Dear Sophie

 ‘Even the most perfect reproduction … is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’
– Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ 

 ‘The melody of mothers’ speech carries through the bodies and is audible in the womb.’
– Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct 

 ‘“No!” I said instantly and at once.’
– Imre Kertész, Kaddish for an Unborn Child 

 

Dear Sophie,

Writing prose is like giving birth. The sentence exits the womb reluctantly; it screams as it leaves the body. I’ve never given birth but I can imagine. I’m writing these sentences because I don’t want children. Dear Sophie, this is for you.

Everything about children is repugnant to me. Their shrieking in the park on what would be an otherwise peaceful afternoon. Their wailing on planes where I’m stuck with them thousands of miles in the air and somewhere west of Chicago. Their whining as they trail behind their parents on a beautiful path to the beach. The schmutz of a cookie still lingering on their faces. The pitch of their voices asking their incessant questions. A puddling infant who looks for all intents and purposes like my obese grandfather. I don’t feel what I’m supposed to feel – a sensation in my ovaries, I presume. No joy, no desire, no longing. I feel nothing but a wave of repulsion, and gratitude I’ve made it childless this far.

I thought I’d say this at the outset, so you know where I’m coming from.

However, regardless of this all, I must say that I feel you waiting, as it were, in the wings. Even as I ignore you, rage against you, push you away, you are still there. A deep, still presence, patient, expectant. Sometimes I wonder if I have any say in the matter at all. When you want to enter the world, you will, and I will just be the door you came in by.

Why do you want to live in this world, here in this time and place? By the time you are 30 you may live a daily catastrophe beyond my ability to imagine. You may live on a hot, drought-stricken Earth as countries battle over what is left of its water. You may mourn the loss of the last animal species. You may be steeped in a culture so anxious and digitised that the human capacity for empathy, for connection and community, will be as obsolete as the rotary telephone. During your lifespan, even if I train you to live mindfully and simply, you will produce over 100 tonnes of trash. It will cost me $200,000 to send you to college, or you will be saddled with a debt you will spend many decades paying. Over the course of your life, you will leave behind a mountain of coffee cups, thousands of plastic bags, hundreds of discarded shoes and jeans and cellphones. You will contribute to the Pacific trash vortex with your water bottles and toothpaste caps. Your existence will add to child labour, fracking, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, factory farming and climate change. As a native speaker of American English, you will write, sing, recite poetry and make love in the language that is overtaking the world like a virus, endangering cultural and linguistic diversity. Even if I raised you, as I would, to be conscious of your ecological footprint, to live simply and work for the Earth, to eat grass-fed beef and grow your own vegetables – even if, in the best case scenario, you grew up to be an artist, a peace activist, a human rights lawyer, a teacher, a homesteader – your very existence would add stress to a much overburdened Earth. And that’s the best case scenario. You might vote Republican. You might be a software engineer. You might not care for the Earth at all.

So why here, why now? Do you see some beauty here that calls to you? The sheer fact of living? Do you have some role, some service, you are supposed to perform? Do you know something of the future that I don’t?

I think of all the times I have prayed for your inexistence. In bed, my boyfriend unprotected and still inside me, I’m counting the days of the month like the omer, reciting to myself the lines of my favourite Sharon Olds poem, in which she says, speaking from the little yurt of the testicles, ‘Stay here for the children of this father it may be the better life’. This poem is my prayer: Stay, Sophie, stay.

The way that other women pray for a child I pray for no child.

I don’t want to deny you what you want most in the world. To live, most of all. But I wonder that you can’t find another mother, one who longs for you and would gladly prepare a home for you in her body and her life. Why have you chosen me in particular? That first time I saw you, when you were floating over the bed, you winked at me. This was when I learned your name, Sophie. After my mother, and my great-grandmother. You made it clear that you were here and you were mine and you were waiting for me.

In my dream I am holding a child. I am playing Solomon, requiring two mothers to divide her. One mother is existence, the other non-existence. Will the real mother please stand up.

I am writing to you between the two poles of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At the pivot of the looking to the past and the looking to the future. To whom, to what, I wonder, do I need to make amends. Dear Sophie, should I be sorry for refusing you? Or do I have your best interests at heart? Neither the future nor the past encourages me to bring you into being. The view from both windows looks out on invariable loss. The Holocaust we have lived, the Holocaust (of the Earth, the animals) that we are currently living, and all the potential Holocausts to come. Even in the best case scenario, I would be bringing you into life in order to bring you to your eventual and inevitable death. No, I have no need to apologise.

Yet by not bringing you into being, I am denying you your life altogether. A kind of pre-emptive abortion. This is what my father – your grandfather – argues when I say I don’t want children. You are refusing a child a chance at life. Would you rather have not been born?  he adds, as if by not wanting a child I am negating not only her life but, retroactively, my own, as if opting for childlessness were also a de facto vote for annihilation. The subtext: Are you not grateful to me for giving you life?  Yes, I am grateful, every day, to be alive. Would I wish it on an unborn child? Maybe, maybe not.

Sometimes I wonder if what I feel of your presence is not a future figure but a ghost. The child that might have been born had Margot, my grandfather’s first wife, not died in the camps. The daughter that would have been, in place of the sons that were: the sons of my grandfather and grandmother. Impossible to think that if you existed my father would not. Nor would I. My life in exchange for yours. An impossible Solomonian bind.

Or are you perhaps the ghost child of my old lover? His then-girlfriend conceived when he was 20, and he accompanied her into the hospital room for the abortion. If you were this child, Sophie, you would be now, inconceivably, 12 years old. I can barely imagine this man as a father. How he would have been trapped in a disfigured marriage, a replication of his childhood with his mother, with whom he shared a bedroom until he was 15. Trapped, because that was his pattern. Why couldn’t you get trapped with me? I pleaded when we were breaking up. With me he felt a sense of freedom, he explained. Free to leave me.

After the abortion, he and that girlfriend stayed together for three more years, during which time she started carrying a pet rabbit on a leash to replace the child she had lost. As much pain as the abortion brought them, I believe they would have suffered even more with a child. And I understand where they were coming from; I would have done the same. Dear Sophie, I’m glad you didn’t visit me, unwanted, earlier, without asking, because if you had, you wouldn’t exist. Before you were you, I would have killed you.

So perhaps, Sophie, I am indeed asking for your forgiveness. Forgiveness for my reluctance, my ambivalence, for that tangle of desire and fantasy and adamant refusal. For praying both for your life and your annihilation. You come from a long line of displaced people, so perhaps, after all, this is what you were expecting – to be exiled from your mother’s womb, a refugee in the etheric realm: homeless, placeless, nomadic. To come this far on the boat from the land of the before-life, only to be turned away at the border. I see you standing there at the entrance to this world, your old-fashioned suitcase filled with your grandmothers’ shoes, and I reach out a hand.

Sophie, if we do decide to take those last steps forward together, this is what I ask of you: that you come here with respect for the great gift of your human form; that you care for your body, which is tender and irreplaceable and given to you by your ancestors, and for the worn body of the Earth, which is also your inheritance; that you will truly know how you are loved and how great is your capacity for loving; that you are present fully for the duration of your time here. May you experience boredom, joy, uncertainty and heartbreak. May you learn French and monologues from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the formula for the radius of a circle. How to read, how to type, how to cook, how to plant a garden. May you know that you are of your ancestors but you are not your ancestors, nor is it your job to save them. They were dead before you got here: live your own life.

So before you enter the world, Sophie, look around. Is this the one you wanted? Is this the one you were hoping for? Dandelions, rivulets, chocolate cake, the New York State thruway, red-tailed hawks, styrofoam cups? Asphalt, seltzer, photons, pomegranates, fire, Elizabeth Gilbert, Led Zeppelin, luna moths, men? Delight, melancholia, claustrophobia, spaciousness, anxiety, discomfort, apathy, and the longing, longing, longing? A world of things and feelings, insides and outsides, beauty and pain, where it will be precisely this exquisite beauty that will hurt you most of all? If so, here it is. Welcome to the place you dreamed of when you dreamed of home.

