Bottleneck

A foot on her bladder jolts her awake. She queues for the toilet, is ushered to the front by kindly passengers, and on returning to her seat discovers East Anglia overlaid with a map of vapour. She pretends to herself that this is stable English cloud, its blue lacunae the Norfolk Broads that she has never visited. The thought makes her thirsty and, looking down the aisle for the drinks trolley, she reaches into her purse for change. She requests a tomato juice and watches as the hostess measures out a sample. She takes a sip and her taste buds seem to revive like flowers after rain. Taking her time with the dregs, she sits back to consider all that has taken place – the journey to and from Berlin, her courtesy tour of the heat-dazed city, the performance at the Konzerthaus. Is it common for the Small Hall to have so many empty seats? No matter: the applause sounded genuine and lasted a long time, until she began to suspect that it was her condition, rather than her composition, that won people over; for she had been summoned to the front of the stage and exposed there, bashful, elated and flagrantly pregnant, until the first violin encumbered her with a bouquet and turned her into an allegorical figure from a masque of plenty.

There is a second jolt. Passengers murmur as the plane lurches through fathoms of air. Clare grips the armrest and shuts her eyes. She reminds herself of the statistics about aircraft safety. All the same, she does not open her eyes or wipe the perspiration from her upper lip until they are safely delivered from turbulence.

‘Now that was a drop,’ her neighbour says. ‘Cheaper to stay at home and fall down the stairs.’

Clare nods and sketches a smile. She resists the urge ethically to justify her presence on board, to describe to this affluent woman the difficulties of securing a permit, the cost of exceeding her carbon allowance and her worries about the ethics of doing so.

Ajay insisted that she go. Hasn’t she always told him that Germany values new music, whereas in England only the comforting oldies have an audience: the vanished pastoral of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Clare’s compositions, swarming with terror and magnificence, hold scant appeal to such patrons as remain to fill the void left by public subsidy. Who wants orchestral noise that frightens and dismays? Berliners, it would seem. They absorbed, as if they deserved it, the stern sermon of her Threnody and meditated on it afterwards in the air-conditioned café, the balm of their approval soured by a few sidelong glances at her fullness, from abstainers perhaps, or else musical enthusiasts who foresaw, as Clare does with a pang of apprehension, the sinking of her gifts under nappies and night feeds.

She rests her hands on her belly. Her lower back aches; her bladder seems full again. She feels gross, usurped –– time to be done with it all. Yet she fears the pain of labour and has complained to Ajay about the ordeal ahead. Having to squeeze a living body through that tearing, agonised neck.

‘Men have it easy. All the fun and none of the effort.’‘What about gallstones?’

‘I think you’ll find a baby is a bit bigger.’

A baby passes through a bigger aperture.’

‘Oh God – can’t I just pay someone to do it for me? If men had to do this you’d have come up with a technofix years ago.’

‘There are some things, my love, that cannot be fixed by technology.’

The aircraft dips towards England. Clare sees through the window the cloud dissolve to reveal the faded quilt of Essex, the fields and woods from this height a blend of coffee and cream, with here and there the glint, like dropped shreds of foil, of solar panels on domestic roofs. The plane tilts again to reveal the vast circuitry of London smudged by photochemical smog.

‘Beautiful,’ her neighbour says, leaning close to see out. Clare inhales the woman’s perfume and mutters about pollution. ‘I don’t think so,’ says the woman. That’s just humidity, isn’t it?’

Clare warns herself not to take against this frequent flyer with her Botoxed brow, her snakeskin handbag and faded cheeks. Above all, do not get polemical. It is a side to her nature that has not served her well. In Germany, it was better received. She was able to describe, without inwardly cringing, the subject of her Threnody, a funeral piece for the non-human Earth to which, now that we have despoiled it, we have no option but to pay attention. Ideally, her music would embody its purpose. Yet whenever a journalist asks, she finds the urge to proselytise difficult to resist. It has made her enemies –– like Quentin Barber in The Telegraph who claimed to have discovered in her song cycle, The Sleep of Reason, ‘an ideological focus reminiscent of the vanished commissars of socialist realism’.

The seatbelt sign lights up, the captain gives his instructions, and the plane bucks and trembles into its final descent. Maybe she does hector; maybe she is a bore. Only second-rate composers write programmatically. Yet the state of things drives her to it. How can she keep silent? Clare envies Ajay his philosophical calm. The Earth will shrug us off, he says, if it has to. Life won’t end with humans. Sometimes his fatalism infuriates her, is endurable only with the knowledge that rather than wailing at the crisis he is acting to resolve it; whereas she obsesses at the news of famines in Africa and Southeast Asia, and scrabbles around for ways to make sense of it all in music that, to most ears, is nothing but discordant noise.

The plane lands without complications, and Clare leans under the thin ventilation jet to dispel her nausea. Already the woman beside her is gathering her things. Clare waits with eyes closed for the plane to taxi and dock. Perhaps, she tells herself, the birth will change everything: narrowing her focus to daily necessities. It might be a relief to have one person’s future to worry about above all others: a fraction of the world it is in her power to protect.

***

Ajay is waiting at the arrivals gate. The stubble is dark on his face; he looks tired. He runs his hand over The Bump before giving her a quick, dry kiss.

‘We’re not taking the Tube in this heat. I’ve got a car.’

Clare lets him take the lead. They are exposed briefly to the blast of the day before entering the multi-storey car park. With what feels like almost terminal lassitude, she eases herself into the passenger seat of the hired vehicle. It smells of new upholstery and sun-baked plastic. A previous user has stuffed the glove compartment with wet wipes.

Ajay negotiates the twists of the car park, the wheels making a high lament at every turn. He steers them past checkpoints and through bollards into broiling traffic.

‘I’m sorry,’ says Clare.

‘For what?’

‘For not being talkative. It’s nothing personal.’

She contemplates the sunlight caught in the hairs of his forearm. She prefers not to look at the countryside. Better to burrow into her thoughts and contemplate the man she loves.

