The Dark Mountain Blog

Waking up to the Water – An ecocentric vision of human identity in the 21st Century

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Life is all about information. Whether you are a plant, a tree, a chimp or a human, all living things are continually influenced by information from the past. The more useful the information we can get, the better able we are to solve our problems in the present in order to survive. Through the process of natural selection, such information has come to reside not only in the DNA of lifeforms but in some species it has also evolved to be, maintained externally in the form of culture. As a group’s knowledge and understanding of the world are handed down from generation to generation, our interactions with the world scrape away our ignorance, bit by bit, so that eventually we are better able to solve our problems, or else we and our ideas die.

However, not all ignorance gets scraped away by the cold, harsh truth of nature but is instead protected in order to continue to confer considerable power onto an individual, ideology, institution or civilisation that is built around that vision, which they therefore insist must be maintained at all costs. Although we should never underestimate the stubbornness of ignorance, history has shown us that eventually there comes a time when such powers and such visions must adapt or die as the inaccuracies of their vision lose out either to competitors whose perspective is more accurate, reliable and more useful; or they lose out at their own hand as their analysis of reality is fundamentally flawed, unreliable and less useful to solving the problems that life can present – ours is but one of many civilisations since 8000 BC that have risen and fallen by first exploiting nature and then by suffering the weaknesses that over-exploitation brings and the ensuing reduction in resilience to what may once have been minor threats that ultimately lead to collapse.

The fraying Western worldview of industrial civilisation is made possible by the harnessing of cheap energy, which has allowed for a boom in human population growth and standards of living unlike anything that has come before it. The cultural information passed down that helps us to harness this power and the industries arranged around its exploitation has proven to be truly transformational, allowing us to overcome countless problems related to our survival. But now, when used, this same information has led to global energy insecurity, over-consumption, widespread destruction of non-human life, environmental degradation and climate change, all of which threaten to undermine the natural and social systems of the planet.

Furthermore, through a type of neo-colonialism, transnational corporations have ensnared the world in the Western rhetoric of economic growth, comparison and competition that fossil-fueled societies make possible and with it has come greater economic and social inequality and instability, as well as exploitation, giving rise to growing levels of conflict and ill-health both mentally and physically. Instead of solving many of our problems, the reproduction of Western culture is instead globalising them in the pursuit of continued profit.

It’s been said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism, so ubiquitous is the ideological project of neoliberalism in the modern world – like goldfish in a bowl that are totally ignorant of ‘water’, we often fail to notice how colonised our consciousness has become by capitalism and how our resulting ideology permeates our perception and participation of a vast amount of our lives. So much so, that we find ourselves using the same thinking that caused our problems to fix them. After the recession of 2007 and the growing litany of environmental harms our development has caused, including climate change, Western governments have doubled down on more neoliberalism, not less: greater austerity, greater inequality, less regulation, greater global CO2 emissions – all in the quest for continued economic growth. We find ourselves hitting the accelerator instead of the brake as we mercilessly try to do things better, when really we should open our eyes to the ‘water’ all around us and start to do better things.

Our problems are those of ideology, belief, perception, values and identity – in essence, we need a shift in our ideology, our culture and our identity if we are to overcome our current problems. This is a complex and overwhelming task without a singular and correct way of achieving it. But for what it is worth, I would argue that a good place to start that makes possible many different responses is to look to science and to learn what it can tell us about ourselves and our relationship to nature.

Over the last century, developments in our scientific understanding of human origins have shown us that we are not separate from nature and put here but that we are in fact fundamentally a part of it. Contrary to the claims of anthropocentrism (human-centredness) that have been maintained solely by cultural inertia, man is not separate from nature and put here but is in fact interdependent and interconnected with it as all things share one origin. Despite the fact that this information has not been culturally assimilated as yet, this understanding provides a shift in pre-analytic vision that engenders alternatives to our current, flawed cultural information. It allows us to see the water of Western ideology and encourages us to think anew from an ecocentric rather than anthropocentric point of view, which, as is discussed below, has the potential to reframe our identity, our values and therefore our culture so that we and future generations may be better placed to solve the problems essential to our survival.

The first discovery in question comes from the 1920s, when by observing that the galaxies are moving away from us in all directions and that the ones furthest away are moving fastest, Lemaitre and Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding. The principle of this discovery also infers that if we were to rewind time so that the expansion becomes a contraction we can see that at one point in the very distant past everything in the universe was in one place, that it originated as a singularity, an almost infinitely dense and infinitely small point that expanded to form the universe as we know it today.

The other discovery of existential importance here is Darwin’s work, the facts of which have permeated our culture but its understanding in combination with Lemaitre’s and Hubble’s work, in the main, has not. In taking the theory of evolution to its natural conclusion it demonstrates that all life on Earth has descended from a single common ancestor, often called the Last Universal Ancestor (or LUA), a single-celled organism not too dissimilar from a bacterium today which is estimated to have lived some 3.7 billion years ago. From both discoveries we can see that every living thing shares a common origin as do all things in the universe and the story of how we came to be here takes on a whole new light.

Our story, as we know it so far, begins at a single point of near infinite density at the quantum level that saw an inflationary kick that released the energy of the Big Bang, which as it cooled, gave rise to hydrogen and helium atoms; as the gravitational fields of these atoms drew them together into clouds that amassed over millions of years, their growing friction and compaction saw the birth of the first stars that lit up the universe; inside these stars hydrogen atoms (1 proton) were fused to form helium (2 protons), helium atoms fused together to form heavier atoms and so on and so forth. Through a cosmic cycle of birth and explosive death, bigger stars were formed that could fuse even more protons into atoms up until iron which has 26; elements heavier than iron, such as gold with 79 protons, couldn’t be fused in the hearts of even the biggest stars, instead they needed a supernova, a stellar explosion so large it would have outshone a galaxy and emitted more energy in a few weeks than our sun will produce in its entire lifetime.

The next time you look at the gold in your jewellery, you can remind yourself that you are wearing part of the debris of a supernova that exploded somewhere in the depths of space. You can also remind yourself that as such stellar fusions and explosions produced all the elements in the universe, including the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, calcium, phosphorus and many other atoms that make up you, that you yourself are made from such Big Bang debris — albeit filtered through the countless iterations of cosmic evolution that saw the emergence of our galaxy, solar system and planet, from which emerged the LUA and all the species that came and went, to the ones that remained including us, Homo sapiens. This almost magical sounding story of what happens when you leave hydrogen alone, governed only by the laws of nature for 13.8 billion years, is also much like its contents in that the story itself is constantly evolving as we learn more about it. It is not a static meta-narrative but a developing, dynamic story that changes the more questions we ask of it and the more we discover about the universe over time.

The fundamental conclusion of this story is that we are part of an on-going cosmic evolutionary process. Every atom in our bodies was forged in the death throes of stars across the universe; we share DNA with all life on Earth be it trees in a rainforest or fungi in the Cornish soil, the woman across the road or a dog you passed in the park. Despite the cultural inertia of anthropocentrism, science tells us that we are not separate, we are one. When we re-position our perspective in light of this recently deciphered origin narrative it sheds new light on what it means to be human. It’s no longer all about us but about something much larger of which we are a part. Without the knowledge and understanding of this story, anthropocentrism creates a false duality that separates and alienates us from our home and fundamentally from ourselves.

The Copernican-style revolution of our identity that emerges from the scientific origin narrative re-situates not only our idea of where we are but of how we came to be here. It challenges us to think about what it is to be human in that it shows us that we are as much a part of the universe as the Milky Way, that we are in fact a way for the universe to know itself. The hegemonic notion of anthropocentrism in the West misses this completely and is therefore not adequately aligned with our understanding of reality and of the evolutionary process to help us solve our problems. The continuation of our current Western ideology may therefore see us deviating from the arc of evolution to reside alongside the countless other empires that failed to see the water and that subsequently disappeared as a result.

Explorations of non-anthropocentric human identities based on critical reflection of the world around us are therefore essential, and would hopefully reclaim the argument for a shift in self-realisation away from the more flimsy ‘scientism’ of New Age proponents. Findings from such explorations should also seek to influence our culture not by moral or ethical insistence alone but by facts, knowledge and understanding, by reason, reflection and insight and most of all through stories that share our understandings and feelings of what it is to be human in the 21st century. And of course, it should also be noted that the scientific origin narrative and the ecocentric perspective that it encourages is an ideology too, one that needs and should welcome continual readjustment in light of new information. In this sense, the group maintenance of an ecocentric perspective is not about its continuation but its constant questioning and improvement.

However, it is important to note that such a shift in perspective as outlined above does not ensure some kind of deliverance, far from it – there is no such panacea. The notion that such a shift can help us avoid our crises simply by sharing a new story of our origins is misgiven, but that it might help us deal with them and recover from them is more plausible. Our crises aren’t going away just yet and certainly not in response to a story in the short-term. However, the point of this origin narrative is to reframe our identity and thereby reframe our culture and values — our pre-analytic vision — in order to better solve our problems. This process, I would imagine, would take a considerably long time and is in little danger of being of concern to our mainstream, industrial society anytime soon. Nevertheless, such a reframing might help those in the margins to keep going and to share a vision and set of values that bring us together at a crucial and fundamental level.

