The Dark Mountain Blog

To a Faith in Place

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As if already aged – looking a victim of Millennial culture, not a product of it – Stephen answers the phone: Hello? Hello? On our way back now. Hello? Yes, Walter’s asleep. On our way back. Hello? Call must of dropped. Hello?

He turns to me, riding shotgun, believing the situation with his wife unclear: Call must of dropped, he repeats.

Stephen is twenty-four, still younger than I was when we first met six years ago, and, yet, he looks unchanged: ‘City of Windsor Centennial’ baseball cap, sun-faded flannel rolled at the sleeves, denim jeans adequate for a coalmine, industrial work boots (as I’ve borrowed his calf-high rubber counterparts), and a peach V-neck (the fashion remnants of our time spent in Southern California together). He still smiles like it’s an invitation to squeeze his cheeks. Or like he’s withholding a sneeze. The only discernible difference is the dreads – they’re gone, coming off when the brain tumour came out. Now, threat free, there is still partial blindness in his periphery.

Stephen, a hardy man in a young body.

I travelled here alone, to eastern Canada, to recalibrate. I’ve been thinking about giving up writing, getting a ‘real’ job. An ‘adult’ job. Because this isn’t cutting it, the way I purge myself onto paper in an attempt to feel known. And loved. And important. I’m worried about the long-term consequence: What if nothing changes? What if nothing pays off? What if I still feel hollow with success?

I’m on the East Coast because I just spent a near-two-thousand dollars to attend an environmental writers’ conference in Vermont. Facilitators told me, by attending, I was showing a commitment to my craft, a willingness to make the extra sacrifice. Internally I smiled, knowing I’d successfully networked, but winced for all those I’ve met that will never be afforded the same luxury or privilege. Writing is expensive – in terms of time, finance, and spirit.

Friends and family are surprised when I tell them I attended, knowing me a thirty-two-year-old with an embarrassing bank account, but I’ve been living in the back of a makeshift furniture store, rent free, for the last three years to ensure the opportunities: conferences, workshops, retreats; submitting to journals; paying for freelance editing. I consciously made this decision, leaving San Diego for rural Montana, to create the time and space required to be a writer, to learn the industry, to alleviate the financial burden of California and separate myself from the big-city amenities. To focus.

I thought I’d have a book done in a year. Then in two. Then three. By year four, however, the manuscript was complete, with me then learning that writing is the easy part. Selling the damn thing is the difficulty. Editing and restructuring became new forms of mental affliction unto themselves. Agents and editors, new demigods to my worship. To have one of them say ‘Yes’ would’ve been the equivalent of an accepted marriage proposal. All the while I wasn’t even comfortable claiming the title ‘writer’. I’d started forgetting what I was altogether.

These thoughts, of course, are recurring, and common to creatives, but they’ve gotten worse: the further I advance in the literary business the more hopeless I evolve, each small victory adding up to one grand failure. Stephen, unbeknownst to him, has become my port in the storm.

He drives me around the South Shore of Nova Scotia. Nine-month-old Walter, as said, is asleep in the back. Stephen’s wife, Laura, and her two kids, Stella and Oliver, are back at the house in Petite Riviere, a small village named for the waterway that runs through it. There is a dog too, a beagle mix, Chebucto, named after the Halifax Harbor, cute as can be.

Route 331 takes us to Crescent Beach, where locals harvest the nutrient-rich seaweed for gardening, then through LaHave, passing a den of foxes awaiting the low tide for hunting, and around Conquerall Mills. I see coffee shops I’d like to visit, perhaps sit and write at, but negative thoughts have overtaken me. I won’t be returning.

A backroad leads us – through softwood forest and muddy hillsides, inhabited by feral pigs – to Stephen’s sister’s school bus. She lives there, Supertramp style, after the defunct vehicle, towed from Halifax, became her home atop a tick-infested thirty acres – ‘Blueberry Hill’, as she calls it. And the namesake is everywhere, painting the landscape an Alaskan taiga. Fall colours in spring.

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Up the road is a commune. I first meet Sam and Emily, building a cabin on the forest’s edge; we approach the skeletal framing via a solar-powered electric fence containing piglets, ducks, and cows. Cameron, another local, is up the way, in an attic, playing a hang drum; Jake is selling raw milk, hobbling it out to a customer’s truck; Melissa, laundry; their kids, climbing what seems to be a wigwam made of a Papasan chair. Jordy is refurbishing a counter; Lisa, tending the garden; everyone, seemingly, in their thirties or younger.

Stephen shows me his land next – just shy of nine acres – with Walter awake and now strapped to his back. Roughly half the acreage is cleared back for the farm; the rest, forest. An old oxen trail marks the delineation.

My guide navigates with ease, even with a child in tow and acquiescing his better boots to me, as I fumble and fall over rotting logs and adventitious boulders. Those, Stephen says, are erratics’, boulders once carried by glacial ice. Farmers break them up by boring holes into them in the fall and then waiting till spring for the winter to fill the openings and break them apart.

Three seasons to remove a single boulder. Damn, I think.

The farmland is similar – a multi-year commitment. Stephen shows me expanses of earth where he’s planted buckwheat to draw nitrogen into the soil and smoother out weeds. Two years, he says, before it’ll be ready to cultivate. The orchard (apple, pear, peach, Asian pear, cherry, and plum): six years till fruit. The sapling nursery: two years before revenue. Also, there is to be an eight-foot fence around the perimeter to keep out deer – another year investment. Then there is the new barn, the apiary, the dry cellar, and a guest house to be used as an Airbnb. Two years before the farm is even profitable, Stephen says.

More conjecture, later, gets thrown around the dinner table, often in various mock-maritime accents. Friends and family are speaking of all their developmental plans, and sustainability goals, and food security. I can’t help but ponder the conundrum: most young people don’t talk this way, don’t think this way. Most young people don’t make multi-year commitments without guaranteed compensation on the horizon. I think of instant gratification. Of consumerism. Of Amazon Prime. I think of all the plaque inundating our cultural bandwidth. It’s refreshing to see young adults turning back to heritage practices, to an ancient commonplace that is now the avant-garde.

I look to the land: these things take time and energy. The trees, crops, livestock, infrastructure. And, for now, this isn’t glamorous or profitable. But it’s assured commitment, even with all the risk. Writing too, I’m reminded, is a cultivation of the cerebral landscape, never an act rewarded by cutting corners, expediting execution, or accepting shoddy craftsmanship. Literature and land-use both require the confidence of boring a hole in a boulder – and waiting. Both require letting a field sit fallow to become nutrient rich; or trusting an orchard for a near-half decade to blossom with abundant fruit. It requires returning to the labour, day after day after day, in the rain and snow and hail storms that take place both externally and internally. It’s knowing you will never be fully applauded for your sacrifice or rewarded for it, but putting in the hours knowing that such commitment must be fertilised and then grown and germinated through budding, flowering, going back to seed – then starting all over again.

I don’t know who will turn a profit first, Stephen or I, but we’ll both keep putting in the labour. It’s what we do, bounty or not. Is he a farmer? Of course. Am I a writer? – I don’t know why that answer comes with more difficulty. But I look to the land, to my generation with its multi-year commitments: development, sustainability, security. To their faith in place.

I have faith, too. I am a writer. And I keep farming.

Tyler Dunning is currently working on a memoir. His quest to visit every US national park after the death of his friend Nate Henn is the subject of a filmA Field Guide to Losing Your Friends.

“Nate Henn was full of humour, generosity and spirit. He was so alive. But then, in 2010, a series of terror-related bombings devastated Kampala, Uganda, leaving 74 people dead, including Henn. The news was a devastating blow for his best friend Tyler Dunning, who plunged into darkness, grief, anger and self-medication. His only solace? Exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, where the cliff faces, pine forests and wildlife softened his raw emotions. It was a failed attempt to climb Longs Peak that really changed him: the humbling experience sent him on a quest to visit all 59 US national parks. From Glacier to Bryce, Saguaro to Kenai, the Everglades to Yellowstone, he roamed. And through the adventures that unfolded, he pieced his life back together. He started to let others in. And, finally, he was able to say goodbye.”

 You can watch the film trailer here.

More of Tyler’s work can be found at tylerdunning.com.

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The Dark Humanities: Cosmic comfort in the Anthropocene

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I’ve always gazed skyward at night, searching for solace in the vastness of space. I rise at odd hours to catch meteor showers. I appal friends when I explain why I’d sign up for a one-way trip to Mars. And if I could resurrect one person from the dead to invite for dinner and apple pie, it would be astrophysicist Carl Sagan. (‘If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe,’ Sagan once quipped to make the point that a pie is not just flour, butter, and your filling of choice, but atoms, molecules, and stardust.)

I find myself turning to space and the wisdom of astronomers like Sagan more and more as the climate crisis worsens. But the relevance of the great beyond to environmental destruction extends past cosmic therapy. We tell stories about aliens invading Earth to colonise our covetable planet and steal its natural resources. The inhospitality of neighbouring planets like Venus reminds us of the value of our home. And some consider an extraterrestrial colony our literal Plan B in the face of climate catastrophe. At the dawn of the Anthropocene with an increasingly chaotic climate, how do our views on the universe continue to evolve?

The term ‘Environmental Humanities’ describes writing and art that explores nature — but the focus tends to favour a landlubber’s perspective. In 2013, John R. Gillis coined the term ‘Blue Humanities’ for the eco-study of the vast world of the sea. But what about humanity’s reckoning with our larger environment, our ultimate home?

Introducing the Dark Humanities — an intellectual domain for dark times. The term I’ve proposed also evokes the mystery epitomised by dark matter. We know so little about space and its cryptic vastness stupefies us, humbles us, and can even soothe us. The Dark Humanities serves as a container for the thoughts of H.G. Wells, Neil deGrasse Tyson and other sci-fi writers and astronomers weighing in on our planet and its larger context. It’s also my own preferred form of climate crisis therapy.

One of the cornerstone subjects of this new sub-discipline is cosmic time and scale, which provide reassurance in moments of environmental distress. When I look up, I’m reminded of the age of the universe: 13.8 billion years. The Milky Way’s arm arcing across the sky reminds us of our humble place in the expanse of space. We are small fish contemplating a great bridge.

When we look skyward, we are also peering back in time. If nuclear weapons detonated our planet, it would take just over four years before the sight of the explosion reached the not-too-distant star Proxima Centauri. Studying a single star is like reading an old letter that floated across the sea to reach you:

Dear You,
Enjoy this vision of myself from 6.24 years ago. This is your nightly reminder of the epic breadth of space. Distances are great. Time is inconceivably massive. The short-lived mistakes of your species are but a blip in space time. There will be a new chapter — a better read — if not on your planet, then in some other corner of the universe. Cheer up.
Sincerely,
Star

Of course, the next chapter for ‘earthlings’ might play out light years away from our home planet. The question of relocating humans after we fully trash Earth is one the Dark Humanities must address. A century in the future, we may find ourselves in exile on Elon Musk’s million-person SpaceX colony on Mars. The future colonists will peer back at our ruined planet through a telescope with a light-year-long sigh.

Techno-optimists actually cite space colonisation as a reason not to fret over our environmental anxieties. When asked about global warming, Libertarian 2016 presidential candidate Gary Johnson suggested space travel as a viable solution: ‘We do have to inhabit other planets,’ he stated in a TV interview.

I’m all for space exploration, but not in lieu of protecting our own planet. Many bank on our ability to overcome the inhospitable conditions on Mars. Some feel confident we’ll discover another version of Earth close enough to ferry supplies and large populations to. Yet all of these prospects are far riskier, far more expensive than fixing the environmental ills we’ve created here on Earth.

Plans for space settlement might even transform humans into the colonising, resource-plundering cosmic creatures we’ve long envisioned in films. H.G. Wells gave us one of our earliest depictions of aliens in his 1898 novel War of the Worlds. ‘Yet across the gulf of space,’ he wrote, ‘minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.’

As a growth-oriented, technology-obsessed society swinging the wrecking ball at our own planet, humans are beginning to resemble Wells’s envious Martians and other similar depictions of extraterrestrials. The alien invasion narrative might just be a Freudian cautionary tale about our own species — an eerily familiar story that hits close to home planet.
If we don’t manage to develop viable colonies cosmically abroad to salvage humanity, we may also try our luck at cracking a wormhole transit corridor. We could voyage back in time to the ’70s to institute a carbon tax, obviating the need to pursue Planet Bs in the first place.

To those who don’t place blind faith in technology’s ability to extricate humans from the environmental mess we’ve made, spirituality can at least offer a coping mechanism. That’s why cosmic spirituality is an important branch of the Dark Humanities — how can we find comfort in the night sky and all that it signifies, as some do on an excursion to forest or sea?

As an environmentalist, I often wish religion had a place in my life. A deep belief in divinity and kismet might impart a sense of calm. As agnostics, my sister and I joke that space is our religion and the late Carl Sagan our god. We talk of starting a cult of Saganism to worship the enigmas of the cosmos and the sage preaching of Sagan, who also regarded science as a form of religion. ‘Science is not only compatible with spirituality,’ he wrote, ‘it is a profound source of spirituality.’

For environmentalists who consider themselves atheist or agnostic, cosmic spirituality offers a source of solace. But at the same time, cosmic perspective also reminds us that our ‘pale blue dot’, as Sagan refers to Earth, is still the only known viable planet on which humans can eke out a living.

In this sense, a cosmic philosophy offers something of a paradox to the environmentalist. The reassuring perspective of space-time scale instils us with a sense of calm about our present predicament. Concurrently, the knowledge that Earth is the only planet we have fills us with urgency.

Tackling the climate crisis in the 21st century means striking a balance. We must do all that we can to prevent and adapt to the riskier world wrought by the Anthropocene. But to stay sane and effective, we must also think like Carl Sagan. In the colossal scheme of the cosmos, the climate crisis — like everything else — is relative.

When outrage at the injustice of environmental destruction does get the better of me, I think of the soundtrack of the first 750,000 years of the universe post-Big Bang. University of Washington astrophysicist John G. Cramer rendered a recording from cosmic microwave background data gathered by the Planck satellite mission. You can listen here.

Imagine how glorious it would be to drown out the voices of international politicians engaged in their annual unproductive climate talks with this sound. Obliterate the whining of the remaining climate sceptics as they seal the end of the Holocene and its hospitable climate with this cosmic song of beginning.

Maya Silver writes about the environment and food. She’s a fellow in the Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah and also the author of My Parent Has Cancer and it Really Sucks. She lives in a log cabin in Kamas, Utah. Read more at mayasilverwrites.com.

Image: Horsehead Nebula (NASA/ESA Hubble Heritage Team)

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The Day After We Sold the World

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(On 1 June 2017, the USA decided to exit the Paris Climate Accord)

Two-inch shoots of corn lift from the cracked mud
of fields that were deep in flood a week ago.
Life doesn’t stop. This is comfort or warning or both.
Beside the trail, the water for long stretches

is suffused, almost too washed in light to see
as it soughs and blurs over stone
because it is noon and the sun comes straight
down, soaking the ravine, rather than slanting in

and pouring it full of shadows, as it will later.
Water-striders skitter and pause, skitter
and pause, dimpling the surface, and frogs
kick like mad as they swim below them.

I am here, too. I sit above the waterfall, don’t think
but watch a blacksnake, this beautiful genius,
insinuating up the middle of the stream, winding

against the current, from far down, a bit of dark rope
or thread, a moving brush stroke suspended
in the invisible flow, above his shadow twisting
like smoke on the pale-yellowish slate of the stream bed,

curling as he sways through patches
of shade and sun, up to the falls, and out
onto a ledge beside the foam to stretch and bask.

I go home, and a grey catbird hops along the porch rail.

James Owens‘s most recent collection of poems is Mortalia (FutureCycle Press, 2015). His poems, stories, and translations appear widely in literary journals, including publications in The Fourth River, Kestrel, Tule Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Southword. He earned an MFA at the University of Alabama and lives in Indiana and northern Ontario.

 

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A Part of Its Breathing

On 25th March 2017 a promenade performance, The Night Breathes Us In, marked the culmination of a day of Dark Mountain events at the Festival of the Dark in Reading, a town in southern England described as ‘the heart of the UK’s hi-tech industry’. The performance celebrated the fecund spirit of darkness, on Latha na Cailleach (the day of the Cailleach) – the Celtic creatrix hag of winter. On this day she gives up her struggle against the oncoming of Spring, throwing her staff beneath a holly bush.

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It is late. The night is dark and the sky is clear. The ground beneath my feet is hard, where I would not expect it to be. I am standing on a former tennis court surrounded by sycamores, on an island in the River Thames at Reading – a town that has three times tried to be designated as a city, and failed. Across the river, the square windows of high office blocks hang in axes of fluorescence, fingered by the silhouetted branches of these trees. The sycamores self-seeded: thrived and grew tall where the strimmer could not reach them, beneath the no-longer-tennis court fence. In the undergrowth, red jar lanterns snake into the woods. At the centre of this concrete court, the embers of a large fire speak their last orange murmurs.

At dusk, these red jar lanterns were borne here by fifty curious people, out of their illuminated comfort zones, across the river and into the layers of night around our feet, our skin; inside our senses. Tonight, the fire to which the people were finally led became a hearth for story and song, the likes of which this island, this tennis court and these people had not known together. Now they are gone back to their comfort zones, perhaps a little changed. One by one, we blow out the candles, returning the island to darkness.

There is an explosion. A piece of concrete flies through the air scattering orange fragments into the black night. The heat from the story fire has pushed the tennis court to its limit.

We’ve cracked the concrete! We’ve cracked the fucking concrete! Woops of celebration ring out from within the trees. It is a perfect legacy bestowed by happenstance.

I am a Bearer. I carry the night in me. I let it speak for itself.

* * *

I am Night. I am everywhere light is not.

I am slipping into my skin now. I am full deep dark and clear, and sated with story. The touch of humans lingers on me – their attention, their feeling – here on this island where I am allowed to be almost complete. Moments ago I was, for once, honoured in the heart of this town which, like all towns, banishes me to the corners. Let me tell you how it felt.

As the sun conceded its last rays, a circle of open-hearted people gathered in the park – Forbury Gardens they call it. Five beings – human, but something other too – were dressed in my colours head to toe: dark suits, dark hats full of twilight.

I was with these beings when they were in training for this moment; when they filled those hats. In a wood in southern Scotland, we merged for a weekend. They dwelled only with daylight, candlelight, and darkness. In daylight they ran full pelt with their eyes closed, guided by a seeing companion. They learned to turn and sense, being sung from the edges by their kin. Later, as the horizon drank up the day, they sat in silence awaiting my approach, listening as I bloomed. They spilled the word crepuscular from their lips onto my skin, and I spoke my twilight onto theirs. They heard crows in the branches and breathed them into their bones, into their movements, until I had fully arrived. Walking slowly, blind but fully aware, they took what they had seen and smelled and heard back to a stone barn. They did not turn on any lights: the whole of me remained with the whole of them. They carried all of it and placed it into these hats. They feasted by candlelight and raised their glasses in a toast to my health. I have not felt so welcome for many, many moons. Bearers, they call themselves. Wearing those hats, they become my vessel.

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Reading is to those woods more different than the sun is to the moon. Redeveloped they call it. The earth is mostly covered over with tarmac and concrete, which spreads wide and high into me. Electric light grows from this tarmac on metal stems and spills out of apertures of concrete and brick, pushing me ever further from the earth. Even the great river is channelled in unnatural directions by these transient structures that they believe so permanent. Some small spaces try to heal from this colonisation. The island is one such space. In some spaces Nature (as they call it) is arranged in ways that are deemed acceptable. Forbury Gardens is one such space.

The Bearers flocked around that circle of people in Forbury Gardens like a small murmuration, corralling them to their nighthood. Each of their characters was distinct though all were united by their crepuscular blood. Heads cocked, arms folded like wings behind them: a convergence of human, night and crow – a being we had created together. In the centre of the circle, three of the Bearers’ kin showed this gathering how to move with them in trust, how to open themselves, and how to give their vibration to me and to each other. A hum, a sounding, was shared around the circle. It rose in a dome, pressing into my body.

A red jar lantern was placed into the hands of each open, vibrating person – a candle flickering within. Candlelight does not banish my darkness; it illuminates it. In those woods in Scotland, one dear man had painted three hundred of these jars with red, so that the candlelight did not draw attention to itself, but to me.

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Like the unspoken moment at dusk where the moorhens climb from the water into the rushes, the Bearers and the curious folk peeled away from that park in a string of redglow through the streets, through the places where I am pushed out: underpasses, a train station, shop fronts. The Bearers threaded my essence through the procession and through these bright lit spaces; for once the darkness piercing through the light. Playful, poetic, present. One played flute in the tunnels. Another played with a skateboarder’s feet. All of them played with each other and placed fragments of moss and poetry into people’s pockets, and spoke it into mine. The other people – the people who do not know me, going about their bright light Saturday night business – were moved, amused or confused by this sight. They fished for explanations; asked questions. Who’s died? one said. I have not, I whispered to him. But I am facing extinction from your world.

Beyond the brightness and beside the river, I could begin to play my part with the redglow people. We began to share breath. The receding of vision left a space which filled with sound and smell: the churn of the weir, the ringing bells of Sentinels who flanked a small bridge onto the island, the shuffle of each other’s slow footsteps. Clutching their lanterns, they entered View Island and could not see.

Three candle-flickered faces awaited them there, huddled. The Wild Poets spoke the words of Wendell Berry:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.¹

The vibrating strings of a fiddle called them first. They moved towards it and found a heron with a head of long grey hair. In fact, almost sightless, they each found something different which bubbled from their own story springs, but the heron is what I saw. The Cailleach they called her – the Celtic creatrix hag of the dark winter. Cailleach perched gracefully on a bench, swimming in me, her staff discarded and her arms now free, dancing to the fiddle’s music. She ushered them onwards with her long beak, deeper into me, deeper into themselves.

A rustle in the thistle patch. Arched back. Black. Big haunches. Sniff sniff. White flash. Is it a badger?! I hear a child say.

Some paused, attempting to decipher. Most continued slowly onwards, always onwards, moving through me.

The flitting krunk and caw of two ravens in a tree, their dark and my dark commingling.

The disconcerting stillness of a wolf, staring, but unseen.

Onwards, always onwards. What is it to ‘see’?

A stag standing at a distance, scuffing in the undergrowth. Antlers like antennae for another world – a world that was and shall be.

And heron once more, poised at a pool that was once a toxic dumping ground, reeds nodding to her slow dance.

How I have missed these creatures here. How I have missed being welcome here.

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Through a narrow gap in the sycamores the people and the Bearers joined hands and snaked onto the concrete of the no-longer-tennis court, moving silently in an ever-morphing spiral into the heart of me. At the four corners, I was illuminated by beings dressed in white with lantern crowns made of sprigs: the Ancestors, where we all began. They held watch over skeletons of badger, fox, roe deer and hare. Like a family of hands, the trees held the people, the creatures, the Bearers and the Ancestors all together in this space and in this moment. The people-snake finally stilled, encircling a stack of logs and a ring of ivy. My Bearers went to greet the Ancestors and returned with the primordial hum, gifted to the circle. The ivy began to move. Out of its dark waxy leaves, two more white figures twitched, rose, and evolved into Fire Lighters. Logs became light and warmth.

I am not trying to understand, I heard one man whisper to another. It is enough to be amazed.

