The Night Breathes Us In

Young man who came from the sea
Cold is your blessing upon us
Come rest your head on my knee
And I will play you harp music

The boy is nine years old and he’s playing down the burn, a stream that runs at the end of his street – the frontier of a housing estate that bulges at the edge of Glasgow. Beyond the burn are fields and then the deer woods, and beyond them, the moors, stretching north to Loch Lomond.

The burn runs through a wooded gully, mostly hawthorn and sycamore, a few oaks. He’s there with the other boys from his street. They’re out of sight and earshot of their parents and they’re playing Dead Man’s Fall.

The oldest boy is stationed at the foot of a steep bank, the rest line up at the top, nervous. They choose the instrument of their death: machine gun or arrows, grenades, a big spear. The oldest boy mimics the firing and throwing of weapons, and they fall, tumbling down the bank to lie prone at his feet. Whoever is judged to have died the best death is selected to join him.

Come rest your head on my knee
And I will play you harp music
A harp on the fairest, fresh lap
The bluest eyes and the whitest jaw

The boy is twelve years old when his dad leaves home. He doesn’t see him again for over a decade. His mum doesn’t cope very well after the divorce. When anyone asks him how he is, he says he’s fine. The day after his dad leaves, he crosses the burn and walks to the deer woods. He digs a small hole and buries the pen-knife his dad had previously given him.

A harp on the fairest, fresh lap
The bluest eyes and the whitest jaw
He fell into a quiet dreamland
Having traversed the wild oceans

The boy is fifteen and has discovered rock climbing. His climbing partner is a year older, soon bound for the army. They cycle to the Whangie at weekends, a popular spot for Glasgow climbers in an era before indoor climbing walls.

The story goes that the Devil was late for a meeting with a coven of witches on the Stockie Muir, and as he raced around Auchineden Hill, his tail cut a deep gash in it. The result is spectacular: a cleft that narrows almost to a tunnel and widens out to high crags at either end.

Their equipment is basic: a rope, slings, a handful of carabiners. As they’re preparing for their first climb, an old man appears out of the shadows of the cleft. He’s wearing tweeds and brogues and says ‘You’re going to have a fall today,’ before walking back into the cleft.

Funny old man. They’re young, they don’t pay heed.

They’ve finished climbing their first route and the boy has abseiled back down to the bottom. His partner begins his decent. The belay slips, he falls. The boy breaks his fall, not through an act of bravery but because he’s in the way. His partner is bigger and heavier.

When he regains consciousness, he is being carried down the hill. Others who were climbing nearby have fashioned a stretcher. His lower back feels like someone has driven a spear into it.

Later, after hospital, he’s recovering at home; strapped up in bed with a chip out of his spine that just missed piercing his central nervous system. His climbing partner visits, haunted by the appearance of the old man. ‘No-one else saw him,’ he says, again and again.

He fell into a quiet dreamland
Having traversed the wild oceans
She stole the sharp sword from his belt
And she stealthily cut of his head

The boy is sixteen, standing with hundreds of others in the queue at the Motor Trade Training Centre. A tall boy standing next to him says that working in a Parts Department is less manky than working as a mechanic. It’s the only career advice he receives. He pays heed to the tall boy – he’s wearing a Joy Division t-shirt.

The garage is a brutal place. He’s there for four years, learning to be a man according to its specifications. He’s not very good at it. The oldest mechanic, upstairs on the shop floor, takes pity on him: ‘I wanted to work in the forestry when I was a kid. Imagine that, me, in some wee hut in the middle of nowhere, looking after fir trees.’ He’s serious. ‘Don’t be like me,’ he says.

At lunch the men cross the road to the pub, where they’re served re-heated pies and pints of heavy. The boy escapes to the park, eats his sandwich by the duck pond. On the island in the middle, he sees a heron, standing in the shade beneath the willow, its sleek head tucked into its chest. A grey ghost with one bright eye staring.

At night, lying in his bed in a flat off the Great Western Road, he imagines the heron, rising from the park, wings beating steady, beak stretched forward like the point of a compass, flying out and away from the city.

He spots an ad in the paper, ‘Help Wanted, on a small Hebridean Island’. He jumps and doesn’t fall.

***

We all have a story. I’ve shared some of mine to illustrate the truth that even in this modern, materialist world, a different world insists on intruding. A world of myth and ritual, and what the writer Paul Shepard describes as ‘beautiful and strange otherness’.|

Looking back, I see that our childhood game manifested a deep need for initiation that we could never have articulated. Likewise, I understand now that by burying my dad’s pen-knife, I was attempting a ritual that might hold my grief and help make sense of a situation that was overwhelming me.

As for the old man at the Whangie, I’m still baffled. I can only tell you that we both saw and heard him; and that when my scientific, rational self gets too inflated, I remember him in his tweeds and brogues, indistinct in the shadows; and I’m grateful that he makes no sense, that he brings his strange otherness to my story.

