Last Act

1.

I’m at the theatre, and this plot, it’s really hard to swallow. It’s about the future  and it’s set in the present day  and the basic premise is that we can all just carry on just as we are. Driving to the supermarket, buying a flat-screen TV, mowing the lawn, whatever, yada yada. And we can export this enviable lifestyle, where we all live like Louis XVI, to the whole world. Except for a servile underclass who manufacture all the stuff we consume, everything from snacks to computers to the vehicles we use to truck these things around. The idea is that essentially we’ve created a stable sediment for ourselves to wallow in. It’s so obviously a deranged fantasy. Whoever wrote this is having a laugh.

However; I continually attempt to suspend my disbelief, to ignore the proscenium arch, to just watch the play, to enjoy the thing, and to ignore the fact that around me the building is crumbling, the theatre company is bankrupt, the actors are dropping like flies, screaming their lines in a terrible anguish and the audience  all around me  are animated, drooling, fleshless cadavers, applauding, laughing, crying. And I applaud, and I laugh, and I cry.

2.

As I sit here, buds are bursting, roots are probing; the sun is out, new-born leaves move in zephyrs of air, and somewhere there is a bird making a noise that sounds like someone manually inflating an air-bed. Children are playing in the street outside; it is a vampire game. One of them feigns sleep for a while, whilst the others venture near to check if the eyes are open or shut. If they open, and you are close, then it’s likely that you will join the ranks of the undead. Sometimes things go wrong and there are screams of anger. Sometimes a car alarm goes off, and sometimes the siren of some emergency vehicle echoes around the valley. Occasionally a police helicopter whips around above, doing whatever the fuck it is that they do up there. More occasionally a military jet screams over. The passenger planes are ubiquitous now; no-one really notices them. It’s spring, at last, and the sky is often blue and there’s a general feeling that the worst is over.

Although to believe that the worst is over, to believe that things will be okay  that takes a real effort of mental will. Because it isn’t over, and it won’t be okay. The only people who you can find that believe that we can continue on this path of perpetual economic growth, of permanent extraction of fossil fuels, of insanely unsustainable suburbanisation; they’re all fucking crazy! I mean, actually insane. What’s harder to understand are the corporate stooges, the political marionettes, the ones who are just saying it for the dollars. What are those people going to do with the payola? Join the elite? Earn the right to be the last to starve?

3.

Because of what I do I am sometimes interviewed, and as with any conversation this can go badly or it can go well. One question that seems to recur is quite a simple-seeming query, but I find it hard to answer. It’s along the lines of  why is your work so depressing and/or miserable and/or dystopian and/or apocalyptic? Sometimes I skirt around it, often fixing on the word ‘apocalyptic’ and explaining that the apocalypse isn’t exactly what they think it is, not exactly. Other times I pretend that it’s some sort of cathartic auto-therapy, that I’m a fine example of mental health, not despite but because of all this depressing/miserable/dystopian/‘apocalyptic’ artwork on the walls. But the honest answer is  why do you fucking think? Look around you, you’re not blind.

So yes, right. Spring is here, the birds are singing, or perhaps that’s actually a car alarm. Anyway, the worst is over. So me? I’m going to keep drawing, keep painting, like some fucking monkey in a cage, hooting at the bars, throwing shit, pacing aimlessly, rocking backward and forward for hours, clapping, laughing, crying. Enjoy the interval. Last act’s soon.

 

Image: Hole by Stanley Donwood.

This is a drawing from a series called ‘Modernland’. The Modernland project itself is a natural and political history of an imagined ‘European’ country. It is partly reminiscent of a postwar Eastern European nation state, but one that might have existed had there been no Second World War, and one in which authoritarianism had been taken to its ultimate position, and the entire population had been ‘resettled’ elsewhere. At the same time, the resources of the country have been utterly and ruthlessly plundered. It is inhabited only by the shadows of ghosts.

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

Sailing for Mares

I.

By dusk, our ships had filled with stallions.

They shimmered like wind under moonlight
and they snarled like the smoke-spirits
that haunt the Gold Forest Islands.
Their edges blurred like morning,
their voices awakening even the starfish fossils
light-years under the shore.

They demanded to be fed first, before
we rigged the sails. Even before
the sea priests’ blessing.
We tried not to stare too long at
their gold-trimmed braids while
spiking their rum with flecks of salt.

At midnight the captain gathered us ’round.
The stallions were concerned, he said,
too long without mares.
They’d go wild,
they’d unlearn hoovery,
the tips of gold on their braids would pop off
and float away along this spinning sea.

So we sailed for mares.

Earth-sunken roots and driftwood,
full and fertile mares
who knew how to tell stories,
to draw up shelter with nothing but song,
to listen to the chants of stars.

Soon, it seemed, all we spoke of were mares.

Charcoal and mahogany, round and soft,
white smoke escaping their dark lips,
dressed in silks dipped in blood berries,
trimmed with saffron tassels.

Mares that would know how to run in thick
forests with their eyes closed.
Mares who could barter with spirits,
who walked bare-hooved across tops of bogs.

We could already feel them.

II.

We found them on an island of ice.

Their coats were dull and grey like shadows
and snow, like their pale lips.

They watched the hard sorrow in the stallions,
who inwardly cursed our find.
These weren’t true wild mares.

We wanted earth and they were water.

We wanted roots and they were veins.

