In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell talks about the animal as teacher and guide. The ‘animal other’ – as co-existent, strange and intimate fellow-being – can behave as a kind of psychic impulse in mythopoetic work, capable of nudging reader and writer to contemplate the relationship between self and other, human and nonhuman. ‘Whatever the Palaeolithic shaman experienced on entering the caves, is visited by us today, nightly in our sleep,’ says Campbell. The almost 30,000-year-old panthers and bison, bears and ibex are still speaking down there, even though we’ve yet to work out exactly what it is they’re saying…
But it’s by day that birds come to me. As a poet, the animal other (more often than not a bird) performs as a kind of wayfarer on a journey into the dark forest of the 21st-century Western mind. I write ‘about’ birds because I’m not a bird. I write about them because I don’t understand them – their flying lives, their feathered lives – and, frankly, because I don’t have a say in the matter: birds arrive in my poems without my having consciously chosen them. In this era of endings, it seems only natural that they should speak of death and violence. But alongside this, they seem ‘to make visible that which could not be perceived by the ordinary senses, and [to] create a way into the realm of transfigured humanity.’ The animal other can open the doors of perception and invite readers and writers in.
Here are two poems by Susan Richardson (‘Metamorphosis’, Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, Cinnamon Press, 2007) and ‘Blodeuwedd in a Parka’, (Where the Air is Rarefied, Cinnamon Press, 2011); and two poems by me (‘Bird-Woman’, runner up in the 2013 Wigtown Poetry Competition, and ‘Swan’, previously unpublished). All four poems explore ways in which the animal other engages us in the age-old and more-relevant-than-ever conversation about what it means to be human, and what it means to be animal.
To begin with, nothing drastic.
The odd cold bath, air con on max,
the utter absence of shivers.
Then, the skin tingles, each pore forcing
the shaft of a feather forth, like a lid
with a push-through straw.
I go right off garlic, crisps, samosas,
bright red curtains, Gaughin prints.
If I must stay indoors, I want plain
white tiles, a single chilled porcelain sink.
And oh, the fingers. Useless, as if mittened.
And stretched, the tips skimming the floor.
Scissors, chopsticks, forks – all binned.
Breasts blend with belly, waist, hips.
I’m lugging a two-fifty-litre rucksack
in an outsize black wetsuit and wellies.
My tears taste of fish.
Fresh fears keep me from sleeping.
The flecked throats of bull seals.
Ice melt. Oil slicks.
I make a nest from the last
strands in my hairbrush and what I once
knew as pencils, and string.
Soon I must push
this hard new truth between my legs
and hatch it.
Nothing is yet in its true form – C.S. Lewis
The bird-woman is in the field
in her blue dress, small bird
wrapped in a rag of cotton in her hand,
legs like twigs, throat between songs.
The sunlight is squeezing her,
squeezing the field-grass
until her blue dress is a distant boat
and the field is the sea,
somewhere used to slipping boundaries.
Then two men, hands in pockets,
feet sinking into the grey-black of the road.
The sun is hot and high and they wade
into the field, lose themselves
to the waist in straight, green blades.
The bird-woman is scuffing the soft, loose earth,
making a bowl for the body.
She lays the bird
with its broken neck
and covers it with clover,
small red flowers,
When the men capsize her
the pleats of her dress unfurl.
The ground takes their weight.
To curl gracefully
away from people.
To know the silver-lining of the flood at night,
the hidden depths of fields.
To slake all honking at dawn
in a choir of ghost-birds and grass pipes.
To turn the whole world into a synecdoche
for soulfulness and/or indifference.
To have a neck like a Dutch pump,
an albino eel, a Little Miss Uppity.
To have a face like a flag
for someone else’s futility.
To live on white goods,
matchboxes, Valentine’s cards.
To swim stoically, insubordinately – yes, both –
towards the tossed crusts of kids.
To know nothing about bitterness
except sourgrass and apple pips.
To understand white noise
better than any human.
To snap fingers.
To gulp toddlers.
When the year turns she flies in,
lily white amongst the river reeds
and the boys knew to stay away,
her power neck, her mute beak.
The women pace the shore
from first light, feet like eyes,
but it’s dusk before they find them,
clothes torn, skin in tatters,
faces peeled like apples. The mother
only knows them by their hands.
BLODEUWEDD IN A PARKA
i am winterstill
a mountain aven
i am a flirt of white
in the cave of the raven
for the birthburst
of the sun
i am a tease
of roots nudging
the rocks trying
i’m a flutter
of eight lashes
round a yellow eye
at the sky as i seize
and now i am taken
by the shaman, xxxxxxxxxxmixed with milkvetch,
birch, moss campion
to make petalflesh
I am the wife of Ilukaq.
I stew berries and blubber for him to eat.
I chew sealskin to make soft boots for his feet.
With snow goose feathers, I sweep clean our home.
I carve him totems from the ice-bear’s thigh-bone.
I am another man’s lover,
a man whose touch uncovers xxxxxxxxxxxxxmy desire
like a caribou licking
up lichen from under the snow.
So what am I to do but harpoon Ilukaq,
leaving him frozen in the only pose he knows –
kissing the lip of the seal’s breathing hole and
xxxnow xxxxxxxi am xxsnatched xxxby the xxxxshaman
face xxxsmashedflat xxxxxxxxxxxxagainstx ice xxshoulderblades xxxscolded xxxxxxxxxxxxxinto wings xxtoes xxxcrooked xxxxxxxxinto claws xxvoice xxxxxxxxscraped xxxxxxhoarse
i hunt rodent dreams, xxxxxxxxplunder the tundra,
feed them to children, xxxxxxxxstoke their troubled sleep
i am the famine-owl, xxxxxxxxa hunger-howl –
the weeping of the people xxxxxxxxis steepled on my wings
i’m the mood-most-foul xxxxxxxxof those who fail to claim
the Pole – i’m so mad xxxxxxxxi could wring my own neck
i am the sadness xxxxxxxxof the melt –
my featherflecks reflect the eruptions xxxxxxxxof rock through ice
when i shut xxxxxxxxmy sundog eyes
i’m shocked to realise xxxxxxxxthat i’m still here
WRITING ROOT & CLAW: a workshop with Susan Richardson and Em Strang
Both write work that is set against the backdrop/foreground of ecological crisis and an awareness of the unravelling of ‘civilisation as we know it’. The workshop won’t engage formally with questions of collapse, but will ask questions about self and other – about the relationship between humans and nonhuman species; about ‘radical intimates’ and ‘strange strangers’ (Timothy Morton). The weekend will be a kind of ecopoetic meditation whereby we don’t just sit inside thinking and writing, but we also walk outdoors, talk round bonfires and scribble notes on the backs of our hands. For more information please visit: http://emstrang.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/writing-root-claw-a-weekend-workshop/
I hauled up the anchor hand over hand, enjoying how it stretched my muscles and got my body moving. Then I carefully followed the leading line out of the harbour, keeping the two white beacons in line astern and passing very close to the reef on the westward side of the entrance. After the winds of the night before, a moderate swell was rolling in, and the sea surged up and down the rocks as Coral passed close by. As she rose on each wave I felt as though I was actually looking down at the water sucking around the rocks, barnacles clinging to their wet surface. Each time the solid water of a wave retreated, I watched the white foam hang in the jagged rocky crevasses, then fall back in tiny glistening waterfalls to join the sea again. In much more of a swell the entrance would be dangerous.
