Living landscapes: climate change in the Andes

I sit, cradled in a crevice of an adobe wall, waiting for the bus which will take me away from Kaata for what I suspect is the last time, at least for a while. It dawned clear, the snow-covered crater of the mountain revolving slowly in rose-coloured light, and has become a morning of harvested fields and tawny humming birds winging from eucalyptus trees to mud brown walls. I have been lucky enough to spend the summer here, returning for a couple of months to the fieldsite I have written about for the last year. It occurs to me I am seeing the same scene, sitting here, as I did when I first arrived in the village almost three years ago. It was the beginning of the rainy season then, the Day of the Dead festival. Thick mist had descended over everything, and I couldn’t tell where about me were the mountains, where would be valley. Just visible at the sides of the road were earth-coloured houses, yellow and scarlet flowers hanging delicately over their walls.

I had come to ask permission to conduct research on how the climate was changing, and what people thought about these changes. The mallku, the village leader, was standing talking to me, dressed in his ceremonial scarlet poncho, striped with colours and decorated with designs of the mountain animals, his amiable face embraced by the earflaps of a woollen cap. ‘Yes, we’re very concerned about climate change,’ he told me, and, indicating the fragments of crisp packets and drinks cartons at the verges of the road. ‘People bring foods now which come wrapped in plastic. Where to put it afterwards? And with this road coming up’ — meaning the one-lane track by which we had wound our way up to the village — ‘the vehicles on it contaminate the air.’

I left that day struck by how close a relationship the people of this high Andean village saw between the changing climate and their own actions, considering that they live in houses of adobe brick, weave their clothes from the wool of the sheep they herd, and eat, mainly, what they cultivate in the terraced fields. From a Western perspective, the people of Kaata are about as close to ideal eco-warriors as we can envision, making minute contributions to climate change, with the bus that passes three times a week, and a few fragments of litter. They do however notice its effects, observing from year to year that temperatures are climbing, and accordingly moving their crops up the side of the mountain to cooler altitudes. The upper level at which potatoes are grown in the Andes has risen 300 metres in the last 50 years. In response to the increasingly irregular appearance of the rains, the villagers are building an irrigation canal, though promised funding for water tanks and salaries for those digging it have failed to arrive. Their ability to adapt is inspiring, the action of those who expect the world around them to be in constant flux and motion, able to read the season ahead by how early birds come down the valley to mate, or the visibility of a constellation. The knowledge that this relies on is extensive, the result of a lifetime spent in contact with the land, observing its changes. Depending on what they can cultivate to live from, Kaatenos don’t waste time denying obvious changes to the weather. It was how they would fit these changes in with their vision of the world, a living and mythological landscape, that interested me the most.

As time went on, I came to know better the community and the world they inhabit. One afternoon, I was chatting over the wall to a neighbour in the yard of one of the houses behind where I had spoken to the mallku, eating leaves from a mint plant climbing out of its cracks, and looking at the silvery threading trails on a piece of wood left leaning up against it. He explained lucidly how the world is changing. ‘Before, our ancestors would live till they were 120, and there was no sickness. In those times everything — the sun, the winds, the air, were different. People ate food from here: maize, wheat, barley, broad beans, peas, oca and potatoes. Now they eat rice and pasta and city foods, which don’t have the same nutrition.’ I ask whether investment in local agriculture can change this, and he laughs and indicates the deep valley behind us, where the road leads to the main town, Charazani, and on to the city. ‘No, how could it? The contamination is brought on the wind, from far away, from factories. The children are different now. We used to eat toasted maize and beans as a treat. They want sweets and crisps and yoghurts. You can’t stop it. And while their parents want them to be educated, they only want machines.’ What the Kaatenos call ‘contamination’ is connected directly with desire for Western city clothes and foods, for the culture of the city, which devalues the produce of the village.

It can also be seen from the neighbour’s account that climate change consists of the interaction of humans with the natural landscape: the sun, the winds, and the mountains, which are conceived to be characters in themselves. It was such an animate and enchanted landscape that I had come to Kaata to find, I now realise. Growing up in England, the countryside for me was the Lake District, a landscape construed as an escape from humanity, where nature and the wild were sacred. The English love of this wildness stems from the attention of writers like Coleridge, whose poems animated the mountains and vales with spirits, escaping the vision of nature as a set of natural resources to be categorised and exploited. When fields and valleys were fenced into the rational order of science and capital, we sought the exit point in animated mountains and rivers; in those elements in which ‘nature’ still flowed, enchanted with the character of a living world, of the sort we keep in fairy stories for children.

Forty years ago, Joseph Bastien, a missionary-turned-anthropologist, wrote about how Kaatenos perceived the mountain they live on as a living body, with villages pertaining to its heart, head and legs, and mountain lakes making up the eyes, where life springs up from an underlying world. People still believe today that they contribute their work to the mountain through farming and fertilising it, and at certain times of year, leaving gifts of flowers filled with honey in crevices of the cliffs, which the mountain reciprocates with the harvest. Given these ancient beliefs about human interaction with the living landscape, it seemed less surprising that the village considered that leaving their exchange relationships with the mountain for the manufactured foodstuffs and clothes of the city was inextricably connected to extreme changes in crops and weather.

Setting off for Kaata in the English summer this year, I arrive at the end of their winter — the terraced hillsides have spent six months in the sun, and, harvest collected, are waiting for the rains, while the residents have a series of fiestas in this season of relative rest and sunshine. One afternoon, we went to celebrate national independence day in Charazani, the little town in the valley, myself and the six couples who take the ‘turn’ of being the village authorities this year. We women sit on the earth sharing beer, ceremonially serving each other in turn from a single cup, thanking the server with a cheers each time we drink, while the men, standing, serve each other similarly. The main event of the day was a bullfight, considerably at odds with its European variant, with drunken men taking turns to streak by the free bulls, who occasionally toss and trample them, much to the amusement of the audience. The animals are not under any threat, though they seek to escape the limelight, and an especially spirited one manages to mount up through the crowds, sending lines of spectators fleeing from terrace to terrace up the amphitheatre of seats, much to the amusement of the rest. Some young men decide that this victory of nature over human willpower is too much for the national fiesta, and set to lassoing the animal to drag him back down to the ring. As they do so, he stumbles and falls over on a slope, and around me a heavy silence comes over the women, in contrast to their amusement at the fleeing spectators. ‘Why didn’t they just leave him up there?’ I say. ‘Exactly!’ agrees my friend, emphatically. I ask if the bulls escape every year. ‘Every year the same!’ she agrees.

I realised that if I didn’t manage to walk up to Kaata before dark, it would be a matter of spending the entire night drinking with the authorities in Charazani. I set off along the main road, bordered in this season with sweet-smelling moonlike thistle bushes. I turn off after a while onto a lane which zigzags up between adobe walls, a steep ascent of a couple of hundred metres, before meeting the ancient stone track that manages to strike an almost level route over the mountain to Kaata. Such stone roads were built under the Inca empire, and still connect the Andes chain from the north to south of South America, and from the west coast to the Amazon jungles in the east, 3,600m below, where the road I walk on now eventually leads. In Inca times, every 20 miles or so were tambos where travellers could sleep and eat — they were not charged as there was no concept of money. Clouds were coming up the valley, mighty-looking bodies of water vapour condensing, surprised at the changing temperatures as the land rose. Up here, clouds can lie lake-like below, veil themselves over a village above, or sail right by before your eyes, transfiguring the seeming solid, harbingers of the constantly descending mists of the wet season. Dreamlike is this landscape, constantly shifting. I walk through dry terraced fields, sandy golden and seeming ready to slip into one another, and steep hillsides where one still sees the ridges of ancient overgrown terraces — before the conquest came with its diseases, the land supported a much larger population, and the people would give the Inca a portion of their harvest to be repartitioned anywhere the crops failed.

Some bulls are standing at a curve of the path, left while their owner is in town, and to my relief walk on ahead of me. They stop to drink at the waterfall, however, and I wait behind, fearful after spending the afternoon seeing such massive animals chase people. I remember a mixture of stories from old ethnographers and contemporary villagers; the waterfall is a magic place, where a stream emerges out of the hidden world under the mountain, some say from the land of our ancestors, whose seasons are the reverse of ours, and who send water for our crops. Waterfalls, like lakes, are creative places where worlds merge into one another, where you can find treasure or be bewitched by the mountain spirits; once a man fell asleep here coming up the mountain drunk, and when he woke he was a woman. He lives in the village still, sitting by the fire with his long braided hair. Fortunately, he had never married.