We wanted driftwood and they were drops of oil in the dark,
a sweet, slick heartbeat.

But they were mares,
and so we hoisted them into the ships.
Six or so died in the struggle.

We lined their water bowls with poppies so they could rest,
and we combed their manes until they reflected
the moon on the sea.

We painted their lips but they licked the colour away.
They missed their muzzles of snow.

And when they knew we couldn’t hear,
they whispered,
Our island was bluest.

Bluer than juniper, than lapis, than the seas.

III.

We unloaded them into the golden forests and
pushed them inland,
our new home.

We’d spend the night on the port,
so I stretched and took a deep breath
and asked our mares
to tell us a story.

The mares had long stopped their crying by then.
They wrapped their beautiful, grey bodies
with red silks under the wicked sun.

And they said,
Once, we lived on ice.
Once, we wore silks made of sapphires.
Once, through masks of snow, we could translate the stars.

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

 

Us and Them

The reportage artist and storyteller Sue Coe’s 2000 graphic novel Pit’s Letter examines our civilisation from the perspective of a laboratory dog. Coe’s story imagines a team of vivisectionists striving to locate and to eliminate the ‘empathy gene’ once and for all – to root out that awkward lingering capacity for interspecies fellow-feeling that would dare obstruct the onward march of human progress. Like the rest of Coe’s extraordinary and prolific graphic oeuvre, Pit’s Letter expresses an unambiguous moral agenda, reflecting her unwavering commitment to making visible the hidden obscenities within our culture’s treatment of animals. As one of her many print-works puts it: ‘Go vegan and nobody gets hurt’.

Pit’s Letter belongs, then, to a body of animal-rights campaign literature that forms one important cultural background for the emergence of a new genre of storytelling – one that we’ve begun to call the ‘ecofable’. For the emergence, in other words, of a newly defined ambition for storytelling: ‘What if we could tell a story that made people care about what’s happening to Earth? And what if our story moved them enough that they’d go and do whatever it took to stop it from happening?’

I want to look, here, at two recent graphic novels that typify this now familiar aspiration – Stephanie McMillan’s and Derrick Jensen’s As the World Burns: 50 simple things you can do to stay in denial, and Nick Hayes’ The Rime of the Modern Mariner. And in asking what it is exactly that these stories are trying to do, I want to use them both to explore the related idea of ‘cultural psychotherapy’, proposed by the human ecologist Alastair McIntosh in his 2008 book, Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition.

McIntosh argues that we become capable of collectively destroying our world only by having first become dead to it, and that we become dead to it through the violence we’ve internalised since birth from our ambient culture. His proposal is that the principle challenge for artists, faced with an accelerating collapse of the Earth’s life systems under the pressure of human civilisation, is to puncture our cultural hubris. Hubris is what McIntosh sees as the ultimate source of the systemic violence behind ecocide, and he suggests that in tackling that, artists may help to ‘re-kindle the inner life’ of our culture. Fostering this process, he argues, hinges on one, essential quality: empathy.

This is an undeniably noble intent – but what would addressing ecological crisis by fostering empathy look like, in practice? What has that to do with our actual experience of art and storytelling, and what, against a backdrop of global catastrophe that increasingly overshadows our local environmentalisms, might one be hoping to achieve in the attempt? Appropriate questions with which to approach something that we might call ‘the graphic ecofable’.

I. Us

And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it.

The Dark Mountain Manifesto

Chris van Allsburg’s 1990 children’s picture book Just a Dream offers a good place to start. Opening with the memorable Pogo quote from Walt Kelly’s 1971 Earth Day poster: ‘We have met the enemy and he is us’, Allsburg shows us a careless American boy who can’t be bothered to do the recycling, and who, upon falling asleep, is whisked away into a series of prophetic nightmares. It’s a green cautionary tale in the pattern of A Christmas Carol, in which the boy wakes, in dream, to the future that will flow from his present mode of living: meeting there a future-earth smothered in humanity’s rubbish, stripped of trees, its oceans emptied of life. And as with Dickens’ Scrooge, our boy wakes from these night terrors filled with a new appreciation for what hasn’t yet been destroyed, and… runs out to do the recycling. A story told to inspire children with a sense of the beauty and the fragility of their world, warning them that actions have consequences, intended or not. Just like that other 1971 vanguard of picture-book eco-fables, Dr Seuss’ The Lorax, Allsburg’s book is telling its young reader: ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not’. All well and good. ‘After all’, we might ask, ‘what exactly are we supposed to say to today’s children?’ But 43 years on from The Lorax, this kind of light-green propaganda is coming up against a situation playing out on a very different scale – and finding both its language and its strategies insufficient to address it. In fact, of course, this is by no means simply a question for children. Philip Pullman’s observation that there’s nothing a child reader cannot deal with, so long as it’s given to them within an appropriate story, might usefully be extended to all of us staring dumbly at this new word in our lexicon – ecocide.

13c[Above] Kranti, the character who provides the principle mouthpiece for Stephanie McMillan and Derrick Jensen in their 2007 graphic novel As The World Burns, 50 simple things you can do to stay in denial.

II. Them

Ecocide demands a response.

