A Space for Stories

Do you remember any storytelling sessions from your childhood?

I had posed my long-standing favourite question once more. This time to Saw John Aung Thong, a person from the Karen community living in a village in Mayabunder in Middle Andaman.

There were so many, he answered. During the harvest time we would all sleep in the lower part of our house and have long storytelling sessions way into the night. Our house was like any other traditional Karen house, a bamboo hut on stilts with its lower part set aside for storing grains.

What John said may seem simple enough but it made me realise that I had gotten so caught up with exploring the content of folk stories, that I had given little time to think about the pivotal role played by the site of the exchange. But taking a cue from his observation, I started noticing the connection of space with stories.

For the aan-kath (riddle sessions) of Munsiari in the Himalayas, the kitchen with its central hearth (locally known as raun) was a space for people to gather during snowbound winters for long-winding sessions of guessing-games of local riddles, some hilarious, some educative, and many both. For the Diné tribe of North America, there is sacred significance in holding storytelling sessions in winter in hogan, their traditional circular dwellings with a central fire. Amongst the Guna Yala people of Panama, the sacred history and legends are sung by Saila, the spiritual and political leader, in a special meeting house (onmaked nega).

On a closer look, it becomes clear that many customary forms of storytelling have also had a customary setting. The settings vary. While some require a rooted, bound place for a story, others require more open space. It doesnt have to be a constructed shelter and could be the canopy of a banyan tree, the top of a mountain, the bank of a river.

I once heard Pascal Gbenou from Benin talk about how a tree in their area was known as the ‘chatting tree’ because people would go there for gossiping. The logic was that since it was in the open you had a 360 degree view around you. It was not considered appropriate to ever gossip in an enclosed place for you would never know who is there on the other side of the wall! That made me think about how in my own hometown in Punjab, people spread out cots in an open courtyard in summer and exchanged stories.

The storytelling can sometimes overflow further into the landscapes, as is seen in the songlines of Aboriginal tribes running through the length and breadth of Australia, inextricably linking space with story. These are pathways stretching across the land or the sky that, according to indigenous Australians, were followed by different creator beings at the beginning of time. There are traditional songs that are sung by indigenous people as they travel through these routes, the words and rhythm of which vividly bring the landscape of the route to life.

Can we then really talk about traditions of storytelling and their relevance while ignoring their linkages with the settings in which these arose, took shape and bloomed? What happens when the banyan tree is sawed down? When the kitchen loses its circular setting with the central hearth, and is instead implanted with shelves that force the people preparing the food to turn their back to the rest? When the lower floor of a Karen house on stilts becomes a space filled with rooms instead? When a sacred rock is mined? Or when the Australian landscape of dreaming spirits becomes obstructed by humongous technological structures that may be hideous but more important for progress.

We are losing these spaces which allowed the stories to flow and it is hard to tease out the reasons. Did we lose the space for the stories because we didnt find them relevant enough, or was the loss of stories merely a collateral damage when that space was colonised for other priorities? It is like a chicken-egg paradox. But whichever came first, somewhere along the march of progress, a little by choice, a little by circumstance, we have managed to end up in place that has left little space for stories.

So what happens now? In an age obsessed with recording and broadcasting thoughts and life-events on a minute-to-minute basis and in our tendency to look for one-size-fits-all solutions, the documenting of folklore may seem like a tempting route to take. But for stories that have forever flowed through a different channel, putting these down in ink may end up turning them into dry museum pieces rather than living, flowing entities.

I have little knowledge of the latest architectural trends, and I know that we are at the brink of loss of old spaces, old stories. But perhaps it is still not too late. Perhaps as the need for stories is rekindled, there will also be a rethinking of spaces, rethinking of the design of houses, community spaces, towns and entire landscapes. Perhaps we will be able to save ourselves, coming back from the brink, with a mix of the old and the new.

Numens, Ghosts and Fugitives

I found the place dark and deeply rural; it was extremely beautiful and often inexplicable. People did not seem so much to live there as to be holed up.
– Paul Theroux

In the early 1970s Theroux moved to Britain after living abroad for years in Malawi, Uganda and Singapore. He spent the first few months over winter in a rented house on the northeastern edge of the Marshwood Vale in Dorset.

I don’t really know why he pitched up here, of all places, except that, perhaps, it called to him. The house at Bowood gave Theroux the inspiration and setting for an early novel, The Black House, a ghost story. It tells how a retired anthropologist returns to England after years of study in Africa and rents a house in Dorset. At the start of the book he gives a talk to the locals and shows them various items he has collected. One of them, a figurine, goes missing. Things get nastier from there. Over-arching it all is the brooding sense of a dark, rainy, gale-lashed winter. It’s a terrific portrait of this part of the Dorset countryside and how it can oppress, test and expel people. And how it can bind you to it in a harsh, sometimes scary way; something very far from the lifestyle dreams of summer holidaymakers.

Theroux said of Dorset: ‘Everything I had expected to find in Africa I found on the edge of the Marshwood Vale. I was fascinated but I was also a little frightened. These are the emotions that produce fiction.’

