Letters to a Young Planet

Dear, it’s raining––and everybody here says: At last! Even the birds; but what would you say if you no longer had your sun…? All the same, it was rain we wanted, it’s falling softly, tenderly, each drop a caress, almost a kiss.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxRilke, Letters to Merline: 1919 – 1922

For a long time I have been an avid reader of Rilke, though I never really understood why. This is not to say that I believe there to be reason behind our reading habits. Reading is irrational most of the time – erratic, emphatic, insane (and in this sense, reading is so much akin to the weather… erratic, emphatic, insane). This is just to say that certain writing becomes visible for distinct yet discrete reasons, seeking our attention for reasons we may only later discover.  And it is this ‘seeking’ that has necessary meaning. There is so much text in the world. There is crushingly little time.

Some months ago, I started collecting found postcards, and interspersing reading these with reading Norton’s translation of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet; his Letters on Cézanne, and MacDonald’s translation of his Letters to Merline: 1919 – 1922. This blogpost contains an extract of a work contemplating my inability to contact the writers of these found postcards from the near past. The letters in this blogpost respond to a handful of the thousands of postcards in the collection. They attempt to tell the writers what these aesthetic objects tell me about the changing climate.

IMG_2620Dear A.L.,

GWENT. 1976.

Your postcard was the last to arrive – just days ago – from GWENT. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. That is all I can do. I cannot, as you say, ‘send your love to Aunt Daisy,’ nor write to you of the increasing wind, how I imagine your tan from the warm Wales sun has by now left your skin, with all your thoughts… I cannot write in this of my imagined moment of you cleanly unleashing this colourful postcard into a postbox in 1976 – how did you spend that 6½p in the post office? How did you look upon the August weather out the window, how on your browning skin? I cannot discuss these things, for fear of… Nothing touches the past so little as this remorse.

Dear Mr & Mrs H.,
TUNISIA. 14-9-2002.

Writing is difficult, and you must pardon my delay in responding to your postcard from ‘Hotel Kanta, Tunisia’ of 14-9-2002. I want to tell you that your postcard gave me an unspeakable pleasure and stirred the deepest fear within me – that ‘spectacular thunderstorm,’ not unlike the ones 11 years from your writing; floods, downpours, gales, high winds catching posts and carrying them across waterlogged fields. I want to tell you not to feel the crystal comfort of the safety of the ‘sunny a.m.’ that followed on its heels. Unspeakably alone, I leave you empty-handed; and many things must happen, in a world that feels suddenly necessary through your brief, beautiful words.

Dear D.,
TÜRKIYE. 19__

Letter by letter, I type the flight number and the time of arrival and date from the stamp and your holiday destination into Google. My search doesn’t match any documents. I do not fear you never landed at ‘Gatwick at 5.55am as is invariably the way with the enchantment of disaster, had your flight fallen from the air into the ocean between Gatwick and Türkiye, that moment in the wonderful, wide fabric of our history would – laid like thread alongside an infinity of others – lack the unimportance to disappear beneath the patterning of the sea. Yet, I fear that this postcard is the only relic of you. And I must tell you that its status as an aesthetic object, its awful banality and its rupture into the inevitable critique of this response, petrifies me into a thrilling terror and hardened alarm.

Rilke writes: ‘Read as little as possible of literary criticism – such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word-games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view. Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism.’ (Letters to a Young Poet)

Letter by letter, I search the words you chose to describe the foreign weather: ‘The weather is very nice not too hot with a breeze but it gets quite cold at night.’ My search does not match any documents.

It makes ‘Suggestions’:
– Make sure that all words are spelled correctly.
– Try different keywords.
– Try more general keywords.
– Try fewer keywords.

Letter by letter, I search a correctly spelled digestion: ‘hot weather cold night’. I try to let each letter have the swell of its impression, become an embryo of reaching back through a duration into your gone moment, to square the circle of the postcard, but the message becomes obscured by the British swelter of summer 2012, instructions on ‘How to sleep in hot weather’.

Rilke: An artist stands confident in the storms of spring, unafraid that the summer may fail to come.
Me: Another stands in silence, under the ruin of the skies.

Dear C.,
LLANDUDNO. 1045AM. 23 AUG. 1979.

