Two Poems from Issue 11

Predators
Anne Haven McDonnell

A scream is made to cut
through the mind’s fog,
all rescue circuits flipped on –
any kind of baby animal will do.
When his sleep was sliced by sounds
from the gulley, deep in the woods outside,
he moved towards the yawl, a flashlight
tunnelling into the dark, searching the cry,
and he knew before he saw the tawny warm
fur, speckled white, folded in a thicket of salal.
The fawn’s mouth was open, her fresh
pink tongue hanging out while the cry looped
itself out from her belly from where her eyes –
wide open and hardened to whatever she saw
outside – were already living inside
wherever this cry cut from.
And what could he do?

He thought how the sound must pull
all the blood in her mother, hidden
and waiting. The wolf must also be waiting
to finish this, listening to this cry
light up a tunnel of hunger.
He loved to listen to the wolves
when they sang to each other across
the water, stitching this island and that,
sometimes swimming across, surrounding
the youngest wolf in a circle as they swam,
the arc and hang of their howls, the pull
inside him towards this sound that peeled
the air, and the silence after, the night
full and undone. He thought of carrying
that speckled fawn home but left it –
all of it – the sound of his own footsteps
through the brush all he heard in his long
walk back to the porch light he left on
in his cabin with a door that doesn’t lock.

 

LUCYKERR_QUEST (1)

 

Singing Ice
Eleanor Hooker

Across the rigid icescape they heave
and haul colossal cables to the shadows
on the opposite shore. We shudder at the echoing
crack and coil of tensile steel on the cold lid of winter.

Back and forth the spectres murmur.
We hear them hum the hymns of the dead;
ceremonial chants that rise and fall for hours,
that, gathering volume, resonate like breathless

air across empty glass. We venture out a foot or so.
beneath us air-sharks drop and dive through
slivers of thickening water, then rise to slam
the frozen under-surface. They tear long rips

that roar along the night, tracking us and splitting
the marbled floor at our feet. The percussions
petrify the living and the dead sing on.

Images

(Top) Daemon, Lucy Kerr
Photographic illusion

(Bottom) Quest, Lucy Kerr
Handmade illusion with household objects

Constructing low-fi illusions, I connect to something hidden, confused, lost. Manipulating everyday household ‘stuff’ evokes both inner and outer landscapes. The process, always unpredictable, unspools through playful interactions with the ordinarymusic, the bath, steam, torches, magnifying glasses, prisms, foil, cling film, collected objects. The sense of dislocation that ensues, infused with ritual meaning, brings me no answersonly a sense that I am holding my eyes wide open, waiting.

‘To see the world in a grain of sand’
– William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Anne Haven McDonnell’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in the Georgia Review, Orion Magazine, Terrain.org, Tar River and elsewhere. Anne lives in Santa Fe, NM with her partner and their rescue dog. She teaches as an associate professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

Eleanor Hooker’s second collection A Tug of Blue (Dedalus Press) was published in November 2016. Her poetry’s been published in journals including: Poetry, PN Review and Poetry Ireland Review. She won the Bare Fiction Flash Fiction Prize (UK) 2016. Eleanor holds an MPhil (Distinction) in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. She helms Lough Derg RNLI Lifeboat. eleanorhooker.com

Lucy Kerr creates illusions, in various forms – images whose ambiguity pulls the viewer into a dreamlike experience, inviting a meditative dislocation from the everyday. Kerr’s work brings a sense of the unknown to the familiar. lucyrosekerr.com

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

The Guest at Our Table

5 December 2015, 2pm. I am standing in the foliage- and fairylight-decked living room of my thick stone home on a fell in Cumbria, wrestling trestle tables into a shape that will seat 24. Today it is my 35th birthday and I am struggling with it a little – newly divorced and wondering what comes now, apart from the next category of tick boxes on customer feedback surveys. I have decided to mark the occasion nonetheless with a feast – a gathering of friends from near and far who I don’t have the opportunity to see often. Defrosting in the kitchen is a shoulder of lamb bought from Esther, the shepherdess who keeps her flock a few hundred metres from here, just the other side of the woods.

 

Outside the light is blue-grey, the details of my beloved stomping ground faded and washed out. The rain continues to fall hard and fat as it has done for some days now.

I have lived on this fell since the summer, and have relished every moment of feeling that I dwell in the company of many other beings – the badgers that activate the nightlight as they come to steal a hen, the cows that huff just behind the fence, the sheep that bleat the morning in and provide winter sustenance. The trees that drip with haws and sloes in autumn: fruits of the year’s story which I now have steeping in alcohol. I have swum in the tarn at the top of the fell every month until October – languid summer soaking contracting into brief gasping plunges – to reiterate my connection to this place. I have walked along the river Kent to the village many times to buy milk, post letters, or mostly just to see what the woods and the fields are doing – they the warp to my journeys’ weft.

I have made a point, while out on foot, of getting to know the neighbours who are at least a field distant in each direction. Ian, our nearest to the north, lives in a barn dating from the 13th century. He has lived there for many decades and is the kind of person you’d want to have onside in a crisis. He and his wife do without mains electricity and their water supply is run-off from the fell. He dedicates his time to inventing micro-hydro power schemes and saving other people’s ‘waste’ from landfill.

The power goes out. I get ahead of myself and call Ian to see if he has a gas oven in his waste stores. This lamb needs cooking, even if candlelight would be a welcome detail for a dinner party.

‘Have you got a power cut Ian?’

‘A power cut? We don’t do power cuts, love.’

Of course not. Of course he has a spare gas oven too and we ponder the practicalities of getting it here – the field and his track are both a quagmire. We agree to wait and see if the power comes back.

I lay a table cloth. The phone rings. My housemate Jonny has driven through a puddle on the way home from town, which turns out to be much deeper than it looks. His car will not start again. Our landlady goes to rescue him in her Land Rover.

The rain falls on, the volume increasing audibly. We know we need a plan B.


3pm. The power comes back. Everything feels possible again. I call each friend to ask them to converge at a safe point, from which we will collect them in the Land Rover. This is beginning to feel a little epic, but it is important to gather – moments which are becoming so rare these busy days, as we climb our broken-runged career ladders, and have more children, or don’t.

