Taking Rewilding Seriously

It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality.
Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto

Wildness is the Focus

Rewilding has become something of a fad. The internet and libraries are chock full of instruction manuals for using primitive medicine, making primitive tools, adopting primitive religious thought… Often attached are calls to ‘awaken our inner primal spirit.’ This seems like rewilding, right?

Wrong. Rewilding, when applied to human beings, cannot only be about lifestyle changes. Of course, you can’t live in nature if you don’t know how to build a shelter or identify plants. You can’t immerse yourself in the wild without basic navigation skills. But the rewilding fad has got it mostly wrong: it isn’t about selling a way to become independent of civilisation; it is about selling an aesthetic, an appearance of authenticity, much like Whole Foods stores are designed to look like local farmer’s markets.

For example, on the issue of navigation: would it be more useful for people to start with a compass, or to start with the stars? Obviously, most industrial humans, who can name at most a handful of constellations, would not want to navigate by the stars. But the rewilding trend is to start with the stars because that’s what our primitive ancestors did.

And on the issue of plant identification: would it be more useful for people to learn our more-than-adequate scientific classification system, or to learn an indigenous taxonomy? The answer is clear, yet I’ve spoken to a handful of people who have explicitly avoided learning scientific taxonomy because it’s scientific, and, therefore, unnatural.

Eventually, we have to ask ourselves: are we trying to rewild — to increase our autonomy from artificial systems — or are we trying to look interesting?

The Land Comes First

There’s a worse side-effect. Rewilding, originally, had little to do with human lifestyles at all. It came from the Earth First! movement, when the founders — particularly Dave Foreman and Howie Wolke — outlined their vision of a vast ecological reserve system in North America. Unlike previous reserve systems, this one included presently non-wild land, because Earth First!ers believed that wildness could be restored by removing artificial systems and edifices, like dams. Foreman writes, ‘We must … reclaim the roads and the plowed land, halt dam construction, tear down existing dams, free shackled rivers, and return to wilderness millions and tens of millions of [acres of] presently settled land.’

It was a radical vision, and although controversial at first, it is now fairly well accepted within conservation biology. In fact, connecting wildlands is one of the foremost concerns of the current conservation movement. Doing so provides a large enough habitat for predators and large mammals, and it reduces species extinctions, which tend to increase as wild areas become isolated ‘islands’. Much of the popularity of these concepts is due to the work of the Wildlands Network, also founded by Dave Foreman after he left the Earth First! movement in the mid-’80s.

Now, it could be that conservationist rewilding and personal rewilding are simply two different kinds of rewilding. In fact, Wikipedia currently has an entry for ‘Rewilding (conservation biology)’ and ‘Rewilding (anarchism)’. But I suspect that the two have too much in common to be considered entirely separate concepts.

If someone were to ask me why I am interested in rewilding, I would explain that I do not want to be constrained by the artificial systems of civilisation; that I would much rather live in nature and put in the work required to survive. In other words, it would appear as though my vision of rewilding is included under the ‘Rewilding (anarchism)’ entry. But I also believe that Foreman got it right: land must come first. Part of the whole philosophy behind rewilding is an acknowledgement that humans are not as important as civilised culture believes them to be. We are largely the product of our environment and our relationship to our environment, just like animals. This is why you can’t rewild an animal in a zoo. It needs a wild habitat first. In the same way, we can’t teach humans skills to rewild and then tell them it’s fine to keep living in civilised conditions. They need a habitat to rewild. To believe otherwise is an error called lifestylism.

Again, while my motivation for rewilding is a personal desire to live outside the bounds of civilisation, in practice rewilding must prioritise the land. This isn’t to suggest a chronology for rewilding. I’m not saying ‘preserve land, then learn skills.’ I’m saying that while we do both, our emphasis must be on habitat.

Start from the Present

Outside of the culture of the fad, people despair: rewilding is impossible, a pipe-dream, they say. I call this nihilism (not the same as philosophical nihilism), and it, too, results from a faulty conceptual framework. For example, nihilists tend to assume that successful rewilding always achieves its ideal, or that successful rewilding must achieve its ideal immediately. But if I want to live a life less controlled by artificial systems, any decrease in those systems’ power is a step on the ladder of rewilding. And, in regards to land, rewilding practices have been profoundly successful.

The trick is to conceive of rewilding as a practical project to decrease the influence of artificial systems over nature (including human nature). Consider Yellowstone. When wolves were eradicated, the whole ecosystem suffered. Elk overpopulated the area, and their grazing led to a decrease in the beaver populations. When wolves were reintroduced, they preyed on the elk and artificial impacts decreased, eventually washing out of the landscape to a profound degree. Of course, Yellowstone isn’t the wildest place on Earth, but wolf reintroduction shielded it from the impact of artificial systems, so made it wilder.