We are living in a particularly transitionary phase of human history, a time of great uncertainty as one thing ends and another is yet to become. Due to this difficult perspective and point in time it is easy to see why so many want the security of continuing business as usual even if it means denial but we need to step back a little and see our current predicament from a larger historical viewpoint, perhaps even a cosmological one that goes beyond our individual lives.

Our role in all of this is therefore an even more challenging one that asks us to further displace our egos by working for an end that we may very well never see in our lifetimes. Rather than jumping ahead to a post-apocalyptic utopia, primitivism or technological salvation, we must instead sow the seeds for a world we ourselves may not live to see come to full fruition and do so amidst a backdrop of great upheaval and conflict. We’re planting trees in the margins that will grow whilst much around them will die. Ours is a long journey that requires great patience and great vision to cut a path for our children that we ourselves may not get to walk in full. This isn’t to martyr ourselves or to suffer but to liberate ourselves from the shared cultural delusions of Western civilisation and take on new responsibilities, to wake up to the water all around us and to enjoy a different way of seeing the world and ourselves that is fundamentally joyful and emancipatory.

Though there might not be an end in sight, or a clear and discernible goal, we can still have a direction of travel because to help us on this journey we can at all times be guided by two well established pieces of advice that from an ecocentric perspective take on greater significance: ‘know thyself’ and ‘to thine own self be true’. To take our first steps then, let us take a look at ourselves, our planet and the life upon it as well as the cosmos itself in light of all we have discovered and ask: what is it to be human and how should we live as a result?

Rob Plastow lives by the sea in Cornwall with his wife and their growing hoard of animals including two unruly horses, some chickens and a puppy. Central to his writing is a critical, ecocentric perspective that has been developed from a deep love of art and science through years of working in music, education and muddy fields. When he has a spare moment outside of work and looking after the animals he indulges in his favourite past-times of reading, staring at the stars or the ocean (sometimes both) and writing short stories. To read more of his work go to woodfordroberts.com 

Image courtesy of Earth Observatory

Animal Encounters

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There is a place in Bolivia where you can live with animals, as an animal. In my early twenties, I found my way into the jungle and started working with rescued big cats. And everything I thought I knew about myself, and the world, changed.

Her name was Wayra. Her mother had most likely been shot by hunters and she had been taken, as a baby puma, to be sold on the South American black market. She became a house pet until, at the age of ten months, she grew too big, aggressive and demanding for her owners to care for. So they left her at Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY), a Bolivian NGO that runs a series of animal refuges across Bolivia. They look after creatures like Wayra, many of which, due to their history, can never be released. CIWY lacks money, governmental support and manpower, and utilises the steady stream of travellers to give volunteers like myself the chance to work with cats, monkeys, birds, tapirs… a list of abused creatures that often feels endless.

CIWY’s core principle is to give the animals lives that are as close to how they would be in the wild as possible. There is a strong focus on enrichment, and with the cats this means that – wherever possible – they are taken out of their solitary jungle cages and walked, by volunteers, on jungle trails. Come floods, fires and mosquitoes, each cat is walked every day with an almost fanatical determination to ensure they are given a little slice of freedom.

Wayra was terrified when I met her. So was I. Having come from a desk job in London, I wasn’t sure about this jungle business. There was no electricity, no internet, no real washing facilities, no way to keep ‘the wild’ out. There were construction duties, such as lugging rocks on your back through waist high water, armadillos in the toilet and worms that hatched under your skin.

But I was privileged enough to spend all day, every day, with a puma. In the morning Wayra would lead me out of her cage and, tethered to each other on a rope, we would walk together through the trees. She would hiss and spit, bite and scratch me. But as I grew less scared so did she, and at some point the bites stopped. They became licks and licks became long naps side by side at the lagoon. When she caught the scent of a monkey, she let me chase it with her. When she swam, I swam too. These were animal encounters of the first order. And, as anyone who’s formed a relationship with a non-human will understand, she was the closest friend I have ever had.

Eventually, when I returned to England, I was heartbroken. I was the weirdo in the corner, the one who smelt slightly stale and didn’t want to talk to anyone. I couldn’t get it. I had been living with animals – I had been an animal myself, as was proper – but then suddenly, I wasn’t. I was ‘human’ again. And isn’t there something wrong there because, shouldn’t I be both? I had come to understand that I was, integrally, animal, but now that understanding made no sense.

In the end, after much faffing about and a bit of misery, I decided to set up a charity called ONCA. This stands for One Network for Conservation and the Arts and we launched in November 2012. Overturning an empty shop front in a dilapidated part of Brighton, we made the only inner city contemporary art gallery and performance space in the UK that asks questions, tells stories and initiates conversations about environmental change. Our exhibitions include visual art, storytelling, poetry, puppetry, performance, debate and music. We have curated projects about bird extinctions and the ice caps, journeys and migrations, plastic pollution, unrecyclable Christmas paper, bees and dogs and whales, human happiness and human loss.

the-onca-gallery‘Ghosts of Gone Birds’ exhibition at ONCA, 1 Nov 2012 – 31 Jan 2013

When I first started, many people didn’t think there was much longevity in the idea of an environmental art gallery – particularly in a city centre. Environmental art is often stigmatised by the view that it doesn’t have much weight; it is the kind of art that observes rather than questions, documents rather than enquires. But as our sense of place in the world is beginning to change, so are artists stretching the boundaries of what ‘environmental art’ can do. Environmental art is becoming an essential and critical medium in our drive to understand the coming future. I was, and will continue to be, surprised that there was no other gallery that wanted to address, on a permanent basis, these types of questions. I believe such questions deserve and demand physical homes, and placing those homes in cities enables the most unlikely and disinterested audiences the chance of engagement. From the unconcerned town dweller to child to eco-activist, there is a permanent hub for debate and education, stories and conversations – both positive and negative.

ONCA has now been open eighteen months. We recently ran a programme of exhibitions about animal encounters in the forest, a theme that is very close to my heart. This is, of course, why I started the gallery in the first place. I wanted to address our disconnection from the animal inside, and the boundaries that we hide behind to ensure we remain strictly ‘human’. Some people have asked, but what represents more clearly our separation from the animal kingdom than an art gallery? Creativity is what sets us apart, and so how can a gallery enable us to reevaluate our connection, or disconnection, from other creatures? Everything there will be human-centric by nature and, as always, the stories told will be ours and ours alone.

We recently curated an exhibition entitled Exile. It was about this very issue, and we brought together over 30 artists, performers, storytellers, poets and puppeteers, trying to tell stories from a non-human viewpoint. Each piece explored the fragile relationships in our ecosystem and questioned whether humans can, in fact, be both animal and human.

One artwork that was particularly successful was a video piece entitled Licking Dogs by Angela Bartram. The camera zooms in on the profiles of a woman and a dog, facing each other. The participants spend the film licking, often enthusiastically French kissing each other. The woman, Bartram herself, stays constant whilst the dogs change. Some dogs are more enthusiastic about the process than others. One small black dog chooses not to engage at all, and there is an uncomfortable few minutes where he tries to look anywhere but at Bartram. The whole piece is so difficult to watch that many people refuse to. Why is it so repulsive? If it were a cat and a dog, a donkey and a dolphin, we would find it bizarre definitely, but the licking wouldn’t turn our stomachs. And this encapsulates the question that was at the centre of Exile. Who do we think we are, why do we think we are any more special than all other creatures on this planet, and how, ultimately, can we articulate this?

During an ONCA/Brighton University debate exploring how becoming animal can help to promote ecological activity, panelist Joanna Coleman cited Dr. Neil Theise’s estimation that we have 400 trillion cells in our bodies, only 4 trillion of which are human. She then went on to discuss Australian environmentalist Val Plumwood’s personal account of a crocodile attack whilst canoeing in the 1980s in Kakadu National Park:

Few of those who have experienced the crocodile’s death roll have lived to describe it. It is, essentially, an experience beyond words of total terror.

And yet, rather than spurning a ‘massive crocodile slaughter’, as Plumwood says most crocodile attacks in North Queensland often lead to, this experience inspired Plumwood to reform her understanding of place in the world. In 1996, she wrote about it in an essay entitled ‘Being Prey’:

Before the encounter, it was as if I saw the whole universe as framed by my own narrative, as though the two were joined perfectly and seamlessly together. As my own narrative and the larger story were ripped apart, I glimpsed a shockingly indifferent world in which I had no more significance than any other edible being. The thought, ‘This can’t be happening to me, I’m a human being, I am more than just food!’ was one component of my terminal incredulity. It was a shocking reduction, from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat. Reflection has persuaded me that not just humans but any creature can make the same claim to be more than just food. We are edible, but we are also much more than edible.