Once well clear of the hazards I turned west toward Bolus Head. Although still no wind, the sky was clearing from the west. I had a moment to look around me at the coast to the north stretching westward from Derrynane to Hogs Head, backed by a row of mountains. Halfway up the slope I noticed a row of houses marking a straight dividing line. Above them rose the rocky, uncultivated land of the mountain, steep, rough, patchy brown. Below, stone walls criss-crossed fields dropping gently to the low cliffs at the edge of the sea. Further along on Hogs Head, sunlight fell more strongly on another cluster of houses nestled in a hollow in the hillside, picking them out bright against dull browny-green fields. The fields themselves were strewn with boulders. This land is beautiful, but it must have been really tough work to make a living from farming it.
As we left the shelter of Hogs Head to cross the entrance to Ballinskelligs Bay the wind arrived, from the northeast as expected and across the beam, filling the sails for a reach toward Bolus Head. I could now see clearly in all directions, back up the Kenmare River, south to Dursey Head, and west to the Skelligs in the far distance. It was a beautiful morning. Coral bubbled along through the water happily, which made me happy too: my early grumpiness and yesterday’s homesickness dropped away with the sea and the sailing. For a moment I was tempted to carry on this fast reach right out to the Skelligs, but decided to stick to my plan and continue northwards.
Bolus Head itself loomed ahead on the starboard bow. The pilot book warned me that the cliffs between Derrynane and Dingle Bay are high and spectacular, but I was taken aback, not expecting to see such an enormous bulk of rock towering above me. Bolus is another eroded fold in the geological strata: the rockface on the eastern face, toward the morning sun, rises from the sea in vertical flat planes, as if carefully split; the end of the head facing the ocean is rough hewn where the sea has broken the rock away. Even though I kept a good distance off, we passed into the windshadow of the headland and Coral’s speed dropped back. Slowly rounding the head, we ventured out into the Atlantic proper and into the ocean swell that rolled around Bolus toward us. It was only a moderate swell, but as each wave approached, higher, it seemed, than Coral’s mast, it blocked off the view. Its peak became the visible horizon: I could see nothing but the water in front and the mass of the cliff above. Coral lifted her bows, rose up the slope of the wave, and for a moment we were on top of the world. I could see clearly in all directions. And then we disappeared again, down the back slope of the swell and deeply into the trough, the wider world hidden from us again.
There was nothing dangerous about this swell. The water was not rough, the waves not breaking. But quite suddenly I felt overwhelmed: the headland, the swell, the sky above were all so massive. How tiny we were, little Coral and me, in these rolling waves and this mass of headland. I had been chatting into my audio recorder to make notes about what I could see, but I was silenced by this awesome contrast of size.
And within seconds, I spotted a bird in the water ahead, just a dot at first, then I saw its strange coloured beak and I realized it was my first puffin. I sang out to myself like a five-year-old, ‘It’s a puffin, it’s a puffin!’ I had never been in puffin-inhabited seas this early in the year when they come from the ocean to nest. I was overawed and overexcited at the same time and had to calm myself down to attend to my navigation.
The koan ‘Wilderness treats me like a human being’, which I was holding through the voyage, unfolded here in another dimension. The headland and the rolling swell put me firmly in my inconsequential place; the puffin gave me a child-like thrill. With skill and experience, information and the right equipment, I could safely navigate this hugeness, make sense of it, appreciate its loveliness, delight in and feel humbled by it.
At this moment I experienced Bolus Head and the Atlantic swell not as things in the world, but as presences with which I was required to negotiate. The world around me took on a subjective presence. And I thought of Coral and myself as ‘we’, for now she was not just a machine for navigating the seas, more a companion in my adventures.
The modern worldview, based as it is on materialist assumptions and scientific method, would tell me that this is a romantic conceit. The objects of nature are composed of inert matter, operating according to causal laws. The idea that a cliff, a headland, has presence, in the sense of any meaning for itself, is inconceivable. The notion that Coral is any more than a machine assembled by human ingenuity, useful and effective for my purposes, is anthropomorphism of the most foolish kind.
But philosopher Mary Midgley tells us that worldviews are not just abstract philosophical positions; they are guiding myths and imaginative visions. They deeply influence our sense of who we are, our place in the world, what kind of universe we live in and what is ultimately important to us. They are the stories we tell about ourselves and our world which are embedded in everyday assumptions and language. If we consider the material parts of the planet to be brute things, even ‘natural resources’ – as we do – it is difficult or impossible see that same material either as interacting in a larger ecological system, or as part of a sacred planet.
About ten years ago, I visited Thomas Berry at his home in the Southern Appalachians. Thomas was a Catholic priest and monk in the Passionist order who called himself a geologian or ‘Earth scholar’. I count him among my greatest intellectual and spiritual teachers, although I only met him personally this once. He died in 2010 aged 94. I had flown down from New York to interview him and write an article about his new book, The Great Work. In this he emphasised that the task of our time, to which all humans are called in some way, is to restore the balance in human-Earth relations and heal the devastating impact of human activities on planetary ecosystems.
Thomas explained to me that it is a mistake to see the universe as a collection of objects. Rather, mind and matter are two aspects of a single reality. The universe as a whole, with its immense diversity, has both an inner, spiritual or subjective dimension – a being for itself – and an outer, physical dimension. There is a spiritual capacity in carbon just as carbon is implicit in our highest spiritual experience. The inner dimension provides the capacity for self-organisation and self-transformation that drives the evolutionary process of the universe. This is expressed in its outer being through the matter and energy of which it is composed. These two dimensions are like two sides of the same coin, different but inseparable. I had read Thomas’ assertion that ‘the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects’ many times before. His view was that this must be the starting point for our understanding of all things, and the only place from which we can act if we are to contribute to what he calls the Great Work. But listening to him now, I was touched more deeply with the idea that the universe and the Earth should be understood as sacred communities.
Thomas felt strongly that all understanding begins with story, and that modern Western humans lack an adequate story of who we are, where we came from and what our purpose is. He went on to tell me how the understanding of the universe that arises from recent cosmological discoveries offers a new story of human origination, a story with the potential to give meaning to our lives. This is not the story of a static thing, but of a great evolutionary, self-organising and self-transforming process of which everything is a part. As Thomas’ colleague, the cosmologist Brian Swimme, puts it, ‘you take hydrogen gas and you leave it alone and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes and humans.’ It is a story in which great transitions occur that are irreversible: the original flaring forth in the ‘big bang’, the clustering of the first galaxies, the creation of heavy elements in the explosions of the first supernovae, the formation of the sun, the solar system, the Earth itself and the emergence of life. These are all moments of grace through which the universe articulates itself in more and more diverse and complex forms, and from which sentience in plants and animals and eventually human consciousness emerge.
This new story shows us that we humans, with our particular intelligent, emotional and imaginative capacities, reflect one of the deepest dimensions of the universe. It is a story that is both profoundly scientific, drawing on and emphasizing evolutionary cosmology; and at the same time profoundly spiritual, showing how our understanding will be distorted if we only see the world in its external, objective aspect. The universe, Thomas explained, is the only self-referential being: everything else originates in, refers back to and is part of it. The story of the universe is the story of which we are all a part and which every being tells in its own way.
