2016: The Reveal

‘I used to care but things have changed’ – Bob Dylan

‘The dead lie in layers beneath us,’ said Tony Dias, ‘and influence all our actions.’ We were in a schoolroom in Ry in northern Denmark, and I was teaching a class about deep time. The students were sitting in a circle, each taking up position in the calendar of the year, discussing how each station affected them. It is the end of October and the writer and philosopher is sitting in the position of the ancestors, also known as Samhain or Halloween. I am at winter solstice. We are holding a conversation about the end of things, which makes sense as people who met through Dark Mountain and as the oldest people in the room. I talk about restoration and composting the past and he talks about the oceans, how oil has come out of an anaerobic process, so doesn’t break down and feed life. ‘It is a zombie fuel,’ he says.

Afterwards we will  climb into canoes and silently cross the lake to the woods where the class will fan out and encounter the wild spaces on their own. The copper leaves of the beech trees will shower down on our endeavour to connect with the living, breathing planet.  A lot of the students will have problems getting beyond the whirl of their technology-driven minds.

‘Everything is hitting against that zenith of the summer solstice and resisting the fall,’ remarks Tony. ‘The  violence and destruction happens, so everyone can jump the process and begin again.’

For the last two weeks I have switched off the computer, and tried to look back at this tumultuous year from the perspective of where I live, a small lane in East Anglia on the edge of England. Most of my working and social life is done via this machine, so when I go offline the world and its headlines vanish. The physical place comes closer, and with it a depth of perception that all the buzzy discussion about politics and celebrity, about money, about the end of globalisation, never allow in. You get a sense of the mood of the times.

One thing is clear: you can’t skip the fall, no matter how much you try.

*

The growing year came and went down the lane. The machines thundered past our windows, wresting commodities of peas, sugar beet, maize and wheat from the clay. The hawthorns and wild roses put on a beautiful show in the hedgerows, though the cold spring meant many of the growers’ roadside stalls would be closed by September. On May morning Mark, Josiah and I went to a tiny meadow of frosted green-winged orchids, marooned in an industrial prairie of barley. When the sun rose a hare bounded past and the skylarks sang above us. We realised that none of us could call ourselves community activists anymore. Our attention was on other things, but the place still connected us, in ways we had no words for.

The lane is one of a series of lanes behind the village church, skirting reed beds and broads that were shaped by the Ice Age 12,000 years ago. It houses a few indigenous Suffolk families who have lived here for generations, but mostly well-off incomers who live in converted barns and cottages and have a penchant for lacquered willow fencing. This year the suburbanisation continues its mission creep, replacing bird-singing scrub with ponies and crunchy driveways. Delivery trucks chew up the verges. The outdoor lights flare a ghoulish green into the night, on the once elegant Queen Anne facade of the big house on the corner, now owned by a multi-millionaire clothing entrepreneur from Jamaica. The field opposite our house, known as Hare Field, has been enclosed with a rabbit-proof fence, so now we look at meshed wire where once we caught sight of the wild creatures bounding past. The big ash trees have begun to die back.

It is not what it was when we came. It has devolved, said Mark.

I don’t like to think about that much and keep my eyes up into the sky, tracking the geese coming in from Siberia, the fly past of jackdaws at dawn, the light which reflects amber and gold on the trunks of the oaks as the sun goes down. But I can’t not look. The lane is part of brutal Britain, the rabbit-proof fence is all fences in Europe that keep out the unwanted, the pesticide-wrecked soil, every industrialised arable field in the world, the felled and dying trees, all forests killed to maintain our zombie lifestyle.

And he is right. It was more beautiful. There were more creatures – hedgehogs and stoats and hares. You could hear nightingales singing in May. Butterflies once covered the buddleia in August. David Moyse, the village’s history man and steeple keeper, would wave to us as we cycled by and give us green tomatoes for chutney. It was wilder, more country, sweeter.

It was still feudal though. You still had to deal with a frequency loaded with ancient snobbery and hostility. Us, the landowners with our gamekeepers and huge cars and you, renters, with your second-hand boots and pesky questions about RoundUp. Some things don’t change. Some things haven’t changed in England for a thousand years or more.

There was a period in the community activist years when there was a kind of bridge with some of the people in the lane, where I could be enthusiastic about non-threatening subjects like give and take days and community gardens and share jars of foraged damson jam, so long as I didn’t push the climate change, fossil fuel dependence thing, or talk about factory farming or flying. So long as I could say how calm and blue the sea was this year, the best swimming year in a decade, and not mention the sandy cliffs at Easton Bavents that continued to fall into the waves.

