Pod Tune

 
My childhood was steeped in science fiction.

My favourite was the original Star Trek. It shaped the way I looked at the world. Captain Kirk enrolled at Star Fleet Academy to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before.’ Following in his footsteps, I signed up with the Peace Corps, United Nations, and Doctors Without Borders. I eventually transitioned into environmental activism as protecting the world as a whole became my passion.

A fundamental concept of Star Trek always stayed with me. Nearly every episode featured some type of alien. The crew of the Enterprise regularly initiated contact, negotiated, dined, forged treaties, made love, and occasionally battled with highly-intelligent aliens — usually friendly, sometimes grumpy, and occasionally hostile. Aliens were just part of the universe. Aliens and humans comingled. Aliens and humans belonged together.

About three years ago I was hit by a sudden insight: we share our planet with a myriad of highly-intelligent, non-human, alien-like creatures. The most striking examples, in my mind, are the whales.

Whales are by nature profound. They have the largest brains and hearts of any species on the planet — and the largest songs*.

Humpback whales in particular produce complex vocalisations that can last for ten to twenty minutes and then get repeated for hours at a time — sometimes for an entire twenty-four-hour cycle. Scientists are still not certain about the purpose of the songs.

While we’ve been sending private rockets to the International Space Station and landing probes on passing comets, deep within the planet’s vast and unexplored oceans live enormously intelligent whales who seem to be waiting for us to engage them in conversation.

The idea behind POD TUNE was to take this conversation to a new level.

Over the years, I have helped groups like Rainforest Action Network, Forest Ethics, and Greenpeace with their story-based messaging. The impetus was showcasing how human actions are endangering ecosystems in addition to individual species.

With POD TUNE the objective shifted to creating an experience of interspecies communion through collaborative music.

Listen to ‘Altus’ by Loscil

The music would have to be accessible — sounding special and ordinary at the same time. Pure humpback whalesong is utterly fascinating, but I never play it all by itself in my everyday life. Whale sounds feel too otherworldly on their own at a dinner party, business meeting, or morning commute. POD TUNE would have to work equally inside a car, cubicle, bedroom, yoga studio, restaurant, and coffee shop.

The music would also have to be good. Eco-schmaltz or New Age sap would never suffice. Accomplished musicians from all over the globe would be called in to give different perspectives, but remain within a single genre. The final line-up would involve composers from the United States, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Japan, China, and Taiwan. Ambient was the obvious choice as it is both well suited for whalesong and also enjoying an international renaissance.

Finally, I envisioned a sonic experience that could capture the imagination of a first-time listener. This happened to me in a San Francisco coffee house when the first notes of Radiohead’s Kid A drifted out of the speakers. I stopped working and remained transfixed until it ended — at which time I implored the barista to share the name of the composer and album. The POD TUNE album would likewise take audiences on a journey through mythic imaginary landscapes.

Listen to ‘Marine Layers’ by Mikael Jorgensen

Many of the major whale researchers and institutions agreed to share the catalogues they had spent decades accumulating. Three years of experimentation eventually resulted in a cohesive album. Most importantly, the atmosphere it generated while being played interweaved just enough introspection and repose to allow it to be replayed many times without getting stale.

I’ve heard it innumerable times and I still enjoy being taken on the audio pilgrimage where two sentient species seem to inhabit the same soundscape.

Isn’t this an example of an evolved environmental philosophy that might lead our civilisation to affirming all kinds of life — seemingly ‘alien’ and human living and working together — just like Star Trek?

*Except for Thom Yorke who recently created a 432-hour song for an Australian art installation.

Listen to ‘My Jaw Was Made Of Ancient Whale’s Bone’
by Eric Holm

You can listen to the whole of POD TUNE on Soundcloud

or purchase the album here

Harold Linde (Producer) creates new ‘eco-myths’ using multi-platform media and innovative storytelling to demonstrate how humans can creatively collaborate with other species and the environment. He has worked with such organisations as International Fund for Animal Welfare, Forest Ethics, Greenpeace, TckTckTck, Rainforest Action Network, Free the Slaves, Doctors Without Borders, Peace Corps and the United Nations — as well as such film and television projects as 11th Hour, Battle in Seattle, DragonflyTV, 30 Days, and Big Ideas for a Small Planet. He is the recipient of the WorldFest Gold Special Jury Medal, Gold Medal International CINDY, New York Film & Video Gold Medal, Catalyst Gold Medal, OMNI Intermedia Bronze Medal, San Jose Film Festival Joey, TELLY, Instructional Video EarthVision Environmental Film Festival Trophy and Japan Wildlife Film Festival Message Awards. 

A Beacon in the Sand

We might begin with the image of American history as a great tidal wave of progress. A wave launched with the appearance of the colonists; a wave rolling with greater and greater momentum westward across the continent. It brushed aside everything that resisted it. It used covered wagons and steamships, homesteads and railroads, guns and axes; it used laws and politics, noble speeches and the rhetoric of free enterprise; it used corporate charters and city charters and civic pride. It remade everything it touched.

This is a rather unreconstructed metaphor we are, for example, bypassing the question of what this wave might look like to a Native American standing in its way – but it is at the same time a useful one. It captures something of the old notion of Manifest Destiny, and a bit of the American view of its own history as one of an inevitable, necessary advancement. It captures something of the feeling of propulsion that can seem at times to occupy the heart of the so-called American experiment. But it is also useful because of the questions it raises. If our history is to be seen, metaphorically, as a wave of progress sweeping across the continent, what happens when that wave collides with the western wall of the Pacific Ocean? That is, what happens when the wave runs out of land?

At least two possibilities suggest themselves. It might be the case, first, that the wave of progress (we might call it ‘progress’) cannot be stopped. We can imagine it reaching the boundary of the Pacific and simply continuing to accelerate, if not geographically, then into other realms. If we keep pushing on the image, we come to the image that the West Coast, and California in particular, often project: they are the furthest point of advancement, the tip of the still-moving spear, the prow of the boat. This seems to be the self-imagining of Silicon Valley, which would like to see itself as riding at the edge of an accelerating frontier, a force (or the force) for progress and goodness in the world. It is also the imagining forwarded by the rhetoric of Hollywood, with its proclaimed position as the country’s ‘dream factory’, the place that points the way towards what the rest of us can only imagine ourselves being. Under these readings, our westward progress is still continuing. We advance, restlessly and unceasingly, towards some better place.

But there is another possibility. It might also be the case that the progress cannot go on forever. It may be that we should understand American civilisation as becoming increasingly enervated and deracinated as it spreads across the continent, thinner and less substantial, like a wave moving up a beach. Under this view, as it advances, our culture loses strength and decency. Our downfall is inevitable, and you can see that if you look westwards; California is the land of fad and fantasy. There is little more out there than a construction of cultureless suburbs, plastic and unrefined, deadening. This is the old view of the New York stage industry towards Hollywood; it’s the contemporary view sometimes exhibited by the East Coast establishment towards Silicon Valley: they are frivolous, substanceless dreamers with no grasp on either reality or propriety. All flash, no substance. Under this imagining, American civilisation has become increasingly self-corrupted as it has pushed towards the Pacific; the West Coast is not a beacon but a symbol of dissolution. The motion is not towards intensified life, but towards senescence. In the indelible image of the poet James Wright, ‘At the bottom of the cliff / America is over and done with / America, / Plunged into the dark furrows / of the sea again.’