The lyrics punctuating the text are from Am Bron Binn, ‘The Sweet Sorrow’, a remarkable song from the Gaelic tradition of the Outer Hebrides and the far north of Scotland. An early tape recording of it was made in 1957 by the folklorist Hamish Henderson, while spending a summer in Sutherland, travelling with an extended family of Gaelic-speaking nomads. The Stewarts of Remarstaig were from a long lineage of ‘tinkers’ who tin-smithed and hawked their wares in the crofts and villages of the Highlands. Henderson describes his time with them as the high point of his life: ‘out on the road three-families strong, with horses, carts, with barefoot children and an old man telling Homeric, Ossianic tales – as though the Aegean were lovely as Loch Eriboll!’

The old man was Alexander Stewart – Ailidh Dall – the blind patriarch of the family and a master storyteller and piper. The first song he gave to be recorded was Am Bron Binn. It’s one of the oldest in Europe, taking us back to the 6th century.

***

After my own time in the Hebrides, after I began to gain a sense of who I was and what I wanted, I sat the necessary exams to go on to study folklore and mythology at the University in Edinburgh. A world opened to me. I began to understand that I’d grown up in a culture that was thin gruel in comparison to the rich feast that once would have been my birth right. I felt a sense of loss that was belly-deep.

Slowly, twenty-years slowly, I’ve searched for a way, not backwards, but towards – towards an appreciation of the old songs and stories; towards an understanding that so-called ‘archaic’ culture remains vital, in the sense of it still being alive and necessary. Francis Weller writes it beautifully in his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow: ‘We were meant to drop below the surface of things and to experience the depths of life in the same way that our deep-time ancestors did. Their lives were filled with story, ritual and circles of sharing. This is what the soul expected, what it is we need today.’

***

They walk through the bright streets and the bustle, to the edge of the city. There’s a crossing. They follow a path through woodland; the only lights, their lanterns. Something very old watches from the shadows beneath the trees. There’s silence and the opening of senses. At the hearth, a circle of faces in firelight. He opens his mouth and finds the words.

samhain-fire

 

On the 25th of March the Dark Mountain project presents The Night Breathes Us In as part of Reading’s year-long Festival of the Dark. This unique event will celebrate the Spring Equinox with a combination of workshops and performance: a participative journey of story, song and fire.

At a time when winter is ending and spring has begun, we will look at our relationship to the seasonal shifts of the year, and to the deeper flow of both circular and linear time. We will explore the play of light and dark as expressed in the stories and myths that enrich our lives.

Throughout the afternoon there will be a full programme of talks and workshops. In the evening, as the light fades, we will take your hand and lead you on a lantern-lit procession, a waymarked route of shadowed installations and performance, to a secret location where we’ll share stories, music, poetry, and the warmth of a good fire; we’ll celebrate the dark and the community of people that has gathered; we’ll let the night breathe us in.

Go here for information on the programme and ticket sales

What If It’s Not a War?

If there’s one thing humans love, it’s war. Even those of us who pretend we don’t like war: really, we love it. We can’t get away from it. Even the pacifists are at it. Even the vegans. The anarchists enjoy it more than the marine corps, at least if they can hide their faces. In my years in the green movement – supposedly a fluffy, caring, co-operative kind of environment – I saw, heard and used more military metaphors than you could shake a stick grenade at. It was always the bad rich guys screwing the planet and the heroic, Earth-loving masses opposing them. When I was a young Earth First!er, back in the nineties, there was a slogan we used all the time. We would scrawl it in oil on the sides of earth-moving machinery when the security guards weren’t looking: The Earth is not dying, it is being killed. And those who are killing it have names and addresses. Yeah! This was exciting and heroic. The names and addresses, of course, were never ours.

Look at any movement for political or social change and you’ll see the war stories proliferating like Japanese knotweed. The 99% must rise up against the 1%! Donald Trump is a fascist and we are the resistance! Ordinary working people must stop the globalist elites! Corporations are causing climate change, and we must fight them! Black versus white, men versus women, elites versus masses, people versus planet: whatever your favoured battle, your choice commits you to fighting. Of course, your team are the goodies. Right is on your side, and the other lot are deluded haters. You are always Luke Skywalker, never Darth Vader.

War metaphors and enemy narratives are the first thing we turn to when we identify a problem, because they eliminate complexity and nuance, they allow us to be heroes in our own story, and they frame our personal aggression and anger in noble terms. The alternative is much harder: it’s to accept our own complicity. The alternative is an environmental campaigner accepting that they are as much a cause of climate change as the CEO of Exxon. It’s a progressive supporter of open borders accepting that they prepared the ground for Trumpism. It’s a European nationalist accepting that their wealth is built on globalisation. We don’t want to deal with this kind of thing. It stops us in our tracks, and the war machine runs on without us. We feel lonely out here on our own. Much easier to run on and catch up.

