The Dark Mountain Blog

Dark Kitchen: Salmo Salar

This week we continue our Dark Kitchen exploration of food and eating in times of collapse. For our third course in the series, travelling filmmaker and cheesemonger Max Jones records the tale of Ireland’s last smoker of only wild salmon.

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‘The mountain is like the sea, Max. She gives you life, but she can also take it,’ explained cheesemaker Catherine Richard through a wrinkled grin, as she hung up her cheese cloths to dry outside her remote stone chalet, 2000m high in the shadow of an Alpine glacier. It’s a phrase that has stuck with me, and eventually led me to a tiny fish smokery in Ireland, amongst the hills and standing stones of the West Cork coastline.

There is a sense of normality and purpose in the lives of true artisans of food, people who have learned how to engage with their environment to feed themselves. They represent the great passing on of human knowledge, with a profound understanding of how to live in a given landscape – a nobility in their craft that is threatened but unsullied by big industry. I am drawn to these folk, like Catherine, living harmoniously within the alpine peaks, locked into the seasons as she migrates her small herd up and down the mountain each year. As inevitably as the ebb and flow of the tide, the snows yield to the summer sun, revealing wild mountain flora on which the animals graze before the cold season tightens its grip and they must head back down to the safety of the valley. A sustainable tradition that is hundreds of years old, where the unique, natural cheese produced from the herd’s milk will feed a community through the winter months – an uplifting evocation of the abundant summer, brightening the soul in darker days.

And now, to the sea.

As an angler, I had become increasingly despondent about fishing in the British Isles. Each hopeful trip out of London led to stillwaters and reservoirs, concrete man-made holes, circled with middle-aged men as grey as the water, fishing for genetically modified, triploid (sexless) rainbow trout that exist only to be caught.

Last year I learned about a producer of wild Atlantic smoked salmon in Ireland. I was intrigued as I had been thinking about the king of fish Salmo salar, too. How something that is meant to bring you close to the water – using skill to catch something wild for your tea – has become unobtainable, reserved only for those willing to spend hundreds, if not thousands of pounds for the privilege of hooking something real, which usually dies, even if returned, as the angler has consumed all of the salmon’s energy for reproduction in the fight. In a time where fish stocks are dwindling dramatically everywhere, our relationship with the salmon was all wrong. I was irked, saddened and confused to the point where I asked myself whether or not we should be killing this animal at all.

Trusting in how artisans glean the truest knowledge from living, and hearing that she was about to cease production in a losing battle against Environment Health Officers (EHOs) and government bodies forcing her to adhere to factory standards, I went to find fish smoker Sally Barnes. I drove to West Cork with the goal of trying to learn anything I could from this last human being who has devoted her life to master the techniques of preservation of one nature’s greatest ingredients.

Sally and Salmon lowres

Salmo salar is the epitome of the cyclical rhythm of life and circles in nature, with an ability to eternally provide.  The mythology of the transforming salmon is deep rooted in our psyches:  a creature revered by the pagans and still honoured with joy and respect by First Nations people, and eaten by all.  Fionn MacCumhail gained the knowledge of the entire world by eating a salmon in Irish folklore and its distinctive shape has even been found in the 20,000 year old Cro-Magnon cave paintings in France.

It begins life in a stream as an egg nestled amongst glacial gravel beds formed at the end of the last Ice Age. In this ideal camouflage, it hatches into alevin before emerging into the clear, cool flowing water as fry. It feeds on invertebrates and develops markings to blend in to the greens and browns of fresh water becoming parr, that stays and feeds in the river for three years until it is about the size of your hand. Then, when it feels the call, this astonishing being begins smolting, swapping its river markings for a silver veneer of solid scales, undergoing internal changes to adapt to saltwater. The smolt finally turns to face downstream and heads out to sea, perceiving pheromones, chemicals and information from its lateral line that allows the fish to feel movement and changes in pressure which will guide the returning salmon to that same native inland stream. There it goes, past the pike’s snapping snout, bobbing, barbed Willie Gunn the angler and the cormorant’s probing beak, through brackish water into the estuary, weaving and dodging the seal’s snarling jaws then out and away, into the staggering might and infinite dark of the Atlantic Ocean.

The adult salmon now spends one to three years, sometimes more, riding the North Atlantic Drift to feeding grounds west of Greenland and the Norwegian Sea, hunting shoals of herring, devouring clouds of krill and other crustacea in the Arctic Circle, imparting the salmon’s flesh with its characteristic deep, red hue. It is wild and true. A colossal journey. The fish navigates the Earth’s magnetic fields using a ridge of iron-filled grey-brown flesh that runs the inner length of the lateral line, something you’ll recognise when cooking salmon. When it feels the urge to return to its native stream to spawn, it gorges itself till it can feed no more, having built up a hefty reserve of energy stored as belly fat.

The mature salmon now fasts until it has spawned, heading for its river. It is long and lean if its birthing stream be lazy and slow, or squat and tough with hog-like shoulders, a 15kg powerful beast with strength to crash through rapids and leap over rocks as its morphology corresponds with a particular body of water. Having reached its goal, it expends the last of its energy in reproduction, then usually dies. Carrion feeders will grab decaying salmon carcasses, drag them up a bank or tree and eat them at their own leisure and the remains will rot down and act as nutrition for plant life, and then insect life, which in turn feed the young fry.

Today however the gravel beds have been removed for construction developments, the polluted water has been acidified by the subsidised use of fertiliser and pesticides which pour into the rivers from farms. Salmon smell their native streams from miles out to sea, but some are no longer returning because the water has become toxic. Even though the angler may release the fish after netting it, its energy has been consumed in the fight and it will often perish. Global warming is changing the currents to the feeding grounds. The krill is being removed, harvested to make pellets for the farmed salmon, so that they can dye the flesh and market the product as organic.

This wild, migratory animal is crammed into vertical columns, where it festers in its own waste, attracting fatal amounts of sea lice. Sprayed with pesticides that poison the water, the mighty salmon becomes a deformed and unnatural creature debased by man, whose diseased state is poisoning its wild counterpart. It is mass production on a gruesome scale.

It is the degradation of the wild salmon that has so upset Sally Barnes: ‘I couldn’t give that passion and awe to a creature that I feel nothing towards. I wouldn’t have the heart to turn something fabulous into a commodity’. For Sally, it is the undeserved humiliation of a magnificent animal and friend. A fisherwoman and fisherman’s wife who began smoking fish to provide an income to support her young family, she attempted different recipes through trial and error when the fish were so abundant she would be eating wild salmon most nights of the week, eventually developing a delicious product that she could sell through the winter when the salmon season was over. There were three other smokeries in Ireland who processed wild fish, and now all of them have moved on to farmed fish. There are so many sanctions placed on wild salmon that it has become extremely difficult to get hold of, and in totally non viable quantities for a business. But Sally has stuck to her guns and will not touch farmed fish, as it is not the same animal.

‘It is a different species and should have a different Latin name’.

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Stuck in the muck of a farm on a coastal hill in between Skibbereen and Castletownshend in the Irish rain, I eventually found myself spinning up a lane flanked with baling twine and dry (more like wet) stone walling dimpled with pennywort, up to the Woodcock Smokery. It is a modest farmhouse with a two room smokery and attached shipping container. Stepping inside, the first thing you notice is the remarkably sweet smell of beech-wood smoke, and surprising absence of fishy odours. The place seems very homely for a workshop, feeling lived in and tidy, clean overalls hung on pegs at the entrance and inside, three ancient wooden chopping boards attached to the wall opposite a single rack of yellow handled boning knives, the blades half the width they once were, having been expertly sharpened a thousand times. The two stainless steel smokers seem somehow friendly with their unique, chestnut brown smokey patina. Through into the packing room are two freezers, a fridge, a phone, some cast-iron scales, pots of pens and pencils, books, photographs, sun-bleached awards, a hundred Post-it notes strewn over the back wall and a 1980s vacuum-packer with just two buttons.

The whole workshop would seem like the extension of Sal’s home, were it not for  anachronistic blue and white plastic signs dotted around the place: ‘HAND WASH SINK ONLY’, ‘CLEAN CLOTHES’, ‘DIRTY CLOTHES’, ‘TEMPERATURE CHECK’ they patronisingly blare, the fittings loose over time, pointlessly hanging at forgotten angles; the only purposeless objects in the workshop. Similarly the blue plastic apron and hat she has to wear seem anomalous to her mastery. What did she do in all the years of production before being obliged to use them?

Sally’s daughter, Joleine was set to take over from her mother 15 years ago – a perfect succession, as the elder imparts the knowledge of a lifetime to the new generation. But Joleine quit the smokery after a year involving over 20 unannounced visits by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, who were attempting to apply the same systems and protocols to a small artisan producer of a few hundred fish a year to that of a mass producer of farmed fish in their hundreds of thousands. The tremendous amount of extra work, bullying and hostile attitude almost killed the Woodcock Smokery.

I asked Sally if she had thought of processing more fish and perhaps employing more people, to ease up on work and earn a bit more money:

Well! D’you know! All of us in this life, if we’re lucky, have a job and it pays the bills, puts a roof over your head, food in your belly and the odd bottle of wine. And I’m really fortunate that I can now do that on a very limited number of fish. When I started there was no way I was interested in, you know: expand get big. That’s the drive when you do business training courses. I think they all think I’m completely mad because I haven’t gone to the next level and built a massive factory and employed about 400 people, because I’m working with a wild resource which is variable year on year.

You work with nature and nothing is guaranteed. Nothing. I would love to see many different smokeries in villages of the coastal communities, that take just what is needed when they can and nothing more. I have seen it, and it is sustainable, and I am trying to uphold that.

Catherine’s words echo in my ears. The sea is like the mountain, Max. It gives you life, but it also takes it away.

Sally is an example of real, human existence. Humble and full of respect for the planet, she is working in nature, with nature. She abhors human meddling and the poisoning of land and sea, and guards the methods that have been around for millennia. By continuing to produce wild smoked salmon, she is bearing the standard of how we can live in a genuinely sustainable way, but the standard is getting heavier and she is not as strong as she once was. Her unfaltering integrity is as inherently strong as the salmon’s call, and her journey just as tough. What she has learned of the land and sea through the salmon holds the key to the future of food and for this, I will be moving to Ireland in three weeks’ time to relieve her of her duties in the workshop, so that she may put her knowledge to paper in writing a book for the benefit of the memory of humankind.

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Sally Barnes style Cold Smoked Salmon

The best time to catch wild Atlantic salmon for food is when they are just about to enter the estuary for their journey up river at the peak of their physical being. Wild Atlantic salmon is radically different from farmed fish. The massive white lines of fat between the muscle bundles are greasy and not a polyunsaturated fat like the wild salmon, which are much leaner and properly exercised from their adventure swimming against the current.  Were the farmed stuff not dyed, it would be white, whereas wild salmon varies in colour depending on the dietary preference of each individual animal, with those preferring crabs and shrimp turning out deeper red in hue to those who have a penchant for sand-eel and herring.

Now, Sally has honed this method over a lifetime of production. There is nobody who can reproduce the astonishingly delicious balance between salt, smoke and fish quite like her, as she knows her smokers and is completely in tune with the humidity, temperature and pressure’s effect on the draw of air and subsequent effect on the salmon on any given day. There are no real set rules, just feel what is happening and adjust accordingly. Pure intuition.  

‘Ten hours for the smoke like yesterday, Sal?’

‘No, no, no.’ she says, breathing in deeply, ‘Can’t you feel that? Can’t you hear outside? Give it five and half hours.’

You will need:

– A side of wild Atlantic salmon (this method is also good for fish like pollock)

– Fine sea salt

– Cold smoker (easy to build)

– Beech-wood chips, fine and coarse

– A spray bottle filled with water

– A plastic container big enough to hold the salmon

Pour 2-3cm of salt in the bottom of the container, skin side down. Cover the fish with salt, leaving three finger’s width of the tail bare, as it can get too salty being the thinnest part of the fish. Leave to salt for at least 4 hours, until it markedly holds its shape when you balance it on the back of your hand.