Similarly, zoos frequently preserve populations of animals that they later reintroduce to the wild. They do this by dealing with the situation practically: teach the captive animals the skills they need to live in the wild, then slowly reintroduce them. Keep tabs on them, fix any problems that come up, and try again.

We should take the same approach when rewilding our own lives. Start with outlining all the most important skills you need to learn: how to build shelters, how to identify plants… In every case, be sure to limit your efforts to a tractable problem. Don’t learn how to identify every plant, only the plants in regions you will be testing your skills in. And don’t try to solve every problem. Some things just aren’t going to fall into place until nature, not civilisation, becomes your tutor.

None of this is to say that we can achieve everything we would like to. Extinct species are a permanent problem. And no 21-year-old who was raised in a highly populated city is going to live an entirely wild life — ever. In addition to recognising that we have real, achievable goals, we also need to recognise the proper place for mourning. The move from conservation to rewilding has been touted as a positive vision, a way to move away from the dourness of old environmentalism and conservation. In a certain sense this is true. But the necessity of rewilding is a sad fact about modern life: civilisation has destroyed so many wild areas that we need to restore some before we can fully live by our values.

Sophisticated nihilists will admit that short-term rewilding efforts may very well achieve their goals, but that in the long term, civilisation is bound to destroy wild nature. I do not think this is true, but even if it was it would not be enough to put an end to all rewilding efforts. If the situation is utterly hopeless, with no chance of successful long-term conservation, no chance of rewilding, no chance of industrial decline or collapse, this is only enough to convince lukewarm wills to abandon action. The indomitable spirit, typified by his inability to live without the wild and his frankly reckless willingness to make huge sacrifices for it, would not be able to stomach stillness in captivity. Consider Geronimo, who led natives in battles against colonial powers for 36 years, evading capture and escaping captivity several times. After being detained by General Nelson Miles as a prisoner of war, Geronimo eventually acquiesced to civilisation, allowing himself to be an exotic attraction at fairs. Yet on his deathbed he proclaimed to his nephew, ‘I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.’

I write, then, for individuals like Geronimo — individuals who can earnestly and without reservation shout that most appropriate battle cry: ‘Live wild or die!’

Rebuke the Idols of Civilisation

And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcases upon the carcases of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you.
— Leviticus 26:30

Lately a new kind of rewilding has been gaining ground: the ‘rewilding’ of ecomodernists. Ecomodernism claims that technological progress will ‘decouple’ civilised people from the land, allowing them to continue living comfortable, modern lives while reducing their influence on the nature around them. Accelerate technological progress; intensify production in civilised areas through aquaculture and industrial farming; shuffle rural people into cities: this, they say, leaves and will leave vast regions of the Earth to the wild.

Outside of the decoupling thesis, ecomodernism’s version of rewilding is more obviously revisionist. For example, some ecomodernists advocate ‘de-extinction’, or using biological technologies to revive extinct species, so that they can reintroduce those species to their once native habitats. While considering these ideas, I have always been struck by a comparison with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, ‘to repair the world’. In recent years, left-wing Jewish groups have utilised this concept to push a narrative of progress, emphasising the fight for social justice as the most important element. But the man who taught me of tikkun olam repudiated these hubristic interpretations, stressing that the concept came from the Aleinu prayer, in which the Jewish people collectively pray for God to ‘remove all idols from the Earth, and to completely cut off all false gods; to repair the world.’ As I learned it, these idols include man’s unending faith in himself to fix the world.

The debate about rewilding is the like the debate about tikkun. Ecomodernists have declared that ‘this is the earth we have created’, so we should ‘manage it with love and intelligence’ to create ‘new glories’. They call this ‘rewilding’. But rewilding is not about continuing technical domination; it is about removing the idols of Progress, the dams, the roads, the corporations — and this includes man’s unending faith in himself.

Many ecological philosophers and conservationists have already tackled the problems with ecomodernism. Eileen Crist writes:

Importantly, modern development proceeds by converting and exploiting a massive portion of the natural world, and that particular portion is not one humanity is decoupled from. The portion of the biosphere that modernization assimilates, humanity is and will be very much coupled with; except that “coupled” is hardly the right word — comprehensively dominated is a more accurate depiction […] On all fronts, industrial food production is a ruthless, machine-mediated subjugation of land and seas as well as of wild and domestic beings.

But Crist critiques ecomodernism from the perspective of bio- or ecocentrism — the original philosophical justifications Dave Foreman and others gave for rewilding — and ecocentrism, too, has some problems. It is a strain of ethics in the Deep Ecology tradition that argues that nature has intrinsic moral worth. Theorists argue over the unit of moral worth — is it the organism, the ecosystem, the biosphere? — but the end result usually looks the same: ecocentrists protect nature because nature is deserving of their moral consideration. And when they are against civilisation, they are against it for the sake of nature. Among other things, this idea leaves room wide-open for decoupling strategies. The ecomodernists are right: under this version of ecocentrism, accelerating the development of civilisation is desirable if it results in more wild lands. It can only be rejected if we proudly claim that the whole point of preserving the wild is because we want to experience and ideally live in wilder conditions. And there are even bigger problems with the philosophy.