But in 2016 that bridge fell down. What do you do? had became a conversational mine-field:

‘Oh, an editor, how interesting, and what’s the Dark Mountain Project?’

‘We’re a network of artists and writers looking at social and environmental collapse…’

Not a great opener over the canapés and Chardonnay.

Which is why I can’t really tell you what is being discussed this season down the lane. I have to  travel elsewhere to have those conversations.

*

Here I am today in Colchester in early November meeting Christian Brett for the first time. For three years we’ve worked together shaping and producing the Dark Mountain books via the telephone, long conversations between a tower block in Rochdale and a tied cottage in East Anglia. He is setting up an installation called ‘The Sound of Stones in the Glasshouse’, a work he conceived with the artist Gee Vaucher whose ‘Introspective’ is about to open at the town’s modern art gallery. It’s a bold, uncompromising work: a glasshouse made of panels engraved with the names of every intervention the US military has made in the last 100 years. Around the walls are excerpts of presidential inaugural speeches talking about freedom and democracy and the numbers of the dead caused by wars on their watch. In the centre of the glasshouse a video of soldiers emerging out of a trench plays on a loop, and a patch of bare earth.

We go for lunch and talk and it feels the same as it does on the phone, except we’re not looking at computer screens, we’re looking at each other. The rain falls down on the capital of Roman Britain, now a nexus for the modern Armed Forces. The show was opening on the 11th.

If you are an artist, or a writer, you have to see differently from the conventional world that appears to own and control everything. You have to look outside the echo chambers, beyond the burning issues of the day, beyond the headlines, into something deeper, more intrinsic, not bound in time. You have to see what Sebald once called the ‘Rings of Saturn’, as he walked down the Suffolk coastline, the machine of history that crushes us in its talons.

‘Have you got Mr Trump in the wings?’ I ask.

‘We have them both ready,’ he replies.

glasshouse-1

*

In the space of a year two people I used to be close to took their own lives. What struck me when I remembered them wasn’t to do with their brilliance as editors and designers, or their long struggles with mental illness. It was about their presence and their intensity, a certain kind of intimacy you rarely experience with people. It felt as if their spirits had burned out of control, like a forest fire, and no-one knew how to deal with the blaze. It felt that whenever you leave out what you most love about people,  our deep feeling natures, what used to be called the soul,  something always crashes. It crashes in individuals and in collectives and in nations. The spirit of this trauma lives in all of us by virtue of being born into the system. No one escapes that, not the rich, not the poor, not the powerful, nor the meek. The question we face as Rome falls is: how can we speak with each other and get out of the cycle?

When I switch off the machine and the headlines recede, I realise we are not in a political crisis; we are in a spiritual crisis, an existential crisis. We don’t know what it means to be human anymore. We have lost contact with the meaning of time, our presence here. How can we be human in a collapsing world? How can I be female outside the patriarchy? How can I matter in a community where I am one of the unnecessariat, the precariat, part of the low-income, left behind, just about managing, tax credited, zero-contract gig economy?

When I switch off the machine, I step out into the lane and walk into the twilight. You can feel everything more closely in the dark, especially the trees, your senses open up, your feet feel the ground, the wind coming from the south. Venus outshines the glow of the brewery distribution centre on the horizon. That’s when I realise that to this place, I matter. My presence, my intense engagement matters. To the dead, to the ancestors I matter. To consciousness, to the fabric of life I matter. We matter. That is no small thing.

What we need is a new social contract.

 *

In the spiritual years – I guess that was mostly the ’90s – I slept in moon lodges and dreamed of medicine people and Cathars and Indian gods, and I sang and danced alongside a band of fellow seekers moving through the great landscapes of the Americas. We were searching for a deeper relationship with the world and our ‘hard yoga for the earth’, as Gary Snyder once described it, pushed us into some very difficult corners, not least among ourselves. We spent a lot of time dealing with the karma of our families and connecting with indigenous medicine plants. We all thought, foolishly, that the collective shift of consciousness we yearned for would somehow just happen.  We were coming from the future and had been born into the past. We thought we could travel forever and live in bamboo huts on the sides of sacred mountains, but history or destiny dragged us back to our home countries. The ancestors told us: those who caused the problem have to deal with it. And then they disappeared.

The problem, we knew, wasn’t going to have a neat solution, like a mindfulness class you could do every Tuesday.  I am another yourself was not a mantra: it meant going through all the files your cultural history threw at you, being treated like an exile, losing most of your dignity and your spending power, and then having to start over again. Few of us wanted to go through the emotional mangle that would make us human. Most of us resisted the fall in our own ways and stalled.