*

 We might continue with a fact: California is running out of water. This is not a metaphor. The details are fairly straightforward. Precipitation has been extremely low for four years. We might also note an example of the difficulty the state has had in approaching this problem: in January of 2014, Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, and requested that citizens of the state reduce their water consumption. He set a goal of a 20% reduction in water usage. In July of that year, the governor was back with another announcement: the first summer water usage statistics had appeared, and despite the declared state of emergency, people were actually using more water than they had the previous year. Since then, despite rationing to farmland and rapidly-intensifying restrictions by municipalities, things have not improved. There is only so much slack in the system. People use water; they need water. And people need to eat. California produces 71% of spinach consumed in America, and 69% of carrots, 90% of the broccoli, 97% of the plums, 95% of the garlic. And more. It is the breadbasket of American agriculture.

*

We might offer an observation. It involves Starbucks, a west-coast company (it began in Seattle), and one that heralded the cultural boom of the boutique excellence of the everyday product with which we are now surrounded, from craft coffee and beer to farm-to-table food and excellent television shows. Last year, at Starbucks in California and across the country, coffee cups appeared bearing paper sleeves emblazoned with motivational sayings from Oprah Winfrey. The program, affiliated with the company Teavana (a subsidiary of Starbucks) was familiar in its outlines. It combined notions of corporate philanthropy – a portion of profits was donated to one of Oprah’s own charitable foundations – with self-help jargon; the underlying motive was, of course, to increase sales for Starbucks and fame and profit for Oprah. In terms of the dynamics we expect from our corporations, there was little unusual in this.

But if we pause for a moment, and step outside of our own familiarity, it’s possible to see how absolutely strange this is. We were drinking from cups of coffee bearing self-help slogans. What on earth for? What, if we step back from our position of familiarity, does this mean? One obvious place to start is by examining the intention of this campaign: what was the effect it wanted to create? How exactly did it intend to increase sales? We might first note that these slogans made us, or tried to make us, feel better about ourselves. As Slavoj Zizek is fond of pointing out, programs like this one allow us to consume without guilt. When we patronised Starbucks last year, those coffee sleeves assured us that we were no longer simply buying a product from a large, faceless corporate entity that did not much acknowledge our existence. Instead, we were buying a product that both gave to charity and reinforced our notion that, through the purchase, we were actually increasing the degree of our self-actualisation. The product was, in some sense, engaging with us on a level that was separate from its existence as a simple commodity.

But what, exactly, was the content of this engagement? One of the messages from Oprah on the cardboard sleeves read: ‘Be more splendid. Be more extraordinary. Use every moment to fill yourself up.’ Splendid is descended from the Latin splendidus, meaning bright, or shining, or gorgeous. Extraordinary is also from a Latin word, meaning outside of the common order. So what Oprah and Starbucks were urging is that we be bright, shining, glorious stars of our own, outside the realm of the ordinary, that last world here presumably meaning ‘everybody else’. So far, so good. This message, like the program itself, is so familiar to American culture as to serve as an entirely unremarkable background, or perhaps foundational element, of it. Each of us can shine. Each of us can be perfectly individuated from the mass.

The second half of Oprah’s exhortation showed us how: ‘Use every moment to fill yourself up.’ Here again we have the familiar element of ‘using every moment’. Life is precious; waste none of it. And how? By ‘filling yourself up.’ It’s this last phrase that contains the pure distillation of the message, as though each of the preceding ideas has suddenly and sharply come into focus. There is, of course, the not-so-subtle pushing of the product through the reference of ‘filling’ (as in another cup of coffee.) Beyond this, however, resides the deeper image: we will become splendid and extraordinary by filling ourselves. We are to take every moment and use it to draw the world into us, to consume it; this moving of everything into our being will be the feat that actualises us.

This logic was pushed to its final conclusion by another slogan on a sleeve. ‘You are not here to shrink down to less, but to blossom into more of who you really are.’ That is to say, the exhortations of the first message are not exhortations to change ourselves. Rather, they are indications of our real, if hitherto unknown, potential. They are about our true purpose. You are not here to change, you are here ‘to blossom into more of who you really are.’ You already contain the seeds of greatness. To be ‘more splendid’ and ‘more extraordinary’, you need to fill yourself up. But this will not alter you, or make you into someone else. It will, instead, release your true self. It will reveal your deepest actuality. Do not change, and do not let people tell you to change; instead, fill yourself up until your true inner perfection begins to emerge.

*

We might consider the Peoples Church of Fresno. This is an entirely ordinary evangelical church, of the kind that can be found across the nation; however, for our purposes it is worth remembering that the history of American evangelism is intimately connected, for worse and for better, with the history of American westward expansion and American exceptionalism. The eradication of the Native Americans had religious as well as social and economic roots – one has only to remember the famous Presbyterian minister Benjamin Palmer’s 1901 sermon, in which he argued that ‘when the Indians had, for countless centuries, neglected the soil, had no worship to offer the true God, with scarcely any serious occupation but murderous inter-tribal wars … the Indian [was] swept from the earth, and a great Christian nation, over seventy-five million strong, [rose] up.’ At the same time, however, much of the movement to abolish slavery in this country was religious, and evangelical, in nature: the seminaries in the (then frontier) Midwest were hotbeds for radical abolitionist thought, and John Brown was an evangelical Christian who started his career as a violent religious radical in Kansas. There has always been contradiction in our religious history; there have always been both anti-human and pro-human forces at work.

At the Peoples Church of Fresno last summer the lead pastor, Dale Oquist, taught a series of lessons on ‘Jesusology’. The title, like the title of Oprah’s project with Starbucks – ‘Steep Your Soul’ – was mostly a sales pitch, designed to stimulate intrigue while maintaining just enough referential force to indicate its content. So Jesusology was the study of the ‘life, significance, and ministry of Jesus.’ So far, so good. This is exactly what we might expect to be happening at a church of this sort. The online summary of the first sermon in the series listed three main points, and two of the three were unremarkable: ‘Jesus was in the business of reshaping people’s views of who God is,’ and ‘We are to make straight the paths of our lives for Yahweh to come to us.’ These indicated that the sermon, like many evangelical sermons, was both a discussion of what the life and teachings of Jesus reveal about the true nature of God, and a discussion of the Biblical injunction to work on reducing the obstacles in our lives that prevent our communion with God.

But the third main point of the sermon is worth pausing over. It bore italics in the summary, and read: ‘God is not mad at us! It was explained in the following way: ‘People tend to believe God causes or allows things to go wrong because of something they did wrong. Today we learned Jesus was in the business of reshaping peoples’ views of God. We can know that God is not angry at us. (Italics again in the original.) In a sense, this too is a common piece of Biblical teaching. The point is that our sins have been pre-forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus, and that (if we accept God into our hearts) the path of salvation is therefore open to us. We will not be punished if we repent of our sins.