Theroux wasn’t the first writer to be ensnared by the weirdness of the Vale. It’s always been a remote, obscure place, cut off from the larger world of human activity. It took two years for news of the Battle of Trafalgar to seep through to the scattered farmsteads. It’s very wet, and in winter, the deep clay made the roads impassable (the roads still flood). People nicknamed it ‘Old Bottom’ and called those who lived there ‘stick-in-the-muds’ – as they were, literally. It was also very poor. For two years at the end of the 18th century William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived at Racedown Lodge overlooking the Marshwood Vale. They walked all over the area – Wordsworth favoured the Iron Age hillfort at Pilsdon Pen – and they were appalled by the poverty they saw. The hunger and want changed Wordsworth’s perspective and inspired much of the social commentary in his early poems. ‘The Ruined Cottage’ where ‘nettles rot and adders sun themselves’ is one of these. It speaks of ‘poverty and grief’ in:

A time of trouble; shoals of artisans
Were from their daily labour turned away
To hang for bread on parish charity,

The Wordsworths themselves were poor and had to grow most of their own food. During the hard winter of 1797, William wrote to a friend: ‘I have lately been living on air and the essence of carrots, turnips and other esculent vegetables not excluding parsnips, the produce of my garden.’

Towards the end of the Wordsworths’ second spring at Racedown, Samuel Taylor Coleridge arrived, leaping over the field stile at the bottom of the garden, having walked all the way from West Somerset. He stayed three weeks, entranced both William and Dorothy, and persuaded them to join him on the Quantocks. It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

But Coleridge wasn’t the only reason the Wordsworths left Dorset. They went there in the first place because they were offered the house free of charge. It was owned by John Pinney, son of John Praetor Pinney, an affluent Bristol merchant and member of the Bristol West Indies Trading Company. The Pinneys were slave owners who had grown rich from their sugar plantations on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Young John was idealistic – Wordsworth met him originally through his circle of radical friends. It’s thought that when hardboiled John Snr. found out the house was being let for nothing, he ordered that Wordsworth should pay rent, or leave.

Praetor Pinney’s decision might also have been influenced by angry complaints from some of his farming tenants. They claimed that Wordsworth was a wizard who had been casting spells on their cattle. Wordsworth generally composed and refined his poems by reciting them aloud while walking. Every day he and Dorothy took long walks of two hours or more across the surrounding countryside. As they walked, William muttered poetry in his strong northwest accent, pausing now and again to survey the view through a pocket telescope. The local, southwest folk couldn’t understand what he was saying, and because of the incantatory rhythms and the fact he kept pointing a strange, possibly magical instrument at their cows, they concluded he was bewitching them.

This interpretation of Wordsworth’s behaviour was logical since the locals themselves used charms on their cattle. As late as the mid-20th century, many of the older farmers still used ‘charmers’ to cure warts, ‘red water’ and adder bites. I heard about this from the farmer who now owns Racedown Farm, opposite the house where Wordsworth lived. In the 1950s and 60s his father was a vet in the Vale. He often came up against folk remedies. Sometimes the farmers called the vet when a cow was ill, and sometimes they went to the charmer. When telephones first came to the Vale, they proved very good for the charmers’ business. Several farmers had phones installed not because those solitary men wanted to chat to anyone – whom would they speak to and about what? – but so that the charmer could talk directly to the cows without the bother of a visit. On more than one occasion the vet turned up to a farm to find a cow in the kitchen with the phone speaker held to its ear so that the charmer could whisper the magic words direct.

We might laugh at this. But who can say that in some ways those sibilant charms and Wordsworth’s muttered poems were not magical incantations? The Anglo-Saxon root of the word ‘spell’ means ‘speech’ or ‘story’. Wordsworth was accused of putting a spell on the land as he walked, but what if the opposite were the case – that the land put a spell on him, which he expressed in the lines he composed as he walked?

It was a story – a spell – that brought me to West Dorset.

A long time ago, when I was a student, I came across a thriller called Rogue Male. Oh how we all laughed at the title: Rogue Male. It became an in-joke – we called an unfortunate friend ‘rogue sausage’ because of his many girlfriends. We built a story around it. That’s how stories work – they flow into us and create new stories. It was a while before I actually read the book itself – and then I was amazed. It was so gripping, so taut, and it seemed to me to be about more than it appeared. There was something totemic in it about the countryside, about the landscape. Time passed and I forgot; the story became buried in my mind. Then I moved to West Dorset, an area I didn’t know at all, and ended up in Powerstock, where some of the scenes are set. Much later I found out that Powerstock was where the author, Geoffrey Household, had lived. With a slow sense of waking up I realised where I was, and it was like a dream soaking into reality.

Rogue Male isn’t a joke. It was the first of a whole genre of tightly plotted action thrillers, before James Bond, before Len Deighton. It tells how an unnamed anti-hero tries and fails to assassinate a Hitler-like figure. He survives an attempt to kill him and flees for his life. There’s a nerve-twisting hunt on the London Underground, which prompts the hero to ‘disappear’. He chooses Dorset; literally burying himself in the landscape. He digs a den in an ancient hedgebank, or holloway, overlooking the Marshwood Vale and holes up, hoping to evade capture. He goes feral and lives as a beast, relying on cunning and instinct to save him from death.

‘Byway on County Boundary – the Holloway gets even deeper’ by Chris Reynolds (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Published in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War, the novel can be seen as an allegory for beleaguered Britain, retreating into its island fastness and ultimately defeating the foreign enemy with a combination of toughness and intelligence. Nearly 80 years later, there are other ways to read his story (apart from the Brexit analogy). Psychologically, the anti-hero is seriously repressed, even by the standards of the time. He sublimates all his emotions and sensations, refusing to give in under torture. In doing so, of course, he reveals to the reader how damaged he is, and how his emotional state has forced him to take refuge in a deliberately ‘uncivilised’ mode of being. In this sense, his retreat into the landscape in search of safety and salvation from the horrors of the modern world follows the same path as neo-romantic artists of the 30s and 40s. I’m thinking of Paul Nash, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Eric Ravilious. In their paintings the landscape is a state of mind. It has a definite sense of place, a sense of the numinous about it.