Large predators like lions and crocodiles present an important test for us. An ecosystem’s ability to support large predators is a mark of its ecological integrity. Crocodiles and other creatures that can take human life also present a test of our acceptance of our ecological identity. When they’re allowed to live freely, these creatures indicate our preparedness to coexist with the otherness of the earth, and to recognize ourselves in mutual, ecological terms, as part of the food chain, eaten as well as eater.

Our denial of this, of our true meaninglessness within a greater cycle, strikes hard when we consider the title phrase of our debate. Becoming Animal – why should we need to become, when we already are?

Debate chair Alan Boldon, Deputy Head of School at Brighton University for Research, Economic and Social Engagement, suggested that such events as Becoming Animal, where metamorphosis and paganism sit alongside conservation and science, do not happen enough – particularly in university settings. We all wear the blinkers of particular disciplines, but to see clearly we must seek help from others as we build up new visions of the world. ONCA is a gallery for the building up of these new visions. We bring people together from different spheres, and new discourses – new ways of seeing – are developed. Prior to Exile, we brought one hundred artists and young people into the gallery and asked them to create a piece of work, inspired by a tree, no bigger than 20cm cubed. Alongside this, we committed to planting one hundred new trees in central Brighton. Each artist and artwork symbolized a root, the same but infinitely different. Each interpretation was unique and, presented as a gallery exhibition, it appeared to me like the idea of tree itself became richer. I saw tree like I had never quite seen it before.

On the 18th September, the third in our series of forest/animal exhibitions launched. To the Trees: A Changing of Home is a solo exhibition by artist Jennifer Hooper. Hooper’s work is based on her nine-week residency at Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi in Bolivia. It feels, almost, as if the gallery has come full circle. I brought back the idea, and now Hooper has installed the jungle and its animals within it. Sadly there is no Wayra as she was too nervous for Jennifer to meet, but that doesn’t matter – for me, she is always there. What she taught me over the years lies at the very heart of ONCA. During the Becoming Animal debate, award-winning nature writer Eleanor O’Hanlon discussed how she believes Eden not to be a place, but a state. A state, both commonplace and normal, which we can return to if we live in balance with the earth and its creatures. I have never in my life experienced this balance more than when I was in the jungle with Wayra, when I looked in another’s eyes and knew it didn’t matter what skins we wore.

7-6-1024x1024‘Young Howler Monkey’ by Jennifer Hooper

People ask what I want the gallery to achieve. It is, and will always be, a medium through which to tell stories about the changing environment. But now I see that it is also about articulating this idea of balance. And exploring, through as many different mediums and skillsets as possible, how the city can – or rather needs to – feature in this balance. ‘My tears taste of fish’ is a line from a poem by eco-poet Susan Richardson, told beautifully during Becoming Animal. I find it difficult to imagine, my tears tasting of fish, as I sit at my desk and watch the cars speed by. Up on the hills later on, as the grass curls under my feet, it is easier. I would like to feel then that through places like the gallery and writers like Eleanor and Susan, we can bring these kinds of animal encounters – these not becomings of animal but beings – into daily life. And at some point, we can truly be animal again.

Laura founded the ONCA Trust and Gallery in 2012, and has a background in art history, arts administration and teaching. She is currently crossing the Atlantic on the eXXpedition.

ONCA, One Network for Conservation and the Arts, is an environmental arts charity based in the South East of England that runs exhibitions, workshops and performances at their gallery venue in Brighton, initiating conversations about ecological change and raising awareness for frontline conservation projects.

On November 30th 2014, ONCA will observe the International Remembrance Day for Lost Species with a service at the Life Cairn on Mount Caburn, East Sussex. If you can’t join them there, please take a moment to mourn extinct species in whatever way feels right.

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Why I Live in a Shed: A Sideways Response to the Housing Crisis

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According to my gardening client, whose father owns (but doesn’t live in) a big house with a bigger garden and a swimming pool in one of the remote corners of this island, life is a game of numbers. The more hours you work, the greater the results. The more money you have in the bank, the better you feel at three in the morning when the air is thick with regret and the only way out is death. He didn’t put it quite like that. In fact, I suspect he does not suffer too much from being awake at three in the morning. His numbers add up, after all, and he uses them to justify his existence and to hide from the pain of it.

My numbers do not add up. This is why I am awake at three in the morning, lying alone in my single bed, aged thirty-five, listening to rain, or birds, or whatever those noises are that start out normal but turn vast and terrifying when they make contact with the old tin roof that keeps the lid on my house. I mean shed. Not by any stretch of warped imagination could this be called a house. Kind people, when they see the books and the turntables and the cello and the clutch of cobwebbed and stringless guitars brought back from various countries where the sun shines more often and the music is superior, might call it a studio. They might say that I live in my studio. Although if you asked the birds, I have no doubt they would say that I live on the ground floor of their nest, and they only tolerate it because, like them, when the sun shines I sit outside on my milk-crate perch and sing.

I am lying awake trying to answer a question. It was put to me by a seven-year-old; bright, beautiful and innocent enough to expect an honest reply.

‘Aunty Catrina, why does your garden smell of wee?’

I’d been scrumping. The floor was covered in apples. Some bruised, some rotten, all ugly enough to be laughed out of the supermarkets, who don’t know the joke’s on them. Unlike supermarket apples, these apples actually taste like apples. The bitter-sweet taste of an English autumn, of bonfires and childhood and home. The tree is an old friend of mine. It blossoms unseen by the side of the road. Even though the tree has never been pruned, or managed in any way whatsoever, there is an excess of fruit. Even the worms can’t keep up.

I was wrapping the apples in newspaper and packing them carefully into boxes for the winter. Apples, when packed this way, last for months. Which is good for my budget. My niece picked her way through the apples and came to squat on the floor next to me. She tugged my arm and put a hand on each of my cheeks and turned my face around so I was looking at her.

‘Aunty Catrina, why do you live in a shed?’

‘Someone has to’ I say, handing her a twisted apple, which she gamely bites into.

‘Like I have to go to school?’

‘Sort of.’

And now it’s three in the morning.

And I am aware that my niece deserves a real answer. Because one day my story will be her story. My puzzle her puzzle. Unless the telling of it somehow changes the ending.

But what do I tell her?

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I could tell her about all the things I wanted to do with my wild and precious life. How I wanted to go exploring. To see with my own eyes all the wonders of the world. To ride camels and climb mountains, test myself against the elements, find my own limitations, make my own mistakes. And then, when I had finished wandering, I wanted to come home and write love songs and death poems and books about fear, because I’d felt love and I’d touched death and I’d faced oceans of fear and found oceans of courage, and, frankly, after all that life I didn’t want to go inside and sit in an office working to prop up someone else’s failing economy.

I could tell her I belong to a dispossessed generation, who came of age too late, after all the houses had already been hoovered up for spares and pension plans.

Both stories are true.

Bats fly into the curtainless window. Imaginary spiders crawl up my legs. I look at myself through my niece’s eyes, measure myself in terms of all the things society holds dear — access to a hot shower, a toilet and a fridge, money in the bank, good clothes and a big television and a secure job and marriage and kids and paid holiday and maybe a pension for when I’m old, and I realise I have none of these things. Not one. And even less besides.

‘Honey,’ I could say. ‘Houses cost too much.’

And I could quote Thoreau and say that ‘the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.’

I could tell her how much I long for security and a warm house with a separate kitchen, and yes, a bathroom, and thick white towels (this more than anything) but every time I get near any of that I throw it away, because what is required from me in return is nothing less than my soul, and I cannot surrender my soul, however cold and lonely it is at three in the morning.

But I don’t want her feeling sorry for me. And neither should she. I have an excellent degree from an excellent university, where I learned about everything, and it cost me nothing. She won’t have my chances.

I get up out of bed and light the camping stove that used to be in my van, before it died, and I sit on the chair that’s as old as me and made out of a tree much older and stare out at the darkness.

The kettle is boiling. I go outside and fish around in the broken shower tray, that doubles up as my kitchen, for a cup, flicking the slugs off and rinsing it under the cold tap.

Outside smells. It smells of stardust and infinity and muck and mist and October.

And wee.

And I stand there, my bare feet all wet, and I realise that what I want to do is stick two fingers up at my client and the eyes of society and everyone else who insists life is a game of numbers, and tell my niece about washing at night under a freezing tap and glancing up at the whirring, whirling constellations of planets. About harvest moons and pre-dawn skies and the sound of the ducks in the morning. About chopping wood and growing spinach and watching the sun go down slowly over the fields to the west.

I want to sing her a love song sung to me by a dying world, whose verses I heard whispered on the howling wind. Because I am afraid that if I don’t it will all be forgotten — built on, buried, burnt out and lost forever, leaving not a rack behind.

Catrina Davies is a writer and songwriter based in Cornwall, UK. Her first-hand account of busking from Nordkapp to Sagres, The Ribbons are for Fearlessness, was published this year. The Ribbons EP is a collection of songs to go with the book. This is an extract from her new song-story project, which confronts social and environmental collapse in terms of living in a tin shed - Walden for the twenty-first century. catrinadavies.co.uk. @_CatrinaDavies

Tengo que get the fuck out of aquí

With the latest issue of Dark Mountain now available, we wanted to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages, so we’re publishing a selection from the book on the blog. Today, we set sail on the rising waters with Patrik Qvist.