Wash the salt off the fish under running water and place it on the rack in the smoker.

Pack your fire box with beech-wood chips alternating between coarse and fine, two layers of each, spraying the chips wet with each layer. When full, push down firmly to condense the wood. Top up with fine wood-chips leaving only a half inch gap for oxygen at the top. Spray the last layer quite heavily with water and set the bottom alight.

Cold smoke for up to 10 hours, ensuring the temperature of the smoking chamber does not reach above 30 degrees C and the firebox does not flame. It needs to be a gentle smoulder throughout.

Look for when the fish will be a deeper colour, with some of the delicious oils rising to the top forming on the surface and the pin-bones are sticking out. Remove them with some pliers, pulling in the direction in which they are pointing. If you get all 32 bones then you most definitely deserve a celebratory pint.

Return the side to the smoker for anywhere between 1 and 10 hours, weather depending. Re pack the firebox if necessary.

When you check on it, look again for a matt finish, with more of the oils released above the pellicle which has formed. This is the mildly translucent layer of flesh that has subtly hardened, like amber, and is about half a millimetre thick. It is the natural barrier to the outside world that allows for the long life of this cured food. You will know when it is done.

Allow to cool with the chamber doors open, then leave to rest at four degrees C for at least 24 hours.

Serve with soda bread and unsalted cultured butter, avoiding lemon which is usually used to cut the slimy nature of farmed salmon. Sal likes to have it with a drizzle of light honey. But also with eggs, on toast, in pasta, risotto… this is real food!

I owe everything I know about salmon to my heartiest of pals and one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. If you’re really serious about smoking wild salmon and wish to glean a deep understanding of her intuitive way of smoking, go and do a course with Sally Barnes, at the Woodcock Smokery.

Next course:

The Dark Kitchen series will run throughout February, but will continue as an occasional series when the new-look Dark Mountain website is launched in April. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to series editor Charlotte Du Cann (charlotte@dark-mountain.net) Thanks all and bon appetit!

Images: Salmon tail from Woodcock Smokery; portrait of Sally Barnes, view across the Smokery roof and still life of smoked salmon by Max Jones

MaxJones-1Itinerant cheesemonger Max Jones has sought out to learn and live with true artisans and obscure makers of cured food from the Alps to the Cambrian Mountains, documenting processes of essential crafts that are at risk of becoming forgotten, sharing his findings through food workshops and film work.

Instagram @mfh_jones

 

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Dark Kitchen: Making Friends with Microbes

This week we continue our Dark Kitchen exploration of food and eating in times of collapse. For our second course in the series Mark Watson interviews Norwegian artist Eva Bakkeslett about the ancient and modern language of fermentation.

Eva with rommekolle

‘It’s the next big thing,’ said Alexis, and handed me a jar of home-made kimchi 

 ‘Is it safe to eat?’ I asked, nervously peering into the pungent and compelling Korean ferment. 

It was a very modern reaction: industrially processed, refrigerated, microbe-free and squeaky clean (dead) is good. Everything else is dangerous. 

For thousands of years the arts of fermentation have transformed and preserved raw food in cultures across the world. Yet even though some of our strongest and most loved flavours – coffee, chocolate, cheese, salami, olives, as well as soy, miso and tempeh, wine and beer – are still alchemised via the life-death-life process of bacteria and yeasts, live, fizzing vegetables can be a challenge. 

It was reading Sandor Katz’s encyclopaedic The Art of Fermentation that turned things around and got me hooked, with its hands-on approach to reviving the practice of fermenting just about everything. The house started filling up with bubbling Kilner jars of fruit and flowers and vegetables –mead elixirs in the summer, kimchi in the winter – as my distrust gave way to bold, and delicious, experimentation. 

Eva Bakkeslett is an artist, teacher and microbial cultural revivalist from Northern Norway. I came across her work with sourdough cultures and kefir in Lucy Neal’s Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered. Later we met and she gave me some Ivan Chai (an intense black tea of fermented rosebay willowherb leaves) made by wildcrafting colleagues  in Russia. 

I wanted to ask Eva about how she got into fermentation and microbes, and how they relate to current planetary, ecological and social conditions. 

 

MW: What’s going down in your ‘dark kitchen’ right now, Eva? 

 EB: Well, I’m tending to about six different ferments, so loads of little creatures are living on my kitchen bench: very old Scandinavian rømmekolle ferments, various kombuchas, Bulgarian yoghurts, kefir from the Caucasus, and an amazing sourdough from Russia. I’ve also started fermenting earth, using a Japanese composting method called bokashi, where you add microbes to your food waste. It speeds up the process and you get great compost for growing vegetables. 

I started with bread. I always say the bread was talking to me. Fermenting bread has a very quiet language of its own. Put your ear against the rising dough and you hear these clicks and bubbles. I really wanted to learn about this extraordinary language. I wanted to befriend these guys. So it all started through language. 

When I was growing up we fermented milk and bread, so when I started discovering the bacterial processes behind it I didn’t really have to overcome any distrust. I just remember being delighted at discovering this community of microbes I could make friends with. I started making kombuchas and vegetable ferments, then explored the rather funky outer edges, like fermented shark in Iceland or kimchi with fish. That really tests the friendship – can I really be friends with somebody, you know, that funky? 

 MW: In Playing For Time you discuss rootlessness, and the relationship between place, belonging and fermentation. How can remembering the stories behind fermentation reconnect us? 

EB: For some years now I’ve been exploring this yoghurt-like Norwegian milk ferment called rømmekolle. In my childhood everybody fermented it – in certain areas people wouldn’t have survived without it. And the culture that develops between the place where the bacteria come from, and the material you ferment, in this case milk, and the humans that then share the culture, makes you very rooted to a particular place. 

We now know from neuroscience research that there’s a huge connection between the bacterial flora in our guts and the way we think… so if everybody in a particular village is eating the same rømmekolle, you’re sharing that microbial community within your bodies; people would somehow be bonded through bacterial flora within a community, and to the place. And this was happening all over the world. 

Also, people would closely guard their ferments and bring them wherever they went. A family from Finland emigrating to America, say, would dry their milk cultures on handkerchiefs, put them in their pockets and set off. When they settled, they’d put their handkerchiefs in milk and revive the bacterial culture. 

Nowadays, with everyone constantly moving around and not connecting to places, we often feel fragmented. One way of rooting yourself is to befriend the local bacteria by growing vegetables and connecting with the soil. Ferment those vegetables and you’ll definitely communicate with the microorganisms in that particular place!

Pumpkins_kefir_and_kombucha lowres And the further you go into it the more you get excited about the taste, texture, colour – all the aesthetic elements of food and place. It’s a very rooting experience, as well as an antidote to industrialised food with its processed salts, fats and sugars: you start reconnecting and engaging with your food, the seasons – and time. 

Fermentation has its own world and timeframe, and it can really help move you out of the hyped-up, driven pace of the modern world. You don’t even have to think about it. The relationship with the microbes just has that effect on you. 

When people say they don’t have time for sourdough bread-making, I tell them it’s about working with time, replacing one way of thinking about time with another. 

I see three elements to fermentation – time, conditions and ingredients – and the balance between those three. A vegetable ferment going for six months can be super-strong, a six-day one will be very mild. Time sits in the taste. It’s implied and embodied in the ferment and your experience of it. 

Like growing vegetables, where you can’t rush your carrots, you can’t work against the fermentation process, you have to work with it. You heighten your awareness of what’s happening and your relationship with time changes. It roots you in the fabric of life. 

MW: How can we learn from microorganisms? 

EB: Bacteria communicate with each other with an incredible alertness, and they’re like magicians of adaptation. The hundreds of thousands of members in a culture communicate through this language called quorum sensing. And if something’s not working they’ll suddenly take a different course. 

At an earlier time on the planet, bacteria eliminated all their food resources. They had to invent a way of processing the sun and transforming it into a new life substance through photosynthesis. I feel we can learn a lot from them, because we’re very set in our ways. It takes humans a long time to change. 

MW: Right now we seem to need more time to get back on track with the planet, but don’t seem to have that much time. Can humans both bring time into the way we go about things and change swiftly enough? Also, so many of our collective stories seem outdated and resistant to change. Does fermentation have a story to counterbalance that? 

EB: Well, we’re generally so removed from natural processes and going so fast, it seems almost impossible to slow down to a pace where we can have a natural relationship with time. 

But I think through a close relationship to bacteria and to our earth, without us thinking that we have to change, it will happen naturally, through gentle action and collective absorption. If you create those relationships. 

I’m fascinated by the sharing aspect of fermentation, when people give cultures to each other – especially through milk ferments and sourdough. There’s the sharing of the physical substance with the bacteria, which keeps it going, along with the sharing of cherished knowledge. With that goes the sharing of stories, which accumulate within the bacterial cultures as people form their own relationship to them. Somebody gives you some, and it already has a story; it enriches your life, and another layer of story is added to it. These stories create a different bond between people, the bacteria, and the Earth itself. 

Fermentation is a beautiful way of transforming the way we live and communicate with each other. It’s an incredible thing that happens when your kefir is thriving, producing more and more grains, and you’re thriving from it, and so you go and meet your neighbour and tell them about kefir. Or like me you incorporate it into art events and share it publicly with people. 

My favourite Christmas card this year was from a lady who came to an event I held in England in 2012. I gave her some of an old Romanian yoghurt culture that had travelled to a little Jewish café in New York. She’s been cultivating it ever since, and there it was in the photo, sitting amongst her Christmas decorations! 

MW: What kind of art do you do with fermentation? 

EB: A recent exhibition I gave in  Bodø in Norway was with rømmekolle. It had disappeared, but I managed to find some eventually and I’m cultivating and sharing it now in all my events. I gathered archive photographs of people’s relationship to their milk animals. Milk can have a bad reputation nowadays, but many people have traditionally had a close relationship not only with their cows, but also reindeer, buffalo, goats and sheep. The modern milk industry is another chapter entirely. 

Sunday Best Rommekolle

The rømmekolle culture was very sociable. On Sundays people would share a huge pot up in the mountains dressed in their finery. I interviewed old people about their relationship to this ferment for a radio programme and video. So I’m bringing rømmekolle into the public sphere through these stories. 

This exhibition included a bucket of worms with scrap food and a video camera and microphone attached. You could hear the worms talking – they have an amazing language, and when they’re happy they talk a lot. So I’m sharing the wonderful world of fermentation in a bucket, in the production of earth through worms. 

I often do talks about bacterial connections, starting with when the Earth was formed, and about bacterial language – these always include some physical fermentation of milk or vegetables. I’ve also held a festival of different bread traditions. It takes different forms. 

MW: It’s a lot about what’s worth keeping, isn’t it, particularly now when so many things are disappearing? A kind of cultural preservation. 

EB: When you pay attention to these bacterial processes, you see we have to get to the roots in order to go forward.  It’s like etymology. Often a word will go astray and start taking on a totally different meaning. But once you start looking at the roots of the word you realise there’s something fundamental in here that’s been lost. The bacterial world teaches me a lot about the way forward, because it has so much to do with the essence of life. So that’s the preservation part for me, more to do with not losing contact with the processes of life than preservation. 

People often go ‘Eeeugh!’ when they see a bucket of compost, or smell one of my stronger ferments. Many people live in a very clean bubble where life processes can’t come in. I think it’s really important to stick our fingers in the earth, and for our kids to as well. 

