass, and the history house in Spitalfields where Dennis Severs conjured an imaginary family of silk weavers spinning out their tales in its candlelit rooms. How these encounters revolutionised my relationship with the fabric of places. I wanted to tell you how perception renders our physical lives meaningful, in a way that mere possession of things or virtual realities never can.
I wanted to tell you how Elizabeth David’s description of her Sudanese cook preparing salted almonds in twists of brown paper and the rough techne of my own kitchen – the Opinel knife from France I have used for 30 years and never sharpened, the molcajete hewn from volcanic rock I found in the dusty border town of Nogales - have helped me create a thousand colourful meals through these difficult downshifting years.
I wanted to tell you about Sid and Barry and Gene and all the men with grease-smeared faces who mended the cars that once took us to the stony deep time places on this Earth, along the rocky back roads of England and America. But most of all I wanted to tell you about that morning in Birmingham in 1976 when I stood in the shower at dawn and saw my own grease-smeared face and inky black hands in the mirror and laughed. Because I had just printed the first of a thousand publications I will forge in my lifetime, and because I loved Billy Foreman in the way you can only love someone when you are 19 and a student of English literature, and because the smell of Swarfega will forever hurtle me back into that moment when I stumbled upon my craft.
But I can’t. At least not the way I would like to, which is to say in detail. Because we don’t have time for nostalgia: my personal recollections of almonds, or London houses, or my father’s deftness with a spade, or my mother’s with a rolling pin, gifts that have been an anchor in a sea of choppy times. I don’t want to usher you into my silo of memories, I want to break it open.
Wayland brings another technology. Not the kind of hardware that plugs you into a network of virtual worlds and abstractions, but a tool that allows you to access the real network of the Earth. A sledgehammer to break the mind-forged manacles that imprison our imaginations.
The hammer breaks our link to the past, so we can live in the future, beyond the islands where we have been cast; so that we can know other dimensions exist, where the Earth is a mysterious place, full of colour and beauty and intelligences other than our own. So we can forge a story, not a barbarian fantasy that amuses us before we return to our obedient, dull lives, but one that can act as a working bridge between our fiery consciousness and our material selves that house us here on Earth.
Only with this relationship can we be free to dream another world. As a people we are bound by the clock, kept in isolation from our true lands. We are all lamed, one way or another, financially, emotionally, mentally, tied to the market state, indentured to cars and houses and a petrol-soaked economy, unable to leave. In our fetters we forget it is the king, our gaoler, who is stuck because he lacks the art that Wayland possesses and because he is addicted, like all dominators, to the cruel and glittering stuff of power.
But Wayland does not forget. He knows that Bodvild wears Hervor’s ring and the king has enslaved him against his will and stolen his sword. His vision is clear. He bides his time and then he makes his move.
Making a move is the strategy of the imagination enacted in the realm of the will. You make the move by looking at the energy behind the form and then acting. You break the link to whatever or whoever holds you prisoner; you soar into the freedom of sky. Myths are practical things and blacksmiths are practical beings. Every time you break free, you open the door of time and make space for the future to happen. In this space, the tyrant cannot keep his grip.
Our civilisation rests on the assurance of its rulers that the vast populations it holds sway over cannot make these moves. That their everyday actions are hampered, that we will toil ceaselessly for the mechanics that keep their realms running. But some of us have downed our tools. Some of us, impatient to find our way to the future, have stumbled upon a technology still held in the memory of giant stones and small pieces of flint.
I don’t have a car anymore, so most weeks now I have to cycle for our veg box from Darsham ten miles away. Today I am collecting it from Dunwich, which is only six miles from my house but means I have to push the bike along the beach. It is high tide and the wind is against me. My feet sink into the stones, crunch, crunch, crunch.