. . . This morning your long thoughts are with me under the awful blue of a Wednesday market sky, as I hold forth the brevity of your postcards, stealing somehow beyond itself into the immensity of your ‘Tuesday sunshine,’ akin (I think) to this one, with all your words, with all your words . . . It is a precise moment. And Rilke is with me through this. And Rilke writes to a young, aspiring poet of the powerlessness of his words to tell that poet how to become a poet – such critical asceticism, and Rilke, how you open a terminal space of disaster, where your words unleash a distant sense of what instructions on poetry might look like.

Yes, it is in the not-writing that Rilke writes of writing. Yes, it is in the venturing into privation, into elusiveness, toward the enormous namelessness that writing writes around, that Rilke somehow magically liberates words, things, emotions, even poetry of its own sad walls. C., you write home on a Tuesday in 1979 how you have ‘seen the sun though – several times. It has been sunny most of the day today.’

Only this . . . for Tuesday . . . for a thousand other moments of precision, cumulating into an imperceptible history . . .

[a brief interlude to transcribe a poem on the impossibility of exciting the distant past to change]

‘The lungs …’

The lungs
are rosette lungs
set upon
the surface of the kitchen
counter
like an elegiac joke.
Here is a future.
Here is a bag of cold
uncooked potatoes.
Here is sprouting into a witness
of a ghost you brought
about speaking around
our dancing
in the kitchen (Christmas) room.

Dear T. and L.,
ARONA. ITALIA. 6/8/81.

Perhaps if I recount the facts, this past that is so deeply taken with it-self will listen back, become another future? ‘6/8/81. Mum and I are here in Italy visiting the family and we are having a really lovely time. The weather here though is far too hot for comfort – as we are not used to it. But I am going to take advantage of it and make myself very brown.’
Yes, I wonder if in my failed effort to instruct you to re-read those signs and signal instead to each other of the coming danger, I might liberate this postcard from itself, into nameless clue.

Dear Mum,
EDINBURGH. 22-JUN 1961.

You write: ‘weather has not been too good has changed for better this morning lovely country wonderful town have made friends and shall have a nice holiday if the weather keeps fine.’
I think: Yes, in the mutiny of the strange weather of this May morning I wonder if in my failed writing I might undo the meaning of my own words through you. Your semantics remind me of the tracts that arrive for me from my own mother. And I wonder if I turn to . . .

[a brief interlude to transcribe a poem on the impossibility of reaching other humans in a confined space such as the Tube]

To the man who must be a boxer

It is a beautiful thing
to see you pass
hand over hand
fold over fold
through this evening’s paper
to wince as you clip
the scab on the knuckle
of your ring finger
to clamour at words
through inflated eyes.

Dear Joan & Jim,
LLORET DE MAR. ESPAÑA. 1968.

‘Monday
Dear Mother, got more settled now, and have had a scorching day today. We are soaking ourselves in oil + lotion but I bet we suffer in bed tonight!!’
A heat too close for comfort: I do not wonder which of you wrote this postcard, knowing the hand so well – (hiding inside, I found this postcard in my attic) – The ‘J’s of your two names familiar-curving into my own hand’s lineage, spinning out from my childhood into the poetry I never knew you had within you, Nan:

‘Still can’t believe we are in Spain until we look around at the different buildings and the way of life. The shops at night are brightly lit and they are just like huge bazaars down narrow streets.

‘the church is a beautiful one – set right in the heart of the shops.’

A line begins to take shape. A map begins to form. An unforeseeable map; not quite art, not quite science, beyond description-shot through with the personal, the homely, the individual, the historical moment of my writing and that of the person I can touch and speak to now, but may never address with these confiding words about the volatility of the world. This proximate distance of speaking and writing, mapped through the constellation of Nan, her postcard, and me, perfectly describes the current state of climate dialogues within our writing communities: our writing of unanswerable, unheard letters. Our dreams of impossible maps composed of poetry.

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IMG_2650Weather etc. Writing Home

There are infinite ways in which to respond to the postcards, which offer a wealth of information around individual and social relationships with the weather. And so, with support from the Royal Meteorological Society and King’s College London, we are building a public network of contributors to a new exhibition entitled Weather etc. Writing Home.

Weather etc. Writing Home is a collection of publicly donated postcards and accompanying social, artistic and scientific stories. Accumulating over a year, Weather etc. Writing Home is an invitation to search through your home to find postcards from friends, relatives and years gone by. To read and reflect on messages about the weather found in these charming postcards, and to share these to become a part of this new scientific and artistic inquiry.