Jonny takes the reins with the lamb, rushing out in wellies just to pick some rosemary. I want to be in the kitchen preparing food, enjoying that process of translating the fell into a meal which will feed our friends with the time and love it took to exist. Instead I field endless phone calls.

The volume outside goes up again, and we are compelled to video the view from the living room – the path around the house becoming a cascade now. The sky darkens. The phone rings again. Lancaster is flooding. They’re not sure it’s wise to head out. The phone rings. It’s dodgy on the A69 from Newcastle – strong wind and rain, but they’ll keep persevering. ‘You don’t think I’m going to let a bit of water put us off do ya?!’ The phone rings. Dougie’s reached Carlisle but he’s turning back north while he still can. Tom and Nicole get the closest, but by then even the A591, the main artery through the Lake District, is closed. They attempt to return home, a little forlorn, with the vat of soup they had brought for the feast. We hear later that they could not make it back, and slept on the motorway, having found a rescue shelter to give the soup to.

8pm. We sit, just the two of us, the candles lit anyway and the lamb cooked, around 22 empty plates.

We do not yet know that in 14 hours our neighbour three fields away will be dead. As the rain pours on through the night, an oil barrel will be washed from upstream under the bridge below his house. It will get caught there, blocking the water flow, and cause a constant banging. After eating his porridge in the morning he will say to his 78-year-old partner, ‘We’d better go and see what this bangin’s about.’ Unstable on the slippery bank, he will attempt to retrieve the barrel from the beck to stop their yard from flooding. His partner will look on, nervous. He will suddenly disappear and shout her name. He will be under the bridge, squashed against the barrel in freezing water, hidden, as she wades in waste-deep to try and find him. He will remain there, dead, for hours as the rescue helicopter hovers up and down the river with a heat sensor, trying to find his body. He will be the ‘one fatality’ that the news reports briefly and inaccurately, before returning to other issues.

Neither we nor his widow-to-be yet know what close friends we will become – a relationship made possible by his absence. He is not a social man. She, a farmer, has lived with him loyally and lovingly, but secluded and not allowed visitors, for 50 years.

We do not yet know how much we will learn from each other – her perspective the long view and the close-to-home; ours the global and the mutable circumstances of youth. We will share literature, food, support and advice, and barrow several tons of manure from her stables to the midden as winter turns to spring. The backs and forths of our footsteps between houses will create a new path of belonging on the fell – marooning and loss giving way to intimacy. Knowing that, we will see that our plates were far from empty this night, and the guest at our table is greater than all of us.

Images
La Trajectoire, Constantin Schlachter
from The Gyrovagi’s Trajectory
Nature and its influences on the human psyche are the main topics that Schlachter explores in his project, The Gyrovagi’s Trajectory. In a free interpretation of the notion of an ascetic quest, his self-interrogation is nurtured through extended solitary retreats in the wild.
Schlachter shoots with instinct, sometimes manipulating photographs through both analogue and digital means. This process crystallises his thoughts, which focus on the emotion contained within the images. It loosens the images’ links with concrete reality, allowing the viewer to roam a mystical realm dominated by nature and our primeval myths.

Constantin Schlachter is an artist who works mainly with photography. Nature, the invisible and matter are all dominant entities in his work, through which he creates sensorial fictions that examine the spiritual dimension of being. Schlachter’s works is instinctive: a continuous stream of pictures within which named projects serve to punctuate the flow by crystallising his evolving feelings. constantin-schlachter.com

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

Indicator Species

The migration of the Mexican poor is the largest human movement across a border on the planet. It was triggered by the destruction of peasant agriculture at the hands of the North American Free Trade Agreement, by the corruption of the Mexican state, by the growing violence in Mexico, and exacerbated by the millions of Mexicans working illegally in the U.S. who send money home to finance their families’ trips north. It should be seen as a natural shift of a species. We need ecologists on the border; the politicians have become pointless.

–Charles Bowden

The Anthropocene – a neologism advanced by some for the new geologic age the planet has now entered, owing to the wild success the human species has enjoyed up until the present, and at the expense of most other species – is synonymous with The Sixth Great Extinction. The impetus of either phrase suggests the dominance of humanity to the detriment of non-human lifeforms, and this is certainly true.

Less spoken of is the fact that the drivers of the Sixth Great Extinction – science, technology, mass culture and mass communications, consumerism, natural resource depletion, economic globalisation, overpopulation – are also contributing to declines within the anthropic milieu. Humanity is encountering an intra-species cultural extinction – an extinction in human cultural diversity, on an equally alarming scale as non-human species. We are also experiencing a concomitant decrease in diversity in the so-called domesticated plants and animals that previous generations grew up relying on primarily for food.

While many living in the affluent cultures of the Global North have the luxury to fret over the decline of heritage pig breeds or the threat that GMO monocultures pose to heirloom vegetables and grains, billions of less fortunate human beings struggle just to have something to eat every day. As their physical, economic, and cultural habitats have been destroyed by the rapacious hunger of our consumerist society for ever more goods at ever cheaper prices, they have been forced by circumstance to assimilate with this alien culture, choosing physical survival over the loss of their own cultural identity. This choice usually entails the abandonment of the rural, the tribal, the local, or the ancestral landscape for jobs hundreds or thousands of miles away in the big cities.

In biological terms, the migration of species is nothing new. The ability to migrate for any species may be the greatest tool in the toolkit of evolutionary adaptation. Just as our hominid ancestors left the rift valley of Africa fleeing an evolutionary bottleneck for greener pastures elsewhere, humanity has always harboured the myth of the ‘Promised Land’. This myth for most of human history has held true: no less so for the first Native Americans who crossed the land bridge of the Bering Strait from Siberia into North America than for my own ancestors who more recently fled the famine in Ireland in the mid-19th century for a new life here in the US.

But the myth of the Promised Land is predicated on the existence of a relatively unpopulated, resource rich, and abundant territory in which to expand and prosper. With a population of 7.4 billion and growing, the world is now a crowded place, and abundance is relative as we enter a period of increasing global resource scarcity.