When we said we were looking for a new narrative, we meant we were looking for a new language. At some point we knew the theory would have to become practice. We were waiting for something to move.

feather

*

‘Strange attractors’ are so called because they make a particular shape in phase space which radically alters the dynamics of a system, sometimes called the shape of uncertainty. Strange attractors allow chaos to break up rigid forms and create new ones. Civilisations by their design are fixed systems living within vast non-linear systems. Fatal attractions are their undoing.

Strange attractors, as we might have noticed in 2016, don’t always look like the pleasing butterfly shapes you see in chaos theory manuals. They have bad haircuts and bad attitude and send shockwaves through social media. Their chief characteristic is that they hold all the missing information, so when they exert their influence they challenge the order that is dependant on certain things kept out of the picture.

In 2016 a lot of missing people suddenly appeared in the picture that had excluded them for aeons and did the only thing that the Establishment allowed them to do: they voted. For decades the dispossessed of  North America’s Rust Belt and England’s factory towns have held the collective shadow of the classes above them, so the multicultural hi-tech uberfolk of the metropolis could shop and tweet and travel with impunity.

In 2016 a lot of those ’90s words like transformation and chaos became a way to look at the string of political events that had crashed the world views of the privileged. The shadow had reeled into the open. Nigredo is the first stage of alchemy, bringing to light the dark materia that needs to be transformed. The nigredo is a scary moment. You have to know how to negotiate it. When the hidden rage of millions is unleashed – generations of people humiliated, derided, told they are worthless and have no future – you have to hold fast to your humanity. Here be dragons. You can’t be righteous and float above this scary territory, because that fury is in you and me. No-one in the system escapes its hostility. You can refuse to carry the shadow of your culture, only if you have dealt with it yourself, only if you are not still blaming mummy and daddy and your first boyfriend and that prick in HR who doesn’t recognise your true value. Only the system wins in the system.

Nigredo is all about the reveal. When the US election result is announced it feels less scary than 2008 when everyone was whooping with joy and hope about the future. Trump entered stage right, the pantomime villain, the bad cop, to loud hisses from the gallery, but the exiting good cop with his suave saviour style had been less easy to discern. However, as the Glasshouse reminds us, all cops are cops when it comes to ‘full spectrum dominance’. The Empire is the Empire whatever country you now live in. We are all Romans and all slaves.

This alchemical moment has nothing to do with social justice, or environmentalism or any of the grassrootsy stuff I have found myself advocating during last decade. There are initiatives and networks around the world focussing on these worthy things, but none of this transforms anything if we are the same people inside, if we haven’t dealt with our stuff – as we used to say in the ’90s –  if we haven’t uncivilised ourselves, made contact with the layers of dead under our feet, in the sky, in the rivers. If we haven’t stood with the Lakota, or with the yew trees, with the rainbow serpent, with the glacier, with the tawny owl. If we haven’t found a way to dismantle the belief systems that keep us trapped in the cycles of history, if we haven’t dealt with our insatiable desire for power and attention and found ways to live more lightly on the planet, we are not going to make it through this stage. And it is a ‘we’ because, in England at least, we are on a very crowded island and no matter how much we say we don’t like our neighbours, they live next door.

 *

In 2016 I am 60 years old and do not collect my bus pass.

‘In the old days we would be putting our feet up by now Ellen,’ I say, hauling another sack of Issue 10 into the Post Office.

‘Don’t get me started,’ says Ellen.

On my birthday I go in search of foxgloves on Walberswick Common. It has been a peerless year for bluebells and primroses and seakale, the wild flowers I track each year. But foxgloves are nowhere to be seen. I curse as I stumble over burned gorse and birch tree stumps. Bloody management systems! If I had been more attentive I would have remembered that foxglove is a heart medicine and this was the site of a brutal enclosure in 1624 and known as Bloody Marsh. I hear their strangulated voices first, and then I see the group, walking down the old railway track as if they owned the whole planet, and before I know it a fury surges through my chest: why don’t you people fuck off back to London!

‘It wasn’t just me,’ I say when I find Mark again. It’s not just the repressed violence inside ourselves that roars out of our mouth in the nigredo, it is the rage of the dead. We have a task to recognise that. Take notice.

That night I watch moon daisies swaying under the starlight, under the influence of the tiny English liberty cap. The silver sea is breathing in and out, you can taste the salt on the night air. It’s summer solstice and everything is peaking, reaching its ultimate growing moment. The 12-foot hogweed at the end of the garden lifts its giant head to the full moon. Hooligan flower, outlaw flower, shining with light. En-ger-land En-ger-land!

‘What?’ says Mark.

‘Something is revving up!’ I say, laughing.  Something is shifting gear.

