Dispatch 65: Wayfarer Waylaid

They were the monsoon months. It is not even rain as such but a continuous descent of tiny droplets, barely visible to the eye; like a large, soft and misty blanket of wetness wrapping one’s naked body. Like all umbrellas elsewhere one of the Sihadi(1) leaves helps but not much when it is raining without let. After about ten days it stops for a week or so. Soon the sun shines through. Bodies and beings need to dry. After a few days the blanket lowers again. It is good for Penda(2). The loose soil does not run down the hill face nor broadcasted seeds wash away. Fear of being accosted by bears decreases; fastidious at remaining clean, they do not enjoy the wet season. Whereas other animals are usually wary of humans, bears are not. There are now more snakes, scorpions and other creatures.

I waited for a companion to walk with me to Sonepur. Jaggery and matchboxes had to be brought from further off Narayanpur. Jaggery was needed for an occasional sweet tooth, for Abujhmad does not have the sweet, or the salty. Of course there were honey combs and small wild mangos on the trees but they were not as readily forthcoming as the sweet tooth. I could not learn the art of making fire from flint stones and raw silk, the stones ever slipping through my fingers. Though there was almost always a large, dead tree dragged to the ‘middle’ of the village to get the hearth fires from3, I was not a success with that either. Blowing into the ancient hearth to convert the embers gently into a flame is an art not easy to master. Matchbox, dry grass, leaves and split bamboo came in handy. The village felt an unease about the matchbox and continued with the dead tree or flint.

The distance from Garpa, the village of my residence, to Sonepur was about 30 kilometres; from Sonepur to Narayanpur about 40. In the beginning I visited Narayanpur every four months or so for such errands. It was the nearest market; also the nearest road, bus stand, post office, tea shack, jalebi shop and paraphernalia. Of about 70 odd families Sonepur is the only non-Abujhmadia village in the region. Garpa with its seven scattered huts came second. Compared to the three or four huts of an average Abujhmadia village, Sonepur is a city of sorts. Apart from the Halbas it has a Jogi (Hindu mendicant sub-caste) and a Panka family. Pankas are makers of tudbudis (musical drums) and players of the flute during festivals. There is agriculture and milch cattle. Abujhmadias do not know agriculture, nor do they milk cattle.

The rough terrain of hills, large boulders, moss-covered slippery trails, thick and – at places – impenetrable vegetation, wild animals, other creatures, rivers and streams made the journey hard. If there was a strong shower somewhere far away – of which one would not know – the river or stream would rise abruptly. One could be swept away midstream. Nor was it easy then to clutch onto one of the big boulders for they were moss-covered and slippery, too. Usually those on the other bank waiting for the waters to subside would jump in to the rescue. People on the other bank were, however, a chance and rarity. There may never be a bigger deterrent than wild and untamed Nature; nor better defence. Walking alone was forbidden by the wild and its circumstance. Unlike the outside world Abujhmad has not conquered its landscape, nor its distances. Nobody had to caution anybody against walking alone. It was as much a ‘given’ as cautiously crossing a road of busy traffic in a city lest it be fatal. Whereas the walk was hard, finding a companion was harder. People did not visit other places except for fairs and festivals. The practise of visiting friends or relatives  was almost non-existent. Even the notion of ‘friend’ was practically absent. Animals do not have friendships, nor trees or hills. ‘Friendship’ seems to have arisen much later with coming of human societies and complexities in relationships. Just like vocabulary and work, people in Abujhmad did not need many relationships, nor were existing relationships needed much. That need or sensibility to run errands, too, was superfluous. People did not have work in another village; or even their own.

For village congregations

Apart from Sonepur or Narayanpur, there were other travels, too – to Hikunar, Ehnar, Nelnar, Kutul and other villages of the deep interior. Everywhere one needed a companion. In the initial stages, walking was mostly for ethnographic purposes. As time went by and the inner apparatus began waning, wild Abujhmad was gradually beginning to descend on me. All needs as such began wilting too. Wild Nature takes over eventually; just like the shorn Penda patch on a hill face reverts to untamed vegetation when left alone. Eventually both ethnography and travel dropped. Like others in Garpa I began staying put. It was then I realised how much inner apparatus one carries unnecessarily. Ethnography, geography, history, earth, space, memory and vision, wisdom, values and ideals, ideas and concepts, relationships and friendships… much of it worthless. Abujhmad is an altogether different centre of living.