 

In ecology, there is the notion of the ‘indicator species’, a canary in the coal mine of sorts, the animal or vegetable most sensitive to change, which, when present, indicates a healthy ecosystem. Conversely, when this species becomes suddenly absent, it’s often an early indicator of a declining or failing ecosystem.

Species that are capable of travelling any considerable distance from their habitat usually will when their habitat begins to fail. Migratory birds in particular are increasingly viewed by scientists as indicators of the relative health of an ecosystem. They preferentially seek habitat with the requisite resources to sustain them. Human beings, other land mammals, and various forms of aquatic life – among others – all possess the ability to travel in order to seek out better habitat.

On the other hand, most human societies are very resilient and are the opposite of sensitive, as far as being any kind of early-warning system. Beginning in Neolithic times with the birth of agriculture and the domestication of animals, many formerly nomadic or tribal groups began to settle down and found cities and civilisations that were characteristically rooted in place. Humans generally adapt to the circumstances of their habitat until it is no longer feasible to do so, and the survival instinct takes hold, and then they migrate. Humanity is not in any strict sense an indicator species, but please bear with the analogy for the moment.

Take for example, the Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or virtually any dustbowl family from the agricultural American southwest of the 1930s. When the dual catastrophes of economic depression and climatic disruption set in, a mass exodus from the affected areas of Oklahoma, Texas and surrounding areas to the then relatively less populous and prospectively more prosperous state of California occurred, but only after these families endured years of hardship and uncertainty on their farms. For most it was a matter of survival when they finally made the tough decision to hit the road.

 

Human beings also like to understand things, to recognise patterns, to infer the outcome potential latent in any given course of events. It’s one of the things that is also responsible for our survival in the context of evolutionary history, and we’ve become pretty good at it. We look for signs, portents, omens, indicators. We try to establish the nature of cause and effect. We theorise and postulate, reckon and predict; we create stories and narratives to explain things. It’s the instinct at the root of both science and religion, and it may be the defining hallmark of our humanity in relation to other species.

Since at least the time of Thomas Malthus but probably even much further back in history, there has been an endeavour to apply this human urge to understand and predict to the issue of populations and resources. In other words, to figure out the carrying capacity of the human ecosystem before population overshoot occurs and the ecosystem collapses. In the last 50 years, scientists such as Garret Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, and the Limits to Growth working group headed by Dennis and Donella Meadows, among others, have warned that systemic collapse is approaching, as the exponential curve of population growth crosses the line representing the finite resources available to sustain that growth.

Even the scientist Norman Borlaug, widely hailed as the father of the so-called green revolution in agriculture, has warned of the limits of technological intervention to stave off the effects of our numbers here. But thresholds have already been crossed, emergent systems too complicated to extrapolate or model outcomes from are faltering. The problems we have created continue to outstrip our ability to solve them before it is too late.

Economists, petroleum geologists, and financiers have likewise warned of the phenomenon of Hubbert’s peak in relation to cheap and readily available oil, and more importantly, all of its ramifications for our advanced civilisation. While global peak oil has likely already occurred, it is unlikely that an equivalent green revolution breakthrough in energy will occur to save humanity from an impending crash. It won’t matter how much food can be grown (food heavily dependent on petroleum-based fertiliser inputs) if it can’t be efficiently harvested and brought to market. Fracking and deep-water drilling are temporary stop-gaps, fingers in a dike that is failing.

On the contrary, as we’ve seen over the past decade, increasingly complex and interconnected systems fail in strange and unpredictable ways. For example, as a result of NAFTA in particular and economic globalisation in general, the support price for corn (the staple food in the Mexican diet) moves in relation to the price of oil as that corn may now be turned into ethanol when oil prices cross a certain threshold, as they did in 2007. Americans will keep on driving and Mexicans will starve.

The increasingly dire predictions of scientists regarding rates of species extinction, climate change, population overshoot, and resource limits can continue to go mostly unheeded by the populations of the Global North because these things are, for now, an abstraction to the well-insulated societies we have built up for ourselves. We can just turn up the air conditioning and pay a little more for food and fuel.

But it is impossible to ignore the massed evidence, standing at our national doorsteps, of fellow human beings who have had to flee their homelands at great personal risk, to seek a better life – the only life now possible for them. Under the best of circumstances, all they can hope for is to live as strangers in a strange land.

In 2017 the unthinkable has already become reality, amidst a referendum for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, a Trump presidency in the US, and massacres perpetrated by Islamic extremists occurring with increasing regularity in continental Europe, provoking predictable political reactions.

The immigrants of the Global South, the cultures we’ve turned our backs on even as we profit from their labour, are the indicator species of our own societal collapse. The most sensitive and susceptible elements of our own species – the ones from whom everything has already been taken, the ones who have no recourse to technological mediation, whose subsistence economies have already been wrecked by globalisation, whose land succumbs to the rising seas, whose societies have been destroyed by imperial land grabs and resource wars – they are here now, knocking on our front doors, because they have nowhere else to go. On a planet dominated by the movements of human beings, we are our own indicator species.

 

The unprecedented numbers of Syrian, Iraqi, and North African immigrants that have flowed across Europe’s borders in recent years are for the most part casualties of the resource war that the US, Great Britain, and ‘the coalition of the willing’ brought to the Fertile Crescent and Libya. Though really this war has been fought in the name of progress – for anyone anywhere who drives a car, uses a computer, and enjoys the comforts that easy access to fossil fuel resources afford. Currently, that includes most of Europe and North America and much of Asia – the Global North. We are all complicit in this, and we’ll take whatever our populations believe we must to sustain it, under whatever pretence.

As much as we like to think about it as a culture war, a conflict of one cultural or religious identity over another, it really just boils down, at the end of the day, to who eats and who doesn’t. The Arab Spring, for all its much-touted utilisation of social media for political organisation, democratic principles, et cetera, was precipitated by the self-immolation of one Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizij. Bouazizij’s livelihood was selling food on the street, and this was taken from him one day by municipal officials in the city where he lived. So he set himself on fire in protest.