As I wait here I can hear a young man I have caught sight of walking up the mountain behind me approach. ‘Are you going to Kaata?’ he salutes me, ‘nos acompañamos pues,’ we’ll accompany each other. Even very small children are left in charge of bulls here, with no other check than their voices and stones to throw, and he scarcely notices the creatures, driving them on before us. The young man, Noel, is exceptional in that although he has left the village school, he still lives in Kaata. His brothers and sisters, as nearly all the young people these days live, ideally, in La Paz, the capital city, or in the valleys where you can make a good living harvesting coca. I ask him why he lives here; well, there are cars there, and thieves. ‘It’s more free here,’ he says, as we turn into the tributary valley where Kaata lies, and see the snow-capped Akhamani mountains rising above it like a crown.

I comment on the shoulder bag he carries, which he tells me was woven for him by his mother. These rectangular bags were once used to carry medicines and have become the symbol of the region’s Callawaya culture. The Callawaya were ever a medicine people, and at least since the time of the Inca, traversed the spine of the Andes on stone roads, carrying hundreds of healing herbs from the slopes of this mountain, and incense from the jungle. They cured people up and down the empire, rewarded by their hospitality, and a seat at the right hand of the Inca throne. Few young men from Kaata now train as healers, although those from surrounding villages make good money practicing in the capital. Seeing my interest, Noel starts telling me the medicinal uses of some of the many shrubs around us; this one is for stomach ache, this one clears your head, this is for teas — he stops and picks some leaves between his fingers so I can smell them. It’s a resinous plant, like rosemary or lavender, but how to describe a new smell? A new colour, my knowledge of the world widens slightly. He straightens up and looks at the hillside around him. ‘In fact, all this is medicine,’ he summarises. The vision of the mountain as a living being who gives us all we need to live off has remained, though in many ways relations with the mountain deities are changing.

Martha, the lady I live with on this visit, is driving her small flock of sheep home above us. Elegant and long-legged, they stop to watch me with delicate faces. The sinking sun, obscured by the fine clouds clinging to the mountain, still sends some light through, making the edges of their fleeces shine silver. She walks on sandalled feet which tread lightly on the earth, in paths which reflect the weavings she wears wrapped around her head and shoulders, daily routes to work which connect up the elements of the landscape as do the vertical lines of the cloth the designs woven into it — symbols for the mountain’s animals, the levels of its fields, and the water springs, which are depicted as diamond-shaped emanations of energy. She has a beautiful face, wide cheekbones and dark oval eyes, around which there are many fine lines, which the strong altiplanic sun etches in, and the smoke and orange-brown earth delicately define.

I ask her whether there is less snow on the mountain each year. Yes, and it used to cover those other ones too, she says, indicating the peaks to the south. She hesitates, unwilling reveal to an educated person something so, well, unscientific, and then adds: ‘They say, well, they say, that when all the snow disappears the world will end.’ The mountain, it seems, is like a sand timer for the world at large, which again stems from the perception of the landscape as animate. To heal illness, the Callawaya carried out ritual curing the body of the mountain, burning offerings and leaving them in the river, which washes away contamination. The bodies of the mountain and those who live on it are analogous, and as such through healing the mountain they can cure people. As society changes, therefore, so does the mountain, heralding the end of the world.

Later Martha recounts that once she was walking on the mountain, and suddenly saw a goat, which had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. When she looked back again, it had disappeared, and though she searched, she couldn’t find it again. When she went home her arms and hands began to ache, and she sought the help of a relative who knows how to divine, throwing coca leaves to read what had happened. She was told that she had encountered the mountain spirit who was demanding payment, and that she would have to prepare and burn a ritual ‘table’ of sacrifices.

Ambushing people and summarily demanding payment doesn’t sound like the benign mountain of Bastien’s stories, freely giving food and medicine. I ask why the mountain has become so malevolent, and am referred to the story of a nearby village visited by a wandering man, who was refused food or shelter by everyone, save for one family. When he left he warned his hosts to clear out, and, as they watched from above, the rest of the village was buried alive by a landslide. Years before, the villages would exchange what they could cultivate at the different ecological levels of the mountain through presenting it to one another as gifts. Labour on the fields was carried out in common, with people exchanging days of work with each other. As social relations have become about exploiting others’ labour and crops, instead of equality and sharing, so has the landscape changed in character, the mountains becoming exploitative masters.

Noel tells me that Akhamani, like Illimani, a national symbol which reigns over the capital city of La Paz, is in fact a volcano. Earthquakes have started to happen all over the world now, have they not?, he asks me. Indeed they have, I answer. ‘They haven’t come to Bolivia yet, but they will. And then Illimani will erupt.’ I am reminded of the other world that lies under the mountains, which can come up in springs, or, in this case, lava. The concept of world ending often used in the Andes is pachakuti, which means something more like ‘world turning over’. I have read that there are there have been 12 such revolutions of the world before this one, according to human memory, when what was below came to be above and vice versa. Volcanoes covering the surface of the world with what lies beneath them sounds like a modern envisioning of this Andean myth. We are perhaps on the brink of such a pachakuti, in which what is now above will be driven below, and vice versa.

What is below us up here in the mountains are the jungles, where the wild people, aucas, our ancestors live. On the very stone roads on which we are now walking, the Inca king, when he realised defeat by the Spanish was inevitable, went down into the jungle surrounded with some trusted retinue, leaving a kingly wealth in the villages who gave them hospitality along the way, and promising that one day they would come back for it, leading an army of wild auca out of the jungles to take back the high colonised places above. For years these stories were regarded by academics as imaginative myths, and the arteries of the modern states have reconfigured the region’s geography, such that the villages which the legend lists on the eastern flanks of the Andes have long ceased to have much significance or many visitors. Recently however, I heard that archaeologists had been to one of the villages, and were shown a case which, it was said, belonged to the Inca. It had never been opened in living memory, though the villagers eventually took it down. Inside were layered jaguar skins, of great value and rarity, layered with golden ornaments.

The end can hold the seed of a new beginning, or return, if we leave behind a linear view of history to embrace the idea of time as cyclical, or even spiralling outwards into the unknown. An account I read years ago describes the Andean concept of time as like sailing round an island — on every rotation, one sees similar characters and situations, though they are each time slightly changed. Sitting on the wall waiting to leave Kaata, I realise that what I too notice now is the rubbish at the verge of the road, under the stone walls. It tells a story of change, of the endlessly expanding consumer culture, that we cannot escape by travelling to remote places. I have spent ten years looking for new worlds in South American villages and mythologies, and come to see that people everywhere are making the same choices as we must. Kaata, through its myths, its belief in the unseen, creates a wealth of stories that embrace change, and tell us that it is desire for individual wealth that drives the destruction of community, radically altering our relationships with each other and a landscape in which everything is alive and constantly changing.

An Extended Recipe for Bread

Our distance from the source of our food enables us to be superficially more comfortable and distantly more ignorant. Eating is a sacrament, the grace that we say clears our hearts and guides the children and welcomes the guest, all at the same time.

Gary Snyder

It is late winter and the cattle have come off the two acres by the main road, they have eaten the grass and clover down. This winter has been cold and wet, and there is a dry spell forecast and the soil is well drained.

I’ve got a 1971 Massey Ferguson 135, a yeoman scarifier and an offset harrows. Those were the days when crops were grown in way smaller paddocks, after hand tillage, a man and a horse could probably till an acre in a day. My tractor has the power of 40 horses, 40 acres. A small ‘thank god’ for the machine, agriculture has moved on these days. Have you seen the machinery? The breadth of the sweep and the size of the engines? The vastness of food production? The factory fields? The endless bland of monoculture?

I’m planting peas and vetch as a green manure, they will react with the beneficial bacteria in the soil and form nodules of nitrogen — this in turn will feed the next crop, a winter wheat destined to plant in seven months or so .

When I think of green manures, mine is a poor descendant of the up to 87 varieties that were planted together in some parts of Europe — think of that diversity, all the bacteria and nutrients, all the minerals being created and released, all of the unseen. Think of the soil and its aliveness, of the microbes working in such a place, all that busyness and turnover. Now think of the farmer in these parts who on planting a green manure of clover, because his soil has been denuded of its bacterial aliveness, has to inoculate the seed with a manufactured bacteria in order for the soil and the plant to fix nitrogen. The soil has become nothing but a canvas on which manmade chemicals can react. Here I am with the right idea, moving in the right direction — starting to care for the soil, for all that is unseen.

