The Vole from the Wood

It’s getting late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rising of the Waters

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

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

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

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

This is Worcester, where I was born:


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Long View

Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year, are stewards of nothing in the long run.

– Stephen Jay Gould

A childhood in the part of New Mexico where I grew up is marked more by what is not there than what is there. There is simply no place to go.

There are two seasons — hot and windy. There are no natural sources of water like rivers or lakes that draw you in with their gravity. Trees are few and far between. It makes sense, then, that there are few animals beyond a few birds and lizards. During my last visit, a thick malaise settled around me there, and I spent some time thinking about it. It occurred to me that should the grid go down, this town would no longer exist. Poof. In three days’ time, everyone would have to leave because there would simply be no way to continue without the trucks bringing supplies, electricity pumping water from aquifers deep in the ground, and gasoline enabling cars to get from one manmade object to another.

And yet, it wasn’t until I had been away for some time that I finally realised what it offered. What I saw as wasteland was actually the bed of an extinct ocean and barrier reef. Layers of sediment show signs of life with fossils bearing witness. Deposits of salt, potash, and gypsum are what remain of the shallow sea that once lapped ashore against the ancestors of today’s Rocky Mountains. There are places where erosion and tectonic uplift display the strata of millions of years of geologic development. A school field trip included a visit to an active archaeological dig where a mammoth’s remains were painstakingly revealed with small chisels, hammers, and brushes. Nearby, spearheads and stone tools were discovered dating to about 11,000 years ago.

This was a land of clues. As sure as I once stood there, staring up into a sky full of meteor showers, so had people before and so will they after I’m gone. Species once lived here that predate humans, and something we can’t fathom may replace us. For all of our science, religion, and philosophy, our origins remain mysterious, but our distant future appears to involve being engulfed by the very sun that nurtures us as it increases in size toward red giant status. That’s right. This planet we emerged from, that sustains us, and that we bellyache about destroying, will someday no longer exist.

As Stephen Jay Gould put it in his prologue to Bully for Brontosaurus:

[N]ature is so massively indifferent to us and our suffering. Perhaps this indifference, this majesty of years in uncaring billions (before we made a belated appearance), marks her true glory… she exists neither for nor because of us, and possesses a staying power that all our nuclear arsenals cannot threaten… We should be so powerful! Nothing within our power can come close to conditions and catastrophes that the earth has often passed through and beyond… We certainly cannot wipe out bacteria… I doubt that we can wreak much permanent havoc upon insects… [b]ut we can surely eliminate our fragile selves — and our well-buffered earth might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness.

That experiment in consciousness has an interesting side effect — the ego. By its very nature, ego isn’t good at seeing the big picture. It sees me, now. It calculates, second by second, what my needs and desires are to maintain a steady state of comfort. When that comfort is challenged, it rebels until comfort is again achieved. And on it goes.

Entering nature is a surefire way to invite the ego to loosen its grip. There’s the immediate experience — bird calls, wind through branches, waves on sand, the stillness of chilled air — but if we pay attention long enough, we begin to get a sense that its timeframe and its logic are different than ours:
The soil created from the decay of organic material and aided by organisms like worms and lichens;
The lack of corners;
The rocks and stones, their cleverly disguised impermanence. They haven’t always been in that place and they will be moved again or shattered;
Today’s ‘invasive species’ become tomorrow’s natives;
What we call erosion is really the birth of a mountain elsewhere.

This is why so much of the modern ‘Green’ movement misses the mark, our ego is superimposed on everything we see. We mistake our desires for Mother Nature’s, forgetting that she indeed has none. It’s all one big experiment, with no goals and few rules.

This is not a carte blanche to wreak havoc, and Gould agrees. I hope everyone is sufficiently depressed to know that there are beaches in the world where one must dig over six inches deep to find sand free of plastic particles — plastic that will outlive us all for generations to come. Yes, Earth can absorb what we throw at it, that does not mean we should abuse the privilege. We must all conduct ourselves as we see fit in our lifetimes, and what that looks like will vary from person to person. The ego may force a selfish perspective, but it also helps us navigate an increasingly complex and demanding culture. Its pattern-making behaviour helps maintain a sense of sanity in the chaos.

But we need a wider lens. One that considers all life and respects our interconnectedness, our shared origins. You, sitting there, are the product of an unbroken chain of reproduction stretching back to the first one-celled organisms on Earth — billions of years! All your ancestors survived long enough to ensure your existence.

What is there left to do when we zoom out and understand there is no such thing as a legacy, that nothing we create will ultimately survive (even the plastics will incinerate in the sun)? The problem is, our culture asks us to cover the sounds of our inner yearnings — for connection, joy, purpose, clarity — to participate in the spectacle around us. There’s evidence that the entities in charge of the maelstrom use these human desires against us for advertising, marketing, politics, and food processing. They set the standard, such that when one questions it, you find yourself outside it and defined by its terms.

So be it. We have our lifespan, however long or short that may be, this infinitesimal slice of timeline. And yet, it is all we have. What is of value, then? Because as sure as you read this, there will be a day when you can read nothing. And if we take deathbed confessionals as our guide, it’s easy to see that no-one regrets time spent with the people they care about or sharing stories, foraging for berries, dancing too much, laughing until it hurts, skinny dipping. So how is it that we get distracted from this?

It takes practice to stay here, in the charged moment. It takes experience to know when our attentions are being drawn away to an emotional dead-end, to that place where obligation, powerlessness, and depression reside. Replace it with purpose — this is a choice! Eventually, if you listen, you will notice it. Train your inner ear as delicately as you would listening for bird calls in the forest. In our recognition of that tipping point, we can begin to give it space, to relax around it, invite our peripheral vision for a larger view, expand. We can take our place in the immense timeline of Earth, with a wide open broken-heartedness at the fragility of it all. We can set celebratory fire to all the papers asking to be pushed across our desks, chanting to the night sky and its stars, our smoke signals for a new understanding. Yes. The journey of a billion years begins now.