Having spread the word amongst our large village of seven huts, I would wait for someone. After a few days or weeks even if someone did come along the ‘problem’ remained still. For, after reaching Sonepur I had to wait for another companion to Narayanpur – in the same ‘timeless’ frame. Walking was in stages, interspersed by days and weeks – all for such elementary needs as matchboxes and jaggery. At either place the wait was an average of 10-15 days. It could be much longer during monsoon for none wanted to risk with the rivers, thick undergrowth and  slippery climbs. A journey of three days could take anywhere from 20-30, or even more. The baggage of my sense of time and its needs made life hard. Eventually both jaggery and matchbox were given up. Waiting endlessly to do something, not knowing when and with whom it would be done, is always hard. When there is nothing to do or nowhere to go, waiting, impatience, anxiety, companion or friends do not come into play. Mercifully, like match boxes and jaggery, ethnography and research weaned too. I felt better.

Many a time it was Masiya who accompanied me to Sonepur – more out of pity than purpose. At Sonepur I was usually put up by the Panka family. Or, if the taste buds longed for chicken curry, it could be had only at Verma guru ji’s in the 4,000 square kilometres of the region. I then stayed with Verma guru ji, who lived alone and was versed in the ways of the outside world and chicken curry, including free procurement of chickens from frequently unsuspecting parents. Sonepur had Abujhmad’s only school and guru ji was the headmaster. He was a friend and the only one with whom I could speak in Hindi (he came from northern Madhya Pradesh). He stored cooking oil, onions and some elementary dry spices. Though the luxury of a suitable chicken was most appealing to the buds, staying with the ‘musical’ family was to my heart. They looked after me as their own, for such is human warmth everywhere. But that also meant cutting firewood in the forest for the family and getting the head-loads home, herding the goats into their enclosure before sunset and releasing them early in the morning lest they bring the heavens down – which they often did. An occasional breach in the household bamboo fence called for mending. Frequently, animal bones had to be powdered on a rock and mixed with crushed tobacco for the family to chew; or learning the art of trapping bird, going with others to catch fish and crabs and ‘earn’ my share. A nap in the afternoon was an invariable must. Much time was spent gossiping, joking or playing with children. Then came the dinner and all – humans, dogs, cats, poultry and an occasional goat –  sat around the family fire; humans with tobacco in mouth and spit in flames. Animals huddled for warmth; humans for warmth and the old man’s tales – tales of rains, insects, animals, gods, spirits, ancestors, streams and vegetation, of the misconducts of gods and spirits, and the punishments they received; of myths, rites and symbols. Halba stories are longer than the Abujhmadia’s and do not end so abruptly. Nothing had changed over the long years since the storyteller’s childhood, not even the pitch or intonations, or the verve and enthusiasm to huddle together each night for tales. Almost each family had this indulgence. As the tales unfolded, someone or other would roll to the ground, followed by someone else, then someone else, till the old man called it a day. Then babies and elders all slept with their backs to the fire for warmth and to keep the evil spirits, snakes and scorpions away. Someone snored, someone muttered, someone flailed a leg or two; others slept noiselessly. None complained. Youngsters in the rest of Abujhmad live in the village Ghotul(3) at night, at Sonepur they sleep at home. Halbas do not have Ghotuls.

Ghotul

 This went on day after day and night after night. A companion was still hard to find but awaited nevertheless. When the time came we would trudge together to far away Narayanpur. About ten kilometres beyond Bengur river the terrain began easing up as gradually the outside world emerged. Lesser vegetation, lesser waters, lesser silence and lesser mysteries – it surely is a different world. It was time for the other to turn and hurry back before the sun went down. He would not be permitted to stay with me at the PWD Rest House or that of the Forest Department. As is the practice in other villages in India, none would ask me to bring back some provision – turmeric, spice, oil, shirt etc – from the town. It was not worth having.

