The Well at the End of the World : Story as soul retrieval

There was a well at the end of the world where only the god Nechtan was permitted.
And in that well lived a salmon. Just an ordinary salmon, beautiful and graceful, but no more so than any of its kind. Around that well grew nine hazel trees, that blossomed and fruited in a single day. And into that well each hazel tree dropped a single nut. Nine crimson brown hazel nuts. But these were no ordinary nuts, for contained within them was all the knowledge in the world; what was, what had been and what was to come. The salmon ate these nuts and found that it knew….everything; the horror, the beauty, the infinite universe stretching away. The salmon couldn’t do much with that knowledge. It was only a salmon. So on it swam….
(From the boyhood of Finn, as told on Tales of the British Isles)

At the beginning of the Feinian cycle that tells the story of the great hero Finn MacCool, we find a well at the end of the world, nine hazel trees, and an ordinary salmon. The salmon eats the hazelnuts and knows, or perhaps gnows like gnostics gnow. However, in a narrative twist reminiscent of both Douglas Adam’s plummeting sperm whale, grappling with conciousness and Adam and Eve eating more than they bargained in the garden of Eden, knowledge comes at something of a price to the perplexed salmon. The ordinary salmon has become the Salmon of Wisdom.

It seems fitting that a great cycle of stories begin, not with the birth of the hero himself, but with that which eventually lends him his knowledge and wisdom. It is not the knowledge of books, nor a teacher, nor even his own experience that will eventually by twist of fate come to Finn. Rather, it is the accidental tasting of the flesh of a salmon. And the salmon was only borrowing that wisdom too. The salmon got it from the hazelnuts, who in turn got it from the hazel trees. These nine trees, let’s not forget they were planted around a sacred well at the end of the world. They were nourished water sacred to the water god Nechtan, at the place where the river sprang into this world.

An eco-mythic food web

The story offers something of an eco-mythological food web. It’s a kind of eco-theogony – a story for the genesis of wisdom from the divine, timeless world of gods, on the margins of the world, from where water flows and the mortal, timebound world of hazelnuts, salmon and men. We have a simple trophic pyramid in mythic form.

In ecology, trophic pyramids explain how energy moves through food webs. Energy flows from the Sun, into the plants that soak it up, into the animals that eat the plants and into the animals that eat the. In each stage of this flow (probably doesn’t feel much like a flow to the predated) there is a great loss of energy. At each stage of the process 90% of the energy is lost. By the time you get from Grass, to Gazelle to a Lion, the energy concentrated in the flesh of the Lion, has passed through several stages.

Lest we get too carried away, by the Lion as King of Creation the manifestation of all that concentrated energy, the Lion will also be preyed upon by bacteria, and fungi – food webs are not actually linear. We know that what appears to be dominance may be a kind of illusion; scratch the surface and the world belongs to to the ants and the beetles, to the fungi, to bacteria, to viruses.

Whether the metaphor here is of an increasing concentration of energy in the bodies of animals it as it passes through the web, or of an increasing diffusion, wisdom flows from the edges of our world. That wisdom is so powerful that even a lick of the thumb of the fish oil eventually gifts Finn his knowlege.

The trophic pyramid is one reason many people suggest that we if we want to continue as a species, we need to cut down on eating industrially produced meat. Eating industrial meat means eating futher along the food chain, with energy lost at each link. Farmed salmon are a good example of just how destructive it is to eat further along the food chain in industrial quantities. They are already quite far along the trophic network, so eating them is highly energy intensive – by the time you eat a slice of smoked salmon the salmon has eaten fish that has been bottom trawled, and this fish has also fed on something that has fed, and at each stage 90% of the Sun’s energy has been lost.

That’s without thinking about the huge concentration of pesticides used in salmon farming, and the sickness and lice that farmed salmon bring to their wild cousins. Perhaps worst of all in salmon farming is the deformation of the salmon’s soul, the maiming of it’s instinct to journey from ocean far upstream to the source of rivers. This maiming also afffects and the nutrient cycle from ocean to forest. It is as if salmon were blood cells in a vast arterial network, as Chris Packham explained in his masterwork “Secrets of our Living Planet: the Magic Forest“.

No doubt, the Salmon of Wisdom, having gained all knowledge was aware of this, and no doubt would have registered this in the “horror” section of the infinite wisdom it gained from eating the nine sacred hazelnuts, although no doubt the salmon being now wise, and, of course a salmon, kept it to itself. Wisdom, we might note, involves knowledge of suffering.