Some argue that ecocentrism follows an observable trend of humans expanding their altruistic capabilities from the band to the tribe to the nation and now to all of humanity. The next step, clearly, is to include non-human life. But this argument ignores an important point: an expanded ‘moral circle depends on and is the result of civilised infrastructure. Biologists have found that altruism in organisms, while an important part of their evolutionary strategy, evolves to only a limited degree. In humans, it seems as though natural altruism is limited to about 150 people, after which groups need to devise rules, rituals, and other regulatory mechanisms to maintain cohesion. Of course, the exact number is irrelevant. The issue is that altruism beyond a certain point has to be instilled. This is the difference between solidarity — the altruism of natural man — and civility: the altruism of civilised man.

Norbert Elias writes about a historical example of moral cultivation in the first volume of his magnum opus The Civilizing Process. Elias argues that, instead of simply adopting European social mores, the people of the Middle Ages underwent a long period of education that shaped their behaviour through shame, guilt, disgust, and other such feelings.

For instance, Elias reviews several etiquette manuals and points out that commands now reserved for children were being issued, regularly, to adults. People of the Middle Ages had to be told not to defecate on staircases and curtains, not to touch their privates in public, not to greet someone who is relieving themselves, not to examine their handkerchief after blowing into it, not to use various pieces of public fabric as handkerchiefs, not to use their eating spoon to serve food, not to offer food that they have bitten into, not to stir sauce with their fingers…

Beyond direct instruction, European society also developed taboos around sex, defecation, and urination; they passed laws; and they made non-compliance of cosmic importance by employing Christian dogma. In other words, the European ‘second nature’ developed only through multiple, interlocking systems and over a long period of time.

Elias argues that instilling a second nature into Europeans became necessary because right around the same time the patchwork of feudal territories, chiefdoms, and cities were being consolidated into much larger state-based societies. Nowadays, with states and their systems of education already established, a large-scale social transformation is unnecessary, and citizens usually go through the same processes of education in their youth.

Today the dominant ideology of global civilisation, in terms of power, is secular humanism. Among other things, this asserts that all of humanity belongs to a single moral community, and that each member of this community has a moral obligation to recognise all others’ rights and intrinsic dignity, which, conveniently, includes the right to live industrially. This is the ideology preached by the United Nations, universities, NGOs, and progressive corporations like Facebook. Connectedness between people becomes an important goal; development, another. The ideology is sustained by civilised infrastructure, like mass communication and transportation systems. Without it, humanism is untenable. Ecocentrism would be similarly untenable, because it further enlarges the moral circle to include non-humans. The trick, however, is to reject the artificial moralities completely.

Let me be clear. Solidarity, cooperation and altruism in small, natural social groups, is necessary for human flourishing. The human animal needs mates, parents, peers, elders to go beyond simply surviving and to live well. But civility must be instilled; it is a technological modification. Consider Freud’s thoughts on the matter in Civilisation and Its Discontents, in which he writes that one of the characteristic elements of civilisation is ‘..the manner in which the relationships of men to one another, their social relationships, are regulated — relationships which affect a person as a neighbour, as a source of help, as another person’s sexual object, as a member of a family and of a State’ (much like social manners began to be regulated in the Middle Ages).

But Freud warns that the repressed elements of human nature may express themselves in two ways. On the one hand, these desires might be redirected toward problems within civil life ‘… and so may prove favourable to a further development of civilisation.’ On the other hand, these desires ‘may also spring from the remains of their original personality, which is still untamed by civilisation and may thus become the basis … of hostility to civilisation. The urge for freedom, therefore, is directed against particular forms and demands of civilisation or against civilisation altogether.’ Rewilding cannot be about trying to create a particular form of civilisation, like expanding its concept of justice to include non-humans. Rewilding will involve casting off the chains of artificial regulations that currently bind our ‘original personality, which is still untamed’.

This kind of rewilding won’t look at all like the kind that is found on websites with e-stores, on Instagram profiles, or in lifestyle magazines. It will, in fact, be regarded extremely negatively. For instance, in 1785 a group of freed and runaway slaves and white indentured servants settled in a wilderness area now known as Indianapolis. Peter Lamborn Wilson writes:

They mingled with Pawnee Indians and took up a nomadic life modeled on that of local hunter-gatherer tribes. Led by a ‘king’ and ‘queen,’ Ben and Jennie Ishmael, […] they were known as fine artisans, musicians and dancers, abstainers from alcohol, practitioners of polygamy, non-Christian, and racially integrated […] By about 1810 they had established a cycle of travel that took them annually from Indianapolis (where their village gradually became a city slum) through a triangle formed by the hamlets of Morocco and Mecca in Indiana and Mahomet in Illinois …

Later ‘official’ white pioneers detested the Ishmaels, and apparently the feeling was mutual. From about 1890 comes this description of an elder: ‘He is an anarchist of course, and he has the instinctive, envious dislike so characteristic of his people, of anyone in a better condition than himself.’ […] The observer continues: ‘He abused the law, the courts; the rich, factories — everything.’ The elder stated that ‘the police should be hanged’; he was ready, he said, to burn the institutions of society. ‘I am better than any man that wears store clothes.’

