The Dark Mountain Blog

Dark Mountain Issue 11: Two Poems

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

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

lucy-kerr---daemon

Predators
Anne Haven McDonnell

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

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

LUCYKERR_QUEST (1)

Singing Ice
Eleanor Hooker

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

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

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

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

Images

(Top) Daemon, Lucy Kerr
Photographic illusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Dark Mountain Issue 11: The Guest at Our Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Have you got a power cut Ian?’

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Mountain Issue 11: Indicator Species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Screenshot 2017-04-21 at 15.33.30

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

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

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


***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go straight to hell, boys…

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Mountain: Issue 11

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

'Pink figure, blue world' by Will Gill

Beyond Straight Lines 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– The Editors, spring 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

What are we looking for, then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we say, there isn’t a submissions deadline for this issue – we’ll be starting to work with contributors over the next few weeks, on the basis of the proposals we receive, and when we get to the stage where we have a full set of pieces underway, we’ll update this post to say so.

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

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

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

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

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

The Mythos We Live By: The Glimpse

This week we conclude our series about the role of mythology in uncertain times. We asked six writers who work with story – as teachers, storytellers, anthropologists, poets, performers, activists – to choose ‘a myth we live by’ and explore what a mythological response to an age of converging crises might look like. Our last offering comes from the Amazon via anthropologist Carla Stang – an exploration of what it might mean to hold our gaze on what glimmers at the edges of our consciousness.

 

Nownakitsalapitsu (I’m going to tell you a story)…

Hot and grimy from hard work in the manioc orchard the two sisters trot down the path between fruit trees, across the broad cleared plain, and along another path through the forest that lines the river. They go quite a way before they stop. The women would like to bathe and collect water in private, away from the hungry eyes of the men and the abrasive gossip of the women of their village. Every moment of every day they are with others, except these short times, relieving themselves, or at the river.

Here it is, their favourite spot. The trees clear a little in this place before a mud bank that slopes gently down to the river’s edge. The smell of the water and earth is fresh and sweet in the warm morning air. Behind them a Shatoba tree rises up, spreading its huge arms over the glen. They put down their clay vessels and wade into the water.

They are almost finished bathing when both sisters glimpse a shining hump break the surface of the water. Something about the sight raises the hair on their skin. They stand gazing at the glimmering wake on the other side of the river. Through the moving light, now they make out a form – a huge black caiman. As they watch intently, with some fear, the skin of the animal parts and a man steps out. He is the most beautiful person they have ever seen. It at first appears that his body is decorated with the same urucum paste and genipapo sap used by the men of their village. Then they see the designs, in caiman shapes, are part of his skin. There is also something of that animal in his powerful lines. They desire him. ‘Yakashukumaaaaaaaaa! Awainkaritsawaka!’, ‘Great Caiman! Come and “eat” us!’ He doesn’t seem to hear, then he turns to look at them with eyes that shine like stars. Quicker and easier than they have ever seen a man swim, he crosses the river. He makes love to both. Afterwards, when they part, he returns to the caiman skin which still lies on the other side of the river, puts it on like clothing and swims away.

Back at the village it is all they can think about, and they whisper about their secret and decide to return the next day and call Yakashukuma to them again. That afternoon they paint themselves with genipapo drawings, and when it is time the next day they each put on their newest uluri belts and best yanakwimpi beads around their necks and paint a bright orange epitsiri band across their plucked brows. When they feel as lovely as they can be they make their way back to the same spot at the river. ‘Yakashukumaaaaaaaaa! Awainkaritsawaka!’ they call. The huge caiman appears and again the man steps out of its skin and makes love to them.

This goes on for many days, and people start to notice how the sisters dress up every day and how happy they are. Their husband can see this too and one day he decides to follow them. When the two of them make out for the river he follows without their knowledge. Hiding in the bushes at the edge of the glen he watches his wives call their lover, the man step out of the caiman skin, and the man-animal make love to each of them. He returns to the village and calls the men together. They decide to all go, with arrows and batons, and kill the caiman. The next day they secretly follow the sisters down to the river and crouch in the bushes waiting. They watch the call and the arrival of the lover and are silent until after the he is exhausted from making love to both women. Then they burst from their hiding places to attack the man-animal. They kill him and leave the women wailing over his remains.

When the men are gone, the sisters collect up the body of their lover and bury it in the earth. Every day they return to the burial place and weep. One day, as they crouch there they see that from the place where they buried their lover a plant is sprouting. In time the plant grows into a gorgeous tree that bears fruit.

The fruit is bright orange, delicious and rich, with a wonderfully fragrant oil to anoint the body. It is the first akãi tree; it will become the sacred tree of their people. To this day the Mehinaku and their neighbours wait with great anticipation for the ripening of this fruit and celebrate its harvest in a joyous festival.


***

I took my time writing out this myth. Old myths like these, of giant caimans, grass-blade maidens and trickster-armadillos, can seem utterly bizarre and unapproachable when told briefly. It was always told to me in detail, with relish even:Yakashukumaaaaaa! Awainkaritsawaka!’ People love to call out this refrain and I have heard this tale many times during my fieldwork.

In writing it here the question is: what can you, the reader, do with this perhaps strange story from what is probably another land? It is nested within a bigger question: what is the meaning of any of these strange tales we call myths in this age we find ourselves living in?

***

I will start with the bigger question.
There is of course a long western history, in myriad disciplines, of grappling with the subject of myth and its significance. The word itself comes from the ancient Greeks whose tales were of the gods. And this is the way the word has been traditionally used: to denote ‘the stories of the gods’, whatever gods, from whichever cultures happen to be in question. Historically this term has been blended with the meaning of the Latin word for story, fabula, with its connotations of untruthfulness (Kane 1998:32-34). In common sense usage too, the word ‘myth’ is given to say something is unreal. This ‘agnostic reflex’, as Corbin (1972) puts it, means that myth has been treated as outside of the actual world, and or difficult to understand: ‘the strange identifications that are those of mythic thought’ (vi-Strauss in Overing 1985:153).

But what of a definition that cleaves closer to what traditional myths mean to the people who actually tell them, and who believe them? The Mehinaku word for myth is ownaki, a word used for creation myths as well as tales of more recent events, and also everyday occurrences. Mehinaku people tend to pattern their experience in a kind of story-logic. For them the things that occur in life never ‘just happen’, they are understood to have to do with entities and forces often beyond human perception, giving a kind of meaningfulness to events, a sense of the mythic. In other words, far from the notion of myths being untrue stories, for the Mehinaku myths describe forces that are real and tangible to them and that give life inherent meaning.

The entities or powers described in Mehinaku myths are different aspects of the natural world with which they have lived for generations. The myths then are an expression, a recording, often extremely detailed, of knowledge about the place they live. As western and other cultures have in various ways grown increasingly separated from the natural world, their myths either speak of this divorce, or do not speak of the natural world at all. So instead of communicating human wisdom about nature, myth often becomes a reflexive, neurotic human story about humans themselves, unanchored and megalomaniacal. As Ben Okri put so elegantly in his novel The Famished Road, ‘A people are as healthy as the stories they tell themselves’ (1991).


***

I have digressed far
from the bend of the river of our myth and our first question of what such a story might mean to us. If we now understand that Mehinaku myth expresses understanding of their natural world, what wisdom is being articulated by this story of the sisters and their animal lover, his brutal murder and the sacred fruit tree, and how do we relate to it?

I loved this myth the first time I heard it. My first impression was that it was a gorgeous tale, and with the elegance of a truth. That was my sense of it without trying to work out why. I remember feeling the love story to be mysterious and lovely, and then of course, tragic, but with profound redemption. This experience of myth as, ‘”something mysterious”, invisible, intelligent and whole’ (Kane 1998:45), is not in addition to the knowledge of the natural world that myths contain, it is part of that knowledge. The forces that myths describe are often beyond human ability to comprehend, and so when that mystery is successfully evoked by a myth it means that the listener or reader has experienced something of the nature of those forces.