My favourite war metaphor is the one which pits modern humanity against the Earth itself. I think that civilised, post-Enlightenment humanity has been, and remains, a dark and destructive force. In only a few hundred years we have precipitated a planetary crisis, the details of which readers of this blog will be depressingly familiar with. We have destroyed wildness and beauty and meaning. We have eaten life itself. There is a black magic about our civilisation, I think. If you want me to build a case, I can build a case easily enough. I’ve done it before. But right now I’m more interested in what happens if I don’t.

If it’s not a war, what is it? If we’re not warriors, what are we? Are we monks or hermits? Are we nihilists or hedonists? The thing about war metaphors is that they suck you right in, like wars themselves. If you won’t enroll, you can easily be condemned as a coward: handed white feathers in pubs and spat at on the street. Still, we don’t want a world at war, do we? We want something else. But what? And how?

At the moment, I’m thinking that a trial might be a better metaphor and guide than a war. ‘You might see the situation we are in as an emergency,’ says Wendell Berry, ‘and your task is to learn to be patient in an emergency’. Being patient in an emergency seems harder and more worthwhile than playing soldiers. If I attempt to transmute my favourite war story – people versus planet – into a trial story instead, what do I get? I get a long story of patience and hard work and attention to nature; a story that will outlive me and my children. The poet Gary Snyder has suggested that we are in the early stages of what may be a 5000 year journey towards living well with ourselves and the Earth. All of us, whatever our tribe or team, are on the same journey. That’s a trial: a long, complicated test.

If it is a trial, a long emergency, an intergenerational test of patience, what qualities would we need to undertake it? They would be very different qualities to those – anger, aggression, might, tactical cunning – needed by a warrior. We might need to drop back into the past for a moment and explore some of the non-martial virtues that defined our culture before it was overtaken and half drowned by the siren song of commerce.

Community and religious life in pre-modern Europe – as in more traditional parts of the world even now – pointed people towards two notions. The first was that we were not primarily individuals but were members of a community: tribe, family, village, county, nation. Our work should not be for ourselves, but for this community. The second was that humans did not stand at the pinnacle of life, and should remember to bow their heads before something greater than themselves; some mystery within which our lives resided.

It’s hard to think of two ideas more likely to get you spluttered at in the West today. But take them seriously and they lead us towards some equally unfashionable, and therefore radical, values: humility, stillness, forbearance, discipline, honour. If these were not always not adhered to in the real lives of our ancestors, they were at least held up as aspirations. We could do worse than to aspire to them again. They seem less likely to set the world on fire in the name of saving it.

How could we re-cultivate values like these? How could we pay obeisance to our inner wildness and to the outer wildness? What happens if we look inwards rather than outwards? What happens if we are not the goodies? What happens if there are no goodies, and no baddies either? What is the work now?

As I’ve watched the political and cultural temperature hot up in the West over the last year, as I have watched people divide into opposing factions and come out swinging, these questions have seemed to me increasingly urgent. I don’t really know how to answer them. I suppose it might take 5000 years. I suppose the answers will be changing all the time. But I like the questions better than the one I used to ask: who is the enemy, and how can we beat him? Because, of course, we can’t beat him. We strike him down and take off his mask and he turns out to be part of the family. That’s the point at which the hard work begins, and the wisdom becomes available.

Over the next year, I plan to explore these questions more, here on this blog and in the outside world. Starting in May, I’m going to be one of the teachers and guides on an experimental programme which Dark Mountain is running with our friends over at Way of Nature. We’ve worked together before, taking people out into wild areas and focusing on the big questions in our lives and in the world. This year we’re experimenting with an eight month programme, which we’re calling Fire and Shadow.

We’re putting together a group of people – reminiscent of one of those tribes or communities, perhaps – which will start to explore the work of transmuting war into trial, and asking how we might take the first steps in that 5,000 year journey. What values do we need? How should we live? How do we step back from the battle and still remain engaged in the world? What do we see when we look into the darkness? In the course of two week-long retreats in wild parts of Scotland and Romania, connected by online and ongoing conversations over eight months, we’re hoping to begin coming up with the answers to these questions and others.

We’ve filled up more than half of the places on this course already, but there are still spaces available for those who are interested. You can read more about it here. It’s a big commitment of time and money, and it won’t be for everyone. What I plan to do though, is bring some thoughts, feedback and perhaps the beginning of some tentative conclusions from the programme over to this blog at various points over the next year. I hope this will make up something of a resource pack for those who can’t come on the programme itself or wouldn’t want to. I can’t, of course, know yet what we will find. But I have a sense that this is a good path to explore, however winding it turns out to be.

