Dark Mountain: Issue 12 (SANCTUM)

At the Mouth of the Cave


What, if anything, is sacred?

‘Nothing should be sacred!’ comes the impatient answer from the enthusiasts for gene-splicing and geoengineering, the singularitarians eager to upload their consciousness into a disembodied digital eternity. To call anything sacred is to set it off-limits to improvement by the application of human ingenuity – to stand in the way of progress. And then these same enthusiasts write books called The God Species, or make declarations like ‘We are as gods and have to get good at it!’

Those of us who are not enamoured of these visions of techno-progress also end up invoking the old language of the sacred, as we try to articulate what goes missing when environmentalism talks in terms of ecosystem services. ‘In “nature” I see something divine,’ Paul Kingsnorth wrote, in an earlier issue of Dark Mountain, ‘and when I see it, it moves me to humility’.

As we reach for words that might encompass the vastness of the unravelling now underway, the great tide of loss that our kind has brought about – above all, the sixth mass extinction in the long life of our planet – it seems these are the words that come to hand. Whether taken up in a spirit of humility or of hubris, this is a language that speaks of ultimate things, of power, of loss and longing, of limits and of the limitless.

Given the territory in which Dark Mountain has wandered over the past eight years, it was perhaps inevitable that we would get around to devoting an issue to the theme of ‘the sacred’. We did so knowing that we could not keep a safe distance. This would not be a book ‘about’ the sacred, as though it were a topic to be taken up and examined at arm’s length. Rather, we had to risk bringing our own experience, our beliefs and doubts, to the work – and to ask this of those who worked with us to bring this book into being. As you follow us into these pages, the path will take you along the wild edges of belief, through the dream-space of myth and down the back alleys of history. A cave mouth stands open: enter it and you may find an entrance to the underworld, a philosopher’s allegory, or a woman who sits in meditation. The book itself becomes a space in which sanctuary is offered to parts of ourselves which we grew up learning to suppress.

Yet it was not without caution that we set out on the journey of this book. Within the Dark Mountain team, there were those for whom this theme awoke uncomfortable resonances, echoes of an architecture of power and control. It is not the job of a journal like this to be comfortable, but it matters to us that, among the voices gathered in these pages, you will find those who write as atheists or who view the language of the sacred with suspicion, alongside those who stand within particular traditions of belief.

No one here is out to win converts. The hour is late; there are more pressing tasks than trying to settle old quarrels. Whatever common ground we find, let us take it as a starting point.


The call for contributions to this book began with the story of ‘the devil’s door’, an architectural feature found on the north side of old churches in parts of England. Often bricked up in later centuries – and covered over with stories about its use that don’t quite make sense – it seems the original function of this door was to provide an alternative entrance for use on those occasions to which the priest was not invited. Early churches were generally built on sites already held to be sacred and old traditions die hard.

For us, the devil’s door came to stand for the strangeness of the past, the afterlife of supposedly obsolete beliefs and practices, the pragmatic compromises by which ground-level coexistence comes about, and the way that different stories can hinge on a shared experience that a particular patch of ground is somehow special.

Having opened that door, we found that many doors were opened to us in return, leading down corridors and tunnels of human experience and across all sorts of landscapes of the sacred. Even more than with the usual tide of submissions to Dark Mountain, we had the sense that people were sharing parts of their lives that mattered deeply, that were hard to put into words, and yet demanded to be written about.

The material we received far exceeded what this book itself could encompass – more about that, as this series continues – but we chose twelve proposals to be developed, and collaborated closely with the writers over the months that followed as they turned these proposals into the texts you are about to read.

Meanwhile, the architectural symbolism already suggested by the call became one of the themes that runs through the book, from the walls and fences of Sara Wolcott’s ‘From the Darkness’ to the temple at the heart of Michelle Ryan’s ‘Kedernath’ and James Nowak’s cautionary invocation of the ‘corpse doors’ found in old Icelandic texts and buildings. This, in turn, suggested the title of this issue: SANCTUM, a sacred space, a structure within which the sacred may be found.

Any issue of Dark Mountain is the work of many hands. In the case of this issue, we have broken with our usual practices in almost every part of the process, and this has demanded a particular commitment from contributors.

In place of the usual call for finished work, we asked for proposals, and our writers – some of them experienced, others published for the first time – then worked to a demanding schedule to turn what we had glimpsed in the brief summaries they sent us into sustained texts. While they got to work, our art editor Thomas Keyes was convening a team of collaborators who would bring letters and images to the book, drawing on the traditions of the graffiti team and the monastic scriptorium. We have given Thomas space to introduce their work for himself, but the huge collective effort which he and they have made deserves acknowledgement here.

And then, as you may already have noticed, we found that someone else had taken refuge in this SANCTUM: an unexpected voice which winds its way through the symmetry of our structure, breaking through into a thirteenth piece and claiming the final word. For summoning her, we thank our Marginalians, Sylvia V. Linsteadt and Rima Staines.

The result is a singular book which departs from the familiar forms of Dark Mountain in its contents, in the process by which it came about and, not least, in its design – for which we are grateful to our longstanding collaborator, Christian Brett of Bracketpress.

The journey here has been as inspiring and exhausting as any pilgrimage. We have been changed by the experience. As you follow in our paths, we hope that you in turn will find sanctuary, surprise and inspiration within these pages.


Inside the Doughnut

I doubt many people would have betted that this year’s hot new concept for a healthy economy would be that bad food staple, the doughnut. But with the publication of Kate Raworth’s book, it’s come to pass. The idea of the ‘doughnut’ is that there is (1) a lower social limit for human flourishing, beneath which welfare is limited by shortfalls in such things as food, education and housing, and (2) an outer ecological limit for human flourishing, beyond which welfare is limited by overshoot in such things as climate change, ocean acidification and nitrogen and phosphorous loading. These two limits constitute respectively the inner and outer rings of the ‘doughnut’, the sweet spot within which humanity must try to remain. I have to confess I’m not greatly moved by the metaphor, which doesn’t seem to go much beyond the truth that individually people can have too little, and collectively they can take too much. And too much of what – is there really a conceptual equivalence between taking too much water or fossil energy, and taking too much health, as Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ diagram (p.51) seems to imply? Whatever the case, she hangs a lot of sensible and lucid analysis off the concept in a genuinely thought-provoking, if for me ultimately unsatisfactory, book.

