The Dark Mountain Blog

Learning What to Make of It

Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth’s new essay collection, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, was published last month by Faber. It brings together 18 of Paul’s essays from the past decade, along with Uncivilisation, the original manifesto that got the Dark Mountain Project started. Today we bring you an excerpt from one of the essays in the book, ‘Learning What to Make of It’.

smallholding


 
When we win, it’s with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small. What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us.
– Rilke

Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.
– Ian Hamilton Finlay

The most exciting thing in my life at the moment is a five gallon bucket full of human excrement.

I should explain.

I recently tore the flush toilet out of our family home and replaced it with a compost toilet which I built myself. It is of the most basic variety: essentially, we crap into a big bucket and cover the crap with sawdust, then when the bucket is full I empty the contents onto a compost heap, where it rots down over the course of a year. At the end of that year, we should have a safe and nutritious compost to use on our fruit trees and bushes, on the fuel coppices of aspen and birch we’ll be planting this winter, and on the small native forest that we are planning to grow here for as long as we are healthy.

It’s a big job, something like this, and undertaking it has made me realise how much effort needs to be put into the most simple things, and that in turn has made me realise why the society I live in has become addicted to paying for complicated things instead, and how this has laid a great big elephant trap for us that we may struggle ever to get out of.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first thing I did was to build a rectangular box out of planks and nails, and the remains of two kitchen cupboard doors which we didn’t need any more. There followed a lot of sanding and planing and painting and varnishing and swearing when things were the wrong length and hinges didn’t fit where they should have done. This took a few weeks, on and off, but at the end of it I had quite a handsome varnished wooden structure with two shiny blue hinged covers and a toilet seat on top. A five gallon brewing bucket fitted underneath.

Then I had to build a compost heap: two, in fact, so that we could keep an annual cycle of compost from the toilet going. I bought some old pallets from the timber yard up the road and carted them home in my van. That was a couple of days’ work. After I had finished, I stood back and admired them for about half an hour. I am a writer. I have never been a practical man, or have never believed I am, and I’m still at the stage where successfully completing a practical task fills me with astonishment.

Still, that was the easy bit. Ever tried taking out a flush toilet? It’s a messy job. In the end, a friend came round and devoted an afternoon to helping me to do it. He is a casually practical man, so the job went well. In the aftermath, big chunks of porcelain lay on the grass outside and all that remained in the bathroom was a blocked up outflow pipe and a gash in the lino. In went the compost loo, in went a bucket of sawdust, in went a wall hanging to cover the gaping holes, and voilà: a closed loop system.

The flush toilet, to me, is a worthy metaphor for the civilisation I live in. It is convenient, it is easy, it is hygienic and it is wonderfully warm and dry. It is the most luxurious pooing experience known to man. You can do your business and never have to think about what happens next: never have to think about what happens to the faeces and urine you have just produced, just as you probably never thought about the origins of the food which created it in the first place. You can act, if you like, as if you have never produced it at all; as if you were far too civilised to have to engage in such base and primitive behaviour. You can sit in the warmth, reading an amusing light-hearted book, then you can simply press a button, and you will never have to deal with your own shit.

What happens to a society that won’t deal with its own shit? It ends up deep in it.

A compost toilet is harder work. First you have to build the toilet and the compost heaps, and then you have to source a regular supply of sawdust or pine needles, which will keep the smells and flies away and give the compost enough bulk on the heap. Most importantly, you have to empty the bucket when it gets full, which is every few days most of the time. This is the part of the job which really seems to disgust those of my friends and family who can’t understand why I have disposed of a perfectly good toilet and replaced it with something medieval.

But it’s also the part of the job that I enjoy the most. I’ve noticed myself getting almost excited as the bucket approaches being full. Emptying the thing on to the compost heap, covering it with grass, inspecting the progress of the heap so far, cleaning and replacing the bucket, putting a new layer of sawdust in the bottom: would you believe me if I told you this was a satisfying process? Anticipating being able to use the results on my own trees is almost thrilling.

If a flush toilet is a metaphor for a civilisation that wants to wash its hands of its own wastes as long as they accumulate somewhere else, then a compost toilet is both a small restitution, and a declaration: I will not turn my back on the consequences of my actions. I will not hand them over to someone else to deal with. I will not crap into clean drinking water and flush it down a pipe to be cleaned with industrial chemicals at some sewage plant I have never visited. I will fertilise my own ground with my own manure, and in doing so I will control an important part of my life in this world, and that control will give me more understanding over it. I will claw something of myself back. Even in the rain, even in winter, I will deal with my own shit.

*

In 2014, I emigrated. My wife and I moved with our two young children from urban England, where we had always lived, to rural Ireland. We bought ourselves a small bungalow with two and a half acres of land up a quiet lane. It was the culmination of a personal project we’ve been engaged in for more than half a decade: to find a way escape from the urban consumer machine we were both brought up in.

We wanted to live more simply; or perhaps just more starkly, because life here is rarely simple. Our kids were just getting to school age, and the idea of sending them to school to systematically crush their spontaneity and have them taught computer coding so that they could compete in the ‘global race’ made us miserable. We wanted to grow our own food and compost our own shit and educate our own children and make our own jam and take responsibility for our own actions.

This can all sound very cloying. Western middle class people going ‘back to the land’ is a modern cliché, and when we think we are hearing that story we tend to react in a particular way, positive or negative depending on our political or cultural persuasions.

Perhaps I am a cliché, but I’m not especially interested in other people’s expectations. I was brought here by many things, but one of them is a voice that has been whispering in my ear for years, and growing louder for the last few.

This voice tells me that I am one of the luckiest people on Earth. It tells me I am a middle-class man from a country grown fat on centuries of plunder, that I have a university degree, that I go to restaurants and have a laptop computer and an internet connection, and I can publish articles like this in magazines. In other words, I am somewhere up near the top of the pyramid of human fortune. And that in turn means I am up near the top of the pyramid of human cupidity and destruction which is driving the natural world to the edge.

One of the driving forces in my life is a deep love of nature. If you ask me to explain precisely what I mean by that, or why it has such a grip on me, I won’t be able to. But I could tell you about profound experiences I’ve had in forests and mountains, about the joy that rises in my heart when I see a hawk circle or hear the roar of an untamed river, and the misery that sinks into it if I’m trapped in a city or on a motorway. I could tell you about the occasional brief glimpses I get into the reality that I am a passing moment in an ancient, beautiful, terrifying whorl of life on a vast unknowable planet; that I am not an observer of it, but a part of its wide flow; that there is no such thing as outside.

This kind of thing is nearly impossible to put down on paper, as you can see. Once upon a time, many millennia ago, I suspect it would have been the default worldview, but today, it is a hard one to live with. The culture that I was born into is systematically dismantling the web of life itself, and as it does so it is dismantling my sense of meaning and many of the things that I love. My status as a middle-class consumer in a Western industrialised country means that I am part of this problem, whether I want to face up to that or not.

This is what that voice whispered to me, as once it whispered to Rilke: you must change your life. I came here because I can’t justify my complicity any more. I feel a personal duty to live as simply and with as little impact on the rest of nature as I possibly can. I’ve no interest in extending this duty to anybody else, or in preaching about it or politicising it, or in pretending that I am in any way pure or unsullied or even halfway competent yet at undertaking it. It is just a personal calling.

But perhaps it explains my joy at that full toilet bucket. I feel I am at last starting to do my bit, to make restitution, to walk the walk after so many years of talking the talk. I can’t write or talk about natural beauty, or natural anything, unless I’m trying to do as little damage to it as possible; and at this time in history, that means taking myself away from the heart of the beast. It means stripping back. It means inconveniencing myself. It means paying attention.

The full version of this essay appears in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, published by Faber.

confessions
 

Paul Kingsnorth
 is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project. His personal website is here.

In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here

 

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Radicle and Rhizomati: Notes from a folk herbalist

weed wifeHierarchy

Power structures establish various systems to ensure the organisation of interrelationships and the distribution of resources throughout a group, community, or ecosystem. In human terms, these systems become our tribes, societies, and civilisations. The dominant power structure in the Western world at this time is capitalist, colonial, and hierarchical, with resources being distributed (or, more accurately, hoarded) from the top down.

Before capitalism, many of us who have descended from the nations of Europe have a cultural history of feudalism or some other social-ranking hierarchy. Feudal society is the rootstock of capitalism. One of the primary differences subsumed from this medieval power structure by early capitalism was the waged exchange of labour. The feudal peasants were non-waged, that is, not paid in monetary currency for their labour. Instead, they were paid by an exchange of resources such as land, shelter, and farming rights. Both capitalist and feudal hierarchies were architected to direct and control the circulation of currency from those at the top, who are the elite and few, down to those at the bottom, who are the poor and many.

Capitalism depends on unrestrained growth and production, the manufacturing of material goods, and the extraction of resources to meet these ends. Colonisation, the imperious expansion of geographic, cultural, and political boundaries becomes requisite — with all its cruelty and overconsumption — as a result of this excessive and continuous reach to sustain the unsustainable.

When contemplating the quagmire of obstacles and institutions within our capitalist society that interfere with the equitable and just interchange of currency and access to resources, I find myself motivated to explore less oppressive economic, social, and political human relationships.

In doing so, I have become aligned with that ever-gallant and hopeful group of folks dismissed as unrealistic dreamers. We ‘dreamers’ always hold fast to the truth that the wilful designation of creation and power can be delineated into a network of horizontal or lateral functions that make greed, conquest, and competition unnecessary and invalid, except in extreme conditions.

In the words of Larry Wall, creator of Perl, the open-sourced computer programming language: ‘There is more than one way to do it.’ Perl, and Wall’s band of merry hackers, revolutionised the internet with a coding script that encourages other programmers to interject or hack, as they say in the business, their own design style and innovations that contribute to improvements and success for everyone using the network.¹ These internet wizards built the bridge between those of us who simply want to use the internet and those who actually understand it.

I personally am not remotely skilled in the exotic language of programming or the strange tongue of capitalist economics. As one called to the path along the hedges, in the woods, the fields, the gardens, and all the green, untamed and untrailed places, I have found another way to do things in learning the ways of the world beneath the dark shadows of treetops and in the soils with the rooted ones.

As a folk herbalist practising in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, I live remotely, keeping a distant participation to some degree (perhaps never enough?), in the mainstream rush and panic of daily life in the ‘real’ world of productivity, competition and corporate time sheets. My work with others, however, brings me into direct contact with the consequent ills, both physical and emotional, of life within the overworked, overstimulated and ‘red in tooth and claw’ system. My long hours and days gathering and growing the herbs to share with my clients, family, neighbours and friends feels like a different world or alternate reality in contrast to the interface I must make with the civilised world of offices, fluorescent lights and concrete. While I truly love all parts of my work, this polar interchange always clearly elucidates for me the distinct difference between the world of unruly winds and wild waters, and the tame and burning filaments of electricity enslaved within the lightbulb.

Much of my herbal work is spent with a shovel, basket and clippers as I dig and gather roots, leaves, flowers, bark and berries that are prepared into teas and other herbal formulations. I make every practical effort to harvest from local sources. This requires me to be tuned into to the seasonal cycles and growing patterns of wild plants. I also grow a variety of herbs in my own garden, and have become acutely tuned into conservation and ethical harvesting techniques that ensure the long-term survival and proliferation of our wild medicine plants.

This art and practice of traditional herbalism has deep roots into the history of every culture on earth. These roots have twisted, turned and intertwined throughout thousands of years of human civilisation, often being lost and forgotten as the quality of our communal engagements and our narrative with the world has placed humans on top of a hierarchy that centralises power into an above-ground, rootless, disembodied, hegemony.

That said, I think it’s important here to acknowledge that hierarchies occur naturally in wild communities, especially in herd animals, and that hierarchy is not always played out as an oppressive power structure. It can be an excellent tool for ensuring survival, protection and the health of a herd or community when based on consensus, synergy and cooperative principles.

Becoming radicle

Radicle: a rootlike subdivision, the portion of the embryo that gives rise to the root system of the plant
— biology-online.org 

Radicle describes the first part of the seed to emerge after germination that subsequently becomes the primary root. Radicles and the roots they become are a most powerful natural force that, as every city sidewalk knows, will crack and divide concrete. The soil depends upon these mighty revolutionaries to deeply move, turn and aerate the surface of the planet so that life can ascend from it. Plants ‘know’ that in order for productive growth to be sustained, they must first set their roots and begin to make contact with the vast and nutritious field of minerals and essential microbes within the substratum.

Plant roots have many different and effective growing styles, but my favourite are those that are rhizomatic. A rhizome is actually an underground stem that is rootlike; it spreads horizontally, sending out shoots and creating a lateral chain of connection where new sprouts can emerge.

Rhizomes are non-hierarchical and extremely resilient because even if you dig up one part, the other sections will continue to grow and proliferate. Rhizomes have no top or bottom, any point can be connected to any other. They can be broken off at any point and will always be able to start up again. Their network can be entered at any point; there is no central origin. And because there is no central regulatory force, rhizomes function as open systems where connections can emerge regardless of similarities or differences. Freedom of expression exists within a rhizome.