At a time of rising social awareness of the changing climate, we are gathering a collection of postcards to begin reconsidering how people write and communicate a changing climate. The weather is becoming more and more of a social emergency; the climate is a political question, and climate science is grappling to answer these socio-political questions of fear, terror and amazement.

Surprisingly enough, those cast-aside postcards lying around your home have a vital scientific purpose. Climate scientists are already using unexpected tools like Twitter to crowd-source information from the general public to map the weather. And in projects like Old Weather, meteorologists are already using archives from the past to be able to reconstruct maps and models of historical weather. Weather etc. Writing Home promises to contribute new stories and maps to weather history. Scientific researchers in the field of meteorology can use your postcards to understand what the weather was doing in the past. By digitising the postcards, they can compare their weather messages to weather records, developing new understandings of what people feel, think and write about a changing climate.

We currently have over 2000 postcards in the collection. Beautiful and sometimes comical in their brevity, delightful in their stories, and profound when gathered as a collection, each one offers a unique snapshot into how people think about the weather. This growing collection is only made possible by the continued generous donation of postcards by members of the public. Please send postcards, with any accompanying stories, to the following pigeon hole:

Penny Newell
King’s College London
Department of English
Virginia Woolf Building
22 Kingsway
London
WC2B 6NR

The exhibition will take place in Spring 2015. All submitted postcards that are used will be credited, but unfortunately cannot be returned. With enquiries, please contact: [email protected]

Lines of Flight

The filmpoem Lines of Flight is an audio-visual manifestation of a conversation we had over four months about belonging, migration and journeying. As a creative collaboration it is an experiment in finding ways to express our exploration of these themes in shared metaphors and imagery.

Having had an inkling to work together without a clear idea of how or on what, we found a starting point in Jeppe’s blog post Lines of flight in a time of endings. The image of lines representing individual experiences provided an opening for a conversation about finding community and home in a time characterised by change and uncertainty.

When Emily received an invitation from Alastair Cook to make a submission for the Filmpoem Festival 2014, we began to think about how our inquiry could translate into audio-visual representations. And so the ideas for Lines of Flight slowly developed in conversation and in written exchange once we had found this beginning – we have created this piece entirely through online contact, and have only met in person once before.

The collaboration developed as iterations of conversation, individual reflections, sketching and experimenting with different forms of expression. The themes of migration and journeying connect with recent life experiences for us both and became a crucible for deliberating these aspects of our lives together. It was a new way of working for both of us which provided a growing vocabulary for describing our thoughts and feelings and new means of expressing these artistically.

What perhaps characterised our mode of working together in particular was a shared sense of detachment from the outcome of our inquiry and an openness to let new elements enter the work whenever they arose. This meant that we felt free to follow the themes we were exploring wherever they took us. We often sensed immediately when we had hit on an image or phrasing that had a particular power to us, and in this way a structure gradually emerged which guided further experimentation – our personal and different lines of flight finding a resonance.

It is in some ways strange to compare the process of co-creating the filmpoem with the ‘final’ version as there has been a strong element of serendipity involved in its creation. The filmpoem holds a lot of personal experiences and points to ways of relating to each other and our wider circles of friendship which we are only beginning to see more clearly. ‘Circling amongst each other, we know when to turn’ suggests that we are part of a slowly evolving network of strong relationships between people who are living through a particular kind of transition. That we are not alone. This has partly grown out of the Dark Mountain Project, which is also how we first met.

We have tried to creatively address the balance of migration/nomadism in modern life and the sense of coming back to ground; feeling at home in a place, possibly more than one place and always in our own journeys. We see the meditative quality of the filmpoem, almost like an incantation evoking feelings of empowered rootedness, as a kind of antidote to the anxiety that accompanies moving around which allows finding a sense of trust in an unfolding path, of living in transition.

The poem has another particular power for us: the patience to wait for what is really worthwhile, to tap into a deep sense or inner knowing that meaningful and sustainable change takes its own time. Something about it invokes what is meant to be (even if that is unknown or not easily described). And there are still many aspects to the poem which we can’t quite put into words because it grew out of questions which we are still inquiring into.