I can’t say we felt the shock about the referendum vote to leave Europe in the lane a few days afterwards. Nor about the result of the US election later in the year. No-one spoke about it. People were no more racist than before, nor any less fond of French wine or Danish crime thrillers, or Ravi the baker, or Señor Vila the dentist, or the Polish bus driver whose name we don’t know on the 99 bus to Lowestoft. The white and blue postcard town carried on serving the rich weekenders from the city. The day-trippers kept eating the disappearing cod and chips down by the pier. The small shops, hammered with higher rents and rates, continued to be replaced by chains and boutiques selling high-end sailor tops and children’s clothes manufactured in China. The hospital and the police station remained closed. The Post Office lost its crown status and the staff had to wear corporate-style uniforms and work on Sundays. The delivery drivers looked more and more harassed as they took our boxes of books from the door. The Library held sales to keep open. Nothing was secure.

In May the asparagus, once picked by the women from the surrounding villages, was gathered by bands of young Eastern Europeans. They pick and sort fast and are gone when the season is over, carrying home pay packets that are worth more in their own countries – a scenario that is played out across the flinty vegetable fields of the Eastern seaboard, in Norfolk and Lincolnshire. No one knows where this will end. If you have been to the jobseeker centre recently in Lowestoft you might guess who will be picking asparagus in the future and for whom. No-one will care however if this person is you.

*

When I boarded the boat train at Harwich I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a moment of homecoming that I never had when I was a traveller, when England was a country I wanted to get away from. The carriage was shabbier than any in IKEA Europe, and air on the platform smelled of winter, of salt and rain and green. The conductor walked down the passageway and three men who were travelling together and drinking beers laughed out loud. No-one had laughed on those Dutch and German trains and no-one had made an entrance like that, a deliberate music hall swagger down the aisle, like a rolling English road, like the curve of the Oxfordshire hills, almost, you could say, hobbity. Not of this time, nor of this dimension.

A door that seemed shut in the schoolroom in Denmark suddenly swung open. A joy ripped through me. The mythos was still here!

You can look at nature,  the writer Richard Mabey once wrote, as a tragedy or a comedy. It depends on your point of view. The character of a people is not the same as a society hamstrung by a corporate global economy. As the curtain closes on 2016, it’s worth bearing in mind that the drama changes tack the moment we give up our high tragic roles and become ordinary players. It’s true, comedy is used to paper over the dark things, to make light of serious matters; the Empire has used entertainment to distract people forever. Strictly Britain is not very militaristic, as George Orwell once noted. We’re more interested in theatrics which is why we are such dismal suckers for Punch and Judy politics and royal parades, even as the joke is so often on us. That’s the way to do it!

However comedy is not just about laughing, or poking fun, it is seeing life from a certain perspective, with heart. It gives an agency to situations where tragedy can only offer a solitary death, it reminds us above all that life is an ensemble act that brings affection, even in the hardest times. We are in this show together. Tickets please, ladies and gentlemen.

In spite of everything, I realised I wanted to go home to the lane. Though the Empire will keep telling me I do not belong, I know that I do. And no kind of politics will take that relationship away. I am not going anywhere else. I am not a nationalist, a flag waver, a patriot, I don’t know what ‘British values’ are, I can’t tell you the names of any football players or newscasters or the kinds of questions aspiring UK citizens are tested on. But I can love this place, these marsh birds, these oaks. I can cohere in a fragmenting time, I can remember in a forgetting time. We don’t need a grand vision, another story right now, we need to get through the nigredo, the seismic shaking of the jar, and allow the seeds we hold inside us to break open their coats.

Afterwards will come the albedo, the deep memory of water, and the rubedo, the solarising forces, the warmth and light of the sun. We will unfurl ourselves then. All is good, all is return, all is regeneration in alchemy. We just have to have the stomach for the work. We have to trust that whatever happens in our small lives, whatever move we make to undo the unkindness of centuries will affect the whole picture, that we are not on our own. Everything matters. The ancestors are behind us: all good comedies end in a dance, they say.    

