The Shrine

We leave the column before Gyeongju and start the long ride into the hills. The hooves of our mounts like wooden bells, rhythm of the march. Before us the raised cement roadway bisecting the cut rice paddies. There was frost on the ground this morning and ice still filigrees the ditchwater.

Behind us fades the stamping of the men on foot. Brody is playing Beyoncé. He has rigged his MP3 player and some computer speakers to a solar cell and tied them all onto his backpack with audio cable. He says Beyoncé calms the mounts. I can’t say either way. They were bred as racehorses, but they trudge like mules. By now they are probably deaf. Once Brody fell asleep in the saddle with the music playing and I touched his shoulder and felt the bass running through him like electric current.

We climb the hill road. The short autumn day advancing. Below us, through the trees, 경주, Gyeongju, like a cloak of ancient grey mould on the landscape. The reservoir like a dull aluminium plate. The burial mounds covered in green grass. A paraglider whines over the city. Two shots crackle. The horses do not swivel their ears, they keep plodding.

The road is fissured and uplifted; old grass grows in the splitting asphalt. The air thin and still. Beyoncé must carry a long way in the woods. I see no birds. The snare flagellates the tweeter.

We climb toward the temple: 불국사Bul Guk Sa. I translate mentally. My mind clicks like a watch mechanism. Beyoncé raps out clipped lyrics. Temple of the People of the Light, I think. Or perhaps, Shrine to a Burning Nation.

I ask Brody which he thinks it means. He looks at me for a long time, his eyes squinted. I am on the downhill side of the road. I must appear as a black silhouette on a horse, backlit by the afternoon above Gyeongju.

ʻ당신은 한국어 잘 못해요,ʼ is all he says. Dangshineun hangukeo jal mot heyo. You don’t speak Korean well.

 *

The monks have barricaded the gates with old furniture and toilets and ice cream refrigerators, but a half stick is enough. The horses pick their way through, flames burning here and there like doomed votives. Inside the wall, a parkland of hard bare earth, long-stalk trees. Ahead, the temple sits on its bulwarks like an imperious toad.

We cross a wide bridge over a pond of slime. There are three monks in grey jackets sitting on the steps leading to the temple. The stonework of the steps and the walls is monumental and perfectly fit and has been here for a thousand years. The granite shows its grain from acid rain. The monks are very thin and their coats are too large and their clothes and threadbare beards are the colour of the stone.

We draw rein. I look at the monks. They are very still. Like stones, they will be worn away and there is nothing that can stop it. One might as well be the agent. Protest against this is the height of impotence.

Three yellow leaves fall from a tree limb, the other side of Brody. They swing through the air to the dust. Brody’s rifle is resting behind the horn of his saddle. The horses stamp and turn, nervous. I look at Brody, but he looks ahead, his body still while his mount sidles under him. He pulls out his shooter’s earplugs by their string. The air has gone very still, there is no sound, just a high bell, perpetual; it will dim later, I know, in the dull evening. Like all things. I can see a tiny rivulet of blood running through a divot in one of the steps.

 *

We ride through the park around the temple and find a ramp running up to a side gate. I dismount. Brody watches the wall, ready should anyone appear. I light another half stick and lay it at the base of the gate. Thickly painted in red, iron rivets like a horse’s eye.

The dust is gold and brown in the sunlight like dry rice chaff. The doors hang splintered on their hinges. I push through the smoke and dust with my rifle at my shoulder but there is no-one, just the pavilion with the gigantic statue. He is too big for the building and the roof of curving tile hangs above him like a ceremonial helmet. The wood pillars drop from the roof like tassels. Intricate fractal designs in red and green and blue. The doors are open to the fall air and I can see the buddha’s expression of infinite ennui, his skin of dull gold.

I climb the steps and stop at the threshold and then I turn around and sit and unlace my boots. In stinking socks I cross the creaking wood, burnished to a sheen. I look at the side of his face. He is very large and his head seems far away, lost in the shadow beneath the roof. The many miniatures of him lining the walls, each different in some minute characteristic, all the same. The silence is the afternoon, the autumn. I place the dynamite in his lap like an offering. He is immobile and accepting. He is indifferent.

I trail the long fuse to the door, light it. Watch the spitting tail make its way over the wood like an insane rat afire. I take a moment to pen a poem about it. Toss the scrap of paper on the floor, then stamp into my boots. Cross the yard with my gun slung up on my shoulder.

Brody sits on his horse and stares hard at me, because my boots are untied and because I have taken so long, and maybe this is the moment he begins to distrust me, though it could have been any time, or no particular moment, an accretion of suspicion like a stalagmite. His testimony will be instrumental in what comes later.

As we ride through the hard-packed grounds, I see the disarranged monks out of the corner of my eye. Smoke and dust hang in the air. We leave through the ruined gate and ride slowly down the mountain, listening to Beyoncé and watching the still woods, their turning colours. The scarlets and umbers and goldenrods occur when the trees draw their chlorophyll back from the leaves. They are colours of burning decay.

 *

We rejoin the column on the road and the men on foot glance up at us as we pass and then back at the ground. The afternoon is going. I admire the high dykes of earth where the palace of the Silla kings once stood, now almost indistinguishable from the landscape, covered over by deep field weeds and broad-trunked oaks.

I smell the smoke and look back the way we we’ve come and already there are thick grey plumes on the mountain. I didn’t mean to do that, but what did I expect. And furthermore: how large is the gap between the destruction of icons and the burning of a forest. This is the kind of thinking that will get me in trouble later.

The rice fields have been drained and cut, the stubble like a million buried brooms. The chaff hangs in bundles on the fences. A breeze comes up and the stalks rustle dry; the evening is lying down, purple air. Among the bundles on the fence hangs a dead snake.

As we advance toward Gyeongju, we come alongside Anapji Pond. It’s only a replica, but it’s on the list. We turn off the road, and cross the field to one of the pavilions.

Brody uses a bundle of rice chaff to make a fire at the base of a pillar and then stands there watching the sparks and smoke to see if it will take. The paint all peeling, advancing psoriasis of wood. A bamboo grove across the pond gossips in the breeze. I sit in the saddle with the reins loose and look into the black pond. There are rafts of yellow leaves blanketing the surface of the water beside the shore. The water is opaque. A reflected flicker as Brody’s fire climbs the pillar. Then I see an old man sitting with a fishing pole in his hand. We watch each other, neither moving. He is still there, even when the flames start to eat the roof beams of the pavilion and Brody mounts up again.

 *

An ugly moon rises over the mountains as we ride into Gyeongju. Darkness lies matted in the alleys. We find the guest house where we are to be billeted, across the wall from the hill tombs. It is composed of many low buildings inside a compound, the roof tiles greyed with age and lichen. The gate is locked and we ring a tin bell that hangs on a wire.

The proprietress has wiry black hair and rings upon rings under her eyes. When she sees us her mouth gets hard.

ʻ외국인 안 됩니.ʼWaygooken an dweibnida. Foreigners are not allowed, she says.

ʻ우리 외국인 없어요. 앳애디 입니다.ʼOolie waygooken upseo yo. Es-Ay-Dee imnida. We are not foreigners, says Brody. We are the Special Anti-Establishment Detachment.

She stares at us for a moment. Time for the lichen to grow on the tiles. Then she slowly swings back like a gate, and we duck under the jamb and enter.

There is a dusty yard, scraggly plants hemmed in by broken pots and bricks along the walls. She goes ahead of us with stooped shoulders and waves at a paper screen door. Inside there are two bunks tacked to the wall, enough room for us to stand side-by-side. I don’t step in because my boots are still on.

ʻ온돌 있어요?Ondol isseoyo? Do you have floor heating?

ʻ없어.ʼ Upseo. Don’t.