Sonepur does not have many preoccupations related to work. It has many social ones though. Abujhmad does not have them. ‘Human affairs’ are as invisible and as still as Nature. Not much happens in its villages of three or four scattered huts. In this respect it is yet to be a human society. Sonepur is surrounded on all sides by Abujhmad. Abujhmadias come to Sonepur now and then for fairs, festivals and other occasions. Yet they do not take to its ways. Their sensitivities maintain a quiet and desolate distance.

Looking back at my journeys, I find the wayfarer has been waylaid.

Giant leaves of a vine; used as umbrella
2 Shifting cultivation
3 A semi-circular structure of thatch and bamboo in the village for unmarried youngsters. Once married, one can never re-enter a Ghotul.

 

Roots

For an ant this is a cathedral.
It’s being treated as a pariah.
It waits for a sound –
religion is about overhearing.

The ant wants entry.

Roots are comic, like religion.
Everything invisible is comic –
light, love, vapour, god, ghost.
And roots, hidden, like breath.

The confidence of soil,
the openness of water,
the stubbornness of pebbles.
These the ant knows.
But all old knowledge is useless –
it only lights the street, not the house.

The ant wants entry.

The sweetness of light, its seeds
and scales, gives the soil chronology.
For anything outside light has nothing,
no skin, no appetite, and no history.

The ant wants entry.

How well the roots fit into the soil –
space as well-utilised as in a hotel room.
Its tightness, without excess, like a sentence.
There’s no centre, as if it were oil.

The ant wants entry.

Death violates us, exposes orifices.
Roots shrivel, the soil releases its prisoner.
Ants rush to occupy the slum.
Converts, they treat roots as outcasts.

Back to your roots:
A new religion is born.


Image: Gustaf Broms makes images through performance and video, as a tool to explore the process of Being. This image from the video installation, ‘The Tree’, was an attempt to look at a civilisation in sync with the rhythm of  seasons. To see the human drama as cyclical movements, breathing in, breathing out. orgchaosmik.org

The Secret Opinions of Rivers

Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has,’ wrote the twentieth-century English poet A. E. Housman in a letter to a friend, ‘it may be inadvisable to draw it out … perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.’ W. B. Yeats, his Irish contemporary agreed and put the case more succinctly. ‘What can be explained’, he stated, ‘is not poetry.’

Poetry, like all the best things in life, makes sense but can’t necessarily be explained. This is not because it has no structure, form or meaning. It is because whatever the essence of a real poem is, it does not really operate at the level of the rational, calculative, reasoning mind. This is why analysis can so often kill a poem, as it can kill any piece of art. Dissection, with a poem as with a butterfly, is the surest way to reduce the curious, brittle essence of life to a slide-full of dead cells and hinged, hollow limbs.

Poetry is like love, or myth, or the sound of the rain in a primeval forest at dusk. Inherent in it is some power, some mystery. If constructed correctly, it can even be a form of incantation; of magic. When it works, the indications are physical: the hairs on your neck, as Housman also suggested, may bristle if you think of a good poem while shaving. If you don’t shave your neck, there may be a tingle in your guts or fingertips. Word-magic operates beyond the mental plane. Auden’s claim that ‘poetry changes nothing’ has never been true. Poetry changes everything, so thoroughly that it can be hard to see that anything has changed at all.

I wouldn’t claim that my poems have any of these qualities, though it’s good to have something to aspire to. I think there is another quality that a poem can have, though: one to which I also aspire, and one which a good myth or a serious fairytale has – it can be a form of communication between the world of humanity and the rest of life on earth.