Pictures: ‘Midsummer Eve Bonfire’, after c.1917, by Nikolai Astrup (from Painting Norway at Dulwich Picture Gallery); ‘The Stones in the Glasshouse’ by Christian Brett and Gee Vaucher (photo: Douglas Atfield/Firstsite’ ); feather at Base Camp, Dark Mountain gathering at Embecombe, Devon (photo: Warren Draper); excerpt from the documentary, Human by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

Charlotte  Du Cann is a writer and editor and one of the core team behind the Dark Mountain Project; charlotteducann.blogspot.com

2016: Donald Trump Ushers in the Anti-Future Age

 During the 2016 presidential campaign in the USA, and during the primary season which preceded it,  the eventual winner Donald Trump was the only candidate to come out as hostile to that darling of both traditional parties and their corporate pals, the technology sector. Asked about his thoughts on the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in an interview, he said: ‘I have always been concerned about the social breakdown of our culture caused by technology. I think the increased dependence and addiction to electronic devices is unhealthy.’ 
When US high-tech industry CEOs started a lobbying and education group to advance the cause of expanding the H-1B visa programme, which they rely on to bring foreign computer programmers and engineers into the country, Trump was unmoved. In fact, one of his few clear policy pronouncements was to oppose the H-1B visa programme altogether. Trump also said he would initiate anti-trust action against Amazon and promised to force Apple to make its products in the United States – later calling for a boycott of the company when it declined to unlock the iPhone of a suspected terrorist. And sure, Trump used social media in his campaigns, but not the way the other candidates did. As one commentator noted, candidates were ‘dropping $5,000 to $10,000 per month’ on social media management and delivery systems like Sprinklr or Hootsuite, ‘with the exception of Mr. Trump who definitely’ managed ‘all his accounts by hand.’

While Trump was trashing or ignoring the techno standard bearers, his opponents were eagerly deploying slick social media and analytics technologies and kowtowing to the new gods of so-called innovation. Blackberry-bearing Jeb Bush hailed an Uber to the San Francisco startup Thumbtack where he praised the digital economy to the skies. Hillary Clinton travelled to San Jose, CA, in Santa Clara County, the centre of Silicon Valley, national leader in average wages despite a poverty rate higher than 10 percent. Clinton called San Jose ‘a city that’s all about the future: the future of our economy, the future of our society, of how we’re all going to be stronger together.’ During his presidency Barack Obama visited an Amazon factory and compared the workers there to Santa’s Elves, completely ignoring Amazon’s reputation for mistreating perpetually precarious workers, shuttering stores on Main Street and soaking up state tax breaks for the privilege; his White House website featured a whole section dedicated to innovation and ‘winning the race to the future’. Back when Trump was perceived as just an annoyance, Hilary Clinton was giving speeches talking about the ‘on demand or so called “gig” economy … creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation.’

Trump rejected the prevailing ideology of future-first both in words and in symbol. His campaign slogan – Make America Great Again – evoked not the future or even the present, but the past. Trump conjured up a fantasy era when America was (mostly) white and mostly just one union job on the assembly line away from a car and a house and a wife who stayed home and took care of the kids. His signature campaign policy was also very instructional: a wall separating the US from Mexico. A wall. Not lasers or satellites or big data or colonising Mars or getting to the future first. Trump constantly talked about his real estate holdings, his wealth. During the primaries and presidential campaign, he took time out to cut the ribbon on a new Trump hotel in Washington DC. He visited his Scottish golf course. He held forth on his net worth and his ability to outfox creditors and evade the taxman. Trump embodied his rhetoric – make real things, cut through the crap, get rich and get away with whatever you can.

These thoughts whirled through my mind throughout the campaign. I found myself fascinated with the highly ironic fact that of all the candidates, only Trump seemed to be able to signal (if not actually say) that, as I and others have argued, many of the so-called advances in technology over the last twenty years have been harnessed to create efficiencies that significantly reduce employment and compensation. Only Trump was able to repeatedly signal agreement with the conviction that, as one journalist wrote in the aftermath of the election, Silicon Valley ‘is out of step with [a] national and global mood’ beset with ‘social and economic anxieties’ at least partly caused ‘by the products the industry devises.’ For Trump, this was just a part of his overall bricks-and-mortar-build-the-wall rhetoric; but it was a terribly important part, a core element of his spiel’s appeal.

Still, though Trump, as with Bernie Sanders, sensed the intense anxiety around technological displacement and precarious labour, though he seized on it, he didn’t – and doesn’t – have any meaningful course of action to resist or rebut it. It’s not like he was out garnering votes in small-town Ohio by telling the unemployed that that the virtual Eden perpetually promised by the demi-gods of future is a dangerous chimera that needs to replaced by pragmatic action to replace consumption with community. As New York Times columnist David Leonhardt writes: ‘Clinton didn’t lose to Donald Trump because he had a more serious set of policies for revitalizing working-class America.’ Trump’s election, like his anti-future campaign, is a rebuttal, but not an answer.