Brody takes her by the collar of her plaid shirt. He shows her his knife, a carbon steel kitchen blade, the colour of the roof tiles except where he has honed it, a silver thread.

ʻ공손히.ʼGongson hee. Be courteous.

ʻ없어요.ʼ Upseoyo.

ʻBetter,ʼ Brody says in English.

He lets her go and she steps away from him, back towards the main building.

ʻ밥 주세요.ʼPab jusaiyo, I say. Please bring us a meal.

 *

She bows as she goes. A half-hour later she brings us two bowls of kamja-tang, nothing but half a potato in salt broth, a chip of grey bone at the bottom. I look at Brody and he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t look at her as she goes.

It is near full dark when we finish eating, sitting with our feet out the door of our room. Bats flap overhead in the bruised twilight. There is a terrible feeling in my throat. As if something has gestated there, is trying to be birthed.

I get up and take the bowls toward the kitchen of the guesthouse. I can feel Brody watching me. As he is, even when not looking, waiting for a fault to appear.

It is dark in the common room and I can’t find a lamp. My hands full of the ceramic bowls. The woman is nowhere. I move through the shadows toward the dim light cast by the window over the counter. The steel sink is coated in dust, cobwebs in the drain.

There are shelves of decaying books along the walls and after I leave the bowls I brush my hands along the spines. They are dry, desiccated, ready to burn. Almost yearning for it. I stand staring at their faded covers in the gloaming.

When I step outside I hear a sharp scream. The hollow gong of a pot falling to the floor. Brody appears out of a side door and comes toward me, hunched shoulders. Behind him two soldiers are dragging the woman out into the walk on her heels. He has accused her of something, perhaps practicing Islam. She claws at the jamb of the gate before they get her away.

Brody comes close to me and stares hard into my eyes. This lasts a long time. I wonder if we are waiting for the soldiers to return and drag me away too. He has a sweet potato in his hand and he brings it to his mouth and takes a bite. Then he pivots on his toe and stalks toward our bunks.

 *

Later I walk the horses out to the tombs to graze. The mounds are twice as tall as the town that surrounds them, steep hillocks furred thick in grass and thistle. I hobble the horses in a valley between the slopes and they begin to pull at the weeds.

I leave the mounts and wander among the tombs. No-one has begun to farm here; a few things must be left. A persimmon tree has dropped all its fruit on the ground to rot. The dead sweet smell in the dark.

I climb one of the tombs and stand under the large oak that grows at its peak. I put my hand on the bark. I think some time we may be called to level this place, taking ancestor worship into account. This tree would be cut then. Nothing is clear. There are the words, and there is what I have seen. Brody only listens to Beyoncé because she was on the iPod he found. A remnant; where is she now?

The moon has been hazed red by smoke. To the north beside the reservoir an old hotel has been razed, a great candle in the dark. Beneath the moon is the forest fire around Bulguksa, bright on the hill as if someone had spilled the sun, and to the south the pavilions by Anapji are bonfires. I say the names of these things in my mind, not aloud. I can smell the smoke, but it is silent, only the sound of the wind brushing the hair of the grass. Someone is singing an old song far away. To the west are dark mountains like smoked glass.

Things will get worse from here on.

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.

The Wolves and the Ferryman

How Wolves Change Rivers

By singing to the moon, when the beavers move in, by the growing of trees, when the soil resists the rain, when the sky rubs its belly on the leaves, by singing to the wind, by killing the deer, by moving them on from the valleys, by the birds coming back to the trees, by singing to the water, with the return of the fish, with the great ambition of beavers, with the return of bears moving across the land like dry ships, by an abundance of berries, by the bear reaching and pulling down branches, by the green coming back, by the green coming back, by the steadiness of soil, by the deer leaving the valley and the gorges, by the aspen growing, by the cottonwood growing, by the willow growing, by the songbirds singing to the trees, by the beavers coming back to love the trees, by the absence of coyotes and the abundance of rabbits, by the bald eagle and the raven who arrive to minister to the dead, by the glove of a weasel and the burn of the fox, by the gathering of pools, the holding together of the river bank by the trees, by the river finding its spine once again.

 

The Ferryman

They were waiting on the shore,
some with mobiles in their hands,
the words they thought
they’d have the chance to say
sitting round and smooth
like stones inside their mouths,
some on hands and knees,
feeling for spectacles, eyes tight
against the sun, not realising
the dark had gone, and some
sit on chair-shaped rocks,
as if they can still feel the shunt
of the tube, the doors opening
with a blast of stale air
and all have come too far
but with no way of getting back,
they move forward, the water
washes their feet
as the ferryman holds up
his hand for them to stop
but being without a tongue
he cannot explain the boat
was only built for twelve
or shout at them to wait,
to give him the coin that is
somewhere on their person
and now the water is round
their knees and the ones
with phones have said their piece,
they are wading to their waists
and all the ash has washed away
and their hands are on the boat,
they’re swimming to the side
or underneath, pushing out
toward the castle half-eaten
by the wind, to the jetty
with its broken crabs and seaweed
as if they knew the way without him,
and maybe they did because I found
the coins still warm from the heat
of their palms or wet from their mouths,
dropped as if the rules did not exist.

ʻThe Ferrymanʼ was first published in Kim’s pamphlet, If We Could Speak Like Wolves, Smith/Doorstop, Sheffield, 2012.

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.

 

Thin Blue Line

The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
ʻCos London is drowning and I live by the river1

The photo is of an intervention (graffiti? street art? I don’t really know what to call it) that I began in 2011, in the post-industrial waterfront district of Bilbao where I used to live. It consists of a thin blue line, at a height of roughly a metre above the high-tide mark, painted over everything in its path – walls, gates, lamp-posts, trees…

I say ʻbeganʼ because I imagined the line continuing downriver to the sea, then spreading to other sea-level cities around the globe – but I ran out of paint after about two hundred metres, which seemed enough to be going on with. (If this essay inspires you to continue the project in your own city, be my guest.)

The point, of course, was to depict the imperceptible yet inexorable trend of sea level rise: to place it in the public domain, visible to the naked eye. The height of the line is somewhat arbitrary: one metre is a nice round figure, and a convenient height to paint if you’re standing on a road that’s basically at sea level. Regardless of how fast the seas may rise, they won’t stop rising in the foreseeable future, so the question is not whether sea level will reach the blue line, but when.2 2100? Sooner? Later? Nobody knows. For the record – given the exponential growth of bad news about the climate – I’m guessing significantly sooner, like around 2075. The main unknown factor is the rate at which the Greenland and Antarctica ice-caps will melt. The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in / Meltdown expected…

Even in 2011, though, it was still possible to talk about halting sea level rise, and to naively imagine that small acts of civil disobedience could tip the balance. In hindsight, this was probably an illusion – especially for a faint-hearted activist like me, nervous of exercising my right to free speech on other people’s walls, even in an area of abandoned factories and vacant lots already swamped in graffiti. Just imagine if I had painted the line where someone might actually notice it – on the fronts of my neighboursʼ houses, say, or the titanium facade of the Guggenheim museum, also located at sea level, a few kilometres upriver!

As it was, I was half expecting to be told off by some guardian of public decency – which is just what happened: my downstairs neighbour Luis strolled by and caught me in the act. He snorted and said something along the lines of, ʻIsn’t it bad enough for kids from outside to come here and mess the place up, but you have to go and make it worse!ʼ I tried to explain myself, but he looked at me uncomprehendingly and walked on.

Obviously, like most people, Luis concerns himself almost solely with local issues – including what he sees as the defacing of the area where he’s lived for forty years. He’s much less worried by the rising seas than by the rising tide of ʻvandalismʼ in his neighbourhood. I suspect he knows, and cares, as much about the melting of the Greenland ice caps as a typical Inuit does about the league performance of Athletic Bilbao. So much for influencing public opinion.

