The Hunt for the Great Bear: “Celebrating Life”.

cavetaur

One of the chief driving forces behind writing, behind any creative act, is, I believe, a deep seated need in human beings to celebrate life. Why that need is there is rooted far back in our ancient, Palaeolithic past, that period of time when our first true direct ancestors were struggling to survive in an extremely hostile environment – harsh weather conditions and powerful predators, combined with their own relatively small numbers, meant that the odds of survival were stacked against them, and every day of remaining alive, of finding enough to eat and of not being killed and eaten yourself, was a cause for celebration. And they celebrated through art, those vibrant, powerful images painted onto the walls of caves deep within the rock, and the great difficulty it must have taken to reach those caves is evidence of how seriously they took the making of these works of art, how central it was to their lives. We know that they also made music, from the flutes of ivory and bone that have been found, and we can assume that they sang and danced and told stories. Every major art form that we have practiced and refined over the millennia were established then. And not as pastimes. They were tools of survival, like the ability to make fire, to sew clothes, to plan a successful hunt and to fashion a bone needle. Through painting, music, singing, performance and storytelling, our ancestors established bonds between each other and with the world around them, with the creatures that they hunted and which hunted them, whose images they found in the rock and fixed there, with a mixture of fear and reverence and awe. Through art they rooted themselves in the world and celebrated the miracle of staying alive against all the odds. Because each celebration, each song, or story or dance or painting, was infused with an astute awareness and acknowledgement of the precariousness of existence.

Nowadays, in the affluent west, we may feel that existence is not so precarious, that the natural world has been successfully overcome and tamed, and that in our brightly-lit towns and cities our lives are assured, comfortable and secure. We can enjoy watching nature “red in tooth and claw” as entertainment on our televisions or i-pads.  But this is a false sense of security, I believe. Those natural forces, that can be both beautiful and terrible, are still at work, both in the world outside, and within us, and we ignore them at our peril. And one of the functions of art in the modern world is, I think, to remind us of this, because it’s only when we see ourselves as creatures that are part of the natural processes of the world, our senses attuned to the forces that govern all life, rather than as superior creatures that are separate from them, can we begin to understand what it is to be human, and to appreciate the value of being alive. In this way, the art that we make, like the art our ancient ancestors made, can be truly celebratory. And, seen in this light, “The Hunt for the Great Bear” is intended too as a celebration of life.

Below is one such celebratory episode from the novel:

“The deer stood watching them and they saw it as they rose and they froze then lowered themselves slowly until they lay flat again on the ground. It was standing just beyond the line of trees, sniffing at the air, twitching its tail and in the evening light the curve and arch of its back and the smooth sides of its flanks shone a deep and glossy red. It was a large buck and its antlers too caught on their tips the glow of the setting sun so that they seemed branched with flame. It stood with head erect and gazed across the landscape for sign of movement but there was none. Then it bent its head and nibbled at some tufts of coarse grass beneath the surface of the snow then looked up again and turned and walked slowly back into the forest. The brothers rose to their feet. They looked at each other then made their way to where the deer had stood.  They could see where its hooves had pressed into the hard snow and one knelt and touched his fingers to a crumbled print while the other gazed the way they had come, as if to see the land as the deer had seen it, to crouch in its skull and look out through its eyes, each in his own way laying claim to the creature”

The Hunt for the Great Bear: “Dreaming a dark dream”.

 

Bear Shaman

 

A man in crows’ feathers a man with a drum

He carries a bag it is filled with songs

He carries a spear his talk is crooked

She is dreaming a dark dream.

These lines comes from a poem of mine called  “She Is Trying to Get Back to What She Was”, and it was the circumstances that led up to the writing of that poem that also eventually led to my writing of this novel.  It’s interesting, I think, when a work has been finished, especially one that’s taken up so much time and become all-consuming, to look back at where the whole thing started, unearth those roots that led to its growth. And the root of “The Hunt for the Great Bear” – one of them at least – is a simple myth from the Arctic, the story of Sedna.

Some time ago I was commissioned by Oxford University Press to write a book of three folktales and myths on theme of water and the sea for young readers. I knew already some stories that would fit the theme, but I wanted, for my own interest as much as anything else, to find one that I didn’t know. And I wanted each story to represent a different world culture. I had one from Britain, and one from India, so I began to research myths and folk tales from other parts of the world. It was during that research that I came across the myth of Sedna.

The story comes from the Arctic circle, an Innuit myth. And of course, as with all myths and folk-tales, there are several, often many, different versions. The story I eventually wrote for the book was adapted from two or three of them, and was much simplified for a young audience.

