The Dark Mountain Blog

Poacher’s Pilgrimage: an Island Journey

Extract from Poacher’s Pilgrimage: an Island Journey (Birlinn, 2016)

Best known for his ground-breaking book Soil and Soul, Alastair McIntosh’s latest work was twelve days in the walking, and seven years in the writing. This extract describes his first of four nights entirely alone, out on the moors that traverse the mountains between Harris and Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Poacher’s Pilgrimage is a book of beautifully compacted writing – clear, strong and constantly surprising – a fortnight’s walk that contains a universe.

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Out here, it’s mainly dark beds of heather interspersed with little greens of tough and spiky grass. Pools of water, mostly shallow some profound, lurk amongst the bare rock sheets.

It’s now so dark you have to second guess each step. You have to walk with toes upturned to reduce the chance of stumbling. They used to say in Inverness that city dwellers could tell the country folk by their ceum a’ mhonaidh – their ‘heather loup’. Test every footfall with your heel before committing weight. Watch for hidden trips and dead man’s drops. Watch, too, for wider patterns in the land – the flow of shadows that distinguish different types of vegetation, or the raised ground from the dips, or the dry from the wet. Let the eyes accustom to these mottled shades of grey and black, for here is ‘relief and drainage’ abstracted from the abstract school geography books. Here it is, all set out in the raw.

I remind myself (as if to give a pinch) that if I hear a sudden shriek, it’ll just be some poor critter, startled from its slumbers, and more alarmed than me. But all is still. I haven’t even heard the drumming of the snipe. The night has claimed the day, and cold itself stands watch and takes the helm. The moon is on the wane this week and won’t be out ’til after midnight, but when she rises, there she’ll ride. Banrigh na h-oidhche – the Queen of the Night. Lòchran àigh nam bochd – the Joyful Lamp of the Poor.

It’s written that, in both the Catholic and the Protestant districts of these parts, when folks would first catch sight of the new moon they’d greet her with the invocation:

Siud agaibh a’ ghealach ùr – Rìgh nan Dùl ‘ga beannachadh!
‘There is the new moon – the King of the Elements bless it!’

And I have to say, that kind of peasants’ Christ attracts me more than the arid version of urban theologians. Give me any day the one who’d go and pray alone up mountains, who’d wander with the angels and wild beasts.

The village has dropped out of sight. I come up to a flattish spot of moss and grass. This will do to pitch my tent. Up it goes, more by a sense of touch than by the light of dithering torch. It looks a little kinked, but no-one will be looking. It’s good enough to do the night, especially as the mink trapper had said the forecast was for cold but calm. I feel my fingers numbing as I blow into a valve and roll out my mattress, fluffing up my sleeping bag to lay it down. At last, I crawl inside with a cosy sense of relief, zipping shut the flaps as if to roll a boulder across the entrance of my cave. Only then does it occur to me: I clean forgot to eat! Oh well – I’ll just have to take recourse to childhood reading on survival training. The Famous Five, with their chocolate bars beneath the stars.

I’m lying here, aware the stars are out above the flysheet. When we were young growing up on the island, the old folks used say that on a moonless night, they’d move from house to house by just the light of a glowing peat taken from the fire. You could make a biography from those peats. Their great migration paths from hearth to hearth. Their kindling, dying and rekindling. The stories that they’d hear along the way.

It would be fun to walk at night by just the moon. Not even with a compass, just going by the Pole Star. And no way, GPS! But satellites – now, they’re a strange addition to the constellations.

I remember the first time I ever saw a satellite, transiting across a Hebridean sky.

In those days, when the nights were mild, Dad and I would go out fishing once he’d finished with the evening surgery at seven.

It would be just him and me, out on a moorland loch. He’d be on the rod. Me, at the oars. We’d talk, and catch the evening rise. We’d usually land a few, then drive back home. He was kept so busy with his burden of responsibilities. It was probably the closest that I ever got to him, just a boy and a man, together in a boat.

I think it must have been September or October. Which, exactly, doesn’t matter; but it must have been late in the season, for although the nights had not yet chilled, twilight had fallen fast. We were out on Loch na Craoibhe – the Loch of the Trees. It lay at the end of the peat cutters’ road, up from the council houses at Balallan. It had an island full of rowans, safe where the sheep couldn’t get at them. Dad and his good friend, Dan Smith of Sildinis, had stocked the water with a golden-coloured strain of hybrid trout, called Sunbeam. They’d been given the fry by the Highlands Board. This was in the experimental days of fish farming and restocking.

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Dad was single-handed at the time, on call 24/7, with eighteen hundred patients for whom he had to be available. He held his patients like a hen would mind her chicks. The loch was up behind the police station. If needed, they would come and fetch him for emergencies. For a time, the Balallan folks called it ‘the Doctor’s Loch’. That’s how places get or change their names. They knew he couldn’t go and fish just anywhere out on the distant moors. Poachers, though some were, it’s said they did the decent thing, and left the fish on Loch na Craoibhe to him and Dan alone – there is a poacher’s honour.

That night, the evening rise had run far on into the dusk. Dad was reeling them in, and me, scooping them up with the landing net in virtual darkness. Nice half-pounders mostly. I asked how they could see his three tiny flies in such poor light. He said they felt vibrations in the water down the lateral line. That’s why the twitching motion of the rod must be just right.

We filled the wicker basket with a hefty haul. Then the wind dropped. It went flat calm, and that was them, gone off the take. Usually we’d have packed in there and then. But this was such a ‘glorious night’, as Dad would say. That was his favoured turn of phrase. He laid his rod across the stern, lit a cigarette, and passed me back a chocolate bar.
I shipped the oars and crossed their butts beneath my knees. We drifted, pensively, out from the island of the berry-laden trees, off the headland where the water lay the deepest. The world had settled to a hush untroubled by the slightest ripple. The sky was settling down to midnight blue on charcoal.

Then we saw the fires come out. Odd embers blown ablaze at first but gradually, the speckled sheen of shimmered starlight right across the Milky Way. And we were there. Inside of all of this. Just the two of us.

A shooting star streaked by, and then another. You glimpse your life as held in cosmic splendour on such a night as this. Dad pointed out a satellite, a sight still rare back then. We watched the tiny speck of light, as if a distant carriage that was lantern-lit and pulled by pounding horses through the freckled constellations.

Such depths of silence let you feel another person’s spirit. In ways I hadn’t known before, I felt Dad’s layers of being. His qualities of presence. His standing, in the sense of all he stood for. I was growing up, and he, it must be said, was growing older.

The satellite crept ceaselessly across the sky, and both of us were rapt, transfixed. Each knew it meant our world was changing. Such signs had not been seen before in Heaven or on Earth. We followed, wordlessly, like shepherds watching flocks by night.

For me, I have to say, I felt the surge of youth’s excitement. It was Apollo’s age when men from NASA reached out to the moon. We were in the space age, right here, right now; and there’d never been a thrill before quite like it – or, for that matter – since.

Dad sat straddled across the wooden thwart. His thick Harris Tweed jacket. His conspicuously Victorian plus fours and gartered socks. Back then, his white or chequered shirts would last a week. Their cuffs and collars were the olden sort, that could detach for daily washing and a dash of starch.

He was conservative in politics, as many country doctors those days were. That said, he was an ecologist of both planet and the body. A man who planted trees, who kept a tank of tropical fish for patients in the waiting room, who delivered a whole generation of babies with the district nurses, and who prided himself on having one of the lowest prescribing rates in the north.

He didn’t believe in a pill for every ill. Instead, he’d make the time to sit with failing patients, to hold their trembling hands, to share about life’s meaning and the future of the world.

That night, we watched the satellite go down on the horizon. I wondered when it would come round again. I wonder, now, what went round in his mind?

Alastair McIntosh is an independent writer, broadcaster, speaker and activist who is involved in a wide range of interconnected issues, from land reform, globalisation and nonviolence to psychology, spirituality and ecology. He is the author of the bestselling Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, described by George Monbiot as ‘a world-changing book’ and Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition. www.alastairmcintosh.com

Images:

Red deer on a medieval tomb in St Clement’s Church, Isle of Harris
Mountain loch, Isle of Harris looking over towards Lewis
Beehive dwelling – as used from the bronze age until very recently

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The Listening Post

 

 

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I don’t remember how old I was when I was taught to tend the listening post. The lottery was held when Good Gillem, who taught me, was an old man and ready to be replaced. All the children who were old enough to work were given a pebble; we put them in the box; mine was drawn.

So I had to leave the oasis, where the other children would work all their lives as our parents and grandparents had, to shepherd the tiny spring into channels where a few fish would spawn each year among the cress and rice we planted. To tend and harvest the palms, weave their fibres into cloth, mend the screens and strengthen the mud walls. To grind the flour and bake the dry, flat bread. My work would be different from theirs. I felt sad and proud.

As I stood in the shadowed doorway of my parents’ house, ready to set out, my mother held my shoulders tightly and kissed me on the top of my head. She was not crying, but her face was twisted in sadness. We’ll see you on Year’s Day, she whispered. Be good till then. One day each year they would come to visit me, for once I was at the post I could never leave it again.

On my shoulder I carried the little bundle she’d prepared for me. Alone I walked out beyond the storm screens, to the open desert, which I’d never seen before. I stared. Stretched before me were endless hills of red sand under the burning sky. The vastness of it made my heart jump like a netted fish in my chest. Everything I knew shrunk to nothingness before it. Carefully I followed the old markers that led over the dunes. I climbed the highest dune and looked back down on my home. The oasis looked indistinct, just a grainy shadow behind the screens, its colours, plants, and people gone. I turned my face away, twisting it as my mother had done to keep from crying, and went on.

The sand shifted and whispered around me. It was red, soft, warm, moving like a smooth-limbed body turning in its sleep. For a moment I felt tempted to leave the marked path and just walk into that great red place, join my body with its body and sleep in its softness. I thought I heard it calling me as it whispered: come and sleep with me, little one! Come and lie down in my arms! It was so great and I was so little. Why shouldn’t I do as it wanted?

Another sound woke me from my daze: the clinking of the old metal flags of the marker as I approached. I realized the sun outside the screens was too strong and it had opened a channel in my head for the whispering sand to enter. Quickly I pulled my hood up and wrapped it tight. Behind the screens I mostly forgot to wear it, unless a big storm came. I drank from my water jug until the whispering died down, and went on again.

At sunset I reached the foot of the black rock mountain, and saw the marker flashing at the entrance to the cave. Gillem waited there. He stood leaning on a great staff of knotted wood. It must have been older than he was, perhaps much older, as there were no trees from which to cut such staffs now in the oasis or any of the places we knew.

I followed him inside the cave and set down my bundle on its smooth swept rock floor. Gillem nodded to me in greeting but that was all. My training began at once.

He showed me the wall at the back of the cave, behind a stone outcrop that shielded it from view. Into the wall were set the devices of the listening post. They were like nothing I had seen in the oasis; I didn’t understand them at all. You don’t have to understand how they work, Gillem said. I don’t, nor has any Listener before me, as far as I know. You just have to do exactly as I show you, and the devices will sweep the skies, as they have down all the lifetimes since they were put here, for a message from the stars.

How many Listeners have there been? I asked.

I have never counted, replied Gillem. Each one keeps his archive and when he is finished, adds it to the others, to show that he has fulfilled his task. The count can be made if you want to – he waved his arm at the great archive wall, whose end was lost in darkness – but it would take a long time and it is easy to lose track. There’s enough to keep you busy.

And has any message ever come? I asked.

No message has ever come, he said.

Gillem and I stayed together for the first year. Every seven days the runner brought us our food, and less often brought us seeds or plants for the small hanging garden we had. And I learned how to grow a few vegetables there, in the sunlight at the cave mouth. I learned to tend the listening machine and keep the panels clean that made it run. I always stayed within earshot of the speaking tube, and checked it now and again to make sure its connections were good. But it never made a sound.

Gillem spoke little. When he was not guiding me or instructing me in my tasks, we sat together at the mouth of the cave and watched for birds – rare – or more often, clouds. At night we watched the stars wheel overhead. We passed the time trying to guess which one the message might come from. Listeners learn to sleep only a little at a time, and never fully. This was the hardest part of the training, and Gillem could not leave until he was sure I had mastered it.

At last my training was done, and I truly understood that I could never leave the post, never travel farther than the entrance of the cave, for the rest of my time as Listener, until I was at least as old as Gillem. I could not risk that the message we had waited for so long might come at last, and I would miss it.

That day Gillem nodded to me, took up his staff and walked to the mouth of the cave. I looked out and saw a boy I knew from the oasis coming over the dunes. For a moment I longed with all my heart to change places with him. But then the feeling passed. He left me some dried fish and bread, and then he followed Gillem who, slowly, leaning heavily on his staff, began his journey back to the oasis, which he had not seen since he was a child. Others had been born, wed, had children of their own and died, but he had seen and shared in none of that. No more would I. I watched them go, and then I turned my face to the sky and wished for the night to come on so I could watch the stars and imagine they were tears the sky cried to fill its emptiness.

Not long after, a runner came, bearing the staff. He handed it to me, and I knew old Gillem was dead.

Years passed. Every year, on the same day, my parents came, and we sat together at the mouth of the cave. At first they spoke of things and people I knew about, but as time went by everything they told me was foreign to me and I became indifferent to it. There was little I could tell them; my days were all the same. And we couldn’t speak loudly or long anyway. I must always be listening first and foremost; nothing must distract me from that task.