The first she knew of Ajay was his voice – followed by his hands, lithe and articulate like his speech, fluttering half a dozen panellists from where she sat onstage at the FutureScope conference. She leaned forward, to the edge of inelegance, until she could connect that wry baritone, those elegant hands, to their owner. The face was not handsome (the eyes fractionally prominent, the chin distinctly receding) yet resting her gaze on it felt like a homecoming. It was not so much a sensation of déjà vu as of stepping back into a foundational element, the first air of childhood, when everything is remarkable. She liked this man with his baffling talk of recyclable coenzymes and photoautotrophic organisms. There was something Promethean about his ambition to reveal one of the great mysteries of life on Earth: life which had created the conditions for more of itself. Watching him talk, she could not help smiling. Was he straight? Did he have a girl in the auditorium? And was this joy she felt illusory, a somatic defence against the talk of tipping points and feedback loops and vanished albedo effects?

After the plenary session, she made her way through the crowd and introduced herself. They shook hands and continued talking until they found themselves mirroring one another’s postures on either side of a café table. Within a week, they were lovers; within three months, she had moved into his flat in Maida Hill. It was just possible to fit in her piano. When Ajay’s startup received the backing of a VC firm in Shandong, they were able to rent a small semi within walking distance of Bayswater’s gated communities. The area is reasonably secure and the house big enough for them to balance intimacy with the absorption of their respective callings.

Each endows the work of the other with the mystery of arcane secrets. Clare perceives as metaphor her partner’s quest to store solar energy in the chemical bonds of a fuel, but she hears rather than listens to his talk of liquid catalysts and electrochemical cells, while Ajay sits proudly through church hall recitals of his wife’s stringent and elusive music, all the while wondering, she supposes, what’s for supper, or whether messages of interest are gathering on his phablet.

In the car, now, Ajay glances at the screen clipped to the dashboard. Clare presses back into the headrest in order to read it. Nothing but his Twitter feed.

‘Are you following a news story?’

‘Just chatter.’ Ajay turns the screen off and Clare rests a hand on his knee.

‘I hope you’ve been sleeping while I’ve been away.’

‘When I get round to it.’

‘Seriously, you look tired.’

‘I’m in training.’

‘You’d be better off building up reserves.’

‘For the Sleep Crunch.’ A panic of sirens blazes its way through the traffic. ‘It’s good to have you back.’

‘It’s good to be back.’

Ajay, emboldened by this exchange, begins to ask detailed questions about her flight, how it felt to be doing something to which they had once been accustomed. Does Clare imagine it, or is there a forced quality to his inquiries? The heat, the flight, the long queues at security and to get her rations deducted, have left her jangled. As gently as she can, she asks Ajay for quiet, and spends the rest of the journey with her eyes closed, in part to keep from seeing outside, in part to find in herself some point of calm.


***

The sun has passed its zenith by the time he has dropped her off, gone to park the car in its charging bay and come home to find her sitting in the kitchen, tights in hand, curling and uncurling her swollen toes. She hands him the twin of her sweating glass.

‘London’s finest,’ she says. ‘Recycled a thousand times.’

‘All water’s recycled.’ They drain their glasses and Ajay gasps in that theatrical way that niggles at her. ‘What’s up?’

‘Huh?’

‘You seem preoccupied.’

‘Of course I’m preoccupied. Look at the size of me!’

She contemplates her splayed toes on the linoleum floor and does not look up until Ajay has left the room with her suitcase. She levers herself to her feet and begins to drift about the house, as if reacquainting herself with a place long ago abandoned. In the bedroom, she takes off her blouse and contemplates her belly: a pale globe with a line of longitude bisecting the navel. Something sits, an obstruction, in her stomach. The feeling has accumulated like thunder in the heat until, in a sudden revelation while she unpacks her suitcase, it cascades into a six-bar motif: a tremulous murmur in the strings, an embryonic pulse from bassoon and oboe, and then a solitary French horn launching on C major, only to lose faith in itself and slide back with a melancholy glissando.

She makes her way to the piano and scribbles it down: the sketch of her theme. The seed of the work that was germinating inside her.

She hears movement in the garden and look out to see Ajay plucking dead stems from the soft fruit. She barely notices the parched condition of the laurels, the grass like straw, the leaves of the dwarf apple puckered and jaundiced. She attends to her breathing. The mind must lie still and open like the palm of a hand. Whatever comes must not be rushed. To reach for it is to chase it away.

She looks at the notes hung out on the staff paper. She tries them again, her ear casting a line beyond the last reverberation. Drops of sweat fall on the piano keys. She hears as if on a wandering breeze the stridulation of violins, feverish rumbles from a full complement of doubles basses. Twisting over both, like butterflies in a pheromonal dance, oboe and bassoon restate and interrogate the opening theme. These forces – the elemental strings, the creaturely wind – are in opposition, and her body aches with the tension. She writes the parts one above another, forcing herself to concentrate. It’s like hauling herself rung by rung along a horizontal ladder. The weight is too much to carry. She lets go and turns on the piano stool to face the room: its books and scores, its row upon row of antiquated CDs.

Clare hears Ajay come inside and go to his study, closing the door behind him. She dares another look at the sketches and wonders what kind of music can welcome a child into a world of ashes. Will their daughter live to witness a miraculous escape from the bottleneck in which humanity is now horribly wedged? Or will she – the question terrifies – be among the millions to die in its breathless confinement?

The analogy belongs to a science blogger: their friend Olive. ‘Here we are,’ she said that time after supper, ‘the buffers hit years ago – peak phosphate, peak water, peak everything – and the chemical structure of the atmosphere altered beyond recovery. We have squeezed ourselves into this bottleneck. Either we get smart or history ends this century. This talk terrified Clare. She made an excuse and hurried to the bathroom, her heart pounding and her lungs sobbing for air. The word called to mind the mouse she discovered once, jammed inside a wine bottle discarded under their hedge: killed for the sweetness that lured it in.