Yours truly,

Nina

Image:
Ilyse Krivel
The Night You Were Reborn Into the Eternal Home
Digital photograph
The image depicts Sophia, the feminine aspect of Creation, her hands reaching out across the night sky in search of another in the universal darkness. The image was shot the night before the total solar eclipse of August 2017 at Serpent Mound, Ohio. Serpent Mound is an ancient effigy mound in the shape of a curving serpent, with both solar and lunar alignments. It is also at the site of an astrobleme, a location where there was an ancient meteor impact. Serpent Mound is considered by many to be a devotional sacred site and people from all around the country gathered here to witness the eclipse.

Ilyse Krivel is an artist who splits her time between Toronto and the hills of Kentucky. Through her work she aims to illuminate the ephemeral force at work between the cracks of matter. She dreams of the future as a forest dweller in the mountains. She will get there. ilysianfields.tumblr.com

There’s more where this comes from in our latest book.

Dark Mountain: Issue 13

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

The Desert and the Sea

Utah Complications
Natalie Young

Attempting to Explain State History to the Alien

  the white gulls upon the black crickets, like hosts of heaven and hell contending,  until the pests were vanquished and the people were saved.
– Orson F. Whitney, Mormon Settler and Apostle 

A piece of the truth lies
in the bird’s real name: California gull.

Early settlers almost starved because of a cricket
invasion, insects as big as a man’s thumb.

Divine intervention (or migration)
brought flocks of gulls

who filled the air with white wings and cries,
settled on the fields, feasted and became

Utah’s state bird. Oral history is muddled –
Sunday school taught her and she tells the alien

how seagulls saved the pioneers’
crops from grasshoppers. Google clarifies

and confuses with more truth, claiming
the Mormon cricket was likely a shieldback katydid,

changing colour in mob situations, swarming
fields in a cloak of black.

Whatever the true labels, the bugs came and ate
corn and wheat, squashes and melon.

And no matter if they came for God
or the salt lakes, legions of birds

gorged themselves and saved a people’s

right to name a miracle. 

II. After Studying State History, the Alien Kills Weeds

Persecution is not uncommon in this state
or its people: Mormons, polygamists.

Massacres less common: Mountain Meadows;
Bear River Shoshone.

And though the alien has second thoughts
about extermination, he’s started

spraying unstoppable weeds
in the yard. The poison streams

out, accidentally hitting
adult grasshopper here, a baby there.

Camouflaged so perfectly
it’s always too late to retreat.

The alien takes concern
to the neighbour in a large sunhat. Don’t worry 

                    they’re pests         they’ll take 

your garden    your greens         your sage 

munch and        pock 

                                       they’re asking for it. 

The sun is directly overhead and he can hear
a cricket chirping.

Is the insect in trouble or confused
about what is appropriate,

what we do and do not do in the daylight?

The Mormons reached the American West in 1847 and settled in Utah following violent conflicts and religious discrimination in Illinois and Missouri (partially due to their practicing polygamy). The Miracle of the Gulls occurred in 1848, when a flock of seagulls flew into the Salt Lake Valley and ate hoards of insects that were demolishing the crops, thus saving the Mormons from starvation. In 1857 at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah, the Baker-Fancher emigrant wagon train was attacked by a militia of Mormon settlers; 120–140 people were killed, mostly families on their way to California. The US Army attacked a Shoshone camp at the Bear River in 1863, after years of clashes and raids on farms in northern Utah and bordering state territories – at least 240 Shoshone men, women and children were killed.

RobinVRobinson_Lifesaver,ver 2
Lifesaver by Robin V. Robinson

Swimming in Spruce Cove
Mark Rutter

It is good to be yourself
to know your name
and who you are
but it is even better
to swim in the cove
when the tide comes in
thick with plankton
and small metallic green fish flash by
as you sit on a submerged rock
and the fish weave around you
like a glittering garment
for your other self
the nameless one
who is part of everything else

It is good to know people
who are dear to you
and who you love
but it is also good to know
a long fallen tree
no more than a trunk
with two wizened branches
who for thirty years
has circled the inner cove
never floating out beyond
the big granite outcrop
content to settle
in a new patch of mudflat
every summer
stripped of its bark and
bleached white
by salt and sun and sea wind
barnacles and sea snails
waiting out low tide in its cracks
so that it grins
like a dead whale
with broken baleen

Old friend
it is good to swim out to you
and hold myself still
in the tidal current
by holding onto your salt-white branch
to stand in the waves
supported by your trunk

Yes it is good to be a self
but better is the feeling
of swimming out through a cold current
and into a warm patch
the feeling of heat
radiating from
submerged rocks
the feeling of letting go
and flowing into
something without measure

Images:
Robin V. Robinson
Ladder and Boat
Life Saver
Unique gelatin silver prints from film using alternative photographic processes involving copper bleach and lith developer
The Surfacing series explores the unease one feels on the water and in life, on the edge between what is known above and unknown below, perhaps between the past and the future. The feelings that arise from these images remind me of the liminal state that we find ourselves in  swimming in a sea of uncertainty with man-made objects of perceived safety.

Robin V. Robinson is a fifth generation central coast Californian who considers herself a visual poet, inspired by nature and psychology. Her work focuses on how we experience the planet and ourselves, providing perspective on this unique moment on Earth. Based in Carmel, she was trained in the local West Coast photographic darkroom tradition, which she continues despite digital forces. Robinson’s work has earned international awards and is included in museum collections. robinrobinson.com

Mark Rutter has published three books of poems, most recently Basho In Acadia (Flarestack Poets). He lived on the coast of Maine from 1990–2002, and returns there every summer. Mark is also a painter and book artist, and examples of his work can be seen at the-art-barn.com

Natalie Young is a founding editor for Sugar House Review. By day, she works as an art director. Publications include Green Mountains Review, Tampa Review, Rattle, South Dakota Review, Los Angeles Times and others. Natalie is left-handed, half Puerto Rican, and a fan of Dolly Parton and Brussels sprouts.

There’s more where this came from in our latest book.

Dark Mountain: Issue 13

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

 

Landscapes of Loss

‘Nostalgia stalks modernity as an unwelcome double’
– Peter Fritzsche 

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Grief, loss, yearning and nostalgia: these are not fashionable topics. Rather, they are uncomfortable and personal themes, characterised by bewilderment, darkness and emotion. While quickening ecological devastation and endemic social pathologies increasingly necessitate the space to reflect on them, civilised culture begs to differ. Derived from the Greek nostos (home) and algos (pain), one contemporary novelist has written that nostalgia is ‘a useless, futile thing because it is a longing for something that is permanently lost.’ Nothing shall be yearned for in the imagination of the moderns; indeed, through our inimitable ingenuity, nothing of importance will be lost. Perhaps immortality awaits us, through cryogenics, or a life of silicon-based omniscience when the Singularity finally occurs. Perhaps we will bring extinct species back through cloning, and release them into places with names like ‘Pleistocene Park’. Either way, yearning for what has been lost is seen as an aberration, a deviation, or even, in the early days of modernity, as a medical illness.

Alastair Bonnett, professor of social geography at Newcastle University, thinks that the denial of these themes is a mistake, particularly in an age of ecocide. He has written at length about nostalgia’s geo-psychological roots in the ‘disorientation and bewilderment that can be brought on by loss of home, community and landscape.’ ‘Acknowledging nostalgia’, he writes in the introduction to his most recent book on the topic, ‘pushes us into choppier and less comfortable waters. Ironically, in coming to grips with this seemingly backward-facing topic, old-fashioned political maps have to be abandoned, or at least redrawn.’

