Malaise Traps

Type honeybee into Google, and a drop-down menu appears with a list of suggested search terms. I add a ‘c’ and it throws up honeybee collection or collapse; add a ‘d’, and it’s declines or decorations for your home. I work my way through the alphabet; ‘l’ is unequivocal. Honeybee losses 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014.

Some days I can’t tell if honeybees are coming or going. In a sense, they’re everywhere – collecting on our shelves, decorating our homes. In the supermarket this week I passed bee-themed mugs, place mats, bath towels and lunchboxes – not to mention the honey (I LOVE bees, the girl at the checkout told me, when I told her I was a beekeeper. She showed me her bee earrings and a bee-shaped pendant. I really love them, she said, tucking the necklace back inside her shirt collar). And yet, elsewhere, out there, where the real bees live, we’re told there are losses and declines and last month I heard a new word, insectageddon.

That came from an article about a study in Germany, among the first of its kind. Between 1989 and 2016, 1,500 insect samples were collected across 63 sites – a total haul of over 50kg, and several million flying creatures. The results are disturbing: a 76% drop in numbers, over 27 years.

Since the paper was published, more scientists have stepped forward to suggest the findings are likely to reflect a pattern occurring across Europe and beyond.

We’ve heard already about losses to honeybee, butterfly and bumblebee populations; these findings dramatically extend the scale. Around one third of our global food supply is dependent upon honeybees and other pollinating species – if flying insects were to disappear, not only would we lose individual species; our landscapes, our ecologies, our diets and so even the stuff of our own bodies, would also be radically changed.

It’s one thing to read headlines like these; another to absorb them. The words are big. They’re dramatic, they’re catastrophic. I imagine they’re probably driving the appetite for honeybee mugs and bath towels – loss can make us grabby. Yet when I look out of the window, it is not catastrophe, not ageddon, that I see.

A few years ago, when I was living in Oxford and about to become keeper to a colony of bees, this was something I’d been struggling with. I’d read about honeybee losses in the papers. It sounded bad, but it felt remote; I wondered what would happen if I stepped to one side of the newspaper headlines and got to know a colony firsthand. Would I sense a slippage, a thinning? And would I, in my slim end terrace with a weedy garden out back and a work/life balance tipping dangerously towards collapse, find a way of sustaining the bees in my care – of keeping them?

I bought a suit. I got a colony. I was suddenly more involved in another creature than I had been for years. I tended them, fretted over them. I hefted pieces of hive and beekeeping equipment. It was both a love and a labour.

My garden was bordered by a crumbling wall, a hedge and a high fence; standing inside it, I couldn’t see very far at all. I could see the sky. I could see a warehouse roof, our neighbours’ house, the tops of the trees lining the allotments. I could hear the traffic on the road outside, and the man who shouted as he walked. I wasn’t mindful of much of this; I was busy focusing on the hive. I had to become very attentive to what was happening inside it; to watch for slight shifts in the activity of the colony that might signal disease or pests or a drop in available forage. I wanted to get to know their rhythms, understand their processes (these were different, I realised, on different days – a colony is as changeable as the weather).

Up close like this, I learned a little about the landscape. A little about how bees make sense of the world, how they perceive it. And, by watching their journeys, by looking for what they were bringing back, I learned something about what they were finding out there, beyond the fence; about what their world was composed of. Honeybees collect pollen for feeding young and nectar for making honey; they temporarily ingest the nectar when they carry it back to the hive, and stick the pollen to their knees. A few months in, a friend showed me how to tell the source of these pollen nubs by their colour, and so make a fairly reasoned guess as to where the bees had flown. Deep yellow might be dogwood; soft green was probably meadowsweet. I felt like a detective, sifting for clues. Except that, for the most part, the clues were in a language I didn’t speak.

A honeybee colony is like nothing else. It froths and boils and quivers and shakes; it murmurs and thrums and whines. Lifting the lid of a hive and taking a look inside can be a disorienting experience – the bees are so foreign, so far from your familiar, they can make you feel completely lost; they can also turn you around, and inside out – they can rearrange how you see. They rearranged and reorientated me.

I’m writing this on a wooden stool, in the window of a small cafe. They have baklava and free wifi. I can look out and see a road and a row of houses; I can look out and see the silvery rim of a stand of beeches, a heap of ivy hanging over a wooden fence, two kids in jeans with mud on their knees kicking a punctured football at a wall. For the last half hour, I haven’t actually looked out of this window at all; I’ve been reading about that German study, the one that prompted calls of an insectageddon.

Today I am interested not so much in the findings, but the method. I have been learning (as the football bounced off the window of a passing car, and the car stopped, and the boys made a run for it,) about malaise traps. A malaise trap is like a tent on stilts, pitched at one end and made of netting. Inside the pitched roof there’s a funnel leading to a collecting cylinder with a quantity of ethanol inside, a killing agent. The other end of the tent is wide open; when insects fly in, they head up through the funnel and get trapped in the collecting cylinder. The basic design was invented in 1934 by René Malaise, hence the name. It was the sole means of sampling in the German study.

Over the past 27 years, between the months of March and October, malaise traps were placed in 63 nature reserves across west Germany. The cylinders were emptied and their contents weighed every few days. The work was done not by scientists but amateur entomologists, who visited and monitored the traps and made detailed recordings of the weather. They had strict instructions. The samples were weighed (with minute accuracy, since the creatures were featherlight); the weights later combined and compared. Leaving a trap open for a prolonged period can be harmful to local insect populations, so those used in the study tended to be moved from one year to the next, and for this reason the pattern that emerges reflects not the individual stories of specific sites, but something more like an accretion; a collecting up and laying out through time of umpteen temporary and scrupulously recorded views.

I wonder about those amateur entomologists who emptied the collecting cylinders, who tramped down to the tents each week. Did they have a sense, as they tipped the alcohol-soaked specimens onto the weighing scales, of the extent of the pattern unfolding? Did they sense disaster? Or was the change was too small, too slight to notice week-to-week?

Nature reserves exist with the sole purpose of preserving ecosystem functions and biodiversity, so to find such a sharp decline in resident species is alarming. The researchers studied the findings; they factored in changes to land use and the weather. Neither could account for the declines, which occurred throughout the growing season, and irrespective of habitat type. Large scale factors must be involved, they reasoned – but such factors lie beyond the scope of their investigations.

A nature reserve is a protected space but it is also a form of island, and recording only the environmental changes inside the parks will never give a complete picture because islands don’t exist in isolation. Almost every reserve included in the study was surrounded by agricultural land, which over the last half century has undergone a process of rapid intensification. Farmland has very little to offer for any wild creature, Professor Dave Goulson, one of the researchers, is quoted as saying. With the loss of field margins, increased pesticide use and year-round tillage, vast tracts of land [are now] inhospitable to most forms of life. It is possible that insects were flying beyond the perimeter of the reserves to find their foraging and nesting habitats had disappeared; or that chemicals present in the wider landscape were directly harming them.

There is an urgent need to uncover the causes of this decline, the researchers conclude. And so call upon all of usscientists, amateur entomologists, beekeepers, supermarket cashiers, and people sitting in cafe windows – to join in the work of uncovering. To come close enough to see the detail, to pay attention to small things with the express aim of extending our range of vision, of better reading and making sense of the whole. Such a task will involve getting lost, giving up some of our go-to means of understanding the world, and drawing connections in places we hadn’t before. It will be a love and a labour. And it can start right now.

RDLS_logo-copyRemembrance Day for Lost Species, held on 30th November each year, is a chance to explore the stories of species, cultures, lifeways and habitats driven extinct by unjust power structures and exploitation, past and ongoing. It emphasises that these losses are rooted in violent, racist and discriminatory economic and political practices. It provides an opportunity for people to renew commitments to all that remains, and supports the development of creative and practical tools of resistance.