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

Patrik Qvist03

The sun sets in the west as always but the street is awash in a flickering light. Debris idly floating by. A barely perceptible thump as a section of façade folds over and glides into the water. It’s all so effortless, this letting go of that which was solid, ordered and reliable; in this big water everything is brought to an equilibrium, made equal. Whether you float or sink is just a question of time.

The water is slowly encroaching on my space. First order of each day is to get out on the stoop and check the benchmarks. A wobbly drawing of a ladder on the wall, black slashes of coal. I make a new line for today’s level. The progress of the water has slowed down considerably since the first floods, but it keeps on rising at a steady, relentless pace. I have a day, perhaps two, before it’s too late. Everything here will be swept away. All accommodations in this part of the country are transient, prone to flooding, evacuated when needed. I have known this for some time. Everyone knows that. First it was a question of moving valuables out of harm’s way, simply shifting boxes and things up a shelf or two, hoping and thinking that the water would recede soon enough, that all would go back to normal, dry up and once again provide for its inhabitants. But it stayed under water. The rooms ceased to function. Dark reflections of slow eddies in the ceilings; passageways no longer passable, a submerged version of domestic life that turned furniture, doorhandles and kitchen counters into ghosts of their former selves; childlike pictograms slowly dissolving and drifting apart in wet entropy.

A high point on the island beckons in the distance. Somewhere down below are the train tracks and the highway that run parallel to where the shore used to be. The infrastructure is gone, buried under an impenetrable mass of muddy water. Faint, faint blue sparkles lit up the first nights as wires and junction boxes shorted out. Short-lived spectacles to herald a new era with sparkle and fizz for fanfare.

I go scavenging for plastic bottles, pieces of wood, rope, string – anything that will provide lift out of the water. When I was a kid we used to build makeshift rafts out of logs tied together with heavy ropes, but they always became too heavy, the wood getting waterlogged quickly, and the vessel more of a semi-sub than an upright raft. I think plastic bottles, oil drums, tyres. I need some kind of sheet for a sail. And a mast. A rudder. If I can get these things accomplished, I can set sail at daybreak.

ʻTengo que get the fuck out of aquíʼ was an art project I did in 2010 at Gnesta Konsthall, a small independent exhibition space just south of Stockholm. I had been invited by Niclas Zander, curator and artistic director of the venue, to do whatever it is that I do when I get an open invitation to participate. In retrospect, my attempt with the raft was a first step in a series of works that have a deeply personal therapeutic value for me; they help me, in their haphazard and sometimes erratic ways, to come to terms with a feeling of imminent collapse of the world as I know it.

flotte teckning copy

Rafts first came to my attention when living in the south of Spain. Our house was on the coast in the mountains and on clear days you could just make out the faint blue Atlas ridge across the water. News of immigrants attempting the passage filled the papers. Theirs was a treacherous journey on overloaded boats and rafts followed by a dangerous trajectory through a fenced-off Europe in search for work and a better life – for the lucky few that made it over. Sometimes I would run into small groups of immigrants on small dirt roads high up in the mountains. They would ask for water and directions. Encounters of dumb luck and blind faith. To build a raft out of necessity is not the same thing as building a raft for pleasure or art, but the notion came to me to do it as an as an exercise, to gain an understanding – and to prepare for a situation which although not presently real, very well may become a reality in a not-too-distant future. An attempt at empathy and compassion. An attempt at translating hyperbolic headlines of social, environmental and personal disaster into physical experience; to establish a viable connection.

In the end there was a raft that made a journey from work of art to child’s toy by way of a stint as an imagined rescue vessel. The raft itself contained within it several more stories – tales of waste and prosperity, of a society beset by affluenza and greed, of good intentions and pastoral landscapes. My scavenging for materials took me way beyond the area I had originally allotted myself and led to an interesting exchange of ideas – the fictitious situation of my need to build a raft made real by the practicalities of freezing cold water and a local history of floods. An official at the local water treatment plant was most helpful and gave me a bunch of discarded plastic containers used for hydrochloric acid. A piece of old tarpaulin made a good sail. My attempt was followed by an audience of onlookers at the shore, parents patiently waiting for the wind to pick up and their kids increasingly eager to see the man in the suit out there fall into the water – ʻCan he swim, Mum?ʼ

rescue ladder 34m

Patrik Qvist is a Swedish artist and architect, most recently at work with projects that deal with climate change and possible future scenarios. A ten-thousand-year-old tree is the focus of a new body of work, where notions of resilience and deep time are central. A first installation of this project was on view at Aguélimuseet earlier this autumn.

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

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

The Shrine

With the latest issue of Dark Mountain now available, we wanted to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages, so we’re publishing a selection from the book on the blog. Today, we bring you some dark, uncivilised fiction from Neale Jones.

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

SANY0231
My persuasion can build a nation
Endless power, with our love we can devour
xxxxxxxxxxxxx- Beyoncé, Run the World (Girls)

 We leave the column before Gyeongju and start the long ride into the hills. The hooves of our mounts like wooden bells, rhythm of the march. Before us the raised cement roadway bisecting the cut rice paddies. There was frost on the ground this morning and ice still filigrees the ditchwater.

Behind us fades the stamping of the men on foot. Brody is playing Beyoncé. He has rigged his MP3 player and some computer speakers to a solar cell and tied them all onto his backpack with audio cable. He says Beyoncé calms the mounts. I can’t say either way. They were bred as racehorses, but they trudge like mules. By now they are probably deaf. Once Brody fell asleep in the saddle with the music playing and I touched his shoulder and felt the bass running through him like electric current.

We climb the hill road. The short autumn day advancing. Below us, through the trees, 경주, Gyeongju, like a cloak of ancient grey mould on the landscape. The reservoir like a dull aluminium plate. The burial mounds covered in green grass. A paraglider whines over the city. Two shots crackle. The horses do not swivel their ears, they keep plodding.

The road is fissured and uplifted; old grass grows in the splitting asphalt. The air thin and still. Beyoncé must carry a long way in the woods. I see no birds. The snare flagellates the tweeter.

We climb toward the temple: 불국사Bul Guk Sa. I translate mentally. My mind clicks like a watch mechanism. Beyoncé raps out clipped lyrics. Temple of the People of the Light, I think. Or perhaps, Shrine to a Burning Nation.

I ask Brody which he thinks it means. He looks at me for a long time, his eyes squinted. I am on the downhill side of the road. I must appear as a black silhouette on a horse, backlit by the afternoon above Gyeongju.

ʻ당신은 한국어 잘 못해요,ʼ is all he says. Dangshineun hangukeo jal mot heyo. You don’t speak Korean well.

 *

The monks have barricaded the gates with old furniture and toilets and ice cream refrigerators, but a half stick is enough. The horses pick their way through, flames burning here and there like doomed votives. Inside the wall, a parkland of hard bare earth, long-stalk trees. Ahead, the temple sits on its bulwarks like an imperious toad.

We cross a wide bridge over a pond of slime. There are three monks in grey jackets sitting on the steps leading to the temple. The stonework of the steps and the walls is monumental and perfectly fit and has been here for a thousand years. The granite shows its grain from acid rain. The monks are very thin and their coats are too large and their clothes and threadbare beards are the colour of the stone.

We draw rein. I look at the monks. They are very still. Like stones, they will be worn away and there is nothing that can stop it. One might as well be the agent. Protest against this is the height of impotence.

Three yellow leaves fall from a tree limb, the other side of Brody. They swing through the air to the dust. Brody’s rifle is resting behind the horn of his saddle. The horses stamp and turn, nervous. I look at Brody, but he looks ahead, his body still while his mount sidles under him. He pulls out his shooter’s earplugs by their string. The air has gone very still, there is no sound, just a high bell, perpetual; it will dim later, I know, in the dull evening. Like all things. I can see a tiny rivulet of blood running through a divot in one of the steps.

 *

We ride through the park around the temple and find a ramp running up to a side gate. I dismount. Brody watches the wall, ready should anyone appear. I light another half stick and lay it at the base of the gate. Thickly painted in red, iron rivets like a horse’s eye.

The dust is gold and brown in the sunlight like dry rice chaff. The doors hang splintered on their hinges. I push through the smoke and dust with my rifle at my shoulder but there is no-one, just the pavilion with the gigantic statue. He is too big for the building and the roof of curving tile hangs above him like a ceremonial helmet. The wood pillars drop from the roof like tassels. Intricate fractal designs in red and green and blue. The doors are open to the fall air and I can see the buddha’s expression of infinite ennui, his skin of dull gold.

I climb the steps and stop at the threshold and then I turn around and sit and unlace my boots. In stinking socks I cross the creaking wood, burnished to a sheen. I look at the side of his face. He is very large and his head seems far away, lost in the shadow beneath the roof. The many miniatures of him lining the walls, each different in some minute characteristic, all the same. The silence is the afternoon, the autumn. I place the dynamite in his lap like an offering. He is immobile and accepting. He is indifferent.

