Blogs >> Writings from The Shepherds Hut: Part 1 - Entering the Bone-House: The Nomad in the Local - Martin Shaw

Writings from The Shepherds Hut: Part 1 - Entering the Bone-House: The Nomad in the Local - Martin Shaw

martin shawUltimately, when we reach back far enough into our own culture’s histories we hear the clinking bells and animal calls of a vast migratory journey. Way back. Through the blue smoke. Press your ear to the red-mud and you will hear them.

From Africa, the Caucasus, or the vast sea of grass of the steppes, we hear the creak of the great wagons, the lively yip of reindeer song in the frost-dark, the crackle of the fire. Movement has been one key display of our temperament. Despite the disaster of empire, this travel often carried a great deal of elegance with it. In the remote and ancient burial cairns of high Dartmoor, beads have been found originating from the Baltics. Four thousand years old. So migration and trade have often been at the heart of even what we regard as intrinsically local.

From many corners in the early 21st century we hear the cry of a return to local. A return to food locally sourced, businesses locally derived and supported, a sense of investment to what is immediately in front of us, whether that is in south-east London or the sharp green climbs of the Yorkshire moors. We instinctively sense this has got to be a good idea.

But contemporary western living is nothing if not accelerated. Everything zips along at almost hallucinatory speed. These rapid, migratory spasms no longer follow the majestic moon-curve of the cattle horns, but the amplifications of our specific, rather than tribal, ambitions. Some actually live in several countries over the space of year – myself included. We want to ‘get along’ and be part of the speedy and exciting vistas of possibility that modernity seems to be offering. I don’t think that will be easily sacrificed. But I am going to suggest sacrifice is an appropriate gesture.

We know that many nomads travel for pasture (the word comes from the Greek; Nomas – meaning the search for pasture). They are rooted in the wealth of the word herd – the fed bellies of the animals in turn dictate happiness to the wanderers. The sustenance of the four legged’s is a homing device for the tribe, a humbling incentive.

Numbering still some forty million worldwide, some travel to collect wild herbs, whilst others – like the Lohar blacksmiths of India – are craftworkers and travel to trade. It was nomads – the Mongols – that gave birth to the largest land empire we have ever seen. Under the unification of Genghis Khan, these nomadic tribes land stretched the great flank of Asia. It was nomads that carried the banner of Islam across North Africa, Spain and Iran in the early seventh century. In early books of the bible they are claimed as gods children, it is the city folk that are outcasts. They have made a substantial imprint on history.

But let us not be naïve. I can only make a few splashes of colour here in my description, a romantic hurling shoes at the moon. Intense pragmatism, intricate social networks, and an often dazzling degree of weaponry ride alongside.

We could ask what does local mean to a nomad? Proximity to a fireside or dwelling under a ragged canopy of stars, cradled in the soft fur of the desert grasses? They seem to represent that most contemporary of aspirations – a perception of the wider earth itself as home. But still they maintain their song-lines, their passage is still deliberate, often worn into an ancestral groove under their hoofs, paws and feet.


When nomadic cultures claim the rich soil of farmers we often locate a growing change in their thinking. What George Monbiot calls “a belief in progress” 1. Transformation and salvation become an arrow cutting through the previous hard-won understanding of the cyclic seasonal world – loss and gain, abundance and scarcity. So where once was the spiral now exists the gleaming road of future security. The crops are dry stored, natures grip is to be overcome. We get to dictate some terms. The greater purchase we have have over nature’s whimsy, the better.

Professor Greg Retallack claims that differing soils dictate the religious emphasis of the people that work it. Whilst collecting samples from ancient Greek temples, he observed that thinner soil existed where nomadic herders worshipped Artemis and Apollo, but as it gets capable of supporting a robust farming life the gods in the mix are Demeter and Dionysus, deities of harvest and the vine. It becomes less about hunting more about planting. The gods do not just exist in lofty Olympus, but wander the fields in the evening light. They partially reflect the intricate life of the local.

Traditional nomads rarely worshipped much local in the way we understand it, rather hurled their praise up at the vast tent of the sky. The sky enclosed all. The Mongols loyally offered libation to vast Tengri, god of the air. Everything under its great sway was related. But, as we see, this old view is impacted with the knowledge of life’s inherent fragility, the seasonal patterning of what is stripped away, and the green buds of springs recovery.

We have in large part inherited “the belief in progress” and now stand in the debris of its consequence. These last few paragraphs just briefly sketch how we may have got there.

We are not nomads in this ancient sense. So what do we travel for? what is the pasture we seek? I think one of the essential differences is down to the word bonded.

The nomad does not travel over the land, they travel through the land – with the land. Their travel is not an abstraction but an earthy pilgrimage deep with understanding of relationship to herd/place/person. These noble migrations root their hips and feet in the ordinary grandeur of ancestral walking. So – to use the language of the therapists – they are bonded.

Many of us travel without that deep, hewn-out sense of it. We travel searching for something, rather than the trail itself. I think we are actually looking for bonding.