Are we ready to be viewed like the Ishmaels?

Live Wild

Rewilding is an excellent framework for people who want to abandon civilisation, but it’s time to take it seriously. We cannot engage in the error of lifestylism — we must leave the zoo to rewild, and we must hold humans to the same standard as non-humans. And we cannot mistake rewilding for a progressive project — the point is to decrease the stronghold of artificial systems, not increase it. Foreman, in the first newsletter for Earth First!, put it well: ‘Not blind opposition to progress, but wide-eyed opposition to progress!’

To a Faith in Place

As if already aged – looking a victim of Millennial culture, not a product of it – Stephen answers the phone: Hello? Hello? On our way back now. Hello? Yes, Walter’s asleep. On our way back. Hello? Call must of dropped. Hello?


He turns to me, riding shotgun, believing the situation with his wife unclear: Call must of dropped, he repeats.Stephen is twenty-four, still younger than I was when we first met six years ago, and, yet, he looks unchanged: ‘City of Windsor Centennial’ baseball cap, sun-faded flannel rolled at the sleeves, denim jeans adequate for a coalmine, industrial work boots (as I’ve borrowed his calf-high rubber counterparts), and a peach V-neck (the fashion remnants of our time spent in Southern California together). He still smiles like it’s an invitation to squeeze his cheeks. Or like he’s withholding a sneeze. The only discernible difference is the dreads – they’re gone, coming off when the brain tumour came out. Now, threat free, there is still partial blindness in his periphery.

Stephen, a hardy man in a young body.

I travelled here alone, to eastern Canada, to recalibrate. I’ve been thinking about giving up writing, getting a ‘real’ job. An ‘adult’ job. Because this isn’t cutting it, the way I purge myself onto paper in an attempt to feel known. And loved. And important. I’m worried about the long-term consequence: What if nothing changes? What if nothing pays off? What if I still feel hollow with success?

I’m on the East Coast because I just spent a near-two-thousand dollars to attend an environmental writers’ conference in Vermont. Facilitators told me, by attending, I was showing a commitment to my craft, a willingness to make the extra sacrifice. Internally I smiled, knowing I’d successfully networked, but winced for all those I’ve met that will never be afforded the same luxury or privilege. Writing is expensive – in terms of time, finance, and spirit.

Friends and family are surprised when I tell them I attended, knowing me a thirty-two-year-old with an embarrassing bank account, but I’ve been living in the back of a makeshift furniture store, rent free, for the last three years to ensure the opportunities: conferences, workshops, retreats; submitting to journals; paying for freelance editing. I consciously made this decision, leaving San Diego for rural Montana, to create the time and space required to be a writer, to learn the industry, to alleviate the financial burden of California and separate myself from the big-city amenities. To focus.

I thought I’d have a book done in a year. Then in two. Then three. By year four, however, the manuscript was complete, with me then learning that writing is the easy part. Selling the damn thing is the difficulty. Editing and restructuring became new forms of mental affliction unto themselves. Agents and editors, new demigods to my worship. To have one of them say ‘Yes’ would’ve been the equivalent of an accepted marriage proposal. All the while I wasn’t even comfortable claiming the title ‘writer’. I’d started forgetting what I was altogether.

These thoughts, of course, are recurring, and common to creatives, but they’ve gotten worse: the further I advance in the literary business the more hopeless I evolve, each small victory adding up to one grand failure. Stephen, unbeknownst to him, has become my port in the storm.

He drives me around the South Shore of Nova Scotia. Nine-month-old Walter, as said, is asleep in the back. Stephen’s wife, Laura, and her two kids, Stella and Oliver, are back at the house in Petite Riviere, a small village named for the waterway that runs through it. There is a dog too, a beagle mix, Chebucto, named after the Halifax Harbor, cute as can be.

Route 331 takes us to Crescent Beach, where locals harvest the nutrient-rich seaweed for gardening, then through LaHave, passing a den of foxes awaiting the low tide for hunting, and around Conquerall Mills. I see coffee shops I’d like to visit, perhaps sit and write at, but negative thoughts have overtaken me. I won’t be returning.

A backroad leads us – through softwood forest and muddy hillsides, inhabited by feral pigs – to Stephen’s sister’s school bus. She lives there, Supertramp style, after the defunct vehicle, towed from Halifax, became her home atop a tick-infested thirty acres – ‘Blueberry Hill’, as she calls it. And the namesake is everywhere, painting the landscape an Alaskan taiga. Fall colours in spring.