In light of the recent sharp declines in the populations of pollinators, on whose vital environmental contribution so many species (including humans) rely, the theme of Lost & Disappearing Pollinators is offered this year as inspiration. These are animals which move pollen from the male to the female part of a flower, thus fertilising it. Well-known pollinators include bees, butterflies and moths. Certain birds and mammals are also important pollinators, notably bats, hummingbirds and many other animals. Some pollinators, such as the small Mauritian flying fox, are already extinct at human hands, with swathes of others being critically endangered or feared lost, e.g. Franklin’s bumblebee.

Participate in Remembrance Day for Lost Species by joining  or holding  any kind of memorial to lost species or ways of life. This could take the form of an art project, a procession, lighting a candle, planting a tree, or any kind of action you like. Collaboration and inclusivity are at the heart of this initiative, so any offering is welcomed. Please share your plans with us here.

See, or @lostspeciesday on Twitter, or Remembrance Day for Lost Species, 30th November for more information.


Stories Made of Rivers

We have created every living thing from water.
– The Koran, Chapter Al-Anbiya, Verse Number 30

1. Civilisation

The first story I was told about rivers can be summed up like this: there is direct line from the Sumerian Ziggurat of Ur to the Chrysler Building. I was around nine.

2. Civilisation II

Rivers allowed us to grow food, store it, build houses, libraries, museums, cities and empires. I was maybe ten when I heard this one.

3. Cells

In sixth grade, the story shifted from history to science when we memorised that our hearts and brains were 73% water. I have always seen fresh water as precious, magical. I used to believe that water could think. If my brain was mainly water, why not?

Every single living and non-living, visible and non-visible object around us – our computer screens, the retinas in our eyeballs, the dust in the air – all of these rely on fresh water. Our body is a walking river. Water flows from us. The liquid inside us will out eventually.

4. Cycles

In middle school, we were taught about the water cycle: river to rain to snow to mountain glacier to melting ice, back to river. We coloured in those diagrams and added those arrows diligently. But we were not told that this cycle was one of the many ways the earth breathes in and out. Nor were we told that bathing in the River Ganges frees the bather from sin, the outward cleanliness symbolising inner purification. This waterway is fed by the glaciers in the Himalayas, the Mountains of the Gods, and feeds the Indian plains as if descended from the heavens.

5. Hygiene

The fact that we as humans spend nine months growing in water also passed us by at school. The giggles of embarrassment in Hygiene class drowned out any information about babies rolling around in their water-filled pods.

6. Secrets

Water’s ability to seemingly clean itself, to rejuvenate, to flow and keep flowing no mater what we throw at it is a strange sort of illusion. If you fell a forest, the trail of destruction is there for people to see. But water is different, it keeps the secret for you.

7. Flow

Many rivers – despite their dams, their drying out, their dead fish, their pollution – are still flowing. Sometimes they run yellow or orange or green. Some may look crystal clear but are carrying thousands, if not millions of particles of arsenic, cadmium, phosphorus, nitrogen, mercury and lead. Two hundred and twenty-six million pounds of toxic chemicals are dumped in American rivers every year. Of this, 1.5 million pounds are carcinogens, 626,000 pounds are chemicals linked to developmental disorders and 354,000 pounds are associated with reproductive problems. Some rivers, such as the 1,900-mile long Rio Grande, are drying up and disappearing altogether, but many, in a heartbreaking display of trying to do the right thing, just keep flowing.

The Clark Fork River, Missoula, Montana

8. Float

When I lived in Western Montana, ‘floating’ was what you did on hot days. You’d drive to the Blackfoot or the Clark Fork with a spare inner tube strapped to the roof of your car or in the bed of your pickup. You’d throw it into the river, stick a hat on your head (that searing Montana sun), lean back into your rubber doughnut and let the river take you. We were lucky in Montana: 40% of its rivers are deemed ‘good’ by the Environmental Protection Agency as compared with, for instance, 21% in the coastal plains around the Gulf of Mexico. You know things are bad when the best bill of health is one in which you are more sick than healthy.

The Hot Springs Motel, White Sulphur Springs, Montana

9. White Sulphur Springs

Here’s another story. A more recent one, which isn’t taught in schools because it is about me and a guy I once met near a river:

It is a damp December morning in 2016 and I am driving through a starlit, pinky dawn from Missoula to the town of White Sulphur Springs (population 1,000). The morning light has crested above the distant mountains as I roll down Main Street. The town is a mixture of boarded-up storefronts and some new, thriving businesses. There is a real estate office, a cinema, a pizza place, a few gas stations, a couple of bars, and, off the main street, a library. And then there is the unfussy Hot Springs Spa Motel with its pools of sulphurous, health-enhancing spring water. It was while soaking in one of these springs a few months ago that I heard a man with an Australian accent talking about the mine. My ears immediately perked up. I bumped into him later that day in a bar down the road from the motel and we started up a conversation. We were two out-of-towners waiting for our drinks.

I Googled him that night only to discover that he is Bruce Hooper, one of the directors of Tintina Resources – a Canadian and Australian mining company which is behind the proposed copper mine in White Sulphur Springs. I find out that he also worked for BP and Rio Tinto – companies behind some of the worst ecological disasters of the past few years. Tintina are dying to get their hands on the world’s largest lode of copper which is buried 13 miles from Sheep Creek, a major trout-spawning tributary of the Smith River. The Smith is one of the last great untouched rivers, and it pays its keep: about $4.5 million a year is made from floaters who travel its 60-mile limestone canyon between the Little and Big Belt Mountains. But none of this matters in this story.

Tintina’s project is called Black Butte, after the black butte which sits atop the deposit of pure copper. It has been on the table for several years, and Tintina are waiting for the green light. Judging by who holds the power these days, it’s probably not long until the trucks start rumbling and the ground is ripped open. The copper will make the company millions, and the River, well, it’s a river. It will keep flowing no matter what shit they dump in it.

The Mint Bar, Main Street, White Sulphur Springs, Montana

10. The Tour

I book myself into a tour of the proposed Black Butte copper mine in White Sulphur Springs. I ask about the tailings – the toxic water that is the result of blasting the copper-laden rock from the earth – and am told that they’ve got a ‘great idea’ for that. The guy leading the tour speaks in a soothing homespun way which does the opposite of reassure me. Doesn’t he know what mines do? All his metaphors for the violence of this proposed mine are couched in Pinterest-style baking terms. The rocks left over from the excavations will be pulverised to the consistency of ‘icing sugar’ and will be blended with the chemical-laden water until it is a sort of paste. They’ll be made into ‘cakes’ and will be shoved back into the holes in the ground. ‘Cheesecloth’ is involved. No-one will ever know the land was ever mined. According to my tour guide, this story has a really happy ending, like a Martha Stewart cake recipe: everyone gets a piece of it.

The Black Butte, Montana

11. West

In 1872, when miners were flocking to Montana to stake their claims, a law was passed which allowed them to dig up what they wanted, inject whatever chemicals they needed to separate mineral from rock, gold from stone, copper from its vein, and walk away without cleaning up the waste. There are thousands of abandoned mines all over the state. Exactly a hundred years later, the Clean Water Act was created. The 1872 act is older but often supercedes the Clean Water Act.

It is difficult for people outside of the American West to grasp the enormity of the reclamation problem. Scott Fields, an environmental health writer, admits there is plenty of controversy around abandoned mines: how many, how lethal, how best to clean them up. But according to him, experts can agree on at least a few major points: ‘the scope of the impacts of abandoned mines isn’t well understood, the damage that untended mines cause is increasing, and adequate funds aren’t available to address even the largest, most harmful mine sites. And although scientists are developing new methods to treat abandoned mines, the field of mine remediation is still in its infancy.’

