The Dark Mountain Blog

The Humbling: An invitation to contribute to Dark Mountain issue 9

The older I get, the more I begin to understand the irrational, under-the-surface nature of whatever it is that drives the writing process. I’m sure the same thing must be true for all creative endeavours. One of the comforting stories our civilisation likes to tell itself is that the truth of what it means to be human must ultimately be accessible to exploration. Everything, in the end, must be unpickable by reason, logic, discursive thought, science and measurement. Everything must be amenable to being turned into ‘data’ and measured against everything else. How else would we tell if ‘progress’ was really happening at all?

This is nonsense, of course, and the process of creativity demonstrates it well. One of the questions you sometimes get asked as a writer is, ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ I don’t suppose anybody has the first idea how to answer this. I certainly don’t. Whenever I sit down to write something, I am guided by something bubbling away under the surface. I have a strong sense that something needs to be said, but often I don’t quite know what it is before I say it. The best things I have ever written have been guided by this invisible thing, either inside or outside me. Sometimes it can feel like I’m not even gripping the pen.

This was certainly the case when I sat down to write what would become the Dark Mountain manifesto, seven or so years ago now.  I had a strong and strange sense that the world was shifting on its axis, that change was on the horizon, that it was big and unknowable and unstoppable and that it demanded a response. I still have this sense, and I think that many other people do as well. That great, unstoppable thing seems dimly visible across the horizon now, as the global economy continues to crumble, as climate change kicks in faster than  predicted, as ecosystems continue to deteriorate, as methane bubbles up from under the tundra. I don’t think we have the luxury of planning for the future anymore. I think the future is already here.

Recently, on this blog, we have featured analyses from Chris Smaje and Dave Foreman of one response to this bubbling and rumbling: so-called ‘ecomodernism’.  In the past, I’ve also written about this coalescing movement of people, who I’ve referred to as ‘neo-greens.’  I also contributed an essay to a recent book on the subject, which is well worth a read if you want to understand what is becoming an increasingly popular push for total human control of the Earth.

In one sense, this project – to turn humans into gods, who control everything that lives – is as old as humanity itself. Every religion warns against it, every old story features a version of it. Perhaps we have always wanted to be gods, in the civilised world at least. But now there is a kind of urgency to it which we haven’t seen before. Now we are told that being gods is the only alternative to the mass destruction of non-human nature which must inevitably result from our current path. Now we are told it is our moral duty to control, through advanced science and increasingly frightening interventionist technologies, the very detail of life on this planet.

It’s a grim, despairing vision, in my view. Who wants either of these futures? Either the majesty of nature being run into the ground by human desire, or a totalitarian, locked down, uber-technological world of total human planning and control. To me, they both sound like hell. But given the choice between tightening our grip and loosening it, what will be the popular option? The answer to that seems pretty clear to me. We are going to keep digging until we can’t dig anymore: until we reach solid rock, and bang our heads against it.

What does this mean for those of us who reject this vision, and the assumptions which it is built from? I’ve been brought back to that question by reading these recent blog posts, and seeing this debate intensifying in other places too. All of it has taken me back to the moment when I began writing that manifesto, and when we began planning this project, because in many ways it was a project which  set itself up against this vision. We saw many elements of our culture –  including literature and art, including environmental campaigning – beginning to slide into the dark tunnel of instrumentalism, scientism and hubris, and we wanted to hold up an alternative to it. We wanted the Dark Mountain Project to be a place where people could gather to look for alternative visions, to question the assumptions behind the narrative of the so-called Anthropocene, to take us back to older ways of seeing, to make them relevant to where we are now. As I look around me,  this seems a more important task than ever.

The next Dark Mountain book, our eighth, which is published in October, takes a close look at the technological underpinnings of the current human project. It’s a departure for us, and we’re excited about it. This book is in production at present. After that, next April, we will be publishing another of our  anthologies of writing and art. This blog post opens the call for submissions for that volume: Dark Mountain issue 9.

Issue 9 is not a book with a formal ‘theme’, but as I think about the kind of writing and art we’re looking for, I look back to that moment of writing the manifesto, I look around me at the fight over the Anthropocene narrative, and I am reminded again of one of the roles of Dark Mountain: to be a refuge for people who are unpicking our dominant stories, and offering alternatives to them. Perhaps this tale of humans usurping the gods is the most dominant, and the most ancient, of all.  In the face of it, I wonder: how might we humble ourselves again? Humanity is going to be humbled one way or the other, so we may as well begin the process ourselves. What might the aternatives to the Humans-As-Gods story look like, told in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art,  starting from where we are?

That’s a question you might like to bear in mind as you think about submitting work for our ninth collection of uncivilised writing and art. We very much look forward to seeing what you send us.

The submissions deadline for DM book 9 is 30th November 2015. We are looking for writing and art in all genres and none. Please don’t send us anything without first reading our submissions guidelines. Send all submissions to submissions@dark-mountain.net.  We respond to everything we receive, but we are a small, part-time team, so it may be a few months before you hear back from us.

The Anthropocene and Ozymandias

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Much has been made lately of the so-called Anthropocene — the idea that Homo sapiens has so taken over and modified Earth that we need a new name for our geological age instead of the outmoded Holocene. One remorseless Anthropoceniac writes, ‘Nature is gone… You are living on a used planet. If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene — a geological era in which Earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces.’

One of the reasons given today for renaming the Anthropocene is that we have so impacted all ecosystems on Earth that there is no ‘wilderness’ left. Insofar as I know, other than babbling about ‘pristine’, ‘untouched’, and so forth, none of the Anthropoceniacs ever define what they mean by wilderness, which is not surprising in that none of them give a hint of having been in a Wilderness Area or having studied the citizen wilderness preservation movement.

Moreover, they behave as though their claim about wilderness being snuffed is a new insight of their own. In truth, we wilderness conservationists have been speaking out about how Homo sapiens has been wrecking wilderness worldwide for one hundred years. Bob Marshall, a founder of the Wilderness Society, warned eighty years ago that the last wilderness of the Rocky Mountains was ‘disappearing like a snowbank on a south-facing slope on a warm June day.’ Congress said in the 1964 Wilderness Act that the country had to act then due to ‘increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization’ or we would leave no lands in a natural condition for future generations. My book Rewilding North America documents in gut-wrenching detail how Man has been wreaking a mass extinction for the last 50,000 years or so.

Anthropoceniacs do not seem to understand that when we wilderness conservationists talk about Wilderness Areas we are not playing a mind-game of believing that these are pristine landscapes where the hand of Man has never set foot. Although wilderness holds one end of the human-impact spectrum, it is not a single point but rather a sweep of mostly wild landscapes. Over seventy years ago, Aldo Leopold, the father of the Wilderness Area Idea, wisely wrote that ‘in any practical program, the unit areas to be preserved must vary greatly in size and in degree of wildness‘ (emphasis added). Senator Frank Church of Idaho was the bill’s floor manager in 1964 when the Wilderness Act became law. He understood as well as anyone what Congress meant with the wording of the Act. Ten years later, in the heated fight for Wilderness Areas in the Eastern National Forests, when the Forest Service ‘would have us believe that no lands ever subject to past human impact can qualify as wilderness, now or ever,’ Church said, ‘Nothing could be more contrary to the meaning and intent of the Wilderness Act.’ The words pristine and purity are not found in the Wilderness Act, which is the best short explanation of wilderness. It seems that intellectual wilderness naysayers, whether wilderness deconstructionists or Anthropoceniacs, if they look at the Wilderness Act at all, see only the ideal definition of wilderness:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

In truth, the Wilderness Act has four definitions of wilderness. The first, which I have already quoted, says why we need to protect wilderness. The second, also quoted above, is the ideal, while the third immediately following the ideal is the practical:

An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable. (Qualifying words in bold.)

The wish of the Wilderness Society’s Howard Zahniser, the main author of the Wilderness Act and one of its congressional champions, was to keep the idea of wilderness a bit fuzzy. The fourth definition, however, is not fuzzy. It has the lawfully binding language on how federal agencies are to protect and steward the Wilderness Areas under their hand:

Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purposes of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

Too often, there is confusion between the loose, fuzzy entry criteria for Wilderness Areas and the tougher rules for management after designation. Before being designated as Wilderness, a landscape might have a few roads or acres that were once logged. After designation, however, the roads must be closed, vehicles banned, and future logging prohibited.

So. In the sense of the US Wilderness Act (with over seven hundred areas totalling over 109 million acres) and like wilderness systems in other lands worldwide, there is, indeed, wilderness. Moreover, some 25% of Earth’s land is lightly or seldom touched by Man.

But the Anthropoceniacs are really saying that there is no wilderness in its ideal pristine meaning. To answer this assertion, I think we need to put Homo sapiens in better perspective.

Life first wriggled on Earth some 3.5 billion years ago. That is a long time. So, let’s take an easier timeline and only go back to the unfolding of complex animal life — the Cambrian Explosion of 545 million years ago. Make that a book of 545 pages with each page being one million years. With 250 words per page, a word would be four thousand years.

Where are we? Well, if the last sentence on the last page of the book is a long one of some thirteen to fifteen words, we behaviorally modern Homo sapiens left Africa at the beginning of that sentence. We began to ransack biodiversity then as well. As we spread, we killed the biggest wildlife as we came into new lands. In the middle of the third-­to-­last word, some of our kind began farming— remaking ecosystems to suit us. In the middle of the second-to-last word, civilisations began.

The very last word in this book of 545 pages takes in the time from 2000 BCE to today. Nearly the whole world met the strictest definition of wilderness until well into the last sentence. Through almost all of that last sentence the share of Earth’s biomass held in our bodies grew very slowly. Much of Earth was untrodden by us for thousands of years. Other than the Overkill of the ‘Big Hairies’, the wounds we inflicted on the Tree of Life only slowly grew. Not until the last hundred years with our exploding population and systemic pollution of Earth with radioactive fallout, antibiotics, artificial biocides, and greenhouse gases, have we finally gotten to the day where we are having an impact everywhere. That is an impact, not total control, not even leaving no lands or seas where Man does not dominate the landscape. When I was nearly run down and stomped by a woolly bully of a musk ox bull in a 16-million-acre Wilderness Area in Alaska a few years ago, I swear to you that Man did not dominate that landscape.

Call the last hundred years the period at the end of the last sentence on the last page of the book of the history of complex animal life. Do you now have a feeling for how long the Tree of Life and Wilderness have been without any harm from a ground ape self-named sapiens?

I’ve taken this twisty path to get to my main damnation of the Anthropoceniacs. Though one can hammer them for major mistakes in history and science as many of my friends have done, my beef is with their view of Man’s place in evolution and on Earth. It is the ethics of the Anthropoceniacs that gives me shudders.

My anger with the Anthropoceniacs is not that they see how Man has taken over Earth (though they overstate greatly). The first third of my Rewilding North America tallies and weighs the ecological wounds we’ve wrought over the last 50,000 years. I know our impact is great — but not thoroughgoing. By and large, the Anthropoceniacs grossly overstate the degree to which we ‘control’ Earth.

No, my wrath is for the outlook many Anthropoceniacs have toward the ghastly, grisly slaughter of so many wild things. Where is the grief? Where is the shame? Where is the passion to save what’s left? Where is the outrage? Where is the sadness for the loss of so many of our neighbours?

Instead, I see many making merry over the coming of the Anthropocene. ‘We’ve done it!’ they seem to say while high­fiving one another. ‘Man has finally taken over!’ In the writings I’ve read, they seem blissful, even gleeful. ‘Now we are gods!’

The mass extinction of other Earthlings seems not to bring them a tear. Witness the words of Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, ‘In many circumstances, the demise of formerly abundant species can be inconsequential to ecosystem function… The passenger pigeon, once so abundant that its flocks darkened the sky, went extinct, along with countless other species from the Steller’s sea cow to the dodo, with no catastrophic or even measurable effects.’ Field biologists and others have shown that this claim is so much biological balderdash — there have been big upsets. However, the true harm, the wound, the loss, the sin was the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the ongoing extinctions of countless other Earthlings who have just as much right to their evolutionary adventure as we have to ours. Maybe more, because they are not screwing up things for others. To say the ‘passenger pigeon… went extinct’ is akin to a mass murderer saying his victims ‘became dead.’ The passenger pigeon did not go extinct; we slaughtered them in a spree of giddy gore in little more than a score of years!