Numinous. Comes from ‘numen’.

A numen is the spirit or divine power presiding over a thing or place. It’s a Latin word but it embodies a concept deeply embedded in prehistory, before Ancient Rome or Greece existed. Here in Britain we once had many wayside shrines to the small, local gods, symbols of the vivifying numen. They were part of the genius loci, the spirit of the place.

I think we all have a sense of numen. It’s not the same as religious belief. You could regard it as quite a straightforward thing; a reaction that comes from attuning ourselves to the natural world. It might be what we feel when we a faced with the strong perception that there is a real, living reality outside of ourselves, and that we are a small part of it.

Numen is also used by anthropologists to denote the idea of magical power residing in a totemic object: an object like the African figurine that goes missing from the anthropologist’s collection in The Black House. But the Vale, like all nuministic places, has no need of fictional objects and imported ghost stories. It has its own historic totems.

For hundreds of years the old house at Bettiscombe Manor belonged to the slave-trading Pinneys, Wordsworth’s hosts. According to legend, when plantation founder Azariah Pinney retired, he brought back some slaves with him to England. One of them was old, and he fell sick in the cold, damp air of the Vale. During his last hours this slave made Azariah promise that when he died, his body would be shipped back to his family in the Caribbean so he could rest in peace. If Azariah broke his promise, the slave vowed he would never leave him or his family alone. He then died and Azariah promptly bundled him into a pauper’s grave in the churchyard nearby. For the next three nights the manor house was disturbed by unearthly screams. On the fourth night, when all the Dorset servants were on the brink of leaving, Azariah gave in and opened the grave. He found the skull, miraculously picked clean, and took it into the house, whereupon the screaming stopped.

It’s true there is a human skull in Bettiscombe Manor. In the 1960s, the then owner, Michael Pinney, had it formally examined by an archaeologist from the British Museum. He concluded that it was very much older than the 18th century, probably in fact Iron Age, and most likely that of a woman. The skull has a smooth, brown patina of limestone, possibly the result of spending centuries underwater in a spring. Further investigation by Michael Pinney into the slave story revealed that it wasn’t a piece of old Dorset legend at all, but a tale made up in the 1830s by his ancestor, Anna Maria Pinney. She wrote it soon after the bill to abolish slavery in the British Empire was passed. Seen in this light, the story becomes a figuring forth of the buried guilt of her family.

Some places invite responses from the deepest part of the unconscious mind. Dig down through the strata of fiction and history and layers of story and spell will appear.

If stories are, literally, spells, then what are ghosts? I’ll say straight away that wondering whether ghosts exist rather misses the point. Coleridge summed it up when he said: ‘A lady once asked me whether I believed in ghosts and apparitions. I answered with truth and simplicity: “No, madam! I have seen far too many myself.”

There’s a distinction to be drawn between ghosts and spirits. Ghosts, supposedly, are apparitions of dead mortals, be they people, animals, or dead people taking the shape of animals – headless highwaymen on headless horses, legendary black dogs or murdered queens. Or they inhabit objects – like the Screaming Skull. They are trapped between worlds, craving release.

With personality comes human character and history. Each ghost trails its story; its his-story or her-story, without which it would mean nothing, and therefore be nothing. The fear of a ghost story resides in the telling of that story – the gradual, creepy uncovering of buried and forgotten truth. In M.R. James’ classic ghost stories the trigger is often the unearthing of an actual buried object – a whistle say or a crown – which then releases retribution. It’s significant that the objects are historic and that they are buried in the ground. We are back with the anthropological meaning of numen as a sacred object of special power, and the notion of burial in the landscape. Psychologically, we’re back in the Vale, where people, as Theroux wrote, ‘don’t so much live as hole up’.

Spirits, however, are immortal, insubstantial entities, which may not ever have been alive in the same solid sense as the beings who became ghosts. They belong where they are found. In other words, spirits are emanations of place, whereas ghosts are personifications of history.

On the wooded hill at the back of Bettiscombe Manor there is a massive, tilted standing stone set on a peculiar hump with a natural spring bubbling out below. It’s called the Wishing Stone and is said to slide down the hill on Midsummer’s Eve, to return the following morning. It’s not on a public right of way and few people know about it. Michael Pinney was convinced that it was a sacred spot. Sometimes I go there and sit on the wooden bench next to it. The stone points out across the Vale as if it is beaming some kind of invisible ray over the land. Perhaps it is.

Paul Theroux quoted in The Sunday Times, ‘A haunting story in the Wessex Hills’, winter 1986/7

The Marked Ones

The housing development was called Las Marcadas – The Marked. It sat in a flat plain, firm and abutting against the low hills to the northwest. A nondescript beige sign announced the cul-de-sac entrance in large fonts, overshadowing the smaller National Monument placard pointing north. I parked my rental car and checked my watch.

I was in Albuquerque killing time until my afternoon flight. I don’t know if you’ve even been there but on a late winter’s Sunday there are a million better places to be. The baked brown/grey streets are mostly devoid of life and the air smells of windy sadness. I had asked the hotel clerk how far I could drive away from any of this and still make my 5:00 flight. He suggested Petroglyphs National Monument. OK. That was the plan then.

The drive up to the park headquarters took me through streets of shuttered ‘Big! Lots!’ stores and drooping attempts at suburban gardens. It was all near deserted, save grim-faced pickup drivers and shambling woozy alcoholics, swaying still from the night before. I turned on the radio and sang along to Spanish advertising jingles.