Instead we should think of Trump’s win as the sudden swoon from flight into lifelessness for the canary in the coalmine. It’s as evocative a sign as the relentless California drought and the looming extinction of most of the planet’s largest mammals. The ascendance of Trump signifies that we’ve moved past the point of conventional politics, past, in some ways, the point of return. It signifies, if nothing else, that progress is hard to sell in a world that is literally getting hotter and more unlivable every year. Though many reject man-made climate change (a Chinese conspiracy, blusters Trump), and many more of us refuse to give up the luxuries that might avert the worst, the spiritual emptiness of living, powerless, in a time of perceptible decline, is our primary common value. We all find ourselves emotionally emptied with noticeably fewer prospects than our parents and even their parents.

In response, more and more of us are rightly rejecting technology-as-saviour and future neoliberalism (from both the right and left). But with no better option being offered to us, into the void the strongman is promising to return us to ancient ritual, the sword and the scythe, blood dripping onto land. With Trumpites pumping nostalgia direct to our veins, far-right conspiracy theory preppers round the circle with far left anti-vax dropouts. This is what a Trump win signifies: the post-political void at the end of the capitalist fantasy. Guess what? The world was burning while we looked for meaning in our Netflix echo chamber of Stranger Things and Celebrity Apprentice reruns, neato plans to terraform other planets and social media campaigns to save the species of the month.

Like a lot of people, I stuck my head in the sand during the campaign and said to myself: not yet; it’s too soon; I’m with her. I second-guessed myself, talked myself into believing that we hadn’t yet gotten to the point at which all we had was rejection, was void. But like everyone else, I was wrong. It happened. It is happening. Into the vacuum of contemporary politics voided by technological displacement, rapacious capital and the existential threat of climate change arrives Donald Trump, Brexit, Putin, Turkey’s Erdoğan and the PhillipinesRodrigo Duterteanti-future emblems of an unquenchable thirst for simplified belief systems, circles of life, the easy path back to the idyllic pre-literate past.

These yearnings are not solutions or ends. They are, instead, impulses and desires, angry fires burning our brittle principles right down to their foundations. In the anti-future we build walls. We fall back upon primal impulses. We turn inward, turn tribal. We rage impotently against the machine’s virtual reality rainbow and seek an impossible return to a real which doesn’t exist, which never existed. We vote Trump for president because, if nothing else, he was the only one; the only one who told us he loved us; the only one who promised to save us from the future and make us great again.


2016: Year of the Serpent

We take almost all of the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious.
– W. G. Sebald

Last weekend, I was sitting in a packed room in the middle of a wild and wet Dartmoor listening to the mythologist Martin Shaw tell an old northern European story called The Lindworm. It is a tale about an unhappy kingdom. The king and queen want a child, but no child will come. An old wise woman tells the queen what she must do to conceive. She must breathe her desires into a glass and place it on the ground. From that ground, two flowers will grow: one red, one white. The queen must eat the white flower; under no circumstances must she eat the red one. Then she will bear a healthy child.

Of course, the queen is unable to resist eating the red flower too, despite all the warnings. The king and queen agree to tell no-one of the transgression, and the queen duly falls pregnant, but at the birth something terrible happens. The queen gives birth to a black serpent, which is immediately caught and flung in horror through the window and into the forest. People act as if nothing has happened, and the serpent is quickly followed by a healthy baby boy. But when the boy becomes a man, he meets his serpent brother again in the wood, and the huge black snake comes back into the kingdom to wreak terrible damage.

It’s a strange and disturbing story, and if it contains a lesson, it is, suggests Martin, that what you exile will come back to bite you, three times as big and twice as angry. What you push away will eventually return, and you will have to deal with the consequences.

2016, in the West, feels like the year the exiled serpent returned. Many things that were banned from the public conversation – many feelings, ideas and worldviews which were pushed under, thrown into the forest, deemed taboo, cast out of the public realm – have slithered back into the castle, angry at their rejection. Some people thought they were dead, but it doesn’t work like that. Dark twins can’t be destroyed; terms must be met, agreements made. The serpent must be accommodated.

And so some people’s idea of history, and its direction, comes down upon their heads, and those people flail, screaming, pointing fingers, blaming everyone else for the appearance of the monster. In the New Yorker magazine last month, editor David Remnick, friend and champion of outgoing president Barack Obama, tries to get his head around the rise of Donald Trump. How did this serpent get into the palace? Unable to deal with the possibility that the authorities themselves opened the doors – that royalty ate the flower which created the snake – Remnick comforts himself with the notion that the arc of the moral universe, in the words of Martin Luther King, bends towards justice; by which he means towards his notions of justice. ‘History does not move in straight lines’, he writes; ‘sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backward.’