How can anyone who works for something called the Nature Conservancy not feel woe and emptiness at the extinction of the passenger pigeon and all those others we’ve wrought and are causing today and tomorrow to make way for our Brave New World — or is it our Brave New Conservation?

Such uncaring, careless, carefree brushing away of all other Earthlings but for the ecosystem services they give the last surviving ground ape is — how can I say this — WICKED. It is washed in sin, it is treason to life, to Earth, and to all other Earthlings.

Such Anthropoceniacs behave like our takeover of the Tree of Life was foreordained, that evolution meant us and meant us to take over. This is teleology if not theology, my friends, one of the deep misunderstandings Darwin cast out 150 years ago. My children’s tale of the 545 ­page Book of Life shows how we are but one of countless species that come and go. The late Stephen Jay Gould was unsparing on this conceit:

[T]he worst and most harmful of all our conventional mistakes about the history of our planet [is] the arrogant notion that evolution has a predictable direction leading toward human life.

Man is not the unerring outcome or endpoint of hundreds of millions of years of life’s descent with modification, but is, rather, a happy or unhappy (hinging on what kind of Earthling you are) happenstance. We were not ‘meant to be’. Nor is anything Man has done in its flicker of time been meant to be. We happened to become, just as did the curve-billed thrasher getting a drink right now from the birdbath outside my window.

We only happened to be.

This is maybe the hardest lesson from evolution to swallow — one that is stuck in many an Anthropoceniac throat.

It is Homo sapiens’ arrogance that blinds us to our fate. We think that we, unlike every other species, will live forever. It’s not a Thousand­ Year Reich we celebrate but an eternal Kingdom of Man Triumphant, of Man over all (über alles) other Earthlings. It is we and we alone who decide who lives and who dies, who offers ecosystem services and therefore gets to stay, and who is mere waste biomass. Some may soothe their conscience by making believe this blood-bath, like us, was meant to be. But it is not so. It is our choice to strip off one third of the limbs of the Tree of Life. We do it willingly, even gleefully, all by our own free will.

The first sentence in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac spells out much of the moral conflict between wilderness and wildlife conservationists and the Anthropoceniacs and their so-called New Conservation (which is truly only the latest version of Gifford Pinchot’s resource conservation). Leopold wrote:

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.

We who fight for wilderness and all wild Earthlings cannot live without wild things. We believe wild things are good-in-themselves and need offer no services to Man to be of great worth. Those who blithely welcome the Anthropocene and can live without wild things see worth in Nature only in what it offers us as ecosystem services.

The Anthropoceniacs seem to believe that not only is Man running evolution now but that all the lessons scientists have learned about how evolution has worked for billions of years have been thrown out for Man in the Brave New Anthropocene geological era.

One who understood this mindset well, this will to power over Earth, was Percy Bysshe Shelley. Some two hundred years ago he wrote:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains.
Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Yes, we can read our tale as the steadily growing sway over Earth by Lord Man. But the Anthropocene technocrats who prattle about grabbing the rudder of evolution and making Earth better are the wanton heirs of a Pharaoh’s hubris. Their lovely human garden will stand unclothed as either a barnyard or Dr Frankenstein’s lab for other Earthlings. Three ­and ­a­ half billion years of life becomes a short overture before Man in all his Wagnerian glory strides singing onto the set. Does our madness have no end? Have we no humility?

For six thousand years, each coming age has puffed out its chest. As each Ozymandias falls to the lone and level sands, a greater and more prideful Ozymandias takes his stead. Goodness is overridden more and more by might and the will to power.

Wilderness Areas are our meek acknowledgement that we are not gods.

Essay adapted from the forthcoming book True Wilderness: Deconstructing Wilderness Deconstruction.

Dave Foreman has worked as a wilderness conservationist since 1971. From 1982 to 1988, he was editor of the Earth First! Journal and one of the outfit’s most visible leaders. He speaks widely on conservation issues and is author of The Lobo Outback Funeral Home (a novel), Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, and The Big Outside (with Howie Wolke). His book on conservation biology and continental-scale conservation, Rewilding North America was published in 2004. His latest books are Man Swarm: How Overpopulation is Killing the Wild World and The Great Conservation Divide, a history of the 20th-century battle between grassroots conservationists and the resourcists in the Forest Service and other agencies over the future of the last wilderness in the United States. He was named by Audubon magazine in 1998 as one of the 100 Champions of Conservation of the 20th Century. For more information see www.rewilding.org

Image: ‘Habitus’ (2013) Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, Lancashire, by Robyn Woolston robynwoolston.com robynwoolston.tumblr.com

Why I hear music when I read the Dark Mountain manifesto

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I am sitting at the old pine kitchen table, listening. I can hear the sounds of my fingers tapping on keys; the sounds of sparrows squabbling and blue tits singing. I can hear the sound of a police helicopter levitating. I can hear the sound of a dog barking and a child laughing. I can hear the sounds of cars, vans, motorbikes and aircraft. Some of the sounds I hear are close, others distant. In the course of a day, I hear sounds that tell unique stories about the whole gamut of human experience: love; departures and homecomings; life and death; fear and contentment; and happiness and sadness. Importantly, all the sounds I hear tell a story about the world we live in and the world we are going to bequeath to future generations.

We live in a world of sound, yet few of us actively listen to these sounds. In a world dominated by images and words we are increasingly cut off from the messages that reside in sound. We may hear words spoken directly to us but do we search for meaning in the other sounds that permeate our daily lives?

Perhaps it is time for us to open our ears and to hear the world anew. Every issue our politicians discuss; every campaign our activists wage; every environmental catastrophe we bear witness to; every historical event that has shaped our world; every relationship; every love affair; every birth; every death; everything on this little planet, since it came into existence 4.54 billion years ago, has either created a sound or has a sound associated with it. Sound is important and we ignore it at our peril.

In my lifetime, the sonic environment in which I have existed has changed dramatically. Perhaps the most telling change has been the ‘muting’ of the dawn chorus. I have returned to my childhood home many times; when I was a boy I would be woken, as the east began to glow, by the joyous song of my avian friends. Today, in the same bedroom, I’m woken by sounds of traffic on the nearby road drowning out the sounds of the few birds that still have song left in them. We know that Britain’s songbirds are in serious decline. While much has been written about this decline, nothing attests to this reality with as great an impact as the fact that we are losing bird song from our lives.

I have a memory of what once was, but what of my baby daughter? She may grow up in a world populated by a few dominant bird species that generally ‘squawk’ rather than ‘sing’. Perhaps she is the lucky one as she will have no memory of a past filled with bird song to make her sad.

It is only relatively recently that I have started to acknowledge that sound has been one of the most important determinants of the life I have chosen to live. The realisation that Rachel Carson was right and we would soon experience ‘silent springs’ is one of many reasons why I ended up becoming an environmentalist. Sitting in the forests of southeast Australia listening to the harmony of biodiversity made me a passionate spokesperson for the preservation of the wild. Walking through the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, being assaulted by a cacophony of human generated ‘noise’, made me an ardent advocate for re-connecting people to nature as a way of fighting poverty. Sound has helped me understand that the ways we are trying to solve the many crises we face are misguided and almost certainly wrong. Forget all this nonsense about economic growth being the solution.

The sound of economic growth is disharmonic and is totally at odds with the cadence and rhythms of the natural world. Sound has helped me understand that through actively listening to the world we will be better able to find solutions to our most intractable problems.

The impact of actively listening should never be underestimated. Twenty years ago, I was in Australia doing a PhD on the links between climate change and human security. I was using words and images to describe the impacts that a changing climate could have on the small island states of the southwest Pacific. In various formats, I started to tell people about what I was discovering through my research. If action were not taken to halt emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases then some islands, namely Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau, would disappear under rising seas.

Despite my protestations that action was needed to avert catastrophe, no one was heeding my message. Despite powerful images and emotive words my message was impotent. No one was listening to what I was saying.

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I resided in a perplexed — perhaps depressed — state for many years trying to understand why the human race continued to act in a way that would lead to its inevitable demise. It took me a long time to realise that the reason no one was willing to change was because the story I, and like minded people, were telling was far less compelling than the one Ronald McDonald was telling about his ‘tasty’ burgers, Coca-Cola was telling about its fizzy beverages, and Apple was telling about its computers. Despite years of cogitation — often in beautiful wild spaces — I couldn’t see how a story about saving the planet from the ravages of human greed could ever be as compelling as the stories that encouraged, and fostered, that greed. Only recently have I realised something important; the story I have been telling has been without sound. I, like many other concerned individuals, have had no ‘soundtrack’ to go with their message whereas Ronald McDonald, Coca Cola, and Apple, have! Upbeat music, linked to shiny products or fast food, is an intoxicating mix.

As I had never really understood the power of sound, I was unprepared for the impact a particular sound was to have on my life. Late one sultry afternoon I went for a beer in a bar in Balmain, Sydney. I sat down outside, with a schooner of VB, and took out my notebook, probably to write some slightly maudlin poem about the state of the world. Before pen had touched paper I had an auditory experience that was to change my life forever. From inside the bar came the sound of the didgeridoo. It was a sound that literally blew my little mind apart — every concept I had faith in, every belief I held, every value I lived by, every ego-based perspective I projected, every preconceived idea yet to be confirmed, everything just dropped away. Indeed, everything I thought I knew about the world was challenged by that sound. The sound of a hollow piece of wood transformed my world. To this day, I wonder what I would be doing if I hadn’t heard Australia’s foremost didgeridooist, Charlie McMahon, playing in a bar in Balmain?

The story of an environmentalist being drawn to the sound of the didgeridoo is, perhaps, a little hackneyed. I’m not given to slipshod statements about the ‘power’ of the didgeridoo. I do not subscribe to the view pedalled by some New Agers that by simply blowing the instrument you change the world. I am sure someone with an understanding of quantum physics could legitimately challenge my view; however, in my mind, changing the world requires a bit of banner-waving and anger too! Equally, if I were religious, or particularly spiritual, I might say that the sound of the didgeridoo had connected me to a ‘god’ or to a cosmic consciousness but none of this would be true.

My experience of the didgeridoo was profound but very simple; the instrument, and the sound it made when played, connected me to what Aboriginal people term ‘country’ — landforms, the sea, the sky, water, air, plants, animals, stories and special places (1). Somehow, the sound connected me to the Australian environment; an environment that, as an immigrant, I had loved but had never felt truly connected to — until playing the didgeridoo I had never been able to call Australia ‘home’. The sound of the didgeridoo made sense of the land — it was of the land and it connected me to that land. I have since realised that this power is not geographically specific. I have played didgeridoo throughout the world and every time I play I feel a deep sense of connection.

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What has this discussion of sound, and the didgeridoo, got to do with the Dark Mountain manifesto?

When I first read it I heard, in my head, the sound of the didgeridoo. I heard rhythms, I heard animal calls and I heard harmonies between the sound of the didgeridoo and what I was reading. Everything I read turned into sounds and, in some cases, music. The more I read of the manifesto the more I realised that sound can make sense of everything the manifesto speaks of. Sound can teach us about our disharmonious relationship with nature. It can tell us how we have constructed nature as ‘other’ through our collective amnesia of how to feel the rhythms of this nature while, at the same time, creating new rhythms that are at odds with this planet. As Jeffers states: ‘The beauty of modern Man is not in the persons but in the disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the dream-led masses down the dark mountain.’

Sound can tell us everything we need to know about the world we have created and why we have created it. Importantly, sound can help us understand how to address the planetary ills that our greed and fear have precipitated. As the Dark Mountain manifesto points out, Freud wrote of the inability of people to hear things which do not fit with the way they see themselves and the world. The key word here is ‘hear’. If we learn to listen to the world — to truly listen to the sounds we are creating and, even more, the sounds we are extinguishing, then we may well heed the message that ‘is screaming at us’. We will know that our current path is doomed — it is a path that has been constructed around rhythms that our planet cannot feel; around sounds that have no reference point and therefore have no harmonies to form; and importantly, around noises that tell of our disconnection to the biophysical systems that make life on Earth possible. While playing didgeridoo cannot ‘heal’ the world it can tell us of these lost connections and help us navigate a new relationship with the ‘other’.

Since hearing the sounds of the Dark Mountain manifesto I have decided, with my co-conspirator Harry Coade, to dedicate my life to making a noise about issues that matter to me. Through an organisation called Sound Matters we aim to use sound to tell new stories about the world. We want people to hear different soundscapes and understand the impact they have. We want to capture ‘dying’ sounds and re-introduce them into people’s lives. We want people to hear the lofty shrill song of the skylark and the jaunty call of the song thrush. These sounds are important; they situate our lives in something bigger, something meaningful and something enduring. We want to use sound to change the world!