Philosophically, this is a ‘panpsychic’ perspective, one that embraces the view that all matter has inner ‘psychic’, ‘subjective’ or ‘experiential’ qualities. While the panpsychic perspective contradicts many modernist assumptions about the nature of the world, it actually forms a strong thread through Western philosophy connecting Plato through the Renaissance to the present day. Yet it remains difficult to find appropriate words for this sense of the presence of the world. Words like ‘subjective’ or ‘psychic’ or ‘spiritual’, are contaminated by the dominant materialist perspective when applied to the physical world. One might borrow words from other traditions, and call it Tao, or Atman, or Great Spirit, but this may not offer any clarity and distort the meaning of these words in their original discourses. Or one might follow the philosopher Spinoza – who is often described as the originator of modern panpsychism – and simply call it God, seeing God as synonymous with Nature. But the word God carries with it such strange baggage that is likely to lead to yet another set of misunderstandings. I am inclined to follow my ecologist friend Stephan Harding and adopt the ancient term anima mundi, literally the ‘soul of the world’ that permeates the cosmos and animates all matter. Anima mundi is not associated with modern meanings of subjectivity, sentience or consciousness, and points to a mysterious and indefinable aliveness permeating everything.
Sailing Coral past Bolus Head I remembered my conversation with Thomas and resisted all those internal voices telling me it was foolishness to see anything other than material objects in these rocks and waves. If, for just a precious moment, the headland and the swell appeared to me as presence, I chose not to dismiss this out of hand. I allowed myself to experience a strange communion with the world, and to feel the immediacy of – indeed, participation with – anima mundi.
Backpacking in the Marble Mountain Wilderness of California last summer I had a revelation. I stood looking up at a glowing, ancient peak over a small, clear lake a dozen miles from any road with no sign of any human presence but my campsite anywhere in view. And for the first time in such a situation I seemed to feel the contingent, circumscribed nature of the place I was in compared to the vastness of the human-built and intervened-with world that bounded it on all sides. I also understood that its official designation, ‘wilderness area’, was an unredeemable oxymoron. I knew that I was in a park, not the wild. Even more: I knew that wilderness in any meaningful sense no longer existed anywhere on earth. In that moment, at that place, I had cognitively entered what scientists have named the Anthropocene.
The end of the wild as a separate thing, a thing that surrounded civilisation and was never fully penetrable by it, always a threat to its sense of order, to its sense of power – that end was not near; it had come. I was living in it. Now, here and anywhere on the planet’s surface, it was the wild places that were surrounded, besieged. When, ever before in history, had mountains or forests been called ‘fragile’? Our so-called wilderness areas were bounded and gated off, but they were utterly porous too.
Legions of backpackers (sustained, as I was, by factory-made gear and industrial food grown and packaged by somebody else) marched up the Pacific Crest Trail every year through this one, making the trail a dust-stream an inch thick. Planes flew overhead almost hourly. Cattle and sheep grazed at the verges, and frequently managed to stray inside. Firefighting crews helicoptered over or plunged in to fight ever more-frequent wildfires. Cellphone signals were retrievable from all the high places; GPS coordinates had mapped every square foot. And principally, and likewise invisibly, as Bill McKibben had written decades before in The End of Nature – the effects of civilisation were warming the air, drying out the summers, seeping into every molecule of the wild. No atom of ‘wilderness’ on land, sea or air was untouched by civilisation any more.
But then again, the existence of the wild as a separate thing was itself historical. Before civilisations began to emerge it wasn’t a separate thing; it was our home. Once they had emerged, they rose and fell, and the wild returned where the cities fell, even if it was a desert wild, no longer a forest or a marsh. The people who continued to live closest to the unbuilt (I use this term for lack of a better one to replace ‘natural’, which has fatally slippery definition problems) ecosystems on which they depended directly for survival had no concept of wilderness.
Wilderness was never an intrinsic condition; it was a concept that depended for its existence on its opposite, civilisation. It was always the construct of a worldview whose mechanism for understanding and operating on the world was essentially binary. Environmental historian William Cronon, writing about the peculiar history of US wilderness areas says unequivocally: ‘There is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness.’
So what has died in my generation is not ‘wilderness’, because it never existed. What has died is an idea that fired human hearts and minds, and survived many efforts to eradicate it until, pummelled under the unprecedented onslaught of the Industrial/Information Age, it finally gave way almost everywhere: that there was a sustaining and necessary mystery to the living, unbuilt world that humans could never penetrate, even though we were inextricably interwoven with it. The world was alive, at every level, as we were alive, but infinitely more powerful and wise than we.
This mystery may have had many elements that were malign and frightening, but in its essence it was benign. If it bore any likeness to our species here below, it was that it was in some fundamental sense maternal. But even more profoundly it was harmonic and indestructible.
It was a mystery that we simplified rather hopelessly by attributing early on to humanlike gods, and then degraded utterly by projecting into a lone male anthropic God. One who instructed his followers that the world was entirely disposable, a kind of temporary horror that would be cast off like a foul skin. We were thus ordered not to love the fascinating, complex, endlessly creative place that birthed us.
It was a mystery that we degraded as much by scientific hubris, sadly, as by our intolerant and hierarchical religions. Where the unbuilt world is concerned, science tends to proceed in the way Rupert Sheldrake (a much-vilified biologist who dares to propose that there may actually be a kind of sympathetic purpose in nature, and we might even be able to determine this by experiment) describes as ‘burning down a building and sifting through the ashes to try to understand the architecture.’
The cosmos limned by ultra-materialist Western science is almost entirely made up of dead stuff acting mechanically according to unchanging (if elegantly complex) formulae. Life is a rare freak of chance and has no ultimate purpose beyond replication. Humans alone are self-conscious beings and even our consciousness is theoretically reducible to mechanical processes. Life may be fascinating in its potential for variety, but except for its origin, which remains irritatingly elusive, it possesses no real mystery. It is defined chiefly by the presence of a fully identified set of molecules that can be rearranged in ways that we design for ourselves. All matter, organic or inorganic, can be further reduced to particles that when split open release an energy that is instantly and enduringly deadly to all life – this is the single most powerful force our science has unlocked.
And finally, anything that happens inside your head – all that wild feeling: longing, sadness, joy, compassion, desire, thought of any kind except mathematical – is totally irrelevant to a real understanding of the deepest forces at work around you.
There is no ‘end of nature’ to fear, no end of the ‘wild’. There is only the loss of our own vividness and dignity, and the rich and complex identity that could come from an understanding of kinship with many other living things
But what is it that has truly been degraded by banishing the overarching mystery of a living cosmos? Not the unbuilt world as such, because the cosmos, which we have neither created nor can destroy (whatever it is actually made of), has functionally infinite spans of time and space to play in, to create new, rich, unimaginable environments, and let them grow and decay and seed new ones. Not the wild of this planet either, because, as I say, it never existed, except in the minds of the civilised. What is left?
Only ourselves. In the name of mastery over the living world, we have degraded ourselves, and the species whose fates are most closely tied to our own. All civilisations created hierarchies that relegated some living beings – humans, animals and plants – to the status of objects: possessions, slaves. Now we are trying to do the same even with their constituent molecules.
If the experience of human chattel slavery has anything to teach, it should be that being a slave owner is even more degrading than being a slave. In any morality worth the name, no one would be more degraded, because no one has reduced the potentialities of our species and its consciousness more than the perpetrator of oppression.
But what enables slavery and oppression? The ability to conceive of other living things as if they were essentially dead matter. And this is what all of us have learned to do.
People pay for what they do, said the great James Baldwin, and they do so very simply – by the lives they lead. If we create horror for others, we then live for the rest of our lives in the emptiness of the horror we’ve created, the impossibility of meaning, of belonging, of full consciousness. The bizarre documentary film The Act of Killing(2012) demonstrated this by focusing on the Indonesian perpetrators of mass murder, who live in absolute impunity decades after the killing time, the seeming beneficiaries of their actions.