Screenshot 2017-04-21 at 15.33.30

In the US, immigration from Latin America has been a major political issue for my entire life. I don’t remember a time when Mexican and Central American Latinos were not present in my community, though. Some of their children were my classmates in grade school, we grew up speaking English and attending school and mass together, and they are as American as I am.

In the run up to the 1980 US general election, immigration from Latin America was an issue then as it is today. In video footage from a debate during preliminary campaigning for the Republican nomination that year, both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, the man who was to become Reagan’s vice president, sounded – there is no other word – compassionate. It was something to see, each one trying to outdo the other in demonstrating his sensitivity to the plight of those just then seeking to join in the so-called great American melting pot.

This is in stark contrast to the language Donald Trump has used recently to characterise Mexican immigrants in the United State. He has publicly suggested on numerous occasions that they represent the worst elements of Mexican society and that they are responsible for an increase in crime in the US. This is in addition to reinforcing the longstanding prejudice held by many Trump supporters that Latino immigrants are too lazy to work, but nonetheless somehow taking American jobs. I have to question the intelligence of those who make this inherently oxymoronic claim, which seems to be perennially applied to immigrants anywhere. An Austrian friend of mine recently posted a tongue-in-cheek infographic to his Facebook page, explaining the paradox as ‘Schrödinger’s Immigrant’.

 

Charles Bowden wrote ‘A Mexican dictator once noted that nothing ever happens in Mexico. Until it happens.’ Bowden was an American writer and journalist who spent a lot of time in Mexico, especially in the border city of Juarez, 30 feet across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. The city he described in much of his writings since the mid-1990s is a hell on earth, a rapidly growing community already populated by well over a million souls, most of them living in squalor.

Many are forced here by the poverty of the rural outlands, but all are trapped between the hammer of the failing Mexican state and the anvil of an exploitative and indifferent United States, to whom most are denied legal entry. Juarez has recently been called ‘the most dangerous place in the world’, but this would already have been apparent to anyone in 1996 who read Bowden’s unique book, Juarez: The Laboratory of our Future.

The book is uncommon in many interesting ways, but foremost in that it is a collaboration between Bowden and the Mexican street photographers who risked their lives to document the cruelty, terror, and degradation that is everyday life for many in Juarez. In photographing the victims of the police, the gangs, and the drug cartels responsible for most of the violence, the photographers risked the same fate as that of their subjects. Many of the photos in this book are of cadavers, some of them showing signs of having been viciously tortured before being killed and left in the dumping grounds of the adjacent desert.

The photos as much as the writing bear witness to the plight of those who will inhabit the world we are now bringing into being everywhere. The rural poor, whose agricultural livelihood has been destroyed by the economics of globalisation or the general anarchy of living in a failed state or the vicissitudes of an increasingly unpredictable climate, wind up in Juarez.

Or they end up in cities just like it, the world over, working for slave wages in the usually foreign-owned sweat shops. In the case of Juarez, these are called maquiladoras, and many are situated just across the physical border with the United States. Here the cheap and easy conveniences of global trade are churned out by the truckload. This work never pays well enough to sustain the workers, so many turn to crime – prostitution, drug trafficking, gangs – just to survive.

Or they try to cross the border into the US. In a later work, Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future (2007), Bowden writes

They are sleeping on the street or under the trees down by the river, and they tell me of their journey north, tell of the men who tried to kill them or rape them or rob them and they are rolling over Jordan as soon as night comes down but they are so very hungry and I start handing over money, ten dollars, twenty dollars, forty dollars, and they stream towards stands selling tacos in the street, and there are many words for them and their fate, studies of migrations, failed economies, declining resources, words that clatter on the floor of a bar like small change, and I turn to leave and get into my car and they claw at the windows like animals and follow me as I plow down the rutted street and flee from what is everywhere but now is hot breath on my neck.

Juarez could be anywhere, and soon it will be almost everywhere. In the words of Joe Strummer: It could be anywhere/Most likely could be any frontier any hemisphere/In no-man’s-land/There ain’t no asylum here/King Solomon, he never lived ‘round here.

Juarez, Caracas, the Gaza Strip, Baghdad, Karachi, Manila, Cape Town, New Orleans, Aleppo –

Go straight to hell, boys…

 

Charles Bowden through his writings, and his photographer-collaborators in their images, show us a world of consequences – none of them happy – for the societal choices we’ve made in this life, knowingly or otherwise. The laboratory of our collective future is a hellish place: It looks a lot more like the favelas of Sao Paulo than the pipe dreams of Palo Alto. And the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

What can we do besides turn away in despair? Bowden has summarised the question more succinctly: ‘How can a person live a moral life in a culture of death?’ This is the question of our times. It has been since at least the Second World War, when our philosophers and writers, artists and cultural leaders – the better among them anyway, seriously began asking it.

Still the question remains, growing in urgency as the circle of death spreads outward, consuming ever more. The alarms are all sounding, the indicators, either through their absence or presence, are piling up daily. Will we ever have the courage to seriously ask ourselves such questions? If so, will we have the courage to answer honestly? I hope so.

Images
Herd (not seen), Daro Montag, detail
Charred wooden animals purchased from charity shops
The climate is changing. Species are disappearing from the body of the Earth at an alarming rate. Extinction is forever. Yet people like animals. Many people collect carved wooden animals as souvenirs from their travels. Or as gifts for their friends. Often such trophies are hand carved from tropical wood by poorly paid workers. Some of these wooden animals end up in charity shops when they are no longer wanted. As an artist I shall receive a fee as my commission to create a new work. I propose using this entire fee to purchase wooden animals from charity shops. The money will be recycled. The collected animals will be charred. Wood is rich in carbon. Charring organic matter is a method for stabilising carbon to reduce atmospheric CO2. The charred animals will be placed in the gallery. Ultimately the animals will be buried in the ground. Their carbon content will be returned to the soil. The project will be documented.