It tells the story of a girl, Sedna, who marries a mysterious stranger from across the sea. When he takes her in his kayak to his home, she finds herself in a filthy nest on a bare rock in the middle of the ocean, and that her husband is gigantic crow. Through the the power of her dreams she calls to her father to come and rescue her. But as they’re escaping in her father’s kayak, the crow chases after them and whips up a storm with its wings. The waves wash Sedna overboard. She clings to the side of the boat but the freezing cold turns them to ice, and they snap off and Sedna sinks beneath the waves. The crow turns back and Sedna’s father returns home. Then further disaster strikes. The seas become barren of fish, and the people, Sedna’s father among them, begin to starve. Then he dreams that his daughter is calling to him again, and he goes out to sea in his kayak. He finds himself surrounded by strange and terrifying creatures he has never seen before – they are in fact seals, walruses and whales. They mass about his kayak and tip him into the water, dragging him down to the bottom of the ocean. There he finds Sedna, transformed into the goddess of the sea. The new animals are the creation of her snapped-off fingers and thumbs. Her message to him is simple. She is enraged at being abandoned and lost, and in her rage has emptied the seas of fish. She knows she cannot return to being what she was, but longs for some comfort and kindness from the upper world, to have her long hair brushed and combed as it was when she was a girl. Her father does this for her, she grows calm, and fills the seas once more with fish. Her father returns to the land. But ever afterwards, someone from the human world must travel from time to time to the bottom of the sea to comb and brush Sedna’s in order for the sea to thrive. If not, she will grown enraged again.

One of things that struck me about this myth, and that appealed to me, apart from its strangeness, its mixture of cruelty and beauty, was that implicit in its story, firmly embedded into it, was a deep understanding of the delicate relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world, an acknowledgement that what we take from Nature demands a price, a giving in exchange. That if we ignore that give-and-take relationship, if we don’t treat the natural world with respect and care, it can easily turn against us in all its savagery and wildness.

It was after I’d finished writing the story for my children’s book that I realised I wasn’t done with it yet, or that it wasn’t done with me, and that there was more I wanted to explore about the myth and its arctic landscape.

The first chance to do that was when I took part in a poetry workshop. We given a variety of photographs to choose from, and to use those photographs as the starting point for a poem. A very simple exercise, but those are most often the best, I find. And among those photographs was one of an arctic landscape. The poem I eventually wrote from that exercise was filled with imagery from the story,as if somehow it was a stripped down version of what I felt were its most vital elements. By then the whole world of that myth and its landscape had really taken hold, and I knew that what I wanted to next was to go even deeper into it and to write something much more expansive. It wasn’t long after that, that the idea of writing this novel began to take shape. I didn’t know at first, of course, exactly what kind of novel it would be. But whatever it was, I wanted it in some way to remain true to that ancient tale, and to embrace not only its fierce an unforgiving landscape, but also its strangeness, its cruelty, and its beauty.

Here’s the full poem that’s quoted above, which first appeared in an anthology of environmental poetry called “We’re All in it Together” published by  Offas’ Press (http://www.offaspress.co.uk/)

She is Trying to Get Back to What She Was

She is howling a loneliness

It is the shriek of the polar wind across blasted spaces

It is the deep-under-ice lamenting of whales

The throat-cry of seals, shadows in a blizzard

She is howling a loneliness.

She is folding the ocean into her body

It lifts a great hump it shoulders the sky

It glitters with creatures their frozen voices

Then cracks and splits and falls back empty

She is folding the ocean into her body.

She is dreaming a dark dream

A man in crows’ feathers a man with a drum

He carries a bag it is filled with songs

He carries a spear his talk is crooked

She is dreaming a dark dream.

She is combing her hair into the sky

She pulls at the knots they bleed a sunset

It is filled with stars and the northern lights

Its nuclear glow spreads across the world

She is combing her hair into the sky.

She is eating her father

 

You can find out more about the novel, and about how you can play in its publication by following this link to Unbound   https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-hunt-for-the-great-bear

 

The ecological disaster in “The Hunt for the Great Bear”.

Bear Shaman

One of the most consistent themes that is present in almost everything I write is that of human beings’ relationship with the rest of the natural world, and the disasters that can occur, to us, and to that world, whenever we see ourselves as separate from it, as being above it or outside it, or able to manipulate and control it. The theme of human hubris, I suppose, which is a theme that goes right back to Ancient Greek drama, and even further back than that, to many of the myths and folk tales that rose out of the lives and experiences of our even more ancient nomadic ancestors. This was first made evident to me over twenty years ago when I found myself working on something that not only altered dramatically the kinds of things I wrote about, but the whole way in which I wrote about them, that gave everything I wrote afterwards a kind of singleness of purpose that has led in a kind of direct through-line to the writing of “The Hunt for the Great Bear”.