Dark Mountain has also, in the past, provided space for the redrawing of maps, and to reflect on loss and yearning – from personal written reflections on place and change, for example, to the building of a Life Cairn at the 2013 Uncivilisation festival, creating a lasting memorial to the growing hordes of beings lost from the web of life. I therefore wanted to speak with Alastair about his work, to gain more understanding of a topic with apparently renewed relevance, not just amidst ecological collapse at various scales, but also given recent political developments across the globe.

TS: The themes of loss and yearning in the context of ecocide and environmental crisis; I have a feeling this is as much personal as intellectual for you, so perhaps you could tell me a little about how an interest in these themes arose?

AB: Well, as a young man growing up in the outskirts of London in the late seventies and eighties, I was very drawn to the anarchist movement and, in particular, to the Situationists1. I found the Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord a revelation; this idea that we’re living in a society controlled and mediated by images in which nothing was real or authentic had an immediate appeal to me, and seemed to touch a nerve in a lot of young activists at the time.

However, it was already apparent to me that there was a quality to anarchist and Situationist thought that was rarely acknowledged, and that was its sense of loss and yearning. Rarely acknowledged, and yet it’s so obvious when you read Guy Debord and so many other radical thinkers that their ideas are rooted in a sense of disgust with human alienation and riddled with nostalgia. A sense of loss is a powerful theme in such work, but no-one in the ultra-left scene in London wanted to talk about it. In fact, loss and yearning were taboo. Radicalism was all about being forward-looking, of regarding anything backward-looking as conservative and associated with the old, who we wanted little to do with. So there’s a paradox here. Crucial threads of radicalism were clearly inspired by loss and yearning, but they were being buried and denied. So it made me wonder, what would it be like if we acknowledged these things?

I sat on those ideas for a long time because I couldn’t find a way into writing about them, or even talking about them. But this is an issue that just won’t go away. Modernity introduces all these incredible ruptures with the past, and it’s inevitable that modern people have a sense of grief and loss and, hence, are fascinated with the idea of alienation. This yearning can go in lots of different directions – it can produce Nazism, it can produce fascism, it can produce all sorts of things; it’s hydra-headed and politically mutable.

TS: Well, it seems you did end up finding a way to acknowledge it, and talk about it. Where did that lead?

AB: So, the first thing I did, some two decades after I’d begun thinking about it, was write a book called Left In The Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia, which is a history of the power of nostalgia in socialist and anti-colonial movements. I was interested in going back to the early socialists, such as William Morris, Thomas Spence and others, and looking at how their relationship to place and nature and their sense of loss at the coming of capitalism motivated their activism. And then I tried to take this analysis forward to later radicals. However, one thing I didn’t engage with is environmentalism, because the questions around that were just too big for the book. That came later.

TS: Before returning to green thought and green politics, let’s go back for a minute to those early socialists. I don’t want us to get lost down the warren of leftist sectarianism, but there’s obviously a large gap between your reading of Marx and the views put forward by what we might call ‘orthodox Marxists’. Putting it mildly, the latter are famed for their forward-looking, technologically ‘Promethean’ views. From what I’ve gathered, you’re not just drawing from William Morris and those other early socialists who valorised human-scale production, but also saying that this theme of yearning and loss runs to the very heart of Marx’s work, whether he acknowledged it or not?  

AB: I think it’s really interesting, that tension between Marx and his romantic followers, of which there were many in Europe, not just in England. Certainly, William Morris – who didn’t really understand or read a lot of Marx but was attracted to his revolutionary message – thought of class struggle as a process in which the working class would reclaim their craft traditions and humanity. Marx himself imagined that he was escaping from this kind of romanticism. Yet he too was a kind of nostalgic because he set up pre-capitalist, ‘primitive communism’ – societies without money – as societies without alienation. He had a clear sense of authenticity and human wholeness as something that capitalism cut us away from. Marxism, then, as I read it, is taking us into the past through revolution. I don’t think this is a problem; it’s what radicals have done time and again. The problem comes when we don’t acknowledge our debt to the past; when we construct ourselves as purely ‘future-facing’ and pit ourselves against the past, trying to refuse and deny the taint of nostalgia.

TS: So, let’s segue into looking at the importance of these themes – of the past, of loss, of nostalgia and yearning – in the context of what we might call ‘green thought’…

AB: Let me just briefly turn back to my childhood. I was born in 1964 on the outskirts of London, in Essex, at the end of the Central Line, and every day, every week, I would see the natural landscape being destroyed around me; with new motorways poured across the fields. It was very obvious, and upsetting, to see what little nature that was left being so disregarded. When I used to mention this experience at academic conferences, I’d get a sort of rebuke: ‘You’re dealing with myths and fictions: pure nature never existed. Nothing real has actually changed.’ There is also an undertow that suggests that such issues only matter to the white middle class. These are common reactions but I find them incredible: the refusal to acknowledge the overwhelming, world-changing reality of environmental loss amazes me; it’s more than an intellectual avoidance strategy, it’s a kind of blinkered narcissism.

It’s the experience of environmental loss which I’m particularly interested in, more so than the statistics gathered by scientists. There seems to be a refusal, a kind of mass denial, of what people see out of their windows. You don’t have to be very old to have experienced environmental loss and it’s not just in one particular part of the world: you can talk to people anywhere – in Latin America, in Europe, in Asia – and they will tell you. People have different stories about it, but it is disconcerting how many intellectuals – especially radical intellectuals – have managed to avoid the evidence of their own eyes and, at best, frame the environment as just another ‘issue’, at worst, as a romantic myth.

TS: And this is what really grabbed my attention when I was reading your book, The Geographies of Nostalgia: Global and Local Perspectives on Modernity and Loss. You seemed to be treading a really unusual line in contemporary green thought, between extremes of holding ‘nature’ up as something solid outside of us, and which we can calculate and know and control, on the one hand, and thinking that everything is in flux all the time anyway, that nature never existed, and therefore any notions of loss are based on some sort of childish illusion or misunderstanding.

AB: The argument that there is no such thing as nature, that it is a myth or mere social construct, is a coping strategy. It is one of the perverse intellectual side-effects of ecocide. It is, though, an incredibly popular line to take in the social sciences and a lot of so-called ‘critical’ environmentalism. It is now pretty much the hegemonic wisdom in certain quarters. Introductory books given to students on environmental thought will commence by claiming that nature is a ‘social construct’. So even though environmentalism is, in many ways, growing in the outside world, it is being hollowed out in the universities, the very places where it should be being elaborated and enriched.

TS: These narratives matter.

AB: They do matter, because those self-styled ‘critical’ intellectuals are failing to lead on the environmental debate; indeed, they are undermining it. My argument here is not, I hope, a naïve one – it’s not actually saying ‘there is this objective nature out there and I know what it is’ – but it is pointing to the reality and importance of our experience of nature; that visceral, vulnerable and, in many ways, humbling experience. The attempts to set up ‘nature as a human artefact’ are the very opposite – they are the anthropocentric conceits of a species which sees itself as the lord and master of the universe. This notion that nature is our creation is wilfully arrogant and it has consequences: it means that getting rid of nature, destroying it, doesn’t really matter. It also means that we’re learning less and less from those non-Western cultures which have had a more holistic sense of the interplay of human and non-human life. As all this implies, far from being ‘radical’ or ‘critical’, I see these kinds of argument as the spin and propaganda of industrial modernity.

TS: Let’s explore this notion of holism and the past a little more. In your book, you take the example of recent work by George Monbiot on rewilding, and see it as somewhat parallel to your own arguments about the need to own up to ecological loss. Given that Dark Mountain partly came to public attention early on in a series of public debates with George, it would be interesting to hear more about the elements of his thought you find provocative.