The legumes I have planted will germinate and the land there will flush with green, although this year the rains that do come are meagre, but enough moisture that the soil magic will happen. Beneath the surface, nodules of nitrogen are attached to the root, nitrogen fixed naturally, there is no NPK or artificial fertilisers here. At harvest there is little in the pods. We pick those few peas before Christmas, and then I run over a couple of times with the offset harrows and all that green is taken into the soil — this I will leave fallow till another turn in late summer, and hopefully plant the wheat crop just before the autumn break. The wheat, if planted thick enough, will mostly be weed-free, thanks to the fallowing and the turning in of stray weeds before planting.

There is a loveliness about tilling the soil, about working the land, even from a tractor like this. Always the eyes are watching, like the kookaburra that constantly searches the furrow for worm and Bardy grub, content with my effort and her next feed, the sentinel sulphur-breasted cockatoo that watches for signs of sowing and stray grain. Too quickly she will return with mobs of screeching fury, hell-bent on as much seed as they can manage. But I shall set the seed drill deep, deeper than the stretch and the curve of a cockatoo’s beak — once the cockies are in up to their eyes they won’t go deeper. They will get the stray seed that has popped the drill. Most of the wheat will find its depth, to germination and growth.

Sometimes the harrows will turn up a rubbing stone, a mortar used by the black fella to crush his foraged seed, maybe cumbungee, maybe kangaroo grass, maybe some plant rich in protein long since passed as it was no longer needed. So the process of milling grains was alive in this country, not the growing but the foraging and gathering.

The rains will come and the seed will germinate, the tentative shoots rising into a coming winter. Have you seen this green flush of promise on a tilled paddock? Spring will come, the weather will be beneficial. The magic will happen. It was Mario Petrucci who described farming as the balance between fertility and futility. How true. Painfully so, sometimes. Good farming practice can only do so much in the face of ever-changing weather patterns.

It is here. Here — with the preparation of soil, the depth of sowing, the laying fallow, the rotation of crops, the care of country — that my work is done, and all I can do over the next seven months or so is watch the coming low pressure systems, the balance of moisture and sunlight, to say my small prayers to the sky. To send my hopes on the wings of angels to Demeter. The age-old ritual of watching and praying.

The harvest is never counted until the grain is safely stored inside. Even with rows of golden grain waving in the summer breeze, there is always that late rain uninvited by the farmer that causes the grain to sprout in its sheath, rendering all that gold to pig feed. Or the cold blast that comes mid-spring, and the clear night that invites the late frost and suddenly all the husk is empty.

Early in the spring of last year, four of us invested the pricey sum of 200 dollars on an old Allis-Chalmers Mark 1 All-Crop Harvester, dating from the mid 50s. The last crop that this wonderful old machine took off was in 1969 and she has been shedded since then, since Bob Dylan sang ‘Lay Lady Lay’ … since the Summer of Love. Waiting for fools to rescue her and set her singing again. There are over 70 grease nipples, four belts and two canvases, and to see her in action is to fully appreciate Wallace and Gromit cartoons. There are so many moving parts being driven from the drive of the tractor, so many flywheels spinning, and clunks and whistles and hisses. To drive her through a crop of wheat is an experience, to witness the combing, the cutting, the up-feeding, the shredding, the threshing, the thrashing, the sieving, the augering and holding, the throwing out of stalk and the general song of the harvest.

When the crop is in and the wheat is bagged and through my fingers I can run the red golden grain, a wealth of immediacy, to feel the richness of a food, not the idea of a commodity. Here is a satisfaction, no matter how down the size of the crop — besides, always next year will be better. Even in this satisfaction, always.

I have been baking bread for nearly 15 years now. I sell locally. This year I brought a stone mill from Austria — not a huge mill, but enough to grind about 30kg an hour.

Once upon a time, right the way across the world, every community would have a mill. Two large flat stones: one stationary, one driven by water or wind or mule or steam, or, these days, by electricity. At the end of the 19th century roller milling was invented, which enabled grain and especially wheat, the staple of our Western breads, to be milled differently. The germ and the husk were taken out of the grain and the endosperm was roller-milled — this meant that a lighter, whiter, less flavoursome flour was produced. A flour devoid of a lot of its goodness, its rough age and its complexity, so that now it would last in storage for 18 months as opposed to the six weeks in summer of its stoneground equivalent.

You could say that roller milling was the first fast food, the first in a long line of factories turning out quicker, longer-lasting food. The beginning of the end of quality, of food locality, the death of the little millers, the locally raised loaf, the end of flavour. Suddenly flour production was centralised and controlled. It is not hard to guess the effect on community: the miller lost his livelihood, the carters and mill workers moved off, and the farmers — at first being happy at having a regular market — were soon  held to the price of the big mills. It was not long before grain had a global price, bought and sold by suits in high towers, hidden away from the dust of the mill. And those wonderful old mills of wind and water that peppered the landscape slowly fell to ruin. Oh, progress.

Depending on the loaf, I either mill my grain about 12 days before baking — this enables the flour to oxidise and a good crust to develop — or on the same day as I bake, for the sheer thrill of using a flour that has such wonderful vitality. The grain will go through on a coarse grind. I’ll take out some bran and maybe semolina, depending on the protein levels present, then put it through again, sifting down to dusty cream-coloured fine flour. There is a wonderful aliveness in the aroma of fresh-ground grain. What I hold in my hand is only the product of what is grown here, or what is grown by people that I know.

It seems that even those organic roller-milled flours allow all types of enzymes to be added, to bleach, to aid in rising, to stretch the proteins further, to make the bread softer, to take more gas, to take up more water. In this country, none have to be disclosed. So we have more people reporting they are gluten intolerant. Wheat has become the bad guy. I wonder, though, about the effect of all these added enzymes. There is one particular culprit: transglutaminase, added for stretch in pastry flours, that is said to turn gluten toxic for our palates. Even before these enzymes there was the weird engineering of food, of taking out and adding gluten — to my mind is does not make sense. My flour is naked and clean, perhaps a little taken away and fed to the chooks and ducks, but nothing added.

Since the early 1960s most bread in Western cultures has been fundamentally redesigned — the flour and yeast were changed, and a combination of additives and intense energy have replaced time in the maturing of dough. This is known as the Chorleywood process, and it produces bread of huge volume and lightness, packed with preservatives. It is white, light and will stay soft for days, made by machines on a factory production line, a technological marvel lacking taste, goodness, body and soul. An idea of bread, the ghost of a loaf. It is the very embodiment of the modern age. Britain, America and Australia went the way of factory-produced bread — industrialisation saw to this — while countries with more of a peasant-based economy kept the integrity in their bread, in some cases even legislating to protect the standards of bread-making. France legislated that bread should contain only flour, water, yeast and salt.

I make sourdough bread, so instead of using a commercially-produced yeast  I have harvested wild yeast that is present in every breath we take, and given it a medium in which to thrive. Instead of a loaf that rises in 90 minutes, my bread will take between five and seven hours, depending on the time of year  — in the heat of summer the doughs will hurry, while in the depths of winter the wild yeast culture is a little more lazy. I have four ingredients: flour, water, salt and sourdough culture (the sourdough culture is simply flour and water inoculated with wild yeast, and bubbling with aliveness). These four ingredients are mixed and then kneaded to develop the proteins, stretched and pulled, shaped, elasticated, ready to become the skins of tiny balloons that enable the dough to rise. Then the sourdough culture goes to work chomping its way through the mixture, dividing, multiplying, growing and releasing complex carbohydrates and sugars locked within the flour. The byproducts: lactic and acetic acid, and carbon dioxide, a gas that pumps into the developed proteins creating bubbles and tiny pockets, leavening, rising, ripening.

If you see the rise, if you smell that sweet pungency and know the journey from soil to palate, if you follow the weather patterns and the turning of the seasons, the journey of a seed into a staple, you know that the journey is coming to an end. The loaves are weighed and shaped into batards, proving between soft canvas cloths. The cooling of the wood-fired oven is timed to the rising of the loaves — together they meet on the hearth of the oven, the heart of the oven.

