Flight Path

Every civilisation has had its irrational but reassuring myth. Previous civilisations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used its mathematics to prove it.

The man you might not know. And yet if you know anything about the Green Party, Tradable Energy Quotas, the Transition Movement, New Economics Foundation or the Soil Association you would have met his ideas and his vision many times. His name is David Fleming and for thirty years he carried a large manuscript around with him, amending, adding, editing and re-editing, as each year progressed. This September, six years after his sudden death, it sees the light of day in the form of two books.

Shaun Chamberlin, a rigorous Boswell to this Dr Johnson of the future, has not only skilfully shaped his immense dictionary into a finished form, but also forged a narrative introduction to it. Daunted by the prospect of reviewing the rather unlean Lean Logic, I took the slimmer companion volume, Surviving the Future – Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy on a train trip and then into my summer garden. This is a short response to this multi-layered, beautifully constructed treatise.

The future is a fraught place for those of us who have realised over the last decade we are boarded on the Titanic and heading for a mighty reality check. Some of us have thrown up our hands in horror and despair, some of us have heroically dug gardens, some of us have analysed fossil fuel graphs and turned off our central heating. Most of of us have looked at this wicked problem and tried to work out what on earth is needed now, not as individuals but as a people. One thing is for sure, at some point this all-powerful ship will founder and David Fleming’s clear proposals for an alternative social organisation are welcome reading for all those whose eyes are trained on the lifeboats, rather than the dancing girls in the bar.

lean logic

Slack and elegance

Surviving the Future is a linear pathway through Lean Logic‘s diverse and visionary eco-system. Where you might and indeed are encouraged to explore the larger work’s interconnected range of entries, the small volume keeps you on the main track. Here I am on the 16:00 from Liverpool Street coming home, surrounded by shopping bags and folk staring at their mobile phones, listening to music, eating fast food, wrapped up in their own worlds, and it is hard to imagine that all this might shift into the scenarios David is describing in these pages. And yet it is compelling in ways you do not expect. Even though there are fascinating insights on the more familiar subjects of religion, myth and culture-making, the chapters that grab the attention are undoubtedly those on lean economics, specifically the seven points of protocol which pull in an entirely different direction to the conditions in which the globalised market economy flourishes; the latter which is driven by competition and price and the former which works in an entirely different paradigm.

Economics is not a subject that most of us care about. However, the market economy is a system and creed we live by and has put us on this collision course. We are all embedded within it as we sit in this train carraige rocking through the East Anglian barley fields. Clear thinking about this behomoth and how it might be replaced are paramount and you could have no more inspired or radical guide than David Fleming in this uncertain territory.

For Fleming a viable future means being rooted in the small-scale local economy and cultivating the resilience of the community you live in. It means creating a thriving culture that will enable people to use their native intelligence and good will to work out how to proceed when the chips are down and the social and technological infrastuctures we take for granted are no longer in place. His premise is that through time localised, interdependant communities have been the norm and that our hyper-individualised hyper-urbanised lives are an anomoly and only made possible because of a destructive oil-based growth economy.

The book looks at key areas, such as food, growth, ethics, employment and waste, through the lens of lean times, and proposes that intead of living in a mono-culture where the price is the measure of everything, we live in a community, where our presence, our loyalty to its shape and interactions matter.

It is a better book to read in the garden, where there is space to breathe. Because, above all things, the book brings space and intelligence and wit to areas that are normally written about in lumbering opinionated prose. In a genre weighted down by tribalism, righteousness, political rhetoric and scientific data, his words come like a fresh breeze. Where other books would feature graphs, he has woodcuts of the English countryside.Where others might beat you over the head, his light and precise use of language effortlessly guides you from high altitude systems thinking to the literature of utopia to the utterly miserable times endured by the workers of the ancient ‘hydraulic’ cultures.

At some points his references to art and philosophy may appear old-fashioned, his fondness for the feast-days of the Middle Ages romantic, but the main theme is utterly modern, thought-provoking and often surprising. At the suggestion we might employ Christanity’s rich liturgy and architecture as a cultural holding place, I find myself exposulating to the runner beans. Hang on a minute, David, when the Church of England is on a all-time attendance low in the UK? Are you suggesting we go backwards and have to worship gods again?

fleming 3I put the book down and dive into some shade between the buddleia and the raspberry canes. Above me the scarlet admiral and peacock butterflies drink the nectar from the flowers, the light shining through their jewelled wings, above them on a southerly breeze the seeds of a black poplar drift by in search of new territory and above them a marsh harrier circles in the updrift, soaring higher and higher.

OK, so how do you organise society in the absence of competitive pricing? I laugh. This book is subtle! I have no idea: but it is a very good question. One that revolves around loving the earth and sky, that’s for sure. It has to start here. It has to start with this moment.

I reach out to pick several large raspberries and realise that it was Fleming’s ideas about community resilience that had entirely forged my own. These canes from Rita and Nick and Jeannie, the apple trees from Gemma and my fellow writers on Playing for Time, all these vegetables from seed swaps, my clothes from Give and Take Days, my involvement with Dark Mountain via the Transition movement. Everything in my house and larder and woodpile, in my relationships with neighbours and local shopkeepers, with this sandy, salty, wild territory, has come here through the informal economy. In all these small ways I am already living in the future he describes. And in that I know I am not alone.