In the first part of the book Raworth dissects orthodox economic theory, showing how it frames the world in questionable but powerful and largely hidden ways that buttress right-wing, ‘free’ market politics, while silencing other modes of thinking. She places a lot of emphasis on the way that our stories and pictures condition how we see the world, and generally puts this to good use in deconstructing the ideology of mainstream economics – for example in the notorious ‘circular flow’ diagram of Paul Samuelson, founding father of modern economics, which depicted the economy as a kind of frictionless and endless flow of value through society, like water through a closed plumbing system. This ignores the open character of the energetic and biotic systems, with their sources and sinks, to which human economies are mere accessories. Doubtless Raworth’s view that we now need to tell different stories, and draw different pictures, resonates with the Dark Mountain Project.

Raworth characterises the old story of economics as one that unconditionally celebrates markets, business, finance and trade, deprecates the state and ignores households, commons, society, the earth and power. In the new story that she wants to tell, those elements that were ignored or deprecated in the old story are brought centre stage, and old elements like markets, finance and trade are put in service of wider human flourishing, rather than assumed to be unconditionally beneficial.

If that sounds obvious or trite, Raworth nevertheless does a good job of tracing the implications in some depth, using clear, jargon-free language aimed at the non-specialist, but without sacrificing an impressive level of subtlety. It’s refreshing that she talks about power, the systematic inequalities in human/human and human/non-human relationships, something that she rightly says is generally missing in mainstream economics. But unfortunately her description of it lacks depth, and doesn’t go much further than the observation that the wealthy get to shape the economy’s rules in their favour. OK, but who are the wealthy, and how were they able to accumulate their wealth? I get the sense that Raworth operates in a rarefied world of NGO and policymaker high-ups, whose inevitably bird’s-eye and reformist view of the world inflects her book’s gentle equity talk, its judicious commitment to levelling the playing field and its pervasive emphasis on ‘design’ as the solution to contemporary problems (her 21st century economics is, for example, “distributive by design” and “regenerative by design”).

The problem, however, is not that the present global political economy is badly ‘designed’. On the contrary, it’s extremely well designed, locking the majority of the world’s population into specific political relationships which have worked because they’ve convinced sufficient numbers of the relevant people that they have a stake in the status quo. But like every past political economy, the present one will only endure for so long, until a complex of internal and external factors forces radical change – not least in the identity of the ‘relevant people’ who are invested in the status quo. In the present global political economy, the consumers and business leaders of western Europe and North America have had disproportionate ‘relevance’. But it seems likely that in the political economies to come, their relevance will wane – and this will not be a process of ‘design’ but of messy conflict, violence, compromise, happenstance and political calculation.

For sure, the economic story that Raworth wants to tell is a good one to try to feed into this febrile mix. But I don’t think it’ll have much traction without a richer analysis of how politics and power happens. My feeling is that Raworth pulls her punches in analysing the mechanics of power because otherwise she would undermine the basic premise from which her book proceeds – that political problems get solved in smoothly reformist ways by designers thinking (or storytelling, or drawing) at a whole-system level. It’s an appealing view, perhaps especially to high-level policymakers. But I’m not sure it’s a very convincing one. Maybe there’s some truth in the notion that our stories create our realities. But it’s also true that we only find the stories we want to tell out of the realities messily created in the glacial grind of human history.

In recounting her alternative economic story, Raworth freely borrows from preceding heterodox economists like Herman Daly, Tim Jackson and Ha-Joon Chang. I’m not sure she adds a great deal to what they’ve already said. So I was a bit surprised to be told on page 44 that her key concept of ‘the doughnut’ is a “radically new compass for guiding humanity” derived from “cutting-edge Earth-system science”. There’s a danger here of the ‘radically new’ story succumbing to one of the pathologies of the old, and insisting over-stridently on its novelty and originality – this year’s must-have concept, rather than just another iteration in the long-established idea of sufficiency. Ah well, there’s nothing wrong with re-presenting old ideas anew if it freshens them up for another generation of readers. But Raworth says little that Herman Daly didn’t say, and say better (if a little more technically), in his 1977 classic Steady-State Economics. In that book, Daly distinguished between the three concepts of ‘service’ (human flourishing, the final benefit of economic activity), ‘throughput’ (the entropic physical flow of resources, particularly non-renewable resources) and ‘stock’ (all the things that are moved in the economy). Perhaps Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ concept is more memorable, but it’s less precise, and it doesn’t much help elucidate the point that some things deliver more service per stock than others.

The spirit of Daly nevertheless invests the later part Raworth’s book, where she lucidly examines questions of economic growth. Advocates for the ability of the contemporary global capitalist economy to generalise wealth while mitigating environmental impacts through technical innovation make much of the evidence for the ‘decoupling’ of economic growth from resource use in the ‘developed’ economies. A good deal of this decoupling turns out to be only relative – in other words, we’re using less resources than we used to in order to deliver a given amount of product (though not necessarily ‘service’ in Daly’s terms), but economic growth is such that we’re still using more resources overall. In some cases, there does appear to be a level of absolute decoupling, ie. a lower total amount of resource use. But Raworth usefully points out that what’s really needed is sufficient absolute decoupling – that is, enough absolute decoupling to bring throughputs back within the safe bounds of her doughnut, which some analysts suggest could, for example, amount to emissions reductions in the ‘developed countries’ of around 10% per annum – vastly greater than is currently being achieved. It seems likely that the ‘developed’ economies can only reduce their resource use at too high an absolute level to stay inside the doughnut. Meanwhile, the only working model available to ‘developing’ economies is to increase their absolute resource use. Raworth succinctly spells out the resulting paradox: “No country has ever ended human deprivation without a growing economy. And no country has ever ended ecological degradation with one”.

