Fragile

I steered my little yacht Coral through the confused water of the tidal stream that poured out between Garbh Eilean and Eilean Mhuire. The calm pool opened in front of me, littered with specks of white as if some giant had cast handfuls of torn up paper across the surface. Soon Coral was surrounded by puffins, with their startling white breasts, the distinctive markings around their eyes and brightly coloured beaks. The air was full of puffins too, so full they seemed more like a cloud of mosquitoes than a flock of birds.

I was in the final stages of my travels, which over two summers had taken me and Coral from the south coast of England, round the west coast of Ireland and through the Western Isles to the far north of Scotland, mainly single handed. As I turned southward, I made for the small archipelago of the Shiant Islands, an isolated group, separated from Lewis by the Sound of Shiant, notorious for its strong tides, overfalls and underwater hazards.

***

I saw my travels as an ecological pilgrimage. There is a longstanding tradition in most human societies of making a journey, more or less arduous, away from the comforts of home in search of new insights and deeper understandings. This practice may be as old as the human species: Mesolithic peoples in Europe certainly made long journeys to the sacred sites marked by stone circles; the Aboriginal people of Australia take extended walks along ‘songlines’, re-enacting the journeys of ‘creator-beings’ during the Dream Time.

The idea and practice of pilgrimage developed in a religious context. One thinks of the requirement of good Muslims to undertake the Hajj at least once in their lives; of the Christian pilgrimages of the Middle Ages and the continuing contemporary practices; of the vast numbers of Hindu devotees who travel to sacred sites on the River Ganges; and of Buddhists who walk the difficult path to circumnambulate Mount Kailash.

In its fullest sense, pilgrimage entails a long journey in search of qualities of moral or spiritual significance, a journey across both outer physical and inner spiritual landscapes. Pilgrims separate themselves from home and familiars, maybe joining a group of like-minded seekers and wearing special clothes or other marks to indicate their pilgrim status. The pilgrimage journey offers a fluid and imaginative space between the everyday and the eternal, a liminal zone between body and soul, heaven and Earth, humanity and divinity. For it is not easy to move across the boundaries between these worlds when locked in the familiarity of the everyday.

Religious pilgrimages are taken to sacred sites in order to encounter a holy realm for worship and the affirmation of faith, in search of illumination and for healing.

As I conceive it, the ecological pilgrimage seeks a primal, heartfelt connection with the Earth itself and the community of life that has evolved on Earth. It is also a celebration and an act of homage, honouring the Earth as the more-than-human world of which we are a part, existing for itself rather than for human use. By taking the pilgrim away from the habits of civilisation and by disrupting the patterns of everyday life, pilgrimage offers an opening to a different view of the Earth of which we are a part.

***

Before I left for Scotland, I read about the Shiant Islands and studied the sailing directions. I learned to pronounce the name properly, in one softened syllable: ‘Shant’. The little archipelago is made up of three rugged islands: to the west Garbh Eilean and Eilean an Tighe are joined by a natural boulder isthmus; across an open pool to the northeast lies Eilean Mhuire. Adam Nicolson, whose family have owned the islands for many years writes, ‘The rest of the world thinks there is nothing much to them. Even on a map of the Hebrides the tip of your little finger would blot them out. But the Shiants… are not modest. They stand out high and undoubtable.’ Although keen to visit, I doubted whether it would be possible, for they are very exposed and offer little shelter. But it seemed I was lucky: the weather was quiet, with a smooth sea yet enough wind to sail. Nevertheless, I approached them with caution, keeping an eye on the tidal streams and carefully noting landmarks.

Once I was safely in the pool and had got over the thrill of seeing so many puffins, I turned my attention to getting Coral settled. The recommended anchorage is by the isthmus that connects Garbh Eilean and Eilean an Tighe. This is protected from the prevailing westerly winds, but open to the light easterlies blowing that morning. Since these volcanic islands rise abruptly from the seabed, the bottom shoals steeply and consists of boulders, so there is no sediment of mud or sand into which the anchor can sink and get a good grip. It took a little while before I was happy that the anchor was holding, with Coral tucked into the corner between the isthmus and the precipitous cliffs of Eilean an Tighe.

With Coral safely anchored, I could look around. I soon realised that there were nearly as many razorbills as puffins in the pool. They are also auks, but rather bigger, distinguished by a black beak with a white line across it, joining a similar line across the face to the eye. The razorbills seem on the whole less nervous than the puffins: I watched one swimming within a couple of yards of Coral, quite undisturbed as I moved about the deck. When it decided to dive I was able to watch it turn tail up and, once underwater, open its wings to fly down beneath Coral’s keel, the bubbles of air around its feathers gleaming as they caught the sunlight.

Looking up again across the pool, I realised that there were tens of thousands of puffins and razorbills, for this is one of the major nesting places in the North Atlantic. There were, of course, other birds: shags, black-backed gulls, kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, and the odd gannet. For me the most impressive were the skuas, big, heavily built seabirds, brown, with two white stripes on their wing. Skuas are known as ‘kleptoparasites’ because of their habit of stealing food from other birds: I watched one attack a gull, hanging onto its wing as they tumbled together to the water to make it regurgitate its meal. I am sure that given half a chance they would snatch a puffin chick, as would the big gulls. I imagined the links in the local food chain: marine plankton feeding sand-eels, sand-eels feeding baby birds and baby birds feeding skuas and gulls.

I spent the afternoon sitting in the cockpit watching the birds and enjoying the changing light. A few yachts visited, but none stayed for long; a couple of fishing boats chugged through the pool. As the long northern evening drew in I began preparations for the night. The weather was calm enough for it to be safe to stay overnight at the islands, but I wanted to move to a more secure anchorage. The dark cliffs and the stony isthmus looked too close, and if the anchor were to drag Coral would soon be ashore. Even if the light winds persisted through the night, it felt unseamanlike to sleep while she was anchored off a lee shore where there was poor holding.

So I hauled up the anchor and motored round the end of Eilean an Tighe to the western side of the isthmus. This anchorage is open to the swell of the Little Minch and disturbed by the tidal movement through the Sound of Shiant. Despite this, with the light wind blowing Coral away from the islands, she felt safer. Two Danish yachts had already taken the best positions but I was able to find a spot where the anchor held closer inshore.

In the early evening the crews of the Danish yachts returned from their expeditions ashore, and soon there was a whiff of diesel and rattle of anchor chains as they left the anchorage and disappeared north round the end of Garbh Eilean. With their departure I felt suddenly alone and vulnerable. I checked the forecast on my iPhone yet again, even though that meant waiting ages for the weak signal to load the page. I looked again at the anchor chain – it was hanging almost vertical, I had plenty of scope out, so all was well there. I looked about me and consulted the chart to see how I would leave the anchorage in the dark if I needed to – there was sea room to the southwest. There was no rational reason why I should not stay safely overnight, so I took myself in hand, sat down quietly, made myself breath properly and look out at the world around me rather than inwards to my anxieties. I might feel exposed, just a speck in a vast sky and expanse of sea, but I could relax and appreciate it.

The evening wore on, the light faded and I became enveloped in the quiet mystery of twilight. Coral pitched gently on the light swell. Little waves rolled continuously up to the stony shore and broke with a hollow crash on the boulders. The mound of Garbh Eilean loomed above me, dark against the evening sky, the details of the basalt columns obscured. Nicolson’s little cottage on Eilean an Tighe stood out ghostly white, then, as the light faded away, merged with the hillside behind. Looking over Coral’s stern, past the line of rocks and islets that stretches toward the mainland, I searched the surface of the Sound for a glimpse of the flashing green light on the buoy that marks Damhag. All I could see was the grey sea and the distant hazy line of Lewis.

Through the evening the inexhaustible stream of puffins flew overhead; the skuas and black-backed gulls continued their patrols around the cliff tops. If I peered out to sea I could just make out the white flash of gannets on a late search for fish. I sat out late, enchanted by my surroundings while still feeling strangely vulnerable, reluctant to go to bed.

***

The word that keeps coming to my mind to describe this evening is ‘fragile’. It captures both the strength and the vulnerability of my situation, of the puffins and of the islands themselves. The Shiants are the nesting ground of one of the last flourishing populations for puffins: huge populations in Iceland and elsewhere have quite suddenly disappeared as climate change has brought warm waters that have disturbed the delicate ecological balance on which they depend. The basalt columns that form the Shiant Islands appear strong and stable, but are weakly jointed; over time, wind and waves penetrate the joints, allowing large chunks to break away. And indeed of all of us, despite the veneer of civilisation, are at root unprotected in a wild world and the wild universe.

Our attention has been drawn to the fragility of Planet Earth by the space programme. Ever since the early Apollo missions, pictures of planet Earth from space have been widely available, starting with the most famous ‘Earth Rising’, taken as Apollo 8 emerged from behind the moon. This has been called ‘the most influential environmental photograph ever taken’. For, it is argued, now that humanity can see the Earth alone within the vast reaches of space, we will realise her beauty, fragility and significance and band together to protect and preserve her as our home.