I trail the long fuse to the door, light it. Watch the spitting tail make its way over the wood like an insane rat afire. I take a moment to pen a poem about it. Toss the scrap of paper on the floor, then stamp into my boots. Cross the yard with my gun slung up on my shoulder.

Brody sits on his horse and stares hard at me, because my boots are untied and because I have taken so long, and maybe this is the moment he begins to distrust me, though it could have been any time, or no particular moment, an accretion of suspicion like a stalagmite. His testimony will be instrumental in what comes later.

As we ride through the hard-packed grounds, I see the disarranged monks out of the corner of my eye. Smoke and dust hang in the air. We leave through the ruined gate and ride slowly down the mountain, listening to Beyoncé and watching the still woods, their turning colours. The scarlets and umbers and goldenrods occur when the trees draw their chlorophyll back from the leaves. They are colours of burning decay.

 *

We rejoin the column on the road and the men on foot glance up at us as we pass and then back at the ground. The afternoon is going. I admire the high dykes of earth where the palace of the Silla kings once stood, now almost indistinguishable from the landscape, covered over by deep field weeds and broad-trunked oaks.

I smell the smoke and look back the way we we’ve come and already there are thick grey plumes on the mountain. I didn’t mean to do that, but what did I expect. And furthermore: how large is the gap between the destruction of icons and the burning of a forest. This is the kind of thinking that will get me in trouble later.

The rice fields have been drained and cut, the stubble like a million buried brooms. The chaff hangs in bundles on the fences. A breeze comes up and the stalks rustle dry; the evening is lying down, purple air. Among the bundles on the fence hangs a dead snake.

As we advance toward Gyeongju, we come alongside Anapji Pond. It’s only a replica, but it’s on the list. We turn off the road, and cross the field to one of the pavilions.

Brody uses a bundle of rice chaff to make a fire at the base of a pillar and then stands there watching the sparks and smoke to see if it will take. The paint all peeling, advancing psoriasis of wood. A bamboo grove across the pond gossips in the breeze. I sit in the saddle with the reins loose and look into the black pond. There are rafts of yellow leaves blanketing the surface of the water beside the shore. The water is opaque. A reflected flicker as Brody’s fire climbs the pillar. Then I see an old man sitting with a fishing pole in his hand. We watch each other, neither moving. He is still there, even when the flames start to eat the roof beams of the pavilion and Brody mounts up again.

 *

An ugly moon rises over the mountains as we ride into Gyeongju. Darkness lies matted in the alleys. We find the guest house where we are to be billeted, across the wall from the hill tombs. It is composed of many low buildings inside a compound, the roof tiles greyed with age and lichen. The gate is locked and we ring a tin bell that hangs on a wire.

The proprietress has wiry black hair and rings upon rings under her eyes. When she sees us her mouth gets hard.

ʻ외국인 안 됩니.ʼWaygooken an dweibnida. Foreigners are not allowed, she says.

ʻ우리 외국인 없어요. 앳애디 입니다.ʼOolie waygooken upseo yo. Es-Ay-Dee imnida. We are not foreigners, says Brody. We are the Special Anti-Establishment Detachment.

She stares at us for a moment. Time for the lichen to grow on the tiles. Then she slowly swings back like a gate, and we duck under the jamb and enter.

There is a dusty yard, scraggly plants hemmed in by broken pots and bricks along the walls. She goes ahead of us with stooped shoulders and waves at a paper screen door. Inside there are two bunks tacked to the wall, enough room for us to stand side-by-side. I don’t step in because my boots are still on.

ʻ온돌 있어요?Ondol isseoyo? Do you have floor heating?

ʻ없어.ʼ Upseo. Don’t.

Brody takes her by the collar of her plaid shirt. He shows her his knife, a carbon steel kitchen blade, the colour of the roof tiles except where he has honed it, a silver thread.

ʻ공손히.ʼGongson hee. Be courteous.

ʻ없어요.ʼ Upseoyo.

ʻBetter,ʼ Brody says in English.

He lets her go and she steps away from him, back towards the main building.

ʻ밥 주세요.ʼPab jusaiyo, I say. Please bring us a meal.

 *

She bows as she goes. A half-hour later she brings us two bowls of kamja-tang, nothing but half a potato in salt broth, a chip of grey bone at the bottom. I look at Brody and he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t look at her as she goes.

It is near full dark when we finish eating, sitting with our feet out the door of our room. Bats flap overhead in the bruised twilight. There is a terrible feeling in my throat. As if something has gestated there, is trying to be birthed.

I get up and take the bowls toward the kitchen of the guesthouse. I can feel Brody watching me. As he is, even when not looking, waiting for a fault to appear.

It is dark in the common room and I can’t find a lamp. My hands full of the ceramic bowls. The woman is nowhere. I move through the shadows toward the dim light cast by the window over the counter. The steel sink is coated in dust, cobwebs in the drain.

There are shelves of decaying books along the walls and after I leave the bowls I brush my hands along the spines. They are dry, desiccated, ready to burn. Almost yearning for it. I stand staring at their faded covers in the gloaming.

When I step outside I hear a sharp scream. The hollow gong of a pot falling to the floor. Brody appears out of a side door and comes toward me, hunched shoulders. Behind him two soldiers are dragging the woman out into the walk on her heels. He has accused her of something, perhaps practicing Islam. She claws at the jamb of the gate before they get her away.

Brody comes close to me and stares hard into my eyes. This lasts a long time. I wonder if we are waiting for the soldiers to return and drag me away too. He has a sweet potato in his hand and he brings it to his mouth and takes a bite. Then he pivots on his toe and stalks toward our bunks.

 *

Later I walk the horses out to the tombs to graze. The mounds are twice as tall as the town that surrounds them, steep hillocks furred thick in grass and thistle. I hobble the horses in a valley between the slopes and they begin to pull at the weeds.

I leave the mounts and wander among the tombs. No-one has begun to farm here; a few things must be left. A persimmon tree has dropped all its fruit on the ground to rot. The dead sweet smell in the dark.

I climb one of the tombs and stand under the large oak that grows at its peak. I put my hand on the bark. I think some time we may be called to level this place, taking ancestor worship into account. This tree would be cut then. Nothing is clear. There are the words, and there is what I have seen. Brody only listens to Beyoncé because she was on the iPod he found. A remnant; where is she now?

The moon has been hazed red by smoke. To the north beside the reservoir an old hotel has been razed, a great candle in the dark. Beneath the moon is the forest fire around Bulguksa, bright on the hill as if someone had spilled the sun, and to the south the pavilions by Anapji are bonfires. I say the names of these things in my mind, not aloud. I can smell the smoke, but it is silent, only the sound of the wind brushing the hair of the grass. Someone is singing an old song far away. To the west are dark mountains like smoked glass.

Things will get worse from here on.

Neale Jones is a Californian. He has studied writing at San Francisco State University, and wilderness skills in the Cascade Range. For the past two years, he has taught English in South Korea. He is at work on a novel, set in a future San Francisco. 

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

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

Two Poems

With the latest issue of Dark Mountain now available, we wanted to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages, so we’re publishing a selection from the book on the blog. Today, we bring you two poems from contributor Kim Moore.

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

How Wolves Change Rivers

By singing to the moon, when the beavers move in, by the growing of trees, when the soil resists the rain, when the sky rubs its belly on the leaves, by singing to the wind, by killing the deer, by moving them on from the valleys, by the birds coming back to the trees, by singing to the water, with the return of the fish, with the great ambition of beavers, with the return of bears moving across the land like dry ships, by an abundance of berries, by the bear reaching and pulling down branches, by the green coming back, by the green coming back, by the steadiness of soil, by the deer leaving the valley and the gorges, by the aspen growing, by the cottonwood growing, by the willow growing, by the songbirds singing to the trees, by the beavers coming back to love the trees, by the absence of coyotes and the abundance of rabbits, by the bald eagle and the raven who arrive to minister to the dead, by the glove of a weasel and the burn of the fox, by the gathering of pools, the holding together of the river bank by the trees, by the river finding its spine once again.

The Ferryman

They were waiting on the shore,
some with mobiles in their hands,
the words they thought
they’d have the chance to say
sitting round and smooth
like stones inside their mouths,
some on hands and knees,
feeling for spectacles, eyes tight
against the sun, not realising
the dark had gone, and some
sit on chair-shaped rocks,
as if they can still feel the shunt
of the tube, the doors opening
with a blast of stale air
and all have come too far
but with no way of getting back,
they move forward, the water
washes their feet
as the ferryman holds up
his hand for them to stop
but being without a tongue
he cannot explain the boat
was only built for twelve
or shout at them to wait,
to give him the coin that is
somewhere on their person
and now the water is round
their knees and the ones
with phones have said their piece,
they are wading to their waists
and all the ash has washed away
and their hands are on the boat,
they’re swimming to the side
or underneath, pushing out
toward the castle half-eaten
by the wind, to the jetty
with its broken crabs and seaweed
as if they knew the way without him,
and maybe they did because I found
the coins still warm from the heat
of their palms or wet from their mouths,
dropped as if the rules did not exist.

