Parable del Payaso

It is a foggy morning and there are oranges in the street. Calloused hands pick them up, one by one, to take them home. Abundance. It is September. It will rain between midday and evening. There were birds singing at dawn this morning. The clown, el payaso, sleeps on a pile of garbage from the festivities the night before. All who pass can smell the rank garbage that has piled to a level as high as the waist: avocado pits and skins, orange peels, cornhusks and soda cans, candy wrappers and bones. El payaso has made herself comfortable in the excrement. El payaso has made himself comfortable in the excrement. The flies are neighbourly, the smell does not gag his throat, and his back muscles, if you could see them, are completely relaxed into the mound of rubbish; her mouth is slightly parted, his tongue just barely resting beyond her painted lips. His breathing is steady and calm, palms up towards the sky that is brightening now.

The night before was chaotic, and the owl who sits in the church arches stared down the petty crime. The general, who last night was bleeding from the nose, now sleeps alone, dreaming of jaguars and low-hanging suns. Two fathers are in the local jail, two mothers’ arms are wrapped around their daughters and sons who are dreaming of a soft blue mist. Just a few nights before, around a table with their lamps of stained glass ship scenes, there were stories being told in the kitchen of the couples’ homes: old stories, grandmothers’ tales of water that remembers and has eyes that look back, of eagles that fly all the way to the edge of the sun and return to kill their prey and lick the blood from their talons. The fathers, inspired by the stories, woke up yesterday morning feeling something different than they had felt the day before. The mothers had seamless dreams of gold. The children, now asleep, laughed merrily throughout the day while crafting at the children’s day activities – cornhusk dolls and balloon animals, or just waiting in line for corn with cheese and mayonnaise on top. They are under the stars when the stars appear, they are under the stars in the light of day.

Around midnight the fireworks go off and the dogs howl and cry. Sometime when the mist of morning still hung around the cobbled streets, there came word on the radio that the United States had officially begun another war east of the Mediterranean Sea. Things are looking not-so-serious here in this ancient, volcanic crevice of a town; drink more aguardiente, chicha or Coca-Cola, turn up the boom box, invite your neighbours inside to enjoy a drink. When the sun is directly above the town, the residents of Muápulo borrow a vecino’s worn, pale, yellow truck and load the back with oranges. The fathers sit in the truck bed, and a mother drives around the neighbourhood playing the chicha music loudly while fathers throw the oranges into the street. Abundance. El payaso was on the southern corner of the town’s church when the truck went by, already dressed and listening for the birds’ evening tune. The birds did not notice the payaso as he passed under their melodies – we would have known, because their song would have changed if they had, as it does when a person without sufficient lucidity walks past.

After dark the parties begin. The children go home and the people from the lower parts of the city climb the ancient Andes crater into Muápulo looking for the festivities. It is September; it rained in the afternoon but now the streets are mostly dry and filled with oranges, and the birds have sung the day’s evening tune as the sun sinks westerly. Abundance. The generals arrive to the festivities to calm the crowds down after midnight. Upon their arrival, el payaso found herself back on the south side of the church square not far from where the general’s speech was given at dusk, for fatherland and country. She spanks a young woman’s backside who is walking backwards and laughing with friends. The mother turns, startled, and el payaso laughs into the near-full moon. The woman glares, upset at first, and then lets go the need to respond – it is el payaso after all – and so she lets out a soft giggle and releases the tension that had built up in her legs.

Stories are being told around the kitchen lamp at home. Grandmothers’ stories, stories about the stars and how they have become nestled in the sky. The crowd is drunk and rowdy; after all, it’s time for festival, and whether known or just felt, not far from here, thirty-three indigenous mothers and fathers have been murdered trying to barricade the copper mine that is destroying the water they and their children drink. The festivities de las Marías are well underway. Everyone has gotten off work and this is the last weekend of the week-long carnaval.

Outside, in the crepuscular minutes, the generals try in vain to pacify the mob of students, artists, actors, workers – beautiful mutants all of them. El payaso arrives to the scene of a rowdy crowd dancing to music in the church square, the time is unknown, but autumn’s constellations are well-set into the eastern horizon. The fathers are in the thick of it, their musk mixes in with the musk-scent of the geraniums growing from the pots around the square. The generals are sneering, and now the tanks have been brought out and the tear gas might be fired. El payaso growls but no-one can hear her. She grabs some mud that has been decomposing the cornhusks on the side of the street, and under the orange light of streetlamps throws the husks and the mud, with startling precision, into one of the general’s faces. Splat. For a moment we wonder if time has stopped; space collapses, and eternity presents itself for a second. Nothing dissolves: the silence simply swallows what once was loud. This is only an instant. Time then revokes its peace, and the general is angry but the crowd has erupted in laughter. In the commotion that follows there is pushing and shoving and yelling and the tension has reached critical capacity and erupts into song. Chaotic song. Even the general is now laughing. The fathers, inspired by the eagle who carried the bull to the sun, take it further and lunge out of the crowd, fists raised, and begin to lead the mass toward the tanks. No a la mineria!and para nuestros hijos!, they shout. The moment of song becomes a moment of fear and the generals, in a panic, fire the tear gas. Screaming ensues and the fireworks crescendo. The figure of the Virgin is burning in the pyre in the centre of the square. Death’s hand is sewing a needle through the garbage heaps at the edges of the streets. The fathers, identifiable and bold, are rounded up and taken to jail. The people, with chemicals in their eyes so that they are made to cry, disperse in search of water. El payaso, lucky to have escaped the gas without damage, is whistling low and walking towards the pyre. A garbage pile that smells of piss and rotten oranges has built up on the southern end of the square. Later, she will sleep there, dreaming of stories, grandmothers’ stories, stories of eagles and the blood that drips from their talons.