But when I stepped back and looked at my work, I realised that, as often happens, the unintended effects were more interesting than the conscious intention. The blue line wasn’t neutral, merely calling attention to a trend. It had an ambivalent, slightly menacing feel to it. I was reminded of the condemned houses in post-Katrina New Orleans, spray-painted with a code to indicate their hazardous contents (X dead bodies and Y fridges full of rotten food), and the movement to resist their demolition and the relocation of local communities.

A touchy subject. Since 2004 the residents of my old neighbourhood had successfully defended their (our) homes against the bulldozers, and helped paralyse – for almost a decade – plans to build a mini-Manhattan of luxury skyscrapers, designed by superstar architect Zaha Hadid. At the time of writing, Zaha’s Master Plan is allegedly still going ahead, albeit far more slowly and in a modified form, with more ʻsustainabilityʼ (i.e. green space, trams and car-free zones) included. But meanwhile, a community of upstarts – theatre and circus folk, artists and craftspeople of all kinds, ukelele players, flea marketeers, urban gardeners, and so on – is thriving among the disused factories and warehouses.3

So what if ʻmeanwhileʼ became a permanent condition? What if everyone knew this place was going to be underwater some day, and everything was done for ʻthe momentʼ, with full awareness of its (and our own) mortality? Perhaps the thin blue line should be seen not as threatening a status quo, but as defining – and defending – a new territory. A liminal zone, a wild frontier, a floating world. The Free State of Meanwhile. The Intertidal City.

I am not talking about planned retreat, mitigation or adaptation. Those concepts imply the continuance of business-as-usual by whatever means necessary. While government and industry build costly – and ultimately futile – sea defences, shift to higher ground, or simply cut their losses and flee, the intertidal city will play host to a different project: a cultural transformation of the relationship between human beings and the sea.

*

 Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell…4

Like other wild places – forests, mountains, wetlands – to the civilised mind the sea has always represented the unconscious, the uncontrolled, the other. But whereas civilisation has always sought to tame (i.e. to destroy) other wild places, its relationship with the sea is more intimate and more complex. In fact, the sea permeates the very heart of civilisation, bearing an immense material and cultural legacy.

Sea levels have actually been rising ever since the last ice age – rapidly from about fifteen thousand to seven thousand years ago, including some catastrophic events (hence the universal legend of the great flood), but much more slowly thereafter.5 This stabilisation, doubtless, was a factor in the rise of civilisation. Cities have always been synonymous with the growth of trade – and of war, the flip-side of the same coin, delivering different merchandise via the same logistical means. And trade has always been predominantly seaborne. The history of the West, especially, is dominated by one maritime city after another – Athens, Rome, London, New York – with continental cities mostly playing second fiddle. Even today, 90% of goods are transported by ship.6 Amazingly, an estimated one hundred and forty-five million people – one human being in fifty! – live below the thin blue line, within a metre of sea level.7 Put it this way: if I was Gaia and I wanted to bring down civilisation while minimising damage to ecosystems, rapid sea level rise would be my weapon of choice.

Eighty percent of these people live in Asia, 10% in Europe.So many people clinging like limpets to such a narrow strip of territory. Narrow, but exceedingly long: stretching from Amsterdam to Alexandria, Bangkok to Bilbao, Cardiff to Cape Town, Mumbai to Miami, Rio to Riga, Seattle to Shanghai, Wellington to Washington… Perhaps it’s the subconscious tug of tide and brine, reminding us of our origins in the sea, in the womb.

I know I’ve felt this. After growing up in the English Midlands, far from the coast, I spent three years doing ecology fieldwork on rocky shores, working during spring tides, when the lower shore is uncovered: living with the offset rhythms of the moon, one week out of every fortnight, an hour later every day. I continued the work even after I realised I wasn’t cut out for an academic career: while I found being on the shore and observing its creatures thrilling, reducing their diversity to data bored and disturbed me, and the process of generating and testing simplistic hypotheses seemed sterile by comparison with the richness of life in a rock pool.

I suppose this makes me a Romantic, returning to wild nature for inspiration, reacting against the dominion of the rational mind (I had already switched subjects from physics to ecology). The whole idea of going to the seaside, in fact, can be seen as arising from the nineteenth-century Romantic movement, combined with the growth in mobility of the urban masses.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Venice: the city married to the sea, which gave birth to capitalism and the modern era. Venice was a destination for Romantic tourists before either the concept of tourism or the Romantic movement existed.8 It is particularly relevant to note that the world’s first beach resort proper – now replicated along thousands of kilometres of coastline worldwide – was the Lido of Venice.

And now, of course, it is the world’s most famous intertidal city, poster child for sea level rise. In point of fact the flooding of Venice, to date, has more to do with subsiding land than rising seas – it’s ahead of the curve again. But at any rate it makes a beautiful modern-day Atlantis, and a model for the intertidal cities of the future. All the more reason to go there now, before it sinks beneath the waves forever, before air miles are subject to rationing or peak oil puts an end to budget flights.

At least, that was my excuse for agreeing to fly there for a family holiday, in May 2013. (Unfortunately, I have read and thought enough about climate change to make me fret pointlessly over choices like this. Any sensible person would take the holiday and not lose any sleep over it. Rationally, I know that my individual decisions as a consumer can hardly make a difference to the global climate. Collective decisions are another matter, if it were possible to make these on a global scale. But I still felt personally responsible for the fact that, a couple of days before we left, atmospheric CO2 concentrations hit 400 ppm for the first time in millennia.)

Of course Venice happens to be a mass tourist destination, with a wealth of cultural treasures accumulated during centuries of fleecing the known world. (Just one milestone in a long and sordid history: Venetian bankers crashed the European economy by manipulating the exchange rate between gold and silver – in 1346.9)

But more to the point, it’s also a living city in an intimate embrace with the sea. I overheard an American woman on the Rialto say it was ʻjust like Disney, only weirderʼ; I suppose that was her only other experience of a human-scale, car-free built environment.

The best part of our trip was acqua alta – flooding – which isn’t supposed to happen in May, but it did. We had to wade to get in or out of our street, which delighted at least two of my travelling companions (aged nine and seven). The locals wore wellies, I went barefoot. Social barriers broke down: as we chatted to two Venetian gentlemen on the Fondamento dei Mori, a green crab scuttled by on the flooded pavement; one of them caught it and showed it to a couple of passing schoolboys. For a few hours, an unmistakeable atmosphere of carnival reigned; then the waters subsided and life went on as before.

Venice certainly doesn’t seem to be suffering from a sense of doom and gloom due to its impending disappearance beneath the Adriatic. One resident told me that he much prefers it in the winter, when there is more acqua alta but fewer tourists. Water, it seems, the Venetians can handle. The main threats to the city – as far as I could judge during one short visit – seem to come from inundations of money: the super-rich buying up property that then lies empty; giant luxury cruise ships damaging the lagoon; and MOSE, a corrupt sea-defence project apparently designed to divert funds, not floodwaters.10

Which seems to make a general point nicely. Which is more dangerous: the forces of nature unleashed by climate change – or the civilisation that caused them to be unleashed in the first place? It’s true that extreme weather and violent flooding are serious hazards – but they are much worse when exacerbated by deforestation, building on flood plains, and other unsustainable land-use practices driven by corruption and greed.11

The worst damage, both to human cultures and the biosphere, comes from an out-of-control global economy. Sea level rise, rather than being a terrifying spectre from which to flee, or an excuse for siphoning public money into giant sea defences, can be embraced – as a liberating opportunity to bring wild nature into the heart of our dysfunctional cities.