I bought a piss bucket recently and shocked my family: ‘You’re not going to make us piss in that are you?’ they cried. ‘Well, yeah,’ I said, ‘because piss is an amazing fertiliser, and nowadays we just think it’s something horrible and smelly. But it’s a life-giving property, right here in our system, and we just waste it.’ I want to bring back into the life-cycle all those vital things we just keep getting rid of. 

I like this idea of the uncivilised. Many young people who come to my events are fed up with modern lifestyles. They’re get really excited about hands-on life processes like fermenting. When I get overwhelmed by the horrors of our fragmented world, I remember so many people have a real need for uncivilising, for seeing a different way. Things have been sterile for too long – we need to get grimy again. 

MW: What about the future? Given our bodies are host to so many microbes, might we be our own microbial revolutions? 

EB: Well, the current misuse of Earth and its resources is leading us to disaster. But many small groups of people are experimenting in living and doing things differently. They don’t believe in the predominant systems and want to uncivilise themselves. So from that disaster a lot of social fermentation is happening, bubbling in the corners, creating another type of atmosphere, temperature and timeframe for other things to blossom and thrive. 

And I think learning about fermentation and bacterial communication, and exploring the way bacteria have adapted and survived, is a huge beginning. 

The word culture comes from the Latin cultivare: to prepare the ground for something to grow. The word is used for everything now, including TV shows. But its original meaning implies a sense of mutual nurturing: we prepare the ground and the ground gives to us. And of course bacteria is alive, and makes up the earth, and us. 

A Red Cabbage Kimchi ‘Slaw’ 

Kimchi-Squash fermenting

INGREDIENTS (Organic, local and home-grown vegetables if available) 

1 small red cabbage or ½ large one
1 large carrot
Japanese or daikon radish (mooli), equivalent size to carrot (optional)
Handful chives or small bunch spring onions
½ cup sea salt (not table salt)
5 cups filtered water (ratio = 1 part salt to 10 parts water) 

1 small or ½ large pear, peeled, seeded, chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled,  roughly chopped
1 thumb ginger, peeled, cut into small chunks
1 or 2 fresh red chillies, deseeded if too hot
1 tablespoon raw organic cane sugar OR 1 tablespoon RAW honey
½ – 1 small cup stock: liquid from 5-6 shitake mushrooms soaked in warm water plus 1 level teaspoon kelp powder (optional)
1 dessert spoon Korean red pepper flakes/chilli flakes OR level teaspoon smoked paprika powder

Note: for some ferments I omit the red pepper/chilli flakes/paprika, and use one or two homegrown ‘Ring of Fire’ chillies in the sauce This gives just the right heat, definitely hot without going into overburn! 

METHOD
Chop/shred red cabbage. Remove hard centre and keep intact for use as plug in the jar.  

Place shredded cabbage in a bowl with water and sea salt. Stir and put plate on top of the bowl so all cabbage is submerged. Weight plate down with something heavy. Soak for 2 hours (at least), stirring and turning the cabbage thoroughly a few times. 

Meanwhile soak five or six shitake mushrooms in warm water for 20 minutes. 

Julienne carrot and daikon/mooli. (I often soak the carrots with the cabbage in the salt water.)

Rinse cabbage a few times and let drain in a colander. 

In a liquidiser/food processor place pear, roughly chopped garlic, sugar/raw honey, chives/onion, ginger and mushroom and kelp stock (without the mushrooms). Blend to smooth sauce. 

Place prepared vegetables in a bowl, pour the sauce on top and add red pepper flakes/smoked paprika. Gently and thoroughly mix in all the ingredients. 

Place ‘kimchi slaw’ in a clean jar (mason jars are great) and push down firmly. Fold a few outer leaves of the cabbage and cover the slaw. At this point you can put the cabbage heart on top to hold the vegetables down further. The vegetables should be submerged under the liquid. Close the jar, or cover with a cloth. 

IMPORTANT: Keep in a cool visible place. If you’ve put the top on, you must burp the jar frequently to prevent it exploding — seriously! You can start to eat this delicious ‘slaw’ after three days. Mine rarely last longer than a week before they are eaten up! 

 Next course:

The Dark Kitchen series will run throughout February, but will continue as an occasional series when the new-look Dark Mountain website is launched in April. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to series editor Charlotte Du Cann (charlotte@dark-mountain.net) Thanks all and bon appetit!

Images: Eva giving a workshop on the art and culture of viili, Finish live yoghurt, at Halikonlahti Green Arts in Salo, Finland  (photo: Tuula Nikulainen); pumpkins, kefir and kombucha in Eva’s kitchen (photo: Eva Bakkeslett); sharing rømmekolle in the snow, northern Norway, 1940s (archive photograph); fermenting pumpkin and red cabbage kimchi (photo: Mark Watson); Mark shaking it up at a raw food demo, Bungay Suffolk (photo: Josiah Meldrum)

Eva Bakkeslett is an artist, filmmaker, curator and cultural activist exploring the potential for social change through gut feelings and gentle actions. She creates spaces and participatory experiences that challenge our thinking and unravels new narratives that connect us to the earth as a living organism. Eva lives in North Norway and shows, lectures and performs her work worldwide. evabakkeslett.com

Oct2015MeadMark Watson connects people, plants and places through walks, talks, teas, meads and other ferments. He has led medicine plant walks at Dark Mountain gatherings, and demonstrated how to make mead in five minutes at the launch of Dark Mountain: Issue 8. As well as proofreading and downshifting, he is also part of the Dark Mountain production team and writes an occasional blog, Mark in Flowers. 

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Dark Kitchen: Uncivilising the Table

Today we begin a new series that explores food and eating in times of collapse. During this Lenten month we’ll travel through different kingdoms and terrains, sharpening our appetites and cooking knives, in the company of artists, filmmakers, writers and activists – starting with an introduction by series editor Charlotte Du Cann.

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Medlars in a Sieve by Food/ Still life photography: Sue Atkinson  www.sueatkinson.co.uk

We are looking at a plate. Tiny translucent slices of fish are artfully arranged around its rim. It is 1990 and we are in a Japanese restaurant in downtown Manhattan. ‘Who is going first?’ we wonder and laugh nervously. I am with Hamilton and Steve. We’ll all go at once we decide and put the poisonous raw fugu in our mouths, declaring that a tingling was definitely happening. The dish costs $50.

We are looking at a plate. On it piled in chunky layers are home-baked sourdough bread, crispy seaweed and a poached egg. It is 2017 and we are outside in the lee of the Dorset cliffs, cooking on a camping stove. Everyone wants to go first. I am with Caroline, Jack and Mark and yesterday we cut the bright green fronds from the rocks, as the aquamarine sea swirled about our feet. We declare this is possibly the best breakfast we have ever had and laugh.

This is a story about food and powerdown. It could seem like a personal story except that it is not: it is a social story about how everything changes when you break the illusions your civilisation is wrapped in.  In 1990 I am staying in the Algonquin Hotel, covering the US fashion collections, and I know nothing about the industrial food system; in 2017 I am staying in a hut on a beach, talking about Dark Mountain, and I know all its dark secrets. Decades later the Spring collections will still send beige raincoats down the catwalk and the forests of kelp will continue to wave their ancestral arms in the currents of the English channel – but the world I am documenting, like the food I now cook, is radically different.

This is a series called Dark Kitchen: a set of pieces that will look at and question the culture of food in times of fall. It’s not a subject Dark Mountain has focused on before, even though writing and cooking share a creative terroir, not least in their ability to bring things to the table, to alchemise raw material into food for the mind, heart and body. Up to now any focus on food has been practical: the Uncivilisation festivals hosted foraging walks, we’ve published pieces on mead making, bread baking in Australia and a recipe for a very rooty, roadkill pheasant stew; this series aims to bring a writer’s and artist’s particular attention to food from a Dark Mountain perspective.

Our focus will not be on the labyrinth, the whirlygig of distribution centres and trucks that thunder along our roads, all the data and polemic, but on finding the dancing floor beneath it. Around all our sentences lie the deforested lands, the denuded and poisoned oceans, the lost soil, the vast herds of creatures living and dying invisibly in dark sheds. We know what is going down. Our core question is, once you have railed at the machine that holds us in its palm-oiled maw, what do you do as an artist, as a storytelling human being, knowing that every time you venture out with a shopping basket, you return with blood on your hands?

Dark Kitchen aims to gather some of the stories about food that go untold at the edge of our civilisation. All civilisations flourish and flounder according to their ability to feed themselves. All of us, as human animals, no matter where we exist, on what social and political map, need to eat to live. Like death, this is a fact of our existence here. How we can we do that sustainably, with kindness, with fairness, is a question many grassroots organisations and activists ask themselves.

One they do not necessarily ask however is: how do we change the story of our lives, built as it is on millions of years of living in hunter/gatherer bodies, thousands of years living in wheat and barley-fed civilisations, in nomadic milk-herding geographies? Food is not a matter of intellectual debate: it is physical and feeling memory, deep time memory, cultural and personal history. It is people and relationships with domestic and wild creatures, conviviality, tradition, hunger, belonging, snobbery. Roast dinners, fish and chips by the sea. It is hunting deer and keeping chickens, curry on a Friday night when you were a student. It is visiting the markets of Morocco, or France, or your gran who cooked the best lemon meringue pie ever.

How do you come up with a new way of interacting with the world that means all that culture stored inside of you and everyone you know, constantly reflected from shiny magazine pages, on TV screens, on your best friend’s Instagram, has to go?

Roland Barthes observed in his seminal work Mythologies how the modern left faltered before the sheer power and sexiness of the capitalist advertising industry. How can you match the pull it has on your most basic desire: to eat delicious food, tasting of fat and salt and sweet, ready made without effort, without thinking of where it has come from, a food without consequence, untainted by guilt. Every day feast food, seeped in the lure of luxury, convenience, pleasure, control – the defining signature of a corporate lifestyle.

A humble recipe for vegan nut roast is not going to cut the mustard, any more than modern socialism has been able to counter market fundamentalism. The glamour and snobbery of high culture, and the physical desires and  habits of most people, are too strong. Something else has to pull you more powerfully in another direction: something that has its roots in the land, in a deeper culture that also looks prophetically to the future,  that has intelligence, meaning and ethics and still tastes good.

One thing corporate dining, for all its cheffy fancies and huge glasses of wine, does not have and never will: the relationship with the non-human, with the earth, with the plants and creatures who stand to go down with us if we don’t dismantle the labyrinth. This relationship is above all things a matter of the heart. Dark Kitchen is about remembering one of the oldest and simplest stories ever told: a love affair with the fabric of life.

 

Powerdown

Bread b7w

Where did the shift away from that plate of fugu begin? I read a cookbook by Colin Spencer with a no-holds-barred description of slaughterhouses. I gave up eating meat. I read End of the Line by Charles Clover. I gave up eating fish. I read Eat Your Heart Out, Felicity Lawrence’s document about corporate control and the fate of African workers in the glasshouses of Spain and Italy. I gave up buying out-of-season tomatoes. I stopped going to supermarkets. Then I went to a documentary hosted by a local Transition initiative where Derrick Jensen spoke about the agricultural revolution and how it had decimated the wild world. Somewhere a restaurant door slammed shut and an allotment gate clicked open.

In Transition I bumped into everything that the advertising and supermarkets keep in the dark: land grabs, slavery, GM, pesticides decimating insect and bird populations, slurry from pig farms killing the rivers and oceans. I started to look at the barley and beet fields outside my window in a new light and shudder.

In those grassroots community activism years, food growing connected us all: we knew that growing radishes would not change the world but it would radically change our relationships with the earth and with each other. I became a serial food blogger charting the downshifting moves within food production: growing co-ops, box schemes, gleaning networks, apple-pressing weekends, potato days, community bakers, seed swaps, the plight of the honey bees, and the ex-Agriculture minister John Gummer telling us at a farmers’ conference on Climate Change and Food Security:

This is the biggest issue agriculture has faced, and unlike the Depression in the 1930s and the Black Death we are not facing this in ignorance. And because we know we are responsible. People don’t want to know of course, because once you know it changes you and you are ashamed.