12. Place

There are two main types of mining: placer and hard rock mining. Placer mining is all about water. The word comes from the Spanish, placer, meaning a shoal or alluvial deposit. It has also given us place and plaza. Gold is the place, roads are paved with it in our imaginations, it is central to our way of thinking, our economy, our myths, our histories. It centres and grounds us.

13. Twin Creek

This is a more recent story. This one has a happy ending:

It is the end of April and Paul Parson is driving me to Twin Creek, 20 miles west of Missoula. Paul is a restoration coordinator for the river conservation group Trout Unlimited. In his late thirties or early forties, Paul has an easy, relaxed manner and speaks quietly and deliberately, choosing his words carefully – something I have come to associate with this part of the world.

Steering his truck with his knees, he looks over at me and asks if his driving makes me nervous. ‘Not at all,’ I say, trying to be nonchalant.

We turn off the I-90 onto Nine Mile Road. This landscape is the stuff of screensavers and calendars. Mountains in the distance, wooden fences and photogenic barns slanting at attractive angles. It was once ranching land but is no longer.

Paul is talking to me about mining. He sees it from the other side, from the side of the rivers that have had just about everything poured and leached into them and left for dead. ‘Private mining claims often follow rivers as you need a lot of water to mine. And mines just decimate them. Rivers can heal themselves if you give them a leg up and plant the right things near them and get their meanders right, but…’ he shrugs, leaving me to finish that thought.

This is what Paul does all day: he reclaims, remakes, and designs rivers, although he dislikes the term ‘designing’ when it comes to what he does – too pretentious.

Paul Parson and members of Trout Unlimited, Twin Creek, Montana

14. Replanting

Paul and I park a short walk from Twin Creek and meet up with two of his co-workers, Dave and Rob. Paul says we can kill two birds with one stone by doing some planting – he is too humble to call it rewilding – and checking out how Twin Creek, one of Trout Unlimited’s latest reclamation projects, is coming along. To an outsider, the stream looks perfect – too perfect. Small waterfalls of aesthetically piled rocks appear at intervals. Each stone, dip, and curve of the creek has been ‘designed’. It is alarming how this near-perfection in nature looks unnatural. I watch the three men walk along the stream. If you didn’t know them, it would be clear to you that they were not out for a hike. They run their fingers through the grasses and shrubs they planted from seed: willow and hawthorn and rose. They touch the trunks of the three cottonwoods they left in place which have seeded others nearby naturally, as well as the conifers which they planted as saplings. They poke at the mushrooms and squat to examine some scat: elk and bear and goose, full of seeds. It’s all looking good.

‘We know what a healthy stream looks like,’ Paul says, ‘it’s in our mind’s eye’. They stop and listen to the sound of the water and talk of the meander. Like artists or physicians, they call upon all their senses to review their work. Certain plants are thriving more than others. For the first time in a long time, the creek meets up with the Nine Mile River and will soon be able to support trout. This is a success story.

‘Native trout are really sensitive to climate change,’ Paul says. ‘They can’t survive in warm water. They are an ice age fish. Ex-mining water is the worst for them. It’s often standing water, doesn’t flow, gets warm as a result, and the flows that were created from the digging go in straight lines and this causes a lot of sediment. Trout are very sensitive to sediment.’

Standing water at Mattie V Creek, Montana

15. Soup

Paul wants to show me what a creek looks like before he and his team have done their work, so I have something to compare Twin Creek to. We head to the Mattie V Creek, named, I believe, after Mattie Hixson who married a Montana man in the 1920s. Mattie died in 1985 at the age of 83 and her namesake creek has been sitting stagnant and polluted for a long time. Paul took Mattie’s great grandsons fishing to show them what a good stream looks like and said, ‘This could be on your property’. They got totally behind the clean-up. It is a horribly ugly spot. The still water is split-pea green. It buries the trees half way up their trunks. Hills of sludge have been piled into grassless tors around the site. It is unnervingly quiet and claustrophobic. We don’t stay long.

16. Desire

We are lulled into thinking that because these sacred waterways – and every river is sacred – are constantly flowing, they possess what we desire more than anything: eternal life and an ever-changing nature that gives the impression of permanence. They are everything we want to be. But even rivers can die.

17. Reclamation

The first known use of the word ‘reclaim’ is in the 13th-century anonymously penned poem Cursor Mundi, whose title in English means ‘Runner of the World’. Its 30,000 verses were written by a cleric in the North of England as a way of tracing history and religion up to his lifetime. In the Cursor Mundi, to ‘reclaim’ is to ‘call back a hawk’. In the 14th century the word was used to mean ‘to reduce to obedience’. And today the word retains that sense of control in its definition ‘to bring land under cultivation’. But now among ecologists, rewilders, and environmentalists, to ‘reclaim’ land is to return it to a pristine Eden-like state. But just how far back do we go in reclaiming a river or a tract of land? Does one try to ecologically wind the clock back to pre-ice age times? Or to one of the interglacial ages? If so, which one? They are all very different with their own unique flora and fauna. Does one go back to 1492 when Columbus set foot on American soil, which is what some American rewilders used to think. Others, however, believe that 1778 is more desirable – the year Captain Cook landed in Hawaii. Whereas for some the foundation of Yellowstone Park in 1872 is the ecological baseline to which we should be aiming in our reclamation projects. And for the more dedicated contemporary rewilders, we should be looking to our Stone Age ancestors, to the hunter-gatherers, for the most ecologically healthy baseline. The debates are ongoing. But we all seem to think we need to look back in order to move forward.

Paul Parson of Trout Unlimited, planting native seeds, Montana

18. Illusion

In 1963 the National Park Service published the Leopold Report, named after the zoologist and conservationist A. Starker Leopold. Starker was the son of Aldo Leopold, one of the founders of the land conservation movement in the United States, whose book A Sand County Almanac contains a chapter on Ecological Conscience in which he put forth the idea that ‘conservation is a state of harmony between man and land’. But the authors of the Leopold Report were already aware of the problems and the conflicts in reclamation. They wrote: ‘restoring the primitive scene is not done easily nor can it be done completely … a reasonable illusion of primitive America could be recreated, using the utmost in skill, judgment, and ecologic sensitivity.’ Even in 1963 there was the awareness that wilderness could only exist in America as a ‘reasonable illusion’.

The rivers Paul Parsons reclaims are not wild rivers, they are illusions of wild rivers. Just because a river flows does not mean it is not dead. We can and we should reclaim as much of the earth as we can even if it means dreaming ourselves back to a time very few people can remember, before history was written and stories were on paper. I would much rather wander through the reasonable illusion of Twin Creek than the toxic reality of the Mattie V. For now, and probably for the rest of our time on earth, humans will have to come to terms with the reasonable illusion of wilderness, because the real thing is disappearing fast. The story goes that we can call back the hawk, although we know in our hearts it is too far away to hear our cries.


Dougald Hine

In a talk given almost forty years ago, the novelist Alan Garner explains that he never looks through the printed object of a finished book. There is one brief moment, when it arrives from his publisher, before it goes onto the shelf unread: ‘I do open the book, but only far enough to see the international copyright symbol. Then, at last, I know that the book has been written, and I rejoice and emotionally collapse at the same time.’

That passage came back to me, in a wistful moment, reflecting on the experience of writing for, editing, publishing and promoting this latest Dark Mountain book. The way we work, any member of the editorial team will find themselves, at times, shouldering a stack of different roles. It was ever thus, no doubt, for those foolish enough to run a small journal with big ideas – the editors of the little magazines of the early 20th century may be remembered as modernist poets, but their editorials are full of prosaic appeals for funds.

Anyway, as we reach the end of this series introducing our twelfth book, before I rejoice and collapse, it seems worth reflecting on a few of the unusual aspects of this book – and the response which it has so far generated – before I give the final word to Steve Wheeler, my co-editor, whose idea it was in the first place to devote an issue to ‘the sacred’.

