I know of many, in late autumn, whose wellbeing is adversely affected by the onset of the dark-half of the year; the loss of light and the fall in temperatures. I feel for them. But I don’t feel like them. For me the fallen foliage and the smell of mouldering earth, the morning mists and evening chills, all herald a sense of relief and release. The outward manifestations of nature and my inner emotions are realigned – I’m re-tuned by autumn. As the leaves on the trees fade and fall it feels like I’m allowed to let go; shed my outer layers, shake off the shackles of summer. Each year I eagerly anticipate the auguries of autumn as much as I seek the signs of spring, and I revel in its harvest of ripeness and colour, maturity and mulching down. Even the encroaching darkness wraps around me easily, as comforting as a heavy blanket. The affability of autumn is a sentiment that’s sustained in a favourite English folk song ‘All Among the Barley’:
The spring is like a young maid that does not know her mind,
The summer is a tyrant of most ungracious kind;
The autumn is an old friend that pleases all he can,
And brings the bearded barley to glad the heart of man.
But if autumn is like the return of a familiar friend, then the preceding simile rings equally and opposingly true. The ‘tyranny of summer’ in the song, I assume, laments the workload of seasonal agricultural labour. I’m not tied to the same tyrant, but still it strikes a familiar note of discord. In the cycle of the year my personal period of seasonally-affected disorder is always late summer; the deep, dark pools of July and August. Time moves like liquid in summer: sometimes rushing headlong in a river of anticipations and expectations, then unexpectedly slowing into eddies of indolence and inaction. It seems culturally ingrained in Britain that we’re supposed to be having fun in summer, making the most of the heat and holidays. Yet, somehow, I always let summer run through my fingers – a flow of missed opportunities; a growing tide of frustration and failure. I end up caught in a swirling whirlpool of conflicting emotions: wanting to get away and have a break countered by the centrifugal pull to stay at home, tend the garden or attend to work. With inescapable inertia I manage to neglect them all.
What’s worse is that I rarely find my usual comfort or cure in the natural world at that time of year. A few short weeks after the zenith of mid-summer at some moment barely perceived, yet grievously felt, everything seems to stop and stand still. The growth and greenery of spring and early summer loses its vibrant verdure. The moment of peak condition becomes sullied by being held for too long, like a staged photograph where a perfect pose becomes strained and artificial. Although warm weather continues to flourish through those late summer weeks, it’s often a suffocating sultriness for me. Bird song, which seemed so irrepressible in spring, simmers down to an eerie silence. Streams and spring waters, summer-slowed, become choked by weeds. It’s still too early for the pressure-release of autumn. Instead, everything is held in a strange, stifling stasis – a stagnant pool of time.
In my middle-childhood, when time itself was watery, fluid and shapeless, I spent long stretches of the summer holidays staying at my grandparents farm, in a rural backwater of Lancashire. Accompanied by an interchangeable set of siblings and cousins, the farm – its edges and hedges, spinneys and streams – became for us a personal playground. On the whole we were afforded the freedom of those times to wander and explore, unhindered by the imposition of structured time or adult agendas. Anything was possible, although not everything was permissible. We were warned, through strong stories, to stay away from farm ponds and deep ditches. Weedy, watery places where, the old ones told us, Jenny Greenteeth lived and lurked, the malignant witch of the ditch. Her green, hair floated up on the water’s surface as matted pondweed, whilst beneath her green eyes stared, unblinking. Her sharp, green teeth were bared and ready to bite, whilst her long, twiglet fingers twitched and trembled, waiting to snatch any child who strayed too close to the water’s edge. She was powerful malevolent force in our childhood imaginations; a sinister, seething spirit of place. We swallowed their stories and stayed away from deep, dark pools of summer.
The older, tale-telling generation of my family are all gone now. The last of them, my formative, formidable grandmother, passed away only recently, leaving behind a tapestry of tales that I continue to unpick. But even now, decades later, the story-image of Jenny Greenteeth is easily conjured to mind when I walk along a waterside, teeming with green vegetation. Then this year, this strange and strained year, as spring’s fluid flow slackened into the sluggish backwaters of summer, I began to feel her haunting presence seeping into my psyche – her long, green fingers dragging me down into a deep and weedy despondency.