It was a time where people on panels said these kinds of things and prophesied that bio-tech loaves and fishes would feed the 9 billion. It was a time of bringing potatoes to Occupy camps and wild weed salads to low-carbon meetings, of rescuing a whole side of salmon and punnets of strawberries from the Latitude festival recycling bins, cooking Mexican and raw food feasts for community diners. It was a time where The Monitor in the kitchen told me exactly how much power was eking out of the fridge and the kettle. When some women wept and struggled with their Tesco habit, and others implored me not to tell them exactly what their shrimp habit was doing to the seabed or the coastal mangroves of South East Asia.

But something was missing. Everything I wrote had this evangelical tone. We need to reduce our energy use! Get in season! Make your store cupboard resilient! Wake up to the real price of consumerism! I realised neither knowledge nor social justice gives enough heft for people to change tracks. To be in synch with the living systems, to restore the land, to eat beautifully with conscience, to find meaning in an everyday humble meal, an imaginative relationship with the physical world had to be created. Our hearts had to be rekindled by something stronger, more alluring, than any feel-bad information. Something you never thought of before  like seaweed for breakfast on a limestone beach in September.

 

A short story about beansBeans 2

I am standing on Dark Mountain’s Base Camp stage, holding a handful of field beans. These beans are what this weekend is all about, I am telling the gathering. Field beans have been grown here in Britain since the Iron Age and embody one of the uncivilised principles of the manifesto  being rooted in time and place.

The beans are produced by my friend Josiah, who started a small business in a nearby Suffolk market town with Nick and William five years ago. The beans were all about shortening the supply chain, encouraging farmers to grow a crop that was either given to cattle or sold to the Middle East, and that was nutritious not only for an eat-less-meat-and-dairy-cook-from-scratch culture, but also for the soil that is being rapidly depleted by fossil-fuelled farming.

But most of all the beans were about telling a different story. A Jack in the Beanstalk story about a boy who sells his mother’s cow for a handful of beans that totally changes their luck. The beans were followed by peas of many colours, and then quinoa (grown not in Bolivia but in Essex), and now lentils, naked barley and oats, and a host of other grains and pulses, grown with the same kind of attention to place and provenance that has made local craft beers rocket in popularity in the face of corporate brewing. In short, a whole shelf of basic goods that would normally be imported, in fields that would normally host monocultural commodity crops grown for the global market. Last year Hodmedods won BBC Producer of the Year and had to move warehouses, as everyone else began to agree those beans just took you to places that Mr Heinz never could.

One of the successes of the fava bean is that it is a beloved ingredient in the fragrant and spicy cuisines of  the Middle East and other countries. To end each of our Dark Kitchen posts we’ll be cooking up a recipe that will capture the flavour of some of the story we’re telling, that shows though we may live in more austere restricted times, there need be no limit to our imaginations and flair and generosity. This is a classic North African dish made with fava beans instead of chickpeas and served with quinoa instead of couscous. It can serve two to four people  just add less or more veg.

Seven vegetable tagine

Soak a big handful of fava beans overnight and then cook until soft (approx 40 minutes). Keep to one side. Whole beans keep their shape but split fava is OK too if you don’t mind a bit of collapse in your cooking (no need to soak).

Chop one onion and fry gently in olive oil in a largish saucepan. When softened add 2 cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of ras el hanout spice (or a mix of cumin, coriander, mixed spice and chilli pepper) and fresh green chilli if you like it hot. Stir and then add your roughly chopped seven veg which will depend on season: swede, leeks and parsnips in winter for example, courgettes, green pepper and turnips in the summer. You’re looking for a strong taste and a chunky texture, so celery and carrots are good. Cabbage however is key and can be added half way through the main cooking so it keeps its form.

Stir in the spicy oil for a minute or two then add 2 tomatoes and a squeeze of tomato puree, or the equivalent in tinned tomatoes, and water to just below the level of the veg. Throw in a handful of sultanas and half a preserved lemon (or a couple of slices and the juice of half a fresh squeezed lemon). Stir, pop on the lid and cook until the veg starts to soften (about 15 minutes). Add the beans for a further five.

Before serving add salt and black pepper to taste, plus a big handful of chopped coriander and/or parsley. Served with quinoa, flavoured with orange zest, cinnamon and toasted sunflower seeds, a bowl of slaw or salad, and some feisty harissa.

Next course:

The Dark Kitchen series will run throughout February, but will continue as an occasional series when the new-look Dark Mountain website is launched in mid-March. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to charlotte@dark-mountain.net. Thanks all and bon appetit!

Images: Medlars in a Sieve by Food/ Still life photography: Sue Atkinson www.sueatkinson.co.uk; loaves from a co-operative oven, Can Piella, Catalonia by Phillip Evans ; a handful of (field) beans by Mark Watson

breadbowlCharlotte Du Cann is an editor and art editor on the Dark Mountain Project. She has worked as a waitress, a cook, a food stylist, a food editor, written a book about food and society (Offal and the New Brutalism) and run a collaborative Transition initiative called One Planet Community Kitchen  She loves to grow asparagus kale but cooks it better. charlotteducann.blogspot.com

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A Space for Stories

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Do you remember any storytelling sessions from your childhood?

I had posed my long-standing favourite question once more. This time to Saw John Aung Thong, a person from the Karen community living in a village in Mayabunder in Middle Andaman.

There were so many, he answered. During the harvest time we would all sleep in the lower part of our house and have long storytelling sessions way into the night. Our house was like any other traditional Karen house, a bamboo hut on stilts with its lower part set aside for storing grains.

What John said may seem simple enough but it made me realise that I had gotten so caught up with exploring the content of folk stories, that I had given little time to think about the pivotal role played by the site of the exchange. But taking a cue from his observation, I started noticing the connection of space with stories.

For the aan-kath (riddle sessions) of Munsiari in the Himalayas, the kitchen with its central hearth (locally known as raun) was a space for people to gather during snowbound winters for long-winding sessions of guessing-games of local riddles, some hilarious, some educative, and many both. For the Diné tribe of North America, there is sacred significance in holding storytelling sessions in winter in hogan, their traditional circular dwellings with a central fire. Amongst the Guna Yala people of Panama, the sacred history and legends are sung by Saila, the spiritual and political leader, in a special meeting house (onmaked nega).

On a closer look, it becomes clear that many customary forms of storytelling have also had a customary setting. The settings vary. While some require a rooted, bound place for a story, others require more open space. It doesnt have to be a constructed shelter and could be the canopy of a banyan tree, the top of a mountain, the bank of a river.

I once heard Pascal Gbenou from Benin talk about how a tree in their area was known as the ‘chatting tree’ because people would go there for gossiping. The logic was that since it was in the open you had a 360 degree view around you. It was not considered appropriate to ever gossip in an enclosed place for you would never know who is there on the other side of the wall! That made me think about how in my own hometown in Punjab, people spread out cots in an open courtyard in summer and exchanged stories.

The storytelling can sometimes overflow further into the landscapes, as is seen in the songlines of Aboriginal tribes running through the length and breadth of Australia, inextricably linking space with story. These are pathways stretching across the land or the sky that, according to indigenous Australians, were followed by different creator beings at the beginning of time. There are traditional songs that are sung by indigenous people as they travel through these routes, the words and rhythm of which vividly bring the landscape of the route to life.

Can we then really talk about traditions of storytelling and their relevance while ignoring their linkages with the settings in which these arose, took shape and bloomed? What happens when the banyan tree is sawed down? When the kitchen loses its circular setting with the central hearth, and is instead implanted with shelves that force the people preparing the food to turn their back to the rest? When the lower floor of a Karen house on stilts becomes a space filled with rooms instead? When a sacred rock is mined? Or when the Australian landscape of dreaming spirits becomes obstructed by humongous technological structures that may be hideous but more important for progress.

We are losing these spaces which allowed the stories to flow and it is hard to tease out the reasons. Did we lose the space for the stories because we didnt find them relevant enough, or was the loss of stories merely a collateral damage when that space was colonised for other priorities? It is like a chicken-egg paradox. But whichever came first, somewhere along the march of progress, a little by choice, a little by circumstance, we have managed to end up in place that has left little space for stories.

So what happens now? In an age obsessed with recording and broadcasting thoughts and life-events on a minute-to-minute basis and in our tendency to look for one-size-fits-all solutions, the documenting of folklore may seem like a tempting route to take. But for stories that have forever flowed through a different channel, putting these down in ink may end up turning them into dry museum pieces rather than living, flowing entities.

I have little knowledge of the latest architectural trends, and I know that we are at the brink of loss of old spaces, old stories. But perhaps it is still not too late. Perhaps as the need for stories is rekindled, there will also be a rethinking of spaces, rethinking of the design of houses, community spaces, towns and entire landscapes. Perhaps we will be able to save ourselves, coming back from the brink, with a mix of the old and the new.

Shiba Desor is a member of Kalpavriksh, an environmental group based in Pune, and a senior research assistant at Dakshin Foundation. She is also a member of a small women’s collective called Maati, based in Munsiari, Uttarakhand. She is part environmental researcher, part organiser of gatherings, part food-writer. She has co-authored a children’s book on food called Something To Chew On.

Image: David Bradley, White Earth Ojibwe Storyteller, 1980s
By Peabody Essex Museum – Own work, CC BY 3.0

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Numens, ghosts and fugitives: on being buried in the landscape

I found the place dark and deeply rural; it was extremely beautiful and often inexplicable. People did not seem so much to live there as to be holed up.
– Paul Theroux

In the early 1970s Theroux moved to Britain after living abroad for years in Malawi, Uganda and Singapore. He spent the first few months over winter in a rented house on the northeastern edge of the Marshwood Vale in Dorset.

I don’t really know why he pitched up here, of all places, except that, perhaps, it called to him. The house at Bowood gave Theroux the inspiration and setting for an early novel, The Black House, a ghost story. It tells how a retired anthropologist returns to England after years of study in Africa and rents a house in Dorset. At the start of the book he gives a talk to the locals and shows them various items he has collected. One of them, a figurine, goes missing. Things get nastier from there. Over-arching it all is the brooding sense of a dark, rainy, gale-lashed winter. It’s a terrific portrait of this part of the Dorset countryside and how it can oppress, test and expel people. And how it can bind you to it in a harsh, sometimes scary way; something very far from the lifestyle dreams of summer holidaymakers.

Theroux said of Dorset: ‘Everything I had expected to find in Africa I found on the edge of the Marshwood Vale. I was fascinated but I was also a little frightened. These are the emotions that produce fiction.’

Theroux wasn’t the first writer to be ensnared by the weirdness of the Vale. It’s always been a remote, obscure place, cut off from the larger world of human activity. It took two years for news of the Battle of Trafalgar to seep through to the scattered farmsteads. It’s very wet, and in winter, the deep clay made the roads impassable (the roads still flood). People nicknamed it ‘Old Bottom’ and called those who lived there ‘stick-in-the-muds’ – as they were, literally. It was also very poor. For two years at the end of the 18th century William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived at Racedown Lodge overlooking the Marshwood Vale. They walked all over the area – Wordsworth favoured the Iron Age hillfort at Pilsdon Pen – and they were appalled by the poverty they saw. The hunger and want changed Wordsworth’s perspective and inspired much of the social commentary in his early poems. ‘The Ruined Cottage’ where ‘nettles rot and adders sun themselves’ is one of these. It speaks of ‘poverty and grief’ in:

A time of trouble; shoals of artisans
Were from their daily labour turned away
To hang for bread on parish charity,

The Wordsworths themselves were poor and had to grow most of their own food. During the hard winter of 1797, William wrote to a friend: ‘I have lately been living on air and the essence of carrots, turnips and other esculent vegetables not excluding parsnips, the produce of my garden.’