The most mysterious moment for me, the place I find myself in the story (as Martin Shaw would say), is in that first hair-raising glimpse of something glimmering on the water. The nameless longing to see more, know more, and of who knows what. It’s that feeling perhaps we’ve all had of glimpsing something out of the corner of our eye, something that fills us with yearning or maybe just wistfulness. The crucial thing to me is that the sisters do not dismiss what they have sighted. They keep looking, intently. The reason they do that is because they know about the land around them, because of what we might call their ‘cosmology’. They know that the strange shimmer on the water is shining from another world (the word ‘glimpse’ actually comes from the word ‘glimmer’: ‘to shine faintly with a wavering light’). There are a number of worlds, each with a different luminosity. The human world is only the way humans perceive it; other beings perceive utterly differently, their perception forming alternate ‘consensus realities’. When Yakashukuma steps out of his caiman skin and looks at them with his star-eyes, there is no doubt they are in the presence of a denizen of the world of the apapanye. He is a ‘man-animal’, gente-bicho, as they say in Portuguese; one of those beings, usually invisible, that make the animals and plants and other things we live amongst. The Mehinaku speak of how to literally glimpse something from another reality can move one into that reality, so that a ‘change of eyes’ occurs. Therefore, when the women meet the eyes of Yakashukuma they are drawn into a realm that is usually invisible to their own, and after them they draw the rest of the village in what becomes a mixing of worlds.

To put it simply, the sisters hold their gaze on something at the border of their senses because they have knowledge that other worlds are there, imminent to their own. These are people who have long lived in close, daily and intricate relationship to the animals and plants and rivers that surround them, and have developed profound knowledge about how to do so. Do you follow your glimpse out of the corner of your eye, or do you keep walking or talking? Have we been taught to dismiss these experiences? Growing up, except in the fiction I read, I had virtually no cultural knowledge that other perspectival realities might be coexisting with my own. Only in my own reflections and from oblique ideas I came across did I ever have rudimentary thoughts about such things. Some readers of this might do this already but for those who don’t, as well as for myself, I ask: what would it be to trust our glimpse, even in a very literal way to believe in our senses, to develop our peripheral vision as we go about our day. To be as awake as a longbow hunter in a forest when we take the dog for a walk. What might we find out about the place we live?

And what happens when we do stay with that glance? In the case of the sisters and listeners of this myth, we witness a human world permeable to other worlds, the passion and love that can exist between humans and the non-human world and how such feeling and tenderness can create the most beautiful transformations, and literally be fruitful to one’s people, though not without sacrifice. At a moment in history when disaster looms, I wonder about what we might find out, what strength and true knowledge we could discover by following the clues that glimmer at the edge of our vision.

 

References
Corbin, Henry. 1964. ‘The Imaginary and the Imaginal’. Spring.
Kane, Sean. 1998. Wisdom of the Mythtellers. Broadview Press.
vi-Strauss, Claude in Overing, Joanna. 1985. Reason and Morality. Tavistock Press.
Okri, Ben. 1993. The Famished Road. Anchor Books

Carla Stang is an anthropologist (PhD. University of Cambridge) who has always been fascinated by how different people actually experience the world, and especially the land. She has written a book about living in a Mehinaku village called A Walk to the River in Amazonia (2009). Currently she is co director of studies of the M.Phil. programme at Schumacher College.

Image: Alligator Eye, NPSphoto, G.Gardner

This is the final post in our series The Mythos We Live By (edited by Charlotte Du Cann). Many thanks to all our contributors.

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

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

The Mythos We Live By: I am Taliesin

This week we continue our series about the role of mythology in uncertain times. We’ve asked six writers who work with story – as teachers, storytellers, anthropologists, poets, performers, activists – to choose ‘a myth we live by’ and explore what a mythological response to an age of converging crises might look like. Our penultimate offering is a piece on poetry, shapeshifting and the ancient Welsh bard Taliesin, by community poet and writer Sophie McKeand. 

Winter Sunrise at Tryweryn_huwtgriff_03 lowres

Bum yn lliaws rith

kyn bum disgyfrith

I was in a multitude of forms

before I was unfettered

Taliesin, Kat Godeu/The Battle of the Trees.*

 

In the time of legend, during the reign of King Arthur, in a place called Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake), north Wales, there lived a powerful witch called Ceridwen. Ceridwen’s son was horrifically ugly and not the boy she wanted him to be and so she planned to brew a potion that would imbue him with infinite wisdom and power. To this end she created a cauldron of awen or inspiration. Specific herbs had to be gathered and the concoction stirred continuously for a year and a day so Ceridwen chose an old blind man, led by a stable boy called Gwion Bach for this task.

On the very last day, when the potion was finally ready and Gwion Bach was dutifully stirring, three drops of the potion flew onto his thumb and scalded him so that he licked it quickly in pain. Immediately the boy was filled with wisdom, and the knowledge that Ceridwen would kill him for this treachery, so he ran and as he ran he began to change form.

Thus begins the story of the birth of Wales’ most famous poet Taliesin, whose life as a humble stable boy (Gwion Bach) changed dramatically through the power of rebirth, inspiration and transformation. Taliesin inhabits a revered place in the history of Cymru (Wales) as a legendary bard born of myth and magic who proclaimed his poetry for Welsh kings, and whose words have survived (if in broken form) throughout the centuries to the modern day.

Much is debated about the origins of Taliesin. The oral culture of Wales was the vessel used to pass information and historical details down through the generations, and much of it was preserved through being retold as legend. One of the ancient bardic traditions was that poets would assume the dramatic persona of a long-dead cynfardd (chief poet) through chanting lines such as I am Taliesin, and this practice continued throughout medieval times (making it difficult to ascertain when exactly the original Taliesin existed). By imitating and reciting the poems of their ancestors these next generations of bards would step into the persona of their mythical predecessors, channelling time and space to wear the traits of their bardic ancestor, believing they too could access universal wisdom and shapeshifting capabilities.

Centuries later Jung discovered the multi-layered psyche or soul, stating that much is unknowable to the conscious mind but that certain archetypes or universal characters exist that we can recognise. Taliesin himself is an archetype: the being of infinite wisdom with the power to assume the shape of any animal at will. The ability to embrace elements of this archetype is something we all retain – we have just forgotten how. Perhaps now is the time – during this period of upheaval and change, with the great behemoth of capitalism rampaging across the globe – to begin remembering the power of poetry, of the spoken word, of shapeshifting and metaphor that can radically transform our psyches, and as such, our lives.

As Gwion Bach ran he changed into a hare, and Ceridwen became a greyhound. The boy ran to the river and, flinging himself in the water, took on the form of a fish; so she chased him as an otter. Then he threw himself into the sky in the shape of a bird, and she pursued as a hawk.

This is one of the most dynamic shapeshifting sequences remembered on the British Isles, and it is rooted in north Wales (in Welsh – Y Gogledd Cymru, or Y Gogs to use the vernacular). To live here is to exist in a place once tightly woven with myth, magic and the language gifted by the land. Modern-day Cymru feels more threadbare in this respect but still, I was born in this region and believe that to swim in Llyn Tegid is to immerse in her hanes [story, history or personal story/history]; it is to slide into a place where doors to other worlds expand and contract and the waters of past, present and future flow together; a place of the mythical Mabinogion: a collection of medieval Welsh tales first transcribed in the 1300 and 1400s but whose exact origins are as unknowable as Taliesin himself.

North Wales is a complex and multifaceted region encompassing  the breathtaking vistas of Wales’ highest mountain Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and Caia Park – Wales’ largest housing estate, where certain areas are classed as some of the most deprived in Wales by our government. The internal bickering as to who is ‘Welsh enough’ rings out across mountains and man-made reservoirs where the ghosts of drowned chapels have long been silenced and the waters from lakes such as Llyn Celyn continue to be funnelled to Liverpool and Birmingham; where people still whisper cofiwch Dryweryn (remember Tryweryn) if only in dreams that echo in solidarity with indigenous people across the globe who are also dealing with the after effects of centuries of colonialism and oppression.