IMG_9083
Up the road is a commune. I first meet Sam and Emily, building a cabin on the forest’s edge; we approach the skeletal framing via a solar-powered electric fence containing piglets, ducks, and cows. Cameron, another local, is up the way, in an attic, playing a hang drum; Jake is selling raw milk, hobbling it out to a customer’s truck; Melissa, laundry; their kids, climbing what seems to be a wigwam made of a Papasan chair. Jordy is refurbishing a counter; Lisa, tending the garden; everyone, seemingly, in their thirties or younger.

Stephen shows me his land next – just shy of nine acres – with Walter awake and now strapped to his back. Roughly half the acreage is cleared back for the farm; the rest, forest. An old oxen trail marks the delineation.

My guide navigates with ease, even with a child in tow and acquiescing his better boots to me, as I fumble and fall over rotting logs and adventitious boulders. Those, Stephen says, are erratics’, boulders once carried by glacial ice. Farmers break them up by boring holes into them in the fall and then waiting till spring for the winter to fill the openings and break them apart.

Three seasons to remove a single boulder. Damn, I think.

The farmland is similar – a multi-year commitment. Stephen shows me expanses of earth where he’s planted buckwheat to draw nitrogen into the soil and smoother out weeds. Two years, he says, before it’ll be ready to cultivate. The orchard (apple, pear, peach, Asian pear, cherry, and plum): six years till fruit. The sapling nursery: two years before revenue. Also, there is to be an eight-foot fence around the perimeter to keep out deer – another year investment. Then there is the new barn, the apiary, the dry cellar, and a guest house to be used as an Airbnb. Two years before the farm is even profitable, Stephen says.

More conjecture, later, gets thrown around the dinner table, often in various mock-maritime accents. Friends and family are speaking of all their developmental plans, and sustainability goals, and food security. I can’t help but ponder the conundrum: most young people don’t talk this way, don’t think this way. Most young people don’t make multi-year commitments without guaranteed compensation on the horizon. I think of instant gratification. Of consumerism. Of Amazon Prime. I think of all the plaque inundating our cultural bandwidth. It’s refreshing to see young adults turning back to heritage practices, to an ancient commonplace that is now the avant-garde.

I look to the land: these things take time and energy. The trees, crops, livestock, infrastructure. And, for now, this isn’t glamorous or profitable. But it’s assured commitment, even with all the risk. Writing too, I’m reminded, is a cultivation of the cerebral landscape, never an act rewarded by cutting corners, expediting execution, or accepting shoddy craftsmanship. Literature and land-use both require the confidence of boring a hole in a boulder – and waiting. Both require letting a field sit fallow to become nutrient rich; or trusting an orchard for a near-half decade to blossom with abundant fruit. It requires returning to the labour, day after day after day, in the rain and snow and hail storms that take place both externally and internally. It’s knowing you will never be fully applauded for your sacrifice or rewarded for it, but putting in the hours knowing that such commitment must be fertilised and then grown and germinated through budding, flowering, going back to seed – then starting all over again.

I don’t know who will turn a profit first, Stephen or I, but we’ll both keep putting in the labour. It’s what we do, bounty or not. Is he a farmer? Of course. Am I a writer? – I don’t know why that answer comes with more difficulty. But I look to the land, to my generation with its multi-year commitments: development, sustainability, security. To their faith in place.

I have faith, too. I am a writer. And I keep farming.

Tyler Dunning’s quest quest to visit every US national park after the death of his friend Nate Henn is the subject of a filmA Field Guide to Losing Your Friends.

“Nate Henn was full of humour, generosity and spirit. He was so alive. But then, in 2010, a series of terror-related bombings devastated Kampala, Uganda, leaving 74 people dead, including Henn. The news was a devastating blow for his best friend Tyler Dunning, who plunged into darkness, grief, anger and self-medication. His only solace? Exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, where the cliff faces, pine forests and wildlife softened his raw emotions. It was a failed attempt to climb Longs Peak that really changed him: the humbling experience sent him on a quest to visit all 59 US national parks. From Glacier to Bryce, Saguaro to Kenai, the Everglades to Yellowstone, he roamed. And through the adventures that unfolded, he pieced his life back together. He started to let others in. And, finally, he was able to say goodbye.”

 You can watch the film trailer here.

The Dark Humanities

I’ve always gazed skyward at night, searching for solace in the vastness of space. I rise at odd hours to catch meteor showers. I appal friends when I explain why I’d sign up for a one-way trip to Mars. And if I could resurrect one person from the dead to invite for dinner and apple pie, it would be astrophysicist Carl Sagan. (‘If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe,’ Sagan once quipped to make the point that a pie is not just flour, butter, and your filling of choice, but atoms, molecules, and stardust.) 