Considering Leaves: After John Trudell

You could rake leaves while the glaciers melt
and horses stand somewhere in a field
with the sound of wind blowing rain into their manes
you could go to a job you don’t love
and live in a house you don’t want
and sit in traffic and feel trapped watching
the eagles dive above the light posts and power lines
or you could stop raking and lay down in the dirt
with the leaves scattering around you
smelling like the coming snow
and the rattling ghosts of summer lightning
you could pick up a river and hold it to your eye
watch a turtle crawl through it
the light turbulent out of the sky beyond the bluffs.
Instead of serving these mad corporations and law makers
oblivious to the dew on the pigs hindquarters at morning
or the effort it takes ducks to find food after such a wet summer
you could sit round a fire next to the lake and
listen as the water carries voices from a canoe
out somewhere near the middle
back to your camp along the stony shore
and as the fire licks at the red pines
you could uncover a memory that
smells like moose hooves and orchids
wild rice hulls and trumpeter swans
and helps you to remember the millions
of invisible miracles which must occur within the sky
so that a blizzard can become a blizzard.
This memory is what the mad kings and architects
of the anthropomorphic rivers want you to forget
because if you do not remember the smell or feel of the land
then you will believe anything they tell you about it
including that it is just another body to exploit.
But if you remember the sound of waves
pulling back through the hair of beaches
or the ring of wind among icicles and sparrow caves
you have not forfeited all of your freedom and power
to the ruthlessness of modern convenience
and if you remember otters sliding across the lake at dusk
or a bear rushing back into the alder
then you also remember
that you are among the millions of tiny miracles within the sky
that allow a blizzard to become a blizzard
and if you can remember this
then you can speak sing and dream loud as thunder
for every quiet piece of land and water on this earth
because you have not forgotten
that you
not the mad kings
are the one with power.

The World-Ending Fire

About 18 months ago, out of the blue, I was offered something of a dream assignment. Penguin, the publisher, was looking to put together the first British collection of essays by the now-venerable American writer Wendell Berry, and they thought I would be a good person to make the selection, and write an introduction. Would I be interested? Of course, they would understand if I was too busy.

Needless to say, I was not too busy. I have been reading Wendell Berry for over 20 years, on and off, and have found him a constant source of nourishment and inspiration. It’s always difficult to explain exactly what you like about a writer, but Berry combines an earthy wisdom, an unashamed traditionalism, a love of his fellow man and passionate resistance to those who would desecrate the Earth which is his subject. It’s a combination I like. Also, to adopt his idiom, he has a damn fine way with words. I’d say he’s a writer who should be read by anyone wanting to find their place, or even figure out how to think about it, in an ever-churning age.

To cut a long story short, I sat down for two months with every collection of essays that Wendell Berry has written over the last fifty years, and I whittled them down to about 300 pages of what I think it is his finest work. That work was published last month by Penguin as The World-Ending Fire, and I feel I can openly boast about the quality of the book, because most of the writing isn’t mine. If you’re an admirer of Berry, or – especially – if you have never read before, I recommend reading him now. It would be the equivalent of reading Thoreau or Emerson when they were still alive and writing.

As a taster, we’re publishing here my introduction to the book, followed by one of my favourite essays from it, ‘Damage’. To find out more about the book, you can visit the Penguin website.

 

The World-Ending Fire: an introduction

In tribute to Wendell Berry, I am writing this introduction longhand, in pen, in a small hardback notebook. It seems appropriate. Berry has never upgraded his writing tools from a pencil even to a typewriter, let alone to anything more complex, as he explained in his short but high-impact 1987 essay ‘Why I am not going to buy a computer’. As with all his decisions, this one seems to have been taken after a good deal of thinking. In his writing, as in his farming, Wendell Berry’s readers get the impression that this man does not do anything lightly, and that he chooses his words as carefully as his actions.

With that in mind, and now that I think about it, I see that he would probably take issue with the way I have just lazily used the word ‘upgraded’. Not just because of the word’s ugliness, but because of its implication: that a pen is a lesser tool than a laptop, simply because it is older and less complex. Older and less complex, in Berry’s world, are often virtues. Now in his eighties, he still uses horses to work his Kentucky farm, not for the nostalgia value but because horses do a better job than tractors, and are more satisfying to work with.

As with all thinkers who choose to set their face against both fashion and power, Wendell Berry is regularly caricatured for the crime of thinking things through – accused of ‘living in the past’, ‘wanting to turn the clock back’ and various other predictable insults grabbed at random from the progressive toolbag. From one angle he can certainly appear, as he acknowledges himself, a relic from the past. Born at the height of the Great Depression into a farming family which, like all its neighbours, still worked their land the preindustrial way, he is a unique figure in modern American letters. Brought up as a farmer, he left the land as a young man to study and travel, eventually moving to New York City to ‘be a writer’. Writers, then as now, in the long shadow of Modernism, were supposed to ensconce themselves in the metropolis and live as placeless chroniclers of its unease.