Astronauts report that they spend much of their spare time on missions simply ‘Earthgazing’. NASA engineer Nicole Stott tells us, ‘I think you start out with this idea of what its going to be like, and then when you do finally look at the Earth for the first time you’re overwhelmed by how much more beautiful it really is…’ Shuttle astronaut Jeff Hoffman goes further: Earth ‘… looks like a living, breathing organism, but it also at the same time looks extremely fragile’. And Ron Garon, who served on the International Space Station, remembers ‘When we look down on the Earth from space we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet… It’s really striking and its sobering to see this paper thin layer and to realise that that little paper thin layer is all that protects every living thing on Earth from death’.

Edgar Mitchell, who was the Lunar Module pilot on Apollo 14 and the sixth person to walk on the moon, is one of many astronauts to reflect deeply on their experience. His view is that it is not just that you get see the beauty and fragility from space, but there is also a shift in consciousness which he describes a close to the ancient accounts of savikalpa samādhi. There is as a direct experience of interconnection: ‘You see things as you see them with your eyes but you experience them emotionally and viscerally as ecstasy and a sense of total unity and oneness… It’s rather clear to me as I studied this that is was not anything new, but was something that was very important to the way we humans were put together’.

I wonder if the experience of the astronauts was so very far from my own as I sat in the long northern twilight off the Shiant Islands: it was just this kind of direct interconnection that I was seeking on my ecological pilgrimage. Of course, I am not among those who first saw Earth rising from behind the moon; I have not watched the shadow of night move across the face of the Earth; nor I have experienced the thin blue line of the biosphere clinging to the curve of the planet. And yet, as Mitchell points out, the astronauts’ experience of oneness is nothing new. I think we may idealize their experience and in doing so see the capability of experiencing oneness as something special, something extraordinary, something for which we have to go outside the planet. Maybe it is better to see it as a dimension of human consciousness that we modern humans have neglected and marginalised, rather than something only available from outer space. Maybe a better way to celebrate the astronauts’ experience, the way that ‘Earth Rising’ might change human consciousnesses, the way it might kick-start a true environmental movement, is realise our own capacity for such experiences.

Zen masters teach us not to seek the extraordinary, not to look for special or ‘sacred’ places. To seek that seeking prevents us from seeing what is before our eyes – the specialness of the everyday, how everything rolls together in being and nonbeing, how we are every moment part of a living planet. These are capabilities that we must bring back to ourselves, and not just to our pilgrimages into the wild, but into our homes, our gardens, our cities, the everyday world around us and our relationships with other humans.

***

As the darkness finally gathered off the Shiants and day finally rolled into night, my long watch was rewarded by the waxing crescent moon rising, a deep red, between the two dark humps of the islands. The overhead stream of puffins ceased, and I too was at last content to climb down the companionway and sleep.

Cover front

In Search of Grace is the story of an ecological pilgrimage undertaken by the author from the south coast of England, round the west coast of Ireland to the far north of Scotland. It explores themes of pilgrimage, the overall pattern of separation from the everyday, venturing forth and returning home. It tells of meeting wildlife, visiting sacred places, confronting danger, expanding and deepening the experience of time, of silence, of fragility.

It will be published in October 2017 by Earth Books. You can read pre-publication reviews, more excerpts from the book and watch a video describing the journey here.

 

Learning What to Make of It

 When we win, it’s with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small. What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us.
– Rilke

Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.
– Ian Hamilton Finlay

The most exciting thing in my life at the moment is a five gallon bucket full of human excrement

I should explain.

I recently tore the flush toilet out of our family home and replaced it with a compost toilet which I built myself. It is of the most basic variety: essentially, we crap into a big bucket and cover the crap with sawdust, then when the bucket is full I empty the contents onto a compost heap, where it rots down over the course of a year. At the end of that year, we should have a safe and nutritious compost to use on our fruit trees and bushes, on the fuel coppices of aspen and birch we’ll be planting this winter, and on the small native forest that we are planning to grow here for as long as we are healthy.

It’s a big job, something like this, and undertaking it has made me realise how much effort needs to be put into the most simple things, and that in turn has made me realise why the society I live in has become addicted to paying for complicated things instead, and how this has laid a great big elephant trap for us that we may struggle ever to get out of.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first thing I did was to build a rectangular box out of planks and nails, and the remains of two kitchen cupboard doors which we didn’t need any more. There followed a lot of sanding and planing and painting and varnishing and swearing when things were the wrong length and hinges didn’t fit where they should have done. This took a few weeks, on and off, but at the end of it I had quite a handsome varnished wooden structure with two shiny blue hinged covers and a toilet seat on top. A five gallon brewing bucket fitted underneath.

Then I had to build a compost heap: two, in fact, so that we could keep an annual cycle of compost from the toilet going. I bought some old pallets from the timber yard up the road and carted them home in my van. That was a couple of days’ work. After I had finished, I stood back and admired them for about half an hour. I am a writer. I have never been a practical man, or have never believed I am, and I’m still at the stage where successfully completing a practical task fills me with astonishment.

Still, that was the easy bit. Ever tried taking out a flush toilet? It’s a messy job. In the end, a friend came round and devoted an afternoon to helping me to do it. He is a casually practical man, so the job went well. In the aftermath, big chunks of porcelain lay on the grass outside and all that remained in the bathroom was a blocked up outflow pipe and a gash in the lino. In went the compost loo, in went a bucket of sawdust, in went a wall hanging to cover the gaping holes, and voilà: a closed loop system.

The flush toilet, to me, is a worthy metaphor for the civilisation I live in. It is convenient, it is easy, it is hygienic and it is wonderfully warm and dry. It is the most luxurious pooing experience known to man. You can do your business and never have to think about what happens next: never have to think about what happens to the faeces and urine you have just produced, just as you probably never thought about the origins of the food which created it in the first place. You can act, if you like, as if you have never produced it at all; as if you were far too civilised to have to engage in such base and primitive behaviour. You can sit in the warmth, reading an amusing light-hearted book, then you can simply press a button, and you will never have to deal with your own shit.

What happens to a society that won’t deal with its own shit? It ends up deep in it.

A compost toilet is harder work. First you have to build the toilet and the compost heaps, and then you have to source a regular supply of sawdust or pine needles, which will keep the smells and flies away and give the compost enough bulk on the heap. Most importantly, you have to empty the bucket when it gets full, which is every few days most of the time. This is the part of the job which really seems to disgust those of my friends and family who can’t understand why I have disposed of a perfectly good toilet and replaced it with something medieval.

But it’s also the part of the job that I enjoy the most. I’ve noticed myself getting almost excited as the bucket approaches being full. Emptying the thing on to the compost heap, covering it with grass, inspecting the progress of the heap so far, cleaning and replacing the bucket, putting a new layer of sawdust in the bottom: would you believe me if I told you this was a satisfying process? Anticipating being able to use the results on my own trees is almost thrilling.

If a flush toilet is a metaphor for a civilisation that wants to wash its hands of its own wastes as long as they accumulate somewhere else, then a compost toilet is both a small restitution, and a declaration: I will not turn my back on the consequences of my actions. I will not hand them over to someone else to deal with. I will not crap into clean drinking water and flush it down a pipe to be cleaned with industrial chemicals at some sewage plant I have never visited. I will fertilise my own ground with my own manure, and in doing so I will control an important part of my life in this world, and that control will give me more understanding over it. I will claw something of myself back. Even in the rain, even in winter, I will deal with my own shit.

 

In 2014, I emigrated. My wife and I moved with our two young children from urban England, where we had always lived, to rural Ireland. We bought ourselves a small bungalow with two and a half acres of land up a quiet lane. It was the culmination of a personal project we’ve been engaged in for more than half a decade: to find a way escape from the urban consumer machine we were both brought up in.

We wanted to live more simply; or perhaps just more starkly, because life here is rarely simple. Our kids were just getting to school age, and the idea of sending them to school to systematically crush their spontaneity and have them taught computer coding so that they could compete in the ‘global race’ made us miserable. We wanted to grow our own food and compost our own shit and educate our own children and make our own jam and take responsibility for our own actions.

This can all sound very cloying. Western middle class people going ‘back to the land’ is a modern cliché, and when we think we are hearing that story we tend to react in a particular way, positive or negative depending on our political or cultural persuasions.

Perhaps I am a cliché, but I’m not especially interested in other people’s expectations. I was brought here by many things, but one of them is a voice that has been whispering in my ear for years, and growing louder for the last few.

This voice tells me that I am one of the luckiest people on Earth. It tells me I am a middle-class man from a country grown fat on centuries of plunder, that I have a university degree, that I go to restaurants and have a laptop computer and an internet connection, and I can publish articles like this in magazines. In other words, I am somewhere up near the top of the pyramid of human fortune. And that in turn means I am up near the top of the pyramid of human cupidity and destruction which is driving the natural world to the edge.

What happens to a society that won’t deal with its own shit? It ends up deep in it.

