The Wild Redeemer : On becoming Grounded in Images.

Machado says it best:

Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship’s wake on the sea.

Machado speaks of our passageway through life, it’s lack of certainty or guarantee. One interpretation of his poem could be: “beat your own path, even in the face of it’s inevitable disappearance.”

I think though that this is a misreading.

Machado is clearly not saying – you have a choice here – you could take the “road less travelled” which will take you somewhere glorious, or take the safer path, and get somewhere more or less ok. The poem is not a risk assessment. Machado says here “Your footprints are the only road.” In case that’s not clear he adds “there is no road, you make the road as you walk”.

“where is the path?” by Toby Chown

What he is getting at is that there is not only that there is no “safe road” and there is also no “glorious but dangerous road”. Only the passage through life. For you to make. No guarantee, no certificate, no hope or certainty no training course that will deliver success to you or save the world from you or those you see threaten it. No certainty that climate change will be avoided, that more species won’t go extinct, that your decision to work hard will pay off, that your decision to travel will expand your soul, that therapy will make you better that mediation will allow you to see God. That your faith will be rewarded or your insight lead to recognition, or your networking skills lead to security.

Machado suggets that I betray something vital by thinking the pathless path is something for me to do once I got my act together, or for when the penny drops, or for when I finally screwed my courage to the sticking place.

Machado describes a path that you will never walk again. What is that path made of? Of Life? Memories? Reflections? I would say it’s made from something else, something as close to us as our own hand, but as far away as the Moon sometimes. I’d say that pathless path is made of images. Images that become Stories that appear to end, but draw new beginnings from the tail that’s inside their own mouth.

What are Stories?

If the world is tells stories what are stories, really? If we think of the world as constructed, it is going to be hard to understand stories as the building material. Not that the “narrative turn” has led to an under appreciation of stories. In some ways we cannot move for people looking for a “new paradigm” (ie a new story) or imploring us to “change the narrative” or to “see how they switch the narrative”. Governments, doctors, academics, conspiracists, spiritual seekers, political analysts, all apparently “selling a narrative” or telling one.

Despite Biomedicine and the western enlightenment’s desire to strike out the ambiguities, deciet and downright trickery of storytelling – by calling it “bias” and attempting “objectivity”, the last few years has seen if anything an aggressive re-emergence of the power of narrative – here evoked to make medical knowledge seem comparative, here to replace the online entrepeneur as the author of their own life. Social media amplifies the illusion that I tell my own story and become who I want to.

What better plan than to become self authored? And how many tools there are now to faciliate us in the telling of your own story?

blue and fungi by Toby Chown

The world is not built of stories

However, whilst the world may be always telling stories, it isn’t constructed from them. Stories are not constructed so much as grown. The world is not built or constructed by stories, like lego blocks. You can’t simply tell another story and then make something true. You cannot tell a different story about yourself and that become that self without committing to the world it tells of. Stories are not constructed but grown. The world is telling stories and whilst we can tell a dazzling variety of stories about ourselves and the world the true story will elude our grasp so long as we fail to honour the truth about stories – they seek to tell us, as Chris Robertson says (personal correspondence)

Because stories really illustrate processes, and indeed poetic processes. Stories may be more like subtle mirrors where we cannot be quite sure what is reflecting what. Stories become in this way archetypal images, poetic animals. Stories as poems in action, threaded into the way the world moves.

Stories emerge from poetic images, stories appear as a sequence of images. As the sequences progress the images flow into narrative. Stories have to be worked into being, from experiences, stitched together as images, to make sense. The story that is closest to us, and the story that can be hardest to know, is the story of our own life. That too needs to be stiched together from images, memories, experiences. They have a purpose too – to convince, persuade, deflect, validate, oppress, vindicate, connive, dazzle. To move the heart to feel more, or the ear to hear something, to shift the eye to see differently. Stories also belong to the Trickster. The first stories of children as they gain the power of speech : “it wasn’t me.”

The story of (your) life.