Here is the bright alchemy of baking. The loaves will take on a life of their own, slashed with a razor to aid the direction of the rise, the doughs will kick off from the oven floor, a final rise as the last flush of gasses fill the air pockets. The starches will gelatinise, thickening the mixture and setting the loaf (the starch molecules that have no real flavour of their own, when heated, get out of the way to reveal other more complex tastes. Here is the baker’s mission to release the full flavour from the grain). The sugars in the crust will caramelise, the crust will blister and crack and brown to a deep golden colour, and the proteins will roast as the heat of the oven drives off excess moisture, concentrating flavours and allowing the subtle nutlike flavours to emerge. At about 20 minutes , I’ll open the oven door. The aroma has been seeping out into the bakery, but as the oven is unloaded the scent will still astound me, the loves will talk as they are placed in wire racks and wrapped in clean cotton sheets, they crackle and cackle with joy.

In a few short hours I will load the crates of bread into the little white truck and carry them down the hill to the local farmers’ markets. There will be eager buyers, familiar faces. Bread is a strong place where friendships are made. There will be praise and maybe some criticism, and both will be welcomed and taken to the next bake. Always there is a wanting to improve, to carry forth, to do better, to pay attention to the details. To pay attention to the details…

Systems that deprive us of wonder: a conversation with George Monbiot


George Monbiot is a high-profile environmental writer and activist, who writes a weekly column for the Guardian. His long history of engaging with radical green ideas includes a public debate with one of the founders of Dark Mountain and an approach to our work which is both supportive and critical, often at the same time. Differences aside, though, we share an unflinching analysis of the scale of the current ecological crisis. George’s new book, Feral, explores the benefits of ‘rewilding’ large areas of landscape as one response to that crisis. Steve Wheeler went to meet him to talk about all this and more.

STEVE WHEELER: Have you been surprised by the reactions you’ve got to the rewilding suggestions in Feral?

GEORGE MONBIOT: I’ve actually been surprised by how positive they are. I’ve had some really good reviews in the right-wing press, including newspapers I’ve been warring with for the past dozen years or more. I mean, obviously, I’ve got the sort of reactions from sheep-farmers I would have expected, but really people seem to be hungry for it, they really seem to want to know. And I think a lot of people feel that there is a gap in their lives, an absence of wonder, enchantment, surprise – and rewilding is possibly one of the things that could fill that. I think also a lot of people are aware that our current model of conservation is a fiasco, that even on its own terms it’s failing, let alone on any measure of the wider protection of the natural world or its species, so there is a strong sense that a change is necessary, a radical change.

SW: It’s been really interesting hearing you use the language – both in the book and the talks you’ve given around it – of enchantment, of passion, of intuition. Not that there wasn’t passion in what you’ve written before around social justice and the environment; but a sense definitely comes across in the book that you yourself have had some sort of personal change in the way you look at the world through investigating this particular area.

GM: Yes, very much so. Partly it’s that I thought I knew something about ecology – I studied it as part of my degree, I’ve been working in and out of it ever since, but some of the recent findings in ecology have transformed the subject. When I studied it – long enough ago to actually study sabre-tooth cats! – it seemed like an old subject, it seemed like most of what we would ever discover had already been discovered, and the rest was just filling in the details. Now it seems like a very young subject, and a very exciting one: because the discovery of widespread trophic cascades, for example, has transformed our understanding of what the ecosystem is and what it could be; because there’s been a realisation that the ecosystems we’re studying are highly depleted ones, which have lost a lot of their dynamism and the means by which habitats were created, because when you lose your large keystone species, you lose a lot of the ecological function, and an ecosystem missing those large species behaves radically different to one that retains them.

So it transformed my understanding of ecology. That also happened as a result of reading a good deal of paleoecology to try to understand what we were looking at, and realising that even most professional ecologists seem to be woefully ignorant of paleoecology and what it tells us about the systems we were studying. But above all, what changed for me was that I saw that there was hope, and that’s been a rare commodity in my life and in that of anybody else who’s been involved in trying to protect the natural world.

SW: Indeed.

GM: And seeing the hope has enabled me to find my way through an issue that was becoming increasingly difficult to navigate, because everywhere you look the picture is such a dark one. But seeing that there’s a possibility of turning it round in quite a big way, that has reinvigorated me.

SW: Is this hope partly in the sense of seeing how quickly nature can recover when you allow it do do its own thing?

GM: It’s partly that and partly seeing that one of the strange impacts of globalisation is that the less fertile parts of the world become uncompetitive for agriculture, so that large areas become vacated by farmers available for rewilding. So we do have the potential to turn some very large areas of the world, particularly the industrialised world, back over to nature and to populate it with missing species.

SW: And of course that would be an end in itself, but also just being able to see small areas where you have that richness of biodiversity would then impact on what you talk about in the book, the ‘shifting baseline syndrome‘.

GM: Yes, that’s right, and in fact shifting baseline syndrome – the idea that what you experienced in your youth is the normal state of the ecosystem, and so conservation becomes an attempt to recreate the ecosystems that existed in your youth, oblivious to the fact that those ecosystems were themselves highly depleted – it’s that syndrome that is responsible for the dire state of conservation in this country. In some other parts of the world, too, but Britain is a particularly extreme case. There’s no other place on earth where conservationists are quite so frightened of nature, and where they try to such an extent to manage and suppress natural processes. There’s nowhere else where conservation so closely resembles a slightly modified form of farming, and that’s because conservationists, like everyone else, appear to be profoundly ignorant of what was here before farming, and what could be here without farming, so they focus on the species that have happened to survive 6,000 years of farming – which happen to be tough, weedy, rapidly reproducing, ‘R-selected’ rather than ‘K-selected’ in the jargon of ecologists, rather than the species that did live here and could live here again.

SW: It struck me, to be fair to some of these conservationists, that there’s a strong psychological reason when they talk about the dangers of undergrazing and so forth: there is a fairly messy phase that the ecology would need to go through before it became a rich, old growth forest, and that looks like stinging nettles or bracken, which to a lot of people elicits a reaction of: ‘Oh look, these weeds are coming here, this is a less beautiful landscape, this is less useful for the needs we wanted it for’. There’s a lack of faith and trust in the succession of species – that one stage needs to happen first and then the next colonisers will come and the next.

GM: Almost every stage is a stage of increasing richness over what was there before. Some of the upland sites are so impoverished, have so little life, that any recovery in terms of scrub, bracken, brambles, would actually mean an increase in biodiversity. It’s fascinating how almost every aspect of the discussion about what we’re trying to conserve and why has been completely distorted by our perceptions of the present overwhelming the past and the future.

For instance, conservationists will, with a straight face, assert that their grazed open grasslands are more biodiverse than woodland. You say ‘What do you mean?’ and they say ‘They’re more biodiverse’. And you ask which taxa they’re talking about and the answer is ‘flowers and butterflies’ – it’s always flowers and butterflies! So you say, ‘Yes, strange to relate, grasslands are more diverse in non-woodland species than woodlands are’. But they don’t see it, and they genuinely believe that more flowers and butterflies equals greater biodiversity in total, and ignore all the other taxa, whether they’re beetles, moths, spiders, mammals, birds, fungi… trees! – whatever they happen to be. All of those are ignored, because they only happen to see biodiversity in two groups.

SW: This is a really interesting issue in terms of people’s inability to understand ecological processes – and it’s an evolving subject now, as you say; we’re still continuing to understand how interdependent and how subtle the relations are, we’re understanding the microbiome of the soil in ways we didn’t understand before, or the ways that forest trees connect to each other through rhizome networks under the forest floor, and all this sort of thing – but it seems, in a sense, a subset of a bigger problem, which is that people have learnt to think in certain ‘civilised’ ways, such that they find it very hard to understand complex non-linear systems, like a diverse, rich ecosystem.

GM: Yes, and because of that failure to understand, we succumb to the self-attribution fallacy, which is, in this case, that human beings are necessary to protect the natural world, that it can’t survive without us; ‘How did nature cope before we came along?’, that’s the guiding principle, this belief that the natural world needs us and depends on us. And there’s a very strong human desire to be needed and to feel useful, and one of the reasons why it’s often hard to get through to the conservation groups I’m trying to reach is that they want to believe that all their efforts have been worth something; they want to believe that more needs to be done than taking down the fences, blocking up the drainage ditches, reintroducing missing species and then standing back. They want to be useful, and actually humans have been too useful; too useful for our own good and too useful for the natural world. It’s time we were less useful.

SW: It’s easy to understand, in a way, that people who perhaps grow up in the city, go out into the countryside we do have and find it’s nicer than living in a purely human-built urban environment, and they attach themselves to that particular idea of countryside, it’s imprinted on their minds, so any threat to that they will view as a bad thing, that it’s destroying something that is more natural than what they’re used to.