Around eight years ago I began the journey of learning Cymraeg. She is a minority language but the indigenous one, gifted to us by the land here and so I try to engage with her as much as possible – speaking fragments of poetry when walking outdoors in the hope the land will hear herself in me – I believe she recognises herself in our echo when we use Cymraeg. This is a long, slow and circular path that continually feeds back on itself, like a Celtic knot, so that time spent with new words, stories and myths is needed. I roll them around my mouth and mind for months and years; smooth them like river stones – pile them into cairns. In these liminal spaces between worlds and languages I am a community poet – working through strata of people, language and organisations; making connections, learning about the communities who live here; unearthing their hanes through poetry and the spoken word.

I am not deluded about the capabilities of poetry and art. Before people can begin to access their imaginations, before we can begin to connect with ourselves and each other through creativity, people need to have certain basic needs met. We cannot expect someone who is out of their mind with worry about eviction, or missing child support, or where their next meal is coming from, to halt all of those emotional processes and participate fully in a poetry project (but still they may get something out of just by being in the space with others). Poetry is part of the solution, but it cannot stand alone. The healing process for all of our communities is something that will take generations of support through meaningful employment; creative, individually tailored education; engagement with the self through artistic practice, and a deep connection with the land beneath our feet.

bum cledyf culurith,

or adaf pan writh.

Bum Deigyr yn awyr,

bum serwawl syr.

Bum geir yn llythyr,

bum llyfyr ym prifder.

Bum llugyrn lleufer,

blwydyn a hanher.

 

I was a slender mottled sword

made from the hand.

I was a droplet in the air,

I was the stellar radiance of the stars.

I was a word in writing,

I was a book in my prime.

I was the light of a lantern

for a year and a half.

Taliesin – excerpt from the poem Kat Godeu (or Cad Goddeu in modern Cymraeg)*

What Taliesin teaches us is that, as Walt Whitman wrote centuries later, I am large, I contain multitudes. And when Anne Waldman created her groundbreaking chant poem Fast Speaking Woman, inspired by Kat Godeu, she was extrapolating on all of the aspects of womanhood there could possibly be – she was meditating on every fragment of the female and translating that into language, into chant, and so I fold every element of this into the community workshops because our community contains every element of humanity within it – as do our psyches – and I believe this is where elements of the creative work needs to be focused.

Engaging with challenging groups is problematic at times because a huge amount of groundwork has to be carried out beforehand, but when the right people communicate and connect to dream a project, something beautiful and meaningful can come from it. If I’d said to the Welsh Women’s Aid Wrexham group (a women’s refuge) at the start of our recent eight-week poetry journey that we’d use myth and medieval Welsh poetry to inspire our words, and that this would instil participants with a real sense of identity and confidence, so much so that they would create and publish a poetry pamphlet and perform their words before a crowd of dignitaries, they would have laughed in my face.

But through the lines of Taliesin (as well as other poets) participants were able to begin to see themselves as constantly evolving individuals. Where somebody previously saw the future as an impassable wall, or prison, they might write I am a flower waiting to grow. The power of metaphor and the transformative nature of the psyche here is abundantly clear – to envisage the future as organic and evolving as opposed to static and concrete can be a liberating experience. Our group wrote beautiful, visionary lines ranging from the domestic: I am a good mumI am the wiper of tears, to the utterly sublime: I am the ladder that I climbedI am the creator.

poem by a young mum from Barnardos Aspire project

Sometimes creativity can prise open a person in ways we hadn’t considered – past trauma can cause the imagination to become hard and compressed like slate, so to smash through this can cause irreparable damage. It is too easy to discount people whose attitudes match the hard grey-slate of their creative mind, but, like the slate in the ground, we are all a product of our environment and can learn how to dream a new future through creative evolution. By engaging on all of these levels we can encourage our communities to grow fertile topsoil, and allow each unique individual and place to germinate their own organic revolution, in their own time (which doesn’t always marry well with funding tick-boxes).

We can use poetry to time-travel across the expanse of the white page: I was – acknowledgement of the past; I am – acceptance of the present; I will be – allows the writer to prophesise, to visualise their future as metaphor and movement, something to aspire towards. These myths and poems, and what comes from using them in this way, have shown me infinite possibilities, so that each time I work with a new group such as young parents who are care leavers, or young people from the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller community, or with elderly people in care homes with dementia, I am eternally surprised and heartened by their creativity and imagination.

The issue here is that once a person has had a transformative experience, they then need to return to a supportive family and community who are also undergoing their own reconnections and creative evolutions in order for the magic to continue working – imagine Karl Marx’s alienation in reverse. If a person returns to an immovable, negative, inflexible environment/job/family, any positive changes can be lost in a chaotic day-to-day life.

Finally Gwion Bach flew over a heap of wheat grain and threw himself into the middle, but Ceridwen became a fat, black hen who gobbled up all of the grain. Eight months later she gave birth to a baby boy so beautiful she couldn’t bring herself to kill him, so she folded him into a leather bag and floated it off downstream. Some time later the bag was found by two Welsh princes who, upon seeing the child inside with the ‘radiant brow’ proclaiming poetry, named him Taliesin (medieval Welsh for ‘radiant brow’).

Many people are beginning to generate real change – especially women within these communities who are reaching out and supporting each other to create and dream new ways of being into existence. We are taking on the role of Ceridwen and building our own cauldrons of awen to transform the communities we have birthed. We have stopped asking permission and started listening to our dreams (both when sleeping and awake) because this is how the land speaks to us. We know it is time to be brave, to think for ourselves, to stop waiting for others to take the lead; to speak our truths, even at the risk of humiliation:

A uo lleion nys mwy pwyllat;

[S]He who’d be in orders does not want to think seriously;

Taliesin – Prif gyuarch geluyd*

We have the capacity for perpetual rebirth and reincarnation but much of what we aspire towards these days is about using knowledge to change the world instead of embracing this most organic, innate and female potential. Knowledge (in the academic sense) is like gobbling empty calories – no matter how much we devour, it will never be enough because it is not the answer to bringing people together. The answers lie in the psyche; in connections, evolutions, rebirth, metaphor and the power of transformation brought about by creativity and connecting with the land.

We also have to face the truth that, as much as artists, and regional arts development managers and organisations work to access certain people in our communities, the reality is that more, not less, people are living in situations that are filled with abject poverty and/or abuse and while politicians harp on about our going in the right direction the truth, the real undercurrent of hardship, is that too many people are drowning.

Barnardos

I see people existing as mountain strata because our lives and communities are so layered that unless people exist in our immediate strata we don’t notice them. Which is why when I work within a community I burrow around to see who else is out there who is not part of my immediate story. I don’t have all of the answers but I do know that inspiring creativity in individuals is part of the solution:

Prif gyuarch geluyd–pan ry leat?

The first artful bidding–where could it be read?*

Taliesin

In her skillful translation Marged Haycock suggests this line could be ‘referring to God’s first utterance’ in the book of Genesis, but I wonder if perhaps Taliesin is signposting us away from books? The first artful bidding cannot be read because it cannot exist on a page. When you discover your unique artful bidding you will know, and you will know why it cannot be read – because it cannot be written – it cannot be known by anyone but you. By not being afraid to let go of what we were (and what we are), and embracing the transformative power of shapeshifting we can begin to evolve into organic, symbiotic communities that have a deep and abiding respect for each other and the land who birthed us.

 

*Translated from the original medieval Welsh by Marged Haycock in the Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin.

Also read:

The Mabinogion – translated by Sioned Davies.

Welsh Mythology and Understanding Welsh Myths Book 1 by Dr. Gwilym Morus.

Taliesin The Last Celtic Shaman – John Matthews.