Rhizomes, therefore, are heterogeneous and can create multiplicities, or many different roots, that are sovereign but still in contact and communication with all other parts of the system. This is in contrast to, for instance, a tree, which has a central origin or trunk from which all of its roots and branches emerge. Disconnected from that source, they are no longer in direct contact with their growing system.

As author and storyteller Martin Shaw writes about ‘the rhizomatic universe’ in his book A Branch From the Lightening Tree:

The rhizome is a plant root system that grows by accretion rather than by separate or oppositional means. There is no defined center to its structure, and it doesn’t relate to any generative model. Each part remains in contact with the other by way of roots that become shoots and underground stems. We see that the rhizome is de-territorial, that it stands apart from the tree structure that fixes an order, based on radiancy and binary opposition.

Learning methods and cultural philosophies have been inspired and developed from the patterns observed within rhizomatic root systems. One such concept was introduced by philosopher Guilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari. From their book on the subject, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia:

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system, which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the original source of ‘things’ and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those ‘things.’ A rhizome, on the other hand, is characterized by ‘ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.’ Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a ‘rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.’ The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation.

In this model, culture spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or trickling downwards towards new spaces through fissures and gaps, eroding what is in its way. The surface can be interrupted and moved, but these disturbances leave no trace, as the water is charged with pressure and potential to always seek its equilibrium, and thereby establish smooth space.

Examples of rhizomatic patterns exist throughout the living world and include plants such as ginger, crabgrass, violets and, my favourite, wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicalis). In human terms we can see many examples of rhizomatic systems, such as we discussed above about Larry Wall and the internet, even amid the context of complex societal hierarchy. New economic and environmental models of power such as permaculture, bioregionalism, and re-localisation are designed to work as horizontal, cooperative, synergistic, and non-competitive systems.

The Rhizomati

Rhizome: A continuously growing horizontal underground stem that puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals.
— Oxford English Dictionary online

Herbal medicines are, and always have been, a rhizomatic source of the equitable and lateral distribution of basic needs that seeks not to hoard, commercialise, and capitalise on healthcare or to dole it out only to those with access to the necessary currency. Herbs themselves have not escaped the thralls of patriarchal conquest. All of our modern medicine was founded on the insight gained from the common people and their unwritten relationship with the medicine of the plants. Many of the early European physicians gathered their knowledge from village herbalists, often women who could not read or write (as the patriarchy forbade them). These women are rarely even mentioned in the published literature of medical history. An example can be found in the book written by Dr William Withering (1774-1799), the man who is said to have ‘discovered’ the medicinal use of foxglove. The very first page of his book makes a short mention of a village wise woman who used it in a formula for dropsy: ‘I was told that it had been a long-kept secret by an old woman in Shropshire, who had sometimes made cures after the more regular practitioners had failed.’

The village healers were not elite or favoured by the ruling classes, and in fact were historically perceived as a threat. Their healing work was focused on the direct and intimate needs of their local community, which they frequently sought to empower and support. Traditional herbal medicine was not motivated by profit nor was it sanctioned by the overculture.

In our current times, herbal medicine and plant-based culture has re-emerged in many forms and I perceive it is in a major cycle of transformation. Many call it the ‘herbal renaissance’ and it’s not clear yet what the trajectory will be, as the world seemingly changes at the speed of light. However, the core values remain inextricably connected to the interdependent place-based character of the village healer and his or her reciprocal conversation with the wild and green world.

Our ancestors in healing, the long-ago plant people, were in service to their human community as well as the medicine allies they harvested from the hedges. These plant people often lived on the edge of town and worked as not only healers of physical sickness, but also practitioners of spirit, shamans of the village soul, and knowers of, or in old English ‘cunners’ of, the ‘wort’, or herb. Some were called wortcunners. Some were called magicians. Some were called witches. There are many different types of herbalists now and in the past. In ancient times — interestingly! — they were called the rhizomati, or by some sources, rhizotomoki, meaning ‘root gatherers’ or ‘root cutters’.

The rhizomati were rhizomatic practitioners of underground and lateral energy patterns as found in the plant kingdom. According to Christian tsch, ‘the rhizotomoki still spoke with the plant spirits…’ He adds: ‘These root-gatherers observed the gods sacred to the respective plant. They made use of the moon’s energy and knew the particular oath formulas for each plant. Witchcraft medicine belongs to the spiritual and cultural legacy of the rhizotomoki.’

tsch asserts, therefore, that ‘witchcraft medicine is wild medicine. It is uncontrollable, it surpasses the ruling order, it is anarchy. It belongs to the wilderness.’² Anarchy and wildness, in this sense, are not instances of chaos, mayhem, or lack of a system; rather, it is a system that is self-organised, organic, self-regulated, and impervious to oppressive external control mechanisms.

The rhizomati were carriers of traditional healing knowledge and have emerged at various points in time. In fact, as would a rhizome — going underground for a time and sprouting their legacy up to the surface in another place or time. Renowned modern-day herbalist David Hoffman has compared herbalists of our time to the Greek ‘rhizotomoi’ who held a very special place in the hierarchy of health-care practitioners during ancient times. He asserts that, now as then, herbal healers ‘breach so many realms.’

It is important to understand that the rhizotomoi were not merely the garden labourers that grew the plants, nor did they have the status of academic physicians who dispensed already prepared pills and formulas. Hoffman says: ‘They were people who knew the plants, knew where they grew, knew how to cultivate them, knew how to collect them appropriately, knew how to make the medicine, but then also knew how to use the medicine in the context of the people’s needs… they were herbalists.’

The legacy of these herbalists has carried their medicine bags into the vernacular, or kitchen, gardens of the past few hundred years in Europe and North America. Such gardens belonged to people of any class, and provided subsistence food and medicine to individuals and families. These communal plots were stewarded by the rhizomati and provided a local source of plants and seeds, were designed to meet the natural rhythms of the seasons, and were small enough to adapt to changing local conditions. They were places ‘in which “herb women” and rhizomati, root gatherers, are a key source of plant materials and seeds, and garden innovations are shared among peers—family, neighbors, friends—rather than distributed by a central authority.’³

Today’s root cutters, root gatherers, folk herbalists, plant charmers, and the like, face unknown challenges as the trail leads into the future of a global, capitalist economy. Herbal medicine has become increasingly mainstream and, will no doubt, continue to be commodified and profiteered at some level.

The overculture has made many recent bids to commercialise, exploit and restrict the use of plants by the people. There have been recent regulations enacted that limit the ability of herbalists to maintain home-based businesses, thereby restricting access to local products and serving the burgeoning corporate herbal industry.4

That is not to say that there is not a place in our health-care system for phyto-physicians that work with herbs allopathically. Plant-based preparations have already found a place in mainstream bio-medicine as a complementary modality, a method of prevention, and as a tool of synergy to potentise pharmaceutical protocols. However, this does not concede the necessity of the decentralised, community focused, and client-centred practice of folk herbalists. The modern rhizomati are a source of resilience and empowerment for our society and world, thanks to their interface with plants and people. This resilience will come not only at our resistance to capitalist exploits, but in our ability to establish rhizomatic, horizontal and local systems of vital sustenance, imagination, and community.

Change and dissent are enacted on even the simplest, most humane level when we just become aware of equitable alternatives to our dominant power structure. This I believe to be true well beyond the realms of herbal medicine practice. It has implications for our homes, businesses, communities local and beyond, schools, food production, the arts, and developing technologies. The key to the door of social justice and change is the knowledge that there are other ways to do it — as well as in the courage and innovation of those that are willing to imagine more than one possibility.

May the rhizomati live again and may we all rise rooted!

Footnotes
1Silberman, Steve, Neurotribes, New York: Avery, 2015
2Müller-Ebeling, Claudia, Christian Rätsch, and Wolf-Dieter Storl, Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants, Rochester, Vermont Inner Traditions, 2003
3. ‘Vernacular Gardens’, Wyrtig.com, For gardeners with a sense of history, 2015. Accessed February 18, 2017
4For more on these regulations or the cGMP laws: A Radicle blogspot. FDA cGMP compliance open source project. aradicle.blogspot.com, 2015. Accessed February 18, 2017

Image
‘Weed Wife’ by Rima Staines www.rimastaines.com

Lisa Fazio is a Folk and Clinical Herbalist, certified Wilderness First Responder, Street Medic, flower essence practitioner, yoga teacher, and mother of four. She holds a BA in Psychology from the State University of New York and an Associates Degree in Human Services with a concentration in Developmental Disabilities from Mohawk Valley Community College. She also has done graduate work towards a MS in Ethnobotany with studies in Botany, Chemistry, and Environmental History. She lives in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York, where she operates the Hawthorne Hill Herbs and Many Roots Earth Center. hawthornehillherbs.com

In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

The Big Ask: Help Us Fund the Next Stage of Dark Mountain

This week, we launch the final phase of our campaign to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication. After the generous response to our initial appeal for support in January, we’ve now set a target, a deadline and a plan for the new site. Read on to find out more – or make your donation here

Out in the woods with the Dark Mountain Collective, Devon, March 2017

Out in the woods with the Dark Mountain Collective, Devon, March 2017

Back when this started, when we’d get together to work on the manifesto, it took an hour and a half on the Oxford Tube; two hours if the traffic was bad. These days, Paul and I live in different timezones, and the core of Dark Mountain has grown to a collective whose six members are spread over four countries. Since we don’t much go in for flying, that means we don’t get together as often as we’d like. But at the end of March, the six of us made our ways by trains and boats and narrow Devon lanes to a cottage on the edge of Dartmoor.

Between the walking and the cooking and the fireside musings, much of our conversation that weekend was about this new online Dark Mountain publication we’ve been planning. So today, I want to share some news about where we’ve got to.

At the end of January, we made an appeal for your support:

It’s time to do something online that comes closer to the richness of the books we publish (and will go on publishing). Exactly what form this takes, we’re still working on – but it’s going to be an online publication, something more and different to a blog – and a site that reflects more of the web of activity of the writers, thinkers, artists, musicians, makers and doers who have taken up the challenges of the Dark Mountain manifesto.

‘How ambitious we can be,’ I wrote, ‘depends on the level of support we get.’

Well, that support has been generous. As of this morning, we have raised a total of £22,646 – a figure which includes £7,000 from sales and subscriptions, which have been higher than expected over the past six months, a £5,000 grant from the Tides Foundation, and £10,646 in personal donations from readers.

First, then, a huge thank you to everyone who has contributed so far. Your faith in our work is deeply appreciated – all the more so, given that we launched this campaign without a target, a deadline or a detailed description of what we were planning to do with the money. Instead, we offered an essay setting out why Dark Mountain matters in 2017 – and I guess it’s in keeping with the spirit of this project to start with the big questions, rather than the practical ones.

But at this point, it’s time to fill in the blanks, to tell you what we are planning to do, how much we are aiming to raise, and when we want to reach that target by.

Let’s start with the first of those: when we say we’re going to rebuild this site and launch a new online publication to run alongside the books we publish, what is that going to look like in practice? Here are the ingredients that we pinned down in Devon:

  1. A richer spread of the writing, telling, singing, painting, filming, drawing, making and doing of those who are finding inspiration in Dark Mountain. There’s far more going on than the current site has room for – so while we’ll still have the anchor of a weekly long-form essay, this will be joined by new sections for poetry, art, music, reviews and more, so that we can share and celebrate a wider range of work that is inspired by or in tune with this project. (If you have an idea for a section that ought to be on that list, we want to hear about it.)
  2. A fuller story of Dark Mountain. During our weekend in Devon, we started mapping out all the events and collaborations that we’ve been involved in over the past eight years. We’ve always worked on a shoestring, putting our whole hearts – and more of our waking hours than might seem sane – into pulling off festivals and wild goings-on on windswept moors or urban islands. The cost of working this way is that there’s rarely much time left over to record or write up the experiences. So as part of creating the new site, we want to take the time – and make use of the skills of the writers we work with – to go back and document the history of this project so far, so that anyone discovering Dark Mountain online can get a fuller sense of what it is and what it has done.
  3. A site that’s simple, beautiful and easier to read. A lot has happened in web typography since our current site was built. These days, it’s possible to publish writing on the internet that approaches the uncluttered simplicity of a well-designed book. That’s how we want it to be.
  4. Fixing the flaws from the current site. Maybe you’ve noticed some of these – the lack of notifications when people reply to your comments, or the step in the order process where it gets stuck if you haven’t picked a “county” in your address. Building a new site will finally allow us to take care of these little nuisances.
  5. Behind-the-scenes improvements that you’ll never notice… The way we currently handle submissions, subscriptions and orders for books involves a lot of manual copy-and-pasting from one spreadsheet to another. Building a new site gives us a chance to automate the robotic parts of the work that goes into running Dark Mountain – so we can give more attention to the parts where we get to be human.