This shift is not just personal, about me and my downshift style: it is social, about nurturing communities of ‘reciprocity and freedom’. And this is where this book acts as a decisive catalyst. We need deep blue sky thinking, to ask ourselves questions we have never thought about with rigour, to look around us at what we have now between us, a bird’s eye perspective, because if we can’t we will be surely engulfed by the struggle on the ground:

The task is to recognise that the seeds of a community ethic and indeed benevolence still exist. It is to join up the remnants of local culture that survive and give it the chance to get its confidence back. We now need to move from a precious interest in culture as entertainment, often passive and solitary, to culture in its original, earthy sense of the story and celebration, the guardianship and dance that tell you where you are, and who is there with you…

unnamedOne question that is not solved by this book: what do we do with our unmannered dinosaur politics and our dinosaur ways of relating to each other? How do we deal with untempered social hostility, the feudal class system, and lust for blame? How did David Fleming in his eyrie overlooking Hampstead Heath imagine we would deal with those outer and inner forces that absolutely do not want any kind of slack and elegant future? It might work in theory but how about the practice?  Having seen several grassroots organisations destroy themselves though the taut powergames we have inherited I am unsure this is even possible. As Charles Eisenstein once pointed out in a meeting of Transitioners in London, any kind of preparation we do is playing at present. Most of us have the option to revert back to the old social contract, when the going gets rough, pull on our headphones and keep shopping. It is one thing gleaning apples from neighbourhood street trees because it is a fun and life-affirming thing to do, and quite another because you and your family are hungry.

But given this is the one alternative that resonates, that makes sense, it is worth giving it our every last creative shot. If you are prepared mentally, physically, emotionally, for a different world and have deintensified  your way of life, you are resilient and fluid in a way folk that have never thought about these things are not. That makes you a valuable presence in any kind of climacteric, a flexible open agent within a close, rigid system. I realise this late summer day, the lean localised future so astutely and elegantly mapped out in these pages was the future I chose a long time ago, and the task Fleming sets all writers and artists takes us resolutely out of the sidelines and puts us right where the action is and where else, given the choice, would we want to be?


At the upcoming Dark Mountain gathering this week we are delighted to welcome Shaun Chamberlin, David Fleming’s close friend and associate, who will be holding a workshop exploring some of his core ideas, and also to be able to sell both books, hot off the press, at our book stall (£30 and £10 respectively, or £35 for the two ).

I like to think David Fleming would have enjoyed Base Camp, at seeing a future-thinking culture being created by people aware of the impending social and economic crises. He might have recognised the lean thinking amongst its strands of myth-making, food growing, knowledge-sharing, music and conviviality. Celebrations and convergences are the bedrock for a society he envisioned could survive and thrive in a rocky future, and it is in this spirit that we publish a short extract from his chapter on Carnival, edited by Shaun and originally published in Dark Mountain Issue 5.


Extract from the late Dr. David Fleming’s Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It (2016). Extensive references are given in the dictionary itself, but are omitted here.

* points to another entry in the dictionary.


Celebrations of music, dance, torchlight, mime, games, feast and folly have been central to the life of *community for all times other than those when the pretensions of large-scale civilisation descended like a frost on public joy.

The decline of carnival in the West began in earnest alongside the transition from a rural-centred culture to a city-centred one. There were many reasons. The early stirrings of capitalism encouraged habits of soberness, and it has this fixation about people turning up for work on Monday morning. Some carnivals were getting out of control, becoming the starting-point for rebellion and riot: Robin Hood’s career began as a carnival king; Ben Kett’s rebellion in 1549 started in Wymondham at a festival for St.Thomas à Becket. And the invention of fire-arms had its effect: it meant, of course, that a reckless crowd could also be dangerous, but – more important than that – it introduced a need for discipline, especially in armies. The loading and firing of a musket is complicated; it requires a sequence of steps – forty-three of them, according to Prince Maurice of Orange’s “drill” – each of which must be done exactly, at speed, and (on occasion) under fire. Discipline becomes critical: sober *citizenship, which is good for armies, and good for trade, calls for self-awareness and self-control, and it gets lost in the spontaneous exuberance of carnival.

Carnival has been subdued, and its loss is serious. The modern market economy suffers from play-deprivation. It does exist to a weakened extent in sport, but even there the aim of winning is increasingly taken as the literal purpose of the event rather than the enabling *myth. When such critical cultural assets as *trust, *social capital and the *humour which blunts insult are in decline, *play is in trouble. Insult and rough-and-tumble are now largely forbidden; if an invitation to play is rejected or misconstrued, if a joke goes wrong, there is shame or worse.