When I pulled up, the ranger was jarringly helpful. Full of caffeine and shimmering dental veneers. I gave him my flight time and asked what I could do in the time I had. He launched into a cavalcade of the myriad tourist possibilities this little corner of New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, offered. He showed me the very many local postcards on display, each with a ‘beautiful view to send the folks at home.’ He was friendly and kind but I was grumpy and already deeply soured of humanity by 10am. I forced a smile and picked a trail at random. Piedras Marcadas. Located in a ‘lightly travelled’ part of the park twenty miles to the northeast.

And now here I was. Mindful of the ‘please secure your possessions/this is an urban park’ warnings, I pulled my coat over my travel bags and locked the car.

The trail skirted Las Marcadas to the north, allowing a glimpse into half-hearted xeriscape backyards and yellow plastic toys strewn as afterthoughts on concrete patios. A large dog was baying in the distance. Wind-dried Walmart bags were tangled in the sage brambles. I hiked up the sandy wash of a path, nodding at passing teen joggers, and headed to the foothills. I could see tracks of jackrabbits and coyote, sharp and recent, in the loosely packed dust. I looked down and kept walking.

It was not long before I saw marks. There – on the high rock to the right – was a handprint. Above was a spiral and what seemed to be a spaceman. A curious looking bird and a snake straight as a wizard’s staff.

The marks were chock-a-block and were tumbled down the hills. There were hundreds cascading down the slopes. Not in obvious places though. Climbing was required.

There is a body-memory delight in clambering up a rocky hill. In scaling boulders looking for petroglyphs. Time becomes fluid and then just slips out of its everyday parameters. I forgot everything else and focused on the ground and rock faces in front of me. But as I scrambled over the land I noticed other marks as well. The graffiti left by modern travelers. Some was of the ‘Trevor loves Mary’ or the ‘Jesus is my saviour’ type. But most was far more subtle. A scratched antelope, like the older running ungulate to the side, only this one just a few years old. A star-scape, fine grained as if pecked by a screwdriver. A man-ghost.

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Unlike the scribbled names of passing vandals, these other marks blended in with the landscape. From a distance, last year’s man with a spear could be a centuries-old shaman. These cuts and scrapes left the carver anonymous – his or her own memory of the work as the only testament to their presence. All tracks of their lives here, in suburban New Mexico and three blocks from the nearest Starbucks, erased from view. Instead, what was etched into the so very black surface was more of a longing than of any specific figure. Not an antelope but rather a conduit. A pull to belong to an older community of the land. Back when it was an untamed and unpaved place. Back when it was a place beyond the illusion of modern control and containment.

Vandalism is a scourge throughout our American wild land. Petroglyph National Monument, from all accounts, fares worse than most places. Possibly due to its urban setting alone. Just a few years back someone plastered gold spray paint graffiti inside a sacred cave several miles away in Boca Negro Arroyo. The selfishness and narcissism of these acts is rightly condemned. But what is this other graffiti? This ancestral mimicry? Is it something else? Rather than a shout that ‘I exist – Look at me now,’ it is more of a diminishment. A shrinking of the carvers themselves into the curve of historical time. A dissolution of their present self in exchange for a more primitive connection. A cry for belonging.

It’s a horrible thing too of course. A willful obliteration of the irreplaceable sacred. A violent intrusion into what should remain mythos. Yet a melancholy wind, a grey miasma, surrounds this destruction. It is the same sort of pathos that names a burnt-tan and repetitive housing development Las Marcadas. And maybe it is the same sadness that pulled me out from downtown that Sunday morning to stare at 500-year-old pecks and scratches as well.

A couple from Minnesota walked by. They were seeing the National Parks on a retirement dream trip, and we commiserated about the vandalism. Our words were full of ‘What a shame’ and ‘How could they?’ But my heart wasn’t fully in it. For really, who would not want, in their heart of hearts, to leave the paved and banal American Dream for the wide vistas from half a millennia ago? With less sense of the sacred, and less fear of looming arrest too, would I do the same? No I wouldn’t. But how can I really judge? The same longing resides within me as well.

I was out of time in this place. We all were. The tourists from Minnesota and the vandals from last season as well. I caught my flight and awoke the next morning in the rain-splattered green valleys of my Northwest home, thinking I’d been in a dream for those few hours. I looked at my photos to make sure the memory was real and then filed them away.

Now, over a year later, I’ve forgotten much of that trip. Forgotten the tourist shops of Santa Fe and the recommended posole and tamal cafes. Only the question really remains. Were these vandals seeking something more than defacement? Were they seeking a dissolution of their concrete, paycheck on Friday lives into the surrounding land? And aren’t I seeking that as well?

The Writing of Mountain Calls

It has Zen. It has motorcycles. It has talking mountains. I don’t know how else to introduce my environmental novel Mountain Calls, apart that is from its subtitle: ‘A philosophical eco travel romance murder mystery.’ The point about anything environmental or ecological is that it has to haul in everything to be anything. As John Muir says: ‘Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.’ For me, this sense of everything being connected to everything else is a religious or spiritual feeling, and there lies the problem. nature writing in its recent Western incarnation is determinedly secular, non-spiritual, non-religious. It is an exciting blend of science and aesthetics. But, in my opinion, it does not know how to take the insight of the great ecologists – that everything is indeed connected to everything – and apply that with any subtlety.