‘Man’s half-dream’, wrote the Californian poet Robinson Jeffers in The Beauty of Things, ‘Man, you might say, is nature dreaming…’ As he so often liked to do, Jeffers ended this poem with a statement, which also doubled as his manifesto:

                        —to feel
Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural
Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.
The rest’s diversion …

Call me a Romantic (I’d take it as a compliment), but I believe the world is more alive than we can currently understand, and that our society’s project of de-souling and de-animating it is the root cause of the sense of loss, the great ache, that seems to underlie so much of the modern project. Theologian and ecologist Thomas Berry presented the modern dilemma as a break in age-old speech:

We are talking to ourselves. We are not talking to the river, we are not listening to the river. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking the conversation we have shattered the universe.

When humans talk only to themselves, they shatter the universe. It is quite a claim, but it is the claim that Jeffers too was writing of when he warned the human-centric Modernist poets a century ago about that ‘diversion’. The diversion is an act of forgetting, and not just for poets. Forgetting that, in the words of conservationist Aldo Leopold, ‘mountains have secret opinions.’ Mountains, hawks, hares, great diving beetles, tardigrades, walnut trees, cloud banks. What else? We have to write to find out.

Seven years ago, in the empty places of Chilean Patagonia, I saw rivers and forests as I had never really seen them before: cold and wild and untamed. I have spent time in tropical forests and on Himalayan plateaus, but I had never before been in a wild, temperate environment where the climate and the species resembled those of my homeland. I walked in the great forests of Patagonia and felt as if I had stepped back 30,000 years into Europe as it was before the axe. It was a strange, haunting feeling: as if my animal body had returned home to a place it had never been.

The rivers had the same impact: they were wild and blue, raging and unchannelled. Threatened, too, by a giant mega-dam project which the Chilean government, in a predictable quest for ‘development’ was planning to impose upon the waters (but which, in a rare and beautiful piece of good news, they have since ditched, in response to widespread protest). I had never seen anything like this before. A poem is inadequate in the face of a river, but poems came roaring out of me then like water through a sluice. Wild places tend to have that effect on me.

It’s taken me more than half a decade to prepare those poems for publication, but my new collection, Songs from the Blue River, now seems like an experiment in trying to re-start the long-stalled conversation that nobody ever taught me how to have. In the central poem of the collection, the narrator hears the river’s secret opinion about him:

I was not sleeping when it rose manlike
from the Blue River and approached me on the shore.
This beast of water this column of spray
and foam blue in the early light
of a southern dawn.

It said I have been watching
and I am here to remind you
that you are animal and you kill
you are animal and you eat
you are animal and you run
you are animal and you grip
the unfleet land until its shape is your own.

I am river and I flow I will flow over you
if I can I will destroy you
if you can you will dam and harvest me
if I can I will break your dam and drown your cities.

You know we are only doing what we do
you know I do not need to be saved
you know there is no shame there is only being
you know that all of us are water

It’s hard to know how to reply when a river speaks to you, but he does his best:

I said I try to imagine you but I imagine me
I try to step out of me but I find myself returned

I try to unflex these ape claws
damp down these ape thoughts I aim
my arrow at the concept but it flies through and past

I say you are water not man I am man not water
we should come to an agreement
and the water says nothing because it is water

The world will not speak to me
because the world is not thinking
only I am thinking only my tribe is thinking

we are billions of us thinking
strung along this line we call time
thinking we are tracing it to its end
believing in ends

Thinking about rivers like we think about money
opening the veins of the world and drinking its heat
telling stories around the cooling ashes
we were made to be free we were made

There is an ache in all of my fingers
something is pulling at my tendons from within

There is nowhere to go but on.

I don’t know what the river would think of this, but I like to think the invertebrate kingdom would approve of my attempt to imagine an earthworm’s opinion about agriculture. ‘The cut worm’, suggest William Blake, ‘forgives the plough.’ Wondering whether a worm would agree with this opinion was the jumping-off point for my poem ‘Wretched of the Earth’. If nothing else, this fills a gap in the poetry market as it currently exists. There are surely not enough poems out there written from the point of view of earthworms.

This thing, forgiveness, it is no thing of ours.
Pull back the share, the steel, your eager weapon
blooded in mulch and crumb.
That was the war that changed everything.

The daggers, the rifles, we approve of these.
The scuds and the sidewinders, the bat-dark drones,
the robot suits and the self-healing minefields:
we encourage your work in these areas.