I am no longer interested in the transient sounds of a modern culture that will surely die. I want to celebrate the enduring sounds of this and other lands. Our soundscape tells us stories of the lives we are living and the lives we may wish to create. If we wish to float in a world of computer generated ‘beeps’, ‘buzzes’ and ‘hums’ then that, in itself, speaks volumes about the state of our souls.

After reading the Dark Mountain manifesto, Harry and I sat down with cellist Hannah Lloyd and created the following piece of music. I am not sure why we called the piece ‘Western Wilderness’ but is seemed, at the time, a fitting title.

 

CLICK HERE TO HEAR WESTERN WILDERNESS

(1) http://www.visitmungo.com.au/aboriginal-country

Mike Edwards has spent much of his life trying to prevent the destruction of ‘wild’ spaces — both real and imagined. He lived in Australia for 11 years where he did a PhD on the links between climate change and security. Since completing his Ph.D., Mike has dedicated himself to music and teaching. Over the past 17 years, he has roamed the world playing didgeridoo and teaching people why it is crucial to love nature. Mike is the co-founder of Sound Mattersan organisation that uses sound and music to raise awareness of climate change and other environmental issues.

Top image ‘Australia from Afar’ by Lena A Edwards

 

Dark Thoughts on Ecomodernism

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It’s been a year for manifestos. With the dust only recently settled on the British general election, much has been heard about the different (though not that different) ‘narratives’ offered by the major political parties in their manifesto commitments. Meanwhile, a cabal of environmentalist thinkers and activists were busy putting together a manifesto of their own in the form of the Ecomodernist Manifesto (henceforth, EM), which was published in April (1).

Unlike some of those election manifestos, the EM is a model of clarity. It has a goal to be reached, a process for reaching it, a problem that must be solved along the way, and a solution to the problem. The goal is ‘vastly improved material well-being, public health, resource productivity, economic integration, shared infrastructure, and personal freedom’ (p.28). The process is modernisation. The problem is leaving ‘room for nature’. And the solution is decoupling: decoupling human consumption from the drawdown of natural resources, and decoupling humans themselves from the world of nature and from their dependence upon it.

Dark Mountain has a manifesto of its own, of course. It could hardly be more different from the EM. I assume that people reading this blog have an idea of its contents, so I won’t dwell on it here. Nor will I pretend to be neutral in my estimation of these two manifestos’ respective merits. But like any ornery voter, I don’t willingly surrender myself to other people’s manifestos of whatever kind. When it comes to manifesto ‘narratives’, I want to find the stories that lie beneath the words, and compare them with my own. So here I’m going looking for the stories of ecomodernism in Dark Mountain’s light – and if that sounds oxymoronic, so be it. Perhaps there are some truths that only reveal themselves in another’s shadow.

Material wellbeing

Looking at the list of ecomodernist goals the key one is surely ‘vastly improved material well-being’ because things like public health are implied by it, while things like economic integration are a (debatable) means for achieving it. But the question arises, ‘vastly improved’ compared with what? The EM seems to have two answers. One is vastly improved with respect to people who lived in the past. The other is vastly improved for poor people living in the present.

On the first point, the EM states that humanity has flourished in the past two centuries, citing various pieces of supportive evidence: life expectancy increasing from 40 to 70 years, reductions in infectious diseases, a decline in violence and the rise of liberal democracy. Most of these claims are debatable. Two hundred years ago the global human population was around a billion; today, it’s seven billion and counting, but a billion are clinically undernourished – as many as existed two hundred years previously. Is that flourishing?

Well, maybe. I don’t see much merit in arguing the counter-thesis that the human condition has worsened in that time, but there are issues of emphasis and interpretation. Indeed, the EM is peppered with tendentious statistics and factoids that prompt an exasperated ‘yes, but…’ Take life expectancy. In England in 1841 (when records began) it was indeed around 40. But that was because of stunningly high infant mortality, which an urbanising country was only beginning to control in the cities. The modal age of death for females over ten in 1841 was 77, and it wasn’t until 2001 that ten more years were added to that figure, giving a more sober sense of the pace of change. The upward trend came mostly through rather basic public health improvements such as adequate diets and clean water, which don’t in themselves suggest any particular need for us to embrace complex ‘nature-distancing’ technologies today. Good diets, clean water: such fundamentals of human flourishing have often been the birthright of ‘non-modern’ peoples both past and present as well as modern ones.

Let me pursue the EM’s two-century timeframe a little further. In England in 1815, parliamentary enclosures were putting the finishing touches to a process of land divestment that had turned rural peasants into urban proletarians over the previous 50 years. Waterloo brought a shuddering end to one particular ‘modernising’ project that very year. The Peterloo massacre was four years in the future, the Reform Act 17. Slavery in the British Caribbean only had another 23 years to run, but plantation agriculture with coerced labour was gearing up in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and British depredations in India had barely started. ‘Modernisation,’ states the EM ‘has liberated ever more people from lives of poverty and hard agricultural labour, women from chattel status, children and ethnic minorities from oppression, and societies from capricious and arbitrary governance’ (pp.28-9). Maybe so, but it has also delivered ever more people into them, both in the past and still today, often through colonial and neo-colonial projects of extraordinary violence which have always been part of the modernisation package. So if today we can celebrate the improvements wrought over the last two centuries, what we’re ultimately celebrating is the ability of modernisation to solve some of its own internal contradictions, usually through the struggles of those who’ve suffered at its hands, and usually without thought to the longer term environmental consequences. To compare 1815 with 2015 is in many ways to compare a low point with a high point in a longer, messier modernisation.

So much for poverty in the past. What of it today, for those people or those countries living in straitened circumstances in the midst of modernist plenty? A word you won’t find in the EM is inequality. There are glancing references to poverty, poor people and poor nations. But in the ecomodernist vision poverty is equated with a lack of modernisation. There is no sense that processes of modernisation cause any poverty. So there is no mention here of the vast literatures on the changing and varied economic fortunes of the many civilisations that have come and gone, or the changing and varied ideas they’ve had about themselves. There’s nothing on uneven development, historical cores and peripheries, proletarianisation, colonial land appropriation and the implications of all this for social equality. The ecomodernist solution to poverty is simply more modernisation. And you then begin to understand why the improvement in material wellbeing needs to be ‘vast’. Every year, for example, US citizens each eat 100kg of meat on average, whereas the rest of the world makes do with 31kg. Since ecomodernism lacks any critique of consumption, instead choosing to equate increased consumption with increased wellbeing, its only feasible solution to this maldistribution of meat must be to raise up global meat consumption. If global levels equated with US levels, we would need to conjure something like another half billion tonnes of meat from global agriculture annually, and that probably would require the impressive breakthroughs in technology and resource use efficiency that the ecomodernists crave.

An obvious question is whether increasing meat consumption from 31kg to 100kg, or likewise increasing the consumption of anything much else, really does equate with ‘vastly improved material wellbeing’, still less with wellbeing writ large. A humbler ecomodernism might acknowledge that other people construe wellbeing and humanity’s place in the world differently, and consider how its programme might interact with.

Modernisation

But the EM doesn’t do this. Instead, it insists there is no alternative. Once the historic brakes are off, it claims, modernisation is intrinsic to human nature. And the ecomodernists want to release the brakes. This, they say, is no matter of narrow ideology: ‘Too often, modernisation is conflated, both by its defenders and critics, with capitalism, corporate power and laissez-faire economic policies. We reject such reductions’ (EM, p.28). At first this move seems generous, but its effect is to make modernisation something universal and ineluctable, a process to which all right-thinking humans are committed, apart perhaps from a few straggling hunter-gatherers, peasants, backward agrarians and their latter-day champions, for ‘modernisation is not possible in a subsistence agrarian economy’ (p.13).

Now, there really is no such thing as a ‘subsistence economy’ – or if there is, then every economy is a subsistence economy inasmuch as it produces what those in control of it deem necessary for human subsistence. The anthropology of those so-called ‘primitive’ societies that we like to call ‘subsistence economies’ documents the elaborate measures they take to prevent the multiplication of material ‘needs’ and the emergence of inequality. Pierre Clastres, for example, has written, ‘when the Indians discovered the productive superiority of the white men’s axes, they wanted them not in order to produce more in the same amount of time, but to produce as much in a period of time ten times shorter'(2).

Only in ‘modern’ societies does it strike people as obvious that the correct thing to do with superior technology is to produce more with it, and though not all modern societies have been capitalist ones capitalism has pushed this logic of modernisation furthest. Its basic feature is the insecurity of both capitalist entrepreneurs and the populace at large before the impersonal dictates of the interest-bearing loan, forcing entrepreneurs into a ceaseless search to lower relative input costs and the populace into a wholesale reliance on monetised market exchange. In that process lies the fury of capitalist modernisation to find new markets, new human relationships to monetise, new ways of improving efficiency and extracting value. And the result of that process is the ‘modern’ world that the ecomodernists describe – with its incredible material wealth for the few and its misery for the many (the true ‘subsistence agrarian economies’ are the ones that have been made such by losing out in the battles of modernisation), its prodigious energy use, its constantly revolutionising technology, its relative resource efficiency and its absolute resource drawdown, its profound disruptions of the human and non-human environments.

The EM devotes considerable space to arguing that preindustrial peoples were worse environmentalists than we moderns – for example pointing to the relative inefficiency of foraging over farming, and raising the issue of the North American megafauna extinctions arguably associated with Paleoindian hunting. As a matter of historical accuracy, it seems hard to sustain the view that the environmental impact of the North American Paleoindians was any match to that of North Americans today. But the larger question is why the ecomodernists should feel the need to scorn the doings of peoples who preceded them by over 10,000 years. What exactly is their beef?

Perhaps one answer is that the ecomodernist worldview depends upon a universalising narrative of smooth and pristine forward progress: ‘smooth forward progress’ in the sense that the human story it wishes to tell is one of almost uniform ascent towards greater wellbeing and greater control of nature; ‘pristine’ in the sense that the process involves no major contradictions. If the Paleoindians were indeed responsible for the megafauna extinctions, perhaps this makes them modernisers too, but not necessarily worse ones than us. Human actions always have consequences in the wider world, but we have choices over how we respond to them. The ecomodernists replace choices with an unyielding historical progression: their worldview demands that there can have been no past times in which people might have lived as well or better in their own terms than we live today.

I accept the dangers of primitivism: we achieve little by simply reversing the modernist narrative of progress towards future perfection with a primitivist narrative of degeneration from a perfection in the past. But all these dualities of progress-regress, Eden-Fall, heaven-hell etc. are products of civilisation itself and its doctrines of modernisation. From ancient Mesopotamia to modern China the evidence is clear: development implies underdevelopment, material wealth implies material poverty, freedom implies slavery and so on. These couplets are not two ends of a historical process, with modernisation ringing the death knell for the misery of the past, but contradictions within the modernisation process itself. Often, the negative term is merely placed beyond sight of modernisation’s victors. Thus, the EM notes the reforesting of New England but fails to note the deforesting of New Guinea, or any possible connection between the two. It claims that reforestation is a resilient feature of development, without noting that global net reforestation rates are negative. And it implicitly assumes that ‘development’ is some unassailable historical achievement that can never be undone, rather than a temporary flux in longer-term political relationships that are always subject to renegotiations of the kind we’re currently seeing in the gradual transfer of America’s economic assets to China.

For its part, the Dark Mountain manifesto describes progress as a myth. I largely agree, or at least I reject the metaphorical topography of going ‘back’ or moving ‘forwards’ as a way of thinking about ‘progress’ historically. Here is the anxiety in the ecomodernist argument: once you abandon the notion of a smooth upward progress undergirded by technology, once you abandon the common or garden ethnocentrism that our own times and our own people sit at the apex of human achievement, then it’s possible to look at other peoples and ask open-mindedly whether there is anything we can learn from them, not so that we can live just like them, but so we can live better in our own.