It invites the bleak question: ‘What is the point?’ The consequences are various, no doubt, but among them may be loneliness, boredom, anxiety and depression; if society is less fun, its inequalities are more resented. There is no constant reminder of the teeming vitality beneath the surface of other people; there is a loss of authority by the local community, which becomes less audible, less visible, less alive, less fertile as a source of laughter. Barbara Ehrenreich wonders whether the waning of carnival might have had something to do with the awareness of depression which, in the early seventeenth century, seems to have developed almost on the scale of a pandemic. Before then there was, of course, pain, and grief – all the dark emotions – but loneliness and anxiety…? *Tactile deprivation (the sadness of not being touched)…? The sense of the party being over…?

… Homer tells us how the art of the ancient dream world lay in wait to seduce Odysseus and his crew as they were about to encounter the Sirens, whose bewitching song lures everyone who hears it to their death, their bodies added to the pile of mouldering skeletons in the meadow where the Sirens sat. On the advice of his mistress, Circe, the goddess who lives on the island of Aeaea, Odysseus stopped up the ears of his crew with wax, so that, unable to hear the song, they were not distracted from the real work of rowing. He himself, being securely strapped to the mast, could now listen to the Sirens’ voices ‘with enjoyment’, as Circe puts it, and without being drawn irresistibly into their power. This has various interpretations, but one of them makes it a decisive detachment from art: the sound of ancient myth which once drew its hearers in, without means of escape, is rendered sensible and civilised, reduced to a concert, a sort of Hellenic musical evening with female chorus and a professor of Greek to tell us something about the local legend that lies behind it.

On this view we see the breaking of the link between art (music, in this case) and politics: now you only need to buy your ticket, be a spectator of the arts for an hour or so, and then home for herb tea and bed.’

Images: All woodcuts from Lean Logic – A Dictionory for the Future and How to Survive It edited by Shaun Chamberlin and published by Chelsea Green on 8th September.

Autonomous Nature

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity,
a dimmed light,
a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness.
This mysterious Unity and Integrity is
Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans.

– Thomas Merton

Two men huddle against the rain in the west of Ireland and use a sledgehammer to pound nine-foot stakes into the squelching, saturated winter soil. Some stakes go in straight, but most, like this one, tilt slightly in the damp. It will have to do. They continue.


Once the field perimeter is marked by stakes they unfurl a roll of chicken wire, bending the base of it out about a foot, to prevent deadly intruders from digging beneath. Foxes, pine martens, mink. The latter have spread across the country after escape – or was it release? – from fur farms.

Above the tight mesh of the chicken wire goes a second layer of fencing, this time to keep out deer. Their trails criss-cross the roads around here and the damage they can do to expensive trees, with the light of dawn, is immense.

There is a saving grace. This is one of the few areas of the country where grey squirrels have yet to spread. Should they appear here, five years, ten years down the line, however, trapping may be the only option.

A year passes and, of course, a pine marten works his way into the enclosure, beheading the defenceless, terrified chickens. There’s blood and shit and feathers everywhere, and the men resolve to give up on poultry. The trees, however, remain safe for the time being, the deer kept at bay.

Whatever this troubling word nature may mean, it is an unruly force. Whether the precarious existence of a smallholding, described above, or the unpredictable debris emitted as a result of subatomic collisions deep under the Swiss soil at CERN, human control appears forever limited and ephemeral.

The human ape does, however, excel at bending natural forces to its will, with astonishing precision. Just as fences temporarily keep wild fauna at bay, so does locating the vast Large Hadron Collider five hundred feet under Geneva protect it to the required extent from natural radiation and muon particles. All the while, baffled scientists huddle safely behind computers creating temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the centre of the sun, momentarily at least.

At a much higher level of abstraction, these are the issues confronted by Carolyn Merchant in her new work Autonomous Nature. Her classic early book, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (1990) drew influential links between the rise of a mechanistic worldview amidst the scientific revolution and the historic subjugation of women and the non-human environment. Now she looks beyond the dawn of modernity, to the treatment of order and disorder in environmental and philosophical thought throughout history, focusing primarily on the interplay between natura naturata, nature as moulded and created, and natura naturans, nature as a productive and unruly force.

The book’s first section, itself titled ‘Autonomous Nature’, begins amidst ancient volcanic eruption, earthquakes and pestilence, highlighting the gradual emergence, from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the Christian theologians of the medieval era, of an idea of order and controllability from within this life-threatening chaos.

However, in spite of this emergence Merchant notes the always dialectical, and often downright conflicting, relationship of natura naturata and natura naturans:

Upsetting this trajectory…intervened the Renaissance dichotomy between a personified Nature acting as God’s instrument versus a recalcitrant Nature acting not in accordance with God’s plan, but on “her” own, creating the problem of how “she” could be managed. By the time of the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution, natural philosophers would respond by developing the idea of controlling a free, recalcitrant nature through the laws of nature and a disorderly society through natural law. (57)

Thus the scene is set for Part II, ‘Controlling Nature’, in which the pestilence and disorder of civilisation doesn’t disappear, but is backgrounded – pushed from the psyche with increasing confidence. Gradually, the world is hollowed out and we encounter the full-blown rise of a dead, predictable and mechanical world, an orderly gift from a benevolent and transcendent God, amenable to vexation and instrumentalisation.