Back in my old neighbourhood in Bilbao, flooding is slowly becoming a regular part of life. Last winter the main road was underwater several times during spring tides. Apart from flooded basements, the principal effect was that the area was closed to traffic, and people parked their cars elsewhere. For a while, it was wonderfully peaceful. Engines stop running, but I have no fear / ʻCos London is drowning and I live by the river.

Welcome to the intertidal city. Don’t forget your wellies.

1 The Clash. (1979) London Calling
2 The IPCC predicts 30-95cm by 2100, while the US National Research Council says 56-200 cm. In May 2014 a new study concluded that the melting of the Amundsen sea sector of West Antarctica – adding a metre to global sea levels on its own, and leading to the collapse of the remainder of the West Antarctic ice sheet, causing another three to five metres of sea level rise – is now inevitable. The Amundsen sector is estimated to take a couple of centuries to disappear, but I have a strong suspicion those could melt into decades.
3 See ʻBeyond Zʼ in Dark Mountain 3.
4 Shakespeare, W. (1611) The Tempest
5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Post-Glacial_Sea_Level.png
6 George, R. (2013) Ninety Percent of Everything, Metropolitan Books
7 Ahlenius, H. UNEP/GRID-Arendal, 2007
8 Rosalind to Jaques: ʻFarewell, Monsieur Traveller: look you lisp and wear strange suits, disable all the benefits of your own country … or I will scarce think you have swam in a gondola.ʼ Shakespeare, W. As You Like It, 1599
9 Piers Tremlett. (2012) The Spirit of Venice
10 At the time of writing, the mayor of Venice is facing corruption charges related to the MOSE.
11 Monbiot, G. (2014) ʻDrowning in Moneyʼ, The Guardian, January 13th, 2014.

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. 

Shortly Before the End

Shortly before the end, their minds turned sleek and black and were last seen bobbing and diving among small, open fishboats in the harbour. The golden light scattered diamonds atop the sea whenever a lean mind broke the surface. Each mind had a tight band around its neck and a string on one leg. This allowed it to continue searching and biting down on anything slippery it might encounter while scouring the murky depths. The collar prevented the mind from assimilating its catch, thus rendering each mind into an immaculate self-propelled satchel that was relieved of its still squirming bounty by a higher power every time it bobbed to the surface and the string was reeled in. By afternoon, the collars were removed and the ravenous minds were allowed to eat just enough of their haul to remain conscious and nourish brain cells. Then they were shut away in wicker crates until the following day.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 (PDF)

The Autumn 2014 issue of essays, fiction, poetry and artwork invites responses to 'the rising of the waters'.

Read more

The Rising of the Waters

 

 As this editorial is written, the fifth anniversary of the launch of Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain manifesto has just come round. Five summers and five winters have passed since we first gathered forty or fifty people together in the back room of a pub in southern England and tried to explain to them what this emerging ‘project’ was about. Explaining Dark Mountain in a few sentences has always been hard work: half a decade on, all of us involved still find it impossible to agree on a succinct definition of what Dark Mountain actually is. Is it a literary movement, a cultural movement, a discussion network, a campaign, a conversation, an escape, a disengagement, a re-engagement, a means or an end? Probably it is all of these and more.

But whatever it is, the questions we are asking, the way we are framing them, and the new stories and remade stories we seek in these pages seem to feel less and less marginal each year. Something is changing. When our manifesto was first published we were mocked in some quarters as ‘doomers’ and ‘crazy collapsitarians’. Back then, the talk was still of stopping climate change and building global justice for all, and asking questions about collapse and decline and the nature of the assumptions behind these stories was the same thing as ‘giving up’, which was the worst thing of all. These days, you can read newspaper editorials that seem strangely similar to some of our early blogs, and this project is receiving glowing five-thousand-word write-ups in, of all places, the New York Times.

In his recent book Feral, the environmental writer George Monbiot makes much of a concept he calls ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. The idea is simple enough: our expectations of what is normal change so gradually that we don’t notice normality itself shifting quite radically over fairly short periods of time. So, for example, if you grow up in a landscape in which no birds sing, the rivers are polluted and you can’t see the stars at night, you assume that this is just The Way Things Are. Just a generation or two before, children may have grown up in the same landscape and it may have been noisy with birdsong, clean water and starbright skies. Within a relatively short period of time, something enormous has changed – but because the change has been gradual rather than instant, it has been barely noticed.

Once you start to think in these terms, you can see this kind of thing everywhere. In Britain, we have seen it in the increasing regularity of winter floods. Major floods here were once rare events. They happened once every few decades perhaps. Now, they happen every winter without fail: in the Somerset levels, on the banks of the Thames, in the fens of the east and on the coasts of the northwest. ‘Major flooding events’, in which hundreds of people are washed out of their houses and whole towns and villages are brought to a standstill have very quickly become the new normal. Our baselines have shifted to accommodate them, and the Winter Flood is now something taken for granted. The streets of major towns awash with water have become normal sights. The first time London floods it will be a huge event. The second and the third times, it will be just like the time before, and then we will forget it was ever anything novel at all.

What lessons can we learn from this gradual falling away? One of them is the old lesson that we come back to again and again in our work: that we – humanity, and especially civilised humanity – are not in control. In the enlightened West, learning this lesson is going to be long and hard, and we may never admit that we have learned it at all. But another lesson is perhaps an even harder one: that nature, which we thought we had subdued, was never subdued at all. For most of our history, ‘nature’ was something Out There, something terrifying and threatening: our old fairytales are dripping with this fear. Then, for a brief time, nature became something fragile and threatened which we had to protect wisely and fiercely. Now we are beginning to see that if this was never the case, it is not the case any more. Suddenly we are back in the dark forest with the wolves howling all around us, and we can see light in the distance and there is nothing to do but head for it, though we don’t know what we will find when we reach it.

When we put out a call for submissions for this book, we asked people to imagine how the world would be if this grinding-down of our control and a power continued; if the waters kept rising, our old selves and old stories floating on the new current with them. What you see here is the many currents that have swirled in response to this question. From David Kenkel’s strange vision of himself as history to Joan Menefee’s story of the drowning of Venice; from Zedeck Siew’s dragon-summoner to Chris Smaje’s look at the future of farming; from the Great Salt Lake to the mythworld of an Amazon tribe, this collection sees new visions arising from the wreckage of the old, over time, slowly, unbidden, as it will always be.

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You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. 

 

False Economy

It began, I now think, with the purpling leaves as the light fell. As my bare arms grew goosebumpy. As ravens and squirrels and tree frogs tucked into their evening roosts. As I scuffed my way through fir needle duff on my journey home. Or the illusion of home, since the true destination always remains a cipher until we arrive.

Es dunkelt I thought, although it had been thirty years since that German class in university. Es dunkelt rolled through my head like loose bolts in a tuna fish can. Loose bolts that must not be forgotten because they belong somewhere. Because they are waiting to re-attach something important.

Leaves are not really purple. Except when es dunkelt. What are the true colours of the forest? If even hue is hostage to the vagaries of time-space, can anything be certain? And when did I lose my adaptation to sleep outdoors?

But we have a bigger problem. We are approaching the point in the story that is the actual beginning, and written in the way I had hoped to tell it all. The rest was just a confused preamble tacked on as an afterthought. And one that somehow managed to launch itself in the Modern Realist Tradition. Thus setting you up, I fear, to expect that you will learn more about me as we progress. We want stories about people after all, not unvetted ideas. Leave symbolism to the Surrealists, abstraction to the metaphysicians. Just load us up with nuanced personal detail to engage vicarious emotion and choke out any hatchlings of unbounded thought.  Perhaps you have already started to form a theory about the true reason for my detour through the woods, or for taking German in university. Perhaps you are even imagining a gullible student’s frothy affair with a German professor, a sexual act on a washing machine in a darkened laundry room at a faculty Christmas party at the Dean’s home. At the very least, you must by now have formed an opinion on my gender. But none of this is relevant. There are larger concerns at stake.