Daro Montag‘s art practice starts from the premise that the natural world is best understood as being constituted of interacting events rather than consisting of discrete objects. This philosophical position foregrounds the significance of process and its residue. Another ongoing project is RANE-CHAR, in which biochar is produced and distributed as a means of raising awareness and mitigating climate change. www.rane-research.org

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

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 11

Beyond Straight Lines

When things get messy, people reach for straight lines. In times of confusion, the impulse to take refuge in simplicity – simple choices, simple forms of identity, simple stories – can be deeply reassuring; borders keep entities intact, not just apart. Liminal spaces and in-between zones are things to be feared and avoided. Constructing barriers, real or imagined, is part of an ancient cultural drive to divide the black from the white, and push troublesome grey areas back into the nacreous realms of the subconscious where they belong.

History, especially Western history, provides much evidence of the urge to micro-manage reality’s mess. With the simplicity of hindsight the Enlightenment is viewed as a time in which the shadowed superstitions of the past were exposed and swept away, ushering in a rational age of quantification, measurement and ordered progress. Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and zoologist dubbed the ‘father of taxonomy’, classified plants and animals into formal hierarchies of kingdoms, classes, orders, genera and species, sorting the seeming chaos of life into a bestial simulacrum of the European class system. In the age of empire – itself an exercise in standardisation as well as military might – much of this systematising drive came from the British Isles; Luke Howard classified the clouds according to Linnaean principles, Francis Beaufort numbered the winds, and the world was divided into time-zones bisecting the globe as neatly as the segments of an orange. Geologists split time itself into eons and eras, epochs and ages that gave the impression of orderly transfer – the Devonian giving way to the Cretaceous like a peaceful handover of power – anchoring our species against the horror of deep time.

But the lines separating these things remained – and remain – illusory. Such borders, powerful though they seem, are only one way of seeing the world; like so many human inventions, they are better understood not as facts, but stories.

This book is published at just such an illusory border. Following the Brexit vote that shook the EU, and the election of Donald Trump that rocked the US, voices from across the political spectrum loudly called time on liberalism, the post-1945 international consensus and even globalisation; its death throes soundtracked, apparently, by national anthems from the right rather than the protest chants of the anti-capitalist left. Pundits labelled 2016 as the year in which liberal democracy died and something not yet named (Illiberalism? Populism? Nativism? Post-globalisation?) neatly took its place. Suddenly the internationalist era – an age of corporate levelling, ever-increasing connectedness and political apathy that accompanied the supposed triumph of free-market capitalism – felt as outdated as the one that preceded it. Now, it seems, viewing the world in grand sweeps is back in fashion. End times are in vogue again. As a French nationalist politician tweeted after the US election: ‘Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.’

Dark Mountain: Issue 11 takes as its premise the notion of endings – cultural, social, ecological, political, existential – but recognises that things seldom end, or begin, in well-mannered ways.

All very dramatic (and great for news soundbites) until we step back a bit to take a longer view. Is this the dawn of a new era, or rather a tired rehashing of all-too-familiar narratives – national pride, purity, redemption after decline and corruption – just another strand of the time-worn myth of progress? At a time when we need alternative stories more than ever, the twentieth century seems caught on loop: industrial capitalism occasionally spiked by nationalism, occasionally screened by liberalism, but the cogs of the machine keep whirling much the same. Beyond the political-cultural babble the coal plants are still being built, the mountains are still being levelled for mines, the bottom-of-the-barrel scrabble to prop up fossil fuel economies continues with tar sands and fracking, the sale of SUVs booms, and – despite feel-good nativist posturing to the contrary – extractive globalisation proceeds apace, driven by the seemingly unstoppable logic of consumption. As a corollary of this, the oceans continue acidifying, Indonesian forest fires raze millions of hectares of trees, another Antarctic ice shelf calves, and nonhuman species blink out of existence everywhere on Earth.

Still we grasp at solid lines. We border ourselves with a global temperature rise of 1.5°C – a number picked as much for its neatness, and political practicability, as what it actually represents in terms of dangerous climate change – raising the target above our heads like a roof in stormy weather. We bemoan passing the symbolic threshold of 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere – a level last seen in the Pliocene, four million years ago – as if everything was ‘normal’ back at 399. Perhaps most reductively, we tell ourselves that the Holocene has given way to the Anthropocene, an epoch that signifies total human dominance of the planet. But such divisions are seldom so tidy. Even the convenient border drawn between humans and animals – the ultimate ‘us and them’ – degrades with the uncomfortable fact that our bodies comprise at least as many bacteria cells as ‘human’ cells; it makes more sense to think of ourselves as colonies of organisms rather than individuals. Once we break free from straight-line thinking, the truth is much more messy.

That messiness is, in part, what this book tries to articulate. Dark Mountain: Issue 11 takes as its premise the notion of endings – cultural, social, ecological, political, existential – but recognises that things seldom end, or begin, in well-mannered ways. The uncivilised writing and artwork you will find within these pages explores the liminal territory between simplistic poles; an untidy realm in which some worlds appear to be ending completely, some partially, some not at all, and in which entirely new beginnings emerge from the cracks in between. Tim Fox suggests that the apocalypse, that hackneyed staple of environmental doom-scenarios, is not some future fantasy but, in ecological terms, an event already underway; but also that mass extinctions lead to mass diversifications. From a Hebridean pilgrimage Alastair McIntosh reminds us that apokalyptein originally meant not the end of all things, but the revelation of something hidden; Charlotte McGuinn Freeman, meanwhile, takes us on a personal journey through family tragedy and explores what happens next, after the world stops. Essays by John Rember, Daniel Nakanishi-Chalwin and others take a long, hard look at the common end that awaits us all, while a striking image from Tanja Leonardt suggests that life, of a sort, continues in the war-ravaged ruins of a Bosnian factory.

Much of the content is rooted in home: Sarah Thomas sends dispatches from a flooded Cumbrian fell, Francesca Schmidt from a village in the former East Germany, and Garry Williams cuts a temporary home from a raft of ice on a frozen Norwegian lake. Darren Allen coins new terms for a world in dramatic – and often humorous – flux, while the Confraternity of Neoflagellants brings us a kind of ‘high-tech uncivilised’ writing we’ve never seen before. Elsewhere Matt Miles views human migration as the canary in the coal mine of ecological disruption, Caroline Ross sources art materials from a world that ended a thousand years ago, and Jane Lovell’s poetry sifts through the paleological rubble of cosmic upheaval.

