Excerpts from ‘100 Views of the Drowning World’


Imagine the following: you board a train to journey across an unknown continent, bound for an uncertain destination. Each day, through the window of your lonely compartment, unexpected vistas appear, each bearing little relation to the one before it: an inland sea full of small icebergs; cardboard shanties tumbling down an eroded range of hills; a boy leading a partially flayed cow through a flooded field; a ruined hermitage above the tree line. One day the train stops in a bustling city at an imperial station covered by a vast wrought iron canopy with a glazed roof. I enter your compartment and sit down across from you. Perhaps you are reticent and introspective, the kind of person who places your baggage on the seat next to you so that the newly boarded travelers will not interrupt your solitude; or perhaps you crave company, smiling at each potential traveling companion, hoping they might rescue you from the vertigo of your own thoughts — either way, it is unimportant. For whatever reason, you feel a familiarity, as though I am from a dream, and a feeling of warmth flows over you. As the train pulls away, new scenes appear beyond the window and I begin to tell you stories; some seem to relate to these vistas, while others might involve memories of myself or others, or the life I think you may have led, but again, it does not matter: my voice pleases you and you are glad to have words spoken loud, they are like the music of Scheherezade. Still, there is no overarching plot line; like the landscapes beyond the window, incidents and themes seem to repeat and evaporate, but not in a way that quite suggests a narrative. Then it occurs to you that this isnt so much a train journey as a book with no binding, full of loose, unnumbered pages, a circular book, that by its very circularity, has no beginning and no end. As its pages slip through your hands, reordering themselves, the same fragment might recur three times before a new one appears, and you wonder if perhaps these pages, my words, the view beyond the window are no more than your own thoughts, magicked into being by the lulling motion of the train. One day we reach the outskirts of a city. Engine works, industrial buildings, and suburban houses pass by. The sky is grey and you feel a sense of déjà vu. Listening to my voice, you realize that with every story I have told, I have been saying goodbye to you, and that I love you beyond measure. By the time the train stops at an imperial station covered by a vast wrought iron dome, we are both weeping. Outside the window, men and women in hats and raincoats drift about the platform in the damp winter half-light, forming and re-forming like flocks of birds, and each of us thinks it is the other that now collects their belongings, disembarks the train, and disappears into the swirling crowd, lost forever.

King of Weeds

The single lane that led out to the mudflats was unremittingly bleak, swept by horizontal rain spat out from a broken line of swiftly moving clouds that scudded low overhead. Moments earlier we had been in a secret country of hamlets and small holdings hidden behind serpentine hedgerows and overgrown ha-has, but now the landscape had turned desolate, as if it had heaved itself briefly above the sour grey waters before giving up and collapsing slowly back into the estuary. As we struggled along on our bicycles, the mudflats became visible, stretching almost as far as the eye could see to a thin line on the horizon, the distant brown ocean. Persuading Orlofsky to accompany me here had been a struggle; even then he was prone to bouts of crippling anxiety and indecision. Now of course it was a battle to keep up with him as he hammered into the distance towards the end of the peninsula where the river and sea merged somewhere in the mud. There were no signs of habitation, just occasional lean-tos or small collapsed sheds; the land was clearly not farmed, yet neither did it feel the least bit natural, and I wondered what these were for — perhaps cockles and winkles had been gathered here once. It was unimaginable that the flats produced anything remotely edible now, given the preponderance of industry up the estuary and the presence of a nuclear power plant further along the coast. In the distance, the goal of our dreary pilgrimage finally appeared: a squat and ugly chapel built of rough stones and bricks during the Victorian austerities. The primitive yard afforded a better view of the flats, and I could now see the ribs of boats, old cars, and behind us, in the distance, the winches and pipelines and piers of the power station, all sticking out of the endless mud, perhaps destined to become fossilized when the rising waters covered everything in a great alluvial blanket.

The inside of the building proved as blank and charmless as the exterior, with no hint of Anglican trappings other than a gaudy banner of the Man of Sorrows himself, floating incongruously above a line of Italianate hills that bore no relation to the flattened mudscape outside. We heard a car pull up, and were joined in the chapel moments later by the doleful man whom Id spoken to earlier on the telephone. It was unclear whether he was the parson or a caretaker, but he did nonetheless have a proprietary air about him. After exchanging some nonexistent pleasantries, he walked over to the banner, and, pulling a rope, rolled it up to the ceiling to reveal the hidden mural we had come to see. It showed a greenman, standing in a salt meadow like those outside, his open arms beckoning in the same position as the figure on the banner, but rather than compassion or love or human suffering, his eyes communicated all the pain of living, growing wood, ceaselessly cracking, splitting, and dying over the course of decades and centuries, insects boring into its static flesh, droughts withering its roots as the years rolled by without relief. Our guide told me that on Loafmas Eve, when he was a boy, the entire congregation would come dressed as greenmen, even the priest and choir. Above the figure were painted the words Ecce Arbor,” and I realized why I found the vision of the mural so terrible: this savior was both the flesh of the man and of the crucifix itself, the passion of the Christ but also of the hewn wood he was nailed upon, sap and blood flowing as one, bound eternally together in mutual sacrifice. Thanking the man for his trouble, we remounted our bikes and pedaled off into the disconsolate world, noticing for the first time that there was not a tree to be spotted in any direction, as far as the eye could see.

Buffalo Commons

As Orlofsky and I crisscrossed the Great Plains in an obsolescent silver railcar from the era of Sputnik and Gemini, I pondered the secret apocalypses of the Inner West. We have all seen Dust Bowl era images of dirt-faced croppers and rusted tractors, of windmills and silos barely peeking out from newly formed dunes of dust and grit, but such murderous outbreaks of criminal weather proved to be an all-to-frequent occurrence throughout the region. Small holders were recruited from the stoic populations of Scandinavia, among the toughest people on earth; on their arrival in the Lesser Nebraskas, they found dense carpets of switchgrass that defied any attempts to plow it. When they finally managed to dig it up and build primitive turf houses, the exposed topsoil beneath was almost immediately sucked away by the long lines of tornadoes that regularly migrate across the plains. Huge temperature drops turned out to be not uncommon; birds, frozen solid, would fall upon the bodies of children, caught unawares by sudden, bitter atmospheric inversions while out playing on otherwise mild winter days. Why else, in the iconic mythology of Outer Kansas, would a girl have to be pursued by flying monkeys, tortured by witches, set upon by little people, and misled by fraudulent magicians before finally concluding that there really is no place like home? The author had apparently spent three years beyond the Dirt Meridian and been traumatized by the apocalyptic storms he had experienced there. It turns out the small-scale farmer is no match for such incomprehensibly vast weather; most people have migrated from what farmland remains, leaving the battle to be fought by armies of enormous machines — but even these live on borrowed time, as the aquifers shrink, and the soil becomes so depleted that whitewashed churches and farmsteads now sit stranded atop small knolls above the surrounding fields. Bicycles, tractors and other machinery parked next to such structures have been known to roll down into the furrows and be inadvertently plowed into the soil, fouling the groundwater still further. Now there is talk of abandoning the entire steppe and returning it to the bison, creating a kind of American Inner Mongolia. I imagined cartloads of buffalo people, dusting the city grime off their long coats and hopping the boxcars back to Jewell and Garfield counties in their ancestral lands of Greater Montana.

Orlofsky became animated as I described the enormity of continent-sized weather systems colliding over the central plain. Outside the train window, a black wall had formed where the great air masses met. Perhaps we would see hail, thought Orlofsky, who told me that this region was famous for the huge size of its stones, including the Vivian Rock, a mighty ball over 8 inches in diameter that fell on a partial ghost town in Lower Dakota. These of course pale in comparison to megacryometeors, huge chunks of ice that fall mysteriously from the sky with little reason, often on cloudless days — some have postulated that these might be formed by run-off from airplane toilet systems, but despite the peculiar poetic justice of having our own excrement raining down upon us, no feces or urine have been found in any surviving examples, including a refrigerator size chunk that fell through the roof of a Mercedes Benz factory in Brazil. As we drew closer to the black wall, I watched in fascination as dirts and soils were removed from the storms margins and hoovered directly upward into the cloud, as if bored by the monotony of gravity. I wondered if the train itself might be lifted spinning into the thickened air, which now seemed to be boiling with funnels and whorls, and once again thought of Baum, who had awakened just long enough from a stroke-induced coma to tell his wife now we can cross the shifting sands” before disappearing into his own uniquely American oblivion.

Images (from top to bottom): Babel; King of Weeds; Buffalo Commons

100 Views of the Drowning World
Kahn & Selesnick

Screenshot 2018-03-26 at 11.09.43Against a backdrop of ecological decline, this memoir/travelogue follows Dr. Falke (the narrator), Count Orlofsky, and  Madame Lulu, three members of an itinerant theatrical troupe known as the Truppe Fledermaus, as they stage absurdist performances in various locations including Europe, England, America, and Japan. In these performances, often staged in nature with no audience, the Truppe are as apt to commemorate the passing of an unusual cloud as they are to be found documenting their own attempts to flee the rising waters of a warming planet, or using black humor to comment upon the extinction of bats or other animals.

The beautiful images and corresponding text vignettes represent an enormous effort by these artists and rewards repeated visits, as even one reading is a commitment and with each visit to this collection, the story will have been again re-imagined.

100 Views of the Drowning World is available to order here.

Extending the Glide

I first met Professor Jem Bendell at a festival in the middle of a Swedish forest. This was back around the beginning of the 2010s, and he wasn’t a professor in those days, and to be honest we didn’t find that much in common.

The festival was called Future Perfect. The organisers had brought together sustainability thinkers, ecologically-minded designers, organic food entrepreneurs and a whole smorgasbord of buzzwords. At several points, I was provoked into forceful interventions, which led to the invention of the role of ‘difficultator’ – a kind of anti-facilitator or heckler-in-residence – in which capacity they invited me back the following year.

My impression of Jem from that event was of a big NGO, sustainable development, Corporate Social Responsibility guy. He was living in Geneva, working as a consultant to the UN. He’d done things: the Marine Stewardship Council was one of his projects, and he’d been in at the beginning of the UN Global Compact. He was all about getting big business to drive sustainability. He struck me as driven, ambitious, serious, but I didn’t get much sense of someone wrestling with the existential implications of the mess in which we find ourselves. And fair play, he was too busy for that.

So it came as a surprise when we crossed paths again last year and he told me that Dark Mountain had been much on his mind. I’d been aware of the ripples made by a keynote that he had given at a climate change conference in Australia, setting out an agenda for what he calls Deep Adaptation, based around the three ‘R’s of Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration. It’s been picked up in places like the Planet B festival in Peterborough last summer and a forthcoming season of events at the NewBridge Project in Newcastle – while Charlotte Du Cann wrote about it in the call for submissions for the next Dark Mountain book.

When I caught up with Jem over Skype a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d been struck by how far he had travelled since our first meeting, so I was curious to know what had set him on that journey.

JB: I gave my inaugural professorial talk in March 2014 at a big literary festival in Cumbria. I’d already become aware of some of the latest science on climate change, so I decided to frame sustainability as an adventure – to say that we have to let go of our incremental, non-ambitious, conformist approaches. I gave a speech about that, because it was a frame that could be palatable to my colleagues, my employer, my academia and my audience. But I was coming down with the flu during the speech. And for the week after, I was in bed ill.