ʻThe Ferrymanʼ was first published in Kim’s pamphlet, If We Could Speak Like Wolves, Smith/Doorstop, Sheffield, 2012.

 

Kim Moore’s first pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves was a winner in the 2012 Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition and was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award. She won a New Writing North Award in 2014 and her first full-length collection will be published by Seren in 2015. She works as a peripatetic brass teacher for Cumbria Music Service.

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

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

Thin Blue Line: Sea Level Rise and the New Intertidal City

With the latest issue of Dark Mountain now available, we wanted to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages, so we’re publishing a selection from the book on the blog. Today, we bring you Robert Alcock’s response to our call for ‘the rising of the waters’. We hope you enjoy.

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99. 

1

The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
ʻCos London is drowning and I live by the river1

The photo is of an intervention (graffiti? street art? I don’t really know what to call it) that I began in 2011, in the post-industrial waterfront district of Bilbao where I used to live. It consists of a thin blue line, at a height of roughly a metre above the high-tide mark, painted over everything in its path – walls, gates, lamp-posts, trees…

I say ʻbeganʼ because I imagined the line continuing downriver to the sea, then spreading to other sea-level cities around the globe – but I ran out of paint after about two hundred metres, which seemed enough to be going on with. (If this essay inspires you to continue the project in your own city, be my guest.)

The point, of course, was to depict the imperceptible yet inexorable trend of sea level rise: to place it in the public domain, visible to the naked eye. The height of the line is somewhat arbitrary: one metre is a nice round figure, and a convenient height to paint if you’re standing on a road that’s basically at sea level. Regardless of how fast the seas may rise, they won’t stop rising in the foreseeable future, so the question is not whether sea level will reach the blue line, but when.2 2100? Sooner? Later? Nobody knows. For the record – given the exponential growth of bad news about the climate – I’m guessing significantly sooner, like around 2075. The main unknown factor is the rate at which the Greenland and Antarctica ice-caps will melt. The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in / Meltdown expected…

Even in 2011, though, it was still possible to talk about halting sea level rise, and to naively imagine that small acts of civil disobedience could tip the balance. In hindsight, this was probably an illusion – especially for a faint-hearted activist like me, nervous of exercising my right to free speech on other people’s walls, even in an area of abandoned factories and vacant lots already swamped in graffiti. Just imagine if I had painted the line where someone might actually notice it – on the fronts of my neighboursʼ houses, say, or the titanium facade of the Guggenheim museum, also located at sea level, a few kilometres upriver!

As it was, I was half expecting to be told off by some guardian of public decency – which is just what happened: my downstairs neighbour Luis strolled by and caught me in the act. He snorted and said something along the lines of, ʻIsn’t it bad enough for kids from outside to come here and mess the place up, but you have to go and make it worse!ʼ I tried to explain myself, but he looked at me uncomprehendingly and walked on.

Obviously, like most people, Luis concerns himself almost solely with local issues – including what he sees as the defacing of the area where he’s lived for forty years. He’s much less worried by the rising seas than by the rising tide of ʻvandalismʼ in his neighbourhood. I suspect he knows, and cares, as much about the melting of the Greenland ice caps as a typical Inuit does about the league performance of Athletic Bilbao. So much for influencing public opinion.

But when I stepped back and looked at my work, I realised that, as often happens, the unintended effects were more interesting than the conscious intention. The blue line wasn’t neutral, merely calling attention to a trend. It had an ambivalent, slightly menacing feel to it. I was reminded of the condemned houses in post-Katrina New Orleans, spray-painted with a code to indicate their hazardous contents (X dead bodies and Y fridges full of rotten food), and the movement to resist their demolition and the relocation of local communities.

A touchy subject. Since 2004 the residents of my old neighbourhood had successfully defended their (our) homes against the bulldozers, and helped paralyse – for almost a decade – plans to build a mini-Manhattan of luxury skyscrapers, designed by superstar architect Zaha Hadid. At the time of writing, Zaha’s Master Plan is allegedly still going ahead, albeit far more slowly and in a modified form, with more ʻsustainabilityʼ (i.e. green space, trams and car-free zones) included. But meanwhile, a community of upstarts – theatre and circus folk, artists and craftspeople of all kinds, ukelele players, flea marketeers, urban gardeners, and so on – is thriving among the disused factories and warehouses.3

So what if ʻmeanwhileʼ became a permanent condition? What if everyone knew this place was going to be underwater some day, and everything was done for ʻthe momentʼ, with full awareness of its (and our own) mortality? Perhaps the thin blue line should be seen not as threatening a status quo, but as defining – and defending – a new territory. A liminal zone, a wild frontier, a floating world. The Free State of Meanwhile. The Intertidal City.

I am not talking about planned retreat, mitigation or adaptation. Those concepts imply the continuance of business-as-usual by whatever means necessary. While government and industry build costly – and ultimately futile – sea defences, shift to higher ground, or simply cut their losses and flee, the intertidal city will play host to a different project: a cultural transformation of the relationship between human beings and the sea.

*

 Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell…4

Like other wild places – forests, mountains, wetlands – to the civilised mind the sea has always represented the unconscious, the uncontrolled, the other. But whereas civilisation has always sought to tame (i.e. to destroy) other wild places, its relationship with the sea is more intimate and more complex. In fact, the sea permeates the very heart of civilisation, bearing an immense material and cultural legacy.

Sea levels have actually been rising ever since the last ice age – rapidly from about fifteen thousand to seven thousand years ago, including some catastrophic events (hence the universal legend of the great flood), but much more slowly thereafter.5 This stabilisation, doubtless, was a factor in the rise of civilisation. Cities have always been synonymous with the growth of trade – and of war, the flip-side of the same coin, delivering different merchandise via the same logistical means. And trade has always been predominantly seaborne. The history of the West, especially, is dominated by one maritime city after another – Athens, Rome, London, New York – with continental cities mostly playing second fiddle. Even today, 90% of goods are transported by ship.6 Amazingly, an estimated one hundred and forty-five million people – one human being in fifty! – live below the thin blue line, within a metre of sea level.7 Put it this way: if I was Gaia and I wanted to bring down civilisation while minimising damage to ecosystems, rapid sea level rise would be my weapon of choice.

Eighty percent of these people live in Asia, 10% in Europe.So many people clinging like limpets to such a narrow strip of territory. Narrow, but exceedingly long: stretching from Amsterdam to Alexandria, Bangkok to Bilbao, Cardiff to Cape Town, Mumbai to Miami, Rio to Riga, Seattle to Shanghai, Wellington to Washington… Perhaps it’s the subconscious tug of tide and brine, reminding us of our origins in the sea, in the womb.

I know I’ve felt this. After growing up in the English Midlands, far from the coast, I spent three years doing ecology fieldwork on rocky shores, working during spring tides, when the lower shore is uncovered: living with the offset rhythms of the moon, one week out of every fortnight, an hour later every day. I continued the work even after I realised I wasn’t cut out for an academic career: while I found being on the shore and observing its creatures thrilling, reducing their diversity to data bored and disturbed me, and the process of generating and testing simplistic hypotheses seemed sterile by comparison with the richness of life in a rock pool.

I suppose this makes me a Romantic, returning to wild nature for inspiration, reacting against the dominion of the rational mind (I had already switched subjects from physics to ecology). The whole idea of going to the seaside, in fact, can be seen as arising from the nineteenth-century Romantic movement, combined with the growth in mobility of the urban masses.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Venice: the city married to the sea, which gave birth to capitalism and the modern era. Venice was a destination for Romantic tourists before either the concept of tourism or the Romantic movement existed.8 It is particularly relevant to note that the world’s first beach resort proper – now replicated along thousands of kilometres of coastline worldwide – was the Lido of Venice.

And now, of course, it is the world’s most famous intertidal city, poster child for sea level rise. In point of fact the flooding of Venice, to date, has more to do with subsiding land than rising seas – it’s ahead of the curve again. But at any rate it makes a beautiful modern-day Atlantis, and a model for the intertidal cities of the future. All the more reason to go there now, before it sinks beneath the waves forever, before air miles are subject to rationing or peak oil puts an end to budget flights.

At least, that was my excuse for agreeing to fly there for a family holiday, in May 2013. (Unfortunately, I have read and thought enough about climate change to make me fret pointlessly over choices like this. Any sensible person would take the holiday and not lose any sleep over it. Rationally, I know that my individual decisions as a consumer can hardly make a difference to the global climate. Collective decisions are another matter, if it were possible to make these on a global scale. But I still felt personally responsible for the fact that, a couple of days before we left, atmospheric CO2 concentrations hit 400 ppm for the first time in millennia.)