The aim of this fundraising campaign is to cover the one-off costs of launching this new online publication – but there’s no point building a shiny site and not having the capacity to fill it. So part of the funding will go to cover an editorial budget for the first year or so of the new publication. What does that mean? Well, first that we go from having a “blog editor” who’s paid £100 a month to an “online editor” who’s paid £350 a month. (Which is as much as anyone around here gets paid: did I mention we run this project on a shoestring?) And secondly, that the online editor has a budget to bring in guest editors, commission longer pieces and generally find ways of bringing the site to life.

Over the next few weeks, we’re moving into action. I’ll be writing up a detailed plan for the new site, talking to developers and designers, and working with the rest of the team on the editorial shape of the new online publication. Sometime this autumn, the results will roll out into view, opening a wider window onto Dark Mountain and a broader platform for the conversations this project exists to make possible.

As you may have guessed, though, we want to make one more push with our fundraising to make all of this happen.

The target we’ve set is to reach £37,400 by the end of June: an amount that will cover the building of the website and an editorial budget to take the new publication through to the end of 2018. (Beyond that, it should be able to sustain itself through the continued growth in the numbers of readers ordering or subscribing to the Dark Mountain books.)

Can we reach that target? It’s certainly ambitious – and I don’t think we’d have had the confidence to set our sights so high, back in January, when we first announced this campaign. But we’ve been greatly encouraged by the response so far – and as the vision for what we want to do has become clearer, it’s felt right to make a big ask.

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IMG_20170318_133142It feels like a long time now since I was riding the bus between London and Oxford to sketch out the hunches and intuitions that led to Dark Mountain. What is it that holds us to this project, the gang of us who’ve carried it on our shoulders over the years since? As you’ll have gathered, it’s not the money – nor is it the attention it sometimes brings, which is a mixed blessing at the best of times. Rather, if I had to give a simple answer, I’d say that what keeps us coming back to Dark Mountain is the feeling that this is work that matters.

Just writing those words, I realise how lucky I’ve been to get to spend so much of my life working on something that feels that way. And on the days when it hasn’t felt like that – when it’s driven me up the wall and through the ceiling – what grounds me again and gives me heart is always the response from others to whom what we’re doing has mattered: the emails from readers who just found Dark Mountain online, late at night, who write that it made them feel less alone; the beautiful unexpected invitations to collaborate; the subscriptions coming in from wild corners of the world that I have to look up on Google Earth; and, these past few months, the flow of generous donations from the hundreds of you who are helping to make the next phase of our work a reality. Thank you, all of you.

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If you want to make a donation towards this campaign, you can do it direct through PayPal:

Or get in touch about other means of payment (or offers of help) by emailing [email protected].

You can post any questions in the comments here or send them by email. Over the months ahead, we’ll be sending out updates to everyone who’s donated to the campaign – including making the plans for the new site available for comment – so you can follow our work-in-progress.

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Dark Mountain Issue 11: Clothesline at the End of the World

DM11-edit-500x500-alphaWe’re thrilled to announce the launch of our eleventh book, another beautiful and provocative hardback anthology of uncivilised writing and art. Dark Mountain: Issue 11 is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or for less if you support our work by subscribing to future issues.

Over these past few weeks, we’ve been sharing a little of what you’ll find in its pages. For our final offering, Charlotte McGuinn Freeman takes us on a journey through family tragedy and explores what happens next, after the world stops – accompanied by an image by Tom Pazderka.

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On the first warmish March day, I’ll be outside hanging my wash on the line even if my boots are crunching on snow. If the sun is shining, if there’s even a hint of warmth on the breeze I’ll be bringing my wash outside, freeing it from the clotheslines in the basement. I am a tiny bit fanatical about my clotheslines. The outdoor line is attached to my side yard fence and, like all people who engage in a repetitive physical task, I have a specific method for hanging the clothes. Pants, dresses, bathrobes long items get hung on the back line against the fence. Then shirts, which must be hung upside down, connected at the corners to save on clothespins. (If you hang them right side up by the shoulders, you get weird bumps dried into your shirts that make you look like you’re continually shrugging.) Smalls get hung on the end furthest from the street, between the dresses and the shirts. No need to embarrass the neighbours. Then last are the socks matched together, hung in pairs. A load of wash takes me maybe ten minutes to hang. I work at home so it makes for a nice break in the day, and I love my washline. I love the way things look hanging there in the breeze.

But I don’t hang clothes just because I like the way they look. I am a true believer in the power of the clothesline. For one thing, the clothes dryer is second in American homes only to the refrigerator for electricity consumption, and while I know that eliminating my use of the dryer individually isn’t going to slow the onslaught of climate change, it’s something concrete I can do. Also, as a freelancer, I’m broke, so anything to bring down the electric bill. But I hang laundry for a less concrete reason, because hanging the laundry is about taking care, it’s about a version of domesticity that is not oppression, but which models the sort of caretaking we’re all going to have to learn to value in order to make a hotter, drier, more crowded world habitable.

I live in a small town in Montana, a town that until about 20 years ago was solidly working class. It was the headquarters for the Northern Pacific Railway, and it’s a town of small railroaders houses with tiny yards, nearly every one of which has a sturdy clothesline out back. Because we’re one of the windiest towns in America and these are serious clotheslines usually built from sixinch plumbing pipe, sunk into three or four feet of concrete.

And yet, I’m one of the few people I know who actually dries my clothes on the line. As the cost of appliances dropped and dryers became ubiquitous, clotheslines came to be seen as trashy, a symbol of poverty and sloth. Even as the new people moving to town buy hybrid vehicles and put solar panels on their roofs, even as greenhouses and chicken coops spring up in backyards, those sturdy old plumbing-pipe clotheslines, painted silver, are always empty.

I moved here from California in 2002 for a number of reasons, but chief among them I was anxious about climate change. It made me nervous, California. It had been good to me career-wise, twice. First when I moved there to do my master’s degree at UC Davis; then when I left Salt Lake City after my PhD and went back out to live with my brother and find a job. Desperate to pay off my student loans, I got work in a tech company, editing user and administration guides. I liked it. I liked the people I worked with and the intellectual challenge of figuring out how to present information to people in the most useful format possible. But California was giving me the willies. It was so crowded, and the Bay Area is such an enclosed space, bounded by the Pacific on the one side and the coast hills and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta on the other. Three years into my tech job, I’d seen field after field on my evening commute disappear under the onslaught of ugly housing developments, just as I’d watched the last few migrant workers hoeing a zucchini field that was doomed to become another Cisco campus. I wish I’d had a camera that day. I was stopped in traffic, and across from me were several guys with computer cases standing at a bus stop, while behind them four or five Mexican guys hoed zucchini rows, and behind them another threestorey Cisco building, identical to all the others, was going up.

I could feel the big change coming whatever we want to call it, climate change, global warming, the Anthropocene, the great acceleration I don’t know what it is, but having been raised by unreliable parents you develop antennae for impending doom. You can tell by the energy level, the degree of frantic vibration, that something bad is about to happen. And that’s how I felt in California. I couldn’t put a finger on it exactly, but I knew something wasn’t right and I wanted to get out of the way.

I knew about Livingston from having run writers’ workshops while I was in graduate school. The nature and western writers were a friendly lot, most knew one another, and talk across the patio tables at Squaw Valley often turned to places where a person could live cheap. Livingston was one of them. Like a lot of beautiful places left empty when an industry implodes, Livingston has attracted writers and painters and fading movie stars for decades now, along with a vibrant population of hunting and fishing guides, building contractors and former cult members. It’s a creative bunch and, with the exception of the rich summer people who build trophy homes in the valleys that radiate out from town, it’s a place where noone has ever had much money. Most of us live in one- and two-storey houses on small lots in town. Old railroaders houses like the one I bought. Mine was built in 1903, and hadn’t had anything much done to it since they put the indoor plumbing in sometime in the forties. It’s a small house on a town lot that I bought for a number of reasons, chief among them the five-foot clawfoot tub, and the well-used vegetable plot that took up half the back yard.

I was lucky enough to get to hang around Gary Snyder when I was at UC Davis, and Snyder’s advice to us wasn’t about poetry, well, not directly. Gary told us that if we wanted a creative life, we should find someplace cheap to live, where a person could afford to buy and pay off a house. Cheap housing attracts artists, he said, so chances are you’d wind up with interesting neighbours, and if you had a place to live you wouldn’t have to go teach in places you didn’t want to be. You’d have your freedom.

And that’s what I was aiming for when I moved here. I’d been living with my brother for four years, a roommate arrangement that had worked out so well we thought we’d better break up before we wound up like one those pairs of spinster siblings you used to see sometimes out in the country near our grandmother’s farm. The ones in the white farmhouse they’d been raised in, still sleeping in their childhood bedrooms. In the four years we’d lived together we’d both found better jobs and had repaired some of the anxiety we had about domestic life. We’d been raised in a world of unstable alcoholics, the kind who pick a fight whenever they’re feeling existentially itchy. By teaming up, we’d figured we could practise domestic life on one another, see if we could figure out how to live in a house with another person you love without screaming fights or tears of recrimination. That we’d done it and had righted our little ships, both financially and emotionally, was a major accomplishment. But it was time to move on. Time to take those skills and go find real partners. And so when my manager agreed to let me telecommute, I went looking for a house I could afford, and since I wasn’t tied to the Bay Area anymore, a house I could afford back in the Rocky Mountains I loved.

Pretty quickly, things fell into place and I found myself in possession of a mortgage and the keys to a small bungalow in Montana. I packed the cat and computer and boxes of books into my Honda, and arrived three days ahead of the moving van. That I’d been able to not only buy a house, but could afford a moving van felt miraculous to me. We’d moved every 18 months or so growing up, renting U-Hauls or borrowing horse trailers. Despite having managed to get a mortgage, purchase a house and arrange for a moving van, I still felt that first night, setting up the inflatable mattress in my empty house, that I’d broken in, that any moment someone was going to burst through the door and shout at me to leave.

The first year went pretty well. Patrick, my brother, wound up moving here after me, having been laid off from his job just as I was leaving California. I got a dog, and built raised beds in the existing vegetable patch, and made friends. Patrick found a cheap apartment on the other side of town, took up with his first girlfriend in ages, and set about building himself a niche running events and helping with wedding planners, work he’d done since his teens. We were settling in. At his birthday party in early September he made a sentimental speech to our new friends, thanking them for taking us into their lives, saying he’d never had such a happy year.

On 28 September that first year I lived here, on a beautiful, blue-sky, golden sunshine autumn day, I was in the hammock strung between my apple trees when the Assistant Coroner of Park County Montana walked through my front gate. I got up to see what the dogs were barking about only to meet this big man, taking off his feed cap as he saw me, who put one enormous hand on my shoulder and said Ma’am. There’s no good way to say this. There was a car accident last night. Your brother is dead.

Time stopped.

The world as I knew it ended that day, and while a new life has taken root, it is not at all the same. It is a replacement world.

Patrick dying was the one thing I had feared above all others. It was like being simultaneously orphaned and widowed. Our divorced parents are unreliable at best, our youngest brother had died as a toddler, and we had survived it all together. We were less than two years apart, and in every photo I have of us, from earliest childhood until the end, one of us has an arm around the other. I’d gone from the oldest of three, to being the big sister, to being an only child. In losing Patrick, I lost the one person on this earth who loved me absolutely, whose faith in me was unshakeable. Without Patrick, it took me a very long time to piece together some kind of identity, and even now, 13 years later, it feels false, because he hasn’t been here to see it.

It was terrible, and I survived it in large part due to the tender ministrations of the town of Livingston. If you’re going to have a disaster, I tell people when the story comes up, you want to have it here. Everyone came, and they stayed. My house filled up that first night as word got out. They got me through a funeral, and saw that I was never left out. I had people to go to Happy Hour and dinner with on Fridays, and they took me in for holidays, and some, like my friend Jennifer, occasionally walked in my front door that first year or so and said No really, how are you? My best friend had twins (after a terrifying pregnancy), so for a couple of years there was always a screaming baby to tend, and her two big girls needed an auntie as much as I needed kids to take care of. I was taken in by a tribe of people, people who became my new family, people who I love with all my heart. And yet.

When I say the world stopped, I mean that I have a very strange relationship to time now. There was my life until 2003, a life that hummed along and things changed and I moved from place to place and attended schools and published a novel and got a job and eventually moved to Montana. My story kept unfolding. And then Patrick died, and it feels in some weird way like my story ended. However, I’m still here.

To compare my personal loss to the avalanche of loss that is heading our way as a planet would be unbelievably callow, and yet there are things you learn when you lose the person you thought you could not live without that seem germane. For one thing, the surprise at still being alive. You have to figure out how to live in this diminished world. You have to figure out how to go on after the fourth, or seventh, or 15th time you pick up the phone to call the person who is no longer here. Those first months after Patrick died, I remember thinking, ‘Forty years? Fifty years? I have to live like this for how long?