But the plough, the harrow, the tractor wheel,
the horse’s shoe that makes a pan of our place:
we defy them. We will live in the gaps
in your dominion. We will wait you out
here, beneath, the wretched

of the Earth you tricked to float like seabirds,
moored to nothing but your words.
Where will you roost when the plough
is stilled, rusts over, comes to soil again?
We have been patient.
We will bury you.

Humans – modern humans, anyway – often enjoy listing the qualities that make them ‘unique’; different from ‘the animals.’ This list has been shrinking enjoyably for the last century or so, as scientific discoveries force us to remove qualities or activities – language, song, art, agriculture, tool use, group mourning, slavery, war, genocide – which we had previously imagined only Homo sapiens indulged in. We still have a few features which are looking fairly safe from encroachment though. Clothing, for instance. Fire. Writing.

Now, as I write this, I suddenly wonder if these are all words for the same thing.

In which

The twined legs and the roaring blood
and the shade of the elms I have never seen
in my flat place by the river
where the still pool is overhung with osiers
and the time is always June before the war.

We move together where nothing has fallen
and beyond the trees there is only white
and the calling of the birds who have gone now
but who one day will come back.

One day, it will all come back.

 

Songs from the Blue River, by Paul Kingsnorth, is published by Salmon Poetry, and can be ordered directly from their website.

 

Bearing Witness to a Disappearing World

In ‘Blacksmith Shop’, Czeslaw Milosz describes a childhood visit to the local smithy. He remembers the blacksmith standing above the anvil, hammering away at a piece of iron, and the incredible heat of the furnace. A group of horses stand outside, ready to be shod, while a collection of tools await repair: ‘plowshares’, ‘sledge runners’, ‘harrows’. ‘I liked the bellows operated by rope’, Milosz writes, and ‘that blowing and blazing of fire’. Transfixed, he watches as the iron is bent glowingly into a horseshoe.

Milosz’s catalogue of objects is mundane. The poem lists the normal accoutrements of a blacksmith shop: bellows, a pair of tongs, an anvil. Yet there is an intensity to the speaker’s gaze, and a tenderness to the poet’s voice, that transfigures what it names. Held lovingly in the space of the poem’s recollections, the scene is restored to the primacy of the present tense. ‘I stare and stare’, Milosz writes, recalling the gusts of heat at his chest. ‘It seems I was called for this: / To glorify things just because they are.’

I had reason to think of Milosz recently, when, early last summer, the Polish government defied an EU court order to halt logging in Białowieża, one of Europe’s last primeval forests and home to the rare European bison. And the thought emerged: if one task of the poet, as implicitly defined by Milosz, is to ‘glorify things just because they are’, what might it mean to write poetry today, in an era of climate change, environmental degradation and mass species extinction? How might one bear witness to a disappearing world? (‘Daffodils at the end of January!’ a friend remarked, uttering a sentence his grandparents would not have understood. Meanwhile, current rates of extinction are 1,000 times higher than normal background levels, with dozens of species dying off every day. In a few decades, whole forms of life – whole ways of understanding – have changed.)

Milosz exemplifies one possible response to the current tumult. Born in 1911, he was three when the Great War broke out, six at the time of the Russian Revolution and 28 at the start of World War Two, which he spent in Nazi-occupied Warsaw translating Shakespeare and writing for underground presses. Despite writing poetry at a time of great upheaval, however, he managed to keep faith with the aesthetic impulse to praise and to appraise, to record and to make – and, through making – to mend. He saw one function of poetry as holding up an imaginative shield to the world, by way of protecting things – people, landscapes, objects – from the ravages of historical time. That haven was ultimately a flimsy one – it was made of words, after all – but since words were carried from person to person, like secret letters passed between friends, the fragility of poetry was also its strength. Precious things, whispered into the ear, inspired a fidelity unlike anything else. ‘Working with Czeslaw is like reliving the whole of the 20th century through this prism of great specificity’, according to Robert Hass, one of Milosz’s English translators. ‘It has been very important to him to remember exactly how, say, wine was stored in 1930s working-class Paris, or the precise details of the elaborate hairdo of his piano teacher in Vilno in 1921.’