There’s something emotional about a conclusion – that’s what you do in an inaugural lecture, you try and synthesise twenty years of your work, and by summarising, you’re also concluding it. So I spent that week in bed, with a fever, not doing much apart from reading scientific papers and watching traumatising videos from the Arctic. And I actually went into despair.

It took years before I became more deliberate and public about this, and in a way it’s taken me until now to realise that I’ve been going through a professional catharsis which goes back to March 2014.

DH: I read a piece that you wrote for openDemocracy later that year, arguing that the mainstream debate around climate change had become detached from the facts that were now coming in from the science. You highlight four different conversations going on around the edges which you say have more to do with the reality of where we find ourselves, one of which is a conversation you identify with the radical end of Transition Towns, the work of people like Charles Eisenstein, as well as with Dark Mountain.

JB: The reason I wrote that article was that after the experience I’d had that year, I couldn’t help but have conversations with friends about this topic, and I found that I just left people sort of staring into space with their jaws wide open. So I wanted to give them something that would help them think things through, and then they could end up with whichever of those agendas that I mapped out in the piece – and working on any of those agendas would be better than the mainstream denial of how things are.

DH: That brings me to the speech where you presented what you call the Deep Adaptation agenda. Can you say a bit about how you arrived at that framing?

JB: Looking back over the last few years, I didn’t really know what to do about this realisation that we can’t fix climate change, that so much of the impact for our civilisation is already locked in. I didn’t know how to work on that. And I realised that one of the reasons was the lack of a framework to get your head around all this. So I thought it might be useful to come up with a map for people who are climate experts, policymakers, researchers about what this might mean. A map that would sound approachable, but would actually be the thin end of a wedge, in terms of where it would take them.

This coincided with an invitation to a place in Australia where I used to work, Griffith University. It was the tenth anniversary of their centre and they invited me to give the keynote. They are at the centre of the climate change adaptation network of Australia, so they had hundreds of climate change policymakers coming from across the country, and researchers and academics. And I couldn’t justify flying down there and just giving a speech about, you know, the latest great ideas about investment in solar, and so on.

I was a bit scared, because I knew the guy who was organising the conference and I knew he’d want me to be dynamic. Everyone who’s organising a conference wants to be upbeat – and suddenly the keynote person is going to give a speech about the end of the world, or that’s how it might come across, anyway.

It was a bit of a coming out. Standing in front of these climate experts who work with this all day and saying: well, this is my reality, this is what I’m struggling with, and this is a map that I have that I think we could use to work on it.

I called it Deep Adaptation. I introduced the three ‘R’s: Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration.

DH: So this is where you’re trying to say, OK, what kind of stuff is worth working on, if you start from climate change as an unfolding tragedy, rather than as a problem that can be fixed and made to go away. Can you just elaborate on what falls within each of those three spheres?

JB: Sure, well the first one – Resilience – I chose because it’s so mainstream already in the adaptation field. Even in the business schools and the sustainability field, the term resilience had become popular. Because businesses have been experiencing, through their supply chains in particular, disturbances and disruptions through weather events correlated with climate change. But I talked about resilience in a deeper sense than just, ‘How do we diversify our suppliers so that if one gets knocked out by a hurricane, we’ve still got something else?’ So for example, I was talking in a hall which was next to the Brisbane River, which had had flood water lapping at its doors just a year previously – and I pointed out that the place had been refurbished with the electric sockets still near the ground. We need to think again, to switch our mind-sets. These once-in-a-century events will be happening every five years, so resilience needs to wake up to that.

That brings you into Relinquishment which is about not just, how do we preserve what we want to preserve, but what do we need to let go of? Because if we don’t let go of it, we’ll make matters worse. And I felt that the discourse of sustainability would have seen that previously as peculiar and defeatist – and I wanted to say that, we’re going to have to let a whole lot of things go, ways of life, cultural patterns. You know, in that room we were all wearing suits with ironed shirts and ties, with blasting air con. There are patterns of behaviour which we have to let go of – and I thought, give it a fancy name and you recode it as something interesting, rather than defeatist.

Then the third one, Restoration – again, it exists already, with people talking about the restorative dimension of environmentalism, restoring ecosystems. Not just stopping the damage, but improving things. But for me, I wasn’t saying that in terms of how we can fix everything, but that you rewild because it is going to happen anyway and you build that into your thinking. But it’s also about restoration in terms of how did people have joy, fun and love, and wonder, celebration and meaning, prior to this hydrocarbon civilisation?

So Resilience is ‘how do we keep what we really want to keep?’, Relinquishment is ‘what do we need to let go of?’ and Restoration is ‘what can we bring back to help us through this?’

DH: So you said you were nervous in the run-up to that speech. What kind of reaction did you get?

JB: I was surprised and delighted at the warm round of applause and the things people were saying to me afterwards. I remember one lady came up to me and said she used to be a pilot in the Outback of Australia and in her training, they used to do quite a spooky exercise which was called ‘extend the glide’. And it’s about, if the aircraft has a problem with the engines and they cut out, how do you then extend the glide to just give yourself more time to find yourself a safer place for the crash landing, but also on the off-chance that the engines might kick in again. And she said, that’s what you’re inviting us to start working on: how do we extend the glide?

There were other people coming up to me and what I understood was that they had already been talking about these things in their own ways, making sense of it, but not really in their day-jobs, despite being paid to be environmental professionals.

DH: How has this changed the work you’re doing – that experience of despair and catharsis that you described, going back to 2014, and then creating a framework for those who want to work with this professionally – where has that taken you in the years since?

JB: Well, in 2017 it took me into politics, writing speeches for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, because it seems to me that we need a cultural shift towards compassion and a spiritual awakening, an awakening from the delusion of materialism. We don’t see much of that in politics, but Corbyn was saying something similar in a secular way.

Meanwhile, I decided to approach education in a very different way, as a sort of emancipation from your received assumptions and received wisdom, as a preparation for people to be able to approach these very disturbing and troubling times. But also to see it as an amazing – it’s kind of crazy to say, isn’t it – an amazing opportunity for reflection into the true meaning of being alive. Because climate change is holding up a severe mirror to our consciousness: it means we have to really ask why we are here. Because somehow, we delay that question, and now we can’t.

So on the one hand, I see that I’ve been doing quite a lot of stuff that I’m OK with that flows from that point in 2014, but I also realise that part of this has been getting busy in order to distract myself, because I didn’t have a good way of living with this knowledge. My sense of self-worth as a good guy, working hard, becoming an expert, becoming a professor – along the way, I made sacrifices in order to achieve that, and then suddenly I had a loss of a sense of self-worth, my role, my identity in life. So I think quite a bit of what I’ve been doing over the past years has been reconstituting a sense of self.

So thank you for inviting me to talk about this, because it made me reflect in the last few days, and I realise that maybe it’s useful to share this. Because this cathartic process that I went through, some of it conscious and some of it actually only making sense to me looking back, is perhaps something that other people will go through and need to go through. And maybe it’s something we can go through together and help each other.

I guess I’ve gone through a grieving process and now I realise that it was pretty damn obvious that I will die, everyone I know will die, any community or culture I could ever contribute to will die out, this human species will die out, and the Earth and everything on it will die – well, that’s just obvious, we all knew that, anyway.

DH: Yes, all of those things were true before the great hydrocarbon episode in humanity’s history. Arriving at that is an important part of the journey of making sense of what it means to be alive right now.

JB: I feel free of some forms of delusion, some forms of social pressure, and I am approaching things with fascination and playfulness. And what I didn’t have over the past few years were fellow travellers and community, and now I’m realising that I do need a community around this very realisation that we’ve been talking about. And what will emerge from that, I don’t know, but there will be love within it, there will be creativity within it, there will be a sense of wonder at being alive at this incredibly strange moment in human history.

Jem Bendell is Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria. He is now taking applications for full- and part-time PhD students to work on aspects of deep adaptation, to be located in Cumbria or remotely, with a start on 1 October, 2018.

The Sparrow and the Twig

One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it.
—Barry Lopez, ‘Landscape and Narrative’

We are polite and tentative with each other. Many of the 18 participants wear the trademark rewilder outfit of buckskin and carry sheepskin rugs. There are flasks made of wood and plenty of hand-carved spoons and bowls stashed neatly on shelves in the hut where we store our utensils and any extra food we have brought. My industrial-era enamelware is out of place, ruining the vibe, violating the aesthetic. I am looking at people’s feet. Some of the shoes look handmade. There is jewellery crafted out of leather and bone, holey sweaters fastened with buttons made from deer claws. There are tufts of fur. I do not look like these people. A few of us city-dwellers wear clothing that shouts ‘civilisation’ and ‘sweat shops’ and I am grateful not to be the only ‘civ’ here.

As if from nowhere, Lynx Vilden bounds barefoot like a cat towards us. I had first heard of Lynx when I was living in Montana. She is revered in the West for living as our Paleolithic ancestors did. Her knowledge of ancestral skills is vast and rumour has it she can get a fire started in 30 seconds with only two sticks. She is all buckskin clothing, chiselled cheekbones, spiky blonde hair and eyes the colour of a mountain lake. Born in 1965, Lynx is exactly my age but looks like Brigitte Nielsen’s younger Stone Age sister. For a rewilder (they tend to be a quiet bunch) she has quite an online presence. The tagline on her website is: ‘We aim to “live” in the wilderness, rather than “survive” it to get back to civilization.’ I never managed the seven-hour drive from my bungalow in Missoula to her yurt in Twisp, Washington. So, when I heard she was teaching ancestral skills for a week in April somewhere in Dartmoor National Park, I pounced.

Lynx silently motions with her hands for us to gather and then begins to walk away. We are to follow her to a nearby patch of flat ground where she instructs us without words to take off our shoes. She is holding a hand drill – a flat piece of wood called the hearth, and a stick, which is the bow. She motions for Leah, one of the participants to hold the bottom of the bow onto the hearth while she spins it. Lynx gestures for us to gather some dry grass. It takes maybe 45 minutes for us to take turns holding the hearth and spinning the bow to get enough heat for the grass to light. Lynx carries this smoking bundle through the woods and we follow. I am not used to walking barefoot over hard early spring ground. The pine needles, sticks and rocks hurt my soft city feet.

Lynx lights a larger fire with the bundle and we sit around it in a circle. Our week of living outdoors on Dartmoor has officially begun. Dusk is settling. A wind picks up and I straighten my legs so my bare feet catch some of the warmth of the fire. We pass around a talking stick and tell each other what ‘miracle’ brought us here.

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Back at camp, Katie the cook has a large pot of venison stew waiting for us. The meat came to us from Bob, a local deerstalker. Any worries about the animal’s welfare are put to rest. After supper we take turns saying what we are grateful for. Many people list the deer we have just eaten. Thanking the food and the land seems to be a common thread. It would be easy to be cynical, to do a Portlandia-style satire on the middle-class Paleo folk who don their buckskin, make fire from sticks, play their handmade flutes, and thank the stones for being stones. But there is more here. I can feel it although I have no name for it, yet.