One of the driving forces in my life is a deep love of nature. If you ask me to explain precisely what I mean by that, or why it has such a grip on me, I won’t be able to. But I could tell you about profound experiences I’ve had in forests and mountains, about the joy that rises in my heart when I see a hawk circle or hear the roar of an untamed river, and the misery that sinks into it if I’m trapped in a city or on a motorway. I could tell you about the occasional brief glimpses I get into the reality that I am a passing moment in an ancient, beautiful, terrifying whorl of life on a vast unknowable planet; that I am not an observer of it, but a part of its wide flow; that there is no such thing as outside.

This kind of thing is nearly impossible to put down on paper, as you can see. Once upon a time, many millennia ago, I suspect it would have been the default worldview, but today, it is a hard one to live with. The culture that I was born into is systematically dismantling the web of life itself, and as it does so it is dismantling my sense of meaning and many of the things that I love. My status as a middle-class consumer in a Western industrialised country means that I am part of this problem, whether I want to face up to that or not.

This is what that voice whispered to me, as once it whispered to Rilke: you must change your life. I came here because I can’t justify my complicity any more. I feel a personal duty to live as simply and with as little impact on the rest of nature as I possibly can. I’ve no interest in extending this duty to anybody else, or in preaching about it or politicising it, or in pretending that I am in any way pure or unsullied or even halfway competent yet at undertaking it. It is just a personal calling.

But perhaps it explains my joy at that full toilet bucket. I feel I am at last starting to do my bit, to make restitution, to walk the walk after so many years of talking the talk. I can’t write or talk about natural beauty, or natural anything, unless I’m trying to do as little damage to it as possible; and at this time in history, that means taking myself away from the heart of the beast. It means stripping back. It means inconveniencing myself. It means paying attention.

The full version of this essay appears in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, published by Faber.

 

Radicle and Rhizomati

Hierarchy

Power structures establish various systems to ensure the organisation of interrelationships and the distribution of resources throughout a group, community, or ecosystem. In human terms, these systems become our tribes, societies, and civilisations. The dominant power structure in the Western world at this time is capitalist, colonial, and hierarchical, with resources being distributed (or, more accurately, hoarded) from the top down.

Before capitalism, many of us who have descended from the nations of Europe have a cultural history of feudalism or some other social-ranking hierarchy. Feudal society is the rootstock of capitalism. One of the primary differences subsumed from this medieval power structure by early capitalism was the waged exchange of labour. The feudal peasants were non-waged, that is, not paid in monetary currency for their labour. Instead, they were paid by an exchange of resources such as land, shelter, and farming rights. Both capitalist and feudal hierarchies were architected to direct and control the circulation of currency from those at the top, who are the elite and few, down to those at the bottom, who are the poor and many.

Capitalism depends on unrestrained growth and production, the manufacturing of material goods, and the extraction of resources to meet these ends. Colonisation, the imperious expansion of geographic, cultural, and political boundaries becomes requisite — with all its cruelty and overconsumption — as a result of this excessive and continuous reach to sustain the unsustainable.

When contemplating the quagmire of obstacles and institutions within our capitalist society that interfere with the equitable and just interchange of currency and access to resources, I find myself motivated to explore less oppressive economic, social, and political human relationships.

In doing so, I have become aligned with that ever-gallant and hopeful group of folks dismissed as unrealistic dreamers. We ‘dreamers’ always hold fast to the truth that the wilful designation of creation and power can be delineated into a network of horizontal or lateral functions that make greed, conquest, and competition unnecessary and invalid, except in extreme conditions.

In the words of Larry Wall, creator of Perl, the open-sourced computer programming language: ‘There is more than one way to do it.’ Perl, and Wall’s band of merry hackers, revolutionised the internet with a coding script that encourages other programmers to interject or hack, as they say in the business, their own design style and innovations that contribute to improvements and success for everyone using the network.¹ These internet wizards built the bridge between those of us who simply want to use the internet and those who actually understand it.

I personally am not remotely skilled in the exotic language of programming or the strange tongue of capitalist economics. As one called to the path along the hedges, in the woods, the fields, the gardens, and all the green, untamed and untrailed places, I have found another way to do things in learning the ways of the world beneath the dark shadows of treetops and in the soils with the rooted ones.

As a folk herbalist practising in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, I live remotely, keeping a distant participation to some degree (perhaps never enough?), in the mainstream rush and panic of daily life in the ‘real’ world of productivity, competition and corporate time sheets. My work with others, however, brings me into direct contact with the consequent ills, both physical and emotional, of life within the overworked, overstimulated and ‘red in tooth and claw’ system. My long hours and days gathering and growing the herbs to share with my clients, family, neighbours and friends feels like a different world or alternate reality in contrast to the interface I must make with the civilised world of offices, fluorescent lights and concrete. While I truly love all parts of my work, this polar interchange always clearly elucidates for me the distinct difference between the world of unruly winds and wild waters, and the tame and burning filaments of electricity enslaved within the lightbulb.

Much of my herbal work is spent with a shovel, basket and clippers as I dig and gather roots, leaves, flowers, bark and berries that are prepared into teas and other herbal formulations. I make every practical effort to harvest from local sources. This requires me to be tuned into to the seasonal cycles and growing patterns of wild plants. I also grow a variety of herbs in my own garden, and have become acutely tuned into conservation and ethical harvesting techniques that ensure the long-term survival and proliferation of our wild medicine plants.

This art and practice of traditional herbalism has deep roots into the history of every culture on earth. These roots have twisted, turned and intertwined throughout thousands of years of human civilisation, often being lost and forgotten as the quality of our communal engagements and our narrative with the world has placed humans on top of a hierarchy that centralises power into an above-ground, rootless, disembodied, hegemony.

That said, I think it’s important here to acknowledge that hierarchies occur naturally in wild communities, especially in herd animals, and that hierarchy is not always played out as an oppressive power structure. It can be an excellent tool for ensuring survival, protection and the health of a herd or community when based on consensus, synergy and cooperative principles.

Becoming radicle

Radicle: a rootlike subdivision, the portion of the embryo that gives rise to the root system of the plant
— biology-online.org 

Radicle describes the first part of the seed to emerge after germination that subsequently becomes the primary root. Radicles and the roots they become are a most powerful natural force that, as every city sidewalk knows, will crack and divide concrete. The soil depends upon these mighty revolutionaries to deeply move, turn and aerate the surface of the planet so that life can ascend from it. Plants ‘know’ that in order for productive growth to be sustained, they must first set their roots and begin to make contact with the vast and nutritious field of minerals and essential microbes within the substratum.

Plant roots have many different and effective growing styles, but my favourite are those that are rhizomatic. A rhizome is actually an underground stem that is rootlike; it spreads horizontally, sending out shoots and creating a lateral chain of connection where new sprouts can emerge.

Rhizomes are non-hierarchical and extremely resilient because even if you dig up one part, the other sections will continue to grow and proliferate. Rhizomes have no top or bottom, any point can be connected to any other. They can be broken off at any point and will always be able to start up again. Their network can be entered at any point; there is no central origin. And because there is no central regulatory force, rhizomes function as open systems where connections can emerge regardless of similarities or differences. Freedom of expression exists within a rhizome.

Rhizomes, therefore, are heterogeneous and can create multiplicities, or many different roots, that are sovereign but still in contact and communication with all other parts of the system. This is in contrast to, for instance, a tree, which has a central origin or trunk from which all of its roots and branches emerge. Disconnected from that source, they are no longer in direct contact with their growing system.

As author and storyteller Martin Shaw writes about ‘the rhizomatic universe’ in his book A Branch From the Lightening Tree:

The rhizome is a plant root system that grows by accretion rather than by separate or oppositional means. There is no defined center to its structure, and it doesn’t relate to any generative model. Each part remains in contact with the other by way of roots that become shoots and underground stems. We see that the rhizome is de-territorial, that it stands apart from the tree structure that fixes an order, based on radiancy and binary opposition.

Learning methods and cultural philosophies have been inspired and developed from the patterns observed within rhizomatic root systems. One such concept was introduced by philosopher Guilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari. From their book on the subject, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia:

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system, which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the original source of ‘things’ and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those ‘things.’ A rhizome, on the other hand, is characterized by ‘ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.’ Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a ‘rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.’ The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation.

In this model, culture spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or trickling downwards towards new spaces through fissures and gaps, eroding what is in its way. The surface can be interrupted and moved, but these disturbances leave no trace, as the water is charged with pressure and potential to always seek its equilibrium, and thereby establish smooth space.

Examples of rhizomatic patterns exist throughout the living world and include plants such as ginger, crabgrass, violets and, my favourite, wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicalis). In human terms we can see many examples of rhizomatic systems, such as we discussed above about Larry Wall and the internet, even amid the context of complex societal hierarchy. New economic and environmental models of power such as permaculture, bioregionalism, and re-localisation are designed to work as horizontal, cooperative, synergistic, and non-competitive systems.