As old certainties unravel ever more suddenly, and with consequences that grow increasingly unpredictable, our eleventh publication reflects these turbulent times as they are: uncivilised, seldom straight and defiantly unsimple. We hope you enjoy the diversity of beginnings and endings inside, and join us in navigating new stories among the remains of the old.

– The Editors, spring 2017

Cover Image
Pink Figure, Blue World by Will Gill
Photograph Svalbard, Norway
Part explorer. Part outcast. Part survivor. From the series No Man’s Land by Canadian artist Will Gill, these images were made during an artist residency in Svalbard, Norway, in the autumn of 2014. Twenty-eight artists from around the world sailed aboard a three-masted barquentine to one of the most forbidding environments on the planet. Accompanied by sculptural props and a custom-made light reactive suit, the artist set out to stage photographs in the alien landscape. The results explore aspects of life somewhere near the end: resignation, curiosity, boredom, hope, wonder and despair.

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

 

 

The Devil’s Door: A Call for Contributions to Issue 12

Old churches were often built on older sites of worship, places held to be sacred long before Christianity arrived. At first glance, this looks like an erasure, a demonstration of dominance; look closer, though, and the picture becomes ambiguous. Officially, a people might have been baptised, yet in practice the results were not always so clear-cut – local understandings had to be reached. One form this took was a custom by which different doors of the church were used on different occasions: the main door, usually on the south side, was the one through which the priest would enter; the north door was used for those ceremonies to which the priest was not invited. Such arrangements could last for centuries, though for obvious reasons they tended to go undocumented.

I first caught a trace of this phenomenon some years ago, visiting a Saxon church in Sussex. The building was unattended, the door unlocked, an information sheet pasted to a wooden paddle to guide the visitor around the building. One line on that sheet lodged in my imagination: the north door, it stated, without further explanation, used to be known as ‘the devil’s door’. This felt like a glimpse of another story to the ones we’re used to hearing from either the enthusiasts or the critics of religion: a story of uneasy coexistence, the persistence of supposedly extinct beliefs and practices, and how different stories about the world and our place within it may share a sense that there are certain places where the veil between time and the timeless grows thin.

That image of the devil’s door came back to me, this winter, as the editorial discussions about this year’s special issue of Dark Mountain got underway. Any issue of Dark Mountain is a strange beast; award-winning authors and new literary voices sit alongside the words of people who make no claim to be writers. What they have in common is that they bring stories, perspectives and experiences that add to the conversation this project has sought to foster over the past eight years. It’s a conversation about what it means to live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling – a time when the way of living which many of us grew up taking for granted is being brought into question by its own consequences.

We set out to see what happens when you accept that the mess in which we find ourselves is deep enough that to try to acknowledge it can sound like falling into despair. We set out to trace the roots of that mess in the dominant stories of the societies in which we grew up: the story of progress, the story of human separation from and dominance over nature, the story that we have grown beyond being shaped by stories. We set out to see what role those of us who are, in one way or another, storytellers and culture-makers might have to play in finding our bearings within this mess. We did not set out to tangle with questions of the sacred – but it turns out that, if you deal seriously with any of the above, then such questions begin to present themselves.

Although it has rarely been brought into the foreground, the theme of the sacred runs as a subtle thread throughout Dark Mountain’s books, posts and gatherings. Our first issue opened with an essay by an archdruid and went on to include a roaring invocation of the wildness of Francis of Assisi. We’ve run contributions from activist Quakers, Hindu clergy and Zen Buddhists, alongside those of no named religion who nevertheless have come to see that their desire to defend the living world is, at its heart, driven by a reverence that owes nothing to the realm of carbon calculators and environmental statistics.

In our festivals, meetings and gatherings, another aspect of the role religion used to play, and still does for many, came to the surface – the effect that quiet contemplation, collective endeavour and even simple ritual can have in reminding us of deeper meaning and value, easily forgotten in the haste and exigencies of modern life. I remember one of our contributors saying in a discussion at the second or third festival, ‘This is the closest thing I have to going to church.’ Not for a moment would I want to set this project up as any kind of religious congregation, but I recognise what she was getting at.

Dark Mountain offers no dogma or moral instruction, but if it has sometimes brushed up against the experience of the sacred, I guess it’s because that is just what happens when people come together in the face of the unknown, finding a sense of communion that is often lacking elsewhere, and making room for the strange kinds of words that point towards the wordless.

You may have other terms in which you would choose to talk about this – and for some, any talk of the sacred may sound like drawing on a poisoned well, or simply a nonexistent well, dreamed up to pull wool over gullible eyes – yet this language keeps returning, as does the experience of those who, whichever door they enter by, find themselves drawn to the ground which it seeks to name. So it seems like time to stop skirting around the edges of the topic, and to bring together an issue of Dark Mountain that takes the sacred as its focus.

* * *

What are we looking for, then?

We want to do something slightly different with this book. We’re not making our usual open call for submissions with a deadline in three months’ time. Instead, if you have an idea for something you want to write – or someone else we should be talking to – we want to hear from you straight away.

We’re looking for proposals for long pieces (probably non-fiction of one kind or another – essays, memoirs, reflections, interviews, dialogues – but we’re open to other suggestions) of 4000-6000 words that tell stories that touch on the experience of the sacred in a time of unravelling. You could be writing about something you’ve experienced first-hand; or taking us into the back-alleys of myth or history, into ways of living and making sense of the world that call our contemporary assumptions into question. But whatever you want to write about, there should be a sense of why this calls to you, how it has helped you to find your bearings.

Have a think about whether there’s a piece you could write – and email us with a short outline, no more than three paragraphs, to [email protected]. We’ll be pulling together a shortlist in the next few weeks, so get your ideas to us as soon as you can. If what you’re proposing seems like a good fit, we’ll work with you to develop it into a piece for the book. If you have something you’ve already written that you think would fit, you should still start by sending us a summary. (In general, we’re not looking for pieces that have already been published elsewhere, though where the existing audience has been limited and unlikely to overlap with our readership, we may make an exception).