The whole thrust of the EM is to answer ‘no’ to that question, but it becomes ensnared in contradiction. It states: ‘The parts of the planet that people have not yet profoundly transformed have mostly been spared because they have not yet found an economic use for them – mountains, deserts, boreal forests, and other “marginal” lands’ (p.19). And yet these places have long been occupied by hunter-gatherers, herders, ‘primitive’ agrarians, the uncivilised, the ‘marginal’ and supposedly inefficient non-moderns whose ‘economic use’ of them stretches way back. I think the answer is ‘yes’. I think we can learn much from the uncivilised about equality, equanimity, self-reliance, the illusory nature of material acquisitiveness and what we, but not they, might call ‘natural resource management’. So much of the discourse of the modern world religions and so much of the angst in contemporary civilised society chafes on those very points, because we know that modernising civilisation hasn’t got them right.

In that sense, the EM reads like a religious tract. Despite all the trappings of science and policy analysis, it’s really an attempt to keep the barbarians from the gate and to insist that, while few now believe in the perfectibility of humanity in heaven as a sacred process, we can still believe in the perfectibility of humanity on earth as a historical process. We can, in the words of the EM, have a ‘great Anthropocene’. Well, maybe – but I don’t believe in perfectibility, sacred or profane. So I’m standing uncertainly at the gate, ready at least to give the barbarians a hearing.

The EM also reads like a literary tract. Curiously, despite adopting the moniker of modernism for themselves, the ecomodernists don’t identify with modernism as an aesthetic movement – and yet their programme meshes perfectly with that of the literary modernists. Like Baudelaire wandering through the less salubrious streets of 19th-century Paris, the ecomodernists want to invent a new language that scorns romanticism and the naturalistic, and embraces the city in general and the slum in particular as the engine of a new world order involving a self-conscious rupture with everything that has gone before. I won’t dwell on all the connections, or on the career and aftermath of modernism: from Baudelaire to Eliot to Iain Sinclair, from Marx to Stalin to Lyotard’s ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, from Le Corbusier to Ronan Point to the mock Tudor semi, from the Factory Acts to Henry Ford to Mark Zuckerberg. But as self-avowed ‘modernists’ the eco-modernists might do well to ponder the long career and drawn out death of modernism in the arts and policy sciences. Certainly, modernism was an important moment in its time. But now it’s over. The moment for eco-modernism is over too.

Decoupling

Inasmuch as modern civilisation’s drawdown of non-renewable natural resources is a problem (for the ecomodernists it’s essentially civilisation’s only problem; I’d offer a wider indictment), it makes sense to seek technical innovations that make more sparing use of resource inputs for a given output. This is called relative decoupling. But relative decoupling is only useful if it enables societies to use less total resources or emit less total pollution, in other words to achieve absolute decoupling.

Clastres’ story of the Indians, the white men and the axe comes to mind here, for though we’re achieving relative decoupling on some measures, we’re not achieving absolute decoupling. In 2012, CO2 emissions from coal and natural gas were more than double their levels in 1980, with petroleum emissions over 40% higher – and yet the EM claims that nations have been ‘slowly decarbonising’ (p.20) . Nitrogen pollution is also rising, as the EM acknowledges, while adding the irrelevant qualification that ‘the amount used per unit of production has declined significantly in developed nations’ (p.14). Another example is meat consumption, which the manifesto correctly states ‘peaked in many wealthy nations’ (p.14). But in 2012, the world produced about 238 million tonnes of meat, up a third from 179 million tonnes in 2000. And so it goes on. The EM consistently muddies the water between relative and absolute decoupling to create a rosier picture of global resource use than the data warrant.

It also consistently muddies the water between the certain, available technologies of today, and the uncertain, possible technologies of the future. ‘Human civilisation can flourish for centuries and millennia on energy delivered from a closed uranium or thorium fuel cycle, or from hydrogen-deuterium fusion’ it states (p.10), without acknowledging that there are scarcely any full-scale power plants currently in operation using these technologies. It follows this with an upbeat assessment of human prospects ‘given plentiful land and unlimited energy’. That raises the bar for disagreement pretty high, given those givens – but first I’d like more evidence about how ‘given’ they are. Despite excitable talk of unlimited nuclear energy, the truth is that currently only 31 of the world’s 200 countries have any nuclear energy capacity, and this furnishes less than 2% of global energy production. That figure may well go down. India, a leader in the push for a thorium-powered nuclear future, is also planning to treble its per capita coal use by 2030. This alone would make a mockery of the ecomodernists’ equation between development and decarbonisation. Present global energy scenarios remain almost wholly wedded to a fossil fuel future.

The other kind of decoupling the EM advocates is a physical decoupling of people from nature through urbanisation, agricultural intensification and the restoration of wildlands, for in its words ‘Nature unused is nature spared’ (p.19). As noted earlier, the Eden myth, the notion of a pristine and uncorrupted nature, has such a deep currency in our ‘modernising’ culture that this sentence probably seems uncontroversial to many. But I find it strange and troubling. For uncivilised thought, its sentiments are unintelligible. ‘Nature’ is not something that goes ‘used’ or ‘unused’. And though humans can probably never escape entirely from a godlike differentiation of self from nature-other, our power lies not in ‘sparing’ nature but rather in moving purposefully within the realm of its power. Here the EM is caught in a morbid dialectic of capitalism, which first reduces everything in the world to a set of instrumental use values and then, abhorring what it’s done, tries to extricate a sacred wholeness from the consequences of its own ugliness. In contrast to the more anti-modern strands of radical environmentalism, ecomodernism is often characterised as an optimistic doctrine. But listen to the melancholy:

We write this document out of deep love and emotional connection to the natural world. By appreciating, exploring, seeking to understand, and cultivating nature, many people get outside themselves. They connect with their deep evolutionary history. Even when people never experience these wild natures directly, they affirm their existence as important for their psychological and spiritual well-being. Humans will always materially depend on nature to some degree (p.25).

As a philosophical statement, there seems a grand absurdity in advocating rupture from something that you need to be a part of. I empathise with the sadness, but it’s a pity the ecomodernists try to overcome it with chest-thumping affirmations of human independence. They sound like the jilted lover, at once defiant: ‘I don’t need her anyway, I’m better than her'; then alone, and afraid: ‘she was everything to me, what will I do without her?’ Eventually, the lover moves on. It’s less clear where a denatured humanity would move to. Here, again, the modernism of the ecomodernists already meets its end.

So, the ecomodernists seem to be saying, despite our human need for nature, we can’t be trusted to get along with it. We need a divorce, a division of the spoils: to us the city, and the minimum amount of farmland necessary to support it, to the rest of creation the wilderness where humans can go to look but not to live. I think this will prove self-defeating. Absent people from the production of their subsistence and install an economy of modernisation which offers no philosophical challenge to the proliferation of material demands and you unleash the bedlam we see already: the ecological reach of wealthy cities is global. Beyond global – the demands of ‘developed’ urbanised countries exceed the planetary capacity to furnish them long-term. Maybe city wealth buys the ecological conscience to shop in farmer’s markets and subscribe to Greenpeace, but it buys a lot of other things as well – too many for the world to provide. And the notion that, properly managed, capitalist modernisation will deliver fair wages, efficient production and ecological restoration for all is a utopian fantasy, just as it has always been. The ecomodernists’ programme will more likely terminate with an entrenched urban poverty that allows them, the elite, but not the newly enclosed urban masses, the luxury of ‘connecting emotionally’ with a cowed nature, or else perhaps just with metrogeddon.

The policy framework of ecomodernism is equally concerning. The EM in muted fashion, and other writings by some of its authors more forcefully, are in favour of urbanisation and agricultural intensification, and against low-yield farming, people who depend on firewood for fuel, and the consumption of bushmeat. The targets here are obvious. Better to knock peasants, hunter-gatherers, commoners and other people not yet fully coopted by the capitalist dialectic off their perch and corral them into the slums of the growing global metropolis. ‘Let no one romanticise the slum conditions’, EM co-author Stewart Brand has written, before doing precisely that, ‘But the squatter cities are vibrant‘ (3).

It’s true that the fizz of urban economies draws in the rural poor – often temporarily, sometimes permanently. But it rarely delivers them out of poverty. And though it’s doubtless true that non-moderns can cause local environmental degradation, in the ecomodernists’ hands this small tail wags the large dog of the widespread degradation caused by wealthy, modernised citi-zens – and the tragic results of this kind of thinking reverberate around the nature parks and forests where indigenous peoples are cleared in the name of progress. Twenty-first century ecomodernism is an enclosure movement, much like the discourse of 18th-century ‘agricultural improvement’: clear the commons, for the commoners are poor and indigent. Better they labour for others, where they will earn more and cause less trouble. As in the case of that earlier debate, there’s scope for much massaging of the evidence on both sides, but it’s by no means settled that modern, high-tech agriculture produces higher yields than small-scale farming; that the ‘intensive’ arable grain farming on which the urban world relies better promotes biodiversity or food security than small, mixed plots; that city slums provide good routes out of poverty for the rural poor; and that the nature-dependent rural poor exert a more baleful environmental influence than the nature-decoupled urban wealthy.

The same ‘improver’ arguments were used by John Locke in the 17th century to justify colonialism in words that, barring changes in literary convention and racial sensibility, wouldn’t be out of place in the EM:

For I ask whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres [will] yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire where they are well cultivated? (4)

Civilisation and Uncivilisation

That brings us back to the American Indians. Locke in his time and the ecomodernists in ours presumably considered the ‘modernisation’ they underwent at the hands of European ‘improvement, tillage or husbandry’ beneficial. It’s not a view I can share. That’s not to say I’d endorse the Eden that other currents of civilised thought might wish to make of the uncivilised Indian, but I am drawn to Dark Mountain’s notion of ‘uncivilisation’ – not so much as a social state to aspire to, but as an idea we might use to escape from false dualities in ‘civilised’ thought.

What lies beyond civilisation? I’m not sure, and I’d need another essay to even begin outlining it. But, in brief, I think something more attuned to social contradiction and the need to keep certain human tendencies (acquisitiveness, hierarchy) in check. Something that values the quality of human relationships in their everyday particularity rather than their quantity in relation to abstract manifesto-style nostrums like development, freedom or productivity. Something that doesn’t reduce wellbeing to material wellbeing, and reduce the latter to questions of energy, objects and infrastructures. The EM’s narrative, like that of the major political parties, tells us that if we knuckle down we’ll soon be back on track. But, beyond civilisation, the tracks are many, and it’s high time we explored off the beaten one.

Notes

(1) Asafu-Adjaye, J. et al (2015) An Ecomodernist Manifesto www.ecomodernism.org

(2) Clastres, P. (1989) Society Against The State, Zone Books, p.196.

(3) Brand, S. (2010) Whole Earth Discipline, Atlantic Books, p.36.

(4) Locke, J. (1689) The Second Treatise of Government, 37.

Chris Smaje works a small mixed farm in Somerset and blogs at smallfarmfuture.org.uk, where a fuller version of this post is available. He’s written on environmental and agricultural issues for publications like The Land, Permaculture Magazine and in Dark Mountain: Issue 6, and also in academic journals (Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems; the Journal of Consumer Culture; the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture). Trained in anthropology and social science, he previously worked at the Universities of Surrey and London.

Our Footprints on the Earth

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Why don’t people want to remove all their footprints from the Earth? Everything people do has an impact, so what’s the big deal about carbon? Where did this carbon fixation come from? Rather than a biological or meteorological perspective, I’m more interested in the sociological impacts of the climate change movement on the environmental community; the shift in values that happened when the focus went from local ecosystems to planetary issues, establishing the new globalised environment.

I began working in the environmental movement in the late ’90s, and spent many years on campaigns to protect the last old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. That’s how I learned about the development of environmental policy. I could tell both grassroots organising and direct action were needed in the battle for wilderness preservation.

At the time, the core values we used to ‘market’ environmental legislation to the public were ‘clean water, wildlife, and recreation’. We were told by the campaign director not to mention ‘global warming’ in our outreach work, and if someone asked one of us what our group thought of global warming, to say we didn’t have a position on that subject. He said that would be the best approach because the science was still inconclusive, and it was a bizarre, fringe, tin-foil hat idea. A brilliant, diplomatic fellow, he designed our campaigns to target the ‘average, middle of the road folks’. That strategy turned out to be effective, we were successful in protecting lots of wilderness.