After dinner, we tell the group what we were passionate about when we were seven years old. I talk of my upbringing in the soulless Canadian suburbs. Most of the participants tell tales of playing in streams and catching frogs. Canadian suburbs are designed for cars, for life with sunken living rooms, dry bars, rec rooms, where everything is tinted by the glare of TV. I hated growing up in those suburbs and now I am feeling as I so often do, somewhat disappointed, even a little angry that my childhood was spent not in the woods but in a place where soil was called ‘dirt’, where lawns were mowed to a buzzcut every few days and where bees were swatted to death for fear they might ruin the barbecue. I had no connection with the place I grew up in. This has always rankled me. My birthplace has left me empty-handed of stories, unlike the ground I am sitting on now with its hauntings and druids, ghost stories, songs and rituals involving stone, bone, moss, fertile swathes of soil and rainsoaked ferns.

 The next day I tuck my knife into a cloth bag with some bread and cheese, a bottle of water, my journal and Crossing Open Ground by Barry Lopez. We begin a silent walk where each one of us is led to a spot to sit for an hour or so. From my rock I can see a decaying stone wall covered in moss. Fallen trees are criss-crossed with ivy. Gigantic bees buzz around me but what I notice most of all are the birds: wood pigeons and the quick trills of what I think is a wood warbler. Sunlight struggles to make its way to the floor of the forest through the branches of very tall oaks. Where I sit, the air is cool. I am aware of the two landscapes we all move between: the one outside us and the other that exists within.

Our assigned task is to gather ‘vegetal matter with a utilitarian value for the whole group’. This way of thinking is so foreign. We have all become so individualised, so atomised with our own phones, computers, flats, social media accounts. City life is the opposite of what Lynx is creating here which in a word can only be described as a tribe. I bristled when I heard it being used earlier in the day. I felt it was a word one needed to earn. But now I am beginning to understand that a tribe can be formed when we rely on others for our food and shelter, warmth and companionship.

I am seeing the landscape for what it can do rather than as a collection of named objects; as active, not passive. Barry Lopez captures this idea in his essay ‘Landscape and Narrative’ when a black-throated sparrow lands in a paloverde bush: ‘the resiliency of the twig under the bird, that precise shade of yellowish-green against the milk-blue sky, the fluttering whir of the arriving sparrow’, these are what he means by ‘landscape’. It is by watching the landscape that one learns it, not necessarily by knowing the names of things.

I spot some fiddleheads. My mother would buy small packs of these velvety green ferns at vast expense from the supermarket in Ottawa. She would unwrap them from their clingfilm, lift them from their Styrofoam trays and then soak them, boil them and sauté them in butter. We would savour the two or three on our plates as if they were gold. I harvest a few to bring back to the group. I look around for something else I might be able to share. I pull off a hunk from a charred stump. We could draw with it. Then I spot a bone. This could be a ladle or a spoon. I put that in my bag and top it up with some young nettles. We can use these for tea. My inadequacy is making me manic. Just then I see members of the group approach. I take a breath and join the line. Some of them have bulging bags and I wonder what foods and implements they have conjured from these woods.

We walk silently across fields and through forests of bluebells. Eventually we come to Blackingstone Rock, a 75-foot high, Christmas-pudding-shaped tor of pure granite flecked with shiny feldspar. Running up the back of the tor, like a spine, is a metal ladder. We climb to the top where the wind whips and where the views over Dartmoor spread out on all sides.

The Dartmoor chronicler William Crossing believed that in an attempt to settle an argument, King Arthur and the Devil hurled a giant quoit at each other. As the quoits hit the ground they turned to stone creating the two tors, one of which was Blackingstone Rock and the other Hel Tor. The tor is pockmarked with small circular basins, which I am told were druidical altars. Like a cat, Lynx curls into one for a nap.

Lynx curled up.hor
We head back into the forest, quieter now, feeling the effects of the sunwarmed stone on our backs. Lynx instructs us to gather two dry sticks and eight switches of hazel. People are running into the woods, knives and folding saws at the ready. I am feeling lost. Ella and Carlos, a couple who I had spoken to earlier, notice my anxiety and patiently show me what hazel looks like and offer me the use of their saw.

Once we have our sticks, we head back to camp. Katie has prepared fried pollock with mashed swedes, parsnips and celeriac. I am hungry. In my effort to lighten my backpack, I took out a lot of my food. Hunger is something I have forgotten how to live with. I am shamed by this.


 As I try and sleep that night, I hear an owl’s repeated hooting and the response from a more distant owl. They are marking their territory. I fall asleep with a burning desire to understand them. It is only when they stop their hooting around 4:00 a.m. that I wake. It is the silence that has roused me. A very faint light creeps over my tent, almost like a shadow. I feel I am suspended in that fleeting moment between night and day, between the animals of the dark and those who emerge with the light. I am inhabiting a precious liminal moment. At 52, I am suspended between youth and old age and this sense of being between things seems to be the frequency I am tuned to. The word comes from the Latin limen, or threshold. I am feeling it everywhere. A strange sense of total and utter wellbeing consumes me. And then the birds of the morning take over. The woods around me fill with sound. Life can continue for another day.


 We are to find a partner and forage for our lunch. I am paired with Lynx. We walk together down a lane away from the camp. Lynx had seen some very young, green spruce buds. She shows me how to remove the brown husks from the lime-green almond-shaped buds. They have a sharp, astringent lemony taste. She spots a curved slice of fallen tree bark to put them in. It makes the perfect receptacle which in New York or London would add about £20 to the price of a meal in a restaurant (‘served on a hand-harvested spruce board infusing the buds with the taste and smell of wilderness’).

With her survival skills, Lynx shares similarities with Preppers. But, rather than fill her bunker with dried food, bottled water and ammunition, she is prepared in another way: Lynx can live in the wilderness by hunting, gathering, making bows, arrows, clothing and whatever else she needs; she does not have to escape the wild in order to survive it. The Doomsday approach of Preppers who see themselves surviving the economic collapse by storing up on man-made supplies is based on fear and a mistrust of government. A bunker lined with tin cans and bars of gold is finite, whereas Lynx has the skills needed to survive indefinitely – skills that can be passed on. They might both share a mistrust of the system, but their approach could not be more different.


 We all place our foraged food onto a picnic table. The colours are spectacular. We silently take turns trying every plant, taking in the smells and tastes and textures: stitchwort, garlic mustard or Jack-by-the-hedge, gorse flowers, pink purslane, primrose, violets, landcress, pennywort or navelwort, dock leaves, hawthorn leaves and spruce buds. It is like eating a fairytale.

That afternoon we are to begin our baskets. This is what the sticks are for. I break into a sweat. I have only ever made one basket and it looked like those photos of webs made by spiders on LSD: anxious, wonky and a bit mental, revealing more about me than I care to.

Lynx shows us how to strip the bark from our hazel sticks, how to bend them and tie them into a U-shape using animal hide as string. I feel my body move in sync with the making of my basket: I bend to make the wood bend, my muscles contract when I tie the struts together. When the deer hide is soaking, I stand, relaxed, watching it soften in the water. This work is three-dimensional, tactile. There are smells and sounds – it is anathema to the flat, backlit screens we all spend our days staring into. It is this physical dimension I have been craving without knowing it.

On our second-to-last day, there is a snow flurry. As the snow gets heavier, we take shelter in the lodge, the one structure with a roof, and watch the grove of beeches bleach to white. A wind whips the flakes around us. Lynx announces we will walk out onto the moor with what we can fit in our baskets and we will camp without tents. Many of us think she is joking and look at each other and laugh. We go silent as we realise she is being absolutely serious. I am not prepared to camp in the snow. An elderly gentleman from France comes over and whispers to me, ‘This is too much!’ He is on the verge of a very Gallic rebellion.

‘Let’s see what the weather is like tomorrow,’ Lynx says as a way of placating us.


 The following morning the inside of my tent is a golden pink. I step out onto crispy, white grass. We had agreed that if it wasn’t raining we would head off for our night of wild camping. I pack. We hike out late morning walking through bluebell meadows, crossing streams on bridges made of fallen granite slabs and we say hello to the inhabitants of the few small towns we pass through. They stare at our buckskin and hazel baskets strapped to our backs. We are filthy and giggle like children at the disconnect between us and the villagers with their Lidl bags, heading home to their running water and televisions.

After about three or four hours we come to a wall of Herculean boulders. We scramble up. On the other side is a tiny patch of flat ground, just big enough to cradle a fire and our bodies around it. We set up camp and Katie heats up some leftover stew made from Chunko the lamb, whom we had been eating throughout the week. She adds nettles and throws a few garlic heads into the fire along with some sweet potatoes. We eat with our hands and there is something wonderfully primitive about being here, eating like this from the land. We sing, we laugh, we chat. The group is one unit now.

After dinner, I am told the temperature will sink below freezing. I move my bivvy bag from between two slabs of rock to a spot next to Tiffany, a woman with a surplus of blankets. We agree to ignore the ticks. I go to bed before the others. Maybe it is because I am the youngest of seven children, but I feel comforted falling asleep to the faint murmur of voices. When I was young, much of my education came from this late night eavesdropping. Perhaps it was my attempt to recreate tribal life in those cold, atomised suburbs.

I listen to the laughter and the crackling of the fire. I watch the stars above me. I never want to leave. I am suspended here. We all are. This is the discovery I make: we are all living liminal lives. Denying this is part of the madness. The only real thing is the liminality of life, the moments when we can inhabit fluidity, accept the threshold. We are just passing through, why should we expect anything other than being between places and times and states of being. I let my tears quietly fall. There is that familiar tickle as the salty water slides along my cheekbones into my ears. This is right. I should be crying. I have lived another day. We have all lived another day. This feels like the miracle it is. Sleep comes to me before the group has dispersed for the night. My dreams are more vivid than they have been for a long time.


 I get back to London very late that night. My ten-year-old daughter is still up. She runs to hug me. ‘You smell of dead animal,’ she says excited at this meaty version of her mother.

My husband Jason asks, ‘So, are you a new person?’

Me: ‘Um, yeah.’

Jason: ‘Will I like this new person?’

Me: ‘I don’t know.’

Jason: ‘Do you like this new person?’

Me: ‘I don’t know yet. I have no idea.’

All photographs by author 

Mapping the Edges

The Dark Mountain Project began as a journey: a call for writers, artists and thinkers to set out into unknown territory, to scale the mountain in order to look back at the twinkling lights of the cities below, and to gain a sense of perspective before the inevitable descent. But as well as a summons for fellow travellers, the manifesto also emphasised the need to ‘celebrate work rooted in time and place’ and to ‘write with dirt under our fingernails’ – not to have our head in the clouds, but our feet firmly on the earth. From its inception Dark Mountain has been both an embarkation and an act of coming home. It is these interwoven themes – travel and dwelling, moving and staying, journeying and returning – that we are keen to explore in our fourteenth issue.

The lands that we inhabit and the borders that enclose us have long defined conventional cartography and informed our perspectives on the wider world. Yet like any human documents, maps are far from neutral  past explorers who made arduous journeys to resolve the ‘empty’ spaces on the periphery of their own maps inevitably crossed paths with peoples for whom these edges were a known centrepoint. Now those early atlases, their margins decorated with mermaids or monsters, may provoke nostalgia or controversy  for maps are the most temporal of artefacts. Sea level rise, desertification, new ideologies and regimes, the razing of some cities and the growth of others, and the migrations of species (including humans) in response to conflict and climate change: all these challenges demand that we redraw our maps, and take a different approach to understanding terrain. The new horror vacui on the horizon is the future. How can charts evolve to record our changing world? What diagrams will direct our steps forward in a time of collapse

‘From its inception Dark Mountain has been both an embarkation and an act of coming home. It is these interwoven themes – travel and dwelling, moving and staying, journeying and returning – that we are keen to explore in our fourteenth issue.’