Witness poetry implies the hope of restitution and redress … But what hope for those countless creatures who perish without word or witness?

But Milosz was not only a poet of celebration. If one function of poetry was to affirm the beauty of things, another was to judge, censure, rebuke. ‘Do not feel safe’, Milosz writes in one of his poems, for the ‘poet remembers.’ He remembers those who ‘wronged’ their fellows, who laughed at the scene of the crime, and who blurred the line between ‘good and evil’. And, against these acts of destruction, acts which have an interest in effacing their own presence, the poet bears witness and testifies: ‘The words are written down, the deed, the date.’ The living, Milosz has written elsewhere, ‘owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.’

Today, one might say that the criminals are the Murdochs, Kochs and Tillersons of the world, as well as the multinational companies – the BPs, Monsantos and Cargills – who continue to plunder earth’s resources at a time of swift ecological unravelling. All the same, the marvels of reality continue too, in the form of great fish and bird migrations, the standing miracles of ancient forests, or the simple but mysterious thereness of the earth’s elements: air, water, earth, fire. Were Milosz still writing today, his ledger would still contain two columns: one for beauty, one for justice.

For all his exemplariness as a poet of witness, however, Milosz did not and could not foresee the complications of the current moment. Witness poetry implies the hope of restitution and redress – a rebalancing of the scales, even if that rebalancing is enacted aesthetically, through poetry, rather than institutionally, in the political sphere. But what hope for those countless creatures who perish without word or witness? What representations – legal, poetic, or otherwise – do they receive? Equally, how might one identify the deed, let alone the date of the crime, when the drivers of extinction and climate change are so widely distributed and its effects so unimaginably large? ‘O my love, where are they, where are they going’, Milosz writes in one of his poems, recalling a night when his friend pointed to a hare running across a wintry road. ‘I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder’, his poem concludes – but it’s an emphasis we might be tempted to reverse. In a landscape where brown hares are critically endangered – in the UK, their population has declined by 80% in the past 10 years – we do ask (appropriately, I think) out of sorrow.

As a poet, Milosz was concerned with the ‘esse’ of things –  that aggregate of qualities that made that thing quite unlike anything else. He was interested in what he called ‘the immense call of the Particular’. But the present moment is one in which the ‘Particular’ is itself at stake, in which ‘esse’ is critically endangered. This can be understood in a number of ways: biological and cultural. When a species becomes extinct, the tree of life is incomparably diminished: the world loses a singular genetic configuration, the result of millions of years of evolution. But more than this biological loss, extinction also leads to the unravelling of connections within a biotic community. The loss of a species is also a cultural event – it involves the disappearance of a whole form of lifethat totality of relations between a species, its environment and its human and non-human neighbours. When precious genetic cargo is sunk, it sends ripples through the ecosystem of which it is a part, setting in motion a whole series of changes, some of which we can measure, others of which are beyond our ken. It also sends ripples through time, showing us the gap between the landscape our ancestors inhabited and the landscapes we inhabit now.

English poetry looks very different from this perspective. In ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, W.B. Yeats dreamed of a place where the evenings were ‘full of the linnet’s wings’ – but we might read that poem differently now, as shadowed by a silence the poet did not hear. (Linnet populations in Ireland have declined drastically since the 1950s.) Similarly, in ‘Sunday Morning’, Wallace Stevens describes the ‘Ambiguous undulations’ made by pigeons ‘as they sink / Downward to darkness, on extended wings’ – an image which now feels ominous, a dark vision of disappearance itself. English poetry is likewise full of nightingales, cuckoos and mistle-thrushes – but their songs, which once thickened the sky, are becoming increasingly rare. ‘The Bird of Time has but a little way / To fly’, Edward FitzGergald wrote, in his 1859 translation of the Rubáiyát. The line ends: ‘and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.’