My best advice is to view our bumpy start as a lesson in non-attachment and simply move forward unencumbered. I will try to make the transition as smooth as possible.

The forest was deeper and more perplexing than I had anticipated. I looked (as best I could in the dunkelnden light) for a place to bed down, some way to keep warm. I saw a fallow deer sleeping at the base of an ancient cedar. I lay beside it and pulled the deer’s spots over myself. This worked very well, and the deer did not seem to notice. When I awoke the next morning, the deer was stiff and cold.

I said a brief blessing to the deer before leaving. I had heard (in university, perhaps) that aboriginal people do this to creatures whose lives they take. All I could think of was: es dunkelt. But that felt sufficient. I reminded myself that the deer was, afterall, an import from a foreign land, its ancestors having been shipped here in the previous century as a game species, born to die, to be of service. I privately thanked the genius who figured out how to make the value of a life rewritable. And to ambush any future insurgencies of conscience, I decided to compose a poem to the fallen deer whenever I finally arrived home.

I walked on, taking the spots with me. But by evening they were  gone. I had spent them all on food and drink and some casual entertainment provided by a troupe of travelling clouds. So I found another deer. And another.

I did not notice when the last deer disappeared because by then I had enough spots to purchase all the garments and coordinating accessories and Kitchenaid appliances I needed (plus some I didn’t). I hired men to cut the forest (paying them in spots, of course) and then build me a large house (more of a city, really) to hold my various acquisitions. Each day when es dunkelte, I simply switched on the lights. Life had become much easier than during my forest period.

Although I was inland, I heard reports of the ocean (no longer contained by the trees) going berserk, leaping out of its bowl, its black skin pulling back for miles, leaving vast topographies of sea-bottom exposed. Due to these extreme low tides, marine rocks – clad in their thick pelage of green algae – were now on display. Roving horses mistook the rocks for pasture and bit down hard (essentially victims of unexamined habit and transgenerational neural networks that were perhaps in need of mending), costing them their teeth. The horses were actually tarpans. And not the modern reconstruction of the species concocted by the Polish government in the nineteenth century. No, these were bonafide tarpans, long thought extinct. Without their teeth, these relict equines confronted the dialectics of survival: adapt or perish.

Their gut-smooth mouths became the undersides of gumboot chitons – pink, moist, yet surprisingly firm. The toothless tarpans befriended the enemy rocks before clamping down for good (perhaps now recognizing the relativity of enemy designations). The tarpans lay limp in the mud until the tide rolled in, lofting their coarse bodies skyward, each attached to its muck-sunk rock by a stalk of thick neck.

They had become – no, not seahorses. Pay attention. Expectation will undo you every time. You must re-invent yourself each moment if you seek authentic engagement with the universe. They were now sessile anenomes, undulating beneath the waves, ensnaring other less adaptable species in their whippy legs. (However when es dunkelt, they do become my night mares. Why after all these years do I still recall es dunkelt but not the corresponding phrase for ‘it grows bright’?)

Was I responsible for all this? The loss of the last known tarpans and trees and ex-pat fallow deer? The creation of sessile anenomes? A spot-based monetary system? The great yawing of the sea? I had only wanted to stay warm. Time to boot up the laptop and compose another poem.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 (PDF)

The Autumn 2014 issue of essays, fiction, poetry and artwork invites responses to 'the rising of the waters'.

Read more

 

Introducing Dark Mountain: Issue 6 (and beyond)

The sixth issue of Dark Mountain arrived from the printers a few days ago. As you can see, it is already being hungrily consumed by the target audience. Part of the attraction in this case may be the wonderful, and incredibly colourful, cover illustration by Eunah Cho. It’s quite a departure from our previous covers. But then, you could probably have said the same about any one of them.
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Our sixth anthology of uncivilised writing and art is a 270-page hardback, containing 42 essays, stories and poems, and 16 colour plates. This is the most visual issue of Dark Mountain to date: under the guidance of our art editor, Charlotte Du Cann, the photographs, etchings, sketchings and illustrations of all kinds creep from those plates and across the pages of the book. As text and images intermingle, they conjure up lordly dragons, corn masks, fire burials, water proverbs, Zen meditations, vignettes on technology, thoughts about farming, home made rafts, toxic squirrels, flocks of parrots, false windows, six deserts, seven coats, drowned cities and protest poems.

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If you’re a Dark Mountain subscriber, your copy of the new book is already making its way through the postal system and should reach you any day now.

Otherwise, you can order it from today through our online shop – or if you take out a subscription for future issues, you can get our two most recent issues for the price of one. Your support will also help to secure the long-term future of the project. If you’re interested, visit our subscriptions page to find out more.

 

ISSUE 7 – A CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

Dark Mountain now produces two books a year: one in April and one in October. As this book hits the streets, we’re already starting to think about the next one. So this blog post is also an invitation for submissions for Dark Mountain: Issue 7.

With each book, we seek to go deeper into the questions that have animated this project since we published our manifesto five years ago. We are looking for writing and art which pushes the boundaries, which unsettles the assumptions many of us grew up with and the ways we are used to looking at the world, which challenges the stories our civilisation tells itself. We don’t care who you are or whether you have ever been published before. We encourage new writers and artists, and new involvement from all over the world, especially from the parts of the world our books have not yet reached.

To find out more about the kind of thing we are looking for, and how to submit to us, have a look at our submissions guidelines. The deadline for submissions is 15th of December 2014.

Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy Issue 6 as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to you.

The Focal and the Flask

I

As we sat around the time-worn table at the start of winter, cradling our cups of tea, conversation turned to the so-called ‘turf wars’ which had recently been stirring controversy near us in County Galway, just west of Ireland’s longest river, the Shannon. Defying European Union directives to protect fifty-three areas of bogland, designated as Special Areas of Conservation, some locals have refused compensation packages and, in the face of a considerable police presence, continued to cut peat from the bogs for fuel. They hold this to be a traditional right, being impinged on by distant bureaucrats.

The emerald isle has a strange relationship with its peat bogs and the turf wars are a somewhat telling case. This is one of the few countries to burn them by the train load in peat-fired power stations, a means of energy production dirtier than oil, natural gas or coal. After decades of industrial exploitation, only one percent of Ireland’s original raised bog remains intact. While romanticised in the Irish psyche as being part of a centuries-old traditional culture, veneration of bogs is juxtaposed with the fact that conservation of these rich habitats was brought to life not by someone born on the island, but by a Dutch researcher, Matthijs Schouten, now Professor of Restoration Ecology at Wageningen University. In 1981, Schouten was horrified to find that Ireland’s ecologically crucial bogs were going in the direction of the exploited peatlands of his own country. So lax was Irish care for the sensitive ecology of the bog that Schouten founded the Dutch Foundation for the Conservation of Irish Bogs in 1983, which fundraised successfully for the protection of key tracts of threatened land.

Claims by turf-cutters of supposed infringement on traditional practices are dubious, moreover, as the increasing mechanisation of cutting in Ireland’s raised bogs puts some of this unique, protected habitat under an especially modern threat. Contemporary mechanised cutting shows very little resemblance to the laborious yet deliciously satisfying hand-slicing by sleán or slane, a tool traditionally used and famously described by Seamus Heaney in Digging:


My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.


Of course, a hint of truth exists in local scepticism of top-down initiatives for environmental protection. The turf wars are taking place in Galway just a decade after permission was controversially granted for the 850-acre development of massive concrete pads and access roads in what was then one of Europe’s most vast and controversial onshore windfarms. The seventy-one imposing skyscrapers of metal are located on a wooded hilltop near the village of Derrybrien, 600 acres of which had to be deforested to facilitate construction. Derrybrien itself has been decimated by decades of rural depopulation, its only foray into public awareness being an enormous landslide which made the news throughout 2003, found to be directly caused by the development of the wind farm. Half a million tonnes of peat were dislodged over a 32-kilometre area, polluting widely and killing more than 50,000 fish in local rivers. Courts ruled that inadequate environmental impact assessments had been carried out.