I find myself turning to space and the wisdom of astronomers like Sagan more and more as the climate crisis worsens. But the relevance of the great beyond to environmental destruction extends past cosmic therapy. We tell stories about aliens invading Earth to colonise our covetable planet and steal its natural resources. The inhospitality of neighbouring planets like Venus reminds us of the value of our home. And some consider an extraterrestrial colony our literal Plan B in the face of climate catastrophe. At the dawn of the Anthropocene with an increasingly chaotic climate, how do our views on the universe continue to evolve?

The term ‘Environmental Humanities’ describes writing and art that explores nature — but the focus tends to favour a landlubber’s perspective. In 2013, John R. Gillis coined the term ‘Blue Humanities’ for the eco-study of the vast world of the sea. But what about humanity’s reckoning with our larger environment, our ultimate home?

Introducing the Dark Humanities — an intellectual domain for dark times. The term I’ve proposed also evokes the mystery epitomised by dark matter. We know so little about space and its cryptic vastness stupefies us, humbles us, and can even soothe us. The Dark Humanities serves as a container for the thoughts of H.G. Wells, Neil deGrasse Tyson and other sci-fi writers and astronomers weighing in on our planet and its larger context. It’s also my own preferred form of climate crisis therapy.

One of the cornerstone subjects of this new sub-discipline is cosmic time and scale, which provide reassurance in moments of environmental distress. When I look up, I’m reminded of the age of the universe: 13.8 billion years. The Milky Way’s arm arcing across the sky reminds us of our humble place in the expanse of space. We are small fish contemplating a great bridge.

When we look skyward, we are also peering back in time. If nuclear weapons detonated our planet, it would take just over four years before the sight of the explosion reached the not-too-distant star Proxima Centauri. Studying a single star is like reading an old letter that floated across the sea to reach you:

Dear You,
Enjoy this vision of myself from 6.24 years ago. This is your nightly reminder of the epic breadth of space. Distances are great. Time is inconceivably massive. The short-lived mistakes of your species are but a blip in space time. There will be a new chapter — a better read — if not on your planet, then in some other corner of the universe. Cheer up.
Sincerely,
Star

Of course, the next chapter for ‘earthlings’ might play out light years away from our home planet. The question of relocating humans after we fully trash Earth is one the Dark Humanities must address. A century in the future, we may find ourselves in exile on Elon Musk’s million-person SpaceX colony on Mars. The future colonists will peer back at our ruined planet through a telescope with a light-year-long sigh.

Techno-optimists actually cite space colonisation as a reason not to fret over our environmental anxieties. When asked about global warming, Libertarian 2016 presidential candidate Gary Johnson suggested space travel as a viable solution: ‘We do have to inhabit other planets,’ he stated in a TV interview.

I’m all for space exploration, but not in lieu of protecting our own planet. Many bank on our ability to overcome the inhospitable conditions on Mars. Some feel confident we’ll discover another version of Earth close enough to ferry supplies and large populations to. Yet all of these prospects are far riskier, far more expensive than fixing the environmental ills we’ve created here on Earth.

Plans for space settlement might even transform humans into the colonising, resource-plundering cosmic creatures we’ve long envisioned in films. H.G. Wells gave us one of our earliest depictions of aliens in his 1898 novel War of the Worlds. ‘Yet across the gulf of space,’ he wrote, ‘minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.’

As a growth-oriented, technology-obsessed society swinging the wrecking ball at our own planet, humans are beginning to resemble Wells’s envious Martians and other similar depictions of extraterrestrials. The alien invasion narrative might just be a Freudian cautionary tale about our own species — an eerily familiar story that hits close to home planet.
If we don’t manage to develop viable colonies cosmically abroad to salvage humanity, we may also try our luck at cracking a wormhole transit corridor. We could voyage back in time to the ’70s to institute a carbon tax, obviating the need to pursue Planet Bs in the first place.

To those who don’t place blind faith in technology’s ability to extricate humans from the environmental mess we’ve made, spirituality can at least offer a coping mechanism. That’s why cosmic spirituality is an important branch of the Dark Humanities — how can we find comfort in the night sky and all that it signifies, as some do on an excursion to forest or sea?

As an environmentalist, I often wish religion had a place in my life. A deep belief in divinity and kismet might impart a sense of calm. As agnostics, my sister and I joke that space is our religion and the late Carl Sagan our god. We talk of starting a cult of Saganism to worship the enigmas of the cosmos and the sage preaching of Sagan, who also regarded science as a form of religion. ‘Science is not only compatible with spirituality,’ he wrote, ‘it is a profound source of spirituality.’

For environmentalists who consider themselves atheist or agnostic, cosmic spirituality offers a source of solace. But at the same time, cosmic perspective also reminds us that our ‘pale blue dot’, as Sagan refers to Earth, is still the only known viable planet on which humans can eke out a living.

In this sense, a cosmic philosophy offers something of a paradox to the environmentalist. The reassuring perspective of space-time scale instils us with a sense of calm about our present predicament. Concurrently, the knowledge that Earth is the only planet we have fills us with urgency.

Tackling the climate crisis in the 21st century means striking a balance. We must do all that we can to prevent and adapt to the riskier world wrought by the Anthropocene. But to stay sane and effective, we must also think like Carl Sagan. In the colossal scheme of the cosmos, the climate crisis — like everything else — is relative.

When outrage at the injustice of environmental destruction does get the better of me, I think of the soundtrack of the first 750,000 years of the universe post-Big Bang. University of Washington astrophysicist John G. Cramer rendered a recording from cosmic microwave background data gathered by the Planck satellite mission. You can listen here.

Imagine how glorious it would be to drown out the voices of international politicians engaged in their annual unproductive climate talks with this sound. Obliterate the whining of the remaining climate sceptics as they seal the end of the Holocene and its hospitable climate with this cosmic song of beginning.

 

The Day After We Sold the World

On 1 June 2017, the USA decided to exit the Paris Climate Accord


Two-inch shoots of corn lift from the cracked mud
of fields that were deep in flood a week ago.
Life doesn’t stop. This is comfort or warning or both.
Beside the trail, the water for long stretches

is suffused, almost too washed in light to see
as it soughs and blurs over stone
because it is noon and the sun comes straight
down, soaking the ravine, rather than slanting in

and pouring it full of shadows, as it will later.
Water-striders skitter and pause, skitter
and pause, dimpling the surface, and frogs
kick like mad as they swim below them.

I am here, too. I sit above the waterfall, don’t think
but watch a blacksnake, this beautiful genius,
insinuating up the middle of the stream, winding

against the current, from far down, a bit of dark rope
or thread, a moving brush stroke suspended
in the invisible flow, above his shadow twisting
like smoke on the pale-yellowish slate of the stream bed,

curling as he sways through patches
of shade and sun, up to the falls, and out
onto a ledge beside the foam to stretch and bask.

I go home, and a grey catbird hops along the porch rail.


Insert poem attribution here

A Part of Its Breathing

It is late. The night is dark and the sky is clear. The ground beneath my feet is hard, where I would not expect it to be. I am standing on a former tennis court surrounded by sycamores, on an island in the River Thames at Reading – a town that has three times tried to be designated as a city, and failed. Across the river, the square windows of high office blocks hang in axes of fluorescence, fingered by the silhouetted branches of these trees. The sycamores self-seeded: thrived and grew tall where the strimmer could not reach them, beneath the no-longer-tennis court fence. In the undergrowth, red jar lanterns snake into the woods. At the centre of this concrete court, the embers of a large fire speak their last orange murmurs.

At dusk, these red jar lanterns were borne here by fifty curious people, out of their illuminated comfort zones, across the river and into the layers of night around our feet, our skin; inside our senses. Tonight, the fire to which the people were finally led became a hearth for story and song, the likes of which this island, this tennis court and these people had not known together. Now they are gone back to their comfort zones, perhaps a little changed. One by one, we blow out the candles, returning the island to darkness.

There is an explosion. A piece of concrete flies through the air scattering orange fragments into the black night. The heat from the story fire has pushed the tennis court to its limit.

We’ve cracked the concrete! We’ve cracked the fucking concrete! Woops of celebration ring out from within the trees. It is a perfect legacy bestowed by happenstance.

I am a Bearer. I carry the night in me. I let it speak for itself.

I am Night. I am everywhere light is not.

I am slipping into my skin now. I am full deep dark and clear, and sated with story. The touch of humans lingers on me – their attention, their feeling – here on this island where I am allowed to be almost complete. Moments ago I was, for once, honoured in the heart of this town which, like all towns, banishes me to the corners. Let me tell you how it felt.

As the sun conceded its last rays, a circle of open-hearted people gathered in the park – Forbury Gardens they call it. Five beings – human, but something other too – were dressed in my colours head to toe: dark suits, dark hats full of twilight.

I was with these beings when they were in training for this moment; when they filled those hats. In a wood in southern Scotland, we merged for a weekend. They dwelled only with daylight, candlelight, and darkness. In daylight they ran full pelt with their eyes closed, guided by a seeing companion. They learned to turn and sense, being sung from the edges by their kin. Later, as the horizon drank up the day, they sat in silence awaiting my approach, listening as I bloomed. They spilled the word crepuscular from their lips onto my skin, and I spoke my twilight onto theirs. They heard crows in the branches and breathed them into their bones, into their movements, until I had fully arrived. Walking slowly, blind but fully aware, they took what they had seen and smelled and heard back to a stone barn. They did not turn on any lights: the whole of me remained with the whole of them. They carried all of it and placed it into these hats. They feasted by candlelight and raised their glasses in a toast to my health. I have not felt so welcome for many, many moons. Bearers, they call themselves. Wearing those hats, they become my vessel.