Time, then, for another story? Well yes, but what Raworth offers is mostly just a set of stories-in-the-plural of people doing various positive things. I don’t mean to belittle them. Many of them are genuinely inspiring and uplifting, such as the case of Malawian William Kamkwamba, whose home-made wind turbines brought power to his local community. But Raworth fails to put them into a systemic framework that turns them into a story, rather than simply a collection of stories – a story of how the systemic structuring of contemporary economies and polities can be systemically restructured into something better. And inasmuch as she does have a wider framework, it’s quite a problematic one – based on the notion of both the commons and the state as helpmates to human flourishing. Her text is sprinkled with references to things like ‘the knowledge commons’, ‘the collaborative commons’ and ‘the creative commons’, but this doesn’t amount to much more than a technical-sounding gloss to the notion that people sometimes share things. Well, sure they do. And sometimes they don’t. Raworth refers to the work of Elinor Ostrom, who looked carefully at various commons as defined collective usage agreements, but she doesn’t seem to have taken on board Ostrom’s point that commons sometimes work, sometimes don’t and are only sometimes (quite rarely) the best solution to resource husbandry questions. In Raworth’s treatment, there’s a slippage from commons as ‘defined collective usage agreement’ to commons as ‘free stuff, freely shared’. Take this passage:

The triumph of the commons is certainly evident in the digital commons, which are fast turning into one of the most dynamic arenas of the global economy. It is a transformation made possible, argues the economic analyst Jeremy Rifkin, by the ongoing convergence of networks for digital communications, renewable energy and 3D printing, creating what he has called ‘the collaborative commons’….Once the solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers are in place, the cost of producing one extra joule of energy, one extra download, one extra 3D printed component, is close to nothing, leading Rifkin to dub it ‘the zero-marginal-cost revolution’. The result is that a growing range of products and services can be produced abundantly, nearly for free, unleashing potential such as open-source design, free online education, and distributed manufacturing (pp.83-4)

One issue that goes unexamined here is the extent to which this highly technological commons, with its solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers, is sustainable in the light of the need for a sufficiently decoupled global economy discussed above. Another is that Raworth confuses the marginal costs of circulation, which indeed in the digital age have now sometimes diminished towards zero, and the costs of creative production, which aren’t necessarily much different than pre- ‘digital commons’ times. It takes as much hard thought and hard work to put together a good curriculum, a good political essay, a good poem or a good tractor design as it ever did. But once it’s put together, it can now be distributed almost costlessly around the world, potentially to an audience of billions. The zero-marginal-cost-revolution, if there is one, is a revolution of circulation, not production. No doubt it’s a fine thing, but it’s worth considering its major beneficiaries. Those who control the circulation are in a position to effortlessly siphon off wealth, whereas those who control the production aren’t – which is why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are a lot richer than any political essayist, poet or tractor designer, delivering a ‘collaborative commons’ based on privately owned, and possibly ‘enclosed’, means of circulation. Meanwhile, much of what really matters to people as physical, biological beings – such as staple foodstuffs and bulky construction materials – doesn’t enjoy zero marginal costs of circulation, and isn’t usually best produced via commons.

Perhaps Raworth’s wider point isn’t so much about commons in the technical sense of common-pool resource use agreements. Rather, it’s a plea to create economies geared to delivering collective human benefit and to abandon the discredited old notion that the pursuit of individual self-interest somehow delivers collective benefit through the magic of the market – a magic that, if it was ever operative, now seems to be wearing off, fooling only a diminishing band of neoliberal fundamentalists. Raworth isn’t the first person, surveying the global political economy, to think “No, not this”, but then to flounder at the question of “But, then what?”, and indeed she makes a better stab than most at answering that question. However, a more comprehensive analysis is needed of the way that economic and political power works and the complex functioning of the modern state. As it is, her prescriptions involve a rather hopeful, voluntaristic and top-down rhetoric that seems destined to go unfulfilled. Her over-emphasis on ‘design’ rather than politics discussed above is one example of this. Another is the need she identifies to “bring on the partner state” to support commons and local economic regeneration, without analysing why contemporary polities so rarely do this. It surely isn’t just a matter of them choosing the wrong story.

Maybe part of the problem is our fateful modern conviction that the stories we tell have to be upbeat and optimistic – a conviction Raworth endorses, insisting on the need to see a “glass-half-full” future (p.286). It strikes me that this may be more indicative of our problems than the solutions to them. If only we could lay aside the quintessentially capitalist trope of ‘optimism’ that sends us scurrying here and there after positive stories as a kind of pick ‘n’ mix while ignoring inconvenient negativities and acknowledge that we now face potentially insurmountable ‘wicked problems’ that need to be reckoned with rather than ‘solved’, it might be easier to harbour genuine hopes for the future. Raworth herself writes that history has repeatedly demonstrated an association between economic crisis and the rise of xenophobia, intolerance and fascism (p.277). Why insist on a glass-half-full view of the future in the light of this repeated fact? It’s surely preferable to present a sober and systematic unpicking of the mechanics of political power and economic provisioning that can clarify alternative endpoints, than to regale the reader with upbeat stories of how things may just turn out well. At its best, Raworth’s book does some good unpicking. But it still leaves us a long way from home.

Living in the Borderlands

We live in a small village between two Yorkshire towns. Once it was a pit village serving the local colliery up the road. On a wall in our backroom is an old black and white photograph from the early part of the twentieth century showing men from the village pushing wheelbarrows full of coal down the dirt road past the house where we now live. It is a place with history, a history that is constantly being remade. The colliery is now the National Coal Mining Museum and the village has become a place where locals pack the roads with their cars on their way to work in the towns and cities nearby. The village has become a place between other places, more prosperous in many ways but lacking a focus, a reason to be itself. It sits as a place between time, a borderland with a very strong sense of the past and an uncertain future, confused about and unable to define itself in the present moment. A place with plenty of stories but unable to tell the story of ‘now’. Racked with uncertain employment, resentful of those who are different, buying the Brexit myth in the hope that it will all feel better soon and a better story will emerge.