Image: Blood of the Earth (Ink and pastel on paper) by Andrew Phillips. The Earth contains the rich mysteries of both the creation of life, from the unmanifest to the tangible, and subsequent processes of decay and rejuvenation. The soil becomes the record of everything which has failed to live forever, a physical embodiment of deep history. The extraction of raw materials is not only damaging to the Earth, but also a disturbance to the psyche. Bringing unprocessed ‘prima materia’ to the surface disrupts the natural processes of transformation by exposing these dark substances to the light.

Andrew Phillips is a visual artist, musician and art psychotherapist, residing in Edinburgh. It was whilst living in Wales that Andrew first became aware of the Earth’s innate propensity for healing, apparent in many of the spoil heaps which were slowly being reclaimed by grass and animals as part of the landscape. This began an exploration of the inter-subjective experience of landscape through visual art. Presently Andrew is developing a form of group work termed Creen-Craft, combining communal sharing and discussion with image making. Creen is a Scots word meaning to cultivate a lament, and this work is about exploring experiences of both grief and wonder in the context of rapidly changing social and ecological circumstances.

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

Learning Carefully from the Sea

In July 2014 I led a two-day workshop on two different islands in the Baltic Sea with a group of ten people (1). The workshop was about de-industrialising one’s understanding of self and place and cultivating a fully embodied sense of the world. It came out of an urgency I feel in my work to build the kinds of relationships that will help us survive whatever chaos and destruction might come our way with global climate change and increasing income inequality.

In these workshops in Finland we explored various kinds of exercises together and then discussed them. The exercises were about realising the wide range of human capacities for both experiencing the world and opening up to unfamiliar and uncommon interpretations of encounters such as bird sounds, wind blowing through trees and the silences of vast landscapes.

The exploration that I want to share here was inspired by combining instructions from people who have done pioneering work around sound and listening, and thinking about how we can be more fully present in the world. The composer Pauline Oliveros and her ideas of Deep Listening have had a big impact on the shape of these exercises. Deep Listening uses our full range of capacities and not just our ears: paying attention to all the sounds we hear at once, how they interrelate, how they hit our bodies and are registered in unexpected ways. Specific to this exercise was the work by the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, author of One Square Inch of Silence, to preserve natural silence and combat noise pollution in national and state parks in the United States. Hempton has spent decades listening to and making recordings of landscapes. He has some powerful things to say about how to refine and pay attention to our incredible sense of hearing to do things like absorbing entire landscapes at one time.

Our task, on the island a few kilometres from the centre of Helsinki, was to listen to the Baltic Sea, to the 3050 square kilometres that were in front of us, as we sat on a stormy, rock-lined coast. Not only were we going to listen to this enormous space, we were going to listen to its silences instead of its noises, those necessary temporal spatial beings that give sound its shape, location, setting, emotional potential, and unleash billions of relationships with where we are and how we locate ourselves in ways that have sprawling meanings.

We went to a spot on the shoreline of the island. I gave instructions to everyone to look at the vast distances we could see from our vantage point. The group were asked to think about all the silences that were there to make it possible for one to understand what it was we were seeing, hearing, and experiencing. There was a lighthouse on a small island we could see a few kilometres off the shore. I asked everyone to think about a firework being set off next to the lighthouse. We would quickly hear the sound, locating it without effort. We would instantly understand the distance, the silence that the lighthouse had been enveloped in just moments before, and all the silences around that remained in order for us to locate this one sound. The sound would occur for us both in the moment but also in the context of its very recent past and future silences. We always hear the silences when we hear sounds; we just don’t realise this and pay attention accordingly. And our perceptions of time are extremely elastic, too. Many of the workshop participants talked about stepping out of time, or at least time as they usually conceptualise and experience it.

We listened to the silences in the land and seascape during the day’s strong wind and sporadic spats of rain. The wind had an immense presence, like a throng of people pushing onto a crowded subway car. This was even more of a confrontation: we had only just completed an exercise that sensitised us to how we gather sounds, how they hit our bodies in many more places than just our ears, and the enormous range and layers of things we are able to perceive when we take the time to listen deeply. We were cautious of the intensity of the wind insinuating itself into our awareness; the strength of the wind turned our ears into an active part of the soundscape.

The wind alone is completely silent. Only when it crashes into and careens around things can one discern an audible trail. This was certainly the case as the wind grabbed the sea and threw it repeatedly at the rocky seashore.

We were on the shoreline of the island of Suomenlinna, an old military base and UNESCO World Heritage site that is part geological formation and part massive landfill. It is an odd place, filled with stables, barracks, cannons from multiple military epochs, museums, churches and harbours. Bunkers lined the shore facing the open Baltic Sea.