And so the hearth was created. The Fire Lighters returned to the Ancestors. The Bearers placed their hats in a circle around the fire, slid out of their dark suits and returned to the world of humans. A toast of plum and lavender brew was raised to all beings, to the open-hearted people, to the turning of the year, and to me. This is how the fire was passed on to the people of now in a night of story and song. This is how the glow reached out to those people, up into me and deep into the ground. Waking up our old bones, reminding us all what we are here to be. Reminding us of the soil beneath the concrete.

1. ‘To Know the Dark’ by Wendell Berry, from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 1999.

The Night Breathes Us In was dreamed up and brought into being by Darla Eno, Dougie Strang, Tamsin Wates and a fine crew of performers, musicians and volunteers. 

Sarah Thomas is a writer and journeyer currently working on a memoir about a period she spent living in remote northwest Iceland. She is particularly interested in how we engender an active and reciprocal relationship with place. She is doing a PhD in creative writing, on a fell in Cumbria.

Images by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes

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Bottleneck

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A foot on her bladder jolts her awake. She queues for the toilet, is ushered to the front by kindly passengers, and on returning to her seat discovers East Anglia overlaid with a map of
vapour. She pretends to herself that this is stable English cloud, its blue lacunae the Norfolk Broads that she has never visited. The thought makes her thirsty and, looking down the aisle for the drinks trolley, she reaches into her purse for change. She requests a tomato juice and watches as the hostess measures out a sample. She takes a sip and her taste buds seem to revive like flowers after rain. Taking her time with the dregs, she sits back to consider all that has taken place – the journey to and from Berlin, her courtesy tour of the heat-dazed city, the performance at the Konzerthaus. Is it common for the Small Hall to have so many empty seats? No matter: the applause sounded genuine and lasted a long time, until she began to suspect that it was her condition, rather than her composition, that won people over; for she had been summoned to the front of the stage and exposed there, bashful, elated and flagrantly pregnant, until the first violin encumbered her with a bouquet and turned her into an allegorical figure from a masque of plenty. 

There is a second jolt. Passengers murmur as the plane lurches through fathoms of air. Clare grips the armrest and shuts her eyes. She reminds herself of the statistics about aircraft safety. All the same, she does not open her eyes or wipe the perspiration from her upper lip until they are safely delivered from turbulence. 

‘Now that was a drop,’ her neighbour says. ‘Cheaper to stay at home and fall down the stairs.’

Clare nods and sketches a smile. She resists the urge ethically to justify her presence on board, to describe to this affluent woman the difficulties of securing a permit, the cost of exceeding her carbon allowance and her worries about the ethics of doing so.

Ajay insisted that she go. Hasn’t she always told him that Germany values new music, whereas in England only the comforting oldies have an audience: the vanished pastoral of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Clare’s compositions, swarming with terror and magnificence, hold scant appeal to such patrons as remain to fill the void left by public subsidy. Who wants orchestral noise that frightens and dismays? Berliners, it would seem. They absorbed, as if they deserved it, the stern sermon of her Threnody and meditated on it afterwards in the air-conditioned café, the balm of their approval soured by a few sidelong glances at her fullness, from abstainers perhaps, or else musical enthusiasts who foresaw, as Clare does with a pang of apprehension, the sinking of her gifts under nappies and night feeds.

She rests her hands on her belly. Her lower back aches; her bladder seems full again. She feels gross, usurped –– time to be done with it all. Yet she fears the pain of labour and has complained to Ajay about the ordeal ahead. Having to squeeze a living body through that tearing, agonised neck.

‘Men have it easy. All the fun and none of the effort.’‘What about gallstones?’

‘I think you’ll find a baby is a bit bigger.’

A baby passes through a bigger aperture.’

‘Oh God – can’t I just pay someone to do it for me? If men had to do this you’d have come up with a technofix years ago.’

‘There are some things, my love, that cannot be fixed by technology.’

The aircraft dips towards England. Clare sees through the window the cloud dissolve to reveal the faded quilt of Essex, the fields and woods from this height a blend of coffee and cream, with here and there the glint, like dropped shreds of foil, of solar panels on domestic roofs. The plane tilts again to reveal the vast circuitry of London smudged by photochemical smog.

‘Beautiful,’ her neighbour says, leaning close to see out. Clare inhales the woman’s perfume and mutters about pollution. ‘I don’t think so,’ says the woman. That’s just humidity, isn’t it?’

Clare warns herself not to take against this frequent flyer with her Botoxed brow, her snakeskin handbag and faded cheeks. Above all, do not get polemical. It is a side to her nature that has not served her well. In Germany, it was better received. She was able to describe, without inwardly cringing, the subject of her Threnody, a funeral piece for the non-human Earth to which, now that we have despoiled it, we have no option but to pay attention. Ideally, her music would embody its purpose. Yet whenever a journalist asks, she finds the urge to proselytise difficult to resist. It has made her enemies –– like Quentin Barber in The Telegraph who claimed to have discovered in her song cycle, The Sleep of Reason, ‘an ideological focus reminiscent of the vanished commissars of socialist realism’.

The seatbelt sign lights up, the captain gives his instructions, and the plane bucks and trembles into its final descent. Maybe she does hector; maybe she is a bore. Only second-rate composers write programmatically. Yet the state of things drives her to it. How can she keep silent? Clare envies Ajay his philosophical calm. The Earth will shrug us off, he says, if it has to. Life won’t end with humans. Sometimes his fatalism infuriates her, is endurable only with the knowledge that rather than wailing at the crisis he is acting to resolve it; whereas she obsesses at the news of famines in Africa and Southeast Asia, and scrabbles around for ways to make sense of it all in music that, to most ears, is nothing but discordant noise.

The plane lands without complications, and Clare leans under the thin ventilation jet to dispel her nausea. Already the woman beside her is gathering her things. Clare waits with eyes closed for the plane to taxi and dock. Perhaps, she tells herself, the birth will change everything: narrowing her focus to daily necessities. It might be a relief to have one person’s future to worry about above all others: a fraction of the world it is in her power to protect.

***

Ajay is waiting at the arrivals gate. The stubble is dark on his face; he looks tired. He runs his hand over The Bump before giving her a quick, dry kiss.

‘We’re not taking the Tube in this heat. I’ve got a car.’

Clare lets him take the lead. They are exposed briefly to the blast of the day before entering the multi-storey car park. With what feels like almost terminal lassitude, she eases herself into the passenger seat of the hired vehicle. It smells of new upholstery and sun-baked plastic. A previous user has stuffed the glove compartment with wet wipes.

Ajay negotiates the twists of the car park, the wheels making a high lament at every turn. He steers them past checkpoints and through bollards into broiling traffic.

‘I’m sorry,’ says Clare.

‘For what?’

‘For not being talkative. It’s nothing personal.’

She contemplates the sunlight caught in the hairs of his forearm. She prefers not to look at the countryside. Better to burrow into her thoughts and contemplate the man she loves.

The first she knew of Ajay was his voice – followed by his hands, lithe and articulate like his speech, fluttering half a dozen panellists from where she sat onstage at the FutureScope conference. She leaned forward, to the edge of inelegance, until she could connect that wry baritone, those elegant hands, to their owner. The face was not handsome (the eyes fractionally prominent, the chin distinctly receding) yet resting her gaze on it felt like a homecoming. It was not so much a sensation of déjà vu as of stepping back into a foundational element, the first air of childhood, when everything is remarkable. She liked this man with his baffling talk of recyclable coenzymes and photoautotrophic organisms. There was something Promethean about his ambition to reveal one of the great mysteries of life on Earth: life which had created the conditions for more of itself. Watching him talk, she could not help smiling. Was he straight? Did he have a girl in the auditorium? And was this joy she felt illusory, a somatic defence against the talk of tipping points and feedback loops and vanished albedo effects?

After the plenary session, she made her way through the crowd and introduced herself. They shook hands and continued talking until they found themselves mirroring one another’s postures on either side of a café table. Within a week, they were lovers; within three months, she had moved into his flat in Maida Hill. It was just possible to fit in her piano. When Ajay’s startup received the backing of a VC firm in Shandong, they were able to rent a small semi within walking distance of Bayswater’s gated communities. The area is reasonably secure and the house big enough for them to balance intimacy with the absorption of their respective callings.

Each endows the work of the other with the mystery of arcane secrets. Clare perceives as metaphor her partner’s quest to store solar energy in the chemical bonds of a fuel, but she hears rather than listens to his talk of liquid catalysts and electrochemical cells, while Ajay sits proudly through church hall recitals of his wife’s stringent and elusive music, all the while wondering, she supposes, what’s for supper, or whether messages of interest are gathering on his phablet.

In the car, now, Ajay glances at the screen clipped to the dashboard. Clare presses back into the headrest in order to read it. Nothing but his Twitter feed.

‘Are you following a news story?’

‘Just chatter.’ Ajay turns the screen off and Clare rests a hand on his knee.

‘I hope you’ve been sleeping while I’ve been away.’

‘When I get round to it.’

‘Seriously, you look tired.’

‘I’m in training.’

‘You’d be better off building up reserves.’

‘For the Sleep Crunch.’ A panic of sirens blazes its way through the traffic. ‘It’s good to have you back.’

‘It’s good to be back.’

Ajay, emboldened by this exchange, begins to ask detailed questions about her flight, how it felt to be doing something to which they had once been accustomed. Does Clare imagine it, or is there a forced quality to his inquiries? The heat, the flight, the long queues at security and to get her rations deducted, have left her jangled. As gently as she can, she asks Ajay for quiet, and spends the rest of the journey with her eyes closed, in part to keep from seeing outside, in part to find in herself some point of calm.


***

The sun has passed its zenith by the time he has dropped her off, gone to park the car in its charging bay and come home to find her sitting in the kitchen, tights in hand, curling and uncurling her swollen toes. She hands him the twin of her sweating glass.

‘London’s finest,’ she says. ‘Recycled a thousand times.’

‘All water’s recycled.’ They drain their glasses and Ajay gasps in that theatrical way that niggles at her. ‘What’s up?’

‘Huh?’

‘You seem preoccupied.’

‘Of course I’m preoccupied. Look at the size of me!’

She contemplates her splayed toes on the linoleum floor and does not look up until Ajay has left the room with her suitcase. She levers herself to her feet and begins to drift about the house, as if reacquainting herself with a place long ago abandoned. In the bedroom, she takes off her blouse and contemplates her belly: a pale globe with a line of longitude bisecting the navel. Something sits, an obstruction, in her stomach. The feeling has accumulated like thunder in the heat until, in a sudden revelation while she unpacks her suitcase, it cascades into a six-bar motif: a tremulous murmur in the strings, an embryonic pulse from bassoon and oboe, and then a solitary French horn launching on C major, only to lose faith in itself and slide back with a melancholy glissando.

She makes her way to the piano and scribbles it down: the sketch of her theme. The seed of the work that was germinating inside her.

She hears movement in the garden and look out to see Ajay plucking dead stems from the soft fruit. She barely notices the parched condition of the laurels, the grass like straw, the leaves of the dwarf apple puckered and jaundiced. She attends to her breathing. The mind must lie still and open like the palm of a hand. Whatever comes must not be rushed. To reach for it is to chase it away.

She looks at the notes hung out on the staff paper. She tries them again, her ear casting a line beyond the last reverberation. Drops of sweat fall on the piano keys. She hears as if on a wandering breeze the stridulation of violins, feverish rumbles from a full complement of doubles basses. Twisting over both, like butterflies in a pheromonal dance, oboe and bassoon restate and interrogate the opening theme. These forces – the elemental strings, the creaturely wind – are in opposition, and her body aches with the tension. She writes the parts one above another, forcing herself to concentrate. It’s like hauling herself rung by rung along a horizontal ladder. The weight is too much to carry. She lets go and turns on the piano stool to face the room: its books and scores, its row upon row of antiquated CDs.

Clare hears Ajay come inside and go to his study, closing the door behind him. She dares another look at the sketches and wonders what kind of music can welcome a child into a world of ashes. Will their daughter live to witness a miraculous escape from the bottleneck in which humanity is now horribly wedged? Or will she – the question terrifies – be among the millions to die in its breathless confinement?

The analogy belongs to a science blogger: their friend Olive. ‘Here we are,’ she said that time after supper, ‘the buffers hit years ago – peak phosphate, peak water, peak everything – and the chemical structure of the atmosphere altered beyond recovery. We have squeezed ourselves into this bottleneck. Either we get smart or history ends this century. This talk terrified Clare. She made an excuse and hurried to the bathroom, her heart pounding and her lungs sobbing for air. The word called to mind the mouse she discovered once, jammed inside a wine bottle discarded under their hedge: killed for the sweetness that lured it in.

Clare gathers herself off the stool. For the umpteenth time today, she goes to the toilet to ease the pressure on her bladder. Reaching for a square of paper, she wonders if, under the surface, Ajay too isn’t panicked by what is about to descend on them. Quite apart from the ecological questions – the world has no need of another human – is it right to forge a consciousness that must suffer and die? There are those who say we have a duty to resist our biology. Ten years ago, they were the ones telling us to stop shopping, to break our addiction to growth for the future’s sake. Yet the bulk of humanity heeds old imperatives. We let nature takes its course – even if nature’s course is, ultimately, to purge itself of us.

Clare told very few people about her pregnancy while it was still possible to conceal it. She dreaded disapproval; yet no one, not even Tilda who runs a despair management course at the university, displayed anything other than delight at the prospect once it was obvious. In the abstract, people with whom Clare and Ajay socialise parade their scepticism about breeding, but when it comes to their own lives, or those of friends, the opposition fades. The impulse is too strong, it’s a compulsion pushed on us like a drug by our genes. The baby wants to be born – isn’t that the truth? It announced itself, circumvented their precautions, technology no match for that lone swimmer and her porous, eager egg.

She knocks on the door of Ajay’s study and goes in to kiss him on the crown of his head. Half a dozen tabs are open on his monitor: emails, news items, syndicated feeds on air pollution and the riots. She wraps her arms about his damp shoulders.

‘What would you say, Mr Four-Eyes, to some supper?’

Ajay rests a hand on her forearm but does not return her playful tone. ‘Are you up to it?’

‘I think I can manage something simple.’

In the kitchen, the floor is cool beneath her feet. She inspects the jars of pulses and quinoa, measures out the latter and puts a pan to boil. The fridge is full of drought-stunted vegetables. She tests the tomatoes, quarters them; dices spring onions and radishes. It pleases her to cook when they have fresh produce. Nutri-shakes and algal compounds may be necessary but she cannot find in their preparation the sacramental quiet she looks for in domestic tasks. Every action must be undertaken with reverence. How hateful to be on autopilot, never to wake fully into the day.

Half an hour later, with a breeze at last creeping in from the garden, she lays the quinoa salad on the table. Ajay joins her in silence but it takes her several minutes, caught up in the undertow of her music, to notice his hunched shoulders and the slowness with which he lifts the fork to his lips. She looks at him, hoping to draw his attention with her eyes. His own are hooded and he keeps his head bowed over the plate. Only when they have eaten and Ajay takes their plates to the sink does she ask what is troubling him.

‘I don’t know if it matters,’ he says.

‘If what matters?’

‘In the grand scheme of things.’

‘Ajay.’

‘Come upstairs. It would be easier to show you.’

She follows him, her stomach aflutter, into his study, where he wakes the computer with a flick of the mouse. Clare’s eyes wander, too weary to settle, over emails and campaign pages and various business sites. ‘What am I looking for?’

PhotoGen,’ says Ajay, ‘has been neutered.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘See for yourself.’

Clare leans forward and tries to narrow in on a single paragraph. She sees familiar names and acronyms. Dread parches her mouth. ‘For God’s sake, tell me what’s happened.’

‘Shall I bullet point it for you?’

‘No, just tell me outright.’

Ajay hesitates and she has to master her frustration at being toyed with, at having to wait for an explanation. ‘The mistake we made was to think we could play with the big boys…’

Clare stares at him. She recalls Ajay’s reluctance to tangle even with the remotest tentacles of that vast energy empire.

‘They have decided…’ Ajay sighs, and she can hear the effort in his voice to keep calm. ‘…to cease investing in uncertain technologies in order to focus on proven energy. For which read tar sands and coal-to-oil. Remote extraction in the Arctic.’

‘You said they gave assurances.’

‘They made all the right noises. We thought we were taking good advice, but who’s to say the advice wasn’t paid for by someone else?’

‘So who owns the largest share?’

They do, Clare. It was their game plan all along: get a foothold and then take over.’

‘How’s it in their interest to shut you down?’

‘It’s entirely in their interests, if you think in quarterlies. Look, there’s nothing new in their MO. You buy technology that threatens you and you suffocate it. Like a heroine dealer stealing the city’s supply of methadone and burning it.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘You were in Berlin. I didn’t want to spoil your concert. Then this afternoon you looked tired…’

‘Just when I’d started –’ Clare wavers and Ajay, reproaching himself for his inattention, eases her onto the office chair. She has to swivel away from the screen – cannot bear to see those urgent tabs with their freight of bad news. ‘I’ve started something new.’

‘Can’t hear you, love.’

‘I’m thirsty.’

He rushes downstairs while Clare leans forward, her pregnancy vast between her thighs. Ajay returns with a glass of water and watches her drink.

‘Are you…?’ She tries to find a way out, an escape clause however tenuous. ‘Is it certain they’re going to defund you?’

‘Andy and Neil have been texting me all day. That’s the rumour. And there’s no going elsewhere when they own the patents.’ Ajay leans against the bookcase and folds up till he is kneeling before her, like a supplicant at the altar of his child. ‘I wanted to believe in the possibility of good faith. Their money and our forward-thinking. Proof that even the most entrenched interests can see where the future lies. The irony is, they can. They see where we’re heading, which is why they’ve spent decades trying to stop us from getting there.’

Clare runs her fingers through his hair, careful not to touch his bald patch. She sees a little boy in need of saving. How can she console him, she who has always needed his stability, his resistance to hope or despair? That dinner party, seated between technological optimists and depletionist Olive, he had argued against both contentions. She has seen him refute, gently but without evasion, activists clinging to the dream that resource depletion will bring down the ogre of industrial capitalism. Ah, he’d say, but that fails to reckon with its resourcefulness. The last acre of Earth will have been scoured before the system admits its madness. Perhaps, then, the giant will fall, but it will fall on the people below. Our task, the task of innovators, is to keep the giant on its feet and make it move more daintily until it learns a different dance.

Another thought, closer to home, pushes these metaphors aside. How will they manage with a baby on the way? She asks him the question.

‘Oh, any settlement will be generous,’ he says. ‘I can probably find work with another start-up. Don’t worry on that score.’

The word brings her back to herself. She hears a mockery of trumpets, flatulent brass: a tide of noise drowning the tentative music of Earth. Too obvious? Yet the obvious is what we fail to take note of. She listens for the next wave of sound. The next iteration.

‘We’re out of time anyway,’ says Ajay. ‘It was too late ten years ago. We’ve been looking for a technofix but it’s our minds we have to change not our means. And there’s no app for improving human nature.’

Clare turns, reaching for the windowsill. She stands on solid floorboards yet feels the world falling away. Into dread. Towards chaos. The chthonic darkness. Then a lone violin, unnoticed at first, forcing its way through the noise like a weed through concrete. She listens for it. Desperately.

‘I thought denial was a failing in others. And all this time I’ve been at the bargaining stage.’

The melody, thin and fragile, begins to spread like a virus to the other strings.

‘I’m sorry…’ says Clare. She makes her way, cradling the music in her thoughts, to the piano. He follows her and leans against the door jamb, watching.

‘It arrived this afternoon,’ she says without looking up. ‘While you were in the garden. I can’t just let it pass.’

‘You don’t imagine anyone’s ever going to perform it, do you?’

She writes, then puts down her pencil on the score rest and contemplates the vacant doorway. Downstairs, the fridge door opens and a bottle top dances on the granite counter.

Clare looks at the scrawl of her notation. She sounds the emptiness in her core – sorrow’s anaesthetic. She hears Ajay open the door to the garden and the respite of darkness.

Perhaps she has always known. To live, as one must, day to day, is to depend on saving illusions. Saving, that is, until they drown us. She breathes slowly. The air is kind to life. Life made it, after all. She must not give herself to anger or sorrow. The score is growing inside her. It will not save one life, yet with it she will add to the store of creation.

She thinks of Ajay standing among the withered beds. In a minute, she will go to him. First, she looks at the score: that scrawled clef, those crochets and minims. What else can she do with the time that remains?

Their child is coming into the world.

Nothing can stop it now.

C97ZIGSW0AAR_DE.jpg-large-666x1024 (1)‘Bottleneck’ is taken from The Ghost Who Bled (Comma Press, 2017), a collection of stories that range widely in space and time. Historical, speculative and naturalistic fictions take the reader from medieval Byzantium and Elizabethan London to the present-day Edinburgh Festival and a climate-changed San Francisco of the near-future.

‘A sublime collection of short stories…  Unfailingly beautiful, deceptively simple and lyrically powerful’  Claire Looby, The Irish Times.

Gregory Norminton was born in Berkshire in 1976. He is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. His fifth novel, The Devil’s Highway, will be published next year by Fourth Estate. He teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, and lives with his wife and daughter in Sheffield. gregorynorminton.co.uk

Image from Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Studies of Foetus in the Womb’

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‘There’s Something Wrong With the Bees’: On Sun Hives and Crisis Houses

NBKT Sun Hive 1

The form of an organism – and its relationship to the space around it – will reveal to us the characteristics of its being1

The Bee

I have a memory of having to do an exercise at school. A sheet of paper was divided into two columns, with pictures of animals on one side and pictures of animal products on the other. You had to draw straight lines to match them up. Cow and milk. Sheep and woollen socks. Bees and honey. I wonder why I remember this. It must have unsettled me in some way. It wasn’t an intuitive way of viewing animals, at least not to a child’s mind. Maybe characteristics such as the sounds they make – moobaabzz – (or in Germany where I spent a few of my younger years – muhmäh – summ) would have seemed more appropriate. From the earliest age, we are encouraged to look at life in terms of what can be extracted from it. What we can take, rather than what we can give. We do not think of ourselves as stewards, guardians of the earth. We are managers. Consumers.

When we think about bees, we often refer to them as a colony. A family may consist of up to 50,000 bees, all related by blood, scent and purpose. Another way of perceiving the bees, and one that appears quite naturally in mind if you spend any length of time with them, is as a single organism consisting of all the individual bees and their honeycomb together. In this way each bee is akin to a cell, the cells together forming organs, the organs together a system, an organism with many parts, each aspect indivisible from the others. Thinking about a single bee is like thinking about a single cell in an eyeball without considering its context in the body – its dependence on arteries, tissues, orbit, muscles and brain – all the things that together permit sight. You may choose then to refer to the Bee, a name encompassing all the bees in a particular nest as well as their comb.

The hive is in many ways similar to a mammal. Its heat is carefully regulated – on hot days bees will stand in the entrance and fan their wings to introduce an air current. On cold days they’ll cluster within the hive, ensuring that the temperature is maintained at the warmth necessary for the survival of queen and young. This temperature is precise – only slightly lower than the temperature of a human body. Young bees are raised internally, in an area called the brood nest.

The bees waterproof their home with propolis, an antibacterial paste made from the resin of trees. The scent of propolis is heavenly. A transcendent perfume. One sniff and you are transported into the realm of the Bee – one of nectar, air and light.

Once you begin to think of the bees in this way, the idea of removing a comb as it pleases you, of extracting honey and using wax for candles and beauty products becomes problematic. You are not just reaching into a box of insects, but entering the body of a living animal.

The Sun Hive

German sculptor and beekeeper Günther Mancke united his extensive observations and artistic vision to guide the creation of a new kind of hive for the bees. He called it the Weissenseifener Hängekorb. In English we call it the Sun Hive. Round in shape, it is designed with the needs and natural preferences of the bees in mind. This marks a profound difference between the Sun Hive and ‘conventional’ hives, which have developed according to human convenience, prioritising ease of access, ease of honey harvest.

NBKT interior view of Bien house
Günther noted that bees often choose to make their homes in the hollows of trees, at a preferred height of between 2.5 and 6 metres. The Sun Hive is therefore suspended from a tree or from a purpose-built frame. It must be sheltered from the rain. When unconstrained by the boxes we put them in, bees build rounded combs. The curve of the comb is determined by the arc of a chain of bees stretching from one side of the nest to the other and can be calculated according to the formula for a catenary curve. The form of the Sun Hive mirrors this curve, allowing the bees to build their comb without impediment.

The shape of the Sun Hive echoes the oblong form of a bee’s body. It consists of a combination of two skeps (coated with cow dung for warmth) and wooden support structures. Skeps are baskets woven from natural materials, usually rye straw (biodynamically grown where possible). They have been used as beehives for hundreds of years, although the use of box hives with movable combs quickly became more popular by the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Sun Hive is a conservation hive whose form is guided by the needs of the bees rather than the aim of honey production.  A bee-centric approach recommends minimal intervention in the life of the hive. The Sun Hive is therefore seen by many conventional beekeepers as a threat not only to their practice of honey harvesting but also to the health of bee populations as a whole. Advocates of the Sun Hive often refer to themselves as bee guardians or natural beekeepers – they aim to provide habitat for the bees but to otherwise leave them in peace. Some see this hands-off style of beekeeping as irresponsible. The chemical treatments used to control bee pests such as varroa are claimed to be indispensable, despite the fact that untreated, unmanaged bees do just fine on their own as they have done for millennia. The Sun Hive is designed with a movable comb system, unlike a traditional skep basket. This permits the bee guardian to inspect the hive when necessary, although such inspections are kept to a minimum and the bees are not treated with chemicals.

Weak colonies die. Strong colonies swarm. They split in two. This is their means of reproduction. A virgin queen goes forth on her mating flight and only the strongest, healthiest, fastest males are able to mate with her. Swarm suppression, queen breeding and importation, artificial insemination, the use of chemical treatments and pesticides – is it any wonder that ‘colony collapse disorder’ is occurring with increasing frequency in places where practices such as this are mainstream? Humans interfere with natural processes and then wonder why things go awry. Must be something wrong with nature, we say. There’s something wrong with the bees.

The boxes we’ve built for the bees reflect our own homes with their angular walls and corners. Our cubic, linear thinking. We find it hard to think in curves. The move away from keeping bees in skeps has been ‘a move away from the principle of rounded forms to that of cuboid and square ones, and thus from the holistic and organic to the atomistic and additive. That is to say, the materialistic modes of thought that have been developing since the fifteenth century have also come to permeate the relationship between mankind and the bee.’2

Each bee has a role within the hive. This is a fiercely and undeniably interdependent community in which the work of each serves the needs of all. Far from the ‘rigidity of parallel lines and the monotony of equal distances’3 characterised by conventional box hives, the Sun Hive epitomises love – both the love of humankind for the bees, and the principle of love at work within the hive itself. As author and social activist bell hooks writes: ‘remember, care is a dimension of love, but simply giving care does not mean we are loving’.4 Just showing care for the bees is not enough – ‘there can be no love without justice’.5

With our shrinking forests and dwindling forage, the bees face a diminishing habitat. The Sun Hive and other bee-friendly hives, such as log hives and the Freedom Hive (a cylinder made of wood and straw, lighter than a log hive and easily hoisted into trees or placed on a tripod stand) created by beekeeper Matt Somerville, seek to restore lost habitat. A resurgence in traditional practices such as tree beekeeping (in which hollows are formed in living trees) and the work of communities of natural beekeepers and allies such as the Natural Beekeeping Trust, based in southern England, represent a vital turning of the mind and will towards giving to rather than taking from the bees.

Crisis house

I recently took a trip to Scotland, thought I’d spend a couple weeks in these northern lands to which I’m drawn by a mysterious magnetism. I wanted to simply be there, and also to meet with potential doctoral supervisors at universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow. I’d looked forward to this journey for some time, but I’d been struggling with the sense of crushing fatigue that is often a feature of my life with chronic illness. Instead of abandoning my plans, I opted to take the train rather than drive.

With hindsight, I see that I expected to find an illuminated path waiting for me in Edinburgh. Everything would click into place and I’d know what I was supposed to do. Instead, I found myself on a bridge over Waverley Station. I was on the edge, looking. I went back to my rented room and sobbed. I lay silently on the bed staring at the ceiling. It got dark outside.

I called a local Thai place, ordered a curry for collection. Stepped out feeling shaky, pierced by streetlights and voices, unsteady on my feet. I sat on a bench opposite the curry house just south of the Meadows and it was there I realised that I was ill again, that I wasn’t just having an emotional moment, I needed help.

I ended up in a crisis house. I was fortunate to find myself there instead of the hospital. I was free to be myself without the imposition of other people’s prescribed modes of health and being. I was able to express myself, to rest and to recover in a way that felt right for me. When I’ve been hospitalised in the past, I’ve been treated as a case to be managed, a problem to be solved, a body to be confined and kept alive. In a residential crisis house you are regarded as an autonomous human, albeit one in pain. It provides a safe space to be with that pain, to move through it instead of around it, to encounter it instead of numbing or ignoring it. I emerged on the other side of my distress without the need for medical intervention.

There are very few such crisis houses in the UK and in my view there should be more. I have experienced this setting on both sides – as a guest and also as a volunteer at a house in north London, where I served as a befriender for several years. People in crisis are initially befriended over the phone. Conversations may lead to an invitation to stay at the house for five days, free of charge, where the guest will encounter and be befriended by numerous volunteers. The essence of befriending is non-judgemental active listening. Not trying to fix, to deny, to solve, to dismiss, to console. Simply being with the person and accepting them as they are. No matter what they’ve done or what’s been done to them. Honouring their intrinsic value, validating their experiences, holding hope for them when they are hopeless. It was a compassionate and demanding place to work. By no means does it transform the lives of everyone that comes to stay. Five days is hardly enough to undo a lifetime of trauma or heal a broken heart. But providing people with an opportunity to reflect, to be heard, is invaluable. Ultimately the crisis house maintains that humans have the right to choose to end their lives. The hope is that they will find another option, and that they can be supported to think carefully before making this decision.

As someone living with ongoing physical and mental health problems, I feel especially grateful for places that allow me to simply be – that don’t make me feel worthless, dispensable or a burden. The amount of energy that goes into hiding sickness could be better spent on other things. ‘For where I am closed, I am false’, says Rilke. I need contemplative time built into the fabric of my days. If I don’t get it I start to become unwell.

Love is generous and fearless. It creates space for something to be itself, to evolve, to be ever in flux and in harmony with its own nature. Sometimes I feel I’m being forced into a form that doesn’t suit me. I must seek a habitat for myself in which I can flourish.

honeycomb pic

The wisdom of beings

The pathologisation of distress is in many ways akin to the pulling out of weeds we deem unsightly but that may be contributing to the health and balance of the soil. When we think in terms of roundness rather than linearity, we recognise the vast ecological network in which all things are connected. This isn’t to say that there are never times when pulling weeds or medicating distress is beneficial or even necessary to promote wellness. But my instincts tell me we are too quick to judge things on the basis of immediate utility rather than longer-term sustainability and growth.

In considering the Sun Hive alongside my personal experiences of distress, I do not mean to use the bees as a metaphor, to plunder nature for her poetry. Instead I wish to suggest that our reductive attitudes towards both bees and human health may be symptomatic of a prevailing mindset of exploitation and control. When we operate from a place of fear rather than of love, there can be no health, no harmony. There is much to learn from the Bee. By offering our attention and letting go of our received knowledge we may come to understand her true nature, with humility, awe and kindness.

What would happen if we trusted in the innate wisdom of beings? What if we permitted things to live according to their own principles, allowed them to organise their own lives? Consider the wisdom of the swarm. The triumphant joyous flight of a virgin queen. We have much to gain from acknowledging that not everything can be known. That what we think of as ‘understanding’ is often inadequate. Purely cerebral thinking is in many cases disengaged, confined to existing constructs and narrow vocabularies that seek to make sense of and thereby limit life. Our words imply a world of things with secure identities to which things happen, rather than a fluid world populated by beings in a process of becoming. If our language and our modes of being and relating could somehow make room for surprise, discovery and change, how different we might feel. Ultimately our feelings are not the priority, but rather liberation from a human-centric and materialistic way of thinking that limits the potential of humans, bees and the broader ecosystem of which we are both part.


1. Günther Mancke, The Sun Hive. Natural Beekeeping Trust translation of newly revised and expanded version of the German 2005 edition of Günther Mancke: der Weissenseifener Hängekorb – Eine Alternative.
2Mancke, p.74.
3. Mancke, p.70.
4. bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions, Harper Perennial, 2001, p.8.
5.  hooks, p.19.

Sun Hive photographs courtesy of the Natural Beekeeping Trust. Honeycomb picture by Carrie Foulkes.

Carrie Foulkes is a maker, poet, researcher and Bee person. She is currently based in London, where she is an artist in residence at St Katharine’s Precinct, Limehouse. Carrie has been selected to participate in the Bee Time artist residency in Vejer de la Frontera, Spain, in autumn 2017. Her website is carriefoulkes.com. You can find out more about the Natural Beekeeping Trust at naturalbeekeepingtrust.org

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Sculptures from the Anthropocene

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Our tenuous hold on life – framed, as it were, within our doctrine of ‘living in the moment’ – seems all the more fragile when one considers the sheer inability displayed by the human species to understand and act on the threats now posed to society. The damage wreaked on our environment by the emissions of toxic chemicals, habitat destruction and the paradigm of ‘growth whatever the cost’ continues, and yet for world governments it’s still business as usual.

From an early age (birth to be precise), our education is designed to rule out informed interrogation into the order of things; subject matter is fed to us purely to equip us for the world of work. The idea that people could live and thrive in an alternative construct of society does not even get discussed, unless it is past cultures which are conveniently described as ‘primitive’. The receptive brain of a child soaks up all it is told; by the time the few with enough imagination to challenge the perceived wisdom voice their thoughts it is too late, they realise they can have any colour – as long as it is black.

As a child, my mother took me to London’s Natural History Museum and, like most children, I was spellbound by the huge dinosaur skeletons – their vastness, their teeth and claws, the sheer scale left me wide-eyed with wonder; and yet, despite the obvious power of these creatures, we were told at school that they were weak and died out very quickly, whereas humans were highly successful, they invented tools, grew food, and, above all, were ‘civilised’. I believed this. In reality, modern human time can be measured in a few tens of thousands of years (with only the last 200 years witnessing the destruction of the environment on a major scale, to the point where the future of humanity is brought into question), whereas the dinosaurs, that weak, ill-equipped species, actually existed for around 160 million years! To my way of thinking, that’s pretty successful.