Images: Winter-Sunrise-at-Tryweryn by huwtgriff; poem by a young mum from Barnardos Aspire project; young parents at Barnardos Aspire, Wrecsam by Sophie McKeand

Sophie McKeand is an award-winning poet, the current Young People’s Laureate Wales and an ambassador for Welsh Women’s Aid. Her work has been published widely including in Poetry Wales, Dark Mountain and The Lonely Crowd. She performs regularly across the UK (such as at the Wales Millennium Centre and with Caught by the River) as has been on stage internationally in Ireland as well as at the Kolkata Literature Festival, India. Sophie has created two hand-stitched poetry pamphlets, Prophecy: conversations with my Self and Hanes; and collaborated on two touring arts projects: Metaforestry: storiau o’r Gogs, and DRKMTR which was also an album released on the Drum With Our Hands record label. Her new poetry collection Rebel Sun is out with Parthian Books, June 2017  www.sophiemckeand.com  

Next week we conclude our series ‘The Mythos We Live By’ with a piece based on a Mehinaku (Amazonian) myth by anthropologist and writer, Carla Stang: The Glimpse.

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

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

The Mythos We Live By: The Walk of the Moon

This week we continue our series about the role of mythology in uncertain times. We’ve asked six writers who work with story – as teachers, storytellers, anthropologists, poets, performers, activists – to choose ‘a myth we live by’ and explore what a mythological response to an age of converging crises might look like. Today we bring you an exploration of the mythological underside of the paradise island Ibiza, by Theatre of the Ancients founder Joanna Hruby (with images by Can Gato Ibiza).

The Valley

It’s a warm afternoon in late May, and a small crowd gathers on a circular platform overlooking a valley of almond, lemon and carob trees. Soft, slightly melancholic music fills the air, and people wear headdresses of freshly gathered rosemary, rockrose and pine. A tapestry hangs beneath a canvas awning; it shows the simple, curved motif of a universal symbol – the tree of life. The crowd starts to hush and story is told – about an ancient fallen goddess, her once-fertile island, and a mythical tree of life whose leaves have been lost. In this little valley in Ibiza, an immersive theatre performance is about to begin, called the Walk of the Moon.

For some reason, my childhood summer holidays on the island always began at night time. Bleary-eyed after slow transit along England’s grey motorways, through airport departure lounges, we would finally find ourselves driving a winding road into endless forest. Now, that long-anticipated moment; I would roll down the car window and inhale my first lungful of that mysterious, sweet pine scent suspended in the warm night air, a hypnotic frenzy of cicadas filling my ears. I felt alive. The island seemed to hold something for me, promise me something I didn’t understand.

Only later in life did it become clear that the Ibiza I knew was not the tacky tourist destination familiar to my English counterparts. Aged 20, working dismal shifts in my local village pub to fund a return trip to the island, I told one of the regulars of my plans. He placed his pint down on the counter and said solemnly, his eyes never leaving the glass, ‘But I thought you were better than that, Jo.’  

That summer my best friend and I headed to the tourist town of San Antonio for a two-week package holiday. On our last morning we missed the return flight, emptied our suitcases on the beach next to the hotel, and headed to a roundabout on the edge of town. There, we stuck our our thumbs. Neither of us had hitchhiked before. When the first car pulled over we got in, telling the driver: ‘Vamos al norte’ – we’re going north.

The Hag

Moon phase: waning. The first group embarks on the route. They weave along a path through aloe vera plants and over a low stone wall. On the other side, the Hag awaits – with rat-tailed braids and a cryptic symbol carved into an avocado seed on her forehead. She teases and cajoles the walkers, begging them to confess their personal weaknesses and fears – obstacles to the coming quest. When satisfied, the Hag points the walkers towards the yurt, where a masked figure chants and cleanses the group with incenses in preparation for the journey ahead.

That first summer we hitchhiked our way around the north. We slept on beaches, under trees, in caves. We surrendered ourselves to the road, and one by one the teachers appeared, like chapters in an unfolding saga: eccentrics, lost souls, madmen, one or two wandering sadhus playing the flute beneath a full moon… We danced to trance music in the forest, ate Weetabix in an old hippy’s boat up a mountain. Our hearts felt open. It seemed like anything was possible, as though we were protected by some kind of island magic.

But what was this magic? People spoke of Ibiza’s neighbouring ‘magnetic’ rock, Es Vedra, where a monk meditated in the 1800s and reported meeting ethereal light beings. They talked of Nostradamus, who, according to local urban legend, once prophesied that when nuclear disaster befalls the planet, Ibiza’s unusual wind patterns would make it Earth’s final refuge’.

But the most consistent explanation was Tanit. She was, I was told, the goddess of Ibiza, recognised by the Phoenicians, the ancient civilisation which settled on the island in 654 BC, naming it Iboshim, after the Egyptian god Bes. The island became a major Phoenician trading post, but also a place of worship to Tanit – powerful and destructive; goddess of dance and hedonism. Indeed, it did all seem an uncanny coincidence on the very island which shaped rave culture – an island where people are known to lose it, or lose themselves

‘You’ll know if Tanit wants you to stay or go…’ repeated the island mantra. But for 15 years I wasn’t sure.

Water

Moon phase: new. In the tipi are goblets, vessels and vases filled with water. A six-year-old girl conducts the ceremony, urging the group to harness their deepest desires to restore leaves to Tanit’s bare tree of life. The group writes messages on slips of paper, then rolls each one within a ball of wet clay, like a seed encased in earth. The girl sprinkles drops of water over each clay-encased wish, and the walkers continue their journey, seed-balls held carefully in the palms of their hands.

I would revisit the island every couple of years – it became some kind of strange, guilty secret. I had become another of those inexplicably drawn to this pine-covered island whose history was shaped by transient visitors, settlers and invaders. The Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, finally the Catalans – each had left their traces on an island which, ultimately, never seemed to belong to anyone. From the 1950s, new foreign visitors arrived, bringing beatnik and counterculture ideas, oriental mysticism – these mixed with the layers of past ancient civilisations to create the elusive product now packaged as the Ibiza Spirit.

But despite the many cultures which passed through in following centuries, the Phoenicians, with their goddess Tanit, still seem to offer Ibiza a much clung-to, mythical foundation. In the north, the island’s ‘spiritual’ circles offer their treatments and ceremonies on the premise that Tanit was a goddess of healing, and that the sick and dying were brought by boat from distant lands to be cured, or laid to rest, on Tanit’s red soil. Meanwhile, down in the backstreets of the capital city it is perfectly normal to stumble upon a local, family-run Tanit mechanics, decades of trade under its belt. The goddess’s image is ubiquitous – despite local media recently speculating that the Tanit bust reproduced on countless laminated bar menus and postcards across the island is actually that of a different goddess, the Greek Demeter.

But the most telling observation of Tanit’s place in modern-day Ibiza can be found on the southerly road connecting the capital city to San Jose. Here, a giant billboard sign advertises a well-known, trendy beach club using as its logo a digitalised, ‘stencil’ version of Tanit’s face. The icon is immediately recognisable, but a graphic designer has tweaked the goddess’s usually neutral, soft mouth into nothing less than a snarl.  ‘Come and get me’, she spits, and I always drive on wondering what they did to Tanit to make her snarl like that. But perhaps the answer is simple. They decided Tanit was a sexy extrovert and hedonist, and made her the face of a new sun-worshipping industry called mass tourism. And that, I suppose, is how Tanit accidentally became a sun goddess.

Fire

Moon phase: waxing. After an uphill walk the group arrives at the cal oven, a stone structure traditionally used to cook limestone for plastering houses their brilliant white. Out of a doorway he emerges, a hulking, giant-like creature, flames streaming from his mouth, eyes and fingertips. He beckons the group close, seemingly interested in the clay balls clasped in people’s hands. When these clay-encased wishes are presented to the fire being, he dances, whirls and twirls – as though bestowing the buried wishes with the force and vigour to sprout shoots, to burst through their clay casing, to manifest.

