Into the Flame

On a dark summer night in late August 2015, while forest fires raged throughout the Pacific northwest, I sat on the soft, sun-scorched grass of a meadow on Vancouver Island. I was there to receive messages. When I first sat down I could barely see, but gradually my eyes adjusted. I watched a looming, totemic figure off to my right, another in the meadow’s centre, and a ghostly smudge drifting along the fence-line by the woods. I wasn’t alone.

This rainforest land had lost its rain. Lighting a fire of any kind outdoors had been banned, and though the island’s forests hadn’t caught fire, yet, one spark from a piece of farm equipment had recently started a blaze here, while another leapt up from a cigarette butt dropped in the wrong place, inciting a manhunt for the hapless flicker caught on a CTV. Everywhere there was talk of fire, of the smoke from the US that could been seen for hundreds of miles.

I volunteer for the Red Cross as a nurse and I have been deployed as eastern Washington is almost burnt up. I do not know my fate for the event but I suspect it will be with a different group of friends

It was fire that brought me here, but a different kind: the bonfire, campfire, hearth fire that would warm, inspire, nourish and unite us during this weekend, as fire has for people throughout the ages. Fire, largely missing from our modern lives, helps make possible community. Story. Conversation with Spirit. Above all it was visionary fire that called us together, for a weekend where we’d make space for that ancestral way of living, remember our wilder and intuitively wiser selves, hold the planet and each other in our palms, as one participant put it, and find guidance for our lives today.

In the meadow, I waited for messages. This was an Earth Dialogue, a practice pioneered by Dark Mountain worker and writer Charlotte du Cann. It’s a way of altering one’s habitual perception, moving from seeing the earth as static landscape to tuning into it as a dynamic, communicative web of being. Earth Dialogues are, of course, always happening. But in our noisy human world they’re a murmur if not completely muted. The meadow with its frog pond, the black woods and mountains invisible to the west — everything passing through and living within this territory tonight pushed against my senses, yet my mind struggled to quiet down. I’d initiated the dialogue, but didn’t really know what I was doing. Simply getting here had involved so much effort that, like the cook who loses their appetite, I wondered if I’d be capable of listening.

Heading up Island

 Sharing the Fire, the first Dark Mountain-themed event in Canada, had emerged from two years of dreaming and planning after I attended the 2013 Uncivilisation Festival and started talking to my writer friend Patricia Robertson about holding an event here. Inspired by the Carrying the Fire series in Scotland created by Dark Mountain curator Dougie Strang (also co-creator of  the 2016 Dark Mountain Gathering Basecamp: Embercombewe reached out to others who knew of the Dark Mountain Project or had been published in the anthologies. We formed a five-person team, a star with one point in Ontario, two in the Yukon and two in British Columbia. We made our wish and it came true: the farm on Vancouver Island was offered, and people signed up before we even had a programme.

Sitting in the dark meadow, I placed my palms on the cracked earth and thought about our first paid-up, fully committed participant, a writer and nurse in Washington. When he’d withdrawn, I felt something begin to slide; things were not going to go as I’d imagined.

Hello Ms. English. It has been brought to our attention that an event entitled Sharing the Fire: An Uncivilized [sic] Gathering (program attached) is scheduled to take place this coming Friday – Sunday, August 28-30, 2015 at Thistledown Farm (2689 Cedar Road, located in RDN Electoral Area ‘A’). Unfortunately, I must inform you that the event as described and advertised is not a lawful use according to the zoning of the property, and if the event proceeds may result in enforcement action being taken against the property owner.

I’d first come to Victoria, BC, about two hours south of Thistledown Farm. As I finalised our programme and sorted out grocery buying and digested the distressing news of the fire ban, wondering what we’d actually do for those long dark evenings, my inbox began to fill up with messages: from the local District Authority and their lawyer, informing me in oblique bureaucratese that our event was — inexplicably — illegal; from our indignant hosts and their lawyer; and from my bewildered co-organisers, a few of whom I’d still not even met. Our event had gone political, at least locally.