The killers have become creepy comic book versions of human beings, affable but empty automatons. They are like zombies, eating the substance of life out of compulsion and habit, walled off from their own consciousnesses, unable ever to be fully alive again. It’s not an adequate punishment because it hasn’t allowed their surviving victims, or the families of the dead, any redress, any chance to confront their horror and have it consoled and the conditions that permitted it eliminated or even diminished. That would be the only justice. But the perpetrators’ self-created hell is still of vital concern.
This is because while the perpetrators are extreme cases, we products of civilisation are all on the continuum. Ours is a civilisation that metaphorically and literally eats its own, even as we project the horror of cannibalism into all our mythology. Witness one of the greatest of the European humanist writers, Michel de Montaigne. His musings never complacently come to rest in stark binaries – he invented the essay form as a vehicle for his iconoclastic thought. He understood four centuries ago that people who actually ate real human flesh were very likely less dangerous and degraded than those who professed a horror of the practice, while following a belief system that institutionalised intra-species predation through enormous imbalances of power. The self-described civilised imbued some humans with an absolute authority over others, while turning their enemies into sub-humans instead of honouring their shared humanity as the ‘real’ cannibals did.
In the contemporary world, Montaigne’s nuanced understanding remains apt – and just as irrelevant to mainstream discourse as it was in his own day.
As the last areas from which civilisation had earlier withdrawn or failed to penetrate fully come under another period of siege – and this time, for the first time, everywhere on the planet at once – the indigenous peoples still living in them have become visible to ‘civilised’ peoples once again. Civilised peoples generally divide into two camps on indigenous peoples: the first, that they should adapt to our civilisation and give up tribal life because civilisation is an advance on the way they live, so it would vindicate our faith in the rightness (or at least the necessity) of our way of life. The second: they should stay where they are and retain all their ancient behaviours because by doing so they help us feel better about who we are – we can accommodate ‘diversity’, we are liberal and tolerant, we don’t have to destroy or consume everything to live well ourselves – and also because they will thus accomplish what we have failed to do: protect large swaths of ‘the wild’ from civilisation, from us. Neither one of these mindsets actually has much if anything to do with indigenous peoples themselves. They are not equally and fully real to either mindset; they are simply a metaphor for the empty place in our psyche, and the way we try to fill it.
Those who desperately want a token number of indigenous people to remain in small, bounded reserves safe from rapacious extraction – just as other charismatic megafauna remain in safari parks – so that we can enjoy their lives aesthetically, so that the civilisation from which we benefit can redeem itself, are still on the same continuum as the civilisers, just as the vacant-eyed consumers are on the same continuum as the perpetrators of mass murder. They are still trapped in non-sequiturish thinking, in a false consciousness that requires massive suppression of all that has been and is being sacrificed – in their own bodies and minds as well as elsewhere – in order for civilisation to be maintained.
Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of The Act of Killing, made this explicit in an interview responding to a question about how the perpetrators realised but suppressed their culpability ‘in the same way I realise that the shirt I’m wearing was made in Bangladesh, and the people who made it may well now be buried in a pile of rubble. Thanks to that I can buy the shirt for six dollars.’
The extraction must be slowed and ultimately stopped – whether it’s on the land of the Inuit, a colonial African farm, or in a Texas exurb – and the oppression abolished because we realise they are undermining the aliveness of our life, all our lives. Unless that collective realisation dawns, they won’t be stopped except by a colossal failure from which the species will learn nothing, because this civilisation’s lessons will not be transmitted to the next to arise.
And because of the void in our psyches where a sense of transcendent mystery, purpose and belonging longs to be, made permanent by our radical dissociation first from our unbuilt habitat and now, more and more completely, from one another—we are all struggling psychically to experience life, rather than simply being fully alive. We keep trying to ingest experience – or more frequently, technologically enabled imitations of it – in whatever form we can to fill the emptiness. Or simply out of habit, which our own best musicians, artists and writers still try valiantly to shake themselves, and us, out of. And at which even they can only succeed momentarily.
Only a social system that does not rely on false consciousness to maintain itself could provide a more durable and complete identity for us. The empty place in our psyches is permanent as long as this civilisation lasts, and superfluous consumption of various kinds is an attempt to fill, and when that inevitably fails, wall it up, bound it and make that menacing emptiness as irrelevant as we have made the threat of the wild.
In other words: we feared the wild, we neutralised the wild, and now we have to neutralise the psychic consequences we have wrought upon ourselves in doing so.
We are not condemned to this situation by any external fate, by gods or genes. We are condemned by the daily choices of the powerful to whom we submit, and our own collaboration with them, to hunt for solutions to the problems our civilisation creates, which then generate more problems, for which we then produce even less adequate and enduring solutions. If that isn’t the epitome of the ‘progress traps’ social critic Ronald Wright has attributed to the decline of previous civilisations, you tell me what is.
I have said the broadly collective idea of living nature as both mysterious and purposeful has died, and my generation is living in its aftermath. But such understandings, unlike individual humans or societies, can be resurrected if the material conditions of human life allow them growing space in our psyches. Just as ecosystems rebound with surprising facility when civilisations retreat from them.
In 1983, David Rains Wallace wrote a book called The Klamath Knot, describing various aspects of the regional ecosystem in which the Marble Mountain Wilderness is located. He described the large-scale interventions of mining and logging in the 19th century, which reshaped whole features of the landscape with axes, poisons, furnaces, and dynamite. That landscape reconfigured itself yet again after they retreated, so that hunting for evidence of their presence now is almost like hunting for geological fossils.
He also gave a kind of evolutionary history of the region’s geology, flora, fauna, and water systems that was full of the sense of time as the prime mover, the one force sine qua non for the true expression of life. His evolutionary perspective was sanguine. Its surprising conclusion: the real lesson of geological spans of time is that overall, living things are more durable, more resilient than non-living things.
It seems that this is because the relationship to time itself is different. Living things are more flexible, more creative, more capable of a variety of approaches to the problem of existence – and with quantities of time they can produce true novelty, while non-livings things are condemned to a much narrower spectrum of behaviour and incapable of adaptation to, or creating, a changed environment in the same way. Wallace gave the example of blue-green algae, possibly a progenitor species of much of the living world. It is still proliferous in the region’s lakes, and has been in existence far, far longer than any of the peaks that shadow those lakes.
Contemporary civilisation’s idea that machines and mechanical processes are more durable than living things and represent desirable enhancements upon life and even a kind of next-phase triumph over the living world comes to seem particularly shortsighted – in fact retrogressive, in this light.
Montaigne claimed at the outset that his writing was only an effort to understand and present himself. (And so he has been touted as a seminal figure in the Rise of the Individual – Western civilisation’s ghost god, its necessary pillar of consumerism, but in reality more like the villages it keeps ‘[destroying] in order to save.’) But when you read the essays he slyly warns the reader not to waste her time upon, you find that self often engaged in a subtle and thorough critique of the brutally violent, hierarchical, and hypocritical society from which he had withdrawn to write.
And what does he offer, not as its binary opposite but as the exemplary, ineradicable, fundamental mystery that continues to offer it guidance and wisdom? Nature, conceived as something pre-existing and at the same time innate in humans and non-humans both. ‘Nature always gives us happier laws than those we give ourselves.’