In many ways it feels like we have only scratched the surface of Lines of Flight, and we hope some to use the content as starting points for further work. Building this collaborative narrative has activated new ways of working and supported multi-disciplinary creativity. Making Lines of Flight has been a powerful way of tapping into our inner sense of direction and passion. We hope that our work has a similar effect for viewers, in offering a little poetic orientation to help navigate each of our journeys through a time of personal change and wider transition.

Lines of Flight was screened at the 2014 Filmpoem Festival in Antwerp.

 

Five years on a Mountain

Five years ago today, I stood in the draughty backroom of a pub on the banks of the River Thames, on a slightly elevated stage next to a man I didn’t know very well, and together we launched the Dark Mountain Project. Perhaps 50 people were there. It rained, I think.

What did I think I was doing? Trying to recover the past from the vantage point of the present is always hard: perhaps it’s impossible. We tend to mythologise our own stories, or at least to construct after the event a narrative that makes them seem more seamlessly interlinked or rational than they actually were. ‘We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives’, wrote WG Sebald, ‘as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious’. This little event turned out to be a decisive step in my life, and it’s taken  me about five years to become more conscious of what those adjustments were.

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At the time and on the surface, what I thought I was doing was quite simple:  I was starting a new literary movement. With Dougald, my co-conspirator and soon-to-be friend, I had written a strange little manifesto, which demanded that its readers open their eyes to the huge shifts which our world was undergoing, and then start to write as if they were real. This was always supposed to be an artistic rather than a political document. For me, its inspirations were not Leninists or Maoists but Dadaists and Vorticists. Like its forebears a century ago, I wanted this manifesto to emerge from the collapse of the old world and herald something new.

Despite this grand and probably self-regarding ambition, the movement I envisaged emerging from this little document was to be something quite modest. I thought we might get a writers’ circle together, perhaps. Maybe we’d meet every couple of weeks in the pub, ten or 20 of us, and talk about how to bust open the rotten citadels of literature and pour the healing waters of uncivilisation down upon its thirsty inhabitants.

Things did not go quite to plan.

Five years on, this Dark Mountain Project is many things. It is a sprawling global network of like-minded people. It is a small ‘organisation’ which produces two books a year of art and writing. It is a series of happenings and comings-together, events and festivals and gatherings. It is a conversation. It is a search for new stories. It is one part of a much wider global shift towards a new way of seeing nature and civilisation. It is a controversy and a call to action and a call to contemplation. It is a journey. It is a place you can come to give up hope so that you can find it again in a new shape. It is a crucible and a strange shape-shifting beast. Even after five years, it is almost impossible to describe the thing. But we know it works, and we think it is needed, because we’re still here and we’re still running to keep up.

A few weeks back, Dougald and I gave a talk at Schumacher College in Devon, in which we challenged ourselves to draw out some lessons we had learned on this five-year journey. You can watch a film of that event at the top of this blog post. I thought I’d mark this anniversary here by offering up five lessons I’ve learned: one for each year. I’m a slow learner, but I’m pretty sure that through this journey I’ve picked up a few useful lessons about myself and about the world I’m living in, as well as something about this odd thing I spawned. If that’s the case, it’s thanks to the many people I’ve met this past half decade, whose company and wisdom and friendship are the most valuable thing I will take away from it all in the end.

1.  Never have a plan

Seriously. Having a plan is simply setting yourself up for failure. Look what happened to me. More usefully, look at what’s happening around the world: there is no shortage of plans for a Sustainable And Just Society, and none of them are going anywhere other than the remainder bins of bookshops. Having a plan is a recipe for frustration. Having intentions and precepts and guidelines and nimble feet, on the other hand, might get you somewhere, if luck is on your side for a while.

2.  There is a space between hope and despair

Our manifesto and some of our early work was interpreted by some, particularly campaigners and activists, as promoting  giving up or giving in, hopelessness and despair and inaction. Accepting that great changes were underway, and that our powers were limited, was seen by some people as a betrayal of a better possibility. From this vantage point, I can understand this reaction. But there is a space between hope and despair, which it is necessary to inhabit. False expectations and foolish dreams lead to the very despair they claim to want to banish. And that despair  is a rational reaction to much of what is going on in the world; sometimes it is necessary to embrace it. Between the forced hope and  gritted teeth of the activist worldview and the dark hopelessness of the  apocalyptic narrative lies a space that is worth sitting in for a while.