However, the story illustrates a different kind of concentration of energy to the conventional trophic pyramid- a concentration of wisdom from beyond the threshold of the known, from sacred waters, to hazel tree, to salmon – eventually to the thumb of Finn MacCool.

At the Well at the End of the World, the Salmon of Wisdom, becomes a conduit between one world and another. Our own world feels as if it’s shifted into a permanent point of crisis. Wildfires, floods, viruses, protests. The tiny coronavirus, with it’s incredible ability to mutate and shapeshift, has found the keys to enter our cells, and has revealed vulnerabilities in our human systems, on every level – biological, psychological, political, cultural.

How to find the Well at the End of the World

I want to consider this image of the Well at the End of the World. One way to approach it might be to consider what a World is. When I say “world” you might think of that image of the planet Earth, a blue marble with white flecks falling through space. However, the root of the word “world” is two words “wer-eld” that comes from Saxon and means “man- age” or “the age of man”. Looking closer, “wer” meaning “man” relates to “virile” and so links to the sense of being alive and vitality, and that “eld” means something like “an age” in the sense of “ageing” – the way things grow, flourish and age over time.

So if we root out the masculine bias here, we can find that the word “world” has a cosmological meaning at it’s roots. The world as “the age of man” doesn’t mean the “time of men to rule. ” It means world as “the domain of life given to a person whilst alive”. A world is not a planet, it’s a lifespan, a worldview, a process. Here we can find something that tends to get obscured by all the big picture thinking that flashes into our imagination as we try to grapple with language to find truth – that a world includes you, is not separate from you. It’s a pulsing, biological process of growth that marks the passage from your birth to your death. At it’s threshold, the threshold of your world and what’s beyond it we find this image of a well encircled by nine hazel trees.

Iain MacGilchrist has done much with his book “The Master and his Emissary” to show how we “world” the world. We do this through the kind of attention we bring to it. We can try to fix the world into a sequence, to abstract it, to explain it, mend it, destroy it. Conceptual thinking. Or we can experience the world, place our awareness as wide as we can, open up the channels and make sense of the bounty. Poetic thinking. We need both, but of the two, MacGilcrist says, poetic thinking is suffering in a world that has become manic with doing that doesn’t serve our best interests. And only one of these kinds of thinking can encompass our actual experience. All language and experience, really has it’s roots in the poetic, not the conceptual, and it is from poetic not conceptual roots that whatever flower might bear fruit for our lives will come to pass.

So, the Salmon and the Well it swims in may be closer than you think, in that the edge of the world, is the edge of your own psyche. I’m not offering some kind of redemptive offering here, a kind of fairy tale happy ending from another world. I want rather to think a bit deeper about how stories take us to the threshold of our world, how they affect us, and how they can offer us pathways into an imaginal ecology. By this I mean that traditional stories can offer a kind of map towards becoming the highly specific being we each are, within a living planet that is both our home and our true parent.

Our colonised self

A map, of course, is not a guarantee of a successful journey. I don’t want to make false promises here. The challenges that face each of us and all of us are immense. Some of what makes them so challenging is that they challenge not only our sense of how destructive systems operate “out there” in the world, but also the way that they operate “in here” in the apparent sanctuary of our sense of self. It’s becoming increasingly clear that whatever industrial colonising processes have happened to the “natural world” – the industrial landscapes, plantations and mega-farms that replace our the rivers, forests, coral reefs, butterflies, rhinos and fungi – have also happened to our own sense of who we are. Our sense of self has become industrialised.

Our own psyche becomes colonised by the same systems of systems of control that destroy the more than human world. It’s no longer advertisers selling consumer lifestyles to you, now it’s your best friend. It has become a time of atomisation, with the irony that the more aware we have become of our identity, and the more precisely we try to define it through, profiles on facebook, dating apps, updates and posts, the less clear we are able to become about who we actually are. The clean crisp images on instagram with it’s array of tiles are nothing like 4 nights spent out in the woods, watching a bee smash through a spiders web, or the sudden glimpse of a buzzard through the trees. Yet our reflex when confronted by beauty is to capture it in a photograph, rather than feel it as soulful. Capture may seem more permenant, yet only the feeling of it allows us to participate in it. And it is participation in the soul of the world we are most starved of.