The literature of climate change is mostly of the apocalyptic variety. There will be a disaster and then it will ALL END. But if there’s anything I have learned in these intervening years, it’s that it doesn’t end. You’re still here. The sun comes up. The apple trees bloom in the spring, and the garden needs planting, and the children you love will keep growing and even, eventually, you might be lucky enough to meet someone who loves you and who doesn’t mind when you spend the first three or four years telling him stories about your dead brother, and who you love back even though you find it inconceivable that you’re spending your life with someone who didn’t know Patrick, and who Patrick will never know.

Apocalyptic stories are sexy in their drama. The end of the world as we know it will be big and dramatic and everything will change, and we will be living in some mythical landscape where we’ll be freed from all the boring conventional aspects of our daily lives. My instinct, however, is that this is not how things are going to unfold. More likely it’ll entail the slow chipping away of things we’re accustomed to, changes like our fruit trees dying. We had a frost three years ago, a freak freeze in October that killed every cherry tree in town. We didn’t find out until spring, when they didn’t come back. Here in Montana we get much of our fruit in the summer from Utah. Orchardists will drive up and set up roadside stands where they sell raspberries and plums and currants and peaches. Beautiful peaches. They were late this year, and my first thought was, ‘Is this it? Is this the year they don’t come? Is this the year we’ll look back on and say, “Remember when there were peaches?”’

One reason I’m such a fanatic about the clothesline is that, like clearing the table after dinner and doing the dishes in the sink with soap and hot water, hanging your wash on the line keeps you in actual physical contact with the world. You have to touch each piece and in doing so you can see which tee shirts are wearing thin, which socks have holes in the heels, which trousers are getting worn in the knees. It is this physical contact, this clearing up of messes that I think is at the root of the peculiar hostility toward clotheslines that has taken root in those neighbourhoods where clotheslines have been forbidden and even outlawed.

For two or three generations now we’ve been told by the culture that success is measured by the distance we can put between ourselves and the physical acts of both making and cleaning up. I know perfectly competent grown people who cannot cook themselves dinner, who rely on restaurants or make a sandwich, who have no idea how to do something as simple as roast a chicken. People rely on clothes dryers and dishwashers. We hire cleaners for our houses. We hire gardeners to mow our lawns. We sometimes have to hire people to raise our babies so we can continue to work at jobs we might love, or just need in order to bring in the money we require to keep the machinery of consumption humming along. We rent storage units where we put the stuff we worked all those hours to buy but that no longer fits in our houses.

That my household chores are largely physical in nature hanging out wash, cooking dinner and then cleaning the dishes, mucking out a chicken coop, tidying the garden to get ready for winter marks me as old-fashioned and an outlier. I don’t live in a city, or even a particularly large town. I cook all my own meals, in part because our town is so small that there aren’t cheap takeout places. I work at home so I don’t have a commute anymore. I’m already a throwback, to the extent that when I visit folks out there I do find the noise and pace and sheer amount of disposable trash of modern life a little disorienting.

What I learned when my brother died and left me here alone is this: it is in taking care that we can save ourselves and others. Nina’s twins, with all their mess and screaming those first few years (and they were screamers, those two), that’s what saved me. Having something useful to do. Something immediate. The baby cannot sleep without being held, and there are two of them. So days we spent, on Nina’s big white sofa, watching Barefoot Contessa reruns and trying to get those girls to sleep. What I learned is that the garden can save you, because it doesn’t give a shit if you’re having a freaked out, weeping kind of a day. It’s spring and things need planting, or it’s the end of the season and snow is coming and if you don’t get the tomatoes in and taken care of the whole summer will have been a waste. And so you do it. You find a rhythm in the physical world that carries you through, because the bottom line is that you are not dead. You are still living on this earth, and there are days of stupendous beauty, even in the midst of unbearable sorrow.

And so, because I love the world, even in its diminished state, I hang the laundry outside. I hang laundry and refuse to use my clothes dryer. I bought a tiny, efficient little car. I grow food in my backyard and put it up in jars for the winter and I’ve pretty much stopped flying on airplanes. I know that these actions, taken as an individual, are not going to slow down the changes we see happening. The freak frost that killed the cherry trees. The fish parasite that bloomed in the Yellowstone River this summer, when the river was at its lowest-ever recorded flow, when the water was hotter than it had ever been and so a parasite bloomed and thousands upon thousands of fish died. So clear was the danger that the state banned our sacred sport, fly fishing, for a month. Which was unprecedented. For the 14 years I’ve lived here I’ve watched that rusty brown creep across the mountains as the pine beetle kills off the trees and, more years than not, there are no chanterelles or boletes in the fall, not even up high in the mountains, because the late summer rains didn’t come.

But I hang my wash on the line, and grow vegetables in the backyard, and love the girls I’m helping to raise even when they turn into terrible teenagers who are acting out in the most ridiculous ways possible. Because I’m still here.

Apocalyptic stories about of the end of the world are sexy, in part because they allow us, in much the same way as fantasies of past lives do, to cast ourselves as important players in grand historical dramas. They strip us of boring domestic chores. They set us free from our stuff and give us a blank slate with which to start over. However, I think our job is going to be more complicated than that. My hunch is that we’re not going to get a big, sexy, end-of-the-world do-over. What we’ll be faced with is more ordinary. A series of diminishments. The loss of one thing we thought we could not live without, and then another, and then another yet.

Every so often, when someone mentions that something happened years ago, in say, 2011, I’ll find myself startled at how far in the temporal past 2003 has slipped. For me, it’s still right here. The day the world stopped. The day that Mike Fitzpatrick, that big kind man who is himself dead now, walked into my side yard bearing the worst of all possible news. It’s right there with me as I hang wash in that same side yard, dresses and pants and shirts waving in our stiff winds, as the cottage roses and cosmos and hollyhocks wave back. We might all be living in the end times, living in the aftermath, but we are still living.

Image

Tom Pazderka
Nostalgie II
Oil, ash and charcoal on burned panel, 48cm x 48cm

Ashes and oil paint are combined in this image of pyrocumulus clouds from recent wild fires near my home. None of the paint is mixed, there are only layers building on top of one another, made to disappear into the blackness of the surface

Charlotte McGuinn Freeman makes her home in Livingston, Montana. She’s a graduate of the University of Utah PhD program, the author of Place Last Seen. She’s published in several anthologies, including the Montana Quarterly, Big Sky Journal, Terrain, HTML Giant, The Rumpus and others. She can be reached at charlottemcguinnfreeman.com

Tom Pazderka is an interdisciplinary installation artist, painter, sculptor, teacher and writer. He holds a MFA from the University of California Santa Barbara. Pazderka’s paintings and installations (de)construct the use of nationalist and cultural symbols, history and ideology. Melding research and personal experience his work critiques and engages nostalgia, self-exile and obscure aspects of American and European cultures. tompazderka.com

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. 

 

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Dark Mountain Issue 11: Dust and Bones

DM11-edit-500x500-alphaWe’re thrilled to announce the launch of our eleventh book, another beautiful and provocative hardback anthology of uncivilised writing and art. Dark Mountain: Issue 11 is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or for less if you support our work by subscribing to future issues.

Over these past few weeks, we’ve been sharing a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Our penultimate offering is an essay on a Japanese funeral ritual by Daniel Nakanishi-Chalwin, with images from Christos Galanis’ series The Time I Shot the Iliad.

Screenshot 2017-05-01 at 16.29.25

Amongst the traditions of Indo-Tibetan tantrism, there is a form of meditation in which the practitioner pictures their own body shorn of its outer layers and transformed into a skeleton. The initiation rituals of Siberian shamanism similarly involve visions of the living self butchered by spirits and reduced to bones. So it is that whenever I recall the funeral of my wife’s grandfather – in Tenri City, Japan on 21st March, 2014 – my mind offers up a series of jumpcuts, a triptych of images: the man in the hospital bed, the corpse in the parlour, the skeleton on the table.

Such a bare, schematic rendering is partly due to an uncertain memory, which I attempted to flesh out for this essay through background reading. Could research salvage some sharp detail of protocol from vague recollection? Certainly I learned many interesting things about funerals in Japan: that the early Emperors were interred in great tumuli until the adoption of Buddhism by the ruling classes led to the spread of cremation; that the first cremation recorded in the chronicles was of the Buddhist priest Dōshō in AD 700; that the corpses of the city poor nevertheless continued to be abandoned in distant fields or mountains, or even along riverbanks, always liminal ‘non-places’ even where they ran through metropolitan centres such as Kyōto; that the diaries of aristocrats in the 12th and 13th centuries frequently refer to dogs bringing dismembered body parts into the house, necessitating rites of purification; that an exclusively Shintō style of funeral, favouring burial in the earth, existed in parallel with the Buddhist pyre; that there was also a rural-urban split, with burning the preferred option in densely populated cities and interment the custom in the countryside; and that this split persisted into modern times before the urn of ashes finally won out. A rich subject for the inquiring mind. Yet mine clings to its stark triptych. Man, corpse, skeleton. And the faces of the mourners. And the smell.

But maybe such starkness is, after all, the most appropriate mode for dealing squarely with the simple fact of death – a fact to which the modern West displays such aversion. My sole memory of my own maternal grandfather’s cremation some twenty years ago in London is of a sealed coffin, sucked away through a velveteen curtain on a conveyor belt, the only sound some plinky hymnal muzak piped through speakers. Off to Heaven in an elevator, all veiled and sanitised. The contrast with the ritual end to Nakanishi Mitsuo’s life could not be more extreme.

I. The Man

Born in 1931. Adopted into the Nakanishi family at the age of three. An eager student of English despite the prevailing cultural hostility of the time. A small-scale farmer growing strawberries, spinach and rice. Bald statements cannot conjure up the person, already in his eighties when I first met him. A large, veinous hand proffered with the English words, somewhat slurred by dentures, ‘Nice to meet you’. But all that schooling so long ago and half-forgotten. An immediate reversion to Japanese, the dense local dialect, unpicked for me at moments of confusion by his eldest granddaughter, my future wife. Though we only met a handful of times, he was unfailingly warm, accepting and humble, unwilling to play the role of supreme patriarch to which his years entitled him.

Some of this gentle poise may have derived from his faith, for he was an active member of his Tenrikyō church. Arising in the mid-19th century at a time of great political crisis, when feudal Japan was opening to the West, Tenrikyō began as a rural cult based around Nakayama Miki, a shamanic figure who delivered her divine revelations in automatic writing and was said to perform miracles of healing. The movement grew into an organised religion, designated by the government as a ‘sect of Shintō’, and eventually gave its name to the place where it had started, and which its official buildings now dominate, Tenri City in Nara Prefecture.

But is Tenrikyō actually Shintō? While the two may share certain aspects of ritual in common, the latter has a multitude of gods, the former ostensibly one, Tenri-Ō-no-Mikoto. The use of the English word ‘church’ to describe its sites of worship also reinforces the sense of monotheism. I’ve lived in Tenri for almost a decade, my wife is an adherent of Tenrikyō, yet I still don’t know the answer. Why? Because it doesn’t really matter.

Religion in Japan has always been a syncretic affair, as suggested by the mixture of Buddhist and Shintō funeral practices. Buddhist temples usually have Shintō shrines within their precincts, and most people pray indiscriminately at both. My wife and I even got married in a Shintō shrine; her Tenrikyō family raised no objections. For dogma is subsidiary to the ritual act itself. Correct form is a defining feature of Japanese culture, just as applicable to major ceremonies, such as graduations or weddings, as to the small, quotidian ‘rituals’ of meeting and greeting, mediated by their subtle grades of honorific language. The routine, the bow, the posture of humble supplication – the gesture in and of itself supersedes any dubious philosophical pursuit of incontrovertible truth.¹

Many of the rituals of Tenrikyō are accompanied by gagaku, the music of the ancient Imperial court, a melange of native Japanese, Chinese and South Asian influences. In his church orchestra Nakanishi Mitsuo played a reed instrument called the shō, a bundle of bamboo tubes that resembles part of some miniature pipe organ, but which was said to represent a Chinese phoenix at rest. Its sounds are magical, shimmering and, like a harmonica, arise on both the in- and out-breaths.

The last time I saw him, he was wearing an oxygen mask. A cold had deteriorated into pneumonia, and he’d been in a hospital bed for several weeks. Weight loss had made his false teeth even looser in his gums, and I barely understood anything. We told him about our wedding plans, the tedious bureaucratic hoops we had to jump through. Characteristically, he was more concerned with this than with his own failing body.

It’s curious how the action of writing revives the memory. Maybe my hippocampus (or is it the cerebral cortex?) is sprightlier than I thought. I remember now the overcast light in the small hospital room, how we turned at the door to wave goodbye. His large purple-pink hand, bloated with gravity, waving back above the side-bars of the bed. Outside I picked up the spiky fruit of an American sweet gum by its stalk. It’s still in our apartment, in an old glass jar, like a musical note preserved in ice. But memory, it always fades.