3. Grief matters

We are in an age of climate change and mass extinction and much of this is irreversible. This is what we were given to live through. To be able to look at what the human machine is doing to this living world without feeling grief or despair is an impossibility for anyone who experiences normal human emotions. Grief is not only a natural reaction to the state of the world today, it is a useful one. It is something that should be navigated and understood and accepted and discussed. Like the death of a loved one, the current death of much that is good in the world is something that can’t be denied or wished away: it has to be lived with. It doesn’t follow from that nothing good will ever happen again, or that you can be of no use in the world.

4.   I am not alone

… and neither are you. Barely a week has passed over these five years without us receiving a communication from somebody, somewhere in the world, along these lines: I have felt like this for years, I thought I was alone, my friends think I’m mad, I’m so glad to find you. What this tells me is that there are many people in the world whose honest reaction to the current state of things can’t be incorporated within either the mainstream story of progress and growth, or the acceptable dissident stories about enlightened people power leading to radical change.  In this context, our work of tentatively exploring new stories and new ways of seeing is hopefully useful.

5. Stories matter

This was the central insight of our little manifesto, and it’s one that I think has held up. Everything is a story: everything about the way you see the world, everything you think about the way the world works, and who you are and whether you’re anyone at all, and how things are organised and what change means and whether it matters. Everything. All cultures and all civilisations run on stories like cars run on fuel, and like fuel, the wrong story can be poisonous. I get the sense now, in a way that I didn’t five years ago, that this recognition is becoming more widespread.

The world has changed a lot since that day five years ago. Back then, an economic crisis was just beginning and nobody knew how quickly it would play out. Back then, people still talked about preventing climate change rather than mitigating it. The world has changed a lot, and not changed at all. But some shift is being played out around us: some change in the weather, some groping towards a new way of understanding the world. Something is changing; something has broken and will not be put back together. This shift will long outlive us, but if we have played some part in it – well, that’s not bad work.

More than anything, perhaps, I’ve discovered that this strange expedition up this forbidding peak is more enlightening and enjoyable (not to mention safer) if it is not undertaken alone. And I wonder what lessons my fellow mountaineers can draw from this half-decade. I’d love to hear them.

To Dwell on Our Dreams

I was having one of those long fuggy dreams that you can only recall by a sense of being stuck somewhere that isn’t home. It was somewhere like India. Before waking, becoming more lucid, a deliriously beautiful scene unfolded. A huge shiny muscled man in pink robes and feathers appeared floating upwards into the sky. People beside me said he is just a balloon. But I could see by his eyes that he was living, and he started to beckon with his hand. In front of us, what had been a towering cityscape became a glittering verdant mountain, trees rising up from the concrete. Then this whole mountain lifted up to his beckoning and became a spaceship, symmetrical in form, green underneath too and incredibly entangled. Iridescent green beetles emerged from the surface and pulled it gracefully up. I did not dare look at what was left behind on the earth.

My dreaming brain switched from seer to interpreter. We are losing our green mountains, I thought. This god had become incarnate to show that nature was always in itself arising, but also that we were losing it, left with wastelands. I saw that this floating god had a monkey face, and it was this which woke me up as I grasped at my memory of the Ramayana.

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Wikimedia Commons/Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In the Ramayana epic, Hanuman, the monkey god leaps off to the Himalayas to find a magic herb to save Lakshman, so badly wounded in battle he might die before sunrise. Hanuman can’t find the herb quickly so he lifts the entire mountain and carries it back like a waiter bearing a tray. This was a necessary sacrifice.

Then, as I came more into daylight thoughts, I recalled that China is removing seven hundred mountains, filling the valleys with the rock, to make more space for cities. This sounds like an incredible fable of human hubris, but it turns out to be a fact. Humans have really become like giant ape gods, able to lift mountains. I then remembered how India, now under its new presidency of Narendra Modi, is at an energy turning point where it intends to reduce emissions by 25% by 2020 – mainly through solar renewables – but is also ramping up coal production. Modi is signing off clearance of more forests and mountain tops and India is still walking the path of hot coals. In the Ramayana, Sita carried out a fire test set by Rama to prove her loyalty to him. She emerged unharmed from the fire path, as the flames transformed into flowers as she walked. Like this, the conversion of fossil residues into money, allowing countries to modernise and ultimately tackle climate change, is a simple story that most leaders seem to believe. For example, Australia, Canada and UK are exploiting fossil fuels as hard as they can, thinking they can put the brakes on later to fulfil their legal targets of reduction. But it isn’t a simple story with a good ending. There are externalities and repercussions of emitting carbon, and more impacts to come that we cannot easily foretell. Coal is the dirtiest fuel, and its contribution to CO2 load will cause climate change for centuries.