Towards the end of the Wordsworths’ second spring at Racedown, Samuel Taylor Coleridge arrived, leaping over the field stile at the bottom of the garden, having walked all the way from West Somerset. He stayed three weeks, entranced both William and Dorothy, and persuaded them to join him on the Quantocks. It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

But Coleridge wasn’t the only reason the Wordsworths left Dorset. They went there in the first place because they were offered the house free of charge. It was owned by John Pinney, son of John Praetor Pinney, an affluent Bristol merchant and member of the Bristol West Indies Trading Company. The Pinneys were slave owners who had grown rich from their sugar plantations on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Young John was idealistic – Wordsworth met him originally through his circle of radical friends. It’s thought that when hardboiled John Snr. found out the house was being let for nothing, he ordered that Wordsworth should pay rent, or leave.

Praetor Pinney’s decision might also have been influenced by angry complaints from some of his farming tenants. They claimed that Wordsworth was a wizard who had been casting spells on their cattle. Wordsworth generally composed and refined his poems by reciting them aloud while walking. Every day he and Dorothy took long walks of two hours or more across the surrounding countryside. As they walked, William muttered poetry in his strong northwest accent, pausing now and again to survey the view through a pocket telescope. The local, southwest folk couldn’t understand what he was saying, and because of the incantatory rhythms and the fact he kept pointing a strange, possibly magical instrument at their cows, they concluded he was bewitching them.

This interpretation of Wordsworth’s behaviour was logical since the locals themselves used charms on their cattle. As late as the mid-20th century, many of the older farmers still used ‘charmers’ to cure warts, ‘red water’ and adder bites. I heard about this from the farmer who now owns Racedown Farm, opposite the house where Wordsworth lived. In the 1950s and 60s his father was a vet in the Vale. He often came up against folk remedies. Sometimes the farmers called the vet when a cow was ill, and sometimes they went to the charmer. When telephones first came to the Vale, they proved very good for the charmers’ business. Several farmers had phones installed not because those solitary men wanted to chat to anyone – whom would they speak to and about what? – but so that the charmer could talk directly to the cows without the bother of a visit. On more than one occasion the vet turned up to a farm to find a cow in the kitchen with the phone speaker held to its ear so that the charmer could whisper the magic words direct.

We might laugh at this. But who can say that in some ways those sibilant charms and Wordsworth’s muttered poems were not magical incantations? The Anglo-Saxon root of the word ‘spell’ means ‘speech’ or ‘story’. Wordsworth was accused of putting a spell on the land as he walked, but what if the opposite were the case – that the land put a spell on him, which he expressed in the lines he composed as he walked?

It was a story – a spell – that brought me to West Dorset.

A long time ago, when I was a student, I came across a thriller called Rogue Male. Oh how we all laughed at the title: Rogue Male. It became an in-joke – we called an unfortunate friend ‘rogue sausage’ because of his many girlfriends. We built a story around it. That’s how stories work – they flow into us and create new stories. It was a while before I actually read the book itself – and then I was amazed. It was so gripping, so taut, and it seemed to me to be about more than it appeared. There was something totemic in it about the countryside, about the landscape. Time passed and I forgot; the story became buried in my mind. Then I moved to West Dorset, an area I didn’t know at all, and ended up in Powerstock, where some of the scenes are set. Much later I found out that Powerstock was where the author, Geoffrey Household, had lived. With a slow sense of waking up I realised where I was, and it was like a dream soaking into reality.

Rogue Male isn’t a joke. It was the first of a whole genre of tightly plotted action thrillers, before James Bond, before Len Deighton. It tells how an unnamed anti-hero tries and fails to assassinate a Hitler-like figure. He survives an attempt to kill him and flees for his life. There’s a nerve-twisting hunt on the London Underground, which prompts the hero to ‘disappear’. He chooses Dorset; literally burying himself in the landscape. He digs a den in an ancient hedgebank, or holloway, overlooking the Marshwood Vale and holes up, hoping to evade capture. He goes feral and lives as a beast, relying on cunning and instinct to save him from death.

Published in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War, the novel can be seen as an allegory for beleaguered Britain, retreating into its island fastness and ultimately defeating the foreign enemy with a combination of toughness and intelligence. Nearly 80 years later, there are other ways to read his story (apart from the Brexit analogy). Psychologically, the anti-hero is seriously repressed, even by the standards of the time. He sublimates all his emotions and sensations, refusing to give in under torture. In doing so, of course, he reveals to the reader how damaged he is, and how his emotional state has forced him to take refuge in a deliberately ‘uncivilised’ mode of being. In this sense, his retreat into the landscape in search of safety and salvation from the horrors of the modern world follows the same path as neo-romantic artists of the 30s and 40s. I’m thinking of Paul Nash, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Eric Ravilious. In their paintings the landscape is a state of mind. It has a definite sense of place, a sense of the numinous about it.

Numinous. Comes from ‘numen’.

A numen is the spirit or divine power presiding over a thing or place. It’s a Latin word but it embodies a concept deeply embedded in prehistory, before Ancient Rome or Greece existed. Here in Britain we once had many wayside shrines to the small, local gods, symbols of the vivifying numen. They were part of the genius loci, the spirit of the place.

I think we all have a sense of numen. It’s not the same as religious belief. You could regard it as quite a straightforward thing; a reaction that comes from attuning ourselves to the natural world. It might be what we feel when we a faced with the strong perception that there is a real, living reality outside of ourselves, and that we are a small part of it.

Numen is also used by anthropologists to denote the idea of magical power residing in a totemic object: an object like the African figurine that goes missing from the anthropologist’s collection in The Black House. But the Vale, like all nuministic places, has no need of fictional objects and imported ghost stories. It has its own historic totems.

For hundreds of years the old house at Bettiscombe Manor belonged to the slave-trading Pinneys, Wordsworth’s hosts. According to legend, when plantation founder Azariah Pinney retired, he brought back some slaves with him to England. One of them was old, and he fell sick in the cold, damp air of the Vale. During his last hours this slave made Azariah promise that when he died, his body would be shipped back to his family in the Caribbean so he could rest in peace. If Azariah broke his promise, the slave vowed he would never leave him or his family alone. He then died and Azariah promptly bundled him into a pauper’s grave in the churchyard nearby. For the next three nights the manor house was disturbed by unearthly screams. On the fourth night, when all the Dorset servants were on the brink of leaving, Azariah gave in and opened the grave. He found the skull, miraculously picked clean, and took it into the house, whereupon the screaming stopped.

It’s true there is a human skull in Bettiscombe Manor. In the 1960s, the then owner, Michael Pinney, had it formally examined by an archaeologist from the British Museum. He concluded that it was very much older than the 18th century, probably in fact Iron Age, and most likely that of a woman. The skull has a smooth, brown patina of limestone, possibly the result of spending centuries underwater in a spring. Further investigation by Michael Pinney into the slave story revealed that it wasn’t a piece of old Dorset legend at all, but a tale made up in the 1830s by his ancestor, Anna Maria Pinney. She wrote it soon after the bill to abolish slavery in the British Empire was passed. Seen in this light, the story becomes a figuring forth of the buried guilt of her family.

Some places invite responses from the deepest part of the unconscious mind. Dig down through the strata of fiction and history and layers of story and spell will appear.

If stories are, literally, spells, then what are ghosts? I’ll say straight away that wondering whether ghosts exist rather misses the point. Coleridge summed it up when he said: ‘A lady once asked me whether I believed in ghosts and apparitions. I answered with truth and simplicity: “No, madam! I have seen far too many myself.”

There’s a distinction to be drawn between ghosts and spirits. Ghosts, supposedly, are apparitions of dead mortals, be they people, animals, or dead people taking the shape of animals – headless highwaymen on headless horses, legendary black dogs or murdered queens. Or they inhabit objects – like the Screaming Skull. They are trapped between worlds, craving release.

With personality comes human character and history. Each ghost trails its story; its his-story or her-story, without which it would mean nothing, and therefore be nothing. The fear of a ghost story resides in the telling of that story – the gradual, creepy uncovering of buried and forgotten truth. In M.R. James’ classic ghost stories the trigger is often the unearthing of an actual buried object – a whistle say or a crown – which then releases retribution. It’s significant that the objects are historic and that they are buried in the ground. We are back with the anthropological meaning of numen as a sacred object of special power, and the notion of burial in the landscape. Psychologically, we’re back in the Vale, where people, as Theroux wrote, ‘don’t so much live as hole up’.

Spirits, however, are immortal, insubstantial entities, which may not ever have been alive in the same solid sense as the beings who became ghosts. They belong where they are found. In other words, spirits are emanations of place, whereas ghosts are personifications of history.

On the wooded hill at the back of Bettiscombe Manor there is a massive, tilted standing stone set on a peculiar hump with a natural spring bubbling out below. It’s called the Wishing Stone and is said to slide down the hill on Midsummer’s Eve, to return the following morning. It’s not on a public right of way and few people know about it. Michael Pinney was convinced that it was a sacred spot. Sometimes I go there and sit on the wooden bench next to it. The stone points out across the Vale as if it is beaming some kind of invisible ray over the land. Perhaps it is.

Sara Hudston is a writer and editor living in rural West Dorset in an old house with tarpaulins on the roof. Occasional newts in the downstairs bathroom. Guardian Country Diarist.

Images
First: ‘A View from Marshwood’ by Derek Harper (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Second: ‘Byway on County Boundary – the Holloway gets even deeper’ by Chris Reynolds (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Paul Theroux quoted in The Sunday Times, ‘A haunting story in the Wessex Hills’, winter 1986/7

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The Marked Ones

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The housing development was called Las Marcadas – The Marked. It sat in a flat plain, firm and abutting against the low hills to the northwest. A nondescript beige sign announced the cul-de-sac entrance in large fonts, overshadowing the smaller National Monument placard pointing north. I parked my rental car and checked my watch.

I was in Albuquerque killing time until my afternoon flight. I don’t know if you’ve even been there but on a late winter’s Sunday there are a million better places to be. The baked brown/grey streets are mostly devoid of life and the air smells of windy sadness. I had asked the hotel clerk how far I could drive away from any of this and still make my 5:00 flight. He suggested Petroglyphs National Monument. OK. That was the plan then.

The drive up to the park headquarters took me through streets of shuttered ‘Big! Lots!’ stores and drooping attempts at suburban gardens. It was all near deserted, save grim-faced pickup drivers and shambling woozy alcoholics, swaying still from the night before. I turned on the radio and sang along to Spanish advertising jingles.

When I pulled up, the ranger was jarringly helpful. Full of caffeine and shimmering dental veneers. I gave him my flight time and asked what I could do in the time I had. He launched into a cavalcade of the myriad tourist possibilities this little corner of New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, offered. He showed me the very many local postcards on display, each with a ‘beautiful view to send the folks at home.’ He was friendly and kind but I was grumpy and already deeply soured of humanity by 10am. I forced a smile and picked a trail at random. Piedras Marcadas. Located in a ‘lightly travelled’ part of the park twenty miles to the northeast.

And now here I was. Mindful of the ‘please secure your possessions/this is an urban park’ warnings, I pulled my coat over my travel bags and locked the car.

The trail skirted Las Marcadas to the north, allowing a glimpse into half-hearted xeriscape backyards and yellow plastic toys strewn as afterthoughts on concrete patios. A large dog was baying in the distance. Wind-dried Walmart bags were tangled in the sage brambles. I hiked up the sandy wash of a path, nodding at passing teen joggers, and headed to the foothills. I could see tracks of jackrabbits and coyote, sharp and recent, in the loosely packed dust. I looked down and kept walking.

It was not long before I saw marks. There – on the high rock to the right – was a handprint. Above was a spiral and what seemed to be a spaceman. A curious looking bird and a snake straight as a wizard’s staff.