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We stumbled down one of those staircases often found in large outdoor parks where the angle of descent is awkward and the spaces between steps are not scaled for an adult human. The harsh sea weather had also had an undue influence on the staircase, turning it green in places, causing plant life to settle in others. The stairs descended from an old fortification wall down to the place where we would do our listening, to learn something from the sea.

Everyone was eager to do another listening session, to test their new found awareness at a different location, as the first one provided such strong and varied responses. We had all heard the same things, or so we thought, but the narratives of what we each had heard, what we thought it was, the emotional impact it had, prompted significantly different understandings. There were some agreements amongst the listeners about what they had heard or how the impact of a sound the loud voices of two drunk men shouting at each other, for example had registered on their senses, but what to make out of it afterwards and in conjunction with the entire experience was very different for each person. The same thing happened during this exercise.

We sat on rocky outcroppings close to the wall of sound that was by now pummelling all of us. The sun was teasing us, appearing and disappearing, the warming and cooling of our bodies adding impact to our listening exercise almost warming the very act of hearing for some, making others more receptive to what it was they were going through. We found our places on the rocks, some closer to the crashing waves than others, sitting, working ourselves into an intimate connection between our bodies and the hard surface, getting ready to listen.

We breathed deeply, filling our lungs fully and then emptying them utterly, relaxing our bodies until we felt all muscles release their tension and settle into the task. We were ready to pay careful attention. Because of the intensity of the wind and water, it took very little time to get lost in the phenomenal encounter. It was already difficult to talk as I gave instructions on getting into a relaxed state and the task of reflecting on the silences of the seascape. Upon closing my eyes, the vast spaces that had been there moments before rushed onto my body, ears, hands and my unprepared consciousness.

Several of the participants said afterwards that they had to turn away because of the intensity of the wind and sound. When we talked after listening for about thirty minutes, many of us had very similar understandings of what we had encountered.

We had all heard a very powerful story from the sea. This was very important to understand. Things tell us stories, not in the sense that a rock starts speaking English or Finnish or any other human language, but we construct narratives instantaneously out of what it is we observe and understand. No matter how romantic, detached, analytical, mystical or skeptical you might be, you have to construct a story of your experience. You translate the sounds of the wind and water hitting the rocks, which are impossible to fully capture in any spoken language. Water hitting rocks smoothed by thousands of years of pounding by the sea sounds different than any other thing you will ever experience. We register this and attempt to communicate it to others.

The sea has a story to tell. It is a story that it has been telling for thousands of years. It can tell it in many different ways. The same spot on a shoreline can tell this story in an infinite number of variations given what the wind is like, the direction it is blowing in, the air temperature, whether it is raining or not and so on. What we heard was the sound of many waves crashing against the smoothed rocks. We know from encountering rocks before that it is no easy task to shape and smooth them as the waves have done. It would be nearly impossible for us to recreate the same process just with our bodies and no tools, even if we did it for decades on end. We understand what a rock is in a physical way as much as we do in a conceptual manner, though we are taught to privilege the latter understanding over the former.

We had heard a powerful thing during this short listening session. The sea was talking to us. Part of the story it had to tell was that it had been telling this story for a time that we are not really used to registering, deep time, time that extends beyond many generations of human lifespans. The sea was telling us that its story has been uninterrupted for this long period. What you hear at first are the waves crashing on the rocks, and this is familiar to anyone who has been to the sea. When you pay attention closely, you start to hear the diversity of tones, patterns, flows of energy that overlap, sometimes complementing one another, sometimes not. They all combine to tell the story of the relationships of the sea to the rocks, making the sounds intimate and more available to us. The crashes of the waves on the rocks, the pulling back of the sea, that wonderful crackling noise it makes, were happening all around us in multiple variations.

Because we had been sensitised by listening carefully, we could hold them all in our heads and understand them together. We heard the multiple patterns that synchronise and at times produce pleasing or jarring dissonance. Many of us felt that we were sitting on the edge of a crushing abyss. The way in which we were listening pulled the soundscape right on top of us. It comes incredibly close and when you open your eyes you are shocked by the visual distance of the sound’s source. The sound is always mediated and situated by seeing. Taking sight out of the experience allows us to pull the sound as near as it always is and to give it our close attention.

Sara Hannula, one of the participants in this exercise, had this to say about her experience:

If I think of specific moments that have stayed with me, a few things come to the fore. One of them is the Deep Listening exercise we did by the sea, and the responses that it evoked in our group. I was very impressed by the fact that so many of us were overwhelmed by the sea and the wind when exposed to them without any protection. I wonder whether it has to do with the fact that we are hardly ever asked to surrender and open ourselves to the raw elements, or things that are beyond our understanding and control. It is quite possible to go through life without having to do it by necessity, if one happens to live in the Western world. However, I think this process of exposing oneself to the immense forces that reshape our world is key now that the situation is getting more and more out of control and the conditions are increasingly unpredictable. We can no longer resist change or pretend to manage it with the tools that we have access to. We are no longer sheltered.

I was moved by how intensely the sea and the rocks seemed to be insisting on the story of their relationship. We have all heard waves hitting rocks many times before, but have not been given the training to sit down and focus in this way under these kinds of conditions. It is not a regular thing that we are encouraged to do: to try and receive all that a soundscape has to offer. Yet there is much to learn from behaving in this way. We have to be willing to slow down and give our care, openness and attentiveness. We can get a glimpse of other, geologic time scales, translated to our own short fragile ones.