I start here with this idea of making a path through life through telling your story, because I want to introduce my own poems against a backdrop of the joy and trickery of what it means to tell that story at this moment. What we are all living at the moment is an awful wrenching split in our world. It’s a split that many people feel as a wound within themselves. It’s a split that many people see out there in the world. It’s a split that can be witnessed in the distress in our culture. Many people feel it in the destruction of the living fabric of the world itself, as if the world itself was feeling welts of pain, as plants and animals die. Some feel that the Earth itself is dying. It’s a problem so big that it seems hard to know where to begin. My own attempts to deal with it sometimes leave me speechless, either with anger or sorrow, or because I’m unsure where to start with such a world sized story. Overwhelmed.

closed spiral gate by Toby Chown


“Whelms” were small drainage gullies that filled with water to drain excess rainwater from fields to protect the crops. Being “overwhelmed” meant that these earth gutters have become too full and spill water. Well, it’s worth knowing this, as the experience of being overwhelmed is a common one at this juncture in our collective story. Being overwhelmed means that our capacity has become restricted, too small for the amount of rain.

It might be that we are overwhelmed because in an age of industrial individualism, the gullies have grown so small – to the size of the self. Hillman says in “The soul of the world” : “the world is inundating me with it’s unalleviated suffering”

Hillman speaks to the sense that in the age of the self the world has become replaced by the self, with humans as meaning makers, whether his be through boldy creating new technologies or identifying the oppressions of social constructions:

“After one hundred years of the solitude of psychoanalysis, I am more concious of what I project outward than what is projected into me by the unconsciousness of the world”

There are plenty of techniques out there that can help an individual with the experience of being overwhelmed. Some of them are very effective and many worth practicing. Deep Breathing techniques do help re-regulate the nervous system. Correcting irrational belief through exposure to a different experience can be effective. Running, meditating, plunging the body into cold water, eating like a paleolithic hunter, digital detox, climbing a mountain, praying, psychotherapy, life coaching, fasting, psychedelics, visiting a shamanic retreat in the Amazon, going to Burning Man, all potentially life transforming and worthy pursuits.

Learn astrology, or tarot, or i ching, master yoga, painting, inner work, shadow work, dream work, trauma therapy.

Or maybe lift weights, take a masters, retrain, eat well, get exactly the right amount of sleep. Attend to self care, socialise, walk in nature, give thanks, practice mindfullness, drink kefir, learn about the polyvagal nerve… And yet….none of these things guarantee a path. Some sticky shadow of world follows us through all of these attempts, some tentacle attaches itself to us in all of our attempts to individuate, heal, progress. tentacle of world, something not me. What is the world doing to me, how is it speaking to me, how does it tell me about its problems?

Dead flowers for the Queen by Toby Chown


If we don’t want to merely adapt to be healthy in world that is sick a technique isn’t enough. A technique doesn’t re-world the world. It’s not a technique we need to deal with the overwhelms of our being and submergence of our culture in technical atomisations. What we need is a perspective that allows us to experience the soul of the world in all it’s manifestions, from litter, to building to river, from team meeting to evening walk. And this channel cannot be a straight canal either, a channel that one curves and threads like veins, or rivers, or the branches of trees. Some stories can offer such channels in such shapes.

Our rivers have been straightened and damned, and often the old woods cut down upstream in the mountains or high ground. This makes water run off flow straight and fast into watercourses, speeding up water flow increasing the chances of the banks becoming overwhelmed at the narrow points. Roots no longer soak up the rain and pump water into the air as they once did. Rivers are less likely to meander towards the sea, or to lazily soak into wetland in the places they meet the salt water.

Perhaps then, it’s not surprising that we feel the same way ourselves, that all of the emotions that flow through us seem accelerated and canalised. Our world has accelerated and canalised not just the “outer world” but the “inner” too. Our communications have speeded up, our lives have become networked and manic. We are continually available, everything is focused on efficiency. There are plenty of things present to flood the swollen speeding water over the banks of our being – the destruction of nature and the fate of the living world (which is the whole world, not just the part outside the city walls), the legacy of injustice in our social world bear down large upon us.

That’s before I even factor in the actual experience of my real life – the painful path to finding healthy relationships, the search for a purpose and meaning, the experience of grief, loss, illness in oneself of another.