I grew older, as did they. The long walk over the dunes became difficult for my mother. She and my father seemed weaker and sadder each time they arrived. But there was something else – I could see the runners who came were also troubled, but no one would speak of it. Finally I asked what was wrong.

The spring is drying up, said the runner. Each year for the last ten we have had a little less food. No children have been born for three years now – the people fear they might starve. The oasis may be dying.

What will happen? I asked. What will you do?

If it dies we will die too, she said. And so will you, I suppose.

That was true. My little hanging garden was watered ingeniously by moisture that dripped from the walls of the cave. This was made to happen somehow by one of the devices I tended in the listening post, but the seeds and plants came from the oasis – and the garden produced only a little of what I needed to survive in any case. The runners brought the rest.

Could you go somewhere else? I asked. Although that would not change my fate.

You know there is nowhere else to go, she answered. The desert goes on forever. At least, no one knows where it ends, if it does. We would die trying to cross it.

I hope the spring doesn’t dry up, I said. Yes, she said. We all hope. But every year the water is less.

More years passed. My parents died, and others buried them. No message came from the speaking tube, but I tended the wall as carefully and constantly as all the other Listeners had before me. The runners still came and went, but they came less frequently and brought less food. I began to grow thin and weak. Then one day, the last runner came.

Only my family is left, she said. And we have decided to take poison rather than starve. I was told to bring some for you. Here is the last food. I won’t return.

Is the food poisoned? I asked.

No, she said. Here is the poison. You can choose the time. She handed me a little glass vial.

What if a message comes? I asked.

It will come too late, she replied.

After she left I let the days go by somehow, without taking up the little vial. I ate as little as I could. I kept to my tasks. I thought: after all, why not wait a bit longer? I can choose whenever I want.

Then one evening as I was sitting at the mouth of the cave, waiting for the stars to come out, I heard a sound I had never heard before. The speaking tube!

The message began to come through, at first as if someone were mumbling indistinctly in my ear, and then at last, as the translating device found the signals it needed in my brain, the words became clear:

We are dying… we are dying, it said. We seek no rescue. This is a warning. We set our world afire. We put the torch to everything that gave us life. Now it’s too late; the last of us are dying. Heed us!

I felt struck by lightning. A message at last! From a distant star!

But I knew the oasis was gone, and there was no one left but me to hear it.

Words kept coming from the speaking tube. A poem, said the voice; I didn’t understand most of what followed. I listened, trying to repeat what I could. Then the last words were spoken, and the voice stopped.

I stood at the mouth of the cave, holding the little vial in my hand. As I lifted it to my lips, I spoke softly the words that described what I looked out upon: the lone and level sands stretched far away.

Christy Rodgers writes on the blog What If? transformations, tales, possibilities, and is a regular contributor to Dissident Voice.

Image by Med Rizki ZNIBER (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

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Beast

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My second novel, Beast, was published this week by Faber and Faber. It’s the story of a man alone on a wild moor. Who he is, where he came from, why he came and what he is there for are questions that may or may not be answered. But it turns out he is not there alone. Something is out there, and he is hunting it. Or it is hunting him.

Like all my fiction, Beast is trying to fulfil some of the demands which I myself laid out in the Dark Mountain manifesto (if I don’t make an effort, who will?) That is to say I am trying to write with dirt under my fingernails, I am trying to pull my sensibility, if not my body, outside the bounds set for it by my civilisation, and – crucially in this case – I am trying to take seriously the notion of the non-human world as a living, breathing thing with which we have a relationship, whether we know it or not.

I’d better not say much more. Novels are for reading, not explaining. If you’d like to find out more, about the book, you can do so here. In the meantime, here is an extract…

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I wanted to go into the church. I wanted to be entombed by the cold stone to get out of this heat to sit in an empty pew and ease myself. I wondered if I could work the anger and irritation out of me and have the old stale air of that place carry it away through the stained glass and out into the whiteness. I wanted to go in but I stayed outside. I had come here to watch. I sat down with my back against the trunk of the ancient yew in the churchyard. From there I could see out onto the lane to the place where I had seen it and for some way on either side. If it came back here I would not miss it.

The yew must have been centuries old it was hollow at the centre and the wood I was leaning on had been twisted and gnarled by the ages. Its green needles were thick above me its berries scarlet. I drank more water. I said nothing to myself or to the tree or to anyone I could dream of or think about. I just sat and I watched the lane and the hedges and the fields and I listened for any sound and there was none. Nothing happened.

I sat and watched the lane and the hedges and the fields and nothing happened for hours or what I thought must have been hours. I had no watch and so time was nothing not even a concept time was nothing and nothing happened. When you sit like this you realise that nothing has its own energy that it moves that nothing can happen like an event or an episode. Nothingness extends itself emptiness moves and when you stare into it things happen to you. I sat with my back against the yew and I looked across the churchyard wall over to the lane. Inside me the worm was still coiling though it was moving more sluggishly since I had settled down.

At the end of the hedge where it curled around the corner of the lane and disappeared out of my sight was a tree. It must have been fairly young it had a thin trunk and its slender angular branches hung over the lane. There were no leaves on it so it was hard for me to tell what it was. Maybe a beech maybe an oak. If you sit looking at anything for long enough then everything else fades from your vision and all you have is what you are staring at. I was staring at a small knot above the biggest branch on this tree. Its trunk was black and it was bare in the white heat and suddenly I saw what terrible things trees are. They sprout up from the Earth they reach out in all directions they reach out for you they will smother you they will never stop growing and dividing and colonising. They are so fecund there is no stopping them. Chop them down burn them they always come back up they stretch to the sky these thin green fingers they are indescribable. They are just waiting there waiting everywhere for us to fall and then they will come back and they will grow over everything they will suck it all in and take it up to the sky in their thin fingers. Their roots will wrap around all that we were and our lives will rot down in their litter and theirs will be a silent Earth of roots and leaves and thin grasping and there will be no place for us in their world at all.

Then I remembered a man who would go out every morning and look at his trees. I didn’t know who he was or where I remembered this from but it felt like a memory and it came to me as I stared across at this tree in the lane. He was an old man he wore a tweed jacket and a flat cap and he planted trees. Perhaps they were fruit trees. I remembered that this man whenever I passed he would be in his garden walking slowly between the trees shuffling between them and inspecting them looking at every leaf turning the blossoms over smelling them sometimes. What goes on in the head of a man who looks at trees like that? He did it for years perhaps he had always done it perhaps he is still there doing it now. What went on
in the head of someone who could do that same circuit every day for years forever? Why couldn’t I do that? Who was he that I was not? Today the thought of his circuit the thought of his silent circuit of the trees filled me with horror. How much I hated trees how much I feared things that grew. I was surrounded by trees surrounded by things that grew surrounded by this horrifying green abundance and it all wanted to swallow me and it was so silent so slow it spoke no language I could understand. How I hated it how I hated it and how I wanted to run.

I stopped looking at the tree. I found myself back in the churchyard leaning against the yew but now the church seemed to loom behind me like some presence. Now that I was aware of it I couldn’t put it beyond me I wanted to turn to look at it to make sure it wasn’t moving towards me coming to claim me. Now the church felt like a threat. What if God was a tyrant? The Bible’s God is a tyrant he destroys worlds because people won’t obey him he flies into rages and floods everything he burns down cities he slaughters children he hands down rules which must be obeyed by all and for eternity. He sent his son to die for us and he demands our gratitude for this though we never asked for it he demands that we gather in squat stone buildings and sing his praises if he is not to flood and burn us again. God the Father of all the men who feared their fathers over the centuries all the men who built up his church and who feared their fathers and whose sons feared them.

And outside the church where they go to worship God is god humming in the air god who is the air the unmeasurable and strange thing. This god who is not in books and did not live or die and is not a father or a mother and will not be obeyed and will not be denied. god who is the molecules and the air and the trees this forcing light this strange light roaring out. Before words before language before thought before speaking everyone must have been able to see this clear white light. Now it is all clouded. But you can make the cloud fall away or it can fall without you and then you can see again what is underneath the trees the soil the ideas the opinions what was always underneath them. The light has nothing for you it makes you no promises. It is in the small things it is in the tiny things we walk over and past the tiny things that run the world and we never see them because we believe we are running it ourselves and we are walking past to lay our claim on it first. The beetles the bacteria the earthworms the centipedes the viruses the mycelium the seeds lying dormant in the soil waiting for us to burn ourselves out. For the meek shall inherit the earth.

I was a stranger here I could see it now I was a foreigner an invader an immigrant and they were turning on me. The trees the hedges the beetles the things that live in the soil they were turning on me hissing at me they wanted me out they wanted me gone. The anger inside me had shifted and now it felt like a fear like a great anxiety. I felt all alone in the world I knew there was nothing here for me nothing at all. A bottle of water a walking stick a pair of boots was all I had between me and the trees the grass the gods and the gravestones and they all wanted me gone they were coming for me. This was their world and they would take it back they would take it back from me soon there would be no lane here no church no paths I could see the future and in it was nothing but trees nothing but the things living in the trees and in the soil a great silent green orchestra spread across the whole of the world. I had walked out too far. I had walked to this lonely place and now I was surrounded and they would eat me.

I had to leave. I had not seen what I came for but I didn’t want to not now. It was ridiculous it was impossible it was nothing. I raised my stiff body up and I began to walk back up the lane towards the farm. I carried myself across the moor as fast as I could but it was not fast I leaned on my stick and my rhythm was awkward and all across the moor I felt there were things in the heather surrounding me coming for me I was being watched some great force was just behind me shadowing me stalking me and I couldn’t turn and look back. I just kept walking with this fear this anxiety inside me I didn’t know what it was but I walked I had to walk and I didn’t look back.

Paul Kingsnorth is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project (with Dougald Hine). His previous novel The Wake was published in 2014. You can find out more about Beast, and his other work, on his website.

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Congregation, Total Chaos and Greed: On Trapping Wolves in Montana

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About three weeks after moving to Montana from East London urged on by a restless mid-life state of mind, I find myself waking up in a motel room in Gardiner, Montana at 4:30 a.m. on a drizzly August day. The sister of a friend of mine, the poet and naturalist Ilona Popper, picks me up and we drive for an hour along the northern range of Yellowstone National Park in the pitch black towards where she thinks a pack of wolves known as the Junction Butte Pack will be hanging out doing whatever it is wolves do.

After about an hour, we park up in the Lamar Valley behind half a dozen cars while a quarter of a mile away twenty or so Gortex-clad wolfers are planting their scopes on the crest of a hill. Ilona introduces me to ‘Rick’ who is getting out of his car. As the biological technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project, Rick has spent more than fourteen years observing wolf behaviour and pack dynamics. He is locally famous for chalking up more than 5,000 consecutive days (‘without even one day off,’ Ilona whispers at me) watching wolves. Much of what we know about the Yellowstone packs comes from his observations.

Ilona and I scale the small hill and set up our scopes in the rain just as the sky is lightening. After observing a few bison lazily grazing, we spot what Ilona thinks is the alpha female of the pack — the leader and breeder. She is a mottled charcoal colour, very relaxed, lying on her side nonchalantly watching five wolf cubs. The cubs tussle, jump on her and run in circles. As I watch the cubs roll in the grass like puppies, I feel I am watching something forbidden. Their play seems private, intimate — something between them and the land that I have no place witnessing. I am not expecting to have an emotional response to these animals but a kind of awe begins to creep over me — the awe of the European on the Grand Tour when confronted with a waterfall or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It is the awe of the spectator. But then something strange happens. I begin to be able to tell them apart, to identify these cubs as individuals. ‘Look there’s the one who nips ears,’ I am saying to myself. The awe shifts from that of observer to participant. I start to feel part of this land of theirs.

Since their re-introduction to Montana in 1995, the debate still rages as to the extent of good or harm these animals effect. With wolves in Yellowstone hunting and killing prey, the elk population has been reduced, thus increasing the growth of young willow trees, and also invoking the wrath of hunters whose prime target is elk. To conservationists, however, the regrowth of trees is seen as necessary for providing food and habitat for many animals in the Park. By bringing back the apex predator, some scientists and conservationists believe that a healthier balance has been restored. The doomsayer in me who believes that ecological meddling rarely has a happy ending sees this issue as one that is so complex, with so many variables, that our limited human brains cannot fully comprehend it.

***

A month after seeing the Junction Butte Wolf Pack, I keep hearing about wolves. They are in the news a lot. They have a lot of enemies. People are angry. A quick Google affirms that a lot of Westerners see the reintroduction of wolves as an assault on their hunting rights, on their cattle, on their sense of being the top predator, on their whole way of life. It seems too easy for me, someone who has been living in a large urban centre thousands of miles from the American West for the last twenty-five years, to say that killing these predators is wrong. What do I know? There must be reasons for laying steel in the ground and making war on wolves?

Which is why I have come to Missoula’s Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation on a sunny September day. From the outside, the building is part ski chalet, part country club. I walk into the large open foyer and am greeted by what I will soon learn is a Montana specialty: taxidermy. Tons of it. Lynx, cougars, elk, bears, bighorn sheep, antelope, foxes, martens, badgers and whole dioramas populated with once living, stuffed animals chasing plastic grasshoppers and dragonflies dangling from nearly invisible fishing wire.

elk mountain foundation.03

I follow some deep voices that lead me to the room where the wolf-trapping course is taking place. It’s carpeted in gun-metal grey and chairs have been set up in very neat rows. It looks like we might be gathering to pray. There is one other woman. We clock each other. I smile, but she makes it clear she’s not here to socialise. The men, around thirty of them, wear baseball caps or cowboy hats, and sunglasses are placed backwards on their necks — a look I associate for some reason with military personnel. Three generations head-to-toe in denim, leather boots with spurs and cowboy hats silently fill the back row. The youngest, maybe four years old, is a tiny version of the adults: same clothes, same stoic expression.