Summarising the view of Leibniz, from his debates with Newton, Merchant writes, ‘God created the world at the beginning of time as a logically perfect world that required no further tinkering or intervention’. After all, ‘the need to intervene would mean that God was an imperfect deity’ (137). Today, of course, the situation is slightly amended. What remained of God in Leibniz and Newton’s early scientific vision has long been banished, of course, and the human species takes its place as a new proto-deity, called on to intervene in a world which struggles to cope with our vexations.

The predominance of rationality, logic and knowability maintains a presence right up to the present day, of course, but Merchant concludes the text with a chapter entitled ‘Rambunctious Nature’, alluding to what can be seen as the re-emergence of recalcitrance in nature. The rise of relativity theory and quantum mechanics in the early 20th century, coupled with theories of chaos and complexity in the second half of the century and the unforeseen consequences of industrialisation – the bursting forth of climate tipping points and diseases spread by globalisation – results in a new paradigm ‘based on natura naturans as the active, creating, but also unruly and unlawful nature that challenged lives and livelihoods from Greco-Roman times to the present’ (150).

This story of new paradigms has been told before, of course, foreseen decades ago by writers of the 1960s counterculture, apparently to little avail. Its repetition up to the present perhaps belies the reality that paradigm changes themselves can’t be predicted, ushered into existence, or even recognised consciously when you’re in their midst. So too will the ‘partnership ethic’ put forward by Merchant in this final section be a familiar sentiment for many, holding that ‘the greatest good for the human and nonhuman communities is in their mutual living interdependence’.

The subtle detail in such a short book is remarkable, with its extensive footnotes as rich as the text itself for exploring the conflicting and contradictory stories told over millennia regarding our relationship to the cosmos. Its true wisdom, however, lies away from seemingly obligatory concluding discussions of hopeful ‘partnership ethics’ and new paradigms. Instead it lies in the more intangible and revelatory hints towards the notion that, to take the words of Paul Feyerabend, in such a fecund and overflowing universe ‘Ultimate Reality, if such an entity can be postulated, is ineffable’.

Drawing on the poetry of Gary Snyder in her epilogue, Merchant poignantly notes, similarly, that ‘there is no single concept of nature; it embraces everything that is fluid, changing, and mysterious. Ultimately, however, to “know nature” on earth is to live within it and to revere it in every way’ (156). In this age of clamour and ecocide, any sign of reverence would be welcome, while few are apparent. Merchant’s book, at least, harbours perennial wisdom for a culture which is not yet here, but which has, it seems, never been far away.

The Ends of the World: a call for submissions for Dark Mountain Issue 11

Russia’s Yamal peninsula rarely makes the news, even in Russia. Situated inside the Arctic Circle, it is sparsely populated, mostly by reindeer herders living traditional nomadic lifestyles in what is normally a cold and austere environment.

Last month, though, the environment changed. In what the director of Russia’s Institute of Global Climate called ‘a colossal, unprecedented anomaly’, a heatwave inside the Arctic circle took Yamal’s temperature up to 34° celsius, The heat began to melt the icy ground – the permafrost – and things which had been frozen for decades began to thaw. Among those things were the bodies of reindeer which had died more than seven decades ago; and among those bodies were the spores of the deadly bacterial disease anthrax.

The anthrax spread among the local reindeer population, killing more than 2000 of them, and then jumped to humans. One boy died; unconfirmed reports suggest his grandmother died too. Then the Russian government took action. Doctors and soldiers poured into the territory and began a programme of mass vaccinations and antibiotic treatment which seems to have stemmed, so far, the further spread of the disease. At the time of writing, hundreds of Russian troops are burning infected reindeer carcasses across the region, and a 12,000km exclusion zone is being disinfected to ensure no spores remain in the soil. According the region’s governor, ‘it is unlikely that anything will grow there ever again.’

Across the world, the ice is melting at rates much faster than predicted even five years ago, and as it does so it is bringing buried things to the surface. Viktor Maleyev, deputy chief of Russia’s Central Research Institute of Epidemiology, warns that the smallpox virus could be released again from thawing graves; so too could recently discovered viruses from extinct and as-yet-frozen mammoths. In Greenland, researchers fear that melting ice may lead to the release of underground toxic waste, buried during the Cold War.

What is certain is that the thawing will not stop; it is only likely to accelerate. In Antarctica, monitoring stations reported three months ago that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have now exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in four million years. Five of the first six months of 2016 set records for the lowest ever levels of monthly Arctic sea-ice extent, according to NASA, while every one of those six months has set new records for high temperatures globally.

If there’s a positive side to runaway global warming, it’s that it should, at least in theory, put human problems into perspective. Down at the human level, though, there seem to be enough examples of runaway politics and runaway economics to distract us from the bigger picture. From the rise of Trumpism in America and nativism across Europe – both symptoms of the cultural and economic turmoil caused by the globalisation project – to the continuing crisis in the Middle East and north Africa, political ructions in South America, spiralling rates of inequality, record rates of migration … every day the old normal is replaced by a new one, and the new one never seems to last very long. All is not well in the citadels of progress.