History goes backward. It’s an almost comical notion. History, of course, does nothing of the sort: it is just the story of things happening, one after another. But Remnick is using the word in an eschatological sense: history to him is the continuing, inevitable path towards goals which he and his fellow ‘progressives’ consider to be just: the dissolution of the nation state, global human equality, a cosmopolitan world civilisation, fair and free trade, the spread of personal liberty and secular democracy to all corners of the globe. These goals are so obviously desirable that it is inconceivable that we should ever stop progressing towards them. Their triumph is tied in to the very fabric of time itself. The election of Donald Trump, who opposes at least some of them, thus represents a kind of anti-history. Not the real thing; an aberration which can’t last. Like a dammed river bursting its banks, progress will inevitably resume its natural course, sooner or later.

This unashamedly Whiggish view of history has been the standard worldview amongst the opinion-formers of the Western democracies since 1989, but it is now crashing, with a terrible screeching of metal and gears, directly into other notions about how the past feeds into the present. Looked at from a longer-term perspective, as a conservative would patiently explain, there is no moral arc bending in any particular direction. The elites of ancient Rome or the Indus Valley civilisation or Ur of Chaldees doubtless believed that the arc of justice was bending towards their own worldview, too, but it didn’t, in the end.

When I look at the state of the world right now, I see an arc bending towards something that dwarfs any parochial concerns about particular presidential elections or political arrangements between human nations, and which should put those events into deep perspective. I see a grand planetary shift that has not been seen for millions of years. I see that half the world’s wildlife has gone, and half the world’s forests, and half the world’s topsoil. I see that we have perhaps two generations of food left before we wear out the rest of that topsoil. I see 10 billion people needing to be fed. I see the highest concentration of carbon in the atmosphere since humans evolved. I see coming waves of political and cultural turmoil resulting from all of this, which makes me fear for my children, and sometimes for myself.

2016, from a small, localised perspective here in the wealthy democracies of the Western hemisphere, can look like the year that everything changed. But it isn’t, not really. This is not the year that the queen gave birth to the serpent, and it certainly isn’t the year that she first ate the flower. That happened a long time ago. This is the year that the serpent came back out of the forest and into the kingdom, and we got a look at its face. This is the year when we were finally forced to acknowledge what we have exiled.

Anyone who has tried to talk to someone with different opinions about the election of Donald Trump, or the British exit from the European Union, or climate change for that matter, will know that there is a madness in the air right now which goes far beyond the facts of any particular case, and which engulfs them until they are lost in the fog. When people argue about Brexit, they are not really arguing about Brexit. When they fight about Donald Trump, they are not really fighting about Donald Trump. These things have become symbols, archetypes of the kind of future we want and don’t want, the kind of people we think we are and the kind of people we think others are. It’s as if we are fighting over myths, stories, representations of the world as it is and as we want it to be.

This is an easy time to take sides, and that is why it’s a good time not to. I am a writer, and Dark Mountain began life as a writers’ project; which, at the core of its being, it remains. In times of great change, when shifts occur, when cracks appear, the public role of the writer, in my view, becomes very hard to ignore. But what should that role be? Some will join battle; many do. But I think that the terms offered are too narrow. What if neither army represents your – our – true interests? What if the battle is a distraction from the deeper malaise?

Our stories are cracking: the things we have pretended to believe about the world have turned out not to be true. And the serpent has a lot more damage to do yet. In such times, we write to make sense of things, and to examine our stories in their proper perspective. We write new stories because the old ones are half-dead now. We turn from the heat of the anger before it burns us, we let the names fall away, we walk up the mountain, sit down at the summit, breathe – and pay attention.

I think we could make a case that most of the world’s great religions, philosophies, artforms, even political systems and ideologies were initiated by marginal figures. There is a reason for that: sometimes you have to go to the edges to get some perspective on the turmoil at the heart of things. Doing so is not an abnegation of public responsibility: it is a form of it. In the old stories, people from the edges of things brought ideas and understandings from the forest back in to the kingdom which the kingdom could not generate by itself.

In the story of the Lindworm, it is not the king or the queen, nor a heroic knight on a white charger, who finally draw the serpent’s threat like poison from a wound. It is a young woman from the margin of the woods, who brings new weapons, and new cunning, into the court, and does the job which the owners of the kingdom had no idea how to do. But she does not kill the serpent. Instead, she reveals its true nature, and in doing so she changes it and everything around it. She forces the court to confront its past, and as a result, the serpent is enfolded again back into the kingdom.

 

Storm of Progress

 A year ago this past January, under the light of the full moon, I looked from the window of a jetliner over a vast expanse of the Amazon watershed. I saw the large slowly winding main trunk of the great river gradually disappearing into the eastern horizon. Just ahead I saw the confluence of a large tributary that had begun its multi-stream course on the flanks of the northern Andes. Closer at hand, and just below, another major watercourse curled into view from under the body of the plane, and meandered for some distance on a northward course before also merging into the main body of the Amazon River.