There is no need to escape to an idealised ‘wild’ or ‘natural’ setting to understand the ways in which our petroleum-driven industrialised civilisation drastically limits who we are, what we experience and the vast unknowns that lurk in our embodied absorption of the world around us. These kinds of gatherings and collective work however enable us to immerse ourselves in a Deep Map of relationships within a place a layering of narratives and understandings that demonstrate our abilities to hold multiple, often contradictory perspectives. These expansive capacities can be used anywhere, in cities and remote rural locations. They can reveal the lost worlds of ‘Deep Grandmothers’ (ancestral time) and the storytelling that is encoded in our DNA. Once activated, they can help us shift away from cultures of violent extraction and abstraction and instead build up cultures of care in the face of climate breakdown and the ensuing chaos it might bring in the coming time.

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(1) The workshop was coordinated with the exhibition Dissolving Frontiers, one of many exhibitions, incubators, projects and gatherings that are part of ‘Frontiers in Retreat’, an ambitious five-year initiative that partners seven artist residency spaces ‘on the frontiers of Europe’ with over 20 artists working at the intersections of art, ecology and climate change.

A version of this essay appeared in the book Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing our Sense of Self (2015) available here for free download

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

We Are All In This Together

Kim Goldberg has been contributing magical, otherworldly writing to Dark Mountain for some time now, and her work never fails to surprise and beguile. Here are two of Kim’s haibun interwoven with two of Jane Lovell‘s powerful poems about dislocation and extinction. Issue 9 is the first Dark Mountain book to feature Jane’s work, and we very much hope to read more of her poetry in the future.

Fugitive in the Date Palm

Jane Lovell

It is hard to ignore the red-billed toucan.
Solomon says his bill is chipped like an old teacup
but we see the translucence of the deglet noor,

its caramelised sunlight.

After the stripping of thorn and billowing
of pollen across the plantation,
he blew in on a salt wind through the canyons,

beak bright as paintpots,

took shelter in the branches,
peeped at us with his blue eye from the canopy
while donkeys grazed determinedly below

oblivious to his dipping and tilting.

Solomon says he’s an escapee from a sultan’s
menagerie; we feed him pomegranate, mango,
leaving them in quiet acts of worship

at the foot of his favourite palm.

We know he is lonely, thousands of miles
of desert and ocean from home.
We call to him while we hang on ladders

wrapping the khlal in muslin.

Evenings, he hops about chuntering
at shadows, then curls into a feathered ball
secured by his great beak,

to sleep.

We think he dreams deep jungle:
Costa Rican mists, the whirring of moths
and pop of frogs, another red-billed toucan

hidden, waiting, in the forest gloom.

Solomon says one day, maybe he’ll set off
like a beacon, winging over Egypt, Libya,
Nigeria, the South Atlantic.

He prays for the fruits to ripen,

sweet rutab to delay his leaving,
checks on him each morning, peering
up into the leaves, his crippled toes sinking

in the warm sand.

* * *

Opening Act

Kim Goldberg

We are sitting in a darkened theatre waiting for the play to begin. It is a full house. The entire run is sold out. The squeak of a pulley tells us the curtain has opened. But we do not see this because there are no stage lights, just blackness. Is the lighting operator asleep? Drunk? Murdered? Run off with the cashier? We hear movement, actors pacing, props being shoved around. Something falls, breaks. A vase maybe? A skull? No words are spoken, just the occasional grunt. We assume it is human but cannot be sure. This must all be part of the script, this darkness, this enigma, some avant-garde theatre experiment. We are game. We roll with it. To flee to the well-lit lobby for safety would be an act of cultural illiteracy. Patrons begin to murmur to their partners. I reach out to touch your arm but there is only sand. A gull cries. I smell brine.

sometimes a whisper
is just the sea destroying

itself on the beach

* * *


Jane Lovell

They keep coming.
He wields his stick.
There is the great sea, the blue air,
this endless tide of tweedling curiosities
hovering to land.
He is king, his whip of scalesia dislocating
vertebrae, unhinging the graceful heads.
Like angels they fall, hit the rocks, unfold

into stillness.

Around this child, this god, stretch the hulks
of wolves, black-eyed leopards sent by witches
through the vast pitch skies of Zanzibar,
a mound of seals, fur stiff as parchment
cracking in the heat, a floating mink that nobody
has registered, a fleet of sightless sea cows
filmed with salt, the final pair of twisted auks,

their fledgling curling in its oils.

Earth exhales and turns upon her shoulder
casting languid shadows through her forests,
her swelling oceans.
Under a Vertical sun, boy becomes bone,
the bones of doves and finches, sand.
Stuffed skins in glass cabinets line halls
that echo with our footsteps.
We are all in this together.

No one is watching.