This wind farm is itself located in the midst of thousands of acres of state-run tree farms, a vast and sterile monoculture of soil-acidifying conifers, interspersed with a patchwork of devastated clearcuts. Derrybrien, rather wistfully, is a transliteration of the Irish Daraidh Braoin, the oak wood of Brian. The Irish high king Brian Boru is said to have used the oak forests of Derrybrien to shelter his guerrilla bands around the year 1000, harassing Scandinavian invaders along the Shannon by turning their own technique of surprise raids against them. These guerrilla fighters were to form the heart of the Dál gCais army which would finally defeat the king of Leinster and a Viking army at the battle of Clontarf, just north of Dublin, Boru himself perishing in the process. Boru’s oak woods have been replaced with low-biodiversity tree farms, mostly of wood which is structurally too poor for building and thus destined to be pulped. It’s a perplexing matryoshka doll of attempted sustainability (bog protection), pseudo-sustainability (industrial wind farms) and utter degradation for profit (monocultural tree farms), all run by distant institutions while the inhabitants of the land look on.

The neighbour who had joined us for tea moves the conversation on, to reminisce about cutting his farming family’s turbary, or customary plot of bog, with his father forty years ago. Laughing, he reminisces about the pranks neighbours used to play on each other – the mischievous hiding of wheelbarrows in bog holes, resulting in exasperated searching; the clever ones mitigating this boisterousness, hiding their own tools in trenches before cycling home for the evening. Stopping the conversation with a single statement he said, ‘It was pretty much one thing that destroyed that spirit.’ We waited. ‘Flasks.’ Our eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

 

II

Somewhat paradoxically, German philosopher Martin Heidegger opens his treatise The Question Concerning Technology with the statement that ‘the essence of technology is by no means anything technological.’ This is one among many profound insights in that classic essay, insinuating that technology is not really comprised of the artefacts we think of when we consider the modern world– the planes, cars and electronic gadgets – but is rather a way of relating to and framing the world. In Heidegger’s words, ‘technology is…no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing.’ This way of relating, or in Heidegger’s terminology, ‘mode of revealing’, he characterised as Ge-stell, an objectifying, challenging Enframing of nature which converts the world around us into dead resources or ‘standing-reserve.’ Humanity itself could eventually be taken up as standing-reserve, Heidegger warned, as indicated by increasing use of cold, technical terms such as Human Resources.

Given this view, of course, technology will never be neutral, but is always, in its contemporary form, an expression of a modern Ge-stell, a phenomenon which expands to engulf other cultural activities such as art and writing into the same dead utilitarianism and technological nihilism. Heidegger has thus been labelled an essentialist, a proponent of the idea that there is a basic essence, or trans-historical core, to technology.

Contrasting with this are the social constructivists, no doubt constituting the dominant story of technological modernity, who maintain that technology is neutral, by definition, and under the thumb of humanity. After all, asks the constructivist, do humans not design, produce and choose to use technological artefacts from start to finish? For Heidegger, while he admits that this common view ‘fixes upon something pertinent’ and reflects reality on some level, it largely misses the point. So long as we represent technology as a mere instrument, he avers, ‘we remain held fast in the will to master it. We press on past the essence of technology.’ Indeed, no single person, ‘no commission of prominent statesmen, scientists, and technicians, no conference of leaders of commerce and industry, can brake or direct the progress of history in the atomic age.’

The social constructivists have hit upon something correct, in other words, but ‘the correct is not yet the true.’ By saying, in characteristically cryptic terms, that the correct is not necessarily true, the German thinker is drawing a distinction between a surface reality, and a deeper, essential, and more hidden one. The surface reality is of course correct, and thus also, to a point, are the social constructionists. As I write this, for example, I am choosing to engage with a certain technology (a battered, dying old laptop), which I choose to use over other technological alternatives, (a pencil, a pen, mushroom ink and quill or a shiny tablet computer).

However, while correct, this insight is not yet true for it ignores a deeper, non-artefactual process which is occurring, and this is the danger of the one-sided social constructivism of our day. Otto Ullrich, an associate of Ivan Illich, puts it thus:


The alleged tools of progress are not tools at all, but technical systems that worm their way into every aspect of life and tolerate no alternatives…In their exterior aspect industrial machines and products are isolated objects that can be freely and everywhere employed like tools, according to the decision of the user. With them, however, there typically comes an infrastructural network of technical, social and psychological conditions, without which the machines and products do not work.

Take genetic engineering, as one ever-controversial example, and one falling within the purview of industrialised agriculture, a topic which interested Heidegger as a further symptom of Ge-stell. No doubt there is considerable hyperbole in what for decades has been framed as a polarised, binary debate, but a detailed look at the relevant literature shows that in certain situations genetically engineered crops will be bred to produce a greater yield per area of a given crop. This is correct, as much as anti-GE campaigners may drag their feet in admitting it. Yet it’s not a true insight into the technology. The essence of genetic engineering is of course much more than debates about yield, comprising a furtherance to the genetic level of civilisation’s project of domestication and anthropocentric domination, a challenging of nature which stretches back millennia, at least to the origins of agriculture. Such issues fail to be adequately examined in the often-superficial conventional discussions stemming from both the pro- and anti- extremes.

Though Heidegger held some sympathy for small-scale windmills, the industrial-scale turbines which tower on the hills in Derrybrien, adjacent to the smallholding on which I live, demonstrate further the thrust of his interpretation of technology. For what such wind farming has done, apart from worldly development of the destructive physical infrastructure needed to keep civilisation’s cogs turning – the destruction of hen harrier habitat, the release of massive CO2 emissions as the bog dries out, the 50,000 dead fish – is to do what all farming does. That is, convert another element of an immeasurably complex and wild earth to quantifiable standing reserve.

No longer is a gust of wind simply a gust of wind, something to be listened to, feared, ignored, or to stand in awe of. It is now, unless embroiling itself in a rotating copper coil, a waste, a missed opportunity, an unharnessed resource. Ireland, it is now regularly heard from politicians, has some of the best wind energy resources in Europe. Our hills and coasts are increasingly transformed from some of the last bastions of unusable, self-perpetuating spaces, to productive technological ones. ‘Nature,’ as Heidegger observed, becomes ‘the chief storehouse of the standing energy reserve’ or ‘a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry.’

 

III

Albert Borgmann’s 1984 magnum opus, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, built on Heidegger’s insights and gave us two crucial concepts for understanding the workings of contemporary civilisation – the device paradigm and focal things.

The device paradigm dominates modern life, concretising Heidegger’s Ge-stell and describing that class of technologies which deliver us services in an instant, ‘conveniently,’ while hiding the often-ugly processes which lie behind them. Borgmann’s most prominent example is the modern central heating system. With timing switches and thermostats we no longer even need to press a button to heat our homes, remaining utterly disconnected from the intricate chains of people, geography and machines which get our fuel sources to us.

In contrast we have focal things or practices, which involve real connection with other people, species and landscapes. The heating for my current home, for example, couldn’t be more different to the device of fossil-powered central heating. Wood is the sole fuel source, locally gathered with other people, and cut with a two-person saw. At first, the two people sawing are out of sync and utterly arhythmic, yet syncronicity, low physical exertion, and a teamwork bordering on telepathy soon become the norm. The wood is stored collectively, appropriately seasoned, and fed into a wood-burner that needs cleaning out, lighting and regular tending. No mere pushing of a button here. While the heat emanates from radiators in various rooms, by means of a back-boiler, the main attraction in the house on frosty winter evenings is the large glass-fronted stove which provides a social focus, as the hearth would have done since humans first harnessed the power of fire. Indeed, the etymological root of focus, as the Latin for ‘hearth’ or ‘fireplace’, lies worlds away from the modern convention of having the social space of a house centred around a single device of distraction, the television.