But it wasn’t long before Berry felt drawn back to rural Kentucky, where he had grown up. The place was pulling him. Places, in my experience, often do that. I think that some places want writers to tell their stories. Wendell Berry was never meant to tell the stories of New York City; there were quite enough people doing that already. So, as his fellow scribes looked at him aghast, some of them trying to persuade him of his foolishness, he left the city and went back to the land, buying a farm five miles from where he had grown up, in the area where both his mother and father had grown up before him. This is the place in which he has lived, worked and written for the last half-century. This is the place whose story he has told, and through it he has told the story of America, and through that the story of modern humanity as it turns its back on the land and lays waste to the soil.

Soil is the recurring image in these essays. Again and again, Berry worries away at the question of topsoil. This is both a writer’s metaphor and a farmer’s reality, and for Wendell Berry, metaphors always come second to reality. ‘No use talking about getting enlightened or saving your soul’, he wrote to his friend, the poet Gary Snyder, in 1980, ‘if you can’t keep the topsoil from washing away.’ Over the last century, by some estimates, over half the world’s topsoil has been washed away by the war on nature which we call industrial farming. We may have perhaps fifty or sixty years of topsoil left if we continue to erode, poison and lay waste to it at this rate. As the human population continues to burgeon, the topsoil in which it grows its food continues to collapse. It is perhaps the least sexy environmental issue in the world, but for the future of human civilisation, which continues to depend upon farmers whether it knows it or not, it may be the most important.

Wendell Berry knows this, because he sees it every day, and because he works with it. I have spent the last several months reading every book of essays he has ever published, and the image which has stayed with me above all others comes at the beginning of his 1988 essay ‘The work of local culture’. An old galvanised bucket hangs on a fence post near a hollow, in a wood on what was once his grandfather’s farm. In the bucket, slowly and over many decades, soil is being born:

The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and the leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it. Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings and perhaps a feather or two. This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black humus. I look into that bucket with fascination because I am a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts, and I recognise there an artistry and farming far superior to mine, or to that of any human.

In patience, in slowness, there is hope. In the places where we often deposit our hopes, meanwhile, there is less. Berry’s questing thoughtfulness challenges traditional political categories; challenges notions of activism, of movements, of politics itself on a national and global scale. All this makes liberating reading for those who enjoy thinking for themselves. To the ‘right’ he shows the consequences of a love of money and markets, of government by corporation, of an economic growth unmoored from place, which eats through nature and culture and leaves ruins. To the ‘left’ he shows the consequences of a rootless individualism, of rights without rites, of the rejection of family and tradition, of the championing of the cosmopolitan over the rooted and the urban over the rural.

In place of these tired labels, and for those who still insist on categories, Berry suggests two alternatives, originally coined by his mentor, the writer Wallace Stegner: ‘boomers’ and ‘stickers’. ‘Boomers’ are those who rush through and past, chasing the green grass or concreting it for money, the acolytes of growth-n-progressTM. ‘Stickers’ are those who find a place and make it home, stay in it and try to leave it a little better than they found it. Wendell Berry’s formula for a good life and a good community is simple and pleasingly unoriginal. Slow down. Pay attention. Do good work. Love your neighbours. Love your place. Stay in your place. Settle for less, enjoy it more.

 

Damage

Wendell Berry

1.

I have a steep wooded hillside that I wanted to be able to pasture occasionally, but it had no permanent water supply.

About halfway to the top of the slope there is a narrow bench, on which I thought I could make a small pond. I hired a man with a bulldozer to dig one. He cleared away the trees and then formed the pond, cutting into the hill on the upper side, piling the loosened dirt in a curving earthwork on the lower.

The pond appeared to be a success. Before the bulldozer quit work, water had already begun to seep in. Soon there was enough to support a few head of stock. To heal the exposed ground, I fertilized it and sowed it with grass and clover.

We had an extremely wet fall and winter, with the usual freezing and thawing. The ground grew heavy with water, and soft. The earthwork slumped; a large slice of the woods floor on the upper side slipped down into the pond.

The trouble was the familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge. The fault was mine.

I was careful to get expert advice. But this only exemplifies what I already knew. No expert knows everything about every place, not even everything about any place. If one’s knowledge of one’s whereabouts is insufficient, if one’s judgment is unsound, then expert advice is of little use.

2.

In general, I have used my farm carefully. It could be said, I think, that I have improved it more than I have damaged it.

My aim has been to go against its history and to repair the damage of other people. But now a part of its damage is my own.

The pond was a modest piece of work, and so the damage is not extensive. In the course of time and nature it will heal.