Clare gathers herself off the stool. For the umpteenth time today, she goes to the toilet to ease the pressure on her bladder. Reaching for a square of paper, she wonders if, under the surface, Ajay too isn’t panicked by what is about to descend on them. Quite apart from the ecological questions – the world has no need of another human – is it right to forge a consciousness that must suffer and die? There are those who say we have a duty to resist our biology. Ten years ago, they were the ones telling us to stop shopping, to break our addiction to growth for the future’s sake. Yet the bulk of humanity heeds old imperatives. We let nature takes its course – even if nature’s course is, ultimately, to purge itself of us.

Clare told very few people about her pregnancy while it was still possible to conceal it. She dreaded disapproval; yet no one, not even Tilda who runs a despair management course at the university, displayed anything other than delight at the prospect once it was obvious. In the abstract, people with whom Clare and Ajay socialise parade their scepticism about breeding, but when it comes to their own lives, or those of friends, the opposition fades. The impulse is too strong, it’s a compulsion pushed on us like a drug by our genes. The baby wants to be born – isn’t that the truth? It announced itself, circumvented their precautions, technology no match for that lone swimmer and her porous, eager egg.

She knocks on the door of Ajay’s study and goes in to kiss him on the crown of his head. Half a dozen tabs are open on his monitor: emails, news items, syndicated feeds on air pollution and the riots. She wraps her arms about his damp shoulders.

‘What would you say, Mr Four-Eyes, to some supper?’

Ajay rests a hand on her forearm but does not return her playful tone. ‘Are you up to it?’

‘I think I can manage something simple.’

In the kitchen, the floor is cool beneath her feet. She inspects the jars of pulses and quinoa, measures out the latter and puts a pan to boil. The fridge is full of drought-stunted vegetables. She tests the tomatoes, quarters them; dices spring onions and radishes. It pleases her to cook when they have fresh produce. Nutri-shakes and algal compounds may be necessary but she cannot find in their preparation the sacramental quiet she looks for in domestic tasks. Every action must be undertaken with reverence. How hateful to be on autopilot, never to wake fully into the day.

Half an hour later, with a breeze at last creeping in from the garden, she lays the quinoa salad on the table. Ajay joins her in silence but it takes her several minutes, caught up in the undertow of her music, to notice his hunched shoulders and the slowness with which he lifts the fork to his lips. She looks at him, hoping to draw his attention with her eyes. His own are hooded and he keeps his head bowed over the plate. Only when they have eaten and Ajay takes their plates to the sink does she ask what is troubling him.

‘I don’t know if it matters,’ he says.

‘If what matters?’

‘In the grand scheme of things.’

‘Ajay.’

‘Come upstairs. It would be easier to show you.’

She follows him, her stomach aflutter, into his study, where he wakes the computer with a flick of the mouse. Clare’s eyes wander, too weary to settle, over emails and campaign pages and various business sites. ‘What am I looking for?’

PhotoGen,’ says Ajay, ‘has been neutered.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘See for yourself.’

Clare leans forward and tries to narrow in on a single paragraph. She sees familiar names and acronyms. Dread parches her mouth. ‘For God’s sake, tell me what’s happened.’

‘Shall I bullet point it for you?’

‘No, just tell me outright.’

Ajay hesitates and she has to master her frustration at being toyed with, at having to wait for an explanation. ‘The mistake we made was to think we could play with the big boys…’

Clare stares at him. She recalls Ajay’s reluctance to tangle even with the remotest tentacles of that vast energy empire.

‘They have decided…’ Ajay sighs, and she can hear the effort in his voice to keep calm. ‘…to cease investing in uncertain technologies in order to focus on proven energy. For which read tar sands and coal-to-oil. Remote extraction in the Arctic.’

‘You said they gave assurances.’

‘They made all the right noises. We thought we were taking good advice, but who’s to say the advice wasn’t paid for by someone else?’

‘So who owns the largest share?’

They do, Clare. It was their game plan all along: get a foothold and then take over.’

‘How’s it in their interest to shut you down?’

‘It’s entirely in their interests, if you think in quarterlies. Look, there’s nothing new in their MO. You buy technology that threatens you and you suffocate it. Like a heroine dealer stealing the city’s supply of methadone and burning it.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘You were in Berlin. I didn’t want to spoil your concert. Then this afternoon you looked tired…’

‘Just when I’d started –’ Clare wavers and Ajay, reproaching himself for his inattention, eases her onto the office chair. She has to swivel away from the screen – cannot bear to see those urgent tabs with their freight of bad news. ‘I’ve started something new.’

‘Can’t hear you, love.’

‘I’m thirsty.’

He rushes downstairs while Clare leans forward, her pregnancy vast between her thighs. Ajay returns with a glass of water and watches her drink.

‘Are you…?’ She tries to find a way out, an escape clause however tenuous. ‘Is it certain they’re going to defund you?’

‘Andy and Neil have been texting me all day. That’s the rumour. And there’s no going elsewhere when they own the patents.’ Ajay leans against the bookcase and folds up till he is kneeling before her, like a supplicant at the altar of his child. ‘I wanted to believe in the possibility of good faith. Their money and our forward-thinking. Proof that even the most entrenched interests can see where the future lies. The irony is, they can. They see where we’re heading, which is why they’ve spent decades trying to stop us from getting there.’

Clare runs her fingers through his hair, careful not to touch his bald patch. She sees a little boy in need of saving. How can she console him, she who has always needed his stability, his resistance to hope or despair? That dinner party, seated between technological optimists and depletionist Olive, he had argued against both contentions. She has seen him refute, gently but without evasion, activists clinging to the dream that resource depletion will bring down the ogre of industrial capitalism. Ah, he’d say, but that fails to reckon with its resourcefulness. The last acre of Earth will have been scoured before the system admits its madness. Perhaps, then, the giant will fall, but it will fall on the people below. Our task, the task of innovators, is to keep the giant on its feet and make it move more daintily until it learns a different dance.

Another thought, closer to home, pushes these metaphors aside. How will they manage with a baby on the way? She asks him the question.

‘Oh, any settlement will be generous,’ he says. ‘I can probably find work with another start-up. Don’t worry on that score.’