‘We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling,’ we wrote seven years ago in the Dark Mountain manifesto. ‘All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history.’ When we wrote those words they were, to many, highly debatable. They seem less debatable today, and I would bet they will seem a lot less debatable in a decade’s time. I sense that already there is no turning back; that all over the world, people are pulling their fingers out of the dams and starting to reluctantly turn their minds to the big question: what happens now?

This is the question that will form the loose theme for the eleventh Dark Mountain anthology, to be published in April 2017. In times like these it can sometimes be tempting to talk, in hushed tones and to people we trust, about ‘the end of the world’. But there is, surely, no one end to any world – instead, there are many endings, small and large, tumbling over each other all the time, building up to a crescendo. If you live in Yamal, or Syria, or in a logged rainforest or a spreading desert – your world is ending now.

In our eleventh book, we’d like to dig deeper into what this means. What happens if, instead of focusing on some predicted future catastrophe, we look around us at the many smaller ones which are happening as we write? The word ‘apocalypse’ is often thrown around loosely when referring to frightening phenomena like climate change. But the original meaning of that word is not ‘catastrophe’ but ‘revelation’. As the carapace of progress cracks, as the ice thaws – what is revealed? What dies away, and what is born to take its place? Frightening times can also be exciting times. From the collapse of one way of seeing or being comes the opportunity to build another. As stories crumble, new ones can be told. What do they look like?

Submissions for Dark Mountain: Issue 11 are now open; as ever, we are looking for prose, both fiction and non-fiction and anything in between, poetry and visual artwork, and we would like it to explore, in any way that seems appropriate, what it means at this time in history to be facing the many ends of the world – and what might come from them.

Over to you.

Dark Mountain: Issue 11 will be published in April 2017. The deadline for submissions is 15th November 2016. For details on what and how to submit, please read our submissions guidelines carefully. We cannot read or respond to work which does not fit within our guidelines.

PS – After publishing this call, we realised where the phrase ‘The Ends of the World’ had come from. It is the English title of a book by Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (due to be published later in 2016 by Polity Press). Déborah and Eduardo have been friends of this project for a long time and one of the members of our editorial team had read a draft of the text some months ago, which is how the phrase found its way into our conversations. We can warmly recommend their book to Dark Mountain readers, especially those of you with an interest in philosophy, and we hope that it will stimulate further discussion, on this site and elsewhere, about what it means to be in search of ‘a mythology that is adequate to the present’.

Finding Strength in Stones

We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos. I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea. ­
— D.H. Lawrence

Should we fight or should we run? In The Origins of Political Order Francis Fukuyama noted that civilisation or ‘the state’, as he calls it, tended to develop in areas that featured geographic boundaries that prevented people from escaping it. Mesopotamia, for example, is surrounded by rivers and deserts. China, by deserts and the Himalayas. For as long as civilisation has existed there have been those that would rather die than be absorbed by it. Some stood their ground and decided to fight and die where they stood. Others ran. They fled to the forests, the hills, the plains beyond the reach of the armies of the civilised. There they rebuilt their communities and reestablished the old ways. Over time, of course, the cities grew and their need for lumber, slaves, and lands to till for crops continued to grow as well. The resisters were forced to run again, deeper into the forests and the wilderness. This has been the history of the world. The free
communities have almost been entirely wiped out and civilisation, the enemy of life, threatens to gobble up every last bit of land and water.

Most people, I believe, simply don’t want to think about such things. They distract themselves and luckily we have a culture that produces distractions above all else. They know that things are bad but they shrug and essential resign themselves to enjoying their lives for as long as they can. A hedonism born of despair. In 1962 the Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georg Lukacs wrote about the Grand Hotel Abyss, ‘A beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.’ Some people might hope that technology will miraculously save the day. Some might even think that god will come down from above to set things right, like at the end of a Greek tragedy. Technology has given us many gifts, it is true. But every one of those gifts has turned to ash in our mouths and brought with it new, unimagined horrors. For those who do have the courage to look into the abyss the question remains, just like it did for our ancestors: do we fight or do we run?

For those who love life its impossible not to want to fight against the madness of civilisation. To try to protect as much of the wild land that remains as possible from development, industry, and exploitation. To try to prevent the extinction of the countless species that are currently at risk of disappearing from the earth forever. To try to reduce the tonnes of waste that our society produces and dumps into the dirt and water, which are becoming less and less able to support life. In short, it is impossible not to want to try to save the world from the horror that civilisation has unleashed upon it. How can we not feel the urge to petition lawmakers despite their narrow­mindedness and greed? How can we not march together and chant for justice for humanity and the earth? How can we not chain ourselves to trees and raise awareness of the dire condition of life on the world where we live? How can we not build organisations, networks, create alliances, and movements to make change?

And there are other ways to fight as well. Some plot in the night. They get the guns and the spears and stand before the enemy, risking everything. They go to jail. They are gunned down by assassins. They mail bombs. They form cells. They set fires. They remind us that ‘the earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.’ They know that a violent, insane system cannot be reasoned with. It can only be destroyed. No amount of pleading will convince the governments and companies to stop. It is a fantasy to believe that they care about what we want.