The marks were chock-a-block and were tumbled down the hills. There were hundreds cascading down the slopes. Not in obvious places though. Climbing was required.

There is a body-memory delight in clambering up a rocky hill. In scaling boulders looking for petroglyphs. Time becomes fluid and then just slips out of its everyday parameters. I forgot everything else and focused on the ground and rock faces in front of me. But as I scrambled over the land I noticed other marks as well. The graffiti left by modern travelers. Some was of the ‘Trevor loves Mary’ or the ‘Jesus is my saviour’ type. But most was far more subtle. A scratched antelope, like the older running ungulate to the side, only this one just a few years old. A star-scape, fine grained as if pecked by a screwdriver. A man-ghost.

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Unlike the scribbled names of passing vandals, these other marks blended in with the landscape. From a distance, last year’s man with a spear could be a centuries-old shaman. These cuts and scrapes left the carver anonymous – his or her own memory of the work as the only testament to their presence. All tracks of their lives here, in suburban New Mexico and three blocks from the nearest Starbucks, erased from view. Instead, what was etched into the so very black surface was more of a longing than of any specific figure. Not an antelope but rather a conduit. A pull to belong to an older community of the land. Back when it was an untamed and unpaved place. Back when it was a place beyond the illusion of modern control and containment.

Vandalism is a scourge throughout our American wild land. Petroglyph National Monument, from all accounts, fares worse than most places. Possibly due to its urban setting alone. Just a few years back someone plastered gold spray paint graffiti inside a sacred cave several miles away in Boca Negro Arroyo. The selfishness and narcissism of these acts is rightly condemned. But what is this other graffiti? This ancestral mimicry? Is it something else? Rather than a shout that ‘I exist – Look at me now,’ it is more of a diminishment. A shrinking of the carvers themselves into the curve of historical time. A dissolution of their present self in exchange for a more primitive connection. A cry for belonging.

It’s a horrible thing too of course. A willful obliteration of the irreplaceable sacred. A violent intrusion into what should remain mythos. Yet a melancholy wind, a grey miasma, surrounds this destruction. It is the same sort of pathos that names a burnt-tan and repetitive housing development Las Marcadas. And maybe it is the same sadness that pulled me out from downtown that Sunday morning to stare at 500-year-old pecks and scratches as well.

A couple from Minnesota walked by. They were seeing the National Parks on a retirement dream trip, and we commiserated about the vandalism. Our words were full of ‘What a shame’ and ‘How could they?’ But my heart wasn’t fully in it. For really, who would not want, in their heart of hearts, to leave the paved and banal American Dream for the wide vistas from half a millennia ago? With less sense of the sacred, and less fear of looming arrest too, would I do the same? No I wouldn’t. But how can I really judge? The same longing resides within me as well.

I was out of time in this place. We all were. The tourists from Minnesota and the vandals from last season as well. I caught my flight and awoke the next morning in the rain-splattered green valleys of my Northwest home, thinking I’d been in a dream for those few hours. I looked at my photos to make sure the memory was real and then filed them away.

Now, over a year later, I’ve forgotten much of that trip. Forgotten the tourist shops of Santa Fe and the recommended posole and tamal cafes. Only the question really remains. Were these vandals seeking something more than defacement? Were they seeking a dissolution of their concrete, paycheck on Friday lives into the surrounding land? And aren’t I seeking that as well?

Over the years, Kim Schnuelle has spent time as a horse trainer, palaeontology student, marine biologist, coroner’s assistant, parolee educator, family law attorney, and occasional poet. She lives in the northwest corner of the United States with her husband and their Texas stray hound Chucho. Although Kim seeks out undeveloped places wherever she goes, she remains unconditionally and head over heels in love with our wild western lands. 

 

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The Writing of Mountain Calls

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It has Zen. It has motorcycles. It has talking mountains. I don’t know how else to introduce my environmental novel Mountain Calls, apart that is from its subtitle: ‘A philosophical eco travel romance murder mystery.’ The point about anything environmental or ecological is that it has to haul in everything to be anything. As John Muir says: ‘Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.’ For me, this sense of everything being connected to everything else is a religious or spiritual feeling, and there lies the problem. nature writing in its recent Western incarnation is determinedly secular, non-spiritual, non-religious. It is an exciting blend of science and aesthetics. But, in my opinion, it does not know how to take the insight of the great ecologists – that everything is indeed connected to everything – and apply that with any subtlety.

The connection that really mattered to me in writing Mountain Calls is with the last peak in the Austrian Alps, a mountain called the Rax. I regularly visit family in Vienna and on one particular trip in winter I longed for some snow, quite absent that time in the Austrian capital. My cousin suggested a day-trip to the Rax, an outing that led to profound changes in my life and outlook. That is because at the end of the day, looking back up at the peak from the valley below, the Rax spoke to me.

I had taken a double-decker electric train – a engineering marvel of the German-speaking world – to a village close to the mountain, and then a bus to the lower station of the thousand-metre cable car. In the lounge and car park at the bottom of the mountain, temperatures hovering just above freezing, I fell into conversation with two Protestants intent on converting the Catholic majority of Austria to Protestantism. I have adventures like that. We continued our discussion as the steel-and-Perspex cabin bumped and swayed its way to the top, temperatures there at around minus nine Celsius. We further continued our theological debate as we walked across the plateau from the cable-car station cum guesthouse to another guesthouse some miles away, a place frequented by Sigmund Freud on his summer holidays and the site of one of his major psychoanalytical insights. (I think it was to do with one of the waitresses.) On the way back, in intense discussion over the status and nature of disembodied spirits, we got lost in a blizzard and only realized our mistake in time before darkness descended. I bought them bean soup at the cable car station and in return they gave me a lift along the valley. At my request they dropped me off a mile or so before the train station, leaving me with the distinct impression they were glad to get rid of me. My theology was not to their taste.

I walked perhaps a half mile, conscious of the peak of the Rax lit up by the sunset behind me and looming ever larger as I walked away from it, clearly some kind of optical illusion. Then it spoke to me.

We are anxious about what your kind are doing to our world.

I did not hear it as English words, but was forced by the intensity of the experience to record it in this way. The sense was clear. There was an anxiety. And it was about what humans are doing. And that this world is shared between the human and the non-human.

For four years this experience lay in the background of my busy life as a university lecturer. I knew I had to go back, and that I had to write up the next trip as a novel, a travelogue of a journey into the unknown. I had to converse with the mountain again and I had no idea what would come of it. To prepare myself for the longer exposure to its snowstorms and blizzards – I felt that winter wildness was essential to this process – I had formulated a question to put to the Rax. I think I grew up with a sense of the land as situated, as the great eco-philosopher Arne Naess puts it. When you place a Cartesian grid over the land, build grid-like buildings, and live with the Lego-like modernism of contemporary interiors that sense of being situated through a living thing like a forest, or a mountain or a river is lost. To live the more deeply connected life that nature demands of us means to have a consciousness that roams over the entire planet, encountering all of its situated peoples and asking of them: what are you doing to our world? The grid is at one end of a spectrum occupied at the other by war, all of which hurts and disrespects nature. Our bombing leaves small-scale ecological disasters in its wake, all part of the mosaic of the large-scale ecological disaster whose first face to us is of catastrophic species loss. So, with all this in mind I had a question for the mountain, a way of focussing our conversation, though I knew well enough that no preparation I could make would be adequate for the coming encounter.

My journey to Austria for that second winter-time visit to the Rax began with the human activity of the London Underground, Luton Airport, and then the incredible view of the planet from the EasyJet 737-700, not that different really in its impact from ‘Earthrise’, taken by astronaut William Anders in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission. Comparing that image of the planet with the deeply poignant account by Julian of Norwich of seeing the world as a hazelnut in her palm, fragile, vulnerable, sustained only by the love of God, I wondered what would sustain us now, transported by the luminosity of the view. The clouds that mostly obscure the land below had a lacunarity, a rhythm, and density that varied from vermicelli, to can-end spurted shaving cream, to cake icing. The piles of cloud-stuff were punched, twisted, blurred, re-focused, scattered and drawn together; heaped and roped – topologies and geographies of the temporal, just like the limestone-granite of the Alps but on a different timescale and plane. Like the membrane of an egg-sac the cloud-cover stretched brilliantly under the shimmering blue – what would sustain the globe beneath it? For humanity has now so disrupted the biosphere that its very future is in doubt.

This time it was minus fifteen Celcius on the mountain. Over just three days I walked in hired snow-shoes in wildly varying weather, pretty much alone, as the busy season for the Rax is in summer when the wild-flower meadows of the plateau soothe and bewitch visitors and present few dangers, as long as you do not wander near cliff-edges. In a blizzard you have to be more careful, but at the same time it gave me the right conditions. The snowstorms obliterate everything human. I was protected only by my winter clothing and my wits; otherwise I was still, silent, available. I did not expect anything specific. My earlier years pursuing various meditation practices had taught me that. You make yourself available, as Henry Thoreau did at Walden Pond, and wait for ‘it’ – as he called it – to happen. You walk and make yourself available for grace, undemanding, uncomplaining. So I flomped around on snow-shoes, the sharp cold air in my lungs and the dramatic skies above me, alternately opening to brilliant sunshine and closing in to cocoon me in soft grey swirling silence, alone, available.

Nothing happened. Of course. I knew better than that. But in the guest-house in the valley below on the last night I lay in an overheated bedroom, melting snow dripping from the big red pines outside my window, and, yes, I heard again from the Rax. It was faint. I tested it, because we have to be clear about one thing: the human imagination would always like to rush ahead and arrive at the desired outcome. It doesn’t like to wait. But I tested what I heard by eliminating all that could possibly be my desire and my imagination and I got something I didn’t like at all.

The next day I walked in the valley, along a river made blue-green by cobalt minerals from the Rax. I thought that its looming presence would clarify for me what it was saying. The mountain was snow-peaked but maroon-tinged by the early spring buds of deciduous trees on the lower slopes; its presence never left my consciousness as I walked under it. I watched a chaffinch as the day warmed; I sat on a park bench by the little Victorian railway line that would have taken Freud and his family from their hotel in the valley to the cable car, and was baffled by the flight of a large insect, or was it a small bird? It was neither, it was a bat. At midday? That is the point of being in nature. It always surprises.

The mountain had spoken to me that night. The first impact of it was an incredible benignity. It took months to wear off after I returned to my family and university life in London. It is a sense of peace with others, an expansiveness that is a direct parallel to what the mountain seems to be: a nurturing presence. Mountain minerals run through our fields, give nutrients to plants and animals and sustain all of life; in the oceans too the limestone and granite residues feed the brilliant quicksilver ballets of predation in the green light of its depths. The mountain is not concerned over the sufferings and deaths of individuals. That is what makes the it non-human, but in the non-human of the mountain and in all of the non-human life that depends on it I am made human. Indeed if I wanted to say one thing in my novel it is this: that the non-human makes us human, and if we imperil the non-human we imperil ourselves. But the message I did not want to hear from the mountain on that second trip was that its anxiety had been replaced by another sentiment.

It is not at all certain that we are going to avoid environmental catastrophe. It is already upon us with the mass extinctions of the Anthropocene. But it is ‘anthropos’ – man – that the mountain has adjusted its understanding of, and so made me think differently about what it is to be human. It has taught me this: that we are the unique animal, the special animal, one that can recapitulate all of nature within us. And so the mountain loves us uniquely, specially. Yes, in a dim and now largely discredited way Ernst Haeckel suggested that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ meaning that the human recapitulates animal forms in the womb. But the mountain meant it at a far deeper level than Haeckel could imagine, in an animist or shamanic way perhaps. Does not the shaman, on donning a fox-fur mask, do so to recapitulate that animal, to experience the manner-of-being-in-the-world of that animal? What is more, we are the only animal that can fully recapitulate all the other creatures within us, all of nature within us, and that is our role.