The word brings her back to herself. She hears a mockery of trumpets, flatulent brass: a tide of noise drowning the tentative music of Earth. Too obvious? Yet the obvious is what we fail to take note of. She listens for the next wave of sound. The next iteration.

‘We’re out of time anyway,’ says Ajay. ‘It was too late ten years ago. We’ve been looking for a technofix but it’s our minds we have to change not our means. And there’s no app for improving human nature.’

Clare turns, reaching for the windowsill. She stands on solid floorboards yet feels the world falling away. Into dread. Towards chaos. The chthonic darkness. Then a lone violin, unnoticed at first, forcing its way through the noise like a weed through concrete. She listens for it. Desperately.

‘I thought denial was a failing in others. And all this time I’ve been at the bargaining stage.’

The melody, thin and fragile, begins to spread like a virus to the other strings.

‘I’m sorry…’ says Clare. She makes her way, cradling the music in her thoughts, to the piano. He follows her and leans against the door jamb, watching.

‘It arrived this afternoon,’ she says without looking up. ‘While you were in the garden. I can’t just let it pass.’

‘You don’t imagine anyone’s ever going to perform it, do you?’

She writes, then puts down her pencil on the score rest and contemplates the vacant doorway. Downstairs, the fridge door opens and a bottle top dances on the granite counter.

Clare looks at the scrawl of her notation. She sounds the emptiness in her core – sorrow’s anaesthetic. She hears Ajay open the door to the garden and the respite of darkness.

Perhaps she has always known. To live, as one must, day to day, is to depend on saving illusions. Saving, that is, until they drown us. She breathes slowly. The air is kind to life. Life made it, after all. She must not give herself to anger or sorrow. The score is growing inside her. It will not save one life, yet with it she will add to the store of creation.

She thinks of Ajay standing among the withered beds. In a minute, she will go to him. First, she looks at the score: that scrawled clef, those crochets and minims. What else can she do with the time that remains?

Their child is coming into the world.

Nothing can stop it now.

C97ZIGSW0AAR_DE.jpg-large-666x1024 (1)‘Bottleneck’ is taken from The Ghost Who Bled (Comma Press, 2017), a collection of stories that range widely in space and time. Historical, speculative and naturalistic fictions take the reader from medieval Byzantium and Elizabethan London to the present-day Edinburgh Festival and a climate-changed San Francisco of the near-future.

A sublime collection of short stories…  Unfailingly beautiful, deceptively simple and lyrically powerful

  Claire Looby, The Irish Times.

‘There’s Something Wrong With the Bees’

The form of an organism – and its relationship to the space around it – will reveal to us the characteristics of its being1

The Bee

I have a memory of having to do an exercise at school. A sheet of paper was divided into two columns, with pictures of animals on one side and pictures of animal products on the other. You had to draw straight lines to match them up. Cow and milk. Sheep and woollen socks. Bees and honey. I wonder why I remember this. It must have unsettled me in some way. It wasn’t an intuitive way of viewing animals, at least not to a child’s mind. Maybe characteristics such as the sounds they make – moobaabzz – (or in Germany where I spent a few of my younger years – muhmäh – summ) would have seemed more appropriate. From the earliest age, we are encouraged to look at life in terms of what can be extracted from it. What we can take, rather than what we can give. We do not think of ourselves as stewards, guardians of the earth. We are managers. Consumers.

When we think about bees, we often refer to them as a colony. A family may consist of up to 50,000 bees, all related by blood, scent and purpose. Another way of perceiving the bees, and one that appears quite naturally in mind if you spend any length of time with them, is as a single organism consisting of all the individual bees and their honeycomb together. In this way each bee is akin to a cell, the cells together forming organs, the organs together a system, an organism with many parts, each aspect indivisible from the others. Thinking about a single bee is like thinking about a single cell in an eyeball without considering its context in the body – its dependence on arteries, tissues, orbit, muscles and brain – all the things that together permit sight. You may choose then to refer to the Bee, a name encompassing all the bees in a particular nest as well as their comb.

The hive is in many ways similar to a mammal. Its heat is carefully regulated – on hot days bees will stand in the entrance and fan their wings to introduce an air current. On cold days they’ll cluster within the hive, ensuring that the temperature is maintained at the warmth necessary for the survival of queen and young. This temperature is precise – only slightly lower than the temperature of a human body. Young bees are raised internally, in an area called the brood nest.

The bees waterproof their home with propolis, an antibacterial paste made from the resin of trees. The scent of propolis is heavenly. A transcendent perfume. One sniff and you are transported into the realm of the Bee – one of nectar, air and light.

Once you begin to think of the bees in this way, the idea of removing a comb as it pleases you, of extracting honey and using wax for candles and beauty products becomes problematic. You are not just reaching into a box of insects, but entering the body of a living animal.

The Sun Hive

German sculptor and beekeeper Günther Mancke united his extensive observations and artistic vision to guide the creation of a new kind of hive for the bees. He called it the Weissenseifener Hängekorb. In English we call it the Sun Hive. Round in shape, it is designed with the needs and natural preferences of the bees in mind. This marks a profound difference between the Sun Hive and ‘conventional’ hives, which have developed according to human convenience, prioritising ease of access, ease of honey harvest.

NBKT interior view of Bien house
Günther noted that bees often choose to make their homes in the hollows of trees, at a preferred height of between 2.5 and 6 metres. The Sun Hive is therefore suspended from a tree or from a purpose-built frame. It must be sheltered from the rain. When unconstrained by the boxes we put them in, bees build rounded combs. The curve of the comb is determined by the arc of a chain of bees stretching from one side of the nest to the other and can be calculated according to the formula for a catenary curve. The form of the Sun Hive mirrors this curve, allowing the bees to build their comb without impediment.