Still, Montaigne offers no general prescriptions; he only provides the example of trying to see life more fully for its own sake, because he finds it necessary to do so. He finds no collective identity within civilisation that is not in some way toxic or built on air. He has come to a place I find myself familiar with.
It made me see the need to begin to look at things again, from a simpler place: What behaviours still make us humans lively, vivid, in the truest sense of those words? I found myself noticing people interact in ways that weren’t mediated by much if any technology – talking on park benches, in cafes, or on street corners, doing voluntary manual work together in living places like parks or gardens, or simply, quietly, observing the unbuilt living world wherever it could be found. It seems obvious: to be fully alive you have to interact directly, respectfully and in physical proximity with a variety of other fully living things as much as possible. There is no substitute.
There is no ‘end of nature’ to fear, no end of the ‘wild’. There is only the loss of our own vividness and dignity, and the rich and complex identity that could come from an understanding of kinship with many other living things and the benign mystery that connects and sustains all. That vividness is still accessible to us, even if it seems ghostly in the glare of screens or like a bad joke in the lives of the enslaved, hungry and impoverished. It continues to slip the bonds of all our attempts to neutralise it. And if it really is cosmological in nature, as other humans have guessed, it will always do so, until we learn from it or fade before it.
For now it waits, a possibility, in the immanence of any day in any place where you can lift your eyes from the glow of the screen or the darkness of an interior space and find it inherent in sunlight on leaves, a bird settling on a wall, a fearless and face-to-face conversation with a stranger or a loved one.
That is not enough. But that is what we have to work with now, we the civilised. The emptiness at the heart of civilisation will never be perfect, and that is our chance.
A student came to a Zen master, and said, ‘I am seeking the truth. What state of mind should I train myself to have, so as to find it?’
The master said, ‘There is no mind, so you cannot put it in any state. There is no truth, so you cannot train yourself for it.’
‘If there is no mind to train, and no truth to find, why do you have these monks gather before you everyday to study Zen and train themselves for this study?’
‘I haven’t an inch of room here,’ said the master, ‘so how could the monks possibly gather? I have no tongue, so how on earth could I call them together or teach them?’
‘How can you lie like this?’ asked the student, outraged.
‘If I have no tongue to talk to others, how can I lie to you?’ asked the master.
The student said sadly, ‘I cannot follow you. I cannot understand you.’
‘I cannot understand myself,’ said the master.
There are four life stages in the Vedic ashram system. The first is Brahmacharya, the stage of dedication to the great quest – to realize Brahman in oneself. It is entered into by bright-eyed youths and entered or re-entered by repentant, cloudy-eyed dissipates. Its music is that of sometimes quiet, sometimes exultant consecration. Then there is Grihashtha – the stage of settling down. Wives and mortgages are acquired, children are born, cars are polished, lawns are mown, businesses grow, fortunes are made. Then, when the children fly the nest, the wives sag, and the machinations of the firm become unbearably grey, there is Vanaprastha.
The Hindu goes into the forest, and begins to prise from his soul the deadly things that have stuck to it over the years of domesticity. He pays off his debtors, and tries to pay off the demons too. He has been dying since he was born, and now is the time to do something about it. The house is sold; the business is given to the sons. He takes with him into the forest only the sacred fire, the cultic implements and, optionally and unusually, his wife. He lives off wild food; his hair and nails go uncut; his capacity for delusion is gradually ground down by austerity and meditation. Eventually he may see clearly enough to go into the final stage – Sannyasa. Then he will wander alone through India, begging. The ties with the old life and the old self will have been severed; he will be teetering on the edge of enlightenment, or living in it. He will know his place in the mind of Brahman, or at least where his place is not.
It is a stern system, now rarely followed. It has generated immense spiritual wealth. There is nothing in the system that cannot be described very well in the words of St. Paul.
I thought that my adolescent contempt for the suburbs meant that I had transcended Grihashtha, and so I took a bus, a train, another bus and a rickshaw to a hot wood. In my rucksack, since I didn’t know the botany of India well enough to live safely off berries, I had lots of tinned fish, a bag of apples and a sack of porridge oats. I brought very little else of any sort with me. In particular I brought no spiritual resources of any kind, as the episode brutally showed.
Things happen in woods, whether you are prepared for them or not. To begin with, you think that you’ve found things. Wisdom, later, tells you that you’ve found nothing at all, but that you are in the process of being found. Finding, in fact, is the business of being found. And to do that (as I now notice happens in all the Arthurian legends that I love the most), it helps to be utterly lost.
My bit of wood was about a mile from the nearest road. The road was a rutted, dusty track along which trundled occasional bullock carts loaded with improbable bric-a-brac going from nowhere to nowhere. Walking into the fringes of the forest I nearly trod on a jet-black cobra which slid into a stream, looking fiercely back over its non-existent shoulders.
I’d thought of building the sort of leafy bivouac in which I’d spent many a summer night in England, but when I got to the place where I knew I should stay, I couldn’t bear the thought of looking up at the sky through something I had made. I’d thought of finding the edge of a glade, but I found that I wanted desperately to burrow as deep as I could into the wood. If I could have squeezed myself inside a tree trunk I would have done. So I kept on walking until, at midday, there was more shadow than sun, and I threw my kit down by the bole of a tree that must have fed on the same light that shone on the Mughals.
I sat and I listened. It seemed to me that I heard with my nose: the silence here smelt different to the silence of the clouds in which I’d been living. It didn’t last for long. It was a response to my own clumsiness. The forest was holding its own breath so that it could listen to me properly and watch more steadily. Soon it began to breathe again. When it began, it did not begin tentatively, with a tweeting of little brown things. It exhaled suddenly and loudly. A coucal lumbered through the bushes by my side, booming to the sky. A brainfever bird began its own shrill frenzy, and a wave of noise crashed over me. Colour exploded out of the green. The fallen leaves undulated with the life burrowing under and over and through. A bush rat sat on a branch, looked at me, and beckoned with its nose to another.
Over the next few days I lay for many hours flat on the forest floor, my face in the mulch and my eyes at the level of a bandicoot. I saw the gently depressed roads through the leaves where the mice ran; the questing antennae of the woodlice; the aphids tapping columns of plant sugar; the delicate shifting shadows cast by little things. I looked into the ancient eye of a mildly modified dinosaur (a Green Barbet), which was trying to work me out. Because I was still for long enough, and because it does not live for long, in three days I became part of its memory as old as my memories of life as a ten-year-old. For the gnats and the fireflies, I was a part of the landscape, known for several generations. For all the animals there I am a folk memory. Each thing here lived its whole life with an intensity I could not match for a single heartbeat, and with an intimacy of relationship with everything else that has no parallel in any human experience other than marriage and parenthood. Each came from a family incomparably older than the crass hairless ape.
I saw ants taken by a jungle babbler, a babbler taken by a Shikra hawk, and a Shikra eaten by ants. I lay there watching the wheels of karma turning; wheels within wheels; intricately geared; powered by thirst, pain and desire. My wish to bury myself in a tree now seemed morbid – a wish for annihilation of something that I called myself. I ran from the wish and stood up, suddenly the tallest animal there. It was a journey of six feet and about 3 million years. The perspective, the intimacy and the fear dropped away. I brushed the last of them off with the last few leaves in my hair. I’d failed the first, ecological stage of the process of identification with Brahman.