Most days I too drive the few miles to my workspace in the nearby town. Wakefield is also between places, sitting on the river Calder and next to the eastern ridge of the Pennine hills, a place between river and hill. A market town built on the wool trade, corn and coal coupled with its position as an inland port on a navigable river. Surrounded by ‘tusky’ (rhubarb) fields and sitting south of the much larger city of Leeds that dominates the region physically, socially and economically. The village and the town, both borderlands – places that sit between.

Our village also sits between two old woods; this land was part of the manor given to one of William the Conqueror’s earls in 1081 for his service in the Norman invasion of England, a brutal invasion that tore the land from the hands of the people who had lived and worked it for hundreds of years. Land packaged up as a gift for service, an asset to be traded. Wood and forest becoming something to make money from.

If you look closely, the woods also reveal the history shared with the village: old bell pits, lime kilns and coke ovens – past times, all grown over and becoming part of the woodscape, no longer needed by the men and women whose boots once trod the flagged stone paths and roadways that survive today, suddenly appearing then disappearing, broken by time and the growth of trees, bushes and turf.

These woods are also marginal spaces. They sit at the edge of the village, bordered by newer housing as the village reaches outwards. A wood left alone apart from the occasional groups of community volunteers who battle with the vast swathes of Himalayan balsam and maintain the paths, or the dog walkers and horse riders, the BMX riders, and the teenagers from the villages who come at night to drink beer and make fires to sit around. The woods are places to pass through, liminal spaces to enter and leave, full of a natural architecture very different from the village. This is a place for adventure if you have the imagination for it; truly a space between place and time.

Sometimes magic colours this wood. Whether it is the result of a nurturing microclimate, human hands, or a late cut of the meadow, a small patch of wildflowers blooms in the late October sun; deep blue cornflowers, common ragwort, oxeye daisies and groundsel defiantly flicking colour at the steel cold blue sky as if it is still midsummer. Other times of the year the dominant colour is creamy white on dark green as the wild garlic flecks the banks of the various becks running through the woods. In early spring the piercing white of common mouse-ear springs out of the verges of the paths, the tiny split leaves like mouse’s ears waving in the wind.

Walking in this wood summons stories; and those that want to be told arrive. The story of Little Red Riding Hood that my five-year-old granddaughter and my wife and I tell each other, acting it out using the paths and trees of our wood as the paths and trees that Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf and the huntsman walk on and hide behind. One wood becomes another in an instant, a playing out of a magic that stretches back to the first storytellers. The Hansel and Gretel story is another told in this wood; an old story full of dark and light, told at various stopping points in suitable parts of the wood with the older audiences I work with. It too becomes part of the wood and the wood becomes part of it, a connection that flexes and adapts and so changes each time it is told.

It is no accident that many stories happen in a dark wood or forest, especially stories from Northern Europe. Woods and forests are built into our mythic imaginations because they have been physically present in our lives and the lives of our ancestors for many hundreds of years. The stories lope through the woods, hungry for connection, a fire and a listener.

As I make my own loping way through the woods there is a flickering of sunlight through the darkness of the trees and their leaves; light to dark and back again. In much the same way light and dark flicker through the woods and forests of our stories and folklore; they are ambivalent places, places where living and dying, good and evil, are always present and you are never sure what to expect round the next corner or who might appear from behind the next tree. The wood is rarely a comfortable space.

This ambivalence, the darker side of the wood, was identified by the mythologist Joseph Campbell who mapped what has come to be called the Hero’s Journey. This is the single narrative or ‘monomyth’ that, he argued, underpins all stories in all traditions and cultures. The wood is a key part of this universal metaphor: the hero has to enter the ‘dark wood’ and suffer the trials and tests in order to achieve the elixir, grail or prize that she or he then must take back to the everyday world. This suffering is often compounded by the shapeshifters, tricksters and downright evil forces she or he encounters on the Journey. This light and dark, this ambiguity and uncertainty, is a space the hero must go through in order to reach a new understanding about her or himself and the world; the journey cannot be avoided. This is another kind of borderland; woods turned into places of confusion and paradox where change can be a positive experience but only sometimes, and always accompanied by pain and struggle. In these woods it is often hard to really know the difference between good and bad, light and dark.

We all have experience of the Hero’s Journey reflected in our own lives – some of us sadly never find a way out of the dark wood and ‘perish’ in our quest, eventually leading Eliot’s ‘lives of quiet desperation’ or raging in the darkness, lashing out at anything new or misunderstood. Make no mistake, this wood is a dangerous place. Things are often not what they seem; the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood pretends to be concerned for her but wants to eat her and her grandmother, the witch in Hansel and Gretel lives in a house made of sweetmeats and bread, she welcomes Little Brother and Little Sister with good food to eat but quickly imprisons Hansel, attempting to fatten him up to eat and setting his sister to skivvy for her. That which attracts us is not necessarily that which nurtures us. A bit like the fly agaric toadstools that appear in late summer around the birch trees in our wood; they look as if they have appeared out of the pages of a fairytale but contain poison in their hearts.

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The old stories are full of shapeshifters and trickster figures that appear as one thing, often human, but are something else entirely. Often these figures appear as positive influencers and helpers only to be revealed as dangerous and destructive. Sometimes it is the other way round and the apparently poor, the simple woodsman, the overworked step-daughter or the mysterious, initially threatening stranger turn out to be forces for good. This ambivalence extends to the trees themselves. The elder tree is a good example; in myth and folklore it is both feared and revered, sometimes driving out evil, sometimes causing sickness, dreams of death and indeed death itself. In contrast the oak, present in our own wood, is sacred. It is ‘the mother tree’, a nurturing tree; if you cut one down you do so at your peril. When times were hard acorns were eaten not just by animals but by people, dried, ground and turned into flour for baking.