–The Dark Mountain Manifesto

This growing sense of a gulf between problem and strategy is where the 2007 graphic novel As The World Burns: 50 simple things you can do to stay in denial comes in. Occupy cartoonist Stephanie MacMillan teams up with her fellow American, environmental campaigner and author Derrick Jensen, to jeer us out of our fuzzy green complacency. For its intent to be understood, their story needs to be seen alongside Jensen’s better-known non-fiction work. Its plot extrapolates from his maxim that if aliens came did to our planet what civilisation is currently doing, we’d view that as a situation of all-out war, and respond in like manner.

As the World Burns describes a race of alien robots coming to eat the Earth, with the naïve collusion of the corporate state, who see in their arrival only another opportunity for profit. It imagines the Earth’s wild creatures, and their few human friends, banding together to repel the invasion before turning, as the story ends, on the establishment that sold them out. Its central characters are two young girls: one with an ardent zeal to save the Earth in the familiar terms that Allsburg et al promote: recycling, voluntary abstinence, letter writing, peaceable marching. Her dark-haired friend – the authors’ principle mouthpiece in the text – picks these hopeful strategies apart as a string of empty promises that divert attention from the real enemy – the systemic insanity and violence driving the all-consuming engine of civilisation.

50c

[Above] Kranti is referred to a psychotherapist, and finds the ‘adjustment’ he proposes wanting. From As The World Burns, 50 simple things you can do to stay in denial, Stephanie McMillan and Derrick Jensen, 2007.

Among the primary targets of this story’s derision is just that sense of hope proffered by green tracts such as Allsburg’s. For Jensen, such hope isn’t simply an empty promise. With relentless – at times ferocious – logic he analyses hope itself as a key element within a dangerous denial mechanism. It is hope, Jensen argues, that allows us to avert our gaze from civilisation’s innately ecocidal trajectory – that of continuous escalation. As one of the principle voices behind new radical environmentalist movements such as Deep Green Resistance, Jensen asserts that unless it’s brought down by direct – and where necessary, violent – intervention, the juggernaut of civilisation will never be turned around, and that in the absence of such an intervention, all of our greening lifestyle choices have, at best, a short-term feel-good value.

That this story comes from America isn’t incidental. Jensen understands civilisation to be ‘a culture of occupation’ – a perpetual encroachment on all non-human habitats, and on all indigenous cultures. This perspective owes much to his involvement with the struggles of Native American communities, past and present, to resist just such an implacable process of incursion. In particular, Jensen reads this situation in terms of an Algonquin myth, an idea he takes from the Native American scholar Jack D Forbes: the wetiko psychosis. Taken as a lens through which to view the unstoppable spread of Western civilisation, in particular, the wetiko myth presents us a with a sickened culture both infected by, and transmitted as, a virulently contagious form of moral insanity – the wetiko, or cannibal psychosis – wherein consuming other beings’ lives for profit, once begun, becomes an involuntary compulsion shaping our collective behaviour. Without this knowledge of Jensen’s wider polemic, we might easily read this graphic novel as a piece of tongue-in-cheek green wish fulfilment. But behind all that trenchant sarcasm lies a call to direct and disruptive action that is seen, by its authors and by a steadily growing number, as the only coherently empathic response to accelerating ecocide.

 

III. Stories

8. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of world full stop. Together we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.

The Eight Principles of Uncivilisation

If we find Allsburg’s light-green ethics faltering before the scale of unfolding events, we may yet find ourselves recoiling at the implications of this war-on-civilisation rhetoric. What practical help might an ecofable then offer a perplexed reader, faced with our culture’s current direction of travel? At face value, a realistic answer to that question seems to be: almost nothing. Were that the case, we might stop for a moment to consider whether we are in fact asking the right question. Suppose, for instance, we were to absolve the ecofable, as it gropes for images through which to fathom ecological crisis, of a responsibility to produce solutions of any kind to the situation that it seeks to explore? The pressing need to innovate practical adaptations within a rapidly shifting situation is of course an essential factor in our current politics. But might it not be said that this is not, and has never been, either the primary concern or the most valuable function of art and storytelling? For all his heroic aggression, I think Jensen shows another way forward here, almost by accident. Buried within his 2011 non-fiction work Dreams, a 600-page tirade against the instrumentalist rationality of scientism, is a question that he tosses out as a casual aside: ‘What stories could we tell that would help us to fight off a wetiko infection?’

It may be unfair to take As the World Burns as Jensen’s own answer to that very good question. But I think this story reveals something important, and not just for the anti-civilisation crew. It offers a portrait, in high-relief, of a mindset that would couch ecological crisis in terms of an evil-over-there – a process driven by ‘them’ – a them who we can name and point to, and then marshal ourselves against. Amidst the defiance, there’s a curious shrillness in its fantasy of tearing down the machine – a shrillness that reflects, I think, its misdiagnosis of the infection that it would seek to fight off. The authors’ militant agenda has a compelling, emotive logic, so long as we imagine our own lives to be somehow separable from the problem itself. But in the context of global ecological crisis, I’d suggest that this amounts to a comforting, yet ultimately paralysing mistake – a mistake that the eco-philosopher Timothy Morton, following Hegel, has valuably framed as ‘beautiful soul syndrome’.

5. Chris Jordan - Midway (webfile)

[Above] One of the images from Chris Jordan’s Midway project, documenting the effects of ocean plastic pollution on albatross colonies in the Pacific, that first pro- voked Hayes to write his graphic novel.

