In the grass, in the sun, looking out over the forested hills of Machynlleth, I reflect on this magic that we call life. This morning I took my leave of the tribe of Spirit Horse, a deeply sacred in the most natural sense of the word, people who have a community village in a Wooded dingle in the woods of the Cambrian mountains below Dylife.
Their founder, storyteller Shivam O’Brien, came upon the valley 26 years ago, first renting it for a few weeks at a time, later for longer is and eventually raising the had a million needed to buy the head of the valley from the farmer landowners.
But I am going ahead of myself in my story. It is past six o’clock when the warrior like Shivam comes to find me in the Star. I have sheltered from the mist outside call day here, writing and resting and talking to Louise, its new owner.
We head off back along the road I have followed till we turn right up to Pennant. As we drive Shivam points out the deeply cut gorge a young river has forged out of the landscape, where the waterfall is. The mists of are not so low now.
Then we head off down tracks and through farm gates to reach the land of this young river where an old young community is learning how to be again after some thousands of years. For Spirit Horse, although it didn’t set out to be a community, but rather a place of deep inside inner learning, following the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, has become, over the tears, just that.
In the kitchen heart of the village I meet Crispin and Lil, the only other current inhabitants of the summer camp of the tribe of Spirit Horse, who, like the Buddhafield community used to be, live a somewhat nomadic existence, spending most of the summer months here in their round house village in the Welsh mountains.
Tomorrow the three will set out en route to the festival of Glastonbury, but tonight they are here, and able to host me, and tell me their tales. I feel privileged indeed to be welcomed into this very special living breathing piece of magical land that Shivam has caused to return to its natural state and young and oak and ash have self seeded along the high paths and banks of the valley with its clear mountain spring water brook. No sheep graze here, and all of the dwellings, that over the years have been granted planning permission with the full support of the local farmers, all except one, who none of the others liked anyway, who caused a boundary dispute and three years of lack of access for the Spirit Horse folk, are of earth wood and canvas.
Once the dispute was resolved in their favour, Shivam is well liked in the valley, his Irish blood means he is understands the way of the Welsh, slow to befriend, but loyal to those who show themselves to be good neighbours, the Spirit Horse folk returned and found their canvas structures, their yurts and teepees and canvas topped round houses had fitted in the wet climate, so they set to to make good their structures with good solid wood with wooden roof shingles and sturdy willow or reed walls between firm posts of local wood from the forestry commissions plantations that they were allowed to take, helping to thin out, in exchange for a couple of bottles of good whisky.
Shivam takes me and on a tour of the dwellings, the men’s hut and the women’s, used in ritual for the sacred masculine and feminine workshops they have run for 25 years, filled, particularly the men’s space, which is older and been used for many rituals of all kinds over the years, with a deep sacred sense of peace and aliveness, and, the jewel in the crown, the temple by the stream edge.
This structure, it is plain to see, is an act of reverence to life itself. It is built of wood and carved in exquisitely all over. Up the paths leading to it are little wooden houses housing clay gods and goddesses fired on site by a clay oven built from clay found on site then destroyed afterwards. Below the temple is a sauna that heats the temple above. Washing at Spirit Horse is in the stream so a sauna is a welcome part of living here.
Inside the temple my jaw drops. It is painted throughout, all over the walls, in fine Tibetan art, the like if which is normally only seen in n Britain in high quality volumes of Tibetan art or on artefacts brought back from the east. The bright colours and the faithfully produced tantric gods and goddesses are set against a stunning back drop of scenery copying the steeply wooded valley of waterfalls in which the temple sits. Shivam explains how it was a whole community activity to create this building, an act of love and service for all involved.
Words are not able to do justice to such a place as Spirit Horse. The feelings of heart and senses are more trustable. Reverence and sanctity come close but these words have lost their true essence over hundreds of years of misuse of their true essence and can only be reclaimed and understood by personal experience of the qualities they describe.
Supper is a delicious feast of different dishes, one prepared by each of my three hosts accompanied by home made chapatis and finished of by sharing a ripe red pomegranate.
We sleep in the communal spiral yurt, a round house with a central hearth and heated by an external wood burner.I am surprised that my room mates strip off but when I awaken in the middle of the night so hot I need to strip off several layers I understand that this is certainly not like camping. Our mattresses radiate out spoke like from the central hearth and in the morning we wake together early and are soon out and about doing the tasks Shivam had outlined the night before that need to be accomplished before we leave the camp. We work silently without needing to ask for direction. It is satisfying. I gravitate towards the kitchen, clean down surfaces, scrub the cooker, sweep the floor, and then we have a breakfast of Dahl and chapatis and Shivam talks more about his learnings of 26 years in community here.
First and foremost, what make a community are storytelling and ritual. I ask if he uses particular stories. There are many of course, and my storytelling skill is for creating the folk tales of today, not to preserve the ancient tales, so I know little of this art. Cinderella, he tells me, is the oldest known story, told in practically every tradition and country in the world.
Here at Spirit Horse he began with the Celtic tales I am beginning to explore, seeking to tease out the essential teaching truths hidden within them. There was the legend of Llew and his warriors, a tale that served became his men well when they were first building the structures here. In the end though, he explains, what we have in the Celtic tales are a mixture of legend, folk tale and ancient historical lineages, so that is is very difficult to pick out the threads of the original stories. Now he is using Russian tales, as he has found them to be more faithful to the original tales.
Storytelling, he says, teaches us of the archetypes, and how to recognise ourselves and others in them. In the Irish tales of the hall of Tara all characters are mentioned equally, of equal importance, though there is a hierarchy. A good king archetype recognises what the role of each person truly is, even if a community may need a little time to identify their qualities when they first arrive.
