A Question of Billing

Dark Mountain has never been an activist movement, but among the writers we publish and at the events we organise, there are many who would call themselves activists. For some, this distinction has been a source of tension: Jody Boehnert, for example, argues that we have a responsibility to channel the energy this project generates into a social movement. For others, the reason Dark Mountain matters is that it offers a space where there’s no rush to answers or to action, in contrast to other movements in which they are active.

There are also plenty of people who have written for our books or taken part in events who would not think of calling themselves activists.

For me, that balance is one of the things that’s special about this project. At its best, it is a meeting point between worlds. It’s precisely because the Dark Mountain banner doesn’t exist for the purpose of collective political action that we have been able to bring such a range of voices into conversation: from Wikileaks hackers to Luddites, from bankers and hedge fund managers to survivalists and primitivists, not to mention one Guardian columnist, and one infrastructure engineer who has advised both anarchist squatters and the Pentagon. All of these people have engaged with Dark Mountain because something of what we wrote in the manifesto seemed worth taking seriously, but that is a long way from requiring people to sign up to a party line, or even seeking to achieve consensus. (By the same principle, when we publish someone or give them a platform to speak, that’s not a political endorsement of their work: it’s a judgement that they have something to say that’s worth hearing.)

Why am I writing about this now? Because of the shenanigans on Twitter a couple of days ago, when George Monbiot got into a row about the first Uncivilisation festival and one of his fellow speakers that weekend. I’ll admit, I’ve been torn between amusement at the spectacle of George locking horns with Vinay Gupta – who is big enough and daft enough to look after himself – and exasperation at some of the claims he made about Dark Mountain along the way.

When George wrote that we’d ‘billed [Vinay as a] Pentagon consultant, reporting on protest groups’, I told him that was nonsense. I’ve been back and checked the programme from the first festival, and it’s quite clear we said nothing of the sort. In further exchanges, it turned out that George was referring to something he remembers Paul saying in his introduction to Vinay’s talk. ‘I was astonished that no one else reacted,’ he wrote. ‘Shocked both by what I heard and by lack of audience response.’

There are two things that bother me here. First, George is saying that Dark Mountain gave a platform to someone we knew (and advertised) as an informer on protest groups to the authorities. And second, he’s saying that the Dark Mountain audience was untroubled by that.

Now, we don’t have a recording of that day’s event. Several people were filming or making audio recordings – you can watch Vinay’s talk online, and listen to the session I took part in with George afterwards – but among those I’ve been able to contact, no one has footage that includes the introductions. Perhaps it will turn up, although two and a half years after the event, I’m not particularly hopeful.

So, in the absence of the recording George is asking for, what can we say about what went on that afternoon?

First, I wasn’t in the hall when Paul made the introduction: I was outside, preparing for my session with George. And – just to add to the general tone of farce – Paul is on holiday this week and nowhere near the internet, so I can’t check his recollection.

But anything he said when introducing Vinay would have come from notes I’d given him. I’d known Vinay for eighteen months or so in London, whereas I don’t think Paul had met him before that weekend.

There is no way I would have told Paul that Vinay had reported on protest groups to the Pentagon. What’s very likely is that I said something about him having advised everyone from anarchists to the Pentagon on infrastructure. (I said much the same, in more detal, in the dialogue with Vinay in the first issue of Dark Mountain.)

This leaves two possibilities, both fairly plausible: either George misheard Paul’s words, or Paul had a slip of the tongue.

However, if it was the latter – and Vinay really was introduced as someone who had reported on protest groups to the Pentagon – I find it hard to believe that this would have gone without comment or reaction from those present. The audience included many who had been heavily involved in the roads protests, the anti-globalisation movement and Climate Camp. Even before what we’ve learned in the past couple of years about the activities of undercover police within UK protest movements, there was real concern about informers. It just doesn’t make sense to me that we could have presented one of our speakers as some kind of informer, without this becoming a major issue. (For what it’s worth, Vinay himself does not remember anything controversial being said about him during Paul’s introduction, either.)