The Rhizomati

Rhizome: A continuously growing horizontal underground stem that puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals.
— Oxford English Dictionary online

Herbal medicines are, and always have been, a rhizomatic source of the equitable and lateral distribution of basic needs that seeks not to hoard, commercialise, and capitalise on healthcare or to dole it out only to those with access to the necessary currency. Herbs themselves have not escaped the thralls of patriarchal conquest. All of our modern medicine was founded on the insight gained from the common people and their unwritten relationship with the medicine of the plants. Many of the early European physicians gathered their knowledge from village herbalists, often women who could not read or write (as the patriarchy forbade them). These women are rarely even mentioned in the published literature of medical history. An example can be found in the book written by Dr William Withering (1774-1799), the man who is said to have ‘discovered’ the medicinal use of foxglove. The very first page of his book makes a short mention of a village wise woman who used it in a formula for dropsy: ‘I was told that it had been a long-kept secret by an old woman in Shropshire, who had sometimes made cures after the more regular practitioners had failed.’

The village healers were not elite or favoured by the ruling classes, and in fact were historically perceived as a threat. Their healing work was focused on the direct and intimate needs of their local community, which they frequently sought to empower and support. Traditional herbal medicine was not motivated by profit nor was it sanctioned by the overculture.

In our current times, herbal medicine and plant-based culture has re-emerged in many forms and I perceive it is in a major cycle of transformation. Many call it the ‘herbal renaissance’ and it’s not clear yet what the trajectory will be, as the world seemingly changes at the speed of light. However, the core values remain inextricably connected to the interdependent place-based character of the village healer and his or her reciprocal conversation with the wild and green world.

Our ancestors in healing, the long-ago plant people, were in service to their human community as well as the medicine allies they harvested from the hedges. These plant people often lived on the edge of town and worked as not only healers of physical sickness, but also practitioners of spirit, shamans of the village soul, and knowers of, or in old English ‘cunners’ of, the ‘wort’, or herb. Some were called wortcunners. Some were called magicians. Some were called witches. There are many different types of herbalists now and in the past. In ancient times — interestingly! — they were called the rhizomati, or by some sources, rhizotomoki, meaning ‘root gatherers’ or ‘root cutters’.

The rhizomati were rhizomatic practitioners of underground and lateral energy patterns as found in the plant kingdom. According to Christian tsch, ‘the rhizotomoki still spoke with the plant spirits…’ He adds: ‘These root-gatherers observed the gods sacred to the respective plant. They made use of the moon’s energy and knew the particular oath formulas for each plant. Witchcraft medicine belongs to the spiritual and cultural legacy of the rhizotomoki.’

tsch asserts, therefore, that ‘witchcraft medicine is wild medicine. It is uncontrollable, it surpasses the ruling order, it is anarchy. It belongs to the wilderness.’² Anarchy and wildness, in this sense, are not instances of chaos, mayhem, or lack of a system; rather, it is a system that is self-organised, organic, self-regulated, and impervious to oppressive external control mechanisms.

The rhizomati were carriers of traditional healing knowledge and have emerged at various points in time. In fact, as would a rhizome — going underground for a time and sprouting their legacy up to the surface in another place or time. Renowned modern-day herbalist David Hoffman has compared herbalists of our time to the Greek ‘rhizotomoi’ who held a very special place in the hierarchy of health-care practitioners during ancient times. He asserts that, now as then, herbal healers ‘breach so many realms.’

It is important to understand that the rhizotomoi were not merely the garden labourers that grew the plants, nor did they have the status of academic physicians who dispensed already prepared pills and formulas. Hoffman says: ‘They were people who knew the plants, knew where they grew, knew how to cultivate them, knew how to collect them appropriately, knew how to make the medicine, but then also knew how to use the medicine in the context of the people’s needs… they were herbalists.’

The legacy of these herbalists has carried their medicine bags into the vernacular, or kitchen, gardens of the past few hundred years in Europe and North America. Such gardens belonged to people of any class, and provided subsistence food and medicine to individuals and families. These communal plots were stewarded by the rhizomati and provided a local source of plants and seeds, were designed to meet the natural rhythms of the seasons, and were small enough to adapt to changing local conditions. They were places ‘in which “herb women” and rhizomati, root gatherers, are a key source of plant materials and seeds, and garden innovations are shared among peers—family, neighbors, friends—rather than distributed by a central authority.’³

Today’s root cutters, root gatherers, folk herbalists, plant charmers, and the like, face unknown challenges as the trail leads into the future of a global, capitalist economy. Herbal medicine has become increasingly mainstream and, will no doubt, continue to be commodified and profiteered at some level.

The overculture has made many recent bids to commercialise, exploit and restrict the use of plants by the people. There have been recent regulations enacted that limit the ability of herbalists to maintain home-based businesses, thereby restricting access to local products and serving the burgeoning corporate herbal industry.4

That is not to say that there is not a place in our health-care system for phyto-physicians that work with herbs allopathically. Plant-based preparations have already found a place in mainstream bio-medicine as a complementary modality, a method of prevention, and as a tool of synergy to potentise pharmaceutical protocols. However, this does not concede the necessity of the decentralised, community focused, and client-centred practice of folk herbalists. The modern rhizomati are a source of resilience and empowerment for our society and world, thanks to their interface with plants and people. This resilience will come not only at our resistance to capitalist exploits, but in our ability to establish rhizomatic, horizontal and local systems of vital sustenance, imagination, and community.

Change and dissent are enacted on even the simplest, most humane level when we just become aware of equitable alternatives to our dominant power structure. This I believe to be true well beyond the realms of herbal medicine practice. It has implications for our homes, businesses, communities local and beyond, schools, food production, the arts, and developing technologies. The key to the door of social justice and change is the knowledge that there are other ways to do it — as well as in the courage and innovation of those that are willing to imagine more than one possibility.

May the rhizomati live again and may we all rise rooted!

Footnotes
1Silberman, Steve, Neurotribes, New York: Avery, 2015
2Müller-Ebeling, Claudia, Christian Rätsch, and Wolf-Dieter Storl, Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants, Rochester, Vermont Inner Traditions, 2003
3. ‘Vernacular Gardens’, Wyrtig.com, For gardeners with a sense of history, 2015. Accessed February 18, 2017
4For more on these regulations or the cGMP laws: A Radicle blogspot. FDA cGMP compliance open source project. aradicle.blogspot.com, 2015. Accessed February 18, 2017

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‘Weed Wife’ by Rima Staines www.rimastaines.com

 

The Big Ask: Help Us Fund the Next Stage of Dark Mountain

Back when this started, when we’d get together to work on the manifesto, it took an hour and a half on the Oxford Tube; two hours if the traffic was bad. These days, Paul and I live in different timezones, and the core of Dark Mountain has grown to a collective whose six members are spread over four countries. Since we don’t much go in for flying, that means we don’t get together as often as we’d like. But at the end of March, the six of us made our ways by trains and boats and narrow Devon lanes to a cottage on the edge of Dartmoor.

Between the walking and the cooking and the fireside musings, much of our conversation that weekend was about this new online Dark Mountain publication we’ve been planning. So today, I want to share some news about where we’ve got to.

At the end of January, we made an appeal for your support:

It’s time to do something online that comes closer to the richness of the books we publish (and will go on publishing). Exactly what form this takes, we’re still working on – but it’s going to be an online publication, something more and different to a blog – and a site that reflects more of the web of activity of the writers, thinkers, artists, musicians, makers and doers who have taken up the challenges of the Dark Mountain manifesto.

‘How ambitious we can be,’ I wrote, ‘depends on the level of support we get.’

Well, that support has been generous. As of this morning, we have raised a total of £22,646 – a figure which includes £7,000 from sales and subscriptions, which have been higher than expected over the past six months, a £5,000 grant from the Tides Foundation, and £10,646 in personal donations from readers.

First, then, a huge thank you to everyone who has contributed so far. Your faith in our work is deeply appreciated – all the more so, given that we launched this campaign without a target, a deadline or a detailed description of what we were planning to do with the money. Instead, we offered an essay setting out why Dark Mountain matters in 2017 – and I guess it’s in keeping with the spirit of this project to start with the big questions, rather than the practical ones.

But at this point, it’s time to fill in the blanks, to tell you what we are planning to do, how much we are aiming to raise, and when we want to reach that target by.

Let’s start with the first of those: when we say we’re going to rebuild this site and launch a new online publication to run alongside the books we publish, what is that going to look like in practice? Here are the ingredients that we pinned down in Devon:

  1. A richer spread of the writing, telling, singing, painting, filming, drawing, making and doing of those who are finding inspiration in Dark Mountain. There’s far more going on than the current site has room for – so while we’ll still have the anchor of a weekly long-form essay, this will be joined by new sections for poetry, art, music, reviews and more, so that we can share and celebrate a wider range of work that is inspired by or in tune with this project. (If you have an idea for a section that ought to be on that list, we want to hear about it.)
  2. A fuller story of Dark Mountain. During our weekend in Devon, we started mapping out all the events and collaborations that we’ve been involved in over the past eight years. We’ve always worked on a shoestring, putting our whole hearts – and more of our waking hours than might seem sane – into pulling off festivals and wild goings-on on windswept moors or urban islands. The cost of working this way is that there’s rarely much time left over to record or write up the experiences. So as part of creating the new site, we want to take the time – and make use of the skills of the writers we work with – to go back and document the history of this project so far, so that anyone discovering Dark Mountain online can get a fuller sense of what it is and what it has done.
  3. A site that’s simple, beautiful and easier to read. A lot has happened in web typography since our current site was built. These days, it’s possible to publish writing on the internet that approaches the uncluttered simplicity of a well-designed book. That’s how we want it to be.
  4. Fixing the flaws from the current site. Maybe you’ve noticed some of these – the lack of notifications when people reply to your comments, or the step in the order process where it gets stuck if you haven’t picked a “county” in your address. Building a new site will finally allow us to take care of these little nuisances.
  5. Behind-the-scenes improvements that you’ll never notice… The way we currently handle submissions, subscriptions and orders for books involves a lot of manual copy-and-pasting from one spreadsheet to another. Building a new site gives us a chance to automate the robotic parts of the work that goes into running Dark Mountain – so we can give more attention to the parts where we get to be human.