And yet deep down do we really believe that we can succeed, no matter what tactics we adopt? Late at night, when we are alone with our thoughts it’s hard to banish the thought that there is nothing we can do. That we have already lost. That this is all make believe. The politicians either don’t care or will not act. There are not enough of us to change the minds of the majority. There are too many of them and they have too many guns. And most heartbreaking of all, we have simply already done too much. More and more the scientists are reporting that the damage done is irreparable. The earth is getting hotter and hotter. Sea levels are rising. Lakes and streams are drying out. Forests are dying. Deserts are spreading. And through all of this the human population keeps growing and growing. No matter what kind of cars people drive, no matter what kind of food they eat, and no matter what kind of energy they use to run their air conditioners, more people means more carbon, more waste, and more destruction of non human life. Not to mention the fact that it takes the climate quite a long time to catch up to us. Much of the warming of the earth that we are experiencing has been caused by carbon that released hundreds of years ago during the dawn of the industrial age. What in the name of mercy will things look like when the atmosphere has caught up to what we have been doing since then?

So, if we can’t fight then we must run. What does that look like and how is it different from a politics of despair? No matter how ingrained our myths of human exceptionalism, our needs are the same as every other organism. Survival. We cannot survive without the earth. But we can survive without civilisation. We did for most of our history and, in fact, it is the greatest threat to our survival and the survival of other forms of life on this planet. More and more, people are beginning to rethink what it means for things to get better, what it means to survive. For a long time we have been taught and conditioned to fear the end of the world. To fear catastrophe. But catastrophe means ‘to overturn’, like soil or compost. And it is hard to imagine that the end of this world will not bring the possibility of a better one.

We should not forget that humans have lived in the desert for our entire history. We have known how to find food, water, and shelter in the wasteland. This knowledge is not gone, even though we have forgotten it. There are those out there who keep the knowledge alive, sheltering and protecting it like a tiny guttering flame. In colonial Madagascar many tribes fought the French and died. Many tribes gave up and became slaves. Some tribes ran into the jungles. They hid deep in the forests where the French would not find them. They continued to live as they had and refused to adopt the ways of the invaders. They waited for the French to go away. It took sixty years of waiting but eventually their prayers were answered and the French went home. Colonialism was unsustainable. It was oppressive, exploitative, and destructive. Thus it could not survive. This is true for anything that is oppressive, exploitative, and destructive. It cannot survive. This is especially true for civilisation, which is the logic of oppression itself.

So perhaps the best thing we can do is run. Run into the woods, into the jungles, into the deserts, into the mountains, and the seas. Abandon our cities and farms, like the ancient Mayans, and return to the path of survival. Remind ourselves of the skills that almost all of us have forgotten. Remind ourselves how to survive. And wait. Wait for six thousand years of domestication and greed to collapse under the weight of its own violence and cruelty. Who knows how long it will take? Climate scientist James Lovelock has predicted that by the end the present century the effects of climate change will have reduced the human population to one billion or less. Lots of people think Lovelock is a quack and of course there is no way to know whats going to happen in the future. The important point is that we have to at least begin to entertain the idea that we may not be able to stop what’s going to happen from happening. Perhaps by continuing to try to hold onto the lives we have now and fighting against the tide, we are just ensuring that, as conditions deteriorate, we will be among those billions who succumb during the mass migrations, water shortages, or political upheavals. If we leave, as many of us as possible, we will survive and be able to leave something for those who will come after us. We can teach ourselves and each other how to gather wild edible and medicinal plants, how to build shelter using fallen trees and mud bricks, how to hunt, how to make fire, how to find water, how to survive.

So if we run, we do not run away from reality, but rather towards a new dawn. This is not a journey toward delusion or despair. It is a journey toward the within and without. It is a journey deep into the memories that we bear, the memories in our hearts and in our blood. We journey within in order to find that which we shall bring forth back into the sun of the present. When the time to fight comes, whatever that fight may look like, we must stand boldly with the dreams of ten thousand years at our backs.

Image by Thomas Leubner – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

What is This?

The Abundance 
by Annie Dillard

There is to be a total eclipse of the sun. A man and a woman drive across country for five hours, from the coast to the mountains, to witness the event; they have never seen a total eclipse before. They drive around until they find an appropriate hill to watch it from, then they park the car, climb the hill and sit on the top among knee-high grasses. As they wait, other people begin to climb the hill, and to climb other hills nearby, to join them in their witnessing. It is a Monday morning in February 1979.

The moon begins to bite into the sun’s face and the world begins to change. ‘The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were now platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This colour has never been seen on earth.’ Surprisingly swiftly, the human eye’s perception is altered to such a degree that the whole comprehensible world seems to disappear and be replaced by another. The shock is widely felt:

‘From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching, a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That’s when the screams began. All at once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed.’