Beyond being the kind of micro-drama for which social media was invented, does any of this matter? Well, possibly. I’ve heard from one friend of Dark Mountain who has been receiving concerned messages from activist contacts, wanting to know what’s really going on here.

The ability to create a space where different worlds come together, not for staged arguments but for serious conversations, depends on certain kinds of trust. The idea that we would want to be associated with someone who reports on protest groups to the authorities – well, I can understand how that would damage people’s trust. Not so much for those who have actually been to Dark Mountain events, but for people whose perception might be formed by the words of a prominent campaigner and journalist.

We all make mistakes, and we may never know for certain whether George misheard or Paul misspoke. While we’re at it, though, let me admit to at least one mistake that we did make in the billing for that weekend.

Anyone who has watched the conversation I filmed with David Abram, or read the dialogues I’ve published in the Dark Mountain books, will know that pugilistic debating is not really my style. For one thing, it never seems to change anyone’s heart or mind, or lead to anyone learning anything. I’m more interested in exploring ideas together, figuring out what someone else has seen that I’m missing, and vice versa – rather than rehearsing positions and scoring points. And for another thing, there are plenty of people who are better at point-scoring than I will ever be!

When we were planning the first festival, there was a discussion about which of us should take part in the session with George. Part of the reason I ended up doing it was that we hoped to get away from the back-and-forth of the Guardian debates that he and Paul had been having, into a more interesting conversation. But I screwed this up when, a few weeks beforehand, I recorded a video where I said I would be ‘grilling’ George, an expression that then went onto the festival website and into the programme.

I remember, moments before we went on stage, saying to George – who I’d never met before – that I hoped we could make this a conversation rather than an argument. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘so you’re chickening out?’ Well, fair play to him. He’d worked himself up for a fight, and I’d made the mistake of billing the session in those terms.

Still, the question lingers, would he have been capable of any other mode of engagement?

It’s a question that came back to me, in the middle of this week’s palaver on Twitter. ‘I’m not suggesting he’s a spy,’ wrote George in one of his replies, ‘but that I had doubts about which side he was on.’

You see, it seems like it’s obvious to George what the two sides are here – but it’s not obvious to me. And I can’t help thinking that there’s a connection between the assumption that the world is divided into two sides – Us vs Them – and the assumption that important questions are best settled by staging a boxing-ring style argument.

I’m not saying there are no situations in which it’s helpful to think this way, but I think it often gives a very distorted picture. More than this, the style of argument which automatically frames everything in such oppositions increasingly sounds to me like something from another era. In its place, I’m seeing another style, less interested in setting out a position and defending it as if one’s ego depended on this.

There’s a passage I wrote in Despatches from the Invisible Revolution which seems relevant here:

I wonder if this willingness to rethink out loud, to voice our uncertainties, might be emblematic of a generational shift which leaves the winner-takes-all polemic of Hitchens or Dawkins looking suddenly old-fashioned: an intellectual Maginot Line, built for a kind of war we no longer fight? Among those whose thinking holds my attention, there is a fluidity to the way ideas emerge, flowing in and out of the projects, actions and movements with which we become involved. Careful thinking is valued, but being right is less important than contributing to the unfolding of the conversation, and discovering something you hadn’t seen. This reflects the habit of publishing our conversations in real time, thinking aloud in written form, sharing our ideas in progress through blogs and Twitter exchanges that weave into our face-to-face encounters, and formal publications that crystallise out of the wider conversation.

Even if I’m onto something here, it’s far from obvious how this new mode of thinking – which thrives in pockets, stitched together by networks – could ever transfer to the mainstream media. Newspapers and broadcasters live by staged oppositions: their debates may not achieve much, but they create a spectacle. However, I can think of one example that offers a clue.