* * *

Basket Weaver

Kim Goldberg

When ten per cent of the population could no longer walk, the old woman wove a large basket from willow branches that were still alive and growing. The basket was covered with narrow green leaves from the living branches. The leaves danced and shimmied in the wind. They flashed in the sun like a bright ball of herring spawning their puny brains out in the tossing surf. The leaves were swooning and copulating like only chlorophyll can – beyond the strictures of blood and bone and moist openings. The basket was the old woman’s gift to the town. She told the stricken people to enter one by one, crawling to it on their elbows and bellies since their legs no longer worked. No matter how many people entered, the basket never got full. This went on for quite some while until all the belly-crawlers were inside and the basket had been closed up tight. The people who entered were never seen again, but each night fireflies would sift out through the slits between the willow branches and light up the town.

to give birth to
new shapes, we must break

some covalent bonds


Image: Soft Rain (acrylic on canvas) by Kate Williamson. Soft Rain was inspired by the more gentle power of nature, painted intuitively to capture the energy and fleeting spontaneity of the sky and reflective pools. I live next to a large tidal bay and at each low tide the shape and size of the pools left behind are constantly changing. This painting is part of my ‘Emotional Landscapes’ series which aims to express an internal dialogue that speaks to the viewer through intuitively layered paint, and to capture human reaction past the ocular experience.

Kate Williamson is a contemporary New Zealand artist who lives on the Otago Peninsula. Renowned for her large and striking artworks, Kate uses paint to express her concerns about the enormity of climate change, and the concern she has for this gift of paradise we are part of. Her work is described as spontaneous action painting and is collected nationally and internationally.

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

A Distant Tower

from ‘100 Stories of the Drowning World’

The following is related by Dr. Falke, co-founder of the Truppe Fledermaus: ‘Some years ago I was travelling with Herr Orlofsky to Dartmoor on one of our innumerable tours of the provinces – on this occasion we had selected the rocky tors of the region as a backdrop to rehearse with the ghost bat costume. I had recently completed this outfit with help from my assistant and was quite proud of the result. I was looking out of the train window at the sun setting over the water meadows, listening to Orlofsky monologue on the possible use of impossible architecture as a stage set, when suddenly he became quite animated and started pointing out of the window: ‘Look my good man, that’s exactly what I mean!’ Rousing myself from my stupor, I followed his gaze and saw a distant tower rising from the dreary landscape, silhouetted against the still brightened sky. It appeared to be possibly covered in vines and had odd asymmetric protrusions on one side. I ventured that it might be the chimney stack of an old wheelhouse while Orlofsky was of the opinion that it was of military origin, probably built during the last war. Orlofsky, falling prey to one of his wild enthusiasms, insisted we leave the train to investigate further. Although my curiosity was admittedly piqued, I had little desire to pass the night in the tent with Orlofsky without even the smallest snifter of champagne to leaven the experience. Fortunately the region seemed thoroughly unpopulated, rendering it unlikely that a station would appear. I agreed that we would go in search of the tower should the train make a stop. To my profound irritation, no sooner had the words left my mouth than the train began to slow down.

The station (if I might dignify it so) was no more than a raised promontory of roughly cobbled wood. There was not so much as a shack associated with it, nor in fact any sign of human habitation in any direction. We picked up our duffels, loaded down as we were with props and recording equipment, and started off in the general direction of the tower. Before long, the country lane we were following devolved into a rough track and then a muddy path. The landscape was entirely flat, a maze of flooded fields, primitive canals and ditches, and impenetrable willow boundaries – here and there, crude leats and wooden spill doors had been constructed in an attempt to control the ever-present flooding, but with no apparent success. I could smell the sea very faintly, and surmised that this region was probably below sea level. Try as we might, we found it impossible to make any headway towards the tower, our way being continually blocked by impenetrable thickets and water of uncertain depth. Orlofsky was of the opinion that we should just wade directly towards it, but I vetoed this idea – the risk of becoming stuck in the bog in the fading light seemed to me a foolhardy venture at best. The tower itself continually changed its appearance as we circumnavigated it. From some angles it appeared little more than an oppressive block, while from others the aforementioned protrusions gave it a jaunty, almost sinister air. For the life of me I could not imagine what the purpose of such a structure could possibly be. We were on the verge on abandoning the whole venture when we heard a motor in the distance.

Orlofsky was attempting to carry out a conversation with a local man on a tractor, but was struggling with the dialect. For my own part, I found the entirety incomprehensible, and the man himself a bit frightening. He was continually raising and waving his stick in a manner that suggested we were trespassing. Eventually he drove off and Orlofsky walked back over to me declaring that the farmer had disclosed to him the location of a bridge by which we might access the tower, which, apparently, was on an island. I must have looked dubious, because Orlofsky strode away in irritation back towards one of the canals blocking us from the tower. I hastily followed on, concerned that my companion’s stubborn nature might lead us into a rash, ill-advised situation. I caught up with him on the bank of the canal and tried to forcefully suggest that we head back to the station, a move I knew to be a tactical error as soon as the words left my mouth. Before I could stop him, Orlofsky had scrambled down the bank and was wading into the canal, mumbling that it ‘didn’t look that deep’. Almost instantly he lost his footing on the slippery bottom and upset the bag of props that he was carrying into the water. To his credit, he managed to quickly grab the bag before the canal bore it away, but not before the ghost bat costume had spilled out into the current. An involuntary moan passed my lips. While Orlofsky struggled to climb out with the sopping bag, I ran after the ghost bat all the while looking around for a stick to fish it out with. To my horror, I realised that the canal ended in a thicket where it flowed into an underground culvert – for fear of being sucked in myself, all I could do was watch as the costume, now fully puffed up by the current, its wings unfurled, described a graceful arc to the mouth of the tunnel. Orlofsky had caught up with me now; astutely reaching into my equipment bag, he photographed the bat just before it disappeared. ‘Don’t worry old chap, we’ll retrieve it on the other side,’ he said, attempting to cheer me up. And with that the bat suit was gone.

Of course it didn’t appear on the other side, if one even existed. An entirely fruitless hour was spent in the half-light attempting to ascertain where the canal emerged from the culvert; rather, the ground beyond the thicket was quite dry and eventually gave way to raised causeway amid familiar tangle of drowned meadows crisscrossed with yet more leats and ditches. This we eventually followed back to the station. The tower was now nowhere to be seen, but in any case, I had ceased to care. Orlofsky, as is typical of him, screamed abuse at me when I dared to express my frustration that his ill-considered actions had led us to an entirely preventable fiasco. This then gave way to terse apologies peppered with feeble excuses, and finally to unbridled glee at what he deemed to be the ‘beautiful absurdity of the whole performance, far better than any we might have achieved at Dartmoor.’ Entirely exhausted by his peregrinations, I left him to his reveries, and nibbled on some soggy chocolate retrieved from the bottom of the prop bag as I lay on the platform waiting for the train. Above me, dark shapes swooped through the night air, undoubtedly the local fledermausen conducting their nocturnal feast of marsh insects, little knowing that their poor white queen lies lost forever in the underworld.

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

3 Haibun

Opening Act

We are sitting in a darkened theatre waiting for the play to begin. It is a full house. The entire run is sold out. The squeak of a pulley tells us the curtain has opened. But we do not see this because there are no stage lights, just blackness. Is the lighting operator asleep? Drunk? Murdered? Run off with the cashier? We hear movement, actors pacing, props beings shoved around. Something falls, breaks. A vase maybe? A skull? No words are spoken, just the occasional grunt. We assume it is human but cannot be sure. This must all be part of the script, this darkness, this enigma, some avant garde theatre experiment. We are game. We roll with it. To flee to the well-lit lobby for safety would be an act of cultural illiteracy. Patrons begin to murmur to their partners. I reach out to touch your arm but there is only sand. A gull cries. I smell brine.

sometimes a whisper
is just the sea destroying itself
on the beach


Taking Flight

At Piper’s Lagoon, six harlequin ducks light up the rocky foreshore of Shack Island before taking flight. They fly low, skimming the surface of the sea. They do this to reap the aerodynamic benefit of ground effect, reducing drag upon the progress of their stubby wings. For this to work, their distance from the sea must be less than their wingspan. They do not know any of this of course. They have no slide rule or tape measure. Yet there they go. I hold a degree in biology with post-graduate coursework in field ornithology. Yet here I sit.

to sew a blue dress
from a scrap of sky, to thread
the eye with the sun


Basket Weaver

When ten percent of the population could no longer walk, the old woman wove a large basket from willow branches that were still alive and growing. The basket was covered with narrow green leaves from the living branches. The leaves danced and shimmied in the wind. They flashed in the sun like a bright ball of herring spawning their puny brains out in the tossing surf. The leaves were swooning and copulating like only chlorophyll can—beyond the strictures of blood and bone and moist openings. The basket was the old woman’s gift to the town. She told the stricken people to enter one by one, crawling to it on their elbows and bellies since their legs no longer worked. No matter how many people entered, the basket never got full. This went on for quite some while until all the belly-crawlers were inside and the basket had been closed up tight. The people who entered were never seen again, but each night fireflies would sift out through the slits between the willow branches and light up the town.

to give birth
to new shapes, we must break
some covalent bonds


Dark Mountain: Issue 9 (PDF)

The Spring 2016 issue is a collection of writing and artwork that responds to the idea of 'humbleness'.

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Dark Mountain: Issue 9

 The Humbling

Humbleness is the most unfashionable of virtues. We are continually exhorted by late-capitalist civilisation to ‘be proud’, to ‘stand tall’, to ‘believe in ourselves’. It is held as axiomatic that the self is the centre of our being; that the human is the zenith of evolution; that the increase of human agency and dominion, and the search for meaning and purpose in our own individual selves, are the central tasks of existence.

Little wonder, then, that the idea that we might not have the starring role in the show of life fills most contemporary minds with fear, horror or disgust. To suggest that our power and control over the world and its other inhabitants might be subject to reversal, or that our dreams of industrial ascendency over the living biosphere might prove to be nothing more than a narcissistic fantasy, is to invite the kind of allegations of doomerism, Luddism and misanthropy to which those involved in the Dark Mountain Project have become accustomed over the past seven years.

Outside the small spotlight of Western industrial society, these ideas do not necessarily hold. Nor, indeed, was it always this way in the West: the Greeks thought that an excess of hybris would attract the wrath of the gods, and that the inevitable fall would follow; mediaeval Christianity placed great weight on the cultivation of humility and the avoidance of pride – for most of European history, the idea that a good citizen would make the promotion of their own achievements and interests their highest goal would have been unthinkable.

The co-founder of Dark Mountain, Paul Kingsnorth – whose story, ‘Ice’, explores one man’s attempt to escape the tyranny of selfhood amidst the melting glaciers of Greenland – wrote in the call for submissions for this book: ‘Humanity is going to be humbled one way or the other, so we may as well begin the process ourselves.’ An honest consideration of the accelerating effects of climate change, mass extinction and societal dysfunction makes it difficult to disagree with this.