The shape of the Sun Hive echoes the oblong form of a bee’s body. It consists of a combination of two skeps (coated with cow dung for warmth) and wooden support structures. Skeps are baskets woven from natural materials, usually rye straw (biodynamically grown where possible). They have been used as beehives for hundreds of years, although the use of box hives with movable combs quickly became more popular by the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Sun Hive is a conservation hive whose form is guided by the needs of the bees rather than the aim of honey production.  A bee-centric approach recommends minimal intervention in the life of the hive. The Sun Hive is therefore seen by many conventional beekeepers as a threat not only to their practice of honey harvesting but also to the health of bee populations as a whole. Advocates of the Sun Hive often refer to themselves as bee guardians or natural beekeepers – they aim to provide habitat for the bees but to otherwise leave them in peace. Some see this hands-off style of beekeeping as irresponsible. The chemical treatments used to control bee pests such as varroa are claimed to be indispensable, despite the fact that untreated, unmanaged bees do just fine on their own as they have done for millennia. The Sun Hive is designed with a movable comb system, unlike a traditional skep basket. This permits the bee guardian to inspect the hive when necessary, although such inspections are kept to a minimum and the bees are not treated with chemicals.

Weak colonies die. Strong colonies swarm. They split in two. This is their means of reproduction. A virgin queen goes forth on her mating flight and only the strongest, healthiest, fastest males are able to mate with her. Swarm suppression, queen breeding and importation, artificial insemination, the use of chemical treatments and pesticides – is it any wonder that ‘colony collapse disorder’ is occurring with increasing frequency in places where practices such as this are mainstream? Humans interfere with natural processes and then wonder why things go awry. Must be something wrong with nature, we say. There’s something wrong with the bees.

The boxes we’ve built for the bees reflect our own homes with their angular walls and corners. Our cubic, linear thinking. We find it hard to think in curves. The move away from keeping bees in skeps has been ‘a move away from the principle of rounded forms to that of cuboid and square ones, and thus from the holistic and organic to the atomistic and additive. That is to say, the materialistic modes of thought that have been developing since the fifteenth century have also come to permeate the relationship between mankind and the bee.’2

Each bee has a role within the hive. This is a fiercely and undeniably interdependent community in which the work of each serves the needs of all. Far from the ‘rigidity of parallel lines and the monotony of equal distances’3 characterised by conventional box hives, the Sun Hive epitomises love – both the love of humankind for the bees, and the principle of love at work within the hive itself. As author and social activist bell hooks writes: ‘remember, care is a dimension of love, but simply giving care does not mean we are loving’.4 Just showing care for the bees is not enough – ‘there can be no love without justice’.5

With our shrinking forests and dwindling forage, the bees face a diminishing habitat. The Sun Hive and other bee-friendly hives, such as log hives and the Freedom Hive (a cylinder made of wood and straw, lighter than a log hive and easily hoisted into trees or placed on a tripod stand) created by beekeeper Matt Somerville, seek to restore lost habitat. A resurgence in traditional practices such as tree beekeeping (in which hollows are formed in living trees) and the work of communities of natural beekeepers and allies such as the Natural Beekeeping Trust, based in southern England, represent a vital turning of the mind and will towards giving to rather than taking from the bees.

Crisis house

I recently took a trip to Scotland, thought I’d spend a couple weeks in these northern lands to which I’m drawn by a mysterious magnetism. I wanted to simply be there, and also to meet with potential doctoral supervisors at universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow. I’d looked forward to this journey for some time, but I’d been struggling with the sense of crushing fatigue that is often a feature of my life with chronic illness. Instead of abandoning my plans, I opted to take the train rather than drive.

With hindsight, I see that I expected to find an illuminated path waiting for me in Edinburgh. Everything would click into place and I’d know what I was supposed to do. Instead, I found myself on a bridge over Waverley Station. I was on the edge, looking. I went back to my rented room and sobbed. I lay silently on the bed staring at the ceiling. It got dark outside.

I called a local Thai place, ordered a curry for collection. Stepped out feeling shaky, pierced by streetlights and voices, unsteady on my feet. I sat on a bench opposite the curry house just south of the Meadows and it was there I realised that I was ill again, that I wasn’t just having an emotional moment, I needed help.

I ended up in a crisis house. I was fortunate to find myself there instead of the hospital. I was free to be myself without the imposition of other people’s prescribed modes of health and being. I was able to express myself, to rest and to recover in a way that felt right for me. When I’ve been hospitalised in the past, I’ve been treated as a case to be managed, a problem to be solved, a body to be confined and kept alive. In a residential crisis house you are regarded as an autonomous human, albeit one in pain. It provides a safe space to be with that pain, to move through it instead of around it, to encounter it instead of numbing or ignoring it. I emerged on the other side of my distress without the need for medical intervention.

There are very few such crisis houses in the UK and in my view there should be more. I have experienced this setting on both sides – as a guest and also as a volunteer at a house in north London, where I served as a befriender for several years. People in crisis are initially befriended over the phone. Conversations may lead to an invitation to stay at the house for five days, free of charge, where the guest will encounter and be befriended by numerous volunteers. The essence of befriending is non-judgemental active listening. Not trying to fix, to deny, to solve, to dismiss, to console. Simply being with the person and accepting them as they are. No matter what they’ve done or what’s been done to them. Honouring their intrinsic value, validating their experiences, holding hope for them when they are hopeless. It was a compassionate and demanding place to work. By no means does it transform the lives of everyone that comes to stay. Five days is hardly enough to undo a lifetime of trauma or heal a broken heart. But providing people with an opportunity to reflect, to be heard, is invaluable. Ultimately the crisis house maintains that humans have the right to choose to end their lives. The hope is that they will find another option, and that they can be supported to think carefully before making this decision.

As someone living with ongoing physical and mental health problems, I feel especially grateful for places that allow me to simply be – that don’t make me feel worthless, dispensable or a burden. The amount of energy that goes into hiding sickness could be better spent on other things. ‘For where I am closed, I am false’, says Rilke. I need contemplative time built into the fabric of my days. If I don’t get it I start to become unwell.