It is not our role to save nature. We have to do what we can of course, but what really matters is that as individuals we go to nature, find it within us, and preserve the Earth inside our souls. The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent. We cannot know the timescale over which the Earth shall come and go. Hopefully we can collectively avert disaster. But merely avoiding polystyrene coffee cups, turning down the central heating, buying electric cars, wearing second-hand clothing, living in an earth-build or whatever we actively do to halt catastrophe, is neither enough – probably – nor where the only effort should lie. It should also lie in profound communication with nature in the smallest ways, observing a robin on the window-sill, a London plane tree towering over choking congestion, the world as reflected in the eyes of an interlocutor, whether friend, family or strangers in a blizzard on a mountain. One can do it looking up at the sky, working on an allotment, or walking by a city canal with its cormorants and herons and the other few birds remaining to us. It lies in putting oneself in the way of nature.

So I walked that day, under the mountain, sustained indirectly by its mineral sustenance, only a few alimentary processes removed from those of the bat which ate the insects, the flying minerals hatched directly in the blue-green waters that flowed from the mountain’s snow-fed springs. I danced in synchronicity with the bat as I attempted to keep its gorgeous orange-brown fur, ears and nose framed in my binoculars. I had to give up the choreography of alignment as the bat flew into the bushes but I continued to dance inside, to a music that was the gift of the mountain above me. And I knew I would return to its upper slopes yet again, another year, to put myself in the way of its winter moods, when the non-human would take me yet deeper into the human.

Mike King was Reader at London Metropolitan University, now retired and working as an independent multi-disciplinary scholar. He has published over sixty papers, book chapters, film and book reviews, and six books in religion, film studies and economics as well as three novels. He is a Quaker, grows vegetables and likes to walk in fields, mountains, woodland and riverbanks.

 

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Psalter, For Now

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The snow had finally given way and the river – coursing through Alaska’s lesser known temperate rainforests – ran high. Up ahead a hummingbird elevated and descended repeatedly amidst church-bell blueberry blossoms, boring its needle bill in and out. Unmindful of my approach, it sucked its nectar with aplomb while the spruce overhead bled what was left of the morning rain into mosses and witch-finger devil’s club.

Brown bears wear the trail smooth all summer and fall, seeking sockeye, pinks, and cohos, and fishermen wear it further in pursuit of the same. The hummingbird, a rufous, let me get within feet then raised out of the bushes, flying to the snow-beaten salmonberry stalks lining the other bank. The bird bounded from one stem to the next, looking for starry pink blossoms that hadn’t quite bloomed. Giving up, it lifted above the twisting alders before buzzing upstream, and I pressed toward the first of several sun-friendly willow brakes that hopscotched the danker conifer realms.

Bear droppings lay along the last of the spruce-shaded trail. Dark and fibrous, they reflected the vegetable-rich diet of spring, and looking down on one, I noticed a wolf, too, had been here. Four torqued tubes of moose and beaver hair, vole fur and bone fragment crisscrossed one another in a fresh bear print, while the canine’s own deep pads had left tracks in the mud where the first willow clearing began.

By late spring, moose cows range thick along this watershed. Willow growth is lush in the soggy ground and the big animals come here to drop calves, nursing them as best they can on milk and buds. Losses, though, are high. Wolves and bears have their own young to fret, and a thousand generations of knowledge, along with ever keener noses, lead both species to these same broken meadows to sniff out the humid musk of moose placenta and track the easy, weakened feast at its source. I looked up. Five ravens – myth-makers to the native Tlingits, as well as the land’s carrion eaters – were perched high in a cottonwood, watching. They, too, knew what played out in this country.

Pulling a water bottle and energy bar from my pack, I listened to a fox sparrow whistle deep in the willows while a ruby-crowned kinglet warbled atop the spruce wall across the meadow. After swallowing half the bar, I raised the bottle to drink.

We’re new to this, all of us. Whether banished from Eden or evolved from hunting and gathering is irrelevant. Either way, we’re a collective eye-blink from integration. There was a time when I wouldn’t have fussed much over sparrows or hummingbirds. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been alone, but in a band, right here, tight-knit and stitched by kinship. It’s no energy bar that would’ve sustained me, but knowledge, the same knowledge as the wolves and bears. My clansmen and I inhale, deep, through the nose, scenting words, sentences, orisons. Another breath. There it is, sticky and fresh. We fan out. She’s lying down, worn, licking her slick and floundering calf in birthy grasses. The bears are out here, too, and the wolf pack, but we find her first. A couple of quick yips by the discoverer and the rest come running – barefoot, hungry, strong. The mother tries to rise but can’t. She’s speared and the calf clubbed. Some members cut the animals up while others spread out in the brush, crouching, protecting. We’re grateful, and express so in some old, abandoned way. Divinity, I imagine, meant something else then.

I put the pack back on. A pair of orange-crowned warblers, competitors, had joined the kinglet and sparrow in song. Upstream, over the spruce tops, the sun caught the snow on distant peaks.

I enjoyed this, I knew, all of it, and was comfortable, even deeply moved, in these places – forest, desert, anywhere – but didn’t belong. None of us do. That world is gone, the language lost, and as I looked off the bank into swollen waters I wondered if I hadn’t burned up most of my life decoyed by a defunct god.


***


It’s hardly new, this sheared linkage. Unsettled by technology, people persistently look rearward, lamenting the lifestyles steadily bleached by whatever gizmo of the day is in their hands, from chariot whips to iPhones. Each mechanised leap forward breaks away equal shares of terrain behind us, and we mourn. Today, blitzed by the digital age and the innovative flood wrought first by steam then internal combustion, we tend to mark such crippling nostalgia from people like Henry Thoreau or the Romantics, for whom the source – nature and our fundamental indivisibility from it was grossly jeopardised by the Industrial Age.

Like humanity itself, though, the practice has no definitive origin. Socrates feared writing would wreck the human mind, and millennia before, unrecorded, it can be assumed the yoke and scythe roiled the human soul as much as today’s pixels and touchscreens. Even fire-on-demand likely spawned regret.

Standing on the river bank, I tried to put the current malaise of myself and so many nature-charged people in that context, but couldn’t help seeing this long lineage as a wave, one generated nearly at the start that is just now compiling to break. Even standing within it, we appear so decoupled from our quintessence – that original seamlessness in nature – that both our and its existences seem just that, separate entities.

We say it so often. However slick, however comfortable, our modern lives may be, they’ve leached away our vital interior. We know something critical is gone, and I knew it too by the river, but watching dark water move over stone, now a varied thrush hop from moss to limb then back again, then half a salmon skeleton – ribs cuddled around a nest of alder-snagged flood debris – I wasn’t sure that I or anyone else really understood what was gone, only that it was.

A jet flew overhead, descending into the village a few miles away, one of two daily flights in and out. Turning, I headed for the truck, knowing I yearned for something I couldn’t define while being dependent on things I wished I wasn’t, an ambivalence that had far greater potency than expected.


***


Born lucky, I’d always been a happy sort, well-grounded and largely immune to the depressive fogs that hamper so many I know, particularly in what we’ve increasingly accepted as the Anthropocene. Unable to shake the detachment I’d felt on the river that day, then, was something new, and as the weeks gave way to the short summer it became a concern.

My job with the state fish and game department kept me constantly in the woods, often alone, monitoring salmon spawning grounds. Normally I felt at ease there, as close to myself and the world as could be hoped, within fingers’ reach of that coquettish god I’d chased since childhood. Now, though, sloshing in streams shaded by spruce, listening to birdsong while watching the first salmon stage their fertility rites, I felt alien, alone, like a deer scratching ash in a burnt timberscape. Scratch enough, though, and revival comes, though when and of what I couldn’t know.

As so often happens, nothing dramatic did it. I didn’t climb a breath-taking peak nor repair to a remote lake for a healing hermitage. I simply moved through the same woods I always had, where the birds and the trees and the fish had lost what for me had been their lifelong enchantment. In a moment, though, during the sockeye run, in the normality of my job, it all returned.


***

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The stream
is named for the fish I meant to count, and if you’re looking for split-second majesty Sockeye Creek isn’t much to see. The land is flat and tree-shrouded. No Half Dome rises here. No Grand Canyon sinks nor Old Faithful spews nor Bering Glacier churns. No god on the half-shell. In a few spots I could jump across it, and for most of its length it runs no more than five yards wide. You have to walk this place, sitting from time to time, watching. Do it enough, learn it by years and seasons, and the old questions seep through like mist.

Floods had left generations of spruce trunks tangled in jams and crisscrossing the current along its length, and I worked my way up, over, and under the slip-throughs and catwalks that I always had, clicking fish off on the little device we called a tally-whacker. With no sockeye in a normally reliable pool, I cut across the bare gravel hemming it, noting a shred of rapidly drying milt – torn, buff-white, marred with a spider-burst of rotting blood – stuck to the stones, a lone vestige that the mink and jays hadn’t scavenged from a bear kill.

Coming to a large windthrow, I straddled one leg on each side and laid the rifle carried for bear protection on decaying wood. Tiny mushrooms, filaments of them with dew-drop heads, black in the stem and orange at the tip, were clustered in front of the gun. I had no idea what they were called, only that above the gurgling waters their delicacy of form belied a rapine for what the old tree still retained. For all its elegance, life’s every cell is complicit in a feral symbiosis, and if I was taken by the mushrooms’ frail splendor, it wasn’t lost on me that their wormy mycelia had been devouring this tree long before it toppled.

A sockeye finned in the pool above, then another. Still sitting, I ran a hand across my head, pressing sweat. July. Birdsong declines, but a fox sparrow husked a few notes from the salmonberries across the creek, lacking the lustful declaration of a few weeks before, while below, caddis larvae moved about the stream bottom inside the makeshift pebble tubes meant for self-protection, their bent, mechanical legs dragging them forward. Downstream, a grey, unimposing dipper dropped off a rock to enter the water. Emerging, it gained another stone, extracted a caddis from its dwelling, then swallowed. Nature seems so peaceful at times that we believe it to be so, and I wondered if joy wasn’t life’s only say, the rebellion against all that we – from people to buntings to tadpoles to stoneflies – don’t see, and may never comprehend.

Standing, I resumed the count, clicking off sockeyes. Some stretches were clean, not many fish and not many blow-downs, while others were choked with both. I came to the drowned forest where the channel had shifted some time ago, inundating trees in one line of wood while leaving the old route dry. The mountains, miles away, are visible here. The creek bed opens the forest in such a manner that a gravelled, timberless draw can be seen between two ridges. The slopes face south, and every year the same melt pattern lingers in the shadiest joint they share, one vertical line intersected by a shorter near the top. This cross clings through mid-July, and I looked upon it. Pure white save round the edges where the earth’s heat and burning sun ate the snow away, a run-off channel below it ran turgid, carrying flecks of mountain downslope. Standing there, in the jostled creek bed, with the peaks deliquescing in the distance, you can rightfully amend the old haiku: Though the capital may fall, the mountains and rivers remain. At least for a time.

When I reached the sickle-shaped pond where the count would end, I stepped out of the dark woods to enjoy the sunshine. The forest beyond the pond gives way to muskeg, a spongy, mossy morass. I stood at the water’s edge while the creek whispered behind me. A few tree swallows coursed above the water, nipping the surface. The sun had triggered a hatch, and midges found their way from water to air. All along the short beach bleached salmon relics, translucent, lay scattered among gray broken stone. Gill plates and ribs, a few jaw lines. Sockeye, pink, and coho. The valley of dry bones.