The aim of this fundraising campaign is to cover the one-off costs of launching this new online publication – but there’s no point building a shiny site and not having the capacity to fill it. So part of the funding will go to cover an editorial budget for the first year or so of the new publication. What does that mean? Well, first that we go from having a “blog editor” who’s paid £100 a month to an “online editor” who’s paid £350 a month. (Which is as much as anyone around here gets paid: did I mention we run this project on a shoestring?) And secondly, that the online editor has a budget to bring in guest editors, commission longer pieces and generally find ways of bringing the site to life.

Over the next few weeks, we’re moving into action. I’ll be writing up a detailed plan for the new site, talking to developers and designers, and working with the rest of the team on the editorial shape of the new online publication. Sometime this autumn, the results will roll out into view, opening a wider window onto Dark Mountain and a broader platform for the conversations this project exists to make possible.

As you may have guessed, though, we want to make one more push with our fundraising to make all of this happen.

The target we’ve set is to reach £37,400 by the end of June: an amount that will cover the building of the website and an editorial budget to take the new publication through to the end of 2018. (Beyond that, it should be able to sustain itself through the continued growth in the numbers of readers ordering or subscribing to the Dark Mountain books.)

Can we reach that target? It’s certainly ambitious – and I don’t think we’d have had the confidence to set our sights so high, back in January, when we first announced this campaign. But we’ve been greatly encouraged by the response so far – and as the vision for what we want to do has become clearer, it’s felt right to make a big ask.

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IMG_20170318_133142It feels like a long time now since I was riding the bus between London and Oxford to sketch out the hunches and intuitions that led to Dark Mountain. What is it that holds us to this project, the gang of us who’ve carried it on our shoulders over the years since? As you’ll have gathered, it’s not the money – nor is it the attention it sometimes brings, which is a mixed blessing at the best of times. Rather, if I had to give a simple answer, I’d say that what keeps us coming back to Dark Mountain is the feeling that this is work that matters.

Just writing those words, I realise how lucky I’ve been to get to spend so much of my life working on something that feels that way. And on the days when it hasn’t felt like that – when it’s driven me up the wall and through the ceiling – what grounds me again and gives me heart is always the response from others to whom what we’re doing has mattered: the emails from readers who just found Dark Mountain online, late at night, who write that it made them feel less alone; the beautiful unexpected invitations to collaborate; the subscriptions coming in from wild corners of the world that I have to look up on Google Earth; and, these past few months, the flow of generous donations from the hundreds of you who are helping to make the next phase of our work a reality. Thank you, all of you.

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If you want to make a donation towards this campaign, you can do it direct through PayPal:

Or get in touch about other means of payment (or offers of help) by emailing [email protected].

You can post any questions in the comments here or send them by email. Over the months ahead, we’ll be sending out updates to everyone who’s donated to the campaign – including making the plans for the new site available for comment – so you can follow our work-in-progress.

Clothesline at the End of the World

On the first warmish March day, I’ll be outside hanging my wash on the line even if my boots are crunching on snow. If the sun is shining, if there’s even a hint of warmth on the breeze I’ll be bringing my wash outside, freeing it from the clotheslines in the basement. I am a tiny bit fanatical about my clotheslines. The outdoor line is attached to my side yard fence and, like all people who engage in a repetitive physical task, I have a specific method for hanging the clothes. Pants, dresses, bathrobes long items get hung on the back line against the fence. Then shirts, which must be hung upside down, connected at the corners to save on clothespins. (If you hang them right side up by the shoulders, you get weird bumps dried into your shirts that make you look like you’re continually shrugging.) Smalls get hung on the end furthest from the street, between the dresses and the shirts. No need to embarrass the neighbours. Then last are the socks matched together, hung in pairs. A load of wash takes me maybe ten minutes to hang. I work at home so it makes for a nice break in the day, and I love my washline. I love the way things look hanging there in the breeze.

But I don’t hang clothes just because I like the way they look. I am a true believer in the power of the clothesline. For one thing, the clothes dryer is second in American homes only to the refrigerator for electricity consumption, and while I know that eliminating my use of the dryer individually isn’t going to slow the onslaught of climate change, it’s something concrete I can do. Also, as a freelancer, I’m broke, so anything to bring down the electric bill. But I hang laundry for a less concrete reason, because hanging the laundry is about taking care, it’s about a version of domesticity that is not oppression, but which models the sort of caretaking we’re all going to have to learn to value in order to make a hotter, drier, more crowded world habitable.

I live in a small town in Montana, a town that until about 20 years ago was solidly working class. It was the headquarters for the Northern Pacific Railway, and it’s a town of small railroaders houses with tiny yards, nearly every one of which has a sturdy clothesline out back. Because we’re one of the windiest towns in America and these are serious clotheslines usually built from sixinch plumbing pipe, sunk into three or four feet of concrete.

And yet, I’m one of the few people I know who actually dries my clothes on the line. As the cost of appliances dropped and dryers became ubiquitous, clotheslines came to be seen as trashy, a symbol of poverty and sloth. Even as the new people moving to town buy hybrid vehicles and put solar panels on their roofs, even as greenhouses and chicken coops spring up in backyards, those sturdy old plumbing-pipe clotheslines, painted silver, are always empty.

I moved here from California in 2002 for a number of reasons, but chief among them I was anxious about climate change. It made me nervous, California. It had been good to me career-wise, twice. First when I moved there to do my master’s degree at UC Davis; then when I left Salt Lake City after my PhD and went back out to live with my brother and find a job. Desperate to pay off my student loans, I got work in a tech company, editing user and administration guides. I liked it. I liked the people I worked with and the intellectual challenge of figuring out how to present information to people in the most useful format possible. But California was giving me the willies. It was so crowded, and the Bay Area is such an enclosed space, bounded by the Pacific on the one side and the coast hills and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta on the other. Three years into my tech job, I’d seen field after field on my evening commute disappear under the onslaught of ugly housing developments, just as I’d watched the last few migrant workers hoeing a zucchini field that was doomed to become another Cisco campus. I wish I’d had a camera that day. I was stopped in traffic, and across from me were several guys with computer cases standing at a bus stop, while behind them four or five Mexican guys hoed zucchini rows, and behind them another threestorey Cisco building, identical to all the others, was going up.

I could feel the big change coming whatever we want to call it, climate change, global warming, the Anthropocene, the great acceleration I don’t know what it is, but having been raised by unreliable parents you develop antennae for impending doom. You can tell by the energy level, the degree of frantic vibration, that something bad is about to happen. And that’s how I felt in California. I couldn’t put a finger on it exactly, but I knew something wasn’t right and I wanted to get out of the way.

I knew about Livingston from having run writers’ workshops while I was in graduate school. The nature and western writers were a friendly lot, most knew one another, and talk across the patio tables at Squaw Valley often turned to places where a person could live cheap. Livingston was one of them. Like a lot of beautiful places left empty when an industry implodes, Livingston has attracted writers and painters and fading movie stars for decades now, along with a vibrant population of hunting and fishing guides, building contractors and former cult members. It’s a creative bunch and, with the exception of the rich summer people who build trophy homes in the valleys that radiate out from town, it’s a place where noone has ever had much money. Most of us live in one- and two-storey houses on small lots in town. Old railroaders houses like the one I bought. Mine was built in 1903, and hadn’t had anything much done to it since they put the indoor plumbing in sometime in the forties. It’s a small house on a town lot that I bought for a number of reasons, chief among them the five-foot clawfoot tub, and the well-used vegetable plot that took up half the back yard.

I was lucky enough to get to hang around Gary Snyder when I was at UC Davis, and Snyder’s advice to us wasn’t about poetry, well, not directly. Gary told us that if we wanted a creative life, we should find someplace cheap to live, where a person could afford to buy and pay off a house. Cheap housing attracts artists, he said, so chances are you’d wind up with interesting neighbours, and if you had a place to live you wouldn’t have to go teach in places you didn’t want to be. You’d have your freedom.