Surely we need more from the ecofable than heroics? Need stories that allow us, as Morton puts it, to ‘deepen to our own hypocrisy’, as we turn towards our lives, and our shared systems of living, to find them on all sides complicit in the very problems that we would address. Stories able to steer us between that soporific platitude, sustainability, and the misanthropic guilt that bedevils much environmental discourse. Most of all, perhaps, we need stories able to speak to the creeping sense of futility that shadows environmentalism – a kind of un-sayable subtext, that usually – when it is spoken aloud – goes something like: ‘We’re fucked’.

All of which brings us to our second take on a contemporary ecofable: the political cartoonist Nick Hayes’ 2011 graphic novel, The Rime of the Modern Mariner. In Hayes’ story, we find Coleridge’s mesmeric Rime used as a dark mirror in which to contemplate the phenomenon of ocean plastic pollution. This exponentially growing problem is now notoriously evident at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where a revolving soup of plastic detritus currently accumulates, recently estimated to be larger than the USA, and reaching from the ocean’s surface to its floor.

Screen shot 2015-04-21 at 12.22.04 Screen shot 2015-04-21 at 12.22.21

[Above] Nick Hayes: Coleridge’s albatross is re-imagined for an age of ecocide. From Nick Hayes’ graphic novel The Rime of the Modern Mariner, 2011.

In Hayes’ Rime, this gyre pollution becomes a stand-in for the oceanic dead-zone which swallows Coleridge’s mariner – ‘We were the first that ever burst into that silent sea’ – and for the ‘thousand thousand slimy things’ that there assail him. Hayes uses the toxic wasteland which confronts his own mariner as a metonym for that all-pervasive but less graspable set of problems we refer to rather vaguely as ‘the ecological crisis’, of which ocean plastic pollution, for all its mind-numbing scale, forms but one tangible element. And weaving Coleridge with Melville, Hayes’ mariner is driven by this encounter into a process of terminal descent, until at his nadir he sees his life reflected for what it currently is, within the eye of the great whale which he’d come there to kill.

What strikes me as valuable about Hayes’ approach to an ecofable isn’t just the way it invites contemplation of an outward problem while speaking to the soul-condition that it reflects. Rather, it is what follows this descent to the more fundamental relational wasteland underlying the gyre pollution. The latter part of this book, which shifts into a different visual key to mark a significant change of mode, offers a redemptive reverie in which, I’d suggest, we find Hayes presenting us with a very different answer to Jensen’s provocative question. The figure that pulls Hayes’ traumatised mariner to land and to safety is an affectionate portrayal of the late English naturalist and writer Roger Deakin. The healing grove to which Deakin carries the mariner depicts David Nash’s living ash-grove sculpture. Indeed, Hayes has said that the idea for his retelling of The Rime first came from encountering one of Chris Jordan’s Midway photographs of dead albatross chicks, opened bellies full of plastic, many thousands of miles from the nearest human cities. Clearly one aspect of the redemption being mused on, here, concerns the arts’ potential to address cultural insanity, and to re-orient us toward the real.

Nick Hayes 2

[Above] The healing bower to which Deakin carries the mariner – inspired in turn by David Nash’s Ash Grove living sculpture. From Nick Hayes’ graphic novel The Rime of the Modern Mariner, 2011.

Hayes’ is a story which doesn’t preoccupy itself with what hope does or does not remain for redemption of the civilisation currently destroying its ecological base – although it ends with a whisper of our eventual departure from the stage. True to the great ballad that inspired it, Hayes’ story imagines the more subtle hope of decolonising that culture of occupation from within, by the simple act of holding out the hand of friendship to our own contingent, radically dependent nature. Certainly this graphic novel doesn’t pretend to offer solutions to our personal entanglement within an accelerating ecocide, other than, with Coleridge, to turn us towards our innate creaturely empathy with all species. And to leave us, at its downbeat conclusion, with the fallibility, complicity, and inevitable self-contradiction that such empathy throws us back onto, as incurably civilised beings.

This stumbling, unheroic gesture of turning towards is a move that essentially solves nothing. Nothing, that is, except to abandon the subtle violence with which the beautiful soul would disown the evil that it sees – and in seeing, creates – ‘over there’. Caught up within an unfolding catastrophe, the scale and momentum of which renders our remaining choices a good in themselves, or no good at all, it’s an attitude that might offer us a place to stand. Perhaps, in that sense, we find here a workable understanding of art, poetry and storytelling as modes of cultural psychotherapy. It might also help in forming a response to the rhetorical question with which I began: ‘What exactly are we supposed to say to today’s children?’ With this, more forgiving approach to an ecofable’s task, we might find the manifest answers to that question to be neither as thin on the ground, nor for that matter as new, as we’d previously assumed.

