Interview with Storyteller Daniel Allison on Inspiration and John Muir

MC day 2013 6

ME  What (or who) inspired you to become a storyteller?

DANIEL  One man – Martin Shaw. I read an article by him about the work he did as a wilderness rites-of-passage guide and how he saw myth, initiation and relationship with land as inextricably bound together. I was fascinated. I already had a strong interest in initiation and relationship with land but throwing myth into the mix was a revelation for me.

Martin was a rock drummer who went through an initiatory experience that saw him wind up living in a black yurt for four years, studying stories and rites of passage and eventually becoming a master storyteller. He runs what he calls a ‘hedge school’ called the West Country School of Myth & Story which involves fifteen or twenty curious souls meeting up in a lodge somewhere on Dartmoor five times a year to live and breathe stories, poetry and landscape for two days. I signed up and the journey began.

Prior to that I’d been working as a massage therapist; prior to that I served coffee. Before coming to Scotland I travelled in India and Nepal for a year after finishing an M.A in Creative Writing. I was better at massage than serving coffee, but neither enterprise had been the right fit for me. Work was only ever meant to be a way of financing my development as a writer, and although I never worked too often or too hard, I was always looking for a way out of it!

What happened after I took an interest in storytelling amazed me and still does; everything just fell into place, people were calling me up to offer me work and elders appeared everywhere to lend a guiding hand. It was as if the fates had been calling but I had only just started listening. 

The power of storytelling is just incredible – I don’t begin to understand its depth. But if I can share with others the experience I’ve had listening to great storytellers then that is something I will do and keep on doing for the rest if my life.

Ironically, I didn’t see storytelling as my calling and I still don’t. I don’t know if I’m just being stubborn, but but I see myself as a writer who does some storytelling and not the other way round. But I think it’s something I need – to share stories with people in person, eye to eye – that being a writer doesn’t allow for. I’m a Leo and I need a stage! Overwhelmingly, it feels like something I have to do in this time and place; my part in the leela (play).  

ME  What inspired you to create a performance around the life of John Muir (and can you tell me a little bit about who John Muir was)?

DANIEL  John Muir was born in Dunbar in 1838 and emigrated to America when he was still a child. He grew up on a Wisconsin farm under the tyrannical rule of his evangelical father who helped make him incredibly tough. After an initiation experience – being temporarily being blinded while working in a factory – he turned his back on the world of men and machines and spent the rest of his life devoted to nature, walking a thousand miles across America and camping out in Yosemite for weeks on end with only hard bread to sustain him.

The thing that makes him matter is that he saw what was happening to the wild places he loved – they were being destroyed before his eyes by sheep-farming, greed and a religious-cultural system that said nature was put here to be used and abused by man. With great eloquence, passion and tenacity he fought against all of these and succeeded in beginning the national parks movement that protects wild places around the world today. Well, some of them do – Scottish national parks are protected in name only.

I grew up in John Muir’s great-aunt’s house and had an interest in him prior to becoming a storyteller. My first storytelling gig was a performance of John Muir stories at the school where my mother taught, which she secured by using her truth-bending skills to convince the head teacher that I was a highly distinguished storyteller! So when I was told that the 2013 SISF would look at Scottish travellers I had to do something about John Muir. 

What made the performance different to the work I had done on him previously was that I looked at his story as a series of initiations – life-transforming events that are consciously induced in more psychologically sophisticated cultures than ours, such as the walkabout of the Australian aboriginals or the vision fasts of the Native Americans. What tends to happen, or so the theory goes, is that if such transformations are not induced, life tends to hand them to us without being asked – with the crucial difference that the transformation is not guided or contained and is hence much more dangerous and often fatal. 

Looking at Muir’s blindness and his many near-death experiences in this way opened up a whole new angle on him and really deepened my understanding of his story.


Daniel Allison’s blog, where you can find out what he’s been up to recently: Among the Wild Deer

Martin Shaw’s School of Myth, where you can get your own inspiration

John Muir’s birthplace in Dunbar has been made into a museum, which you can visit when you’re in East Lothian.

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I'm a writer, a researcher and a storyteller.

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