I slung my pack on my back and walked back to the road. The road took me back to somewhere. I started walking along the road out of town, and that’s where I am still. The editor of this book asked me to end this piece by explaining where I am now, but that’s the best I can do. I’m on a road out of somewhere. A road’s not a bad place to be. But it’s not as good as a wood, because you can’t really get lost on a road, and so you can’t be found. But some roads lead to woods.
There’s more where this came from in our latest book.
Carnival. Celebrations of music, dance, torchlight, mime, games, feast and folly have been central to the life of *community for all times other than those when the pretensions of large-scale civilisation descended like a frost on public joy.
The decline of carnival in the West began in earnest alongside the transition from a rural-centred culture to a city-centred one. There were many reasons. The early stirrings of capitalism encouraged habits of soberness, and it has this fixation about people turning up for work on Monday morning. Some carnivals were getting out of control, becoming the starting-point for rebellion and riot: Robin Hood’s career began as a carnival king; Robert ‘Ben’ Kett’s rebellion in 1549 started in Wymondham at a festival for St. Thomas à Becket. And the invention of firearms had its effect: it meant, of course, that a reckless crowd could also be dangerous, but – more important than that – it introduced a need for discipline, especially in armies. The loading and firing of a musket is complicated; it requires a sequence of steps – 43 of them, according to Prince Maurice of Orange’s ‘drill’ – each of which must be done exactly, at speed, and (on occasion) under fire. Discipline becomes critical: sober *citizenship, which is good for armies, and good for trade, calls for self-awareness and self-control, and it gets lost in the spontaneous exuberance of carnival. xxxCarnival has been subdued, and its loss is serious. The modern market economy suffers from play-deprivation. It does exist to a weakened extent in sport, but even there the aim of winning is increasingly taken as the literal purpose of the event rather than the enabling *myth. When such critical cultural assets as *trust, *social capital and the *humour which blunts insult are in decline, *play is in trouble. Insult and rough-and-tumble are now largely forbidden; if an invitation to play is rejected or misconstrued, if a joke goes wrong, there is shame or worse. xxxIt invites the bleak question: ‘What is the point?’ The consequences are various, no doubt, but among them may be loneliness, boredom, anxiety and depression; if society is less fun, its inequalities are more resented. There is no constant reminder of the teeming vitality beneath the surface of other people; there is a loss of authority by the local community, which becomes less audible, less visible, less alive, less fertile as a source of laughter. Barbara Ehrenreich wonders whether the waning of carnival might have had something to do with the awareness of depression which, in the early 17th century, seems to have developed almost on the scale of a pandemic. Before then there was, of course, pain, and grief – all the dark emotions – but loneliness and anxiety…? *Tactile deprivation (the sadness of not being touched)…? The sense of the party being over…? xxxHomer tells us how the art of the ancient dream world lay in wait to seduce Odysseus and his crew as they were about to encounter the Sirens, whose bewitching song lures everyone who hears it to their death, their bodies added to the pile of mouldering skeletons in the meadow where the Sirens sat. On the advice of his mistress, Circe, the goddess who lives on the island of Aeaea, Odysseus stopped up the ears of his crew with wax, so that, unable to hear the song, they were not distracted from the real work of rowing. He himself, being securely strapped to the mast, could now listen to the Sirens’ voices ‘with enjoyment’, as Circe puts it, and without being drawn irresistibly into their power. This has various interpretations, but one of them makes it a decisive detachment from art: the sound of ancient myth which once drew its hearers in, without means of escape, is rendered sensible and civilised, reduced to a concert, a sort of Hellenic musical evening with female chorus and a professor of Greek to tell us something about the local legend that lies behind it. xxxOn this view we see the breaking of the link between art (music, in this case) and politics: now you only need to buy your ticket, be a spectator of the arts for an hour or so, and then home for herb tea and bed.
Distraction, The Fallacy of. Diverting attention from the argument. xxxConsider the proposition that two and two makes four. Distraction might urge, for instance, that the idea is old-fashioned, that the time has come to move on from *traditional thinking on the matter, or that it is too technical for the public to understand. It could take the form of an ingratiating assurance that the only thing that matters, naturally, is the well-being and happiness of everyone concerned. Distraction might urge that it is perfectly OK nowadays to think that two plus two makes five; or that even thinking about it means an unforgivable neglect of the far more important proposition that three plus four makes seven. You might be invited to take note that there is *money to be made by taking a different view of the matter, or that we have to move on from the notion if we are to be *competitive, or that the proposition is a bit rich coming from someone with a private life like yours. Or it could insist with some passion that, contrary to the view that two plus two makes four, we must take our place at the heart of Europe. xxxDistraction might add, with hoped-for finality, that the argument has already been lost: two plus two is going to make five in the future, whatever we do. xxxDistraction, evidently, has the power and freedom to cause havoc wherever it likes. It is a spoiler, worse than the cheat: the cheat at least recognises the existence of the rules on which argument depends if it is to make any sense, even though he then proceeds to break them, hoping not to be found out. Distraction recognises nothing except conquest: the argument is too serious to have any connection with the orderly rules of honourable play; it will be settled by other means. Rules? What rules? It presumes the death of *logic. xxxA characteristic form of distraction is to make an assertion which is not true, but which is hard to disagree with. This happens, for instance, with the appeal to the inevitable: the distracter does not argue for or against a proposal; instead, he simply asserts that it is going to happen anyway, and he may do so in a slightly bored drawl that passes off the sell-out as if it were a routine comment on the weather. Don’t stand for this: it is one of the ways in which our citizens’ right to have a say in deciding for ourselves dwindles into a loss of belief that we can influence anything at all. It is designed to induce give-up-itis, an acceptance that technology and the sweep of history make the decisions. What we are then supposed to do is to surrender, to make sure we are not in the way. xxxSee also: *Ad Hominem, *Big Stick, *Cant, *Rationalism, *Shifting Ground, *Straw Man
Implicit Truth. One of many forms of truth, implicit truth is the product of *reflection, and is particular to the person reflecting. Different people may reach sharply different insights which may, however, all be true, despite contrasts in emphasis and meaning. They are different in that they are features in the landscape of the observers’ different cognitive homelands. The differences may be consistent with each other, or they may mature into deep contradictions: ‘This is my territory’; ‘The ideal place for our honeymoon would be Scunthorpe’; ‘We’ve won’. All these are true or untrue depending on who is speaking, but all are in the category of implicit truth.
Material Truth. Direct, plain, literal description of reality. There is no interest here in exploring deeper implications, insights and echo-meanings. This is the truth which tells you about the route taken by the hot water pipe from the boiler to the bathroom, how to make flatbread, how to photograph otters, what Darwinism is, why a herd of cows’ milk yield is higher if the cows are named as well as numbered, what a well-tempered scale is, what a Higgs boson probably is, why pregnant women don’t topple over, whether you went to the pub last night. Accuracy is not essential: it does not have to be true to belong in the domain of material truth, but it does have to be the speaker’s intention that the other person should understand it to be true. It can use metaphor that helps to get an unfamiliar idea across. The intention is to provide a truthful and uncluttered description. Here facts matter.