It’s empowering to discover ‘we the people’ can sometimes win grassroots campaigns. While it’s true there was support and funding from some organisations that can most politely be described as ‘right wing’, in my personal experience these forests were saved through policies that were created and pushed through from the ground up. Our blood, sweat and tears went into these campaigns. We went door to door, gathering support from key legislative districts. Some of us devoted the best years of our lives to this. On glorious, endless summer days, we did not lose focus. In the fall, when the mood became suddenly more thoughtful, and others were enrolled in classes, some of us did not relent. We had to win. Undeterred by rain and snow, driven by a passion that kept us warm in the bleakest winter, we continued.

Why did we do this? What kept us going? We simply thought the forest was beautiful. Our souls were stunned by the beauty, so we became devoted to protecting Mother Earth in any way possible. Of course, when we explained this to ‘the public’, we used the jargon provided to us by the ‘green culture': biodiversity, the web of life, watersheds, threatened and endangered species, habitat protection, ecosystem restoration, and saving places to be enjoyed by future generations. Back then people still talked about salmon and owls; they complained about dams. Somehow it seemed we could sense a bigger picture… we were an army in defence of beauty, and we were unstoppable.

And what was it exactly that was so lovely? Was it the way mist can sometimes make little rainbows in small alcoves of a rushing, sparkling stream? Was it the way huge tree roots form hollow caves, big enough to crawl into, that must certainly be the homes of fairies, goblins, gnomes and elves? Was it those giant trees that get so tall it’s impossible to see the top; so big they look like they hold up the sky? Maybe it was the look on a friend’s face as they walked barefoot in the soft, springy, green moss that carpeted everything, the way their eyes lit up as they admired the tiny white flowers that grew so shyly, secretly… or it could have been the surprise of climbing a mountain to see what was up there, and discovering a waterfall rushing down the side of a cliff, a sight more joyful than it had any right to be.

Beauty, I suppose, is a matter of perspective. How can one explain it to those who are unable to see it for themselves? We must employ vaguely scientific sounding terminology to get the message out. ‘Marketing’ the importance of saving the forest had to be done very delicately. The idea of wilderness is one that makes some people uneasy, and others delighted. A place where however far you walk you won’t see a trace of ‘civilisation’, a place where you can gaze forever in each direction and only see trees, brings peace to my heart, but fear to others. The word ‘wilderness’ conjures up primeval fears that city people don’t often contemplate. Fear of the dark, the savage beasts, the unknown. They don’t venture out to spend a night in such territory, so they don’t know how good it feels to hear the wind in the trees, to have no city lights that interfere with the sight of all the incredible stars. In the city they can never know how many stars there really are, or how it feels to be free.

We worked to gather bipartisan support, and there were times when it seemed like the campaign leaders were pandering to Democrats or Republicans, but actually they were very savvy and did exactly what needed to be done to protect the last wild places. In our hearts and minds we were neither democrats nor republicans. In our spirits we knew we were not statistics and demographics. We were wild too. We could look deep into your eyes and you would see you were looking at someone who was truly free, untamed inside. We were anarchists at heart. Also, we were family. Other grassroots groups are aware, somewhat jokingly, of the cult-like atmosphere that often develops in campaign work, but we took that to the next level. We really cared about each other. We all moved in with each other and formed small households of friends. Some of us fell in love, and others even stayed together and had families. We would celebrate our victories and comfort each other through our misfortunes.

We went to see Julia Butterfly speak after she spent two years living in a redwood tree and was successful in protecting the headwaters forest in California. Her victory inspired us to keep going. We kept each other going. Some people got land, and lots of them had beautiful children, and they named them mostly after flowers and trees.

We marched together at the Battle of Seattle, at the end of 1999, to help our city successfully shut down the WTO in solidarity with cities across the world who cheered as we stood up to the global corporations that threatened us all. I was amazed by the bravery of my brothers and sisters in the movement, who put their lives on the line in defence of what seemed to be workers rights, environmental rights, fair trade — but was actually this more obscure sense of beauty and freedom, which had become the most important thing in life.

Another protest, tiny and quiet, went unnoticed. About a dozen of us volunteered on behalf of an international organisation to protest at Fidelity Investments, part of a campaign targeting stockholders to make them aware of the damage being done by Occidental Oil. In the Colombian Andes, a tribe called the Uwa were threatening to commit mass suicide if Oxy didn’t stop drilling in the rainforest where they lived. Fidelity did eventually divest from Oxy because of the pressure put on stockholders from people like us. Protests on behalf of the Colombian people continue.

Long ago it was clear to us all why the Earth should be ‘saved’. The Earth was an awesome place to be! Mountains, forests, oceans, and all the creatures who lived in them were beautiful, so we thought they all deserved to live in peace and flourish. Although we couldn’t manage to explore very many wild places, just knowing they were there was comforting. They were not there for us to explore, but for their own sake. The idea was that such living ecosystems had an intrinsic value that was more important than the resources that could be extracted from them for human use. It was understood that if an old growth forest is logged, it will never grow back. A tree farm is not a forest. When replanting is done in a clear-cut, the soil is soaked in toxic herbicide and mono-crop plantations are grown for later harvesting. It was silly to pretend this replanting was somehow replacing the old growth forest ecosystem that had been destroyed.

Old_growth_forest_scenic

These days, in the ‘new green economy’, trees are seen simply as things that make the air better for people to breathe. This new, modern functionality stems from the next generation of green propaganda, which strives to homogenise everything into one giant communist planetary pie chart. Small ecosystems like a forest or river no longer matter in this grand global picture. It sounds almost acceptable now to hear someone say something like ‘But after they clear-cut the old growth forest, they replant way more trees than were there before, so they improve the climate, now it’s even better than it was!’ Marketing air as a commodity from trees created things like carbon credits and off-setts.

It’s not just trees that have been given a new global importance. Any ecosystem must now prove it has value according to what it has to offer humanity. As we are all linked in the web of life, and humans are most important, it’s possible to see how everything in the natural environment is somehow important for human survival, so now to care about the environment has become… humanitarian. Was this a ‘natural’ trend within the environmental movement and scientific community? Or was it put into motion by things like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment? A worldwide 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment enlisted hundreds of scientists to develop a view of ecosystems through the lens of services those ecosystems provide humanity.

Although climate change seems like a selfish movement, such attitudes make it look altruistic to care about the molecules that compose our atmosphere. I, on the other hand, question the whole idea of an ‘ecosystem’. I propose an ‘ecochaos’ instead, where things are random sometimes. These things might be not only unpredictable, but also unknowable, mysterious and undiscovered. Nature might not be systematic and balanced. People seek to find ‘harmony’ in nature, but is it really there? Is nature only a machine? No, nature is alive.

Climate change is something that appeals to shallow consumers, so even they can get involved in environmental issues. Once people think maybe they themselves may become uncomfortable, they fear change. Even if it isn’t always getting hotter, change is happening left and right. It scares them. What about Greenland? What about the hole in the ozone? What about Fukushima, Hanford, or the Deepwater Horizon disaster? Gone are the days of blaming god for floods, fires, and storms. Atheists have found a new religion in climate change. It’s a weak form of megalomania. They indulge in a common pseudo-scientific superstition by thinking their SUVs are responsible for freakish weather patterns all over the world.

If rivers flow red in China and Lebanon, and a red flood swallows Hungary, and rivers flow black in Venezuela, how does climate change manage to capture everyone’s attention year after year? Pollution is still deadly to the people nearby the source of it, not so much to those far away. Who is going to stand up for people whose local environment gets destroyed? Local bureaucrats can’t afford it, and the US Environmental Protection Agency appears just as worthless as it ever has been. We have to hold these bureaucrats accountable on the local level, we have to go to meetings, submit comments, do our part. Yet forests are still being deforested, even if you recycle.

In the ‘new green economy’, corporations can pay to continue polluting and deforesting. They can pay someone else to implement a ‘green’ policy somewhere else, one that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. Maybe some of those projects are fine and good. What irks me is how they make everything a globalisation, a commodification, a tiny particle of a planetary climate in a disastrous cycle, so the devastatingly singular incidents of ecocide are overlooked. In any environmental organisation around today, I’ll bet you five bucks you won’t find anyone to speak out about the Belo Monte Dam.

It’s weird to me personally that people want to stop using fossil fuels in order to clean up their personal and global oxygen supply, rather than doing so because of what oil production does to local areas. They still continue with the tar sands and the keystone pipeline.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, people still work to protect the environment for actual reasons. Yet, in a global movement for protecting a global atmosphere, local areas often seem obsolete. Local communities, driven to extinction and even mass suicide, go mostly unnoticed as rich, white people worry about carbon.

The truth is everyone isn’t equally to blame for the destruction of this planet. Some folks are more to blame than others.

And when was the last time you heard of the Marbled Murrelet?

Ilira Walker is an artist in Washington state. She enjoys gardening, drinking and overthrowing the government.

Images:

‘Willapa clearcutting’ by USGS – USGS aerial survey. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

‘Old growth forest’. Licensed under Pubic Domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Fàd a’ Chaorain

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I’ve experienced agoraphobia, or at least that’s one explanation for what it was, only once in my life. I was travelling by train from Glasgow to Fort William in February, one of only a handful of passengers spread between the two carriages of the train. We crossed Rannoch Moor late in the afternoon. I remember peering out of the window into what seemed like emptiness: the moor stretched and fading, a monochrome of rock, turf, bog and water. Everything solid was smeared with thin, wet snow, appearing indistinct and yet oppressive. Even the mountains that circled the moor were both far away and looming.

I became disorientated, clinging to my seat while at the same time floundering out on the moor. The sensation was brief but overwhelming. I’ve never felt so lost. I pulled myself together – that’s how it seemed, as though I had to haul some part of me back onto the train – and spent the rest of the journey unnerved, buried in a book for distraction, grateful that, as night fell, the windows reflected back the lights of the carriage, keeping out the dark.

Rannoch Moor is a big chunk of land in the Central Highlands. It’s no wilderness – its ecology has been drastically affected by the presence of man – but it’s certainly remote and, in these overcrowded islands, it has a rare sense of spaciousness. You can walk for days without crossing a road or bumping into another human; although, of course, it wasn’t always thus. Like everywhere in the Highlands, the moor bears the terrible imprint of the Clearances – that period during the 18th and 19th centuries when so many communities were forcibly uprooted and pushed out to the unproductive margins, the rocky coasts, or else herded onto emigrant ships bound for America and Canada. You don’t need to wander far on the moor to find signs of the people who once lived there: at a bend in a river, an old settlement, the houses roofless but with their walls intact, the lintel stones above the hearths still black from cooking fires.

Since that train journey in my mid-­twenties, I’ve returned to Rannoch Moor again and again. I’ve walked across it and climbed the mountains at its edges. I’ve gained a bright store of memories: a glorious swim in the Allt na Caim after a hot day’s walk, the water peat­stained and golden in the sun; two days in a tent reading Sorley MacLean while a gale scoured the moor, the tent like a curach, prow to the wind, its skin keeping me dry and buoyant in the pouring rain; an evening on top of Glas Bheinn, watching the sun burn the ridges and peaks of the Aonach Eagach as it fell.

The moor’s a good place to learn to be alone, and often, when out on it, I’ve felt a loosening of self that seems far healthier than that first experience of dislocation on the train. I’ve also begun to learn about the moor itself, its seasons and its plants and birds and beasts. And I’ve delved into its cultural ecology, its stories, spending hours doing detective work online and in the National Library, sifting through books and journals, seeking versions of a particular story or making the connections between place-­names and events. Better still, I’ve sought out and learnt from those with a life’s store of passed-down tales. It’s been a joyful learning.

Rannoch Moor is rich in all the different layers of story, from local tales of memorable events and characters, to legends of the Fianna. Tales of Fionn and his men abound on the moor and the glens that surround it, a wild theatre for their exploits, and at the heart of the moor lies the loch of Fionn’s son, Oisien the Bard. These stories animate the land, drawing us to a deeper relationship with it and the people who once lived there. Through them we glimpse the world view of a Celtic culture that flourished in Scotland for fifteen hundred years. But there are deeper layers still, older stories.

Out on the moor you’ll find traces of the peat banks that were worked by generations of families, cutting the peats each summer to dry and then store for winter fuel. This is still practised in Scotland, though mostly now only on the Outer Hebrides. On a fresh cut bank you can see most clearly the different strata: from the turf on top to the first spongy layers of peat and down to the fàd a’ chaorain, or bottom layer. This is where you find the darkest, densest peat. There are stories from Rannoch Moor that equate to the fàd a’ chaorain, that carry the deepest myths of the land: stories of giants and earth shapers; stories of the Cailleach herself, ‘the veiled one’.