Squatting, I laid the rifle down then bowled my hands, splashing my face. Across the pond a tribe of monkshood grew from the sedge, their purple, downward frailty veiling the poison inside. A salmonberry stalk drooped nearby, weighted by a dozen fruits hung over the water. Rosy on top, green-revolving-to-red on bottom, the pimpled berries absorbed the sun, tempting bears, birds, and people. It starts with plant life, all of it, while plant life starts with that unfathomably far-off solar fission, and I realised that this was probably as close as I’d come. In all that searching, in all that god-crazed, purpose-crazed hounding that had slow-cooked most of my life, I wasn’t sure if I’d found anything at all, only doubting if we’ve ever really improved on truths we knew from the beginning, that the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog after all.

Piercing and persistent, a familiar sound cut the air. I stood. Not many birdsongs are unwelcome, but the monotone screech of a lesser yellowlegs is one of them. They stand atop dying evergreens alongside wetlands, scourging all comers with their well-developed alarum. This one, though, was hurt. Large for a shorebird, they’re otherwise unremarkable, with a needle bill, plump body, and stilted legs. Such a one now circled the patch of marsh that led from pond to muskeg. Normally their legs stick straight behind, but here an appendage dangled below in sad inutility. Stammering its protests downward in atonal succession, the bird ascended with each circumference, as if it could out-wing its fate, but it was no matter. It looked to the grass below, circling the circle of its own demise.

The swallows just then were as pleased with their lot as the shorebird was agitated by its own. Many more had gathered to revel in the reap of midge-life. They twittered about, arcing and slicing, intercepting the insects’ uncertain careers. Rise and descent, rise and descent, filling themselves with food. You understand joy when you see it, and as the swallows continued snapping midges from the air I sensed it as well, rising up to the burning blue, a stiff challenge to whatever indifference glowered upon them.


***

‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.’ Shakespeare gave that to Hamlet, and it’s become increasingly accepted since that we’re the divinity he implied. Maybe that was intended. Regardless, we seem to have as little control over how our ends are shaped now than if there is indeed outside agency.

As both master and slave, then, we press on, currently bound to destroy much of the world in which we developed all the old gods and all the old ways, the fossilised fragments of which so many of us seek. Watching the swallows, though, and witnessing the yellowlegs feather out the last of itself high above them, I gave myself over to the present. The future, I finally understood, can’t be known, and the past, enticing and instructional as it may be, is no oracle. The present, however, offers joy, our sedition, and the opportunity to marvel what’s at hand.

I’d moved to Alaska from New England, where settlers colonised Plymouth nearly four centuries before. The land there is changing, at least some of it. Commercial cranberry farms, operating for two centuries, are giving way to cheaper operations out west. In a few places, Plymouth included, people are restoring the bogs to their natural state. Excavating 200 years of human-piled sand, they weren’t sure how to re-vegetate the newly relieved wetlands. They didn’t have to. Dormant seeds sprouted from the peat, weaving their reeds, mosses, and grasses as if the English had never showed. Two hundred years of dark, a season of sun, then revival.

I’d lament the loss of life, I knew, the vanished species and all the rest, but seeds, it seems, have patience. How the devolution of modernity will play out is unknown, but everything dormant within us and without us will, eventually, germinate, giving rise to new gods and new ways, however shaped by the old. We’re not the wise ape, but we are the storytelling one, and will find, as we always have, fresh myths to sustain us. In the meantime I had the present, and birds and insects and fish with their own ways and myths before me.

 

Mike Freeman lived in Alaska for many years.  This essay is adapted from the memoir Neither Mountain Nor River: Fathers, Sons, and an Unsettled Faith.

Photographs by Nate Catterson.

 

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A Wild Compliance

563_mawooshen-bear

I’ve got maps spread out
all over the kitchen floor

headwaters splintering into deltas
whose braids are hollowing
my spirit of its untruths
the snow blowing down my collar
the rain leaking in through my boots
the river depositing silt into my hair
whittled down to sap
I’m letting the light in

however it wants to get in

Out in the darkness of the frozen lake

there are fish suspended
in the top six inches of ice
who will hold the dreams
of last summer’s water
through the winter,
and then pass them along
in the spring when the ice melts

and water again begins to flow

The part of me that is Watercress

Wolverine, Lark Sparrow and Bluestem
has been waking
in the middle of the night
near the fork of a creek
at the foot of a hill
and cannot return to sleep without asking,
how far away are we
and what must we do
to collectively imagine
a liberated future;
where the way we live
does not compromise life
where watersheds are not choked
where human beings
are not wage slaves
and our value system
is based in generosity

not accumulation?

These questions howl through me

like rivers and runaway witches
my life the voice to ask them with
my heart the tool shaping

the resilience and renewal they reveal

As the tamarack bogs never refuse a Moose

my resistance is an act of love
and my questions come not in judgment
but in service of life, as an invitation
to hear all that is silent in the river
all that clings with the burrs and sunset
to the Coyote’s tail
that does not require one to
comply with an economy
willing to sacrifice the braids of our ecosystem
Red Fox, Monarch, Hawk,
White Bark Pine, Salmon,
Bears Ears, Lake Superior,
Kawishiwi, Menomonee, or Yellow Dog
for a deluded version of wealth
that enriches supremacy,
fear, complacency, and disconnect,
but instead complies with
the entangled lives of
Box Turtles and thunderstorms
ancient forests and the joy of

Earths’ wild reciprocity.

Ben Weaver is a songwriter and poet who travels primarily by bicycle working to strengthen relationships between the water, land and the communities he visits.  His most recent record is called Sees Like a River.  You can learn more here: benweaver.net

Image by Jonathan Levitt jonathanlevitt.com

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Singing stories, telling tales

Indian_Kathakar_Storyteller_1913
Once upon a time, in the mountains of the Himalayas, when an old man was about to die, he beckoned his son to come closer. As the son drew near, the old man whispered, ‘son, I have only one piece of advice for you, sweeten your madua before you eat it’. Soonafter the man passed away, leaving the son slightly confused with his last message. Trying to follow the instructions, the son tried to eat madua with different sweet additions like gud, honey and sugar. Years went by and the son forgot about his father’s curious message. One day he went to the forest to collect firewood. He worked hard and by the time his chores were over, it was evening and he was very tired and hungry. He realised that he had brought along a few stale madua rotis tied in a cloth. With relief and gratitude, he opened the cloth and started eating the rotis. He was stunned. For never had madua tasted sweeter, taking him back to the words of his dying father. Now he finally understood what the old man had been trying to tell him. To really be able to taste the sweetness in your food, you need to be really hungry. To be really hungry, you need to have really worked.

Hirma Devi Sumtiyal, who is known to many in the village Sarmoli in Munsiari as Thul-Aam or ‘Elder mother’, told me this story. But she had not made it up. She had heard it during one of the countless Aan Katha sessions. Aan Katha sessions, where often the elders teased and challenged the younger people with riddles and puzzle-stories, would start in the evening on snowy winter days and continue late into the night. Or they used to. In the present age of ubiquitous televisions and smart-phones, families and societies have found other ways of entertaining and educating themselves.

All corners of India reverbrate with different forms of storytelling, orally passing tales from one generation to another from time immemorial. There is a richness in their diversity of form (which may be songs, couplets, riddles or long prose) and content (romantic, funny, sad, practical, simply amusing, adventurous or even propagandist). In my own homeland of Punjab, my mother recollects summer nights of storytelling by her parents and grandparents, which was done only when the children promised to give a hungaara i.e. say ‘hmmm’ at regular intervals to indicate that they are listening.

Stories have always had an important place in human history. According to Yuval Noah Harari, author of the book Sapiens, ‘Any large scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination’. According to Harari religion, nationalism, and even belief in justice and human rights, are all on account of our ability to believe in fiction. Following his logic, it seems that in some ways wars, invasions, conversions, even political elections, are actually about a clash of stories – who can weave the most captivating, enthralling, bewitching tale that would make us want to believe in them.

In the meetha madua story that I began with, the food will be tastier if you have worked, making work as a reward unto itself. In that way, stories reflect how we rationalise life to ourselves. Stories can also reflect our value systems. In another mountain village, in Ladakh, I was told that people feel obliged to welcome wayfarers into their house and offer them shelter for the night. ‘Hospitality is a way of life. If a person is too possesive about their house, they will become a tortoise in their next life. Because a tortoise carries its house upon its back,’ said Tsering Angmo of Gangles village.

Stories can reveal to us connections. For instance, in the creation story of Santals, an indigenous people of India, the Earth rests on a tortoise. Oceans apart, in the North American story of Anishinaabeg, a turtle volunteers to have the Earth placed on its back. Such similarities could indicate either common origins of the tribe, or commonalities in the historic incidences that were recorded in form of story. In fact, there are many who assert that myths are a method of storing memories. It is said that Aboriginal Australian storytelling records sea-level rise taking place between 7,000 and 18,000 years ago. That story was passed orally to the present over 300 generations of people.

Stories can also be just about wit and pleasure. For instance the paradoxical one-lined story that grandmothers in villages of Maharashtra tell their grandchildren mischieviously when they are nagging them for a story – ‘Once upon a time, there was an old lady who died when she was a child’.

But it seems like in our present times, we are losing systems that wove and passed on these stories, and even the tongues that held them. In the last five decades, over 220 languages have gone extinct from India. In Australia more than 100 Aboriginal languages have died since white settlement and 75% of the remaining are critically endangered. I know that many people would say that it is an acceptable loss, an inevitable part of ‘evolution’.

But in our hearts surely we understand enough about ecology to realise the flaw in that argument. For isn’t there a link between the forces endangering wildlife and our environment, and the forces threatening our diversity of cultures and languages? At the root of both is perhaps our rush towards economic growth and development, fast transforming and redefining our ‘needs’, social networks, landscapes, and livelihoods. Our coping mechanism to this unprecedented pace of change has been to take refuge in homogenity and conformity, to let our folk stories echo in their own silences. In a kitchen colonised with wheat and rice, in an evening now colonised with television’s blaring noises, what happens to the likes of Hirma Devi, holding on to not just the aan kathas but also her small cloth bags filled with madua and old spices?

Imagine stories that have survived for centuries being lost in a generation or two. In many communities, what we retain at present is just the left-over warmth of embers of a flame already spent. Just fragments of stories, strings of words, holding fading memories slowly ebbing away to oblivion as bridges of communication between one generation and the next burn off to ground. It is a spiral of losses, losses of not just words, phrases, stories, languages but losses of ways of being, ways of thinking, ways of expressing, ways of knowing, ways of making sense of the world. In a world where there is no space left for diversity, we will be stripped of our most elemental tools. Will we be able to feel whole as persons, or will our sense of incompleteness intensify, taking with us everywhere we go a nagging feeling at the back of our mind that we are part of an incomplete jigsaw, that we are witnesses to an unfinished sky? Or perhaps, we will return from this juncture of loss, our need for stories and our need for diversity getting the better of us. Perhaps we will pick up what remains of the old and refashion it to make new stories for our time, taking once more the effort to look up, look around, look within, and converse. If someone was to study us a hundred or a thousand years from now, what would they say were the defining myths of this century? How are our stories evolving? What are our beliefs?

I am not romanticising the idea of stories. I know that like most other mediums, stories can be used by the powerful against the weak, to perpetuate victimisation. Yet the capacity of evil does not make the medium and the entirety of its content evil. I feel that in a land of diversity of cultures and landscapes, there is much wisdom and truth for us to learn from these oral mediums that were localised yet widespread, captivating imaginations and inspiring the passing on of strings of words over hundreds of generations. Getting a deeper understanding of our possible pasts may help us think of different, perhaps even better, possibilities for a future.

Shiba Desor is a member of Kalpavriksh, an environmental group based in Pune. She is also a member of a small women’s collective called Maati, based in Munsiari, Uttarakhand. She is part environmental researcher, part organiser of gatherings, part food-writer. She has co-authored a children’s book on food called Something To Chew On.

Image: Indian Kathakar Storyteller 1913, Wikimedia Commons.

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