At the time I was earning part of my living creating and performing one-man shows for children, touring them to schools and libraries. I based these shows on existing stories and myths – Sindbad the Sailor was one, Jason and the Argonauts was another – and they were intended primarily as pieces of interactive entertainment, a hybrid of drama, slapstick and storytelling. It was when I was casting around for another story to turn into one of these performances that I came across a book of folk-tales and myths from South America. As I read them I realised that what was central to these apparently simple tales of animals and people was not only a deep and intimate knowledge of the natural world and its creatures, but the knowledge too that human beings had become separated from that world and had lost something because of it. And the plots of many of the stories were a record of how that separation came about, through human greed, or stupidity, or pride. I was thrilled by this discovery. Here was a way of writing about something I was deeply interested in, something I’d long felt it was important to write about, without sounding as if I was preaching from a soapbox. By dramatising these stories, I felt I could write something of significance about what I felt was our increasingly wanton destruction of the natural world, and in a way that was dramatic, poetic, and entertaining.

The piece I eventually wrote became more than another one-man show. It needed a cast of characters to really bring it to life, so I wrote a sixty minute play but which still retained a strong storytelling element. By chance I learned of a competition initiated by the poet Ted Hughes which was calling for just that kind of work, The Sacred Earth Drama Competition, so I entered the play and it won, and was subsequently published by Faber. It was my first real success, not only because it won the competition, but because I’d discovered this new way of writing, both structurally and thematically. And it’s that new way of writing, which is rooted deeply in myth and folk-tale, that I’ve worked at ever since.

In The Hunt for the Great Bear, the ecological disaster which is implicit in many myths and folk tales has actually happened and the characters are living through the result of that disaster. The sense of loss they carry with them throughout the novel is an acknowledgement of this. As one character puts it: “Only the bad time left and everything gone from the world. People and animals and plants. Everything froze over. Only a few splinters left, scraps of skin walking around and shivering in the cold. That’s us, all that’s left, living in the bad time.” It is in their very awareness and struggle for understanding, through the telling of their own myths, that their true humanity lies. And that same awareness and understanding in us, if we pay close attention to those old stories, may yet prevent the disaster from taking place.

The Hunt for the Great Bear

My novel The Hunt for the Great Bear is on the crowdfunding website Unbound.

Unbound is a fresh approach to publishing, where readers can make a cash pledge for a novel they would like to read, and once, the target has been reached, the novel is edited and published by Unbound. Of course, I’m very pleased to have my novel up there, and I’m hoping that readers will make enough pledges for it to be published. It’s a book I’ve been committed to for the past six years, working it through many drafts and rewrites, a novel I’m proud of having written, and which is very close to my heart.

If you follow the link below, it will take you to my page on Unbound where you can read a short synopsis of the novel, read an extract, and even watch a short video of me (pretty rough and ready, I must admit!) talking about. You’ll also be able to see what you, as a potential reader, will get in exchange for your pledge. And of course, I hope, actually make one.

https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-hunt-for-the-great-bear

If you do, thank you.

The Great Bear

Here’s to the future of The Hunt for the Great Bear.

The Old Man in the House of Bone

I’m really very pleased to announce that V Press will be publishing my poetry sequence, “The Old Man in the House of Bone” in Summer 2016. And even more pleased to announce that the sequence will be illustrated by my good friend, the artist Peter Tinkler. You can find out more about the excellent V Press by following this link:

http://vpresspoetry.blogspot.co.uk/

 

Open Poetry Reading at the Arboretum Café

arboretum 2

On the afternoon of Sunday 22nd November from 2-4pm I’ll be hosting an Open Poetry Reading at the new café in Walsall Arboretum. This intended to be the launch of an ongoing programme of such events to happen during 2016. Some of these events will feature Guest and Special Guest readers and some, like this, will be Open Poetry Readings.
The Open Poetry reading is the chance for anyone who writes poetry to come and share their work with fellow poets and with the public. It will be an informal, friendly affair, with as much emphasis on good conversation and socialising as on the writing. It will be a chance for experienced and less experienced poets to listen to and share each others’ work, ideas, and enthusiasm for poetry. And it will all take place in the up-market, brand-news café in the midst of the beauty that is Walsall Arboretum. The food and drink at the café is quite exceptional too!
The event on 22nd November will start promptly at 2pm, and each poet will have up to a maximum of five minutes reading time. Readings will be in short blocks to allow for plenty conversation, comment and socialising.
As I say, anyone who write poetry is welcome to come along and read. All I ask is that you let me know via this website or my email address below if you intend to come, so that I have an idea of numbers.
I do hope that, if you’re free, you’ll be able to come and support this new venture. And please do share this email with other poets that you know and urge them to come too.
Finally, I’ll be posting soon with news of the first Guest Readers Poetry Event which will be taking place in mid-January.
Hope to see you there.
To register for reading:  davidcalcutt@gmail.com