My friend Malidoma Some tells the story of a child being born with the Dagara tribe of Burkino Faso. Gathered up outside the huts thin wall is all the local kids waiting for the first cry of the baby. The moment they hear it they wail out in response – to ensure the new-arriving-soul knows straight up that it is heard. Then the mother and child remain in the cozy dark of the hut for some days. The baby dictates its curious and woozy awakening in the world of light and air – an Otherworld for this little being of the amniotic realm. The circle of the tribe enables this slow emerging sense of bonding.

I was in my mid-twenties before I counted up all the different parts of the country I had lived in. Fourteen. And not as a nomadism worth discussing – but a restless gliding over things – touching little – always with an eye fixed on the door of departure. Not bonded to much accept movement.

I think I recognised the desire for rootedness, but would in no way be willing to pay the price-tag attached. It would seem absolutely out of step with the constant mantra of expansion and “what lies round the next corner”. It became easy to sever, because I never fully invested anyway.

Growing Down

So in mid-life I come to the thought that there is a ground which is truly indigenous to everyone – the body – what I will call here The Bone-House. In approaching these questions I have reached backwards to Greece – to explore how they viewed this primary inhabitation and how that radiates out into the wider psyche. Platonic thought talks about about a deeply bonded life being one where you “grow down” into it – and four modes are indicated. Let’s have a look at them.

1. The Bone-House
Growing down and accepting the stoop of gravity and decay that comes with aging. We settle into our body.

2. The Parental Bow
The admission that you abide in the same strange tree as your wider family, with its young buds, sturdy roots and many rotted branches.

3. Rooted and Tasked
The anchoring into a specific landscape by the uses of custom, duty, obligation. You don’t own the land – the land owns you.

4. Circumstance and Display
Giving back just what circumstances gave you by a full, creative declaration of attachment to the world. The very impossibility of repayment dictates true humanity.

This is radical set of practices for a modern person. To accept the limits of aging, to reach out to the complexity and lack of glamour in our family, to become a servant to a stretch of land, to not transcend the earth but display true fidelity to it. That hardly sounds like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Mortality, limits, obligation, all shuffle up as the initiatory teachers. Didn’t the Sixties try and get rid of all of this?

But as we peer from between our fingers at its fearsome dictates, we can’t help but notice its unyielding focus on the local. Bonding it will give.
We cannot re-create a kind of imaginal tribal slip-stream that ‘heals’ (a complicated word) its absence in most of ours childhoods, but as adults
we can effectively steward a life around these modes – sobering as they may be.

So to accommodate the nomad within the local – to get a fresh perspective on how and why we travel – we could entertain these old ideas.

Here’s some words to describe the sea waves at East Prawl in Devon.

Blue Acres of the Whale.

Thousand Voiced Harp of Foam.

Granary of the Salt Horses.

Glitter-Veined, Winnowed Scythe.

Crested Green-Breast of the Dawn.

And that’s specific language. If I went ten miles in either direction, different speech may come. Why not apprentice to a small immediate radius and make it a practice to give land you admire twelve secret praise names? Re-name them through sitting, listening, and libation. Why not try through language to make a sturdy oak blush with pleasure? It takes a while but it’s worth it. Human speech, lively, sincere, and elegant, has always been a good currency to the living world. It seems to find it charming.

To think like a nomad is to know that you wander the copses, hillocks, and plains of a wider psyche. Psyche does not belong inside your head. Imagine how different life is when we take that as a given, how dramatically it changes the decisions we take, how lightly we may choose to tread.

To be rooted in these Platonic modes, I believe, assists in a re-sacrilizing of our travel, pulls it back down into bushes and streams, alters it, possibly limits it. We could call this the pagan imagination – not as a religious persuasion but back to the long nomadism of the word “pagans” root: “country dweller”. Do we not wish to be those that dwell?

Sacrifice: Shelter vrs Comfort

So how far will we entertain the notion of local? Will it remain a buzz word as we gather up jars of home-grown chutney at the christmas fair, or do we orientate our whole being into the endeavour? Do we bend our back to the spade and plough, do we become aquatic stewards to the seaweed rim of that south coast? In the storytelling tradition this kind of grounding has often been the way to grow gnarly roots to the audacious and floral buddings of oour tellings.

All nomads understand the need for shelter; for the thin black canvas to defend against the lively desert sand, or the life-giving flame that warms us against a Tuvan winter. Without the ingenuity of shelter we die. But that canvas breathes, is a porous door to the wider desert, you only have to step feet away from that fire to experience the reality of snow. It is a frontier not a border. A frontier is a negotiation, a border a wall. As comfort becomes the throne we squat upon, our highest aspiration, we must be aware that it is rapidly becoming a sedative.

A Modern World: From Migrant to Nomad

Much of what is written here arises from an acute sense of incompleteness that many of us feel. Another writer could list many different reasons why this is the case. The point I wish to make is this: our incompleteness is our authenticity. It’s not to be shamed, avoided, or diminished. It is actually a homing device, the muddy soul calling us to settle back into our humanity.

After twenty years of leading wilderness fasts in remote locations, and spending four years close to the fire and under the felt of a black tent, I would suggest that longing is not quite as remote, not quite as perished as you may expect. But that longing could be coaxed into something a little more robust.

Aboriginal teachers claim that modernity is only “three days deep”, and that four days on the hill can be shed, like water drops from a wing, much of what we are lead to believe is grimly inevitable in modernity.

This opening is what has been described as “wild land dreaming” – a moment where the hamster-wheel of your own intelligence is rent re-asunder, and for a brief period the land itself dreams you. This ancient experience then requires the slow labour of crafting an art round that dreaming so it becomes efficacious to more than just yourself. It becomes a gift. This is the nomads consciousness par-excellence.

So in the perennial quest for “stories of now”, or the “local”, I suggest we stay inventive and spacious to its possibilities. We have to make a place for the nomad by our hearth-fire. They remind us of a vast amnesia that Monsanto would like to waft over our children’s heads.

My news is this: standing behind you is an ancestor waiting to hand you a vast treasury of story. One of epic journeys over tundra, immense and risk-filled voyages across oceans, and the slow-seedings in a particular sun-soaked valley. This is everyones inheritance, providing we can just tune our ears to hear them. Those stories are our herds, leading us home through the dusky light, with clinking bells and defiant yips.



A Local Relationship to Nomadism.

Ancient Trade

Kistveans (burial cairns) up on Dartmoor – four thousand years old – have recently revealed small beads who’s origination is as far away as the Balkans. So it appears isolation has rarely been part of our history, rather barter, trade, and discourse, even in times that appear utterly archaic to us now.

In speech that never made it into Samuel Johnsons dictionary, we find animal call words used by local Devon folk that are far distant in origin. Rustic terms such as derry, thurr, goosh, quishoo, hutch, hillick, are not French, Anglo-Saxon or Latin, but from the great culture of the Arabs – words that have evaded change by being channelled through the animal call songs and other dialectal phrases by the working people for thousands of years. So down in the Combes and green lanes of rural Devon, far from the candle-lit table of the gentry, the farmers and shepherds were daily speakers of Arabic. Even the calling of a cat; qsh, qsh, is of the same origin as the Devonian call for a cat: kaash, kaash. A word we use daily – shoo! – to send away a troublesome animal, is western Mediterranean. This all came from trading animals at the seaports.


It was 1505 when the most recent genuinely nomadic consciousness arrived in Britain in the shape of “exotically attired Egyptians” (Simpson 1865). For a culture they had travelled through Byzantium and Greece, through the Ukraine and Spain, from Persia and Transylvania.

The gypsies brought plenty of spook with them. The reading of hands, the sallow skin, narrow headed lurchers, the wagons, the rouged cheek and dark plait, the bare-knuckle etiquette, not to mention “tigress eyes”, according to Henry Williamson in his Life in a Devon Village. Gypsies soon became the largest migratory group of travellers in the west country.

They became kings and queens of fairs and revels: Stow, Bampton and Bridgewater all had fairs that featured the grand tents and wild fiddle tunes of the travelling Roma. For the men, coats were long and black, with plush, brightly coloured waistcoats, velvet knee-breeches and brogues. Come the evening, the women turned the volume up still further, with amber feathers tucked into turbans, white satin dresses, bare shoulders covered by multi-coloured shawls. Bottles were uncorked, howls thrown at the moon, and the gutsy dancing ached the feet but thrilled the soul.

As long as the gypsies remained as travelling exotics, as symbols of a kind of freedom that many secretly covet, then they enjoyed an uneasy peace. Problems would deepen with a kind of quasi-settling on the edges of town – due to agricultural depression from the 1880s – which meant it was more efficient to stay put in desperate times. The glamour fades a little when the occasional chicken gets stolen, or wallet relieved of its bragging owner. You start to notice the tattered edges of those grand tents. Everyone loves a scapegoat, and who better than those dark-eyed, strange-tongued travellers at the edge of town?

To be gypsy was to watch your myths travel ahead five paces of you wherever you want. A strong look. It could fill the tent on a Saturday night’s dancing, get young women paying over the odds to have their cards read on matters of love, but it could also have you picking your teeth out of the cobbles, it could have your children pulled right from your grasp. Maps were not used, rather a nomadic homing instinct, looking for the old resting places, Dannal’s Basin in the Mendips, or Ember Pond further west. To the locals it was hard to make out a pattern to the wandering, but they had their own kind of song-lines, their own way of getting where they needed to get to. Much of the movement was seasonal, and to do with hop picking, fruit picking, and onto the horse fairs.

For more information on Martin’s forthcoming course in 2014 visit The Green Teeth of the Earth, the Blue Tent of the Sky: Re-awakening the Ecological Imagination