And yet there is damage – to my place, and to me. I have carried out, before my own eyes and against my intention, a part of the modern tragedy: I have made a lasting flaw in the face of the earth, for no lasting good.

Until that wound in the hillside, my place, is healed, there will be something impaired in my mind. My peace is damaged. I will not be able to forget it.

3.

It used to be that I could think of art as a refuge from such troubles. From the imperfections of life, one could take refuge in the perfections of art. One could read a good poem – or better, write one.

Art was what was truly permanent, therefore what truly mattered. The rest was ‘but a spume that plays / Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.’

I am no longer able to think that way. That is because I now live in my subject. My subject is my place in the world, and I live in my place.

There is a sense in which I no longer ‘go to work.’ If I live in my place, which is my subject, then I am ‘at’ my work even when I am not working. It is ‘my’ work because I cannot escape it.

If I live in my subject, then writing about it cannot ‘free’ me of it or ‘get it out of my system.’ When I am finished writing, I can only return to what I have been writing about.

While I have been writing about it, time will have changed it. Over longer stretches of time, I will change it. Ultimately, it will be changed by what I write, inasmuch as I, who change my subject, am changed by what I write about it.

If I have damaged my subject, then I have damaged my art. What aspired to be whole has met damage face to face, and has come away wounded. And so it loses interest both in the anesthetic and in the purely aesthetic.

It accepts the clarification of pain, and concerns itself with healing. It cultivates the scar that is the course of time and nature over damage: the landmark and mindmark that is the notation of a limit.

To lose the scar of knowledge is to renew the wound.

An art that heals and protects its subject is a geography of scars.

4.

‘You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.’

I used to think of Blake’s sentence as a justification of youthful excess. By now I know that it describes the peculiar condemnation of our species. When the road of excess has reached the palace of wisdom it is a healed wound, a long scar.

Culture preserves the map and the records of past journeys so that no generation will permanently destroy the route.

The more local and settled the culture, the better it stays put, the less the damage. It is the foreigner whose road of excess leads to a desert.

Blake gives the just proportion or control in another proverb: ‘No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.’ Only when our acts are empowered with more than bodily strength do we need to think of limits.

It was no thought or word that called culture into being, but a tool or a weapon. After the stone axe we needed song and story to remember innocence, to record effect – and so to describe the limits, to say what can be done without damage.

The use only of our bodies for work or love or pleasure, or even for combat, sets us free again in the wilderness, and we exult.

But a man with a machine and inadequate culture – such as I was when I made my pond – is a pestilence. He shakes more than he can hold.

(1974)

Bastar: Dispatch Sixty

Preface

The greater part of my life happens to have been spent in and about Bastar and its Abujhmad (literally ‘inscrutable land’) region in central India — just looking at life and its affairs there; it is too overwhelming to be not looked at. There I accumulated some field notes, reflections and observations about the region and its people.

For the past 59 months I have written field dispatches on the region — one a month — some of which have been published in past issues of Dark Mountain. They are short, usually three to four pages. Abujhmad’s dialect does not have too many words. People do not say much. Mostly they are a culture of silence. Counting goes up to only five. ‘We don’t need more than that.’.

 

A village, town or region as much likes or dislikes a person as the person may like or dislike it. Places have personas, dispositions, likes and dislikes. They are alive.

It is not always that one goes to a place. Many a time the place calls one and, when the time comes, sends one off too. When I first went to Bastar in 1979 I had neither heard of it nor knew it on the map — nor who tribal people are. A year later I began staying in Abujhmad which did not have even a map; was unheard of even 50 km away in either direction in Bastar. Soon enough it felt like homecoming. I could not have thought of staying away from it till it finally bid good bye in 2013. Ostensive reasons can be many, and each plausible — bloodshed by the Maoists, administrative ruthlessness, police killings, Bastar becoming somewhat of an out-of-bounds region, a land of distrust, its loss of self, a nowhere region… and endlessly more.

Humans and wilds are not at cross purposes; both live and wander without aim or thought.

The immeasurable darkness of nights is for nocturnal beings to erase human presence outside the tiny village limits and revitalise the powers of the wilds. In the wilds humans endeavour no more than the token and essential. If the endeavour be greater — axing a tree for shifting cultivation or blocking a stream for fishing — spirits, ancestors, gods and goddesses, bushes, vines, and insects cause humans to be feeble, weary and disoriented. Hence humans do not practise shifting cultivation in a big way or hinder streams as such. Bushes, vines, insects, animals, winds, earth, rivers, ancestors, spirits and humans are allies and lend vitalities unto each other.