GM: I don’t see that as a difficult part of the struggle at all. What I’ve found is a very large number of people writing to me and saying ‘as soon as you explained that our bare hills are unnatural, and that they’re kept that way by heavy grazing by sheep, I’ve not been able to see them in the same light again, and I feel this burning urge to see them reforested.’ In fact, most people see it very quickly indeed.

The sticking point is this subsidised sheep-ranching, which is demanded by farmers, supported by government, by conservationists, by rural development agencies, by almost everyone who has a stake in the uplands of Britain, and that’s when it becomes very hard to challenge, because you’ve got two things you’re up against; one is the interests of the people who are keeping sheep there  – and the only reason any farming takes place on the uplands at all is because of public money, if it weren’t for subsidies it would all go tomorrow – and the other is that fact that so many of the agencies which should, perhaps, have a different view, are so deeply embedded in a system they cannot see their way out of.

There is this myth of undergrazing – if we don’t keep the sheep on the land the land will be undergrazed and then something awful will happen. Well, how can a native ecosystm be undergrazed by an invasive ruminant from Mesopotamia? So they’re locked into this mindset that is very hard to break. Now I’m not trying to get all the sheep off the hills at all, and I’m not even trying to get any of the farmers off the land, but I want the farmers to be doing something different, and I’ve suggested changes to the subsidy system that would enable that. But the reaction I’ve got has been extraordinary. The Farmers Union of Wales has literally been saying I’m trying to clear them off the land and into reservations like the Native Americans.

SW: Right, by giving them the option of not clearing their land, which they don’t currently have. I did like the Richard Scarry theory of why these lobbies have such disproportionate power [that people defer to any occupation that appeared in a children’s book they read when young] – I think it’s true. I think also, with farming and fishing, there’s an element where people understand what it is, and they feel that it is a more authentic form of employment than what they do, because most people in this economy shuffle abstractions around in an office all day.

GM: Yes, there is a cultural cringe towards people who make their living on the land or the sea, and it’s a cultural cringe that often allows us not to see that they’re making their living by smashing the natural world to pieces, and it allows us not to see that some of these people are some of the richest people in Britain, who have extremely cushy and cosseted lives, all paid for by taxpayers’ money, and that they sit behind a desk just as much as we do.

This cringe extends to the attribution to farmers of all sorts of qualities that they don’t necessarily possess. For example, they’ve been very successful in persuading us that they know more about the countryside than anyone else. I’ve got a friend who worked as a woodland oficer in Wales, trying to persuade farmers to protect their woodlands and to plant more, and he found that some of them literally couldn’t identify the trees on their land – they couldn’t identify an oak, a beech, an ash, they were profoundly ignorant of natural history, and they described woodland as rubbish: ‘We have to clear that rubbish away’. They may know a lot about sheep-farming, but some of them know almost nothing about the natural world. One of the things I’ve wanted to do is to strip away the mythology farmers have built around themsleves. They are a business like any other, and yet we treat them with extraordinary deference.

SW: Part of Dark Mountain’s interest in looking at the deep cultural stories we tell ourselves is precisely to try to dig down to the roots of this sort of thing. Why do we reify farmers in this way, why do farmers look at the countryside and want things to be in straight lines, and want to get rid of ‘the rubbish’ and make everything neat? These things come from somewhere, and there’s an argument to say that, if you go for the root, it may take longer but you’ll simultaneously start fixing lots of different problems.

The shifting baseline syndrome, for example, struck me as a useful concept that could be applied to many different areas; it’s true of the natural environment, it’s also true of our own lives. In the book you talk about the reduction of children’s ability to roam and the amount of outdoor time they have, but equally: there was an xkcd cartoon the other day which was basically just a collection of quotes from the last 200 years of people complaining about the pace of life and how people don’t take the time to write proper letters anymore because of this new-fangled telegraph. And obviously, the sting of the whole thing was supposed to be that these complaints are spurious and that actually everyone’s always been nostalgic and everyone’s always complained about this sort of thing. But I took exactly the opposite lesson from it; for me this was a graph of civilisation speeding up more and more and more, and people just forgetting what it was like before.

And we simply don’t know – oral interaction wasn’t recorded, so we don’t know what kind of conversations people had back then, we don’t know how slowly people talked. The closest we can come is trying to find hunter-gatherer tribes and looking at how they intereact, and a lot of people who do that come back and say it’s a completely different form of human interaction. You’ll ask someone a question and they will pause for a minute, waiting for the heartfelt answer to come out. Or, I read an account of a tribe on a South Pacific island somewhere, whose smile takes a minute – it spreads across the face ‘like the sun rising’ – and for Westerners who go there and experience that, they just melt. For someone to hold their attention on you and smile like that for a full minute is just overwhelming, they can’t take it; we don’t interact like that, and this whole wealth of possibilities is cut off from us precisely because of shifting baseline syndrome.

GM: Yes, it’s very true, and we forget so much. We have no intergenerational memory, and as a result we deprive ourselves of so many good things. Daniel Pauly also coined the term ‘Shifting waistline syndrome’ – he points out that a medium sized pair of trousers today is a lot bigger than they used to be, so we think we’re not getting any bigger but we are!

SW: You’ve been at pains to point out that you want to rewild the uplands but leave the lowlands for agricultural practice – albeit perhaps not as currently practiced, but generally. Do you think that kind of agriculture is sustainable?

GM: Well, it depends what you mean by sustainable, which is a term that has become almost meaningless. Can it be sustained? Probably, yes, if the phosphate doesn’t run out, which is probably a couple of hundred years off. But at great cost to the natural world, and already we see that cost in terms of the extraordinary losses of wildlife in almost every nation on earth, including our own. A remarkably rapid loss, such that even since my youth – which admittedly was quite a long time ago – there have been profound changes.

I remember when the riverbeds were so thick with eels migrating to the sea in the the autumn that they looked almost black, and now the european eel is a highly endangered species, there are very few of them left – it would have been inconceivable to me if someone has said that that would be the case. For some 10,000 years following the ice age there was this massive migration, and now it’s come to an end, just about. I remember on summer nights, the moths would pack the windows, so that you could scarcely see out, of all sort of colours and shapes and sizes, which was a wonderful adventure for a boy like me, just to log the species stuck to the window, trying to get in. Fields used to be covered in white mushrooms, all gone now, and that’s just in my lifetime.

And as I say, that was already a highly depleted ecosystem; but it’s been so radically depleted in that short amount of time, and largely by agriculture, so it’s plainly unsustainable in terms of maintaining even the barest scrapings of life. It might be sustainable in terms of preserving food production, but it depends where you are, we’re now seeing in the interior of the United States large areas rapidly becoming unsuitable for agriculture through a combination of climate change, aquifer depletion, and overuse of the soil.

SW: There’s a huge energy input into this kind of industrial agriculture as well. I think I read that in 1940 we got 2.5 calories out for every calorie we put into agriculture, and now we put 10 in for every 1 out, largely in the form of fossil fuel use. A lot of people point out that using small-scale organic farming, permaculture, forest gardening, ecoagriculture, you actually get much higher yields of food, and certainly if you start building soil fertility, you get far more nutritious and sturdy plants, which in turn can resist pests on their own far more effectively.

So it’s shifting baseline syndrome again – just as you talk about how the fish we’re used to buying today are tiny compared to what they were in the past – and we’ve forgotten that as well – so our attitude towards agriculture and the way it needs to be done is very much channeled by our experiences of depleted soils, of using monoculture, of continually fighting against nature’s attempts to push us towards a K-type ecosystem; which in this land is some kind of temperate forest. So the one thing stopping us actually growing much more food in a way that damages the environment much less, is the way in which our current economy demands that we have as few people working in agriculture as possible, so we can mechanise it and have big empty fields with no hedges that we can drive combines across.

GM: Well, I’m constantly struck by how little we get for our money. The EU is spending over 50 billion euros every year on supporting agriculture and all it’s really doing is supporting multi-millionaires who are buying racehorses and fine wines and Bentleys to drive about in, because they’re doing exactly the same things they would be doing except they’re being given a whole lot of free money on top of it. It’s remarkable that we can spend all this money and ask for nothing in return, or just some tiny little concessions on the environment, some of which actually do more harm than good.

Why can’t we say: ‘If you’re going to get this money, here is a radical change you’re going to make to how you farm’? If farmers want to farm without subsidy, that’s one thing, but if they’re going to farm with subsidies we should demand at the very least that they do so in ways that don’t destroy the hydrology, the soil, biodiversity. I see permaculture as being highly compatible with rewilding, actually: rewilding zones could be seen as the outer zone of permaculture, or permaculture as the inner zone of rewilding, and there are a lot of permaculturists who have said that.