The connection that really mattered to me in writing Mountain Calls is with the last peak in the Austrian Alps, a mountain called the Rax. I regularly visit family in Vienna and on one particular trip in winter I longed for some snow, quite absent that time in the Austrian capital. My cousin suggested a day-trip to the Rax, an outing that led to profound changes in my life and outlook. That is because at the end of the day, looking back up at the peak from the valley below, the Rax spoke to me.I had taken a double-decker electric train – a engineering marvel of the German-speaking world – to a village close to the mountain, and then a bus to the lower station of the thousand-metre cable car. In the lounge and car park at the bottom of the mountain, temperatures hovering just above freezing, I fell into conversation with two Protestants intent on converting the Catholic majority of Austria to Protestantism. I have adventures like that. We continued our discussion as the steel-and-Perspex cabin bumped and swayed its way to the top, temperatures there at around minus nine Celsius. We further continued our theological debate as we walked across the plateau from the cable-car station cum guesthouse to another guesthouse some miles away, a place frequented by Sigmund Freud on his summer holidays and the site of one of his major psychoanalytical insights. (I think it was to do with one of the waitresses.) On the way back, in intense discussion over the status and nature of disembodied spirits, we got lost in a blizzard and only realized our mistake in time before darkness descended. I bought them bean soup at the cable car station and in return they gave me a lift along the valley. At my request they dropped me off a mile or so before the train station, leaving me with the distinct impression they were glad to get rid of me. My theology was not to their taste.

I walked perhaps a half mile, conscious of the peak of the Rax lit up by the sunset behind me and looming ever larger as I walked away from it, clearly some kind of optical illusion. Then it spoke to me.

We are anxious about what your kind are doing to our world.

I did not hear it as English words, but was forced by the intensity of the experience to record it in this way. The sense was clear. There was an anxiety. And it was about what humans are doing. And that this world is shared between the human and the non-human.

For four years this experience lay in the background of my busy life as a university lecturer. I knew I had to go back, and that I had to write up the next trip as a novel, a travelogue of a journey into the unknown. I had to converse with the mountain again and I had no idea what would come of it. To prepare myself for the longer exposure to its snowstorms and blizzards – I felt that winter wildness was essential to this process – I had formulated a question to put to the Rax. I think I grew up with a sense of the land as situated, as the great eco-philosopher Arne Naess puts it. When you place a Cartesian grid over the land, build grid-like buildings, and live with the Lego-like modernism of contemporary interiors that sense of being situated through a living thing like a forest, or a mountain or a river is lost. To live the more deeply connected life that nature demands of us means to have a consciousness that roams over the entire planet, encountering all of its situated peoples and asking of them: what are you doing to our world? The grid is at one end of a spectrum occupied at the other by war, all of which hurts and disrespects nature. Our bombing leaves small-scale ecological disasters in its wake, all part of the mosaic of the large-scale ecological disaster whose first face to us is of catastrophic species loss. So, with all this in mind I had a question for the mountain, a way of focussing our conversation, though I knew well enough that no preparation I could make would be adequate for the coming encounter.

My journey to Austria for that second winter-time visit to the Rax began with the human activity of the London Underground, Luton Airport, and then the incredible view of the planet from the EasyJet 737-700, not that different really in its impact from ‘Earthrise’, taken by astronaut William Anders in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission. Comparing that image of the planet with the deeply poignant account by Julian of Norwich of seeing the world as a hazelnut in her palm, fragile, vulnerable, sustained only by the love of God, I wondered what would sustain us now, transported by the luminosity of the view. The clouds that mostly obscure the land below had a lacunarity, a rhythm, and density that varied from vermicelli, to can-end spurted shaving cream, to cake icing. The piles of cloud-stuff were punched, twisted, blurred, re-focused, scattered and drawn together; heaped and roped – topologies and geographies of the temporal, just like the limestone-granite of the Alps but on a different timescale and plane. Like the membrane of an egg-sac the cloud-cover stretched brilliantly under the shimmering blue – what would sustain the globe beneath it? For humanity has now so disrupted the biosphere that its very future is in doubt.

This time it was minus fifteen Celcius on the mountain. Over just three days I walked in hired snow-shoes in wildly varying weather, pretty much alone, as the busy season for the Rax is in summer when the wild-flower meadows of the plateau soothe and bewitch visitors and present few dangers, as long as you do not wander near cliff-edges. In a blizzard you have to be more careful, but at the same time it gave me the right conditions. The snowstorms obliterate everything human. I was protected only by my winter clothing and my wits; otherwise I was still, silent, available. I did not expect anything specific. My earlier years pursuing various meditation practices had taught me that. You make yourself available, as Henry Thoreau did at Walden Pond, and wait for ‘it’ – as he called it – to happen. You walk and make yourself available for grace, undemanding, uncomplaining. So I flomped around on snow-shoes, the sharp cold air in my lungs and the dramatic skies above me, alternately opening to brilliant sunshine and closing in to cocoon me in soft grey swirling silence, alone, available.

Nothing happened. Of course. I knew better than that. But in the guest-house in the valley below on the last night I lay in an overheated bedroom, melting snow dripping from the big red pines outside my window, and, yes, I heard again from the Rax. It was faint. I tested it, because we have to be clear about one thing: the human imagination would always like to rush ahead and arrive at the desired outcome. It doesn’t like to wait. But I tested what I heard by eliminating all that could possibly be my desire and my imagination and I got something I didn’t like at all.

The next day I walked in the valley, along a river made blue-green by cobalt minerals from the Rax. I thought that its looming presence would clarify for me what it was saying. The mountain was snow-peaked but maroon-tinged by the early spring buds of deciduous trees on the lower slopes; its presence never left my consciousness as I walked under it. I watched a chaffinch as the day warmed; I sat on a park bench by the little Victorian railway line that would have taken Freud and his family from their hotel in the valley to the cable car, and was baffled by the flight of a large insect, or was it a small bird? It was neither, it was a bat. At midday? That is the point of being in nature. It always surprises.

The mountain had spoken to me that night. The first impact of it was an incredible benignity. It took months to wear off after I returned to my family and university life in London. It is a sense of peace with others, an expansiveness that is a direct parallel to what the mountain seems to be: a nurturing presence. Mountain minerals run through our fields, give nutrients to plants and animals and sustain all of life; in the oceans too the limestone and granite residues feed the brilliant quicksilver ballets of predation in the green light of its depths. The mountain is not concerned over the sufferings and deaths of individuals. That is what makes the it non-human, but in the non-human of the mountain and in all of the non-human life that depends on it I am made human. Indeed if I wanted to say one thing in my novel it is this: that the non-human makes us human, and if we imperil the non-human we imperil ourselves. But the message I did not want to hear from the mountain on that second trip was that its anxiety had been replaced by another sentiment.

It is not at all certain that we are going to avoid environmental catastrophe. It is already upon us with the mass extinctions of the Anthropocene. But it is ‘anthropos’ – man – that the mountain has adjusted its understanding of, and so made me think differently about what it is to be human. It has taught me this: that we are the unique animal, the special animal, one that can recapitulate all of nature within us. And so the mountain loves us uniquely, specially. Yes, in a dim and now largely discredited way Ernst Haeckel suggested that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ meaning that the human recapitulates animal forms in the womb. But the mountain meant it at a far deeper level than Haeckel could imagine, in an animist or shamanic way perhaps. Does not the shaman, on donning a fox-fur mask, do so to recapitulate that animal, to experience the manner-of-being-in-the-world of that animal? What is more, we are the only animal that can fully recapitulate all the other creatures within us, all of nature within us, and that is our role.

It is not our role to save nature. We have to do what we can of course, but what really matters is that as individuals we go to nature, find it within us, and preserve the Earth inside our souls. The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent. We cannot know the timescale over which the Earth shall come and go. Hopefully we can collectively avert disaster. But merely avoiding polystyrene coffee cups, turning down the central heating, buying electric cars, wearing second-hand clothing, living in an earth-build or whatever we actively do to halt catastrophe, is neither enough – probably – nor where the only effort should lie. It should also lie in profound communication with nature in the smallest ways, observing a robin on the window-sill, a London plane tree towering over choking congestion, the world as reflected in the eyes of an interlocutor, whether friend, family or strangers in a blizzard on a mountain. One can do it looking up at the sky, working on an allotment, or walking by a city canal with its cormorants and herons and the other few birds remaining to us. It lies in putting oneself in the way of nature.

So I walked that day, under the mountain, sustained indirectly by its mineral sustenance, only a few alimentary processes removed from those of the bat which ate the insects, the flying minerals hatched directly in the blue-green waters that flowed from the mountain’s snow-fed springs. I danced in synchronicity with the bat as I attempted to keep its gorgeous orange-brown fur, ears and nose framed in my binoculars. I had to give up the choreography of alignment as the bat flew into the bushes but I continued to dance inside, to a music that was the gift of the mountain above me. And I knew I would return to its upper slopes yet again, another year, to put myself in the way of its winter moods, when the non-human would take me yet deeper into the human. 

Psalter, For Now

The snow had finally given way and the river – coursing through Alaska’s lesser known temperate rainforests – ran high. Up ahead a hummingbird elevated and descended repeatedly amidst church-bell blueberry blossoms, boring its needle bill in and out. Unmindful of my approach, it sucked its nectar with aplomb while the spruce overhead bled what was left of the morning rain into mosses and witch-finger devil’s club.

Brown bears wear the trail smooth all summer and fall, seeking sockeye, pinks, and cohos, and fishermen wear it further in pursuit of the same. The hummingbird, a rufous, let me get within feet then raised out of the bushes, flying to the snow-beaten salmonberry stalks lining the other bank. The bird bounded from one stem to the next, looking for starry pink blossoms that hadn’t quite bloomed. Giving up, it lifted above the twisting alders before buzzing upstream, and I pressed toward the first of several sun-friendly willow brakes that hopscotched the danker conifer realms.

Bear droppings lay along the last of the spruce-shaded trail. Dark and fibrous, they reflected the vegetable-rich diet of spring, and looking down on one, I noticed a wolf, too, had been here. Four torqued tubes of moose and beaver hair, vole fur and bone fragment crisscrossed one another in a fresh bear print, while the canine’s own deep pads had left tracks in the mud where the first willow clearing began.

By late spring, moose cows range thick along this watershed. Willow growth is lush in the soggy ground and the big animals come here to drop calves, nursing them as best they can on milk and buds. Losses, though, are high. Wolves and bears have their own young to fret, and a thousand generations of knowledge, along with ever keener noses, lead both species to these same broken meadows to sniff out the humid musk of moose placenta and track the easy, weakened feast at its source. I looked up. Five ravens – myth-makers to the native Tlingits, as well as the land’s carrion eaters – were perched high in a cottonwood, watching. They, too, knew what played out in this country.

Pulling a water bottle and energy bar from my pack, I listened to a fox sparrow whistle deep in the willows while a ruby-crowned kinglet warbled atop the spruce wall across the meadow. After swallowing half the bar, I raised the bottle to drink.

We’re new to this, all of us. Whether banished from Eden or evolved from hunting and gathering is irrelevant. Either way, we’re a collective eye-blink from integration. There was a time when I wouldn’t have fussed much over sparrows or hummingbirds. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been alone, but in a band, right here, tight-knit and stitched by kinship. It’s no energy bar that would’ve sustained me, but knowledge, the same knowledge as the wolves and bears. My clansmen and I inhale, deep, through the nose, scenting words, sentences, orisons. Another breath. There it is, sticky and fresh. We fan out. She’s lying down, worn, licking her slick and floundering calf in birthy grasses. The bears are out here, too, and the wolf pack, but we find her first. A couple of quick yips by the discoverer and the rest come running – barefoot, hungry, strong. The mother tries to rise but can’t. She’s speared and the calf clubbed. Some members cut the animals up while others spread out in the brush, crouching, protecting. We’re grateful, and express so in some old, abandoned way. Divinity, I imagine, meant something else then.

I put the pack back on. A pair of orange-crowned warblers, competitors, had joined the kinglet and sparrow in song. Upstream, over the spruce tops, the sun caught the snow on distant peaks.

I enjoyed this, I knew, all of it, and was comfortable, even deeply moved, in these places – forest, desert, anywhere – but didn’t belong. None of us do. That world is gone, the language lost, and as I looked off the bank into swollen waters I wondered if I hadn’t burned up most of my life decoyed by a defunct god.


It’s hardly new, this sheared linkage. Unsettled by technology, people persistently look rearward, lamenting the lifestyles steadily bleached by whatever gizmo of the day is in their hands, from chariot whips to iPhones. Each mechanised leap forward breaks away equal shares of terrain behind us, and we mourn. Today, blitzed by the digital age and the innovative flood wrought first by steam then internal combustion, we tend to mark such crippling nostalgia from people like Henry Thoreau or the Romantics, for whom the source – nature and our fundamental indivisibility from it was grossly jeopardised by the Industrial Age.

Like humanity itself, though, the practice has no definitive origin. Socrates feared writing would wreck the human mind, and millennia before, unrecorded, it can be assumed the yoke and scythe roiled the human soul as much as today’s pixels and touchscreens. Even fire-on-demand likely spawned regret.

Standing on the river bank, I tried to put the current malaise of myself and so many nature-charged people in that context, but couldn’t help seeing this long lineage as a wave, one generated nearly at the start that is just now compiling to break. Even standing within it, we appear so decoupled from our quintessence – that original seamlessness in nature – that both our and its existences seem just that, separate entities.

We say it so often. However slick, however comfortable, our modern lives may be, they’ve leached away our vital interior. We know something critical is gone, and I knew it too by the river, but watching dark water move over stone, now a varied thrush hop from moss to limb then back again, then half a salmon skeleton – ribs cuddled around a nest of alder-snagged flood debris – I wasn’t sure that I or anyone else really understood what was gone, only that it was.

A jet flew overhead, descending into the village a few miles away, one of two daily flights in and out. Turning, I headed for the truck, knowing I yearned for something I couldn’t define while being dependent on things I wished I wasn’t, an ambivalence that had far greater potency than expected.


Born lucky, I’d always been a happy sort, well-grounded and largely immune to the depressive fogs that hamper so many I know, particularly in what we’ve increasingly accepted as the Anthropocene. Unable to shake the detachment I’d felt on the river that day, then, was something new, and as the weeks gave way to the short summer it became a concern.

My job with the state fish and game department kept me constantly in the woods, often alone, monitoring salmon spawning grounds. Normally I felt at ease there, as close to myself and the world as could be hoped, within fingers’ reach of that coquettish god I’d chased since childhood. Now, though, sloshing in streams shaded by spruce, listening to birdsong while watching the first salmon stage their fertility rites, I felt alien, alone, like a deer scratching ash in a burnt timberscape. Scratch enough, though, and revival comes, though when and of what I couldn’t know.

As so often happens, nothing dramatic did it. I didn’t climb a breath-taking peak nor repair to a remote lake for a healing hermitage. I simply moved through the same woods I always had, where the birds and the trees and the fish had lost what for me had been their lifelong enchantment. In a moment, though, during the sockeye run, in the normality of my job, it all returned.

The stream
is named for the fish I meant to count, and if you’re looking for split-second majesty Sockeye Creek isn’t much to see. The land is flat and tree-shrouded. No Half Dome rises here. No Grand Canyon sinks nor Old Faithful spews nor Bering Glacier churns. No god on the half-shell. In a few spots I could jump across it, and for most of its length it runs no more than five yards wide. You have to walk this place, sitting from time to time, watching. Do it enough, learn it by years and seasons, and the old questions seep through like mist.

Floods had left generations of spruce trunks tangled in jams and crisscrossing the current along its length, and I worked my way up, over, and under the slip-throughs and catwalks that I always had, clicking fish off on the little device we called a tally-whacker. With no sockeye in a normally reliable pool, I cut across the bare gravel hemming it, noting a shred of rapidly drying milt – torn, buff-white, marred with a spider-burst of rotting blood – stuck to the stones, a lone vestige that the mink and jays hadn’t scavenged from a bear kill.

Coming to a large windthrow, I straddled one leg on each side and laid the rifle carried for bear protection on decaying wood. Tiny mushrooms, filaments of them with dew-drop heads, black in the stem and orange at the tip, were clustered in front of the gun. I had no idea what they were called, only that above the gurgling waters their delicacy of form belied a rapine for what the old tree still retained. For all its elegance, life’s every cell is complicit in a feral symbiosis, and if I was taken by the mushrooms’ frail splendor, it wasn’t lost on me that their wormy mycelia had been devouring this tree long before it toppled.

