We walk along a narrow path northwards from Birkhams Quarry where the sandstone is still a raw, bright red, and – because the sandstone layer is tilted – we also walk backwards through time, to a face where the blocky layers of rock are whitened by lichen, and partly hidden by fern and heather.

Despite the vegetation, there are plenty of clues, and we scramble around on the banks to look at the exposed rocks. My companion, geologist David Kelly, shows me how the layers of sandstone are interspersed with shallow bands of red shale, like flaked tuna between slices of solid rye bread.  The shale, formerly silt that has been compressed and solidified, is easily-fragmented, soft and shiny when rubbed with a finger. The greasy red mud smeared on my fingertip may be 230 million years old, give or take ten million years or so.

‘Naming of names’: there’s something exclusive but poetic about scientific jargon, and David enjoys the proper names of the features he shows me: ‘load casts’, ‘shale flake conglomerate’, Brockram and breccia, and small pockets of muddy ‘rip-up clasts’. There is evidence everywhere to show that this sandstone was sedimented from rivers. In places the rock shows parallel lines, indicative of fast strong currents; on one block the lines fold back on themselves, suggesting the soft sediment was folded, perhaps when a river bank collapsed. There is ‘cross-bedding’, sloping lines that intersect the horizontal, signs of ancient sandbanks with variously-angled slopes. There are, too, boulders with bulbous growths, where the sand was pressed down into mud before it was hardened into rock. David hands me a fragment of the rock, turning it to catch the light; it sparkles. ‘You see those glittery bits? They’re mica flakes that settled out of the water.’ The rock’s colour is due to haematite, in which the iron has been oxidised to the red ferric form; in the St Bees’ formation, here on the west coast of Cumbria, the sediment was exposed to oxygen in the rivers and on the flood-plain.

Millom poet Norman Nicholson had a sculptor’s eye when he wrote about St Bees’ sandstone:

Smooth as a walnut turned on a lathe,
Or hollowed in clefts and collars where the pebbles
Shake up and down like marbles in a bottle.
Here the chiselling edges of the waves
Scoop long fluted grooves, and here the spray
Pits and pocks the blocks like rain on snow.

We slither down the cliff, towards the Barrowmouth gypsum mine. The path is buckled and indistinct, interrupted by slippage of the shales. There is a small square bridge of cut and faced red sandstone blocks; the remains of a sandstone pumphouse and weigh-house, tipped backwards by the rotated slip face; a few hard white rocks of anhydrite; and ‘John Smith 1935’ – he had carved his name at the top of the cliff, and the looped and flowing script of his name is carved here too.

Muddy and damp, we reach the shore, amongst boulders that have tumbled from the cliffs above us, many of them now disguised by slime-green seaweed; but neither algae nor the salty white encrustation can completely hide the colour of the slabs beneath our feet. It’s sandstone, again, but of a deep purplish colour, a different age, a different origin: Coal-Measure sandstone. Where we’re standing was a humid tropical swamp, about 290 million years ago in the Carboniferous.  Originally pale, the rock’s surface was oxidised to this characteristic purple-red when the swamp dried out and transformed into arid desert.

Today the Robin Rigg windfarm is the most obvious sign of human intervention in the Firth but, fifty years ago, there would have been hundreds of men working out there,  beneath the seabed.  Coal has been mined in the Whitehaven area since the 1700s, and Haig Pit, the last to close, was shut down in 1986, so there are still people around who worked in the colliery or remember the pit and the machinery, the locomotives and coal-ships. Haig Colliery Museum is enormously important as a reminder of West Cumbria’s past, and of the major role that coal has played in our social and economic history.

A map of the collieries, hand-drawn and  coloured by one Ted Wilson, gives a shocking insight into the sheer scale of the collieries, the quite extraordinary size and interconnectedness of the three-dimensional maze of tunnels out there beneath the sea. From the headland and harbour, outlined on the map, are blocks of colour stretching Westwards, each representing a mine: green for Haig, pink for Saltom, brown for Kells. Within the blocks of colour are exquisitely-detailed plans of the thousands of ‘roads’ and faces and tracks beneath the sea, mile upon mile of them, with some of the pits interlinked by other roads that functioned as escape routes. The map reveals even more: dotted across the mainland are tiny circles that indicate small, sealed-off workings, with names like Knockmorton pit, Burnt pit, Wood-a-green and Thicket. Most of them would have been forgotten, except for the subsidence they still cause.