In this era when no place is considered ‘off the map’ and the globe can be crossed in a day by oil-fuelled transport, humans are travelling more than ever; whether this takes the form of holidays with all the tourist trappings or work trips to confer with overseas colleagues and clients. While some catalysts for travel might be defined as luxuries, other journeys are essential for self-preservation: the seasonal nomadic quest for food and shelter, or a flight from fear and oppression. However dangerous, these travels preclude a more desperate alternative. Every single journey – over the ocean or across the Earth – alters the landscape for subsequent travellers, whether the trail it leaves is carbon condensing at high altitudes or the erosion of plant life on the tundra.

Each wanderer faces questions of belonging, whether the interrogation takes place at a customs barrier or within their own heart. Do we possess a return ticket, or face permanent exile? Do we know our destination, or are we drifting with the tide? Do we take a map, or is getting lost necessary? In a restless, globalised culture which dictates that all places be the same and none of us loyal to a heartland, it is sometimes hard to make ourselves at home on Earth. As Martin Shaw writes, to become ‘of a place’ is to trade ‘endless possibility for something specific’. Some of us commit to deepening our investigations of one place, digging in and giving voice to the inhabitants (human and non-human) of the neighbourhoods in which we live. What are the stories behind the dwellings we construct within these familiar spaces? We may look out at the world from the window of a moorland hermitage, or view the vast metropolis from a high tower. What does it mean to have a home that is in motion: a caravan, a boat, or even a shrinking raft?

For the fourteenth issue we seek work which challenges borders and celebrates transgressions. The book’s editors – Charlotte Du Cann, Nick Hunt and Nancy Campbell – are looking for writing from new voices and established thinkers, working across genres of both fiction and non-fiction. Send us your reportsjournalsphoto-essaysfolktales, letters and log books. The editors are also looking for artwork that documents place and maps of real and imaginary journeys. We welcome artwork in different media from line drawings and printmaking to photography, but please note our vision for this issue is to produce all artwork in black and white.

This issue will encompass the diverse geographies of the planet: urban spaces and the green corridors that saunter through them, footprints crossing deserts of both sand or snow. Show us routes through first forests and bold new plantings. From the watersheds of mountains to the beds of the oceans, this book will represent all points of the compass. We’re looking for submissions from all over the world, and in particular encourage writers to submit work from the global south, as most of our past submissions have come from the northern hemisphere. In addition to this call, in a first for Dark Mountain, we have commissioned three ‘scouts’  Akshay Ahuja, Sarah Thomas and Daniel Nakanishi-Chalwin  to seek out work to broaden the geographical and cultural range of contributors.

The fourteenth issue of Dark Mountain will be published in October 2018. The deadline for submissions is 18 May 2018. Please note that the maximum word limit is 4,000 words, and check the submissions guidelines carefully for details of how to send your work. We cannot read or respond to work which does not fit within our guidelines.

The Written World


激 解 明 男 字 扇

Water-white-direction-strike. Horn-knife-ox. Sun-moon. Field-strength. Roof-child. Door-wings.


Language as a fine net that entangles us in our own claustrophobic heads, our cannibalistic thought-streams. Or language as a membrane of exchange between inside and out. Words depart the mouth, gain distance from it, acquire independence, their waves bouncing off surfaces both into other listening things and back to the source that spoke them. Reading and writing as a further embodiment of that two-way process. Reading an interiorising act through the eyes (or the fingers, in the case of Braille). Writing an exteriorising act through the hands (or the flex of a cheek muscle, in the case of Stephen Hawking).

I was not a particularly active child. Despite annual six-week-long camping trips, despite attempts at kayaking, rock climbing and jūdō, I remained too timid, too cerebral, too neurotic about dirt. My energies found their most fruitful outlet in academia, and eventually I took a university degree in Japanese, a notoriously difficult language to acquire.

The perceived difficulty of Japanese, however, lies not in its grammar (blissfully simple compared to the pluperfect pickiness of English), nor its pronunciation (which has none of the tonal twistings of Chinese). Nor is the problem its penchant for ellipsis – for missing subjects, implied contexts, pregnant pauses and freighted subtexts (Pinter, eat your heart out). No, the main obstacle to acquisition is the written language, which consists of three distinct scripts: hiragana, katakana and kanji. The first two of these are purely phonetic syllabaries of about 50 characters each, relatively simple shapes that are not difficult to learn (e.g. あ, さ, コ, ネ). The chief function of hiragana is to do the slog-work of a text, representing particles and the tenses of verbs and adjectives, while katakana are commonly used to write loanwords (typically originating in English). It is only with the ideographs called kanji – the vehicles for noun, verb and adjective meanings with which this essay opened – that the sweating really starts. Despite post-war trends towards limiting the frequency of their use, knowledge of at least two thousand is still required for everyday discourse.

For Japan is, to borrow Roland Barthes’s phrase, an empire of signs. The streets crawl and hum with them, the shelves of shops seethe – expressive, elegant, animate shapes that appeal to the eye with the force of exotic flowers. But don’t mistake this plethora of messages solely for the symptom of some marketing-drenched consumerist society. When the author Lafcadio Hearn first arrived in Japan in 1890, he noted the ‘…characters in white, black, blue, or gold, decorating everything – even surfaces of doorposts and paper screens.’1 Appropriately enough for a country whose native religion, Shintō, is highly localised and animist, this is a place where things speak – albeit in a visual language taken from China.

Nowadays, in this age of fraught regional relations, the main exports to Japan from the Middle Kingdom seem to be windborne sand (from ever-expanding deserts such as the Gobi) and the urban air pollution called PM2.5, named after its extremely small size of less than 2.5 micrometres. It is easy to forget that, around the 1st century CE, a nourishing and radical cultural transfer took place. Kanji (literally meaning ‘Han’ or ‘Chinese’ characters) first entered Japan and, over the course of many hundreds of years, began slowly to be used to write Japanese, which had hitherto lacked a written script of its own. These graphs had themselves taken many thousands of years to evolve on the Chinese mainland, the first fully systematic script having appeared in the second millennium BCE in the form of so-called oracle-bone characters – writing inscribed on ox shoulder blades and tortoise shells used for divination. Simple pictographs set out a question for the gods regarding such matters as the likelihood of rain on a particular day or the potential success of a hunt. A hot iron or burning wood was then applied to the bone surface, the resultant cracks interpreted, and, in some cases, the results recorded in those same pictographs on the bone itself. Over time these characters became more stylised, but even now many bear a close resemblance to their ancestral forms; it is still possible to discern the pictorial origins of modern kanji:


(mountain)     (field)     (tree)     (moon)     (mother)


The penultimate character above depicts a half-moon, while the last shows a naked kneeling woman, the two dashes in its centre representing nipples – an appropriate symbol for the breastfeeding mother. As these rudimentary signs gradually became more abstracted and complex, some worked not as diagrammatic representations but as ideographs, combining different elements to achieve new meanings. Adding ‘sun’ (日) to ‘moon’ (月) results in 明 or ‘bright’. The character 解 consists of 角 (‘horn’), 刀 (‘knife’) and 牛 (‘ox’), or ‘cutting off the horns of an ox with a knife’, and so, by extension, ‘solving a problem’.

Kanji are jewels of compacted poetry, and, for me, their birth in oracle bones – in magic – is fundamental to their power. They are distillations of the world of phenomena, of mountains, water and trees. They bring the outside in and are radiant with the non-human, with what the eminent translator of classical Chinese poetry, David Hinton, has called the ‘linguistically silent’. (How about that – a linguistic system of signs infused with linguistic silence!)2 In Becoming Animal, David Abram contrasts alphabetic scripts that tend to lock human language into a solipsistic discourse with itself to ideographs such as Chinese that ‘…function as windows opening onto a living landscape that still speaks, onto a sensorial cosmos that still bears a kind of primary meaning.’3

Before we slip into a reverie about the wisdom of the ancients, it is worth noting that the society that produced oracle-bone characters, the Shang Dynasty, also indulged in slavery and human sacrifice. I have to remind myself of this when I gaze enthralled at some of their artefacts on display at my local museum in Tenri City, Japan. The inscriptions on ox scapulae and tortoise carapaces are more delicate than you might imagine, neither ‘primitive’ nor crude, as beautiful in their way as finely balanced tattoos. The products of a society of blood and power, to be sure, but also one that did not push away the fluctuating, animate world that surrounds us, that did not (to extend David Abram’s metaphor) shutter all the windows and double-bolt the door. That membrane of exchange between inside and out remained pervious, persisting through the millennia to survive in modern-day kanji.

An exchange at the heart of language. Writing as an exteriorising act, its technologies diverse: knife-point on bone, stylus on wax, chisel, brush, pen, printing press, typewriter, computer. Although the final processes of editing and proofreading will happen on a laptop screen, I am writing the initial draft of this essay with black ink and a fountain pen on pale yellow paper, in brazen emulation of one of my literary heroes, Russell Hoban. He understood that the process of verbalising the inchoate phantoms in one’s head necessitated a form of alchemy – ‘I always use 80-gram yellow A4; it’s the kind of yellow the paper manufacturers call gold, and gold is what one is trying to refine the base metal of one’s thoughts into…’4 For me, the experience of using a computer – surely now the dominant means of writing for many people in industrialised societies – is too mediated, a disembodiment too far, especially in the early, precarious stages of teasing intuitions into letters. The keyboard distances; the muscle movements in my hands – so subtle when manipulating a pen – atrophy into the uniform peck and press of robotic arms on an assembly line. Put quite simply, I can no longer feel the shape of the words. And shape, particularly when writing kanji, is everything.

Some graphs are not difficult to memorise. Take, for example, those for the numbers one, two and three: 一 二 三 . Hardly troublesome. But how about the following?


専 博 薄 縛 簿 搏


You will notice they all share recurring elements, and this is one of the features of kanji that make them not impossible to learn – they are permutations and combinations of fundamental shapes, some of which indicate the pronunciation of a graph, which itself aids the memory by linking the written form closely to the spoken word. However, it is no easy task to remember such complex configurations simply by looking and willing them into the brain, especially as each character has a prescribed stroke order (the general rule being to start at the top left and end at the bottom right). You don’t just learn the shape but also the order of its unfolding, and this is vital in maintaining the spatial balance of a graph. In Japan, good penmanship – in both the high art of calligraphy and everyday scribing – is considered an indicator of character, and to some degree, rectitude. Sloppily written kanji bespeak a disordered mind.

Praise the Heavens then for computers! They’ve certainly wrung much of the sweat out of the whole arduous business. Choose your font and the screen will blossom forth perfectly balanced graphs for you, thus preserving your moral integrity. The only snag is – and this is something widely bemoaned in Japan – people are beginning to forget how to write ideographs. A forgetting not only of the brain, but also of the body. For the hand too has a memory.