Love is generous and fearless. It creates space for something to be itself, to evolve, to be ever in flux and in harmony with its own nature. Sometimes I feel I’m being forced into a form that doesn’t suit me. I must seek a habitat for myself in which I can flourish.

honeycomb pic

The wisdom of beings

The pathologisation of distress is in many ways akin to the pulling out of weeds we deem unsightly but that may be contributing to the health and balance of the soil. When we think in terms of roundness rather than linearity, we recognise the vast ecological network in which all things are connected. This isn’t to say that there are never times when pulling weeds or medicating distress is beneficial or even necessary to promote wellness. But my instincts tell me we are too quick to judge things on the basis of immediate utility rather than longer-term sustainability and growth.

In considering the Sun Hive alongside my personal experiences of distress, I do not mean to use the bees as a metaphor, to plunder nature for her poetry. Instead I wish to suggest that our reductive attitudes towards both bees and human health may be symptomatic of a prevailing mindset of exploitation and control. When we operate from a place of fear rather than of love, there can be no health, no harmony. There is much to learn from the Bee. By offering our attention and letting go of our received knowledge we may come to understand her true nature, with humility, awe and kindness.

What would happen if we trusted in the innate wisdom of beings? What if we permitted things to live according to their own principles, allowed them to organise their own lives? Consider the wisdom of the swarm. The triumphant joyous flight of a virgin queen. We have much to gain from acknowledging that not everything can be known. That what we think of as ‘understanding’ is often inadequate. Purely cerebral thinking is in many cases disengaged, confined to existing constructs and narrow vocabularies that seek to make sense of and thereby limit life. Our words imply a world of things with secure identities to which things happen, rather than a fluid world populated by beings in a process of becoming. If our language and our modes of being and relating could somehow make room for surprise, discovery and change, how different we might feel. Ultimately our feelings are not the priority, but rather liberation from a human-centric and materialistic way of thinking that limits the potential of humans, bees and the broader ecosystem of which we are both part.


1. Günther Mancke, The Sun Hive. Natural Beekeeping Trust translation of newly revised and expanded version of the German 2005 edition of Günther Mancke: der Weissenseifener Hängekorb – Eine Alternative.
2Mancke, p.74.
3. Mancke, p.70.
4. bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions, Harper Perennial, 2001, p.8.
5.  hooks, p.19.

Sun Hive photographs courtesy of the Natural Beekeeping Trust. Honeycomb picture by Carrie Foulkes.

Sculptures from the Anthropocene

Our tenuous hold on life – framed, as it were, within our doctrine of ‘living in the moment’ – seems all the more fragile when one considers the sheer inability displayed by the human species to understand and act on the threats now posed to society. The damage wreaked on our environment by the emissions of toxic chemicals, habitat destruction and the paradigm of ‘growth whatever the cost’ continues, and yet for world governments it’s still business as usual.

From an early age (birth to be precise), our education is designed to rule out informed interrogation into the order of things; subject matter is fed to us purely to equip us for the world of work. The idea that people could live and thrive in an alternative construct of society does not even get discussed, unless it is past cultures which are conveniently described as ‘primitive’. The receptive brain of a child soaks up all it is told; by the time the few with enough imagination to challenge the perceived wisdom voice their thoughts it is too late, they realise they can have any colour – as long as it is black.

As a child, my mother took me to London’s Natural History Museum and, like most children, I was spellbound by the huge dinosaur skeletons – their vastness, their teeth and claws, the sheer scale left me wide-eyed with wonder; and yet, despite the obvious power of these creatures, we were told at school that they were weak and died out very quickly, whereas humans were highly successful, they invented tools, grew food, and, above all, were ‘civilised’. I believed this. In reality, modern human time can be measured in a few tens of thousands of years (with only the last 200 years witnessing the destruction of the environment on a major scale, to the point where the future of humanity is brought into question), whereas the dinosaurs, that weak, ill-equipped species, actually existed for around 160 million years! To my way of thinking, that’s pretty successful.

Seeing these vast vestiges of past life standing still on display in a museum setting, and seeing how we, as humans, view ourselves in terms of time and our place in the world, led me to the area of creative activity that I am currently working on. Humankind now faces the end of an existence in which the planet’s resources can be plundered, destroyed and polluted with complete abandon. It would be easy, as is often done, to blame individuals; in fact, the simple truth is that the current way society is organised is based on growth and profit – the environment, the life with which we share the planet, and indeed people themselves, come second to these objectives. Most people find it impossible to imagine a society that is fundamentally different from that in which we now live – we are told that people are ‘naturally’ selfish, it’s just progress or ‘we’ve got to move on’. Why must we believe this? It is interesting to consider than when the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer societies made the transformation into the Neolithic, agrarian societies, this did not happen over thousands of years – it was a matter of a few generations. To change society into a form in which we grasp the concept of what it is to be human and how we live alongside each other in a mutually happy and beneficial way can happen; it just needs people to understand that this society is flawed and cannot be allowed to continue. I say again – it is not the people but the model we choose to live under.

As I write this, a brief radio news item tells us that scientists have reported that two-thirds of coral on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have now been destroyed – bleached and dead as the water temperatures rise. This was quickly followed by some sports news, then probably forgotten by most listeners. Once lost, do the wonders of our world just get forgotten and cease to mean anything to us? I have never seen a coral reef, but I certainly want it to continue to exist, as I do wildflower meadows, elephants, honey bees, butterflies and indeed, numerous life forms that are now threatened with extinction.

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Imagine for a moment the Palaeolithic hunter; he is hungry, his sense are heightened and acute to a level we simply cannot imagine, he looks out onto a landscape untouched by human activity: rivers full of fish, unimaginable numbers of birds and animals, the air clear and scented with the nearby plants – that is his normality. Would he be troubled by the past or future? What we see today is our reality; if we have never heard a corncrake or seen flocks of lapwings, can we be expected to regret their disappearance? Do young people, shackled as they are to a life of screens, social media and the importance of self, trouble themselves over coral reefs or the decline of butterflies? Do they need to? What they experience is their normality. But I am worried, very worried that our senses have been cauterised and the sheer beauty of life is ebbing away and; in the end, it will not be there even if we want it.