And that’s what I was aiming for when I moved here. I’d been living with my brother for four years, a roommate arrangement that had worked out so well we thought we’d better break up before we wound up like one those pairs of spinster siblings you used to see sometimes out in the country near our grandmother’s farm. The ones in the white farmhouse they’d been raised in, still sleeping in their childhood bedrooms. In the four years we’d lived together we’d both found better jobs and had repaired some of the anxiety we had about domestic life. We’d been raised in a world of unstable alcoholics, the kind who pick a fight whenever they’re feeling existentially itchy. By teaming up, we’d figured we could practise domestic life on one another, see if we could figure out how to live in a house with another person you love without screaming fights or tears of recrimination. That we’d done it and had righted our little ships, both financially and emotionally, was a major accomplishment. But it was time to move on. Time to take those skills and go find real partners. And so when my manager agreed to let me telecommute, I went looking for a house I could afford, and since I wasn’t tied to the Bay Area anymore, a house I could afford back in the Rocky Mountains I loved.

Pretty quickly, things fell into place and I found myself in possession of a mortgage and the keys to a small bungalow in Montana. I packed the cat and computer and boxes of books into my Honda, and arrived three days ahead of the moving van. That I’d been able to not only buy a house, but could afford a moving van felt miraculous to me. We’d moved every 18 months or so growing up, renting U-Hauls or borrowing horse trailers. Despite having managed to get a mortgage, purchase a house and arrange for a moving van, I still felt that first night, setting up the inflatable mattress in my empty house, that I’d broken in, that any moment someone was going to burst through the door and shout at me to leave.

The first year went pretty well. Patrick, my brother, wound up moving here after me, having been laid off from his job just as I was leaving California. I got a dog, and built raised beds in the existing vegetable patch, and made friends. Patrick found a cheap apartment on the other side of town, took up with his first girlfriend in ages, and set about building himself a niche running events and helping with wedding planners, work he’d done since his teens. We were settling in. At his birthday party in early September he made a sentimental speech to our new friends, thanking them for taking us into their lives, saying he’d never had such a happy year.

On 28 September that first year I lived here, on a beautiful, blue-sky, golden sunshine autumn day, I was in the hammock strung between my apple trees when the Assistant Coroner of Park County Montana walked through my front gate. I got up to see what the dogs were barking about only to meet this big man, taking off his feed cap as he saw me, who put one enormous hand on my shoulder and said Ma’am. There’s no good way to say this. There was a car accident last night. Your brother is dead.

Time stopped.

The world as I knew it ended that day, and while a new life has taken root, it is not at all the same. It is a replacement world.

Patrick dying was the one thing I had feared above all others. It was like being simultaneously orphaned and widowed. Our divorced parents are unreliable at best, our youngest brother had died as a toddler, and we had survived it all together. We were less than two years apart, and in every photo I have of us, from earliest childhood until the end, one of us has an arm around the other. I’d gone from the oldest of three, to being the big sister, to being an only child. In losing Patrick, I lost the one person on this earth who loved me absolutely, whose faith in me was unshakeable. Without Patrick, it took me a very long time to piece together some kind of identity, and even now, 13 years later, it feels false, because he hasn’t been here to see it.

It was terrible, and I survived it in large part due to the tender ministrations of the town of Livingston. If you’re going to have a disaster, I tell people when the story comes up, you want to have it here. Everyone came, and they stayed. My house filled up that first night as word got out. They got me through a funeral, and saw that I was never left out. I had people to go to Happy Hour and dinner with on Fridays, and they took me in for holidays, and some, like my friend Jennifer, occasionally walked in my front door that first year or so and said No really, how are you? My best friend had twins (after a terrifying pregnancy), so for a couple of years there was always a screaming baby to tend, and her two big girls needed an auntie as much as I needed kids to take care of. I was taken in by a tribe of people, people who became my new family, people who I love with all my heart. And yet.

When I say the world stopped, I mean that I have a very strange relationship to time now. There was my life until 2003, a life that hummed along and things changed and I moved from place to place and attended schools and published a novel and got a job and eventually moved to Montana. My story kept unfolding. And then Patrick died, and it feels in some weird way like my story ended. However, I’m still here.

To compare my personal loss to the avalanche of loss that is heading our way as a planet would be unbelievably callow, and yet there are things you learn when you lose the person you thought you could not live without that seem germane. For one thing, the surprise at still being alive. You have to figure out how to live in this diminished world. You have to figure out how to go on after the fourth, or seventh, or 15th time you pick up the phone to call the person who is no longer here. Those first months after Patrick died, I remember thinking, ‘Forty years? Fifty years? I have to live like this for how long?

The literature of climate change is mostly of the apocalyptic variety. There will be a disaster and then it will ALL END. But if there’s anything I have learned in these intervening years, it’s that it doesn’t end. You’re still here. The sun comes up. The apple trees bloom in the spring, and the garden needs planting, and the children you love will keep growing and even, eventually, you might be lucky enough to meet someone who loves you and who doesn’t mind when you spend the first three or four years telling him stories about your dead brother, and who you love back even though you find it inconceivable that you’re spending your life with someone who didn’t know Patrick, and who Patrick will never know.

Apocalyptic stories are sexy in their drama. The end of the world as we know it will be big and dramatic and everything will change, and we will be living in some mythical landscape where we’ll be freed from all the boring conventional aspects of our daily lives. My instinct, however, is that this is not how things are going to unfold. More likely it’ll entail the slow chipping away of things we’re accustomed to, changes like our fruit trees dying. We had a frost three years ago, a freak freeze in October that killed every cherry tree in town. We didn’t find out until spring, when they didn’t come back. Here in Montana we get much of our fruit in the summer from Utah. Orchardists will drive up and set up roadside stands where they sell raspberries and plums and currants and peaches. Beautiful peaches. They were late this year, and my first thought was, ‘Is this it? Is this the year they don’t come? Is this the year we’ll look back on and say, “Remember when there were peaches?”’

One reason I’m such a fanatic about the clothesline is that, like clearing the table after dinner and doing the dishes in the sink with soap and hot water, hanging your wash on the line keeps you in actual physical contact with the world. You have to touch each piece and in doing so you can see which tee shirts are wearing thin, which socks have holes in the heels, which trousers are getting worn in the knees. It is this physical contact, this clearing up of messes that I think is at the root of the peculiar hostility toward clotheslines that has taken root in those neighbourhoods where clotheslines have been forbidden and even outlawed.

For two or three generations now we’ve been told by the culture that success is measured by the distance we can put between ourselves and the physical acts of both making and cleaning up. I know perfectly competent grown people who cannot cook themselves dinner, who rely on restaurants or make a sandwich, who have no idea how to do something as simple as roast a chicken. People rely on clothes dryers and dishwashers. We hire cleaners for our houses. We hire gardeners to mow our lawns. We sometimes have to hire people to raise our babies so we can continue to work at jobs we might love, or just need in order to bring in the money we require to keep the machinery of consumption humming along. We rent storage units where we put the stuff we worked all those hours to buy but that no longer fits in our houses.

That my household chores are largely physical in nature hanging out wash, cooking dinner and then cleaning the dishes, mucking out a chicken coop, tidying the garden to get ready for winter marks me as old-fashioned and an outlier. I don’t live in a city, or even a particularly large town. I cook all my own meals, in part because our town is so small that there aren’t cheap takeout places. I work at home so I don’t have a commute anymore. I’m already a throwback, to the extent that when I visit folks out there I do find the noise and pace and sheer amount of disposable trash of modern life a little disorienting.

What I learned when my brother died and left me here alone is this: it is in taking care that we can save ourselves and others. Nina’s twins, with all their mess and screaming those first few years (and they were screamers, those two), that’s what saved me. Having something useful to do. Something immediate. The baby cannot sleep without being held, and there are two of them. So days we spent, on Nina’s big white sofa, watching Barefoot Contessa reruns and trying to get those girls to sleep. What I learned is that the garden can save you, because it doesn’t give a shit if you’re having a freaked out, weeping kind of a day. It’s spring and things need planting, or it’s the end of the season and snow is coming and if you don’t get the tomatoes in and taken care of the whole summer will have been a waste. And so you do it. You find a rhythm in the physical world that carries you through, because the bottom line is that you are not dead. You are still living on this earth, and there are days of stupendous beauty, even in the midst of unbearable sorrow.

And so, because I love the world, even in its diminished state, I hang the laundry outside. I hang laundry and refuse to use my clothes dryer. I bought a tiny, efficient little car. I grow food in my backyard and put it up in jars for the winter and I’ve pretty much stopped flying on airplanes. I know that these actions, taken as an individual, are not going to slow down the changes we see happening. The freak frost that killed the cherry trees. The fish parasite that bloomed in the Yellowstone River this summer, when the river was at its lowest-ever recorded flow, when the water was hotter than it had ever been and so a parasite bloomed and thousands upon thousands of fish died. So clear was the danger that the state banned our sacred sport, fly fishing, for a month. Which was unprecedented. For the 14 years I’ve lived here I’ve watched that rusty brown creep across the mountains as the pine beetle kills off the trees and, more years than not, there are no chanterelles or boletes in the fall, not even up high in the mountains, because the late summer rains didn’t come.