The default method of education in Japan is rote learning, which tends to foster uncritical thinking in subjects such as modern history, but is ideally suited to acquiring the written language. You learn kanji by writing them out, again and again. And again. This is exactly what I did as an undergraduate, usually late at night, accompanied by a bottle of Guinness. Normally a scrupulous scholar who would never countenance studying under the influence, I found a spot of booze loosened up my muscles, allowing my body to absorb the complicated shapes in an intuitive way that almost bypassed my intellectual mind. It is common to see Japanese people, when struggling to recall a kanji, ‘writing’ it out with a forefinger on the palm of their hand. I’ve often had the experience, after failing to visualise a character in my mind’s eye, of finding it appear in perfect order at the tip of my pen as if by magic.

‘Embodied memory’ is present in many Japanese arts as the concept of kata or ideal ‘form’. In martial arts such as iaidō, and the jūdō I failed at so abjectly as a child, this means perfecting set throws or strikes through repetition until they can be produced without the retarding influence of thought. In kyūdō, traditional archery, just as much importance is placed on acquiring correct posture and an aesthetically perfect pull of the bowstring as it is on hitting the actual target. Movement and poses are also minutely stipulated and endlessly rehearsed in the theatres of and kabuki. Is it merely idle fancy on my part that, when I see a kabuki actor stand on one leg, contorting and grimacing into a stylised pose, I think of nothing other than a living kanji? Of dance as drawing. Drawing as dance.

After all, perhaps ‘draw’ is a more appropriate verb than ‘write’ when discussing kanji, and not only because of their pictographic origins.5 Coming from an alphabetic culture where writing is a simple affair of basic lines and curves, the practice of inking out a gracefully intricate ideograph, calling up movements instilled in my hand muscles through long hours of practice, can feel more like the expressive gestures of drawing than of writing. For drawing, particularly drawing from life, is not a closed-circuit, in-brain activity, but involves multiple bodily senses, is a fully synaesthetic experience.

I often take walks to my local Shintō shrine, Isonokami Jingū, to sketch the many sacred cockerels that roam freely through its leafy precincts. They rarely oblige by keeping still for very long, but I persevere. The eyes see the wattle and comb, the ears hear the metallic rending of their cries, and the hand zigzags out the contour of a chicken head like the autonomous twitchings of a seismograph. No conscious thought. Sight, sound and muscle response.

Synaesthesia, that mingling of senses where sounds may be experienced as colours or shapes as tastes, could have triggered the evolution of language itself, due to cross-wiring between different sensory circuits of the brain. In their 2001 paper, Synaesthesia – A Window into Perception, Thought and Language, V.S. Ramachandran and E.M. Hubbard describe an experiment in which people were asked to link the made-up words ‘kiki’ and ‘bouba’ to two distinct visual shapes.6 Some 95% of subjects labelled a rounded, curvy blob ‘bouba’, while assigning the word ‘kiki’ to a sharply angular figure (which looks, to my eye, rather like a cockscomb). You only have to consider the contrasting sound textures of the two words ‘kiki’ and ‘bouba’ to grasp the intuitive logic of this. The scientists give a further example, involving the way the lips and vocal tracts constrict to produce the /I/ sound in words like ‘little’, ‘diminutive’ and ‘petite’, pointing out that this ‘…might be synkinetic mimicry of the pincer-like opposition of thumb and forefinger to denote small size.’7 All of this makes sense to me: that language evolved not as the construct of a boxed-up, isolated brain, but of a fully-embodied animal, tool-wielding and fire-starting, in constant sensory dialogue with the surrounding environment.

So I do my best to avoid the distancing technology of computers, as useful and labour-saving as they undoubtedly are. I continue to write by hand in both English and Japanese, a gesture as quietly radical in our Age of Speed as slowly chewing and carefully savouring every mouthful of a meal. Late at night, I still often draw out the same kanji again and again, though now usually with no stronger stimulus than a nice cup of tea (another gift from China). This repetitive, almost meditative, act reminds me of the Buddhist tradition of copying out sutras as a way of accruing karmic merit. It is also a rejection of the ‘outsourcing’ of knowledge that technology encourages (why bother remembering anything if you can access it in a second?); the technology of a capitalist system that would keep us ignorant and hungry for cheap shiny shit, ideas as well as products, that we simply don’t need.

Most importantly of all, the physical act of writing kanji refreshes my ‘linguistically silent’ somatic memory and reconnects me with the enveloping cosmos, with the wellspring of language itself. When I write 川 (river), my hand flows like a current. When I write 山 (mountain), my body crests peaks – the same lines, in the same order, that millions of hands have followed for hundreds of years. I may still not have the most physically-robust frame and would be squashed in an instant at jūdō. But I get out more than I used to and am rather proud of the calloused writer’s bump on my finger.


  1.  Hearn, Lafcadio, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, Tuttle Publishing, North Clarendon, 2009, p. 3
  2. See Hinton, David, Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, Shambhala, Boston, 2012. A book of staggering brilliance. In fact, stop reading this puny essay right now and get your hands on a copy. Buy, borrow or steal, if necessary.
  3. Abram, David, Becoming Animal, Pantheon Books, New York, 2010, p.176
  4. From the essay ‘Blighter’s Rock’ in Hoban, Russell, The Moment Under the Moment, Jonathan Cape, London, 1992, pp.178-179. Incidentally, all his books are well worth stealing.
  5. Although privileging ‘draw’ over ‘write’ entirely would deny me the chance of using the punning title that adorns this essay, which would be a shame.
  6. Ramachandran, V.S. and E.M. Hubbard, Synaesthesia – A Window into Perception, Thought and Language in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, No.12, 2001, pp.3-34. There is no need to steal it. It is available online: http://cbc.ucsd.edu/
  7. Ibid., pp.20-21



Dark Mountain: Issue 14 TERRA

The Autumn 2018 issue is a collection of prose, photography and printwork about journeys, place and belonging

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Making Friends with Microbes

‘It’s the next big thing,’ said Alexis, and handed me a jar of home-made kimchi

 ‘Is it safe to eat?’ I asked, nervously peering into the pungent and compelling Korean ferment. 

It was a very modern reaction: industrially processed, refrigerated, microbe-free and squeaky clean (dead) is good. Everything else is dangerous. 

For thousands of years the arts of fermentation have transformed and preserved raw food in cultures across the world. Yet even though some of our strongest and most loved flavours – coffee, chocolate, cheese, salami, olives, as well as soy, miso and tempeh, wine and beer – are still alchemised via the life-death-life process of bacteria and yeasts, live, fizzing vegetables can be a challenge. 

It was reading Sandor Katz’s encyclopaedic The Art of Fermentation that turned things around and got me hooked, with its hands-on approach to reviving the practice of fermenting just about everything. The house started filling up with bubbling Kilner jars of fruit and flowers and vegetables –mead elixirs in the summer, kimchi in the winter – as my distrust gave way to bold, and delicious, experimentation. 

Eva Bakkeslett is an artist, teacher and microbial cultural revivalist from Northern Norway. I came across her work with sourdough cultures and kefir in Lucy Neal’s Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered. Later we met and she gave me some Ivan Chai (an intense black tea of fermented rosebay willowherb leaves) made by wildcrafting colleagues  in Russia. 

I wanted to ask Eva about how she got into fermentation and microbes, and how they relate to current planetary, ecological and social conditions. 


MW: What’s going down in your ‘dark kitchen’ right now, Eva? 

 EB: Well, I’m tending to about six different ferments, so loads of little creatures are living on my kitchen bench: very old Scandinavian rømmekolle ferments, various kombuchas, Bulgarian yoghurts, kefir from the Caucasus, and an amazing sourdough from Russia. I’ve also started fermenting earth, using a Japanese composting method called bokashi, where you add microbes to your food waste. It speeds up the process and you get great compost for growing vegetables. 

I started with bread. I always say the bread was talking to me. Fermenting bread has a very quiet language of its own. Put your ear against the rising dough and you hear these clicks and bubbles. I really wanted to learn about this extraordinary language. I wanted to befriend these guys. So it all started through language. 

When I was growing up we fermented milk and bread, so when I started discovering the bacterial processes behind it I didn’t really have to overcome any distrust. I just remember being delighted at discovering this community of microbes I could make friends with. I started making kombuchas and vegetable ferments, then explored the rather funky outer edges, like fermented shark in Iceland or kimchi with fish. That really tests the friendship – can I really be friends with somebody, you know, that funky? 

 MW: In Playing For Time you discuss rootlessness, and the relationship between place, belonging and fermentation. How can remembering the stories behind fermentation reconnect us? 

EB: For some years now I’ve been exploring this yoghurt-like Norwegian milk ferment called rømmekolle. In my childhood everybody fermented it – in certain areas people wouldn’t have survived without it. And the culture that develops between the place where the bacteria come from, and the material you ferment, in this case milk, and the humans that then share the culture, makes you very rooted to a particular place. 

We now know from neuroscience research that there’s a huge connection between the bacterial flora in our guts and the way we think… so if everybody in a particular village is eating the same rømmekolle, you’re sharing that microbial community within your bodies; people would somehow be bonded through bacterial flora within a community, and to the place. And this was happening all over the world. 

Also, people would closely guard their ferments and bring them wherever they went. A family from Finland emigrating to America, say, would dry their milk cultures on handkerchiefs, put them in their pockets and set off. When they settled, they’d put their handkerchiefs in milk and revive the bacterial culture. 

Nowadays, with everyone constantly moving around and not connecting to places, we often feel fragmented. One way of rooting yourself is to befriend the local bacteria by growing vegetables and connecting with the soil. Ferment those vegetables and you’ll definitely communicate with the microorganisms in that particular place!

Pumpkins_kefir_and_kombucha lowres And the further you go into it the more you get excited about the taste, texture, colour – all the aesthetic elements of food and place. It’s a very rooting experience, as well as an antidote to industrialised food with its processed salts, fats and sugars: you start reconnecting and engaging with your food, the seasons – and time. 

Fermentation has its own world and timeframe, and it can really help move you out of the hyped-up, driven pace of the modern world. You don’t even have to think about it. The relationship with the microbes just has that effect on you. 

When people say they don’t have time for sourdough bread-making, I tell them it’s about working with time, replacing one way of thinking about time with another. 

I see three elements to fermentation – time, conditions and ingredients – and the balance between those three. A vegetable ferment going for six months can be super-strong, a six-day one will be very mild. Time sits in the taste. It’s implied and embodied in the ferment and your experience of it. 

Like growing vegetables, where you can’t rush your carrots, you can’t work against the fermentation process, you have to work with it. You heighten your awareness of what’s happening and your relationship with time changes. It roots you in the fabric of life. 

MW: How can we learn from microorganisms? 

EB: Bacteria communicate with each other with an incredible alertness, and they’re like magicians of adaptation. The hundreds of thousands of members in a culture communicate through this language called quorum sensing. And if something’s not working they’ll suddenly take a different course. 

At an earlier time on the planet, bacteria eliminated all their food resources. They had to invent a way of processing the sun and transforming it into a new life substance through photosynthesis. I feel we can learn a lot from them, because we’re very set in our ways. It takes humans a long time to change. 

MW: Right now we seem to need more time to get back on track with the planet, but don’t seem to have that much time. Can humans both bring time into the way we go about things and change swiftly enough? Also, so many of our collective stories seem outdated and resistant to change. Does fermentation have a story to counterbalance that? 