We’re also looking for fragments: short pieces of prose or verse that give a glimpse of the different ways in which people have drawn on the experience of the sacred to make sense of times of unravelling, disorientation and despair. These could be original work, but we’re also particularly interested in translations of texts from different times and places. Send these to us at [email protected].

Finally, we’re looking for suggestions for people we should be contacting: to get as wide a range of voices as we are hoping for in this book, we will need to reach beyond the existing network of readers and writers around Dark Mountain, so if you have ideas for people we should be approaching about writing for this book (or being interviewed for it), then we’d like to hear from you – again, via [email protected].

It might also be worth saying a couple of words about what we’re not looking for – we’re not particularly interested in polemics for or against religion, nor overarching theories that try to explain the entire history of civilisation. This won’t be a book that seeks to settle age-old arguments, but it should be a space in which different ways of seeing the world meet.

In terms of the range of voices we’re looking for, we imagine this will include:

  • Those who stand, one way or another, within a variety of established religious traditions.
  • Those unable to abide within an established tradition, who find themselves nonetheless drawn to improvise alternatives to some of the institutions or practices that such a tradition might have offered (for example, we think of people we’ve met who are trying to recreate things that resemble certain aspects of the monastery or the weekly gathering for worship) – or who have something to say about where else the cultural ‘energy’ of the sacred is showing up these days.
  • Those who stand within cultures whose understandings of the sacred have never been enclosed within a church or a temple, or within dogma or the written word – and especially voices from indigenous cultures.

As we say, there isn’t a submissions deadline for this issue – we’ll be starting to work with contributors over the next few weeks, on the basis of the proposals we receive, and when we get to the stage where we have a full set of pieces underway, we’ll update this post to say so. [Update 5/5/17: We have now closed for proposals and submissions for this issue. If you’ve already submitted, we’ll be in touch with you soon.]

Finally, if you’d like to follow the progress of this issue, we’re starting a special newsletter that you can sign up for here. We’ll be sharing more of the process by which a Dark Mountain book comes about, the conversations going on among the editorial team, the things we’re reading and thinking about, and the places where we need help to fill the gaps in our knowledge and contacts.

 

Image: Lud’s Church, Andrew Barclay (CC)

In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here

The Glimpse

Nownakitsalapitsu (I’m going to tell you a story)…

Hot and grimy from hard work in the manioc orchard the two sisters trot down the path between fruit trees, across the broad cleared plain, and along another path through the forest that lines the river. They go quite a way before they stop. The women would like to bathe and collect water in private, away from the hungry eyes of the men and the abrasive gossip of the women of their village. Every moment of every day they are with others, except these short times, relieving themselves, or at the river.

Here it is, their favourite spot. The trees clear a little in this place before a mud bank that slopes gently down to the river’s edge. The smell of the water and earth is fresh and sweet in the warm morning air. Behind them a Shatoba tree rises up, spreading its huge arms over the glen. They put down their clay vessels and wade into the water.

They are almost finished bathing when both sisters glimpse a shining hump break the surface of the water. Something about the sight raises the hair on their skin. They stand gazing at the glimmering wake on the other side of the river. Through the moving light, now they make out a form – a huge black caiman. As they watch intently, with some fear, the skin of the animal parts and a man steps out. He is the most beautiful person they have ever seen. It at first appears that his body is decorated with the same urucum paste and genipapo sap used by the men of their village. Then they see the designs, in caiman shapes, are part of his skin. There is also something of that animal in his powerful lines. They desire him. ‘Yakashukumaaaaaaaaa! Awainkaritsawaka!’, ‘Great Caiman! Come and “eat” us!’ He doesn’t seem to hear, then he turns to look at them with eyes that shine like stars. Quicker and easier than they have ever seen a man swim, he crosses the river. He makes love to both. Afterwards, when they part, he returns to the caiman skin which still lies on the other side of the river, puts it on like clothing and swims away.

Back at the village it is all they can think about, and they whisper about their secret and decide to return the next day and call Yakashukuma to them again. That afternoon they paint themselves with genipapo drawings, and when it is time the next day they each put on their newest uluri belts and best yanakwimpi beads around their necks and paint a bright orange epitsiri band across their plucked brows. When they feel as lovely as they can be they make their way back to the same spot at the river. ‘Yakashukumaaaaaaaaa! Awainkaritsawaka!’ they call. The huge caiman appears and again the man steps out of its skin and makes love to them.

This goes on for many days, and people start to notice how the sisters dress up every day and how happy they are. Their husband can see this too and one day he decides to follow them. When the two of them make out for the river he follows without their knowledge. Hiding in the bushes at the edge of the glen he watches his wives call their lover, the man step out of the caiman skin, and the man-animal make love to each of them. He returns to the village and calls the men together. They decide to all go, with arrows and batons, and kill the caiman. The next day they secretly follow the sisters down to the river and crouch in the bushes waiting. They watch the call and the arrival of the lover and are silent until after the he is exhausted from making love to both women. Then they burst from their hiding places to attack the man-animal. They kill him and leave the women wailing over his remains.

When the men are gone, the sisters collect up the body of their lover and bury it in the earth. Every day they return to the burial place and weep. One day, as they crouch there they see that from the place where they buried their lover a plant is sprouting. In time the plant grows into a gorgeous tree that bears fruit.

The fruit is bright orange, delicious and rich, with a wonderfully fragrant oil to anoint the body. It is the first akãi tree; it will become the sacred tree of their people. To this day the Mehinaku and their neighbours wait with great anticipation for the ripening of this fruit and celebrate its harvest in a joyous festival.


***

I took my time writing out this myth. Old myths like these, of giant caimans, grass-blade maidens and trickster-armadillos, can seem utterly bizarre and unapproachable when told briefly. It was always told to me in detail, with relish even:Yakashukumaaaaaa! Awainkaritsawaka!’ People love to call out this refrain and I have heard this tale many times during my fieldwork.