AB: I was particularly drawn to George Monbiot’s book Feral, as you say, and his work around rewilding. That book engaged a lot of people, but I knew it would be ignored in academic circles because it just sends up so many red flags. ‘Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding’! All these terms smack of loss and yearning and nostalgia; all ideas that remain intellectually indigestible to a lot of people. But, actually, Feral is an important engagement with the problem of loss. Monbiot understands the plausibility and the allure of the notion that nature is a construct but wants to push beyond it. He gets that green nostalgia is a site of dilemma, provocation and creativity, and that we all live with this terrible, difficult paradox: of wanting change, of wanting progress, but also having a real, dramatic and anguished sense of loss and yearning in relationship to the natural world.

TS: Another figure you draw from in the same passage of the book, and which also surprised me a little, is William Cronon. He’s most famous for his essay ‘The Trouble With Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature’, often seen as the quintessential text to argue that nature – or wilderness specifically in this case – is a mere construction or artefact of language. But that’s an unfair reflection on him?

AB: Yes, that’s right. I was interested in Cronon because he’s very much seen as someone who talks about the myth of wilderness and the trouble with the idea of wilderness, and he’s placed alongside the constructionists. But actually, when you hear him talking about his experience of the landscape – such as in his essay ‘The Riddle of the Apostle Islands’, which appeared in the environmentalist journal Orion – when he gets personal, then his tone changes. He becomes more open to that sense of concern and worry and vulnerability. That made him more approachable to me. We are, I hope, moving into such a post-constructionist phase in green thinking and writing. A new mood is abroad and it is allowing a richer, more felt, vocabulary that has a more complex relationship to themes of loss.

TS: Which is surely a factor in the relevance of the ideas surrounding Dark Mountain over the past decade. Though, it must be said, there is something of a paradox here, isn’t there? We live in a culture simultaneously more saturated than ever before with knowledge about environmental calamity, perhaps reeling more from its reality, yet just as people appear to tire of being modern, things are accelerating at an unprecedented rate. The net grows tighter. You spoke of ‘strategies of evasion’ earlier, which could play a role. How widely embedded are these, do you think?

AB: A lot of people feel they have no control over their world; they hear all these messages about environmental catastrophe, and it’s overwhelming and very disempowering. They can do all sorts of things in response: they can pretend nature isn’t real; they can kill themselves; they can drink a lot… But one response, that the Australian environmental writer Wendy Shaw and I have identified and been writing about, is that people bunker down into a form of grief-laden consumerism. You could call it ‘shopping therapy’, I suppose, but it’s more serious than that. We have argued that it is a form of grief, and that it is a traumatic condition in which people are trying to literally buy their way out of the remorse and the sense of powerlessness that environmental loss and crisis creates.

TS: In terms of reshaping our understandings of how we move past such coping mechanisms, then, and how we deal with environmental change, do you feel that acknowledging the personal experience you spoke of earlier, that romanticism – used in a positive, rather than pejorative way! – can be the root of new, powerful and less classically humanistic stories? Rather than being something so ‘regressive’ that it removes from our potential to change things, or something that stops us seeing what is going on ‘objectively’, as processes based on numbers and figures and statistics do. Or even that there may be a symbiosis in those two ways of viewing environmental change, the romantic and the modern.

AB: Yes, I like the way you’re framing it there. There is such a thing as a creative, forward-looking sense of loss. And a forward-looking, creative path for romanticism. In terms of the way you’re framing it, that’s precisely how I think we can see a path from the past into the future, so we’ve got something to look forward to.

TS: I find that to be a refreshing antidote to all we’ve been hearing about the past in the tempestuous politics of the last couple of years or, going even further back, to the supposed equivalence – just as often made by those on the so-called ‘Left’ as the ‘Right’ – between place-based green thought and proto-Nazi ‘Blood and Soil’ slogans or beliefs. With the happenings of Brexit, Trump, and the often-remarked nascent rise of a contemporary fascism, all harkening back to a golden era, is it perhaps more necessary than ever to keep that creative aspect of romanticism and nostalgia in mind? Nostalgic yearning can result in all sorts of different outcomes, as you mentioned earlier.

AB: Well, green activists are often being finger-wagged by more orthodox leftists about ‘green fascism’ and ‘conservatism’. Those sorts of charges are, in a way, what I’m trying to respond to. I turn these accusations around and show that themes of loss and yearning are shared across the political spectrum. Such dilemmas are just as important in Marxism, anarcho-communism, Situationism. The difference is they have failed to generate an openness to paradox and dilemma, to a vulnerable sense of life. Instead they indulge a macho, very modernist sensibility. One of the great things about green politics – or, should I say, green culture? – is that it is possible to talk differently, to act differently, to admit that we aren’t the lords of the universe; that we are very limited and dependant creatures. Of course, nostalgia, loss and yearning are very apparent at the extreme ends of politics. Islamic State offers a nostalgic utopia, taking society back to what it imagines are the purified origins of Islam. Trump is constantly using nostalgic rhetoric – Make America Great Again. Brexit is another reflection of nostalgic politics. The fact that these conservative movements turn to the past leads to the assumption that they are the only types of politics where themes of loss and yearning are operating. But this is a profound mistake and means that people end up defining themselves in oppositional terms, as anti-Trump for example, rather than in terms of what our values are and what we want. To me, that’s about creating – and that means, of course, ‘re-creating’, or returning to – a greener, richly ecologically diverse planet.

TS: Before we part, then, perhaps you can tell me whether – or, indeed, in what way – your interest in the exploration of the unknown, the forgotten and the feral, ties into positively nurturing what you call ‘topophilia’, the love of place? After all, you’ve engaged with a wider audience on these issues in works of popular geography, like Off The Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us About the World (titled Unruly Places in the USA).

AB: I’ve recently been writing about some of the world’s oddest and most forgotten spots. That book you mention has a sequel called Beyond the Map. It has been great to escape the world of academia and engage with a bigger audience. People are fascinated by the idea that, in a world that appears fully mapped by Google Earth, there are still places left to discover, surprises to be had. And there is a profound need out there for a more enchanting relationship to the earth. Stacking up the air miles no longer suffices; long-distance travel is losing its charm. As conversational material, telling people about your latest trip to see the tribes in Thailand is one notch below telling them about your dreams (actually, I love to hear about people’s dreams!). Travel and exploration need to be re-invented for a post-air miles generation and, in part, that has to happen by re-imagining the places we live in as sites of discovery and adventure. The Urban Exploration movement has been doing that for years of course. The Spanish version of Off the Map, which came out in 2017, had a big sticker on the front, which said, ‘This is not a travel book’. I loved that. Even though I travel all the time, and so am a hypocrite, I yearn to stop travelling: to stop confusing being with going.

  1. The Situationists, or Situationist International, were a group of radical thinkers, writers and artists who played a prominent role in laying the groundwork for the May 1968 uprisings in France. Their analysis of 20th-century capitalism was most famously developed in the work of Guy Debord. 

Image:
Darrell Koerner
Trees
North Carolina, USA
From a series of photographs taken during an annual Thanksgiving week pilgrimage to visit family in Virgina and North Carolina. These images are from the countryside east of Raleigh, and are part of a larger project to honour the sacredness of the natural world, chronicling online at The Holy Earth Tantra of Gaian Natural Beauty

Alastair Bonnett is an author and academic geographer. His most recent books include an atlas of 50 world maps called New Views (Aurum, 2017) and Beyond the Map (Aurum, 2017), a book of journeys to overlooked places. His works on the relationship between radical politics and memory include Left in the Past (Continuum, 2010) and a number of academic articles on situationist nostalgia. He lives in Newcastle upon Tyne and works in the Geography Department, Newcastle University.

Darrell Koerner is a wondering Taoist living in Boulder, Colorado, and has been with Chelsea Green Publishing since 2007. Previous non-accomplishments include studying Rinzai and Soto Zen at the Bodhi Manda and San Francisco Zen Centers. Recent photos and writings at The Holy Earth Tantra of Gaian Natural Beauty kozandaishi.wordpress.com.

There’s more where this came from in our latest book. 