In early 2011, Paul Mason, the economics editor of Newsnight, came to speak at the Really Free School, a squatted space in central London set up by activists involved in the student protests. Afterwards, he spent two hours with a few of us in a nearby pub, and the next day he wrote a blog post which would later grow into a book, ‘Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere’, one of the best things that’s been written about the wave of networked protest that broke across the world last year. It’s far from the final word on the subject, and the conversation continues, but Paul’s role is an example of how networked thinking and action might relate to old-school media.

Paul Mason came to the Really Free School and listened. He got a book out of it – but more importantly, my impression is that he continues to have the respect (which is not necessarily the agreement) of those who were part of the conversations that fed into that book.

George Monbiot came to Uncivilisation and had a fight. Two and a half years later, he’s throwing around damaging accusations based on what he thinks he heard. I share responsibility for framing the conversation with George as a fight, but I wish he showed more signs of engaging constructively with others who are thinking seriously about the same issues that he writes about.


An Invitation to George & Vinay

Having got to the end of this post, I have to say that I had better things to do this week than deal with all this nonsense.

Starting next Monday, along with some of my friends who were involved in the Really Free School, we’re running Redrawing the Maps – a week of open conversations, collaborations, screenings and workshops inspired by the work of John Berger, at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, London. As I wrote last week, one of the things I admire about Berger is his ability to ‘hold together paradoxical truths which others might separate into oppositions’: that’s one of the ways in which he’s had a huge influence on me and on my contributions to Dark Mountain.

So, in that spirit, if George is interested in having a conversation that’s not simply a staged showdown, I’d like to invite both him and Vinay to take part in a session during next week’s events. My only condition is that both of them leave their boxing gloves at home…

Apocalypse Then

Back in July, Dark Mountain’s resident book reviewer, Akshay Ahuja, wrote a wonderful review of several works of what he called ‘collapse literature’, in which he tried to analyse why the post-collapse stories he was reviewing didn’t work. He alighted on various answers, from the writers’ eagerness to prevent said collapse through the means of fiction, to an over-concentration on the details of a post-collapse world at the expense of an imaginative inhabiting of it.

It’s very hard to imagine a future in which everything we know has fallen away. It’s not impossible, as anyone who has read Riddley Walker or The Road will know. But you have to be a Russell Hoban or a Cormac McCarthy to do it, and even then you’ll have your hands tied by history. I suspect that the starting point, and probably the starting premise, is just too much for most of our imaginations to cope with. I also suspect that, when we try to imagine everything that we know falling away, we are so personally tied up with our own emotional reaction to that possibility, (whether we think it would be good or bad) that it can be hard to gain the distance that a writer needs to have from his or her subject. Added to that, we have the weight of history: so many post-collapse novels, films, albums and stories have been produced over the last century, that it has to be almost impossible now to surprise the reader or viewer, or to haul your imagination out of the ruts that have been created by what has become a well-worn genre.

I’m reflecting on all of this right now because I have just written a post-collapse novel, which I am currently in the process of getting published (you can read more about it here.) Given everything I’ve just written, you might think that a strange use of my time, but I have actually found this to be the most fulfilling piece of writing I’ve ever produced. I also, at the moment anyway, think it’s my best.

This might have something to do with the fact that the collapse I have written about happens not 1000 years in the future but 1000 years in the past. The Wake is a historical novel, set during the almost-forgotten guerrilla insurgency which spread across England in the wake (ahem) of the Norman Conquest of 1066.

I’ve been calling it a ‘collapse novel’, but it isn’t, really: at least, that wasn’t how it consciously began life. I wrote it as an attempt to fictionalise the story of the ‘green men’, or ‘silvatici, a network of underground guerrilla fighters who made life hell for the new Norman ruling class for a decade after 1066. Nearly four years ago, when I began the novel, I had only just come across the story myself, and I sensed that within it were all kinds of possibilities. One question above all nagged at me: what was it like to live through this?