Why all this uncertainty associated with woods? Walk in a wood at dusk or on days when the cloud presses in, compacting the light to darker, greyer shades, and you will see. At these times trees begin to look like human figures, their shapes twisted and convoluted. What hides in the shadows, in the undergrowth? Is that the movement of the wind or is it an animal moving towards me? The older, more primal parts of brain and neurology unpack thousands of years of genetic conditioning and spark up new, fearful thoughts.

As marginal, liminal spaces, forests and woods are also a place for ‘outlaws’; people who live physically and in thinking outside the law, the established way of doing things, the way of the village or town. In the tenth century these outlaws were men and women escaping the brutality of the Norman scorched-earth destruction of Anglo-Saxon communities, especially up here in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the North East. The forests and woods became their homes from which they hunted for food, cut wood for fires and harassed the invading occupation forces. Their resistance placed them outside Norman law. They became the rebels battling an arbitrary and corrupt law, fighting for a way of life that they felt was just and right. These people were the antecedents of the Robin Hood stories that began to appear in the ballads and stories of the fourteenth centuries, stories of the wood that are still walking with us today but that we seem to have lost connection to. It is a kind of collective amnesia that we have fallen into, creating a space that can be colonised by a different set of stories. Stories told by forces of a new ‘underworld’, stories meant to manipulate us, making us into fodder to be consumed as part of a post-industrial fable that creates separateness and individuality while apparently nurturing connectivity and identity through social media. We live in a time in which the ‘shapeshifters’ can and do flourish.

Our world is experiencing a dark wood that appears to stretch to the horizon and beyond. A dark wood in which there are no maps, because we have created a forest empty of the stories that connect us back to our deeper soul, to our natural ground, to our understanding that we are all connected. When we lose our stories we lose this common ground, that which holds us and grounds us in a sense of the whole. We fall into a kind of waking sleep, unable or unwilling to find the magic apple to revive us; rather we follow others to stagnant waterholes that provide no real quenching of our thirst. We see the results of this cycle in climate change, the pollution of large tracts of the land we have exploited for so long and in the impact on ourselves and our fragile sense of community and connection. We are in desperate need of the ‘outlaws’, the mavericks who can break out and populate this space in a different way to bring us back together.

And yet this wood is exactly where we need to be; we have to go to the borderlands, enter the liminal spaces.The changes we need to make won’t happen in the village, the place of comfort, certainty and belonging. We have to be in the wood.

An important part of this process is to look at this dark wood as the place in which we have to craft the stories that have been missing and missed for so long. As others have pointed out, it’s not necessarily that we need to create new stories. The stories we need have been with us for thousands of years, told by the storytellers to their audiences in tents, huts, round the fire, on the mountains, in family homes – anywhere people came together. In the flickering of the firelight, children dozing on parents’ laps, the storyteller would stamp her staff, clap her hands and start to speak. Her audience would lean forward to listen and the teller would weave the story that reflected the audience back to themselves casting new insight into the darkness and confusion of being human.

If ever there was a time for the storyteller to connect us with the old stories, it is now. We need to quieten down to listen. If we don’t, we will never find our way out of our current dark wood and in that vacuum the stories of the politicians, financial directors, nationalists, racists and bigots will be the only ones told. Remember, in the old stories sometimes people never get out of the dark wood to return home; they perish, often violently. We are on that path now. We can either choose to have more of the same or to have the courage to step into the wood and pick out the pathways shown by the light of these old stories; a light that shows us who we are and keeps the wolves at bay.

In an old story from Norway, a hero travels through the borderlands between village, town and forest. He comes to a split in the road from which there are three possible paths, each with a signpost. The sign for the first path reads ‘he who travels this road will return safely’, the sign for the second reads ‘he who travels this road may or may not return’ while the third and final signpost reads ‘he who travels this road will never return’. The hero takes the third path because it is the only path from which growth, development and change can come. We need to do the same. We can’t stay in the village, holding onto what we know, repeating the same destructive patterns. We need to step onto this different path and find a new way.


The wind almost blew me away for the first time in 1987, when the Great Storm hit the British Isles. I was six years old. It was on the mountainside of Ynys Enlli, the holy island off the coast of North Wales, where my mother took me every year to volunteer for the local trust and hear the seals sing at night. Now the storm had stranded us there, for the weekly boat was cancelled. There was no shop on the island, and food supplies were running low; one of my most vivid memories is of my mother, by the glow of a paraffin lamp, inexpertly skinning a rabbit the farmer had shot for stew. I remember hugging the cottage wall on trips to the outhouse in the yard, and my fear of slates zipping off the roof to brain me if I ventured far. But what I remember above all else is standing on the mountainside and the wind filling the coat I was wearing – many sizes too large for me – and my feet actually leaving the ground before my mother grabbed my legs and dragged me back to earth. We laughed about it afterwards. It became one of those stories. Could it have actually blown me away, across the foam-flecked Irish Sea? I’m not sure, but for years part of me secretly wished it had, and I imagined being borne through the sky to Ireland, France, America, Iceland, the Arctic Circle or any of the other wonderful places waiting in the world. I’d only travelled a foot off the ground. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling slightly blessed.

Despite being moved by the wind in this way I did not grow up to be a glider pilot, a windsurfer, a paraglider or a wind turbine engineer. My attempts with kites mostly ended in dismal tangles of string. I did not become a meteorologist, one who understands weather as a science, as I’m sure this book will make only too clear. What I did become, however, was someone with an urge to travel, and especially to travel by walking, which allows you to follow paths not dictated by road or rail, paths not marked on any map, or to follow no path at all; to wander and to wonder as freely as your feet can take you. But every journey has a logic, even if it’s an invisible one. All travelling, I came to understand, is an act of following something: whether a coastline, an ancient migration, a trade route, a border or someone else’s footsteps. Scanning the travel section of a bookshop, it appeared that everything had been followed that it was possible to follow. There seemed to be no trails left that hadn’t been traversed.