I was not prepared for this view. I was transfixed for over an hour, taking in the slow rolling scene of the slow rolling rivers and the vast forest of this still largely intact upper basin region. I knew the route and had followed the flight path monitor closely on the overnight trip to Buenos Aries two weeks earlier. But two weeks earlier there had been cloud cover, no moonlight, and I was sitting on the side facing the Andes.

Looking far to the east I could see clusters of lights at points along the river bank signalling human settlements. Scanning closer as we came directly over the course of the river, I could also see smaller clusters of lights coming further up stream. A few lights were also dotted here and there on small tributaries now visible. These settlements rose up in my mind’s eye: A fishing village here, rubber tappers there, hunters, loggers, mineral prospectors, plant researchers, all with their diesel generators pushing like demons ever deeper into the biotic integrity of the land. Indigenous peoples, resource raiders, and bio-pirates all mixed up on the leading edge of the great storm of progress.

Then, the scene changed. Coming even with the great river, and looking to the land flowing north and east, I began to see rectangular outlines and distinctly different shadings in variegated blocks. Between them and through them ran arrow-straight lines of a much lighter hue: Roads through the forest, and whole tracts of forest gone.

I have seen a lot of clear-cut forestland close-up, but from 36,000 feet the vast scale of this destruction was stunning. When I was earlier looking down on forestland yet intact, I thought about the communities of life that are tucked into every nook and cranny of this region. Those of nocturnal habit would now be out. Later, with the sunrise, another group of residents, adapted differently, would employ their life skills to good effect. With clear cutting, this fabric of life is blasted, smashed to smithereens. With clear cutting, the storm of progress has truly mounted to hurricane force.

Lifting my eyes to gaze one last time over the whole panorama rolling out to the horizon, another story of this land came into view — fire. To the southeast I saw a few smudges of orange flame and hanging smoke. And then due east and to the north, more fires; some small, some very large, considering the distance at which I was seeing them. The refuse of the cleared forestland was being burned, releasing large amounts of carbon from long-term storage into the atmosphere.

Here was another feature of the storm of progress; firestorms burning up the rain forest, preparing the way for the beef industry and the soybean business. I slumped back in my seat and thought about Bruce Cockburn’s classic 1988 song, ‘If a Tree Falls’. Speaking specifically of rain forest clear cutting, he sings:

Green brain facing lobotomy
Climate control centre for the world
Ancient cord of coexistence
Hacked by parasitic greedhead scam –

Take out trees.
Take out wildlife at the rate of a species every single day.
Take out people who have lived with this for 100,000
years.

If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?

Does anybody hear the forest fall?

*


There is a kind of knowledge that comes to us as a fully rounded comprehens
ion of reality, a sense of overarching and underlying relationship that cannot be achieved by understanding an accumulation of details. Formed as we are within spheres of relationship, this knowledge is born of participation. We can call this knowledge the wisdom of the soul. Coming to this knowledge is not a matter of chronological age. It is a matter of a certain kind of experience of the world. And the earlier in life we come to this experience, the greater our chances of living within the order of the soul.

We can come to this kind of experience in delight and wonder. We can come to it in anger and agony. Wherever on this spectrum we come to this defining experience, its signal characteristic is communion – that merging of identity with the forms, presence, and process of the great world beyond the boundary of our skin and the reach of our mind. Cockburn’s song runs the gamut of this experience. Its presentation of vision and pain had long contributed to my image of what is happening to the great rainforest of the Amazon region and to many other forested areas of Earth.

Seeing the Amazon by moonlight has lodged an image in my mind that is among the strongest and most deeply imprinted experiences of my life. It resides in a zone of memory that comes into focus unbidden and with great frequency. It has become one of those constant images that connect.

To be so powerfully imprinted by a landscape from over six miles in the air, and at night, is hard to account for. It is a puzzle, but a puzzle with an answer. And the answer lies in the image, and in all the prior images and the stories they compose about this region of Earth that I have had the good fortune to encounter.

This unanticipated experience of the Amazon landscape by moonlight has enlarged my sense of communion and added to my knowledge of what it is that cannot be fully understood but, nevertheless, in our quest for guidance, must be communicated among us.

Author’s note: The irony of my story does not escape me. My experience of the Amazon was delivered while cradled in the wings of an agent of the storm of progress – an ozone-blasting jetliner. This is not a trip we ever imagined making, but when one of our sons married a woman from Buenos Aries, and a grand celebration with her family and friends was scheduled, we booked our flight. Such are the wonders of the storm of progress. Such is the story I have to offer.