But I hang my wash on the line, and grow vegetables in the backyard, and love the girls I’m helping to raise even when they turn into terrible teenagers who are acting out in the most ridiculous ways possible. Because I’m still here.

Apocalyptic stories about of the end of the world are sexy, in part because they allow us, in much the same way as fantasies of past lives do, to cast ourselves as important players in grand historical dramas. They strip us of boring domestic chores. They set us free from our stuff and give us a blank slate with which to start over. However, I think our job is going to be more complicated than that. My hunch is that we’re not going to get a big, sexy, end-of-the-world do-over. What we’ll be faced with is more ordinary. A series of diminishments. The loss of one thing we thought we could not live without, and then another, and then another yet.

Every so often, when someone mentions that something happened years ago, in say, 2011, I’ll find myself startled at how far in the temporal past 2003 has slipped. For me, it’s still right here. The day the world stopped. The day that Mike Fitzpatrick, that big kind man who is himself dead now, walked into my side yard bearing the worst of all possible news. It’s right there with me as I hang wash in that same side yard, dresses and pants and shirts waving in our stiff winds, as the cottage roses and cosmos and hollyhocks wave back. We might all be living in the end times, living in the aftermath, but we are still living.

Image

Tom Pazderka
Nostalgie II
Oil, ash and charcoal on burned panel, 48cm x 48cm

Ashes and oil paint are combined in this image of pyrocumulus clouds from recent wild fires near my home. None of the paint is mixed, there are only layers building on top of one another, made to disappear into the blackness of the surface

Tom Pazderka is an interdisciplinary installation artist, painter, sculptor, teacher and writer. He holds a MFA from the University of California Santa Barbara. Pazderka’s paintings and installations (de)construct the use of nationalist and cultural symbols, history and ideology. Melding research and personal experience his work critiques and engages nostalgia, self-exile and obscure aspects of American and European cultures. tompazderka.com

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

 

Dust and Bones

Amongst the traditions of Indo-Tibetan tantrism, there is a form of meditation in which the practitioner pictures their own body shorn of its outer layers and transformed into a skeleton. The initiation rituals of Siberian shamanism similarly involve visions of the living self butchered by spirits and reduced to bones. So it is that whenever I recall the funeral of my wife’s grandfather – in Tenri City, Japan on 21st March, 2014 – my mind offers up a series of jumpcuts, a triptych of images: the man in the hospital bed, the corpse in the parlour, the skeleton on the table.

Such a bare, schematic rendering is partly due to an uncertain memory, which I attempted to flesh out for this essay through background reading. Could research salvage some sharp detail of protocol from vague recollection? Certainly I learned many interesting things about funerals in Japan: that the early Emperors were interred in great tumuli until the adoption of Buddhism by the ruling classes led to the spread of cremation; that the first cremation recorded in the chronicles was of the Buddhist priest Dōshō in AD 700; that the corpses of the city poor nevertheless continued to be abandoned in distant fields or mountains, or even along riverbanks, always liminal ‘non-places’ even where they ran through metropolitan centres such as Kyōto; that the diaries of aristocrats in the 12th and 13th centuries frequently refer to dogs bringing dismembered body parts into the house, necessitating rites of purification; that an exclusively Shintō style of funeral, favouring burial in the earth, existed in parallel with the Buddhist pyre; that there was also a rural-urban split, with burning the preferred option in densely populated cities and interment the custom in the countryside; and that this split persisted into modern times before the urn of ashes finally won out. A rich subject for the inquiring mind. Yet mine clings to its stark triptych. Man, corpse, skeleton. And the faces of the mourners. And the smell.

But maybe such starkness is, after all, the most appropriate mode for dealing squarely with the simple fact of death – a fact to which the modern West displays such aversion. My sole memory of my own maternal grandfather’s cremation some twenty years ago in London is of a sealed coffin, sucked away through a velveteen curtain on a conveyor belt, the only sound some plinky hymnal muzak piped through speakers. Off to Heaven in an elevator, all veiled and sanitised. The contrast with the ritual end to Nakanishi Mitsuo’s life could not be more extreme.

I. The Man

Born in 1931. Adopted into the Nakanishi family at the age of three. An eager student of English despite the prevailing cultural hostility of the time. A small-scale farmer growing strawberries, spinach and rice. Bald statements cannot conjure up the person, already in his eighties when I first met him. A large, veinous hand proffered with the English words, somewhat slurred by dentures, ‘Nice to meet you’. But all that schooling so long ago and half-forgotten. An immediate reversion to Japanese, the dense local dialect, unpicked for me at moments of confusion by his eldest granddaughter, my future wife. Though we only met a handful of times, he was unfailingly warm, accepting and humble, unwilling to play the role of supreme patriarch to which his years entitled him.

Some of this gentle poise may have derived from his faith, for he was an active member of his Tenrikyō church. Arising in the mid-19th century at a time of great political crisis, when feudal Japan was opening to the West, Tenrikyō began as a rural cult based around Nakayama Miki, a shamanic figure who delivered her divine revelations in automatic writing and was said to perform miracles of healing. The movement grew into an organised religion, designated by the government as a ‘sect of Shintō’, and eventually gave its name to the place where it had started, and which its official buildings now dominate, Tenri City in Nara Prefecture.

But is Tenrikyō actually Shintō? While the two may share certain aspects of ritual in common, the latter has a multitude of gods, the former ostensibly one, Tenri-Ō-no-Mikoto. The use of the English word ‘church’ to describe its sites of worship also reinforces the sense of monotheism. I’ve lived in Tenri for almost a decade, my wife is an adherent of Tenrikyō, yet I still don’t know the answer. Why? Because it doesn’t really matter.

Religion in Japan has always been a syncretic affair, as suggested by the mixture of Buddhist and Shintō funeral practices. Buddhist temples usually have Shintō shrines within their precincts, and most people pray indiscriminately at both. My wife and I even got married in a Shintō shrine; her Tenrikyō family raised no objections. For dogma is subsidiary to the ritual act itself. Correct form is a defining feature of Japanese culture, just as applicable to major ceremonies, such as graduations or weddings, as to the small, quotidian ‘rituals’ of meeting and greeting, mediated by their subtle grades of honorific language. The routine, the bow, the posture of humble supplication – the gesture in and of itself supersedes any dubious philosophical pursuit of incontrovertible truth.¹

Many of the rituals of Tenrikyō are accompanied by gagaku, the music of the ancient Imperial court, a melange of native Japanese, Chinese and South Asian influences. In his church orchestra Nakanishi Mitsuo played a reed instrument called the shō, a bundle of bamboo tubes that resembles part of some miniature pipe organ, but which was said to represent a Chinese phoenix at rest. Its sounds are magical, shimmering and, like a harmonica, arise on both the in- and out-breaths.

The last time I saw him, he was wearing an oxygen mask. A cold had deteriorated into pneumonia, and he’d been in a hospital bed for several weeks. Weight loss had made his false teeth even looser in his gums, and I barely understood anything. We told him about our wedding plans, the tedious bureaucratic hoops we had to jump through. Characteristically, he was more concerned with this than with his own failing body.

It’s curious how the action of writing revives the memory. Maybe my hippocampus (or is it the cerebral cortex?) is sprightlier than I thought. I remember now the overcast light in the small hospital room, how we turned at the door to wave goodbye. His large purple-pink hand, bloated with gravity, waving back above the side-bars of the bed. Outside I picked up the spiky fruit of an American sweet gum by its stalk. It’s still in our apartment, in an old glass jar, like a musical note preserved in ice. But memory, it always fades.

II. A Corpse

Screenshot 2017-05-02 at 14.35.50It was back in the house when we got there, transported from the hospital within several hours of death – the body of Nakanishi Mitsuo, still in pyjamas, laid out on a futon on the tatami mats. I hesitate, however, to yoke his name to this husk; already his image had been abstracted. It was my first human corpse (I never saw my own grandfather’s), and I found myself thinking, there’s nothing here any more. Tireless lungs static after 82 years, filled only with slack air. Hence perhaps that ceremonial dagger on the chest to ward off evil spirits. Other offerings were on a small wooden stand: rice, saké, salt, water and a leaf of the sacred sakaki tree (Cleyera japonica) for transferring water to the dry lips. The body required tender ministration, as a succession of relatives and neighbours came to kneel and pay their respects.

This was death treated with intimacy, invited into the heart of the family home, not banished to the morgue with a kind of queasy embarrassment.² That night Mitsuo’s daughter, now my mother-in-law, slept near the body to ensure a votive candle didn’t go out. His great-granddaughters made origami grave goods – a watch, paper money, anything he might need on the journey after death. These were placed in the coffin the following day, after undertakers had wiped the body clean and dressed it in a kimono (with the right flap over the left, a reversal of the custom for the living). The rest of us put on black mourning clothes, and we all departed for the funeral parlour and the wake.