Walk Out Into the Rocks

I should tell you who I am, and what I think. But my opinions about anything are of little consequence: there are my connections and relationships, the things I do, and do not do. I am an ecstatic Dorset woman and every day I get to walk on the bright earth I am overjoyed. From the youngest age, the sea-edge was my constant companion, it’s where people from my patch go when they have good news, bad news, or no news. All our first kisses are outdoors, first fumbles are under the pier. Nothing good ever happens without you getting sand in your pants or shoes or both. How you find your first boyfriend is on New Year’s Eve around the clock tower in the square, like it was, back through the centuries, until they demolish it in your adulthood for traffic easing. This is the essential knowledge of all poor, arty, bookish, goth girls from our ends, (before the age of the internet), and there were quite a few of us, hence the Royal ‘we’.
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In February I was sent to make rock paintings for the Dark Mountain: Issue 13 cover. In my bag I had hangman’s ochre from Oxfordshire; rosso ercolano, a red ochre from Italy found in paintings from the Paleolithic, via the Renaissance, to the present day; English willow charcoal; some water and a bristle brush.

I have always dreamed vividly and remembered my dreams, which vary wildly in tone, content, imagery and meaning. Over the last decade these dreams have made their way onto paper, into lyrics, journeys made, and thousands of words recording them all, working with them is part of my practice. It is a new thing for me to paint them on a rock, my usual scale of work can fit on a desk. As I planned the Dorset trip I was not sure what I would paint, I wanted to let the rock surfaces inform any decisions, and not impose. What hubris… Turns out you can’t impose upon Portland stone with a stick of charcoal, I needn’t have worried. In my head I had characters dreamed the two previous nights, they seemed like ancestors, but non or pre-human, my hand drawing them was also part of the narrative, unlike any dreams I had had before. On the train, the beings finally made it into picture form, using charcoal in a sketchbook made from rag paper that I had stitched with willow bark twine. All contained in a bag made of rawhide from a roe deer I skinned and ate last year. I like to make everything from scratch at least once.

I will state the unpopular fact: the earth is alive and sacred. I always knew it and I know it again now, being mostly fully reclaimed from the grid-like grip of the machine. I don’t have one cogent argument to offer in defence of my love of land. It’s all feeling, which is why I can’t be a politician, environmentalist or a writer, perhaps. I tend to stop mid-sentence to light a candle or make an offering. In Parliament, at meetings with one’s editor, and in stand-offs with the police this is not the done-thing. What can I offer?

This painting, my movement and my life, in conversation with the earth.

The ancient yoga of Britain is walking, the pilgrimage. The ancient offering of these islands is conviviality in nature under the wild wood and stars. The wine of the land is spring water. Our altars are stones or wood set upright or recumbent. Reverence is raising love amongst family and friends, celebrating the turning of the year, the welcoming-in of strangers. Art, song and dance should be everywhere. It’s a crime that they’re not. It is equal parts Julian of Norwich and Julian Cope. It is eating large handful of cobb nuts fresh off the ground and beating the squirrels to them. It is also making sure another handful get planted, then tending the hazel trees as they grow, pollarding a few for bean poles and walking staffs. It is remembering to wassail them.

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For years I researched my passions, studied with good teachers about early art materials, wilderness survival and earth skills; then made a bed, bower and fire, staying warm all night and sheltered from the rain, cooking on embers of hazel and bony oak. Oak bark made roofing tiles. In my bower as I lay there under the wild raw thatch, it became clear that the best postures for a human to meet the land are walking, externally, and wonder, inwardly. At the end of the day you can lie under your wool blanket on a bed of springy spruce boughs and wait, open.

As I do each month, this week I rode the train over the great mouth of the River Tay at Dundee which takes four minutes to cross. The green-brown water was rolling under me and the water was flowing in two directions at once. The tide was coming in very strongly, flood tide. The river was full of winter rain flowing down to the sea, following its nature, and causing static waves that looked like the surface of flowstone in Cheddar caves, or like the skin of a great serpent. The wind was also whipping up small white caps on these standing waves. I saw all this with my eyes, but I felt it viscerally. The whole land pleased me so immensely: when I get held by whatever this earth energy is, it feels like this.

Over this entire archipelago, mountains in Ireland and the UK are not so high, even Ben Nevis can be walked in a day. There is no K2, no Ararat, or Eiger. Well-travelled sophisticates sneer at their own mellow lands and do not realise that the valley and the mountain are two parts of the same whole, an ineffable thing that cannot be reduced to spot heights above sea level on maps. The real land magic here is the vastly crenelated coastline. It is so long, going in and out of 100,000 inlets on over 1,000 islands. The rivers and the sea are an embrace, you can’t be sleepy in such arms, they can suddenly squeeze you, and you may drown.

Explaining my love of land to people, I have tried sincere clarity, and well-made arguments, but I never won over anyone for earth that way. Instead I get people excited about mixing paints from cherry tree gum and deep red earths dug, washed and graded by Jonathan the miner in the Forest of Dean, like his ancestors over the last 4400 years. Or by getting people to use their earwax to help mix a blue watercolour from indigo made from woad, and by boiling up oak gall ink from tree bits and rusty nails. If it doesn’t feel great in their body, they won’t care. Materials of earth foster love of land and its preservation.

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On Portland, Dorset, I slept overnight in a hut on the beach, listening to the roar of the spring tide on the pebbles. The cove where I stay has intriguingly shaped stones, which at closer inspection turn out to be sea-rounded quarry waste. The Weares themselves, the high cliffs and ragged, now protected, habitats along the coast, are full of lizards, raptors and tiny versions of wild flowers, happy in the ‘unimproved’ soil. This place is a fecund absence: the stone for St Paul’s Cathedral, Whitehall, The Cenotaph, and so much of what rebuilt official, religious and bureaucratic central London after the Great Fire was removed from here. You can still find huge blocks with Sir Christopher Wren’s sigil on, (an up-turned wine glass). To me this place is the uncivil inverse of the City of London, its exiled, wind-scouredkestrel-eyed wild twin.

In the morning I gathered my materials, walked out into the rocks, and saw what marks got made, it did not feel like decision-making. I was not ‘making my mark’ upon the land. It was tricky to make a way through the giant brambles to the right rocks. Though a clear cold day, with a whipping north-easterly wind, the huge rocks and sea cliffs sheltered me, and I even got a little sun-burned. Yellow, orange-red and black, plus almost white scratches into the rock itself, using smaller rock shards, were the materials. In my art I use these natural ochres all the time, but the difference with rocks is the grand scale they offer, and the unforgiving surface. It will have your knuckle skin as gladly as your paint. I tipped the ochres into two scallop shells then added water and used the stiff brush almost to scrub colour onto the stone. After a few hours balanced amongst giant boulders, in the dazzling gift-horse light of a late winter day, I took some photographs of what had been made.


It rained hard the following week. Within five days the works themselves were washed away.

There’s more where this came from in our latest book.

 

Who Cries for the Archduke?

During his life, Archduke Franz Ferdinand personally killed over 350,000 animals. The logbooks kept under glass at Konopiště Castle scrupulously record each of the Archduke’s successes. Date and species. Occasionally, there is a lively, poetic commentary on the kill from Ferdinand himself:

‘14 August 1909. Ursus nerus. Not black exactly. More of a fine cinnamon colour. Struck the bear in its arse. Bear turned. Fired again. Guten Nacht, Sweet Ursus.’

If the Archduke began hunting when he was ten years old (as Schumann has theorised in his scrupulous biography, Ferdinand: Last Scion of Europe), then the heir to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy would have needed to kill 22 animals a day to stay on track.

Twenty-two beasts a day! This pace is so frenzied that a few radical historians have suggested that Ferdinand began hunting at an age earlier than ten. 

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 *

 The Archduke at 16 months, crawling into position behind a big ten-pointer. The animal stands cautiously, his breath leaving trails in the cold Moravian morning. Young Ferdinand unconsciously emits a senseless exclamation of childhood delight. The buck tenses. Ferdinand’s soft fingers fumble with the heavy trigger. A split second later, gunpowder roars in approval of the toddler’s strength.