There are huge world events; war, pandemic, ecologial pain, political rifts and there are small events – our lives happening through and amongst them. Historically, it has been culture that binds our small lives to the greater whole, the passing of the seasons, the passage of the years, the movement of the stars through dark heavens, the lament of the dead at the turning point of the years, the celebration of the Sun’s renewal.

What binds the experience of my life to culture and to nature now? Well, all of these events are still happen – seasons pass, stars wheel, the dead are lamented and pass into memory. But to connect ourselves to the soul of the world we connect first to what we carry in the story of our life, through the paths we make through the treading of stories.

My poems carry little fragments of the story I carry, at times placed within images that supplant them, at times just as small and uncertain as any life. Sometimes the poems are personal, sometimes archetypal. Two kinds of life mingle – the life force that animates and the story of a life as it is lived.

immigrant ladybird on waterproof trousers by Toby Chown

Zoe and Bios

The ancient Greeks has two words for “life” that meant very different things, and referred in fact to different stories, different types of stories. Zoe meant life as the indestructible life force, and Bios meant to be alive, and to tell your life. We have both “biography” which is the description of a life and “biology” which is the study of the process of life. It’s not an accident that biography really means the story of your life.

Zoe on the other hand referred to something far wilder, far more powerful and cosmic in it’s reach. Zoe meant “the indestructible life force” – the blood pumping through a hare’s skull, the fire in the grape vine. Zoe meant something more than just your little life – it meant the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, it meant libations to a world that renews itself as it dies. It meant the Wild Redeemer, Dionysos.

The Wild Redeemer

So the zoe seems to be the place to look, the pulse of the wild in the temple of your skull. I’ve written about the zoe before, and it’s suppression. I’ve spent a few nights out in the woods and in doing so seen how a skin might thin to the suppleness of beech bark, how the ear twists towards a broken twig to locate an animal presence. I’ve felt the way a skull can become antlered, or a sigh become a growl. All of these experiences re-animate something that can easily feel plastered in tarmac, shop windows, perfume and neon screens. The woods themselves continue their merry bachanal all time, full of sound, wonder, lonliness, skill, beauty, birth and death. The leaves shimmer with the breath of wind, the rats gnaw on a forgotten deer bone. A beatle patiently traverses the forest floor. No part is not alive, and we too are soaked in the stuff of it, in the moments we will let ourselves release some of our awful preoccupations and distortions of self.

However, before we get carried away with the Wild Redeemer , or yearn to dance as the bacchants once did around a red cloaked pole with a mask and a wooden phallus attached under a blood red moon, it’s worth remembering that our perceptions of the wild are largely filtered through our experience of domesticity. There may be a yearning for the wild, a yearning to re-connect. That yearning may be more or less conscious. It may take shape in many different forms. Our fantasy of the Wild lack the discipline and order that the Wild Redeemer shows us, what appears to be chaos and hunger is also pattern, greater beauty, emergent living pulsing complexity.

Electric Bridge over the River Lee by Toby Chown

Caution and inflation in the wilde

The wild as a psychological force sometimes seems to reveals itself to us mostly through it’s destructive aspects – excess, addiction, wild partying, drinking, use of drugs, spontaneous risk taking, promiscuous love making. Or as a romanticised counterpoint to our domesticated existence – the thought of the wild might be- to become a shaman, to transform into an animal, to speak with the electric tongue of a great poet – to flow like Dylan in ’66. A glimpse of The Wild Redeemer can create both caution and inflation – a too quick identification and a hestitancy about joining the dance.

Both the caution and the inflation shroud a deeper truth. The key we need to encounter the wild psyche lies hidden in our own story; where we already are. And that the price it might ask for us is not only to be a storm cloud of crackling electricity, but also to be the ground that earths that thin potent threads of lightning and sparks us to life once more. The lightning that doesn’t only spark a moment of wild illumination, but releases minerals into the soil.

Because the wild is of course not simply a coursing flow of animalistic disorder and excess. We confuse the wild with our own experience of the city’s night. Night in a city brings alcohol and tobacco, neon lights, revelry, music, unexpected encounter, danger, pleasure, the promise of sex, or dancing or conversation. A true story is by nature as wild as an animal, and we can tell that because of the way that once we start telling it truly it flies from our mouths like a bird released into the canopy.