In the Celtic tradition kings come first, followed by the poets, bards, storytellers and musicians, then the warriors and so on down to the ordinary folk. It is interesting to see how far we have come way from this divine order of things where the bards and poets are not asked to guide the leaders in decisions of national security import as once the Merlins were.
Shivam promises to write his book one day soon. He has learnt a little of how community works in these past 26 years, what some of the lost the ingredients are.
A few he talks about with me; rightful community action comes from people acting from their rightful roles. There are no rules in a properly functioning community. There is no need.
All types are included and welcomed in a real community. No one is turned away who wants to be there. This includes the mad man and the troublemaker, this although they often take up more of the time of the one who is in the role of king than the steady stalwart valuable members who do most of the work without needing direction. This is the way of things he says and it makes sense to me. These are the ones whose roles remind us not to be complacent, to consider what we may be neglecting, to remember to always bring compassion along with us on our journey.
More than anything else spoken these words tell me I am in good company; only the truly enlightened understand this…and do it.
Another thing Shivam has noticed about a functioning community is that some do loads of work and others little, and that this will always be the way.
Though Spirit Horse is a place of no rules, it does have healthy boundaries, learnt about the hard way. No more than two mad people at any one time. Once they had four and found they took up all the community’s time. A balance, as in all things, must be found.
I find out that when channel four made a programme about this place in the 90s they called it The warriors way, and so it is that I find the 7th treasure here; it is the end of stage one of my journey and the beginning if the next; at the waterfall and a young river just beyond the source of the Wye, the end of the warriors way stage, and with it I find a crystal of quartz on the banks of the brook and the seventh quality comes to me, tenacity, for once purpose is found then many challenges are to be faced, but right wins through if the gods are on your side. We all know when this is so, for it is when we follow our purpose with integrity and all that we touch seems to flow around obstacles as if by magic, like a river smoothing boulders. Above us I see the waterfall that had been so invisible in the previous day’s mist. Magical valley indeed.
We pile into the van and wend our way up and out of the valley, through the many gates, past sheep holding pens, neat farmhouses and messy, listening to the soulful spiritual music of Mahmoud Ahmed, divine Ethiopian songs that sound to me as if they were written in these mountains, for these mountains. I feel so touched, so in the moment that my imminent departure draws tears to my eyes. I recall similar journeys, many years ago, to Glastonbury in a van like this, with a partner and many friends, and feel the kinship witness folk so recently met. Shivam has reminded me of a truth I have forgotten, if you want to change the system then you have to do things that do not follow convention, and this is how I lived as a young woman. It was hard to seem not to fit. It is only with a wisdom gained through age that I am able to understand that pioneers, catalysts and visionaries must always live outside of the norm, an inner compulsion demands it, and the rewards are great, yet the cost is to give up on the being normal label that can be so comforting.
With hugs and kisses I take my leave of this newly won tribe of less than 24 hours and am on the grassy verge of the main road to Machynlleth. I wave them off to Glastonbury and wonder at my map, should I take the windy lanes through sheep farms I have come to dread, and know why now, they eat away at the natural woodlands and flower meadows our collective memory recalls as paradise, as they are penned into this farmer or that’s private land rather than being able to roam at will, till the fields grow nothing but thistle, indicator that the land is being over used, or should I take a bus? I walk to the bus stop, wondering when there will be a bus come by, and it comes. As I hop on board telling the driver of the synchronicity he says with a smile
Yes, its like magic isn’t it?
And we are on our way. Twenty minutes later I step out into the now familiar town of Mach, as the incomers call it. I learn that locals do not like this shortening and learn later why not. Wales, of all British places has retained its names for thing for millennia so it is still possible to trace back ancient history here whilst in England and even Scotland and Cornwall, names have changed, mutated over h breeds if tears and almost forgotten. Robert Mc Farley in his latest book Landmarks has catalogued all those old names he could find. There are less entries for Wales, there is no need, here people still remember. All the more reason to learn Welsh. All the more interesting to understand why the English tried to stop the language from being spoken.
I lie down on the soft green grass looking out at the wooded hillside that rises up beyond the park and sleep the afternoon away, by the Pavilion performance space where in the evening I will tell my tales.
When I awaken I meet my host Rosie and we go to water the vegetable plants at the housing co-op in the house owned by George Monbiot. Rosie and other growers share a polytunnel and some beds here that they pack into thirty or forty veg bags for local people.
We visit local artists creating a wooden globe that is to be floated out to sea with a dancer inside at nearby Borth. Machynlleth nowadays is a hive of artistic innovation as well as green technology.
We return later to the pavilion performance space in the park and I tell my tales to a select group of four and then we all head back to the house Rosie shares with three others for supper. I recall what Shivam has said about including the madman as Jacob, a man I met earlier in the park, and told about the stories, comes along too, and observe how we all include him, but struggle with his half with us, half away in his own world state that sometimes cuts across our conversations in disconcerting fashion without appearing to notice.
A lesson it seems is being presented. How do you preserve integrity, honour diversity, as I have told of in my tale of the mala of many coloured beads I brought from the convent. How do transition folk walk their talk with this most challenging of tasks. In transition town Totnes the madman was rejected, the troublemaker too, in the interests of progress, and I realise that this is why although the projects are steaming ahead they are not as inclusive as the insiders would like to believe. Many feel excluded, and I realise that Shivam is right, we are relearning community, and it is not easy to relearn something lost to us a 1000 years or more ago.