It is easy to become despondent, indeed sorrowful, about these losses: each day we are confronted with appalling statistics about the loosening footholds (and wing-holds) of mammals and birds in the UK, not to mention thousands of insect species whose habitats are being fundamentally changed by human intervention. As Ursula Heise reminds us, however, narratives of ecological decline, which often borrow from genre conventions such as tragedy and elegy, can easily turn into narratives of human decline. Environmental ‘crisis typically becomes a proxy for cultural concerns,’ she writes in Imagining Extinction, a way of telling stories about the fallen experience of modernity. We therefore need to understand when sorrow is misplaced – when it is a projection of cultural anxieties onto nature – and when it stems from a genuine reckoning of what is being lost. The risk of not doing so is to tell a story that begins to tell us – a hopeless story about inevitable decline.

The other risk of declensionist narratives is that they ignore the capacity of certain creatures to adapt during times of change. As Chris Thomas argues in Inheritors of the Earth, some animals seem to be thriving in the present era. We have damaged the planet beyond any reasonable measure, he admits, altering its ‘great chemical cycles’ and acidifying its oceans, but ‘we are still surrounded by large numbers of species, many of which appear to be benefiting from our presence’ and adapting to ‘this human-altered world’. He also argues that we should situate today’s changes in their ‘appropriate historical context, which involves time spans much longer than we are used to thinking about in our everyday lives.’ This is ‘necessary because the story of life on Earth is one of never-ending change: be that the arrival and disappearance of species from a particular location (ecological change) or the longer-term formation of new species and extinction of others (evolutionary change).’

This is not to discount the losses of anthropogenic extinction, which are immense, nor the profligacy with which capitalism exploits human and non-human life. The long view that Thomas takes may also come with a subtle danger. Deep time consoles us by reminding us of earth’s endurance and continuity, but such a view may also desensitise us to the present, to the precious and fragile life being lost now. We are thus relieved of the duties we have as citizens of the earth: the duty to articulate an alternative to the economic systems that are ravaging the planet, the duty to preserve our green and blue commons for future generations, and the duty to foster a notion of citizenship that places the human in humble relations to other creatures, as one ecological fellow among others. Nevertheless, the persistence Thomas celebrates in the natural world is real. And this persistence may offer its own form of hope – that we too may find ways of flourishing in uncertain times, or, more selflessly, that animal life will continue evolving and proliferating with or without their human fellows, inheritors of a future that will continue despite us.

All of which is to say that, although much has changed since his era, Czeslaw Milosz may still offer a guide for our times. The conditions for bearing witness have altered dramatically (extinction threatens the very reality of the ‘Particular’) and it may be harder to isolate the scene of the crime, such is the scale of the current unravelling. And yet the poet’s insistence on celebrating the beauty of the world, even as one who kept a record of ‘those who wronged’, is as vital as ever. To bear witness today means to grieve over what is going and gone, to resist a culture in which such losses go ungrieved, and to identify the forces – political and economic – that drive environmental destruction and extinction. But it also means to be captured and moved by the natural world, which every day presents us with little gates leading to heaven: the song of a blackbird on a summer evening, sea trout returning to rivers to spawn, a hare flashing across a wintry road.

Image:
Bruce Hooke
Stepping Out
The Art Farm, Marquette, Nebraska, USA
Striding along, expecting the road to stay solid below him, the man in the suit steps out, into the unknown. About to fall, he will crash to the hard, fertile earth. The eleborate plans in his briefcase scatter in the wind. By taking on the role of the man in the suit and photographing myself I seek to explore issues of power, authority and privilege.

Bruce Hooke is a photographer, sculptor and performance artist whose work focuses on the evolving human relationship with nature. While educated in ceramic sculpture at Cranbrook Academy of Art and Wesleyan University, photography has been a central part of his work for over 15 years. He lives in western Massachusetts, USA, where the land on which he lives is an important part of his artistic practice. bghooke.com

Dark Mountain: Issue 13 – an anthology of new writing and art exploring what ‘being human’ means in an age of rapid ecological and social change – is available through our online shop for £15.99, or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues.