A Guidebook for Liminal Times: Martin Shaw’s Smoke Hole

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Martin Shaw’s latest book, Smoke Hole, began as a letter written at the beginning of the pandemic. In the early spring of 2020, as we shut ourselves off from each other and went into high alert, Shaw was in southwest England, writing “in a notebook by a sputtering fire in an ancient Dartmoor forest” and acting as a mentor and guide while keeping vigil for a small group of folks “fasting in the woods,” who sought a deeper meaning and purpose through the intimacy of the natural world and our sense of inherent value and belonging in it. For over two decades, Shaw has been a wilderness rites of passage guide, a teacher of myth with the smell of mud and river water about him, looking both at you and past you into the constellations of the unseen, with an ear highly trained for poetry, birdsong, and the snarl of deep shadows. If there’s anyone I trust to give commentary worth paying attention to (highly aware of surplus content and the lack of quality), it’s Dr. Martin Shaw. In his opening letter, he asks several questions that clue us in to the territory he’ll lead us through in the pages of his most recent, concise masterpiece. Among my favorites: “What needs to deepen?” and, “Where is the beauty-making in all of this?”

Smoke Hole is a guidebook of sorts for these dark times we seem to continuously find ourselves in—the daily tangible effects of global warming; the hatred and violence against BIPOC, LGBTQI+, and other communities; and the planet-wide sickness and death due to COVID-19 and its ever-adapting variants. Shaw immediately instructs us on the need to keep the smoke hole open in our dwelling places and to find our prayer mats—metaphors I could explain, and that Shaw somewhat does, but are better for each reader to define for themselves. Those definitions may very well shift over the course of reading as the reader’s awareness grows and they begin to cultivate relationships—a relationship with their own inner authority and intuition; a relationship with nature and the living world, of which we are extensions; and a vital relationship with the emotions of grief and awe and all else we must feel in order to survive and thrive in these constantly changing times.

Smoke Hole is constructed of an introduction that provides necessary coordinates: what is a smoke hole and why must it remain open, what is a prayer mat, and what is the real function and value of beauty and story. This is followed by three sections in which Shaw retells folk tales and applies them to our times, dispensing first the story and then extrapolating on what the story could mean as well as how we can find our own meaning. “Growing Your Hands Back” features The Handless Maiden; “Breaking Enchantments” features The Bewitched Princess; and lastly, “Kicking the Robbers Out of the House” features The Spyglass. Shaw shifts between story and conversation with the reader, unraveling certain aspects for contemporary meaning and application while leaving others veiled in order for the mysterious to have its way with us. After all, the sovereignty of our own hearts and souls have something to contribute, and Shaw directs you to listen.

Within each story are gripping elements of conflict: the father who cuts off his daughter’s hands, the epic war and separation from love, the return to the forest, princesses held in dark states of possession, shape-shifting—eagle, goat, fish, fox, and unexpected transformations we all are starving for. Shaw speaks from the interior, narrating stories which are snorting, hoofed, and tailed—as they damn well better be.

One can track a writer’s thoughts over the page, the same way one tracks an animal’s footprints in the wild. One of the primary set of tracks through Smoke Hole belongs to awe. Awe is “a key ingredient to a successful rite of passage,” Shaw explains at the book’s beginning:

Awe humbles. And the idea is to make a home for that awe. An awe that floods our nervous system with largesse, wild geese rippling the depths of our nature. Something that’s hard to get over.

Tracks continue throughout the book where Shaw speaks to the need for defeat by the living world, a moment where:

you encountered spiritual energies that knocked you on your back. That surprised you, challenged you and showed you in a hundred different ways the correct size you are in the grand scheme of the earth. That through this defeat you would come to know awe again, and never, ever let it go. Reverence leads to participation.

Shaw writing speaks a timeless truth that has “the iridescent power of the beauteous and jaw-droppingly ancient Earth Mother herself.” Shaw’s use of metaphor is the real magic at work. Metaphor gets past our logic and defenses and reaches the unknown places within us. This book functions as a rite of passage in some ways, if you let it—transformation lapping at the small boat of you, any sight of land gone from view.

Nowaday, we’ve come to equate being involved with the outdoors with scaling a rock wall or arriving at a summit. Conquest. Triumph. But what’s really missing in our relationship with the natural world, Shaw tells us, is being relational, listening as you would to those you love and are devoted to—your partner, your grandmother, your child. “And that fidelity has currency in the wild places. To keep showing up, not taking anything, just being sweet and straightforward with a place, it has an effect. I asked the woods this: How do you want me to love you?

There it is. “How do you want me to love you?” Could we please ask this to every being we encounter, be it human or four-legged, with roots or sailing across the sky?

If ever there was a skeleton key for climate emergency, racial injustice, and the crumbling foundations of our own relationships, there it is. To behold each other with awe, to ask this question, and to listen. Listen. Shaw is calling us beyond our first impressions, beyond dehumanizing projections, beyond the performances of ourselves on social media, beyond what we think we know, to something much less familiar: our own sovereignty, our own authentic authority, beyond what will make us liked or popular—which, once we recognize it, will keep us in good standing with ourselves.

Like the tracks of awe, questions also leave their marks through the pages of Smoke Hole. Shaw’s questions implicate the reader; they ask us to engage, to answer. In this way, Shaw keeps us close. This is an intimate exchange, a call and response. After a good dose of storytelling he asks, “How do we make a covenant with the wild and the sovereign within ourselves? How do we discern falsity? How do we curate the wisdom that comes from suffering?” He continues, letting us know that the questions “don’t necessarily need a rational response. They are complex, they’re salty . . . the very stuff of life.” Don’t expect answers tied up with a bow that satisfy a mechanistic way of thinking. Rather, be willing to be further worn out; worn in; and held, cocoon-like, as the becoming of you is activated.

Every so often, if you’re fortunate, you read a book so essential and resonant that you come undone. In that undoing, you unzip the pages, crawl into the sentences and put them on as your skin. Because of that experience, you source the root and bone of not only how to go on with the sacred chaos of living, but how to flourish in the wilding in which we all live. Shaw’s last bits of wisdom: “Go sit quietly in wild places and see what wants to come talk to you. Get seasoned . . . Take your imagination back.”

These are liminal times. You must have this book at your side.

Jamie Figueroa is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer, which “brims with spellbinding prose, magical elements, and wounded, full-hearted characters that nearly jump off the page” (Publishers Weekly). Figueroa is Boricua (Afro-Taíno) by way of Ohio and is a longtime resident of northern New Mexico. Her writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, McSweeney’s, and Agni, among others. She received a Truman Capote Award and was a Bread Loaf Rona Jaffe Scholar. A VONA alum, she received her MFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts, where she is now an assistant professor. www.jamiefigueroa.com More from this author →