All this intense dreaming must be because my brain has been recovering after Weatherfronts, a two day course for writers and climate researchers, organised by Tipping Point. It aimed to connect writers with scientists, to explore how we could write about climate in ways that might be true, effective, emotional, aesthetic and authentic. One of the central questions was ‘what kind of story is climate change?’ This was asked by one of the main facilitators, Dr Joe Smith of the OU, who has been awarded AHRC funding for a project called Stories of Change. He proposed that the climate story has been dominated by the ‘truth war’ over whether it is real, manmade and happening, and that it must now progress to stories about the future, with more positive solutions and human responses. This is a refreshing response to the often-heard call for new kinds of stories, in pointing out what we need new kinds of stories to do.

The course ended with a launch of the book Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, which extends these questions. I especially liked a piece by its co-editor Renata Tyszczuk, who categorises many types of cautionary tales about climate, but comes at the end to recommend ‘precautionary tales’. She writes that ‘a precautionary approach … suggests an experimental and transformative attitude to history, one which involves being mindful of the risks we are taking now, in taking care of the future … Precautionary tales invite us to worry not so much about foresight or prognostics – there is no telling what the future holds or where it will end. Instead, these tales might work with an imagination of the future based on an ethics of care rather than solely on the technical management of the challenge of the predicted risks…’

The fundamental ethics of care do not need to be invented. They can be found in the oldest stories. But these ethics do need to be retold, or inserted generously and systematically into new stories that anticipate how we might live in future, both in mitigation of and adaptation to change. But how can we achieve this? A more ecologically conscious ethics of care will not emerge just through more arty-science, more science-y art, or more moralising.

The human ecologist Alastair McIntosh would tell us we need a more profound shift, that we need to cultivate spiritual perception and go deeper than the normal level of consciousness. I witnessed one of his ‘sermons’ at the recent Carrying the Fire, a Dark Mountain gathering in Scotland. This was the morning after we had tramped to a shoulder of Tinto mountain to lay a Life Cairn, one stone laid by each to honour an extinct species. On Sunday morning, Alastair stepped down the aisle of our congregation, one foot in the mythopoetic realm, the other in the logical realm, reminding us that we walk the silver faerie path. He exhorted us to integrate the mythos and logos in ways that do not let the logical mind spoil the enchantment of the mythical.

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Life cairn on Tinto mountain at Carrying the Fire

This is a difficult practice for me to embrace, having been reared an atheist and educated to deconstruct all literature, to be ever alert to its hegemonic snares. I grew up knowing that myths, especially the ones concreted into religions, are fabrications, however delightful or useful. I once scandalised a teacher by explaining that Jesus was just a man. I think many of us are the same even if not so atheistically trained. It is true that at times, when the time is right, we might emerge from story-charms and dreams with a new capacity for making sense of and imagining better ways. But usually the time is not right. We are all too clever for our own good. We wake up and sweep away the story webs. We are too busy to dwell on our dreams.

So, for a moment back to my dream of India. According to Vedic scriptures, we are at the end of the 5,000 year long Kali Yuga, the last of four eras. Kali Yuga is the dark Age of Iron. This is also an age of coal which was first used mainly for forging iron to make weapons and armour, at first in China then spreading Westwards. The Kali Yuga is a time of increasing patriarchy, rape, migrations, loss of wisdom and conflict. At the end of this Yuga, rain will cease, crops fail, people starve and retreat to the remaining forests and mountains. The sacred rivers, especially Ganga, will dry up and become polluted. Now, in reality, the Tibetan glaciers feeding India’s northern rivers are retreating faster than other glaciers in the world. Also, the sacred rivers are so polluted that their people are more prone to cancer than anywhere else in the world. The belief is, though, that a more just and harmonious Yuga is soon to come.