But there is still something remarkable about that initial phrase: God is not mad at us! Thinking this over, it might occur to us to ask a question: Why, exactly, would we think that he is mad at us? Or, to put it differently: What was Pastor Oquist is seeing in his congregation that made him want to reassure them in this way? The answer is given in the explanation that follows: ‘People tend to believe God causes or allows things to go wrong because of something they did wrong.’ So Pastor Oquist seemed to feel that we are afraid things are going wrong in the world because of something we did, and his natural inclination was to comfort us. God is not angry at us; we should not live in fear, or sadness, or guilt. Our goal, as articulated in the other bullet points, is instead to open ourselves up to God so that we can know the truth about the world.

One begins to see the connection to the platitudes of Oprah Winfrey on the Starbucks cup. Both originate in assumptions about the unhappiness, or un-fulfillment, of their audience. Starbucks and Oprah assume that we feel un-actualised, so they try to reassure us that there is a path open to actualisation; Pastor Oquist believes we are afraid that God is mad at us, so he reassures us this isn’t the case. And beneath both of these vision lies the old notion of progress. Progress westward, progress towards a greater place, towards a promised destiny. Progress towards a world in which, through filling ourselves up as individuals – through our personal splendour, through our personal relationship with God – we will somehow find our way through to a world that is better for everyone.


There is a
strange sleight of hand a work in all of this. It takes place in the assertion that through focusing on the ‘I’ we will improve the ‘we’. The path to community, that is, takes place through individualism. Consider a final example: the architecture, or built geography, of suburban California, and indeed, suburban America. It has often been claimed that there is a sort of anesthesia in this geography, composed as it is of interstates and strip malls, endless one and two-story responses to population growth, streets like inescapable mazes, identical houses strung one after another to the horizon. There is a truth to these observations: from the outside these suburbs can come to look like a physical manifestation of what Adorno and Horkheimer loathed in what they the termed ‘the culture industry’. The repetition and flatness of affect can appear ideological, designed to perpetuate a culture in which, ‘conformity has replaced consciousness.’


But from the inside – that is, actually driving among these neighbourhoods and interacting with their owners that ‘conformity’ takes on a new aspect. We see that the birds-eye view of the horror of the place must be somehow integrated with an understanding of the experience of its residents. To many of the people who live in these suburbs, they are not a repository of conformist horror, but a confirmation of achievement. Each property is a small, inviolable personal kingdom. They are fenced. Kids splash in backyard pools. The lawns are manicured. The cars are cared for meticulously, and there are very few older models. As with the houses themselves, the point of the cars is not that everyone else may have exactly the same model, but that I too have one. That is to say, from the inside, these suburbs are not representations of conformity, but of success. It is the success of I too. It is purchased with sweat, and perseverance, and hard-won dollars. All of my neighbours may have one, sure, but I too have a small castle of my own.

Looking closely, we can see the way in which this is a physical synthesis of the Oprah/Starbucks exhortation to splendidness and Pastor Oquist’s reassurance that God is not angry, you simply have to open yourself up to him. It is a geography, physical as well as social, that assures you of the possibility of achievement. It is a geography that reinforces the notion that even if there are awful things going on out there in the world, here you can have stability and comfort and be among the like-minded. Here, God is not angry. All of this is possible; achieving it, deeply and truly, simply requires faith in the dream, along with a continued and constructive work on the self. For Oprah, this work is a filling up of the self; for Pastor Oquist, it is an acceptance of what was done for you, that is, an acceptance that it was on your behalf that Jesus died on the cross. In both cases, what is required is that belief in the validity of the self, the joy in the self, the acceptance of the self, the perfectibility of the self. And the ultimate reassurance is that it is through this focus on the self that the ‘we’ lurking behind all of the encomiums will be created. We will have our malls and our movie theatres, our clothing stores and our cars. It is through the ‘I’ that the ‘we’ will be triumphant.

*

 We might return to the drama of the drought in California and the difficulty of taking measures to offset it. What becomes clear, if we look at the way people are living and what they are being told, is that to be asked to reduce, be it water or any other consumable, runs counter to nearly every mandate, belief, and historical self-understanding of our culture. California, and by extension America, is about having. It is not about not having. It is about doing, not about not doing. If the choice is between some relatively abstract notion of preservation on the one hand, and washing the car on the other, we will choose washing the car. We will choose to eat out-of-season vegetables to promote our health, and we will choose to take our regular showers to maintain our sense of hygiene. Why? Because when we are confronted with doubt, or difficulty, the accumulated weight of the system of beliefs in which we have operated for the entirety of our lives rests on the side of continuing to fill ourselves up. It rests on the side of displacing our fears that we might bear responsibility. It rests on our belief in our own destiny, and our movement towards it; it rests on our belief that through the consuming ‘I’ we will reach the promised ‘we’. These bad things are not happening because of anything we’ve done; God is not mad at me, he cannot be punishing us.

In these ways, the need to use less water is nearly impossible to negotiate, because it is a worldly annoyance running up against transcendent imperatives. It is competing with self-actualisation. And self-actualisation, we are told over and over again, is the entire goal of our lives. It is through self-actualisation that we will, in Donald Trump’s phrase, ‘Make America Great Again.’ We are meant, we have been told more times than we can count, to have our own small place in the sun; we have worked for that place, we have been promised it, and we’re sure as hell not giving it back.

It is here, I think, that the great sad force of the metaphor of American culture as a wave becomes finally and fully apparent. A wave is not a movement of water, it is a movement of force through water. And the force that moves through us is the very notion of progress itself. When it runs up against the reality of California, the reality of the drought, we see that it is boundless and unstoppable, and at the same time enervated, dissipating. It is a force at once ever-expanding and ever-thinning, an endless taking-in, an endless self-fulfilment, and the continual emptying-out of these things. It is the notion of California, land of the blossoming star, land of the internet billionaire, land where we can each have our personal kingdom; it is the notion of the new electronic frontier sweeping out away from us and across the world, promising a California for every human on earth, regardless of how devoid of meaning that promised land is.

It is this force, this idea of progress, with which we need to contend. When we see Oprah’s slogans on our coffee cups, we should howl with laughter at the idea that we will be made better by coffee. When we hear of Pastor Oquist’s sermons we should ache with sadness at his need to so reassure his congregation. We should long to tear down the sterility and separation of the suburbs, their imprisoning message of false achievement. We should agitate and organise and foment. We should proclaim that the natural world has an inherent value that is greater than the value of our personal or financial success; that transcendence comes not from a filling-up of ourselves but from a re-awakening of our connections to each other and to the non-human world; and that we must not pretend that we are something other responsible agents, fully capable of destroying ever single thing around us.

But we should do none of this in service of the idea of progress. We should do it because if we don’t we are not living, experiencing, cognisant beings. We are simply inanimate objects through which destructive force is transmitted.