It’s said that there are three great ages: the age of the eagle, the age of the yew tree, and the age of the Cailleach. These aren’t spans of time as we moderns perceive them. This is big, deep, ancestor time and the Cailleach is the oldest of all. She’s first mother, mountain maker and loch former. She’s also the goddess of winter and controller of the elements. And in Scotland, uniquely, she’s the mistress and protector of deer. There are countless tales in the Highlands of the Cailleach tending to her herd of hinds, as well as accounts of her shape­-shifting into a deer herself. Such stories suggest a link to other northern cultures and their shamanic traditions, like the reindeer-­herding Sámi (it’s worth noting that some experts date the extinction of reindeer in Scotland to as late as the 12th century). It’s also been argued that these tales represent surviving fragments of a deer-­cult that came north with the hunter gatherers who gradually populated the glens at the end of the last ice­-age.

What I find remarkable, what prickles my hair and sets my head spinning, is that here in the UK – one of the epicentres of modernity – there remains what the folklorist Hamish Henderson called a ‘carrying stream': an oral tradition of song and story that survives even to the present day. And borne on that stream are tales that take us all the way back: folk memories from a pre-­Christian and possibly even pre­-Celtic people; stories that collapse time, defying the distance between us and the earliest inhabitants of this land.

The Cailleach is closely associated with a particular mountain on Rannoch Moor: Beinn a’ Bhric, ‘the speckled mountain’. It’s to the high corries of Beinn a’ Bhric that she leads her hinds in the summer. By day they graze the sweet mountain grass and in the long evenings she milks them, singing songs to let any hunter nearby know that she’s present (woe betide those who disturb the Cailleach at her milking). Today modernity intrudes even on Beinn a’ Bhric. A wide stalker’s track has been laid half way up the mountain, so that wealthy businessmen can be hauled up to shoot the deer that still frequent the corries. But you can climb away from the track, and if you know where to look you can find, near the summit, the Cailleach’s well. And drinking from it – the same well used by those early hunters who would have quenched their thirst and made their offerings – it feels like no great thing to shrug off a few thousand years, it feels possible to enter into some kind of communion.

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Dougie Strang curates Carrying the Fire, a Dark Mountain gathering. This autumn it will be held on Rannoch Moor over the weekend 30th October – 1st November. Accommodation will be in the Loch Ossian Hostel and places are limited to 16. For more information, and to find out how to book a place, visit the Carrying the Fire website.

 

What would Qohelet do?

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You may recall the popular song from the ’60s, the chorus of which ran:

To everything
Turn Turn Turn
There is a season
Turn Turn Turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven 1

Written and composed by Pete Seeger and later popularised by the Byrds, the words of the song are largely drawn from the writings of an ancient Israelite man named Qohelet.

Qohelet lived around the mid-300s BCE, likely in Jerusalem, and his writings are preserved in a book of the Hebrew bible by the same name (in English bibles, Ecclesiastes). He probably was not a king, as is said in the book, but was likely a sage or philosopher. Referred to as the Teacher or Preacher, the editor of the book may have been one of his students.

The book is part of the Israelite wisdom tradition – a broad range of literature that is concerned very directly with life, and how to deal with the difficulties and challenges of our existence. The book of Qohelet is unique in being highly skeptical of the goodness of God and of the value of wisdom itself. Its approach is so unusual that people have wondered how it made its way into the bible at all.

While it is a lovely and melodic rendering, Seeger’s song gives a wrong impression of the book – the sense of cosmic justice and balance that is conveyed by Seeger’s song (most of which is drawn from the beginning of ch. 3) is a far cry from the sense of futility that Qohelet experiences and which pervades the book.

The Qohelet we find in the pages of his book is a serious and curious man, a sort of Hunter S. Thompson cultural explorer and recorder who, after a long life during which he had attained much in the way of status and material success (2:4-8), takes it upon himself to thoroughly examine his society. By poking and prodding into all its corners he hopes to find what, if anything, is the meaning of life.

I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. (1:16-17) 2

In his search for answers he tenaciously observes what is happening in the lives of the people around him, rich and poor, old and young. Relentlessly clear-eyed, he does not allow himself to succumb to self-delusion or sugar coat what is going on around him. He is not susceptible to spin. As Qohelet says, ‘The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness’ (2:14). And as his editor says, ‘he wrote words of truth plainly’ (12:10).

As a result of his explorations Qohelet concludes that the world can be summed up in one word: hebel. This word is typically translated as ‘vanity’, but because ‘vanity’ now almost always has the sense of being vain or conceited, the true sense of the world as it is meant by Qohelet is not conveyed. A more accurate translation of hebel than ‘vanity’ is ‘a breath, whiff, puff, vapour’ and it refers to anything that is illusory, incomprehensible, futile, or meaningless. This sense of meaninglessness is at the heart of the book – ‘vanity’ appears 38 times and is the first word after the superscription and Qohelet’s last word in 12:8. The superlative construction ‘vanity of vanities’ that begins and ends the book points to complete and utter meaninglessness. Nothing we possess, be it material goods, pleasure, or religion, can change the fact that everything is ephemeral and ultimately futile. As Qohelet discovers in the course of his inquiries, even the pursuit of wisdom itself is finally nothing but folly and ‘a chasing after wind’ (1:17).

***

The society that Qohelet lived in is an echo of our own. At the time he was writing, the Persian empire which ruled throughout the Near East had replaced Israel’s agrarian subsistence economy with a monetary economy, based on standardized currency. Epigraphic evidence from the period shows that money was being used in large and small business transactions, given as gifts and bribes, and hoarded. It is the growth and development of this monetary economy that provides the socio-economic context of the book. The book’s vocabulary suggests an audience very concerned with the economy; it is full of words like money, riches, private possession, salary, surplus, yield, account, assets, worker, and consumer. 3

A key part of the economic system imposed throughout the empire was a system of property grants. These grants gave rights over various properties to favoured individuals, military personnel, or temple communities; additionally, even more exclusive royal grants were given outright to relatives and friends of the crown. Recipients of these grants were required to collect taxes from their lands for the king, but were entitled to keep a portion.

Needless to say, under this system there were fortunate people who fared extremely well, and there were unfortunate ones who received little or nothing at all. The system benefited the political elites with friends in high places and those powerful entrepreneurs who had access to large amounts of capital; at an obvious disadvantage were smallholders, whose political influence and access to capital was limited. Not surprisingly, the gap between the rich and the lower classes grew larger, with the rich becoming extremely powerful and the poor becoming more and more vulnerable.

One option available to people wanting to get ahead in the empire was to take out a loan. Interest rates were high, however, and it was easy to fall behind on payments. In the event of default an entire estate could be seized – lands, house, children, and slaves. Based on studies of Persian documents of the period, it appears that something was occurring at the time Qohelet was writing that suddenly caused many people to lose their land holdings. Those who once possessed property had to give it up and many found themselves imprisoned for debt or enslaved.

The sense drawn from these documents is that in this competitive economic environment some people were willing to do just about anything to move ahead, and that the rich were getting around the law at the poor’s expense. Qohelet condemns this economic culture, viewing it as one in which people were deluded into thinking that ‘money meets every need’ (10:19) and driven by envy to strive for success that could not be satisfied:

The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. (5:10; cf. 4:4-8)

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind . Again, I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ they ask, ‘and depriving myself of pleasure?’ This also is vanity and an unhappy business. (4:4, 7-8)

Greedy consumers could not find peace, either because of indigestion or anxiety concerning their investments. ‘Sweet is the sleep of labourers, whether they eat little or much, but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep’ (5:12).

In addition to being at the mercy of rich and powerful proprietors, ordinary citizens were victimised by corrupt courts and judges and unscrupulous priests. ‘Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well’ (3:16). He also warned against the government and its spies, for to say too much could mean being scooped up by the state security apparatus. ‘Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter’ (10:20).

As he looked around at his world, Qohelet saw a volatile and unpredictable place where there was a lot to worry about and very little of certainty. People found themselves caught up in rapid political and economic change, and most were helpless to do anything about it. Theirs was an upside-down world in which nothing seemed reliable or permanent; even people who had been given grants could not rely on having them forever. ‘I have seen slaves on horseback, and princes walking on foot like slaves’ (10:7).

Ultimately, this world was a difficult place for Qohelet to comprehend. While he seems to accept many of its contradictions, he saw that the world was full of inconsistencies and even glaring contradictions that could not be explained away. ‘So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded’ (9:16). Qohelet is certainly a theist, but he saw it as pointless to turn to God for answers to his questions – like the Persian emperor, God is a distant and incomprehensible mystery, responsible for deeds both pleasant and unpleasant (7:13-14). The bottom line is that we live in an unreliable world dominated by powerful people who inevitably impose their will over others. ‘For the word of the king is powerful, and who can say to him, “What are you doing?”‘ (8:4). Things rarely turn out as we might want or expect and justice does not prevail. All truly is vanity.

***

As will be apparent, there is much in Qohelet’s world and writings that sound familiar. If Qohelet were alive today he would see much that is recognisable in our world – economic uncertainty, job and housing loss, huge income disparity, rampant consumerism, and social dislocation. As he says, little changes.

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. (1:9)

But there is one obvious difference between Qohelet’s times and our own: Qohelet was operating on the assumption that the natural world was stable and unchanging. While he likely observed shifts in weather, the basic patterns would have seemed permanent. There was no reason for him to assume otherwise.

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. (1:4-7)

But as we now well know, with climate change nothing is predictable. There is no longer a reliable flow to nature. The natural order – probably the one iota of stability that Qohelet could rely upon – is rapidly becoming undone. So how would Qohelet respond to our situation? What would Qohelet do?

One thing he wouldn’t do is take the human-centred position taken by some religions that places humans apart from and above nature.

For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? (3:19-21).

He would not see us as detached from what is going on – whatever happens to the natural world happens to us.

Neither would he see the world as a learning ground for humans with suffering and ecocide somehow ‘for the greater good’ or fitting into a discernible cosmic plan. I very much doubt that he would deny the reality of climate change, avoid it, or succumb to any of the myriad ways humans have found to numb themselves to it. He would not buy into any spin. Rather, I suspect he would be one of those who are able to confront the dark truths of our times head on.

Neither, I suspect, would Qohelet attempt to resolve the contradictory nature of the situation we find ourselves in. He would clearly see that our economic system has put many people in a position where on the one hand they are aware of the devastating problems our actions have created, but on the other hand aren’t willing to give up what they have. He would accept the folly of this way of thinking and view it as futile to try and convince people to think otherwise.

Would he fall into the camp of those proposing resistance? Given his view that power inevitably rests with the wealthy (i.e. oil barons) this does not seem probable – he would likely view active resistance against these powerful forces as another futile endeavour. ‘If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter’ (5:8). Unlike the ancient Hebrew prophets, Qohelet’s critique of society is not accompanied by a call for social transformation. Nonetheless, pursuit of knowledge about the world is not without value. Our knowledge may be limited (10:14), and the answers he comes up with to his questions are that all is ‘futile’ or ‘meaningless’, but it seems that it is still better to know this than to walk in the darkness of the fool. It is still better to be engaged in the world than to blindly ignore or deny what is happening. And while no formula or strategy will necessarily change things, practical wisdom may still have at least some effect (10:4). Therefore, one makes sure to sharpens one’s implements before beginning a task that calls for sharp tools. ‘If the iron is blunt, and one does not whet the edge, then more strength must be exerted; but wisdom helps one to succeed’ (10:10). Preparation may in some cases make a difference.

I suspect, though, that ultimately, after he has let the facts of our situation register, Qohelet would probably not do much of anything. There are times when even careful preparations are not enough, and this (he would say) may be one of them. It seems likely, though, that he would continue to observe and comment on what he sees. Being a literary man, he may well start a blog (‘Nothing New Under the Sun’), or send out the occasional tweet (@Qohelet, #allisvanity). But our collective fate has been sealed; events are now out of our control and there is little that can be done. And, given our enormous capacity for folly, he probably wouldn’t be surprised that we have arrived at this juncture. In his view there is oppression and injustice in the world because there are ambitious and greedy people who simply cannot have enough (5:8-12). Society, and even the entire cosmos, is now endangered by their lack of contentment. At the end of the book Qohelet shifts to a vision of the end of humanity (12:1-8). It is not much of a stretch to imagine Qohelet enfolding nature in this description of the end of things – a casualty of humanity’s staggering greed and folly.