On a table at the front of the room, where we have written our names onto a sheet of paper, is an assortment of metal contraptions, pelts and skulls. If someone had told me these metal devices were medieval torture instruments, I would have believed them. But these are foothold traps designed to snap onto the limb of an animal. Conibears (which grip the entire body) and snares (which strangle the animal) are illegal in Idaho and Montana. I am madly writing this all down while a guy behind the table is talking unofficially to a few attendees who make it clear they have used a lot of these traps. They handle these clanking things with familiarity.

Then the day starts for real, and like all courses it begins with introductions. At the front of the room are Mike Thompson, a wildlife manager at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MTFWP) and Jeff Ashmead, who worked as a government trapper, gunner, and pilot in the state of Idaho. He is now a trapper for hire — the go-to guy when you are experiencing cattle and ungulate depredation at the hands of wolves. Ashmead, who looks to be in his early sixties, wears reflective shades, baseball cap, a belt holding up a pair of very tight-fitting jeans, and sports a badge on his hat and shirt emblazoned with his logo of a wolf and the acronym JAWS (Jeff Ashmead Wildlife Specialist). Thompson looks more like a history teacher. He takes us through the stack of photocopied pages we’ve all been given: Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks — Wolf Trapper Education Handbook. In 2011 it became mandatory for all trappers to take this certificate course. I sense resentment in the room expressed in the form of crossed arms, legs akimbo, and faces that seem to say, ‘Can we get this over with quick so I can get back to my traps?’

Once we are through with the rules and regulations in the handbook, Mike Thompson steps aside and Jeff Ashmead rises, slowly, making the most of his six-foot frame.

‘I don’t speak for the Wildlife Services anymore, although I worked for them for thirty plus years. I’m a rancher, father of five kids, a family man’. I could feel the room relax. He is one of them.

Jeff Ashmead explains the fallacy of Mother Nature and her ‘balancing act’. He spits those last two words out in a way that leaves no doubt about his views of natural balance. We get a brief history of wolves in Idaho and Montana. How they were hunted for their pelts throughout the 1880s, set on fire, shot, poisoned, trapped, and were extinct by the 1930s. Bison were being slaughtered in record numbers as well, and their meat was often injected with strychnine to kill anything that ate the meat. There are accounts of trappers setting up camp, shooting bison, poisoning the meat, going to sleep, and then waking in the morning to a field of dead wolves (and eagles and every other scavenger who might like a little midnight bison snack).

After grey wolves were reintroduced to Montana from Canada they remained on the endangered list. Their numbers grew until in 2011 they were delisted. The point Jeff is trying to make is that we’ve been meddling with Mother Nature since we’ve been on the planet, so the idea of preserving things in any kind of balance seems ridiculous to him. He goes on, ‘I mean what is this paradise people are trying to reach? It was never even there in the first place!’
The room is silent with what I take as agreement.

Then we are made aware that the wolf counts done by the state of Montana are inaccurate. Apparently because of the wily nature of these beasts, only a small proportion of them have actually been counted.

Fear Factor Number 1: There are way more wolves out there than you could ever possibly know.

Jeff Ashmead goes into the social structures within wolf packs and something strange happens. He anthropomorphises these animals: wolf pups start trying to find territory where they can bring their ‘ladies’ or ‘girlfriends’. Once the pups are ‘at their peak, when they’re top athletes, they take their girls off to a new territory. They’ve had enough of their dad’s iron fist.’ Ladies? Girlfriends? Athletes? Dads?

He goes on for some time about the social bonds of wolves and how these creatures differ from the many wild animals out there, like bears, who use bluff as a scare tactic. These guys don’t bluff. They kill.

Fear Factor Number 2: Wolves are deadly. Or to put it in Jeff’s words: ‘When a wolf pulls the trigger, someone dies. They play to kill.’

It is essential for any decent trapper to know how the packs function — you can’t trap an animal unless you can work out where it’s going to be. We are told that the alpha males (the pack leaders) get territorial of their alpha females (the breeder of the pack). ‘There ain’t no fornication in my group!’ he shouts out in imitation of an Alpha male.
These wolves not only have girlfriends and trigger fingers, but they fornicate. I sense a vein of sexual thrill in his words, as if killing a wolf is somehow linked to an increase in manliness.

The main reason we are all gathered here today, however, is to talk about ethics. We are taken through the variety of traps before us. Pros and cons and the price options of the differing traps, which have names like ‘Sleepy Creek #4’ and ‘Livestock Protection Company #7’. The proper care and setting of the various traps is explained carefully.
‘Whatever steps in one of these, you’re going to have to deal with. A moose, whatever. You don’t want to get a cow moose in one of these because she’s not going to leave until she’s done some tap dancing on you!’

He gets a laugh.

Jeff tells the room that it is important to weight the traps so that you don’t catch too much of the other ‘stuff’ such as ‘deer, elk, bobcats, coyotes, fishers, and martens’. Especially the last two as they are ‘sensitive species’. Fishers became extinct in Montana and were re-introduced in 1959. They are no longer considered endangered but are treated with some trepidation. Marten fur is what is known as ‘sable’ and is highly desirable. But you wouldn’t want to be seen trapping an animal that was ‘sensitive’ when you are trying to catch a wolf, as that would definitely put a dent in your ethical credentials.

‘You should lay your traplines as if your grandmother were watching you,’ Jeff tells us while wagging a finger. I glance down at the handbook open on my lap and see an Aldo Leopold quote: ‘Ethics is doing the right thing when no one else is looking, even though the wrong thing is still legal.’

It’s break time. A trapper I meet as I stand in a hallway of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation looking at framed photos of past donors is keen to tell me that wolves are bloodthirsty creatures who will prey on just about anything (even children apparently) and they make a point of going for the pregnant ones. That is how evil they are. There is a photo online, he tells me, showing the foetus hanging out of a dead horse. ‘Uneaten!’ the guy is smiling with what almost seems like excitement, titillation. ‘Wolves kill just for the fun of it.’ We are called back to the room for the session to resume and I tear myself away from the guy who will be sending me photos of these uneaten foal foetuses once I give him my email address.

Apart from preventing cattle depredation, the other reason people trap wolves is for their pelts, which can fetch thousands of dollars at auction. Even in death though, wolves cause problems: ‘Wolves don’t give up their hide even when they’re dead!’ Jeff Ashmead exclaims. ‘I can skin a coyote in under ten minutes, but a wolf takes five to six hours!’ Nasty old wolves. Yet despite the fact that wolves are killed in order to reduce cattle deaths and to make money, trapping is often referred to as a sport, or as Jeff Rushmead calls it, an ‘art’. Several guys in the room nod when Jeff Ashmead talks in that homespun way about trapping being ‘our right’ and it being part of Montana’s history and tradition. ‘We’ve always trapped! That’s what we do!’ Kit Carson is mentioned and there is a slight shift in the room’s atmosphere. I might be imagining it, but I feel I am surrounded by people who dream at night of having the freedom of those nineteenth-century mountain men to kill whatever they want with impunity.

But the history these guys are dreaming of is the same history that decimated the bison and most of the native population and degraded the land with intensive beef and sheep farming. How can this be held up as a golden age to which everyone living west of the Alleghenies should be longing to return?

It is almost time for lunch.

My eyes have begun wandering around the room. On one wall, is a poster: ‘It is the land, as wild as we can sustain it, that both the hunter and the hunted need to survive.’ Jim Posewitz.

I make a note to Google him while I have my sandwich. I am the only person who has brought lunch. The others all get into their pickups and drive off. I sit on a bench overlooking the empty parking lot and eat my cheese sandwich, carrot sticks and apple feeling very unlike a trapper.

But I learn that Jim Posewitz is that uniquely Western American who has made it his life’s work to improve ‘the image of hunting with an emphasis on fair chase ethics’ and has focused ‘on putting hunters at the forefront of our nation’s conservation ethic.’ He’s exactly the sort of person I find impossible to understand. Is it just semantics? When he talks of conservation, does he mean the conservation of a way of life based on when the trapper ruled and the West was won by guys who slept under the stars dreaming of the dead wolves at their feet the next morning? As Rick Bass says about hunters in his book The Ninemile Wolves, ‘there’s nothing harder to stereotype than a “hunter”.’ I would add that this is also true of trappers: they claim to love the wilderness, they call themselves sportsmen, outdoorsmen, and yet they are happy inflicting pain on animals in return for the price of their fur. Most hunters eat their prey, whereas trappers do it for money.

I am trying to understand this. Really trying with all my might, but I’m stuck.

***

After lunch I sense that Jim Posewitz isn’t the only person to have been Googled. I feel distinctly uneasy as the afternoon session begins with Jeff and Mike looking hard at me and talking about ‘the other side’. The funny thing is that I am not an animal rights activist. I don’t belong to any groups. But they can just smell that I am not one of them.

‘The other side’s got lots of money,’ Jeff shouts. ‘So, I encourage you to keep that in mind.’

Fear Factor Number 3: The anti-trapping lobby is rich, so watch out!

There is much talk of how to weight the traps — at least 12 to 15 pounds — to avoid getting all those other pesky non-wolves. You have to make sure to get the wolf ‘above his wrist’. And then there is talk of the ‘dispatch’. Jeff tells us that he once shot an alpha male right through the heart. Communal nod of respect. And it’s imperative to check your traplines every 48 hours. Not only because this is ethical, but because it gives the ‘other side’ less time to photograph squirming animals who might be chewing off their own legs. Although according to Jeff Ashmead, the leg-chewing thing is a myth. But still, you don’t want to risk it.

And we’re back onto the subject of ‘the other side’. I am looking down at the papers on my lap. I didn’t come here as the other side. I came here to see what common ground I could find. But maybe there is none.

‘I got picketed going wolf-trapping for a problem wolf,’ he pauses. ‘I got poked, prodded, cameras shoved in my face and people shouting “the public has a right to know: did you kill the right wolf?”‘ He looks at me. ‘They try and get under your skin, these people. But God gave me two feet to run out of there. And I did.’

Mysteriously some mother-in-law jokes ensue and then he’s back onto the enemy. ‘You know, bear cubs used to be an hors d’oeuvre out here. City people just don’t get how it works. Animals are here for us to use, not abuse. But what I felt coming from those people is hate. Those folks just hated me. It was coming out of their pores. The toughest thing I had to face was those guys going through my pick-up. The police could have arrested them on terrorism charges after 9/11.’ But Jeff says he did the generous thing and let the protesters go free.

Fear Factor Number 4: All trappers are being watched by the media, by anti-trappers, by people who hate them, so it’s best to behave.

This is the preamble to encourage the trappers not to take photos of themselves with their prey. ‘Anyone been around Photoshop lately?’ he asks to laughter. ‘Just don’t post any photos of yourself with dead animals. OK? Just don’t.’ He talks about the recent case in September 2014 of Toby Bridges, a Missoula man, who accelerated his car into some wolves near the Montana-Idaho border and then bragged about it on Facebook, describing his bespoke roadkill in graphic detail and posting photos. The men nod. They’ve seen Bridges’ photos no doubt.

It’s eventually time to go outside and see how we are to lay one of these things. We file out of the meeting room and into the blinding sunshine. Jeff carries a trap and we follow him over to a tree. Knowing how animals work is a big part of laying your trapline. ‘I listen to the birds,’ he tells us. ‘Crows and magpies talk a lot.’ Then we are onto bait. It is illegal, he tells us, in Montana and Idaho to bait your traps. But apparently everyone does it. In the official handbook I am still holding there is mention of a company called The Snare Shop in Iowa who carry lures on their website with names like computer games:

CONGREGATION*
The maker took over 500 predators on this lure alone in 3 years. None better.

TOTAL CHAOS*
This age-old formula is a cat meat based bait.
It is the last bait your predators will ever taste.
Hundreds of predators have been taken on my line with this bait.
Predators can’t resist – compare to any!

GREED*
Northwest Predator and Wildlife Control Lure.
A M-44 lure that works great at trap sets also.

*WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE IF YOU PURCHASE ITEMS THAT ARE ILLEGAL IN YOUR STATE. IT IS YOUR REASONABILITY (sic) TO KNOW YOUR STATES (sic) RULES AND REGULATIONS

I had to look up what an M-44 trap was that the Greed bait ‘works great’ with. It is a spring-loaded metal cylinder, baited with scent, that fires sodium cyanide powder into the mouth of whatever tugs on it. According to a former Wildlife Service trapper, ‘It’s not a painless death.’ Animals who ingest the sodium cyanide ‘start whining. They start haemorrhaging from their ears and nose and mouth. They get paralysis and fall over. Then they start convulsing and they’re gone. They are suffering endlessly until they die. It’ll make you literally want to puke.’ A quick look at eBay and other online shops will point you to bottles of scrotum juice, urine and other fine ingredients to add to your traps.