The coal lies in several seams or ‘bands’ at different depths, separated by sandstone or shale. The mighty Haig Pit was 1200 feet deep, and its workings were dug out nearly four miles under the sea. In some places, water – fresh water – had seeped down through the various fault lines and formed shallow lakes between the layers. The late Norman Hammond once told me that he had some freshwater mussel shells that had been found in one of the mines – dating from the time when the Solway basin was a forested and fluvial plain.

Haig Pit was closed for economic reasons, but a rich store of coal remains beneath the Firth: hundreds of millions of tons, apparently enough to produce a million tons of coal per year for 800 years. According to Professor Nicholas Stern,  the proven reserves of the world’s top 100 listed coal companies and top 100 listed oil and gas companies – reserves like this – could produce 745 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Stern says that at least two-thirds of these reserves will have to remain underground if the world is to meet existing internationally agreed targets to avoid the threshold for ‘dangerous’ climate change. There is little sign of this happening. If it were to do so, these reserves would be in effect unburnable, and thus worthless – leading to massive market losses. It does not make economic sense to leave this coal under the sea; it does not make any other kind of sense not to.

Out in the Solway Firth, their feet buried in the sea-bed above the coal-seams, the sixty Robin Rigg turbines capture the same wind which blows me along the cliff above St Bees’ Head, and has churned the sea into great brown breakers that are crashing onto the shore; their booming is amplified by the dripping cave where I eventually sit to eat my sandwiches. Low tide has exposed a red sandstone platform, pitted with deep circular pools, each fringed with pink corallina. The sandstone has been eroded into shapes that are so tactile that you need to feel and stroke them. Parallel grooves are separated by edges so thin and fine that they must surely break.

For more about coal, stone, stone-masons and sculptors, or for information about guided walks on the Solway shore, visit Solway Shore Stories. Ann’s personal website is

Of Making Many Books

And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end…
(Ecclesiastes 12:12)


Does the world need more books?

The fourth Dark Mountain book went to press this week. I read through the final proofs a few days ago, and – from the opening line of Amir Naaman’s poem ‘The Future’ to the closing dialogue between dead scientists, extinct creatures, poets and children that is Christina Bodznik’s ‘Concentric Plots’ – the words explode off the page. I don’t want to try to describe this book to you, I want to put a copy of it into your hands and watch you leaf through it and feel how much further this Dark Mountain expedition has ranged. It is less pastoral, less English. Wilder, stranger, queerer…

Yet the question remains. Given the horror that lies a quarter-inch below the surface of everything we see – given the determination to bear witness to this horror, to seek out those kinds of action that still make sense – why should we imagine there is any point in adding to the unthinkable excess of words already in print?

My first answer is the one that any writer or artist, or other victim of such compulsions, will give if you can get them at an honest moment: we don’t end up doing the work we want to do, but the work we can’t not do. At the back of Dark Mountain, there are a set of convictions: about the practical power of culture; the roots of today’s ecological, economic and social crises in the stories we’ve been telling ourselves for generations; the importance of retelling the stories, of finding other ways of seeing, coming to terms with loss and reaching a humbler understanding of our relation to the world – but at the back of all this, there are also four editors who have been cutting and pasting and stapling together publications of one kind or another since we were eight years old.

I have been thinking about this question, though – why books? – because it’s time to make some announcements about our newest book, and about our decision to start publishing two books a year, and to ask you to consider setting up a subscription to Dark Mountain.

Perhaps you don’t need any convincing, in which case feel free to go straight to the new Subscriptions section of this site.

Still, this is something of a threshold – we are asking for more commitment from our readers than we have done before, choosing to focus more of our energy on publishing, and to leave behind the one-off crowdfunding campaigns by which we covered the costs of previous books. So it feels like a good moment to reflect on why we continue to devote large amounts of our lives, mostly unpaid, to the making of these books.