In the beginning, in the spring lockdown, my means of making sense of being suddenly, completely cast-off from the world of work engagements and social interactions was to revel in the opportunity to connect deeply with nature. Through long, lingering weeks, removed from the constraints of conventional time, I relished in following circadian and seasonal rhythms. Cut adrift from the anchor of commitments, I was free to walk and watch and, eventually, write. I wrote about being lost in time but responding to nature’s rhythms and cycles.
Then in late summer, as the green grasses began to fade to fallow, matching the yellow-brown coats of the namesake deer, I could feel myself starting to wither. An imposed furlough from self-employed work shifted, drifted into a futile, fallow period. Acres of time stretched out ahead with little necessity or incentive to use it. What’s the point of me?
Over the last twenty years I’ve not only made a living through storytelling but made a life as storyteller. It has defined who I am, how I perceive and present myself. It’s the method and the means by which I’ve carved out a distinctive role within my community – at first in the city of Bristol and then a small town in rural Dorset. Without storytelling to steer me I was suddenly rudderless, all at sea.
I remember a storyteller friend once telling me, out of the blue, that he was intending to stop telling tales: “It’s as if a mighty wind that once rushed around inside me has suddenly died down”. I admired his authenticity and self-awareness – to know when to let go and move on. But letting go is not the same as losing something. Without the wind in my sails I was helplessly, horribly becalmed. Like the songbirds in summer, I’d lost my voice, and the world around me changed its tune. A storyteller without stories; I felt like a part of me was dying. I was becoming a shadow.
Unconsciously, intuitively I remembered a story that I once heard from the renowned mythologist, Martin Shaw. It struck a chord at the time as a story I could add to my repertoire, should tell to others. But stories (sometimes) have a way of working from the inside out, infusing and infecting the storyteller before they’re ready to be spread. It stayed buried in my brain for a few months, fermenting, until its imagery began to bubble up again just as I was feeling swamped by summer.
Once upon a time, in Mongolia, a great sickness swept across the land. In one village the illness spread quickly among the tents until it reached the dwelling of a boy called Little Tarvaa. He became more and more unwell until his body was still and lifeless. Friends and family gathered around his sick bed with great sadness, certain that he’d passed away. From the roof of the tent Little Tarvaa’s own spirit looked down and, believing his life had ended, began to make his way to the underworld, the land of the dead.
Eventually he arrived at the lavish, luxurious yurt of the Khan of the Underworld, who, although greeting him with courtesy and kindness, was nevertheless surprised to see the boy. He scrutinised Little Tarvaa with a furrowed brow before speaking: “I have news for you. You’re not actually dead. It’s true you’ve been close to death but this sickness will soon pass. You need to return to your body and live out your life.”
The Khan saw confusion clouding the boy’s face and so offered in recompense to give him a gift to take back from the Underworld. The treasures around the yurt were wondrous and each one tempting in turn: happiness, wealth, luck, laughter, beauty, music and more. But something else caught Little Tarvaa’s eye – a small sack in a corner of the tent that seemed almost to be twitching in the flickering firelight. It was a bag of stories: fertile folktales and magical myths.
“I want to take stories back to my village, tales that will light up the tents of my people in times of darkness,” said Little Tarvaa. The Khan smiled in appreciation at the boy’s uncommon insight. Then he dipped a finger inside the sack and smeared its contents – grey ashes – over Little Tarvaa’s eyes. Immediately he was blind, no longer able to see. But the Khan guided him out of the underworld and back to his own tent in the land of the living. There he opened his eyes, to the amazement of his family who were overjoyed to see him alive. Little Tarvaa could suddenly see the Khan’s stories, swirling with wild and wonderful images in front of his eyes. He opened his mouth and began to speak freely of all that he saw, telling stories to those gathered around in the tent.
Once spoken the stories spread swiftly – from mouth to mouth, from tent to tent – until all the tents were lit by little fires as people gathered to listen to the stories. Little Tarvaa himself lived to a ripe old age, his sack of stories never running out until the day when the Khan of the Underworld finally called him home.