SW: It’s fascinating how this idea reoccurs – that if we get out of nature’s way, things work better, and in this country, nature wants to become a forest, so if we stop trying to kill off the forest and grow what are essentially R-series weeds like wheat and other grain crops, then we will produce much more for much less effort.

GM: That has to be demonstrated. I don’t know if that’s always true; I would need to see some comparative figures. I’m sure that for some kinds of production it’s going to be true, I’m not sure if it’s true for all kinds. But certainly the current model of agriculture could not be more destructive or alienating, and could scarcely produce food of lower quality than it does at the moment.

SW: The cult of wheat would be a good thing to defeat on a number of different levels as well. We have an epidemic of people suffering from health problems because wheat itself was never a great choice – not to idealise hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but the fossil record is fairly straightforward – people were eating 200 different species of food and they suddenly go down to about 12 and they all drop a foot in height and half of them get rickets. And there’s the idea that – I think William Davies, who’s an American doctor who wrote a book called Wheat Belly, has gone into the most detail on this that I’m aware of, but there are plenty of other proponents of this view – that the wheat we have now is the dwarf wheat engineered in the ’60s and that it’s very different to the kind of wheat we had before; it has particularly inflammatory forms of gluten in it, it may be less nutritious, and in fact it’s more addictive because it binds to opiate receptors in the brain, which is why people have wheat cravings when they try to quit wheat, which is obviously on my mind because I’m trying not to eat the other half of that flapjack you offered me that’s still sitting there.

GM: Oh, sorry, I’ll get rid of it.

SW: That’s quite alright.

GM: I’ll put it on the table behind us. There you are, temptation gone. [Full disclosure: I ate the flapjack after George left.] Yes, I can’t say anything about that specifically, but certainly, the model is bust, and it’s being kept afloat by the peculiarities of the economy and by public money.

SW: Do you think these problems extend into science in general, and the way science is practiced?

GM: I think that’s too broad a generalisation.

SW: I’m all about the broad generalisations.

GM: Right. Well, I would say that there is some excellent science practiced across all disciplines, but there is also a thoughtless, narrow conception of what research comprises, which is damaging the wider scientific quest. So, for example, seeing how plant science departments over the last 20 years have been entirely taken over by molecular genetics work, partly because of the financial constraints to which universities are subject. So starting with the Research Assessment Exercise, which has now turned into the Research Excellence Framework, you are rewarded by the number of papers you publish and the kinds of journals in which they’re published, and this means that ecological work, for instance, tends to attract much less funding than gene sequencing. Gene sequencing is something you can do very quickly, and can knock off a paper very quickly indeed. Good ecological work can take years, and if you don’t produce many papers and they’re not in the highly ranked journals, then you’re penalised for that and that can sometimes militate against a broader view of science, which can be very damaging.

SW: I see some of these principles as being present across a lot of different disciplines. So for example, when we talk about the difficulty of understanding complex non-linear systems like ecologies, I see exactly the same thing happening in the health sciences. What’s happened is that more and more specialisation, which to an extent is inevitable – the more you learn about the human body, the less one individual can actually know all of it, and the more people are having to hive off into different silos – but there’s less and less scope for people to actually make interesting interpretations across those different silos. And partly this comes from my background – I’m an acupuncturist, amongst other things, so I’m very interested in the idea that you can approach health from the whole, and then work your way down to smaller components, rather than from the components up. But I see this a lot even in the more mainstream health sciences; that there are people, and they’re often quite senior people who have been in the sciences for a long time, fighting a kind of rearguard action for the ability of human beings to actually make some kind of scientific interpretation of the whole.

GM: There is a real problem – several real problems – with the extreme specialisation which research demands these days. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be specialisation, it is necessary if we’re going to get to grips with very complex problems, but one of them is that people lose sight of the context within which they’re working; which can be not just a scientific context, but also the political, economic, social context. Another is that we end up speaking mutually incomprehensible languages – the scientists say ‘take nothing on trust’, the motto of the Royal Society is ‘Nullius in verba’, ‘take no-one’s word for it’, but we have to; I’ve got a science degree, I’ve spent my career working on issues which are affected by science, I read peer-reviewed papers every week, and yet these days I find it almost impossible to understand much of the methodology or results of the papers I read.

I can understand the abstract, the introduction, I can understand the discussion and the conclusions, but the methodology and results might as well be written in Mandarin, because it’s too complex: it involves too great a mathematical knowledge, too great a specialist knowledge, too great an understanding of jargon and acronyms for the layman to understand it – and when I say the layman, I mean anyone, including scientists, who is not in that very specific discipline, or very specific part of the discipline. So you have to take people’s word for it, you have have to take it on trust – because you have no other means of assessing whether or not a hypothesis stands up, because you can’t judge for yourself whether the methodology is a sensible one, and whether the results actually stack up. It’s impossible to do so, no one has sufficient knowledge, so we’re taking stuff on trust all the time, and there’s a profound contradiction there which I see aired very little among scientists.

SW: I remember this happening with Michael Mann, and the infamous Hockey Stick graph, there was a Congressional Investigation into it, and you ended up having layer upon layer of experts pronouncing on the previous layer, culminating in rival Professors of Statistics arguing over what was good practice in the field; at that point no layperson is actually going to be able to make a judgement on it.

GM: No, and here there is a major democratic problem, because we simply cannot understand the means by which the world is understood, and we all have to rely on some form of interpretation. Now the interpretation can just be the discussion and conclusions of a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal, which is as close to reliability as you’re likely to get, but if you have the intellectual equipment, you would probably find that those discussion and conclusions weren’t accurately reflective of the methodology and results. So there’s a real problem there and it’s hard to see a way out of it. Specialisation is a curse – it’s a necessity in some respects, but it’s also a curse, and one of my strong concerns is that children specialise far too early; they have to make decisions between humanities and sciences, for instance, far too early. I would love to have continued to study humanities alongside biology in my degree, but if I wanted to study zoology, I had to study only zoology. I felt the loss very keenly at the time, and still feel it today – I felt I was cut out from a world of other wonders.

SW: It reminds me of Ted Hughes – he did the opposite. He started out studying English and then had a dream where there was a bleeding fox’s head, representing the soul of poetry or something, which said to him: ‘You’re killing us!’ So he switched to anthropology, so that he wasn’t exposing the soul of things to the academic process, where you have to do things on deadlines and analyse and write papers on them and so on.

GM: Interesting. I guess I did it for slightly different reasons. Given a choice, I was very keen to study English, and history, but I knew I could do that to some extent without help, whereas there was no way I could study zoology without help.

SW: Yes, this is, I think this is what Ludwig von Bertalanffy‘s wife said to him – he wasn’t sure whether to go for philosophy or biology – she said ‘do biology, because you can always do philosophy in your spare time, whereas if you do it the other way round you won’t know what’s going on’. Of course, if we were to extend the logic of rewilding – saying ‘nature knows what its doing, let’s interfere less’ – then we would probably try to rewild some of the schooling for children as well.

GM: Oh yes, I deplore the way that schools are being turned into sweatshops and I think, apart from anything else, it’s counter-educational. It teaches children nothing about life, gives them none of the equipment they need for life, to navigate the very compicated world we’re involved in, and it makes it very hard for them to discover the wonder and the joy and the enchantment in life. We’re returning to a Gradgrind system of education. The psychologist Aric Sigman wrote a paper which argues that the less time children spend in classrooms, the better they do in a number of key subjects – and that’s because, when you’re out in the woods, you’re having to use a whole lot of skills that are more or less dormant in the classroom: you’re having to work things out for yourself, you’re having to reason, to use spatial awareness, to find ways of describing things and engaging with things, there’s far more initiative required when you are in nature than when you are in an ordered, regulated environment, which has been health and safety tested and where everything is pinned down to the last letter of the national curriculum.

SW: There’s a guy called Thom Hartmann who theorises that ADHD is basically what happens when a child doesn’t respond well to the domestication process: everything that’s a problem in the classroom is actually a virtue out in the woods, so you have this constant scanning of the environment, you have a very quick, responsive mind, you tend to have good physical abilities…

GM: Yes, I’m sure that’s right. And our bodies are hideously neglected in school, there’s less and less school sport, but more importantly, there’s less and less outdoor education; just running around in the woods, really, is what I’d like to see children doing, it doesn’t need to be structured. Unstructured play in a structurally diverse natural environment is the best education a child could have, but they have less and less of it, and this is one reason why its possible for such great destruction to take place with so little protest, because people have no conception of what’s being lost.