The most powerful reflections as to why the books matter come not from us as editors, but from readers and contributors. I’ve noticed several themes that people often mention when describing what makes Dark Mountain special and important to them:

Honesty: When we published our original manifesto, Sharon Astyk wrote that ‘It may be the most honest attempt at literature we’ve seen.’ That’s a lot to live up to, but it does seem that one reason these books matter to people is the space they offer for a particular kind of honesty. We encourage writers to voice their doubts, to puzzle through what troubles them, rather than rehearsing familiar arguments, and to put into writing things that have been felt but unspoken – taboo, even – in the different worlds of environmentalism and literature.

Unexpected juxtapositions: ‘Left to my own devices,’ writes Marmaduke Dando, ‘I would have just gone for the essays, but I have been so glad to be exposed to and challenged by the poetry and stories.’ There are few publications where you will find the diversity of types of writing you get in our books. This is not done for the sake of eclecticism, but because of the way that different approaches – intellectual, visionary, or earthily grounded – start to speak to each other, so that somehow, between them, they get closer to the most difficult subject matter than any single approach could do. As Allen O’Leary put it: ‘You feel as you read that you are turning a problem around in your hands, rather than using a scalpel to cut it open as you would in, for instance, a themed philosophy magazine.’

A sense of life, joy and beauty: I sometimes meet people who have never read our books, who have an impression of Dark Mountain as some kind of death cult, or at least a collective of the doom-laden. Now, some of the most powerful writing we have published has been about grief and loss – yet readers often express surprise, as Mark Newton did in The Ecologist’s review of Issue 2, that the result ‘isn’t as depressing as you might imagine.’ We won’t hide from the epic of extinction taking place around us – nor from the personal reality of death that is coming to each of us, sooner or later – but in facing these things, there comes also a heightened sense of beauty, of joy entangled with sadness, and the impossibility of fully separating the serious from the absurd.

No party line. ‘There are aspects of the Dark Mountain manifesto I cannot support,’ writes Jay Griffiths, one of our regular contributors. ‘And that is precisely why it is a brilliant manifesto: it is provocative, difficult, troubling, and uneasy, and I salute the spirit of it wholeheartedly, in its untameness, its wilful, searching fury.’ People don’t write for Dark Mountain because they have signed up to an ideological position, but because, from wherever they are coming, they feel drawn to the conversation that started with that manifesto. There is room for disagreement, without that always having to turn into an argument over who is right. Reading one of our books should be like listening in on a great conversation, rather than sitting through a series of speakers on a platform.

Those are a few of the reasons why these books seem to matter to people. If you have held a copy in your hands, you may well have your own reasons – and we would like to hear more about them.


There is plenty more to say: we will come back, soon, in another post, with some snatches of the voices that you will hear in the pages of our latest collection. We will also have more to say about the decision to start producing two books a year – one that has been driven by the quantity, quality and variety of material that people are now sending us, as well as by the desire to focus more of our energy on the work of making books, which has always been at the heart of this project.

For today, let me just add that, while we have taken the decision not to run another crowd-funding campaign, we still need your help to fund the costs of publishing this book.

We invite you, then, to set up a subscription to Dark Mountain. You will get each of our books as soon as it comes out, for less than it would normally cost – and we won’t have to hassle you each time to make a pledge through IndieGoGo. You’ll also be making an important contribution to giving Dark Mountain a kind of security that it has not had until now, ensuring that we will be able to go on producing these books and hosting the conversation which they represent in the years ahead.

This is a big deal for us – and we will be banging the drum about it, on this blog, over emails and various other parts of the internet for the next few weeks. We will do our best to avoid tedious repetition and exhortation, to reflect the spirit of this project in the way that we extend this invitation. And we will be glad of any help that you might feel inclined to offer in telling the story of what Dark Mountain has done so far and why others might find it worth keeping company with.

We know that not everyone will be in a position to make an ongoing commitment right now – and so, for those who prefer, we are also making Dark Mountain: Issue 4 available for pre-order through our regular online shop. (Also, for those with existing subscriptions to Dark Mountain, we will be in touch with you personally within a few days about how the new subscription service will work for you.)

Finally, thanks again for all the support that you have given us over the past four years – none of what Dark Mountain has done would have been possible without it.

Find out more about the range of subscriptions on offer on our new Subscriptions page.