It’s an old story, from far away, that resonates loudly with the here and now. Like many myths and folktales, it’s multifaceted in its meanings. And, as the autumn breeze frees my imagination, I’m left mulling over two intertwining story archetypes: the transformation of endings and the initiation of journeys. Little Tarvaa was, for all intents and purposes, dead to the world, at a time when disaster threatened to end his community’s way of life. Without understanding quite why, without knowing the way, he had the spirit and courage to take a journey to the underworld to bring back the seeds of new stories and new life.
The ancient Celtic people of these islands understood the solar year in terms of two primary seasons: summer and winter. The liminal periods of change between the two held special meaning and spiritual significance. They were marked by two important seasonal celebrations: Samhain (at the end of October/beginning of November) and Beltane (at the end of April/beginning of May). The festival of Samhain, later Christianised then commercialised into Hallowe’en, was the end and beginning of their calendar year: as the old year dies, the new year is born. It reflected the tangible changes in the natural world around them: the shifting balance between light and dark, fallen leaves and sown seeds, death and decay leading to life and renewal.
There’s an old English folktale called ‘The Dead Moon’. It tells of a time, in late October, when the moon herself was captured by dark creatures of the night – goblins and ghouls, imps and sprites, spectres and shades. The fiendish beings pushed her bright body into the dark, oozing waters of the sodden marshes and buried her under large, flat rock. There in a watery grave she was lost to the world, unable to shine her light, while the poor people in the surrounding villages were no longer able to travel by night, and a cloak of despair descends across the land. When someone suggests they should seek the advice of the old wise woman who lives at the edge of the village, some folk shun the idea and say that she’s a witch, while others talk about her as a healer and a helper in times of crisis – through deep knowledge of old tales and an earthy understanding of landscapes, she devises a rescue remedy. A small group of villagers, armed only with her wise words, set out on a journey across the marshes and, eventually, they are able to release the moon. That night she resumes her place in the sky and banishes the dark with her unfettered brightness.
It’s another story that speaks of death as something precious; an enforced dimming of bright hope and creative ambition. And, again, there’s a need to set out on a journey, this time with the help of a wise, old woman; the crone. I know of many folktales that invoke ‘the crone’, in her many guises, particularly as we enter the dark time of the year. In Scandinavia she’s called ‘Hyldemoer’ – Elder Mother. Elder is capable of regenerating readily and all parts of the plant – roots, bark, leaves, flower and berries – have useful properties or healing remedies. Elder is often found growing by borders and boundaries; liminal places. The Elder Mother appears now, at the cusp of the Celtic seasons, as I struggle out of the stagnant pools of summer into the fertile earthiness of autumn.
Unwittingly, unconsciously, these changing seasons and transforming stories are conspiring against me, or perhaps colluding with me. Deep down I know I can’t carry on as before. Other storytellers I know have adapted and evolved to cope with imposed conditions, and moved with the times. They’ve drawn on the skills of the shape-shifter and the trickster to tell their tales to new audiences in new ways. Storytellers, at heart, are shamans after all. For myself, I’ve already lost too much form for such subtle shape-shifting. I’ve reached chrysalis stage; I’ve dissolved into story-soup. I’ve ceased storytelling because I’ve nothing to more say. The silence is shouting at me. I need to stop dead and listen.
As I set out on a journey, navigate through a time-tide of lost stories, I can’t go back to telling the same old tales in the same old way. So, I hold onto the narrative of new life sown and grown in the compost of the old year. I remember that in farming a ‘fallow period’ was seen as a way to restore fertility to the land, abandoning current productivity for the sake of future fruitfulness. Perhaps, like Little Tarvaa, I’m ready to wipe the old, cold ashes of storytelling across my eyes; to look again. And as the grim, green teeth-marks of summer finally fade away with the re-ordering of the seasons, I’m glad to walk once more with the old crone, gleaning seeds among the dead leaves of autumn.
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Martin Maudsley is a freelance professional storyteller based in Bridport, Dorset. He is storyteller-in-residence for pioneering environmental arts charity Common Ground and has particular passion for traditional stories that create connections with nature, the seasons and a sense of place. He works regularly with Dorset AONB including a landscape myths and legends project for schools. He is currently writing a book on celebrating the seasons in Britain and likes nothing better than toasting the apple trees with glass of cider in the place where it’s made.