Sources

Allsburg, Chris van. Just a Dream, US: Houghton Mifflin, 2011
Coe, Sue. Pit’s Letter, US: 4 Walls 8 Windows, 2000___. Cruel, US: OR Books, 2012
Forbes, Jack D. Columbus and Other Cannibals, US: Autonomedia, 1992
Hayes, Nick. The Rime of the Modern Mariner, London: Jonathon Cape, 2011
Jensen, Derrick and Stephanie McMillan. As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things you can do to Stay in Denial, US: 7 Stories Press, 2007
Jensen, Derrick. Endgame Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilisation, U.S.: Seven Stories Press,
2007
___. Dreams, US: Seven Stories Press, 2011
McIntosh, Alastair. Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition, UK: Birlinn, 2008
Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2009
___. The Ecological Thought, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2010

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

 

Brink

Reading Sebald’s novel The Emigrants (1) last night. It has photographs, which are uncaptioned. I was disturbed by the pre-war faces of the people in the pictures – the sunny cluster of school boys on a German mountainside, the relatives in familial ease at the white-clothed table. Everyone smiling out from the frame of some fateful year. As if their world would go on. I was disturbed by the repulsion I felt – I was repulsed by the weight and shame of our history staring at me point-blank from these faces. Our history, which, in those moments, was the future bearing down on them, preparing to break their hearts.

I see those smiling people and feel defeated by the accretion of violence and conquest. Always conquest. Now it’s conquest for the last vial of oil, the last tree, the last free human brain cell. (Yes, the programmers of Silicon Valley are bearing down on us with their dreams of singularity.) I look at those faces and see through the hindsight of history the atrocities done to all the extraordinary ordinary people going about their lives.

I write this on September 1, 2014. We are living in a small cottage on the southwest coast of Ireland. Marianne called in this evening to invite us to her house for coffee and cake on Thursday. Her house is several miles away, over the mountain pass. Before she and her husband settled into it year-round eighteen years ago, it was their holiday home – their sanctuary from Berlin. There is a tradition of German people buying cottages in Ireland, going back to Heinrich Böll, who came to Ireland in the 1950s, ‘trying to wake up from the nightmare of history in Europe’. (2) He recorded his experience of finding refuge in a remote cottage on Achill Island in his Irish Journal, which he published in 1957 after his return to Germany. In the introduction to the 2011 edition, Hugo Hamilton, whose mother emigrated to Ireland from Germany during the war, writes that the country the young Böll and his family came to had ‘remained untouched by the Second World War’ and by the ‘post-war rush for material certainty’.

But now at our kitchen table, Marianne has become upset. She has told us that Germany just announced it would provide arms to the Kurds. ‘Today of all days!’ she cried. She was referring to the anniversary of the start of the War in 1939. We asked if she had memories of it, and she described the soldiers marching down the streets of her native Königsberg on their way to the Polish border, seventy-five years ago today. She was eight years old the day that World War II started.

When I met Marianne, I liked her immediately. She’s formidable and huggable at the same time. She likes to talk politics, reads widely, and will have a cigarette when she gets the chance. She wears mascara and lipstick and likes to go to the pub to see her neighbours and listen to music. She is lively company and bakes a delicious strawberry cake. But now her mascara is smudged and her eyes are red. She accepts a glass of wine. ‘Terrible, terrible,’ she says. ‘Do they know what they are doing?’ Königsberg was bombed nearly to the ground and fell to the Russians. A few of its German citizens escaped, some, including Marianne’s family, across the Baltic sea on an overcrowded ferry. But afterward was worse. The guilt. They had no identity, she said. What was Germany? What did it mean to be German anymore?

What is the cause of our violence and our history of conquest? Some people I know shrug and say, it’s human nature. We can’t help ourselves, it’s the way we evolved. But I don’t believe this. I’ve had children. I saw that it was not in their nature to hurt things. The first time my eldest son saw an older boy deliberately step on an insect to crush it, he cried. I felt my duty as a mother was to protect my children from the violent images on television and the cinema. And this was in the 1980s, the early days of the American descent into commercial depravity. But if it’s not human nature where does it come from, the drive to kill and conqueror? Was it always thus?

I have a creation story I tell myself. It is, of course, prelapsarian, as creation myths are. Although it is grounded first and foremost in scientific findings, my story also contains, as most myths do, truths that come to us from intuitions and imaginings. My story goes like this. Once upon a time there was a species with a big brain that had adapted to the cold climate of Europe, where they had lived for at least 300,000 years. They were primarily artists and the subject for their art was the animals with whom they shared the forests and the plains. They may have first painted with blood, as John Berger has suggested, but we know they used ochre. Contrary to what many believe, they were ‘technologically precocious’(3) and developed an advanced tool-making technology known today as the Levallois technique.

They did not need the so-called Enlightenment to discover that the earth was round. They could see the earth was round because they observed that everything in the world is round – the year from spring to spring is round, and the moon and sun are round. Winter after winter they had witnessed the aurora borealis dancing in a circle around the summit of the earth and from this they bequeathed to us the image of the human halo and the crown that is its symbol. They have come to be called the Neanderthals, and because of what happened to them their story has come down to us in a corrupted form.

What happened to them, according to my creation story, was homo sapiens, who walked out of Africa on their famous two legs some 50,000 years ago. No one knows for sure why these humans left their home in Africa and moved to a harsh climate. Some paleontologists think it was because they were too successful as hunters. That their numbers expanded to such a degree they depleted the plants and animals upon which they depended for food, and thus destroyed their habitat.

When the Homo sapiens arrived in Europe they found Homo neanderthalensis already there. The African emigrants learned much from the indigenous people they met. They learned how to use new tools and to make art. They saw that many of the artists who left their handprints next to their paintings on the walls of caves were female. They learned how to shelter and keep warm during winter and what foods could be saved through the coldest, darkest months. They learned the Neanderthals’ music and ceremonies. They learned to place stones over their dead.

