On changes of shape

by Joanna Gilar

As a new co-conspirator to the Hedge School, I would like to introduce myself.  I am a writer with a PhD in fairy tales and becoming animal.  When I tell people I have a doctorate in folkloric shapeshifting and ecological storytelling, most are intrigued, some are indulgent, others baffled. It seems the ultimate in the unreal. What do our oldest stories have to do with our reality? I would like to say everything. Ecology is about what we live with and how. Mythology and folklore are about what we hope for and fear. They are wellsprings and rivers of imagination; they are where our attention lies buried. And, I believe, they are where we need to source the ability to live with imagination on earth.

At the moment, I feel like a shapeshifter myself. I’ve moved from being an academic to being a mum and a housebuilder, having spent the last year organizing the building of a small house in the family garden to live in with my husband and young son.  At the moment, I have an hour or so for writing in the morning, and then spend the day hanging out with a nine-month-old baby and gathering the finished edges of our house together to make the final knotting of our new domestic space.

At my PhD viva I was three months pregnant, and explained this to my examiners in case viva butterflies shapeshifted into morning sickness across the examination desk. They were all sympathetic, and witchcraft historian Diane Purkiss and I talked about the ‘becoming animal’ nature of giving birth. We joked about me having done the theory and now moving on to the practice. But in truth, the last sixteenth months have been the most glorious and delicious experience of shapeshifting I have ever had. It’s been a crazy and difficult time in which I’ve lost many of the ways I have had to define myself.  But all the interaction with stone, wood, and grass in building a house, with skin and cotton and food, wee and poo and tears that being a mum involves has shifted my skin. My PhD did prepare me for the onslaught of material reality, and I wish to all mothers, and fathers, not the same theory but the same space in which to honour radical changes of space and shape.

So that’s what I’d like to talk about in my first post for the Hedge School. Shapeshifting is, at the moment, assigned to the pages of fiction and the screens of fantasy, encoded in our images and bound in our linguistic narratives, the only places where we consider it safe to believe in miracles.

But what if the relationship between the fantastic and the real has been profoundly misunderstood?

There were two theorists I read while researching for my PhD who changed my way of thinking. The first was David Abram. Abram was originally a stage magician, who travelled around the world meeting indigenous tribes and trading his own sleight of hand skills for learning in indigenous magics. What he discovered is that for oral peoples (peoples whose culture is not focused on writing) language and imagination are almost never considered uniquely human. Instead they are sourced in and part of the vivid living world.  As he puts it: ‘As we ourselves dwell and move within language, so, ultimately, do the other animals and animate things of the world; if we do not notice them there, it is only because language has forgotten its expressive depths.’ [1]

In Abram’s second book, Becoming Animal, he focuses on his studies with a shaman that culminated in an experience of shapeshifting. Though most of us will never share Abram’s journey to the remote mountain edges of the world to take on the black wings of an other being, his book is a guide to becoming animal in multiple ways. What he taught me most about shapeshifting is how to comprehend imagination differently.  Abram believes that when we gained written language we also lost – or forgot – how to be with the world.  We were once able to walk into a forest and comprehend it as full of living entities – not because our beliefs were more primitive, but because we knew how to use our imagination to enliven our senses and understand the multiplicity of things. When language was later transferred onto the page, imagination was diverted from our habitat and became a way of enlivening dialogue between only ourselves.

The second theorist that changed my understanding of things – literally things – was Karen Barad. Barad is a philosopher and theoretical physicist who believes that we need to utterly reconceptualize our understanding of matter and the material.  The reason Barad became a philosopher, after doing a doctorate in physics, was because she realized that what cutting edge science is discovering is so absolutely essential to the way we live on earth that it needs to be urgently translated to those outside the scientific community.  I love her because she makes the fluidity, complexity and magic of the world that so many of us instinctively believe in basic, logical, and absolutely scientific. Her overarching message is that attention changes everything. Our conceptions of the world do not create it, but they create with it. ‘Matter and meanings are not separate elements. They are inextricably fused together, and no event, no matter how energetic, can tear them asunder.’ [2]  In other words, the world isn’t a static whiteboard to be understood. It is an endless series of creative interactions in which matter is as active as mind and attention as transformative as matter.

And so, you see, thinking about stories and ecology is not about exploring stories as self-contained entities. It is not about trying to decode endless symbols into other endless symbols, or translate narratives of imagination into narratives of intellect. Imagination (for Abram) and attention (for Barad) are not circumstantial human attributes which distinguish us from beasts.  They are mediums between us and other, as basic as skin or eyes to existing fully present within the world.

When I became the mother, I found the expectation was that I would always be in a hurry. There is no time, people told me, to wash nappies, no time to hang clothes, to see old friends, to make supper, to clean the house. Absolutely no time to do these things with conscious attention and imagination. Not in this busy world. Not if you do things properly.  Our babies, also are coached into rapidity and mentally compressed into our timeline of emergency action. Do they sleep through the night yet? When will they? Do they eat yet? Do they speak? Do they crawl?

The injunction to hurry is the opposite of power. All of us have the capacity to shapeshift, that is to become part of that with which we are working. To become transparent to the colour of the morning when hanging clothes out in the sun, to rush into the cells of our hands as they meet wood, glass, cotton, grass, in the same way that we become transparent to the words we write or the images we see. But it can’t be done without the pouring of imagination in that direction, like a great river diverted into a desert of awareness. If we don’t do that, now, become transparent to the ecologies in which we exist, then neither us nor they will be able to continue.

So yes, here I am.  Mother lover homemaker academic writer witch. And here is the Hedge School, a place in which stories are invited to turn outwards, and storytellers are invited to sink inwards, and find the wilderness space between. Let’s tell some stories.

[1]          David Abram. Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, 1997. p.89.
[2]          Karen Barad. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. p.3.

Featured image: ‘Metamorphosis’, by Christian Schloe


4 Replies to “On changes of shape”

  1. Wonderful. What you are talking about is exactly what I am interested in developing in my life. Thank you for noticing and talking about the magic of ordinary beauty- and helping people to realize that it is everywhere. The door is there for us all and we must just use our focus and imagination to go through. thank you!

  2. What a beautiful and eloquently written essay Joanna! Attention changes everything. This is at the heart of the art that I make and the classes I teach over here in the States. This message is so crucial just now. Thank you for getting this notion further into the world. Best of luck with the baby. Mine have recently fledged. They have been my best teachers in focus and attention in this life!

  3. Absolutely beautiful. Thank you for doing what you do and for spreading your energy outward towards a larger audience! I too am a shapeshifter, motherhood has changed me in so many ways (as it does for all of us) and I am in the ever evolving process of reclaiming my creativity at the moment. I was an Art Professor for ten years and recently resigned, to raise my two little ones. I love your words. I have started a collective of parents who are interested in rewilding themselves, their families, their homes, etc. which has stemmed from a book I began on the subject. I am so interested in how all aspects of our lives can meld into one rather than in various compartments if we let them. Nature being the keystone. Again, thank you. Look forward to reading more.

  4. Imagination and attention. Yes, yes, yes. I, too, look forward to more. People are hungry for this work. For earth magic, for the acknowledgement that we have always known how to shift, and for stories that re-connect us to our humanity. Thank you, Joanna, for weaving such potent magic with your words.

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