But Qohelet is not without advice on how to live in the world as it is. The only possible response to the fact that all is vanity is, he says, to enjoy life whenever possible. This is his most persistent counsel – seven times he explicitly exhorts his readers to enjoy life:

So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (8:15)

Do everything you can when you are able (eat, drink, and be merry), as in death there are no opportunities to do anything. ‘Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity’ (11:8; cf. 9:7-10). Of course, being Qohelet, enjoyment is also elusive, so do not wait for perfect conditions but be spontaneous – be sure to celebrate at any occasion that presents itself. ‘In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good’ (11:6). Given that we cannot control what is happening in the world, spontaneously experiencing joy whenever possible is an appropriate response. ‘When times are good, enjoy; when times are bad, see’ (7:14) 4. For in spite of everything, there are moments when the sweetness of life is undeniable: ‘Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun’ (11:7).

***

In the ancient Israelite wisdom tradition, there is a metaphor of a mine that contains wisdom 5.The idea is that if we dig deep enough a gem of insight will be found that will reveal the appropriate way forward through life. It is hard going finding any such gems these days – if they exist at all they seem to be hidden in the mine’s deepest chambers. Wisdom is, as Qohelet says, ephemeral and elusive. While the advice he gives to his contemporaries – ‘enjoy the moment’ – still applies, many will find it difficult not to see this as a not very helpful cliché, given the gravity of our circumstances. If he were alive today Qohelet may well agree. So perhaps the most important thing to learn from Qohelet is his modus operandi, his way of being in a world much like our own: ask questions, stay engaged, and if so inclined, record.

1 ‘Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)’, was written by Pete Seeger in the 1950s; it was recorded by the Limelighters in 1962 and popularised in the Byrds’ 1965 cover version.

2 Quotes from Qohelet/Ecclesiastes are from the Revised Standard Version of the bible (except where noted).

3 For my understanding of Qohelet and his social context I am indebted to C.L. Seow, Ecclesiastes. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

4 C.L. Seow translation.

5 Job 28. Considering the destruction wreaked over the centuries by mining, this may no longer be such a useful metaphor.

Margaret Miller works as an editor and administrator at a small non-profit environmental organisation in Vancouver Canada. She has a Masters of Theology degree from the Vancouver School of Theology.

Image: Jonah Preaches to the Ninevites, Gustave Do(Wikimedia Commons)

Mother Lode

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The morning after the day Elias left the farm, I woke and slipped out of bed carefully as if he were laying there. This is my morning routine when he visits, carefully edging away so not to wake him; so to give myself guilt-free time at the computer; so to keep my attention holding to the beautiful world he imagines in photographs of raptors flying and the picture of a cougar he begged me to buy at the wildlife festival. Elias is five and a half years old now. He and I have lived at least three hours apart from one another since January 2014 when passion and circumstance drew me away from him.

ex·tinc·tion wit·ness began with the questions Who am I? What am I here for? The questions were rather forced by emotional exhaustion from job searching a flooded market August through December 2011. Elias was one and a half years old then. At the time, I had no clue that being myself would mean physical distance from him. If I had known this from the start, I believe I wouldn’t have begun.

To begin, I cleared employment history off my resume. This left two scholastic degrees, the most recent in environmental studies with emphasis in writing and grief specific to genocide and mass species extinction. My graduate portfolio was there along with a few published essays and poems. The graduate portfolio included the Whale Memorial Dance, a multimedia performance piece produced in memory of cetaceans.

My next question came, How do I share the whale memorial? I looked for other species memorials and discovered that not only were memorials in place, but that climate change and mass species extinction were actually receiving air time. This, along with the vast number of projects and individuals I saw positioned in response, elated me.

I had in mind then to do both, bear witness to outrageous disrespect and celebrate the rapid compassionate response that such grievance inspires. Celebration for the rapid response, I learned, had been accomplished by Paul Hawken and a devoted crew at Wiser Earth. Mine then was whittled down to creative witness.

Someone said once, Be careful what you ask for. I want to add, Be prepared to receive the answer to the question you ask.

Who am I? What am I here for? are rather ultimate questions. Ultimate questions naturally yield ultimate answers.

When my work on ex·tinc·tion wit·ness began, I was experiencing the ‘virgining’ phase in my healing process from early childhood molestation. Virgining is the healing phase during which a person refuses sexual intimacy even with a most trusted partner. As the personal boundary setting part of the healing process, virgining is common to many people, some say every person, who has experienced sexual violation.

Determined to heal my mind-body completely from the psychospiritual wound, I quickly learned that my wholeness was forerunner to my being capable of doing the work at ex·tinc·tion wit·ness, which requires the mind’s access to creative energy blocked in me by fear and shame that childhood molestation imprints on the psyche. Following a spontaneous flow of Kundalini Shakti through my body near the close of 2012, most of 2013 was consumed by this devotion to heal and clear my psyche of early childhood sexual trauma and neglect. This process was made public because I was engaged with and resolved to continue the creative work at ex·tinc·tion wit·ness, the project itself an expression of the Great Divine Mother’s love.

Kundalini Shakti’s spontaneous flow occurred during orgasm complicated by grief for a giant sequoia discovered by a man chasing a wounded grizzly during the California gold rush. The tree was cut for ‘show and tell’ a year later. Grief with sequoia answered another question long in my mind, What will the next memorial be? I became consumed with desire to connect physically with this sequoia and visited the remains, known as ‘the big stump’ or ‘Discovery Tree’ of Calaveras Big Trees, in February 2013 for grief ritual. I returned April 2013 to record a ceremony with the big stump who I call Grandfather Tree.

For Dark Mtn (1300x867)

I knew I wanted to share the images captured by Jack Gescheidt’s lens (above and below), but was not clear on the message until an equivalent grief busted my heart open that summer. Following another glimpse of the absolute light and three days of heaving grief, I rose with a poem. The music for the film became clear in an instant as well, spurring a week of creative activity in collaboration with a filmmaker who happened to be available to help produce the first edit of Wildfire: a love story, finalised March 2015.

Though the personal healing work continued after my heart opening through to the close of 2014, the heart opening relieved me of insecure emotional attachment, releasing my creative potential. I spent autumn 2013 able to do little more than write poetry while doing my best to physically nurture Elias and myself. The inspired change in my consciousness meant that I was unable to maintain the duties of what had been part-time gainful employment cleaning houses and marketing the work of a local photographer.

By January 2014, having sailed through available credit and lost a housemate, I looked for free living opportunities and found an opening with a childhood friend in Carmel Highlands across the street from Point Lobos State Park. The next month began with devotion to lion in what would become a revolving monthly witness practice with groups being and becoming extinct. Each month’s turn of my gaze from February 2014 to March 2015 initiated a deep dive into another node of the collective subconscious.

In keeping perhaps with the darkness at ocean’s greatest depth, my own experience of the undercurrent grew suicidal, as dark as it has ever been, when I turned my gaze with whale and the dying Pacific March 2015. The experience of loneliness reminded me that I initiated ex·tinc·tion wit·ness because I knew grief inspired by mass species extinction and genocide is too much for a person to bear alone. Mass species extinction is meant to be held by the strong arm of community. Gatherings at Dark Mountain, Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, and ex·tinc·tion wit·ness are vital containers for communal grief.

Hard times are here for so many and there is more to come in the way of hardship. Renewed sense of and devotion to thriving ecological communities, inclusive of human beings and exclusive of none, does and will continue to ease the pain and difficulty. Nothing happens for a reason, but everything that happens has purpose. This mass extinction event is happening and has been happening for a while now relative to the span of one human life. Mass extinction’s purpose is to bring human beings together, to remind individuals of the tremendously compassionate beings they are in the process of reminding the whole of humanity.

Someone recently commented that ‘Scary times are coming. It is going to look like a sci-fi movie, but in real!’ To this I replied, ‘In some very tangible ways, it already feels like science fiction.’ Writing this reply brought to mind that much of today’s tragedy results from amoral science practiced by human beings who have themselves been distanced or are completely severed from their own empathic nature by way of personal trauma or traumatic schooling, all related to the subjugation and capitulation of women in patriarchal society. If human beings can accomplish the balance of science and morals, there is the possibility that our species and myriad others will successfully navigate darkness.

To be a mother infused with the passion of the Great Divine Mother during an age of impoverished morals such as this is absolute torment unless the passion is channelled creatively. Earth can be likened to a mother in labour. Human beings can be likened to midwives of this labour. Labour can birth death or being. Necessarily, death precedes being in the case of birthing a viable being during the labour’s transition phase in which both mother and child experience the shattering of what was previously thought to be possible. To embody Her is to stand in this uncharted territory of pure creative potential inspired by the edge of life.

While lamentation over a world long gone by invites despair, willingness to touch the sorrow counted in millions of human refugees and myriad others starved and homeless, opens a wellspring of the equivalent joy. When I embrace death, I come back to life. Anyone who desires to be of service in the full contribution of all they are, must tap this joy in order to be themselves and sustain their being. A person will burn out, medicate, or retreat from action if the awakened passion of the Great Divine Mother is not tempered by Spirit’s nonattachment.

Choosing to be present now, is opening to the most profound grief for an all-but-vanished beloved and bountiful world largely remembered in photographs and films that gloss over memories of what had become arduous realities of coexistence, leading human beings to desire and manifest present-day creature comforts. In addition to the need to hold and support one another in navigating sheer darkness, the dive in March with Pacific reminded me to maintain at all times a holistic perspective.

Creature comforts are not inherently negligent. Enjoyment of life needs not compromise nor cost the existence of others. And more, many conveniences intended to conserve an individual’s time or energy have largely compromised the health of both individuals and the global community. Of these, Toby Hemenway points to domesticated agriculture’s human health costs in Liberation Permaculture. After caretaking a farm in St Ignatius, Montana for the past three weeks, managing to accomplish just the basics of moving sheep fence and field irrigation along with tending a full lot of domesticated critters, I can say there is no relaxing on the farm. It is not a wonder that farm life, great as a romantic notion, has been abandoned and wants to be forgotten by most.

There is another saying, Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. To this I add, Rather than throw the bathwater out, purify the water with tears equivalent to the loss, restoring the mind that knows there is no way ‘out’ but through; the brilliant mind that listens for cues as to how to accomplish a vision given the greater body’s natural limits.

Resolution of harms is not the abandonment of what has been built; a retreat to the farm or wilderness as it was imagined and walled off by human beings raised on the farm. Resolution is the restoration of wildness to the human mind, wildness being a way of being that looks like plants and animals, including human beings, who are freely themselves and answer to no lord’s rule. Anything in keeping with everyone’s needs is possible.

Regardless of human regenerative activities that will provide the way through, Earth is in darkness like that of the birth canal. Earth is in motion. Outdated are midwives who stand around pointing fingers at others. Necessary are midwives who, themselves unarmed, protect the vulnerable by using their bodies as barriers between flesh and knife. Promising are midwives with clear minds who pay attention and act according to intuition.

The most important thing I have learned over the past few years is to surrender my own will to that of The Great Divine Mother’s. The Mother’s will is that no one starves while others feast, which means not everyone gets what they want immediately and some desires are never met. Surrender embraces death.

without you close, last image with song (1600x1067)
While human innovation attunes to earthly limits with respect for natural creative law, human beings are asked to simplify their lives and stay home. Earth’s abundance is cyclical, seasonal. Life is not sustained at constant high speed production. Racing extinction looks not like a sprint, but a walkathon with no finish line. I must constantly still my own sense of panic, doing my best to focus and do what I do because compassion is my joy, not because of some anticipated success or failure.

So, I write the poems and push out the prose as I am compelled to do for my own peace of mind; to cool the burn. At ex·tinc·tion wit·ness, I produce at least two electronic posts per month in the revolving monthly witness and continue to produce short poetic films in collaboration with other artists while maintaining an online presence through the website and social networks.

The most recent short film, Freyja’s Promise, came through in a sprint of creative activity with my gaze on elephant and the great Norse goddess Freyja’s story. The soul seeks liberation; to know itself and let itself be known. The soul accomplishes this through relationship; encounters with others for experiences that teach lessons in love, because the soul in pure form is the Great Divine Mother’s love. Freyja’s Promise is essentially my soul’s revelation.