Of course Venice happens to be a mass tourist destination, with a wealth of cultural treasures accumulated during centuries of fleecing the known world. (Just one milestone in a long and sordid history: Venetian bankers crashed the European economy by manipulating the exchange rate between gold and silver – in 1346.9)

But more to the point, it’s also a living city in an intimate embrace with the sea. I overheard an American woman on the Rialto say it was ʻjust like Disney, only weirderʼ; I suppose that was her only other experience of a human-scale, car-free built environment.

The best part of our trip was acqua alta – flooding – which isn’t supposed to happen in May, but it did. We had to wade to get in or out of our street, which delighted at least two of my travelling companions (aged nine and seven). The locals wore wellies, I went barefoot. Social barriers broke down: as we chatted to two Venetian gentlemen on the Fondamento dei Mori, a green crab scuttled by on the flooded pavement; one of them caught it and showed it to a couple of passing schoolboys. For a few hours, an unmistakeable atmosphere of carnival reigned; then the waters subsided and life went on as before.

Venice certainly doesn’t seem to be suffering from a sense of doom and gloom due to its impending disappearance beneath the Adriatic. One resident told me that he much prefers it in the winter, when there is more acqua alta but fewer tourists. Water, it seems, the Venetians can handle. The main threats to the city – as far as I could judge during one short visit – seem to come from inundations of money: the super-rich buying up property that then lies empty; giant luxury cruise ships damaging the lagoon; and MOSE, a corrupt sea-defence project apparently designed to divert funds, not floodwaters.10

Which seems to make a general point nicely. Which is more dangerous: the forces of nature unleashed by climate change – or the civilisation that caused them to be unleashed in the first place? It’s true that extreme weather and violent flooding are serious hazards – but they are much worse when exacerbated by deforestation, building on flood plains, and other unsustainable land-use practices driven by corruption and greed.11

The worst damage, both to human cultures and the biosphere, comes from an out-of-control global economy. Sea level rise, rather than being a terrifying spectre from which to flee, or an excuse for siphoning public money into giant sea defences, can be embraced – as a liberating opportunity to bring wild nature into the heart of our dysfunctional cities.

Back in my old neighbourhood in Bilbao, flooding is slowly becoming a regular part of life. Last winter the main road was underwater several times during spring tides. Apart from flooded basements, the principal effect was that the area was closed to traffic, and people parked their cars elsewhere. For a while, it was wonderfully peaceful. Engines stop running, but I have no fear / ʻCos London is drowning and I live by the river.

Welcome to the intertidal city. Don’t forget your wellies.

1 The Clash. (1979) London Calling
2 The IPCC predicts 30-95cm by 2100, while the US National Research Council says 56-200 cm. In May 2014 a new study concluded that the melting of the Amundsen sea sector of West Antarctica – adding a metre to global sea levels on its own, and leading to the collapse of the remainder of the West Antarctic ice sheet, causing another three to five metres of sea level rise – is now inevitable. The Amundsen sector is estimated to take a couple of centuries to disappear, but I have a strong suspicion those could melt into decades.
3 See ʻBeyond Zʼ in Dark Mountain 3.
4 Shakespeare, W. (1611) The Tempest
5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Post-Glacial_Sea_Level.png
6 George, R. (2013) Ninety Percent of Everything, Metropolitan Books
7 Ahlenius, H. UNEP/GRID-Arendal, 2007
8 Rosalind to Jaques: ʻFarewell, Monsieur Traveller: look you lisp and wear strange suits, disable all the benefits of your own country … or I will scarce think you have swam in a gondola.ʼ Shakespeare, W. As You Like It, 1599
9 Piers Tremlett. (2012) The Spirit of Venice
10 At the time of writing, the mayor of Venice is facing corruption charges related to the MOSE.
11 Monbiot, G. (2014) ʻDrowning in Moneyʼ, The Guardian, January 13th, 2014.

Robert Alcock is an ecological designer based in northern Spain. He spends most of his time between zero and one hundred and forty metres above sea level, where he lives with his partner and two daughters in a self-built house overlooking a tidal estuary. abrazohouse.org

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

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99

The Rising of the Waters

With the latest issue of Dark Mountain now available, we wanted to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages, so we’re publishing a selection from the book on the blog. Today, we get you started off with the editorial.

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99. 

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As this editorial is written, the fifth anniversary of the launch of Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain manifesto has just come round. Five summers and five winters have passed since we first gathered forty or fifty people together in the back room of a pub in southern England and tried to explain to them what this emerging ‘project’ was about. Explaining Dark Mountain in a few sentences has always been hard work: half a decade on, all of us involved still find it impossible to agree on a succinct definition of what Dark Mountain actually is. Is it a literary movement, a cultural movement, a discussion network, a campaign, a conversation, an escape, a disengagement, a re-engagement, a means or an end? Probably it is all of these and more.

But whatever it is, the questions we are asking, the way we are framing them, and the new stories and remade stories we seek in these pages seem to feel less and less marginal each year. Something is changing. When our manifesto was first published we were mocked in some quarters as ‘doomers’ and ‘crazy collapsitarians’. Back then, the talk was still of stopping climate change and building global justice for all, and asking questions about collapse and decline and the nature of the assumptions behind these stories was the same thing as ‘giving up’, which was the worst thing of all. These days, you can read newspaper editorials that seem strangely similar to some of our early blogs, and this project is receiving glowing five-thousand-word write-ups in, of all places, the New York Times.

In his recent book Feral, the environmental writer George Monbiot makes much of a concept he calls ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. The idea is simple enough: our expectations of what is normal change so gradually that we don’t notice normality itself shifting quite radically over fairly short periods of time. So, for example, if you grow up in a landscape in which no birds sing, the rivers are polluted and you can’t see the stars at night, you assume that this is just The Way Things Are. Just a generation or two before, children may have grown up in the same landscape and it may have been noisy with birdsong, clean water and starbright skies. Within a relatively short period of time, something enormous has changed – but because the change has been gradual rather than instant, it has been barely noticed.

Once you start to think in these terms, you can see this kind of thing everywhere. In Britain, we have seen it in the increasing regularity of winter floods. Major floods here were once rare events. They happened once every few decades perhaps. Now, they happen every winter without fail: in the Somerset levels, on the banks of the Thames, in the fens of the east and on the coasts of the northwest. ‘Major flooding events’, in which hundreds of people are washed out of their houses and whole towns and villages are brought to a standstill have very quickly become the new normal. Our baselines have shifted to accommodate them, and the Winter Flood is now something taken for granted. The streets of major towns awash with water have become normal sights. The first time London floods it will be a huge event. The second and the third times, it will be just like the time before, and then we will forget it was ever anything novel at all.

What lessons can we learn from this gradual falling away? One of them is the old lesson that we come back to again and again in our work: that we – humanity, and especially civilised humanity – are not in control. In the enlightened West, learning this lesson is going to be long and hard, and we may never admit that we have learned it at all. But another lesson is perhaps an even harder one: that nature, which we thought we had subdued, was never subdued at all. For most of our history, ‘nature’ was something Out There, something terrifying and threatening: our old fairytales are dripping with this fear. Then, for a brief time, nature became something fragile and threatened which we had to protect wisely and fiercely. Now we are beginning to see that if this was never the case, it is not the case any more. Suddenly we are back in the dark forest with the wolves howling all around us, and we can see light in the distance and there is nothing to do but head for it, though we don’t know what we will find when we reach it.

When we put out a call for submissions for this book, we asked people to imagine how the world would be if this grinding-down of our control and a power continued; if the waters kept rising, our old selves and old stories floating on the new current with them. What you see here is the many currents that have swirled in response to this question. From David Kenkel’s strange vision of himself as history to Joan Menefee’s story of the drowning of Venice; from Zedeck Siew’s dragon-summoner to Chris Smaje’s look at the future of farming; from the Great Salt Lake to the mythworld of an Amazon tribe, this collection sees new visions arising from the wreckage of the old, over time, slowly, unbidden, as it will always be.

The editors,
October 2014

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

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99

Introducing Dark Mountain: Issue 6 (and beyond)

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The sixth issue of Dark Mountain arrived from the printers a few days ago. As you can see, it is already being hungrily consumed by the target audience. Part of the attraction in this case may be the wonderful, and incredibly colourful, cover illustration by Eunah Cho. It’s quite a departure from our previous covers. But then, you could probably have said the same about any one of them.

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Our sixth anthology of uncivilised writing and art is a 270-page hardback, containing 42 essays, stories and poems, and 16 colour plates. This is the most visual issue of Dark Mountain to date: under the guidance of our art editor, Charlotte Du Cann, the photographs, etchings, sketchings and illustrations of all kinds creep from those plates and across the pages of the book. As text and images intermingle, they conjure up lordly dragons, corn masks, fire burials, water proverbs, Zen meditations, vignettes on technology, thoughts about farming, home made rafts, toxic squirrels, flocks of parrots, false windows, six deserts, seven coats, drowned cities and protest poems.

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If you’re a Dark Mountain subscriber, your copy of the new book is already making its way through the postal system and should reach you any day now.