Neanderthals had powerful arms and legs and were able to lift heavy boulders and build stone monuments in the places they gathered to mark the cycles of the seasons. They fished with their broad hands, ate small birds, and boiled their porridge in birchbark trays. They gathered nuts and berries and roots and tubers. They were skilled hunters, too. But they considered the animals their brothers and sisters, much like many other indigenous peoples do, and so they developed what we would call a conscience, and compassion for other lives. Their instinct was to gratitude, and this made them kind. They left an offering when they killed an animal, which they did only for special feast days. They were herbalists too, a practice they learned from watching the animals.

They welcomed the humans and, in some cases, mated with them, and that is why today Europeans and descendants of Europeans carry the Neanderthal legacy in their genes.

But the Neanderthal people were not prepared to defend themselves when the humans stopped borrowing and began taking from them – when the climate changed and the glaciers descended and food became scarce. Although they had tremendous strength, they were wholly unprepared to organise themselves for war. They were hunter-gatherers. They were still free. They had no centralised power structure. They did not want to leave their lands because their dead were buried there.

This was the first European conquest: eventually the Neanderthals were driven out of their homelands and banned from their ceremonial circles. They retreated to the waste places and the rocky promontories of hills where they could be on watch for wayward bands of Homo sapiens. And, as far as we know, they died out. A shadow memory of the Neanderthals survives in some folk tales, and it was their presence at the edges of the emigrants’ conquered lands that’s behind the beliefs in fairies and trolls.

The Homo sapiens have ever since told the story of the inferior race with the smaller brain, heavy brow, and stooped back, who had no technology, no art, no respect for the dead. To this day it is asserted that they had no feelings for each other and were incapable of abstract thought. Yet we westerners inflict violence and deprivation on our fellows as if we have no feelings for each other. We act as if our highly evolved capacity for abstract thought is not related to the problem of war and conquest.

Most Europeans today carry between one and four percent Neanderthal DNA.4 Which gives me the hope that we have a one-to-four percent peaceful part, and one-to-four percent artist part. And that this genetic legacy could be cherished and cultivated.

Underneath our history of violence and conquest is the fear that the Neanderthal will one day re-emerge from the margins and the rocky outcroppings to reclaim their rightful place and hold the Homo sapiens accountable for 35,000 years of dis-evolutionary behaviour. And for what was done to Abel and the Albigensians, and the Disappeared Ones. To the Jewish citizenry of Europe and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, to the families of Hiroshima and Dresden, and those of Tokyo, Mai Lai, and Gaza. To the elephants, the Bengali Tiger, the bees. To the forests, rivers, and seas.

Marianne is harrowed with worry that we are moving toward war again. Can we not look at Sebald’s pictures and see our own humanity in those smiling faces on the brink.

________________________________________
1 W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants (London: Vintage, 2002).

2 Hugo Hamilton, Introduction to Irish Journal by Heinrich Böll, trans. by Leila Vennewitz, (Brooklyn, NY: MelvilleHouse, 2011).

3 “Early Levallois Technology and the Lower to Middle Paleolithic Transition in the Southern Caucasus,” Science 345, no. 6204 (Sept 26, 2014): 1609-1613.

4 “The Replacements: New Evidence on the Old Mystery of the Neanderthals,” David Quammen, Harpers 329, no. 1972 (Sept 2014).

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

Dark Mountain: Issue 7

Fire on the Mountain

On the third day the crow shall fly
The crow, the crow, the spider-coloured crow,
The crow shall find new mud to walk upon

– Robert Bly

In Aeon’s review of Dark Mountain’s 2012 Uncivilisation festival, the author sounded a warning about the ‘sinister undercurrents’ of the movement: ‘The anti-technology polemics, the witchy nature mysticism and huntsman imagery,’ for this first-time attendee, ‘brought to mind nothing so much as English “neo-folk” acts such as Sol Invictus and Death In June, mainstays of Britain’s far-right bohemia, with its reveries about masks and antlers and the Brownshirts.’

A little less than two years later, the far-right Jobbik party took a fifth of the votes in Hungary’s election, propping up the nationalist and avowedly ‘illiberal’ government of Viktor Orbán. In the months that followed, the same current of volkisch sentiment seemed to be seeping up through the ground across Europe: Marine Le Pen, leader of the French Front National, topped a presidential opinion poll for the first time; the anti-immigration Swedish Democrats party doubled its share of the national vote; while Britain’s UKIP and the Danish People’s Party each took a quarter of their respective countries’ vote for the European Parliament. Although few of these parties are as overtly fascistic as Jobbik or Greece’s Golden Dawn, what was once dismissed as a regressive anomaly now appears to be a genuine trend across the continent.

Most recently, even Germany – a country where, for 70 years, civil discourse has been weighted towards a liberal vision of multi-ethnic rationalism – appeared to have succumbed to the trend when the anti- ‘Islamisation’ demonstrations of the Pegida movement erupted in Dresden, its chants of ‘Wir sind das Volk!’ producing troubling resonances for many observers. Meanwhile, in the US, the right-wing stranglehold on the terms of political debate and the slow erosion of the edifice of American rights have continued unabated despite six years of a Democratic presidency.