I don’t suggest the story of the four Yugas is literally true. There are some blazing ‘errors’. For example, in the telling of the three Yugas before ours, humans were giants and lived for thousands of years, the earlier the Yuga the bigger they were and longer they lived. These stories were written long before the excavatory kind of science that exposed our ancestors’ remains. Perhaps it was always obvious to all listeners that the previous Yugas could not be known, so they were turned into a mathematical metaphor, a kind of mandala of expanding time and scale into deep past. I’m talking about the Yugas because they are an example of how mythical thinking can generate profound truths through the knowing use of metaphor. In the same way, I don’t know what my green mountain dream really means, but I know what it made me feel and think about.

Many indigenous cultures have a version of the Kali Yuga. The American Hopi, as in the Vedas, believe that we are at the end of the fourth age and entering into the Fifth World. Their predictions have been linked to interpreting the atomic explosions (a gourd of ashes falling from the sky), the internet (a global spider’s web), and a ‘spiritual conflict’. It is no great surprise that the Hopi way of life is primarily threatened by the fossil fuel industries, through appropriation of land, pollution, diversion of water and climate change. What is unfolding now has been foretold by many, not just by these two cultural groups, but these predictions are dismissed by media commentators as nonsense.

‘Look’, they say, ‘those primitive people predicted the apocalypse but they were wrong because  it hasn’t happened yet and we’re still here’. This is a denial, despite unprecedented access to the facts, of what is happening already. Many people whose worlds are in fact ending are not heard, are unable to speak or are all already gone. These are the peoples who must abandon their lands or villages due to loss of infrastructure and the influx of terror. These are also all the non-human species that are ‘endlings’ in this age of extinction. We must also take into account the losses of settled cultures and species still to come in this century.

At the Weatherfronts course, the diplomat John Ashton insisted that ‘Climate change isn’t about science, environment, economics. It is all these but it is really about the theft of our voice.’ So perhaps our question should be not so much ‘what kind of story is climate change?’ but ‘who is speaking and are they heard’? Are these hearings leading to greater conviction, to a deepening of love? Are they helping more people learn to be affected?

The familiar argument of spiritual ecologists is that we must regain the enchantment of mythos over the argument-winning power of logos. I think this is right, but it needs to work. The challenge is to dramatically ramp up people’s ability to think with passionate immersion.

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Flow India summer camp in Gurgaon, 2013, creative responses to the Ramayana

Traditionally, when the Ramayana story is told in India and beyond, work stops for several days – a festival of performance and reflection takes over. Maybe we can learn from this to give more space for stories. This would honour stories more – providing more aids to enchantment, more ritual, more effective injunctions to ‘listen’, more respect for the witnesses and tellers. Also, more synthesis of meaning and less fragmentation of stories into shareable media-atoms. Moreover, there needs to be more space around stories for others to take over the story, to satirise it or to tell their own. There needs to be more space for enquiry in response to art and stories, to explore ‘what if?’ and ‘what next?’ Charlie Kronick from Greenpeace has suggested that the biggest opportunities for storytelling now are not so much transformation through catharsis but through disruption and satire. I think we need more catharsis and enchantment, not less, but this alongside more interpretation, more support for those who need to be heard and then more political action. We need to dwell on our dreams but this so that we can wake up from a worsening nightmare.

 

Crawling Home

I am alone and having second thoughts. Wearing my father’s pinstripe suit from the ’60s, vintage, rumpled, a little big on me and worn out, like maybe I got it out of a box at the Salvation Army.

Waiting for my wingman at the very bottom of Broadway. This route was once a game trail that wild animals ran on, then a hunting path for indians, then a muddy dirt road for the white man. Now this. It would be so easy to not do this. I’ll bet the guy who walked on a tightrope between the twin towers felt that way. But what he did was so brave, so exciting and risky. It was the opposite of this. Can crawling be brave? I am crawling from the bottom of this island all the way up Broadway to my home in Washington Heights. Why am I doing this? Suddenly I can’t remember.

My brother called me as I walked south past Wall Street and he asked me not to do it. He sounded worried and that’s unusual. At moments like this I realise he’s getting older and supposedly I am too. He’s making sounds like this crawl might be a sure sign that my unraveling is finally at hand. I’ve done plenty of weird things in public and everyone knows I don’t embarrass easily — but somehow this one is giving people pause.

‘What about your wife and son, man,’ he says, ‘what do they think?’ ‘Is this a cry for help?’ he asks. ‘Why are you doing this?’