Seeing these vast vestiges of past life standing still on display in a museum setting, and seeing how we, as humans, view ourselves in terms of time and our place in the world, led me to the area of creative activity that I am currently working on. Humankind now faces the end of an existence in which the planet’s resources can be plundered, destroyed and polluted with complete abandon. It would be easy, as is often done, to blame individuals; in fact, the simple truth is that the current way society is organised is based on growth and profit – the environment, the life with which we share the planet, and indeed people themselves, come second to these objectives. Most people find it impossible to imagine a society that is fundamentally different from that in which we now live – we are told that people are ‘naturally’ selfish, it’s just progress or ‘we’ve got to move on’. Why must we believe this? It is interesting to consider than when the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer societies made the transformation into the Neolithic, agrarian societies, this did not happen over thousands of years – it was a matter of a few generations. To change society into a form in which we grasp the concept of what it is to be human and how we live alongside each other in a mutually happy and beneficial way can happen; it just needs people to understand that this society is flawed and cannot be allowed to continue. I say again – it is not the people but the model we choose to live under.

As I write this, a brief radio news item tells us that scientists have reported that two-thirds of coral on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have now been destroyed – bleached and dead as the water temperatures rise. This was quickly followed by some sports news, then probably forgotten by most listeners. Once lost, do the wonders of our world just get forgotten and cease to mean anything to us? I have never seen a coral reef, but I certainly want it to continue to exist, as I do wildflower meadows, elephants, honey bees, butterflies and indeed, numerous life forms that are now threatened with extinction.

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Imagine for a moment the Palaeolithic hunter; he is hungry, his sense are heightened and acute to a level we simply cannot imagine, he looks out onto a landscape untouched by human activity: rivers full of fish, unimaginable numbers of birds and animals, the air clear and scented with the nearby plants – that is his normality. Would he be troubled by the past or future? What we see today is our reality; if we have never heard a corncrake or seen flocks of lapwings, can we be expected to regret their disappearance? Do young people, shackled as they are to a life of screens, social media and the importance of self, trouble themselves over coral reefs or the decline of butterflies? Do they need to? What they experience is their normality. But I am worried, very worried that our senses have been cauterised and the sheer beauty of life is ebbing away and; in the end, it will not be there even if we want it.

I am fortunate in that my working life has allowed me to spend considerable periods of time over many years living in remote areas, predominantly the Arctic. Through living with the Inuit, still – to some extent, a hunter-gatherer culture– one gets a profound sense of the importance of our connection with the land and animals that provide the means of survival; furthermore (and this seems to happen only after a relatively long period of time), living in a place where human figures are mere specks within a vast untouched landscape, a true wilderness, gives one a clear and deep sense of just how insignificant we are.

To journey through a wilderness with an open mind and for a long enough period of time can allow a person to begin to experience a different level of consciousness which, in ‘normal’ life, would not be attainable. Some years ago I was nearing the end of a 400-mile journey across Greenland’s vast ice cap. I had pulled a loaded sledge containing my food, tent and fuel, but little else for comfort or entertainment. I had one companion.

After 40 days of grinding labour across endless ice fields, mountains and crevasses, I saw the fjords and mountains of the west coast; by this time we had virtually no food and I knew the feeling of hunger. The reason I mention this is because as we left the ice and entered the Arctic rocks and tundra, at the point where the ice sheet meets ‘land’, I had an overwhelming feeling of connection and ‘oneness’ with the hostile terrain I found myself in – it seemed somehow linked to my inner self; I felt hardwired into the landscape, liberated, and was seeing my surroundings through the eyes of a wild animal. It was a truly wonderful feeling which, sadly, dissipated soon after we finally reached a small town on the west coast.

I felt later that this power of connection to nature, the environment and landscape would have been normal for early hunter-gatherer cultures, so much so that they would not have reflected on it any more than we might on other human responses such as sadness, love or pain. The current human condition, particularly in the western world, gives little opportunity and virtually denies people the ability to engage with nature and the environment. The fact that beauty, wonder, happiness and the profound feeling of what it is to be human can be obtained without cost, and simply by engaging with our world, does not sit well with market forces or with companies trying to sell happiness through acquisition.

Our society has now reached the point where scientists are describing the beginning of a new epoch – Anthropocene. The actual geological strata is being affected by the production of plastics, concrete and radionuclides. This, alongside continued and increasing production of carbon means that the human species is successfully and relentlessly destroying the agar jelly of its own petri dish. Society has now reached a state where the majority of people have, not out of choice, ceased to have links with or engage with nature and the environment in a meaningful way. Why are we not seeing mass worldwide protests against a society that is leading us by the hand, willingly it would seem, to an existence that, at best, will be irretrievably damaged or worse, terrifying and dangerous?

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As a sculptor, these questions and concerns constantly flow through my thought processes and subconsciously, or even consciously, guide the chisels, drills and clay of what I do. My chosen materials– stone, metals and earth– and the means of construction– fire and the impact of hammer against stone – also seem to bring something of the land into the work. I have been privileged and lucky enough to feel and have intimate contact with the beauty of our world, but sometimes feel that I am shouting at people who are moving towards danger through sound-proofed glass. I make sculpture because I feel happy working in three dimensions but, moreover, it is the way I feel best able to explore my inner concerns and the way humans have become so entirely self-absorbed and inured to uncomfortable and incontrovertible evidence of damage to the very things that sustain us.

My most recent works set out to confront and explore the way in which we view our past as a species, and our relationship with time itself. I am interested in how we erroneously see ourselves as indestructible. The three figures constructed under the generic title of ‘Anthropocene’ form part of a wider group, designed not as sculptures to be seen close up, but within a landscape, or even ‘unseen’. They were assembled and placed in remote, often mountainous or moorland settings, and left in situ. I did not mind whether they were seen or not; if they were seen, then ideally it would be from a distance. Although the figures are three times life size, and at close quarters have a monumental sense about them, they rapidly become insignificant, even invisible, once any distance is put between them and the viewer.

I tried to imbue both a sense of power and sadness or melancholy into the figures. I wanted all to have qualities of dark industry as well as extreme vulnerability.

In his recent book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh examines the inability, of literature and politics to embrace and grasp the enormity of the catastrophe that awaits us, and questions how future generations will look back on our response (denial?) to this. I feel that artists should be dealing with the unspeakable, using this conduit to communicate in a visceral way that sometimes only art can. Climate change – like warfare, pollution, starvation and the alteration of the planet’s surface – is a symptom of how our society is organised; until humans realise that a system based on growth and profit will ultimately self destruct, then we can expect ‘business as usual’ as we herald the dawn of the new epoch.

All photographs are from Glenn Morris’s ‘Anthropocene’ series. The sculptures are made from recycled timbers and forged iron.

Glenn Morris‘s work is inspired and informed by the beauty and harshness of the environment in the far north, and by our relationship and response to the loss of things that possess beauty in any form. He works predominantly in stone and mixed media, using traditional carving techniques. The forms and works tend to follow two or three lines of exploration: the sensual and feminine, the masculine, industrial form and more objective comments on things environmental. He has a first class degree in sculpture and has had work exhibited in public areas and also at the Royal Academy. glennmorris.co.uk

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Letters With Style: A Call-out for Artists to Collaborate on Issue 12

If you’ve held a Dark Mountain book in your hands, you’ll know that we give as much thought to the artwork that runs through its pages as we do to the writing. A few weeks ago, we made a call-out for writers to contribute to this autumn’s special issue on the theme of ‘the sacred’. Today we follow that up with a call for artists to take part in a special collaboration initiated by long-term Dark Mountain contributor Thomas Keyes. Drawing on his experience as a graffiti artist in Belfast and his exploration of the collaborative techniques that produced the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, Thomas is putting together a team of artists to illuminate this issue of Dark Mountain. Read on for details of how you can get involved – and please share this call-out with artists you think might want to take part.

Screenshot 2017-06-05 at 15.31.46No-one really knows how many artists or scribes contributed to the Book of Kells. Estimates range from one to a more authoritative six or seven, but there’s a problem with the way these estimates are made. They don’t take account of how things work in a culture of letters with style. With an ordinary handwritten document, you can count the number of different ways the letter ‘g’ or ‘s’ is written and use this to determine the number of authors. But when style is the aim of the game, each writer will have several versions of each letter, designed to deal with all the possible scenarios that could occur. Frustrating analysis even further, writers may go back over each other’s work to bring harmony to the final piece. Even dating a piece along conventional lines becomes difficult: references may be made to much earlier work as a mark of respect, individuals practising divergent styles might be brought into the group because of deeper shared values, or an innovation might occur through circumstance and not reappear in future work.

There’s no Picasso in such a culture. It’s primarily conservative; you are carrying a style with respect to where it came from, following its rules and designing within its boundaries. Innovators better be very careful: some rules aren’t for breaking. Some work does stand out, but not that far, and rather than create a postmodern free-for-all, superficial elements are absorbed into the culture while the underlying values remain the same.

The first letters with style that I saw were written by Raid and Den on the Bangor to Belfast train line as it cut through East Belfast towards the city centre. I was probably about eight or nine, in the car going from Holywood to Rathcoole to visit my granny as we did every Saturday. I knew every bit of graffiti on the route and craned my neck around in the car to get the longest possible view. I didn’t know what it was or how to do it or even why it was there, but it was clearly the best idea ever, and I made numerous failed attempts at it before finally getting some guidance at the age of thirteen.

First it’s fun, then it’s cool, then it’s a serious all-consuming enterprise. I’ve spent years perfecting the elements: tags and throw-ups for getting up; dubs, like throw-ups but with more style – maybe a drop shadow and highlights. Then pieces, the most complex form, with multicolour fill-ins, 3D, shading, and connections between letters so complex they become wildstyles, unreadable to most people. The aim of a piece is to create a burner. A burner is a piece or series of pieces where all the elements run together in harmony: the outline must be complex and balanced, yet still reveal the letters, even if it takes a bit of work. The fill-in has to be smooth, colour balanced and varied. Execution must be perfect, no drips, outline tight. It must sit within the culture; you can’t take the word out of graffiti and slap it on a Rembrandt.

The choice of letters is very important: some letters are better than others, and some only work well in certain combinations. SANCTUM has good letters. Even in this font they look good. As simple letters, they fill the space they occupy. There are gaps around the top of the A and under the T, but those are letters which are easily added to, so you can fill the space without corrupting the letter.

Here’s a more problematic word: LIBER. How do you fill the space between the L and the I without corrupting one of the letters into meaningless nonsense, or twisting it to the point that style itself is compromised? I can’t think of a single tag that starts with LI – not in Ireland, not worldwide. I Googled it. Since a graffiti writer can choose their letters, this combination has been avoided. In Lindesfarne around 700 AD, Eadfrith was not so lucky. The scribe of the Lindesfarne Gospels, he encountered a major stylistic challenge that he had no choice but to resolve. The first of the four most important pages, the incipit to the Gospel of St Matthew begins with LIBER. In insular art of this period, the incipit, particularly the first row of letters, are the pieces – wildstyle pieces. They have to be burners. A generation earlier, in the Book of Durrow, letters were getting more prominent but were still very much subordinate features of the text rather than objects of study in their own right. Eadfrith can’t just hide those letters in a corner with a load of spirals and a few peacocks; the hit that the viewer is looking for has to come from an LI combination, and the B has to behave itself as well. Beyond that, he has to follow the rules of his letter culture, the borders, the geometry, and proper proportions and curves based on the insular writing styles.

His solution was radical and ingenious. He didn’t just put the I through the L to fill the gap as had been done somewhat uncomfortably in earlier manuscripts. Instead, he made this move the main feature of the page. The I breaks the convention of diminuendo by being larger than the L, so large it also breaks the border and completely dominates the page in a way that hasn’t been seen before. But he hasn’t broken any rules; far from it. To the eye of one attuned to this tradition, he has made the I, that revolutionary leap, the most geometrically conservative form in the piece.

LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMatt

 
To deconstruct a piece of insular art, you need to find the underlying geometry. It’s always there. By ruling diagonals from the corners, find the centre, then use a compass placed there to draw a circle that touches both edges. The first possible construction line to be created from this arrangement is any two points where the diagonals intersect the circle. There are four options. Eadfrith only uses one, for the alignment of the I. Its left hand-side sits exactly on this line, and its height is determined by the diameter of the circle. All other geometric derivations within the piece are subordinate to this arrangement. The piece is original, the proportions are perfect and the rules of style are upheld. He’s pulled off a burner.

Basically, that’s the benchmark, the spirit of this enterprise. When you get into the territory of sacred books, insular scribes are the style kings, and graffiti terminology is the best way I know to describe their work. Style in the sense of a letter culture isn’t decorating the sacred, it is the sacred. Culture forms around it. By writing a set of letters thousands of times, style is discovered, but so are friendships, a sense of place; stories are created, the history of the art form is understood and added to, and even in the most literal sense a sanctum is established, a secret place for creating complex wildstyles from the black book.

Personally, the project to illuminate Issue 12 is going to be the biggest thing I’ve done with Dark Mountain, but like the other pieces, it’s not really an extra burden. I’ve contributed in the past when what was happening in life and what Dark Mountain was doing seemed to align. I was always making that art or thinking parallel thoughts when I’ve got involved. In this instance, the alignment has been particularly strong. I’ve been making insular illuminations of my own without any books to put them in for the last year, and I’m coming down with piles of parchment. The invitation to do the art for this book couldn’t have come at a better time. Working within Dark Mountain, much like in a graffiti crew, is a great creative atmosphere because there’s an awful lot that doesn’t need to be said. The intent is understood by everyone on a deep level, so the serious business of refining a concept can start at the beginning. I use Dark Mountain more as an adjective than a noun, much as I use graffiti terminology to describe something very specific but complex and hard to pin down outside its context. This book is going to be a very Dark Mountain take on the sacred. Can it also be a burner?

The nature of this call-out is quite specific: it’s to the already aligned. It’s for people already seriously into their craft, a craft that fits with this project. If we’re planning to hit the territory of the sacred by the end of July, we really need people who started looking for it a few years back and think they are getting close. Why this is being done is a question for the writers, but it’s fairly clear how this is supposed to be done from an artistic point of view. We need to tap into style in the same way as the insular manuscript illuminators managed to. My way in has been graffiti, but there must be many more routes, from other cultures and traditions.

So, what are we asking for?

  • This is not a call for new work just yet. Instead, if you want to be part of the team, send us a few examples of your previous work and a statement.
  • The artists in the team will be paired with particular writers and texts that will form the core of Issue 12, and the challenge will be to create a page which stands at the front of a piece, like the incipit in a medieval manuscript, with the possibility of creating further images to accompany the text.
  • While the tradition of the insular scribes is coupled to a particular local flavour of one of the major religions, there are echoes of such illumination and illustration within other cultures and belief systems, and we are keen to find collaborators who can bring other traditions and inspirations to the team.
  • All artwork will be made by hand and rendered at the actual size at which it will appear in the book. No technological enhancement should be used.
  • The ‘incipit’ pages will be on parchment, which we can supply. Beyond this, materials are up for discussion, but some deeper reasoning behind alternative choices will go a long way.

This is an experiment, and a big departure from the way that Dark Mountain usually works – a leap in the darkness for all of us. If you’ve read this far and you think you’d be up for being on the team we’re putting together, or you just want to know more about what this would involve, then write to me at [email protected].

In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here

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Fragile

‘To recover from ecological crisis, we humans must transform our sense of who we are in relation to the Earth.’

In 2011 Peter Reason sailed his little yacht Coral from the south coast of England to the west coast of Ireland, a journey recorded in his book Spindrift: A Wilderness Journey at Sea. This week we bring you an excerpt from his latest book In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage, which follows the further voyages of Coral to the far north of Scotland.  

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I steered my little yacht Coral through the confused water of the tidal stream that poured out between Garbh Eilean and Eilean Mhuire. The calm pool opened in front of me, littered with specks of white as if some giant had cast handfuls of torn up paper across the surface. Soon Coral was surrounded by puffins, with their startling white breasts, the distinctive markings around their eyes and brightly coloured beaks. The air was full of puffins too, so full they seemed more like a cloud of mosquitoes than a flock of birds.

I was in the final stages of my travels, which over two summers had taken me and Coral from the south coast of England, round the west coast of Ireland and through the Western Isles to the far north of Scotland, mainly single handed. As I turned southward, I made for the small archipelago of the Shiant Islands, an isolated group, separated from Lewis by the Sound of Shiant, notorious for its strong tides, overfalls and underwater hazards.

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I saw my travels as an ecological pilgrimage. There is a longstanding tradition in most human societies of making a journey, more or less arduous, away from the comforts of home in search of new insights and deeper understandings. This practice may be as old as the human species: Mesolithic peoples in Europe certainly made long journeys to the sacred sites marked by stone circles; the Aboriginal people of Australia take extended walks along ‘songlines’, re-enacting the journeys of ‘creator-beings’ during the Dream Time.

The idea and practice of pilgrimage developed in a religious context. One thinks of the requirement of good Muslims to undertake the Hajj at least once in their lives; of the Christian pilgrimages of the Middle Ages and the continuing contemporary practices; of the vast numbers of Hindu devotees who travel to sacred sites on the River Ganges; and of Buddhists who walk the difficult path to circumnambulate Mount Kailash.

In its fullest sense, pilgrimage entails a long journey in search of qualities of moral or spiritual significance, a journey across both outer physical and inner spiritual landscapes. Pilgrims separate themselves from home and familiars, maybe joining a group of like-minded seekers and wearing special clothes or other marks to indicate their pilgrim status. The pilgrimage journey offers a fluid and imaginative space between the everyday and the eternal, a liminal zone between body and soul, heaven and Earth, humanity and divinity. For it is not easy to move across the boundaries between these worlds when locked in the familiarity of the everyday.

Religious pilgrimages are taken to sacred sites in order to encounter a holy realm for worship and the affirmation of faith, in search of illumination and for healing.

As I conceive it, the ecological pilgrimage seeks a primal, heartfelt connection with the Earth itself and the community of life that has evolved on Earth. It is also a celebration and an act of homage, honouring the Earth as the more-than-human world of which we are a part, existing for itself rather than for human use. By taking the pilgrim away from the habits of civilisation and by disrupting the patterns of everyday life, pilgrimage offers an opening to a different view of the Earth of which we are a part.

***

Before I left for Scotland, I read about the Shiant Islands and studied the sailing directions. I learned to pronounce the name properly, in one softened syllable: ‘Shant’. The little archipelago is made up of three rugged islands: to the west Garbh Eilean and Eilean an Tighe are joined by a natural boulder isthmus; across an open pool to the northeast lies Eilean Mhuire. Adam Nicolson, whose family have owned the islands for many years writes, ‘The rest of the world thinks there is nothing much to them. Even on a map of the Hebrides the tip of your little finger would blot them out. But the Shiants… are not modest. They stand out high and undoubtable.’ Although keen to visit, I doubted whether it would be possible, for they are very exposed and offer little shelter. But it seemed I was lucky: the weather was quiet, with a smooth sea yet enough wind to sail. Nevertheless, I approached them with caution, keeping an eye on the tidal streams and carefully noting landmarks.

Once I was safely in the pool and had got over the thrill of seeing so many puffins, I turned my attention to getting Coral settled. The recommended anchorage is by the isthmus that connects Garbh Eilean and Eilean an Tighe. This is protected from the prevailing westerly winds, but open to the light easterlies blowing that morning. Since these volcanic islands rise abruptly from the seabed, the bottom shoals steeply and consists of boulders, so there is sediment of mud or sand into which the anchor can sink and get a good grip. It took a little while before I was happy that the anchor was holding, with Coral tucked into the corner between the isthmus and the precipitous cliffs of Eilean an Tighe.

With Coral safely anchored, I could look around. I soon realised that there were nearly as many razorbills as puffins in the pool. They are also auks, but rather bigger, distinguished by a black beak with a white line across it, joining a similar line across the face to the eye. The razorbills seem on the whole less nervous than the puffins: I watched one swimming within a couple of yards of Coral, quite undisturbed as I moved about the deck. When it decided to dive I was able to watch it turn tail up and, once underwater, open its wings to fly down beneath Coral’s keel, the bubbles of air around its feathers gleaming as they caught the sunlight.

Looking up again across the pool, I realised that there were tens of thousands of puffins and razorbills, for this is one of the major nesting places in the North Atlantic. There were, of course, other birds: shags, black-backed gulls, kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, and the odd gannet. For me the most impressive were the skuas, big, heavily built seabirds, brown, with two white stripes on their wing. Skuas are known as ‘kleptoparasites’ because of their habit of stealing food from other birds: I watched one attack a gull, hanging onto its wing as they tumbled together to the water to make it regurgitate its meal. I am sure that given half a chance they would snatch a puffin chick, as would the big gulls. I imagined the links in the local food chain: marine plankton feeding sand-eels, sand-eels feeding baby birds and baby birds feeding skuas and gulls.

I spent the afternoon sitting in the cockpit watching the birds and enjoying the changing light. A few yachts visited, but none stayed for long; a couple of fishing boats chugged through the pool. As the long northern evening drew in I began preparations for the night. The weather was calm enough for it to be safe to stay overnight at the islands, but I wanted to move to a more secure anchorage. The dark cliffs and the stony isthmus looked too close, and if the anchor were to drag Coral would soon be ashore. Even if the light winds persisted through the night, it felt unseamanlike to sleep while she was anchored off a lee shore where there was poor holding.

So I hauled up the anchor and motored round the end of Eilean an Tighe to the western side of the isthmus. This anchorage is open to the swell of the Little Minch and disturbed by the tidal movement through the Sound of Shiant. Despite this, with the light wind blowing Coral away from the islands, she felt safer. Two Danish yachts had already taken the best positions but I was able to find a spot where the anchor held closer inshore.

In the early evening the crews of the Danish yachts returned from their expeditions ashore, and soon there was a whiff of diesel and rattle of anchor chains as they left the anchorage and disappeared north round the end of Garbh Eilean. With their departure I felt suddenly alone and vulnerable. I checked the forecast on my iPhone yet again, even though that meant waiting ages for the weak signal to load the page. I looked again at the anchor chain – it was hanging almost vertical, I had plenty of scope out, so all was well there. I looked about me and consulted the chart to see how I would leave the anchorage in the dark if I needed to – there was sea room to the southwest. There was no rational reason why I should not stay safely overnight, so I took myself in hand, sat down quietly, made myself breath properly and look out at the world around me rather than inwards to my anxieties. I might feel exposed, just a speck in a vast sky and expanse of sea, but I could relax and appreciate it.

The evening wore on, the light faded and I became enveloped in the quiet mystery of twilight. Coral pitched gently on the light swell. Little waves rolled continuously up to the stony shore and broke with a hollow crash on the boulders. The mound of Garbh Eilean loomed above me, dark against the evening sky, the details of the basalt columns obscured. Nicolson’s little cottage on Eilean an Tighe stood out ghostly white, then, as the light faded away, merged with the hillside behind. Looking over Coral’s stern, past the line of rocks and islets that stretches toward the mainland, I searched the surface of the Sound for a glimpse of the flashing green light on the buoy that marks Damhag. All I could see was the grey sea and the distant hazy line of Lewis.

Through the evening the inexhaustible stream of puffins flew overhead; the skuas and black-backed gulls continued their patrols around the cliff tops. If I peered out to sea I could just make out the white flash of gannets on a late search for fish. I sat out late, enchanted by my surroundings while still feeling strangely vulnerable, reluctant to go to bed.

***

The word that keeps coming to my mind to describe this evening is ‘fragile’. It captures both the strength and the vulnerability of my situation, of the puffins and of the islands themselves. The Shiants are the nesting ground of one of the last flourishing populations for puffins: huge populations in Iceland and elsewhere have quite suddenly disappeared as climate change has brought warm waters that have disturbed the delicate ecological balance on which they depend. The basalt columns that form the Shiant Islands appear strong and stable, but are weakly jointed; over time, wind and waves penetrate the joints, allowing large chunks to break away. And indeed of all of us, despite the veneer of civilisation, are at root unprotected in a wild world and the wild universe.