The day comes to an end and I am not sure what the ritual is. People peel off and head to their pickups. No one shakes hands or exchanges numbers. I don’t give the foal foetus guy my email either. We are not here to connect. We are here as a formality so we can head out into the woods, lay some steel, kill some predators, harvest some pelts, make some money. My feelings are beginning to come into some kind of focus. I am a newcomer here and don’t have the right to make grand statements about how Montanans should manage their lands. However my non-relativist voice is saying that trapping is all wrong. Totally unequivocally wrong. I go home, to my new house in the American West. That night I dream of wolves running as fast as they can through the woods. That is what wolves do. They run and run. They cover ground like magic. These silver wolves look at me with hate in their eyes. They don’t know I am from ‘the other side’. That there is nothing that would tempt me to injure any one of them. Nothing at all. From me they are safe.

wolf trapping certificate

Joanna Pocock is a British-Canadian writer. Two years ago she relocated from East London to Missoula, Montana. She is a regular contributor to Litro, UK and has written for 3:AM. In the US her work has appeared in The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Distinctly Montana and JSTOR Daily. She also teaches Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, London.  

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The Height and the Drop

rsz_1med-1570

‘There is a difference between measuring the height of a drop and the sensation of falling; between the sight of a wave and hearing it crash on to the shore’, wrote Rafael Behr in a Guardian article after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union two days ago. ‘It was meant to be unthinkable, now the thought has become action. Europe cannot be the same again.’

Since the Dark Mountain Project was launched in October 2009, the distance between the height and the drop, the wave and the shore, has been closing. From the global financial crisis, which destroyed so many people’s faith in the neoliberal narrative of endless, pain-free growth, to the crippling austerity measures imposed on countries around the world, from the fallout of the Arab Spring to the ongoing migrant crisis — not to mention the rise of Donald Trump on the other side of the Atlantic — many previously ‘unthinkable’ things have successfully breached the border to reality in the past seven years. The British decision to leave the EU is only the latest disruption to what we trustingly used to refer to as ‘normality’.

All we can be certain of, now, is that more surprises are on their way. How to navigate the unknown has been central to Dark Mountain’s mission from the start, and today, in acknowledgement of ‘interesting times’, we return to one of the poems that inspired our Manifesto. Written by Robinson Jeffers in 1935, it feels as prescient as ever, and just as instructive in guiding us through territory that becomes less certain every day.

The Answer

Then what is the answer? Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilisations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history … for contemplation or in fact …
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.

Robinson Jeffers, 1935

Image: medieval map of Europe, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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The Dithering Age: Holocene, Anthropocene, and Chthulucene

Ragnarök_by_Collingwood

A sword age, axe age, shields are cloven, a wind age, wolf age, ere the world sinks
— Volupsa

There is no question that anthropogenic activity has profoundly damaged the vast interrelated web of ecological systems that maintain the conditions for life on this planet. Similarly there is an increasingly agreement among climate scientists that we are currently in the midst of a sixth geological extinction event that may cause the annihilation of up to 75 percent of species on earth, including humanity. The only question now is how do we conceptualise this fact and of course, how do we intend to address it. The current debates around the use of the term ‘anthropocene’ to describe the impact of human activity on the biosphere is an example of how environmentalists are trying to wrestle with this issue and also demonstrates how the critique of civilisation is a vital issue that has yet to be dealt with substantively by contemporary theorists. Without placing the phenomenon of civilisation at the core of our analysis of the environmental crisis, any conceptualisation will necessarily be insufficient.

In the most recent issue of the Monthly Review Ian Angus remarks that the term ‘anthropocene’ is currently enjoying a degree of exposure and attention rarely granted to scientific jargon. He writes

‘The word Anthropocene, unknown twenty years ago, now appears in the titles of three academic journals, dozens of books, and hundreds of academic papers, not to mention innumerable articles in newspapers, magazines, websites, and blogs. There are exhibitions about art in the Anthropocene, conferences about the humanities in the Anthropocene, and novels about love in the Anthropocene.’

He goes on to summarise debates over the term within the scientific community as well as provide a brief history of the term and it’s usage. Angus’s ultimate concern is to emphasise the need for ecological Marxists to deepen their engagement with the work of climate scientists in order to properly understand and attempt to deal with the unprecedented levels of environmental degradation we now face. The essential argument of the climate scientists who proposed that we have indeed entered a new phase in geological history (an ‘anthropocene,’ from the Greek for ‘man’), one which is defined by humanity’s destructive impact on global ecological systems, has been too often neglected by Marxists as either catastrophism or a distraction from class struggle.

The key question for Angus is how do we understand the timing of the beginning of the anthropocene in the context of the critique of capitalism. Among the scientific community there are two proposals for how to define the anthropocene; one places the anthropocene around eight thousand years ago when large scale agriculture and urban civilisation began (though some even suggest that the entire holocene epoch, which began around 11,000 years ago, after the last ice age, should simply be renamed anthropocene).

Others argue that beginning in 1945 we began seeing a qualitative change in the impact of human activity on the biosphere. Sociological and environmental trends such as population growth, water use, tourism, paper production, fertiliser consumption, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, carbon dioxide production, etc, which had been gradually increasing since the 18th century suddenly experienced a staggeringly sharp upturn around this time. Nobel Prize winning climate scientist Paul Crutzen, along with Will Steffen and John McNeill, proposed that developments since 1950 could be understood by the term ‘the Great Acceleration.’ Later work by Crutzen et al, revised their model to place the Great Acceleration within a second phase of the anthropocene epoch. This conclusion is echoed by former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who writes

‘Even if the Anthropocene began millennia ago, a fundamentally different phase, a Hyper-Anthropocene, was initiated by explosive 20th century growth of fossil fuel use. Human-made climate forcings now overwhelm natural forcings. CO2, at 400 ppm in 2015, is off the scale … Most of the forcing growth occurred in the past several decades, and two-thirds of the 0.9 C global warming (since 1850) has occurred since 1975.’

The implications of this debate are quite profound. The concept of an early anthropocene is popular among conservatives and anti-environmental lobbyists who would like to demonstrate that the environmental crisis we are seeing now is simply the product of an increase in activities that have been present and consistent with every point in human history. In other words, that this is nothing new and fundamentally does not require new solutions. The recent anthropocene on the other hand is favored by those who place capitalism at the center of the current ecological catastrophe.

Clearly there is a need for synthesis between early and recent visions of the anthropocene. While the qualitative change in human destructiveness within the last half century and the concurrent exponential growth in factors such as technological development and economic disparity are measurably true and must be acknowledged, it is equally true that human beings have been engaging in radically destructive environmental practices for thousands of years. It is vital that we place special emphasis on what has happened in the last fifty or sixty years but it is just as important that we don’t treat capitalism as the root cause of human interference with natural cycles and the healthy functioning of global ecosystems. This is where the critique of civilisation becomes a key element in conceptualisations of the anthropocene.

Ancient Mesopotamians built extensive dams and irrigation systems to grow monoculture crops to feed their exploding urban population. There is also evidence of desertification in north Africa and elsewhere as a result of deforestation by the ancient Romans, Egyptians, and others. Mining was a widespread practice in the ancient world as well and Athenian silver mines were worked by up to 20,000 slaves. We can likewise point to the extinction of numerous species of holocene megafauna following the technological developments of the Neolithic revolution. While Ian Angus argues that the destructive practices of early humans does not constitute a qualitative change from previous holocene activity, when we compare the environmental impact of small, nomadic hunter gatherer communities to that of even the earliest urban, agricultural societies it is clear that we are dealing with a change that is equally if not more radical than what we have seen since the 1950s.

There is another crucial point that Angus’s survey overlooks, does the term anthropocene reinforce anthropocentic attitudes about the division between humanity and the natural world? A landmark essay by Crutzen, Steffen, and McNeil titled ‘The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?’ highlights this problem. The language here is extremely problematic. Humanity may be making the planet uninhabitable for ourselves and a number of other species but ‘the forces of nature’ are incomparably greater than anything human being can do, no matter how suicidal and destructive we are. Humanity does not function according to geological time and a substantial portion of our shared delusion is the idea that we as a species are more important than any other or hold a particular position of dominance.

Jason W. Moore rejects the ‘anthropocene’ in favor of the term ‘capitalocene.’ His reasoning is two-fold. In the first case, Moore argues, if we broaden our sense of capitalism to rightly account for events such as the European conquest of the New World, we can understand the most radical changes in the capacity for human beings to alter their environment in terms of the accumulation of capital. Moore thus places emphasis on ‘the long sixteenth century’ as the period when technical innovations marked a new phase of environmental impact. Secondly, and even more importantly, Moore argues that the term ‘anthropocene,’ and indeed our entire conceptual framework for dealing with the current climate crisis, is deeply informed by a false dichotomy between something called ‘nature’ and human society. Moore argues that the separation of human society from the natural world ‘didn’t come about just because there were scientists, cartographers or colonial rulers who decided it was a good idea, but because of a far-flung process that put together markets and industry, empire and new ways of seeing the world that go along with a broad conception of the Scientific Revolution.’ This division, in other words, is inherently a product of specific conceptualisations of what it meant to be human.

This binary has vast consequences and is the root of all the other divisions that theorists have long since sought to understand and dismantle, man and woman, white and black, the West and the rest, capitalist and laborer. Moore urges a reconceptualisation of capitalism and nature to see that the reality of the situation is much more complex than such stark, simple terms allow for. What is needed, in Moore’s opinion, is new language and new ideas to understand the relations between humanity and the non-human world. Capitalism, of course, does not only determine economic relationships. It likewise and inseparably influences environmental relations, as well as psychological, physiological relations among others. Moore states that when we try to push beyond the simple binaries, we can ‘see how Wall Street is a way of organising nature. We see the unfolding of problems today – like the recent turbulence in Chinese and American stock markets – as wrapped up with bigger problems of climate and life on this planet in a way that even radical economists are not willing to acknowledge.’ To see the connection between the economic and the environmental also puts various struggles in solidarity with each other. The struggle for climate justice and economic justice are the same.

Moore’s point is well-taken and coincides nicely with the critique of civilisation. If we overemphasise the role of industrialisation, for example, in the history of human impact on the biosphere, we will fail to see how pre-industrial societies were quite capable of destroying and disrupting ecosystems. Moore is absolutely right that talking about humanity contra nature is unproductive and in fact, facilitates the exploitation and degradation of the biosphere. He is also right when he points out that humanity as a whole cannot be said to have any particular means of relating to the environment. We have to talk about specific communities and societies.

This is also a key point in the anti-civilisation perspective. Humanity, as such, is useless to discuss in environmental terms. We have to talk about specific issues such as agriculture, mining, domestication, technology, etc. We have to talk about communities and their practices. Lets talk about the practices of hunter gatherer communities, for example. There are to this day a number of communities that live without agriculture or urban settlements, and of course historically this has been the vast majority of human beings on this planet. When we break out of the old binary of human vs nature we can see that it’s not humanity that’s the problem but a specific way of life or specific practices. This recognition also allows us to address particular problems without falling into the trap that somehow and for some reason, usually a religious one, humanity is just destined to have an exploitative relationship to its environment. Again, the majority of human beings historical have lived in a radically non-exploitative way. Which humans are we talking about when we say that ‘humans are destroying nature’? And furthermore, lets be specific about what is being destroyed and how.

If people just hear that humans are destroying the environment, they aren’t given much incentive to act or even think much. We have to remind people that humanity, as a monolith, doesn’t do anything in particular. You have a choice, you are not condemned to exploit the earth simply by being born human. Talking about the environmental crisis in terms of ‘nature’ or ‘the earth’ is likewise insufficient and misleading. The earth is still going to be here and nature is still going to be here, what we are talking about losing is the health and vitality of specific ecosystems, millions of species of animals and plants, and perhaps the extinction of the human race. The planet will keep on turning and new species will develop and grow.

Donna Haraway’s recent engagement with this debate offers further nuance. She cites a paper by Anna Tsing entitled ‘Feral Biologies’, which suggests that we might think about the distinction between holocene and anthropocene in terms of refuge. During the previous epoch its clear that destructive human activity occurred, however, at that point there were still spaces of refuge. This is to say various ecosystems had the capacity to rebuild, species could take shelter and return, biodiversity was largely unthreatened despite attacks against particular species. Haraway writes that ‘The Anthropocene marks severe discontinuities; what comes after will not be like what came before.’ These refuges have all but disappeared. Ecosystems and species, humans certainly among them, do not have the time or the space to replenish themselves. In these terms Haraway argues that our only hope is to do everything we can to make sure that this current period of extinguishing refuge is as short as possible, because it is very clearly here now.

In the context of cultivating new places for biodiversity to flourish Haraway proposes a new term to add to the mix. Haraway’s Chthulucene evokes H.P. Lovecraft’s nihilistic mythology though eschews its racism and misogyny. She stipulates that this term is inspired by ‘the diverse earth-wide tentacular powers and forces and collected things with names like Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa (burst from water-full Papa), Terra, Haniyasu-hime, Spider Woman, Pachamama, Oya, Gorgo, Raven, A’akuluujjusi, and many many more.’ It is a concept that implies the blending of the human and the non-human, an assemblage of multiple species and beings in one. Haraway calls for a paradigm in which human beings and other forms of life come together to recreate a world that can sustain life, to recompose ourselves and reimagine ourselves as being human and non-human. We must act and think from a symbiotic perspective. We have to make kin with the fungi and the bacteria and the myriad species of life. Through this composting mentality, of constantly composing and decomposing, we can rebuild the spaces and time of refuge. Extinction, Haraway reminds us, is not just a metaphor.

Haraway closes by gesturing to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, which describes our current moment as ‘Dithering… A state of indecisive agitation.’ This may ultimately be the best way to understand human hegemony.

Ramon Elani lives with his wife and son among the hills and forests of Western Massachusetts. He holds a PhD in literature. His doctoral work focused on critiques of civilisation and continental philosophy. thetigersleap.wordpress.com

Image: Ragnarök (motif from the Heysham hogback) by W. G. Collingwood, 1908. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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How Did Things Get To Be This Way?

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Ojibway elder Basil Johnston said that a good life is impossible for people disconnected from their history. We must know who we are. The venerable historian William Cronon was the son of a history professor. One day, his father gave him the magic key for understanding the world. He told his son to carry one question on his journey through life: ‘How did things get to be this way?’

Sometime, when you’re feeling a bit bored, eager for thrills and excitement, get a library card and spend the next 20 years reading. Search for answers to Cronon’s question. Read 500 books on environmental history, ecology, anthropology, night after night, year after year, and type thousands of pages of notes.

It’s a mind-altering experience, a spiritual journey. In the process, you become something like a shaman, with the ability to pass through the veil, and discover important information in a non-ordinary state of consciousness. When you return to the ordinary reality, you can share what you have learned, and guide your people closer to the path of healing — in theory.

More commonly, finding real answers to Cronon’s question turns you into a notorious dolt, a filthy and disgusting pariah. Doomer! Go away! You’re crazy! Most folks prefer to remain in a world of illusions, a realm that has little in common with the power visions of the history shaman. Illusions are comfortable. The economy is recovering. We’re zooming toward Utopia. The best is yet to come. Right?

Conservation writer Charles Little has given many lectures on tree death in America. He is often asked one question: ‘A hand will be raised at the back of the room. “But what can we do?” the petitioner will ask. Do? What can we do? What a question that is when we scarcely understand what we have already done!’ Indeed! How can the human journey avoid one more cycle of repeated mistakes when we fail to understand most of the mistakes?

Biologist Paul Ehrlich once spent time among the Inuit of Hudson Bay, Canada. He was shocked to discover that the entire knowledge-base of their cultural information was known by everyone — how to hunt seals, tan pelts, weave a net, sew a coat, and so on. Yet, in our advanced civilisation, nobody knows even a millionth of our cultural information. You can get a PhD from Stanford and never learn anything about agriculture. Food is one thing we truly need. What is the plan for feeding 11 billion? Is it possible?

Meanwhile, mainstream society has invented a comical joyride in magical thinking — if we simply call something ‘sustainable’ enough times, then it is! In the blink of the eye, forest mining becomes Sustainable Forestry™ and soil mining becomes Sustainable Agriculture™. In a barrage of oxymorons, business as usual is kept on life support, by any means necessary, for as long as possible. What should we do about this? How can we revive the original meaning of sustainability?

In Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization, Richard Manning writes, ‘There is no such thing as sustainable agriculture. It does not exist.’ He says, ‘The domestication of wheat was humankind’s greatest mistake.’ In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, geologist David Montgomery concurs. ‘Continued for generations, till-based agriculture will strip soil right off the land as it did in ancient Europe and the Middle East. With current agricultural technology though, we can do it a lot faster.’ Contrary to common beliefs, history shamans have a hard time finding examples of genuinely sustainable agriculture. Have you seen recent images of Uruk, the magnificent city of King Gilgamesh?

In Here on Earth, Tim Flannery said that we are like sheep in a pasture. We no longer need big brains, because our shepherds take care of us. We have become ‘helpless, self-domesticated livestock.’ ‘While we sit in our air-conditioned homes and eat, drink and make merry like cattle in a feedlot without the slightest thought about the consequences of our consumption of water, food and energy, we only hasten the destruction — in the long term — of our kind.’ Won’t it be a healthy change when the lights go out, and we are once again required to be fully present in reality?

Flannery said that our ice age ancestors had bigger brains than we have now — 10 percent larger in men, and 14 percent in women. In Lone Survivors, Chris Stringer noted that the people of today have brains that average 1350 cc in size, and this is ten percent smaller than the average size of Homo sapiens brains 20,000 years ago. The average Neanderthal brain was 1600 cc — much bigger than ours. Could that imply something?

Anthropocentric scholars are fond of dismissing Neanderthals as dullards, because their tool kit changed little over 350,000 years. For 350,000 years, they lived by killing megafauna, but failed to wipe them out. Flannery noted, ‘Mammoths, straight-tusked woodland elephants, and two species of woodland rhinoceros coexisted with Neanderthals for hundreds of thousands of years.’ What was wrong with our incompetent cousins?

Today, every newborn that squirts out of the womb is a wild animal, with genes fine-tuned for life on a healthy tropical savannah. Infants only become consumers by being raised in consumer society. If we had been raised in a Neanderthal culture, would we live in balance?

In The Tender Carnivore, Paul Shepard wrote that when scientists raised chimps in their home, along with their own children, the chimps were at least as intelligent as children, until the children were three or four, learned language, and left the chimps in the dust. Different intelligence allows us to better comprehend the complexity of the world, but it also enables us to better destroy it. Much of our cultural information will be lost forever when climate change pulls the curtains on life as we know it. How can we preserve the tiny portion of this knowledge that is needed for a return to the path of good life?

Recently, I’ve become fascinated by our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos. We share something like 99 percent of our genes with them. Their ancestors have inhabited the same place for millions of years, without trashing it. Imagine that! They still enjoy a healthy life in a healthy place. Is that really so terrible? Once upon a time, our ancestors lived in the same region, in much the same way. What happened?

Chimps and bonobos did not make serious weapons, wage war against ape-eating predators, spread around the world, invent agriculture, explode in numbers, live in filth, and die by the millions from infectious diseases. They did not wage war against infectious diseases, soar into extreme overshoot, load the atmosphere with crud, and blindside the planet’s climate. Instead, they inhabit a niche in their ecosystem, and live as they have for millions of years, without rocking the boat. Is there something we could learn from their example?

Is it time to burn our Superman and Superwoman uniforms, apologise to the family of life for our furious rampages, return to the tropics, abandon words, clothes, and spears, and try to remember who we are? Can we recover a mode of enduring simplicity and stability that would no longer require a history to guide us? Can we someday heal so well that we never again have to ask ‘How did things get to be this way?’

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Richard Reese lives in Eugene, Oregon. He is the author of What Is Sustainable, Sustainable or Bust, and Understanding Sustainability. His primary interest is ecological sustainability, and helping others learn about it. His blog wildancestors.blogspot.com includes free access to reviews of more than 150 sustainability-related books, plus a few dozen rants.

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The Eden Model

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William Wordsworth was among the first. In 1802, as the Industrial Revolution began to transform England, he sensed that: ‘…we are out of tune [because] the world is too much with us – little we see in nature that is ours; we have given our hearts away.’ By 1888 similar psychic unrest had spread to Ireland. That year William Butler Yeats wistfully mused: ‘…I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, [but] always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; I hear it in the deep heart’s core.’

Wordsworth and Yeats lamented growing detachment, not only from Nature itself, but from some vital though ineffable aspect of our being. In his 2013 Inferno, Dan Brown more concretely, if less poetically, defined some of the factors underlying their discontent: ‘The … World Health Organisation [predicts] there will be some 9 billion people on earth before the midpoint of this century. Animal species are going extinct at a precipitously accelerating rate. The demand for dwindling natural resources is skyrocketing. Clean water is harder and harder to come by. By any biological gauge, our species has exceeded our sustainable numbers… it is a bit like staring at the headlight of an oncoming train… We are facing a battle for the very soul of man… [but we’re] hovering now in a purgatory of procrastination and indecision and greed…’

Wordsworth and Yeats were ‘merely’ poets and Brown writes fiction, but the concerns they express are real. Furthermore, none of them mentions climate change, terrorism nor the widening economic gap between rich and poor. Not only poets and authors, but every thoughtful person realises that we need to address these issues more effectively than we have, yet Brown’s indictment of our political, corporate, and societal inaction rings all too true.

Humanity needs a visionary paradigm aimed at transcending our current ‘head-in-the sand’ strategic paralysis, at forcing us to appraise the dangers threatening us, and at spurring us to confront the hard choices which must soon be made. It asks, ‘What kind of world are we meant to live in and how can we achieve it?’ Yeats yearned for Innisfree; for him it represented Eden. In the 21st century we all yearn, consciously or not, for what Yeats envisioned – a reclaimed Eden.

Paradigm Shifts

In 1962 a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published. Its author was physicist and science historian Thomas Kuhn. Most general readers have never heard of Structure, nor of Kuhn, but the New York Times (July 25, 2001) observed that ‘…Kuhn did for conceptions of science what Copernicus and Einstein did for astronomy and physics.’ In 2012 the Guardian (August 18) called Structure ‘one of the most influential books of the 20th century.’ Most people do recognise a term Kuhn coined: ‘paradigm shift’. He argued that sciences progress in a series of phases, each dominated by a community of workers who share a common intellectual orientation, a paradigm. A science normally advances steadily for a length of time, but eventually ‘anomalies’ – unresolvable problems – accumulate, progressing ultimately to an impasse or crisis. Finally, the deadlock is resolved by a revolutionary change in worldview that replaces the older, now dysfunctional mindset with a new one – a paradigm shift.

Kuhn’s insight about science can be generalised. Our societal ‘anomalies’ – environmental degradation, terrorism, economic inequality and the like – are analogous to Kuhn’s unresolvable scientific problems. During the 16th and 17th centuries, understanding of the solar system changed dramatically. The older Ptolemaic Earth-centred conception was supplanted by the sun-centred Copernican model. That paradigm shift provoked intense religious resistance and general cognitive turmoil, but it led to vital intellectual and practical advances. Today’s world needs a transformation of comparable magnitude.

An emerging paradigm, applicable to our pressing mega-problems, is based on the discordance, or mismatch, hypothesis: contemporary humans have genes best adapted to Stone Age living conditions, not those that exist in contemporary society. Recognising that we and the way we live are out of sync puts our ‘anomalies’ in new, more coherent perspective. The same understanding suggests ‘out-of-the-box’, yet logically-grounded ways to make progress. The new approaches represent attempts to approximate the conditions of ancestral existence, those for which our mind-genes are designed to function best. Further, the same unorthodox, discordance-informed proposals promise a better world for our uncountable planetary co-inhabitants. We, for ourselves and them, must attempt to reclaim Eden.

Eden

Scholars speculate that the Bible’s Eden reflects a folk memory of earlier times when humans flourished in harmony with Nature. Very likely they’re right. Before agriculture, Stone Agers were hunter-gatherers, and anthropologists studying such societies during the 20th century frequently judged their lives happier, easier and more fulfilling than those of contemporary Westerners. The folk memory notion also has legs. Evolutionary psychologists postulate that our minds contain reference standards, neuronal aggregates that embody representations of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – automatic, ‘go/no-go’ input that influences our response when we’re faced with choices. Is nearby movement threat or opportunity? Is a possible campsite safe or not? Who’s a potential mate? These ‘categorical expectations’ are based on genes selected during the Stone Age, and they form the basis of folk memory. Because of them people in Biblical times dreamt wistfully of a remote past when existence was somehow ‘better’.

Today the same mental mechanisms that influenced the ancients still operate, and they continue to suggest that things aren’t what they should be. They produce a vague, overarching unease superimposed on and intensifying specific concerns that dominate television, newspapers and political debates. Income inequality, women’s rights, poverty, terrorism, environmental degradation and climate change – these issues are familiar to, and affect, each of us. Superficially they seem separate and disconnected, with different underlying causes, different victims and different suggested remedies. However, there is a fundamental linkage. Each represents a departure from the primal circumstances during which the genes underlying our minds were selected. The neural assemblies that make up our mental reference modules are ancient – conserved over the ages. They still recognise situations as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ according to criteria established throughout humanity’s remote Stone Age past, in our genetic Eden.

Appreciating this relationship, that our current mega-problems all arise from discordance between what was and what is, clarifies and simplifies their analysis. It also points to corrective measures bolder, but more soundly based and with more promise of ultimate success than the insipid, uninspiring proposals put forth to date.

Genesis 1:28

God commanded mankind to ‘Multiply. Fill the Earth and subdue it,’ and we’ve done so to the extent that our species now exceeds sustainable numbers. When behaviourally modern humans appeared about 100,000 years ago we numbered perhaps 10 million in total. Now there are 7 billion of us, and what’s more, we each have a far larger ecological footprint than did our Stone Age counterparts. The resulting mismatch, between us and the world at large, has produced impending calamity:

  • Our use of fossil fuel-based energy has generated climate change, which apparently escalates the frequency of natural disasters.
  • Our need for water and other natural resources is unsustainable.
  • There is an ongoing mass extinction event for other life forms.
  • The environment’s natural beauty has been increasingly despoiled.

Technological breakthroughs and more sustainable behaviours notwithstanding, it’s clear that population growth must cease, and ideally, decline. This has already begun to happen: in 2014 childbearing rates in two-thirds of the world’s countries were at or below replacement level. Given this trend, what should be our target population? A logical objective might be the lowest number consistent with global economic sufficiency. A civilisation small compared to today’s, but nonetheless capable of affording lifestyle for all Earth’s people comparable to that now enjoyed by middle class Westerners. A total of 100 million might be optimal.