I am fortunate in that my working life has allowed me to spend considerable periods of time over many years living in remote areas, predominantly the Arctic. Through living with the Inuit, still – to some extent, a hunter-gatherer culture– one gets a profound sense of the importance of our connection with the land and animals that provide the means of survival; furthermore (and this seems to happen only after a relatively long period of time), living in a place where human figures are mere specks within a vast untouched landscape, a true wilderness, gives one a clear and deep sense of just how insignificant we are.

To journey through a wilderness with an open mind and for a long enough period of time can allow a person to begin to experience a different level of consciousness which, in ‘normal’ life, would not be attainable. Some years ago I was nearing the end of a 400-mile journey across Greenland’s vast ice cap. I had pulled a loaded sledge containing my food, tent and fuel, but little else for comfort or entertainment. I had one companion.

After 40 days of grinding labour across endless ice fields, mountains and crevasses, I saw the fjords and mountains of the west coast; by this time we had virtually no food and I knew the feeling of hunger. The reason I mention this is because as we left the ice and entered the Arctic rocks and tundra, at the point where the ice sheet meets ‘land’, I had an overwhelming feeling of connection and ‘oneness’ with the hostile terrain I found myself in – it seemed somehow linked to my inner self; I felt hardwired into the landscape, liberated, and was seeing my surroundings through the eyes of a wild animal. It was a truly wonderful feeling which, sadly, dissipated soon after we finally reached a small town on the west coast.

I felt later that this power of connection to nature, the environment and landscape would have been normal for early hunter-gatherer cultures, so much so that they would not have reflected on it any more than we might on other human responses such as sadness, love or pain. The current human condition, particularly in the western world, gives little opportunity and virtually denies people the ability to engage with nature and the environment. The fact that beauty, wonder, happiness and the profound feeling of what it is to be human can be obtained without cost, and simply by engaging with our world, does not sit well with market forces or with companies trying to sell happiness through acquisition.

Our society has now reached the point where scientists are describing the beginning of a new epoch – Anthropocene. The actual geological strata is being affected by the production of plastics, concrete and radionuclides. This, alongside continued and increasing production of carbon means that the human species is successfully and relentlessly destroying the agar jelly of its own petri dish. Society has now reached a state where the majority of people have, not out of choice, ceased to have links with or engage with nature and the environment in a meaningful way. Why are we not seeing mass worldwide protests against a society that is leading us by the hand, willingly it would seem, to an existence that, at best, will be irretrievably damaged or worse, terrifying and dangerous?

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As a sculptor, these questions and concerns constantly flow through my thought processes and subconsciously, or even consciously, guide the chisels, drills and clay of what I do. My chosen materials– stone, metals and earth– and the means of construction– fire and the impact of hammer against stone – also seem to bring something of the land into the work. I have been privileged and lucky enough to feel and have intimate contact with the beauty of our world, but sometimes feel that I am shouting at people who are moving towards danger through sound-proofed glass. I make sculpture because I feel happy working in three dimensions but, moreover, it is the way I feel best able to explore my inner concerns and the way humans have become so entirely self-absorbed and inured to uncomfortable and incontrovertible evidence of damage to the very things that sustain us.

My most recent works set out to confront and explore the way in which we view our past as a species, and our relationship with time itself. I am interested in how we erroneously see ourselves as indestructible. The three figures constructed under the generic title of ‘Anthropocene’ form part of a wider group, designed not as sculptures to be seen close up, but within a landscape, or even ‘unseen’. They were assembled and placed in remote, often mountainous or moorland settings, and left in situ. I did not mind whether they were seen or not; if they were seen, then ideally it would be from a distance. Although the figures are three times life size, and at close quarters have a monumental sense about them, they rapidly become insignificant, even invisible, once any distance is put between them and the viewer.

I tried to imbue both a sense of power and sadness or melancholy into the figures. I wanted all to have qualities of dark industry as well as extreme vulnerability.

In his recent book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh examines the inability, of literature and politics to embrace and grasp the enormity of the catastrophe that awaits us, and questions how future generations will look back on our response (denial?) to this. I feel that artists should be dealing with the unspeakable, using this conduit to communicate in a visceral way that sometimes only art can. Climate change – like warfare, pollution, starvation and the alteration of the planet’s surface – is a symptom of how our society is organised; until humans realise that a system based on growth and profit will ultimately self destruct, then we can expect ‘business as usual’ as we herald the dawn of the new epoch.

All photographs are from Glenn Morris’s ‘Anthropocene’ series. The sculptures are made from recycled timbers and forged iron.

Letters With Style: A Call-out for Artists to Collaborate on Issue 12

No-one really knows how many artists or scribes contributed to the Book of Kells. Estimates range from one to a more authoritative six or seven, but there’s a problem with the way these estimates are made. They don’t take account of how things work in a culture of letters with style. With an ordinary handwritten document, you can count the number of different ways the letter ‘g’ or ‘s’ is written and use this to determine the number of authors. But when style is the aim of the game, each writer will have several versions of each letter, designed to deal with all the possible scenarios that could occur. Frustrating analysis even further, writers may go back over each other’s work to bring harmony to the final piece. Even dating a piece along conventional lines becomes difficult: references may be made to much earlier work as a mark of respect, individuals practising divergent styles might be brought into the group because of deeper shared values, or an innovation might occur through circumstance and not reappear in future work.

There’s no Picasso in such a culture. It’s primarily conservative; you are carrying a style with respect to where it came from, following its rules and designing within its boundaries. Innovators better be very careful: some rules aren’t for breaking. Some work does stand out, but not that far, and rather than create a postmodern free-for-all, superficial elements are absorbed into the culture while the underlying values remain the same.

The first letters with style that I saw were written by Raid and Den on the Bangor to Belfast train line as it cut through East Belfast towards the city centre. I was probably about eight or nine, in the car going from Holywood to Rathcoole to visit my granny as we did every Saturday. I knew every bit of graffiti on the route and craned my neck around in the car to get the longest possible view. I didn’t know what it was or how to do it or even why it was there, but it was clearly the best idea ever, and I made numerous failed attempts at it before finally getting some guidance at the age of thirteen.