The cover of Issue 12 by Thomas Keyes

The first thing to say about the response is that it has been huge. In the two weeks following its publication, the number of orders and subscriptions coming in has been more than twice what we’ve seen for previous special issues. Much of that interest seems to have been generated by Thomas Keyes’ introduction the artwork and Sylvia Linsteadt’s reflections on creating the marginalia that runs through the book.

We’ve also had a small number of regular readers who reacted against this particular issue – and while I’d guess that there were those who found an issue dedicated to poems and poetics (Autumn 2016) or craft and technology (Autumn 2015) didn’t light their fire the way they look to Dark Mountain to do, I doubt that those themes generated reactions of the same intensity. Having lived with this book intensely, through the months of its making, I’ve found much to think about among those reactions.

One point that seems worth underlining is that the departures we made in this book do not represent the new direction of Dark Mountain, but the adventure of this particular special issue. We began publishing two issues a year in 2014 and soon realised that this called for something other than a doubling of the volume of the familiar anthologies, with their range of essays, poetry, art, stories and conversations. So we hit upon the rhythm by which each autumn, one or more editors strikes out in a direction with a special issue whose form and content can vary widely, while each spring we return to the heart of our work with a book that belongs recognisably within a continuous line stretching back to Issue 1, which Paul and I edited in the spring of 2010. The hope is that this rhythm allows us to stay alive and adventurous, to surprise our readers and ourselves, without losing hold of what matters to people about our books.

This year’s special issue was a larger-format, full-colour book, made up of long-form non-fiction, of various flavours, woven around with a set of artistic collaborations and a fictional commentary from a 3000-year-old prophetess. The only thing I can tell you about next year’s special issue is that it is unlikely to be any of the above. Meanwhile, in April, we will be back with a book whose format and mix of content will feel familiar to many.

For me, personally, this issue was a return to the editor’s chair for the first time since 2014. Paul and I edited five issues of Dark Mountain together, joined by a growing team of fellow editors. Then I stepped down, in order to cope with the less visible parts of the running of the project which had become my responsibility – and with Issue 6, Steve Wheeler took my place on the editorial team. When that issue arrived, it was a strange sensation to open the book and read it from cover to cover, rather than already knowing its contents inside out.

Six books later, Steve and I finally got the chance to work together, and we took on the challenge of this book with a determination to stretch the boundaries of Dark Mountain as wide as possible – not as a model for what future special issues ought to be, but to open up a space that would allow their editors to be as adventurous as Paul and I envisaged in our earliest conversations about starting a journal.

The work on this book began as I was reaching the end of two years as leader of artistic development for Riksteatern, Sweden’s touring national theatre. That role gave me plenty of chance to reflect on what ‘artistic development’ actually means. How does an artwork – especially one as collaborative as a piece of theatre – come into being and come alive? What conditions and processes make that possible? As Steve and I hatched the plan for SANCTUM, and began conversations with Thomas and Sylvia about the collaborations they went on to develop as lead artist and ‘marginalian’, I realised that this was the first time I’d experienced the making of a Dark Mountain book as an artistic project, rather than an editorial project.

To make a book about ‘the sacred’ is to get tangled up with the history of religion – and among the responses came the suggestion that a project which started with a manifesto called Uncivilisation had no business with religion, except to attack it. If you’ve read this book, you’ll know that the voices it contains come mostly from the edges and, where they do relate to institutionalised religion, this relationship tends to be complex. You won’t find much proselytising in these pages. But a couple of things seem worth saying, all the same.

For one thing, the first issue of Dark Mountain led off with an article by an Archdruid and featured contributions from a Hindu clergyman and a Quaker activist, so there’s clearly something about this project which has drawn the engagement of people grounded within various religious traditions from the start.

Beyond this, it’s worth recalling what Paul and I actually wrote in the manifesto. About ‘the myth of civilisation’, we said:

It has led the human race to achieve what it has achieved; and has led the planet into the age of ecocide. The two are intimately linked. We believe they must be decoupled if anything is to remain.

This is stark language, but it is not a call for an attack on a thing called civilisation – it’s a call to challenge the story we tell about the existence of such a thing. It urges a process of decoupling, disentangling the things which that story insists on linking together. Four years on, writing the FAQs for this website, we underlined that we did not have in mind ‘a call to destroy civilisation’. And while there’s always been room within the Dark Mountain conversation for ‘anti-civ’ thinkers like Derrick Jensen and John Zerzan, our first issue also contained Ran Prieur’s essay, ‘Beyond Civilised and Primitive’, with its emphasis on the power and the limitations of such binary thinking. This project has always had more of the trickster about it – as Steve observes, in his essay for the current book, ‘we are not here to take sides.’ And it is in that spirit that we made this venture among the ruins and the relics of the many different ways in which humans have made sense of the sacred.

But if this is part of the territory in which Dark Mountain travels, it is only one of many parts – and with the end of this series, the focus moves on. Other themes will come to the fore on the blog in the weeks and months ahead. And, in the background, we’ll be working on our new online publication.

We are not quite finished with the theme of Issue 12, however. When the new site launches, it will include a one-off online edition with new writing to complement the work published in SANCTUM. We look forward to making a couple of announcements in the near future about an event in Cambridge in the spring – and a further development of the artistic collaboration around this book! And meanwhile, we warmly invite you to join Steve, Thomas and several of the book’s contributors for an afternoon of workshops followed by an evening launch at Dartington Hall, Devon on Saturday 9th December.

At which point, all that remains for me is to hand over to Steve, whose idea it was to do this book in the first place…

Steve Wheeler

It seems a long time ago that I first suggested a themed anthology on the subject of ‘the sacred’. It felt like something we’d been circling around for a long time, but always been just a little too coy to address directly. We would use some of the language of the sacred in describing our relationship to nature or art; we would employ some of the ‘religious tech’ of ritual and incantation in festivals and performances; and, in pieces like Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘In the Black Chamber’ or Dougald’s conversation with David Abram on animism and the sensuous, perspectives were discussed that, if not overtly spiritual, had nevertheless stepped a long way out into the world of metaphysics.

But there still seemed a certain reticence in taking this aspect of the human experience seriously. Perhaps through an awareness that plenty of our colleagues, friends and potential readers were resolutely rationalist, or a distaste of our own for the various flavours of superstition and idiocy that travel under the flag of religion, we tended to shy away from outright contact with ‘the sacred’. Yet the more I looked around, the more I noticed that the people involved in Dark Mountain were drawing their inspiration from something that operated outside the usual circle of rationalist ideology. There was no shared dogma or creed – indeed many would strenuously disavow any relationship to ‘the sacred’ or ‘the spiritual’ – yet there was a common grounding in something other to the mechanistic, pseudo-objective, Enlightenment version of reality. And the further we went in our creative and intellectual exploration of the issues concerning civilisation, the more we found ourselves back on this ground.

We have featured such voices and themes before, of course, and will do so again. But it seemed there was merit in looking directly at this theme – not to suggest a particular programme of belief, of course (could anything be less appropriate to the anarchic polyphony that is the Dark Mountain ‘voice’?), but to explore this area with tact, sincerity and an open mind. It quickly became clear to us that the singularity of the subject matter required a singular response – something that departed from our usual format, that exhibited a thematic and aesthetic unity appropriate to the subject matter and that sought to embody this feeling of otherness in its very being.

Creating this book has been a long, strange dance. It loomed ahead for years, slowly approaching like some distant mountain. The climb itself, over the past six months, was at times gruelling, at times exhilarating. And now we stand at the summit, having released the book into the wild only a few weeks ago, there is certainly a sense of accomplishment. I’m convinced that it is the most beautiful book we have yet published.