Otherwise, you can order it from today through our online shop - or if you take out a subscription for future issues, you can get our two most recent issues for the price of one. Your support will also help to secure the long-term future of the project. If you’re interested, visit our subscriptions page to find out more.

 

BOOK 7 – A CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

Dark Mountain now produces two books a year: one in April and one in October. As this book hits the streets, we’re already starting to think about the next one. So this blog post is also an invitation for submissions for Dark Mountain: Issue 7.

With each book, we seek to go deeper into the questions that have animated this project since we published our manifesto five years ago. We are looking for writing and art which pushes the boundaries, which unsettles the assumptions many of us grew up with and the ways we are used to looking at the world, which challenges the stories our civilisation tells itself. We don’t care who you are or whether you have ever been published before. We encourage new writers and artists, and new involvement from all over the world, especially from the parts of the world our books have not yet reached.

To find out more about the kind of thing we are looking for, and how to submit to us, have a look at our submissions guidelines. The deadline for submissions is 15th of December 2014.

Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy Issue 6 as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to you.

Earth Funeral

You are cordially invited to the
Earth Funeral Memorial Service Spectacular
 

We desperately want to cancel this event, and we at the Gauntlett Institute along with millions around the world are working to fight the exploitative corporations and financially corrupted governments who are driving our biodiversity into the grave! However we can see a great need for a ceremony/ festival to end the world according to the current trajectory.

This is a way for us to express our loss, mourning and gratitude. We are expecting more than a billion people! The biggest event in history!

Screen shot 2014-09-27 at 15.13.38click for larger image

Timing?

The invitation is going out with plenty of advance notice for two reasons:

There are 7 billion people and counting, 9 million species. We’d like everyone and everything to be there so we need a few years to organise ourselves!

Given that no consciously aware guests will be able to attend the event post-mortem, we have decided to bring the memorial forward, prior to the event of hominid extinction. The exponential nature of the problems facing the Earth and its inhabitants make it possible the biosphere will no longer sustain mammalian life by the year 2045. The Memorial is therefore 6 years prior to an end to allow for discrepancies in the data and ensure we get an end time service.

Ceremony/ Festival

The ceremony could take many forms. Anyone who wants to should have the opportunity to speak, play, paint, sing, wail etc. It is as yet unknown who will be present those who are will shape the event.

There could be a celebration of all that the Earth has been. A recap of the journey we’ve made together so far; 4.5 billion years of shared history and ancestry. From out of the waters, from the soil, from the air we have breathed together and died together. Feeding off each other’s death and life. A perfect beautiful and gruesome circle. We may look forward too, and celebrate what this planet can do, what wonders will grow here when we are gone.

FAQ’s

Where does my ticket money go?

50% of revenues will be directed into World Saving NGOs. The remaining finances raised via ticket sales will be saved for building the infastructure to support the multitudes (Portaloos, stages, technicians, artists…) A small admin fee will be retained by the G.I.

You can risk showing up on the day and being ripped off by a tout. It’s up to you.

What is the dress code?

Societies around the world will have broken down and the economy collapsed by the time of the memorial and so it’s a case of come as you are. By all means brush down your glad rags, spit shine your shoes, give that sari a dunk in the Ganges, bring out your celebration turban, or just wear your birthday suit!

Will the Earth be put in a coffin or cremated?

Although a collaborative global project would be a wonderful, inspiring and ironic way to finish this adventure, building and engineering a large enough casket has been abandoned. The build time exceeds the estimated date of need by nearly 40 years, plus the resources required for the ambitious operation would only encourage more intense deforestation and mining, bringing the date for a total toxic overload closer.

Fitting the Earth into the casket poses logistical problems too. Unless teams of construction workers can be sustained in created biospheres there won’t be anyone around to fit the corpse into the gargantuan box anyway.

Mourners are invited to create their own local memorials. Other suggestions have been the entire dusty rock of the Earth can serve as a tombstone to itself, akin to Mars. And the layer of noxious gaseous pollutants, a shroud.

Cremation has also been ruled out for the same reasons although in the same vein as the above, climate change and desertification of the Earth can be seen as a kind of inadvertent cremation. (From a Christo-biblical view point the Earth is being destroyed by fire – possibly a fire 90,000,000 miles away as our protection is stripped away Also see note below *.)

Is the Gauntlett Institute profiting from the Earth Funeral Memorial Service Festival Spectacular?

Absolutely. We project healthy revenues for the host organisers, (merchandising, branding etc.). However! Despite the potential profits, we will gladly cancel the Memorial in the event of a change in scientific forecasts. We believe it is still possible to extend the Earth’s support for large mammalian life and secure the future for our own children (see below). Nothing would please us more than short term financial reward.

*How will the Earth die?

This hidden gem of the MIlky Way Galaxy, a planet of life, third by distance from the Sun in the Solar system being killed by a combination of Man Slaughter, and first degree murder.

The cause could be described as a cancer inspired by the chronic ideas of certain humans. The driving force behind this cancer is an absurd economic system based on continual growth, with the fantastical notion there is more than one world’s worth of resources. As well as polluting industrial activities of our one species, near complete depletion of natural resources, including abuse of the limited fresh water, deforestation, reduced soils to near zero nutrient value and over acidification of the seas, this total toxic overload made (and will make) many species extinct at the macro level of the system and disrupted the cycles of atmosphere, currents and balance of temperature at the global level.**

Some examples of recent and ongoing extinctions:
Eastern Cougar, Western Black Rhinoceros, White-chested White-eye, More than half of the Earth’s rainforests have been burned up. Complete list of extinct species.

*The Earth won’t be entirely dead and is presumed to continue supporting some life; cockroaches, bacteria, scorpions and many other unexpected creatures to outlive the larger mammals, fish and birds through this period. Given the right conditions a stable climate able to support mammals may return to the Earth within 100,000 years or so.

**It’s incredible to think that such a beautiful unique spot in the cosmos could be utterly destroyed by an illusory currency system; a kind of pyramid scheme that on the one hand appears to only benefit a few, while the rest of the populace buy into it living a kind of servitude to those at the top. All of them trapped in a psychosis to maintain faith in this ludicrous concept of exploitation, commerce, unreconcilable debt and waste (of time/energy/resources).

How can I stop the Earth dying?

Let’s take the Funeral Service out of the Festival Spectacular. Let’s make it a party for generations to write stories about. A selection of the most useful and powerful on- and off-line communities, ideas, reading /viewing lists and actions will be coming soon.

Read our broad suggestions for Earth Funeral Service Festival Spectacular cancellation here:

A: Belief and understanding
I need to resuscitate my enthusiasm /compassion and breathe life into myself for a greater sensitivity, treading more lightly on the Earth. I need to examine the patterns I live while observing their effects on the natural world, and on my cousins globally. Learn to really understand that without a richly biodiverse and healthy eco system I am nothing, and no amount of technology can save us if we continue. I am a part of an incredible complex interaction of give and take. I should begin to believe the majority want the power to positively influence the outcome and we can take it if we try.

B: Personal actions
With A in mind I need to be willing to change myself, not just in how I live; using less energy, recycling etc., but also to exchanging the feedback loop of excessive consumption for a richer more people /sense-centric lifestyle. I can no longer allow my cousins to be exploited. Achieve a Degrowth trajectory for the economy while gardening the natural world and allowing it to flourish should be my priority. To live creatively in a world that needs my imagination like never before. (The foundational three fold solution to my ‘salvation’).

C: Collaborative resistance.
Alongside my fellow citizen cousins, I need to confront the corporations and governments who are the ‘ecocide practitioners’ wilfully out of control on my behalf and currently with my help. These elites have developed a financially motivated psychosis along with a belief in their style of progress. The current fiscal mechanism flows money energy upwards to those in power, siphoning the resources in what can be described as a pyramid scheme of epic proportions. The pyramid also serves to maintain distance from those cousins beneath them which in turn keeps their life plans safe. This insanity has many brainwashed via the hegemony of ideas. I may be one of them. I have at least partially bought into it. I am allowing an apocalypse reality closer to my planet’s story. I will no longer allow myself to be exploited. Read on or go back to A.

How can I get involved?

Although we will be taking advice from experienced undertaker consultants, masters of ceremony, party planners etc., we’re not recruiting for the funeral just yet. Until further notice the best possible use of our time and energy will be collectively stopping it from happening. We are inviting everyone to get involved with spiralling our collective trajectory into ‘control’.

Support the Gauntlett Institute’s research by buying a ticket or joining the movement. Or start your own.

The Gauntlett Institute is a progressive research base for innovative metaphysical and philosophical political products and services to aid a world in crisis. Originally founded in 1968 by Glenda Gauntlett and newly re-established by her nephew Professor Handlebrass of the same name. The institute is based in Hackney Wick, (East) London where a team of really special people galvanise, expand and illuminate the possibilities raised through the extensive research. The Gauntlett Institute prides itself on the notion of an accusation of producing ‘ultra pseudo post science–science goods and services’. 
 
Our genuinely attempted innovations will keep us all guessing, asking and coming back for more. 
‘Our findings are so hard to believe  that no-body believes them!’