Occasionally I collapse into the shingle laughing, and remind myself I am on the de-industrialising path: no supermarkets, no palm oil, no GM, no pesticides, no central heating, no aeroplanes, no mobile phone, no Facebook, no Amazon, no IKEA, no Primark, but a determination to go a long way for Malcolm’s fresh peas and strawberries. Malcolm has built a mini-observatory amongst the rows of sweetcorn and fruit bushes in his smallholding and today we are converging at Dunwich with his local astronomy group. We are looking through solarscopes, a telescope that allows you to look at the sun directly without going blind.
‘The thing about H-Alpha,’ an ex-merchant seaman called Terry tells me, ‘is that it takes time for you to be able to see through it.’
Hydrogen-Alpha is a wavelength deep in the infrared of the electromagnetic spectrum. Solarscopes use an H-Apha filter to block out all sources of light except this narrow bandwidth. It takes nine months of observation for your eyes to learn to adjust to the wavelength, Terry explains:
‘Then you start seeing things you never thought were there’.
At first you see only a red globe that feels shockingly near. But on a second glance you notice the black sunspots and the flares on the edges of the sphere. You realise that the sun is not this round static disc that brings you warmth and light that you take for granted. It is the fire that smelts life. You expect it to be calm and cool like the far distant stars, or Jupiter or the moon. But it isn’t: it is a raging furnace, stoked to the max.
Wayland is its blacksmith.
It is said that Wayland’s flight to the Upperworld represents an ancient shamanic journey that soars up the axis mundi to the stars, a flight you see represented by the birds at the zenith of totem poles and standards the world over. Wayland is returning to the constellation of Cygnus, the swan, and his story acts as door into a world where people are more than mere human numbers trapped in a single moment of history: where we are imaginative creatures who live in many dimensions and that our lives and our presence here only make sense in terms of this journey. All civilisations work by blocking our ancient access to this flight, by saying that Wayland and his smithy are just a story, made up by a rough and barbarous people who no longer exist.
But we do exist, and so do the stones on the soft green hills of England, and the three swans who fly past my window on their way to the marsh: whuh-whuh, whuh-whuh, whuh-whuh.
The treasure is in the living, not the dead
If on a clear summer’s night you gaze up into the sky towards the east you might glimpse Daneb, one of a trio of brilliant stars, known as the summer triangle. Daneb, brightest star of Cygnus, was once our guiding pole star and in the future will be again when the Earth shifts her axis.
I don’t know if any move I make affects the world I now live in, except that each time I break free from Empire, from the Machine, from someone who commands me against my will, I feel lighter. There is more space, in my mind, in my feelings, in my encounters. There is more room for everything else, for the plants, for the creatures, for the mountains, for the sea, for the stars. Time stretches out and I can feel as I once did among those Oxfordshire hills, immersed in light and air, filled with exuberance, as if I were flying over them. This is when you realise that Wayland is not just a smith, he is also a guardian. He stands by the barrow built 4000 years before his people arrived with their stories of elves and dwarves and dragons, magical rings and swords.
You can’t get to the barrow’s treasure chest without confronting Wayland, without unshackling yourself from the civilisations that were at that point in time beginning to build their cities in the Middle East and establishing their technologies here in the form of Neolithic agriculture. The Smithy is a doorway in time and something in us knows that in our bones when we lie there on a winter’s day and the robin sings from the spindle tree: I am always here, I am always here.
If you are a writer of English words you know that your language was smelted in Wayland’s forge, and when you search for a way to show the Earth in her true colours, you use those earth-wrought Saxon words and not the mind-made words that belong to Nidud. You know it takes time to see the fiery red spectrum in everything that lives and breathes on this planet, so you relate what you see to the people with the tools you know best and love with your heart, with words, because this is your own true craft.
You are the key that opens the door.
All images from Dark Mountain 8: Wayland's Smithy 1999 (photo by Mark Watson); infrared sun from Incident Energy by Marne Lucas and Jacob Pander; megalodont fossils from Travenanzensis by Dorian Jose Braun; blacksmith's hammers from Walter's Tools by Sarah Thomas (photo by Dayve Ward).
Dark Mountain Issue 8: Techne is available from here:http://shop.dark-mountain.net