Some tense exchanges clarified that both camping and public gathering were being disputed. No fire, no camping — no event. Things seemed about to fall apart, yet our hosts, skilled in the political arts and possessing a great deal of perspective, thought it would be a shame for bureaucratic ‘puffery’ to intrude. What you’re doing, and the meaning you bring by working together and sharing your ideas and insights is important to us all … They issued a press release, Writers & Artists Not Welcome, says Region. ‘Farhrenheit 451′ alive and well in the Regional District of Nanaimo, which was picked up by local press and discussed widely over social media. Then they told us to leave our camping equipment at home. If that was the issue with bylaw officials, all 15 of us would be their guests for the weekend, staying in their home in their beds. Which is what we did.

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It’s not so easy to step out and away, to recall the old fire.
We’re supposed to be distracted: by responsibilities, by money, spectacle, violence. When forest fires rage, when people get angry or start to come together, authorities want to maintain control. Control is its own loop, drawing ever tighter in these times. It spins into your head, puts fear in your heart.

Yet as I sat on the ground, I let the distractions go. I became part of the meadow, like a large mushroom: my intelligence moving underground, connecting with the nervous system of this territory. Frogs were calling, breezes travelling. I saw the others in our group standing still, rooted, but what’s more, I started to feel them. We’d unknowingly formed a large loose circle, some occupying the centre, others the perimeter. In the dark we resembled a standing stone formation, our energies combining, resonating. Know this.

One memory I have that still comes back to mind was the night we stood silently in the field….What I noticed first were glowing white umbrellas hugging the fence line. It was a mental form of rewilding—seeing things that were so familiar again for the first time in a different context....I remember the frogs calling to each other … so common a sound until you reflect that this sound has not changed in countless millennia. Iron age people, bronze age people, people who predate us for 50,000 years or more all sat at night (as we did) and watched these umbrellas glow white and listened to the frogs call just as they did this summer. Just as they will next summer, and the countless thousands of summers after we are all gone. It is a remarkable bond we shared with each other. It is an even more remarkable bond we share with all of humanity past and future. It is a simple bond we share with every living creature on this planet and it humbles me in the extreme. I am glad I was able to share this with all of you. My bond is firmly set. I pray all of yours are too.

Mike had opened our weekend with a beautiful Druidic prayer, honouring the elements and directions. That night as we gathered by the apple trees to talk about our experiences in the Earth Dialogue, we felt drops of rain.

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Patricia and I shared an A-frame cabin, grey and bent and embraced by fruit trees and cedars. The windows were thick with spiderwebs and didn’t close, and the full moon flooded in all night while the frogs called and answered. Others bedded down in the hay loft, the new guest cabin, the main house. The dreams we’d asked for, by making space for them in our programme, came to us. Heidi dreamed of a rainbow containing a broad band of unimagined colours, far more than the standard eight hues and glowing with intensity. Ursula dreamed of a very old man climbing down off a dock into an ancient sailboat and pushing off from shore, leaving behind his threadbare knapsack containing a bit of food and some tea for others who might need it, and the dream-story conveyed. This is how it’s done.

In the morning we felt the power of these images: the dimensions of our world that we haven’t yet seen shining gloriously in the rainbow; the old man going out to meet the end of life, surrendering his simple belongings so that others can be nourished. We spoke of our culture’s inability to find meaning in death and its fear of and disconnection from the natural cycles of life and transformation that allow us to become elders of dignity, wisdom and teachings.

The day was windy. As the dreams took us deep into discussions, a storm came. We spoke of extinctions, the modern horror machine that saturates us with apocalyptic terrors. What about counter-extinction stories, Jo suggested, in which we find unlikely allies? Stories of looking to the animal and spirit kingdoms; uncivilised stories of the extinction of the last box store, the last poor woman… We listened to healing stories from Tlingit and Pygmy traditions. The rain pelted the house, took down trees on the island, wiped out power. We spoke of how the language of crisis, such as climate change, pushes us into factions. We got sidetracked, as people do, analysing and worrying and debating. We’re products of our culture, after all — yet story asks us to listen, to enlarge, to feel the whole and to hold it together like the Earth in our palms.

How do you cook in the dark with no power? A Druid always packs a Coleman, we discovered, and smoked wild salmon too. Ursula’s baked beans heated on the stove. The kindest host in the world arrived with Och Aye apple pies, baked in her gas oven. We laughed at how things can come together, the feast appear when you least expect it. This, too, is how it’s done.