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Reading is to those woods more different than the sun is to the moon. Redeveloped they call it. The earth is mostly covered over with tarmac and concrete, which spreads wide and high into me. Electric light grows from this tarmac on metal stems and spills out of apertures of concrete and brick, pushing me ever further from the earth. Even the great river is channelled in unnatural directions by these transient structures that they believe so permanent. Some small spaces try to heal from this colonisation. The island is one such space. In some spaces Nature (as they call it) is arranged in ways that are deemed acceptable. Forbury Gardens is one such space.

The Bearers flocked around that circle of people in Forbury Gardens like a small murmuration, corralling them to their nighthood. Each of their characters was distinct though all were united by their crepuscular blood. Heads cocked, arms folded like wings behind them: a convergence of human, night and crow – a being we had created together. In the centre of the circle, three of the Bearers’ kin showed this gathering how to move with them in trust, how to open themselves, and how to give their vibration to me and to each other. A hum, a sounding, was shared around the circle. It rose in a dome, pressing into my body.

A red jar lantern was placed into the hands of each open, vibrating person – a candle flickering within. Candlelight does not banish my darkness; it illuminates it. In those woods in Scotland, one dear man had painted three hundred of these jars with red, so that the candlelight did not draw attention to itself, but to me.

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Like the unspoken moment at dusk where the moorhens climb from the water into the rushes, the Bearers and the curious folk peeled away from that park in a string of redglow through the streets, through the places where I am pushed out: underpasses, a train station, shop fronts. The Bearers threaded my essence through the procession and through these bright lit spaces; for once the darkness piercing through the light. Playful, poetic, present. One played flute in the tunnels. Another played with a skateboarder’s feet. All of them played with each other and placed fragments of moss and poetry into people’s pockets, and spoke it into mine. The other people – the people who do not know me, going about their bright light Saturday night business – were moved, amused or confused by this sight. They fished for explanations; asked questions. Who’s died? one said. I have not, I whispered to him. But I am facing extinction from your world.

Beyond the brightness and beside the river, I could begin to play my part with the redglow people. We began to share breath. The receding of vision left a space which filled with sound and smell: the churn of the weir, the ringing bells of Sentinels who flanked a small bridge onto the island, the shuffle of each other’s slow footsteps. Clutching their lanterns, they entered View Island and could not see.

Three candle-flickered faces awaited them there, huddled. The Wild Poets spoke the words of Wendell Berry:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.¹

The vibrating strings of a fiddle called them first. They moved towards it and found a heron with a head of long grey hair. In fact, almost sightless, they each found something different which bubbled from their own story springs, but the heron is what I saw. The Cailleach they called her – the Celtic creatrix hag of the dark winter. Cailleach perched gracefully on a bench, swimming in me, her staff discarded and her arms now free, dancing to the fiddle’s music. She ushered them onwards with her long beak, deeper into me, deeper into themselves.

A rustle in the thistle patch. Arched back. Black. Big haunches. Sniff sniff. White flash. Is it a badger?! I hear a child say.

Some paused, attempting to decipher. Most continued slowly onwards, always onwards, moving through me.

The flitting krunk and caw of two ravens in a tree, their dark and my dark commingling.

The disconcerting stillness of a wolf, staring, but unseen.

Onwards, always onwards. What is it to ‘see’?

A stag standing at a distance, scuffing in the undergrowth. Antlers like antennae for another world – a world that was and shall be.

And heron once more, poised at a pool that was once a toxic dumping ground, reeds nodding to her slow dance.

How I have missed these creatures here. How I have missed being welcome here.

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 Through a narrow gap in the sycamores the people and the Bearers joined hands and snaked onto the concrete of the no-longer-tennis court, moving silently in an ever-morphing spiral into the heart of me. At the four corners, I was illuminated by beings dressed in white with lantern crowns made of sprigs: the Ancestors, where we all began. They held watch over skeletons of badger, fox, roe deer and hare. Like a family of hands, the trees held the people, the creatures, the Bearers and the Ancestors all together in this space and in this moment. The people-snake finally stilled, encircling a stack of logs and a ring of ivy. My Bearers went to greet the Ancestors and returned with the primordial hum, gifted to the circle. The ivy began to move. Out of its dark waxy leaves, two more white figures twitched, rose, and evolved into Fire Lighters. Logs became light and warmth.

I am not trying to understand, I heard one man whisper to another. It is enough to be amazed.

And so the hearth was created. The Fire Lighters returned to the Ancestors. The Bearers placed their hats in a circle around the fire, slid out of their dark suits and returned to the world of humans. A toast of plum and lavender brew was raised to all beings, to the open-hearted people, to the turning of the year, and to me. This is how the fire was passed on to the people of now in a night of story and song. This is how the glow reached out to those people, up into me and deep into the ground. Waking up our old bones, reminding us all what we are here to be. Reminding us of the soil beneath the concrete.

1. ‘To Know the Dark’ by Wendell Berry, from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 1999.

The Night Breathes Us In was dreamed up and brought into being by Darla Eno, Dougie Strang, Tamsin Wates and a fine crew of performers, musicians and volunteers. 

Images by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes