A New Home for Dark Mountain

The village of Reydon lies in the flatlands of East Anglia. Surrounded by agri-prairies, wavy reed beds and the old North Sea, this is big sky country, a landscape without even the thought of a mountain. Yet it is here, in a cottage down a lane at the edge of the village, that every Dark Mountain book begins its journey out into the world.

And it was here that we gathered in April – the seven Steerers, who share the long-term responsibility for Dark Mountain as a project, and six guests, editors and artists with whom we have worked closely – for the annual meeting where we reflect on our work, look ahead together and ask whether it is time to bring the project to a close. So far, the answer has always been no, but it feels like an important question to return to as part of the yearly cycle.

At one stage, it looked like we would be ready to launch this new online home for Dark Mountain while we were there in Suffolk – and there would have been something satisfying about being together for that moment. A great deal of work has gone into the making of this website, supported by a great deal of generosity from those to whom the work of this project matters.

It’s probably truer to the experience of running Dark Mountain, though, that we reach this milestone with our team scattered across different countries, one of us just returned from teaching a course on Writing To Make Change Happen, another about to leave for the boat to Lithuania and a Midsummer symposium on Rites and Terrabytes. One of the things we hope to do with this new site is to share more of the fertile tangle of activity that goes on around and about Dark Mountain, and to offer more ways into that tangle.

What we are launching today is not a finished site – there is no such thing, we’ve learned, over the year that we’ve spent working on this. Rather, it’s a structure on which Dark Mountain can build, as we approach the second decade of this project.

Almost eighteen months ago, when we launched the campaign that funded the creation of this site, Dougald wrote:

It’s time to do something online that comes closer to the richness of the books we publish (and will go on publishing). Exactly what form this takes, we’re still working on – but it’s going to be an online publication, something more and different to a blog – and a site that reflects more of the web of activity of the writers, thinkers, artists, musicians, makers and doers who have taken up the challenges of the Dark Mountain manifesto.

That vision came into focus over the months that followed, as we heard from readers who offered support and advice and generous donations to help us realise it – and it was refined further over the autumn, in workshops with the team at Pragmatic, the Brighton-based agency who have worked with us to build the site. Now we have brought it far enough along the journey from dreams to responsibilities that we have something to share with you.

We hope you agree that the new site goes a long way to match the beauty and richness of the books that we publish, to tell the stories of this project and to share more of the work of those who have got involved with it over the years. As you begin exploring, here are a few things to which we would direct your attention:

  • The Online Edition – look for the Contents button at the top of every page and you’ll find a menu that leads you to the sections of our new online publication. Each section leads you into one of the themes that runs through the work we’ve published over the years. So The Dark Kitchen picks up on our recent series on food, while The Devil’s Door is a home for work that builds on last year’s special issue on the sacred.
  • Rewilding the Novel – our new series, edited by the novelist Gregory Norminton, is an example of the long journeys that ideas go on within the Dark Mountain network. It was in a session at the final Uncivilisation festival in 2013 that Gregory first voiced the thought that it was time to ‘rewild the novel’. Now, following the publication of his new book, The Devil’s Highway, he has curated a collection of essays for this site about what that might mean in practice.
  • Tracing the stories of Dark Mountain – we’ve rarely had the resources to document the events and activities going on around Dark Mountain in the way they might have deserved, but the keen eyes and camera lenses of our friends and collaborators mean that an archive of photographs has grown up over the years. As part of the creation of this site, we’ve finally had the time to go back and tell more of the stories that go with those images.
  • The Digital Back Catalogue – it has always been our aim to print enough copies of a Dark Mountain book that it will stay in print for several years, but due to an increasing level of interest, we now find ourselves in a position where almost all of our back issues are sold out. So we’ve now made it possible to buy a collection of PDFs with the complete contents of Issues 1 to 12 of Dark Mountain.

There is plenty more to discover as you begin to explore – not least, the hundreds of essays, stories, conversations and poems that had been buried in the archives of our earlier sites and can now be discovered more easily. Other aspects of the new site will come into focus over the months ahead, as we start putting it to use.

In particular, we will return to one of the themes that emerged strongly in the response to our fundraising campaign: the desire to find and connect with other Dark Mountain readers. We spent a lot of time looking at technological methods for supporting this, before coming around to the realisation that more technology might not be what is needed. Instead, this autumn, we’ll be using this site to share stories of local meet-ups and projects inspired by Dark Mountain, sharing what those involved have learned and offering some simple ways that we can help those of you who would like to start something in the places where you live.

Something else that’s come out of this process is a deep sense of how much we owe to our readers and supporters. It was your generosity that made it possible for us to invest in building this site – and along the way, as we made decisions, we’ve felt the responsibility of doing justice to the faith you put in us. We want to acknowledge that by letting you in on more of the thinking that goes on behind the scenes at Dark Mountain, so look out for more posts in which we take you through the way we operate and how we make decisions. (As a small start towards that, check out the new page we’ve created on Dark Mountain as an organisation.)

In the spirit of openness, we should say that we’ve taken the launch of the new site as a moment to raise the price of a basic subscription to Dark Mountain for the first time in five years. So new subscribers will now pay £32 a year for two books in the UK, £38 in the rest of Europe, and £45 in the USA, Canada and elsewhere – but if you’re an existing subscriber, you’ll go on paying the old rates for as long as your subscription keeps renewing. (You might also notice that we’ve raised the price of an issue in our shop by £1, but we’ve got rid of the £1 per item packing charge we used to add, so those changes cancel each other out.)

It’s been a long journey since we first made the call for support to create a new online home for this project. We hope that you’ll be as happy as we are with where we’ve got to. There will be loose ends and things that don’t quite work yet – so please, if you spot anything that doesn’t work or doesn’t look right, let us know.

The Digital Back Catalogue: Issues 1 to 12 (PDF)

A complete collection of Issues 1 to 12 of Dark Mountain in PDF format.

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Rewilding the Novel

What might fiction that puts humans in their Earthly context look like?

Legend tells that Orpheus, ‘the father of song’ who perfected the lyre (from which we derive our word ‘lyric’) sang so sweetly that wild beasts, forgetting their hunger, lay down to listen. It is a compelling image that comes down to us in writing and in mosaics from across the Ancient World, and at its mythopoetic heart lies a plain truth: poetry, especially lyric poetry, has always been in communion with the natural world. It is impossible to conceive of Shakespeare without flower-lore and the forests of Arden and Athens. Romanticism in its essence sought a ‘rewilding’ of the soul in response to the denaturing – and hence dehumanising – effects of industrialisation. The more universally these effects have made themselves felt, the more poetry has emerged as a zone of resistance. Consider D.H. Lawrence’s Birds, Beasts and Flowers, or the poems of Ted Hughes, where the hard truths of myth and the hard truths of science meet. Lyric poetry is of the Earth – it is rooted. The novel, by contrast, has foundations – it is of the city.