Here my memories become layered – doubled. Both the wake that evening and the funeral the morning after occurred in the same hall, before the same backdrop of offerings. Flowers, fruit, vegetables, enormous bottles of rice wine, even dry food in boxes arranged like a harvest festival in a church. Both times a Tenrikyō priest chanted prayers. Both times we filed up to the coffin, bowed, clapped and offered branches of sakaki strung with zigzags of white paper (a form of decoration commonly seen in Shintō shrines). There was duplication in the two ceremonies, but a change in atmosphere too. Some of this was due to emotional fatigue. After the wake, the coffin was removed temporarily to a separate room within the funeral parlour, so that family members could keep vigil, keep the candle burning, until the next day. I eventually went home, slept fitfully, and then the gagaku hit.

In her foreword to the 2004 edition of Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism, Wendy Doniger states that, ‘…myths (and, to a great extent, rituals) retold and reenacted in the present transport the worshipper back to the world of origins, the world of events that took place in illo tempore, “in that time”.’³ There is, in other words, a rupture in everyday, linear time and its replacement with the ‘supratemporal’. This seems especially valid for describing highly formalised rituals that concern intrinsic aspects of existence – like death. While the wake had begun the rent in the ordinary, three gagaku musicians at the funeral itself (two bamboo flutes, one shō, the phoenix-harmonica) ripped it right open.

If melody in the Western classical tradition can be thought of as a path through a landscape, or as a narrative line connecting set-up to pay-off, then gagaku is the landscape itself, the setting robbed of story. Its woozily shifting planes of sound, all reeds and grasses, make me think of layers of honey slowly melting into one another, of the golden light of honeycomb. William P. Malm has compared the sounds of the shō to ‘a vein of amber in which a butterfly has been preserved.’4 Or maybe a sweet gum fruit in an old glass jar? This is music as circular time, existential, the pulse of the lungs, and it worked like a drug on my mildly sleep-deprived mind.

I floated through the following stages, even after the music had stopped, stunned in the new silence and weirdly detached as the mourners pressed in around the coffin to fill it with flowers. The grieving reached its peak. People sobbed and cried in despair, crowding, almost jostling, in a sudden loosening of self-control. It was an odd thing to witness in a society where public displays of strong emotion are so rare.

Nakanishi Mitsuo in a box of flowers. The undertakers fixed on the lid, and I helped to load the coffin into a hearse. At the crematorium there were more chanted prayers, more offerings of sakaki. The coffin was on a metal stand like an autopsy table. The table was wheeled into the incinerator. We drove back to the funeral parlour for beer and lunch.

Screenshot 2017-05-01 at 16.17.20

III. Skeleton

The first thing you register is the smell. A burnt, mineral heat full in the nostrils before you even enter the room. Then you see the metal table in the middle. The human skeleton. The man of a few hours ago now preternaturally white.

I think of a line from Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker – ‘It wer like the 1st time I seen a woman open for me I wer thinking: This is what its all about then.’5 This is the core, this is the nub, one individual stripped back to calligraphic bones, one frail body as ideogram for all Mortality. It’s a banal truism that we must die one day, but in that moment I was struck more forcibly by the startling fact of not currently being dead myself.

Or is that mere hindsight, analytical and ca
lm? Lunch had been long; there had been alcohol. Thirty or forty relatives and friends were now crammed into this small chamber at the crematorium. Tired, serious faces. I was spaced out, and the stench was beginning to become nauseating. On the far side of the table stood my girlfriend’s niece, only six at the time, showing on her face the anxiety I felt, feeding it back to me. I managed to smile at her. Her own smile was instant, big and open, as honest as her fear had been, and with it equanimity was restored.

This equanimity had characterised much of the past three days. Of course there was deep sadness, particularly as the coffin was finally sealed, but this was the funeral of an octogenarian who had been ailing for several weeks. That lessens the shock, lends the proceedings a certain matter-of-factness.

A crematorium attendant, wearing a peaked cap like a bus conductor, began to distribute metal chopsticks, while his colleague commented on the fine condition of Nakanishi Mitsuo’s skeleton, pointing out the absence of distortion in the pelvis or spine. His tone was unsentimental, yet polite, delicate. He now invited us to approach, individually or in pairs, starting with immediate family members, and remove pieces of bone for the urn. It was important to take a representative selection from throughout the body; not everything could be preserved.

Again that total lack of squeamishness, that intimacy. My girlfriend and I went together. As we stood in the slow waves of heat emanating from the table, agonising over what to pick up with the chopsticks, it felt for a second like some bizarre buffet spread. What a surreal privilege to be vulturing this man’s bones! Eventually we chose a section of fibula, which came away easily. The fire had burned out all the elastic collagen, leaving it brittle.

The skull was equally as compliant. Being far too big for the porcelain urn, the chief attendant, announcing his intentions first in the same level voice, broke it apart in his gloved hands and recommended a neat, shell-like segment from the top. The consummate professional – anatomist – connoisseur. Small wonder a collective murmur of appreciation met his discovery of the Buddha.

The nodobotoke or ‘throat-Buddha’ is the colloquial term for the laryngeal prominence, the Adam’s apple. Although composed of cartilage, and thus unable to survive cremation temperatures, folk anatomy considers it identical with the axis, the second vertebra of the neck, which has on its upper surface a small tooth-like projection – or rather, a small head and torso – giving it the appearance of a Buddha in the lotus position. Mitsuo’s had emerged from the flames uncracked, and was now retrieved by the attendant before our chopsticks could do any damage. Even for followers of Tenrikyō, in which meditation plays no part, this body within the body is a potent, sacred object.

The tantric meditation on one’s skeleton alerts the mind to the true nature of existence, transient despite the illusion of stability that daily routine tends to grant it. Likewise, the ritual of the chopsticks (common to all cremations in Japan, not only those of Tenrikyō) is a sober acknowledgement of death as an incremental erasure – a scattering of hands, lungs, hippocampus – just as inexorable whether one is ripped apart by wild dogs or lovingly dismantled by one’s family.

In contrast, the Siberian shaman must collapse to a state of bones in order to be reborn in a new body of magical power. There are echoes of this in Tenrikyō, which holds that the material body is on loan from God and must be returned to God, but that the soul is one’s own and can transmigrate. The funeral is simply the starting point for a series of rituals occurring at fixed intervals over many years, each marking the journey of the post-death spirit. Whilst some of Mitsuo’s bone fragments have been interred in a cemetery, others are still in the family home, including the throat-Buddha. On the fifth anniversary of his death it will be transferred to the church where he worshipped.

Another banal truism then: a funeral is an act of remembrance. But is it not also, at least in the format I experienced, a reconciliation with the inevitability of forgetting, and of being forgotten? Of an erasure that is more than physical? Within a few generations anyone who has ever known us personally is dead. Only feeble ghosts remain: dry facts, sparse accounts, deceptive photographs. This same fear of personal oblivion underpins our wider fears about environmental catastrophe. How can we expect future humans to have any memory of the splendour, the diversity, that once cloaked and suffused this Earth? How can they possibly know what has been lost?

March the 21st, 2014, had been overcast and chilly. As I left the heavy, sooty air of the crematorium behind in the mid-afternoon, stepping out through the sliding doors hand in hand with my girlfriend’s niece, the sun suddenly broke through, illuminating a silvery shower of rain. ‘Look! Kitsune no yomeiri!’ shouted the small girl. A foxes’ wedding procession! This Japanese idiom perfectly conveys the novelty, the sheer uncanniness, of seeing rain fall from a bright blue sky. It was an appropriate image for a day of strange rupture, of ritual space, otherworldly and beyond ordinary time.

The sun and rain, moving through their cycles. An atheist-animist, is that what I am? A touch of Buddhism when it suits me? I’m not big on dogma. All I know is that there are a myriad universes dying all the time, every one infinitely rich and utterly mysterious. That we are made of stardust. Animal, corpse, skeleton. That’s good enough for me.

Endnotes

1. This may, of course, be utter bollocks, since Japan no doubt has its fair share of fundamentalists, but it neatly justifies the lack of theological explication in my account
2. This custom, however, is disappearing, surviving mainly in old houses in the country.
3. Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2004 edition, p. 13
4. Malm, William P., Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 2000, p. 112
5. Hoban, Russell, Riddley Walker, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2002 edition, p.193

Images

Christos Galanis
The Time I Shot the Iliad, (2 of 5), (2 of 5 [detail]), (3 of 5)
New Mexico, USA

The Time I Shot The Iliad is part of a series of ‘shot books’ I created in the deserts of New Mexico that began as both an interrogation of US gun culture, and the role of books in the development and dominance of civilisation. These dusty discarded books – mined from charity shops – eventually became sites for re-inscribing contemporary narratives of contraction and loss. Their desecrated pages are perhaps the visceral embodiment of a more faithful articulation of the arc of time we are living through. For a full description of this project, see Dark Mountain: Issue 11.

Christos Galanis is a Canadian/Greek artist, researcher and teacher who enjoys migration. Currently a PhD candidate in Human Geography at Edinburgh University, he is researching practices of walking/belonging within the Scottish Highlands. He holds an MFA in Art & Ecology (University of New Mexico), where he practised inter-species research-collaboration with his donkey Fairuz. christosgalanis.com

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