A sockeye finned in the pool above, then another. Still sitting, I ran a hand across my head, pressing sweat. July. Birdsong declines, but a fox sparrow husked a few notes from the salmonberries across the creek, lacking the lustful declaration of a few weeks before, while below, caddis larvae moved about the stream bottom inside the makeshift pebble tubes meant for self-protection, their bent, mechanical legs dragging them forward. Downstream, a grey, unimposing dipper dropped off a rock to enter the water. Emerging, it gained another stone, extracted a caddis from its dwelling, then swallowed. Nature seems so peaceful at times that we believe it to be so, and I wondered if joy wasn’t life’s only say, the rebellion against all that we – from people to buntings to tadpoles to stoneflies – don’t see, and may never comprehend.

Standing, I resumed the count, clicking off sockeyes. Some stretches were clean, not many fish and not many blow-downs, while others were choked with both. I came to the drowned forest where the channel had shifted some time ago, inundating trees in one line of wood while leaving the old route dry. The mountains, miles away, are visible here. The creek bed opens the forest in such a manner that a gravelled, timberless draw can be seen between two ridges. The slopes face south, and every year the same melt pattern lingers in the shadiest joint they share, one vertical line intersected by a shorter near the top. This cross clings through mid-July, and I looked upon it. Pure white save round the edges where the earth’s heat and burning sun ate the snow away, a run-off channel below it ran turgid, carrying flecks of mountain downslope. Standing there, in the jostled creek bed, with the peaks deliquescing in the distance, you can rightfully amend the old haiku: Though the capital may fall, the mountains and rivers remain. At least for a time.

When I reached the sickle-shaped pond where the count would end, I stepped out of the dark woods to enjoy the sunshine. The forest beyond the pond gives way to muskeg, a spongy, mossy morass. I stood at the water’s edge while the creek whispered behind me. A few tree swallows coursed above the water, nipping the surface. The sun had triggered a hatch, and midges found their way from water to air. All along the short beach bleached salmon relics, translucent, lay scattered among gray broken stone. Gill plates and ribs, a few jaw lines. Sockeye, pink, and coho. The valley of dry bones.

Squatting, I laid the rifle down then bowled my hands, splashing my face. Across the pond a tribe of monkshood grew from the sedge, their purple, downward frailty veiling the poison inside. A salmonberry stalk drooped nearby, weighted by a dozen fruits hung over the water. Rosy on top, green-revolving-to-red on bottom, the pimpled berries absorbed the sun, tempting bears, birds, and people. It starts with plant life, all of it, while plant life starts with that unfathomably far-off solar fission, and I realised that this was probably as close as I’d come. In all that searching, in all that god-crazed, purpose-crazed hounding that had slow-cooked most of my life, I wasn’t sure if I’d found anything at all, only doubting if we’ve ever really improved on truths we knew from the beginning, that the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog after all.

Piercing and persistent, a familiar sound cut the air. I stood. Not many birdsongs are unwelcome, but the monotone screech of a lesser yellowlegs is one of them. They stand atop dying evergreens alongside wetlands, scourging all comers with their well-developed alarum. This one, though, was hurt. Large for a shorebird, they’re otherwise unremarkable, with a needle bill, plump body, and stilted legs. Such a one now circled the patch of marsh that led from pond to muskeg. Normally their legs stick straight behind, but here an appendage dangled below in sad inutility. Stammering its protests downward in atonal succession, the bird ascended with each circumference, as if it could out-wing its fate, but it was no matter. It looked to the grass below, circling the circle of its own demise.

The swallows just then were as pleased with their lot as the shorebird was agitated by its own. Many more had gathered to revel in the reap of midge-life. They twittered about, arcing and slicing, intercepting the insects’ uncertain careers. Rise and descent, rise and descent, filling themselves with food. You understand joy when you see it, and as the swallows continued snapping midges from the air I sensed it as well, rising up to the burning blue, a stiff challenge to whatever indifference glowered upon them.


‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.’ Shakespeare gave that to Hamlet, and it’s become increasingly accepted since that we’re the divinity he implied. Maybe that was intended. Regardless, we seem to have as little control over how our ends are shaped now than if there is indeed outside agency.

As both master and slave, then, we press on, currently bound to destroy much of the world in which we developed all the old gods and all the old ways, the fossilised fragments of which so many of us seek. Watching the swallows, though, and witnessing the yellowlegs feather out the last of itself high above them, I gave myself over to the present. The future, I finally understood, can’t be known, and the past, enticing and instructional as it may be, is no oracle. The present, however, offers joy, our sedition, and the opportunity to marvel what’s at hand.

I’d moved to Alaska from New England, where settlers colonised Plymouth nearly four centuries before. The land there is changing, at least some of it. Commercial cranberry farms, operating for two centuries, are giving way to cheaper operations out west. In a few places, Plymouth included, people are restoring the bogs to their natural state. Excavating 200 years of human-piled sand, they weren’t sure how to re-vegetate the newly relieved wetlands. They didn’t have to. Dormant seeds sprouted from the peat, weaving their reeds, mosses, and grasses as if the English had never showed. Two hundred years of dark, a season of sun, then revival.

I’d lament the loss of life, I knew, the vanished species and all the rest, but seeds, it seems, have patience. How the devolution of modernity will play out is unknown, but everything dormant within us and without us will, eventually, germinate, giving rise to new gods and new ways, however shaped by the old. We’re not the wise ape, but we are the storytelling one, and will find, as we always have, fresh myths to sustain us. In the meantime I had the present, and birds and insects and fish with their own ways and myths before me.

Photographs by Nate Catterson