The hunted buck collapses, and the Archduke is somersaulted backwards by the recoil of the well-crafted woodsman’s rifle. Eventually, the baby comes to rest near the exposed roots of an oak tree. He begins crying.

The young hunter’s wet nurse is rushed to the scene on horseback. As she swings out of the saddle, her heavy peasant breasts are already bared. But it is not the comfort of milk this young hunter needs now.

The Archduke has crapped himself. 


*

The day Kaiser Wilhelm came to visit, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the German premier shot more than 6,500 pheasants together. Within the first ten minutes of their visit, the Kaiser told a dirty joke involving the Tsarina of Russia and a missing box of snuff. The punchline had Ferdinand in tears. That Kaiser was such a crack-up!

All morning and afternoon, townspeople were employed to run, to clap their hands, or to produce any loud noise that might flush the brilliant pheasants into the open. These same employees were also responsible for collecting the dead birds in brown sacks and for plucking clean the pheasants. The pay for this enterprise was in flesh: a small share of the Archduke’s kill.

Two of the employees, coincidentally both boys in their late teens, were accidentally shot while flushing pheasants into the open. Their families received generous compensation from the Archduke and the Kaiser, respectively.

Any serious historian should take this into account – afternoons when European heads of state came to visit undoubtedly brought the remainder of the Archduke’s daily kill average down to a more reasonable level.


* 

 An excerpt from a letter Ferdinand wrote to his wife during the African safari of 1910, translated from the original German source material by A.M. Schumann:

… today we ate strips of barbecued zebra flesh, a bit overcooked but quite flavourful, not dissimilar from the venison we eat each September, when the forest is teeming with bucks and does. Today we are going after The King of the Hunt, as the natives here call him. It will not be my first lion, of course, but the tension is still quite palpable.   

The fellow we originally wished to guide this expedition has a name that means Lover of Lions in the local dialect. His face has been disfigured quite brutally by a lion’s claws. This was done to him at birth, as it has been done to all the men in his family for the last two generations. Through an interpreter, I asked why such a barbaric practice is allowed to continue in the 20th century. The man paused, then told the interpreter a long story.

The fellow’s grandfather, when the grandfather was a young man, got lost in the desert. He wandered there for a full week. On the seventh day, delirious from thirst and hunger, he came upon a female lion that had just killed a gazelle. The young man threw himself at the lioness’s feet, hoping for a quick and honourable death. But the lioness did not attack. She allowed the young man to drink gazelle blood with her. After drinking this blood, the fellow continued wandering until he found some outpost of civilisation. He survived and eventually gave seed to a prolific family. ‘And that,’ concluded the interpreter, ‘is why all men in this family are marked on the face by a lion’s claws, and why this man, Lover of Lions, cannot be your guide on a lion hunt.’

On the contrary, I felt that such a fellow would be the perfect guide. So I offered the stubborn African ten times, then twenty times, finally a hundred times the going rate, and still he refused me! Some people cannot be helped, and that is a major reason why, in addition to their innate stupidity and laziness, the poor of this world will always be poor.

I miss you tremendously, Sophie.  I will return to you with hunger and an aphrodisiac made from the mighty lion. Tell the children to study their history and mathematics, for these are the foundation of the world. Tell them also that Papa is going to kill a beast for each one of them.

Yours, and always yours,

Franz 

 * 

No matter how varying the opinions on the Archduke’s life, Franz Ferdinand’s death is generally accepted as the precipitating factor for World War One, a conflict which left somewhere in the neighbourhood of 16 million people dead, about half of them civilians.

A single bullet killed the Archduke, passing from the barrel of an assassin’s gun through his intestines. This historic bullet is kept under glass at Konopiště Castle. To see it, one must walk down a corridor lined with thousands of stuffed birds, bears and deer heads. The bullet is polished every year and placed on fresh satin.

Above the bullet is a framed photograph of the Archduke. He is dressed as a mummy. The photograph was taken in Cairo, three years before Ferdinand’s nation-polarising assassination in Sarajevo. Apparently, it was a custom for European nobility to have a ‘mummy photograph’ taken while they were travelling through Egypt. A little joke about death. A thumb-the-nose at The Reaper.

In his mummy photograph, the Archduke does not look jocular. Ferdinand’s moustache is waxed to even points, and his eyes register serious discomfort.

It appears to the casual observer as though death frightened the Archduke.

Maybe, as strict historians like Schumann have suggested, the interpretation of human emotion from a photograph is too subjective to be accurate, too reliant upon the interpreter’s own feelings and agendas. Perhaps the gauze around the Archduke was only a bit too tight that day.

On a writing desk adjacent to the mummy photo, there is a stuffed passenger pigeon, a gift from an American senator. The preserved passenger pigeon looks just as uncomfortable as Ferdinand does in his photo.

The process of taxidermy can sometimes do that to an animal. So can extinction.

In 1810, ornithologist Alexander Wilson estimated that there were over two billion passenger pigeons in a single flock. The birds were so prolific that the skies over American cities would darken for days with the arrival of the pigeons. Naturally, people would feel obliged to shoot them – for food, for sport. For civic duty. For order. For freedom. For the thrill of being able to extinguish life. For a momentary feeling of control over the great mystery. People kill for many reasons.

The last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in 1914. It was the same summer that Archduke Franz Ferdinand took one in the gut. Since then, the Archdukes have been multiplying in secret, under different names and titles. Now they are the ones darkening the skies over many of the world’s cities. Now we are the ones darkening the skies, everywhere.

And the passenger pigeons, they are like words in a lost manuscript, the shadows of their former existence floating with perfect grace and filling the missing pages with a story we can no longer read, or even claim with credibility that we once heard. Imagine: two billion pairs of wings, and their electric song as they divided the sky.

Image:

Katie Tume
The Sacred Beest from ‘Extinct Icons’
Hand embroidery on cotton with gold passing, glass beads, turquoise, lapis lazuli, sequins, cotton thread
The bubal hartebeest was native to the land north of the Sahara desert  and was an animal of significance in ancient Egyptian culture. Its numbers sharply declined in the 19th century after the French conquest of Algeria. The non-human inhabitants of the region were exterminated alongside its people, with entire herds of hartebeest destroyed in single hunting expeditions. The last bubal hartebeest was shot in North Africa around 1925.

Katie Tume is an embroidery artist from Brighton, East Sussex. She is a fifth-generation needleworker who first learned her craft at her mother’s knee. She attended the Surrey Institute of Art and Design as a Fashion and Illustration student, but is largely self-taught in hand embroidery techniques.Katie’s work is influenced by folklore, mythology, pagan societies and the old gods. She is currently working on  projects around ritualising animal death and lost species

There’s more where this came from in our latest book.

Dark Mountain: Issue 13

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

 

Being Human in the Thick of the Present

Editorial: Being Human in the Thick of the Present

The painted figures you see on the cover of this book are no longer to be found on the Dorset coastline. The images made by Caroline Ross from ochre pigments and charcoal were quickly scoured from the uneven surfaces by ice and wind and violent rain. What looks like it would last for millennia lasted only hours.

What happens when we witness time scrub away evidence of our existence, when it covers our words with leaves, when our language becomes entwined with the lost tracks of animals? When letters turn into trees, pages burst into flames, when our language comes apart and its fragments cohere into other shapes? When we hold time in our bodies and not in our minds, what stories do we then tell?

So much of our discussion about life on this planet is rooted in the past – what we did wrong, why we made such awful choices, who is to blame. Then, as we build our cases against the offending parties and write tome after tome about the sins of our fathers, we leapfrog into debates for solutions, creating lists of best practices, which get us mired in predictions of disaster and rash preparations for apocalypse. We so easily look to the past for explanations, our meaning-making dependent on ancient cultural practices that still haunt our ways of knowing. But once the past satisfies our search for meaning, the future tugs at that satisfaction and our intellects settle in imagined worlds not yet formed. What the languages of blame and hope skip over are the quieter present moments where memory and desire are tempered. So much of learning to live with the reality of a present self is about relinquishing our obsession for our past and future selves. And so, here we are in the 13th issue of Dark Mountain caught in an existential bind, using language to explore being human by letting go of many of the things language creates.

With any number of destructive human behaviours to relinquish, there is one common reckoning that comes into focus, as we explore what to keep and what to leave behind – how our language and behaviours help construct our notions of time. Many of the works in this issue imagine what it might feel like to see ourselves more as biotic constituents living in emergent ecosystems, rather than as mere social conscripts tied to entrenched and tired ideologies. The stories, poems and artworks invite us to explore how we might live more fully in what critical theorist Karen Barad calls ‘the thick now of the present’.

When we hold time in our bodies and not in our minds, what stories do we then tell?

As the living world buckles, many of us find ourselves re-examining the most dearly held beliefs about our own biology. In these pages, Nina Pick and Emma Giffard hold up motherhood as a troubled, complicated domain, once a woman recognises that the futures these new babies will inhabit are cloudy, opaque places menaced by what these offspring will inherit from their parents.

How we reckon the past largely depends on how much of the future we lay claim to. Michael McLane’s poem, for example, describes the use of a natural hot springs by different generations, and asks us to live with a fuller picture of history. Tom Smith’s conversation with Alastair Bonnett re-valorises the much-maligned feeling of nostalgia that stalks civilised life. Sarah Thomas, drawing on fragments of books salvaged from a house fire, examines how quickly disasters – ‘natural’ and otherwise – pull our attention away from the quaint and comfortable past to realise there is only this time we call Now.

Katie Tume’s icons, immortalising the great auk and bubul haaatebeest, show us how to honour extinct creatures with beauty and some measure of joy. In Kate Walters’ Horse Island Woman and Meinrad Craighead’s Woman with Ravens we see the fluid relationship between the human and the non-human, while in Katie Holten’s swirling list of microbial flora found on and in our own bodies, we see the collective bloom of the myriad communities of organisms that we refer to with the single term human. All these works help redefine that term. Each one of us is an ecological jubilation in real time!

But functioning as lived biological bodies, more centred in Barad’s thick now of the present, isn’t easy. It’s full of misdirection and miscommunication. It’s learning to re-imagine human language as speaking with other creatures through one’s own body, as Sara Hudston does with her horse, to learn to live together as imperfect beasts and give up our hunt for unicorns. Tuning human bodies to present-focused biological frequencies is to accompany Jane Woodhouse as she births lambs in Iowa. In the simple observation of how other creatures come into being, the human measure of time slows and we too learn to breathe like beasts.

To release our white-knuckled grips on the past and the future is to run through the ancient rocks of the Peak District with James Disley, surrounded by the crowds of weekend “nature lovers”. Being a present human being is to let laughter help release our anxieties with Andrew Boyd’s gallows humour and Natalia Zajaz’s comic poke at our human responses to climate change. To fully experience the feeling of letting go is to float with Mark Rutter in the thick now of ocean tides or learn to walk the most dangerous paths in nature with Kyle Holton, to bathe in and absorb our deepest fears of the elemental and animal Other.

We have learned by now, after 12 issues of Dark Mountain, that to fix the ills of the past by focusing all our energies on drafting our best and brightest future is to undervalue our current disrupted but still vibrant lives. Daily biological living goes mostly unattended and unnoticed because much of it is so uninspiring to so many of us. ‘You have evolved from worm to man, but much within you is still worm.’ With these words, Friedrich Nietzsche admonishes us to let go of our most damaging sapience, to feel more intensely what it is to be Homo:, a temporary stochastic spark in that great chain of biological being. To sense the worm inside is to see that such a creature is not inert. The worm still has purpose. It has dirt to get through, defecations to make, its whole body to grow back when the spade of a careless gardener slices it in half. This type of biological existentialism concerns letting go of so much of what we think it means to be human, to free our minds and bodies from damaging social practices to embrace the immediate, unexplored and ecstatic ecologies that are right in front of us. These few sentences can never reveal the complexities and richness to be found inside this issue. We encourage you to delve deeper. The ecologies of Now are calling.

The Editors, Spring 2018

ERRATUM: On p.200 we incorrectly attributed the author of ‘Bearing Witness to a Disappearing World’ to Michael Mahay. It is in fact by Michael Malay. We apologise for the mistake.

Dark Mountain: Issue 13

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

 

Uncivilising the Table

We are looking at a plate. Tiny translucent slices of fish are artfully arranged around its rim. It is 1990 and we are in a Japanese restaurant in downtown Manhattan. ‘Who is going first?’ we wonder and laugh nervously. I am with Hamilton and Steve. We’ll all go at once we decide and put the poisonous raw fugu in our mouths, declaring that a tingling was definitely happening. The dish costs $50.

We are looking at a plate. On it piled in chunky layers are home-baked sourdough bread, crispy seaweed and a poached egg. It is 2017 and we are outside in the lee of the Dorset cliffs, cooking on a camping stove. Everyone wants to go first. I am with Caroline, Jack and Mark and yesterday we cut the bright green fronds from the rocks, as the aquamarine sea swirled about our feet. We declare this is possibly the best breakfast we have ever had and laugh.

This is a story about food and powerdown. It could seem like a personal story except that it is not: it is a social story about how everything changes when you break the illusions your civilisation is wrapped in.  In 1990 I am staying in the Algonquin Hotel, covering the US fashion collections, and I know nothing about the industrial food system; in 2017 I am staying in a hut on a beach, talking about Dark Mountain, and I know all its dark secrets. Decades later the Spring collections will still send beige raincoats down the catwalk and the forests of kelp will continue to wave their ancestral arms in the currents of the English channel – but the world I am documenting, like the food I now cook, is radically different.

This is a series called Dark Kitchen: a set of pieces that will look at and question the culture of food in times of fall. It’s not a subject Dark Mountain has focused on before, even though writing and cooking share a creative terroir, not least in their ability to bring things to the table, to alchemise raw material into food for the mind, heart and body. Up to now any focus on food has been practical: the Uncivilisation festivals hosted foraging walks, we’ve published pieces on mead making, bread baking in Australia and a recipe for a very rooty, roadkill pheasant stew; this series aims to bring a writer’s and artist’s particular attention to food from a Dark Mountain perspective.

Our focus will not be on the labyrinth, the whirlygig of distribution centres and trucks that thunder along our roads, all the data and polemic, but on finding the dancing floor beneath it. Around all our sentences lie the deforested lands, the denuded and poisoned oceans, the lost soil, the vast herds of creatures living and dying invisibly in dark sheds. We know what is going down. Our core question is, once you have railed at the machine that holds us in its palm-oiled maw, what do you do as an artist, as a storytelling human being, knowing that every time you venture out with a shopping basket, you return with blood on your hands?

Dark Kitchen aims to gather some of the stories about food that go untold at the edge of our civilisation. All civilisations flourish and flounder according to their ability to feed themselves. All of us, as human animals, no matter where we exist, on what social and political map, need to eat to live. Like death, this is a fact of our existence here. How we can we do that sustainably, with kindness, with fairness, is a question many grassroots organisations and activists ask themselves.

One they do not necessarily ask however is: how do we change the story of our lives, built as it is on millions of years of living in hunter/gatherer bodies, thousands of years living in wheat and barley-fed civilisations, in nomadic milk-herding geographies? Food is not a matter of intellectual debate: it is physical and feeling memory, deep time memory, cultural and personal history. It is people and relationships with domestic and wild creatures, conviviality, tradition, hunger, belonging, snobbery. Roast dinners, fish and chips by the sea. It is hunting deer and keeping chickens, curry on a Friday night when you were a student. It is visiting the markets of Morocco, or France, or your gran who cooked the best lemon meringue pie ever.