Freyja’s story makes sense of my entire life path, my greatest pleasure and pain, to this point. Freyja’s story also makes sense of who Pope Francis is or has the potential to be. By playing the part of ‘a man of certain spiritual status who joins the battle and conquers them all’, Pope Francis is surrendered to the soul’s will to be known despite incredible resistance.

Old deep rifts in the soul want to be aired and resolved. A person chooses whether or not to be a vessel for the divine; to forget himself so that the soul may be known. Such resolute courage, I believe, is required quite immediately of many so that there may be a peaceful crossing of the darkened threshold to something of heaven’s brilliance raised from hell.

I miss Elias and am grateful that he is safe and sound, much more so than many children today. I have seen some answers and continue to ask questions. What is there now but compassion for everyone, no matter what, as the home that provided the house human hands built burns to ash?

Megan Hollingsworth, MS, is a writer, compassion activist, and founder at ex·tinc·tion wit·ness, a collaborative art project that celebrates the spirit and supports the soul of biodiversity and cultural regeneration efforts. With a primary focus on personal and global peacemaking, ex·tinc·tion wit·ness honours chronic disenfranchised grief felt in response to ongoing extreme loss, and celebrates healing collaborations inspired by devastating loss. 

Still images from Wildfire: a love story. Photos copyright 2013 Jack Gescheidt jackphoto.com

The Green Cathedral

The Green Cathedral is a place, a series of places, a philosophy, a feeling, a mind-set, a movement, a lack of movement, a meditation. Many meditations. It is walking and running, sitting and seeing.

It is a phrase I find myself returning to and which, over thousands of miles of wandering, has risen from the subconscious to become a recurring motif in the novels, poems and short stories that I have published over the last half decade or so.

The Green Cathedral represents the sacred places, the silent spaces. It elevates the natural landscape to the respectful position it deserves.

It replaces doctrine and dogma. The Green Cathedral recognises the ruins of the past as part of present and future narratives. It attempts to recalibrate the senses and reconsider time. It celebrates the joy of the rural reverie. It is in all countries. It is open to everyone.

These images and words attempt to fleetingly capture the essence of The Green Cathedral.

Screenshot 2015-07-06 at 11.19.29

Out of the wood:
shot like a bullet
from the gun
of history –
a hare.

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Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.15.03

Everything
begins and
ends in fire.

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Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.16.55

Forever alive
in the corner of your eye
a salmon spins
the air.

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Chisel
beats
digital.

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Go nowhere
and
stay there.

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Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.22.07

‘All of us have a place in history.
Mine is clouds.’

– Richard Brautigan

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Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.24.25

A neighbour, a woman of maturing age, tells me of a childhood lived on
the edge of the moor. ‘Strange things happened up there,’ she says.
‘Once I woke to a circle of stagmen dancing around my room.
I can still see them now, as clear as day. Men, with the
heads of stags. Their breath in the air. Their feet
on the floorboards. Moonlight. Dancing.
The moors are strange.
The moors are
special.’

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Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.26.20

Borders and boundaries
mark only impermanence.

Wires rust. Walls fall.
Fences become futile.

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Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.27.27

‘Oh, the water, how it enfolds –
the salt, the taste,
the gorgeous undertow…’

‘Carrion’ – British Sea Power

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Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.28.43

A soft summer
pine-drunk
sleep
in
the
green
cathedral.

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Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.29.58

Climbing trailing
creeping binding;

Hedera helix
poison ifig

bindwood
lovestone.

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Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.43.48

…and in the cromlech,
the bones of England…

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Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.44.50

One day
all will
be moss.

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Benjamin Myers is an award-winning writer. His novels include Beastings (2014), Pig Iron (2012) and Richard (2010). He lives in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, UK. www.benmyers.com

Evolution on fast-forward

Skindancing by Susan Richardson (Cinnamon Press, 2015)
Ecozoa by Helen Moore (Permanent Publications, 2015)

skindancing-thumbnail

Susan Richardson knows her poems off by heart. She doesn’t read them; she performs them. When you hear the words, it’s easy to understand why. Her words fit together; pick one up and you pick up the whole concatenation. Not only are the vowels and consonants locked together but the ideas, too, flow as indivisibly – and refreshingly – as water in a stream.

If a lion could speak,
we’d tire of his whinges of wardrobes and witches,
of how Richard filched his heart
and how his rampant act on flags
has knackered his hips.

The ideas in Richardson’s latest poetry collection, Skindancing, are all of a piece too. They are to do with mutation or, to pick a more positive, grander word, transformation. This is a planet where change is fast and unpredictable, as if the evolution button is stuck on fast-forward. Adolescent girls change into seals (‘I found I could no longer part / my knees and thighs’), a woman changes into a doe and will ‘out-wood’ her fiancé-turned-hunter and a mother grows a beak.

As well as metamorphoses, there are new relationships between humans and animals too (indeed, one of Richardson’s poems is entitled Humanimal); there is a Harry Potter-esque hippo under the stairs, an emeritus professor translating Lionese and a porcine heart transplanted into a human.

Richardson creates new relationships between words as well. She is an expert at punning and while word play is integral to the sumptuous fabric of her poetry, this playfulness could occasionally risk distracting us from the poem’s story. Instead, we may find ourselves thinking about the flexible fun of language or the poet’s marvellous mind. For example, the enjoyable ‘Witch Fulfilment’ in which Richardson’s ‘herb-perfect’ witch has refined the art of ‘casting churls into swine’.

Yet this poet clearly wants to draw our attention to language. She is reminding us that language is a contrivance developed by humans, just as we crafted tools from stone and organised ourselves into social groups. Richardson invents delicious Carrollian words (‘closhi swush’, ‘hurble and blursh’) and beautiful words (windwhim, stillsea). She compresses words in a way that feels like a geological shorthand (‘how to happyeverafter’), as if the weight of centuries of human language has squeezed out all unnecessary air between letters and phrases (‘quicker than an ear’s fear-prick’).

There is much that is anthropological about Skindancing. The references to Waitrose, MGM, ladyshaves and Strepsils document human life as it is now. Yet when, in ‘Homophoca Vox Pop’, a photographer lies on the sand to take pictures of a seal and then turns into one, or when in ‘Zoomorphic’ someone shares a bed with an ‘insomnia llama that feels curiously real rather than a metaphor, we are being reminded that evolution is ongoing and that, although this is how we are now, there are many other ways we as a species could have developed and may still develop.

Skindancing is indeed so jam-packed with ideas, the reader can fear missing something. ‘Quappen’ is not, after all, one of Richardson’s made up words. Google reveals that it is a fish (and an articulated loader). Cernunnos may be familiar but what about Youwarkee? Not having a broad enough vocabulary – or a classical education – can feel intimidating. Nevertheless, the pleasure of the language and the accessibility of so many of the ideas means the reader doesn’t have to have a dictionary – or internet connection – at hand to be able to delight in this collection.

Deepening this enjoyment are the moments of beauty where jokiness is put aside and a more profound emotional connection can be made, arguably because language is so effectively serving the idea.

She will lick what she births
into a mix of huffs and words,

It is in these moments in particular where the human and the animal fuse, where a transformation occurs in both directions. Ultimately, Skindancing is poetry of celebration and of warning. Of knowing what we have been, what we are and what we may become.

Ecozoa
In
contrast to Richardson’s Skindancing, language is subservient to the idea in Helen Moore’s Ecozoa, at least initially. Language is used as a tool for communicating a point directly, as if there isn’t time to employ poetic devices. The message must be communicated, got across and understood:

Oil, synthetic crude
which brokers world warming, hunger, war
and ecocide, the international crime;
ecocide, destruction of life.

Watching the video version of Kali Exorcism on YouTube, the reason for this approach falls into place. This is prose-poetry that is to be performed, almost sung. It’s a chant, a wake-up call, a call to action. This is a text for street-shouting, a handbook for getting angry and refusing to accept ‘modern-day culture, which promotes apocalypse as our most likely future’, as Moore writes in her end notes.

Ecozoa is divided into four sections: Tharmas, Urizen, Urthona, Luvah. These are the four zoas of William Blake’s personal mythology, borrowed from the Book of Exekiel in the Old Testament where zoa is apparently the name of the four creatures who pull the chariot of God’s spirit. Without a thorough understanding of Blake’s mythology, it is perhaps best to read Ecozoa with Moore’s own explanation in mind, again presented in her handy end notes. She writes that Blake’s work ‘points to the power of the imagination in addressing the ecological crisis we face.’ She notes that ‘Blake’s vision of the rebalanced “four zoas”’ enable ‘fear and limited thinking to fall away, opening up liminal spaces where our love of freedom can flourish and we can sense the evolving futures we most desire.’

This is the trajectory of the collection, from rant to hope. There is a shift in poetic style from declamation to ode to lyricism. In the straight-titled Earth Justice, the camera, as it were, cuts away from a court transcript where oil companies are on trial over the Canadian tar sands to a description of swans and ducks on water. The poetry, when it comes, is dazzling:

Oil, that ancient sunlight. That liquid gold
Which fuels our fast-lane rage.

As the pages of Ecozoa turn, Moore allows more story. In ‘daughter of dodmen’ we are transported into the mind of a girl in Avebury in 2,700 BC whose tale of ‘women’s mysteries and menses’ absorbs us and engages us through the sound and rhythm of language that has an ancient tone:

afterwards we fired up our beacons on the roundy hills
and gladdened at the sight of other fires distantly beyond

It seems that story will always speak to many of us more clearly than intellectual reasoning can. Almost despite its title, in Climate Adaptation, # 2’, Moore moves soon to narrative, to the lyricism of a moonlit London where the inhabitants are forced to live by night because of unbearable daytime heat.

Humour too, more effective than haranguing, is a device Moore uses with enjoyably British cynicism to engage us. In ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, well-worn phrases become exhibits in an auction.

Moral compass, 21st century, made in Taiwan.

‘The Ecopyschologist’ is one of the poems in Ecozoa where idea and story blend perhaps most satisfactorily and where poetry is not at odds with manifesto. Similarly, in ‘On Sitting for Christopher Twigg’, we are there with the protagonist ‘on the patio’ watching the artist at work and letting ourselves be absorbed into nature.

This is not to say that there is no place for rant in poetry. Sometimes you have to tell it how it is so there’s no room for misunderstanding or ambiguity. Moore’s is crisis poetry. There arguably isn’t time for anything else. In this light, what is curious is a move at the end of the collection towards prayer.

‘glory be to Gaia
for whales, phosphorescence and fish;’

Is prayer how, as Moore writes in the end notes, ‘we can sense the evolving futures we most desire’? How we can use imagination rather than rage to enter a new ecological age? Frustratingly, the collection ends – like film credits rolling before it enters this new era, but that is most likely the point.

It is in one of the final poems in the collection, ‘Apple Country, West Country’, where the narratives split into two with especially satisfying honesty: story becomes poetry and rant becomes information. One narrative describes the idyll of Apple Day when ‘our year draws its circle’. The other narrative tells us apples are sprayed up to twenty times in a growing season to produce more perfect-looking fruit. This, after all, is the age we are living in. These are the divergent stories we are telling each other and ourselves every day.

Joanna Lilley is the author of the poetry collection, The Fleece Era (Brick Books, 2014), and the short story collection, The Birthday Books (Hagios Press, 2015). Her current projects include a manuscript of poems about extinct and endangered animals. Joanna lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada where she has lived since 2006 after emigrating from the UK. www.joannalilley.com

Helen Moore is an award-winning ecopoet and community artist/activist based in Somerset, SW England. She studied French and German at Hertford College, Oxford, and got a distinction for her MA in Comparative and General Literature from Edinburgh University. Her debut collection, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins, was published by Shearsman in 2012, and was described by Alasdair Paterson as being ‘in the great tradition of visionary politics in British poetry.’ Her second collection, Ecozoa, which responds to Thomas Berry’s vision of the ‘Ecozoic Era’, is published by Permanent Publications. 

Susan Richardson is a poet, performer and educator based in Wales. Her collection of poetry, Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, was inspired by her journey, for which she received a Churchill Memorial Travel Fellowship, through Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland in the footsteps of an intrepid eleventh century female Viking, and one of the themes is the impact of environmental issues on the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Her second collection, Where the Air is Rarefied, was a dazzling collaboration with visual artist, Pat Gregory, exploring environmental and mythological themes relating to the Far North, including an exhibition which toured galleries in Wales and beyond. Susan has been published in numerous journals and anthologies and is currently poet-in-residence with the Marine Conservation Society, writing poems and running workshops in response to their Thirty Threatened Species appeal.