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Map of Europe’s named winds, Rodney Paull, 2017

And then one day I saw a map with paths I hadn’t seen before. It was a map of Europe transfigured by coloured lines, marauding arrows like troop advances that ploughed across borders, over land and sea, connecting regions and cultures that seemed quite separate in my mind: Latin with Slavic, continental with coastal, North African with southern European. These mysterious corridors had names every bit as tantalising as the Silk Road or the Camino de Santiago: the Mistral, the Tramontana, the Foehn, the Sirocco, the Bora. There was even one in the north of England, more brusquely named the Helm. The map showed the routes of local winds, which blow with tremendous force at specific times of year – normally at the transitions between seasons, such as when winter turns to spring – and, I was intrigued to discover, they were said to influence everything from architecture to psychology. The fact that these invisible powers had names, rather than simply compass directions that described where they were from, gave them a sense of majesty, even of personality. They sounded like characters I could meet. Those swooping, plunging arrows suggested routes I might follow, trails that had not been walked before. As soon as I saw that map I knew: I would follow the winds.
But where do winds come from, and where do they go? Can they be said to ‘go’ at all, in the sense that a walker goes, or a road, from one location to another? And if they can, what happens to them once they have got there?

What, in fact, is wind? Before asking that it is better to begin with a more fundamental question: what is air? Ashamed as I am to admit it, until I started this book I assumed – as I suspect many people do – that air isn’t really anything, that it doesn’t exist in the same way that earth or water does. I thought of it as an absence, a nothing waiting to be filled with something, so it was a revelation to learn that air is something in its own right.

Air is a gas, or a mixture of gases: mostly nitrogen and oxygen, with tiny amounts of carbon dioxide, argon and water vapour. Like every gas it is made of molecules, which are made of atoms. So air not only has substance, but weight – that was my next revelation – and the proper term for the weight of the air, its billions of molecules combined, is ‘atmospheric pressure’. Just as pressure at the bottom of the ocean is greater than at its surface, because of the volume of water above, atmospheric pressure is higher at low altitudes – because there is more weight pressing down – and lower at high altitudes, where the weight pressing down is less. Pressure is dependent on temperature: when the weather is warm air rises, creating areas of low pressure, and when the weather is cool it descends, with the opposite effect. When neighbouring ‘parcels’ of air find themselves at different pressures the atmosphere must equalise, so air is forced from high pressure areas to low pressure areas to balance things out. It is sucked rather than blown: that was my third revelation.

That is our culture’s answer, at least. Other cultures have answered differently, providing tales as twisting and varied as the winds themselves. The ancient Greeks gave wind its place at the very beginning of time: when the goddess Eurynome, mother of all things, emerged naked out of Chaos and separated the sea from the sky, her dancing set the air in motion and created the north wind, which became the serpent Ophion (appearing in a later incarnation as the god Boreas). Eurynome coupled with this flowing, sinuous snake of wind and afterwards, in the form of a dove, laid the universal egg from which all life hatched.

Wind and life: the two are connected at the deepest level of language. The words for ‘wind’, ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ are the same in many tongues, including the Hebrew ruach and the Arabic ruh. The Greek word for wind, anemos, is the root of the Latin anima, ‘soul’, the force that animates, or gives life, to breathing creatures: animals. Another Latin word, spirare, which means ‘to breathe’ or ‘to blow’, is the source of ‘spirit’ as well as ‘respiration’. And to the Greeks, in the words of writer and translator Xan Fielding, ‘breezes used to be called zoogonoi, life-begetters, and psychotrophoi, soul-nurturers; and the mythical ancestors of the human race who were worshipped in Athens  . . . were wind-spirits as well as ancestors, breaths as well as souls.’

Anemographic Chart, or Map of the Winds, by Jan Janssonius, 1650

I wanted to follow these breaths, these souls, but where to begin? In ancient times an aspiring wind-walker might have consulted an aeromancer or, even better, an austromancer, the former being a weather diviner, the latter specifically a wind diviner (from the Latin auster, ‘south’, suggesting an emphasis on powerful southerlies). Wind was rendered visible in clouds of dust or seeds thrown in the air, the blown patterns of which were interpreted like language; in sacred groves Hellenic seers made predictions from the percussion created by gongs struck by wands swinging in the breeze. Such blasphemous divinations were condemned by later Christians, and the science, or magic, of aeromancy was excoriated by the medieval theologian Albert of Cologne; though he may have confused it with necromancy, a far more sinister hobby.

Today our forecasts might be shaped with the aid of satellite images and fantastically complex computer models, but the assumption is the same: that the invisible patterns of wind can be interpreted to understand the future. From an aesthetic point of view the results are beautiful; to look at an online weather map is to see an ever evolving world of gorgeous psychedelic design, a shifting spectrum of purples, greens, yellows, blues and oranges, punctuated by the jabbing blue triangles and red half-hemispheres of cold fronts and warm fronts. Wind becomes a topography of dizzying, concentric whorls: the contours of isotachs and isobars – which represent lines of equal wind speed and atmospheric pressure – and wind-barbs, directional lines which branch at five-knot increments, swirling through the atmosphere like clusters of musical notes. They have the appearance of runes, illegible to those without knowledge to read them. They are a kind of alphabet, as wind is a kind of voice.

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Where the Wild Winds Are (Nicholas Brealey, 2017) tells the story of a series of walks following Europe’s wind-ways: the Helm, Britain’s only named wind, which howls over Cross Fell in the Northern Pennines; the Bora, which freezes the western Balkans and the Adriatic coast; the Foehn, which brings warmth and clear skies but also headaches, insomnia, anxiety and depression to communities in the Alpine valleys of Switzerland; and the Mistral, the Provencal ‘wind of madness’ that animated and tormented Vincent Van Gogh.

The book is available to order online, or – much more preferably – to buy in all good bookshops.