In many religions, the condensed intricacy of illuminations, icons or mandalas is itself symbolic – a sign of the energy that has been poured into a task for no purpose other than glorification of the divine. There is something of that feeling in this book – but, without a shared agreement on the nature, or existence, of ‘the divine’ amongst the contributors, that energy seems to lead us somewhere else – towards a sense of hope, perhaps, that something new and beautiful can still be kindled amongst the gathering shadows.

We brought the makers of this book together with a call that referenced the ‘devil’s door’, and it feels like a kind of portal; into thirteen very different takes on ‘the sacred’, but also into a new chapter of Dark Mountain publications. More mischievously, a part of me enjoys the idea of breaking the neat row of Dark Mountain anthologies on the bookshelf. As someone who is a little too attached to owning ‘the complete collection’ of books – gazing at them lined up on the bookshelf with a sense of satisfaction that is entirely out of place in an age when all the old certainties and securities of the material world are shifting – the complete collection of Dark Mountain books now begins to look a little like a graph of the last decade, tracking the increasing disruption and variance in the world as the books become increasingly wild and unruly in their shape, size and format.

In the same spirit, we’re looking to do something a bit different with the launch event for the book. There will be an afternoon workshop with myself and Thomas Keyes, Art Editor and lead artist for SANCTUM, whose work graces the front cover as well as in many places within. We’ll be discussing what it means to draw on sacred traditions while making art that speaks to the secular realities of our current global predicament.

Then the evening event, the launch proper, will take things a little further. Alongside readings from the book by some of its contributors, there will be live music from David Osbiston and Blythe Pepino, video from across the world, and some very special theatrical performances. It should be a memorable evening, and a perfect way to mark the completion of a long, strange journey.


Believing in Holidays

Extract from ‘The God-Shaped Hole’

We sit on cushions in a circle, about 25 of us surrounding one lit candle. Each of us is invited to place a personal object in the middle. Some put jewellery, a hat, a piece of quartz. I stay still, very conscious of being in a minority: not wearing yoga pants, not barefoot, no piercings or tattoos. I’m wearing a top from Whistles, for fuck’s sake.

I feel the stiffening in my shoulders as a wave of discomfort passes over me. My cheeks flush with embarrassment – what would the me of just a few years ago have made of this situation?

Now, I’m able to notice the discomfort, let it go (mostly), or just be OK with noticing it. I know that through the discomfort the good stuff lies. I notice my desire to stay in a safe, practical, intellectual, rigid, mask-wearing state, and I gently try to put these elements down.

The work involves sharing meaningful personal stories with each other. Gazing into the eyes of strangers. Exploring political issues that we care deeply about and retelling them from different personal angles. We’re firmly in the emotional and out of the intellectual.

This is London, days after the Grenfell Tower fire. Everyone has a lot of pain.

And when the workshop is over, back in the circle around the candle and altar of objects, we all feel connected. It’s like our hearts are bigger than they were at the start. There is an undeniable connection between all people, all life. Afterwards, it occurs to me that this is the third role of the sacred: between the sky of possibility and the ground of being held, to encourage the felt knowledge of connection.

When big events come, a hunger for connection breaks the surface of our current way of living. I remember the 7/7 bombings in London back in 2005, long before I had any interest in the sacred. That sunny day, after news of what happened spread, everyone left work early to slowly make their way home and it was inarguably apparent that we’d all go to the pub. I look at something I wrote back then: ‘In earlier days (or in America), people would have gathered their families together and prayed. In London, we got our mates together and drank.’ It was a kind of communion, I guess.

Last November, on the day we learnt that Donald Trump was going to be president, my minister opened the church for the evening. About fifteen of us sat in candlelight and shared how we felt, and a violinist played exactly the right music, and we wept. Brits, Americans, people in their twenties and their eighties, all feeling the need to be together.

On days like that, people recognise the need to be close to others, to gather together while they’re hurting or scared, for their emotions to be held in the right way, whether oiled by beer, or by candlelight and violin and the work of an experienced minister. It feels like a very basic human thing, so I assume we had the words for it long before the language of church.


What you’re saying in the piece is that, until the last fifty or sixty years, in our part of the world, it was very normal that lots of people were part of a local church. That was part of the fabric of society, and it went away pretty quickly. And maybe we haven’t got the measure of some of what was lost, things that aren’t necessarily to do with your big cosmic beliefs about the Universe, but about some basic human needs. You draw on your own experiences with new kinds of non-religious gathering spaces like Sunday Assembly, as well as your local Unitarian church, where the minister is an atheist who used to be a scientist at MIT – but you’re also looking at it from the perspective of the work you’ve done with public health?
Absolutely. So some of the work that I’ve done has been around the limitations of the health care system. You know, if you’ve broken a leg or something, it’s really well geared-up to treat you. But doctors have known for a long time that so much of what makes us healthy happens outside of biomedical health. It’s more to do with how we live – and that’s so much more than just, take more exercise, stop smoking, don’t eat as many doughnuts! We can live in ways that create health and that has a lot to do with how we live in our communities and the sense of purpose that we have in our lives. All those things that are not well provided for either by the state or the market. And right now, we can’t see what we’re missing, because there’s been this sort of generational gap there. There’s not a lot of common language to talk about these aspects of our lives.
You’ve been thinking about the role of serving a community that might have been played once upon a time by somebody who wore a strange collar and stood up in front of a building full of people on a Sunday morning. And it’s not necessarily a desire to herd everybody back into churches that you’re talking about, but a sense that there is a role there that we need in other ways and haven’t necessarily got good at recovering?
Yeah, definitely. And the language does get in the way and I’m really conscious that I use a lot of church-based language which to a lot of people is either alien or meaningless. But yes, there is a kind of role of ministry. I don’t think there’s an appetite in our culture to have someone who stands up in front and has all the answers – I think there’s something a bit repulsive about that idea – but we can be equipped to support each other, to be each other’s ministers and spiritual guides and help each other through life. And people are doing that, but it’s not yet a role that’s really valued in our culture. It’s not really something that’s seen. So you know, back when I went into the church for the first time, I didn’t feel: oh, I really need some kind of counsel from a minister. I didn’t really know what it was I wanted, I just had a sense of a gap, but it feels like it would be a hugely valuable thing if it was like, oh, I need a bit of guidance – I need to go and speak to someone who is in one of these community leadership roles with certain skills and knowledge. It would be good if we had some understanding, some way of talking about this, as a culture.
It strikes me there are skills that in other times and places would have been regarded as something that you spent twenty years of your life learning how to do, before you were let loose as somebody could practice, where now we think you can go on a few weekend courses and get a certificate that allows you to sell your services – and that’s true whether we’re talking about some of the things that go under the name of ‘hosting’ and ‘facilitation’ these days, or whether we talk about some of the more New Age spiritual services that are on offer. So I wonder, without simply copying and pasting from the way things have been done in the past or in other cultures, how do we home in on a less flimsy way of dealing with these parts of being human?
Thinking about the health care example, there’s been a lot of discussion in the last few years, reminding nurses and doctors alike, ‘Oh, we should be caring and compassionate.’ And you know a lot of people go into those roles because they are caring and compassionate – but actually, if the culture of the organisation loses its way and focuses on the hard clinical outcomes and the costs and all of that stuff and forgets ‘Oh, we’re here to be caring and compassionate’, then you have to remind people to do it. And so, in this sort of new, post-church spiritual world, there’s a sense of there not being much of an appetite for dogma. You don’t really want to say, ‘Oh yes, we all believe this, we all believe the same thing and these are the rules.’ But there is a danger of exploitation, people using powerful tools and techniques from the world of the sacred for their own gain, or just using them clumsily.
We’ve been talking about how removed our culture has become from the experience of what you’re saying the church, at its best, used to provide. But there’s also a rediscovery going on in lots of places of what you might call the technology of the sacred – ritual, the mountaintop experience, the things that take you to those wild beautiful moments of meaning – which is often drawing on knowledge and practice that has existed within religious or spiritual cultural traditions. Maybe it’s tempting for us, as these things are being rediscovered, to focus on these ecstatic experiences?
Yeah and you can see why, because it feels like that’s where the action’s happening. It’s exciting to be part of a ritual where you enter a different world for a little while and you know that the people around you are also entering that different world, that different mind-set, for a little while. And all of that stuff is hugely valuable – and still I think it’s a very tiny slice of the whole picture and actually the value is much more in the slow, gentle, day-to-day engagement with the sacred. Which can’t be these euphoric experiences, you know. You can’t have Christmas every day.
You can’t live on a mountaintop. You go there to spend four days in retreat and have a powerful experience, but you still come back, hopefully to somewhere more sheltered.
If the thing that you’re looking for is the euphoric experience and you’re looking to find it in a way that fits your everyday life in a sustainable way, I don’t believe that’s possible. So it’s more about accepting the slow and gentle, day-to-day, and having the things in your life that make that sustainable. Rather than just like, oh, if I can just get through to Christmas, then I can get through all of this difficult stuff that I know I’ve got on, but you know, just around the next corner, I’ll be OK. A lot of our culture at the moment is – oh, get through to your next holiday, get through to the weekend. You know, wait till you get home and you can have a glass of wine. And yeah, I guess I was totally in that pattern of living, pre-church, and I’m not entirely not within that pattern of living now, I guess! But I totally see that those bits of cultural infrastructure that you can bring into your day-to-day, just help us cope with this brilliance of being human so much better. Because it feels like we’re missing a lot of the sort of struts and supports that would really help us, I guess, stay level.
Where I’m sitting, it’s also about coping with – or just not cutting ourselves off from – some of the darkness of what it means to be living at this moment. Living with the paradox that our ways of life are tangled up with processes that we’ve set in motion that are making it hard to imagine that we’ll be able to go on living like this – you know, it’s hard to imagine that this is going to be made sustainable. And at the same time, as you describe it, there’s a lot within even the privileged, successful version of that way of life which is not worthy of being sustained. Because living for the weekend, living for the next holiday, that doesn’t seem much like making a good job of being a culture.
Exactly, it’s just deferring, isn’t it? It’s like, we don’t believe in heaven anymore, but we do believe in holidays.

Elizabeth Slade accidentally became an expert in spiritual infrastructure for the non-religious. From a career improving the way health systems work, she now wants to do the same for the spiritual health of communities. She lives in London and after 15 years is still trying to work out how her bumpkin soul can thrive there.

Dougald Hine is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project and one of the editors of Issue 12.

Twelve Pieces

If your copy of our twelfth book has already landed, then you’ll know that we’ve shaken up the form of Dark Mountain in a whole lot of ways. Not least, where a typical issue would contain forty or more pieces ranging from short poems to longer essays or stories, this time around we have built the book around twelve longer texts – and having introduced the other elements of this issue, it seems like time to tell you a little more about these.

The book opens with Sara Jolena Wolcott standing at a bus stop in Queens, waiting for the Q100 to Rikers Island jail, on her first day as a trainee prison chaplain. In the darkness of the jail, where women are held in uncertainty, awaiting trial, Sara takes us behind the story of climate change as ‘the unintended consequences of the brilliance and ingenuity of white folks’, into the histories of race and displacement, the theft of land and the theft of bodies and the roots of ecocide in the Christianity of empire. It’s a story of her own family, the land she grew up on and the stories no-one ever told her about that land. And it’s a search for the grounds on which healing might begin.

‘Sometimes the still heart of things has to spin us a tale to draw us back in,’ murmurs Steve Wheeler in the opening lines of ‘The Fire in the Cave’. This is a spiralling story about mythic thinking that winds around continents and millennia. ‘The stories our ancestors left us are not solutions or explanations. They speak a language of dreams, pointing in silence to a cave we half-recognise, where ancient animals step out from the walls, lit by a light from a source we cannot see.’

The next piece, ‘Between Home and Hell’, opens with a troubled winter solstice, a gathering at which a collective yearning ‘to feel connected to something old and real’ falls against the brokenness of the culture in which we are living. From this starting point, James Nowak takes us into the history of the ‘corpse door’, a phenomenon known from Icelandic poetry and found in the architecture of old buildings across the Nordic countries. These physical thresholds provide a glimpse of what it might mean to be part of a culture that takes seriously the relationship between the living and the dead.

In ‘Roots and Branches’, Pelin Turgut describes leaving Turkey after the repression of the protests to save Gezi Park and the coup that saw friends and colleagues imprisoned. Struggling to root herself in London, she finds herself drawn to the city’s trees, and realises that she is not alone: ‘I found other exiles adrift in the many parks I got to know: a Palestinian man shaking mulberries off a tree with a stick; an eastern European grandmother snipping elder flowers; a Syrian family collecting damsons for jam.’ Together with a friend, she starts work on a film in which they seek out ‘The People Who Speak to Trees’, and through this journey she slowly finds a way of being at home in the country where she is now living.

Rob Percival’s work takes him to farms – and at the opening of ‘Pig Rhythm’, he is on his knees, face to face with a hog. A grotesque disregard for the rhythms of life runs through the practice of industrial farming and, with it, a blindness to the roles that other animals have played in shaping our own species. Telling stories of ‘man the hunter’, we miss the reality that our species spent much of its existence as prey. Our ancestors learned the sense of rhythm from imitation of the animals around them, dancing their movements and finding their shapes in the stars, and it is here that Percival traces the deep roots of the human sense of the sacred.

‘Ancient and modern societies were alike in at least one respect: disability happened, whether from birth or over the course of life.’ In ‘Cripples and Crooked Paths’, Craig ‘VI’ Slee reflects on the experience of being defined by difference and the long history of connections between the Otherness of physical disability and the Otherworld. His words are infused with a fierce defiance and the inrush of ecstatic inspiration that comes at strange moments, as time falls away among ruins on a Cumbrian hillside, or after hours of staring at the blank page. ‘Nowadays you would have been fine,’ he hears the myth of progress whisper. ‘To which I reply I am fine. I am crippled, and I am nowadays.’

Sayalay Anuttara was twenty-five when she entered the monastery of Pa Auk Tawya in Burma. For the next five years her life revolved around training in meditation which she has now taken with her into the world. It is a discipline that leads her to a suspicion towards talk of ‘the sacred’: ‘To be honest, I find the whole side of spirituality that says “this is a mystery, it is beyond our understanding” quite deeply annoying.’ In ‘The Bottom Line’, she discusses money (her previous training was as an economist) and the environment from the point of view of a Buddhist practice that is sceptical of received wisdom and committed to direct investigation.

Over recent centuries, writes John Michael Greer, the main religion of the West has been the worship of Man: ‘Like many another deity, He was born in a cave, slew fabulous beasts in His youth, and thereafter set out in pursuit of His divine destiny among the stars.’ In ‘Confronting the Cthulhucene’, Greer draws on the dark fantasies of H.P. Lovecraft to contemplate a future in which people will still be around, but the deity Man will be dead.

Michelle Ryan encounters the reality of her own death when the weather turns against her and her companions on a Himalayan pass. Having spent half a lifetime studying Sanskrit and Vedic philosophy and teaching yoga, she has finally made the journey to India which an early marriage and the responsibilities of parenthood prevented her from making in the 1970s. In ‘Kedarnath’, she tells the story of that journey and how it changed her.

‘Don’t think just because your dreads have finally grown out, you don’t pay taxes, you have all the dope you want and you grow miles of one big ugly kind of onion, of droopy giant mediocre-tasting carrots, or you’ve canned up a hundred jars of garlicky giant baseball tomatoes and turned piles of ball-and-chain cabbages into tons of kraut, that now you’re farming.’ Martín Prechtel’s ‘The Marriage Contract with the Wild’ is a call to reawaken a relationship which he tells us is common to indigenous cultures around the world – the kinship between humanity and wild nature which came about through the domestication of plants. We have forgotten how to honour this agreement, Prechtel writes, and the consequences are all around us.

Liz Slade is an atheist, trained in science communication and working with public health, who has come to the conclusion that a lot of babies were thrown out with the bathwater when we stopped going to church. ‘The God-Shaped Hole’ is the story of her experiences exploring new ways of building community among the ruins of traditional religion.

Finally, in the last of these twelve pieces, Dougald Hine traces the ways in which the sacred went underground during recent centuries and how this shaped the modern idea of the artist. In the words of the Dark Mountain manifesto, ‘Religion, that bag of myths and mysteries, birthplace of the theatre, was straightened out into a framework of universal laws and moral account-keeping.’ This essay is about where the myth and mystery went – and what this might tell us about the roles that art can play now, in the end-times of modernity, under the shadow of climate change.

And at that point, the voice in the margins sweeps in to claim the final pages of the book, as Sylvia V. Linsteadt and Rima Staines conjure their vision of the Sybil of Cumae, and this issue of Dark Mountain comes to a close.

The Snake in the Margins

To be honest, I was a little bit afraid. If you were to have glanced in my studio window while I was at work on the marginalia for SANCTUM (as generally only chipmunks, spotted towhees, quail and my neighbour’s dog Siri are wont to do), you would have seen me bent over my notebook, wearing a dry summer crown of mugwort and yarrow. Boundaries, you know, must be kept. Yarrow is good for that; so the witches teach. Swa wiccan taeca∂. So the witches taught in the old lore of Europe. Yarrow to stanch blood. Yarrow to sweat out a fever. Yarrow for protection against what is unseen. I’d decided this was a good idea, since I was writing in the voice of the Sibyl of Cumae who walked the underworld and prophesied among the dead as well as the oak leaves of a tree outside her cave.

I’ve learned the hard way that opening your mind wide for the mythic material of story-making to fall in isn’t always a safe undertaking, psychologically speaking. That it’s good to make a ritual approach each morning at the writing desk. To listen for the sound of threads growing thin in the mind, and stop short of any breaking. To always remember that the words and stories come from elsewhere, and to give back when it’s done. Given that the Sibyl of Cumae was the guardian of a prophetic serpent cavern which led to the underworld, I thought a yarrow crown while I wrote would, at least, not do any harm besides convince my brother (who lives nearby) and my elderly neighbour (who lives upstairs) that I’m every bit as odd as they already lovingly believed, and at best, might serve as a bit of a buffer.

'The Sibyl of Cumae' by Elihu Vedder, bringing the Sibyilline Books to the last king of Rome
‘The Sibyl of Cumae’ by Elihu Vedder, bringing the Sibyilline Books to the last king of Rome

When Dougald and Steve first approached me about being the Marginalian for SANCTUM, and also writing the book’s thirteenth essay (a kind of lunar counterpart to the solar twelve, they described it, a feminine balance to the masculine structure of the essay), I wasn’t at all sure what to do, but I knew I had to do it, because I’d been obsessed for months with pre-Hellenic Greek cosmologies and the preponderance of serpents, women with serpents, earth-serpents, prophetic caverns, Titans, priestesses and ancient female power I found there. Somehow, the margins of this book about nature and the sacred seemed an excellent place to set them loose.

I knew that the marginalia couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be in my voice. Why should anybody who happened to pick up Sanctum be subjected to my personal opinions cluttering the margins of each of the twelve essays? I thought to myself. No, it seemed the only way to do it was to become another voice. Not Sylvia Linsteadt, but a different, fictional self. (After all, aren’t all of our characters somehow, in the end, facets of ourselves? Perhaps it was only a facet of myself I was a little afraid of, in writing the voice of the Sibyl; and yet, and yet . . . There is always something more than this too, isn’t there? Something else speaking, when we listen.)

The word ‘marginalia’ immediately called to my mind images of medieval illuminated manuscripts whose margins had been doodled in by daydreaming monks. Such scribblings and illustrations bring a book to life in a way that the careful lettering and central text, no matter how beautiful, never quite do. While the text may carry the central intellectual message of the book, the marginalia reveals its life as an object in a pair of human hands, processed by a human mind and heart. Of course, marginalia in the traditional sense have almost always been written by men upon other men’s pages. So the idea of slipping a subversive, serpentine, sensuously embodied female voice into the margins of a book, any book, seemed a thrilling and fecund idea indeed.

'Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld' by Arnold Houbraken, 1660-1719
‘Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld’ by Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719)

The Sibyl of Cumae. A woman in a cave who spoke to the dead; a snake-seer; a woman of the old ways, of a time before rampant patriarchy. I’d been to Italy in the spring, very near Naples and Cumae, where she (or the long lineage of seers who held the title) was said to have lived. I visited an old Asklepion dream-temple in a hilltop village, where it was said the priestesses spoke to snakes in order to help their patients interpret their dreams and find healing through them, and that these snakes were buried in urns when they died, which were then mortared into the walls. I wondered how long before the coming of the Greeks the indigenous women of Italy had interacted ritually with snakes, and holy caves, and dreams. I wondered if the Sibyl of Cumae, who, as Virgil wrote, was visited by Aeneas on his journey to settle Latium and begin the lineage that would spawn Rome, was a fragment of a much more ancient and indigenous Italic heritage. I imagined my way into her voice in order to find out; not because fiction as a rule is a very good way to discover the truth about the prehistoric past, but because it opens new doorways in the mind that reason and research alone cannot.

Virgil wrote about her; Ovid wrote about her; T.S. Eliot too. Michelangelo painted her, and a dozen others. Always she was written or bodied by men, her voice given to her by their own words. I wanted to give her a female voice for once, and try to let her tell her own story as I imagined it from a female perspective, to set her free in the margins and see what happened. And it seemed suitable that she might dwell in the pages of a book. After all, according to Ovid, and later Petronius, she was an old woman for thousands of years, eventually ageing to little more than a wisp of voice due to a curse laid on her by Apollo (because she wouldn’t sleep with him). Presumably, a wisp of voice might fit anywhere– in an ampulla, where she was indeed stuck for many centuries, or in a book . . .

'Apollo and the Cumean Sibyl' by Giovanni Domenico Cerrini (17th century)
‘Apollo and the Cumean Sibyl’ by Giovanni Domenico Cerrini (17th century)

This act of setting the Sibyl free in the margins, so to speak, also did something interesting to the book as a whole. It transformed it into an oddly fantastical object that was no longer only a collection of essays. A Sibyl snakes in green text throughout the edges, offering her fiercely feminine commentary on the words gathered there. Her reflections culminate in a story of the present and the future, which involves the very book in which she has settled her green and weedy words. What’s more, it is the inimitable Rima Staines whose artwork accompanies the Sibyl’s words throughout the margins, and onward to the very end where it comes together in three of Rima’s most powerful, darkly feminine paintings, done on deer parchment prepared by the book’s art editor Thomas Keyes.

As regular readers of Dark Mountain may know, Rima and I created the novel Tatterdemalion together, working in a rather back-to-front manner. My words were written to illustrate a collection of her paintings, spanning many years of her work, rather than the other way around. This project was equally unusual, though smaller in scale. In this case, I wrote the words first and gave them to Rima to transmute into images with her pen and brush, but the manner in which we did it was still from the outside in, from the edges toward the center, both of us excavating primordial wellsprings where female serpent-deities dwelt, both of us exploring the cultural margins of a kind of dark feminine spirituality, as well as the literal book margins, trying to blur the boundaries between object and living text.