Even (perhaps especially) for those who have awoken to the urgency of these problems, humbleness can be an elusive trait. It is too easy to think of ourselves as warriors in the great battle against Empire, or sybils wringing our hands in despair – and to end broken and bitter, having changed very little in the world; having ignored the smaller things worthy of our care in preference for the Grand Narrative of Human Struggle.

Humbleness comes from the Latin humus, meaning ‘earth’; so to be humble means to lay oneself low, but also to be grounded, to return to the solid and material. The surrender, voluntarily or otherwise, of our empires of self can also be seen as a re-connection with reality, a re-communion with the Earth.

In their own ways, the art works, poems, stories and essays in this volume demonstrate the value of humbleness. Pieces like Brendan Byrne’s story ‘A Stone and a Cloud’ or Robert Leaver’s performance art ‘Hole Earth’ reveal the ache of desire that underlies our alienation from nature, while poems like ‘Eroding’ or ‘The Heart’ explore the melancholy consolations of losing yourself in the breadth of time and world.

Humbleness also allows us to be receptive to other voices. It might be as subtle as realising that we can pass over the global news bulletins to bear witness to more immediate worlds, as Em Strang recounts in ‘Over Yonder Horror’; as mysterious as the early radio engineer described in Samantha Clark’s essay ‘Ether’, who heard the sound of the Earth’s magnetosphere in the silences between spoken words; or as simple as the listening practice described in ‘Learning Carefully from the Sea, its Vast Silences and Ancient Stories’.

While the works in this volume look unflinchingly at the dark truths of our time, together they form ‘A Cabinet of Curiosities’; a hearteningly disparate miscellaneum of objects found at the shoreline, each shining with its own unique patterning. In the intricate hand-cut architecture of Rogan Brown’s paperwork ‘time fossils’, or the artfully structured sound-play of Bridget Khursheed’s ‘Mustelid Research’, we see humbleness put to work in crafting quiet works of organic wonder.

At a time when so many are displaced from their familiar surroundings, this may take the form of a journey: a quest for healing in the forests of Dumfries and Galloway, or walking to the Climate Conference in Paris in a muddy suit, making a flotilla of paper boats out of discarded materials along the way. For others, it may result in the rediscovery of community and a sense of belonging, as long-time contributor Akshay Ahuja’s story ‘The Cleanliness Committee’ shows with wry humour, or as Jane Lovell realises in ‘Galapagos’: ‘We are all in this together’.

Whether recognising that we are not clearly distinguishable from our bacterial symbionts, identifying the ubiquity of the myth of human supremacy, or simply admitting that we have been outsmarted by crows, this humbling – the realisation that the human self is not the inviolable sovereign we have been taught to take it for – can be a disorienting process. But it can also be a liberating one. A strange thing happens when we finally submit ourselves to this unfashionable state. With humbling comes a simplicity, a singleness of vision and a return to a more honest appraisal of what it means to be human. As the grand narratives of recrimination and despair dissolve, the universe appears afresh as a collection of wonders – bewildering objects, transforming passions and moments of transcendent awe.

Like the word ‘humble’, ‘human’ also comes from the root ‘humus’to be human is to be an earthling, literally. It may yet be that, despite our inflated sense of our place in time and space, despite our trail of arrogant destruction, there is still a thread of humbleness that runs at the core of what it means to belong to this strange specieswhich is, as Anne Tagonist reminds us, ‘the only species we have the option of being’.

Cover image: ‘A Family Tree’ by Rebecca Clark. ‘I make drawings of the natural world, transient moments of grace and beauty in an age of disappear­ance. Inspired by plant and animal studies of the Northern Renaissance, Netherlandish devotional panel paintings, and nature mysticism as expressed through various forms of art, music, poetry and prose, my art acknowledges interconnectedness in nature and our loss of connection with the sacred. I often use circular forms, such as dandelions, spider webs and bird nests, as symbols of cosmic mandalas echoing cycles of life. In Family Tree, the rings suggest a nimbus rendering sacred all life of the wood. The wild animals in silhouette across the outer ring of bark are ‘all our relations,’ or mitakuye oyasin, to borrow from the Lakota prayer for oneness and harmony with all living creatures.

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

Where is Pyotr Zhukov?

The urkas are the strongest men in the camp. If they want your ration they take it. If you protest, they answer with violence. They do as they please.

Today a guard asks, ‘Where is Pyotr Zhukov?’

There is no answer.

The guard asks again, ‘Where is Pyotr Zhukov?’

But we all know Zhukov is dead. He died of cold in the night.

‘Where is Pyotr Zhukov?’

‘I am Pyotr Zhukov’, says the urka known as Vanya.

No-one dares look. Zhukov is dead. He died of cold in the night. Everyone knows.

‘I am Pyotr Zhukov,’ says the urka known as Vanya.

To lie to the guards is death, even for an urka. Vanya knows this.

‘Born when?’ says the guard.

‘1889. In Vologda.’ Vanya says.

It is a guess, he does not know when Zhukov was born. But he knows too that the guard does not know. The guard has no records, only crimes and terms and numbers. It was a cheap test and the guard has no way of knowing that Vanya has failed.

‘Report to hut three immediately,’ says the guard.