The Empty Countryside

I thought the sheep was dead. It was lying in the middle of a big grass field with its legs in the air. I wasn’t surprised; those fields are rented by a farmer who can’t afford to run his business in the way modern farming demands. He doesn’t own enough land to scale up his production by borrowing against its value. The result is not too many beasts on the farm, but too few: in this case six scraggy ewes roaming 15 acres. As I walked by, the dead one waved her legs. Alive then, but stuck on her back by her weight of wool. I trudged across to her, put my foot on her side and pushed her over away from me. She scrambled to her feet and ran off, fleece bouncing, bleating confusedly. If I hadn’t rescued her she probably would have died. No one would have noticed in time because no one passes this way.

For thousands of years, the English countryside has never been so empty of people and animals as it is now.

The part of West Dorset where I live was once a busy network of small farmsteads, most with fewer than 100 acres, keeping Red Devon cattle for meat and milk. Today, the old farm names on the Ordnance Survey map are a roll call of lost activity: Prime, Oselhay, Middlebrook, Taphouse, Lower Park, Purcombe, and Higher Sminhay. Their land has been sold and consolidated into bigger agricultural landholdings. Some of the farmhouses are second homes or holiday lets. Many more settlements have simply disappeared. The 1861 census lists Dodseye, Brickhouse, Poor House, Froghouse and Duckpool – all gone. Those that have survived are inhabited by far fewer people that at any previous point in their history. In 1861, there were eight people living in our house, these being the farmer, his wife, children and brother, plus a carter and a ten-year-old ploughboy. Today there are three of us.

That reduction – eight to three – is about average round here. Add in the lost homes as well, and you have a massive difference in the number of people who once lived in the Marshwood Vale. Villages were bigger and tattier with an astonishing array of services – shops, forges, pubs, bakeries, brewers, butchers and cobblers. Outside the villages, there was more than farming going on. For the price of two guineas, the 1830 Beerhouse Act allowed homeowners to buy a licence to make and sell home brewed ale. In the 19th century, our house used to have one of these simple pubs in the end room, an arrangement that would have been familiar to Thomas Hardy. No one in the Vale was rich and they made what they could from the natural resources the landscape had to offer, whether that was wood, building stone, brick clay, cheese, milk or meat.

Of course it wasn’t Eden. Country living was hard, especially with lots of people to feed. Farmworkers were part-paid in local cider (another product of the land), which sounds idyllic but wasn’t. The amount consumed damaged their health – a couple of pints before even starting work – and their families were stinted for money. In 1795-7 the poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived at Racedown Lodge on the edge of the Vale. The Wordsworths were appalled by the poverty and primitive living conditions they found here. They too were poor and had to grow most of their own food. It was a hardscrabble existence – every poet for himself. Wordsworth built a fence to keep loose cattle out of his vegetable garden and was enraged when vagrants stole the wood for fuel.

Wood was still valuable to those in need as late as the 1950s. An older farmer I know remembers his father saying that when they cut and laid a hedge, they would leave the brash (the thinnest twigs) on the ground overnight and by morning it would all be gone, collected for firewood by the poorest. Not just as kindling to light a more solid wood fire in a house that had other sources of heat, but as one of the main fuel sources. Bigger pieces from the hedge, about the thickness of a wrist that could burn for some length of time, were even more prized. These were gathered and sold, or taken by the hedge layers as payment for their work – it would have been considered stealing to scavenge them.

Lay a hedge today and the brash is a nuisance to be burned on a bonfire when the landowner has time. Those same, slim hedge logs, the ones that could pay a working man for a full day’s hard labour, are more or less worthless. My farmer friend calls them ‘ugly sticks’. He uses them in his own stove quite happily, but the customers who buy his logs all want good-looking, split chunks from felled trees that they can stack into attractive log-piles. In the past, that kind of prime wood would have had many other uses and been too expensive to use for fuel by ordinary people.

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Oak on Lamberts Castle overlooking the Marshwood Vale. Photo by Sara Hudston

It’s not only people who have gone – where are the animals? This is dairy land, not sheep pasture, but the cows spend most of the year indoors in barns – the farmers allow them access to a bit of summer grazing but the ground is deep clay and too wet to support more than a few weeks outside for the numbers of beasts needed to make dairies economically viable. So the farmers mostly use the fields to grow silage and maize fodder and keep the cows indoors milked by robots. It sounds brutal, but the irony is that the welfare standards for the cows has arguably risen over the last 30 years; they are well-fed and don’t get the foot-rot and rain scab they would suffer if they lived out all year up to their hocks in churned mud and shit. In the 1970s and 80s there were times when starving and emaciated beasts had to be literally pulled out the winter mire by tractor, some dying on their feet before they could be freed.

Back in the 1970s, the system was already out of balance. Farming methods had changed dramatically with mechanisation after the Second World War. By the late 70s, the type and size of cattle kept here had altered. Farmers had abandoned the smaller, lighter and less productive Red Devons, which were bred to cope with the local land conditions. Instead they introduced a Holstein/Friesian/Charolais/Hereford mix. These breeds were larger and heavier, churned up the soil far more and were less suited to the local conditions, hence getting stuck and scabby and perhaps being better off indoors for much of the year, if they had to be kept here. Overall, of course it would be best for both the cows’ welfare and the ecology of the Vale for them not to be here at all, and for the area to have either no cattle of any kind, or fewer numbers of the better adapted Red Devons. The Devons can do well here under a management system that doesn’t involve being incarcerated in sheds, milked by robots and separated early from their calves. But there’s not enough money any more in that way of doing things.

Even using new methods, it’s still hard to claw results from the land. To hit the milk production levels needed to stay viable, each farm must keep more cows than the land can truly support, unless the farmer changes the nature of the land. In order to feed the cows in their sheds, most of the ancient meadows have been ploughed and re-seeded with monocrop ryegrass on rotation with maize. Those lost, unimproved grass meadows supported a complex bio-system of plants, insects, animals and birds, which cannot exist in the new habitat. Some species cling on, many have gone. You never hear skylarks in the Vale any more because early and frequent grass cutting for silage has destroyed the nests and young chicks, wiping out the local breeding populations.