 I had done it – I had moved to Ibiza, with my bicycle, books and sewing machine. That summer I lived inland, in a cramped van next to a giant prickly pear cactus. After previous summers gloriously bathing in the island heat like a lizard, this one felt different. I shied away from the beaches and ocean at midday – stayed inland, seeking shade. My new urge to escape what felt like the aggressive rays of the sun led me to discover two refuges – both as deeply nestled in the island’s interior as you could ever get. An emerald green, freshwater pool beside a whitewashed well, and the shady, tranquil banks of an empty river.  

I didn’t quite understand why at the time, but that summer my rebellion against the summer sun-worshipping culture had brought me to the banks of a dead river, one which had once flowed from the high northwest to its mouth in the east, at the town of Santa Eularia. Several decades ago, the Riu de Santa Eularia flowed abundantly. But little by little it had petered out, so that now it was identifiable only as a meandering, hollowed-out scar in the landscape, little streams occasionally forming here and there after heavy winter rains.

The death of the Balearic Islands’ only river was the direct result of a year-on-year depletion of Ibiza’s underground aquifers, the subterranean vaults of fresh water feeding the island’s wells, and therefore vegetation, for many centuries. Each year these aquifers were increasingly drained by a hotel and tourism industry that was steadily gaining momentum, and it was getting serious. No-one really noticed when the river died. But then they began talking about a Water Crisis, and murmuring that the island was running out of water. And then people noticed, and they started getting scared.

So here I was beneath the pine trees, beside an empty inland river – meanwhile, on the island’s outer fringes, something else was happening. Endless hypnotic beats merging into one, a thousand faces turning towards the sun, following the lure of something – the sensual bliss of warmed, naked skin, the promise of oneness with… something – something greater. Yes, with the sun – always, eternally, with the sun.

Earth

Moon phase: full. Steep steps descend into the cave. Down here, candlelight fills the nooks and crannies, and there is a shrine decorated with dried herbs, flowers and seed pods, painted with the phases of the moon in silver and indigo blue. The guardian of the cave has a face caked in earth and is draped in animal fur. When the people are seated, she gestures for them to bring forward their clay-encased wishes; in the silence of the cave they craft them into small dolls using twine, twigs and sheep’s wool. The dolls which began as wishes are placed around the altar, in the belly of the earth.

In the north east of the island, a path leads from the bay of Cala San Vicente up into surrounding hills. Millennia ago, they would have arrived here by boat from other lands, such as the neighbouring island of Mallorca, where 70 years ago Robert Graves sat at his writing desk in Deia, rolling between his fingertips various Phoenician amulets and deities, searching for the words for The White Goddess. Up the path into the forested hills they would have walked, carrying their small clay dolls to the sanctuary of Es Culleram, where in the early 20th century around 600 would be unearthed by archaeologists. Along the route through pines and junipers, the shapes in the rock are still visible – gulleys and troughs carved to channel rainwater off the mountain into small pools. Here, washing rituals would have been carried out to mark the end-point of an oversea voyage, a pilgrimage to Tanit’s cave.

Farther south, heading west towards Santa Gertrudis, lies one of the island’s oldest wells, the Font d’en Miguelet. The mouth of the well is decorated with finely-preserved patterns of Middle-Eastern design, painted in the red ochre pigment of the Ibizan soil. The central motif is like a flower stretching upwards on a long stalk, leaves unfurling on either side – it is a tree of life. But once upon a time there was also another symbol here, one which faded with time. From Tunisia, to Malta, to Lebanon, it was a shape recognised unmistakably as that of the goddess Tanit – a figure based on the triangle, symbol of water, with hands outstretched towards the moon.

Tanit

The sun sinks low as the final group returns to the circular platform. A live group fills the air with haunting electro-folk music, as people flock around the tree of life tapestry, attaching fabric leaves to its branches. The crowd drinks hierbas ibicencas, the local aniseed spirit infused with rosemary and thyme, and eat sweet carob and almond paste passed around on spoons. As the sun begins to set, the the giant goddess Tanit emerges, slowly pacing figures of eight beneath the canvas awning. She comes to rest beside the tapestry – her tree of life – its branches filled with leaves.

This winter I looked after an empty rural hotel in the high northwest, where moss-filled forest meets the cliffs, while the island was hit by some of the worst storms on record. The diminished winter population braced itself against fierce winds and torrential rain. My daily drive through the San Mateu valley took me past piles of rubble where sections of centuries-old dry stone walls had caved in. Trees fell. A pirate lookout tower dating back to the 1600s collapsed one day. It made the island seem small and fragile, and felt like a dark time. But then something extraordinary happened.

Shortly before Christmas, Ibiza’s dead river started flowing again. Its fast, gurgling waters could be traced along its inland route to Santa Eularia, where it erupted in a series of deafening waterfalls beneath the Pont Vell bridge. In the days leading up to Christmas, crowds flocked to the river, many of them local Ibicencos, posing for family selfies. Grandparents proudly showed their grandchildren the river they swam in as children, a sight they never expected to see again.  

The river flowed for a few days, then petered out again. People who knew about my obsession with the river jokingly congratulated me on my work. But the point was, it only reappeared – almost without any sense. It didn’t stay. Its return wasn’t a clear signal of anything – neither of the power of intention and ritual, nor of the resolution of an ecological crisis. Rather, the river seemed to have simply reminded an island of its aliveness – as a possibility, as a metaphor, as a lingering, unfinished story. The river’s demonstration that a land’s story can change so unexpectedly filled me with awe, and fear.

The Walk of the Moon was an attempt to mend a broken myth – one whose incompleteness continues to threaten an island’s rich but fragile culture and ecology. The island of Ibiza is a miniaturised mirror of the world – it has ancient myths, and modern cheap masks, both struggling against each other for power. On closer inspection, each of these cheap masks is a clumsy attempt to bandage a wound which happened a long time ago, in the realm where myths are made. And perhaps there, in the place where a dead river flows, is where the balm for old wounds is found.

As I write, spring unfolds its glory on Ibiza – fields are filled with tiny yellow flowers, meadows are thick with herbs. In coming months, the red earth will slowly crack open and the island will enter its annual, scorching ‘second winter’. By mid-summer the island’s all-pervasive, hypnotic heartbeat will gain pace once more, backed by crescendoing waves of cicada chorus, and a thousand revellers will surround their giant, snarling icon – the goddess of the sun. Meanwhile, in the silent shade of an orchard, a secluded stone well remains. And though the painted image is long gone, its trace remains, for those who seek it.  A faded symbol that was, and always will be Tanit, goddess of the moon.

The Walk of the Moon was an immersive theatre performance held in May 2016 at the ecological centre La Casita Verde, San Jose, Ibiza. It was a collaboration between Theatre of the Ancients and artist Michaela Meadow, puppeteer Andres Orgalla, theatre-maker Philip Kingslan John, the London-based band Moth Rah and many other performers and volunteers.

Joanna Hruby is a puppeteer, visual theatre artist and performer from South Devon, England. With a BA(Hons) Puppetry from London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, she settled in South Devon and developed commission, performance and educational work, acting as lead artist for the 2012 Westcountry Storytelling Festival. In 2015 she relocated to Ibiza to form Theatre of the Ancients.

All images by Can Gato Ibiza © 2017

Next week we continue our series ‘The Mythos We Live By’ with writing by Sophie McKeand.

