We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

The Bones Sang

August 20, 2010 --- Dinosaur skeletons in the desert --- Image by © MARK GARLICK/Science Photo Library/Corbis
August 20, 2010 — Dinosaur skeletons in the desert — Image by © MARK GARLICK/Science Photo Library/Corbis

Every day at 5.30 p.m., just outside the university campus where I live, someone blows up a mountain.

I don’t mean a sky-detonating cacophony of end-of-the-dinosaurs proportions. South China may be mountainous, but not enough to kill off the dinosaurs every day. This is more mundane, and in its way more disturbing.

Every day, a thunderous jolt of high-powered explosives from the quarry reminds me that they’ve torn away a little more of that green, subtropical hillside. And there’s no plan to stop till the whole mountain is torn away and ground up and poured out as cheap concrete in a road to one of the endless construction sites in the area.

I was told by a colleague—a medieval Chinese historian, with a flowing white beard worthy of Gandalf—that four years ago there was, indeed, another mountain, in the gap between the hills beyond the Buddhist temple. Now it’s all part of the dust that blows viciously and endlessly from high rise projects across the main road.

“Someday,” my colleague said, “all of China will be—” he hesitated, pondering the right word, “—flat.”

Every day I hear the burst of detonation as another chunk of mountain is torn away, and wonder whether he’s right.

Terri Windling is right, any rate, when she teaches us that mythic arts—retelling and retuning old stories, folk and fairy lore, relearning the folkways—are rooted deep in the earth itself. When the land is revered and cared for, the songs and stories it gives us in return are rich and nourishing—even, or especially, when day-to-day life is bitterness and struggle. But when the land is brutalized and bulldozed, the stories drain away till, as Abba Felix told his disciples, “There are no more words nowadays.”

How do we perform mythic arts in a tortured land?

There’s no answer to that—no easy answer, at least. The oldest stories, though, are bound up in the struggle of becoming, of lands and homes and bodies torn up, dismembered, rebuilt, and reborn. Perhaps this is some dim memory of evolutionary journey and slow transformation—but that’s flagrant speculation. Most of what we can say about these stories are. But the use of the land, the change of the land, and the connection of humankind with the that change, linger stubbornly in the imagination.

God shapes man from the dust of the ground to tend a garden. The king of the wood guards the sacred spring with his body and blood. The magician’s daughter tears herself into a ladder of bones for her lover to descend a bottomless well. A young boy metamorphoses into a tung oil tree to give his people light and warmth. Under a juniper tree the bones sang, scattered and shining…

Academically, these examples prove nothing, of course. But myths and the folkways that give rise to them have never been about proof. The stories are told; they do not demand we believe them. They are for us to listen to, or not.

In this time of Redi-Mix outrage, it’s easy—far too easy—to seek comfort in politics and didacticism, and turn our writing to screeds and scoldings about what’s wrong with the world. And it’s hard not to When something as flagrant as the destruction of a mountain happens bit by bit each day out your bedroom window, the first impulse is to clutch all the good reasons this is wrong—social, economic, political, ecological, ideological, rational—and in fit of passion or spleen or heartbreak to scribble frantic verses explaining, precisely and vividly, why those reasons are right. In such moments of agitation, it can feel that, rather than there being no words nowadays, there’s millions of clamouring words demanding, instantly, to be shouted.

But if we accept that the stories we tell, the worlds we invoke, are rooted in the land—then it’s not for us to bury them still further in words and worries of the passing moment. Rage speaks loudly, but the land speaks with the burden of the grasshopper…in the quiet of the desert…

The struggle is to listen to tortured earth, as gently as patiently as we listen to the wholesomeness of the woods or the healing of an unploughed field. This in itself is a form of sacrifice—pouring out one’s self into the earth, forgetting the words of rage and anxiety—offering ourselves to listen and receive whatever stories broken land has to give.

Reader Comments

  1. Wow, John. What are the stories we tell in a tortured land? What do we make of it? What do we make of ourselves who do these things for all kinds of reasons, most of which we believe to be good – or at any rate necessary? And what do we do with the nagging grief and the sense of loss?

    The myths are where we go for refreshment – to heal the mind and restore the soul. But we’re not allowed to stay there. The myths aren’t a hiding place, they’re a respite.

    Good to hear your voice.

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