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What I remember most is a feeling of closeness, connection, warmth, generosity — a longing temporarily fulfilled for community and meaning. It ought to be our common lot — it’s certainly our birthright — but in fact it’s rare. In our small group, everyone mattered, everyone’s skills and contribution
were appreciated. Everyone was cherished. 

We improvised, as people do when plans and structures fail, you’re told no, that can’t happen, it’s impossible. We sat in circle anyway and the dreams and stories came. Mike told us about becoming part of the elk dance; Ursula about making a coastal canoe journey, months long, to repair the broken relationship between settlers and indigenous peoples. We heard the wild stories of that place because that was where the fire was being shared. Most of us were from elsewhere. How could we ever get a Dark Mountain group together in a place as vast and spread out as Canada, Patricia and I had wondered two years before. You start somewhere and realise you can do this anywhere — though this place, this time, turns out exactly right.

I’d brought some beeswax candles with me, just in case. By Saturday night the fire ban was lifted. Around midnight the sky was clear. We stood in the meadow under a supermoon, skin silvered, eyes lit.

The nurse declined to take his money back when I offered. Seed for the future; a dream to come.

Dark Mountain fire

Images by Heidi Greco and Sharon English. Quotes/texts from Alan Cain, Jackie Moad and Laurie Gourlay, Mike Harding, Heidi Greco, Ursula Vaira, Joanna Lilley, Patricia Robertson.

Tatterdemalion

For look, the whole is infinitely newer
than a cable or a high apartment house.
The stars keep blazing with an ancient fire
and all the more recent fires will fade out.

Not even the largest, strongest of transmissions
can turn the wheels from what will be.
Across the moment, aeons speak with aeons.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus

‘It does no good to blame those before you for the world you have inherited, and then do nothing for it,’ say the travelling storytellers Bells, Perches and Boots to a rapt audience of listeners in Tatterdemalion (my book with Rima Staines, forthcoming with Unbound — more on that later). The fire is hot and popping. A kestrel watches from the roof of a red wagon. They are telling their listeners a yet unheard story about the woman they call Anja Born of the Buckeye, the woman whose birth heralded a great upheaval in their world: the Fool’s Uprising. ‘No, our sins were not erased by Anja, not then or now,’ the tellers continue. ‘Anja was birthed by a human woman, Wheel. It is true that she was fathered by a Buckeye, but the only reason for such a fathering was the woman Wheel, how she in her solitude sang to the trees at dusk, stroked and told tales to the woodrats, left gifts out for the stars. You see, she earned the love of the Buckeye, she earned it so completely that he walked out of his own bark and roots to love her in hers. It is true, little Anja was born just as the doors at the edges of the bramble-thickets, fallen houses, stone walls, were opening, but she was mostly the product of a mother’s hard work: her lonely strength, her utter strangeness, her eyes which saw the faces of the spiders and the trees and called them family.’

If there is any hope of wholeness in this world, it is a wholeness that must be earned. Not through repentance, not through guilt, not through fear. No, it seems to me that the only way toward Wholeness is to have one eye on the ancient fires of the stars, and the other on the minute and beating hearts of things. To give the spiders our praise and our love for the sake of the spiders themselves, and not ourselves.

What I mean is that if we don’t begin to call the spiders kin, and remember at the same time that we and the spiders and their silk and the shape of their weaving is all as old as stars, and of a part — well, I fear deeply what will become of this world. I fear it deeply because I already see it happening. We all do. The way we, sorry species, are ever seduced by what is new, or in other words what is ‘progress’, forgetting that the more we produce and consume, the more we chase the shining high-rise or the gleaming cable, the further we get from true newness —how the coyotebrush is strung with fresh spiderthreads every dawn; how the willow catkin, bursting, is entirely newborn, but also as ancient as the first willow that ever was. That in the daily rebirth of the world, there is Wholeness, but only when we stand within it, not above it; only when the spider and her thread are not objects, but family, the subjects of their own stories which we truly listen to, with great attention and care.

