The Dark Mountain Blog

Picking up the Threads

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 5 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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Is there anyone left who actually believes in progress? Even the advocates of neoliberalism fall back to the argument that there is no alternative, no longer making much effort to convince us that capitalism is improving our lives. In the spring of 2013, a survey of public opinion in the US, the UK, France and Germany found large majorities in each country believe that today’s young people will struggle to achieve the standards of living of their parents’ generation. Welcome to the new normal: the grim meathook future creeping into our lives, fulfilling no apocalyptic fantasies, but slowly, undramatically unravelling the fabric of the world in which we grew up. Even the nightmare of climate change makes its way into waking reality as a muddled, muddy sequence of events which, though together they amount to a threat to civilisation, do not satisfy our idea of how such a threat should announce its arrival.

This is where we are, in early 2014. At this point, even a recovery in the official measures of economic progress serves mostly to emphasise the gap between those measures and everyday experience. It is not surprising, then, that the arguments we were making five years ago when we published the Dark Mountain manifesto are heard more often and in some unlikely places, or that media coverage of this project no longer takes the form of reflex denunciation.

Meanwhile, when someone does speak up for the idea of historical progress, it is no longer with the bemused confidence of one reasserting the obvious; instead, the argument is made more often with the intensity of a defender of the faith taking up arms against a sea of doom, relativism and nostalgia. This is an attitude anticipated by Charles Leadbeater’s Up the Down Escalator (2002), or the interior monologues of Henry Perowne in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), and it echoes the embattled certainty of the New Atheists. Fresh strains continue to surface, not least among certain bright young radical thinkers for whom a rebooting of the Promethean project of modernity has become a daring, avant-garde position. The most striking example is the group of philosophers gathered around the Accelerate manifesto, published last year, whose ambitions for humanity are summed up in the slogans, ‘Conquer death!’ and ‘Storm the heavens!’

Our extraterrestrial future features strongly in the Accelerationist writings, a ‘Maximum Jailbreak’ from a planet conceived as a prison. A similar attitude underlies the recent suggestion from Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at Warwick University, that the axis of politics is undergoing a 90-degree rotation: left and right, he argues, will be replaced by ‘up’ and ‘down’. Or, as the disaster engineer and sometime Dark Mountain contributor Vinay Gupta puts it, ‘Pretty soon, you’re going to have to take a political position: either pro- or anti-Mars base.’ So far, so sci-fi, but this reorientation is suggestive. Because, whatever other reasons are given, it seems rather as if space has now become the final refuge for a promise of progress that is out of credit here on Earth (Another tactic, with a similar undertone of desperation, is to borrow against the threat of apocalypse: ‘It has become a case of utopia or catastrophe,’ argues sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, in a lecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, ‘and utopia has gone from being a somewhat minor literary problem to a necessary survival strategy.’)

The other notable thing about the off-planet version of progress is how far removed it seems from everyday reality. This is not simply a matter of physical distance: in the 1950s and ’60s, the Space Age was able to capture the collective imagination, and the contrast to today is telling. It is not only readers of Dark Mountain who find visions of the rocket-propelled future weirdly anachronistic.

Keep following this line of argument and it could start to sound as if the myth of progress were a spent force, but this is too simple a conclusion. We live within a physical and a cultural infrastructure, built up over generations, much of which would have been unthinkable without the way of understanding the world contained in that myth. The sheer weight of these structures still carries our societies onwards: if we do go to Mars – as Tim Fox envisages in the opening essay of this issue – it will be by default rather than with enthusiasm, propelled by the momentum of a faith in which almost no one still believes, or rather the naked momentum of the exploitation machine which that faith once cloaked.

This leaves us with a challenge that goes deeper than argument: to extricate ourselves from deeply ingrained habits of thought, and to do so with care, with an attention to how we treat one another, with a realism about our vulnerabilities and our ongoing dependence on systems with which we are often far from comfortable, with an imagination capable of finding infinity in an hourglass. The Dark Mountain Project is not a political incubator, hatching the ‘down-wing’ of some new vertical alignment of politics (as if what the world needed were another binary opposition). Nor is it exactly what we thought it was, five years ago, when we wrote a manifesto for something like a literary movement. If only things were that simple.

It may just be one space (among others) in which people are able to find each other and start the kinds of conversation out of which new ways of making sense of the world take shape. There is no promise about how far this process will go or where it will take us – and the experience of these first five years has taught us to be open to unexpected turnings. Still, when we turn back to our earliest public attempt at framing the intentions of this project, it still feels like work to which we are alive, worth doing for its own sake, with no promises and no guarantees:

Words and images can change minds, hearts, even the course of history. Their makers shape the stories people carry through their lives, unearth old ones and breathe them back to life, add new twists, point to unexpected endings. It is time to pick up the threads and make the stories new, as they must always be made new, starting from where we are.

Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto (2009)

Thank you to everyone who has joined us over the past five years in the process of picking up the threads and remaking the stories. We hope to see you somewhere along the way.

The Editors,
February 2014

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

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 5

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Dark Mountain: Issue 5, our first book of 2014, is out today. If you’re a Dark Mountain subscriber, your copy is already on its way. Otherwise, you can order one through our online shop for £12.99 – or set up a subscription for future Dark Mountain books and get this issue for £8.99. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring a series of extracts on the blog. To start with, Dougald introduces some of those you’ll meet in the pages of our fifth book.

By the time Gilgamesh shows up, it’s clear that the contributors to this issue of Dark Mountain have reached deep into the well of stories, where scatterings of stars are stitched into constellations. Here are the Pandavas and the Kauravas, rival clans of the Mahabharata, giving birth to strange children in stranger ways. And here, too, is old Adam, who has gone to seed and taken to naming racehorses while Eve found herself a lover from among the Nephilim.

The ground shakes, nine miles from Cape Canavarel, and a young Tim Fox watches from his parents’ lawn as Apollo 17 rumbles into the sky. Joanna Lilley’s abbatoir worker smuggles unslaughtered chickens home to his wife who feeds them sunflower seeds. Billy Templeton III’s grandfather stands naked in the eye of Hurricane Irene, shaking his body like a dogwood in the wind.

There is an underground walk that leads to the Black Chamber and an expedition in search of the Land of Cockaygne. Lauren Eden and Alastair McIntosh cross the sea to the Isle of Lewis, collecting memories of the seamen’s strike of 1966, when supplies from the Scottish mainland were cut off for six weeks. Charles Foster thinks he can shortcut the Vedic path to enlightenment, finds himself nose down on a forest floor for three days that end in a journey of six feet and three million years.

There are no shortage of ideas, here: writers attempting to make sense of the times and places in which we find ourselves, sometimes steering by the stars of old stories, sometimes getting oriented by objects and concepts closer to hand. Matt Szabo picks up threads of social theory from Max Weber and Zygmunt Bauman. Paul Kingsnorth draws on the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. And there is a further series of extracts from the late Dr David Fleming’s ‘Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It’.

The other thing we’re proud of about this book is the artwork. For the first time, we have a dedicated art editor, Charlotte Du Cann, and it shows. In collaboration with Christian Brett of Bracketpress, she has redesigned the whole book, but the impact of this is most striking when you get to the colour sections.

Katrine Skovsgaard, '1844 Hours of Sunshine'

Katrine Skovsgaard, 1844 Hours of Sunshine

There’s also more room given to the stories surrounding the images we publish. Katrine Skovsgaard’s image, 1844 Hours of Sunshine, is haunting enough in its own right, but it becomes unforgettable once you understand that each of those lines against which the pine tree is silhouetted was made by the passage of the sun on one of the 365 days over which her pinhole camera was exposed.

During the weekend of the final Uncivilisation festival, there were dozens of conversations about what should come next – how to keep what had mattered about those gatherings alive. Now that this book has arrived, it feels as if the spirit of the festival has got into its pages. There’s an extra force here, an energy and excitement that goes beyond what I remember from previous issues. The printed word cannot replace everything we have experienced in each other’s company – those of us who have had the chance to meet each other over the past five years – but somehow it seems that we channelled more of that experience into this book than I was aware of during the process of editing. I hope that you will feel that, too.

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is now on sale through our online shop at a price of £12.99 (plus shipping). To order a copy, click here.

If you have an existing subscription, your copy is already on its way. If you take out a new subscription for future issues, you can order Issue 5 for £8.99 – or Issues 4 and 5 together for £12.99. For more information, visit our subscriptions page.

Here Be Dragons

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“Are there dragons?” she asked. I said that there were not. “Have there ever been?” I said all evidence was to the contrary. “But if there is a word dragon,” she said, “then once there must have been dragons.” Precisely. The power of language. Preserving the ephemeral; giving form to dreams, permanence to sparks of sunlight.

This is from Penelope Lively’s novel Moon Tiger (1). When something is named, given its own word, it is made visible, it exists. And, as the Dark Mountain manifesto says, ‘Words … can change minds, hearts, even the course of history.’

During the Dark Mountain event at the Wordsworth Trust, Paul Kingsnorth repeatedly stressed the DM mantra that ‘we must escape the language of science’. Scientists might have felt somewhat beleaguered as criticism and the Romantic poets flitted unavoidably through the discourse, although someone asked if there wasn’t a danger of the writing tending too far towards the spiritual, and ‘putting people off’.

‘Ergs and Bacon … Eliot and entropy’ (2)

Science needs special words because the meaning must be unambiguous; in contrast, ambiguity is often cherished in fiction and poetry. Poets such as Jo Shapcott, Lavinia Greenlaw and Robert Crawford, who have worked with scientists, absorb and revel in the language of science, using its words to open our eyes to new perspectives. As a novelist, but also a former research scientist, I too enjoy and use the language of science in my fiction, even though my novels are not ‘about’ science or scientists.

Scientists might use special words, but very little of the exclusivity of that mid-20th century attitude of ‘blinding them with science’ remains: one requirement of research funding these days is that scientists should communicate the excitement of what they are doing, and why. On the radio especially (where a person’s appearance can’t affect the listener’s judgement – no chance of commenting on that awful hair, that tedious smile, or those sexy legs: admit it, you do it too) you can hear scientists of all ages talking enthusiastically, comprehensibly and often with humour, about what they do and its implications. They use the words of science – but you will also hear them using metaphor, simile, painting visual images with words.

The Dark Mountain manifesto states that ‘creativity remains the most uncontrollable of human forces’. As mathematician Richard Feynman said, ‘science takes a lot of imagination,’ for although science does indeed require controlled experiments, creativity plays a major part in the scientific process too – the fun of ‘thinking outside the box’, of meeting and talking and exchanging ideas, of finding new ways of seeing. Scientists share ideas with scientists; scientists increasingly share ideas with artists, musicians, fiction writers and poets. Although the term ‘SciArt’ is passé, the collaborations continue; many are one-directional due to differing expectations, but many are enlightening: new ways of seeing, new ways of show and tell – artworks, websites and volumes of short stories (including the new genre ‘cli-fi’) and poems.

Who’s listening? (Where’s the market?)

But if we’re to escape the language of science and find a new lexicon to show what is happening to our world, to our ecosystems, we must select our targets carefully. Who do we want to read the poems, who will visit the exhibition, who will be so enraged and activated as to make a change?

Some of this new work will be read by the middle-class educated, some by the ‘worried well’. Politicans will not read it; those who work the land won’t read it; it won’t influence the Chinese lad with aspirations to own a car, or the Nigerian using poisons to extract gold, or the loggers denuding the Montana hills; nor the fund manager who hedges the price of wheat.

The language of science; the language of the spiritual; the language of profits and the globalised economy – their sentences are all too complicated, too abstract and impersonal.

We need to make it personal, to frame the questions in such a way that we can reconnect with our own ecological niche. The poet John Burnside (3,4) says many interesting things about the link between poetry and ecology, what he – and before him, Rachel Carson – calls ‘the science of belonging’. He also asks the question ‘what is to be done?’, with reference to the ‘degradation of our shared environment’. His answer (‘simple, banal, absurdly unambitious’) is that we walk, and by walking, engage with our environment and see our world as it is. You may want to look through the eyes of the Romantic poets, but you should also see the mundane. Why do dead leaves and a paper cup swirl in that corner of the street? Why is there a patch of strident, virulent green over there on the moor? Why are the molehills red? Why has a mattress been dumped there? Scientists ask questions, so do most (but not all) poets and novelists – and by questioning the mundane we’re forced to use a language that brings the environment closer to each of us.

The dragon in the room

But still the words are not personal enough for us all to act. The dragon in the room is barely visible amongst the throng of humans. We have overgrown our many and varied niches in the planet, there are too many of us trying to consume the dwindling resources.

I suggest that instead of agonising about a language, we should change the topic, stand on tiptoe to see the dragon whose name is over-population, and write about where the main problem lies. We must use the languages of science, of poetry, of fiction, to bang that message home in every way we can – because ultimately the business of having children, and trying to care for and feed them, is very personal. But the solution, through education and sensitivity, is eventually attainable. As David Attenborough says, ‘Just keep on about it, just keep on about it’ (5).The debate matters, and we must use whichever words are necessary.

Ann Lingard’s personal website is annlingard.com

1. Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger, 1988, Penguin.

2. Edwin Morgan, Pleasures of a Technological University, quoted in A Quark for Mister Mark , p121, eds. Maurice Riordan and Jon Turney, 2000, Faber

3. John Burnside, A Science of Belonging: Poetry as Ecology. p91, in the excellent Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science, ed Robert Crawford, 2006, OUP

4. Wild Reckoning, an anthology provoked by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, ed by John Burnside and Maurice Riordan, 2004, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

5. Sir David Attenborough: If we do not control population, the natural world will; and Is population growth out of control?

A Soft Armour

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I first walked as an artist in Amsterdam, almost ten years ago. I was appointed to be the new bridge guard at the Bridge Guard Art & Science Centre in Slovakia. The bridge that was to be guarded symbolically was the Maria Valeria Bridge, connecting Slovakia and Hungary. A bridge that had been rebuilt recently. A bridge that, during its existence, had been destroyed many times to make it impossible for people to get from one country to the other. The Maria Valeria Bridge is 495 meters long — 711 steps. And before I travelled to Slovakia, for two months I walked 711 steps every day, starting from my doorstep in Amsterdam.

I never stopped walking afterwards. Short distances. Longer distances. Walking words. My own name. The amount of steps I was old on a particular day. But the first time I went on a really long walk, an absurd six-day walk following the exact border of a municipality in the east of the Netherlands, walking through fields, crossing canals, entering peoples’ houses, sleeping on the border in a small tent, I felt the way I had felt as a kid when I went out exploring the vast forest behind my parents’ house.

Some people would rather have wings but we don’t, we have feet. We were born to walk. Scientists say that walking gave us our brain capacity, walking turned us into the human beings we are. Walking made it possible for us to have the desire to fly and to come up with ways to turn our dreams into reality.

Walking made us fly. We can go anywhere. Still the easier it becomes to move through this world, the more disconnected we seem to get from it. We have to land again. Get close to the things. Be part of the world. Walking teaches us where we are, who we are. A slow speed makes our brain work fast. Makes us see more. Be more. And best of all: walking makes time disappear.

After my first long walk I was hooked. There was no way back, although I didn’t fully realise it until a year later. That year I walked from one end of Belgium to the other together with a group of artists. I was a Walking Librarian, I carried books. And I wore a suit. A business suit. A three-piece walking suit.

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I figured that when something is called a walking suit, it must be meant for walking. I believe in words. And indeed in earlier centuries people used to dress up when they went out for a walk. You can see it in old photos, in movies. How people wore a suit doing their daily activities. Got married in it and buried in it. Painters, writers, farmers, noblemen. August Sander photographed three young peasants walking, on their way to a dance, wearing suits. Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ is dressed very neatly. Charlie Chaplin wears a suit as the Tramp.

I remember my grandfather wearing a suit everyday and wearing the trousers of his old suits when he was working in the garden. I heard stories about men hiding their best suits in the bomb shelter during the war so in case their houses were bombed, they would at least still have their best outfit. These days there is Anonymous, often symbolised by faceless people in suits. And the other day a man told me he had sold all his belongings but he kept his Armani suit. The French composer Erik Satie owned 12 similar suits, wearing one until it was worn out and then moving to the next one. The day he died there were still six unused suits in his apartment.

I call my suit my soft armour. It keeps me warm, safe, sound, it opens doors. It is my uniform, my costume, my house. It has many pockets. It is as comfortable as any outfit I can think of. I use it to collect stories in. I don’t mind when it gets dirty, torn, worn out, when the world leaves its traces.

The suit is my interface between the worlds I move through. Between the land I walk and the body I walk it with, the place people refer to as ‘the real world’, but which I consider to be just as real as the other world I move around in, the ephemeral world wide web. The stories I encounter, held in my hand, find a new home in the suit. From there they move into the other world.

There have been five suits. I wore the second one for 108 days, using it as my notebook. I embroidered drawings on the inside. I counted the days on my collar like a prisoner does, or somebody waiting for a special day. After 108 days I took it off. It wasn’t too long after I had read this in Thoreau’s Walden:

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be. Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles.

I took off the suit. I walked the streets naked. I got myself a tattoo. I travelled to Sweden.

In Sweden I wore my third suit. I caught snails in it, I walked old pilgrim trails. I learned about slowness. I embroidered the suit with a neverending red thread, turned it into a map. I thought about the Chinese saying that all people who are destined to meet are connected by an invisible red thread.

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The fourth suit was somebody elses’, I found it in the closet of the room I stayed in when I worked as a pioneer in the Swedish woods. It was exactly the sort of suit you see people wear in old movies. The suit that accompanies somebody during his whole life. It had belonged to the man who once lived in the lonely house in the woods I was staying in. I wore it one weekend, at a secret rave party in the woods. I brought it back to Amsterdam. It is still there, waiting for something.

The fifth suit, the fourth soft armour, kept me safe all the way from Amsterdam to the Nomadic Village in the south of France. I had asked people to symbolically walk with me, pick a day, give me something to get me through the day and in return I embroidered their names on the inside of my jacket. I wrote a story every day. And in the Nomadic Village, a mobile art society run by and for artists, I opened a Memory Shop, embroidering peoples’ memories into other peoples’ pockets.

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The suit kept me safe afterwards, when I harvested corn in a small mountain village in Portugal. On my last day there I filled my pockets with corn and I left a trail.

I knew I needed a trail. I know how easy it is to get lost in the modern world.

And I was right. Because here I am, back in the ‘real world’, wondering if I should go back to walking. Wondering if I shouldn’t get myself a proper job. Some proper funding. A house to return to. Stability. I know the corn trail I left has disappeared, the kernels have been eaten or trampled by goats. I knew when I was leaving them behind that it didn’t make sense. Just as measuring the corn sheds with my body and wrapping hundreds of kernels in red thread didn’t make any sense.

Here I am. Sometimes I don’t see the sky all day because my city apartment is on the ground floor. Sometimes I don’t see my friends for weeks because they have to earn money. Because I have to earn money. Sometimes it feels as if the only way I add meaning to the world is because I pay taxes. Sometimes I follow the rules and feel unhappy, I go through the motions and feel like I wasted my time. People tell me that this is how the world works. Some of my good friends even tell me that. And if that makes sense, then walking the world in a three-piece walking suit might make even more sense.

I’ll get my things together.

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In April I’ll be leaving for a 99-day walk, again to the Nomadic Village, this time in the east of Austria. My suit will have an embroidered QR code linking to my blog, a lightweight solar panel attached to my jacket, I will carry my house with me, I will find and create new stories, publish them online and embroider them on the outside of my three-piece walking suit. More here and how to walk with me: asoftarmour5.blogspot.com and moniquebesten.nl

Analogous Structures

On the ridge, a shrewdness of apes. Against a red sky. Still black silhouettes, palings, menhirs.

You watch them. Were they moving before? Have they stopped, is it you they are watching now? They seem to have paused there, on the ridge, that stony moraine calved by ice and gnawed by lichen. High in these mountains, where no trees grow, why are they passing here? The sun has fallen below the horizon, the air is precipitant with dying light.

You watch them. They do not move, but this is deceptive. What do they carry? A long blade of grass? A shaft of bamboo, a spear? A basket heavy with desiccated fruit, a recalcitrant stone, a curled child?

You watch them; it grows darker. The wind shifts. The cold seeps from the granite, falls around your head. Your cheeks are burnt with darkness. The scent of minerals in cold water, algae, salt-carved wood. Then something else: warm hair, dry skin, sour milk. Sweat. Preserved flowers. Motor oil. Baking bread. Coffee grounds. Your tongue when you wake from a night of painful dreams.

They have not moved. They are waiting for something. They do not move, but almost beneath hearing, there is a sound. A paper cup on a glass table top. A piano string plucked by the curious hand of a child. A shoe falling from a shelf. The flap and decay of your tent fly. The huff of a steam engine. A distant rock slide. Gunfire. The bite of an axe blade. A glass cracking with heat.

The light is gone. You stand watching in the chill night. Shadows, ice in the wind.

In the morning you will climb the ridge. The new sun will paint the stones with heatless pastels. You will be alone with the boulders, the lichen. You will cross over into another valley, brimming with mist.

Neale Jones is a Californian. He has studied writing at San Francisco State University and wilderness skills in the Cascade Range. Some of his writing and sounds can be found at nealejones.blogspot.com, and in various journals. He is at work on a novel, set in a future San Francisco.

What’s Your Position As the Ship Goes Down?

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It’s the question the man keeps asking us, as he storms the stage and curses the thousand-year-old myth of exile that has wreaked havoc on the planet and the erstwhile robust psyche of the human race. Psychotherapy has betrayed us he thunders, it ignores the Earth, it takes no account of social justice and no longer speaks with the dead. We are divorced from our collective daemon and are paying the price. The gods are fed up! he declares. They do not fit in our heads. They want out!

The man is James Hillman, famous psychologist, delivering a lecture on Jung and classical mythology. Tall, erudite and very very annoyed, he beats against his chosen subject like an eagle caught in a snare.

Sometimes you are in a place and you are not sure why you are there. All around me the audience to this Olympian tirade are calmly writing notes for their essays and quite a few of them are making their way to the ‘bathroom’ and back. It feels as if I am the only person wondering how to answer the question, and another he mysteriously keeps repeating:

 What are we going to do now, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean?

James Hillman is dead now, but true to his profession and mine, I keep the unanswered questions tucked under my own wing. In 1999 I am looking at dreams in the city of Oxford and the Indian god Varuna has visited me. Dark-coated he strode down the aisle of a church and delivered a message:

Consolable grief we can help with, inconsolable we cannot, with the underlying information that Separation is arrogance.

Varuna is a primary, underworld god, ruler of the watery nagas, who carries a noose in his hand in the shape of a snake. He storms through the dark church because he is the keeper of the cosmic law, which is not the law of human beings or their religions. In his peerless ‘essay’ on civilisation, The Ruin of Kasch, Roberto Calasso outlines the relationship between the primordial god and his worldly counterpart, Mitra:

The civilising sweetness of Mitra, ‘everyone’s friend’, can only exist insofar it can stand out against the dark and remote background of the sovereignty of Varuna. ‘Mitra is this world, Varuna is the other world,’ the Satapatha Brahamana clearly states. Mitra is the world of men; Varuna is the rest, perennially around it, capable of squeezing it like a noose.

When the world only runs according to the laws of social contract, Varuna’s nooses tighten around ‘those who did not know these were the results of many sentencings under a law no one could decipher anymore.’

Varuna comes before Indra, before Shiva, before all the monotheistic gods and the myth of the Fall. He is akin to the classical Titans, kept trapped under mountains or banished to the oceans. But no matter how invisible these beings are made out to be, there are consequences to ignoring their ancestral laws. And a life lived knowing there are consequences to every action takes a very different shape to one that assumes, so long as Mitra’s laws are kept, you are free from any feedback loops.

And you may ask: why are you telling us this dream 15 years after you had it? Because,even though we might know there are consequences to our civilisation’s acts scientifically, which is to say with our reasoning minds, I am realising, as the storm advances, we need urgently to remember how to speak with the sea.

Console is an interesting word here. It means with soul, with sun. The gods can console the human being, Varuna tells me, but if he or she is inconsolable, this is not because the god cannot help, but because human arrogance will not let the spirit in. If you insist on separation and sorrow, you block the gods’ entrance.

The dream was preceded by two others: one took place in a church in which a small boy was possessed by the ghost of a woman who had hanged herself, and the other at the mouth of Hades where Second World War soldiers were wandering out, shouting ‘You are supposed to save us!’ In both these dreams I was trying to intercede as an intermediary, and failing because I was stuck a place of  inconsolable grief, among the furious and lost.

To get out of ‘hell’ we need to ask an underworld god for help. That’s a deal most of us resist because to let spirit in means undergoing radical change. It means taking on knowledge you would rather not have any responsibility for.  But, you know, forced to choose between increased consciousness or oblivion, there sometimes is no choice.

When you discover the world is not as you thought, the heart demands you make a move: when you stumble upon the reality of the abattoir, the maize field, the garment factory; when you take the red pill and look at the graphs of Arctic sea ice, financial bubbles and oil production; when you suddenly notice  the barn owl no longer flies past your window, or the hares leap in the field, you can respond in three ways: you continue to listen to the band and repeat to yourself I’m OK, the ship is OK; you can sit on the stairs and lament that it is happening; or you can head to the lifeboat. Obviously, you tell yourself, that is the correct position to be in when the ship goes down.

But what if you can’t make it to the lifeboat on your own? What if you find the lifeboats were sold off long ago to pay the shipping company’s debts, and you are not, you suddenly realise, a passenger?

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You can do physical things to mollify those thousand-year-old consequences: I have reduced my carbon emissions to four tonnes a year; I forage and cut my own wood, wear second hand clothes. I haven’t been to a supermarket in seven years. I don’t fly, or use palm oil or buy tomatoes grown by modern-day African slaves. But, key as those responses are, this is not the realm that Hillman was talking about on that warm spring night in Santa Barbara as the millennium turned. The place where Varuna lives in a dream.

To fully redress the balance, we need to live along the horizontal axis of feeling and spirit, in a world that only admits the vertical – body and mind. In order to be guided by our fiery spirits we have to feel, in a world designed to prevent you from doing anything of the sort. Rage, grief, despair, sorrow, are emotional states that keep us in lock down, wringing our hands and justifying our position on the stairs. The heart however can be consoled in time. It is consoled by the world that holds it dear, and because it is never alone.

Jeremy Rifkin, in his book The Empathic Civilisation, describes how each age in Western civilisation consciousness expands, relative to its energy production and communications. At this point we are moving from a psychological age towards what he calls the dramaturgical. Empathy expands with our ability to play different roles and thus understand the shared mortality of all creatures. He suggests that unless we learn to empathise and feel together on a planetary level, our ability to withhold or weather collapse will be impossible.

When you track dreams you realise you cannot analyse them psychologically, or they disappear like deer into the forest. You learn quickly that the storyline is not important, or the fact that your mother or your ex-best friend are once again making you feel like a dishrag. The first key thing in a dream is your position within its drama, and the second key thing is how you move from that position out of the constricting space it holds you in. The third is that, when you make the move, you can see that things change in many dimensions at once. Your dream is not a personal problem, it is a collective state.

Civilisations hold us in repeat dramas, like Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. We are doomed to keep following the mechanics of the plot, unless we can break into the action, deux ex machina, and change its course.

Dreamwork is one way of seeing how to do this. Following the track of myths, as Hillman did, is another way, so long as we do not become more fascinated by our pathology than the world’s freedom. The gods, once our way-showers, become easily trapped by our clever ‘left-brain’ minds, filed under ‘Symptoms’  and ‘Syndromes’. They get mad in there, and we get sick. 100 years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse, as the learned doctor once wrote.

When you face the consequences of your unexamined, civilised life, you make moves to restore the world and your place within it. You have a practice, adopt a warrior attitude, you prepare for the future with less energy and money, empty yourself so that you are flexible, free to respond without some ghost or untempered ego in the way, knowing that each small move matters on levels you do not always see. Most of all you can break out of your mind’s silo and initiate yourself into the tribe — become one of the people.

But however you move, you know you can’t do this stuff on your own. Somehow you have to decipher the law.

Our ways of understanding life in graphs and linear narrative are not cutting it at this point because the planet is not shaped that way. Its laws are not made of words or mathematics. Varuna speaks in winds and ocean waves and his law governs worlds of never-ending chaos and creativity. We can no longer peer into our human problems as if we were Freud, and our ‘issues’ a hysterical woman from Vienna. In a dramaturgical age, we are all actor and director and playwright, and frequently find ourselves waiting in the wings, spear in hand, woefully under rehearsed. The Earth, we realise, is our stage. Without it, we are meaningless.

life

finding our star, (not) following the wrong god home

Last night I went to Westleton Common and looked at the stars with a group of local astronomers. The Common was once a quarry and is famous now for its tiny heathland flowers and nightingales. The group has just formed and each month they hold a ‘star party’ and you can go along and watch nebulas, galaxies and the moons of Jupiter through a several large telescopes. We were invited by Malcolm who has a smallholding in the next door village and whose organic vegetables we have been eating for 12 years now.

There is something extraordinary about meeting strangers in the dark (torches impair night vision) and it seemed to me, only on a piece of common land among people who are keen to share their knowledge, would you find such a feeling of friendship and ease.

Up above us the constellations burn in the vastness of space and time. They have scientific names like M57 and the Trapezium, and also older mythic names, conjured by civilisations that came and went before our own: Aldebaran and Pegasus, the Crab Nebula, Orion the Hunter, his Dog and the North star by which we set our course. Thanks to the telescopes I now know that the Seven Sisters are in fact a host of luminaries, and that Betelgeuse who shines red at the tip of the cosmic bull’s horns is old and dying. The sun will become a planetary nebula too one day, says Malcolm, as he describes the fall of our home star into its final form as a white dwarf. ‘And then what?’ I ask.

‘It becomes a black dwarf.’

‘And then?’

‘That’s it!’ he declares and we laugh and go in search of the Orion Nebula.

In some ways you might say that we are short of modern stories to explain our position in the universe: we have looked so far into deep space that we cannot see the blueprint of the heavens so they might parallel our lives, or the drama of the solar system in which our planet, Earth, plays a distinctive role.

Maybe we need to know that the ship is always going down because that is the fate of all things in the universe, and that our struggle and desire to hold firm and burn brightly in the night sky, in spite of our inevitable mortality, is what makes sense of everything, whether we are a 4-billion-year-old star or a butterfly who lives for three days. That is what gives us meaning and dignity and frees us from Varuna’s noose as a people.

To shine means we have to deal with the darkness of ourselves and our collective, which is the ‘sacrifice’ described by all mystery and spiritual traditions. We have to lose our untempered powers and pleasures, so our hearts may weigh as light as Maat’s feather. Civilisations fall because, as native and archaic myths tell us, we fall into matter and neglect our light and fiery natures and our connection to dimensions beyond the one-dimensional here and now.

Though the astronomers can give us facts and the mythmakers and astrologers stories, our life together under this night sky is always a mystery, something unknowable, something you cannot pin down with word or image, number or symbol. But, if on a clear night you can let that mystery in and let it move about you, you might discover everything that ever needs to be known. That’s a paradox only the human heart can handle.

Sometimes I do not know entirely who I am: there is a lot of space and time now, where there used to be history and culture and closed doors. I am more actor than storyteller, and so perhaps in this brief role as messenger I can enter and answer Mr Hillman’s question at this point in the play:

What do we do now, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean?

Open your mind; set the gods free. All hands on deck.

Charlotte Du Cann is the distributor and Art Editor of Dark Mountain books. She also edits the grassroots newspaper Transition Free Press. Her book, 52 Flowers That Shook My World – A Radical Return to Earth is published by Two Ravens Press. This is her blog.

Images: We Sit Starving Amongst Our Gold and A Good Day for Cyclists by Jeremy Deller at the Venice Biennale (photographed by Susan Eyre). Deller’s English Magic is now on tour in London, Bristol and Margate; still from Life of Pi, director Ang Lee (2013)

Sky Burial

We cut off his fingers
Joint by joint and then at the wrist as well

Then cleaving from sockets and sinews his elbows and shoulders
His flesh was tight against our blades and our hands were
Greasy with blood and viscera and gristle after hauling up the fresh
Death upon our backs to the peak above the village where
Amid dry weeds mummified by endless winter
The bare steep face of the mountain looks over the valleys
Which surround these empty wastes

Fingers greasy with his death and his body and sinews
He whom we knew so much of or at least well enough to mourn
And thangkas drape awnings of lashed bones and stretched skins
Rich with colour glowing under the funereal blaze
Every design an imitation of the view
Though does the sun die for him
He our friend in a binding of vines
Dry like his fingers would be three days hence were it not
For our practice which we’ve undertaken
He of golden skin muscled in memory
Thangkas like national flags of the handfuls of houses in our village
Scattered like the digits and segments which we cast
Strewn about these cliffs which we know so
Well and which know us far further than any of our memories permit

The thangkas
Flags of a nation fivefold and individual they bear
The patterns of the family which made them
They flutter in the wind
As we pass with calloused hands which smell of iron

We tattoo ourselves with sharpened bone-picks
Inscribing and instructing those who
Must cut us up as we have done
For our friends those most dear

For they will not know
Those who come after
They will not know the methods so we demarcate the lines and
Joints and diagram the sinews of ourselves and indicate
As best we can over fires and alcohol to
Allow tears and the clarity which follows as we indicate
With ink of macabre origin the places a blade must navigate

We are cartographers of the corpses
We must eventually become.

Daniel Lenaghan writes, makes music and brews makgeolli in Seoul, South Korea. His current projects include the arts and literary blog Nouveau Trad, the lo-fi studio project Murakami Girls, and teaching traditional Korean brewing at Susubori in Seoul. He is inspired by mixing culture, tradition, sound and space.

The Vole from the Wood

nikki-poster-witness_lg

It’s getting late.

She is half-heartedly washing up when the cat comes through the catflap into the kitchen.

A small furry shape dangles from his mouth. He has this awful habit of carrying them by the head. He puts it down, and the woman shoos him away and picks it up. A short-tailed field vole. Its eyes are open, it is warm and soft. It is beautiful. It does not look damaged. She brings her hand close to her face and squints at the little thing lying on her palm. Standing as still as she can, she tries to feel if its heart is beating, or if there is breath or twitch. For a moment she is still enough to listen to its body with her skin. But she can discern no pulse.

Maybe it is in a coma. Do voles go into comas? She imagines for a moment the sort of resuscitation she could do to rouse it, and giggles despite herself. Turning it over, she strokes its belly and notices its tiny teats. The woman herself has just scored positive on a pregnancy test and wonders if there are doomed babies somewhere nearby in a burrow.

The woman puts on her boots to take it outside. But slowly. She realises she is stalling: she wants to keep the vole indoors in a box lined with cotton wool, just in case it wakes up. She would like to meet it properly.

1985. Twelve years old. Home from school, on a damp November night. She notices that Hammy hasn’t moved since she peeped at him this morning. Dread-filled, yet already knowing the truth, she opens the hamster’s house and lifts its small cold body from the bedding. She strokes it, bringing it close to her face, looking minutely at the front teeth and whiskers, wanting somehow to memorise all its details before it has to go into the flowerbed tomorrow. She shudders at the thought of soil on fur, and the microbes going about their work. Reluctantly she puts Hammy into a shoebox lined with toilet paper.

2005. The woman’s son is a month old, and she is enchanted by him. He is the most extraordinary thing she has ever seen. One day she notices the whorl of his dark hair as it spirals outward from a place on the crown of his head. No-one else has ever noticed this detail, she realises. It is a brand new phenomenon. Paying attention to the tiniest details of her new child is her job alone. This whorl of hair is a universe in itself, it seems to her, and then and there she etches it permanently into her consciousness.

Now she touches the vole’s ear, which has been squashed: she unfolds it and smooths it back into place. It is very delicate, like one of those tiny cup fungi that stand up from the leaf litter in the woods on damp mornings. Furtively she looks into the vole’s eyes, trying to discern a response, before gently closing them. An image of earth falling onto the glistening cornea surfaces and bothers her.

The cat manages to catch these creatures in the darkness, yet the woman never sees them alive. He is her connection to them. She envies him his relationship with the moist woodland by the house. She wishes she could get inside his skin and sense the world as he does. Killing, for the cat, is nature – whereas the woman has been a vegetarian since childhood. She hates the killing. The little birds are the worst. They fight until they are half-eaten. But, since it was she who bought him as a kitten and brought him here, she is complicit in every one of his murders. The cat is her surrogate wild side.

She rouses herself to take the vole outside. The stars are brilliant, but with no moon visible the night is utterly black. She stumbles, clumsy and slow, over to the trees, and drops the vole gently into the undergrowth. Turning back to the house she sees the cat silhouetted against the glass kitchen door, as he trots out into the night again.

Persephone set up Feral Theatre with her best friends in 2007 and has been making performance work about ecological change since then. After failing as an environmental policy wonk, her background is variously as a drama teacher, puppeteer and aerial circus artist. She trained as a celebrant and studies the potential for ecological transformation through creative practice. She is a parent, an aspiring clown and storyteller, and she writes a blog here.

Image Witness by Nikki McClure

The Rising of the Waters: a call for submissions for Dark Mountain Book 6

1795

I grew up in the south of England. It is where my family comes from and has lived for centuries. It is my heritage, and wherever I go, it will be in me. This is what your culture does to you: there is no escape from the sediment it leaves within. It is best to get to the point where you don’t need to escape.

The south of England of my childhood, and young adulthood, was overcrowded, mostly suburban, crawling with motorways and spreading chain stores; its old human culture was shrinking away. But still, it had frosty downs, green hills, white fields, hedges of blackthorn and woodbine, chalk carvings, ancient barrows, bluebell woods and small, old pubs. Our ancestral home, or our childhood place, stirs conflicting feelings in us. I once wrote a book which, in retrospect, seemed to be trying to reconcile those feelings with each other.

The place you grow up seems, if you are lucky, to be a solid one. I wanted to escape those suburbs and motorways for years, and I did, in the end. But they always had an aura of agelessness about them. The south of England seemed an eternal place. It saw off Hitler and Napoleon and revolutions and strikes and wars, and the ‘invincible green suburbs’, as Orwell famously called them, never seemed likely to fall.

But what the dictators couldn’t do, the waters can. For the last few weeks, the south of England has been flooded, to a degree that hasn’t been seen for years – even though ‘the floods’ have become, quietly unacknowledged, an annual event now. Gradually, quietly but entirely inexorably, everything I knew is sinking.

This is Worcester, where I was born:

worcester2

This is Oxford, where I lived for fifteen years. Behind that iron fence on the left is my old allotment:

oxford

This is Marlow, where I used to go fishing on the Thames. I never caught anything:

marlow

This is Muchelney on the Somerset levels: I’ve been here every year for the last five years or so, for the annual Scythe Festival, because this is the kind of thing I do in my spare time.  I’m not sure there’ll be any grass this year:

muchelney4

Sometimes I feel like I’m being stalked. But I’m lucky: I don’t live in these places anymore. I live in the North of England now, and I’ve made sure I don’t live near a river. Many people have not been so fortunate.

I’ve been tracking the BBC reports on the flooding, and it was only yesterday, to my knowledge, that the dam finally cracked, and a discussion about climate change actually began. A spokesperson from the Met Office dutifully repeated what climate scientists and meteorologists have been saying for decades: no, it’s not possible to link specific weather events to climate change definitively, but yes, this fits with the pattern of weather changes that were predicted. In fact, it is all happening faster than was expected. Weather patterns around the globe are going haywire, and that’s not going to change now. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is at record levels, and we are continuing to pump the stuff up there at an accelerating pace. From here on in, it is all change; to what degree and at what speed, we have no idea.

We are not in control, and we don’t like it.

What is interesting to me personally is to see this hitting the south of England so hard. For a long time, environmentalists have been telling us that it is the poor who will be hit hardest by climate change. Of course, they are right in many ways. The flooding of Bangladesh is going to be much worse for its people than the flooding of England. Nevertheless, what we can see here is people in one of the richest countries in the world taking the full force of the climate shift that is now beginning.  It has been happening elsewhere for a long time; it will keep happening, everywhere. This is just my small, local perspective on a shift that is taking place across the planet. The reality of that shift – of its scale, likely depth and inevitability – is only just beginning to seep into the public consciousness. But like the flood waters, it can’t be held back. In the end, it will cover everything.

How are people responding? Mostly, they are blaming the government and the Environment Agency. This is a tried and tested response throughout human history: when things go wrong, blame the elites. This applies even if you had no complaints about the same elites when the money was flowing in your direction just a few years before. Hence today, few people are blaming climate change, and even fewer people are blaming their own actions. But how many of us who are or who will be flooded in countries like this fly off on regular holidays to the sun, or drive unnecessarily large cars, or own or aspire to big houses full of consuming and polluting gadgets? Most people, probably. We’ve been brought up to believe that this is progress, after all. Well, here is progress turning around to eat us. Nobody is safe now from being consumed.

But there’s something else here as well, which is worth reflecting on.  Since we set out on the Dark Mountain expedition five years ago, we have published much writing analysing the twin poles of Progress and Apocalypse which our civilisation is so hooked on. When we talk of the future, which we so often do, it is easy for us to cleave to one of these poles. Depending on our ideological bent, we find it very comfortable, and very easy, to see either a total collapse of society, or a Star Trek-like progress to the stars. It is easy to imagine that what we currently call progress will continue in the same direction, until everyone in the world is a car-driving consumer with a flight to the moon booked for their holiday. It is equally easy, and strangely comforting, to imagine everything falling apart in rapid period of time; a total and immediate collapse, from which there will be no recovery.

What is much harder – what seems almost impossible sometimes – is to imagine a gradual grinding down of our civilisation. What is harder it is to imagine another century of floods, with the waters rising higher every year. No apocalypse and no bases on Mars. No industrial collapse followed by a return to hunter gathering, and no Singularity either. Just a gradual, messy, winding-down of everything we once believed we were entitled to. The American writer John Michael Greer wrote an interesting blog post about this recently, with a similar take on this coming reality:

… imagine that this is your future: that you, personally, will have to meet ever-increasing costs with an income that has less purchasing power each year; that you will spend each year you still have left as an employee hoping that it won’t be your job’s turn to go away forever, until that finally happens; that you will have to figure out how to cope as health care and dozens of other basic goods and services stop being available at a price you can afford, or at any price at all; that you will spend the rest of your life in the conditions I’ve just sketched out, and know as you die that the challenges waiting for your grandchildren will be quite a bit worse than the ones you faced.

This possibility, for the population of the rich world at least,  is somehow more terrifying than apocalypse, yet we don’t want to talk about it. What would happen if we did?

What would happen if we took it seriously – as something to write about, think about, imagine, engage with? Make no mistake: to do that  is to re-imagine our attitudes to the future. It is to walk away from those twin poles and stand in an uncertain place between them; a real place, where no easy answers are forthcoming. What happens if we make a conscious effort to go beyond the comforting fantasies of both endless progress and inevitable apocalypse, and take this grinding-down seriously? What if this is your future, and that of your children and theirs? How does your worldview change?

This is the question we are putting to you as we open submissions for Dark Mountain book 6. Imagine this future. Write about it. Create art about it. Use it as a jumping-off point for your creative response. If you are tempted by the twin daemons of Progress or Apocalypse, push them away, and watch the waters rising instead.

These are the questions we offer to you as we ask for submissions for our sixth collection of uncivilised writing and art. Take them,  do with them what you will, and send us the results.We look forward to seeing your responses to the rising of the waters.

Dark Mountain book 6 will appear in October of this year (book 5 is currently being typeset and will hit the streets in April.) The deadline for submissions is Sunday, 4 May 2014. Please read our submissions guidelines before you send us any work.