In writing it here the question is: what can you, the reader, do with this perhaps strange story from what is probably another land? It is nested within a bigger question: what is the meaning of any of these strange tales we call myths in this age we find ourselves living in?

***

I will start with the bigger question.
There is of course a long western history, in myriad disciplines, of grappling with the subject of myth and its significance. The word itself comes from the ancient Greeks whose tales were of the gods. And this is the way the word has been traditionally used: to denote ‘the stories of the gods’, whatever gods, from whichever cultures happen to be in question. Historically this term has been blended with the meaning of the Latin word for story, fabula, with its connotations of untruthfulness (Kane 1998:32-34). In common sense usage too, the word ‘myth’ is given to say something is unreal. This ‘agnostic reflex’, as Corbin (1972) puts it, means that myth has been treated as outside of the actual world, and or difficult to understand: ‘the strange identifications that are those of mythic thought’ (vi-Strauss in Overing 1985:153).But what of a definition that cleaves closer to what traditional myths mean to the people who actually tell them, and who believe them? The Mehinaku word for myth is ownaki, a word used for creation myths as well as tales of more recent events, and also everyday occurrences. Mehinaku people tend to pattern their experience in a kind of story-logic. For them the things that occur in life never ‘just happen’, they are understood to have to do with entities and forces often beyond human perception, giving a kind of meaningfulness to events, a sense of the mythic. In other words, far from the notion of myths being untrue stories, for the Mehinaku myths describe forces that are real and tangible to them and that give life inherent meaning.The entities or powers described in Mehinaku myths are different aspects of the natural world with which they have lived for generations. The myths then are an expression, a recording, often extremely detailed, of knowledge about the place they live. As western and other cultures have in various ways grown increasingly separated from the natural world, their myths either speak of this divorce, or do not speak of the natural world at all. So instead of communicating human wisdom about nature, myth often becomes a reflexive, neurotic human story about humans themselves, unanchored and megalomaniacal. As Ben Okri put so elegantly in his novel The Famished Road, ‘A people are as healthy as the stories they tell themselves’ (1991).

***

I have digressed far
from the bend of the river of our myth and our first question of what such a story might mean to us. If we now understand that Mehinaku myth expresses understanding of their natural world, what wisdom is being articulated by this story of the sisters and their animal lover, his brutal murder and the sacred fruit tree, and how do we relate to it?I loved this myth the first time I heard it. My first impression was that it was a gorgeous tale, and with the elegance of a truth. That was my sense of it without trying to work out why. I remember feeling the love story to be mysterious and lovely, and then of course, tragic, but with profound redemption. This experience of myth as, ‘”something mysterious”, invisible, intelligent and whole’ (Kane 1998:45), is not in addition to the knowledge of the natural world that myths contain, it is part of that knowledge. The forces that myths describe are often beyond human ability to comprehend, and so when that mystery is successfully evoked by a myth it means that the listener or reader has experienced something of the nature of those forces.The most mysterious moment for me, the place I find myself in the story (as Martin Shaw would say), is in that first hair-raising glimpse of something glimmering on the water. The nameless longing to see more, know more, and of who knows what. It’s that feeling perhaps we’ve all had of glimpsing something out of the corner of our eye, something that fills us with yearning or maybe just wistfulness. The crucial thing to me is that the sisters do not dismiss what they have sighted. They keep looking, intently. The reason they do that is because they know about the land around them, because of what we might call their ‘cosmology’. They know that the strange shimmer on the water is shining from another world (the word ‘glimpse’ actually comes from the word ‘glimmer’: ‘to shine faintly with a wavering light’). There are a number of worlds, each with a different luminosity. The human world is only the way humans perceive it; other beings perceive utterly differently, their perception forming alternate ‘consensus realities’. When Yakashukuma steps out of his caiman skin and looks at them with his star-eyes, there is no doubt they are in the presence of a denizen of the world of the apapanye. He is a ‘man-animal’, gente-bicho, as they say in Portuguese; one of those beings, usually invisible, that make the animals and plants and other things we live amongst. The Mehinaku speak of how to literally glimpse something from another reality can move one into that reality, so that a ‘change of eyes’ occurs. Therefore, when the women meet the eyes of Yakashukuma they are drawn into a realm that is usually invisible to their own, and after them they draw the rest of the village in what becomes a mixing of worlds.To put it simply, the sisters hold their gaze on something at the border of their senses because they have knowledge that other worlds are there, imminent to their own. These are people who have long lived in close, daily and intricate relationship to the animals and plants and rivers that surround them, and have developed profound knowledge about how to do so. Do you follow your glimpse out of the corner of your eye, or do you keep walking or talking? Have we been taught to dismiss these experiences? Growing up, except in the fiction I read, I had virtually no cultural knowledge that other perspectival realities might be coexisting with my own. Only in my own reflections and from oblique ideas I came across did I ever have rudimentary thoughts about such things. Some readers of this might do this already but for those who don’t, as well as for myself, I ask: what would it be to trust our glimpse, even in a very literal way to believe in our senses, to develop our peripheral vision as we go about our day. To be as awake as a longbow hunter in a forest when we take the dog for a walk. What might we find out about the place we live?And what happens when we do stay with that glance? In the case of the sisters and listeners of this myth, we witness a human world permeable to other worlds, the passion and love that can exist between humans and the non-human world and how such feeling and tenderness can create the most beautiful transformations, and literally be fruitful to one’s people, though not without sacrifice. At a moment in history when disaster looms, I wonder about what we might find out, what strength and true knowledge we could discover by following the clues that glimmer at the edge of our vision.

 

References
Corbin, Henry. 1964. ‘The Imaginary and the Imaginal’. Spring.
Kane, Sean. 1998. Wisdom of the Mythtellers. Broadview Press.
vi-Strauss, Claude in Overing, Joanna. 1985. Reason and Morality. Tavistock Press.
Okri, Ben. 1993. The Famished Road. Anchor Books

This is the final post in our series The Mythos We Live By (edited by Charlotte Du Cann). Many thanks to all our contributors.