Our attention has been drawn to the fragility of Planet Earth by the space programme. Ever since the early Apollo missions, pictures of planet Earth from space have been widely available, starting with the most famous ‘Earth Rising’, taken as Apollo 8 emerged from behind the moon. This has been called ‘the most influential environmental photograph ever taken’. For, it is argued, now that humanity can see the Earth alone within the vast reaches of space, we will realise her beauty, fragility and significance and band together to protect and preserve her as our home.

Astronauts report that they spend much of their spare time on missions simply ‘Earthgazing’. NASA engineer Nicole Stott tells us, ‘I think you start out with this idea of what its going to be like, and then when you do finally look at the Earth for the first time you’re overwhelmed by how much more beautiful it really is…’ Shuttle astronaut Jeff Hoffman goes further: Earth ‘… looks like a living, breathing organism, but it also at the same time looks extremely fragile’. And Ron Garon, who served on the International Space Station, remembers ‘When we look down on the Earth from space we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet… It’s really striking and its sobering to see this paper thin layer and to realise that that little paper thin layer is all that protects every living thing on Earth from death’.

Edgar Mitchell, who was the Lunar Module pilot on Apollo 14 and the sixth person to walk on the moon, is one of many astronauts to reflect deeply on their experience. His view is that it is not just that you get see the beauty and fragility from space, but there is also a shift in consciousness which he describes a close to the ancient accounts of savikalpa samādhi. There is as a direct experience of interconnection: ‘You see things as you see them with your eyes but you experience them emotionally and viscerally as ecstasy and a sense of total unity and oneness… It’s rather clear to me as I studied this that is was not anything new, but was something that was very important to the way we humans were put together’.

I wonder if the experience of the astronauts was so very far from my own as I sat in the long northern twilight off the Shiant Islands: it was just this kind of direct interconnection that I was seeking on my ecological pilgrimage. Of course, I am not among those who first saw Earth rising from behind the moon; I have not watched the shadow of night move across the face of the Earth; nor I have experienced the thin blue line of the biosphere clinging to the curve of the planet. And yet, as Mitchell points out, the astronauts’ experience of oneness is nothing new. I think we may idealize their experience and in doing so see the capability of experiencing oneness as something special, something extraordinary, something for which we have to go outside the planet. Maybe it is better to see it as a dimension of human consciousness that we modern humans have neglected and marginalised, rather than something only available from outer space. Maybe a better way to celebrate the astronauts’ experience, the way that ‘Earth Rising’ might change human consciousnesses, the way it might kick-start a true environmental movement, is realise our own capacity for such experiences.

Zen masters teach us not to seek the extraordinary, not to look for special or ‘sacred’ places. To seek that seeking prevents us from seeing what is before our eyes – the specialness of the everyday, how everything rolls together in being and nonbeing, how we are every moment part of a living planet. These are capabilities that we must bring back to ourselves, and not just to our pilgrimages into the wild, but into our homes, our gardens, our cities, the everyday world around us and our relationships with other humans.

***

As the darkness finally gathered off the Shiants and day finally rolled into night, my long watch was rewarded by the waxing crescent moon rising, a deep red, between the two dark humps of the islands. The overhead stream of puffins ceased, and I too was at last content to climb down the companionway and sleep.

Cover frontPeter Reason is also the author of Spindrift: A Wilderness Journey at Sea, an excerpt from which was published three years ago on the Dark Mountain blog.

In Search of Grace is the story of an ecological pilgrimage undertaken by the author from the south coast of England, round the west coast of Ireland to the far north of Scotland. It explores themes of pilgrimage, the overall pattern of separation from the everyday, venturing forth and returning home. It tells of meeting wildlife, visiting sacred places, confronting danger, expanding and deepening the experience of time, of silence, of fragility.

It will be published in October 2017 by Earth Books. You can read pre-publication reviews, more excerpts from the book and watch a video describing the journey here.

 

In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here

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Learning What to Make of It

Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth’s new essay collection, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, was published last month by Faber. It brings together 18 of Paul’s essays from the past decade, along with Uncivilisation, the original manifesto that got the Dark Mountain Project started. Today we bring you an excerpt from one of the essays in the book, ‘Learning What to Make of It’.

smallholding


 
When we win, it’s with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small. What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us.
– Rilke

Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.
– Ian Hamilton Finlay

The most exciting thing in my life at the moment is a five gallon bucket full of human excrement.

I should explain.

I recently tore the flush toilet out of our family home and replaced it with a compost toilet which I built myself. It is of the most basic variety: essentially, we crap into a big bucket and cover the crap with sawdust, then when the bucket is full I empty the contents onto a compost heap, where it rots down over the course of a year. At the end of that year, we should have a safe and nutritious compost to use on our fruit trees and bushes, on the fuel coppices of aspen and birch we’ll be planting this winter, and on the small native forest that we are planning to grow here for as long as we are healthy.

It’s a big job, something like this, and undertaking it has made me realise how much effort needs to be put into the most simple things, and that in turn has made me realise why the society I live in has become addicted to paying for complicated things instead, and how this has laid a great big elephant trap for us that we may struggle ever to get out of.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first thing I did was to build a rectangular box out of planks and nails, and the remains of two kitchen cupboard doors which we didn’t need any more. There followed a lot of sanding and planing and painting and varnishing and swearing when things were the wrong length and hinges didn’t fit where they should have done. This took a few weeks, on and off, but at the end of it I had quite a handsome varnished wooden structure with two shiny blue hinged covers and a toilet seat on top. A five gallon brewing bucket fitted underneath.

Then I had to build a compost heap: two, in fact, so that we could keep an annual cycle of compost from the toilet going. I bought some old pallets from the timber yard up the road and carted them home in my van. That was a couple of days’ work. After I had finished, I stood back and admired them for about half an hour. I am a writer. I have never been a practical man, or have never believed I am, and I’m still at the stage where successfully completing a practical task fills me with astonishment.

Still, that was the easy bit. Ever tried taking out a flush toilet? It’s a messy job. In the end, a friend came round and devoted an afternoon to helping me to do it. He is a casually practical man, so the job went well. In the aftermath, big chunks of porcelain lay on the grass outside and all that remained in the bathroom was a blocked up outflow pipe and a gash in the lino. In went the compost loo, in went a bucket of sawdust, in went a wall hanging to cover the gaping holes, and voilà: a closed loop system.

The flush toilet, to me, is a worthy metaphor for the civilisation I live in. It is convenient, it is easy, it is hygienic and it is wonderfully warm and dry. It is the most luxurious pooing experience known to man. You can do your business and never have to think about what happens next: never have to think about what happens to the faeces and urine you have just produced, just as you probably never thought about the origins of the food which created it in the first place. You can act, if you like, as if you have never produced it at all; as if you were far too civilised to have to engage in such base and primitive behaviour. You can sit in the warmth, reading an amusing light-hearted book, then you can simply press a button, and you will never have to deal with your own shit.

What happens to a society that won’t deal with its own shit? It ends up deep in it.

A compost toilet is harder work. First you have to build the toilet and the compost heaps, and then you have to source a regular supply of sawdust or pine needles, which will keep the smells and flies away and give the compost enough bulk on the heap. Most importantly, you have to empty the bucket when it gets full, which is every few days most of the time. This is the part of the job which really seems to disgust those of my friends and family who can’t understand why I have disposed of a perfectly good toilet and replaced it with something medieval.

But it’s also the part of the job that I enjoy the most. I’ve noticed myself getting almost excited as the bucket approaches being full. Emptying the thing on to the compost heap, covering it with grass, inspecting the progress of the heap so far, cleaning and replacing the bucket, putting a new layer of sawdust in the bottom: would you believe me if I told you this was a satisfying process? Anticipating being able to use the results on my own trees is almost thrilling.

If a flush toilet is a metaphor for a civilisation that wants to wash its hands of its own wastes as long as they accumulate somewhere else, then a compost toilet is both a small restitution, and a declaration: I will not turn my back on the consequences of my actions. I will not hand them over to someone else to deal with. I will not crap into clean drinking water and flush it down a pipe to be cleaned with industrial chemicals at some sewage plant I have never visited. I will fertilise my own ground with my own manure, and in doing so I will control an important part of my life in this world, and that control will give me more understanding over it. I will claw something of myself back. Even in the rain, even in winter, I will deal with my own shit.

*

In 2014, I emigrated. My wife and I moved with our two young children from urban England, where we had always lived, to rural Ireland. We bought ourselves a small bungalow with two and a half acres of land up a quiet lane. It was the culmination of a personal project we’ve been engaged in for more than half a decade: to find a way escape from the urban consumer machine we were both brought up in.

We wanted to live more simply; or perhaps just more starkly, because life here is rarely simple. Our kids were just getting to school age, and the idea of sending them to school to systematically crush their spontaneity and have them taught computer coding so that they could compete in the ‘global race’ made us miserable. We wanted to grow our own food and compost our own shit and educate our own children and make our own jam and take responsibility for our own actions.

This can all sound very cloying. Western middle class people going ‘back to the land’ is a modern cliché, and when we think we are hearing that story we tend to react in a particular way, positive or negative depending on our political or cultural persuasions.

Perhaps I am a cliché, but I’m not especially interested in other people’s expectations. I was brought here by many things, but one of them is a voice that has been whispering in my ear for years, and growing louder for the last few.

This voice tells me that I am one of the luckiest people on Earth. It tells me I am a middle-class man from a country grown fat on centuries of plunder, that I have a university degree, that I go to restaurants and have a laptop computer and an internet connection, and I can publish articles like this in magazines. In other words, I am somewhere up near the top of the pyramid of human fortune. And that in turn means I am up near the top of the pyramid of human cupidity and destruction which is driving the natural world to the edge.

One of the driving forces in my life is a deep love of nature. If you ask me to explain precisely what I mean by that, or why it has such a grip on me, I won’t be able to. But I could tell you about profound experiences I’ve had in forests and mountains, about the joy that rises in my heart when I see a hawk circle or hear the roar of an untamed river, and the misery that sinks into it if I’m trapped in a city or on a motorway. I could tell you about the occasional brief glimpses I get into the reality that I am a passing moment in an ancient, beautiful, terrifying whorl of life on a vast unknowable planet; that I am not an observer of it, but a part of its wide flow; that there is no such thing as outside.

This kind of thing is nearly impossible to put down on paper, as you can see. Once upon a time, many millennia ago, I suspect it would have been the default worldview, but today, it is a hard one to live with. The culture that I was born into is systematically dismantling the web of life itself, and as it does so it is dismantling my sense of meaning and many of the things that I love. My status as a middle-class consumer in a Western industrialised country means that I am part of this problem, whether I want to face up to that or not.

This is what that voice whispered to me, as once it whispered to Rilke: you must change your life. I came here because I can’t justify my complicity any more. I feel a personal duty to live as simply and with as little impact on the rest of nature as I possibly can. I’ve no interest in extending this duty to anybody else, or in preaching about it or politicising it, or in pretending that I am in any way pure or unsullied or even halfway competent yet at undertaking it. It is just a personal calling.

But perhaps it explains my joy at that full toilet bucket. I feel I am at last starting to do my bit, to make restitution, to walk the walk after so many years of talking the talk. I can’t write or talk about natural beauty, or natural anything, unless I’m trying to do as little damage to it as possible; and at this time in history, that means taking myself away from the heart of the beast. It means stripping back. It means inconveniencing myself. It means paying attention.

The full version of this essay appears in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, published by Faber.

confessions
 

Paul Kingsnorth
 is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project. His personal website is here.

In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here

 

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.