Here in England, 1066 is a date which everyone learns at school, but we don’t learn much beyond it. Yet when you start to dig into the history of what was essentially the first and last conquest of England, you come across something which would have been genuinely apocalyptic for its people.

The three battles of that year saw the death of the English king and almost the entire ruling class of the nation. It saw an invasion by a foreign power, and the rise a new king who did not speak the language of his people, and who regarded them as savages. That king lost no time in instituting a law which gave him unprecedented ownership over every acre of land in the country (a situation which still persists today.) He unleashed scorched-earth warfare, mass rape and enslavement on those who opposed him. He built stone castles and stone churches which towered over a country in which most buildings had previously been made of wood. A new class of nobles took control of the land by force – some of their descendants still run it today. It was to be over 300 years before the king of England again spoke the language of his subjects. For three centuries, the English were regarded as social inferiors in their own land.

That sounds like a collapse to me. What did it feel like to live through? That was what I wanted to write about. As I wrote, I found that contemporary resonances kept coming through, as they must in all ‘historical’ novels, which are really about the times they are written in. Questions of place and belonging, the loss of old worlds and the birth of new ones, the death of the wilds at the hands of Man – they all swam into the story, and as they did so they brought their own language with them.

For though I started off writing this book in standard English, I ended up, after many struggles and false starts, creating my own language (or should that be dialect?) in which to write it: a middle ground between the Old English that would have been spoken by the book’s characters and the English we speak today. The result is intended to create a mythopoetic sense of being in another, older, stranger England, which nevertheless has echoes in our own.

So, there it is: my first uncivilised novel. It is a strange beast, but it has captivated me. I hope it might captivate others too when it is published. And if the sound of it interests you, you could help that to happen. The Wake is being published by a pioneering new publisher, Unbound, which operates along the same lines as Dark Mountain does for our own annual anthologies. Unbound’s books are crowd-funded, which means that a certain number of each title has to be pre-ordered before they are published.

The Wake is going through this process at the moment. So far, it’s 25% of the way there after a few days, which seems good going. If, after digging further, you like the sound of it, it would be wonderful if you could help it to cross the line: you can do that by clicking here to read more, and pre-order the book.

Apart from anything else, I’ll be fascinated to hear the reactions of others as to whether this particular post-collapse vision can stand on its own imaginative feet.

Messages from the North

I wake in the dawn and there are swallows and martins, stitching the sky, flickering black-and-white against the pearly blue of the morning, filling the chill air with their chitterings. Each day I expect to find them gone, but they linger in this late-summer spell of fine weather, gathering on wires and rooftops, waiting for the imperceptible shift in their brains that tells of leaving. For the first-year fledgelings, they know nothing of the journey they have yet to face, only the ache of distance which tells them it is time to go.

At this time of year, the skies are filled with departures and arrivals. In the early morning and gathering dusk of evening, I hear skeins of geese chattering southwards; pink-feet and greylag, drifting to earth into fields sodden from a summer of rain. They are ranged across the pale sky in lines which ripple and shift as they change direction, a pulse which passes from goose to goose, a subtle flex of the wings as they turn eastwards towards the lakes. I try to imagine their journey to arrive here, at the western fringe of this damp, green archipelago: the days of endless ocean, touching down briefly in Faroe or Shetland, feeding hurridly at reed-fringed lochs before taking off again in their leaden-winged flight, heading south to a place which their senses remember from last year, or to a place they have never been, but is hard-wired into their memory through the migrations of their ancestors. An impulse to escape the onset of winter.

The arrival of the geese is tinged with romance and sorrow; I hear their calls as though through layers of memory, as though flecked with snow. They are both exotic and familiar, bringing something of the far north to our autumn skies. I remember the way that sound carries across the tundra on still days; the compression of distance that comes with such clarity of air, so that the geese seem close to me as they pass thousands of feet above. I know that they come from Svalbard and Greenland, and the thought comforts me as the days shorten towards winter.