Suppose the population increases to 9 billion by 2050, but by then a worldwide one-child-per-family has become the rule. In this scenario, the population would fall to 2 billion by 2150 and reach the 100 million mark shortly before 2275, between the eighth and ninth generations.

A world populated by only 100 million people would free up immense areas to be set aside as nature preserves. Simply abandoning these territories – consolidating humanity into salubrious locations while emptying the other previously populated regions – would better preserve biodiversity than would the anaemic measures now being proposed. Reduced energy consumption would alleviate and ultimately end anthropomorphic climate change.

For a while, world economy would have to function amid decreasing fertility. Rising demands on welfare and health care due to population ageing would have to be met despite declining tax contributions from a diminishing work force. Brown University economist Oded Galor believes economic equilibrium could be maintained under these circumstances. His solution: greater investment in human capital – people’s health, knowledge, skills and competencies. Even with fewer workers, the same level of social services and retiree support could be maintained if per capita productivity were to rise. Improved productive capacity for people in the traditional worker age category, 15 to 65, would be essential, but comparable per capita productivity gains for older individuals would be of significant benefit as well. Extending retirement age to 70 would attenuate ‘elderquake’– more workers, fewer retirees.

After an optimal population is attained, a ‘post-growth’, steady state economy should ensue. Its essence:

  • A stable population with constant total size and age structure. That is, a population column instead of a pyramid.
  • A constant inventory of durable goods with equal production and depreciation rates. Relatively long-lasting items – buildings, vehicles, furniture, appliances, machinery and the like – would be replaced as needed and improved technically and qualitatively, but the total stock of such assets should not increase quantitatively.
  • A constant throughput. The flow of natural capital (resources from mines, wells, forests, fisheries, fields, grasslands, etc.), through acquisition, production and consumption and then back as waste to natural sinks (rivers, oceans, the atmosphere, landfills, etc.) should vary as minimally as possible. Where practicable, nonrenewable raw material waste should be reworked back to a form amenable to reuse.

Substantially contracting population while upgrading human capital: that’s the rational demographic agenda. Its ultimate goal is a smaller-scale, steady state economy capable of sustaining global economic self-sufficiency and biome health, while promoting happiness and meaning for humanity.

Qur’an: Suras 4:8 and 93:8

Allah commanded: ‘When needy are present, provide for them… He found you poor and made you self-sufficient.’

Homo sapiens is the only mammalian species that tolerates, and even promotes, economic inequity, where species members are divided into haves and have-nots. However, it hasn’t always been so. Even though disparity has been a hallmark of society for millennia, authorities from multiple disciplines concur that, except in a few atypical locations, substantial socioeconomic inequality began only as hunting and gathering gave way to horticulture and animal husbandry. Throughout most of the Paleolithic era, our Stone Age ancestors generally had equivalent possessions. Essential inter-personal equality was thus the psychological model that influenced selection of those genes that pertain to our sense of self-worth. That these genes persist is evident in the resentment the weak and poor still feel toward the wealthy.

Given the way we live now, how can we shift our society towards the Stone Age standard of economic parity? One of our primary goals should be the elimination of true indigence –everyone should have the basics: a home, clothing, health care, transportation, enough to eat, and access to decent education. Our pre-agricultural ancestors considered the corresponding prerogatives their birthright; necessary for themselves and for all their fellows.

Still, most of us in the contemporary world are ambivalent about providing basics for all. We instinctively recoil at the thought of giving anyone something for nothing and have long been suspicious of ‘hand out’ programs offering benefits of unlimited duration to potentially employable recipients. ‘Workfare’ and similar work plans have been proposed to address the ‘taker’ problem. Economists studying such schemes suggest they can increase employment, raise the earnings of low-skilled workers, and produce genuinely valuable output. A mandatory work project might thus minimise objections to establishing a safety net that would, to some degree, recreate ancestral conditions.

While we want to reduce the existing gap between rich and poor, how can we, at the same time, encourage and reward the hard work, ingenuity, self-sacrifice, persistence, initiative and the other desirable personal qualities that maintain society’s fabric? Capping net worth at a level ten times that of society’s least well off would be a move toward the socioeconomic conditions to which our minds’ categorical expectations were originally attuned. But would a reward system thus limited sufficiently motivate average individuals to exhibit initiative and to exert whole-hearted effort, while discouraging laziness, indifference and sloth? Economist Thomas Piketty thinks so as does his colleague, Richard Easterlin, who’s found that beyond a threshold, greater wealth doesn’t increase happiness. Although counterintuitive, this belief has been widely accepted by scientists in several fields. What’s the threshold? Research suggests that happiness increases with income up to an adjusted annual household figure of $75,000. Should this amount become the guaranteed minimum, those earning ten times the base would bring in the equivalent of $750,000 – a gracious plenty.

Piketty proposes a progressive global wealth tax as well as a higher tax rate on top incomes. The wealth tax would resemble an annual property tax, but would apply to all forms of wealth. Individuals and/or families worldwide would be obliged to declare their net worth and would be taxed upon it. The top rate might be 5% for assets exceeding $1.4 billion (~ one billion euros).

A well-developed sense of fair play is in our genes and has probably been a part of primate psyches for 50 million years. Decreasing the gap between the more and less fortunate should be non-negotiable. What is negotiable – and where creativity, innovation, and flexibility are essential – is the kind of economic structure we devise. While its details remain for the future to determine, its cardinal principles are based on the past. Whatever ensues must maintain individual ambition and effort while keeping material rewards within acceptable, human-scale limits

Eve’s Daughters

Throughout the Paleolithic, the half-million Edenic years during which our mind genes were selected and refined, women and men were economically and politically equal. This contention is based on investigations of recent hunter-gatherers, the best, if imperfect, Stone Ager analogues. Dartmouth’s Karen Endicott has studied gender relations among Congo Mbuti, Philippine Agta, Canadian Chippewa and Botswana !Kung. Her considered generalisation: foragers recognise that men’s and women’s roles are comparably important. Men make the decisions about their work and areas of expertise; women are ‘the deciders’ about theirs. Consequently, the genders were equal, but separate, a condition that worked well then, but which is now ‘incorrect’.

Agriculture changed the equation. The societal effects of farming, animal husbandry and organised warfare together undermined women’s importance and upped that of men. For the subsequent 10,000 years women have been second-class citizens, and sometimes mere property. Nevertheless, despite many centuries of socioeconomic inferiority women have retained their innate sense of equality.

Over the millennia our ancestors lived as Stone Age foragers, women’s economic and maternal functions were complementary, not in conflict. Life then allowed women to be available and effective mothers, while making vital economic contributions. Now there is inherent conflict between the demands of work and the responsibilities of motherhood, and it’s the culture of work, not the nature of mothering, that must change.

A new business model that addresses this issue is achieving recognition. Its aim is to promote easier and better integration of family and work, an improved balance of job with life. Firms pioneering this approach are usually managed by women, and they emphasise flexibility, especially schedule-setting. As political consultant Mary Matalin has said, ‘Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.’ Operationally, this concept is aided by technology that allows and encourages working from home so that the office is a base of operations, not the mandatory work focus. The key element is a family-friendly, empathetic mindset, reflecting its female management. The attitude gives workers ability to juggle the requirements of their personal lives and their job responsibilities to an extent that is otherwise uncommon at present, but which was the rule for ancestral women. Our mind genes were selected when women made the decisions about their areas of work and expertise. Woman-managed ventures, oriented toward appropriate work-life balance, don’t exactly replicate the Stone Age pattern, but they may be as close as we can come in the present

Edenism

Earth’s mega-problematic ills have elicited various corrective proposals, but none of these has generated a response even close to that required. However, no one has advocated what George Bernard Shaw termed the most powerful force in human history: a new expression of our innate spirituality. Reorienting this inherent human attribute toward a science-informed synthesis of philosophy, science and religion is worth exploring because a new conviction uniting these potent motivators could provide impetus for the unprecedented actions we must take to reclaim Eden.

A need for spirituality seems hardwired in our genome. We’re not genetically constituted to accept a world lit only by science, and ‘religion’ is piggybacked on the pre-existing condition of ‘spirituality’. Expression of this predisposition has been evident in the archaeological record at least since the emergence of behavioural modernity. However, the manifestations resulting from our drive toward the metaphysical have varied over the millennia.

For the longest segment of humanity’s existence, our fore-parents were nature worshippers. Their lives were spent in a natural setting and their immersion in nature was near total. The result: reverence for and a sense of unity with Nature. The other determining influence on our earliest true human ancestors’ belief system was the small group psychodynamic that informed Stone Age interpersonal relationships. As they interact with and influence each other, contemporary small groups develop a number of relational norms that differentiate them from a random collection of individuals. These include certain behaviours considered desirable and appropriate and others odious and unacceptable. By and large, the pattern of positively and negatively viewed behaviours observed in contemporary small groups is roughly similar worldwide. The forager moral community promotes cooperation, generosity, individual autonomy, reciprocity, humility, and non-violent conflict resolution. It acts to oppose bullying, cheating, selfishness, despotic behaviour, theft, intra-group homicide, and incest. These behavioural norms have been fundamental components of all subsequent religious systems.

Agriculture altered the dynamic. Farmers see themselves as apart from nature, not as an integral component within the natural world. Their view of humans against nature was unprecedented in the prior experience of living creatures on earth. This profound shift in orientation was a key factor underlying the demise of religion as nature worship and its replacement by religion as fertility worship.

Religious historian Karen Armstrong contends that, ‘Whenever they enter a new era of history, people change their ideas of both humanity and divinity.’ The transition from one phase of spiritual expression to its successor is not a total makeover; each succeeding religious genre maintains the core essentials that emerged from our small group psychological background as well as the spirit of mystery and awe that is an outgrowth of our innate need to know. Still, the central thrust of our spirituality accommodates over time to match existing circumstances. Thus, as nature gave way to fertility, so fertility in turn morphed into what may be thought of as allegiance-oriented religion.

Population growth and sedentary living frequently led to inter-group hostility. As the scale and sophistication of violence escalated, more men, weapons, and supplies necessitated an increasingly large and productive base for logistical support. This meant that war leaders needed to enlarge their sovereign holdings in order to improve chances of success. However, welding diverse villages, towns, and rural areas – often with varying cultural, linguistic, and faith traditions (and sometimes of differing ethnicities) – into a cohesive entity required some form of overriding bond. Religion was the answer: common rituals and deities strengthened inter-group bonds, fostered compliance and minimised dissent. Accordingly, the primarily local fertility Goddesses of the Neolithic were gradually replaced by more broadly accepted war Gods.

In the beginning, YHWH was principally a divine warrior fighting Israel’s enemies. However in 586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar’s forces sacked Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and deported selected Jews to Babylon. The Captivity marked a transition in Judaism, an altered religious emphasis from allegiance to salvation. Such change was a common phenomenon during the axial age – from 800 to 200 BCE. Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Taoism, as well as the flowering of Greek philosophy, all came into being or were substantially modified within this period. For the common people of the world’s nation states, life during the axial age had become nearly unbearable. Crushing taxation, grinding monotonous poverty, political oppression, brutal workloads, epidemic disease, and abominable living conditions were all utterly at odds with their innate mental reference standards of what human existence should be like. For the proletariat, hope of a better life, even after death if necessary, became psychologically indispensable. The need for such a morale booster was the major factor leading to a general shift from allegiance religions to salvation religions, even if the salvation promised required faith in an objectively implausible future, one that by ordinary criteria for decision-making was just too good to be true.

Fundamental social change was the underlying factor that led to the emergence of new (or much revised) religious beliefs during the axial age. This assertion might be generalised: when conditions which had previously fostered and supported one form of spiritual expression become fundamentally altered, a new type of religious belief is likely to emerge. The basal, genetically-programmed psychological imperatives remain in force, but their societal manifestation adapts to a new focus. This brings up a pivotal question. Is life in the 21st century so different from that during the axial age that we would be open to a radical shift in spiritual expression? Anthony Giddens, former Director of the London School of Economics, believes so, ‘Over a period of … no more than three hundred years, the rapidity, drama and reach of change have been incomparably greater than any previous historical transition.’

Scientific advances, unprecedented communications and effective birth control are revolutionary innovations. They make it rational to suggest that a fundamentally new approach –based on spiritual reorientation – be considered. To generate its motivational drive, a new spiritual makeover must centre on equality, environmentalism, societal reintegration and upgrading human potential – not on personal salvation. More rational than metaphysical, the new creed, which might be called Edenism, must be ‘a science-informed synthesis of philosophy and religion.’

‘Informed’ in this sense means ‘consistent with’ or ‘in accord with’. The proposed new conviction must conform to existing scientific understanding.

It must be deeply religious as well, drawing on those psychologically potent features that have made religions so individually relevant and societally consequential throughout human experience. Sacred music, art and architecture, ritual and sacrament, tradition, myth and precept: for acceptance a new conviction must embrace these symbolic elements. They are, and have always been, integral to human fervour and devotion. Somehow they establish connection between the finite and the infinite, creating emotions and dispositions appropriate to appreciating the transcendent.

Finally, it must be rational. Rationality is at the heart of philosophy and Edenism, as a relative of Deism, must establish rational thought as its intellectual, foundation.

Edenic, principles reflect concerns that were of less or no importance in the remote past, but that we now face as megaproblems. Family planning (the single child family), gender equity (women’s rights), cultural amalgamation (linguistic, educational, social), socioeconomic near equality (reduced discrepancy between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’), and environmentalism (especially ecological restoration and species preservation) would become expected behaviours –essentially the moral equivalent of new commandments.