First it’s fun, then it’s cool, then it’s a serious all-consuming enterprise. I’ve spent years perfecting the elements: tags and throw-ups for getting up; dubs, like throw-ups but with more style – maybe a drop shadow and highlights. Then pieces, the most complex form, with multicolour fill-ins, 3D, shading, and connections between letters so complex they become wildstyles, unreadable to most people. The aim of a piece is to create a burner. A burner is a piece or series of pieces where all the elements run together in harmony: the outline must be complex and balanced, yet still reveal the letters, even if it takes a bit of work. The fill-in has to be smooth, colour balanced and varied. Execution must be perfect, no drips, outline tight. It must sit within the culture; you can’t take the word out of graffiti and slap it on a Rembrandt.

The choice of letters is very important: some letters are better than others, and some only work well in certain combinations. SANCTUM has good letters. Even in this font they look good. As simple letters, they fill the space they occupy. There are gaps around the top of the A and under the T, but those are letters which are easily added to, so you can fill the space without corrupting the letter.

Here’s a more problematic word: LIBER. How do you fill the space between the L and the I without corrupting one of the letters into meaningless nonsense, or twisting it to the point that style itself is compromised? I can’t think of a single tag that starts with LI – not in Ireland, not worldwide. I Googled it. Since a graffiti writer can choose their letters, this combination has been avoided. In Lindesfarne around 700 AD, Eadfrith was not so lucky. The scribe of the Lindesfarne Gospels, he encountered a major stylistic challenge that he had no choice but to resolve. The first of the four most important pages, the incipit to the Gospel of St Matthew begins with LIBER. In insular art of this period, the incipit, particularly the first row of letters, are the pieces – wildstyle pieces. They have to be burners. A generation earlier, in the Book of Durrow, letters were getting more prominent but were still very much subordinate features of the text rather than objects of study in their own right. Eadfrith can’t just hide those letters in a corner with a load of spirals and a few peacocks; the hit that the viewer is looking for has to come from an LI combination, and the B has to behave itself as well. Beyond that, he has to follow the rules of his letter culture, the borders, the geometry, and proper proportions and curves based on the insular writing styles.

His solution was radical and ingenious. He didn’t just put the I through the L to fill the gap as had been done somewhat uncomfortably in earlier manuscripts. Instead, he made this move the main feature of the page. The I breaks the convention of diminuendo by being larger than the L, so large it also breaks the border and completely dominates the page in a way that hasn’t been seen before. But he hasn’t broken any rules; far from it. To the eye of one attuned to this tradition, he has made the I, that revolutionary leap, the most geometrically conservative form in the piece.

To deconstruct a piece of insular art, you need to find the underlying geometry. It’s always there. By ruling diagonals from the corners, find the centre, then use a compass placed there to draw a circle that touches both edges. The first possible construction line to be created from this arrangement is any two points where the diagonals intersect the circle. There are four options. Eadfrith only uses one, for the alignment of the I. Its left hand-side sits exactly on this line, and its height is determined by the diameter of the circle. All other geometric derivations within the piece are subordinate to this arrangement. The piece is original, the proportions are perfect and the rules of style are upheld. He’s pulled off a burner.

Basically, that’s the benchmark, the spirit of this enterprise. When you get into the territory of sacred books, insular scribes are the style kings, and graffiti terminology is the best way I know to describe their work. Style in the sense of a letter culture isn’t decorating the sacred, it is the sacred. Culture forms around it. By writing a set of letters thousands of times, style is discovered, but so are friendships, a sense of place; stories are created, the history of the art form is understood and added to, and even in the most literal sense a sanctum is established, a secret place for creating complex wildstyles from the black book.

Personally, the project to illuminate Issue 12 is going to be the biggest thing I’ve done with Dark Mountain, but like the other pieces, it’s not really an extra burden. I’ve contributed in the past when what was happening in life and what Dark Mountain was doing seemed to align. I was always making that art or thinking parallel thoughts when I’ve got involved. In this instance, the alignment has been particularly strong. I’ve been making insular illuminations of my own without any books to put them in for the last year, and I’m coming down with piles of parchment. The invitation to do the art for this book couldn’t have come at a better time. Working within Dark Mountain, much like in a graffiti crew, is a great creative atmosphere because there’s an awful lot that doesn’t need to be said. The intent is understood by everyone on a deep level, so the serious business of refining a concept can start at the beginning. I use Dark Mountain more as an adjective than a noun, much as I use graffiti terminology to describe something very specific but complex and hard to pin down outside its context. This book is going to be a very Dark Mountain take on the sacred. Can it also be a burner?

The nature of this call-out is quite specific: it’s to the already aligned. It’s for people already seriously into their craft, a craft that fits with this project. If we’re planning to hit the territory of the sacred by the end of July, we really need people who started looking for it a few years back and think they are getting close. Why this is being done is a question for the writers, but it’s fairly clear how this is supposed to be done from an artistic point of view. We need to tap into style in the same way as the insular manuscript illuminators managed to. My way in has been graffiti, but there must be many more routes, from other cultures and traditions.

So, what are we asking for?

  • This is not a call for new work just yet. Instead, if you want to be part of the team, send us a few examples of your previous work and a statement.
  • The artists in the team will be paired with particular writers and texts that will form the core of Issue 12, and the challenge will be to create a page which stands at the front of a piece, like the incipit in a medieval manuscript, with the possibility of creating further images to accompany the text.
  • While the tradition of the insular scribes is coupled to a particular local flavour of one of the major religions, there are echoes of such illumination and illustration within other cultures and belief systems, and we are keen to find collaborators who can bring other traditions and inspirations to the team.
  • All artwork will be made by hand and rendered at the actual size at which it will appear in the book. No technological enhancement should be used.
  • The ‘incipit’ pages will be on parchment, which we can supply. Beyond this, materials are up for discussion, but some deeper reasoning behind alternative choices will go a long way.

This is an experiment, and a big departure from the way that Dark Mountain usually works – a leap in the darkness for all of us. If you’ve read this far and you think you’d be up for being on the team we’re putting together, or you just want to know more about what this would involve, then write to me at [email protected].