EB: Well, we’re generally so removed from natural processes and going so fast, it seems almost impossible to slow down to a pace where we can have a natural relationship with time. 

But I think through a close relationship to bacteria and to our earth, without us thinking that we have to change, it will happen naturally, through gentle action and collective absorption. If you create those relationships. 

I’m fascinated by the sharing aspect of fermentation, when people give cultures to each other – especially through milk ferments and sourdough. There’s the sharing of the physical substance with the bacteria, which keeps it going, along with the sharing of cherished knowledge. With that goes the sharing of stories, which accumulate within the bacterial cultures as people form their own relationship to them. Somebody gives you some, and it already has a story; it enriches your life, and another layer of story is added to it. These stories create a different bond between people, the bacteria, and the Earth itself. 

Fermentation is a beautiful way of transforming the way we live and communicate with each other. It’s an incredible thing that happens when your kefir is thriving, producing more and more grains, and you’re thriving from it, and so you go and meet your neighbour and tell them about kefir. Or like me you incorporate it into art events and share it publicly with people. 

My favourite Christmas card this year was from a lady who came to an event I held in England in 2012. I gave her some of an old Romanian yoghurt culture that had travelled to a little Jewish café in New York. She’s been cultivating it ever since, and there it was in the photo, sitting amongst her Christmas decorations! 

MW: What kind of art do you do with fermentation? 

EB: A recent exhibition I gave in  Bodø in Norway was with rømmekolle. It had disappeared, but I managed to find some eventually and I’m cultivating and sharing it now in all my events. I gathered archive photographs of people’s relationship to their milk animals. Milk can have a bad reputation nowadays, but many people have traditionally had a close relationship not only with their cows, but also reindeer, buffalo, goats and sheep. The modern milk industry is another chapter entirely. 

Sunday Best Rommekolle

The rømmekolle culture was very sociable. On Sundays people would share a huge pot up in the mountains dressed in their finery. I interviewed old people about their relationship to this ferment for a radio programme and video. So I’m bringing rømmekolle into the public sphere through these stories. 

This exhibition included a bucket of worms with scrap food and a video camera and microphone attached. You could hear the worms talking – they have an amazing language, and when they’re happy they talk a lot. So I’m sharing the wonderful world of fermentation in a bucket, in the production of earth through worms. 

I often do talks about bacterial connections, starting with when the Earth was formed, and about bacterial language – these always include some physical fermentation of milk or vegetables. I’ve also held a festival of different bread traditions. It takes different forms. 

MW: It’s a lot about what’s worth keeping, isn’t it, particularly now when so many things are disappearing? A kind of cultural preservation. 

EB: When you pay attention to these bacterial processes, you see we have to get to the roots in order to go forward.  It’s like etymology. Often a word will go astray and start taking on a totally different meaning. But once you start looking at the roots of the word you realise there’s something fundamental in here that’s been lost. The bacterial world teaches me a lot about the way forward, because it has so much to do with the essence of life. So that’s the preservation part for me, more to do with not losing contact with the processes of life than preservation. 

People often go ‘Eeeugh!’ when they see a bucket of compost, or smell one of my stronger ferments. Many people live in a very clean bubble where life processes can’t come in. I think it’s really important to stick our fingers in the earth, and for our kids to as well. 

I bought a piss bucket recently and shocked my family: ‘You’re not going to make us piss in that are you?’ they cried. ‘Well, yeah,’ I said, ‘because piss is an amazing fertiliser, and nowadays we just think it’s something horrible and smelly. But it’s a life-giving property, right here in our system, and we just waste it.’ I want to bring back into the life-cycle all those vital things we just keep getting rid of. 

I like this idea of the uncivilised. Many young people who come to my events are fed up with modern lifestyles. They’re get really excited about hands-on life processes like fermenting. When I get overwhelmed by the horrors of our fragmented world, I remember so many people have a real need for uncivilising, for seeing a different way.

Things have been sterile for too long – we need to get grimy again. 

MW: What about the future? Given our bodies are host to so many microbes, might we be our own microbial revolutions? 

EB: Well, the current misuse of Earth and its resources is leading us to disaster. But many small groups of people are experimenting in living and doing things differently. They don’t believe in the predominant systems and want to uncivilise themselves. So from that disaster a lot of social fermentation is happening, bubbling in the corners, creating another type of atmosphere, temperature and timeframe for other things to blossom and thrive. 

And I think learning about fermentation and bacterial communication, and exploring the way bacteria have adapted and survived, is a huge beginning. 

The word culture comes from the Latin cultivare: to prepare the ground for something to grow. The word is used for everything now, including TV shows. But its original meaning implies a sense of mutual nurturing: we prepare the ground and the ground gives to us. And of course bacteria is alive, and makes up the earth, and us. 

A Red Cabbage Kimchi ‘Slaw’ 

Kimchi-Squash fermenting

INGREDIENTS (Organic, local and home-grown vegetables if available) 

1 small red cabbage or ½ large one
1 large carrot
Japanese or daikon radish (mooli), equivalent size to carrot (optional)
Handful chives or small bunch spring onions
½ cup sea salt (not table salt)
5 cups filtered water (ratio = 1 part salt to 10 parts water) 

1 small or ½ large pear, peeled, seeded, chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled,  roughly chopped
1 thumb ginger, peeled, cut into small chunks
1 or 2 fresh red chillies, deseeded if too hot
1 tablespoon raw organic cane sugar OR 1 tablespoon RAW honey
½ – 1 small cup stock: liquid from 5-6 shitake mushrooms soaked in warm water plus 1 level teaspoon kelp powder (optional)
1 dessert spoon Korean red pepper flakes/chilli flakes OR level teaspoon smoked paprika powder

Note: for some ferments I omit the red pepper/chilli flakes/paprika, and use one or two homegrown ‘Ring of Fire’ chillies in the sauce This gives just the right heat, definitely hot without going into overburn! 

Chop/shred red cabbage. Remove hard centre and keep intact for use as plug in the jar.  

Place shredded cabbage in a bowl with water and sea salt. Stir and put plate on top of the bowl so all cabbage is submerged. Weight plate down with something heavy. Soak for 2 hours (at least), stirring and turning the cabbage thoroughly a few times. 

Meanwhile soak five or six shitake mushrooms in warm water for 20 minutes. 

Julienne carrot and daikon/mooli. (I often soak the carrots with the cabbage in the salt water.)

Rinse cabbage a few times and let drain in a colander. 

In a liquidiser/food processor place pear, roughly chopped garlic, sugar/raw honey, chives/onion, ginger and mushroom and kelp stock (without the mushrooms). Blend to smooth sauce. 

Place prepared vegetables in a bowl, pour the sauce on top and add red pepper flakes/smoked paprika. Gently and thoroughly mix in all the ingredients. 

Place ‘kimchi slaw’ in a clean jar (mason jars are great) and push down firmly. Fold a few outer leaves of the cabbage and cover the slaw. At this point you can put the cabbage heart on top to hold the vegetables down further. The vegetables should be submerged under the liquid. Close the jar, or cover with a cloth. 

IMPORTANT: Keep in a cool visible place. If you’ve put the top on, you must burp the jar frequently to prevent it exploding — seriously! You can start to eat this delicious ‘slaw’ after three days. Mine rarely last longer than a week before they are eaten up! 

 Next course:

The Dark Kitchen series will run throughout February, but will continue as an occasional series when the new-look Dark Mountain website is launched in April. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to series editor Charlotte Du Cann ([email protected]) Thanks all and bon appetit!

Images: Eva giving a workshop on the art and culture of viili, Finish live yoghurt, at Halikonlahti Green Arts in Salo, Finland  (photo: Tuula Nikulainen); pumpkins, kefir and kombucha in Eva’s kitchen (photo: Eva Bakkeslett); sharing rømmekolle in the snow, northern Norway, 1940s (archive photograph); fermenting pumpkin and red cabbage kimchi (photo: Mark Watson); Mark shaking it up at a raw food demo, Bungay Suffolk (photo: Josiah Meldrum)

Eva Bakkeslett is an artist, filmmaker, curator and cultural activist exploring the potential for social change through gut feelings and gentle actions. She creates spaces and participatory experiences that challenge our thinking and unravels new narratives that connect us to the earth as a living organism. Eva lives in North Norway and shows, lectures and performs her work worldwide. evabakkeslett.com

Oct2015MeadMark Watson connects people, plants and places through walks, talks, teas, meads and other ferments. He has led medicine plant walks at Dark Mountain gatherings, and demonstrated how to make mead in five minutes at the launch of Dark Mountain: Issue 8. As well as proofreading and downshifting, he is also part of the Dark Mountain production team and writes an occasional blog, Mark in Flowers. 

Dark Mountain: Issue 13

The Spring 2018 issue is a collection of essays, fiction, poetry and artwork about what it means to be human.
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Salmo Salar

‘The mountain is like the sea, Max. She gives you life, but she can also take it,’ explained cheesemaker Catherine Richard through a wrinkled grin, as she hung up her cheese cloths to dry outside her remote stone chalet, 2000m high in the shadow of an Alpine glacier. It’s a phrase that has stuck with me, and eventually led me to a tiny fish smokery in Ireland, amongst the hills and standing stones of the West Cork coastline.

There is a sense of normality and purpose in the lives of true artisans of food, people who have learned how to engage with their environment to feed themselves. They represent the great passing on of human knowledge, with a profound understanding of how to live in a given landscape – a nobility in their craft that is threatened but unsullied by big industry. I am drawn to these folk, like Catherine, living harmoniously within the alpine peaks, locked into the seasons as she migrates her small herd up and down the mountain each year. As inevitably as the ebb and flow of the tide, the snows yield to the summer sun, revealing wild mountain flora on which the animals graze before the cold season tightens its grip and they must head back down to the safety of the valley. A sustainable tradition that is hundreds of years old, where the unique, natural cheese produced from the herd’s milk will feed a community through the winter months – an uplifting evocation of the abundant summer, brightening the soul in darker days.

And now, to the sea.

As an angler, I had become increasingly despondent about fishing in the British Isles. Each hopeful trip out of London led to stillwaters and reservoirs, concrete man-made holes, circled with middle-aged men as grey as the water, fishing for genetically modified, triploid (sexless) rainbow trout that exist only to be caught.

Last year I learned about a producer of wild Atlantic smoked salmon in Ireland. I was intrigued as I had been thinking about the king of fish Salmo salar, too. How something that is meant to bring you close to the water – using skill to catch something wild for your tea – has become unobtainable, reserved only for those willing to spend hundreds, if not thousands of pounds for the privilege of hooking something real, which usually dies, even if returned, as the angler has consumed all of the salmon’s energy for reproduction in the fight. In a time where fish stocks are dwindling dramatically everywhere, our relationship with the salmon was all wrong. I was irked, saddened and confused to the point where I asked myself whether or not we should be killing this animal at all.

Sally Barnes and wild Atlantic salmon

Trusting in how artisans glean the truest knowledge from living, and hearing that she was about to cease production in a losing battle against Environment Health Officers (EHOs) and government bodies forcing her to adhere to factory standards, I went to find fish smoker Sally Barnes. I drove to West Cork with the goal of trying to learn anything I could from this last human being who has devoted her life to master the techniques of preservation of one nature’s greatest ingredients.