II. A Corpse

Screenshot 2017-05-02 at 14.35.50It was back in the house when we got there, transported from the hospital within several hours of death – the body of Nakanishi Mitsuo, still in pyjamas, laid out on a futon on the tatami mats. I hesitate, however, to yoke his name to this husk; already his image had been abstracted. It was my first human corpse (I never saw my own grandfather’s), and I found myself thinking, there’s nothing here any more. Tireless lungs static after 82 years, filled only with slack air. Hence perhaps that ceremonial dagger on the chest to ward off evil spirits. Other offerings were on a small wooden stand: rice, saké, salt, water and a leaf of the sacred sakaki tree (Cleyera japonica) for transferring water to the dry lips. The body required tender ministration, as a succession of relatives and neighbours came to kneel and pay their respects.

This was death treated with intimacy, invited into the heart of the family home, not banished to the morgue with a kind of queasy embarrassment.² That night Mitsuo’s daughter, now my mother-in-law, slept near the body to ensure a votive candle didn’t go out. His great-granddaughters made origami grave goods – a watch, paper money, anything he might need on the journey after death. These were placed in the coffin the following day, after undertakers had wiped the body clean and dressed it in a kimono (with the right flap over the left, a reversal of the custom for the living). The rest of us put on black mourning clothes, and we all departed for the funeral parlour and the wake.

Here my memories become layered – doubled. Both the wake that evening and the funeral the morning after occurred in the same hall, before the same backdrop of offerings. Flowers, fruit, vegetables, enormous bottles of rice wine, even dry food in boxes arranged like a harvest festival in a church. Both times a Tenrikyō priest chanted prayers. Both times we filed up to the coffin, bowed, clapped and offered branches of sakaki strung with zigzags of white paper (a form of decoration commonly seen in Shintō shrines). There was duplication in the two ceremonies, but a change in atmosphere too. Some of this was due to emotional fatigue. After the wake, the coffin was removed temporarily to a separate room within the funeral parlour, so that family members could keep vigil, keep the candle burning, until the next day. I eventually went home, slept fitfully, and then the gagaku hit.

In her foreword to the 2004 edition of Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism, Wendy Doniger states that, ‘…myths (and, to a great extent, rituals) retold and reenacted in the present transport the worshipper back to the world of origins, the world of events that took place in illo tempore, “in that time”.’³ There is, in other words, a rupture in everyday, linear time and its replacement with the ‘supratemporal’. This seems especially valid for describing highly formalised rituals that concern intrinsic aspects of existence – like death. While the wake had begun the rent in the ordinary, three gagaku musicians at the funeral itself (two bamboo flutes, one shō, the phoenix-harmonica) ripped it right open.

If melody in the Western classical tradition can be thought of as a path through a landscape, or as a narrative line connecting set-up to pay-off, then gagaku is the landscape itself, the setting robbed of story. Its woozily shifting planes of sound, all reeds and grasses, make me think of layers of honey slowly melting into one another, of the golden light of honeycomb. William P. Malm has compared the sounds of the shō to ‘a vein of amber in which a butterfly has been preserved.’4 Or maybe a sweet gum fruit in an old glass jar? This is music as circular time, existential, the pulse of the lungs, and it worked like a drug on my mildly sleep-deprived mind.

I floated through the following stages, even after the music had stopped, stunned in the new silence and weirdly detached as the mourners pressed in around the coffin to fill it with flowers. The grieving reached its peak. People sobbed and cried in despair, crowding, almost jostling, in a sudden loosening of self-control. It was an odd thing to witness in a society where public displays of strong emotion are so rare.

Nakanishi Mitsuo in a box of flowers. The undertakers fixed on the lid, and I helped to load the coffin into a hearse. At the crematorium there were more chanted prayers, more offerings of sakaki. The coffin was on a metal stand like an autopsy table. The table was wheeled into the incinerator. We drove back to the funeral parlour for beer and lunch.

Screenshot 2017-05-01 at 16.17.20

III. Skeleton

The first thing you register is the smell. A burnt, mineral heat full in the nostrils before you even enter the room. Then you see the metal table in the middle. The human skeleton. The man of a few hours ago now preternaturally white.

I think of a line from Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker – ‘It wer like the 1st time I seen a woman open for me I wer thinking: This is what its all about then.’5 This is the core, this is the nub, one individual stripped back to calligraphic bones, one frail body as ideogram for all Mortality. It’s a banal truism that we must die one day, but in that moment I was struck more forcibly by the startling fact of not currently being dead myself.

Or is that mere hindsight, analytical and ca
lm? Lunch had been long; there had been alcohol. Thirty or forty relatives and friends were now crammed into this small chamber at the crematorium. Tired, serious faces. I was spaced out, and the stench was beginning to become nauseating. On the far side of the table stood my girlfriend’s niece, only six at the time, showing on her face the anxiety I felt, feeding it back to me. I managed to smile at her. Her own smile was instant, big and open, as honest as her fear had been, and with it equanimity was restored.

This equanimity had characterised much of the past three days. Of course there was deep sadness, particularly as the coffin was finally sealed, but this was the funeral of an octogenarian who had been ailing for several weeks. That lessens the shock, lends the proceedings a certain matter-of-factness.

A crematorium attendant, wearing a peaked cap like a bus conductor, began to distribute metal chopsticks, while his colleague commented on the fine condition of Nakanishi Mitsuo’s skeleton, pointing out the absence of distortion in the pelvis or spine. His tone was unsentimental, yet polite, delicate. He now invited us to approach, individually or in pairs, starting with immediate family members, and remove pieces of bone for the urn. It was important to take a representative selection from throughout the body; not everything could be preserved.

Again that total lack of squeamishness, that intimacy. My girlfriend and I went together. As we stood in the slow waves of heat emanating from the table, agonising over what to pick up with the chopsticks, it felt for a second like some bizarre buffet spread. What a surreal privilege to be vulturing this man’s bones! Eventually we chose a section of fibula, which came away easily. The fire had burned out all the elastic collagen, leaving it brittle.

The skull was equally as compliant. Being far too big for the porcelain urn, the chief attendant, announcing his intentions first in the same level voice, broke it apart in his gloved hands and recommended a neat, shell-like segment from the top. The consummate professional – anatomist – connoisseur. Small wonder a collective murmur of appreciation met his discovery of the Buddha.

The nodobotoke or ‘throat-Buddha’ is the colloquial term for the laryngeal prominence, the Adam’s apple. Although composed of cartilage, and thus unable to survive cremation temperatures, folk anatomy considers it identical with the axis, the second vertebra of the neck, which has on its upper surface a small tooth-like projection – or rather, a small head and torso – giving it the appearance of a Buddha in the lotus position. Mitsuo’s had emerged from the flames uncracked, and was now retrieved by the attendant before our chopsticks could do any damage. Even for followers of Tenrikyō, in which meditation plays no part, this body within the body is a potent, sacred object.

The tantric meditation on one’s skeleton alerts the mind to the true nature of existence, transient despite the illusion of stability that daily routine tends to grant it. Likewise, the ritual of the chopsticks (common to all cremations in Japan, not only those of Tenrikyō) is a sober acknowledgement of death as an incremental erasure – a scattering of hands, lungs, hippocampus – just as inexorable whether one is ripped apart by wild dogs or lovingly dismantled by one’s family.

In contrast, the Siberian shaman must collapse to a state of bones in order to be reborn in a new body of magical power. There are echoes of this in Tenrikyō, which holds that the material body is on loan from God and must be returned to God, but that the soul is one’s own and can transmigrate. The funeral is simply the starting point for a series of rituals occurring at fixed intervals over many years, each marking the journey of the post-death spirit. Whilst some of Mitsuo’s bone fragments have been interred in a cemetery, others are still in the family home, including the throat-Buddha. On the fifth anniversary of his death it will be transferred to the church where he worshipped.

Another banal truism then: a funeral is an act of remembrance. But is it not also, at least in the format I experienced, a reconciliation with the inevitability of forgetting, and of being forgotten? Of an erasure that is more than physical? Within a few generations anyone who has ever known us personally is dead. Only feeble ghosts remain: dry facts, sparse accounts, deceptive photographs. This same fear of personal oblivion underpins our wider fears about environmental catastrophe. How can we expect future humans to have any memory of the splendour, the diversity, that once cloaked and suffused this Earth? How can they possibly know what has been lost?

March the 21st, 2014, had been overcast and chilly. As I left the heavy, sooty air of the crematorium behind in the mid-afternoon, stepping out through the sliding doors hand in hand with my girlfriend’s niece, the sun suddenly broke through, illuminating a silvery shower of rain. ‘Look! Kitsune no yomeiri!’ shouted the small girl. A foxes’ wedding procession! This Japanese idiom perfectly conveys the novelty, the sheer uncanniness, of seeing rain fall from a bright blue sky. It was an appropriate image for a day of strange rupture, of ritual space, otherworldly and beyond ordinary time.

The sun and rain, moving through their cycles. An atheist-animist, is that what I am? A touch of Buddhism when it suits me? I’m not big on dogma. All I know is that there are a myriad universes dying all the time, every one infinitely rich and utterly mysterious. That we are made of stardust. Animal, corpse, skeleton. That’s good enough for me.

Endnotes

1. This may, of course, be utter bollocks, since Japan no doubt has its fair share of fundamentalists, but it neatly justifies the lack of theological explication in my account
2. This custom, however, is disappearing, surviving mainly in old houses in the country.
3. Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2004 edition, p. 13
4. Malm, William P., Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 2000, p. 112
5. Hoban, Russell, Riddley Walker, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2002 edition, p.193

Images

Christos Galanis
The Time I Shot the Iliad, (2 of 5), (2 of 5 [detail]), (3 of 5)
New Mexico, USA

The Time I Shot The Iliad is part of a series of ‘shot books’ I created in the deserts of New Mexico that began as both an interrogation of US gun culture, and the role of books in the development and dominance of civilisation. These dusty discarded books – mined from charity shops – eventually became sites for re-inscribing contemporary narratives of contraction and loss. Their desecrated pages are perhaps the visceral embodiment of a more faithful articulation of the arc of time we are living through. For a full description of this project, see Dark Mountain: Issue 11.

Originally raised in Cornwall, Daniel Nakanishi-Chalwin has lived in Japan for nearly fifteen years. His work has appeared in several issues of Dark Mountain.

Christos Galanis is a Canadian/Greek artist, researcher and teacher who enjoys migration. Currently a PhD candidate in Human Geography at Edinburgh University, he is researching practices of walking/belonging within the Scottish Highlands. He holds an MFA in Art & Ecology (University of New Mexico), where he practised inter-species research-collaboration with his donkey Fairuz. christosgalanis.com

 —

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. DM11-edit-500x500-alpha

Dark Mountain: Issue 11 is available through our online shop for £15.99, or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues.

 

In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here

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Dark Mountain Issue 11: Two Poems

DM11-edit-500x500-alphaWe’re thrilled to announce the launch of our eleventh book, another beautiful and provocative hardback anthology of uncivilised writing and art. Dark Mountain: Issue 11 is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or for less if you support our work by subscribing to future issues.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Today we bring you poems by Anne Haven McDonnell and Eleanor Hooker, with images by Lucy Kerr.

lucy-kerr---daemon

Predators
Anne Haven McDonnell

A scream is made to cut
through the mind’s fog,
all rescue circuits flipped on –
any kind of baby animal will do.
When his sleep was sliced by sounds
from the gulley, deep in the woods outside,
he moved towards the yawl, a flashlight
tunnelling into the dark, searching the cry,
and he knew before he saw the tawny warm
fur, speckled white, folded in a thicket of salal.
The fawn’s mouth was open, her fresh
pink tongue hanging out while the cry looped
itself out from her belly from where her eyes –
wide open and hardened to whatever she saw
outside – were already living inside
wherever this cry cut from.
And what could he do?

He thought how the sound must pull
all the blood in her mother, hidden
and waiting. The wolf must also be waiting
to finish this, listening to this cry
light up a tunnel of hunger.
He loved to listen to the wolves
when they sang to each other across
the water, stitching this island and that,
sometimes swimming across, surrounding
the youngest wolf in a circle as they swam,
the arc and hang of their howls, the pull
inside him towards this sound that peeled
the air, and the silence after, the night
full and undone. He thought of carrying
that speckled fawn home but left it –
all of it – the sound of his own footsteps
through the brush all he heard in his long
walk back to the porch light he left on
in his cabin with a door that doesn’t lock.

LUCYKERR_QUEST (1)

Singing Ice
Eleanor Hooker

Across the rigid icescape they heave
and haul colossal cables to the shadows
on the opposite shore. We shudder at the echoing
crack and coil of tensile steel on the cold lid of winter.

Back and forth the spectres murmur.
We hear them hum the hymns of the dead;
ceremonial chants that rise and fall for hours,
that, gathering volume, resonate like breathless

air across empty glass. We venture out a foot or so.
beneath us air-sharks drop and dive through
slivers of thickening water, then rise to slam
the frozen under-surface. They tear long rips

that roar along the night, tracking us and splitting
the marbled floor at our feet. The percussions
petrify the living and the dead sing on.