Focal things, of course, often entail greater involvement and practice, greater work and knowledge, greater negotiation with others, all often seen as inconveniences in the narrative of modernity. Examples highlighted by Borgmann of activities which display such focal traits are music making, gardening, the culture of the table, or running. As Ullrich says, scientistic technology is a ‘dream of happiness without sacrifice,’ an illusion, of course, which holds many sacrifices of its own, such as lesser social interaction, bodily dis-ease, ability without practice, and ecological separation.

Heidegger, recounts philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, saw in these marginal practices ‘the only possibility of resistance to technology.’ He continues:

Greek practices such as friendship and the cultivation of the erotic are not efficient. When friendship becomes efficient networking, it is no longer the mutual trust and respect the Greeks admired…Similarly, Greek respect for the irrational in the form of music and Dyonisian frenzy do not fit into an efficiently ordered technological world. Indeed, such ‘pagan’ practices did not even fit into the Christian understanding of being and were marginalized in the name of disinterested, agapé love, and peace. These Christian practices in turn were seen as trivial or dangerous given the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individual maturity, self-control, and autonomy.

While not a perfectly neat distinction, this clarification of the focal and device paradigms allows us to begin to pick apart our cultural relationship with technology on a very tangible level. The interface between devices and focal things can be seen wherever we look, though it’s clear which is in the ascendancy. A plethora of evidence demonstrates individual ready-meals replacing the provision of home-prepared meals for family or friends; Ipods and laptops replacing guitars, bodhráns and tin whistles; driving and flying replacing the smells, sounds and human-scale speed of cycling or walking. The list is long, and the search for those practices lost has barely begun.

 

IV

Chado, the way of tea, is a Japanese tea ceremony rooted in the Zen Buddhist tradition and originating in the ninth century. It’s a transformative practice with four key principles – Harmony, Respect, Purity and Tranquility – involving the preparation and ceremonial presentation of green tea, or Matcha, for seated guests. Chado is a highly complex social practice which entails deep and prolonged study for a potential host. For example, changing seasons and connection to the landscape is important in chado, with the ceremony, art and flower arrangements changing according to time of year and time of day. The interpersonal etiquette is complex too, with guests and hosts bowing to each other and retiring to specified rooms between particular courses of tea. New students learn how to enter and exit the tea room in a certain way, how to maintain and clean the relevant utensils, the manner in which to serve guests, who to bow to and when to bow. It’s only at this stage that students may learn, for example, how to actually prepare Matcha to the correct consistency.

The use of a kettle, how tea is transferred into a cup and whisked, even the examination of vessels is performed according to almost innumerable variables and ceremonial schools. To see a tea ceremony in progress is to see total focus, presence and integration of being. It is, therefore, a very focal practice, along with Zen’s other famous methods of cultivating enlightenment – archery, calligraphy, flower arrangement, even cooking and cleaning. Each cup is a unique work of art in itself, far from the standardised merchandise of modernity. Indeed, the respect and veneration for material objects displayed in such practices, a form of enlightened materialism, emphasises the important blurring of distinction in much Zen thought between the animate and inanimate, the human and non-human, the object and the subject, and even sentient and insentient. Dreyfus contrasts this practice with the contemporary ubiquity of the styrofoam cup:


When we want a hot or cold drink it does its job, and when we are through with it we throw it away. How different this understanding of an object is from what we can suppose to be the Japanese understanding of a delicate, painted tea cup, which does not do as good a job of maintaining temperature and which has to be washed and protected, but which is preserved from generation to generation for its beauty and its social meaning. Or, at the other extreme, an old earthenware mug, admired for its simplicity and its ability to evoke memories of ancient crafts, such as is used in a Japanese tea ceremony. It is hard to picture a tea ceremony around a styrofoam cup.

Topi Heikerro of the University of Helsinki notes that, in accordance with Borgmann’s description of focal practices, zen practices too entail ‘exertion, skill, self-transcendence, perseverance, endurance, patience, commitment and attention,’ all of which wither and decay under the device paradigm. In this sense, Heikerro continues, ‘focal practices can re-center our lives and provide contexts in which we can strive for virtue and excellence.’

 

V

And so we return, through tea, full-circle to my neighbour’s tale of bogs and flasks. ‘How could flasks have destroyed the spirit of the bog?’ I asked. Flasks, he suggested, signalled the beginning of the end for community spirit while cutting turf. They were, to use Borgmann’s terminology, the device that did away with the focal activity. Previously, there would have been six or seven small fires going throughout the day, with gossip, laughter and tea flowing from each. It may not be the neatly practiced, precise ritual of Chado, but it certainly had its own tradition, with people moving from one fire to the next, meeting, visiting neighbours and sharing stories. With the arrival of the flask, the fires began to disappear. Breaks shortened, turf cutting became less social, and tea-making became confined to the home, individualised.

Whether it’s true that this signalled the end of the spirit of community in turf cutting, it is no doubt at least a part of the story. At best, it’s a great ethnographic insight by a local farmer; at worst, an allegory which we all know holds lessons going to the core of our experience, as beings whose reality is mediated more than ever by the enframing of a deadening technological paradigm.

The Question Concerning Technology closes with the assertion that because ‘the essence of technology is nothing technological,’ if we are to stand any hope of avoiding its peril, ‘essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it.’ This realm, Heidegger states, is art.

Reclaiming the ambiguous ancient Greek root of the word for technology, technē, is important for Heidegger, as technē signified craft, skill or art, rather than cold technological advance. This is not art confined to commercial aesthetics and cultural activity, but art as a poetic existence, as a way of life, art in every action. Borgmann reminds us that ‘the peril of technology lies not in this or that of its manifestations but in the pervasiveness and consistency of its pattern.’ Hence, perhaps as Zen practitioners have known for centuries, in artful expression and engagement with focal practices lies at least a respite from what he refers to as the ‘debilitating character of technology.’

The nature of art, for Heidegger, is ‘the truth of being setting itself to work.’ Not merely reduced to symbol or representation, art in this form produces a shared understanding different from the paradigm of technological monotony. For Dreyfus, this new paradigm ‘would have to take up practices which are now on the margin of our culture and make them central, while de-emphasising practices now central to our cultural self-understanding.’

Results are never guaranteed, and indeed we may have already arrived at an analysis of technology too late, at a time when all other modes of existence have been driven to the brink extinction by the technological. But Heidegger held close the possibility that as the darkness of technological civilisation befell the world so equally the light of its escape might become more visible on the horizon. Quoting the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, we hear:

But where danger is, grows
The saving power also.

 

Bibliography

Borgmann, A. (1984) Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Dreyfus, H. (1993) Heidegger on the connection between nihilism, art, technology, and politics, in: Guignon, C. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Heidegger, M. (1977) The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, New York: Harper & Row
Heikkero, T. (2005) The good life in a technological world: Focal things and practices in the West and in Japan, Technology in Society, No. 27, pp. 251-259
Ullrich, O. (1992) Technology, in: Sachs, W. (ed.) The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, London: Zed Books

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 4 (PDF)

The Summer 2013 issue is a collection of writing and artwork telling 'post-cautionary tales'.

Read more

Earth Funeral

You are cordially invited to the
Earth Funeral Memorial Service Spectacular
 

We desperately want to cancel this event, and we at the Gauntlett Institute along with millions around the world are working to fight the exploitative corporations and financially corrupted governments who are driving our biodiversity into the grave! However we can see a great need for a ceremony/ festival to end the world according to the current trajectory.