Images:  Las Vegas Suburbs by Damiel Ramirez (2008)

Ars brevis vida longa

Early Tuesday morning. I enter the decommissioned military tunnel complex on Skeppsholmen, an island in the middle of Stockholm. The postwar naval installations in the bedrock have been turned into exhibition spaces. Undulating sheets of corrugated sheet metal mark the entrance to the mountain, where the most recent exhibition featured artifacts and sculptures from the Yoruba culture of Ife in present day Nigeria. My friend Mats comes to let me in and takes us through a series of doors that require passkeys and codes. The air inside is surprisingly dry and warm. While working on the Nigerian exhibition, I remember the auxiliary outer tunnels being significantly wetter and colder than the innermost exhibition tunnels that were duly climatised to protect the objects on display. Mats points to a large banner advertising an art fair in the mountain and explains that the climate system finally has been tuned to work throughout the tunnels, creating an artificial but decidedly pleasant atmosphere in the hollows of the mountain.

I lug a cheap backpack that I have spent some hours modifying at the studio, sacrificing the backpack, the hose to my vacuum cleaner and my best darkroom funnel to construct what I hope will be a functional portable container/dispenser for the finely granulated black sand I have come to pick up. The sand is a slag product from processing iron ore commonly sold as a sand-blasting agent. We used the sand to create a non-reflective, organic looking floor in some of the displays of the exhibition, and Mats managed to retrieve a good deal of it when taking down the show for future use. I have estimated a need for about thirty kilos, and we load up my backpack with as much as we can. I give it a try. It is very heavy. Ridiculously heavy in fact. Very doubtful that I will be able to carry it for any length of time or distance, and I make a quick calculation of alternative possibilities. I could pour the sand into a mound shaped heap but that would entail a lot of running back and forth to replenish a smaller dispenser (funnel? sack? tray?) which might jeopardise the overall feeling of the performance… but… the sand is in any case necessary, and we haul it onto a dolly and roll the swollen backpack to the staff coffee room in one of the side tunnels. I will have to think of something. I half knew it when sawing off the vacuum cleaner hose: this is not going to work the way I want it to.

I will use the sand to make a large-scale drawing in the snow around the world’s oldest tree. The krummholz spruce known as Old Tjikko is close to 10,000 years old and resides in the national Park of Fulufjället in Dalarna, Sweden. It will be my third trip to this particular tree in less than a year, making me, I suppose, a frequent visitor to the park. This time I will be going up there with a French documentary film crew who are going to shoot the tree for a series on very old and remarkable trees in Europe.This segment will be the last in the series, and has the working title Histoires d’arbres. It is produced by ARTE and scheduled to air sometime this fall.

The drawing I am making is directly inspired by the Nigerian exhibition. I came across a design of the Vodou deity Papa Legba when researching the Yoruba creation myth, a narrative in which sixteen Orishas descend on the Earth and give rise to humankind in the region of Ife in Nigeria. Papa Legba is the god of the crossroads, the guardian of the threshold between this world and the other side. I thought his veve — a graphic symbol used in Vodou — would be a pertinent symbol for a tree that has lived throughout the Holocene and come to see the dawn of our present predicament — the geological era known as the Anthropocene. Papa Legba is usually invoked by libations of rum and other savory offerings — cigars, meat and such. I will bring a bottle of water from the nearby waterfall and pour it around the tree.

I meet up with the crew at Arlanda airport and the five of us pack into a rental van and head up north. I am usually the driver and take advantage of being a passenger this time, confident that the satellite navigation system will guide us right. When I wake up an hour or so later, the GPS has directed us to a small village off the highway, a place where I was was stranded a few years ago with a broken car in a snowstorm. We pull up in front of a combined petrol station/ roadside café, but the establishment is all boarded up and empty behind tangled window blinds. I direct us back onto the highway where I know there is an open truck stop a few miles ahead. We pass a towering Chinese construction that seems to have been forever suspended in a state of almost-finished on the banks of Dalälven. I first saw the building in 2007 when I drove north on the recently opened highway and it has lost none of its weird apparition-like qualities since then.

It becomes apparent that we are on a filming schedule right away. Henri de Gerlache, the film’s director, allows for a quick sandwich and a coffee before we get back on the road. He wants to get some shots from a lake en route, with water, ice and sun setting on what I imagine might be an opening sequence of the film. I estimate that we will be able to make it to Lake Siljan in Dalarna before dusk. The lake would be a good place to start, I tell the crew — it’s very much in the heartland of Swedish vernacular tradition, sitting in a landscape flush with midsummer poles, ornate clothing and the ornamental design known locally as kurbits. Also, in the spirit of deep time, the lake itself is the largest known meteorite impact crater in Europe. The event took place some 377 million years ago and although most of the characteristic crater shape has since eroded, there is still a sense of the truly ancient about the area. Driving westward we hit upon the southwestern shore of the lake just before dusk. Taking pictures of people taking pictures in a muddy field overlooking the waters that shift in a full range of blues, greys and silver streaks, canopied by a intensely technicolored sky. This is the money shot. If we were real tourists, we could pack it up, call it a day and descend on the hotel bar.

We get to the village of Särna in the valley below Fulufjället a few hours later and gather round the table in a rustic, quaint and somewhat confusing dining room — all wood, very Scandinavian country-style, but with walls adorned with vintage theatre posters from London. I spot a grinning Dave Allen, a comedian I distinctly remember from my childhood as making a lot of fun of nuns and Catholics while proceeding to get increasingly drunk on his barstool. We are served a fantastic dinner. Alan and his wife run the place, which can best be described as an upscale B&B, and Alan rather promptly informs us of his establishment’s top rating on Trip Advisor. How very un-Swedish of him! We are having bear and reindeer for dinner. I mumble something about me being a vegetarian, but then again — I’ve never had bear, and the food is already on my plate. It’s very good. And I am very hungry. Bears are prolific in the area, and Alan thinks that this one was shot a few miles north of here. Local bear. The beer is local too, from one of the many micro-breweries that cater to discerning drinkers about.

The great naturalist Linnaeus was deeply disappointed in the scant variety of species found on his trip up this valley in the late 1700s. He had expected more abundance perhaps, something on par with the plethora of cold-loving plants that he had come across on his trips to the northernmost parts of Sweden. Little did he know that although the variety here might be scant, contemporary locals have come up with many ways to make do with what’s available: we are served blueberries from last fall, preserved with characteristic green leaves and all, and among the many things on offer at next morning’s breakfast table I find jars of pickled mushrooms. Removed from times when supplies had to be brought by horse and sled in the winter through roadless land by some hundred-plus years, traditional ways of preserving and preparing foods have swung back in fashion. Careful husbandry of food stuffs – be they cultivated, hunted or foraged – reflects a sense of care and respect for the local environment. It helps, then, that the stuff tastes great too, and comes in a pleasant lack of packaging. No need to peel any annoying little stickers from either bear or mushrooms.