These goals merely represent extension of trends that are currently in progress. What Edenism adds is the psychic catalyst that can unify and energise these processes. It holds up the ultimate promise of a world with breathing space for all life forms, where women and men can equally enjoy the best of contemporary material culture without the insufferable gap that now exists between penthouse and poorhouse, and while promoting ecologic restoration. Edenism is grounded in its resonance with our innate human nature, those genetic constructs dating to the remote past that provide neural reference points, subconscious standards for what life should be now. Unlike faith as construed by contemporary religions, this appreciation of human nature will be increasingly supported, rather than undermined, by ongoing scientific insights. Like earlier religions, it has immense emotional appeal. A sense of kinship with the earliest true humans, a chromosomal link across two thousand generations, excites the spirit and forms an elemental connection. Reverence for ancestors is a human cultural universal. Edenism entails similar respect for and understanding of our duty to posterity. We now have the technological capacity to form a true world community. Edenism may become the spiritual driver, capable of fusing us together, of creating a sense of common purpose, camaraderie, and brotherhood among all the world’s people.

Psalm 96 commands ‘Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the lord, all the earth.’ Edenism’s new/old doctrine can be that song.

Many of us recall John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’:

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
Sharing all the world
A brotherhood of man

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

All of us, like John Lennon, hope for a world of peace and brotherhood in the far future, and almost everyone appreciates that reaching a distant tomorrow will involve altering how we think and behave. However, it’s not enough to merely ‘imagine’ an Earth manifesting idealistic goals. Our duty, to ourselves and to far-distant generations, is to tease out an enlightened scenario for progress, not only for Earth’s humans, but also for our uncountable planetary co-inhabitants.

In his New Yorker (September 12, 2011) article concerning theories of history, Adam Gopnik contended that, ‘The long look back is part of the long ride home.’ His conclusion: ‘We all believe in yesterday.’ Edenism’s intent is to build on that inherent belief, embedded in the genetic matrix of our minds. Fully appreciating that ancient yesterday can help us create a mind-set that will ultimately make possible the future imagined by John Lennon and all of us: a reclaimed Eden.

Images from Wikimedia Commons. ‘Would you rather have rivers, or rivers of cars?’

Stanley Boyd Eaton was educated at Duke University and Harvard Medical School, was professor in Emory University’s radiology and anthropology departments, and was medical director of Atlanta’s Olympic Village Polyclinic in 1996.  Widely regarded as the father of evolutionary health promotion (e.g. the Paleo Diet), he’s now focused on an evolutionary approach to Earth’s megaproblems – from climate change to socioeconomic inequality.

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The Path to Odin’s Lake

Path JPEG

Does it ever feel as if the only news you ever hear is bad news? That all the bad aspects of human nature are in charge and there’s nothing you can do about it apart from suffer in silence and pray for some kind of miracle? If so, you’re not alone. Depression and chronic anxiety are now so much a part of modern life that they have come to be regarded as almost inevitable. Poor physical and mental health stalks much of the world in much the same way that the world’s ecosystems are showing signs of depression and ill health.

And it’s about to get much worse.

It seems the climatic and biophysical systems that sustain human life may now be entering into a period of rapid change that is likely to surprise us with its velocity. Recent reports of sudden spikes in average surface temperatures have stunned climate scientists, and only a couple of weeks ago the temperature in parts of Greenland was over 35 degrees higher than it should have been for early spring. Last year great fires spread across Indonesia and the boreal forest biome, turning the air grey with ash and smoke for hundreds of miles and even attracting the attention of mainstream media organisations. Closer to home sperm whales have been washing up dead on the beaches of England, their stomachs filled with plastic, and our government is rushing to allow fracking to take place at any cost, and damn the consequences. Did I mention ocean acidification, the nuclear pollution and mass die-offs in the Pacific, or the melting Himalayan glaciers?

One could go on and on in the same vein – perhaps mentioning that around half of all wildlife has been wiped out in the last four decades – but what good would it do? Facing up to the awfulness of our predicament is simply too painful for most people to contemplate, and so is it any wonder they choose instead to zone out and numb themselves with alcohol and TV box sets? Such a strategy ensures a kind of personal mental safe space, even if it dooms the biosphere in the process. But it’s certainly preferable to looking the beast in the eye, which can lead to depression or feelings of nihilism and hopelessness. Yet what’s a sensitive person to do as everything they hold dear about life on this precious blue marble spinning in space is senselessly destroyed around them?

That was a question that had been going round in my head for some time and was answered, in a roundabout way, by a dream. In it I found myself looking down from some lofty pinnacle on a town or city spread across the landscape below. From this vantage point I could see a kind of toxic miasma from which I felt a strong urge to walk away. There was an urgent feeling, too, as if the very mountains wanted to speak to speak to me about some important matter, and that I had better listen up. When I awoke I was puzzled and unsettled by this dream. All day long I felt a strong urge to head off to those mountains, knowing full well that doing so was impossible. Not only did I have no money for such an
adventure, I also had the weight of commitments tying me down. And so I placed this strange yearning on the pile of other such unfulfilled wants and got on with my life.

And then, as if by complete fluke, an email arrived. I was to travel to Denmark a few weeks later and would then have two full weeks to kick my heels before my paid-for ticket brought me back home again to Cornwall. All of a sudden it was as if a path had opened up before me and I gazed at my map of Scandinavia, trying to calculate how long it would take to reach those snowy white mountains in the frozen north. And that’s how I found myself standing in Copenhagen’s main city plaza one day in early summer. I had on a backpack, a pair of walking boots and no idea what I was doing. There was a vague plan to walk into Sweden and to somehow get up to the Arctic Circle, where I felt sure my conversation with the mountains could continue, but other than that the only other thing I had was a gnawing sense of unease bordering on fear.

The fear was real and palpable. Forty-something dads are not supposed to grow beards and disappear off into the wilderness in search of talking mountains. A sense of disapproval followed me around. ‘Are you, er, all right?’ asked a concerned friend. The breaking of petty taboos aside, I wanted to find out for myself if there was some talisman to banish the despair that crawls around the basement of the aware mind and I considered the best way to do this was to simply set out in search of it. That the culture of our modern technological and materialistic civilisation was both suicidal and insane was a given, but intuition suggested the tantalising prospect of a connection to something more intelligent if you looked in the right place. And perhaps something more intelligent than us would have an answer.

But just where was the right place? Most religions would say that it’s either inside you, or else in some numinous realm, such as heaven. Well, wherever it was, I felt that immersing myself in Nature might do the trick of coaxing it out of hiding. This raised a wider question, namely: why are we so afraid to break free of the norms imposed on us by society? It has been said that we each live our lives within a gilded cage, but the only way to see the invisible bars of this cage is to reach out and touch them. And then there’s cultural opprobrium to deal with: setting out on foot for two weeks with no plan and mobile phone is most people’s definition of insanity.

I had a few rules for my adventure. The first rule was that there were to be no electronic gadgets other than my SLR camera. Being constantly distracted by pointless messages and flashes of heavily masticated information, I reasoned, would not be conducive to focusing on communications from the non-human world. And so I left my phone at home. Secondly, I was to set out with an open mind. Having been raised a non-theist, like most people from my class and background I had always considered the scientific objective reality explanation of the universe to be the most logical. However, a dawning – if somewhat fuzzy – sense of a wider reality had suggested itself in recent years and I felt as ready as I ever would to engage with it. Lastly, I was to go wherever fate seemed to be suggesting I go, and wild camp wherever possible.

My journey started badly. On the first day I was thrown out of a shopping centre – ostensibly for looking like a tramp – and then my first night camping in a small forest beneath the flight path of planes landing at Copenhagen Airport almost saw me arrested for vagrancy by an aggressive park ranger. Being a hermit in suburbia is not easy, I discovered, even if I was only a part-time hermit. For company and stimulation I had brought with me two books. The first was Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Aurelius, a late-stage Roman emperor, was know as a Stoic philosopher and, as such, seemed to be the perfect companion for my doomer-ish quest. The second book, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, was written by the American author Bill Plotkin. This book had been recommended to me and it was tossed into my backpack almost as an afterthought or in case I finished Meditations too quickly. As it turned out, both books influenced and shaped my journey more than I could possibly have imagined, and at times it felt as if I had these two wise souls skipping along beside me and egging me on with words of encouragement as I walked the soggy trails of Denmark and Sweden.

In the case of Soulcraft, the magical effect was immediate. Strange things began to happen. On my first evening, feeling somewhat despondent and wondering whether I should call the whole thing quits, I sat on a log and began to read. The book, it turned out, was about Plotkin’s own journey into the mysteries of Nature and how its radical message transformed him. As I read in rapt attention he finished the first section of the book explaining how his first soul quest vision had been of a caterpillar building itself a chrysalis. The meaning of this was clear, he stated; it represented a transformation from one form of being to another. Look out for your own caterpillar, was his message. I put the book down to reflect on the uncanny similarity of how he had felt at the time to how I now felt and was immediately confronted – to my complete astonishment – by a very large caterpillar staring right at me. It was on a long stalk of grass and illuminated in a shaft of evening sunlight. It was huge – almost six inches long – and it seemed to be waving its legs at me as if to say ‘Hello – over here!’ To say that I almost fell off my log in surprise would be an understatement, and yet this was just the first of several freakish happenings involving living creatures to occur on my journey. When I had recovered sufficiently to be able to reflect on it I took the caterpillar to be a harbinger for my descent into the realm of uncivilisation. ‘Walk this way,’ he seemed to be saying. ‘If you dare.’

Later, I travelled to a small national park, enduring the wettest spell of weather in recent Swedish history. Large parts of the country became flooded, and I myself became completely sodden – only my books, which I kept in a plastic bag – remained dry. By day I would hike the forest trails, sometimes meditating or sleeping beneath the trees, and in the evening I would return to my tiny waterlogged tent and read Plotkin and Aurelius until I fell asleep. With the passing of each day I felt as if I were falling deeper into a profound mystery, and that these two writers – one alive and one long dead – were my guides. I began to be afraid. But then, as Marcus Aurelius pointed out, ‘It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.’

Bill Plotkin talked of spirit animals and of plants that could communicate with you, if you knew how to listen. In one section of his book he gives a detailed explanation of how to talk with trees. Talk with trees? Surely this is some form of madness, I tutted inwardly, before reminding myself once again that madness already reigns in the world and that we sorely need to find new ways to relate if we are to wriggle out of our Faustian pact. And so I tried his approach. In The Path to Odin’s Lake I wrote:

I walked out along the plateau on the southern side of the gorge and stepped off the path into an area I had not explored before. I wanted to get lost. Not seriously lost, but lost enough that I could not find my bearings. I figured that this mental state of low-level anxiety would help suppress the controlling ego part of my mind which is said to be inconducive to the reception of messages from the plant world in a similar way that sitting beside a screaming toddler is inconducive to focusing on hushed Gregorian chanting. To further heighten the senses I abstained from eating anything for the day and headed out at dusk.

When I considered myself sufficiently lost I began to look around for a likely tree to communicate with. Beech trees may all look fairly alike when seen in the aggregate, but when you are up close to them and trying to decide which one might look friendly enough to talk with then they all begin to look very different. Some of them seemed to have faces. There were long, grimacing faces with bulging features, Pinocchio noses, Picasso eyes and ghastly mouths like something from an Edvard Munch painting; and there were faces that looked altogether more benign, if somewhat misshapen and ugly. I tried to put prejudices aside – after all, I reasoned, perhaps I seemed equally gruesome to them.

Nevertheless, as I moved between the trees I attempted to get a feeling for each of, gauging whether any caused a particular sensation within me. I didn’t want to talk to an unfriendly tree – after all, if one is truly open-minded about the possibility that they may be as intelligent as we are, that they possess characters traits, talents and foibles, then one must not discount the possibility that some of them may be bastards.

It wasn’t too long before I saw a friendly-looking tree. It was a medium sized one, probably about the same age as myself. I had discounted talking with any of the truly immense trees with their huge trunks and their gnarled roots. Perhaps I was intimidated by their size. In any case, I went up to this particular tree and introduced myself. It felt a bit strange talking to a tree, but there were no people around in this off-the-track part of the forest, so why should I feel embarrassed? I was not naive enough to expect a pair of woody eyes to flick open and for the tree to start talking to me like one of Tolkein’s ents, nevertheless I talked in a spirit of openness. I told it who I was, where I came from and what was important to me. Bill Plotkin states that trees are not interested in names or other types of human categorisation, so I outlined myself in terms of the heart. This is not as easy as it sounds, given how used we are to describing ourselves in terms that would look okay on a CV. Trying to describe yourself in terms that you think a non-human plant organism will understand is a useful way of evaluating your place in the biophysical world.

After a while I had run out of things to say so I sat down at the base of the tree and rummaged in my bag. I had brought a gift for it, as was advised by Plotkin – in this case a very large and very red rosehip from a bush near the campsite. There were no rose bushes in the deep forest because of the lack of light, so I figured it might make a reasonable gift. I placed the hip in a bole formed by the tree’s roots that looked a bit like a natural shrine. After I had done this I sat and waited. I waited for about twenty minutes or so and then shifted position so that I sat with my back against the trunk. I meditated for a bit to try and clear my mind of unwanted background noise.