Even our proto-novelists were sophisticates. Petronius, author of the Satyricon, was the ‘arbiter of taste’ in the Emperor Nero’s inner circle, and Lady Murasaki wrote The Tale of Genji about the only world she knew intimately, the Imperial court of early medieval Japan. In its heyday, the modern novel catered to an urbanised middle-class with newfound leisure; it prospered from the very processes of mass production and consumption that have alienated us from the natural world.

As an environmentalist and novelist, I have been puzzling for years about how to bring my concerns together. It troubles me that my chosen form appears barely cognisant of our ecological crisis. Yet is it reasonable to expect otherwise? Can a form that evolved alongside Humanism and the Enlightenment, and which primarily concerns itself with the inner lives and motivations of socialised humans, broaden its scope to add, in Richard Smyth’s phrase, ‘the non-human to the anthropocentric’?

For decades, environmentalists have been wondering how our rapacious species can live enduringly with the planet that sustains it. Technological ingenuity on its own is not enough: in order to change our behaviour, we must widen the circle of our compassion to include the non-human. We must, deep ecologists argue, dethrone ourselves, shedding our illusions of superiority to acknowledge our kinship with the rest of nature.

In conservation, one response to this thinking is the concept of ‘rewilding’, whereby humans withdraw from parts of the planet to allow natural processes to play themselves out without disruption from our desires and narratives. Rewilding, as defined for many of us by George Monbiot in Feral (2013), begins with the ability to recognise that we have accustomed ourselves to our ecological impoverishment. We learn to look at our empty uplands and realise that they need not be barren, that only culture and habit (the great deadener) keep them denuded.

Robert Macfarlane is among the (non-fiction) writers drawing attention to the related impoverishment of our language, as words for natural phenomena disappear from everyday use. What we cannot name – goes the formula – we will not see; what we do not see we will not love, and what we do not love we will not save. In response to this challenge, an abundance of contemporary nature writing is attempting to locate our species among the wonders of our planet. To waken our senses, to break through our coarsened sensibilities, writers like Jay Griffiths and Charles Forster are taking risks with style and subject matter, daring to be eccentric, pushing against the conventions of language and form. Where, I wonder, are the novelists attempting something comparable? I tend to find them abroad: writers like Australia’s Julia Leigh and Tim Winton, or Americans like Rick Bass, Annie Dillard and David Vann. Australian and American fiction engages with the wilderness because in those countries there is still some wilderness to encounter. What might a British version of these ecologically informed novels look like?

I have come up with ten possible answers. The list is by no means exhaustive.

  1. After London (1885) by Richard Jefferies. Jefferies’ speculative fantasy begins with the capital city of Empire largely emptied of humans and recolonised by nature. It is an exhilarating and troubling vision of collapse.
  2. Green Mansions (1904) by W.H. Hudson. This rainforest ‘romance’ exemplifies, in Jonathan Bate’s words, the ‘myth of the return to nature’. The story of Rima, a native ‘bird-girl’, and Abel, a failed revolutionary, anticipates the Twentieth Century’s ecological assault on the Amazon.
  3. Tarka The Otter (1927) by Henry Williamson. Anthropomorphic fantasies, where talking animals are ciphers for humans, abound in popular culture, but Williamson does something more interesting, attempting to transform the reader into otter, translating Tarka’s vivid yet unworded consciousness into language.
  4. The Inheritors (1955) by William Golding. Golding’s secular take on the Fall story plunges us into the mind and senses of the Neanderthal, Lok, as his kin are thoughtlessly destroyed by the ‘new people’: our ancestors.
  5. Turtle Diary (1975) by Russell Hoban. Two lonely people unite in their determination to release sea turtles from captivity in London Zoo. The mission proves transformative for both of them.
  6. The Gathering Night (2009) by Margaret Elphinstone. A carefully researched exploration of life in the Mesolithic, unsentimentally imagining the ecological abundance that sustained our species for millennia as well as our vulnerability to natural disasters.
  7. Clay (2013) by Melissa Harrison. Since this, her debut novel, Harrison has been combining nature writing with fiction to produce, in the words of Helen Macdonald, ‘a new kind of modern pastoral’ – one that includes, rather than rejects, the urban.
  8. The Wolf Border (2015) by Sarah Hall, explicitly concerns itself with rewilding, and the troubles of achieving it, as her protagonist attempts to restore the wolf to the English Lakes.
  9. Beast (2016) by Paul Kingsnorth. As co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, Kingsnorth is at the forefront of eco-literary thinking. Beast engages with our primordial fears and longings, as a modern hermit searches for the big cat he believes to be lurking on a West Country moor.
  10. Addlands (2016) by Tom Bullough, charts seventy years in the life of a small Radnorshire hill-farm: a lyrical yet wholly cliché-free elegy for a disappearing way of being in the world.

What might we expect of ‘rewilded’ fiction? It would be absurd to condemn the novel for its focus on the domestic and urban: those, after all, are the defining conditions of life for most of us. Nor do I hold much truck with a back-to-the-land nostalgia that overlooks how hard life on the land has been for most of human history. I do, however, hope to see fiction emerge, in the coming years, that engages, not just with climate change (there is a growing body of literature doing that), but more broadly with the great silencing that we are inflicting on our fellow beings. Novels that make no space for nature – that are inattentive to landscape and the non-human – are perpetuating what ecologists call ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, whereby we mistake our self-impoverishment for the natural order of things.

Yet ‘rewilding the novel’ means more, or should mean more, than adding a few mentions of animals and plants to anthropocentric narratives. It means acknowledging in our fiction where we come from, where we are going, and what we have lost and are losing on the way. It allows for abundance and jubilation but also desolation and loss. We could draw further parallels with the ecological idea of rewilding by allowing our stories freedom from the constrictions of narrative convention, from the enclaves of genre and ideology. The rewilded novel would absorb and reflect the repressed wildness in our natures; it should remind us that we are tellurian – of this Earth – and that what awaits us on a denatured planet is loneliness and grief, however sublimated by technology and the disorders of our politics. It must not be sentimental: the wild contains violence and horror, but also interdependence and a startling capacity for self-renewal.

Over the years, I have met few saner people than ecologists. Though despair and anger are part of their experience, they have tended to strike me as spiritually grounded precisely because they are Earth-grounded. Their sanity comes from daily contact with our reality as embodied beings; their despair stems from the knowledge that we will not survive in our virtual playgrounds. This seems to me the defining truth of our age, yet few novelists at present seem to show much interest in reflecting it. If, in our time of moral and ecological collapse, the novel cannot find ways of encompassing the non-human as well as the human – if it cannot broaden its sympathies in the way that we all, as a species, must do in order to survive – then it will have lost its claim to speak for the human condition.

In order to change our behaviour, we must widen the circle of our compassion to include the non-human.


Rewilding the Novel: an essay series

So much for the clarion call. Over the next few weeks, in celebration of its new online home, Dark Mountain will be publishing a series of specially commissioned essays on the theme of the ‘rewilded novel’. It has been heartening to me, as I sought and edited contributions, to discover how many fiction writers are converging on these moral and aesthetic concerns. Contributors in this series include novelists, nature writers and a theologian, all of them chewing on different problems and possibilities for the novel form.

Abi Andrews, with ‘A Novel is a Medicine Bundle’, wonders whether the linear and anthropocentric shape of most narratives – the pursuit of an ending and resolution – might not give way to different conceptions of story.

Richard Smyth, in ‘Telling the Devil’s Tales’, immediately challenges any pursuit of sentiment or false comfort in the greening of fiction. His essay is funny and troubling in equal measure.

‘The Wild Word Christ’, by theologian Stephen Backhouse, may seem thematically tangential, yet in the early Christian notion of kenosis, or self-emptying, it offers a paradigm for sympathetic engagement with the ‘other’ – including the non-human.

In her essay, ‘On Landscape and Specific Lives’, Winnie M. Li brings a much-needed focus on issues of gender and race to concerns which often seem dominated by white, male, middle-class writers.

The penultimate essay in the series comes from the novelist and Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth.

Finally, a number of novelists – including Natasha Carthew, Tom Bullough, Sylvia V Linsteadt, Cynan Jones and Mandy Haggith – write about the practice of their craft. How do they try to escape the desk, the laptop, and the virtual world and dopamine addiction of modern communications? What processes do they adopt in order to access the world beyond us and within us?

We hope that you will enjoy this short essay series and look forward to the conversation.

 

Gregory Norminton’s fifth novel, The Devil’s Highway, has just been published by 4th Estate. Parts of this essay first appeared in Resurgence.

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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Toutouwai the Curious

Mark’s office was just as you’d expect it to be. An oblong room. Light. Simple. His chair sat at one end of the room, a couch at the other. Distance between us. I almost hadn’t come. How much more could talking do? I regarded him, hands folded across my front. A few pleasantries, then he cut to the chase.

‘You don’t have to give details, but if you tell me roughly what happened I can file an ACC claim so these sessions are funded.’

Here we go.

‘A year ago at Waitangi… Something came up. It gave me a pretty big shock.’

Details have never been a problem for me. I gave Mark a frank account of what had come to light. Tears surprised me, prickling for the first time in a while. I looked up at the ceiling.

‘Since then things have been… hard.’

A lump rose in my throat, fighting back memories of the last twelve months. Mark’s face showed not pity or surprise, but calculation. He uncrossed his legs.

‘Ah. You strike me as a person who wants everything to be OK.’

I swallowed. Well, shit. Doesn’t everyone?

‘And it’s not. You have lost something. I think you’ve been afraid to go there. Unfortunately, we have to go there. What was lost – what was taken from you…’

He looked at me squarely.

‘Is profound.’

* * *

I have always been crisis motivated. I’ve never been curious as to why. Everything is avoided – until it’s upon me. Even these words are hastily scrawled, barely before their deadline.

To write about these things, I came to camp beneath the cliffs on Warauwerawera Beach. Or Long Beach, as we Pākehā call it, ungracefully. It’s part of Otago’s rugged coastline, on the Southern East side of Aotearoa’s South Island. My tent is pitched in the shelter of the old macrocarpa pines between the cliffs and the beach. Their thick trunks are gnarled and knotted. Oscillating branches make for an easy climb. I’ve always found comfort in the crook of an old tree. Their species are introduced. Invaders to this place, like me.

Younger pines line up like sentries along the cliff tops, a reminder that farmland has marched all the way to the coast, beating back the native bush. Red billed gulls, Tarapunga, launch themselves from the rocky face, gliding over my head and out to sea. My heart always  lifts for seagulls  I share their chatter and keen eyes for unguarded table scraps. Down at the water’s edge, Oyster Catchers are going about their evening, probing the sand with long red bills for tiny burrowing creatures. There’s a lot of life out here. Absentmindedly, I pick up a stick and trace in the sand, ‘Kia Ora. I’m here to open the Devil’s Door.’ Secretly, I hope the beach will unlock my words. By morning the tide will have licked up my message, stretching the sand back into a smooth blank canvas.

* * * 

Unravel (verb): To separate or disentangle the threads of a fabric; to free of complication; or to become unravelled.

With my presence hinging on a colonial past, perhaps a life of existential unease was inevitable. Before I was a Pākehā in Aotearoa I was a mzungu in East Africa. My parents were teaching in Kenya when I came to be. We moved to Cypress, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, and finally immigrated to Aotearoa when I was 10. Otherwise known as New Zealand, Aotearoa broke away from Gondwanaland eighty million years ago, its species set adrift on a raft to evolve alone. Its frogs don’t croak, its lizards don’t lay eggs and many of its birds don’t fly. But behind the veil of ecological marvels and postcard scenery lie the deep wounds of colonisation and the invisible creep of psychological unrest that takes young lives without warning.

In February, 2016, a fellow activist invited me to attend a decolonisation training at Waitangi. It was on the Waitangi grounds that treaties between European settlers and indigenous Māori were signed in 1840. Māori never ceded sovereignty of Aotearoa, a crucial point conveniently forgotten by many settlers, and to this day, the New Zealand government. Like many Pākehā, I was woefully ignorant of Aotearoa’s dark past. It’s a familiar and excruciating story of cultural genocide and assimilation. The kind of learning I had to do can’t easily work its way into words. It came from the tension reverberating in the tent, the tones of voices, the raised eyebrows and sharp intakes of breath. I had no idea what white privilege had done to my psychology. There were gaps – gaps in consciousness, gaps in sensitivity. Dehumanising systems threaded their way through my words, my thoughts, my reactions; through my very view of the world and other human beings. My oblivious comments at the gathering hurt people. I hurt people. Our systems went deep, to depths I didn’t know existed. It was a huge shock. What are we doing to each other?

My whole conception of the world was shifting shape at speed. I called one of my best friends, Rupert. We’d known each other since high school, and he was in northland. I was delighted to see that cloud of frizzy hair and big Ruperty grin. I bombarded him with three days of learning and unlearning. But my explanation didn’t hit him with the gravity I was after. I was impatient for him to understand. Desperate. I recalled one woman’s analogy about discussing decolonisation with white people.

‘It’s like when men and women talk together about rape culture – the power inequality of that culture still hangs in the room.’

The conversation took a turn. Sexism. Victim blaming. Something stirred uneasily in my stomach. All those internalised systems… I began piecing fragments together. My heart sped up. The feeling you get at a cliff edge. I’d held the fort for six years. But now… My throat tightened. A nervous smile tugged at the corners of my mouth.

‘Rupert, I’ve protected you for a long time… About Michael.’

* * * 

There’s one cushion on the couch on Mark’s office. Square, bold colours, not too squishy. I gripped it on my lap, trying to find my anger. Or sadness. Something. But the feelings are buried too deep, and there’s no map to find them.

‘He sent me a message, years later. He told me he filmed the whole thing. That he’d put it online two years ago, and to my credit it was getting plenty of views.’

Mark answered, evenly.

‘It’s hard to think of a more disrespectful thing you could do to another human being.’

* * * 

Rupert cried out in shock as I spoke. His voice cracking in pain and disbelief, grappling with my words. I shrank back, wary. In all our years of friendship I’d never seen Rupert angry. Michael had been Rupert’s best friend. Mine too. Anger gave way to tears of anguish. I heard myself reassuring him, ‘Water off a duck’s back, mate.’ But I caught the horror on Rupert’s face. Worse was his look of deep, deep concern. And he didn’t know the half of it. That’s when I realised – I was in trouble. And with that, my world fell unexpectedly, and unceremoniously, apart.

* * *

I put down my pad. Too many thoughts whirling in my head for any one to find its way onto paper. Overactive cognition. A defense from feeling, so I’m told. Chaotic yes, confusing – god yes. But it works. Wandering among the pines I collect sticks for a fire. How do you find words for a psychological unravelling? They’re all so neat, so gentle. Through a writer’s lens it’s tempting to romanticise the collapse. The cascade of consciousness was unlike anything I’ve seen. Post-traumatic stress is a fascinating thing. I hope it never happens to you.

* * *

What the hell just happened? What is happening? I knew what Michael did. I was there. Was I? I knew what that was – no I didn’t. No I didn’t. Not like this. Where is this coming from? How did I not know what that was? Oh god. What happened to me? Six years. Six. Why is it happening now? This can’t be what it does. Yes it can. No. Please no. Those are feelings. Those are my feelings. I am feeling. I am a completely different human being. What the fuck happened to me? That’s me, in the mirror. That’s not a body. That’s not an object. I am that body. That’s me. My eyes. They look scared. I look terrified. I am terrified. That’s me? Oh fuck. Oh fuck.

I’ve never been good at keeping secrets. How had I kept this from myself?

I exploded. I imploded. Rupert’s reaction breached my defences. Domino chains of realisation fell fast in all directions. I knew the cultural tendrils of sexism denied and obscured the experiences of women. But this – this was beyond anything I could have imagined. Māori lore of connection between mind, body and spirit rushed at me with chilling clarity. I had blamed my body. I had punished it. Tried to escape it. I had wreaked havoc on my mind, with my mind. Māori talk of spiritual warfare because they know what human minds are capable of. I pulsed with terror.

How? How had I not told anyone? His suicide threat. Oh. God.

My brain was changing. Profoundly. Irreversibly. Overnight, my foundations were washed from beneath me by a tide of cognition and emotion. Michael had driven me from my body, driven me from my mind, driven me from myself, all while I looked the other way. I felt sick. These were new feelings. Feelings I had no clue what to do with. This was an entirely new brain. A brain I had no idea how to use.

There was no retracing steps to the person I was a day ago. I tried to reach back to her. She was gone.

So I did what any scared animal would do. I ran.

* * *

Tea swirled in the mug Mark handed me. This was harder than I had expected.

‘He was creative. He said people wouldn’t find me interesting if it weren’t for my unusual name.’

Mark was level, as ever.

‘He took your identity. Psychological abuse can be harder to process than the physical. It affects your perception, your ability to understand your own reality. Do you have any idea of what is real for you?’

I laughed. Then I realised he was serious. After the year I’d had, he could not have asked me a more hilarious question. The stories I used to understand the world had fallen away. My ‘self’ had been an illusion, created by power imbalance and pretence. If the ‘truth’ of my own experience couldn’t be trusted, what else lay waiting to crumble?

I scoffed at the assumptions underneath this flimsy delusion. I questioned and critiqued every layer of perception I could find. Then I found fault with any mechanisms we might use to interpret them. Any story we created to understand the world, I was determined to reduce to chaos. I wasn’t losing my grip – I’d just stopped pretending there is something to cling to.

‘No. But I think the idea of “reality” is just a functional illusion. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t recognised the lies holding them up.’

Mark smiled.

‘You’re good. Very good. I bet you’ve fooled just about everyone.’

Indeed, the blasé jokes and philosophical sidesteps had distracted a lot of people, including me. Intellectual deconstruction is a neat mask for debilitating confusion. But Mark had seen through me. Behind the fronts, I was exhausted. And I was terrified.

I had yet to face something I’d expertly avoided for years. The thing that scared me the most me.

* * *

Question (verb): To ask or inquire; to doubt, challenge or dispute.

After Waitangi I returned home to Dunedin and hid from myself in the best way I knew how. In plain sight. I mastered the art of intellectual vulnerability. I told people the true story, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. I built and hid behind a wall of rigorous politics. I jumped on every train of thought I could, unpacking the patriarchy, power imbalance, systemic oppression, objectification, emotional abuse, rape culture, epistemic injustice. The ‘system’ became more real to me than I was.

I started to see sly narratives spread throughout our culture, our language, our communication. Playing tricks on our conscience – casting a light here, putting out a light there, until we can’t tell form from shadow. Narratives turn humans into puppets – heroes, villains, and victims. They turn people into objects. Beings into products. The living to non-living. We make people spend their lives being expendable. We tell stories that turn our consciousness into self-consciousness, and our curiosity into caution.

The English language has toyed with humanity, cutting us into groups, ‘men’ or ‘women’, ‘young’ or ‘old’, ‘able’ or ‘not’, ‘well’ or ‘un’. Our language conjures a vision of division. Words sever us from one another and the world we live in, chopping our family and our time into pieces. Our sentences are built to co-opt, commodify, compare, compete, combat, conquer, claim, own, use. What you can’t count, doesn’t count. Ours is a language of entitlement, putting the ‘our’ in ‘resource’. It’s a language of sexual contempt, seeing only the ‘man’ in ‘human’.

Processing the tricks and games of Western society allowed me to feign recovery. But behind my intellectual enthusiasm, anger and distrust were at a rolling boil. When Rupert dominated our conversations I prickled, listening to the realities of the powerful while my own lay obscured and unexplored. The microcosm was the macrocosm, the patriarchy was a conversation with my friend. When my gentle partner Harry put an unexpected hand on my hip in the kitchen, I recoiled, surging with hatred. All I knew was the full psychological gravity of what happens when physical boundaries are crossed. ‘The system’ haunted me in every human interaction, every off-hand comment, every moment of intimacy.

Humans had made me less human. Words had put me at war with my mind. Touch had put me at war with my body. If we’re not heard, we don’t learn to listen. If we’re not seen, we don’t learn to see. If we’re not felt, we don’t learn to feel. It makes it easier to pretend. To pretend that what’s happening to your body isn’t happening to you. To pretend that what’s happening to your mind isn’t happening to you.

When you’re left with no place to exist, you cease to.

* * *

In these moments the damage is obvious. Every sentence is interrupted by a dozen others. One paragraph starts and another begins. Each too afraid to see itself through. It’s no easy thing, admitting that someone damaged your mind. It’s even harder admitting the damage you’ve done yourself. Trying to pick apart psychological impacts and find what you’re missing is like being a fish. A fish trying to realise it’s wet. A fish doesn’t know it’s wet, that’s the world. It just is. Water’s only wet if you’re dry.

* * *

Collapse (verb): To fall or cave in; to break down; to come to nothing.

In the early months my thoughts could skip like smooth stones across water. But eventually they lost momentum. The surface broke, and I was plunged into the depths.

