Vision-seeking in the deep past

Blog | Published on June 14, 2021

Richard Skelton reflects on how Stranger in the Mask of a Deer came to be, examining his experience of pain medication-induced hallucinations, the uncertainty of knowledge about early humans, and the resonance of poetry.

A few years ago I was taking pain medication and began to see things as I lay in bed at night. Not the usual hypnagogic blur. These were hallucinations. Hyper-real, incredibly detailed forms hovering above me in the wide-eyed darkness. My account of these visions is central to Stranger in the Mask of a Deer. It is the fire out of which the book’s smoke emanates. The list of ‘effects on the brain and central nervous system’ from the medicinal packaging becomes a found poem that is scattered like debitage throughout the rest of the book’s pages.

These visions were profoundly unsettling, terrifying even. Nevertheless, they inadvertently provided a mechanism through which I could approach a question that I’ve hovered around for years: What were the peoples of the deep past like? What did they think? How did they relate to the land, to other animals, to plants, rocks, rivers, stars?

A number of events in my life have sharpened this interest in our past selves. The most recent was in 2014, when I was invited by Nick Rogers to make an artistic response to the collection of the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry in Kendal, Cumbria. There were many agricultural implements in the collection, and among them were various devices of animal ‘control’, such as traps, brands, muzzles, collars and spurs. I found the latent violence that seemed to adhere to these objects both repellent and fascinating, and, whilst researching the subject further, I read about the existence of the so-called ‘fox screw’. This device ‘was used in the Lake District for screwing into a fox which had taken refuge in a “borran” or under a heap of stones’ (Cowper 1899). Further research into the treatment of foxes and other animals revealed an endemic history of institutionalised persecution: ‘Rewards were given by the churchwardens for the destruction of foxes; the heads of these ferae naturae being stuck up on church gates. Rewards for the destruction of ravens were likewise given by churchwardens’ (Stockdale 1872).

Nevertheless, whilst writing my first book, Landings (2009), I had become aware of historical contexts in which the natural world was treated more respectfully: ‘In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. […] Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated’ (White 1967). The examples cited by White and Stockdale seemed to be at opposing ends of the continuum that represents the changing relationship between the human and other-than-human worlds. One was governed by respect, the other by indifference.

And so onto a key question: as the ice retreated to give way to Late-glacial tundra, some 15,000 years ago, how did Late-Upper Palaeolithic peoples returning to the British peninsula conceptualise their relationship with the natural world? Tentative analogies to their ways of thinking can be inferred from ethnographies of hunter-gatherer societies, particularly those of the far north who lived in environments not dissimilar to Late-glacial Britain. Such enterprises are fraught with uncertainty and difficulty, however, and archaeologists are therefore incredibly circumspect. But for the poet – versed in dealing with ambiguity – this lack of certainty becomes a wealth of possibilities. Poetry feeds on absence; its words resonate, rather than diminish, in empty space. Creative writing presents itself as a parallel form of enquiry. The results of such endeavours are not reconstructions, but reimaginings. They are the shadows cast on archaeology’s cave walls.

Poetry feeds on absence; its words resonate, rather than diminish, in empty space. Creative writing presents itself as a parallel form of enquiry. The results of such endeavours are not reconstructions, but reimaginings. They are the shadows cast on archaeology’s cave walls.

Many anthropological works remark on the importance of vision-seeking as a key means of communicating with the other-than-human, of receiving wisdom, and of curing sickness. Chemical assistance is but one way of attaining such visions. Others include prolonged activity, such as singing and rhythmic movements, or fasting and sensory deprivation. The act of dreaming, of course, is the most accessible means available to all of us. Describing the Ojibwa, an Anishinaabe people of Canada and the United States, A. Irving Hallowell asserts that they are ‘a dream-conscious people’ (Hallowell 1960). We Westerners, by implication, are not. We routinely disregard the visionary, the hallucinatory, the strange. To pay heed to the illusory is the stuff of superstition.

Stranger in the Mask of the Deer takes that word, superstition, at its etymological meaning: that which stands over the present, enduring from a previous epoch. Could an attentiveness to dreams and visions be a relic from the Palaeolithic? Did the peoples of the past conceive of a reality that was an enmeshing of the physical and non-corporeal? My own hallucinatory experiences provided me with a momentary glimpse of something analogous – a fuller, more uncanny idea of reality. I felt like a musical string, resonating in sympathy with a long-silenced melody. The book itself is therefore a modest, but nevertheless radical, attempt to re-situate such an oneiric space at the centre of our experience; to re-constitute ourselves in a world that stretches infinitely beyond the empirical. Accordingly, it begins where all such experiences begin: ‘with dream / with what comes to you in the dark’.

Stranger in the Mask of a Deer by Richard Skelton is published 21 June. Order your copy now.

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