We set out early the next day and trade our van for snowmobiles that will take us up the mountain’s north slope. The dress code for these machines is all hyperbole: big overalls, massive gloves, hightech goggles and helmets. It feels a bit odd, bringing all this gear and noise into an environment that at least superficially exudes pristine serenity. On my previous trips I have carried my modest equipment on my back, and although there are no guarantees that more is better, I am still excited to visit the tree in the company of a professional film crew. Hauling my burlap sack with some thirty kilos’ worth of blasting sand onto one of the sleds, I send a grateful note to whoever invented these obnoxious machines. There is no way I would have ventured to drag that load up the mountain on foot.

When planning for this trip and my performance I toyed around with various options for the actual piece I was going to do. The solitary tree on a snow-covered mountaintop. A large-scale drawing on the snow. I thought an aerial view would work the best, particularly since the tree itself is no more than some 3.5 meters tall counting the foot-deep layer of snow. I tested different ways to shoot from an improvised boom, using a tree of similar height and volume by my studio, but the results were never satisfactory and I had a hard time to make a construction that would be lightweight, collapsible, sturdy and able to withstand strong winds. I thought of a drone, seeing as they were able to hover in place; this, however, necessitated a day with no or very little wind, and the chances for that were slim. I got in touch with the production office in Paris about this, but the particulars of my enquiry — what equipment they would bring and to what extent I needed to make my own preparations — got lost in the general frenzy of organising the shoot. In the end, I decided to bring a contraption that would allow me to capture the tree and my performance from five metres above ground with a regular video-camera: a heavy surveyor’s tripod with a collapsible extension pole with a jerry-rigged camera mount at the top. I felt a bit foolish when I met up with the first half of the crew at the airport who informed me that Jean Charles, the cinematographer, was on his way — he just had to retrieve several cases with parts for boom and drone out of special luggage.

Three park rangers accompany us on our first visit to the tree. Because this is a production visit by a documentary film crew, I suppose there is a certain protocol to follow. I can’t help thinking that the rangers might also be a wee bit curious about the project. I ask one of the wardens what she thinks of this particular tree, and her response takes me by surprise: ‘No different from other trees in the park’ she says. Her view on the old spruce’s impressive age is decidedly pragmatic — to her this tree merits the same level of protection as do all the other trees and plants that fall under her supervision. A supervision which for most part is conducted on snowmobiles in the cold months. The park rangers make regular rounds up here in the winter, extending assistance to tourists, taking stock of wildlife and making sure that the rules and regulations particular to Sweden’s national parks are observed. Even though the sudden celebrity status of one particular tree does not impress them much, they all concede that there have been some overall benefits in terms of publicity and visitor numbers. I inadvertently slot myself into a growing number of tree-gazing tourists that have started frequenting the park since the tree was ‘discovered’ by professor Leif Kullman in 2004. I would probably not have come here otherwise; much less thrice in a single year.

alexandre march15

A few days later, the rangers Veronica and Peter arrive at our cabin with an outsized sled in tow, loaded to the brim with logs of spruce and pine from the valley below. They are bringing a fresh supply of firewood for heating the cabins and fueling the sauna that is housed in a separate building down by the lake. The trunks are almost the exact same size and girth as the tree we are here to document, albeit of considerably younger age. I am reminded of a Tao narrative where the old age and beauty of an old gnarled oak is chiefly attributed to its relative uselessness as a source of wood for fire, construction or furniture. To cut down a solitary scrawny spruce far away from your house simply does not make much sense when the forest just a few hundred metres below is awash with more suitable specimens. This relative uselessness may have been a saving grace throughout the centuries and millenia. The current concern of the rangers is that the quality of novelty (World’s OLDEST tree!! Right HERE!!!) recently attributed to Old Tjikko may well turn out to be a potential threat to the tree and its immediate surroundings. The modest fence around the tree is simply not enough to handle large numbers of visitors, much less to deter anyone from snapping off a branch or two.

What is at the core here is the way in which we humans attribute value and non-value to our surroundings. It is becoming abundantly clear that too keen an interest in any particular resource for material gain or just simply as a vehicle for transient comfort — think firewood on a blistering cold mountain — will have negative effects that go way beyond the eventual depletion/ extinction of that particular resource. The negative outcome of our endeavours in mining, dredging, harnessing, hunting and, recently, fracking the bejeezus out of our environment also has the unfortunate tendency to be long-lasting, if not downright terminal. I think it is a good idea to feature ‘the world’s oldest tree’ in a documentary like this because it can serve as an inroad to a discussion about resilience and sustainability with a living, albeit gnarled, representative of these concepts as a starting point. This is a smarter kind of exploitation of natural resources, and it is one that I am quite happy to partake in. This does not mean that I am above using a variety of fossil fuels, rare earth metals and other tokens of contemporary life on a daily basis; what it does for me as an individual is to provide a possible alternative to climate-change-angst-cum-paralysis on the one hand and a blissful state of mindless shopping on the other.

Our stay at the cabin on top of Fulufjället lasted for four days, and we were rather lucky with the weather — crisp, clear and temperatures moderately below freezing. It’s difficult to make even the world’s oldest tree look good in sharp sunlight though, and I think some of the best sessions were filmed at the crack of dawn and in the long dusk of early evenings. Looking at my own footage I was struck by the intense blue tint that colours the snow at nightfall, rendering the layers of snow with an almost ocean-like quality.

The sparseness of the landscape with a solitary tree on an almost completely flat plateau some six hundred meters above sea level is an apt framework for an ancient tree, like a showcase for ‘old tree in landscape’. The immediate context is visually reduced almost to the level of modesty (small rocks, tiny explosions of coloured lichens here and there) while at the same time affording qualities of grandeur and landscape monumentality in the panoramic view. This makes Old Tjikko a thankful subject for image making. It is one of the few remarkable trees I have seen that is scaled to fit within a single frame against a backdrop of visually neutral surroundings.

An opportunity to try out the drone presented itself on the third day of the trip. With only a whisper of wind in the afternoon and a mountain enveloped in an eerie stillness, the conditions were just right for this fragile piece of equipment. The director and cinematographer went on ahead to set up the shoot, and got the drone ready for launch. I stayed behind on a nearby hillock with Alexandre the sound engineer. We watched the toylike contraption go airborne in the warm afternoon light, with the rest of the crew at the controls below. We squatted next to a bent and twisted shrub of arctic birch when Alexandre suddenly motioned for me to lean forward and put my ear to one of the branches. In this almost complete stillness I could not hear much else than the synthetic creaks of my thermal overalls, but I bent down and put my head close to the tree. As my breathing slowed down and my body came to a rest I could hear it: a barely discernible hum of the fine limbs of the tree vibrating in the stillness. For a moment I felt, or at least felt able to imagine what it must be like to perceive the world as a wild animal — a fox or a hare with ears attuned to a universe of the minute and barely audible.

