Caught by the River

Nettle-Eater: an interview with Tom Hirons

Lara C Cory | 22nd September 2018

Lara C Cory interviews writer and storyteller Tom Hirons about ‘Nettle-Eater’ – his ‘short, sharp prose-howl in the direction of genuine and magical wildness and uncompromising love-letter to the wild places of Dartmoor.’ 

On a fine weekend, you’ll find Tom Hirons telling stories out a converted 1966 Bedford RL lorry; his travelling off-grid home and go-anywhere stage. The project is called ‘Hedgespoken’, specialising in the retelling of East European and British folktales and also stories from the wide world of the Traveller and Gypsy communities.

Storyteller, mask-maker and writer Tom Hirons and artist, puppeteer and musician Rima Staines live in the Hedgespoken truck full-time with their young son, telling tales and sparking imaginations wherever they can, from festivals and quiet laybys to secluded forests.

Nettle-Eater is a prose piece about a wild journey of unbecoming, a wilderness vigil and wake-up call. Over the summer Tom recorded an audio reading of Nettle-Eater that you can listen to on his website, where you can also read the piece.

Nettle-Eater feels genuine. How did you conjure up the feelings that might accompany a journey like this? Have you had some wild adventures or experiences that lend authenticity to your words?

In these perilous and perplexing times, I sustain my spirit by occasionally fasting out in the wilds – it’s my best way of praying and of renewing my connection to what you could call my right path, my essential self, that kind of thing. Snowdonia, the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland, Dartmoor – places where there’s room to breathe a bit and stretch your elbows out. The wilderness vigil is a powerful and deep medicament. Any truth in what I’ve written in Nettle-Eater has probably arisen from experiences during such vigils, or from the wellspring of inspiration that I hope to find my way back to during such practices.

But, Nettle-Eater is also inspired by the story of the Tibetan saint, Milarepa, who is said to have fasted on nettles for seven years, turned green and learned to fly. He was a very naughty boy in his early life, using his powerful sorcery to murder his enemies, for example, but he fasted and flew and came good in the end. Nettle-Eater came to be when I began wondering how I might survive living wild on Dartmoor, and when I imagined Milarepa dwelling in a cave somewhere on the moor, throwing stones at passers-by and living his full-tilt, no-compromise, wild and magical existence.

“Once, I had been able only to watch myself and my life and the distance between them, aghast. Now, the gap was as thin as a granite splinter or the sheerest shred of a salmon’s hide. I was immersed in my life, at last. Fully, terribly, irrevocably.” 

Was the feeling of disconnection and discontent the driving force behind this piece? What drove you to write Nettle-Eater?

The gulf between what we are and what we might be, what we think we are and what we could become – these are perennial complexities of the human condition. All my writing is an attempt to chart some of the territory of those and similar tensions in various indirect ways and to tell the truth as best I can about what it is to be human, or rather what it is to be me, in the hope that it might be useful to others somewhere along the line. When I wrote Nettle-Eater, I felt an urgency to communicate as directly as I could, maybe in the manner of those old Tibetan cave-dwelling saints; I wanted it to be like an arrow or a fire, with some urgent warning in it. It’s the same old message, really, wrapped up in nettles, like an evangelical piece of Yarg cheese. ‘Wake up; this can’t go on…’ Nettle-Eater casts himself into some kind of transformational fire by committing to his nettle-fast; his previously staid and sensible life is torn apart – he is very much alive. His message is not a comfortable one – he’d have everyone do the same. So, his words are a reminder to me, too, to not fall into any of the various tempting sleeps.

How did you come to be a storyteller? 

I began to tell stories to audiences somewhere between 15 and 20 years ago, when I was living in Edinburgh. I’d been writing away for years, scribbling in my notebooks, but whenever anyone asked what I was writing about, I was so shy that I’d mumble something into the floor and try to disappear. I felt, deeply, that this wasn’t good enough! I knew that I was involved in some kind of apprenticeship with words, with language and its magic; I was aware that the terms of that apprenticeship involved being comfortable with the art of spoken words as well as the written ones. Unfortunately, standing up in front of people and speaking was something that utterly terrified me – somewhere in the various madnesses of adolescence, I’d lost my confidence, despite being a stage-loving child. So, I began my storytelling in a haze of alcohol, telling stories I’d made up myself, and then Russian folktales – my mother had read Russian tales to my sister and me when we were young, so the particular flavour of those old Slavic stories was familiar to me. Living in Scotland at that time, storytelling was undergoing something of a renaissance and revival, a little as it is in England these days.

I never intended for storytelling to be a ‘career path’ and in truth, to this day, I think that any merit I have as a storyteller is because I sometimes manage to find a graceful moment between not taking it too seriously and knowing that it’s vitally important in a multitude of personal and cultural senses. With Hedgespoken, we’ve moved storytelling into the centre of our lives, and now more people come and hear the stories, which I love, but really, I’m still working through my apprenticeship with language – just when I think I might graduate or get a certificate, it turns out there’s another twenty years to the course! Long may that endless apprenticeship run, because the day I get the certificate is probably the day my clogs go pop.

What are some points of departure and inspirations for you? 

Inspirations are plentiful. The writings of Henry David Thoreau (Walden; Civil Disobedience) were hugely influential on me as a younger man, as were those of Gary Snyder (The Practice of the Wild stands out.) My friend Martin Shaw’s writing is ever-rich; Marion Woodman’s too, and Robert Bly’s. Michael Meade’s work; Jay Griffiths’; a whole host of advocates of the Wild in written and visual art.

But, greater than all that – all those mystics of all traditions who’ve been lovers of wild nature. Mad Suibhne in the Irish tradition, William Blake, John Clare, desert fathers and hedge-mothers of varying degrees of power and unhingement. The key point is that there’s a tradition of sheer uncompromising immersion in the wild as a spiritual practice, to become closer to the essential stuff of life through casting off the trappings of civilised living and engaging in any number of practices of meditation or prayer or physical austerity, all of which feature in Nettle-Eater. It’s a tradition utterly, completely, diametrically opposed to suburban comforts; and to those parts of us that are invested in those suburban comforts, it’s horrifying, transgressive and taboo. But, still it carries on whispering into our memory- foam pillows while we sleep, tucking itself under the wipers of our commuting car or crashing into our trolleys in the supermarket. Mine, anyway. It just won’t be silenced.

It should go without saying that doing that on your tod is obviously a path to madness, death or some kind of dangerous enlightenment, definitely not to be tried at home…