That’s why we are all here, gathered around the hearth in the heart of the Dark Mountain. Robinson Jeffers said it a little bit differently than Rilke, but I think both men meant something similar. ‘I would burn my right hand in a slow fire/ To change the future… I should do foolishly’ wrote Jeffers in his ‘Rearmament’ (revisit the whole piece in the Dark Mountain Manifesto). Rilke is a little bit more hopeful, seeing our hasty and foolhardy fires ultimately burning out in the face of stars and aeons: ‘Not even the largest, strongest of transmissions/ can turn the wheels from what will be.’ We are hurtling toward something dark, but none of us can quite say what or when or where. Both Rilke and Jeffers would have us look to stones and stars to remember the great spans of trans-human time; to re-work the stories we tell ourselves so that they honour the vaster, slower things of the cosmos, and therefore help us weather great change. Wherever it is we find ourselves, now and down the road, we will need stories full of spider-threads and planets alike, to keep our hearts and our spirits whole.

SpiderCosmos

Sometimes I look around — at the freeways choking the Bay Area, always packed with cars; at the frighteningly hot weeks of February weather we’ve been having recently; at the terrors of our presidential campaigns; our actions in the international community; our flagrant national disregard for environmental collapse; our treatment of marginalised peoples in our own country, let alone others (poor, indigenous, non-white, incarcerated; even, in a slightly less acute way, all of womankind) — and I feel great despair, as well as a certain powerlessness, a certain sense that I am not doing enough. I’m probably not. But in the end, I’ve found that the best thing I have to offer is the thing that comes from the deepest place in my heart (the place where I know I am kin to the spiders, that we are all silk, and web, and thread, and star): words, and in particular stories. Stories that bow down to the spider who fashions more wholeness in her short life than I can ever dream. Stories that mind and guide me, and hopefully others too, back into the harmony of aeons.

We are in desperate need of new narratives to help us re-imagine our relationship to the more-than-human world. Tatterdemalion, the book I quoted from above, is one of them. It first emerged in a truly astonishing and powerful moment of what I can only call magic, when I began writing from one of the paintings of the deeply powerful artist Rima Staines. The painting was ‘Lyoobov’, and what came out was not just a scene, not just a character, but a world. A world falling to its knees. A world ready to be reborn. ‘Lyoobov’ was the first doorway. Thirteen more opened, one by one by one, through more of Rima’s paintings, until an entire mythology was created, stitched from so many separate threads. Tatterdemalion is a post-apocalyptic novel rooted deep in the folklore traditions of Old Europe, but set in a wildly re-imagined California, the landscape of my heart, my birth, my belonging.

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Through the voices of many different characters (Poppy, who speaks the languages of newts and ravens; a witch stuck in a bottle for six hundred years; a woman with wheels for feet; a Juniper Tree that is also an old woman; the wandering taletellers called Bells, Perches and Boots), our novel tells the story of a world fallen and reborn. It is a call to attention — that we may again listen to the voices of the more-than-human world; that we may again tend to Wholeness.

The book is a radical collaboration with Rima, my words illustrating her paintings, instead of the other way around. As she writes in her Afterword, ‘It is illustration turned on its head: in an appropriate upturning of the linear right-/left-brain order of things, the writing comes after the image, not before. In such a revolution, we are enabled once again to re-track those old once-known paths to the worlds beyond this one; this story has its roots in the magical earth of intuition because it came from the art. I believe this lends Tatterdemalion an unusual power: it is a story created by women in an upside-down way, celebrating the oddest and most marginal of characters and ways, and is utterly unhesitant about re-imagining an uncivilisation — ancient, wild and once more acquainted with the Dreaming.’

And here’s some exciting news — Tatterdemalion is being born into the world right now, with the help of hundreds of wonderful readers and supporters around the world.

Given that the book has a strong revolutionary edge — Jay Griffiths calls it ‘Angela Carter gone feral with Ursula Le Guin’ — the wonderfully revolutionary publisher Unbound has picked it up, putting its fate directly in the hands of a community of readers. The way Unbound works (for those of you not here when Paul Kingsnorth first published The Wake with Unbound in 2013) is that they have their writers raise the print-cost of a book through pre-orders, which is what we are doing right now!