I visited Greenland in the summer of 1989. It is a distant time for me now; a series of fragments as though listening to someone else’s dream. I remember the dry gritty path from the helicopter pad into the village, the strips of whale meat spread to dry on flat rocks by the harbour, the smell of blood and seaweed in the chill morning. I recall the supreme clarity of the air, the mountains etched against the pure white of the ice cap in the evening sun, the crackle and fizz of the northern lights on a night lustrous with starlight.

But most of all, I remember the ice. At the head of the fjord where I spent two months camped in the vicinity of a Norse monastery, a glacier flexed down from the ice cap, a thousand feet or so of steep crevassed blue-white ice, until it met the steel-grey waters of the fjord. At that point, slabs of ice calved from the snout of the glacier into the water, gathering in intensity throughout the day. From our campsite, a couple of miles distant, we could see ice pillars the size of tower blocks topple with a splash into the water. A couple of seconds later, we heard the dull sploosh, a sound like distant thunder heard beyond the hills. A few seconds after that, waves would arrive on the beach below us, short and insistent, like the wake of a passing ship.

When I left, after two months living close to the ice, I yearned for home, for the familiar, the known confines of small towns and country pubs, but also for the sense of peace and space which I was leaving behind; the feeling that here was as much the centre of the spinning world as any other place on this blue-white globe.

I think again of that journey home: the ice cap falling away beneath us we took off from the west coast, crossing the empty miles of glaciers streaked with the debris of rockfall, stripes of moraine like toothpaste squeezed from a tube; the gathering icebergs clustered off the west coast, stacked like ships at anchor; the impossible green of Iceland as we touched down briefly on our way to Copenhagen. And beyond that, the miles of rippled ocean, steel-blue and unknowable.

I have never returned to Greenland; I probably never will. It is enough for me, now, to look down from miles in space through the convenience of Google Maps, to trace the tongues of glaciers spilling towards the long, snaking fjords, their snouts retreating each year, further and further back uphill, as the snow supply from above changes to rain, and the level at which the ice melts shifts higher and higher. The centre of the Greenland ice cap is 11,000 feet thick; the ice at its base is thought to date from over 100,000 years ago: that is as old as our species, as long as Homo sapiens have walked the earth. There are layers of ice which have witnessed every episode in our ignoble history.

It saddens me to read, as I did this week, that the Arctic sea ice has melted this year faster than any other year since records began. In a few years, there could be an ice-free passage to the North Pole. On land, the glaciers which shed icebergs into the chill northern sea are calving faster than ever before, their ice melting into warmer seas.

In 1989, I did not understand that to fly was to be part of the gathering problem. I believed that a knowledge of the world was a positive thing, a way to extend the boundaries of my understanding to counter the parochialism with which I had grown up. At that time, the sea ice was still a dependable presence, the glaciers still crept their slow progress towards the sea. Now, it is enough for me to hear tales of distant lands from the geese which arrive through the autumn, rumours of a land beyond the horizon which is no richer for having seen it; a land where glaciers still calve into the sea with a sound like thunder over a distant horizon.

The Tracker

The Tracker, Tom Brown (Berkeley Publishing Group: New York, 1979)

Tom Brown fascinates me. He grew up in the sparsely populated Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey. When he was eight years old, he met a man named Rick in the woods, and the two boys became the best of friends. Rick’s father was stationed at a nearby base, and his grandfather was Stalking Wolf, an old Apache tracker. The Tracker was the first of Tom’s many books, and it introduced us to the amazing world that he was blessed to experience.

Stalking Wolf was one of the last Apaches to be trained in the old ways, by elders who were still wild and free. The wilderness was his home, church, and school. He could follow tracks on a dark night – by blind touch. He could perceive the trail of a mouse across dry gravel. His stalking skills allowed him to sneak up on deer and touch them, an ability that some modern hunters no longer have. He earned his name by touching a wolf, a nearly impossible feat. He could read the patterns of the land – the smells, the snapping twigs, the alarm calls of animals, or the sudden silence of the bird music. He was completely in tune with the land, both physically and spiritually.