How do you come up with a new way of interacting with the world that means all that culture stored inside of you and everyone you know, constantly reflected from shiny magazine pages, on TV screens, on your best friend’s Instagram, has to go?

Roland Barthes observed in his seminal work Mythologies how the modern left faltered before the sheer power and sexiness of the capitalist advertising industry. How can you match the pull it has on your most basic desire: to eat delicious food, tasting of fat and salt and sweet, ready made without effort, without thinking of where it has come from, a food without consequence, untainted by guilt. Every day feast food, seeped in the lure of luxury, convenience, pleasure, control – the defining signature of a corporate lifestyle.

A humble recipe for vegan nut roast is not going to cut the mustard, any more than modern socialism has been able to counter market fundamentalism. The glamour and snobbery of high culture, and the physical desires and  habits of most people, are too strong. Something else has to pull you more powerfully in another direction: something that has its roots in the land, in a deeper culture that also looks prophetically to the future,  that has intelligence, meaning and ethics and still tastes good.

One thing corporate dining, for all its cheffy fancies and huge glasses of wine, does not have and never will: the relationship with the non-human, with the earth, with the plants and creatures who stand to go down with us if we don’t dismantle the labyrinth. This relationship is above all things a matter of the heart.

Dark Kitchen is about remembering one of the oldest and simplest stories ever told: a love affair with the fabric of life.

Powerdown

Bread b7w

Where did the shift away from that plate of fugu begin? I read a cookbook by Colin Spencer with a no-holds-barred description of slaughterhouses. I gave up eating meat. I read End of the Line by Charles Clover. I gave up eating fish. I read Eat Your Heart Out, Felicity Lawrence’s document about corporate control and the fate of African workers in the glasshouses of Spain and Italy. I gave up buying out-of-season tomatoes. I stopped going to supermarkets. Then I went to a documentary hosted by a local Transition initiative where Derrick Jensen spoke about the agricultural revolution and how it had decimated the wild world. Somewhere a restaurant door slammed shut and an allotment gate clicked open.

In Transition I bumped into everything that the advertising and supermarkets keep in the dark: land grabs, slavery, GM, pesticides decimating insect and bird populations, slurry from pig farms killing the rivers and oceans. I started to look at the barley and beet fields outside my window in a new light and shudder.

In those grassroots community activism years, food growing connected us all: we knew that growing radishes would not change the world but it would radically change our relationships with the earth and with each other. I became a serial food blogger charting the downshifting moves within food production: growing co-ops, box schemes, gleaning networks, apple-pressing weekends, potato days, community bakers, seed swaps, the plight of the honey bees, and the ex-Agriculture minister John Gummer telling us at a farmers’ conference on Climate Change and Food Security:

This is the biggest issue agriculture has faced, and unlike the Depression in the 1930s and the Black Death we are not facing this in ignorance. And because we know we are responsible. People don’t want to know of course, because once you know it changes you and you are ashamed.

It was a time where people on panels said these kinds of things and prophesied that bio-tech loaves and fishes would feed the 9 billion. It was a time of bringing potatoes to Occupy camps and wild weed salads to low-carbon meetings, of rescuing a whole side of salmon and punnets of strawberries from the Latitude festival recycling bins, cooking Mexican and raw food feasts for community diners. It was a time where The Monitor in the kitchen told me exactly how much power was eking out of the fridge and the kettle. When some women wept and struggled with their Tesco habit, and others implored me not to tell them exactly what their shrimp habit was doing to the seabed or the coastal mangroves of South East Asia.

But something was missing. Everything I wrote had this evangelical tone. We need to reduce our energy use! Get in season! Make your store cupboard resilient! Wake up to the real price of consumerism! I realised neither knowledge nor social justice gives enough heft for people to change tracks. To be in synch with the living systems, to restore the land, to eat beautifully with conscience, to find meaning in an everyday humble meal, an imaginative relationship with the physical world had to be created. Our hearts had to be rekindled by something stronger, more alluring, than any feel-bad information. Something you never thought of before  like seaweed for breakfast on a limestone beach in September.

A short story about beansBeans 2

I am standing on Dark Mountain’s Base Camp stage, holding a handful of field beans. These beans are what this weekend is all about, I am telling the gathering. Field beans have been grown here in Britain since the Iron Age and embody one of the uncivilised principles of the manifesto  being rooted in time and place.

The beans are produced by my friend Josiah, who started a small business in a nearby Suffolk market town with Nick and William five years ago. The beans were all about shortening the supply chain, encouraging farmers to grow a crop that was either given to cattle or sold to the Middle East, and that was nutritious not only for an eat-less-meat-and-dairy-cook-from-scratch culture, but also for the soil that is being rapidly depleted by fossil-fuelled farming.

But most of all the beans were about telling a different story. A Jack in the Beanstalk story about a boy who sells his mother’s cow for a handful of beans that totally changes their luck. The beans were followed by peas of many colours, and then quinoa (grown not in Bolivia but in Essex), and now lentils, naked barley and oats, and a host of other grains and pulses, grown with the same kind of attention to place and provenance that has made local craft beers rocket in popularity in the face of corporate brewing. In short, a whole shelf of basic goods that would normally be imported, in fields that would normally host monocultural commodity crops grown for the global market. Last year Hodmedods won BBC Producer of the Year and had to move warehouses, as everyone else began to agree those beans just took you to places that Mr Heinz never could.

One of the successes of the fava bean is that it is a beloved ingredient in the fragrant and spicy cuisines of  the Middle East and other countries. To end each of our Dark Kitchen posts we’ll be cooking up a recipe that will capture the flavour of some of the story we’re telling, that shows though we may live in more austere restricted times, there need be no limit to our imaginations and flair and generosity. This is a classic North African dish made with fava beans instead of chickpeas and served with quinoa instead of couscous. It can serve two to four people  just add less or more veg.

Seven vegetable tagine

Soak a big handful of fava beans overnight and then cook until soft (approx 40 minutes). Keep to one side. Whole beans keep their shape but split fava is OK too if you don’t mind a bit of collapse in your cooking (no need to soak).

Chop one onion and fry gently in olive oil in a largish saucepan. When softened add 2 cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of ras el hanout spice (or a mix of cumin, coriander, mixed spice and chilli pepper) and fresh green chilli if you like it hot. Stir and then add your roughly chopped seven veg which will depend on season: swede, leeks and parsnips in winter for example, courgettes, green pepper and turnips in the summer. You’re looking for a strong taste and a chunky texture, so celery and carrots are good. Cabbage however is key and can be added half way through the main cooking so it keeps its form.

Stir in the spicy oil for a minute or two then add 2 tomatoes and a squeeze of tomato puree, or the equivalent in tinned tomatoes, and water to just below the level of the veg. Throw in a handful of sultanas and half a preserved lemon (or a couple of slices and the juice of half a fresh squeezed lemon). Stir, pop on the lid and cook until the veg starts to soften (about 15 minutes). Add the beans for a further five.

Before serving add salt and black pepper to taste, plus a big handful of chopped coriander and/or parsley. Served with quinoa, flavoured with orange zest, cinnamon and toasted sunflower seeds, a bowl of slaw or salad, and some feisty harissa.

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 mid-March. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to [email protected] Thanks all and bon appetit!

Images: Medlars in a Sieve by Food/ Still life photography: Sue Atkinson www.sueatkinson.co.uk; loaves from a co-operative oven, Can Piella, Catalonia by Phillip Evans ; a handful of (field) beans by Mark Watson

 Peri-urban Forager 1Charlotte Du Cann is an editor and art editor on the Dark Mountain Project. She has worked as a waitress, a cook, a food stylist, a food editor, written a book about food and society (Offal and the New Brutalism) and run a collaborative Transition initiative called One Planet Community Kitchen  She loves to grow asparagus kale but cooks it better. charlotteducann.blogspot.com

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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