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

 

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

The Mythos We Live By: The Black Snake and the Row of Flags

This week we continue our series about the role of mythology in uncertain times. We’ve asked six writers who work with story  – as teachers, storytellers, anthropologists, poets, performers, activists  – to choose ‘a myth we live by’ and explore what  a mythological response to an age of converging crises might look like. Today we bring you Ben Mali Macfadyen’s account of the weeks he spent at Standing Rock’s Oceti Sakowin camp, helping resist the ‘black snake’ of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

IMG_20161211_165112

Shadows draped the tattered canvas of ‘Wounded Knee Kitchen’. Sodden figures, sheltering from the blizzard outside, clasped steaming mugs of coffee amid donated coats and clambering children. Huge pots crowded a trestle table  Diné pozoles stew and mounds of parcelled tamales. The crowd stood and removed their icy hats as an elder passed a spirit plate and shared words of hope with the attentive silence. Dorothy, an Oglala Sioux elder, sucked from Marlboro reds as she sat hunched beside an oil barrel stove, staring into some distant stillness.

‘Ask anyone in this camp and they will tell you the same thing. All the prophecies end here.’ Her melancholy pierced the murmurs of strategy and banter that filled the tent. She leant closer. ‘My ma told me about the black snake. That it would come to cross the river, poison our water, make us sick. They stole our lands with stolen hands. Now we are here to protect it.’

***

This has been a long time in the dreaming. The black snake from Dorothy’s vision lurked under the beds of Lakota children and in the flames of storytelling fires long before it visited me in Aberdeenshire dreams, slithering through mud, escaping my fearful grasp. Yet it was these prophetic threads that somehow led to the convergence of thousands of ‘Water Protectors’ from around the world on treaty land of the Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota.

Despite coming from a myriad of cultures with their own trauma and agendas of what progress looked like, they built a diverse global movement of peaceful resistance. This was led predominantly by indigenous youth and women, and united by one common goal: to ‘cut the head’ from the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The $3.8 billion project spans 1,172 miles, crossing the Missouri river twice, devastating multiple sacred sites and threatening the water supply of over 17 million people. A Hydra of desecration fed by one of the most powerful myths of progress. The American dream.

I am no spokesperson for indigenous sovereignty. I cannot attempt to unpack myths or stories which were not mine to take. What follows instead is an attempt to share some of my own learning from the Water Protectors of Standing Rock in the hope that we can find ways to deepen our approach to solidarity, and understand how the myths we live by have the power help us walk, as was so often said at the camps, ‘in a good way’.

***

In November 2016 I had the honour of spending a month at the largest of the camps, Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires), the proper name of the peoples commonly referred to as the Sioux. Despite the frequent chaos of direct action as prayerful protectors were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, dogs and water cannons, as well as the looming fears of raids, poisoning, floods, arrests and surveillance (to name but a few), there was somehow still an inexplicable magic to life at the camps. A shared sense that, despite the hardships, this is what it meant to be fully alive. That we were witnessing history being made. That this was just the beginning.

After arriving with ideas of being ‘useful’, I quickly learnt that my role in the camp wasn’t to lead anything, or even to feel comfortable on indigenous land at all. I marked my hours attempting to clumsily practice humility through simple acts. Axing knotted pine logs with blue-eyed elder Ebrum; witnessing wisdom in crowded decolonisation meetings; shovelling snow with bantering Diné companions. Icy days began infused with ceremonial cedar smoke and the taste of blue corn porridge, and ended huddled in minus degrees beside the Sacred Fire, witnessing Lakota songs accompanied by the pulse of drum beats, coyote wails and generators.

The backbone of Oceti Sakowin was the flags. Left by hundreds of indigenous nations to show their support for the struggle, it was a noble row of every colour which flew in the face of sun and snow. Just beyond the camp’s limit, the lights of the pipeline construction glared, standing in parallel to the path of indigenous solidarity. One marked a way towards the health of future generations, the other towards desecration in the name of short-term profit.

Two paths. Two myths.

***

Four months have passed since those days. On February 23rd I found myself staring in shock at a very different scene. Live-feed videos depicting raids set to dismantle the world that was once so familiar. The snow, melting after the long winter, revealed Lakota treaty land choked in a mire of plastic tents. Detritus of the thousands who came and left. People like me, who were drawn to the powerful message of indigenous freedom and environmental protection but were ultimately free to fly far from the devastation the pipeline could inflict upon the land of those that call it home.

It is a travesty that the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota people still need to resist this devastating project in the wake of such high-profile peaceful struggles, but the outcome of this issue also extends around the world as a symbol to those who stand to protect their own water and ways of life. I find myself for the first time fearing that despite everything the prophecy will come true and the black snake will bring poison to the water. That the other myth won after all.

These times demand deeper questions than the present darkness can deliver. How are we to keep facing what often feels like ever-rising tide of desecration? How can we practice true solidarity with the people most affected? Is it already too late? The answers, as so often seems to be the case, lie somewhere in the realms of the mythic.

***

On one of my first days at the camp I entered the large white meeting dome and joined a crowded gathering thick with sage smoke. Faith Spotted Eagle of the Yankton Sioux stood and wove the landscape of what we were facing. ‘Remember,’ she cautioned, ‘we are all just a part of someone else’s dream.’

That day I was offered a radically different way of seeing. Growing up in a small Somerset town, the only more-than-human guides I encountered were in the realms of books and cartoons, or the invisible friends that I abandoned when the time came to don my school uniform. This was the way of a culture that offers little standing to prophecy, mythology and the dreaming, all of which exist beyond logical deduction. My days with the water protectors gave me a rare and powerful insight into the power of these qualities in action.

When I first started engaging in environmental activism as a young teenager I encountered many activist groups that held noble intentions of action, but created cultures of burnout and blame which created divisions and pushed away support essential to their success. The Water Protectors at Standing Rock hoped to see beyond opposition and anger against DAPL by drawing from people’s deep sense of values and vision. Their rallying cry ‘Mni Wiconi: Water is Life’ saturated the camps. It was screen printed onto denim jackets and called through walkie-talkies. It was an approach that saw beyond opposition and attack to a deeper need that is shared on all sides. This peaceful way didn’t always go unchallenged, especially by younger indigenous groups like the ‘Red Warriors’, who frequently pushed for action above the prayerful intentions led by elders. However, the power of their call to ‘protect the sacred’ cannot be underestimated. It is the kind of approach you can use to disarm a regiment, teach children, start a global movement.

Another powerful shift for me came when I realised that being in America for the first time I was learning the lay of the land by its indigenous nations before I learnt the whereabouts of its States. This was a unique position, rare even among indigenous people. I was coming to see how this struggle was far more than one to protect water. It was also a movement to reconfigure a whole history of place that has been enforced upon a people for half a millennium. It draws from the mythic by reaching something far more universal than solely the issue at hand. It returns us to the bigger dreaming, connecting people to their shared humanity and sense of belonging.

***

Questions on belonging were held close to my chest at camp, and while at work or over meals I repeatedly met conversations on ancestry and home, and found myself reflecting on the threads of my own lineage that tie me to Scotland. Perhaps it is the closest claim I have to a deeper sense of place, being one that was in some way also taken from me. Four generations ago my ancestors were cleared from their Hebridean home as part of the brutal Highland Clearances. I’ve twice journeyed to the Isle of Mull to clamber over the ruins of Moy castle that was once theirs. Perched on mossy fragments overlooking the Atlantic I wondered what dreams their relatives held as they made the dangerous passage across that ocean in search of a better future. What they found on the land they claimed as their own was not a new world, but other people.

In his autobiographical accounts of indigenous village life in Mayan Guatemala, artist and teacher Martín Prechtel poetically portrays the devastation caused by the double displacement that is central to the American story:

Deranged and damaged from generations of violence and cultural misunderstandings in their own lands, they came in a tornado of shame, hatred, and a numbness from centuries of wars with their own people, wars that had originated with other traumatized people like themselves.

At least half of the people I met at the camps, indigenous or otherwise, could trace ancestry back to Scotland.

Close up Ben profile
 
To see the path ahead as moving towards one of two polarised myths is too neat for such a messy past. We are, of course, inextricably woven into the fabric of both. As a teenager, I found facing global suffering offered little more than a one way ticket to shame and despair. With every casualty in a Congolese coltan mine or palm oil forest fire in Sumatra I felt deeply implicated in the gross brutality of everyday choices. Colonialism is alive in the assumptions and choices we make every day. While I cannot hope to extricate myself from the cycles of trauma that has been the legacy of my culture, I know there is another way. To not turn away, but commit to more deeply understanding our entanglement in this past destruction, can serve as a great power. I spoke to so many people who had recovered hope and pride in their indigenous heritage by visiting the camps at Standing Rock, and countless others who were inspired to deepen their commitment to struggles in their own communities across the world. $4 billion has already been divested from the banks that fund DAPL and a host of other camps have sprung up in resistance to other extraction projects.

This really is just the beginning.

***

‘This land is not ours. It is borrowed from our grandchildren.’ These words were humbly declared by an elder on my final day at the camp. The concept of seven generations was one I was already familiar with from my work in Embercombe. It is a powerful approach to leadership which states that every decision must be made in service of lives in the distant future. But another concept caught my attention during my month at the camp, that of ‘the eighth generation’. I asked someone one day what this meant, thinking it some self-proclaimed indigenous group or opportunistic branding. Turns out it’s us. The people alive now whose lineage was guided by seven generations thinking are the walking realisation of those ancestral choices.

Oceti Sakowin Camp dwells now only in memory. Its flags will never again dance in those bitter winds. But the state of things reeling through Facebook feeds and media headlines will only ever reveal fleeting ripples of far deeper waters than can be imagined from the surface. The myth of progress is crumbling because it holds an empty dream, one devoid of elderhood and vision. You’ve got to look into the darkness to see it is so. Our cultural unravelling on a mythic scale requires us to re-story while we restore, to creatively embed the vast scope of memory and vision into our patterns of speech, our ways of relating to land and of working together. We are faced with an opportunity to hold ourselves accountable for the legacies of colonialism, and in doing so be part of creating new mythologies that help us to see beyond all that divides us.

Perhaps seven generations from now our descendants will be walking in the myths and values that we are dreaming for them today.

Let’s start with this one:

Mni Wiconi: Water is Life.


Ben Mali Macfadyen is a wayfarer and artist, exploring the wilder edges of activism, community and creativity. A performer, mentor and co-facilitator of the Catalyst course at Embercombe, he is currently studying with Teatr Pieśn Kozła in Poland and developing a performance on empowerment and renewable energy in Scotland.

Images by the author


Next week we continue our series ‘The Mythos We Live By’ with a post by puppeteer and Theatre of the Ancients founder Joanna Hruby: The Walk of the Moon.

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

 

 

 

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The Mythos We Live By: Riding the Back of the Bear-King

This week we continue our series about the role of mythology in uncertain times. We’ve asked six writers who work with story  – as teachers, storytellers, anthropologists, poets, performers, activists  – to choose ‘a myth we live by’ and explore what  a mythological response to an age of converging crises might look like. Today we bring you an essay about storytelling and belonging by writer and animal tracker Sylvia V. Linsteadt.

grizzly_bear_-ursus_arctos_ssp

 

There was once, as well could be, a king. He had two daughters, who were mean and ugly, but the third was as fair and sweet as the bright day, and the king and all were fond of her. She once dreamed about a golden wreath, which was so lovely that she couldn’t live unless she got it. But as she couldn’t get it, she began to pine and could not speak for sorrow. And when the king found out it was the wreath she was grieving for, he had one made almost like the one the princess had dreamed of, and sent it out to goldsmiths in every land and asked them to make one like it.

They worked both day and night, but some of the wreaths she threw away, and others she wouldn’t even look at. Then one day, when she was in the forest, she caught sight of a white bear, which had the wreath she had dreamed of between its paws and was playing with it. And she wanted to buy it.

No! It wasn’t to be had for money, but only in return for herself. Well, life wasn’t worth living without it, she said; it didn’t matter where she went or who she got, if only she got the wreath. And so they agreed that he was to fetch her in three days’ time, and that would be a Thursday.

 – from ‘The White Bear King Valemoncollected by Peter Christen Asbjorsen and Jorgen Moe, ‘Norwegian Folktales’

 

It is no ordinary wreath, the wreath of your own longing. It is not made of any ore mined by human hands, but only the gold of the world given of its own free will. It is the gold of hazel pollen released from the stretching spring catkin; the gold on the backs of bumblebees; the rut-polished tines of elk; the ring round the great-horned owl’s pupil; the sun as it spills suddenly over the green horizon at dawn.

All the golden wreaths wrought by the king’s goldsmiths are but facsimiles of the real thing, the wreath of the girl’s dreams, the wreath held in the bear-king’s paws. You can’t buy wholeness, you can’t buy belonging, you can’t buy relationship. But you can dream it, and you can seek it in the pinewood and in the scrubbrush and on the coastal strand until you begin to recognise its shape, and some intimation of its name.

When it comes down to it, when at last you glimpse the bear who carries the wreath of your own longing through the trees, it really just amounts to saying yes. But saying yes to a bear is actually a very frightening thing to do. Certainly in our present culture, storied through with narratives of conquest and possession, man vs. nature, city vs. wild, nature as either sublime-pristine-wilderness or deadly unmerciful terror, and either way an object for us to use and abuse and dismiss as we desire, we have made it hard to say yes to the bear-king, because the bear-king will tear down all our walls. After all, it is the great old mother goddess herself who will look back at you through the eyes of the bear-king and say: very well, you want the golden wreath? Well, I want something too. And that something is your active devotion, your hand in marriage, your self. Real life, real commitment, not only the romance, not only the dream. Together, they make a closed circle, an ouroboros, the beginning of wholeness. After all, doesn’t longing, true longing, always have something to do with being made whole?

***

For a long time now I’ve been obsessed with the idea of belonging. Of what it might look like to let a place, a landscape, claim you. To be accepted by its bobcats, its wood pigeons, its skies. Specifically, for me, I have wanted to belong to a peninsula called Point Reyes, a beautiful otherworldly place of firs and pines, of bay edge and violent ocean strand, a geologic patchwork not located on the North American plate at all, but the Pacific, stitched there along the San Andreas fault.

This longing has felt difficult and fraught for me as a woman of mixed European ancestry living on occupied Coast Miwok land in California. How can I live in right relationship to this place? What stories can I carry and tell that might be rooted here? How do I respectfully interact with the indigenous Coast Miwok legacy, language, and culture, without being appropriative? What new mythologies might I listen for, spoken by bishop pines and grey foxes and hazel trees? To be honest, I’ve gotten myself worked up into knots over this subject many times. I can end up feeling very serious about all of it, a bit desperate, and quite exhausted. And it’s one thing to long for that wreath, to visit a place and go misty and romantic over its thickets of stars, its manzanita flowers, its wild irises blooming, and then drive back to the city again. It’s quite another thing to actually get the wreath. And to realise that you must give yourself in trade for it.

p1100341

……………..

Something more or less like this happened to me this winter. On January’s new moon, my partner and I pitched a Mongolian ger made of oak and chestnut and felt and canvas in the pinewood of Point Reyes, and made it our home. That ger had been my golden wreath for some time. Living in Point Reyes had been my wreath for even longer. Sometimes the feeling scared me a little. Was I just obsessed, single-minded? Why was I so unreasonably narrow-minded about where I wanted to live? And yet it was an undeniable call. Ever since I was a little girl, when my parents regularly took us over the mountain out to the wild beaches of Point Reyes, I have loved this land. In college, 3,000 miles away in an old industrial city on the East Coast, Point Reyes grew even larger in my psyche; the distance made my love for it vast, and I came running to its coves and forests every time I was home. After that, we lived in the East Bay for five years and came out to Point Reyes from Oakland or Berkeley almost every weekend, an hour and a half drive on harrowing fat freeways. Always, crossing over the fault line in the Olema Valley felt like a homecoming.