I was stable in my instability. Secure in my insecurity. Comfortable in my discomfort. Danger was my safety net. And I worked hard to keep it that way. Whenever I felt myself getting too close, I found a way to slip away. Psychedelics helped me shift shape, escape. Drugs took me to a self I could enjoy, or a self I had to survive. Either way, they kept me moving. I was alone, with whirring cogs of cognition for company. I felt like one of those flip books. The ones where flicking quickly through the pages make the characters move. There’s a different drawing on each page, each page separate. The character is not continuous. Their movement is an illusion. No thread of continuity moved me from one moment to the next. Each living moment an island, isolated and unfamiliar. Fractured. Frightening. It felt too dangerous to admit that I was in danger – I was too scared to be scared. Fighting trauma with trauma is easier than facing it. Doing yourself damage is more comfortable than feeling it. The fear of irreparable harm is deep and denial is easy. That explains the ecological crisis. I did what we’ve learned to do so well – evaded my humanity.

They were wrong at Waitangi, when they said Pākehā don’t practice spiritual violence. We do. In a cruel, less obvious manner. We wage war on our own spirits. We sever ourselves from the very idea of our ‘selves’. We do it by insidious suggestion, filling each other with ammunition to deny and dehumanise. Slowly but surely, we make each other a little less real. Each time we’re treated a little less human, a little more object, a little less living, it adds up. Insensitive comments made in jest, we ingest. Bit by bit, we chip away at each other’s worlds.

Imprisoned by my escapism, I pulled further back into my head. Hearing too much to listen, seeing too much to see anything. Moving too fast to get anywhere. Memories are hazy, fractured. The panic attack when I’d tried to be intimate with Harry… The heart-wrenching mix of pain and care on his face when I slept with Scott. My own protective love and anger talking to Dad, who could never, or perhaps didn’t want to, understand. But, worst of all, was the feeling of cold grey emptiness when I looked at all the stories of the world without interest – in any of them.

Somewhere along the line, the drugs stopped working. Instead of taking me away, they began bringing me to the far corners of my mind. One night through my haze I heard the hollow screams of a 19 year old girl. Doubled over, naked, cold. Locked alone in the dark with raw, wracking sobs.

I left her there.

 * * *

Mark held a hand across his mouth. In all our sessions together, I had never seen him upset. He was looking at photos of Michael and me in Europe, all those years ago.

I tried for a smile.

‘What’s the prognosis, doc?’

For the first time, his voice quavered.

‘I found this hard. I don’t usually find this hard. You’re in these photos, your body is anyway. But… you weren’t there, this isn’t you. You weren’t real – well, you were in a way, but you weren’t. It’s like now, you are real, yet at the same time… you’re not.’

Then I realised. Nobody is coming to save me from myself. I’d decided to survive. But couldn’t yet bring myself to live.

How do you come out of your shell, when you think that shell is you?

 * * *

I need a break from words. Walking to the caves at the north end of the beach, a long grey form to my left makes me jump. It’s a leopard seal. An immense apex predator from Antarctica, lying quietly in the sand. It must be young, north for the winter. It is beyond me, that I could swim in the same sea and sit on the same beach as this incredible being. I lie down a few metres away and watch. When I’m in the presence of any animal I feel an awe that quietens my mind. They set an authentic example. Around them I feel more like an animal and less like something playing at being human. It’s easy to stop second guessing your own world when a completely different one is lying a few metres away in the sand. The seal yawns, with jaws that could swallow a penguin, shaking its head at the flies. This magnificent hunter survives in the icy depths around the South Pole, yet helpless against the flies landing on its nose. I have to laugh. The seal shifts uncomfortably and I notice a dark mark on its side. It must have been injured. I feel a pang. It’s easier to accept other creatures’ vulnerability than my own. I am so astoundingly lucky to struggle for survival alongside those in other shapes and forms. Why can’t I just allow my self to be here? Stretching out in the sand we lie there, the seal and I, listless, exhausted, alone. Together. Two dangerous animals, rendered fragile, waiting for wounds to heal.

 * * *

Concede (verb): To acknowledge as true.

In the new year of 2017, I was forced to answer to my own brain. After three nights of reckless abandon, I jerked awake in my tent, heart racing, breath shallow. I’d had a very physical, very real flashback. In my sleep, I felt my head being grabbed and smacked against something. Hard. In the days that followed, I could not shake the image of my impish, smart-ass self dancing away from me, forever.

It scared the shit out of me.

I had to make peace with my subconscious. Up on top of Takaka Hill, there’s a place called Canaan Downs. On top of the hill, a large clearing is surrounded by a very old and very strange forest. Big, old Mountain Beech trees, with thousands upon thousands of tiny leaves, their trunks covered in a velvety black mould. They stretch and billow out, like giant cauliflowers. The place is covered in large, grassy sinkholes, where the ground has fallen in to the warrens of limestone caves that tunnel through the mountain. A festival was being held in the clearing, almost a year to the day after Waitangi.

The festival itself was set out immaculately, the tents, music zones and artworks looked perfect, almost too perfect. The opening ceremony made me uneasy. No one mentioned that we were standing on stolen land. The violent colonial prequel to the festival was ignored, and masses of people danced naked around a fire. Naked is what humans look like, but this struck me as a performance of freedom, instead of an expression of it. My mind can be a right snob sometimes.

Cautiously, I kept back from the thick of it and explored the liminal spaces. The edges of dancefloors, the fringes of drum circles, the paths between camps. It was between established spaces that I started to come alive. Perhaps my feelings of not-quite-belonging were because I belong between the spaces, where the ground is moving underfoot. I belong on the way to somewhere else.

Every day I climbed a small hill to sit amongst the tall trees and the stone that pushed up out of the earth. Here I could let my mind wander out into the rich patterns of the forest. I felt myself becoming quieter, nature’s deep patterns coaxing my mind from shallow eddies of thought. Slowly, my words began to meet me in my surroundings. The osmosis of mosses, the tones of stone, the feel of leaf. Toadstools became stowed tools, and the forest became softer.

The worlds of other living beings brought me gently out of myself and, for the first time in months, I wasn’t in my head. I was here.

I spotted a snail. Tiny. Sliding along a twig. Its shell was gold and brown and shiny. Its body soft and grey and slimy. Every time its little stalked eyes touched a leaf the snail pulled back into its shell to reassess. Then it slowly emerged and carried on its way. No rush. I pondered. Its hard shell looked vibrant, it kept the snail protected, alive. The soft part of the snail was less colourful. But only when its vulnerable part was exposed could the snail move, or see anything. Squishy, easy-to-hurt bits allowed it to explore. It takes bravery to show softness.

If only everyone could see this.

A south island robin, a Toutouwai, landed on a tree in front of me. They’re bewitching little birds: long black legs, erect bodies, white speckly chests and grey backs. This one hopped to the ground, tilting its head at me, inquiringly. Beady black eyes. Inquisitive. Interested. I looked inquiringly back, wondering what it saw. The next day, it flew onto my boot.

Midway through the festival I went to a communication workshop. We got into pairs, then we were asked to beckon our partner as close as we felt comfortable with. Without warning, I burst into tears.

A day later, my friend Verena offered to do a shamanic drumming journey for me. I was interested, and a little apprehensive. People seemed to be having spiritual awakenings all over the show. I was wary of all attempts to convince people of any ‘reality’, no matter how attractive or interesting. I didn’t want to be shown new realms, I wanted to get a handle on this one. After witnessing one young woman’s dramatic introduction into spirituality, I was pretty bloody glad to have hold of my mind, however tiresome it may be. I might be unfair, but when blissful or wildly confident people claim to have the answers, I just assume they don’t understand the problem. But Verena’s approach to the sacred is a practical one. Have a sense of humour about it, she said. It doesn’t have to be a serious thing. Just see what help lies waiting beyond the sharp edge of thought.

We walked into the forest to a small patch of flat ground, dappled by the midday sun through the canopy. I lay down. Verena got out her goatskin drum, hitting it with her stick a few times to test the sound. It was full, deep, foreboding. She laughed at the look on my face. I was somewhere between amused and embarrassed.

‘Oh dear. So it begins. Don’t overthink it, eh?’

She winked, and began to beat. I closed my eyes, tried to relax. Thoughts swirled. I tried to visualise a place, any place. Patterns appeared and disintegrated. I kept hold of the centre spot in my vision, hoping it would change into something. A guide, perhaps. Nothing. Colours came and went and my thoughts scattered. I knew I was putting up barriers. It’s no coincidence that when you rearrange sacred, you get scared. I kept trying, nothing. I wished that for once I could open to this kind of thing.

If you’re pushing and the door stays closed, try pulling.

I heard something land lightly on the leaves near my head. It hopped closer, then chirped. My heart nearly stopped. The robin. Toutouwai. I heard it hop to my head. It began chirping in my ear. A stream of high whistling chirps. It was the best sound I’ve ever heard. I surged. Indescribable joy. Of course. Of course I hadn’t needed to seek out anything from the spiritual world, the reassurance was already here, a real live animal in the forest. I was wild with excitement, like a child. I tried to think things to the robin, then cast that aside, they don’t speak in words. Of course they don’t. What was I thinking? Why was I thinking? Fuck thinking, fuck words! There was a robin next to my head and it wanted to be there, chirping at me. It trusted me. I could feel it. A warm rush of comfort and love poured from the top of my head towards its little body. It felt warm, magnetic. It was so close, its chirps so clear, I could sense its body. Its whistles echoed into the deepest, least-seen parts of me. I was communicating, I was listening, I was utterly in love. I heard Verena telling me to retrace my steps to come out of the meditation. But I hadn’t gone anywhere, the robin and I were right here on the forest floor, so unbelievably here.

I opened my eyes. Verena was packing up her drum. I lay still for a while.

‘Verena… there didn’t happen to be a robin sitting next to my head did there?’

She grinned.

‘No.’

I was incredulous. I had heard it perfectly – leaves rustled and everything. I had been so certain, so convinced. It was real… Ah. I see. Right. It got me. The hole in my armour was found. Throughout the day, the metaphor got stronger. I didn’t need to go looking, I needed to be where I was. To listen, to feel. Toutouwai showed me trust and curiosity. The two qualities most injured in me, the ones I needed to reconnect to.

I climbed back to the knoll in the forest and sat down on the slope, legs outstretched, watching the trees. The robin, Toutouwai, appeared almost immediately. It flew down onto my boot, and stood upright, regarding me. I could feel the slight weight of its energetic little body. It hopped forward up my leg, cocking its head to stare at me with beady black eyes. I felt its tiny claws through my leggings. It hopped to where my hand lay on my lap, and gave it an inquisitive peck. Chirp. It pecked again. Then looked at me. Peck peck. Stare. Are you here now? Peck peck. Are you listening? It made eye contact again, and I burst. Here was the magic of the world. In the spirits of non-human animals. In the knowledge that a wild one would want to share its time with me. It was completely and unmistakably real. Finally, something to hold to. Finally, something that was real for me. A story that didn’t feel like a story. I touched base with my existence, as part of the whole. In the robin’s eyes, I saw my humanness. Because it saw me. A human animal. What was lost was profound, and I had found it.

That curious little bird disarmed me like no friend, therapist or lover ever could. It stared into the heart of my reality, and I awoke to the reality of my heart. In the shafts of sun, through wracking sobs, I felt myself brush up against the sacred. And for a moment, I was no longer scared.

 * * *

If you’re a fish trying to understand that you’re wet, talk to the birds. Ask them about the sky. If you don’t have perspective on your own world, look to another who might see you, through crafted layers of bullshit. The robin trusted me when I could not trust myself. It flew to me while I ran from myself, and spoke to me in the only voice I’d listen to. Communicating with animals was everything I could dream of dreaming of. And for me, that’s where the sacred lies, where your reality and imagination become curious about one another.

I build my fire, snapping the pine branches I found earlier, lighting the scrunched up pieces of newspaper. Bright adverts for frozen chickens and ranch dressings curl into flames. I toss a cup of kerosene on the fire, for theatrical effect. And for fun. It’s my last night at the beach, before heading back to the city to domesticate my words. In front of my computer is where devious voices distract, dishearten and disturb me. Far from other kinds of life, confined in stark walls, with no living being to reflect and confirm my existence. That is where my walls are. Both real and imagined, with little difference between them.

The heart of the fire pulses. Maybe I have to forgive myself for not finding forgiveness. Some things are just too big. Maybe what I have to accept is that there are things I will never accept.

Packing up to leave in the morning, the sky is a pastel mix of greys and yellow. The waves lap gently, and there’s no wind. A long white cloud stretches along the water. Aotearoa means ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ in Te Reo Māori. And Siana is Masai for ‘place of still water’. I trace my finger along the horizon, where sea and sky meet. Siana. That’s my name. It’s nice to share this magical accident of a world with you.

* * *

It was windy outside the office window. I was tired. Mark sat, arm along the back of his chair, calm.

Open up the Devil’s Door and it will open wide. It will open deep. But it won’t stay open. It can rust shut, vines growing thick across the door.

Mark spoke.

‘The girl you found, up at Canaan Downs. She had her shit together. She felt safe. That’s the real you. Yet for some reason you can’t accept her. In fact, you try to destroy her. What if I told you that girl was a choice? A choice only you can make.’

I’ve always been crisis motivated. I’ve never asked myself why.

But now,

Wonder (verb): To desire to know something; to feel curious.

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

Kame

Whenever I see a turtle in the wild it reminds me that I am in a foreign place. Living here for five years I’ve become acculturated to certain things. The busy trains, the neon lights, none of that really seems strange anymore. But when I ride my bike past the big pond in the park, and I see a turtle in there swimming along, or the ripple as one quickly sinks its head back beneath the water, then I feel like I’m still in a strange, exotic country. In Japan, there is an old superstition attached to turtles, which stems from a story called Urashima Taro, in which a fisherman saves a turtle from being tortured by a gang of local children. The fisherman is rewarded with a visit to the Dragon-king’s palace under the sea. He spends three days there and when he goes back home he discovers that everyone he ever knew is gone. Nobody knows him, but he finds that he has become a legend, somebody who disappeared three hundred years ago. Eventually his age catches up with him and his body turns to dust. I kind of feel like that whenever I go back the village where I grew up.