What does it mean, at a time like this, when the Enlightenment project of liberalism, democracy and reason seems to be under attack from every side, to be part of a cultural movement advocating a deeper relationship with our bodies, with the intuitive and non-rational aspects of our psyche, and with the land beneath our feet? What does it mean to promote a return to the primal, the wild, the traditional – to a deep belonging?

Are we playing with fire? Are we simply a group of middle-class literati, fetishising the irrational and the powerful, unaware of how our irresponsible intellectual posturing risks the release of savage, chthonic upwellings? Some would say that we ought now to be trying to defend the values of ‘civilisation’ against those who would replace it with a greater tyranny – that it is time to put aside our privileged indulgences in primitivism, Romanticism and back-to-nature nostalgia and to stand with our fellow citizens in holding the line of modernity against an encroaching tide of regressive barbarism.

Or might it be that this is just another one of the false choices we are presented with by our civilisation? That the purported division between a rational, ordered, peaceful civilisation and the blind savagery of times past is another false dichotomy? Just as people point to reforestation or the decline of industrial pollution in rich countries as evidence that the environment is improving – conveniently ignoring that the destruction has simply been offshored to the majority world – so we are invited to view our wealthy bubbles of relative peace as proof that civilisation need not be rooted in violence; all the while repressing knowledge of the fires of conflict burning elsewhere on the globe.

If the ugly face of ‘belonging’ has started to show its face in the West, perhaps it is less a recursion of an ideological disease from the past, and more a symptom of systemic dysfunction; an indication that the post- War deal upon which Western nations proceeded precariously for half a century – that devil’s bargain that gave the mass of working people in Europe and America just enough of the spoils of Empire not to want to rock the boat, not to question where the wealth was coming from, or the human and environmental cost – has started to fail. And as the boat starts to flounder, some, inevitably, look for easy answers; for someone to blame.

That the impact of Empire’s declining power to exploit and extract would generate animosity against the outsider, the immigrant, the other, was both predictable and predicted. Rather than being a regression from reason, though, this can be seen as a failure of story – it is precisely the collapse of the motivationary myth of continual progress that has unleashed so much inchoate frustration; and it is precisely the absence of other stories to replace the officially sanctioned narrative that renders the situation so dangerous.

In Britain, where the Dark Mountain Project was born, we are perhaps insulated from the worst excesses of these dangers: our localism rarely flares into outright animosity; our connection with the soil seems to have more to do with hydrangeas than Hitlerism. Perhaps this gives us an opportunity – and thereby a responsibility – to hold open a space where these issues can be dealt with safely; where the shadow-stuff of anger, fear, exclusion and severance can be allowed out, drop by drop, to be alchemised by the clear light of honesty and understanding.

We have always known that we would be accused of breaking open the tombs of things better left buried; one does not, after all, challenge the fundamental values of a civilisation without treading on the ideological toes of some vocal and influential entities. And we have always known that, despite those voices, we would continue to dig for the rough ores of truth and insight.

For the alternative – as described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, Smile or Die – is of a totalitarian optimism, an enforced positivity which pushes every misgiving, every sign of weakness, every moment of silence and humility down into the deepening sack of bilious, unconscious resentment. Our culture cuts itself off from the dark currents of the blood, and in doing so it both robs itself of their transformative power and plants the seeds of their violent reversion. For it is often precisely when the human desires for belonging, for rooting, for connection to the land and our own animal nature, are stymied and suppressed that they warp into the brutal distortions that fill the pages of the history books.

Confronting the shadow is never easy – it can lead you to uncomfortable places and introduce you to ill-mannered travelling companions. As you join us around the campfire, you may find yourself conversing with fierce-toothed wolves or primeval lizards; may be confronted with the false coin of travelling tricksters or the hairy stink of ancient machismo; may be served up the oil-stained shrimp of an eroding community, or the raw catch of a broken relationship; you may find yourself crawling down a New York sidewalk, or lying, wire-cutters in hand, beneath the belly of an industrial machine. You may hear a low growl from the darkness at your back.

But wander far enough into these shadows and you may stumble across the unexpected: the tenderness of connection that comes from facing death squarely; a woman, entering the dark of a cave, transfigured into light; the sudden life of a circling swift. And behind the conflicts and chaos of our civilisation’s early struggles lie the traces of an older wisdom: voices of the indigenous, the Neanderthal, the animal whisper to us across the years – or speak directly to us here and now, if only we have the wit to listen.

If the dark forces of conflict and control are indeed encroaching once more upon the ‘civilised’ world, the need for us to learn how to root is more, not less, urgent. As the shadows lengthen through this ‘twilight of the evening lands’, the need only grows stronger for new narratives; for stories, voices, visions and verse that help us remember what it is to be nothing more – or less – than human.

The Editors, February 2015

ILLY - Prospect -JeremyDyerMonumentJeremy Dyer ‘Monument’, archival pigment print on cotton rag

— 

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

Rivershift

During the Pleistocene, a river containing ten times the combined volume of all the rivers on Earth thundered west from its place of origin in a land now called Montana. At speeds upwards of sixty miles per hour, it tore across northwest North America on its way to the Pacific Ocean.

This mightiest of rivers was born from the collapse of the glacial dam that had contained it as an enormous water body known as Lake Missoula. And no sooner had the dam burst than it began to reform again to repeat the cataclysm, likely hundreds of times until the final collapse spilled one last torrent into the warming world of the Holocene.