Images

(Top) Daemon, Lucy Kerr
Photographic illusion

(Bottom) Quest, Lucy Kerr
Handmade illusion with household objects

Constructing low-fi illusions, I connect to something hidden, confused, lost. Manipulating everyday household ‘stuff’ evokes both inner and outer landscapes. The process, always unpredictable, unspools through playful interactions with the ordinarymusic, the bath, steam, torches, magnifying glasses, prisms, foil, cling film, collected objects. The sense of dislocation that ensues, infused with ritual meaning, brings me no answersonly a sense that I am holding my eyes wide open, waiting.

‘To see the world in a grain of sand’
– William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Anne Haven McDonnell’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in the Georgia Review, Orion Magazine, Terrain.org, Tar River and elsewhere. Anne lives in Santa Fe, NM with her partner and their rescue dog. She teaches as an associate professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

Eleanor Hooker’s second collection A Tug of Blue (Dedalus Press) was published in November 2016. Her poetry’s been published in journals including: Poetry, PN Review and Poetry Ireland Review. She won the Bare Fiction Flash Fiction Prize (UK) 2016. Eleanor holds an MPhil (Distinction) in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. She helms Lough Derg RNLI Lifeboat. eleanorhooker.com

Lucy Kerr creates illusions, in various forms – images whose ambiguity pulls the viewer into a dreamlike experience, inviting a meditative dislocation from the everyday. Kerr’s work brings a sense of the unknown to the familiar. lucyrosekerr.com

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. DM11-edit-500x500-alpha

Dark Mountain: Issue 11 is available through our online shop for £15.99, or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues.

 

In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Dark Mountain Issue 11: The Guest at Our Table

DM11-edit-500x500-alphaWe’re thrilled to announce the launch of our eleventh book, another beautiful and provocative hardback anthology of uncivilised writing and art. Dark Mountain: Issue 11 is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or for less if you support our work by subscribing to future issues.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Today we bring you Sarah Thomas’ writing from a flooded fell, with images from Constantin Schlachter’s The Gyrovagi’s Trajectory.

5 December 2015, 2pm. I am standing in the foliage- and fairylight-decked living room of my thick stone home on a fell in Cumbria, wrestling trestle tables into a shape that will seat 24. Today it is my 35th birthday and I am struggling with it a little – newly divorced and wondering what comes now, apart from the next category of tick boxes on customer feedback surveys. I have decided to mark the occasion nonetheless with a feast – a gathering of friends from near and far who I don’t have the opportunity to see often. Defrosting in the kitchen is a shoulder of lamb bought from Esther, the shepherdess who keeps her flock a few hundred metres from here, just the other side of the woods.

Outside the light is blue-grey, the details of my beloved stomping ground faded and washed out. The rain continues to fall hard and fat as it has done for some days now.

I have lived on this fell since the summer, and have relished every moment of feeling that I dwell in the company of many other beings – the badgers that activate the nightlight as they come to steal a hen, the cows that huff just behind the fence, the sheep that bleat the morning in and provide winter sustenance. The trees that drip with haws and sloes in autumn: fruits of the year’s story which I now have steeping in alcohol. I have swum in the tarn at the top of the fell every month until October – languid summer soaking contracting into brief gasping plunges – to reiterate my connection to this place. I have walked along the river Kent to the village many times to buy milk, post letters, or mostly just to see what the woods and the fields are doing – they the warp to my journeys’ weft.

I have made a point, while out on foot, of getting to know the neighbours who are at least a field distant in each direction. Ian, our nearest to the north, lives in a barn dating from the 13th century. He has lived there for many decades and is the kind of person you’d want to have onside in a crisis. He and his wife do without mains electricity and their water supply is run-off from the fell. He dedicates his time to inventing micro-hydro power schemes and saving other people’s ‘waste’ from landfill.

The power goes out. I get ahead of myself and call Ian to see if he has a gas oven in his waste stores. This lamb needs cooking, even if candlelight would be a welcome detail for a dinner party.

‘Have you got a power cut Ian?’

‘A power cut? We don’t do power cuts, love.’

Of course not. Of course he has a spare gas oven too and we ponder the practicalities of getting it here – the field and his track are both a quagmire. We agree to wait and see if the power comes back.

I lay a table cloth. The phone rings. My housemate Jonny has driven through a puddle on the way home from town, which turns out to be much deeper than it looks. His car will not start again. Our landlady goes to rescue him in her Land Rover.

The rain falls on, the volume increasing audibly. We know we need a plan B.


3pm. The power comes back. Everything feels possible again. I call each friend to ask them to converge at a safe point, from which we will collect them in the Land Rover. This is beginning to feel a little epic, but it is important to gather – moments which are becoming so rare these busy days, as we climb our broken-runged career ladders, and have more children, or don’t.

Jonny takes the reins with the lamb, rushing out in wellies just to pick some rosemary. I want to be in the kitchen preparing food, enjoying that process of translating the fell into a meal which will feed our friends with the time and love it took to exist. Instead I field endless phone calls.

The volume outside goes up again, and we are compelled to video the view from the living room – the path around the house becoming a cascade now. The sky darkens. The phone rings again. Lancaster is flooding. They’re not sure it’s wise to head out. The phone rings. It’s dodgy on the A69 from Newcastle – strong wind and rain, but they’ll keep persevering. ‘You don’t think I’m going to let a bit of water put us off do ya?!’ The phone rings. Dougie’s reached Carlisle but he’s turning back north while he still can. Tom and Nicole get the closest, but by then even the A591, the main artery through the Lake District, is closed. They attempt to return home, a little forlorn, with the vat of soup they had brought for the feast. We hear later that they could not make it back, and slept on the motorway, having found a rescue shelter to give the soup to.

8pm. We sit, just the two of us, the candles lit anyway and the lamb cooked, around 22 empty plates.

We do not yet know that in 14 hours our neighbour three fields away will be dead. As the rain pours on through the night, an oil barrel will be washed from upstream under the bridge below his house. It will get caught there, blocking the water flow, and cause a constant banging. After eating his porridge in the morning he will say to his 78-year-old partner, ‘We’d better go and see what this bangin’s about.’ Unstable on the slippery bank, he will attempt to retrieve the barrel from the beck to stop their yard from flooding. His partner will look on, nervous. He will suddenly disappear and shout her name. He will be under the bridge, squashed against the barrel in freezing water, hidden, as she wades in waste-deep to try and find him. He will remain there, dead, for hours as the rescue helicopter hovers up and down the river with a heat sensor, trying to find his body. He will be the ‘one fatality’ that the news reports briefly and inaccurately, before returning to other issues.

Neither we nor his widow-to-be yet know what close friends we will become – a relationship made possible by his absence. He is not a social man. She, a farmer, has lived with him loyally and lovingly, but secluded and not allowed visitors, for 50 years.

We do not yet know how much we will learn from each other – her perspective the long view and the close-to-home; ours the global and the mutable circumstances of youth. We will share literature, food, support and advice, and barrow several tons of manure from her stables to the midden as winter turns to spring. The backs and forths of our footsteps between houses will create a new path of belonging on the fell – marooning and loss giving way to intimacy. Knowing that, we will see that our plates were far from empty this night, and the guest at our table is greater than all of us.

Images
La Trajectoire, Constantin Schlachter
from The Gyrovagi’s Trajectory
Nature and its influences on the human psyche are the main topics that Schlachter explores in his project, The Gyrovagi’s Trajectory. In a free interpretation of the notion of an ascetic quest, his self-interrogation is nurtured through extended solitary retreats in the wild.
Schlachter shoots with instinct, sometimes manipulating photographs through both analogue and digital means. This process crystallises his thoughts, which focus on the emotion contained within the images. It loosens the images’ links with concrete reality, allowing the viewer to roam a mystical realm dominated by nature and our primeval myths.

Sarah Thomas is a writer and journeyer currently working on a memoir about a period she spent living in remote northwest Iceland. She is particularly interested in how we engender an active and reciprocal relationship with place. She is doing a PhD in creative writing, on a fell in Cumbria.

Constantin Schlachter is an artist who works mainly with photography. Nature, the invisible and matter are all dominant entities in his work, through which he creates sensorial fictions that examine the spiritual dimension of being. Schlachter’s works is instinctive: a continuous stream of pictures within which named projects serve to punctuate the flow by crystallising his evolving feelings. constantin-schlachter.com

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. DM11-edit-500x500-alpha

Dark Mountain: Issue 11 is available through our online shop for £15.99, or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues.

In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Dark Mountain Issue 11: Indicator Species

DM11-edit-500x500-alphaWe’re thrilled to announce the launch of our eleventh book, another beautiful and provocative hardback anthology of uncivilised writing and art. Dark Mountain: Issue 11 is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or for less if you support our work by subscribing to future issues.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Today we get you started with Matt Miles’ essay on human migration, with images from Daro Montag.

5468b4a0-44ca-4b1a-856b-e5e41c21bf35

The migration of the Mexican poor is the largest human movement across a border on the planet. It was triggered by the destruction of peasant agriculture at the hands of the North American Free Trade Agreement, by the corruption of the Mexican state, by the growing violence in Mexico, and exacerbated by the millions of Mexicans working illegally in the U.S. who send money home to finance their families’ trips north. It should be seen as a natural shift of a species. We need ecologists on the border; the politicians have become pointless.
–Charles Bowden

The Anthropocene – a neologism advanced by some for the new geologic age the planet has now entered, owing to the wild success the human species has enjoyed up until the present, and at the expense of most other species – is synonymous with The Sixth Great Extinction. The impetus of either phrase suggests the dominance of humanity to the detriment of non-human lifeforms, and this is certainly true.

Less spoken of is the fact that the drivers of the Sixth Great Extinction – science, technology, mass culture and mass communications, consumerism, natural resource depletion, economic globalisation, overpopulation – are also contributing to declines within the anthropic milieu. Humanity is encountering an intra-species cultural extinction – an extinction in human cultural diversity, on an equally alarming scale as non-human species. We are also experiencing a concomitant decrease in diversity in the so-called domesticated plants and animals that previous generations grew up relying on primarily for food.

While many living in the affluent cultures of the Global North have the luxury to fret over the decline of heritage pig breeds or the threat that GMO monocultures pose to heirloom vegetables and grains, billions of less fortunate human beings struggle just to have something to eat every day. As their physical, economic, and cultural habitats have been destroyed by the rapacious hunger of our consumerist society for ever more goods at ever cheaper prices, they have been forced by circumstance to assimilate with this alien culture, choosing physical survival over the loss of their own cultural identity. This choice usually entails the abandonment of the rural, the tribal, the local, or the ancestral landscape for jobs hundreds or thousands of miles away in the big cities.

In biological terms, the migration of species is nothing new. The ability to migrate for any species may be the greatest tool in the toolkit of evolutionary adaptation. Just as our hominid ancestors left the rift valley of Africa fleeing an evolutionary bottleneck for greener pastures elsewhere, humanity has always harboured the myth of the ‘Promised Land’. This myth for most of human history has held true: no less so for the first Native Americans who crossed the land bridge of the Bering Strait from Siberia into North America than for my own ancestors who more recently fled the famine in Ireland in the mid-19th century for a new life here in the US.

But the myth of the Promised Land is predicated on the existence of a relatively unpopulated, resource rich, and abundant territory in which to expand and prosper. With a population of 7.4 billion and growing, the world is now a crowded place, and abundance is relative as we enter a period of increasing global resource scarcity.

***

In ecology, there is the notion of the ‘indicator species’, a canary in the coal mine of sorts, the animal or vegetable most sensitive to change, which, when present, indicates a healthy ecosystem. Conversely, when this species becomes suddenly absent, it’s often an early indicator of a declining or failing ecosystem.

Species that are capable of travelling any considerable distance from their habitat usually will when their habitat begins to fail. Migratory birds in particular are increasingly viewed by scientists as indicators of the relative health of an ecosystem. They preferentially seek habitat with the requisite resources to sustain them. Human beings, other land mammals, and various forms of aquatic life – among others – all possess the ability to travel in order to seek out better habitat.

On the other hand, most human societies are very resilient and are the opposite of sensitive, as far as being any kind of early-warning system. Beginning in Neolithic times with the birth of agriculture and the domestication of animals, many formerly nomadic or tribal groups began to settle down and found cities and civilisations that were characteristically rooted in place. Humans generally adapt to the circumstances of their habitat until it is no longer feasible to do so, and the survival instinct takes hold, and then they migrate. Humanity is not in any strict sense an indicator species, but please bear with the analogy for the moment.

Take for example, the Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or virtually any dustbowl family from the agricultural American southwest of the 1930s. When the dual catastrophes of economic depression and climatic disruption set in, a mass exodus from the affected areas of Oklahoma, Texas and surrounding areas to the then relatively less populous and prospectively more prosperous state of California occurred, but only after these families endured years of hardship and uncertainty on their farms. For most it was a matter of survival when they finally made the tough decision to hit the road.