This is a way for us to express our loss, mourning and gratitude. We are expecting more than a billion people! The biggest event in history!

Timing?

The invitation is going out with plenty of advance notice for two reasons:

There are 7 billion people and counting, 9 million species. We’d like everyone and everything to be there so we need a few years to organise ourselves!

Given that no consciously aware guests will be able to attend the event post-mortem, we have decided to bring the memorial forward, prior to the event of hominid extinction. The exponential nature of the problems facing the Earth and its inhabitants make it possible the biosphere will no longer sustain mammalian life by the year 2045. The Memorial is therefore 6 years prior to an end to allow for discrepancies in the data and ensure we get an end time service.

Ceremony/ Festival

The ceremony could take many forms. Anyone who wants to should have the opportunity to speak, play, paint, sing, wail etc. It is as yet unknown who will be present those who are will shape the event.

There could be a celebration of all that the Earth has been. A recap of the journey we’ve made together so far; 4.5 billion years of shared history and ancestry. From out of the waters, from the soil, from the air we have breathed together and died together. Feeding off each other’s death and life. A perfect beautiful and gruesome circle. We may look forward too, and celebrate what this planet can do, what wonders will grow here when we are gone.

FAQ’s

Where does my ticket money go?

50% of revenues will be directed into World Saving NGOs. The remaining finances raised via ticket sales will be saved for building the infastructure to support the multitudes (Portaloos, stages, technicians, artists…) A small admin fee will be retained by the G.I.

You can risk showing up on the day and being ripped off by a tout. It’s up to you.

What is the dress code?

Societies around the world will have broken down and the economy collapsed by the time of the memorial and so it’s a case of come as you are. By all means brush down your glad rags, spit shine your shoes, give that sari a dunk in the Ganges, bring out your celebration turban, or just wear your birthday suit!

Will the Earth be put in a coffin or cremated?

Although a collaborative global project would be a wonderful, inspiring and ironic way to finish this adventure, building and engineering a large enough casket has been abandoned. The build time exceeds the estimated date of need by nearly 40 years, plus the resources required for the ambitious operation would only encourage more intense deforestation and mining, bringing the date for a total toxic overload closer.

Fitting the Earth into the casket poses logistical problems too. Unless teams of construction workers can be sustained in created biospheres there won’t be anyone around to fit the corpse into the gargantuan box anyway.

Mourners are invited to create their own local memorials. Other suggestions have been the entire dusty rock of the Earth can serve as a tombstone to itself, akin to Mars. And the layer of noxious gaseous pollutants, a shroud.

Cremation has also been ruled out for the same reasons although in the same vein as the above, climate change and desertification of the Earth can be seen as a kind of inadvertent cremation. (From a Christo-biblical view point the Earth is being destroyed by fire – possibly a fire 90,000,000 miles away as our protection is stripped away Also see note below *.)

Is the Gauntlett Institute profiting from the Earth Funeral Memorial Service Festival Spectacular?

Absolutely. We project healthy revenues for the host organisers, (merchandising, branding etc.). However! Despite the potential profits, we will gladly cancel the Memorial in the event of a change in scientific forecasts. We believe it is still possible to extend the Earth’s support for large mammalian life and secure the future for our own children (see below). Nothing would please us more than short term financial reward.

*How will the Earth die?

This hidden gem of the MIlky Way Galaxy, a planet of life, third by distance from the Sun in the Solar system being killed by a combination of Man Slaughter, and first degree murder.

The cause could be described as a cancer inspired by the chronic ideas of certain humans. The driving force behind this cancer is an absurd economic system based on continual growth, with the fantastical notion there is more than one world’s worth of resources. As well as polluting industrial activities of our one species, near complete depletion of natural resources, including abuse of the limited fresh water, deforestation, reduced soils to near zero nutrient value and over acidification of the seas, this total toxic overload made (and will make) many species extinct at the macro level of the system and disrupted the cycles of atmosphere, currents and balance of temperature at the global level.**

Some examples of recent and ongoing extinctions:
Eastern Cougar, Western Black Rhinoceros, White-chested White-eye, More than half of the Earth’s rainforests have been burned up. Complete list of extinct species.

*The Earth won’t be entirely dead and is presumed to continue supporting some life; cockroaches, bacteria, scorpions and many other unexpected creatures to outlive the larger mammals, fish and birds through this period. Given the right conditions a stable climate able to support mammals may return to the Earth within 100,000 years or so.

**It’s incredible to think that such a beautiful unique spot in the cosmos could be utterly destroyed by an illusory currency system; a kind of pyramid scheme that on the one hand appears to only benefit a few, while the rest of the populace buy into it living a kind of servitude to those at the top. All of them trapped in a psychosis to maintain faith in this ludicrous concept of exploitation, commerce, unreconcilable debt and waste (of time/energy/resources).

How can I stop the Earth dying?

Let’s take the Funeral Service out of the Festival Spectacular. Let’s make it a party for generations to write stories about. A selection of the most useful and powerful on- and off-line communities, ideas, reading /viewing lists and actions will be coming soon.

Read our broad suggestions for Earth Funeral Service Festival Spectacular cancellation here:

A: Belief and understanding
I need to resuscitate my enthusiasm /compassion and breathe life into myself for a greater sensitivity, treading more lightly on the Earth. I need to examine the patterns I live while observing their effects on the natural world, and on my cousins globally. Learn to really understand that without a richly biodiverse and healthy eco system I am nothing, and no amount of technology can save us if we continue. I am a part of an incredible complex interaction of give and take. I should begin to believe the majority want the power to positively influence the outcome and we can take it if we try.

B: Personal actions
With A in mind I need to be willing to change myself, not just in how I live; using less energy, recycling etc., but also to exchanging the feedback loop of excessive consumption for a richer more people /sense-centric lifestyle. I can no longer allow my cousins to be exploited. Achieve a Degrowth trajectory for the economy while gardening the natural world and allowing it to flourish should be my priority. To live creatively in a world that needs my imagination like never before. (The foundational three fold solution to my ‘salvation’).

C: Collaborative resistance.
Alongside my fellow citizen cousins, I need to confront the corporations and governments who are the ‘ecocide practitioners’ wilfully out of control on my behalf and currently with my help. These elites have developed a financially motivated psychosis along with a belief in their style of progress. The current fiscal mechanism flows money energy upwards to those in power, siphoning the resources in what can be described as a pyramid scheme of epic proportions. The pyramid also serves to maintain distance from those cousins beneath them which in turn keeps their life plans safe. This insanity has many brainwashed via the hegemony of ideas. I may be one of them. I have at least partially bought into it. I am allowing an apocalypse reality closer to my planet’s story. I will no longer allow myself to be exploited. Read on or go back to A.

How can I get involved?

Although we will be taking advice from experienced undertaker consultants, masters of ceremony, party planners etc., we’re not recruiting for the funeral just yet. Until further notice the best possible use of our time and energy will be collectively stopping it from happening. We are inviting everyone to get involved with spiralling our collective trajectory into ‘control’.

Support the Gauntlett Institute’s research by buying a ticket or joining the movement. Or start your own.

The Gauntlett Institute is a progressive research base for innovative metaphysical and philosophical political products and services to aid a world in crisis. Originally founded in 1968 by Glenda Gauntlett and newly re-established by her nephew Professor Handlebrass of the same name. The institute is based in Hackney Wick, (East) London where a team of really special people galvanise, expand and illuminate the possibilities raised through the extensive research. The Gauntlett Institute prides itself on the notion of an accusation of producing ‘ultra pseudo post science–science goods and services’.
Our genuinely attempted innovations will keep us all guessing, asking and coming back for more.
‘Our findings are so hard to believe  that no-body believes them!’