Our problems as human beings exist on many levels and dimensions. The task of becoming ourself has to include wider frames of reference than the self. Yet within all our modern neuromancy, under electric rain falling on neon signs, black gutters and fears of android supremacy, under all this, each of us still must go through a process of becoming. Within this process of becoming, lies the potential for a deeper knowledge of self – a knowledge both of oneself and what a self can be in relation to the Greater Beauty. The mythic ecologist Martin Shaw calls it ‘becoming a story carrier”.

How stories grow

I’ve spent my days for the last 10 years listening to people’s stories, helping them to get them into shape, sometimes offering them traditional stories as a kind of mythic backdrop to their personal drama within which a reverberation can occur.

I work as a dramatherapist, and mostly work with families where things have gone wrong for someone in that family – most frequently someone’s father or a mother, rather than drinking for Nechtan’s well, has got lost within the demon drink, or some other substances

One thing I’ve started to notice is that until they are told, people’s stories are not stories, just a sequence of stuff that has happened to them.

Stories don’t appear in simple straightforward patterns or arrive ready to be told. As I listen and respond, and show interest, something starts to form in the space between myself and the other person. It’s the experience of something trying to take a shape, take a pattern, find an image, find expression. It’s not abstract, it’s quite physical, it can register in my gut, or my heart, or my throat or my head.

Occasionally, if it seems appropriate and doesn’t interupt the flow, I’ve let the teller know how it’s affecting me to hear the story as it unfolds. It’s seems essential to stories that they are not just mental images, but affect the living body, as if the story itself had a kind of body. It seem to be an essential part of a story that it’s composed of images that have feeling tones, as it’s essential that it’s fed by attention.

The process of creating a story continues throughout the process of individual dramatherapy, as more experiences, images, memories and metaphors gather into the story and and become embodied in the space. It seems at times that what lies between two people is a proces of something becoming a story. Its not just a question of someone telling and someone listening. Listening alone often acts as a kind of magnet to draw out images that will become stories. But simply listening isn’t always sufficient. A torrent of words and events and a sympathetic ear doesn’t make a story.

Story and the soul

Somehow to be a real story, a story has to come to life. It’s not just about feeling either; some accounts can be flooded with feeling that drowns the narrative. It may have something to do with authenticity, yet here again, it’s hard to tell, as the well sealed vessel of therapy is not a court room, or a detective agency, even if at times therapist and client may become detective of the psyche, seeking clues as to how come things are the way they are. In some ways it seems to be a search for the soul of the story.

James Hillman said “soul refers to the deepening of events into experiences. ” Part of the kind of intangible process that goes on in the formation of a story between two people involves a deepening through dialogue from things have just happened, to having been registered as having happened to the teller .In the difference between the two, soul thickens like fine spun fibre becoming cloth.

I don’t think that’ confined to therapy, or even something that can only happen between people. I think that it’s also something that happens in our relationships with each other and with our rlationship to places. I wanted to say “nature” but nature is a problematic word. If I say “relationship to nature” I’m asking you to relate to everything on the entire planet. We are quite good at imagining nature as one thing, the blue pearl that spirals through space, covered in white cloud. Mother Gaia, the soul of the world. We’ve been primed to imagine nature as one thing by centuries of monotheism, which insisted on a unified spiritual world beyond the threshold of the senses, beyond the gateway of death. The interconnection of all things. Yet the question isn’t whether things connect but how they do, and which connections are the important ones, the ones that make the blue light spark.

Place is the space

Is it better to have an abstract connection to all nature, or to know a place through continual returning to it? There is a very great difference between space and place, as the philosopher Edward Casey has explored. Both are acts of imagination – space might be the kind of grid that extends off in all directions, a kind of blue net that bulges and stretches around physical objects. We know what this looks like now through endless computer simulations. Somehow we come to believe this is really what does underly the apparent chaos and diversity of life. Space, Casey reminds us is a certain kind of fantasy about how matter is organised. Yet place, is not like that at all.

Place is the burnt ochre stubble on the harvested wheatfield, that stubbornly shuffles in the midsummer wind. It is the admiral butterfly that opens it’s wings from the matt of purple flowers on Castle Hill. It’s the small bird that bolts out from knee high brambles, whirring as it dips and flies, as I take the rough trail to the old Hawthorn tree to relieve myself. It’s the strange song of the wild fox from the top of the ridge, a high pitched howl. It’s the darkening gloom as the Sun gives way to shadows, the odd fog that comes into the eye with the dark shapes of bushes, it’s hint that there’s more than meets the eye in the shapes of the night.