Despite the unfortunate fate of Urashima Taro, it is considered lucky to rescue a turtle. I’d saved one once from a crow. Cities in England are full of mangy pigeons, but here in Tokyo they have these great big Asian jungle crows that are bigger than ravens. They are smart, ruthless and bear grudges. You have to put nets over your rubbish on collection days, or else they will cut through the bags with their blade-like beaks and rip out any meat remnants, scattering the rubbish in the strong winds that blow up and down the narrow streets. Walking my dog in the park one day, I saw this great big crow, one of the Hashibuto-garasu with the ugly, curved beaks like a scimitar. It had this thing in front of it which it was pecking ruthlessly. At first I thought it was just a dropped handbag or something. Then I saw it was a fully-grown turtle. I never knew crows would eat turtles. I shooed the crow away, which took more guts than you’d think, since the jungle crow has a wingspan of 60 centimetres and is about the size of a sparrow-hawk.  Anyway, I picked up the turtle and I saw a little blood but I couldn’t be sure if the thing was alive or dead. I put it in the water of the big pond, on a little ledge at the side just in case it really was dead. When I came back for the evening dog walk, there was no sign of the turtle. It must have been OK, I’m happy to report. I have also rescued about two or three really little ones. Turtles lay their eggs on land, and then the babies hatch and get massacred as they try to find the water again. Despite their armour, turtles are surprisingly fragile and low on the food chain. Each time I pick up one the babies and carry them over to the water, I feel lucky. I know I am doing the right thing. Not many chances you get as a human to interfere with nature and yet feel you are doing the right thing. It’s a good feeling, and it connects me to this strange land where I have come to make my home.

But then, there was this other time when it wasn’t nearly as simple as that. That was the time I saw the Oni.

I was coming back from drinks after work. It was late, maybe almost midnight. Dark in the park, and raining. I was cycling with one of those clear plastic umbrellas you seem only to be able to get in Asia. Just as I was crossing the bridge across the park to the other side where I live, I saw this man. I say he was a man, but really he was more like a hobgoblin. He had a face the shape of a crescent moon, pointy at both ends and pockmarked features in-between. His arms were very long, and his legs seemed very short. But the thing that really made him seem like a hobgoblin was just the aura of wrongness about him. The way his actions seemed to be beyond the comprehension of ordinary logic. The man was Oni for sure. He had a net with him on the end of a long bamboo cane, like the ones children use on nature field-trips. His bike was parked nearby, and it was loaded with all sorts of paraphernalia for capturing and imprisoning things. He was already behind the fence, the official-seeming barrier that tried to keep nature safe. He was sticking his net into the dark black water with vicious certainty and cruel determination. He seemed to know exactly where the thing he was looking for was. I slowed my bike to look at him, something primordially wrong about the whole thing. Perhaps I’d sensed that even before I turned the corner. Why was he there at that time? I can’t be sure, because I don’t think I actually saw him fish a turtle out of the water. But I knew that’s what he was after. Now, this particular spot is a narrow path through the park that connects Katsushika-ward in Tokyo to Misato-shi in Saitama. We live in Saitama, and take this path every time I go to work on the way to the nearest station. We walk our dog there in Mizumoto park, and when I am with Oscar, we often stop to look at this one turtle who seems to live in this very small patch of water which is a self-contained part of the reservoir that gives the nearby area its name. Mizumoto means ‘source of water’. This turtle is special because we’ve seen her so many times. She is very very shy, even for a turtle. As soon as we stop to look at her, she pops her head away, but because it’s such a small enclave and because we go past so often, we’ve seen this turtle many times and Oscar and I like to look for her. And I knew that this Oni was after her. I could feel it. That was the aura of wrongness that I felt in that dark moment. This was our turtle, and this goblin-man was after her. The turtle’s fear was almost as palpable as the evil void of empathy that this Oni used to fish with. Although I didn’t see him get her, I knew she was in danger. But I hoped that she would get away. It was much too dark to really see, and the turtle could just swim off to the main reservoir, or dive deep and hide away. It seemed unlikely that the Oni could catch this shy and wary turtle. I willed her to escape, but I still felt afraid for her.

Although I had a fair bit of drink in me, I wasn’t nearly brave enough to actually challenge the Oni. I did slow my bike down and looked at him hard, but I had to keep going and get home. I told Kimie about him. She believes in Oni, but this was the first time either of us had ever seen one.

I knew that this was her. Our shy little turtle from the enclave. The Oni must have got her, and this must be the Oni’s house.

I’m not sure how long after that, but maybe a couple of weeks later, Oscar and I were on the way to the nearby supermarket, which is hilariously called Life. We went past this house that is on the way, a house we thought looks nice and interesting because it’s kind of a bungalow with a nice little patio and usually toys in the little speck of garden that it has. We think it’s grandparents who live there, as the toys don’t move around very often. Oscar, riding on the seat at the front of the bike, was using his sharp eyes to notice things and point them out to me. He’s very observant, but I’d already seen it. A turtle. It was in a rectangular glass aquarium, plenty big enough for small fish but agonisingly small for a turtle. It was just on the walkway to the house, with a lid on. There was a tiny bit of stale green water in the tank, no rocks or other features. A turtle in a glass prison, an agonising position near the road where cars go past night and day. Nowhere to hide. And I knew without knowing how, I knew that this was her. Our shy little turtle from the enclave. The Oni must have got her, and this must be the Oni’s house. How wrong we were, to think that it might be nice people living in this house. Grandkids or no, that turtle should not be in that tank. I said so to Oscar and he agreed. We both felt sorry for the turtle, we both wanted to help it. We thought it should be back in the park, in the wild. What a cruel place to keep a turtle. Not even a rock to sit on. Having to keep its head up out of the water. How could it sleep? Without enough water to be fully submerged, it would have to sleep with its neck out of the water, cars and motorbikes zooming past all night. Nowhere to hide, nowhere to go, nothing to do. Oscar and I talked about it all the way to the supermarket and back. I told Kimie, and said I knew it was the Oni who had caught our shy turtle friend. I wanted to rescue the turtle. Kimie was adamant. I was not to go near the turtle, not to set it free. It was now a pet. Maybe it had always been a pet. How did I know it was the same turtle?

Maybe, instead of going there at night to rescue the turtle, maybe I could go there with Oscar and we could ask them to release her. Also no. Kimie thought that it was none of our business. We had just moved to the area. We didn’t want to make any trouble. It was bad enough that someone was ringing our doorbell and running away before we could answer. As a foreigner here, I stood out enough already. Kimie was very unnerved at the idea that I would do anything that could get me in trouble.