‘I’m crawling so you don’t have to,’ I tell him.

I imagine if you don’t live in Manhattan crawling up Broadway could seem sort of self destructive. It’s true, I could get vomited on, or kicked in the face, or spit on. An insane homeless man limps by me now with bare torn up feet, muttering to himself, stabbing at the air with his hand. He might jump on my back and try to ride me. I see construction workers who look sort of drunk on the sidewalk smoking and spitting and cat calling at passing women. What will they say when I crawl by? Then again maybe the person who is dangerous is the one who is crawling.

Teddy, my wingman for the day, arrives. He’s got a camera. He’s hip, low key and alert. He checks out passing women as I put on the knee-pads.

I need to start. I need to silence these doubting voices in my head. Is this just self abuse? Is this just me being bitter or wanting attention? No. Fuck that. This is an offering. A loving gesture to my fellow man! My sense of why I’m crawling flickers in and out of sight inside my head.

Can something be profound and pathetic all at once? Of all the things I could be doing with my time. This is lame.

Shame. Penance. Punishment. Blah blah blah.

Come on Leaver, you’re all talk no action. Stop thinking! Start crawling!

I put on my gloves, worn leather work gloves from upstate stone walls. I want to make sure I don’t panic and crawl too fast. I don’t want to meander or crawl too slow. A confident purposeful crawl seems like the way to go. I guess I’ll know it when I feel it.

I haven’t crawled more than a few feet since I was a baby, back before I could walk. Back before I could walk… That’s where I’m going.

People are starting to get out for lunch and fill the sidewalks. I take a breath and take a look up at the overcast sky. Deep in the financial district. I get down on my hands and knees and nod to the earth beneath me. I start to crawl.

Deep in my subconscious an alarm sounds telling me that I am in trouble. It’s not right to be down here like this. Adrenaline is released and I get a surge of energy. It’s harder than I thought, physically, like little pushups. The movement torques my core. It feels wrong on so many levels. I’m vulnerable and claustrophobic. A voice inside says get up. Walk. Don’t’ crawl. Stand. Don’t crawl. Run. Get up! Fight! But I stay down and climb the flat sidewalk forward.

I can’t really see up ahead unless I stop and twist my neck. My wrists are going to be sore. I should be using my fist knuckle, like an ape. I can tell this flat palm method will strain my wrists. My kneepads are slipping and my knees are on their way to raw and I haven’t even crawled a full block. I try to concentrate on my pace and hug the right side of the sidewalk, out of the way of the main flow. Some pictures get taken. I feel like a dog and a clown and holy man.

A young cop leans down into my vision and his voice is genuinely nice and concerned. ‘What are you doin?’

‘Personal project,’ I say, like it’s nothing to worry about. I keep moving. I’ve got it under control.

‘OK.’ He says and that’s it. He disappears. I was going to say ‘private challenge’ I think that might have worked too.

Nobody says anything to me for a while. I hear people take pictures and make sounds about the guy on the ground, but nobody engages with me directly. Nobody asks if I’m okay. I wasn’t hoping they would. But still… I must seem like I’m OK.

My crawling form must make me look like I don’t need help. I take a break on my knees and trade a nod with Teddy, then I keep going. I look down, 18 inches or so below. It’s like a view from a plane as I pass over black smears of dry gum, tiny lakes of spit, cigarette butts, and wide pristine plains of smooth cement.

After a while I stand and a uniformed doorman asks me how I’m doing. I tell him ‘I’m crawling home to Washington Heights. Something I’ve always wanted to do.’ His eyes get wide and he nods. He sort of likes it, or gets it, or maybe he’s pleased to have a new story to tell his family tonight at dinner.

I realise that like walking you can crawl as if you know where you’re going, like you mean business, like you might not be someone to trifle with. Even in this defeated position one can project strength.

I feel like a fish, a man salmon swimming up this concrete river of commerce, indifference and pain. Up Broadway I go to spawn and die.

It is lonely down here on my hands and knees in the Canyon of Heroes. Huge parades came through here. I wasn’t expecting to feel so lonely. Is this an act of desperation? There is desperation in the air. Does that make me desperate? Voices in my head told me to do this. Since when did voices in your head get such a bad rap? Maybe I’m praying. Maybe this is a meditation, or a migration. I am going home.

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Photos by Teddy Jefferson/ Larry Fessenden.