Narrative Truth. The truth present not just in storytelling but in *myth, poetry, art and the whole of our *culture. This is the truth of Pride and Prejudice. It is not *materially true, in that it is fiction; on the other hand, it is true-to-life: it is as accurate an insight into human character as we have. Elizabeth Bennett’s story can neither be dismissed as untrue nor accepted as true; it is in the middle ground. It may or may not report the material truth, but the narrative says something that cannot be said in any other way. It has a shadow-meaning that extends beyond metaphor, and can lead to the discovery of material or *implicit truths, as an explorer in search of the Holy Grail may discover and map real mountains and rivers. xxxNarrative truth makes sense of the roots of our word ‘belief’, which comes to our literal-minded age from a story-rich antiquity. It can be traced to the ancient Germanic root, galaubjan (to hold dear); the Latin for ‘to believe’ is credere, which comes from cor dare, to give (one’s) heart. xxxNarrative truth may be a parable with a clear message, or a story for the story’s sake, or the meaning may be forever unknown, a question to be *reflected-on, perhaps the subject of a lifetime’s exploration. It is the domain of poetry, music, laughter; if you ask if it is true, you are at the wrong party. xxxAnd yet, our culture regularly lacks the mature judgment necessary to distinguish between material and narrative truth. A work of art makes the question of whether it is true or not absurd. It is a category error and should not be asked. You might as well ask whether Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major Deutsch No. 956 likes broccoli.
Needs and Wants. A distinction between needs and wants has been made by many critics in the *green movement and its predecessors, who have argued that consumption in response to our needs is justifiable and *sustainable, but consumption in response to our wants is not. xxxYet this notion that needs are good and wants bad does not survive inspection. For the anthropologists Douglas and Isherwood, it is a ‘curious moral split [that] appears under the surface of most economists’ thoughts on human needs’. Lean Logic argues that those economists have it somewhat back to front. xxxThe heaviest burden of the modern *economy, by far, is that imposed by its own elaborations. Any large-scale economy requires massive infrastructures and material flows just to support itself and keep existing. Such sprawling industrial economies have massively multiplied our needs, our *’regrettable necessities’. Regardless of whether we want them, we need the sewage systems, heavy-goods transport, police-forces… Given the substantial scale of the task of feeding, raising and schooling a suburban family, and the increasing challenge of such routine needs as finding a post office, many of us undoubtedly need cars. The collapse of local self-reliance was both the cause and the effect of the massive elaboration of *transport, and when that need can no longer be met, its life-sustaining function will be bitterly recognised. xxxIt is, then, the elaboration of needs by large-scale industrial life that causes the trouble. Our wants are squeezed out, much missed and light by comparison, not least because they often involve labour-intensive *crafts and services – pianists, craftsmen, dress-makers, waitresses, gardeners with minimum environmental impact. Some wants are also needs, of course, and they cannot be cleanly separated, but if we focus our efforts on finding a way, under the stresses of the *climacteric, of achieving a substantial and rapid liquidation of our needs, we will be getting somewhere. xxxSee also: *Greening of Waste, *Growth, *Invisible Goods, *Lean Economics*, *Scale, *Slack
Performative Truth. Truth that is created by statements that do something: I challenge, I thee wed, I bet, I curse, thank you. The speaking makes the truth: a promise is brought into existence by being spoken: loyal cantons of contemned love make love come alive. xxxPerformative truths can also be created by symbolic events or even thoughts. Contracts are an example – they may be recorded, but the contract itself has no *material expression: you cannot see it or say where it is, and if minds change profoundly enough it may simply cease to exist.
Relative Intelligence. Failure to account for the match between mental capacity and the problems that have to be solved. xxxAs society becomes more complex, the relative intelligence of Homo sapiens declines, leaving us on a lower Relative Intelligence Quotient (RIQ) than a swan, or a beetle.
Straw Man, The Fallacy of the. Invent an argument which the other person did not use, and then launch a horrified attack on it. xxxThis is *distraction at its most immediate, obvious and intentional. Summarise the other side’s case. Make sure your version of it is as ridiculous as possible. Demolish the summary. Claim victory.
A variant is simply to save yourself the trouble of understanding what the other side is talking about. Alternatively, launch into a free-wheeling parody – a song [Gr. ōid] of mockery [Gr. pará]. Your victim is forced onto the defensive, and possibly into fury. You’re winning. xxxHere is an example. The target is the organic movement; the tactic is to make it sound like a fundamentalist *religion. xxx1) Set up your straw man: ‘The high priests of the organic movement tell us that natural chemicals are good and synthetic chemicals bad.’ xxx2) Demolish it: ‘This is utter nonsense. … Arsenic, ricin, aflatoxin are all highly poisonous chemicals found in nature. Yet the supposed superiority of natural over synthetic is the rock on which the organic movement is built.’ xxxGood. Now you can sit back and wait for the other side to go into a lumbering explanation (there will doubtless be something there which, if really necessary, will allow you to unleash another straw man). Here it comes: xxxOrganic cultivation is not based on ridiculous claims about things being ‘natural’, but on principles of fertile soils, crop rotations, local ecosystems and animal welfare. It builds plants’ and animals’ ability to sustain their own health. It does not depend on pesticides and fertilisers produced from diminishing supplies of oil and gas. It conserves soils, water and energy; it protects habitats. It produces food richer in nutrients than conventionally-grown food, and free of contamination by synthetic chemicals. And local food production, now a priority, will improve food security, relying less on the transport which will be at risk when oil gets scarce, conserving local farming and skills, and building local fertility on productive, resilient principles known as ‘organic’. xxxHave you quite finished? It makes no difference anyway, because the straw man stopped listening ages ago. Well, he really doesn’t have to, for he has magic powers. He can make inconvenient truths disappear at a stroke. And he can provide his minders with an intoxicating sense of being right. Actually, the straw man has a dark history, but in more recent times he has been a symbol of finality, an old fellow with a short life who had to die at the end of the harvest, and to hand over to the new generation. *Peasant societies used to unwind on the last day by making a straw man from the last sheaf, just to beat it to pieces with the flails they would soon be using to thresh the corn (perhaps to warn the rest of the corn what was coming). And there was a startling variant of this, where the man who cut the last bundle of corn was picked on for special treatment. His face would be blackened; he would be feted and feasted, mocked and parodied. Fortunately, he had an understudy in the form of a straw goat, which he would carry about on his back. In the end, the goat would be placed on the ground and destroyed with the flails. xxxYou see, you have forgotten about organic agriculture already.
