Wolf Milk Extract

Winter gods lope the forest
Strike you with their wolfskin glove
And the counterfeit life
Takes its carrion demands
Back to the blue deceits
Of the one who first folded you

I trust words like that more than therapy talk, or becoming-your-best-self, or some strangulated idea about enlightenment. That there is an owl that lands on your face as you gather sticks by the river and you fall into a trance for three days. Such an image thrills and alarms as it can’t be franchised, or easily fetishised because the mandate of suffering is so clearly part of the mix. And that such an encounter could lead god knows where.

What follows is something of what I’ve experienced over almost twenty years as a wilderness rites of passage guide. Fragments of it have appeared in other places, but it’ll lope differently here, shake the snowflakes from its wet, black fur. I hope it provokes and excites and absolutely does not pretend the endeavour is anything less than highly mysterious.

Natural, yes. But mysterious. What follows is a glimpse through the three stages of the process: severance, threshold, return. It is this triad that constitutes the architecture of wilderness rites of passage. There may be ways to crowbar a more above-ground perception of the process, but I suggest that is grabbing hold of the wrong handrail. And I think that’s already been done. That’s village stuff, and you’ve just entered the forest. In fact, there is no handrail at all, save maybe poetics-in-extremis.

We’ll get to the return to the village later. When we get there I’m going to bang on about seemingly antiquated values: compassion, upstandingness, vocation, grace under pressure. That we actually raise our kids. That we live cleanly in our relationship to others. That our enchantments and befuddlements are limited in impact, that we don’t pass them on. The village is essential for the distillation of epiphany into wisdom. Human contact. But I’m not there yet.

Right now I’m defending the strange and usefully dangerous elements of the vigil. The moments that may never sift into daylight illumination but are like a rook pecking on your liver down in the pure animal of your body. Peck peck peck. It’s that pecking that keeps us restless. It’s a good thing to be restless. It’s that kind of thing that gets folks out on the hill in the first place.


To be buffeted by weather, to have hands pink as the flesh of Galway salmon as you splash freezing water in your just-woken face. To be a million nerve endings reaching out to darkness, rain, and white-crack lightning storm. To sleep a-jumble in your clothes because of the freeze, spend weeks without seeing your reflection, with no devices that beep and glow anywhere near. To feel jubilant, grief-struck, maybe even wild.

Cista Mystica Icon

Wolf Milk: Chthonic Memory in the Deep Wild Book Cover,
Wolf Milk Extract2019-09-12T15:38:48+00:00

The Night Wages Extract

And as she sleeps he talks to himself, that old abiding friendship.

In a brownstone in New York City, he once dreamt that a fairy tale was a kind
of breast milk from the earth to us humans. A song-line that pours troublesome
nutrition into our pretending-to-be-modern hearts.

So all day long he thinks about this.

That afternoon in Brooklyn it rains so hard you can barely walk upright, so he
shelters in the doorway of a dive bar scrawling what he just thought on a napkin.
The rain seems to banish a lot of static, and for a few hours he gets just a glimpse
of the spirits secreted in lively Iranian hand gestures, sees little furry faces furtively
peer up from under a rain mac as Jenny scuttles for the bus.

Just a few miles away, something like the Iliad is erupting within the power
squabbles of Wall Street, and a distant relative of Beowulf is wandering Central
Park looking for his Grendel.

He watches with his peregrine eyes; seeing knights in panther skin erupt from the
subway speaking swiftly in a kind of bardic hip-hop, he spies pummelling battles of
seething love almost on the scale of Tristan and Isolde taking place at low volume
and high intensity in the dark corner of the coffee shop. You’d have to be mad not
to see it. It’s not whole stories he’s beholding but moments, images, something of a
frenetic jumble. Not quite a myth, but mythic. Hints really. We have the image but
not the narrative. For a myth you’d need a more sophisticated pattern. Something
you could build on. Not a leap but a bridge. For a myth you need something more
than an entirely human point of view.

As humans we’re not living myth, we’re living myths. Plural. They compete. There
are differing stories constantly trying to be told through us, different temples that
seek our libation. That send us crazy till we blurt them out. There are perspectives
in us that aren’t even human; there are thoughts that swoop wonkily through with
the bright flashes of a jungle bird, or are preserved perfectly in peat until we are
ready to be thought by them.
Some thinking is very patient. It will wait years for us to catch up.
But the hour is getting late now. And when the stories we tell only have a human
directive peering back at us we start to get very lost. We hypnotise ourselves with
our own gaze. In such a moment it is quite possible to bury your heart under a rock
and quite forget where you put it.

But he means what he says: some of the rough gods are still amongst us—and
not just the porcelain ones that look a little like us on a good day, but the big bad
bunch—the raggle-taggle, rhino-tusked menagerie of the Original Ensemble, the
Other Folk, the Gentry, the Benji. He knows you’ve glimpsed them, once or twice.

They’re about.

They are gnawing on the edge of these sentences.

The Otherworld is this one, when it chooses.

It’s a convenience to believe that the Old Gods are leaving. Gives us permission for
all kinds of nonsense. That they are sitting in the departure lounge of Heathrow
and LAX with hurt feelings, waving old bones about and shaking their heads.
Clambering into some metaphysical elevator that’s going to deposit them in a
nursing home for Abandoned Primordials on the other side of Pluto.

We have to stop saying that they die if we stop thinking about them. That’s a
degraded idea.

Yet that’s what so many claim mythology is—us thinking these beings up.
But what if they were allowing us to think them? What if we were getting thought?
Not as manikin puppets, but as part of a profound conversation we can barely
remember the moves for anymore.

If they are fled, we can indulge sentimental feelings about them and not worry a jot
about crafting a life beautiful and unexpected enough to make them purr.

If they are fled, then we can start to feel sorry for them. That’s very foolish.

If they are fled, we can’t remember which temple we serve in anymore. And we’re
all serving something.
One of the canoes they love to travel in is myth. One of the runways they land on
is the tongue of the storyteller. That could be you.

Let no one tell you that the old stories don’t work our bones over. That all we
have is bled out photocopies and cheques that the soul can’t cash. Whilst that’s
occasionally the case, it’s by no means the rule. Take courage.

Magic is simply messier and more agile than that kind of morose timeline. We can’t
be telling our kids that.

Trust the bone house of your own body in this regard. When you flush, wince,
shriek and swell your heart to a tale well told, there is torchlight on the wall of
Chauvet Cave. It’s a form of cruelty to the story to suggest otherwise.

But friend, you have to know that the old stories come with consequence. They
will ask they will ask they will ask something of you. They will ask you to change
your life.

They are talking to our left brain, right brain, serpent brain, gorilla brain, elegantcloud-
over-moisty-hills brain, old brain, new brain, skeptical brain, exhausted
parent brain, terrified brain, celibate brain, horny brain, hands extended into the
nourishing dark that hangs over a late summer cornfield brain, strategic brain,
hang-it-all please god almighty let me taste real love one last time before they
throw me in the clay brain. All the brains.

He repeats: the gods haven’t fled, they’re not sulking, but they do want your
full attention.

Cista Mystica Icon

The Night Wages Book Cover
Get the Book
The Night Wages Extract2020-01-23T12:01:48+00:00