On my last day on the mountain with the crew it was time to perform. I started out in a rather clumsy and self-conscious manner. Benjamin and Henrí directed me to make an exit from the cabin, don my gear, and set off towards the tree along a specified route. I could appreciate the benefits to both narrative and cinematography in these directions and reminded myself of my supporting role in this enterprise. I do not do well with instructions, which is one reason why I tend to do my performances and actions all by myself, having neither audience nor crew on site. Another reason is that I am a very poor actor. I need the trappings of real ordeals to keep me focused. Get the tripod straight. Make sure I can guess where to enter and exit the frame. Try to avoid serious injury. Tuck in my white shirt under the suit. Not smoke on-screen and avoid looking into the camera.

But a little make-believe is OK, and I had come to trust the members of the team enough to suspend my initial hesitation and overcome what must be a kind of stage fright. I approached the old tree with my backpack, my black sand and my very tall and awkward tripod. And after doing a bit of libation around the tree with a draft of spring water from the nearby waterfall, I brought out my GOJNNNNGGGGG… and banged on it at even intervals as I paced around the tree for three full revolutions; banging and twirling the gong to draw out the reverberations across the plain and into the stillness. When I got to the heap of sand at the end of the third round, I started sifting out the black granules onto the crusty snow. Old Tjikko’s trunk became the centre-point of Papa Legba’s symbol; a Vodou veve on this Scandinavian mountain. I drew stylised crosses, swirls and cones in the cardinal directions, working my way from centre to periphery and back again. I had done a last-minute substitution of the heavy backpack with vacuum-hose dispenser just before leaving Stockholm, and opted instead for a store bought orange funnel. This turned out to be a more precise drawing instrument, with the drawback being a constant need for replenishing the sand. Going back and forth between drawing and sand heap soon became a dance of routine, and I soon forgot about the looming camera crane overhead and Alexandre’s microphone. I was just too wrapped up in my version of invocation; a ritual which regardless of what transcendent powers it might hold, de facto had been part of bringing the five of us to spend this afternoon filming, recording and beholding a 10,000-year-old tree in northern Sweden.

old tjikko video mars15 3

Afterglow

Among the many images, snippets of video and notes from this trip, there is one photo I never took: that of a linoleum tabletop in the kitchen area. Our rustic mountaintop cabin had no running water, no grid connection or other fixings of contemporary life save for a diesel generator that kept humming away in the deep snow just outside the front door. A long black power cable snaked its way inside and branched out in a motley array of extension cables that fed the gear on the tabletop: chargers for triple-A battery packs, GoPro cameras, iPhones and laptops, flashlights, pocket warmers for freezing fingers, terabyte hard drives, studio lights and a portable mini studio. The contrast to our cosy but rudimentary shelter was striking, and I thought of taking a picture on several occasions, but there always seemed to be something practical to tend to when inside: making sure the fire was lit, taking turns cooking, washing the dishes etc. As dusk set in on the mountain the cabin was completely dark save for some candles on the dinner table and the glow from the wood stove in the corner. In the small hours of night the dying embers grew too faint to see, much less to navigate by. The one remaining source of light was blinking LEDs on chargers and battery packs. Drop-size, intense pulses of red and green that felt oddly reassuring in the dark, like a token of purpose up here in the middle of nowhere. I stuck my feet into the nearest pair of oversized snowmobile boots and shuffled outside into the bitter cold. The firmament was alight with stars and the wind sucked my breath away as I unhooked a stainless bucket from its hook and turned down towards the frozen lake for fresh water.

Patrik Qvist’s first trip to Old Tjikko was described on the Dark Mountain blog in June 2014. His website is here.

At the Mercy of Fools

Guantánamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Canongate, 2015)

I.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi first appeared on the radar of American intelligence in 2000. Slahi, a Mauritanian, was then living in Montreal, and attended the same mosque as Ahmed Ressam, who tried in 2000 to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport.

A number of things made Slahi suspicious. First, he had fought with Al Qaeda in 1991 and 1992, when the organisation — with American support — was trying to overthrow the communist-led government of Afghanistan. Before moving to Canada, Slahi had lived in Germany, and a few encounters there set off intelligence alerts. Abu Hafs, one of Bin Laden’s advisers, was married to Slahi’s wife’s sister, and Slahi had twice helped his brother-in-law transfer money back to his family during the Ramadan holidays. Also, it was later discovered that Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, who was involved in planning 9/11, had spent a night in Slahi’s house in Duisberg. For these associations, Slahi has, for the last fourteen years, lived under the control of America’s shadow government — by this I mean all of the parts of our military and intelligence agencies that operate outside of public scrutiny, and to a significant extent outside of democratic control.

Slahi left Canada in 2000, partly out of terror at the surveillance that began there, and returned home to Mauritania. After turning himself in for further questioning after September 11th, he was kidnapped and taken to Jordan, then to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and finally to Guantánamo Bay. At every stop, he has been subjected to torture: extreme temperatures, beatings, sexual humiliation, borderline starvation, sleep deprivation, threats to his family and life, and extended periods of total isolation.

After one such period of torture in Guantánamo, Slahi told his interrogators he was ready to confess. ‘If you’re ready to buy,’ Slahi said, to quote his account in Diary, ‘I am selling.’ He then penned a confession indicating that he planned to blow up the CN Tower in Canada. His interrogators, pleased, asked for some corroborating details. When they became frustrated with his responses, Slahi said, ‘Just tell me the right answer. Is it good to say yes or to say no?’

Apparently some particularly odd elements of his confession — such as Slahi’s claim that he planned to mix sugar with the explosives — prompted his interrogators to give him a polygraph. On October 31st, 2004, after years of torture and confinement, the polygraph registered ‘No Deception Indicated’ or ‘No Opinion’ when Slahi asserted that he knew nothing about any terrorist plots.

After this point, his treatment seems to have improved. In 2005, Slahi handwrote a writ of habeas corpus, and also the pages of this book. A US District Court judge ordered him released in 2010, but he still remains in Guantánamo pending the government’s appeal. It is unclear what, if anything, he can be charged with.

II.

I picked up Guantánamo Diary purely out of a sense of guilt and obligation as an American. Very quickly, though, I began to read, to my astonishment, with delight. Written in a slangy American English that the author has picked up from his captors, the pages are filled with such liveliness and insight that you forget the circumstances in which they were written — on sheets of unlined paper in a segregation cell, with no end in sight and no guarantee that any of it would be read. In his curiosity about virtually everything, his extraordinary fairness to his persecutors, and the warmth of his humour, Slahi reminds me a great deal of Primo Levi. Like Levi’s great memoirs, Slahi’s Diary is a work of witness, a catalogue of brutal torments and occasional joys, and a guide to survival and sanity under obscene conditions. It is also — and in this way Slahi is unique — a first-hand tour of the shadow government under which all of us, in some form, live.

Fantasies about this government are difficult to avoid. Mine, I will admit, are particularly incoherent. A repressive surveillance state is about to descend on us, so we need to be vigilant; but we can also ignore them entirely, because they will soon wither away like sick flowers and leave us to dig our cabbages in peace.