Transformation, The Great. The Great Transformation has already happened. It was the revolution in politics, economics and society that came with the *market economy, and which hit its stride in Britain in the late 18th century. Most of human history had been bred, fed and watered by another sort of economy, but the market has replaced, as far as possible, the *social capital of *reciprocal obligation, *loyalties, authority structures, *culture and *traditions with exchange, price and the impersonal principles of *economics. xxxUnfortunately, the critics of economics have had a tendency to discuss the whole structure as a tissue of misconceptions. It is a critique that fails. The strength of economics is its considerable, if far from complete, understanding of the flows and comparative advantages that underlie trade, jobs, *capital and incomes, and the logic of optimising behaviour, all backed by glittering accomplishment in mathematics. That makes it a powerful analytical instrument, so that just a few misconceptions – such as a failure to understand the *informal economy or resource depletion – can have leverage: like a baby monkey at the controls of a Ferrari, they can turn it into an instrument with extraordinarily destructive potential. If it were a tissue of errors, it would not be dangerous: it is its 90% brilliance which makes it so. xxxEconomics has therefore been seductive. The market economy is effective for sustaining social order: the distribution of goods, services and other assets is facilitated by buying and selling, supporting a network of exchange to which everyone has access. It provides suppliers with the incentive to know their markets and respond to them; it uses *’pull’ rather than top-down regulation, and it learns from experience, so it is effective and efficient. It supports a more egalitarian society than any other large-scale state has been capable of and it saves a great deal of trouble: it has appealed to minds glad of a cognitive technology which enabled them to make decisions according to mathematical models, and with little fear of contradiction. xxx‘Douce commerce,’ sweet commerce, wrote Jacques Savary, an early management consultant, in a textbook for businessmen (1685), ‘makes for all the gentleness of life.’ The authorities themselves agreed: commerce is the most ‘innocent and legitimate way of acquiring wealth’, observed an edict of the French government in 1669; it is ‘the fertile source which brings abundance to the state and spreads it among its subjects.’ xxxIndeed, the government’s main task in a mature market economy is to keep it free of obstacles that might stop it growing – like a bemused farmer would treat the enchanted goose: keep the foxes out so that it can go on magically laying its golden eggs. xxxIts achievements and answers sound authoritative and final, but what is truly most significant about them is how naïve they are – if the flow of income fails, the powerfully-bonding combination of *money and self-interest will no longer be available on its present all-embracing *scale, and perhaps not at all. And it must inevitably fail, as the market’s taut *competitiveness demands ever increasing *productivity and thus relies on the impossibility of perpetual *growth. xxxIn the meantime, the reduction of a society and culture to dependence on mathematical *abstraction has infantilised a grown-up civilisation and is well on the way to destroying it. Civilisations self-destruct anyway, but it is reasonable to ask whether they have done so before with such enthusiasm, in obedience to such an acutely absurd superstition, while claiming with such insistence that they were beyond being seduced by the irrational promises of *religion. Every civilisation has had its irrational but reassuring myth. Previous civilisations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used its mathematics to prove it. xxxYet, when this relatively short-lived market-society is gone, we will miss its essential simplicity, its price mechanism, its self-stabilising properties, its impersonal exchange, the comforts it delivers to many, and the *freedoms it underwrites. Its failure will be destructive. xxxAnd the end is in sight; during the early decades of the century, the market will lose its magic. It is the aim of Lean Logic to suggest some principles for the design of a replacement.
In celebration of the new Dark Mountain anthology, here is a quick peek into the artwork pages (16 in all) that intersect the texts. As well as a photographic record of the four Uncivilisation Festivals, there are two sections of work in various media, from gum arabic to found materials, digital montage to cyanotype.
Dark Mountain art is hard to qualify or put into a box, but what has shaped and defines this selection is the intense focus and relationship each artist has with the matter in hand — stuff that most of us in a 24/7 whirl of activity do not have eyes or time to notice.
Why do we need art? Because only when we pay this kind of attention can we see close up the extraordinary nature of earthly alchemy, or the movement of the heavens above us. That what science drily calls ‘eco-systems’ are in fact beautiful and meaningful patterns that intersect with our own intelligence and planetary presence in a way words cannot easily describe.
Like the Earth, these images are the work of collaborations, of projects — the results of waiting and watching and movements over time. Way marks and tracks, blueprints and shifts: a map of mountains soaked by the rain, the blue zigzags of a Patagonia glacier.
Each one tells a story caught in a glimpse: the story of a pilgrimage through Walthamstow, the story about a collection of plants made from abandoned technology, the story of the sun’s yearly trek across the sky in a grandmother’s house in the far north. The fabric of this world.
Here is one behind the book’s centrefold picture: the story of the man who follows the deer.
Roe Deer in May Birch by Thomas Keyes
Thomas Keyes first appeared in Dark Mountain 3 with a compelling recipe for black pheasant stew. He is a forager and artist who lives in the remote Highlands, with a wood behind his house. What inspires his art are the materials he comes across when he roams the land. Although he fashions works from a wide range of natural stuff — from mushrooms to wasps’ nests to oak galls — his signature canvas is parchment made from the hides of (mostly roadkilled) roe deer; his paints the tar and smoke made from the bark of the tree he loves more than any other: the birch.
‘I like the self-referential nature of the subject of birch and deer. The birch trees are endessly fascinating and so expressive, the more I see them the more I want to paint them. People from the city might see a forest with deer as an image, a pretty picture, but for me they are an important practical part of life. Some people get the paintings and some don’t.’
Keyes is one of the artists taking part in The Foraged Book Project with Fergus Drennan (an Uncivilistation regular) and James Wood, and like many others there is no separation between the stuff he uses and the subject of the painting itself. He uses the scars in the hides to form the kinks in the trees bark for example.
‘Foraging is a way of interacting in a rural environment and of noticing patterns: you start to see exciting things everywhere and have a reason to go places, to be on high alert. I wanted to make something artistic out of the material I foraged, but it didn’t go anywhere until I came across the deer and then I felt obliged in some way.’
The materials came together by chance. The parchment he found was the best way to preserve the deer skin. He had been making the birch tar (used traditionally as a sealant) by boiling it up on an open fire as an experiment. But his intense focus on these two lifeforms is not just because of their look and proximity:
‘Basically birch trees have always been there with people in Europe, as fuel, as medicine. They are one of the constants, which like roe deer, we’ll see into the future. Both have actually increased because of us and agriculture. They are two species that it’s safe and important to form a relationship with. So much of nature is in drama and disappearance, it is good to know there are some things we can count on.
‘What’s really interesting about Dark Mountain is that when you get people together to talk about the premise of collapse suddenly you are talking about what is actually there; whereas before when I was around people who did not accept that premise they were constantly fighting their corner, or arguing the point, with stats about peak oil etc and no one was looking at what lies beyond that. Whereas when you accept the premise you can have a look at the natural world, which hasn’t gone away. There’s quite a lot of it left, bad as things are.’
The paintings beckon a way back into the land most people now feel divorced from. Deracination and lack of connection with the natural world is one of the ways a dominant city-based narrative keeps a hold on our imaginations. There’s nothing out there, it’s all gone! In a time of unravelling however, belonging and being anchored in a place become increasingly vital. In a piece written for the present volume, ‘Finding Common Ground’, Keyes looks back at a land where his own connection was severed:
The parish I reside in still has barely half the population it supported up until the mid 1800s. Incomers are a necessity. As an Ulster Scot I come from long line of incomers: Ulster Scots are professionsal incomers and have played no small part in the colonisation of most former British territories. Clan Hanna were made enemies of the crown and send from Argyll to County Monaghan, beyond the frontier of the Ulster plantation in 1640. My direct, soil-based experience of that land ended formally only a few years ago, when my great aunt Edna Hanna died and the small farm I had visited as child became out of bounds. One break in the chain in 370 years, and it’s over. My children will only ever enter that land as trespasssers, with no emotional connection to it. In fact, once I am not here anymore, they probably won’t bother; their children may never even hear of it. The home those people built, the fields they worked, they churchyard they’re buried in, the relationships built over generations: all gone. I’d be no more home there now than I am back in Scotland, walking through the fading traces of other families’ tragedies.
In many ways, Keyes writes for most of us who no longer live in places where generations of our clans, families or tribes, have interacted with the land. We have now to dig deeper, beyond history, beyond our familial circumstances, to get back to an Earth where we feel at home with all our relations — rocks, plants, animals, trees. An immersion in the shapes and patterns of the natural world frees us from the grids and enclosures set up by Empire, in our physical forms as much as in our imaginations.
When you look at the painting you find yourself following the deer, down the wild track through the trees, toward the mountain — as our ancestors have always done through time. It feels like the only path you want to take.
Art works: Roe Deer in May Birch by Thomas Keyes; Jess X Chen with the diptych Collapse, Emerge (created with fellow artist, Noel’le Longhaul) which formed the cover of Dark Mountain 5. Bluestocking Bookshop, New York.