Salmo salar is the epitome of the cyclical rhythm of life and circles in nature, with an ability to eternally provide.  The mythology of the returning and transforming salmon is deep rooted in our psyches:  a creature revered by the pagans and still honoured with joy and respect by First Nations people, and eaten by all.  Fionn MacCumhail gained the knowledge of the entire world by eating a salmon in Irish folklore and its distinctive shape has even been found in the 20,000 year old Cro-Magnon cave paintings in France.

It begins life in a stream as an egg nestled amongst glacial gravel beds formed at the end of the last Ice Age. In this ideal camouflage, it hatches into alevin before emerging into the clear, cool flowing water as fry. It feeds on invertebrates and develops markings to blend in to the greens and browns of fresh water becoming parr, that stays and feeds in the river for three years until it is about the size of your hand. Then, when it feels the call, this astonishing being begins smolting, swapping its river markings for a silver veneer of solid scales, undergoing internal changes to adapt to saltwater. The smolt finally turns to face downstream and heads out to sea, perceiving pheromones, chemicals and information from its lateral line that allows the fish to feel movement and changes in pressure which will guide the returning salmon to that same native inland stream. There it goes, past the pike’s snapping snout, bobbing, barbed Willie Gunn the angler and the cormorant’s probing beak, through brackish water into the estuary, weaving and dodging the seal’s snarling jaws then out and away, into the staggering might and infinite dark of the Atlantic Ocean.

The adult salmon now spends one to three years, sometimes more, riding the North Atlantic Drift to feeding grounds west of Greenland and the Norwegian Sea, hunting shoals of herring, devouring clouds of krill and other crustacea in the Arctic Circle, imparting the salmon’s flesh with its characteristic deep, red hue. It is wild and true. A colossal journey. The fish navigates the Earth’s magnetic fields using a ridge of iron-filled grey-brown flesh that runs the inner length of the lateral line, something you’ll recognise when cooking salmon. When it feels the urge to return to its native stream to spawn, it gorges itself till it can feed no more, having built up a hefty reserve of energy stored as belly fat.

The mature salmon now fasts until it has spawned, heading for its river. It is long and lean if its birthing stream be lazy and slow, or squat and tough with hog-like shoulders, a 15kg powerful beast with strength to crash through rapids and leap over rocks as its morphology corresponds with a particular body of water. Having reached its goal, it expends the last of its energy in reproduction, then usually dies. Carrion feeders will grab decaying salmon carcasses, drag them up a bank or tree and eat them at their own leisure and the remains will rot down and act as nutrition for plant life, and then insect life, which in turn feed the young fry.

Today however the gravel beds have been removed for construction developments, the polluted water has been acidified by the subsidised use of fertiliser and pesticides which pour into the rivers from farms. Salmon smell their native streams from miles out to sea, but some are no longer returning because the water has become toxic. Even though the angler may release the fish after netting it, its energy has been consumed in the fight and it will often perish. Global warming is changing the currents to the feeding grounds. The krill is being removed, harvested to make pellets for the farmed salmon, so that they can dye the flesh and market the product as organic.

This wild, migratory animal is crammed into vertical columns, where it festers in its own waste, attracting fatal amounts of sea lice. Sprayed with pesticides that poison the water, the mighty salmon becomes a deformed and unnatural creature debased by man, whose diseased state is poisoning its wild counterpart. It is mass production on a gruesome scale.

It is the degradation of the wild salmon that has so upset Sally Barnes: ‘I couldn’t give that passion and awe to a creature that I feel nothing towards. I wouldn’t have the heart to turn something fabulous into a commodity’. For Sally, it is the undeserved humiliation of a magnificent animal and friend. A fisherwoman and fisherman’s wife who began smoking fish to provide an income to support her young family, she attempted different recipes through trial and error when the fish were so abundant she would be eating wild salmon most nights of the week, eventually developing a delicious product that she could sell through the winter when the salmon season was over. There were three other smokeries in Ireland who processed wild fish, and now all of them have moved on to farmed fish. There are so many sanctions placed on wild salmon that it has become extremely difficult to get hold of, and in totally non viable quantities for a business. But Sally has stuck to her guns and will not touch farmed fish, as it is not the same animal.

‘It is a different species and should have a different Latin name’.

IMG_7980 lowres
View across Woodcoock Smokery

Stuck in the muck of a farm on a coastal hill in between Skibbereen and Castletownshend in the Irish rain, I eventually found myself spinning up a lane flanked with baling twine and dry (more like wet) stone walling dimpled with pennywort, up to the Woodcock Smokery. It is a modest farmhouse with a two room smokery and attached shipping container. Stepping inside, the first thing you notice is the remarkably sweet smell of beech-wood smoke, and surprising absence of fishy odours. The place seems very homely for a workshop, feeling lived in and tidy, clean overalls hung on pegs at the entrance and inside, three ancient wooden chopping boards attached to the wall opposite a single rack of yellow handled boning knives, the blades half the width they once were, having been expertly sharpened a thousand times. The two stainless steel smokers seem somehow friendly with their unique, chestnut brown smokey patina. Through into the packing room are two freezers, a fridge, a phone, some cast-iron scales, pots of pens and pencils, books, photographs, sun-bleached awards, a hundred Post-it notes strewn over the back wall and a 1980s vacuum-packer with just two buttons.

The whole workshop would seem like the extension of Sal’s home, were it not for  anachronistic blue and white plastic signs dotted around the place: ‘HAND WASH SINK ONLY’, ‘CLEAN CLOTHES’, ‘DIRTY CLOTHES’, ‘TEMPERATURE CHECK’ they patronisingly blare, the fittings loose over time, pointlessly hanging at forgotten angles; the only purposeless objects in the workshop. Similarly the blue plastic apron and hat she has to wear seem anomalous to her mastery. What did she do in all the years of production before being obliged to use them?

Sally’s daughter, Joleine was set to take over from her mother 15 years ago – a perfect succession, as the elder imparts the knowledge of a lifetime to the new generation. But Joleine quit the smokery after a year involving over 20 unannounced visits by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, who were attempting to apply the same systems and protocols to a small artisan producer of a few hundred fish a year to that of a mass producer of farmed fish in their hundreds of thousands. The tremendous amount of extra work, bullying and hostile attitude almost killed the Woodcock Smokery.

I asked Sally if she had thought of processing more fish and perhaps employing more people, to ease up on work and earn a bit more money:

Well! D’you know! All of us in this life, if we’re lucky, have a job and it pays the bills, puts a roof over your head, food in your belly and the odd bottle of wine. And I’m really fortunate that I can now do that on a very limited number of fish. When I started there was no way I was interested in, you know: expand get big. That’s the drive when you do business training courses. I think they all think I’m completely mad because I haven’t gone to the next level and built a massive factory and employed about 400 people, because I’m working with a wild resource which is variable year on year.

You work with nature and nothing is guaranteed. Nothing. I would love to see many different smokeries in villages of the coastal communities, that take just what is needed when they can and nothing more. I have seen it, and it is sustainable, and I am trying to uphold that.

Catherine’s words echo in my ears. The sea is like the mountain, Max. It gives you life, but it also takes it away.

Sally is an example of real, human existence. Humble and full of respect for the planet, she is working in nature, with nature. She abhors human meddling and the poisoning of land and sea, and guards the methods that have been around for millennia. By continuing to produce wild smoked salmon, she is bearing the standard of how we can live in a genuinely sustainable way, but the standard is getting heavier and she is not as strong as she once was. Her unfaltering integrity is as inherently strong as the salmon’s call, and her journey just as tough. What she has learned of the land and sea through the salmon holds the key to the future of food and for this, I will be moving to Ireland in three weeks’ time to relieve her of her duties in the workshop, so that she may put her knowledge to paper in writing a book for the benefit of the memory of humankind.


Sally Barnes style Cold Smoked Salmon

The best time to catch wild Atlantic salmon for food is when they are just about to enter the estuary for their journey up river at the peak of their physical being. Wild Atlantic salmon is radically different from farmed fish. The massive white lines of fat between the muscle bundles are greasy and not a polyunsaturated fat like the wild salmon, which are much leaner and properly exercised from their adventure swimming against the current.  Were the farmed stuff not dyed, it would be white, whereas wild salmon varies in colour depending on the dietary preference of each individual animal, with those preferring crabs and shrimp turning out deeper red in hue to those who have a penchant for sand-eel and herring.

Now, Sally has honed this method over a lifetime of production. There is nobody who can reproduce the astonishingly delicious balance between salt, smoke and fish quite like her, as she knows her smokers and is completely in tune with the humidity, temperature and pressure’s effect on the draw of air and subsequent effect on the salmon on any given day. There are no real set rules, just feel what is happening and adjust accordingly. Pure intuition.  

‘Ten hours for the smoke like yesterday, Sal?’

‘No, no, no.’ she says, breathing in deeply, ‘Can’t you feel that? Can’t you hear outside? Give it five and half hours.’

You will need:

– A side of wild Atlantic salmon (this method is also good for fish like pollock)

– Fine sea salt

– Cold smoker (easy to build)

– Beech-wood chips, fine and coarse

– A spray bottle filled with water

– A plastic container big enough to hold the salmon

Pour 2-3cm of salt in the bottom of the container, skin side down. Cover the fish with salt, leaving three finger’s width of the tail bare, as it can get too salty being the thinnest part of the fish. Leave to salt for at least 4 hours, until it markedly holds its shape when you balance it on the back of your hand.

Wash the salt off the fish under running water and place it on the rack in the smoker.

Pack your fire box with beech-wood chips alternating between coarse and fine, two layers of each, spraying the chips wet with each layer. When full, push down firmly to condense the wood. Top up with fine wood-chips leaving only a half inch gap for oxygen at the top. Spray the last layer quite heavily with water and set the bottom alight.

Cold smoke for up to 10 hours, ensuring the temperature of the smoking chamber does not reach above 30 degrees C and the firebox does not flame. It needs to be a gentle smoulder throughout.

Look for when the fish will be a deeper colour, with some of the delicious oils rising to the top forming on the surface and the pin-bones are sticking out. Remove them with some pliers, pulling in the direction in which they are pointing. If you get all 32 bones then you most definitely deserve a celebratory pint.

Return the side to the smoker for anywhere between 1 and 10 hours, weather depending. Re pack the firebox if necessary.

When you check on it, look again for a matt finish, with more of the oils released above the pellicle which has formed. This is the mildly translucent layer of flesh that has subtly hardened, like amber, and is about half a millimetre thick. It is the natural barrier to the outside world that allows for the long life of this cured food. You will know when it is done.

Allow to cool with the chamber doors open, then leave to rest at four degrees C for at least 24 hours.

Serve with soda bread and unsalted cultured butter, avoiding lemon which is usually used to cut the slimy nature of farmed salmon. Sal likes to have it with a drizzle of light honey. But also with eggs, on toast, in pasta, risotto… this is real food!

I owe everything I know about salmon to my heartiest of pals and one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. If you’re really serious about smoking wild salmon and wish to glean a deep understanding of her intuitive way of smoking, go and do a course with Sally Barnes, at the Woodcock Smokery.

Next course:

The Dark Kitchen series will run throughout February, but will continue as an occasional series when the new-look Dark Mountain website is launched in April. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to series editor Charlotte Du Cann ([email protected]) Thanks all and bon appetit!