Never, though, in all my rumination and reading and watching of spy movies did I imagine a scene like the following. Here, in Slahi’s own words, is the American intelligence community’s attempt to forge a letter from his brother:

… the forgery was so clumsy and unprofessional that no fool would fall for it. First, I have no brother with that name. Second, my name was misspelled. Third, my family doesn’t live where the correspondent mentioned, though it was close. Fourth, I know not only the handwriting of every single member of my family, but also the way each one phrases his ideas. The letter was kind of a sermon, ‘Be patient like your ancestors, and have faith that Allah is going to reward you…’

Perhaps naively, I was stunned by this. I went into this book expecting evil, and evil, for me, has always been bound up with the concept of intelligence. The dark power behind the throne — from the scheming minister to the angel Lucifer to our shadow government — is supposed to be good at what it does. Remember that these are a few hundred of the highest value detainees the Americans possess. Surely the best people have been sent to interrogate them. Could something else be going on with this amateurish letter? Slowly, though, the evidence in the book piles up: these are their best people. The letter is an entirely representative sample of their abilities.

So, when the interrogators attempt to disorient Slahi in terms of time, their plan fails because their wristwatches are clearly visible. Their printouts, which they show to Slahi, contain date and timestamps, and they are then flummoxed when he knows the time and date. One white interrogator, who Slahi describes as ‘very silly’, threatens him with the prospect of a black colleague. Slahi is confused about why this should scare him, since he points out that ‘half of my country is black people.’

Other interrogators tell Slahi that they have an incriminating videotape of him planning terrorist attacks. When he is almost convinced that he did plan such an attack, they show him Bin Laden speaking to an unknown operative. Slahi can only respond, ‘You realise that I am not Usama bin Laden, don’t you?’ Another interrogator, Slahi writes, ‘is one of the laziest people I ever knew. He didn’t take time to read reports, and so he always mistook me for other suspects.’ I’m not sure what sort of information you can get when fiercely interrogating a suspect you think is another person.

One can go on and on. It is hard to imagine a less competent interrogation than the one depicted in the pages of this book. For every reasonably intelligent guard or interrogator, there are six or seven like the ones above. And the stupidity clearly rises all the way up the ranks. There are over two thousand black-bar redactions in Guantánamo Diary. These people have high-level security clearance and the responsibility to guard America’s national secrets; presumably many people work under them; and on every page of this book they display some mixture of sloth and ignorance.

Names are redacted on one page and revealed on the next; some of the redacted names are historical figures, like Gamal Nasser, who the censor seems not to have recognised; female pronouns are the only ones blacked-out, and it has occurred to no one that this makes it pretty obvious which officers are female. Larry Siems, the Diary’s editor, has done a fine job making educated guesses, but much of the censorship is so careless that he doesn’t even have to work hard.

‘Orwellian’ — this word has great currency in our society. Politicians use it almost reflexively when criticising the overreach of various intelligence agencies. There is, though — and Orwell would have appreciated this irony — a compliment hidden in the word. ‘Orwellian’ indicates not just fearsome technological capacities of surveillance and repression, but the accompanying skill and insight to use them to achieve desired ends. Remember, when Winston is being tortured by O’Brien, how he is almost grateful to be at last so profoundly understood.

I would like to coin a new word in honour of the author of this book: Slahian. A Slahian situation is where an entity possesses those same fearsome resources, but can only wield them bumblingly, because there is insufficient intelligence left in the system to use them in any other way.

This is the truth that Orwell missed in 1984, or perhaps hinted at in his sly appendix: tyrannies — and there is no question that America is field-testing tyranny in Guantánamo Bay — have a built-in limiting agent, because the mature fruit of tyranny is idiocy. This fruit has clearly been ripening for some time in America; it is very soft right now, and quite possibly about to fall on all of us.

There seem to be two processes at work in this decay of intelligence: first, the driving out of capable people, and second, a belief that human capacity is not important anyway, because it can simply be replaced by more sophisticated technology.

One can see the first process at work in the account of Slahi’s detention that Siems provides in his introduction. Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch was the first prosecutor in the case. After realising that Slahi’s confessions were produced under torture, and in any case highly implausible, he had a crisis of conscience. Couch describes being at a baptism one Sunday, and hearing words spoken about human dignity:

And when we spoke those words that morning, there were a lot of people in that church, but I could have been the only one there. I just felt this incredible, alright, there it is. You can’t come in here on Sunday, and as a Christian, subscribe to the belief of dignity of every human being and say I will seek justice and peace on the earth, and continue to go with the prosecution using that kind of evidence.

In an earlier era, this evidently decent man, with intelligence enough to connect his faith and his conduct, would have gone to his superiors and worked to get Slahi released. In today’s military, all he can do is free himself from the contagion. Couch withdrew from the case, Slahi’s life remained unchanged, and the military became a little less capable than it was before.

Couch is not an isolated instance. Throughout this book, the dumb and the brutal stick around; everyone else leaves or gets transferred. The commander of Guantánamo’s detention operations in August 2002, for example, told journalists that he and his uniformed officers were questioning the ‘enemy combatant’ designation that denied the detainees Geneva Convention protections. Apparently little was being accomplished by mistreating the low-level operatives — along with the totally innocent — who were imprisoned there. ‘The Pentagon’s solution,’ Siems writes, ‘was to replace that commander and ratchet up the camp’s intelligence operations.’ I have some guesses about the character and abilities of the person he was replaced with.

As smart people leave, higher-order responsibilities are simply transferred to computers. The motto for today’s shadow government might as well be, ‘Thinking? Our machines will do that for us.’ Slahi’s only crime, as noted above, is suspicious associations. These are the kind of things — phone call records, money transfers — that a computer can spot. After the computer finds its connections, though, you still need some sort of human discrimination to recognise which patterns are consequential, and this is precisely what is in short supply.

Notice that the Americans interrogators, who spend countless hours with Slahi, never consider that he might be innocent based on their own observations; it is only the polygraph, an extremely unreliable mechanical device, that changes his fortunes. So when SKYNET, a tracking system named — my God, consciously? — after the mainframe which enslaves mankind in the Terminator films, analyses phone call data to flag a man as Al Qaeda, there is inadequate human judgement behind the computer to spot that this is because he is a journalist.

A computer tells another computer to drop a bomb; it kills a grandmother picking okra in Pakistan. No one can explain the reason; this is a state secret, and the secret, almost certainly, is that there is no reason. The computer told them to do it. There are various intersections of data, and some of them happen to result in dead grandmothers. Since mistakes have no consequences for the perpetrators, the shadow government keeps on doing the same thing, and anyone smart enough to see that this is counter-productive — or simply disgusting—cannot survive for long inside this organism.

III.

I think Guantánamo Diary will eventually be seen as one of the central documents of our time. Aside from the depth and wit of its writing, it contains the best available portrait of our decaying shadow government, and has valuable insights on ways to live with it while it maintains its power.

Early on, when Slahi is about to be handed over to the Mauritanian state for questioning, he entertains various plans for escape, and then, as he gives up on his fantasies, coins this wonderful aphorism: ‘The key to surviving any situation is to realise that you are in it.’

Here is an incident that gets at the heart of the Slahian situation. A bored guard teaches the detainee chess. Within a few games, the detainee begins to beat the guard easily. This enrages the man. The detainee must then carefully plan a strategy that ensures that he will lose each game. The guard is pleased with his great skill and continues to treat the prisoner well.