In just a fortnight, we are two-thirds of the way there, which is truly miraculous and heartening, and for which we are very grateful. But we still need your help, for this is a big undertaking. We would love to have you join this wild caravan. Tatterdemalion is our prayer for all that is feral, all that is spider-made and stone-sung in our hearts, and in the heart of this wise old world.

At Unbound’s site you can pre-order a book, watch a film that explores Tatterdemalion and its characters more deeply, read a longer excerpt, and see more of Rima’s beautiful paintings. Also, stay tuned — if we fund and publish the book soon enough, Tatterdemalion may be joining the Hedgespoken stage at the upcoming Dark Mountain Gathering Basecamp: Embercombe in September!

Every single book pre-ordered is a stepping stone on this wild path, so do come join us — your name will be listed in the back of the first edition among a merry crew of fellow supporters! We would be so grateful, and so happy of your company.

'Lyoobov', by Rima Staines
‘Lyoobov’, by Rima Staines

I will leave you with Lyoobov, the wheeled and elephantine beast who starts, and ends, the whole novel. Lyoobov is dreamed up one day by two desperate artists named Rose and Ash at the end of our known world, and becomes a living vehicle for wild revolt. It always starts, after all, with a band of outcasts, but we only know it in hindsight…

‘It was then that we saw the people following in our wake. It was then I looked behind and saw them all, a thick road back through the snow, a banner unfurled of thousands — black-haired and brown, red and yellow and silver and white, one blue, some barefoot, tennis-shod, booted, in work clothes, in nightdresses, in winter coats. They were walking to reach him, our last and final dream, our desperate creature born in the dead of winter from all the dreams that wouldn’t fit. They were playing a quiet music through the snowfall — sung and slapped, picked on rubber-bands, tapped with the broken parts of cellphones, whistled through metal pipes, hummed on a simple old jaw harp. They carried all the last candles from the pantries, the ones saved for power-outages. They followed the dream of all things living, all things wild, they followed the last paths the bears had once walked toward their dens and favourite acorn groves. In the snow, in the night, our footprints were wagon-wheels of wood and skin and bone. They were tennis shoe and bare foot and fox paw. The ghosts of those ancient bears, they rose, slow and silver and broad, they walked between us.

In the night, he led, we marched.’

 

 

Rima Staines is an artist using paint, wood, word, music, animation, clock-making, puppetry and story to attempt to build a gate through the hedge that grows along the boundary between this world and that. Rima’s artwork has appeared in and on books, magazines, and record covers on both sides of the Atlantic. For more about Rima, you can visit her passionately followed intothehermitage.blogspot.com, or her website rimastaines.com

The Dark Mountain Gathering Base Camp

It’s February, the days begin to stretch and there’s a sense that winter’s grip is loosening, despite the wind and rain. It feels like a good time to announce a new Dark Mountain event, which will be held in September at Embercombe on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon.

There have been a number of smaller Dark Mountain gatherings over the last few years, as well as book launches and collaborations with other organisations, but there hasn’t been a large-scale event since the last Uncivilisation Festival in 2013. I’ve felt the gap, and I know that others have too.

What I’ve missed is simple enough. It’s the chance to meet face to face with others who are willing to look honestly and compassionately at the issues that the Dark Mountain Project has raised, to have encounters and share ideas with real people in a real place, to sit round a hearth and hear stories from the other side of the fire.

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Map of Embercombe site by Rachel Griffiths

Base Camp is an opportunity to gather a larger group of people together once more, and we’re thrilled to be hosted for the first time by Embercombe. It’s a stunning place, set amidst fifty acres of permaculture woodland, fields and gardens, with a variety of eco buildings, yurts and a lake for swimming – the right kind of place for a Dark Mountain gathering.The programme for the event will include speakers and performers who are producing some of the most interesting and creative responses to this era of converging crises. Just as important, throughout the weekend, there will be opportunities for everyone who attends to actively contribute. One of the many lessons we learned from Unciv is that when you unplug the PA system and move away from elevated stages and too-tight schedules, you allow space for a deeper, more participative, more self-willed event.