So I tried another approach. I posted on Facebook, hoping that my Japanese friends might know something about the law regarding cruelty to animals. Perhaps there was something like the RSPCA which I could tell about the turtle’s plight. One of my students, Riku, checked and found nothing in Japanese law that could help the poor turtle. It turns out that you can legally take a turtle from the wild and keep it in a glass prison. Furthermore, another student, named Emi, begged me to leave the turtle alone. Like Kimie, she thought it might even be a family pet. Emi asked if the turtle had a red spot on its neck. I said yes and she told me that the red-eared slider turtle is not native to Japan. Emi said it was an invader from China, but actually the red slider comes from Mississippi in the US. There was even an article in the Japan Times, describing the stress these alien species are putting on the ecosystem. They now vastly outnumber the endemic population of ishigame pond turtles eight to one. The slider is something like the grey squirrel in England, classed as an invasive species and doing harm to the local ecosystem, replacing the native species and upsetting the natural balance.

Who is to blame for all of this? Why do red sliders and grey squirrels invade our countries? Of course, we humans are to blame. In the 1970s, red sliders were sold as pets or given away as prizes at the local matsuri festivals. They were a popular pet, but when they outgrew their lodgings people just chucked them in the nearby ponds. Grey squirrels too, were imported to the UK in the 1870s as ‘fashionable additions to estates’ according to one source. It sickens me that we describe these animals as threats, invaders, and claim they are the ones damaging the ecosystem, as if they have a personal agency beyond their own will to survive. The onus is on us, as people. Calling them invaders is how we later justify culls and other measures to ‘restore nature’.

Releasing this turtle or keeping it as a pet? It’s ethical and unethical at the same time. It’s a dilemma of choice and morality. Its uninethical. Its antidisuninethcal. And, all the while, this poor turtle is suffering in a glass tank of water by the side of a road, occasionally yanked out and fed lettuce by the grandkids. Probably, the Oni feels they are helping the environment by taking this creature out of its home and keeping it away from its unnatural-natural habitat.

I doubted that reasoning would work. Technically, me taking the turtle and releasing it could be seen as theft. If my employer heard I’d had trouble with the police, that could be very bad for me and my contract might not be renewed. The mortgage. Oscar and Kimie. Over a turtle.

I’d have to go there at night, dressed in black. No dog with me, although I often take her on night walks. She’s too distinctive, too blonde. I’d go alone. Probably, I’d be more than a little drunk too. It would have to be a night when I’d already been out drinking. When I was coming back late. I’d have to remember to pack a balaclava. My foreign face would be a dead giveaway. In order not to look too strange, it’d need to be cold, too. Winter time. But before the frost and freezes set in. I’d need to wear the right shoes. I need to have a getaway planned. But I’d need to take her back to the enclave or she might not be in the right place, she might be in someone else’s territory, or a place where she couldn’t find her way. That path is often quite busy, and I must not be seen by anybody. For a few weeks after too, I’d be worried that the police would be looking for me. It would be several months of anxiety until I’d know for sure I’d got away with it. I could never tell Kimie, or Oscar. Never tell anyone that I stole a pet turtle out of someone’s garden. I had no real evidence other than a feeling that this turtle was the shy little turtle Oscar and I used to stop and say hello to. The one I saw, the one I felt, trying to escape the Oni man’s net.

Several weeks passed. Perhaps even a month or more. But I kept thinking of that turtle. Then one night I was going out with friends. I knew I would be back late, and I decided tonight was the night. On the way home, I bought a little bottle of whiskey to help me find the courage to steal someone’s pet. A neighbour’s pet. The grandchildren might even have named this turtle by now. But its conditions had not changed. Its life was not a decent life to live. No animal should be kept in a glass tank of water by the side of the road. Red sliders can live for 30 years. It had been almost half a year now, since I’d seen the Oni and I’d never seen our shy turtle friend in the water since then. I felt that this was something for me to do. I was the one who this had fallen to. I had to get that little turtle out of there.

So I did. Drunk as I was, everything went to plan. It was raining and very cold. A black wax jacket, a wax hat and a snood to cover my face. My eyes still a giveaway, I would have to make sure nobody saw me. Very few foreigners live around here, even though it’s so close to Tokyo. I parked up my bike around the corner. Went and grabbed the turtle. It was surprisingly big. Heavy. Cold and slippery, almost muddy even. The shells actually carry many germs so you are supposed to wash your hands after you touch them. I had gloves on and they got wet. I ran with the turtle and put her gently in the bike basket. Not an ideal place for her, at the moment even less comfortable than the tank. Plus, she’d be scared. Scared as hell. More scared than me. There was someone near the road, but they only saw me near there. They didn’t see me grab the turtle. On the bike, I sped to the enclave, less than one-minute cycle away. Nobody around. Onto the path, off the bike. Over the fence and down towards the water, turtle under my arm again now. I slipped and fell, muddy knees. I was already soaked through from the rain. The turtle slid into the water. She disappeared straight away. It was so dark I could hardly see anything. Or was it bright? I remember a street light shining on me as I looked to my right and saw a person going past on their bike. They’d seen me, seen me near the water. They must be wondering what I was doing, but did they see me release the turtle? Hopefully not. I got on the bike and powered off, opposite direction to my house. I cycled around the park, singing, rejoicing at the freedom of the turtle, taking swigs of whiskey and seeing the deep dark water from the turtle’s own point of view as she slid back away into freedom. I felt bad for the grandchildren. I felt sorry for the people, cruel as they are, who would wake up the next day and wonder where their turtle had gone. But this whole act was a protest. A protest for animal rights. A protest against humans taking things out of the wild. A protest against us having introduced this species in the first place too. Now we’ve done it, we have to live with it. Our actions have consequences.

A pounding headache the next day, I said nothing about the turtle to anybody. I actually got quite ill. Influenza or something, perhaps from being out in the rain, maybe germs from the turtle’s shell got in my mouth as I was swigging from the whiskey. Because I was also hungover, there was no sympathy from Kimie. I felt awful, and the waiting part of the plan began. I saw in my mind the family as they called the police to report a stolen turtle. Would they send an officer for such a trivial thing? Surely not, but then the crime rate is very low here. Perhaps a stolen turtle is a crime, is something they would investigate. I tried not to look when we went past the house and saw the empty tank. Then the tank was taken away.

Weeks went by and I slowly relaxed. And then, one day, I realised I’d gotten away with it. But not really. What if I see another turtle in a tank like that? What about all the turtles out there, in tanks, in cages? There is a Chinese supermarket in Ueno that sells live turtles. They are sold to be eaten. There were hundreds last time I was there, I felt awful. What about other animals too? How many invasive species are there in countries around the world? How many ecological disasters have we caused by simply releasing pets that got too big? This event, this story, is as meaningless to the ecosystem as one turtle is to that great big reservoir. But for me, and for that one red-eared slider, that was a victory. After telling this story, someone called me a ‘superhero’. It made me feel like Urashima Taro. Although I didn’t get to go to the dragon kingdom, I feel lucky and I feel whole every time I see a turtle in the pond now. When Oscar is old enough to keep secrets, maybe I’ll tell him about it too.