Wednesday 28 July 2021

A Sea Full of Selkies by Steve Gladwin and Co - "I Speak Animal" - with storyteller Sharon Jacksties.




I hope everyone has enjoyed this series of blogs on the theme of Selkies as much as I have, but I think I've saved the best until last. Sharon Jacksties is a Somerset based storyteller, pratitioner, teacher and writer, who - along with her partner Jem Dick I have known for a number of years, beginning on the famous Ty Newydd storytelling retreats and leading to a collaboration with them both on 'Spintales' double CD adaptation of John Matthews marvellous collection of stories 'The Song of Taliesin' (many copies of which are still available from my garage!). Sharon is an active community storyteller who also runs workshops and residentials. She has recently been made English Ambasssador for FEST, (the Federation of European Storytelling Organisations), where her role involves promoting oral storytelling and networking between organisations. Her books, 'Somerset Folk Tales', 'Somerset Folk Tales for Children' and 'Animal Tales of Britain and Ireland' are all published by 'The History Press'.

Sharon was an obvious person to talk to about selkies, but in a wide-ranging chat I was haunted by one particular anecdote of hers. Before this extract from the interview we were laughing about Sharon's love of David Thompson's famous book about seals, 'The People of the Sea, which Sharon thinks of as her bible

 'If you cut me', 'I would bleed that book.'

Then we moved on to her love of swimming and her need to find a place to swim wherever she could.

Jem and I used to go to Cornwall quite a lot. If I can continue to be swimming around in the water, I will. So there I was in Cornwall and Cornwall's very cold for me to swim in. I'm very spoilt. So it was really cold, and the day had turned and I thought I'm not going to swim. I'm not going to sunbathe. I'm going to get a soggy English day, get dressed and go back to the car.

And then - I don't know what drew my attention- I looked back and it wasn't even a bay. It was a gully. A gully on the beath that reached into the sea. There was a huge bull-seal, really massive, swimming with a man and they were playing together. And I thought, if he could do it, I could do it. It's like this thing of people swimming with dolphins. I'd love to swim with dolphins, but I have always had this thing about swimming with seals.

So, I tore my clothes off. Getting into the water was an ordeal. Because it was a gully and not an open beach. It was really horrible to get into the water and ten-foot deep, like slimy tentacles, you know. And that's normally the sort of thing I'd tolerate for about two and half seconds, but I thought it's now or never, Sharon. This is your chance. So, I did get in the water and the man came out. Jem, (Sharon's partner) - not a water person- was walking along the rocks towards the seal. I swam I would say maybe within fifteen feet of the seal and - we played together, and yet he would only let me get so close. 




And then Jem started whistling to the seal and the seal swam up to the rocks - and you have to remember these huge whiskers, because this was a huge male seal - quite walrus-like, and they started this conversation and the seal was sort of making these whistling sounds through his whiskers and Jem was whistling, I mean, he's a flautist. (NB I'm also a flautist, so I know the skill of both blowing deep into the flute, as well as across the top, which is more likely to be the sound that Jem was making!)  And I had this encounter and I played with the seal for a bit longer and eventually I had to get out because I was so cold. And I went to the car-park and in the car-park was the man who had been playing with him originally. And he was egg-shaped. He was like an egg-shaped person. He had these huge brown eyes and his hair was just plastered to his head. I mean, yours and mine have got texture. But his was just plastered to his head and feet were like in that shape on the ground, (Sharon indicates splayed feet).

I said "Are you the person who was swimming with the seal" and he sort of looked at me and said. "Oh, yes, I swim with him every day". And he told me how the seal is always there and -it's not a beach there, it's more like rocks - and he comes to swim with the seal every day. And then he kind of waddled into his car and I thought who was that. (Laughs)

How extraordinary.

I thought you'd like that.



So reflectively then, when you got back home and were able to look back on all that, what did you think was going on.

I think that he was like me. He has a thing about seals and the sea. I, I don't know what was going on for him?

That's what I was wondering. I mean what did he see when he saw you, for example?

You mean swimming in the sea.

No, I mean in the-park. When you saw him you thought of him as having that anthropomorphic shape. But what did he see when he saw you? Did he perhaps see you as kin of that type? It's an interesting thought.

Mm. I, I don't know! There was some quality. When he spoke! It seemed to come from a long way away. Not in the way it sounded, but from deep inside itself. It wasn't - There was something otherworldly about our conversation.

There's something that's quite eerie about it - hearing you tell it - and I'd imagine it would be something which would really stay with you.

Well it has! Because this was years ago, and at the time I thought this was so wonderful because this had happened in a car-park. I mean what could be more mundane than a car-park. That magic, that can survive in that environment.

There are so many aspects to that encounter and one of them is Jem the flute player. He's almost adding his own very distinctive non-swimmer but air thread to your encounter and he'd obviously at the same time communicating with the seal in a completely different way.

I'm so glad you said that, Steve, because we have all the elements there. I mean the air, and blowing through his whiskers and it was such a conversation. Creatures from outer space could have recognised that as a conversation. I was doing it physically through playing with that distance between us.

I tell you what I didn't do!  I was too scared to do. And this is again a little bit selkie-ish. I don't know whether you know this, but when you dive you can quite often swim more quickly underwater. I was very tempted to dive and swim up to him underwater. But I was too frightened to because I would be totally in his element. I didn't know how to react to that. I didn't know whether he would see that as a threat because, you know, I speak animal. I'm good with animals and I didn't know if that would become something else for him. I would have to have done it on his terms. I mean you would never put yourself in a position where a seal would feel threatened by you. I mean one bite and you're gone!

You've sort of brought all the elements together for me, because we've got the air, we've got the water, we've got the rocks for the earth. And the fire I think is the communication. The awen!

Thank you, Sharon. That is an amazing story.

My pleasure!

Everything else that Sharon and I talked about will be included in the book 'Land in Mind'. 

This is the end of this series of blogs on the figure of the selkie, and I'd like to thank Sharon, Sophia Carr-Gomm, Kath Langrish, and especially Kevin Crossley-Holland, without whom I would never have discovered the selkies!

In the next 'Land in Mind' interview on 8th August, I will be chatting with historian, expert in paganism and TV personality, (although he'd probably hate that!), Professor Ronald Hutton. See you then.

You can find all three of Sharon's books on amazon and the usual places and more details of the latest and a whole lot more on this website.


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