Rima Staines
Rima Staines

This book is about the concept of the sacred as it relates to our understanding of and interactions with the environment, the natural world, the living wild land, the whole Earth. Writing in the Sibyl’s voice as a way to think through the ideas put forth in SANCTUM, exploring her perspective and her story at the text’s edge, allowed the conversation happening within the book and between the essays to widen, to become stranger, to take a step beyond reason and into the realm of the imaginal. This is one of the things that fiction (and storytelling, and myth) can do for us. It activates the deep well of mystery that dwells at the mind’s root. It stirs up the Dreaming, and ultimately orients us back into the living world.

I hope that the Sibyl’s words offer something of this kind through SANCTUM. They certainly did for me in the writing of them. And I hope that you too may use this book, as she does, to divine what stirs in the darkness of your own heart, and in the darkness of our planetary future.

In the cave they are painting serpents on the walls in black and red and gold.

In the cave the last mother of the old world nurses her son of stone.

In the cave the first mother of the next world nurses her son of blood.


Letters with Style

The artwork for this book mostly started as roe deer running around the Scottish Highlands until they met with traffic or a gun. These creatures were then processed into parchment which has gradually accumulated over the last few years, the speed at which one person can make parchment being greater than the speed at which he can make use of it.

Along with a large pile of parchment came an eclectic collection of chemicals, minerals, plants and lichens, in an ever-expanding attempt to find ways to use the parchment well. At some point, this became a conscious attempt to create insular illuminations using the techniques and materials developed by Celtic monks over a thousand years ago. My experiments ticked along for a couple of years, the illuminations getting more and more complex, the details finer, the lines tighter – but still missing a crucial element. No sacred book.

Thomas Keyes stretches deerskin for the parchment on which the artwork for Issue 12 will be created.
Thomas Keyes stretches deerskin for the parchment used in the making of Issue 12.
 An art form like this needs its environment to thrive: there has to be something to aim at. Although there would be something great about actually copying an insular manuscript, this would be further away from the experience of the original Celtic scribes than taking on contemporary literature. The books they made work because those scribes were excited by the texts on which they were working and those texts do not have the same effect on me.

When Dark Mountain decided to take a look at the sacred I was interested. When the title was decided I got excited. Before I started working with parchment and insular illuminations, I was a graffiti writer, and there are certain letters which just work, so even before you get to the meaning, SANCTUM is a great word. There are letters here which have been at the forefront of graffiti culture, in the greatest tags: from style kings like SEEN, SKEME and KASE2 at the peak of 1980s New York graffiti, to today’s ASTEK, CAN TWO and TOTEM. The insular scribes also worked with some of these letters in great depth: QUONIAM, IN PRINCIPIO and INITIUM are among the most highly developed combinations in their culture.

You might think that this would make the job of designing the title easy: simply pluck these pre-existing letters from their contexts and rearrange them into the word SANCTUM. Except that neither tradition allows for such borrowing. To start with, it’s against the rules: in graffiti, it’s called ‘biting style’, and the rapid development of insular art tells us that a similar taboo was operating back then. Besides, it doesn’t work. Both graffiti and insular illumination rely on flow: the relationship between the letters, and of the word to the space it sits within. To write a word is to guide letters down a path in sequence. For the word to have meaning, all that is necessary is that you put one letter in front of the other, like drunken footsteps; as long as they go generally in the right direction, the meaning can be deciphered. To get flow is to work at a different level entirely: like water trickling down a gentle but complex incline, each line must come from its letter source, pick the optimal route and stop where it is no longer encouraged forward, coalescing in fine balance. No one starts out good at graffiti and not many become great. The secret, if there is one, is to write the same word thousands of times until it flows.

The insular artists understood flow and sought it out, both subconsciously, like a graffiti writer, through relentless practice of their writing styles, and more scientifically through geometry, deliberately constructing their art on strict mathematical principles in order to maximise flow and obtain balance.

The artistic plan for this book is all about flow and balance. The call-out for artists was pretty specific to this end – and the response was much more varied than I had anticipated. I learned about new levels of flow and balance as the plan emerged, like a jigsaw with no picture on the box, fitting together each new piece as it arrived. The artists who completed the task have a wide range of skills and styles: some create highly technically detailed work; others explore dark emotional undercurrents or focus on the materials themselves. All the work had to be created actual size, with no technological manipulation, so what you see in the book is exactly what the artists made.

"This book required the best part of twenty skins and took me into situations that can’t have troubled many since the monastic age."
“This book took me into situations that can’t have troubled many since the monastic age.”

One common thread is the respect we share for the parchment itself. It has a presence – and you can tell when people get it. Even on the cleanest sheet there are the traces of a living creature, the lightest imprint of veins or the grain of the skin. It has a depth which no other material can match. Built up in layers of translucent collagen, its opacity sits below the surface, like a shallow pool. The art seems to lift off it. This book required the best part of twenty skins and took me into situations that can’t have troubled many since the monastic age. Setting out all those skins is an operation in itself, just in terms of the surface area involved. You start by marking out the good bits; then, as they dwindle, there are judgements to make around stains and holes. Sooner or later, you are cannibalising other work to make up the quantity, getting to that tipping point which gives intensity to the best manuscripts, where the scrappy bits and unfinished details just go to show that everyone involved pushed themselves to the limits of their time and resources.

• • •

A folio from the Book of Kells.
A folio from the Book of Kells.

There’s a temptation to find a more obscure reference, a less daunting benchmark – but the Book of Kells won’t let me off like that. Created around AD 800, the work of its scribes is so close to perfection and so far ahead of anything else that it has an aura of magic, forcing anyone who treads near it to pay homage. Of course, there are mistakes – it’s not even finished – yet the accumulation of tiny errors is so small that, by the time you’ve found them, it’s too late; the spell has worked.

The Book has been playing this trick for centuries; that’s how it survived in the limelight for so long. Not hidden or buried, it’s been in the thick of it, surviving on style alone, as it passed through wars, famines, revolutions and Reformation. Even Cromwell’s general, Henry Jones, went out of his way to protect it, presenting this Catholic relic to Trinity College, Dublin where it remains today.

Its most telling encounter of recent centuries was the visit by Queen Victoria in 1849. She signed the flyleaf. In an era when history is roped off and kept behind glass, this seems incredible; yet once you think in terms of tags, you see how, even a thousand years after their deaths, those scribes were able to manipulate the head of the largest empire on Earth into behaving exactly as they wanted. It’s the kind of respect that style at this level should receive – and, of course, the signature leaf was later removed, setting the Book firmly above royalty.

• • •


Because graffiti is a living culture, we can see the effect of stylistic letters on the culture that fosters them. With what survives from the world of insular manuscripts, the task is more difficult. Ivan Illich saw the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels as the last stand of a mind not yet fully enclosed by literacy; certainly, they are decorated to a degree which suggests that words alone could not be trusted to deliver the message.

As I write, this book is still emerging. I’ve still not seen it all – and I won’t be able to tell how it has worked until I read this in print myself. But the intent is clear and so is its place on the bookshelf. This is a book which stands at the other end of the arc of literature, embracing and at the same time questioning the primacy of the word. In a pleasingly geometric mirror image, we dip our toes from the land of words into the unknown beyond – just as the early Irish converts stepped from pagan orality into Christian book culture, bringing their style and geometry along to guide the way.

At each stage in the evolution of the use of letters, these seemingly simple symbols have thrown up a revolution that caught people off guard. With the journey from oral cultures into the historical era, book-based religions, vernacular literacy and education, letters have formed the culture that is destroying life as we know it. But if letters have been a way into this, perhaps they can also be a way through; for most of us, there is no other choice.