I went there on a research project of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a Delhi-based institute. Till a year ago I had not known that places, too, call one. Many a time a place also contrives and rids itself of one soon enough. When one goes uninvited it makes living difficult. For about the first six months I roamed and rejected many a village. I had my reasons: ‘wet or watery, of too many flies and pigs, distance from a stream, huts too far from each other, the village much too interior for my daring and endurance, or my own moods and temperament’ etc. I did not know those villages, by thus presenting themselves, were rejecting me as much; nor could I know that Garpa’s nice-looking little plateau was not a piece of topography but an invitation to settle down and partake of its companionship. For reasons that may never be known, we liked each other. There was a felt conviviality, as between instant friends.

In the first six months I had been through many villages. I was becoming somewhat of a familiar face and people were no longer running away to the forest. Garpa was the first one that offered me residence; its chatter and laughter, distant fires of the darkest nights, landscape and contours. The ‘rejected’ or ‘rejecting’ villages had not made an offer. When there is innate — and not of human making — reciprocity, both come alive and pulsate as companions. Both become a place for intimacies in ever pristine infinity. Places, too, wish for allies.

For village congregation

If the vitals do not coincide and one settles down uninvited, they devour one’s spirit. They cause inattention to details and hide much. The contemporary mind, in any case, is much too broken to know what lives in a village or region. It can know only its location, longitudes and latitudes, space of only an apparent kind, and ‘diminished’ lives. The village disguises and reduces itself to cartography. It withholds the province of spaces and skies, gods and ancestors, mysteries and unknowns…

Much like the demons of yore, cities only devour their dwellers — they live off them; soak up their energies and hardly share their own. There is a relentless assault on the senses. Hence the strain, exhaustion, despair, fear, lingering psycho-physical illnesses; the complaints against life and its overwhelming arrangements. The village gives its energies, conviviality and companionship to its dwellers. A person and a village, living well and living fulsomely, seek neither rest nor change, neither progress nor dream; pursuing neither dharma nor adharma.

Rarely is a place where it is. It alludes.

By its very disposition Abujhmad cannot be where it is. Like a metaphor it faintly intimates; as though it has come here from some non-here. Its beyondness is innate and of the unknown, yet immediate and tangible. There is nothing that is ‘here’ here. Dense wilds intermingled with vegetation in some indeterminate arrangements mile after mile; people; rivers and hills; animals; still spaces and fairy-like winds; fear and awe — all seem mythical and imaginary. But Abujhmad is not unreal; it is very much there. It sits by itself, in utter restfulness; as though about to gently rise and weave into the non-here. Only the restfuls rise. That is Abujhmad’s deep disposition. Nothing ever happens here. Something about it that is changeless, still, resolute, motionless, irrefutable and incontestable. As though impregnable — and yet most fragile, tender and vulnerable. A people and region that temperamentally seem ever prepared to lose. Such elemental and untroubled restfulness reflects in its sparseness, words and dialect, counting, and an almost stable population of estimated 13,000, imperishable tentativeness of its thatch huts, village layout, stories of no more than four to five lines, one-line songs of varying pitches, very few facial expressions and the absence of details in daily life. All convey dispassion and non-doing.

Though indivisible from his wild yet never claims as his own. He listens to it as one does to the bard; there is much communion. As though it always was like this. Change and variations are the mind’s. Wild remains still and same.

Non-doing revitalises quiet and stillness. Just as the wild overtakes a hill-face shorn for shifting cultivation, its denizens are ever in wait to overtake the towns and cities surrounding it.

I doubt whether it was anywhere easy to penetrate to any great distance through that impenetrable screen of foliage to that mysterious, magical substance.

Wild is always looked upon as wasteland. To look upon Abujhmad with the ‘realism’ of longitudes, latitudes, and the contemporary sensibility — the cartographic worldview — is attributable to both bad judgement and inattention.

Waste is an unavoidable part of a production process — an inheritance of guilt and shame. Bulki (an elderly lady of Garpa) used to say, ‘No sin lives in Abujhmad’. Waste comes of God-forsakenness and infertility. Waste comes only from waste. That of which waste comes — the product — is for the Abujhmadia as much a waste. Abujhmad — and folk societies at large — dissolves conditions of ‘productive living’; it refuses to address contemporary conditions of living sainted by the outside world; neither food, clothing and shelter, nor livelihood or ownership, neither doing nor non-doing, neither knowledge nor ignorance etc. It repudiates the hitherto-held final grounds; and leaves no premise to educate itself into such living. Naked, the Abujhmadias have for generations crisscrossed — mingled and stayed overnight when necessary — the Halba village of Sonepur with its settled agriculture and domesticated cattle, tiled huts and wells, yet have never taken to Sonepur way of life. When grounds dissolve; then there is nothing to do, nothing to know. There is stillness. Knowing or doing become superfluous. The modern world creates conditions — specific conditions — for living; and in turn effects knowing and doing; and aspirations that lie beyond its station. It creates societies, languages, institutions, worldviews, practises and skills — such that reinforce its own productive behaviours. For the Abujhmadia, life and all its conditions come from the non-here, and ought not be produced here. He seems to intuitively know the place and extent beyond which everything, and he, must cease. There is an incommunicability to it beyond verbal shapes and forms. Abujhmad is a space for beyond; a space for dissolving conditions and making productivity infertile. It renders the productive to the unproductive — as that which is insufferable and undesirable.