The full disaster goes deeper than the loss of biodiversity, tragic as that is. This is one of the wettest areas in the UK. Its micro-climate has some of the highest levels of rainfall in the country and water from the surrounding hills drains down into a bowl of clay. The soil in the old meadows was bound in place by a thick thatch of turf anchored by established root systems built up over years. The new ryegrass growing in fields frequently ploughed and re-sown, has shallow roots and does little to stop the soil washing away. Maize is even less use – it’s notorious for increasing soil erosion in any environment. It would be difficult to think of a more ecologically unsuitable crop for this place. Enormous quantities of slurry from all those indoor cows is collected in vast pits and then spread on the fields. The farmers don’t do this to fertilise the pasture, they do it to get rid of the slurry. They often (illegally) choose to spread when heavy rainfall is forecast or actually underway, so that most of the shit washes off into the streams, poisoning the waterways. There’s a recognised term for this tactic: ‘dilute and pollute’.

The truth is that modern dairying methods are fundamentally incompatible with this particular landscape. The machinery needed to produce and harvest maize and silage is too big for the network of narrow, medieval lanes. Everyone hates the massive tractors, which crush down the roadside banks with their giant tyres and push the farmers to slash back the hedges to gain an extra couple of inches width, but there is no other way to do the work now that there are so few people employed on the farms. It’s impossible to increase the labour force because the income from all this effort and destruction is not enough to pay the extra wages, especially in an area where housing is so expensive.

The lack of labour brings us round again to the emptiness of the countryside and the lack of humans, which is not a good thing in itself. The Dorset landscape around me, like all of lowland Britain, has been created by hundreds of generations of people living on and working the land. Their efforts created habitats in which many species flourished. Take the nightingales, which used to nest in the woods across the lane from us. In the 1970s, the old lady who once owned our house held annual nightingale parties. Her sophisticated London friends would sit on the damp lawn drinking cocktails, bitten by midges and showered with birdsong. Somewhere in the late 1980s the nightingales disappeared. They left because their breeding habitat was lost.

Unlike the meadows disappearance, the nightingales habitat went because of what people stopped doing rather than what they did. As the value of wood products fell and the old woodsmen died, coppicing ended and the woods were left to grow on without intervention. The scrubby lower growth and sunny glades that nightingales require disappeared and the understory became a dingy cave shadowed by tall ash, oak and alder. The forest floor was swamped with pendulous sedge, crowding out other more delicate flora such as orchids and anemones.

The idea that untended nature is always better and richer is a specifically Romantic conceit. Coppicing, long established and correctly managed, can produce stupendous ecological diversity comparable in its riches to rainforest.

Coleridge was wrong when he wrote so beguilingly about the nightingales he imagined thriving in unworked, neglected woods:

And I know a grove
Of large extent, hard by a castle huge,
Which the great lord inhabits not; and so
This grove is wild with tangling underwood,
And the trim walks are broken up, and grass,
Thin grass and king-cups grow within the paths.
But never elsewhere in one place I knew
So many nightingales

In the woods across the lane there are praiseworthy efforts at regeneration by the newish, conservation-minded owners. In the last five years they have coppiced and fenced sections of the wood to protect the new growth from deer. But it’s a hugely expensive and time-consuming process and the areas involved are a small percentage of the whole. There are still no nightingales.

Give those neglected woods another 200 years without human intervention and they would probably revert to a more mixed habitat – in the meantime they are eerily quiet and wildlife poor. I don’t think we can afford to wait two centuries in the hope that nature will restore itself without us. Rewilding through the complete withdrawal of people and activity is not always the answer, especially in landscapes where people have been part of the ecosystem for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Our yearning for rewilding can run the risk of placing humans somehow outside of nature, maybe even counter to it. This gives people special status; a version of the old idea that humans occupy some kind of unique category distinct from the rest of the living world. But we are not strangers or interlopers in the wild world; we are part of it. The wildness is in us and we are in the wildness.

The truth is that farming has always been a deeply compromised activity, focusing as it inevitably does on gain and control at the expense of land and beasts. There isn’t an obvious fix and maybe our belief that we should find one and sort things out is part of the problem. We are looking into the darkness, we don’t know, all we can do is to try to listen, think and tell stories, trusting that from telling, listening and remembering many stories, we might become attuned to a certain frequency that speaks to us.

What says the land? Those who listen, know that it is undergoing profound change. This change reaches further than any individual ecological, topographical or social insults wrought by agriculture. The actual genius loci, the spirit of place, is altering. Something fundamental has shifted in the deep and tangled relationship between people and the land.

There seems less of everything, the natural variety fading and flattening. Increasingly, the English countryside is a nowhere place where, away from celebrated beauty spots and organised, marked trails, people don’t go for any length of time. No one notices the lack of wildflowers or the silent woods. It’s becoming a dull, closed waste of ploughed-out paths and cracked mud. We forget how animating and exciting it once was to those who were part of it, and it was part of them.

Here is a story about one of the old farm labourers in the Vale who died in the 1980s. He never travelled more than 30 miles from the village where he was born. One of the most exciting incidents in his entire life, which he would recount to anyone who’d listen, was the day a fierce storm came across the farm. He was convinced that the oak in the field where he was working was going to fall on him. He spent all day hiding in an old barn nearby, watching the hissing tree twisting and thrashing in the gale. It didn’t fall on him and the storm passed.

It’s hard to understand such intense, visceral excitement being conjured up from a landscape without what the modern mind sees as real justification. After all, no damage was done. And in any case, he could easily have left the field and got away from the oak. The oak was rooted in place; he was not. It was only a tree, only a storm, what would it have mattered if it fell? The answer is that he was as rooted as the oak; it was part of his life and its drama was his drama. He couldn’t leave, he was bound to the tree and had to watch and wait, sharing its groans. The time was frightening but also exhilarating – he was part of the oak and the storm and the world was alive in him and around him.