Vanya goes with a smile on his face and there he is processed. And this is what follows.

Pyotr Zhukov’s term was eighteen months. The murderer’s is the full quarter. An eighteen on a dead man is a waste, Vanya thinks. The dead man can take my quarter, he thinks. Zhukov’s term is finished, so Vanya walks free. Vanya, who now is Zhukov.

‘You are Pyotr Zhukov?’

‘I am.’

‘Your term was eighteen months?’

‘It was.’

‘They say you are a fine musician.’

‘I am Pyotr Zhukov.’

And so he is Zhukov, a fine musician. At least for a while. Because in such a system inconsistencies arrive. Before long he discovers who it was to declare him a fine musician: Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili. Joseph Stalin, no less. Stalin, who heard from some-knows-where that Zhukov was the finest west of the Urals. And so Vanya, who now is Zhukov, is released to serve the Soviet in song. To serve Russia, and to play before the leader himself.

He is transported from Solovki to Moscow to resume his career as a violinist. Requisitioned by the leadership. Vanya, the liar. Vanya the murderer. Vanya, who doesn’t play a note.

On opening night, Vanya dresses in elegant black and goes to the stage and waits in the wing. Comrades! Welcome the dear leader’s most favoured violinist – the finest west of the Urals – Pyotr Zhukov! Vanya enters and, standing on stage, is commanded to play. Caught and dressed in a black tie. Standing on stage and commanded to play. And does not know a note. Zhukov had eighteen months. Vanya the full quarter. Now he would trade each of those twenty-five years back again. But Stalin is here and Vanya knows: on Stalin’s stage, there can be no trade.

And so.


The bow.

Vanya, who now is Zhukov, begins to play.

At first he is quiet – it is the first violin he has ever touched. He pulls a delicate bow to make nothing more than silence. He whispers nothing to the bow, and it whispers nothing back. The crowd lean forward in their seats, trying to make out a soundless note. Minutes pass.

But in Vanya the urka, silence cannot last long. He is a man of hate and others’ pain, not of silence. He is a man of murder and screams, and soon the loathing of the camp is upon him. He will show these Soviet fools, he says. He will show them what their system has become, he says. He will show them their camps, their gulags, their lagerya. He will show them Solovki.

And so, he begins to slice and stab with the bow. He cuts at the violin as if it were a weak inmate protecting a ration. He scratches and rips until the violin screams into the stalls. He tortures the violin not into notes but into shrieks and fury. Minutes pass, but in the horror he keeps playing. The murderer urka. Standing on stage. Dressed in black. Because he answered to a name.

By now his face is purple as if he tortures not the violin but himself. All laws of endurance say that he must reach some end. But he keeps on. In the horror. Scratches and rips and screams, he tears the violin with a dying bow. The violin that is now a weak inmate of the camps with a ration. A ration for an urka to steal. The urka Vanya, who never played a note.

On, he plays. On. And on. Until, at last, he is lost in the violin’s screams; lost in the hate and cold; lost in the gulag and the cold horror. Lost in the hate and the horror and the murders of Solovki. But, somehow, somewhere in the lost horror and the murder, the screams become a terrible music. The notes tear at the air and the ears. The violin screams and strains and cries out with all the filth and murder and rape of Solovki. A sound more terrible than the darkest thought. And in that moment Vanya believes he is Pyotr Zhukov. And the music is his tortured hell.

But even on Solovki, horror cannot last longer than the body it tortures. And eventually, when the violin screams its highest suffering, Vanya, who now is Zhukov, reaches some end. He drops the tortured violin. He drops the broken bow. He stands and sweats and grimaces into the crowd. He is coming for their ration next, his eyes say.

Faced with the horror, what can the audience do? After all, they were told this man was favoured by Stalin. And Stalin is here in attendance. And Stalin is never wrong. So what can the audience do? No applause for Zhukov is no applause for Stalin.

And so they applaud. They weep and stand and applaud. And the murderer hears the applause as though it were for a true Pyotr Zhukov. And no one in the audience dares stop. Vanya the urka stands and endures the applause. It is hours they clap and weep. It is days. Out into the salons, out into the journals, out onto the front pages of the newspapers: a triumph of beauty is declared and the triumph is Stalin’s who recognised Zhukov as the finest west of the Urals. A new Soviet music is born and all are blessed that hear it.

The murderer is declared a master of the new music and is unleashed with all his horror upon Russia. Everywhere he goes he is received as a genius. And when audiences hear his horror they respond with hysteria. He rips and he screams and he tears with the bow. He plays the horror that is a bow torn on a violin by a murderer of the camps. The murderer who answered only a name.

Yet all report that they hear beauty. And still in the salons, and still in the journals, and still on the pages of the newspapers, a triumph of beauty is declared. And before long, all hear beauty. But it is horror. Until even beauty is consumed by the lie. Like a snowflake on a wet palm: to hold it is to undo it. In the end they take nothing and their hands return wet.

But in the camp, our forgotten hands are frozen. 30,000 snowflakes: we can hold them. That is the beauty you left us, Pyotr Zhukov. The fall of a snowflake, onto a broken, frozen hand. Humanity’s pain at the horror. You are a broken hand to keep us true, Pyotr Zhukov. Here. A final beauty.

Image by Gunnar Ofeigsson, a designer based in Glasgow.