This terminal river is the one that came to mind as I read Kathleen Dean Moore’s The Rules of the River in the September/October 2014 issue of Orion magazine. In Moore’s essay, she equates climate change and the myriad socio-political/economic interests (and disinterests) propelling it with ‘a river rushing toward a hot, stormy, and dangerous planet.’ She goes on to suggest that our work is ‘to make one small deflection in complacency, a small obstruction to profits, a blockage to business-as-usual, then another and another, to change the energy of the flood.’

As I read this I realised, for these countercurrent actions to be as effective as possible, we also need to understand the nature of the river itself. And no real river comes closer to serving as an adequate model for her metaphorical river than the Lake Missoula torrent. By relating her metaphorical river to that ice age river, the reality of our present global predicament becomes clearer as does the full spectrum of our essential work.

The human equivalent of Lake Missoula began to grow ten thousand years ago behind the building ice dam of a new human story that had come to fill and chill the hearts of a swelling agricultural populace. Over the centuries, this story of separation, exceptionalism and control grew and grew, and behind it the human waters rose. Strain built against the relentlessly expanding margins of this story until roughly two centuries ago when the pressure became too great and, with industrial force, the dam burst.

Unleashed, the industrial human flood swept across the Earth, drowning everything in its path that would not or could not join the sweep. And the few generations born of the deluge during its relative geologic instant came to see it as normal. What’s more, they came to depend on it for almost every facet of their existence and derived most of their physical sustenance, self-worth, meaning, purpose, social standing and even identity from their contribution to its continuance. We who have inherited this aberrant normalcy and near-total dependency can now see with unprecedented clarity the compounding and increasingly catastrophic planetary damage our flood has been causing by its very existence. And this vision has produced a heart-wrenching tension too overwhelming for many of us to acknowledge. For those of us like Moore who have the courage to do so, a vital aspect of the work such acknowledgement demands is, as she recognises, deflection, obstruction and blockage of business-as-usual. But such work must be coupled with an awakening to the fact that industrial civilisation is the river. We are the waters. Our story is the flood.

This awareness leads to the other work we must do if deflection, obstruction and blockage are to become anything more than postponements of the total ecological erasure in which we are concurrently engaged in the day to day living of our lives as children of the flood. That other work is the conscious withdrawal of our personal and institutional energy from the torrent and the shifting of that energy into local communities integrated into local ecological cycles, where the fullness of human life may be met without involving the global industrial technological infrastructure with its insatiable demands for the unending and accelerating drawdown of planetary resilience.

It’s as simple (and as difficult) as promoting ways of human living where communication is direct eye to eye and voice to ear, where mobility is accomplished with feet, where the sources of food, water, shelter and all other material necessities can be accessed by those feet, and where the stories, songs and celebrations that matter most are those that directly bind us, our families and communities to the land which gives us our existence at every level: physical, emotional and spiritual.

And the time for this shift is now. Unlike the Toklat where Moore found her inspiration, or the Clark’s Fork, the Columbia, the Mississippi, the Nile, the Yangtze, the Amazon… this flood-formed river of human excess (born from the exploitation — in a mere two centuries — of the energy contained in fossil carbon deposits that took hundreds of millions of years to form) is, and can only be, temporary.

The river will subside. The waters will diminish and settle back into well-worn channels carved by the solar-powered cycle of the seasons spinning their ceaseless rounds. And we will once again live with the trophic integrity that is our deepest birthright, our broadest tradition. Most importantly, our stories will frame this transformation to a steady-state in terms of maturation rather than collapse, stagnation, regression or a devolutionary ‘going back’. Thus we will stop struggling at all costs to preserve a ten thousand year condition of arrested development (ceaseless adolescent growth) and embrace our long-postponed adulthood.

In this effort, we have many examples from whom to learn; those who long ago made the shift the citizens of the now-global monoculture of industrial civilisation must make. The following quote represents just one, offered by Jeanette Armstrong, an Okanagan from a land now called British Columbia:

I do know that people must come to community in the land. The transiency of peoples crisscrossing the land must halt, and people must commune together on the land to protect it and all our future generations. Self-sustaining indigenous people still on the land are already doing this. They present an opportunity to relearn and reinstitute the rights we all have as humans.

As Okanagan, our most essential responsibility is to bond our whole individual and communal selves to the land. Many of our ceremonies have been constructed for this. We join with the larger self and with the land, and rejoice in all that we are.

This is the essence of cultural maturity. And it is our most vital work whether we’re Okanagan or not. Committing to this work and making it the undercurrent of our every act is how the flood can end well.

If the notion of the flood ending well arouses incredulity, recall that many of our most respected experts felt the same way about the prospects for life in the blast zone following the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Some of them even anticipated a silent, barren gray-scape for centuries to come and they had the science to back them up. Yet frog song and green shoots and purple lupine and the dark loamy scrollwork of gopher tailings erupted from the ashen land almost immediately, shocking and awing the experts (and the rest of us) perhaps even more profoundly than the eruption itself.

Might life’s response to our maturation prove equally shocking and awesome? There’s only one way to find out. And the time of decision is upon us: will we cling to the cresting wave of the familiar industrial story despite ever more undeniable signs that it is about to break or will we engage, with imaginative intention, an opportunity that has not been available in ten thousand years: the opportunity to restore our waters to the long-abandoned channels of our humanity and from there flow on, immersed in stories buoyed by a lasting river?