The Adivasi sentiment and nebulousness towards life has been universally shared across human communities in one way or the other. This is the ‘stranger’ that modern civilisation does not dare itself to face. For it forecloses possibilities of existing in its own situation. It calls for referents other than modernity itself — and modernity may never be willing. It is the ‘stranger’ in whose presence modernity is unable to comprehend how to unfold itself or how to handle its own bypassed questions.

Abujhmad is a metaphor for communion. It continues to teach and live its metaphor. It intuitively lives without changing itself. It is neither striving to acquire the ‘other’, nor afraid of losing itself. In its strange, mystical way it is both the self and the ‘stranger’. Abujhmad comes from an unsullied poise and undisturbed inheritance. It has still not blocked its unknown.

Whereas the question, by sheer power and repressiveness of its discourse, remains ‘legitimate’, the answer, when fetched from another discourse, becomes illicit, laughable, ludicrous and without longevity. The answer has to fetch its legitimacy — a burden not shared by the question or the discourse it comes from. There are no questions in Abujhmad. They belong to the outside and carry a certain conceptual apparatus and infrastructure. The sheer volume of their apparatus and infrastructure is overwhelming. They come with implications and affiliations and thwart the Adivasi.

How can one answer a question when its object, the Adivasi, carries a certain nebulousness, if not obscurity, a certain dimness bereft of the ‘exact’, and a certain indeterminate, inconclusive disposition? Questions are unfair.

How does one evolve a consensual discourse between Abujhmad and the outside? The inability to comprehend as such creates distances which in their essential nature seem un-bridgeable. How does one arrive at consensuality between the ambiguous, obscure and dim on one hand, and the exact and certain on the other? Is such arrival desirable?

It is said the people earlier had a natural power to them. Rao Pen is Bastar’s territorial god and lives at its geographical boundary. He protects and looks over the region. Each village has its Rao Pen. Village boundaries or hut fences do not depict ownership and control. They depict areas wherein well-being is assured for all. According to folklore Rao Pen once prevented the British from crossing the Indravati river… he created a dust storm over the waters once, and a fire on another occasion, forcing the British to turn back. There are stories about how, through his devices, he materialised food and drink for himself and those accompanying him.

Muria Gond

It is often said in primitive societies that the individual does not count, the community is everything. What if it were said that there is neither a notion of the individual nor community! It is plainly an issue of increased vocabulary.

Abujhmad’s wild is a place of ‘static motion’ where the human and the wild converge in a non-secular web of myth, ritual, stories, fear, reverence and worship. It has a way of unsettling the ‘known’ of modern man. Outside the boundaries of society lie the wilds, beyond the periphery of reason and its modes of engaging and understanding. The established goes astray and conventional distinctions collapse. They confuse clear distinctions and certainties, but in that confusion profound learning and ascertainment occurs. That is Abujhmadia wisdom.

Much clarity and certitude for my comfort. I would always want to feel a little ‘lost’; there ought to remain a wilds to life, where the human both remains in and outside human grasp. Some kind of Universe-human interplay where joy leads to pain, and pain to joy. The alternation and their playfulness; when seeming opposites become the same and same seem opposites: life-death, man-woman, animate-inanimate.

Much of the modern/scientific/capitalist/feminist/Marxist impulse is to well define things in (and about) life, and forever remove the wild; the ambiguous, nebulous, the ‘ill-defined’, the uncertain and chaotic; and evolve patterns and settings that can be fixed and determined; foreclosed possibilities in pursuit of ‘orderliness’; primarily an approach to overcoming fear of the wilds within (and without — hence fellings and creation of infrastructures), fear of the uncertain, the innate death-wish and celebration of life: in essence the automation and corporatisation of life’s hitherto unknown (and undiscoverable??) impulse. The above ‘isms’ differ in details; the basic impulse is commonly shared. Hence my distrust, and desire of many years to steer clear and be in hiding. I cannot say with even the remotest certainty whether life entails discovering its ‘truths’. It is a stage to be lived through and may be not to discover the ‘truths’.

Not so much — but still enough — of western science and eastern dogmas are about discernment; sifting the chaff from the wheat, whereafter neither wheat remains wheat nor chaff chaff: as though it is all some human mission. There is some immense, self-invited misery and victimhood.

‘Ko jani?’ (‘Who knows?’) will resonate forever in the ears; faintly touching a core I long for. This could have come only from a people who celebrate their uncertainty and nebulousness. They insist on uncertainty, un-clarity; lest they never dance again.