These are all gifts of a Wild Redeemer, and indeed things to be grateful for. Night in the woods is just as electric as the city, yet stiller and gathered up with pressure like water behind a damn, as Stephen Buhner tells us. The final bird stops singing and there is a moment when it is no longer day. The green leaves have become shadowy. Small things move under cover of darkness, owls hunt. On a moonlit night the trunks of trees turn silver. There is of course a discipline to wildness as much as any excess, a need to find an follow particular known tracks, or to stay alert to the unexpected.

When we enter the realm of the Wild Redeemer, the imaginal realm, we carry with us our own story – that’s part of the ground that we leave from and return to. Nowaways when we enter woods our minds beam out neon and blare out pop music – we are so loud and colourful, we scare away most animals even when we are still.

So to really visit the wild on it’s own terms means to be able to be the ground as well as the storm, to be able to find within the zoe new threads of bios to bring back to enliven and ground human life and expand it’s sense of world.

the pathless path home

The pathless path leads us out into the wild, but also back home to tell of what we’ve gained from the journey. It embraces what it sees and brings it into the city, allows the flow to become stronger and more real between wild woods and wild city.

It’s a path into something weird. Carl Jung describes sitting on a rock as a child, for hours, wondering if he was the rock or vice versa. He talks about how as a child he would make fires in a cave above his home that he knew must never go out.

Barn and shelter by Toby Chown

As part of my clinical work we sometimes take groups of children out into nature and tell them a story, nature begins to participate – a dying butterfly may cling to the dress of a traumatised young girl, and it engenders care and sorrow.

A gang of young boys, new friends, may find a grasshopper and become gripped with the desire to find more, on their knees in the high fields above the river, as the grasshopper leap around them in the high ground in midsummer. This may engender the release of repressed energy, and the joy of the body that leaps.

An old story tells of how helping an old woman carry her pack up a mountain is the only way to defeat a huge rampaging ogre who has gobbled up too much cattle and beer. Only the old woman has the magical knife that would find the ogre’s vulnerable spot. She only responds to kindness.

We finish the story, and enact the burial of the bones of the ogre and spontaneously the children throw their shoes into the spot the ogre is buried to represent the bones, and enact the burial of the bones as shoes.

It means something mysterious to that moment, perhaps to be discovered or perhaps not. Von Franz says that shoes represent a standpoint as they are what we standon. So it could be that for a moment a standpoint is being buried, and there is an urge to be in touch with ground.

Or perhaps it’s just to be taken by the immersion of the stories images to participate in the telling of it high above the town, looking down on a river, by the bronze age burial mound.

In that moment no one knows or cares to know the interpretation; the closeness of the images themselves have touched everyone in the strangeness of the moment.

It feels sometimes as if it is this that Machado’s path is made of, the pathless path like a track across the ocean. Across an ocean of images that we walk through in life, the story of our life we weave behind us as we go. Best to attend to it and be grounded in and by the images that surround us as we walk. Telling a story involves more than just speaking words, after all. It’s a pathless path towards the ground of images; a path towards becoming grounded in and by images.

The Ground of True Speech by Toby Chown
Each day, a flow of images;
Coffee, street, work, dream.
What is it to be grounded in images?

Images have no ground, but you do.
Carrying the story of your life;
sometimes like a banner,unfurled on shining lance
sometimes crushed inside your jacket pocket
like a crumpled old wrapper.

Don’t plan it, this death of yours.
Don’t give it away, like bread to pigeons.
Think of the candle on a birthday cake,
how as you blow it out, you make a wish.

I remember the high walled garden of childhood,
It’s burnt amber maples and sticky pine cones,

smell of mint and terracotta.

Oh how memories become a ghost prison!
A ghost child whose feral shadow splits away,
who grows up far from home, far from memory,

So many ghost children wander street corners

even as they sit at home on their comfortable screens
Feral shadows stalk alleyways.

But now I know a little more

how child and shadow can meet,

I’ll invite them into my home to sit down together,
ask them question that honours them without flattery:

“Can you stand on solid ground
and let those two frauds,
illusion and reality
merge into true speech?”

fly agaric in centre of town by Toby Chown