Charlotte Du Cann and I are currently developing the programme and, whilst we can’t yet reveal all the details, we can tell you that there will be a strong local flavour to the brew. It will include a trio from Devon who, between them, have provided some of the most profound and transformative experiences of previous Dark Mountain events: Dr Martin Shaw, superlative storyteller and Director of the West Country School of Myth; and the wonderful Rima Staines and Tom Hirons who will unveil their project, Hedgespoken – a remarkable imaginarium and travelling off-grid theatre. We can also confirm that Paul Kingsnorth, Dark Mountain co-founder, will be there to read from and discuss Beast, his upcoming novel and sequel, of sorts, to the acclaimed The Wake.

Base Camp aspires to a rich mix of talks, workshops and performance, and  to the kind of alchemy that can happen when you honour the spaces that open in-between. It’s a chance to replenish, to take a fresh look at the maps and to plan new routes and adventures. If you’re an old friend of Dark Mountain, or have just discovered us, we hope you’ll want to be part of it.

In keeping with our desire for an intimate, participative event, we are limiting numbers to 150. Tickets will go on sale soon. For more information, go to the Base Camp website which is now live and ready for action. Or contact Dougie Strang [email protected]

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Surrounding lansdscape (photo: Embercombe)

Baucis and Philemon in the 21st Century

I live in the nation with the highest rates of personal consumption and energy use ever seen on earth, and I live small. But it isn’t an intentional experiment, like no-impact, no-plastic, all-local, Tiny House, zero-waste, or any of the others that periodically make waves now. I didn’t decide to start living small one day and rearrange my life to fit a programme. It happened because, as the memoirist Vivian Gornick says of living alone, ‘I said yes to this and no to that’ and at some point found myself in this situation.

Even though I’ve adopted a number of now-familiar lifestyle habits to limit my consumption of goods and energy, that’s somewhat incidental. I’ve also made some ‘small’ choices less trumpeted by sustainability advocates: I have stayed in one place for a long time, which requires far fewer resources than the constant uprooting common here in the US (where we change our homes on average once every four years). My place happens to be urban, so I’m lucky that, at least in this country, it’s easier to be resource-efficient in the city than the suburbs or the countryside. I should say that this is not to be confused with ‘self-sufficient’ (whatever that actually means – there’s a whole other essay there). The vast infrastructure that sustains me is profoundly wasteful; I’ve just limited my demands upon it somewhat.

I also own no real estate, no home or land. (Individual property tenure is possibly the most anti-ecological type of tenure ever invented, notwithstanding the hash some societies have made of attempts at large-scale collective tenure.) I live in a rented flat; the same flat I’ve lived in for over 20 years. I live with my husband, who had been there for 15 years before I met him, in the city where he was born. We have two rooms, a kitchen, and bath. We have no yard, laundry machines, or dishwasher, no children, no pets, and no car.

In fact, outside of this country our lifestyle isn’t particularly exceptional. To this day, millions of people live as we do in urban areas around the world, although it’s somewhat rare to be our age and not to have children. At the same time many others, urban or rural, have even fewer possessions than we and have had to work harder for those they have.

And to be honest, none of this really came about because of an ecological awareness on our part. It had more to do with a lack of personal ambition, and a feeling of alienation toward the drivers of what is called ambition. So what does living small really mean, in this context?

The Principle of Expansion

What it really means in my experience is that some aspects of your life may simply roll to a stop, long before you are old. And they are precisely those that most people centre their whole lives upon, notably here in the US, but actually now almost anywhere in the world, in whatever social class. Human life today is based on a principle of constant expansion. For the great majority born poor, expansion is essential for sheer survival. For the rest, it’s merely the only way life is understood to have meaning or purpose.

In societies where a majority has already obtained basic physical comforts, additional resources are sought to position one’s children to obtain even more, and to maintain and improve one’s own acquisitions indefinitely. People also dream of having jobs in which they can advance, ideally becoming experts or receiving plaudits in some field, but basically always earning more. Others dream of starting businesses that could grow sufficiently to be sold at a profit when they wish to retire. Those who are already rich dream of expanding their empires.

Such desires may be costly in every respect, or generate inordinate amounts of waste, but they are invariably said to have social benefit, regardless of waste or cost.