But actually moving here didn’t feel like I expected it to at all. I felt utterly disoriented for days. I suddenly felt that I didn’t know Point Reyes at all. It was like a flirtatious love affair suddenly gone very serious. Romance transmuting, exquisitely, into relationship. And yet I felt shy and a little bit panicked. These feelings startled me. Hadn’t I wanted to move here for years now? Why was I not dancing immediate dervishes of joy out in coastal meadows among the just-blooming irises?

Well, for one thing we had unknowingly pitched our yurt in the middle of the wettest and most intense winter California has experienced in the last 20 years. Nothing like washing dishes outside in a tin tub with water dripping down your neck and mud on your boots to sober you just a little. Nothing like 60-mile-an-hour winds through shallow-rooted bishop pines in the middle of the night to send you into true animal paroxysms of panic, or the actual thunder of a tree falling just down the hill to send you skittering out the door with less grace than even a mouse on the run from an owl, half-filled kettle in hand, water-spigot running all over the floor.

What I was experiencing was much more animal, more visceral, than I had imagined; the true nearness of a wilder, fiercer world, of its vast and unknowable aliveness. And the feeling that this was serious. This was for real. I’d asked for that golden wreath. Point Reyes was the bear. I understood, subconsciously, the importance of such an agreement. Of what it meant to move here. I was saying yes to that bear. Saying yes does not come without responsibility.

mythos_sylvia_white bearThe White Bear King Valemon is a big story, part of a sort of Ursa-constellation of other related tales: East of the Sun West of the Moon most closely, Beauty and the Beast, Psyche and Eros, and more distantly but perhaps most vividly, a California Indian story called in English something like The Woman Who Married a Bear. Trailing such a big-pawed story will often take you halfway across the world. Together these different versions create one great bear-star body in the cosmos of the psyche. This story carries many meanings. It lives its own life. Such stories come in and out of our lives like seasons, like migrations, like planetary crossings.

The White Bear King Valemon came in sidelong, taking me a little by surprise. I thought it had come knocking, asking to be learned in order to be told in the snowy high Sierras for an animal tracking class with my tracking mentor Scott Davidson. I felt a little overwhelmed, as I’ve always thought of myself as a writer first and a storyteller later, not second even but maybe third or fourth or fifth. In truth, telling stories out loud terrifies me. I’d really rather not. But for some reason the story had come knocking and I had said yes. And I found that wandering around the pinewood trails near our new home, telling this story to the hazels and tanoaks and coffeeberries, grounded me. I told it to harbour seals down by the bay, to the big elk-roamed hills of Tomales Point, to a little hazel outside our front door. It made me glad. I didn’t realise that this practice was the first step of truly coming home to this place. That I was actually being asked to offer the story to this very land, and not the Sierra Nevadas at all.

For as it turned out, a day before we were meant to leave for the mountains, we had to cancel our class due to a combination of weather and last minute drop-outs. And the next night I found myself in the Limantour hostel at the edge of an alder wood and the ocean in the Point Reyes National Seashore, telling the story by the light of a red kerosene lantern and a beeswax candle held in the back of a clay bear, to a small but eager group huddled happily in their bunks, as yet another rainstorm thrashed the hills outside. I found myself telling it only a few miles from my new wreath-round home, in this land I love. Somewhere in my very skin I could feel that Point Reyes was listening. And I realised that this story was offering me a map into relationship with this place, a wiser Way than my own overeager, scattered and sometimes egoistic bumblings.

Since telling The White Bear King Valemon out loud to Point Reyes, something has changed. Suddenly I can feel facets of the landscape looking back at me with strange and generous eyes. I can sense the threads – golden like the golden ball the old crone gives the king’s youngest daughter to follow in order to find her bear-king when he has been lost – connecting me to the rest of the breathing land. I feel part of something, watched by something. New still, a little clumsy, but clinging onto the back of the bear-king all the same.

What does it mean to ride the bear-king’s back? This seems a very potent question for our time. The story offers this question, but it seems to me it might take us all a whole lifetime to answer it. In the tale, the king tries to give his two less beloved daughters to the bear-king first. Part of us will always baulk a little, backtrack, or flat out run in the other direction. Luckily, the bear is no fool. He will always see through each of them in turn.

‘Have you ever sat softer, have you ever seen clearer?’ he asks them, and I imagine his eyes going a little bit wistful as they quickly reply, ‘Indeed I have! In my mother’s lap I sat softer, in my father’s court I saw clearer.’

‘Ah. You’re not the right one, then,’ he snarls, and chases both of them all the way home.

Only the third daughter, the youngest, the one who dreamed the golden wreath, answers his question with a breathless ‘No, never have I sat softer, never have I seen clearer!’ a little surprised herself. And so off they go, over hill and valley, through forest and shoreline and peak, far, and farther than far, to the bear-king’s home.

Long ago we traded the bear-king’s back for the ease of silken lap and militant kingdom. We are living there still. But as Paul Shepard writes in The Others,  ‘as an archetypal figure underlying the forms of culture, [the bear] persists in our dreams and imagination as though some tracks were pressed into the human nervous system during the ice ages, leaving in our innermost natures a kind of preconscious expectation that Ursus’ shaggy presence will give insight into human problems.’ The bear has never all the way left our dreams. Sometimes I can feel old grizzly ghosts wandering the fog on Tomales Point. Land holds the memory of their bodies. Our bodies carry the memory of their bodies, that all-consuming yellow gaze.

Though we may feel safe inside the castle walls of our kingdom, our culture, no iron nor steel can bite the bear-king. No soldier can hold him back. So it goes in this story, and so it goes in our lives, too. The walls of the story we are living in are crumbling, faster and faster, and I think some part of all of us is desperate to see that shaggy head come bursting through the gates of the citadel, breaking the spell at last, the spell that has bound us for a thousand years into believing that bears do not speak, that the earth is inanimate, that the numinous can be reduced to a scientific formula on a piece of paper in your hand. Oh no, says the bear-king. No matter your cities I am stronger. I have only been waiting for you to ask for me, to dream of wreaths, to say my name and know it to be the name of your own longing.

For you cannot have the wreath without sitting on the bear’s back, without trading the softness of safety, the clarity of known structures of power and thought, for that which is utterly unknown, utterly furred, and utterly in keeping with the wholeness of the universe.

At the centre of the story is a golden wreath of longing, a golden thread to follow, and the great wide back of the white bear-king, lost and found once more. At the centre of this story is a question. Have you ever sat softer, have you ever seen clearer, than on the back of the bear-king?

It is time for us to pick up that golden thread, and follow where it goes, though it will lead us far, and farther than far from the walls of the king’s castle. But the good news is, it will lead us home.

I have written a companion piece, a sequel to this one, detailing the story more fully, sketching out my understanding of the lines of this sacred, furred map, a map we might follow into deeper relationship with the land. It is broken into seven parts — the Golden Wreath; Riding On the Back of the Bear; The Art of Beholding; Following the Golden Thread; Growing Claws; Meeting the Troll Hag; Three Drops of Tallow. You can read it here.

Scover.jpg.rendition.460.707ylvia V. Linsteadt is a writer and animal tracker living in the hills of Point Reyes, just north of where she was born. Her first novel Tatterdemalion, a collaboration with artist Rima Staines, is forthcoming with Unbound in May 2017. Her other books include Lost Worlds of the San Francisco Bay Area and The Wonderments of the East Bay. Much of her work is set in a future California, where old stories have come alive again. You can read more about her work at sylvialinsteadt.com

 

Picture credits: ‘Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos)’ by Gregory ‘Slobirdr’ Smith, via Wikimedia Commons; ‘The ger, our golden wreath’, by Sylvia Linsteadt; Illustration from The White Bear King Valemon by Theodor Kittelsen, 1912

Next week we continue our series ‘The Mythos We Live By’ with a post by performer and activist, Ben Mali Macfadyen: The Black Snake and the Road of Flags.

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

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