SW: And I think, psychologically, it’s the same instrumentality that we’re learning: the same mindset that allows someone to think you can force a child to learn by chaining them to a desk, is the same thing that allows the police to think that that can just exploit women in order to gain intelligence, is the same thing that allows people to think its OK to destroy complex ecosystems in order to grow the plants you want where you want them.

GM: Yes, I think that’s right. What we’re taught is a very simplistic approach to getting what you want, through the lens of cost-benefit analysis, and that is one of the most destructive forces on earth.

SW: Do you ever feel a need to try to go towards the heart of these things, working on a more psychological level, or poetical level, if you prefer to look at it that way – rather than trying to fight these battles, over here is global justice, over here is the environment, and here is the party politics of the UK, which seems long way from functional engagement with those more important issues.

GM: Well, I would like to think that poetry and psychology infuse my work. I’m certainly very strongly influenced by poetry, I read a great deal of it, similarly by psychology and I don’t think either of them can be divorced from an attempt to engage with and understand the world and confront the forces that are destroying it. I think it’s a great mistake to imagine that you can do so solely through number crunching and logical analysis – they’re necessary, I’m not dismissing those, in fact they’re an essential component of it, and just as the quants, as Paul [Kingsnorth] calls them, are wrong to imagine that they can do without poetry, so the poets are wrong to imagine they can do without quantification. I believe we need both.

And I’m in a fortunate position that I have a science background but a lifelong love of literature and culture and the arts, and above all of nature, and that allows me to try to use all of those tools for understanding and for engagement. I don’t always get the balance right, I’m sure, but this takes me back to my point about the narrowness of schooling, and I do believe that the science is just as important as the poetry, and without that then you will only ever form a very crude and coarse appreciation of what the world is and what it could be.

SW: So where did this… ‘reforming zeal’ come from?

GM: Well, all of us are a package of childhood experience and adult understanding and my own childhood experiences were stark and fairly harsh. I went to a boarding school when I was very young, which I hated, and I suppose one of the things it gave me was a lifelong hatred of bullies, because I encountered a few, and fought with them. So one of my motivations is to understand bullying and to identify and expose it, because as a child you have a very strong sense of injustice, and that’s something I’ve tried very hard not to lose. At the same time, my childhood was filled with wonder and delight, partly because I threw so much of my energy and enthusiasm into the natural world and I spent every moment I could outside, exploring, learning about wildlife, chasing it around, getting up to my chest in pond water with a net and chasing after butterflies and watching birds and sitting out waiting for animals to emerge, and in that respect it was a childhood filled with enchantment, which is something I’ve sought to recreate. So there were the bad sides of it, which have encouraged me to fight, and the good sides of it, which have encouraged me to seek wonder wherever I go; and where wonder is not there, then I fight the system that deprives us of it. That’s the nearest I can get to it.

SW: Mm, it’s so important to keep that thread unbroken, isn’t it? On the one hand, schooling and education, and just learning to become an adult, takes you away from those experiences to an extent, but that’s how you learn the tools to actually go out and try to make a difference and get things done, that’s how you learn to write well, that’s how you learn to think logically and read scientific papers and do the things you need to do, but at the same time you need to keep that golden thread going back to the original experiences to remember why you’re doing it, and one day you wake up and say ‘I’m just going to give up’.

GM: Yes. I mean, we mustn’t be bound irrevocably to the negative experiences; it’s important to get past them – that’s where psychology becomes so critical – but in getting past them, not to forget them, and not to cease to understand, because that understanding is at the root of everything. I think child psychology, if we get that right for our children, then we set them up for a lifetime of happiness; if we get it wrong we set them up for a lifetime of misery, or potentially a lifetime of slowly working towards understanding and enlightenment, and sometimes childhood misery enhances the understanding and enlightenment, sometimes it impedes it, it depends what you do with it.

SW: I watched a documentary on Buck Brannaman – he’s one of the models for the Horse Whisperer in the novel, and he actually came and helped out when they made the movie. He’s an extraordinary man; he grew up in quite an abusive household, his father made him and his brother be child blindfold trick-ropers, they were quite famous, so they were pushed onto the national stage at a very young age. And especially after the mother died, his father was quite alcoholic and violent, and these scars obviously went very deep, but Buck fell in with someone who was training horses in a way he’d never seen before, and he took all those childhood experiences and turned them into empathy for the horse; and all of the violent, cruel ways of breaking horses that people do, he just threw them all away, and he gets the horse to cooperate by understanding it and working with it. It’s one of the most moving things I’ve seen in a long time, and it comes back to exactly what we’re discussing, in a way: he talks about the horse as a mirror for our own souls, and he gets quite emotional when people bring horses along who are damaged and abused to the point that they’re attacking people and they’re going to have to be put down. He says: ‘This is not the horse’s fault; humans failed this horse.’

I think you can extend that same logic out to the environment in general; the way we treat the hills of Wales is a mirror to us, and I wonder if part of the reason people have trouble confronting some of the issues you raise in Feral, and all of the other environmental issues, and indeed the same with how we raise and educate children, is it’s bringing up issues of their own that they need to deal with.

GM: Yes, of course, and that’s the same with any challenge you present to settled interests. I’d like to see that documentary – it’s another good example of how you can get things done without bullying, and one of my quests in life is to show how that is possible, how this system, which is basically a system of bullies, has led us into so many bad places, and how, by shedding that, we could lead ourselves into so many better ones. And I think it’s true to say there is a sense in which the land has been brutalised and abused, just as many people have been brutalised and abused and many animals have been brutalised and abused; and when you see the land flayed, deprived of its vegetation, the soil eroding away, the rivers going through a cycle of flood and drought, biodiversity almost gone, the hills silent, that is abuse and brutalisation; and the industries which we have come to accept as normal emerge, when you see it in that light, as industries that are pathological, they’re pathologically flawed, almost psychopathic in terms of their perpetual brutality and abusiveness. So yes, that’s not a bad way of looking at it.

Seeing Through a Glass Darkly

Those people were some kind of solution
— ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, CF Cavafy

I’m exploring a territory I have not stepped into before. Maybe none of us have yet. I am not sure if aesthetic is the right word for it, but it’s the one that comes to me as I begin a new role as the art editor for the next Dark Mountain collection, as the editorial crew sift through the material for a fifth volume in a fifth uncivilised year.

Images form an intrinsic part of the Dark Mountain anthologies – photographs, paintings, drawing and illustration appear in all of them. The books themselves are beautifully and deliberately constructed; handsome hardbacks with covers the colour of damsons and field maple leaves. A physical thing you wouldn’t want to throw away. But what about the look and feel of the Dark Mountain Project that extends beyond its text? Is there an aesthetic we share as writers and artists, makers and thinkers? And if so how can we best showcase it within the pages of a book?

Capitalism Hill by Lucca Benney from The Crisis of Civilisation

The team (that’s Paul Kingsnorth, Dougald Hine, Nick Hunt, Adrienne Odasso and myself) are now looking for new visual work for Dark Mountain 5 and 6, so this post is an invitation to contribute as well as an exploration. I wanted to talk about aesthetics in a wider context, because, even though I have long rejected the words that once earned me a good living in the city – style, design, fashion, taste – I know the look of things, their shape and form, are as important a part of a new narrative as words. The fact that civilisation holds us so tightly in its unkind embrace is not only because it controls what some call ‘industrialised storytelling’, but also because it manufactures the images that powerfully and unconsciously distract and misinform us, keep us endlessly looking at the shiny surfaces of what we feel is our cultural reality,

The Visitors by Rima Staines

I want to ask: what are the arts of uncivilisation? What happens outside the gallery and the multiplex, what are the barbarian images that might liberate our vision, that bring us home? If we live in a culture that is separated from and in control of what is seen, how can we make an unofficial art created within experience to include dimensions our ordinary attention might miss? Behavioural scientists observe that change happens slowly and deliberately over time but artists know it happens in a split second: a chink in the door, a wild unexpected moment that appears before you and for no reason you change lanes. A flash of quicksilver that can transform the dark materials of a whole culture.

When I walked through the trees at the Uncivilisation Festival past sticks arranged in a circle on the ground, people in animal masks, slates hanging from the boughs of a tree, I recognised something that made sense of a long journey I had once made.