The central lessons of Slahi’s experience of American detention can be gleaned from this story. First and foremost, don’t display any intelligence. Stay silent or don the mask of an affable simpleton. Slahi manages this much of the time, but putting this sort of straightjacket on your consciousness ends up being impossible for someone as lively and open-hearted as he is. The results are a few genuine relationships with sympathetic guards (soon transferred away), and also this great book, which poured out in the months after the polygraph ended the worst of his treatment.

This leads to a depressing thought: if Slahi hadn’t written the Diary, and had, like the Good Soldier Svejk, kept up his mask of amiable idiocy, he might be a free man by now. The Americans have released other detainees they couldn’t charge with anything, and there seems to be no explanation for why they are so determined to hold onto Slahi other than his ability to sympathetically communicate in English about the conditions of his detention.

We are in a strange moment in America — and I am very curious what the view looks like from readers in other countries — between types of societies and forms of government, where a book can be published while its author remains imprisoned without charges for fourteen years; where the most damning information freely circulates while public silence becomes, quite possibly, a better strategy for survival than speaking out.

I don’t mean to sound deterministic, because it has taken a lot of good, hard work from people like the ACLU to make this book available to us. There are decent people even in Guantánamo — Slahi always acknowledges them, and the small kindnesses he has received. Every one of these counter-currents is to be valued and supported. But behind every black line in this book, I see a bored, vacant face — terrible at chess and convinced that it is a grandmaster; destroying itself and convinced that it is winning — and I have no idea how to reach it, or how to hide from it.

Here, though, is a person living in a present as bad as any future I can imagine, and displaying more grace, flexibility, and resourcefulness as a prisoner than most of us manage under kinder conditions — a living example of how a Slahian situation can be survived with dignity and wit intact. At the end of the Diary, you will find the following Author’s Note:

In a recent conversation with one of his lawyers, Mohamedou said that he holds no grudge against any of the people he mentions in this book, that he appeals to them to read it and correct it if they think it contains any errors, and that he dreams to one day sit with all of them around a cup of tea, after having learned so much from one another.

 

The Humbling

 

The older I get, the more I begin to understand the irrational, under-the-surface nature of whatever it is that drives the writing process. I’m sure the same thing must be true for all creative endeavours. One of the comforting stories our civilisation likes to tell itself is that the truth of what it means to be human must ultimately be accessible to exploration. Everything, in the end, must be unpickable by reason, logic, discursive thought, science and measurement. Everything must be amenable to being turned into ‘data’ and measured against everything else. How else would we tell if ‘progress’ was really happening at all?

This is nonsense, of course, and the process of creativity demonstrates it well. One of the questions you sometimes get asked as a writer is, ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ I don’t suppose anybody has the first idea how to answer this. I certainly don’t. Whenever I sit down to write something, I am guided by something bubbling away under the surface. I have a strong sense that something needs to be said, but often I don’t quite know what it is before I say it. The best things I have ever written have been guided by this invisible thing, either inside or outside me. Sometimes it can feel like I’m not even gripping the pen.

This was certainly the case when I sat down to write what would become the Dark Mountain manifesto, seven or so years ago now.  I had a strong and strange sense that the world was shifting on its axis, that change was on the horizon, that it was big and unknowable and unstoppable and that it demanded a response. I still have this sense, and I think that many other people do as well. That great, unstoppable thing seems dimly visible across the horizon now, as the global economy continues to crumble, as climate change kicks in faster than  predicted, as ecosystems continue to deteriorate, as methane bubbles up from under the tundra. I don’t think we have the luxury of planning for the future anymore. I think the future is already here.

Recently, on this blog, we have featured analyses from Chris Smaje and Dave Foreman of one response to this bubbling and rumbling: so-called ‘ecomodernism’.  In the past, I’ve also written about this coalescing movement of people, who I’ve referred to as ‘neo-greens.’  I also contributed an essay to a recent book on the subject, which is well worth a read if you want to understand what is becoming an increasingly popular push for total human control of the Earth.

In one sense, this project – to turn humans into gods, who control everything that lives – is as old as humanity itself. Every religion warns against it, every old story features a version of it. Perhaps we have always wanted to be gods, in the civilised world at least. But now there is a kind of urgency to it which we haven’t seen before. Now we are told that being gods is the only alternative to the mass destruction of non-human nature which must inevitably result from our current path. Now we are told it is our moral duty to control, through advanced science and increasingly frightening interventionist technologies, the very detail of life on this planet.

It’s a grim, despairing vision, in my view. Who wants either of these futures? Either the majesty of nature being run into the ground by human desire, or a totalitarian, locked down, uber-technological world of total human planning and control. To me, they both sound like hell. But given the choice between tightening our grip and loosening it, what will be the popular option? The answer to that seems pretty clear to me. We are going to keep digging until we can’t dig anymore: until we reach solid rock, and bang our heads against it.

What does this mean for those of us who reject this vision, and the assumptions which it is built from? I’ve been brought back to that question by reading these recent blog posts, and seeing this debate intensifying in other places too. All of it has taken me back to the moment when I began writing that manifesto, and when we began planning this project, because in many ways it was a project which  set itself up against this vision. We saw many elements of our culture –  including literature and art, including environmental campaigning – beginning to slide into the dark tunnel of instrumentalism, scientism and hubris, and we wanted to hold up an alternative to it. We wanted the Dark Mountain Project to be a place where people could gather to look for alternative visions, to question the assumptions behind the narrative of the so-called Anthropocene, to take us back to older ways of seeing, to make them relevant to where we are now. As I look around me,  this seems a more important task than ever.

The next Dark Mountain book, our eighth, which is published in October, takes a close look at the technological underpinnings of the current human project. It’s a departure for us, and we’re excited about it. This book is in production at present. After that, next April, we will be publishing another of our  anthologies of writing and art. This blog post opens the call for submissions for that volume: Dark Mountain issue 9.

Issue 9 is not a book with a formal ‘theme’, but as I think about the kind of writing and art we’re looking for, I look back to that moment of writing the manifesto, I look around me at the fight over the Anthropocene narrative, and I am reminded again of one of the roles of Dark Mountain: to be a refuge for people who are unpicking our dominant stories, and offering alternatives to them. Perhaps this tale of humans usurping the gods is the most dominant, and the most ancient, of all.  In the face of it, I wonder: how might we humble ourselves again? Humanity is going to be humbled one way or the other, so we may as well begin the process ourselves. What might the aternatives to the Humans-As-Gods story look like, told in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art,  starting from where we are?

That’s a question you might like to bear in mind as you think about submitting work for our ninth collection of uncivilised writing and art. We very much look forward to seeing what you send us.

The submissions deadline for DM book 9 is 30th November 2015. We are looking for writing and art in all genres and none. Please don’t send us anything without first reading our submissions guidelines. Send all submissions to [email protected].  We respond to everything we receive, but we are a small, part-time team, so it may be a few months before you hear back from us.