A pleasant journey to watch an interesting natural event has become something wrenching. An abyss has opened, if only for a moment, and in the abyss the people on the hills can see themselves reflected back:

‘The white ring and the saturated darkness made the earth and sky look as they must look in the memories of the careless dead. What I saw, what I seem to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world. We had all died in our boots on the hilltops of Yakima, and were alone in eternity. Empty space stoppered our eyes and mouths; we cared for nothing. We remembered our living days wrong. With great effort we recalled some sort of circular light in the sky, but only the outline. And then the orchard trees withered, the ground froze, the glaciers slid down the valleys and overcame the towns. If there had ever been people on earth, nobody knew it. The dead had forgotten those they loved. Parted one from the other, they could no longer remember the faces and lands they had loved in light. They just stood on the darkened hilltops, looking down.’

There are not many writers who would even conceive of describing an eclipse of the sun like this; as a cascade of visions and revelations, disconnected from each other and yet forming an inevitable whole. ‘Total Eclipse’, the first piece of writing in Annie Dillard’s new book The Abundance, is typical of her method and its impact. It starts small, busying itself with the detail of the thing (‘all the distant hill’s grasses were fine-spun metal which the wind laid down’), its language baroque with new seeing. Then, suddenly, it slides down into the pit, or ascends into the heavens, before the reader knows what is happening. You have to slow down, as that reader, to take it in, but the payoff is a kind of gasping thud in the chest and a rise in the pit of the stomach as the words soar and carry the vision with them.

Perhaps this sounds silly and grandiose, but it isn’t: at her best, that’s how Annie Dillard can make you feel. Writers get called ‘unique’ all the time, mostly by their publishers, and mostly they aren’t. But more than four decades after she first put pen to paper, there is still nobody out there who writes, or thinks, or sees, like Dillard. The Abundance is a true reflection of its author: strange, unique and rather brilliant.

‘What kind of writer is Annie Dillard?’ wonders Geoff Dyer in the introduction to this selection of some of her past writing. It is a question that has become more pertinent since she stopped writing a decade ago. She remains alive and well, apparently as keen a reader and thinker as ever, but she no longer writes – or at least, no longer publishes, which to some critics appears to amount to the same thing. Her reasons for stopping seem simple and admirable: she didn’t have anything more to say, and she didn’t believe she could better anything she had already written. Now she paints instead.

The Abundance, then, is not really a new book at all: rather it is a selection of the best bits of some of her canon, consisting of twelve books which began with the Pulitzer prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1974. Those books include nature journals, meditations on God, a memoir of childhood, advice manuals for writers, two novels and two collections of poetry. What kind of writer emerges from them? Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her flaming debut, published when she was 28, is usually referred to as ‘nature writing.’ Its author, taking Thoreau explicitly as her guide, sets out to explore and describe the landscape around her Virginia home. But, like Thoreau before her, Annie Dillard is not a ‘nature writer’ at all. The non-human world is the subject she often paints, but her real interest lies beyond it, though within it too.

The title of that first book, still her most famous – a long extract from it is reproduced in The Abundance – offers a clear pointer. The person who has come to Tinker Creek is not a naturalist or a scientist or a polemicist or a poet; she is a pilgrim. She is looking for something: in fact, she is looking for everything, here as in all her other books. What kind of writer is Annie Dillard? A religious one. Perhaps she would resist this categorisation, and probably she should: writers should resist all categorisation. But consider this paragraph, which happens to be from Pilgrim, but which could appear in practically any of her books:

‘It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly at its hem. In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God “set bars and doors” and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?’

If all Dillard’s books are questions, the big question is always the same. It is the question that Zen masters have their students meditate on for years, until they break through to the other side of it: what is this? As she puts it early on in her debut:

‘We don’t know what’s going on here…. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.’

Dillard has no dogma to push (on her website, she lists her religion as ‘none’, which seems appropriate: no true seeker is ever happy for long within the confines of a church or doctrine, though neither do they seem to be able to stay away from them for long). But all of her writing pivots on the heightened sensibility which, so many traditions tell us, is a prerequisite to perceiving the world beyond the obstruction of the ego, the mind or the false self – that is to say, the world of the ‘spirit’, whatever that turns out to be.

If religion, like science and like philosophy, is at root a search for truth, then all of them depend upon an ability to see clearly, and usually to see differently: to squint at the world from crooked angles, to describe it in ways that others cannot, would not or have not. This is also, of course, the job of a writer. Dillard is a unique writer because she is a unique seer. She seems to look at things differently to the rest of us, which means she is able to describe them in ways which the rest of us wouldn’t. In an extract from The Writing Life, she lays out her view of the writer’s task. ‘Push it’, she demands. ‘Examine all things intensely and relentlessly’:

‘The writer knows his field – what has been done, what could be done, the limits – the way a tennis player knows the court. And like that expert, he, too, plays the edges. That is where the exhilaration is. He hits up the line. In writing, he can push the edges. Beyond this limit, here, the reader must recoil. Reason balks, poetry snaps; some madness enters, or strain. Now, courageously and carefully, can he enlarge it, can he notice the bounds? And enclose what wild power?’

Notice here not just what Dillard is saying, but the way she is saying it. Her proposal – that a writer should try to push boundaries – is not exactly new. But notice the images, the cadences, the unusual ordering of words (‘some madness enters, or strain’), the building rhythm, personalised like birdsong. The sentiment is not original, but the way it is expressed is; the words recast the meaning and make it new again.

Some non-fiction authors write from a position. They take an opinion, a worldview, a thesis, and then they write to explain or justify or propagandise from it. This kind of writing is, in the end, partial and narrow because it is all answer and no question (I know, because I’ve done it myself.) It obscures reality, rather than illuminating it. Annie Dillard starts from the opposite pole: as far as she’s concerned, she knows nothing at all about the world, and her job – the job of all writers – is ‘to give voice to this, your own astonishment’:

‘Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the solid, turn, and unlock – more than a maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.’

It is a risk to write like this, and to write about this. The true nature of reality, the world on the other side of the veil, is the biggest subject of all, and the easiest to write badly about. In the wrong hands, it can be sentimental, long-winded, full of wishful thinking or just plain dishonest. Dillard doesn’t always get it right: sometimes her connections are so tricksy, her sentences so convoluted and bizarre that her world seems inaccessible. The reader senses that she has gone so far into the gaps that he cannot follow. There are whole pages in her most intense and difficult book, Holy The Firm, for example, which I have read, then read again more slowly, then read for a third time in their wider context, and still come away with no idea what she is on about.

But like Perseus, Dillard carries her own shield, one which protects her from any wholesale descent into mawkishness. Her shield is her awareness of the all-pervasive reality of suffering. Time and again she circles back around to the random nature and distribution of misery and pain in the world. She seems to puzzle at it, to poke it and nudge it and turn it over, to try and understand why it exists at all. This puzzlement threads itself through The Abundance like a trail of blood in a stream. At one point, for example, she is trying to creep up on a small, beautiful frog in the creek. She gets closer and closer, but the frog doesn’t move. And then:

‘… Just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his skull itself seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and crumble and fall … I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water just behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away.’

The frog had been eaten alive in front of her eyes by a giant water bug, a creature which seizes and paralyses amphibians, injects an enzyme which dissolves their muscles and bones and then sucks out their innards. Any reader who might have mistakenly believed Tinker Creek to be an idyll is here introduced to the reality that there is no such thing. This clear-eyed view of life’s cruelty and pain is present in everything Dillard writes; she cannot keep away from it. A young girl’s face is burnt off in a plane crash. A batch of frog eggs are eaten before they hatch. A stunt pilot never pulls out of a dive. A bowl of gunpowder explodes in a man’s face. A chameleon’s tongue is ripped from its living throat by a rooster and eaten. A deer, roped to a tree by three of its legs, struggles for hours to be free. Always, the question hangs in the air: what is this?

The story of the deer tells us something else important about Dillard. When she watches this happen, she is in the Ecuadorian jungle with three North American men. That night, as they lay in the tent, one of them expresses amazement at her ability to calmly observe the suffering animal. ‘“If it had been my wife”, one man said with special vigour, amazed, “she wouldn’t have cared what was going on; she would have dropped everything right at that moment and gone in the village from here to there to there, she would not have stopped until that animal was out of its suffering one way or another.”’

The accusation is clear enough: Dillard is too detached from what she sees; especially, perhaps, for a woman. From her point of view, though, there is nothing unexpected about what she has just seen. ‘Gentlemen of the city,’ she writes, ‘what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know it?’

But perhaps the man’s surprise is not unreasonable, for Dillard is detached from the world to a degree, as perhaps all the best writers are. She watches, she responds, she puzzles over what she has seen, but in some ways she never seems quite part of the show. She takes no positions. We never hear of her politics, or her views on the ‘social issues’ of the day. There are no narrowing, strident defences of or attacks on this or that in-group or out-group; no red or blue, left or right. Those things are for lesser writers. Dillard is straining to see beyond them. What does she find? In one of the most extraordinary extended images in the book, she finds a vision of the shape of existence itself:

‘… A vision or fact of time and the peoples it bears issuing from the mouth of the cosmos, from the round mouth of eternity, in a wide and parti-coloured utterance. In the complex weave of this utterance like fabric, in its infinite domestic interstices, the centuries and continents and classes dwell. Each people knows only its own squares in the weave, its walls and instruments and arts, and also perhaps the starry sky.’

Each of us caught in our small places, caught in our views, our conflicts, our wars. If only we could see the whole picture! And yet, even if we could, what would it change? Here is the great paradox at the heart of Annie Dillard’s work. Sometimes she seems to see the burning bush, to walk out to where the veil is thinnest, to approach the numinous armed only with pen and notebook. But none of it necessarily offers any answers. ‘Say you have seen an ordinary bit of what is real,’ she writes, ‘the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through, and time’s soft-skinned people working and dying under slowly shifting stars. Then what?’

Nothing, perhaps. Or everything. Either way, it may be that our perennial task is to keep our eyes open as we walk; like Annie Dillard, always to pay attention:

‘The universe was not made in jest but in solemn, incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.’


Image by Schnuffel2002, via Wikimedia Commons