***

Human beings also like to understand things, to recognise patterns, to infer the outcome potential latent in any given course of events. It’s one of the things that is also responsible for our survival in the context of evolutionary history, and we’ve become pretty good at it. We look for signs, portents, omens, indicators. We try to establish the nature of cause and effect. We theorise and postulate, reckon and predict; we create stories and narratives to explain things. It’s the instinct at the root of both science and religion, and it may be the defining hallmark of our humanity in relation to other species.

Since at least the time of Thomas Malthus but probably even much further back in history, there has been an endeavour to apply this human urge to understand and predict to the issue of populations and resources. In other words, to figure out the carrying capacity of the human ecosystem before population overshoot occurs and the ecosystem collapses. In the last 50 years, scientists such as Garret Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, and the Limits to Growth working group headed by Dennis and Donella Meadows, among others, have warned that systemic collapse is approaching, as the exponential curve of population growth crosses the line representing the finite resources available to sustain that growth.

Even the scientist Norman Borlaug, widely hailed as the father of the so-called green revolution in agriculture, has warned of the limits of technological intervention to stave off the effects of our numbers here. But thresholds have already been crossed, emergent systems too complicated to extrapolate or model outcomes from are faltering. The problems we have created continue to outstrip our ability to solve them before it is too late.

Economists, petroleum geologists, and financiers have likewise warned of the phenomenon of Hubbert’s peak in relation to cheap and readily available oil, and more importantly, all of its ramifications for our advanced civilisation. While global peak oil has likely already occurred, it is unlikely that an equivalent green revolution breakthrough in energy will occur to save humanity from an impending crash. It won’t matter how much food can be grown (food heavily dependent on petroleum-based fertiliser inputs) if it can’t be efficiently harvested and brought to market. Fracking and deep-water drilling are temporary stop-gaps, fingers in a dike that is failing.

On the contrary, as we’ve seen over the past decade, increasingly complex and interconnected systems fail in strange and unpredictable ways. For example, as a result of NAFTA in particular and economic globalisation in general, the support price for corn (the staple food in the Mexican diet) moves in relation to the price of oil as that corn may now be turned into ethanol when oil prices cross a certain threshold, as they did in 2007. Americans will keep on driving and Mexicans will starve.

The increasingly dire predictions of scientists regarding rates of species extinction, climate change, population overshoot, and resource limits can continue to go mostly unheeded by the populations of the Global North because these things are, for now, an abstraction to the well-insulated societies we have built up for ourselves. We can just turn up the air conditioning and pay a little more for food and fuel.

But it is impossible to ignore the massed evidence, standing at our national doorsteps, of fellow human beings who have had to flee their homelands at great personal risk, to seek a better life – the only life now possible for them. Under the best of circumstances, all they can hope for is to live as strangers in a strange land.

In 2017 the unthinkable has already become reality, amidst a referendum for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, a Trump presidency in the US, and massacres perpetrated by Islamic extremists occurring with increasing regularity in continental Europe, provoking predictable political reactions.

The immigrants of the Global South, the cultures we’ve turned our backs on even as we profit from their labour, are the indicator species of our own societal collapse. The most sensitive and susceptible elements of our own species – the ones from whom everything has already been taken, the ones who have no recourse to technological mediation, whose subsistence economies have already been wrecked by globalisation, whose land succumbs to the rising seas, whose societies have been destroyed by imperial land grabs and resource wars – they are here now, knocking on our front doors, because they have nowhere else to go. On a planet dominated by the movements of human beings, we are our own indicator species.

***

The unprecedented numbers of Syrian, Iraqi, and North African immigrants that have flowed across Europe’s borders in recent years are for the most part casualties of the resource war that the US, Great Britain, and ‘the coalition of the willing’ brought to the Fertile Crescent and Libya. Though really this war has been fought in the name of progress – for anyone anywhere who drives a car, uses a computer, and enjoys the comforts that easy access to fossil fuel resources afford. Currently, that includes most of Europe and North America and much of Asia – the Global North. We are all complicit in this, and we’ll take whatever our populations believe we must to sustain it, under whatever pretence.

As much as we like to think about it as a culture war, a conflict of one cultural or religious identity over another, it really just boils down, at the end of the day, to who eats and who doesn’t. The Arab Spring, for all its much-touted utilisation of social media for political organisation, democratic principles, et cetera, was precipitated by the self-immolation of one Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizij. Bouazizij’s livelihood was selling food on the street, and this was taken from him one day by municipal officials in the city where he lived. So he set himself on fire in protest.

Screenshot 2017-04-21 at 15.33.30

In the US, immigration from Latin America has been a major political issue for my entire life. I don’t remember a time when Mexican and Central American Latinos were not present in my community, though. Some of their children were my classmates in grade school, we grew up speaking English and attending school and mass together, and they are as American as I am.

In the run up to the 1980 US general election, immigration from Latin America was an issue then as it is today. In video footage from a debate during preliminary campaigning for the Republican nomination that year, both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, the man who was to become Reagan’s vice president, sounded – there is no other word – compassionate. It was something to see, each one trying to outdo the other in demonstrating his sensitivity to the plight of those just then seeking to join in the so-called great American melting pot.

This is in stark contrast to the language Donald Trump has used recently to characterise Mexican immigrants in the United State. He has publicly suggested on numerous occasions that they represent the worst elements of Mexican society and that they are responsible for an increase in crime in the US. This is in addition to reinforcing the longstanding prejudice held by many Trump supporters that Latino immigrants are too lazy to work, but nonetheless somehow taking American jobs. I have to question the intelligence of those who make this inherently oxymoronic claim, which seems to be perennially applied to immigrants anywhere. An Austrian friend of mine recently posted a tongue-in-cheek infographic to his Facebook page, explaining the paradox as ‘Schrödinger’s Immigrant’.


***

Charles Bowden wrote ‘A Mexican dictator once noted that nothing ever happens in Mexico. Until it happens.’ Bowden was an American writer and journalist who spent a lot of time in Mexico, especially in the border city of Juarez, 30 feet across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. The city he described in much of his writings since the mid-1990s is a hell on earth, a rapidly growing community already populated by well over a million souls, most of them living in squalor.

Many are forced here by the poverty of the rural outlands, but all are trapped between the hammer of the failing Mexican state and the anvil of an exploitative and indifferent United States, to whom most are denied legal entry. Juarez has recently been called ‘the most dangerous place in the world’, but this would already have been apparent to anyone in 1996 who read Bowden’s unique book, Juarez: The Laboratory of our Future.

The book is uncommon in many interesting ways, but foremost in that it is a collaboration between Bowden and the Mexican street photographers who risked their lives to document the cruelty, terror, and degradation that is everyday life for many in Juarez. In photographing the victims of the police, the gangs, and the drug cartels responsible for most of the violence, the photographers risked the same fate as that of their subjects. Many of the photos in this book are of cadavers, some of them showing signs of having been viciously tortured before being killed and left in the dumping grounds of the adjacent desert.

The photos as much as the writing bear witness to the plight of those who will inhabit the world we are now bringing into being everywhere. The rural poor, whose agricultural livelihood has been destroyed by the economics of globalisation or the general anarchy of living in a failed state or the vicissitudes of an increasingly unpredictable climate, wind up in Juarez.

Or they end up in cities just like it, the world over, working for slave wages in the usually foreign-owned sweat shops. In the case of Juarez, these are called maquiladoras, and many are situated just across the physical border with the United States. Here the cheap and easy conveniences of global trade are churned out by the truckload. This work never pays well enough to sustain the workers, so many turn to crime – prostitution, drug trafficking, gangs – just to survive.

Or they try to cross the border into the US. In a later work, Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future (2007), Bowden writes

They are sleeping on the street or under the trees down by the river, and they tell me of their journey north, tell of the men who tried to kill them or rape them or rob them and they are rolling over Jordan as soon as night comes down but they are so very hungry and I start handing over money, ten dollars, twenty dollars, forty dollars, and they stream towards stands selling tacos in the street, and there are many words for them and their fate, studies of migrations, failed economies, declining resources, words that clatter on the floor of a bar like small change, and I turn to leave and get into my car and they claw at the windows like animals and follow me as I plow down the rutted street and flee from what is everywhere but now is hot breath on my neck.

Juarez could be anywhere, and soon it will be almost everywhere. In the words of Joe Strummer: It could be anywhere/Most likely could be any frontier any hemisphere/In no-man’s-land/There ain’t no asylum here/King Solomon, he never lived ‘round here.

Juarez, Caracas, the Gaza Strip, Baghdad, Karachi, Manila, Cape Town, New Orleans, Aleppo –

Go straight to hell, boys…

***

Charles Bowden through his writings, and his photographer-collaborators in their images, show us a world of consequences – none of them happy – for the societal choices we’ve made in this life, knowingly or otherwise. The laboratory of our collective future is a hellish place: It looks a lot more like the favelas of Sao Paulo than the pipe dreams of Palo Alto. And the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

What can we do besides turn away in despair? Bowden has summarised the question more succinctly: ‘How can a person live a moral life in a culture of death?’ This is the question of our times. It has been since at least the Second World War, when our philosophers and writers, artists and cultural leaders – the better among them anyway, seriously began asking it.

Still the question remains, growing in urgency as the circle of death spreads outward, consuming ever more. The alarms are all sounding, the indicators, either through their absence or presence, are piling up daily. Will we ever have the courage to seriously ask ourselves such questions? If so, will we have the courage to answer honestly? I hope so.

Images
Herd (not seen), Daro Montag, detail
Charred wooden animals purchased from charity shops
The climate is changing. Species are disappearing from the body of the Earth at an alarming rate. Extinction is forever. Yet people like animals. Many people collect carved wooden animals as souvenirs from their travels. Or as gifts for their friends. Often such trophies are hand carved from tropical wood by poorly paid workers. Some of these wooden animals end up in charity shops when they are no longer wanted. As an artist I shall receive a fee as my commission to create a new work. I propose using this entire fee to purchase wooden animals from charity shops. The money will be recycled. The collected animals will be charred. Wood is rich in carbon. Charring organic matter is a method for stabilising carbon to reduce atmospheric CO2. The charred animals will be placed in the gallery. Ultimately the animals will be buried in the ground. Their carbon content will be returned to the soil. The project will be documented.

Matt Miles is a writer, poet, permaculturist, maker, rock climber and ambivalent web developer. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where he and Tasha Greer run the reLuxe Ranch, a whole-systems farmstead. They occasionally blog about it and other things at the-way-back.com.

Daro Montag‘s art practice starts from the premise that the natural world is best understood as being constituted of interacting events rather than consisting of discrete objects. This philosophical position foregrounds the significance of process and its residue. Another ongoing project is RANE-CHAR, in which biochar is produced and distributed as a means of raising awareness and mitigating climate change. www.rane-research.org

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. DM11-edit-500x500-alpha

Dark Mountain: Issue 11 is available through our online shop for £15.99, or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues.

In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Dark Mountain: Issue 11

We’re thrilled to announce the launch of our eleventh book, another beautiful and provocative hardback anthology of uncivilised writing and art. Dark Mountain: Issue 11 is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or for less if you support our work by subscribing to future issues. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Today we get you started with the editorial…

'Pink figure, blue world' by Will Gill

Beyond Straight Lines 

When things get messy, people reach for straight lines. In times of confusion, the impulse to take refuge in simplicity – simple choices, simple forms of identity, simple stories – can be deeply reassuring; borders keep entities intact, not just apart. Liminal spaces and in-between zones are things to be feared and avoided. Constructing barriers, real or imagined, is part of an ancient cultural drive to divide the black from the white, and push troublesome grey areas back into the nacreous realms of the subconscious where they belong.

History, especially Western history, provides much evidence of the urge to micro-manage reality’s mess. With the simplicity of hindsight the Enlightenment is viewed as a time in which the shadowed superstitions of the past were exposed and swept away, ushering in a rational age of quantification, measurement and ordered progress. Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and zoologist dubbed the ‘father of taxonomy’, classified plants and animals into formal hierarchies of kingdoms, classes, orders, genera and species, sorting the seeming chaos of life into a bestial simulacrum of the European class system. In the age of empire – itself an exercise in standardisation as well as military might – much of this systematising drive came from the British Isles; Luke Howard classified the clouds according to Linnaean principles, Francis Beaufort numbered the winds, and the world was divided into time-zones bisecting the globe as neatly as the segments of an orange. Geologists split time itself into eons and eras, epochs and ages that gave the impression of orderly transfer – the Devonian giving way to the Cretaceous like a peaceful handover of power – anchoring our species against the horror of deep time.

But the lines separating these things remained – and remain – illusory. Such borders, powerful though they seem, are only one way of seeing the world; like so many human inventions, they are better understood not as facts, but stories.