My husband and I have none of those aspirations to guide us. We both do jobs that require some skill but are not central to our idea of who we are and simply enable us to survive. (It’s safe to guess that this is also true for the vast majority of working people in the world, whether they dream of doing something different or not.) We have the satisfaction of knowing that our jobs are socially useful; many don’t, or the value is dubious. But neither of us works full-time, or has a much greater income now than we did ten years ago. We don’t need to strive for more because our needs are already more than met.

We find pleasurable things to do with the extra time and money we have, like taking trips to visit new places or distant friends. My husband plays music and occasionally entertains our friends or performs at local events. He volunteers at a local school. I have time to study, write and garden (I grow fruits and vegetables in an elderly neighbour’s yard, and in turn, she gets her weeds pulled and hedges trimmed by me). We go for long walks, in places where the unbuilt world still holds some sway, when we can. And in a city that is a magnet for artists there are always cultural activities – sometimes involving people we know, an added pleasure.

Even so, we spend a lot of time alone in our flat. That’s mostly pleasant too: there are books to read, films to watch, meals to cook and enjoy. Living small, it turns out, is also living slow.

I’m content with this life, overall. It fits us, like comfortable clothing. It feels oddly like what people actually mean when they talk about freedom.

In a society where the ideal of freedom is invoked unceasingly with longing and awe, you can discover that freedom, when you actually get there, is a ghost town.

But I have to admit to an underlying unease – a sense that the engine of aspiration and expansion pushing others constantly forward is stalled in our case. The future, at least until we are too old to work, which is still a long way off, looks much like the present.

And then? Well, even if you spend most of your fullness of life preparing for your old age, even if you have children and a great deal of money – nothing guarantees you an old age at all. Much less one as untroubled and full of pleasures as the possible life you sacrificed to obtain that elusive future.

But all around us the world crashes, shrieks, moans, bleeds. It is filled with striving.

Freedom is a Ghost Town

It can feel a bit lonely living as we do. We are both outriders in our birth families, with whom we are not close. They value children, accumulation, and achievement, so our choices are odd and even troubling to them. Our friends may be iconoclasts in some ways, but they are still largely occupied with the demands of complex family and professional lives, and property ownership.

We still meet other people who don’t fit in: artists, intellectuals without portfolio, or sometimes just interesting drifters. But more and more as we age, those few true bohemians we encounter are elderly and marginal, and seem a bit lost. Many aren’t inclined to sociability, although they may have time for it. Their air of depression or bitterness comes perhaps from being almost invisible to society at large and having no acknowledged place in it. Their gifts ignored, their ideas not heard; their example of personal freedom not much followed.

In a society where the ideal of freedom is invoked unceasingly with longing and awe, you can discover that freedom, when you actually get there, is a ghost town.

My husband and I were radicals who dreamed of building a different society, and spent years engaged in efforts to do so. But the times went careering away from most of our hopes, and we drifted out of movement structures and politics as they became increasingly abstract, repressive, and irrelevant to our day-to-day lives. Our experience of them in this highly isolate society was also, ironically, antithetical to relationships of practical mutual support or ‘community’ (a word that often seems as emptied out by idealisation as freedom).

We have not made a separate peace; we have not deserted our core beliefs. But we have taken a quieter way of living them out.

My lifetime has seen utterly unprecedented human population growth and decimation of the non-human world. Like much else in my life, childlessness was never a wholly rationalised or altruistic choice; it was primarily the result of pursuing a shifting and mutual notion of personal happiness. But I now have the unexpected realisation that, at least within the context of this time and place, it may have a wider worth – as a tiny legacy to fellow humans and other living things. I am more convinced of this when I read about the concern capitalist economists have begun to express that many of the world’s countries are already under ‘replacement fertility’. All the more satisfying to me since their model – the one my husband and I spent all of our adult lives opposing – is entirely founded upon the principle of expansion.

All around us, people seem desperate to simplify their lives, make them less stressful, hectic, expensive. They speak longingly of the beauty of living day to day. But even those with the opportunity to choose such a life would be likely to find its realities daunting. Many are no longer able to simplify much in any case; their choices were made, their paths laid out long ago. It’s much harder to divest yourself of family obligations, major possessions, or a high-powered career than never to have had them in the first place. Given the pressures to conform, belong, or simply exist, it’s understandable why people today would end up living mainly for the future.

And there are even older forces at work on all of us than the principle of expansion. There is a kind of heroic ideal with which we are instilled, and in reality, living day to day is very anti-heroic.

Baucis and Philemon

That idea of heroism struck me, as I cast around looking for some representation of our living-small ethos in myth or folktale. I think we choose the models for our personal lives based not so much on rational self-interest, as the economists would have it, as on mythic archetypes we often don’t even recognise, since they arose long ago in societies that are no longer extant. The hero and the quest (or conquest) is probably the essential myth underlying personal ambition and the expansionist paradigm.

But what about my husband and me? Of the many mythic tales, heroic, tragic, triumphant, or catastrophic, there is only one I know of whose characters seem exemplary and worthy of emulation to me. They are Baucis and Philemon, an old childless couple who are the archetypes of friendship and hospitality in ancient Greek myth. They live in a town whose other inhabitants are all too busy or suspicious to offer food and lodging to several of the gods who come to visit them in disguise. When they die they are rewarded for their uncompelled generosity by being transformed into an oak and a linden tree, eternally entwined.

I discovered through reading Marshall Berman’s critique of modernity, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, that Goethe makes use of this story in his poetic tragedy Faust. But he uses it in a different way, which is also, as Berman describes, a metaphor of modern civilisation. Faust, as part of his deal with Mephistopheles, gets enormous power to shape the world. He becomes, late in the story, a kind of developer. He wants to build a tremendous industrial operation that he feels will benefit mankind, on a stretch of coast where Baucis and Philemon happen to be among the few inhabitants. He needs to evict them to get the land. He hires men to do it for him, and tells them to do whatever they must and not to inform him of the details. So the hired men kill the old couple and Faust gets the land.

It’s an extreme metaphor for the kind of frenzied dislocation that’s actually been taking place in our home city as money and people with big ideas about making more of it come sweeping through, uprooting anything that’s in their way. Elderly and disabled people are the majority of those long-term tenants evicted in this most recent wave, which we have so far escaped, for no logical reason. The Faustian bargain is not destructive to Faust alone.

The Limits of Civilisation, the Abundance in Limits

As much as human striving has debilitated our global habitat, that habitat is resilient and it’s evident that it could rebound if the engines of human expansion slowed or stopped. But we are caught in a destructive tangle of consequences that first began to ensnare us tens of thousands of years ago.

We are an ambitious and clever species, even though ever fewer of us now have the skills that were once needed for our survival, and ever more are dependent upon tools we don’t even know how to improve or repair. Like Faust, archetype of the civilised man, we want to believe our actions are motivated not by mere expansion, ‘the ideology of the cancer cell,’ as the naturalist Edward Abbey called it, but by a desire to improve our surroundings. Yet every attempt we have made to ‘improve’ living systems rather than respecting their constraints and — as an increasing number of scientists have come to acknowledge — their irreducible complexity, has produced larger and more dangerous unintended consequences, at a minimum. In his provocative overview of the history of our species, Sapiens, Yuval Harari makes the case that we may have worsened things in every sense, even for ourselves, except our sheer numbers. And perhaps those of a few other species, most of whom we have enslaved for food.

And now, of course, for the first time in our history, our unintended consequences are global in scope.

Even with the Faustian powers of science and technology in its hands, today’s global civilisation has been unable to free itself of the bargain with Mephistopheles. It is still on the path that specialised, hierarchical civilisations have followed since they first appeared. The only societies that have been ‘sustainable’ throughout the ten-thousand-year rise and fall of civilisations are non-hierarchical, place-based, limited-group societies. Where living small is not a catchphrase.

So I feel a bittersweet gladness in having, by a combination of chance and choice, found my way to a smaller life. What was once serendipitous has become my ideal. Small is truly beautiful to me, for all I have said to qualify it. I’ve discovered (as have many before me) that when you impose or accept limits on certain aspects of life, you are gifted with unsought abundances. Above all I’ve been given time, which, when you think of it, is life itself.

I would say my husband and I have been lucky, in a peculiar way. Our ‘freedom’ is highly contingent, and our living small is too. But it still seems better to be living this way now by some semblance of choice than because the way is compelled. Compelled as it was in the past that our civilisation is annihilating — compelled as it may one day be again, in a barely recognisable landscape of the future.