When Hillman says that events need to deepen into experiences to create soul, he seems to imply that it’s not just enough for things to happen to you. These happenings need to be shaped, worked out reflected on, told in the right places to the right people. For events to become experiences, they need to be shaped by a creative process, even if that person would swear they are no artist.

So called Traditional stories do this effectively. They offer the bones of narrative sequences in ways we respond to, yet in ways not fixed into specific meanings. When we hear that the Kingdom was threatened at it’s borders, and so the King had to be away from the centre for 10 years, we hear this on many levels.

Jung was ambiguous about his definitions of archetypes, here linking in instinct, here the mythic, yet one thing he implies is that archetypes are not necessarily characters, so much as entire narratives sequences – myths in other words.

Stories as bread for the dreaming soul

Stories allow the dreaming mind to surface, and to become nourished through the recognition of it’s deepest pattern in the telling. Gaston Bachelard insisted that there are conceptual ways of thinking and poetic ways of thinking, and that we do well to remember they are different modes of thinking. With respect to the conceptual, it has become the dominant thinking mode of our world; all space and no place. We may do well to remember that conceptual art won’t necessarily lead to poetic art. Poetic thinking can be lush, excessive, amplified. Excess of images might serve us just as well or not better. Nature certainly is excessive where we allow it space to breathe; bumblebees mate on a chalk track, orange and black, whilst trees fallen from high slopes form giant teepees against their cousins below. Poetic thinking allows words to become animal again, to express a secret love. Hillman writes:

“All good poems are love poems – not because they tell of love or lovers, but because they reveal the poet’s love of language”

Here we approach the wild red rose, and the promise of what it can bring to a kingdom that has become infertile – the freedom to become exuberant, precise, to ask florid question, to command the depths, and most of all to be affected by and to praise that which holds the greatest beauty.

In some ways we have become so used to being impoverished in our poetic imagination that it can be hard to see. It’s easy to be in a beautiful place without seeing any poetry.

Perhaps we don’t quite see with the soul until we hear the right story, the one that tells us something about our life that we knew without knowing. The one about the untamed child who rides a wild goat around the palace from the kitchen to the throne room. Or the prince who wastes away on his sick bed all day and dances all night in a fairy mound. When we recognise ourself in a story something comes to life. I think that’s one thing that Hillman means about soul being created by events deepening into experiences. It means that what has happened to us comes to life – it becomes a story.

Stories also happen without humans; nature itself tells stories that no human ear hears. My old permaculture teacher the great Patrick Whitefield used to listen very carefully to these stories, and had almost created the genre single handedly. He listned to long strange stories sung by the landscape about how come the slow growing shade tolerant beech trees, the tallest tree in the forest, who ecologists assumed would become a climax tree could be thwarted by strange combinations of weather, animal activity, the shapes of the land or the activity of the soil. His final book before his death, “How to read the landscape” passed on this sense of how stories happen without humans, how the deeply unpredictable patterns within nature lead to a continual unfolding of unpredictability. Nature, it seems is telling a story to itself continually, over a long period of time.

And we still go into nature to find our story, to find out how to make a story from the shards, wound and fragments of the way life has treated us. The way animals, trees, fungi, weather and insects interact, the sharpness of green in a blade of grass, the shape of a download hillside, the small riot of indigo and mauve in a wild flower meadow, the feel entering a high sheltered plateau on a wooded hillside washed in sunstained green light – all these kinds of experiences continually show us the processes of knitting together the constitutes ecology; the life from death, the death from life.

We stare at the sea when our hearts are broken. We climb hills and mountains to test our will power and to be rewarded with horizon and the Sunset. We go the woods to be alone or to replenish a sense of wonder, or to be immersed in a deeper field of life. All of these places offer opportunities for events can become experiences, can become stories we carry and tell, for a bit of soul to get stiched into our heart.

Gregory Bateson, seeking the places that mind and nature meet said that Nature is stochastic – it fires arrow after arrow until one strikes the target. Stories are like that too. We keep telling until we hit the target. Perhaps when we do, a brown-gold hazel nut falls into the well at the end of our world.

Taste the Wild Rose: Story as Soul Retrieval
with Toby Chown and Serena Mitchell
Outdoor Storytelling/Soul Retrieval Workshop in East Sussex – September 18th 2021

book here