This book is published at just such an illusory border. Following the Brexit vote that shook the EU, and the election of Donald Trump that rocked the US, voices from across the political spectrum loudly called time on liberalism, the post-1945 international consensus and even globalisation; its death throes soundtracked, apparently, by national anthems from the right rather than the protest chants of the anti-capitalist left. Pundits labelled 2016 as the year in which liberal democracy died and something not yet named (Illiberalism? Populism? Nativism? Post-globalisation?) neatly took its place. Suddenly the internationalist era – an age of corporate levelling, ever-increasing connectedness and political apathy that accompanied the supposed triumph of free-market capitalism – felt as outdated as the one that preceded it. Now, it seems, viewing the world in grand sweeps is back in fashion. End times are in vogue again. As a French nationalist politician tweeted after the US election: ‘Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.’

All very dramatic (and great for news soundbites) until we step back a bit to take a longer view. Is this the dawn of a new era, or rather a tired rehashing of all-too-familiar narratives – national pride, purity, redemption after decline and corruption – just another strand of the time-worn myth of progress? At a time when we need alternative stories more than ever, the twentieth century seems caught on loop: industrial capitalism occasionally spiked by nationalism, occasionally screened by liberalism, but the cogs of the machine keep whirling much the same. Beyond the political-cultural babble the coal plants are still being built, the mountains are still being levelled for mines, the bottom-of-the-barrel scrabble to prop up fossil fuel economies continues with tar sands and fracking, the sale of SUVs booms, and – despite feel-good nativist posturing to the contrary – extractive globalisation proceeds apace, driven by the seemingly unstoppable logic of consumption. As a corollary of this, the oceans continue acidifying, Indonesian forest fires raze millions of hectares of trees, another Antarctic ice shelf calves, and nonhuman species blink out of existence everywhere on Earth.

Still we grasp at solid lines. We border ourselves with a global temperature rise of 1.5°C – a number picked as much for its neatness, and political practicability, as what it actually represents in terms of dangerous climate change – raising the target above our heads like a roof in stormy weather. We bemoan passing the symbolic threshold of 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere – a level last seen in the Pliocene, four million years ago – as if everything was ‘normal’ back at 399. Perhaps most reductively, we tell ourselves that the Holocene has given way to the Anthropocene, an epoch that signifies total human dominance of the planet. But such divisions are seldom so tidy. Even the convenient border drawn between humans and animals – the ultimate ‘us and them’ – degrades with the uncomfortable fact that our bodies comprise at least as many bacteria cells as ‘human’ cells; it makes more sense to think of ourselves as colonies of organisms rather than individuals. Once we break free from straight-line thinking, the truth is much more messy.

That messiness is, in part, what this book tries to articulate. Dark Mountain: Issue 11 takes as its premise the notion of endings – cultural, social, ecological, political, existential – but recognises that things seldom end, or begin, in well-mannered ways. The uncivilised writing and artwork you will find within these pages explores the liminal territory between simplistic poles; an untidy realm in which some worlds appear to be ending completely, some partially, some not at all, and in which entirely new beginnings emerge from the cracks in between. Tim Fox suggests that the apocalypse, that hackneyed staple of environmental doom-scenarios, is not some future fantasy but, in ecological terms, an event already underway; but also that mass extinctions lead to mass diversifications. From a Hebridean pilgrimage Alastair McIntosh reminds us that apokalyptein originally meant not the end of all things, but the revelation of something hidden; Charlotte McGuinn Freeman, meanwhile, takes us on a personal journey through family tragedy and explores what happens next, after the world stops. Essays by John Rember, Daniel Nakanishi-Chalwin and others take a long, hard look at the common end that awaits us all, while a striking image from Tanja Leonardt suggests that life, of a sort, continues in the war-ravaged ruins of a Bosnian factory.

Much of the content is rooted in home: Sarah Thomas sends dispatches from a flooded Cumbrian fell, Francesca Schmidt from a village in the former East Germany, and Garry Williams cuts a temporary home from a raft of ice on a frozen Norwegian lake. Darren Allen coins new terms for a world in dramatic – and often humorous – flux, while the Confraternity of Neoflagellants brings us a kind of ‘high-tech uncivilised’ writing we’ve never seen before. Elsewhere Matt Miles views human migration as the canary in the coal mine of ecological disruption, Caroline Ross sources art materials from a world that ended a thousand years ago, and Jane Lovell’s poetry sifts through the paleological rubble of cosmic upheaval.

As old certainties unravel ever more suddenly, and with consequences that grow increasingly unpredictable, our eleventh publication reflects these turbulent times as they are: uncivilised, seldom straight and defiantly unsimple. We hope you enjoy the diversity of beginnings and endings inside, and join us in navigating new stories among the remains of the old.

– The Editors, spring 2017

Cover Image
Pink Figure, Blue World by Will Gill
Photograph Svalbard, Norway
Part explorer. Part outcast. Part survivor. From the series No Man’s Land by Canadian artist Will Gill, these images were made during an artist residency in Svalbard, Norway, in the autumn of 2014. Twenty-eight artists from around the world sailed aboard a three-masted barquentine to one of the most forbidding environments on the planet. Accompanied by sculptural props and a custom-made light reactive suit, the artist set out to stage photographs in the alien landscape. The results explore aspects of life somewhere near the end: resignation, curiosity, boredom, hope, wonder and despair.

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. DM11-edit-500x500-alpha

Dark Mountain: Issue 11 is available through our online shop for £15.99, or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues.

In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

The Devil’s Door: A Call for Contributions to Issue 12

UPDATE 5/5/17: Please note that we are now closed for proposals for Issue 12. (If you have already submitted, you will hear from us soon.)

Each year, we publish two books: a spring anthology which follows in the line of our early issues, and an autumn special issue, whose editors get to play with other ways of making a Dark Mountain book, while pushing deeper into a theme on which this project touches. We started doing this two years ago with Techne, followed by last October’s Uncivilised Poetics. This year, we are planning a special issue on the theme of ‘the sacred’. Today, as we announce our call for contributions, Dark Mountain co-founder Dougald Hine explains why we chose this theme, what we understand by it, and the different approach we are taking to the submissions process this time around.

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Old churches were often built on older sites of worship, places held to be sacred long before Christianity arrived. At first glance, this looks like an erasure, a demonstration of dominance; look closer, though, and the picture becomes ambiguous. Officially, a people might have been baptised, yet in practice the results were not always so clear-cut – local understandings had to be reached. One form this took was a custom by which different doors of the church were used on different occasions: the main door, usually on the south side, was the one through which the priest would enter; the north door was used for those ceremonies to which the priest was not invited. Such arrangements could last for centuries, though for obvious reasons they tended to go undocumented.

I first caught a trace of this phenomenon some years ago, visiting a Saxon church in Sussex. The building was unattended, the door unlocked, an information sheet pasted to a wooden paddle to guide the visitor around the building. One line on that sheet lodged in my imagination: the north door, it stated, without further explanation, used to be known as ‘the devil’s door’. This felt like a glimpse of another story to the ones we’re used to hearing from either the enthusiasts or the critics of religion: a story of uneasy coexistence, the persistence of supposedly extinct beliefs and practices, and how different stories about the world and our place within it may share a sense that there are certain places where the veil between time and the timeless grows thin.

That image of the devil’s door came back to me, this winter, as the editorial discussions about this year’s special issue of Dark Mountain got underway. Any issue of Dark Mountain is a strange beast; award-winning authors and new literary voices sit alongside the words of people who make no claim to be writers. What they have in common is that they bring stories, perspectives and experiences that add to the conversation this project has sought to foster over the past eight years. It’s a conversation about what it means to live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling – a time when the way of living which many of us grew up taking for granted is being brought into question by its own consequences.

We set out to see what happens when you accept that the mess in which we find ourselves is deep enough that to try to acknowledge it can sound like falling into despair. We set out to trace the roots of that mess in the dominant stories of the societies in which we grew up: the story of progress, the story of human separation from and dominance over nature, the story that we have grown beyond being shaped by stories. We set out to see what role those of us who are, in one way or another, storytellers and culture-makers might have to play in finding our bearings within this mess. We did not set out to tangle with questions of the sacred – but it turns out that, if you deal seriously with any of the above, then such questions begin to present themselves.

Although it has rarely been brought into the foreground, the theme of the sacred runs as a subtle thread throughout Dark Mountain’s books, posts and gatherings. Our first issue opened with an essay by an archdruid and went on to include a roaring invocation of the wildness of Francis of Assisi. We’ve run contributions from activist Quakers, Hindu clergy and Zen Buddhists, alongside those of no named religion who nevertheless have come to see that their desire to defend the living world is, at its heart, driven by a reverence that owes nothing to the realm of carbon calculators and environmental statistics.

In our festivals, meetings and gatherings, another aspect of the role religion used to play, and still does for many, came to the surface – the effect that quiet contemplation, collective endeavour and even simple ritual can have in reminding us of deeper meaning and value, easily forgotten in the haste and exigencies of modern life. I remember one of our contributors saying in a discussion at the second or third festival, ‘This is the closest thing I have to going to church.’ Not for a moment would I want to set this project up as any kind of religious congregation, but I recognise what she was getting at.

Dark Mountain offers no dogma or moral instruction, but if it has sometimes brushed up against the experience of the sacred, I guess it’s because that is just what happens when people come together in the face of the unknown, finding a sense of communion that is often lacking elsewhere, and making room for the strange kinds of words that point towards the wordless.

You may have other terms in which you would choose to talk about this – and for some, any talk of the sacred may sound like drawing on a poisoned well, or simply a nonexistent well, dreamed up to pull wool over gullible eyes – yet this language keeps returning, as does the experience of those who, whichever door they enter by, find themselves drawn to the ground which it seeks to name. So it seems like time to stop skirting around the edges of the topic, and to bring together an issue of Dark Mountain that takes the sacred as its focus.

* * *

What are we looking for, then?

We want to do something slightly different with this book. We’re not making our usual open call for submissions with a deadline in three months’ time. Instead, if you have an idea for something you want to write – or someone else we should be talking to – we want to hear from you straight away.

We’re looking for proposals for long pieces (probably non-fiction of one kind or another – essays, memoirs, reflections, interviews, dialogues – but we’re open to other suggestions) of 4000-6000 words that tell stories that touch on the experience of the sacred in a time of unravelling. You could be writing about something you’ve experienced first-hand; or taking us into the back-alleys of myth or history, into ways of living and making sense of the world that call our contemporary assumptions into question. But whatever you want to write about, there should be a sense of why this calls to you, how it has helped you to find your bearings.

Have a think about whether there’s a piece you could write – and email us with a short outline, no more than three paragraphs, to [email protected]. We’ll be pulling together a shortlist in the next few weeks, so get your ideas to us as soon as you can. If what you’re proposing seems like a good fit, we’ll work with you to develop it into a piece for the book. If you have something you’ve already written that you think would fit, you should still start by sending us a summary. (In general, we’re not looking for pieces that have already been published elsewhere, though where the existing audience has been limited and unlikely to overlap with our readership, we may make an exception).

We’re also looking for fragments: short pieces of prose or verse that give a glimpse of the different ways in which people have drawn on the experience of the sacred to make sense of times of unravelling, disorientation and despair. These could be original work, but we’re also particularly interested in translations of texts from different times and places. Send these to us at [email protected].

Finally, we’re looking for suggestions for people we should be contacting: to get as wide a range of voices as we are hoping for in this book, we will need to reach beyond the existing network of readers and writers around Dark Mountain, so if you have ideas for people we should be approaching about writing for this book (or being interviewed for it), then we’d like to hear from you – again, via [email protected].

It might also be worth saying a couple of words about what we’re not looking for – we’re not particularly interested in polemics for or against religion, nor overarching theories that try to explain the entire history of civilisation. This won’t be a book that seeks to settle age-old arguments, but it should be a space in which different ways of seeing the world meet.

In terms of the range of voices we’re looking for, we imagine this will include:

  • Those who stand, one way or another, within a variety of established religious traditions.
  • Those unable to abide within an established tradition, who find themselves nonetheless drawn to improvise alternatives to some of the institutions or practices that such a tradition might have offered (for example, we think of people we’ve met who are trying to recreate things that resemble certain aspects of the monastery or the weekly gathering for worship) – or who have something to say about where else the cultural ‘energy’ of the sacred is showing up these days.
  • Those who stand within cultures whose understandings of the sacred have never been enclosed within a church or a temple, or within dogma or the written word – and especially voices from indigenous cultures.

As we say, there isn’t a submissions deadline for this issue – we’ll be starting to work with contributors over the next few weeks, on the basis of the proposals we receive, and when we get to the stage where we have a full set of pieces underway, we’ll update this post to say so. [Update 5/5/17: We have now closed for proposals and submissions for this issue. If you’ve already submitted, we’ll be in touch with you soon.]

Finally, if you’d like to follow the progress of this issue, we’re starting a special newsletter that you can sign up for here. We’ll be sharing more of the process by which a Dark Mountain book comes about, the conversations going on among the editorial team, the things we’re reading and thinking about, and the places where we need help to fill the gaps in our knowledge and contacts.

Dougald Hine is co-founder of Dark Mountain and one of the editors of Issue 12 which will be published this October.

Image: Lud’s Church, Andrew Barclay (CC)

In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.