A coyote on a television looking across a valley, a hare leaping inside a poem, Rima Staines’ Weed Wife covered in flowers on a sheet of oak, Dougie Strang’s Charnel House for Roadkill, like an archaic Tardis on the steps of the Glasgow Art Gallery.

Charnel House by Dougie Strang
Charnel House by Dougie Strang (left) door detail (right) underneath the arches

uncivilising the eye

I have to tell you a story about the journey. Because that’s where this exploration begins.

Late ’80s,walking down Bond Street, my eye is caught by a room full of vast chunks of stone and a pale suit hanging on the wall – an Anthony D’Offay exhibition of Joseph Beuys’ The End of the Twentieth Century. The stones are hewn from basalt, a stone that will form Beuys’ perhaps most famous work, the planting of 7,000 oaks in the city of Kassel in Germany. The suit is made of felt, the material the artist was wrapped in by nomads when his Luftwaffe plane crashed in the snowy wastes of Crimea. Felt and fat saved his life, but they also transformed his life. They became the materials that defined his art. On a video Beuys is telling the world: in the future everyman will be king.

I could say this was the moment I walked out of galleries and stopped writing copy about Bond Street. Because shortly afterwards I left the city whose high culture I had been steeped in for 35 years. The change happens quickly but it sometimes takes years to thrive in the world without those beautiful clever things that shielded and once defined you.

Cairn 1

Roland Barthes in his elegant deconstruction of the bourgeois mindset, Mythologies, laments how hard it is to forge a culture unbound from a market economy. He points to a painting of a Dutch interior where a wealthy burgher sits surrounded by his possessions. His library, bolts of cloths, furniture. Shipped from all round the world, the goods set a pattern for material desire that has become the stuff of Sunday colour supplements ever since.

This is the art of civilisation. Globalised goods, fetishisation, possession. This is mine, all mine! Houses, horses, naked women, rich and poor, the painter who paints the canvas and the canvas itself. And even when art has rebelled against the pattern in a hundred dexterous and avant-garde moves the painting (or sculpture, or drawing) is still possessed. It is still property, a commodity in the minds and hands of those who could buy it – once the Church and then the collector and the State museum.

Honeyscribe – lightbox installation by Amy Shelton

What do art and aesthetics look like within the frame of collapse? What does photography look like that is not alienated from its subject? How do we love the world in a time of extinction? I look at my own collapse in order to see what that might mean. Because although I was educated in the dominant culture, there were strains of an uncivilised aesthetic that ran counter to everything I was taught, flowing dangerously beneath the surface like the river Styx. I wrote about the one perfect gleaming designer chair but my eye was always caught by rougher stuff that felt it had content and not just form. Like a linguist in search of a lost language, I would sometimes stumble upon its broken vocabularly.

A circle of driftwood in Derek Jarman’s garden, a spiral of stones on a table at Kettles Yard, a path that led through the tundra, walked by Richard Long.

These were the creative salvage years in London where makers like Tom Binns conjured ‘unjewelry’ from keys he found in the Thames foreshore or seaglass from his native Donegal; where welders like Tom Dixon made furniture from scrap metal. Post-punk warehouse years before corporate style had taken hold, when the original cut of your coat, or tribal marking distinguished you. There were chinks everywhere if you looked.

One of those chinks I went through in Bond Street and found myself in Mexico. To liberate yourself from the mindset, you sometimes have to leave the city that bore you, or crash into another territory entirely.

Fish mural, Cayton Bay, Scarborough, by Phlegm

In Mexico I did not go to museums or churches. I watched market squares and mountains, the colours and the vernacular of places. Later I looked at plants and at dreams. For six years I stopped writing and taking photographs, took out a notebook and studied living forms and the shapes of my imagination. I was uncivilising my eyes: shifting my attention, away from an aesthetic moulded by the hard lines of Balenciaga and Mondrian and Diane Arbus. I learned not to be enticed by the siren images, the fairy world of haute couture and Hollywood.

I learned to wait in the long American afternoons, for the slow and deep and resonant thing to appear.

It was as if I had never paid attention before to the world. These glimpses became the main track: images that were archaic and aboriginal, that spoke of trees and elements and beasts and weather, that linked the people to the dreaming of the planet. The rough beauty of the woodcut, the mythic fairytale, rock and cave painting, the shapes that follow the contours of the earth. The art that invites us to engage and remember, rather than possess and to forget. To ask questions rather than feel superior with our great knowledge of paintings and history.

From them I learned that the ancestors do not look like the gods. That barbarians do not speak in perfect prose. All artists wait for Prometheus to arrive with his firebrand to lighten a darkened world.

Although I did not go to exhbitions in these years, I met artists. I met sculptors and painters who lived in Bogota and the Arizona desert. I met the Slovenian peformance artist, Marko Modic, on his way back north from Tierra del Fuego where he had travelled alone with a dog and a camera. Marko was an extreme caver and mountaineer and he brought that wildness and strangeness into every room he entered. And that’s when I realised that the buying and showing was not the true function of art. It was the practice of the artist themselves: their capacity to live against the grain, the shape they made, the line they took.

corn dolly
Corn dolly by Anne-Marie Culhane

From them I learned that the ancestors do not look like the gods. That barbarians do not speak in perfect prose. All artists wait for Prometheus to arrive with his firebrand to lighten a darkened world. The best of them know that time is a gift, not a curse, and that waiting is part of the art. That all paths lead inevitably away from Rome.

The artist is the one who can find the chink in the door and allow us to push it open. In a fixed and atrophied world they act as strange attractors bringing chaos and freedom and new life. Their work and their practice break dimensions in time and space, throw wild seeds into monocultures. In a disconnected world they bring connection. And sometimes they bring us back.

Following the track of the coyote

There is a moment of return and that too comes as a surprise.

I am in the Museum of East Anglian Life, at an event called What if . . . . the seas keep rising? As the director of nef and a woman advisor from Natural England talk about climate change and what this might mean to the marshlands and coastline of Suffolk, there is a photograph on the wall that has transfixed me.

It’s by the sculptor, Laurence Edwards. Two men with long poles are taking clay giants on a raft down the river Ore. These are the Creek Men, the beings of these waterlands that have emerged from the landscape, from the artist’s imagination and from his hands. I can’t stop looking at that image. Like an anchor among a babble of voices that I will not remember, it was an image of belonging that made sense of everything.

High Water Mark by Dan Grace & Laurence Lord (Book 2)

I realise now what grabbed me was something that Mexico taught me years ago. At some point the ancestors return and reclaim the earth. All civilisations which ignore their original blueprint live out the consequences of that defection. And whether you understand ‘the ancestors’ as the primordial forces that govern this planet, or a part of yourself that makes sense of everything, to which you are loyal in spite of your upbringing, they are always here: we just have to see and feel them. Make space for them in paper and stone, in a corner of our tidy lives.

In that journey I understood that artists are the ones that remember the tracks those ancestors made in the beginning. Those shapes and colours appear in dreams and on canvas, and artists follow them, in the cities and on the seashore, walking across the land, reminding all of us who watch them of the way back. And when the rational world seems to make less and less sense, becomes more and more incoherent, so it is that the artists come with their intelligence and their wit, their delicate brushstrokes, the rivermud under their fingernails, their mask and their surprise to push the door.

It is my hope as the new ‘curator’ of the Dark Mountain pages dedicated to visual content, that we will be able to publish some of those uncivilised shapes and colours, lines and images. We are now open for submsissions for original work (paintings, drawing, photography) for the next two volumes (Dark Mountain 5 and 6). We are also actively seeking to commission illustrators for some of the stories and poetry, as well as strong images from the four Uncivilisaition Festivals 2010-2013. Please look at the submission guidelines for details and send submissions to [email protected] Deadline is 6th January.

Poster for Dark Mountain 3 by Mattias Jones (designed Andy Garside)

Images and artists: Laurence Edwards with Creek Man, Butley Creek, Suffolk; Capitalism Hill by Lucca Benney for the documentary, Crisis of Civilisation; The Visitors by Rima Staines; Cayton Bay, Scarbourough by Phlegm; Corn dollies by Anne-Marie Culhane; Cairn by Andreas Kornevall (Book 4); Walk of Seven Cairns by Richard Long; High Water Mark by Dan Grace & Laurence Lord (Book 2); poster for Dark Mountain 3 launch – cover art by Matthias Jones, design by Andy Garside


Charlotte Du  Cann is a writer and editor and one of the core team behind The Dark Mountain Project.