Images: Salmon tail from Woodcock Smokery; portrait of Sally Barnes, view across the Smokery roof and still life of smoked salmon by Max Jones

MaxJones-1Itinerant cheesemonger Max Jones has sought out to learn and live with true artisans and obscure makers of cured food from the Alps to the Cambrian Mountains, documenting processes of essential crafts that are at risk of becoming forgotten, sharing his findings through food workshops and film work.

Instagram @mfh_jones

A Recipe for Belonging

There is a story about a soup made of stones that is told in many languages across Europe. In all versions, one or more travellers – tramps, pilgrims, monks or soldiers – arrive in a strange village, hungry, only equipped with an empty soup pot. They ask locals for some food to share but everyone refuses: they barely have enough to feed themselves, they say, their food stores are running empty. Disappointed, the travellers go to the stream, fill their pot with water, put a stone in it and place it over a fire.

One of the villagers can’t resist and ventures out of her house to ask what they are cooking up. We are making the famous and delicious ‘Stone Soup’, the travellers say, if only we had a little more veg, that would make it taste even better! The villager doesn’t mind parting with some of her carrots which are added to the pot. Another villager comes by, curious, and is told about the Stone Soup. If only this soup had a bit of seasoning, the travellers lament, and, of course, the villager brings them some. And so it goes on, with each villager who passes, enticed by the delicious smell and rumours of a feast, adding more ingredients. Then, the travellers (secretly) take out the stone and the hearty soup is shared by everyone, during a feast that lasts long into the night.

Food speaks to us, to our hearts and our guts. Food can reel us into a distant past or conjure up a person or place in our minds. Food can be artwork, crunchy salads bursting with colour and texture, hot soups with such intricate blends of flavours. And we speak through food. Cooking a special meal might be a message of love for friends or family. But what about at a societal level, what are we saying? When the response to poverty is food banks; when cauliflowers are more expensive than doughnuts, when companies advertise unhealthy food to children who grow up addicted to sugar, when farmers are paid less for their milk than it costs to produce it, are we valuing the bodies, lives and dignity of people?

Hayat Shahoud and her family fled from their home in Homs, Syria and spent five years in refugee camps in Turkey before being ‘resettled’ in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. One of the few things Hayat managed to bring with her is her stainless steel falafel press – even, finally, across the UK border controls. Wherever they were, the shape of the falafels that fed them was exactly like at home.

When you don’t speak the language of a place, food speaks even more loudly. We can only imagine what messages Hayat and her family received when they arrived in Scotland, a place where not many folk would think of kitchen utensils as prized possessions, where Mars bars are fried instead of falafels. A nation afflicted by diet-related ill health, where growing and preparing food are not inscribed into modern life.

Still, there are other food stories which are being told, more quietly, of hospitality and conviviality. In projects across the UK, people are growing, preparing and sharing food together. In this time marked by unpalatable narratives of us and them and who deserves to be where, food can create a common ground on which to meet. In Granton, Edinburgh, neighbours have begun to dug up the street corners to create growing spaces and Scottish, Nepali and Kenyan families, as well as others, are now sharing skills and crops and stories. Granton’s home-grown kale is turned into irresistible pakoras at their weekly community meals, and last year they harvested their first quinoa crop. In Glasgow, the High Rise Bakers meet twice a week in a borrowed kitchen in one of the local flat blocks to make nutritious, affordable bread for the community. The bakers, many of whom are refugees and migrants, enjoy Tanzanian chai breaks with cardamom, cinnamon and ginger tea while waiting for the loaves to rise.

As for Hayat, together with Abeer Alhalabe (another Syrian woman new to Scotland) she now helps run No. 11: a community café in Huntly, a small, rural market town. Not many months ago, No. 11 Gordon Street was an empty shop on Huntly’s high street, now it is a home for the slow and messy work of building relationships, an initiative of Deveron Projects, which connects artists, communities and place in Huntly.


No. 11 was started as a pilot project by Marc Higgin and Aya Haidar – a British anthropologist and a Lebanese-British artist, who wanted to create a place where people are valued for the different skills and experiences they bring. The doors opened in November 2017, and since then many hot and tasty meals have served to bridge the language barrier.

It’s a brisk January Friday, and they’ve got a lunchtime event happening. Project volunteers drop off bowls, tablecloths, and chairs taken from their own houses, kids are crawling over the floor, the chatter is rumbling contentedly over cups of tea. Hayat brings in a great pot of steaming Syrian vegetable stew and rice. After she explains with few words and gestures that in Syria, people eat with their hands, people start dunking warm flatbreads in olive oil and za’tar – a delicious nutty green herb blend, combining thyme, sesame seeds, and salt. Fingers deftly scoop up the hearty flavours, so familiar to Hayat, but new to others in the room. She proudly watches while everyone digs into the food and encourages late-comers to help themselves too: ‘Eat, eat!’. We sit and talk around big tables; the food is by donation.

At No. 11, it is Syrians who are hosting the Huntly locals. Rather than be bound by the expectation of gratitude and demure behaviour, Hayat and Abeer can bring their creativity and energy, and tell their own story. They can practise their English, while locals strike up some Arabic, aided by Google Translate on their phones. And the café is a welcome addition to Huntly’s high street, which was lacking low-threshold community spaces.

Originally, Marc and Aya thought about calling it ‘Al-Nofara’ – ‘The Fountain’ in Arabic, after the oldest café in Damascus, but realised that this may exoticise the place and alienate some locals. They also don’t shout about the cuisine being Syrian, but hope that No. 11 allows Scottish people to understand from direct experience all there is to gain from refugees who are contributing their lives, skills, ideas, smiles, and culture to this country. Food is a necessity and it entices people in who wouldn’t normally get involved in ‘integration schemes’. Something different can happen when sharing a meal with others, and experiencing new flavours that taste of different lands. It is a living invitation to remember that the world beyond what is known is full of treasures and that difference can be full of wonder rather than fear.

With the growing season starting, No. 11 is looking to link up more with Deveron’s ‘The Town is the Garden’ project that encourages people to grow their own food in their gardens, allotments and public places. In this time of transience and virtual realities, it is not only refugees and migrants who have been uprooted, and even those born and bred in a town might struggle to feel a sense of belonging. Just as sharing food can help us see each other in new ways, putting hands in the soil can bring new perspectives to the place we live. Digging up street corners with neighbours, feeling gratitude for rain and sunshine on behalf of the plants, or excitement about worms and bees: we live beyond ourselves when we start growing food. While our physical surroundings, in turn, become part of our bodies.


Yet, however powerfully growing, preparing or sharing food together may speak to us and through us, these projects have an enemy lurking, fostered by negative headlines and sly politicians. It is the scarcity narrative: ‘there is not enough’. In times of imposed austerity, it breeds fear for the loss of support and demands gratitude for meagre provisions.

While this narrative looms over poor communities, telling its urgent tale of the need for frugal accountancy, the rich in society dine still more extravagantly. It is inequality that is endemic, not scarcity: here in Scotland, there are many more empty homes than homeless people – more than 37,000 were left vacant in 2017. Yet the dominant narrative. drowns out the solid facts, and the pushback is weak.

It is this mixed-up context that makes spaces like No. 11 essential, but also means that most of the people who are dropping in are Huntly’s more affluent residents, who don’t feel any threat to their vital support. It is easy to connect over plenty. In contrast, Ruth Lamb from Govan Community Project in Glasgow (who gave a presentation during the Friday lunch) described how it is their food distribution service which brought ‘locals’ and ‘new Scots’ into the same room. People are thrown together by the common and stressful experience of scarcity. While collectively we do have enough and everyone could experience abundance; across Scotland, there are kitchens with empty cupboards, and people who do not have a kitchen at all. With mouths to feed and no money to do it with, projects like this one in Govan are providing essential basic nourishment. But in the desperate space of hunger, and under the weight of stigma, there is little room for warm conversation or curiosity.

Despite its neat outward appearance, Huntly is a town where many people are struggling, poverty is rife and the austerity agenda has debilitated public services. People are enduring benefit cuts and waking each morning with a fresh struggle, another form to fill in, another ultimatum. The stakes are high, with hunger and homelessness constants on the horizon. This demolishing of public support for people in poverty can create bitterness towards newcomers, with the thin allocation of resources stretched over ever more human beings.

Last year, Inverurie, the nearby town where most of the refugees in Aberdeenshire are resettled, was hit by floods. As water gushed through the fields and the streets, people were forced to leave their houses. The culprits for this destruction are many: from climate change, to poor rural planning, yet it was refugees who received some of the fury. There was a vocal backlash against the council for providing housing to refugees when so many local people were struggling.

Open Doors at No.11 Cafe -photo Joss AllenHowever just as in the story there always was enough to go around, and there is more than enough today. Yet our wealth is disastrously distributed and our narratives close doors. Many of us have forgotten how to host – or be hosted. The art of connecting with people we do not know is getting lost in ‘meals for one’. Individuals face real, hard scarcity while society shivers in a false perception of it. Perhaps, one piece of the puzzle are projects like No. 11 that work a bit like the Soup Stone, that create – as if by magic – shared spaces and a sense of abundance. Places where people, wherever they come from, can bring skills, stories and resources, where the community is much more than the sum of its parts.


Hayat’s Falafel Recipe


1 kilo of dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in plenty of cold water (no need to cook)

1 large onion

5 cloves of garlic

1 tbsp of cumin

Pinch of chilli flakes

Sunflower oil for deep-frying

Makes enough to feed Hayat’s husband and three (hungry) boys.

Drain the chickpeas well and add to food processor/or mincer together with the onion (roughly chopped), garlic and spices. Blitz into rough paste and move to a bowl. Leave for an hour or two out of the fridge. Heat oil in a pan until hot enough (about 180C). If you don’t have a falafel scoop, use wet hands to shape a palmful of the mix into a ball and the flatten slightly. Drop carefully into the oil – if they disintegrate, add a bit of gram flour to the mix. They’ll be ready in about 3 minutes. They should be a dark, golden brown  – the colour of falafel is known as baked bread.

Serve with warm flatbread, hummous or tahini, and sliced tomato and chopped parsley.

Next course:

This is the last course in our Dark Kitchen February feast. Dark Kitchen will continue as an occasional series when the new-look Dark Mountain website is launched in April. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to series editor Charlotte Du Cann ([email protected]) Thanks all and bon appetit!

All images from Deveron Proejcts except last; outside window of No.11 (photo; Joss Allen)

Olga Bloemen and Bella Crowe both work for Nourish Scotland, an NGO campaigning for food justice. Olga was born in the Netherlands but moved to Scotland to study Social Anthropology. Now she’s surprised to find herself still living in Edinburgh and wonders whether it has become home. In her work she explores food and popular education as vehicles for social change. She’s also involved with Tripod: Training for Creative Social Action. She never makes the same bowl of porridge twice, and would like to care for an apple orchard one day.

thumbnail_bella photoBella eats breakfast every Thursday morning on the top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. She has explored the politics of food in different ways in recent years, from volunteering on farms in Palestine to grappling with food policy and legislation in Scotland. She is involved in the Scottish Radical Herbal Network is seeking to move away from policy documents on an office screen to experience and write about the rough paradoxes of a wider world.