Stalking Wolf taught Tom and Rick for eight years. ‘He taught us to make use of everything, to live with the least disruption of the earth, to revere what we took from the woods, to master our fear, to hone our special skills sharper and sharper, to expand our senses and our awareness, to live in the space of the moment and to understand eternity.’ The boys learned tracking, stalking, awareness, self-control, survival skills, and spiritual consciousness. They spent all their free time outdoors, studying nature, and practicing their skills. They rarely saw their parents on weekends or summer vacations.

Tom became completely at home in the wilderness. He could go into the woods, naked and empty handed, and spend the whole summer living off the land – confidently, comfortably, fearlessly, and joyfully. He could catch a deer and kill it with a knife. Often he would wander far beyond familiar places, and not be sure where he was, but being ‘lost’ was never a cause for fear or panic. ‘Everything I could want was immediately at hand. If I was lost, I seemed better off than a lot of people who weren’t. I was always at home, wherever I was. Only when I came out of the forest did I find out how easy it is to get lost.’

Stalking Wolf taught the boys that there were no greater or lesser spirits. The spirit of an ant had no less significance than that of a bear or a brother. He loathed all aspects of the civilized world, and he avoided contact with it, to the best of his ability. Despite what white people had done to his land and his people, he did not hate them, because they were lost, unhappy, and didn’t know any better. But he did hate their way of thinking and living – ‘they killed their grandchildren to feed their children.’

The boys absorbed his love for the land and the wild ones who lived there. Like Stalking Wolf, they could not comprehend the mentality of people who brought in bulldozers, or dumped their trash, or drove through the woods. Outsiders were like space aliens, displaying no respect for the place. ‘True lostness is when you have forgotten the spiritual centre of your life, when your values have gotten so warped with time that you do not remember what is truly important.’

One day, Tom discovered a number of dead deer in the woods. Their shoulders and hindquarters had been removed, and everything else was left on the ground to rot. New York restaurants would pay good money for prime cuts of fresh venison. Tom was horrified. He followed the tire tracks to an old cabin, and found the four poachers. In a blind rage that he barely remembered, he attacked them, beat them up, bent or smashed their guns, destroyed the cabin, and burned their truck. He took bold action to defend the land. ‘The woods were my life’, he said, ‘and still are.’

The Tracker is a treasure. It reminds me of my boyhood years, when we spent our days in the woods and fields, swamps and lakes, in a beautiful rural countryside that has since been erased by a cancer of strip plazas and McMansions. I developed a strong bond with nature. Only later in life did I realize that most folks never had this experience. So many grow up in manmade environments, and many of them never experience anything else. Tom’s bond with nature went far deeper than my own, because he was lucky to find a wise elder to guide him. I grew up in a community of General Motors factory rats.

Despite being raised in consumer society, and despite submitting to a public school education, Tom was able to remain detached from the civilised mindset and follow a healthier path. It wasn’t easy. He had to straddle two totally different realities. He was routinely mocked and ridiculed for displaying his intense respect for nature and spirit, for not going to college, for not pursuing a corporate career. The civilised crowd could not comprehend what he valued and loved, because they had no spiritual connection to life.

When we envision a healthy, sustainable future, it’s going to be a world where people have remembered how to live with the land and the community of life.

Throughout his journey, Stalking Wolf was frustrated by the difficulty of finding people to teach. Almost no one was interested in learning the old ways, because this knowledge had no value in the modern world. His elders encouraged him to keep trying: ‘The things of truth and spirit will never pass away. Our ways will not die. In the final days, man will seek again the things that we know.’ Tom established a wilderness school, and he has spent his adult life teaching the old ways to eager students. The story continues.