One thing that I was aware of was that trees could be much more leisurely with their communication than we humans. In Soulcraft Bill Plotkin describes one of his wilderness soul questers talking to a desert tree for several days, asking how it managed to survive in such an arid place. The tree had remained silent and seemingly aloof for the whole time. Eventually the seeker became exasperated and started shouting at it, upon which the tree bellowed back ‘Deep roots!’ The inquisitor was bowled over in shock.

But I didn’t have several days to spend waiting, so my hopes of pulling off an inter-species conversation weren’t awfully high. Nevertheless, I persisted and carried on talking. I talked about my own bit of woodland in Cornwall, describing the various trees to be found there and talking about how I was planting many more with each passing year. As I was doing so I felt an almost imperceptible change of something in the air. It felt as if the tree were actually listening to me. ‘Go on,’ it seemed to say when I paused. The hairs on my arms stood on end.

And so I carried on, talking about the land and the trees, and how I had come to be in this forest and that soon I would be leaving it again, probably never to return. I repeated various points several times, trying to tune into the feelings I was getting back from the tree. I had probably been there for about an hour by this stage and was wondering whether I was just imagining things. I wanted to know if this was the case or not and so I asked the tree to give me a sign that it was listening to me. I awaited a response, somewhat fearfully.

Fearfully? Fearfully because if it’s true that plants and trees are sentient beings with an advanced state of intelligence then the terrible things we humans are doing to them in forests around the world just got even more terrible. Indeed, I myself was no stranger to chainsaws, having cut down about two hundred trees the previous winter in my woodland for coppice. So I gulped and waited for a response. And there it was. Thud. I looked down at the ground. There, beside my foot, was a large nut cupule. I picked it and examined it. There were four nuts there, healthy and ripe.

I was astonished. All morning I had been looking for beech seeds to take back with me, but despite the millions of husks lying around on the forest floor they had all been empty, no doubt eaten by birds and rodents. This was the first one I had seen with actual seeds in it. I looked up at the tree and thanked it. I would take the seeds back home and germinate them, and within a couple of years I hoped they would be good strong seedlings growing in my woodland. ‘Good,’ the tree seemed to say. I bade it farewell and walked back to the path, which didn’t take too long to find, clutching the seeds in my hand.

Was I going mad? Quite possibly, I concluded. But perhaps, as the sixth great extinction takes hold, climate chaos picks up pace and people run around cutting off other people’s heads in the name of their god, just perhaps it is the mad ones who are the sane ones in this topsy turvy world.

After I had been in the forest for a week or so I found myself being drawn towards a small but mysterious body of water known locally as Odensjön – or Odin’s Lake. It was there that I experienced a fitting climax to my journey, albeit an unexpected one. I had not intended to write about my journey but I had kept a diary along the way and so when I returned home to England it seemed like the natural thing to write the book I named The Path to Odin’s Lake. When I had finished writing it I realised with some amusement that I had unwittingly set off from beside a statue of my namesake; Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Jason, in Copenhagen City Hall. Jason, of Argonaut fame, is of course well-known for his fearless voyage into the unknown, where he battles monsters and Nature in order to win the Golden Fleece and bring it back to his king. As a myth, it is about mankind’s triumph over Nature, and yet, although I had no such pretensions, here I was some two and a half thousand years later setting out to question the very assumption that man can battle Nature – and win. What if those monsters of the mind were simply Jungian projections; our own fears writ large? What if it was a requirement of civilisation to be haunted by spectres of the psyche; shadowy projections of our own inner demons? That quixotically fighting our hidden demons might one day lead to our own demise…

To even get a feel for the answer to such questions it seems inevitable that we’ll have to plumb the depths of our own darkness. Fear of doing so is an unavoidable element on such a journey, and yet moving forwards is impossible if all we ever do is focus on the light. The process of setting out on that path can have a profound effect on the way one relates to the world, I discovered. It now seems clear to me that as individuals and as a culture we need to advance our level of consciousness and break free of the rotting corpse of industrial civilisation. There can be no techno fixes while we are still governed by a mindset that exploits and dominates and kills. The sad truth is that we have poisoned and disrupted the biosphere to the extent that its life-supporting capabilities are becoming threatened, and maybe – just maybe – we’ve already had the last roll of the dice. If this is true then our final job might simply be to bear witness with good grace to whatever calamites await. Yet to focus on this possibility would be to miss the point and might even make its passing all the more inevitable.

No, our great task now is surely the work of connection and repair. The good news is that in it there is great fulfilment to be had in remediating the damage our industries have done and healing the hurt we have inflicted on ourselves and other life forms. The collective human consciousness may appear to have hit a stumbling block, but at the same time there are many people in many cultures and nations who have already moved on from the old paradigm of individuality and egocentric thinking, and are instead working quietly and using a multitude of different tools and techniques to create a new type of human culture. This reborn culture is deeply ecocentric and recognises implicitly that when we brutalise Nature we brutalise ourselves. It will be impossible for this new paradigm to flourish without the death of the old unfit-for-purpose paradigm, meaning there is much work to be done in making this happen. And yet flourish it will, and every day more and more people hear the call to adventure and take up the challenge in whatever way they feel drawn to. Building a new life-affirming reality is the best way to address the blues caused by the old death-affirming one.

Of course, heading off on a soul-journey isn’t strictly necessary, but if that’s what appeals then the first steps to setting out on such an adventure are relatively easy to do. On my own journey, I simply headed out the door out with an open mind, twinned with a natural born scepticism and enough money to subsist simply for a couple of weeks. I never made it to those fabled mountains I yearned for, and I endured plenty of low-level hardships along the way, but the reward was a deeper connection with the mystical swirling patterns of deep nature in which humanity is embedded. To viscerally realise that everything is intelligent and connected, and that in the greater scheme of things our currently destructive paradigm is a mere ephemeral blip in the evolution of this planet and consciousness in general, is a great thing. After all, we are all consciousness, and consciousness is us. We are all born with the remarkable gift of free will and as such are able to shape our own destinies within the parameters available to us. And being a part of the collective awakening of humanity – free of the shackles of our civilisation’s dogma – is surely the best and most useful way to spend our remaining time on Earth.

odin

The Path to Odin’s Lake: A Scandinavian Soul Journey is published by Createspace. It can be purchased in paperback or on Kindle ebook, or in different ebook formats here

Jason Heppenstall is a former journalist and news editor who lived in Denmark for almost a decade. Three years ago he moved with his family to west Cornwall where he works in a woodland making charcoal and growing mushrooms.

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The Hungingo Hunters

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This is when the sadness of travel hits him hardest. Not when stuck at a desolate bus station, surrounded by others who hate it there as much as he does, or holed up in a cheap room in a dreary, forbidding district devoid of travellers, but at times like this. Crammed in a van like this, surrounded by people like this. He stares out of the window to avoid his fellow travellers, struggling to keep the ever more familiar chagrin from ruining everything. This is supposed to be fun.

‘Mike, how long is the drive?’ A German girl asks the driver. Linda or Linnet or something, she made a big thing about nobody remembering her name right. His name most probably isn’t Mike. It’s just Mike when he drives us. Because we can’t remember the names they have.

‘Only one more hour. Then we visit KangDa village for traditional KangDa village experience tour. Then one more hour. Then we arrive at Boloran camp six o’clock for a traditional meal with drinks and evening traditional entertainment.’

Sentences that sound like they have been practiced and uttered over and over again. With that slight feel to them you’re not sure the speaker understands all the words they use. As opposed to us, who don’t bother to practice anything more than the local ‘thank you’. But really, who says ‘o’clock’? Mike does. ‘Mike’.

‘Will there be a toilet in the village?’ Lenette asks.

‘Yes toilet.’

A ‘traditional’ toilet, no doubt.

One more hour. An hour to lose himself in the landscape some more, the rolling hills that turn into foothills. The ebb and flow of human settlements, strewing their plastic waste along roads and streams like indestructible breadcrumbs leading back home. The rough edges between cultivation and the wilderness you probably don’t love unambiguously once you live right next to it.

‘What a beautiful scenery was that, don’t you think?’ Lanet asks him when they leave the van.

Beautiful… Would he use that word for the raw feelings elicited by driving through this province? Maybe, but it would not be the romantic ‘beauty’ Linet referred to.

‘Yes, very beautiful.’

And now he wonders about the wildlife, curious what still thrives here, what has been hunted to extinction. Curious what the local kids are being scared with in bedtime stories. Their version of Red Riding Hood and the wolf. If that is how it works here. He can’t escape being a western boy.

Or maybe it was the sign they passed when entering the village:

WELCOME TO KANG DA
HUNGINGO HUNTER VILLAGE

An unfamiliar beast was painted under it. Hungingo? What were they trying to draw there? If only his smartphone worked here.

The afternoon sun glares through the village like a nosy neighbour, peeping under the sun roofs of the souvenir stalls, shining through the small windows of the tiny ‘traditional’ wooden huts they are ushered into and out of, like large, white cattle. A flock of kids follows from a distance.

In front of what seems to be a bigger hut, ‘Mike’ starts another set of well-used lines.

‘This is the house of the village hunter. Many village people today also hunt for bird or fish or some small animal like that. But before, village people hunt for hungingo.’

His hands make small and then large gestures. He pauses for effect. Lannet takes a picture with her DSLR. A couple more in the group suddenly decide to take a photograph as well.

‘Today, hungingo have almost disappear. Only very few left. Not many people know where to find hungingo. Here lives the last hunter of hungingo. The hunt only happen one time each year. So now you will hear the traditional story of hunting hungingo.’

Glorified cows? Some kind of big goat? What is he tricked into oohing and aahing over? He’ll admit the mystery alleviates his travel depression. But grudgingly. He should’ve read the leaflet when he signed up for this day trip.

Resigned, he follows ‘Mike’, ducks through the small door, enters the hunter’s house. He looks up into a space that is way, way bigger than he anticipated.

Holy damn. A gigantic skull is suspended along the entire ceiling. Possibly the biggest skull he’s been physically close to. What the hell is a crazy skull like that doing in a village like this? How does he not know about these hungingo things? What are they, dinosaurs?

And then a woman enters. She is mature but not old, short and very muscular. Her face, though covered in tattoos, exudes the calm and confidence characteristic of those who know what they know. She folds her legs on a cushion on the floor as the tourists awkwardly squat down to sit. Her tattooed hands rub her stocky underarms, and she starts her story:

I am the last hungingo hunter.
Like my mother before me was, and her mother before.
I climb the mountain, once a year.
And I find my hungingo once a year.
I find the one that wants to be found.
And when I find her, we dance.
We dance to the death of one of us.
Which is the death of us both.
I will take her name, or I will lose my name.
It can take short or long but time is different when we dance.
You only know after she dies.
Or you will never know at all.

She gets up, her feet carry her around the room like a boy ballet dancer.

Of all my tools along this wall,
I bring none. They are for later.
For when the fur has to become fur.
For when the meat has to become meat.
For when the bones are dead.
And the skull has no face anymore.

Tools glide in and out of her hands, handled with gestures so precise they feel a thousand years old. Then she unhooks a simple, curiously curved knife, hanging alone on the wall at the end.

I only bring this knife.
And a bag of string.
This string I string through the forest.
On my way back, alone, with a new name.
So we can go back together.
Bring back the hungingo together.
The string is longer every year.

She unties the fastening on a leather shoulder bag, a giant coil of handmade thin red rope rolls out on the floor.

But if I die, I die alone
I must die alone and I must not be found
Because I will become hungingo
Like my mother before me
And her mother before
I am the last hungingo hunter
And I will be the last hungingo too.

He is not sure why he didn’t google ‘hungingo’ on the computer afterwards. It would’ve been a better way to spend his time than the ‘traditional’ entertainment night. He is also not sure why he didn’t feel like blogging about it, or posting pictures on Facebook.

Ever since, he thinks about the hunters everywhere that went extinct together with their prey. He hopes they had the kind of closure the hungingo hunter woman will have. He doubts it. He doubts anybody remembers their name. He doesn’t, anyway. Or maybe that’s just him never having cared enough about these things in the first place.

Why does he care now?

At the airport on the way back home, some time later, a familiar face shows up.

‘Hi, how are you? What did you think of this country?’ she asks him. ‘Will you want to come back?’

‘Not really,’ he says.

‘I want to come back here. It is such a magical place.’

She holds up a book from the airport souvenir shop titled ‘Die letzte Jägerin der Hungingo’. The shop that disgusts him, because it is full of stuffed toys and wooden statues shaped like hungingos. It sells infinitely more hungingos than there are still left on that mountain. And it will keep on selling after they’re gone.

‘I love this story. They are really Amazons, it is so inspiring. If I have a daughter, I will read her this story.’

He doesn’t know how to start explaining why he doesn’t agree at all. There are no daughters, don’t you see. It says ‘die letzte’ for a reason.

‘Have a good trip home, Lenetta,’ he says after a while.

‘It’s Lorette,’ she smiles wryly. ‘But that’s OK. Nobody ever remembers it right.’

But at least you will have daughters, he thinks.

Not that far from there, out of his sight, out of everyone’s sight, a little girl follows her mother’s steps through the room, like a ballet dancer. Silently, a giant skull looms over them, listens to the poem they rehearse together, every night. Like she did with her mother, and her mother’s mother before.

‘Mom, what’s a hungingo smell like?’ the little girl asks.

‘I don’t know, sweetheart,’ the woman says. ‘I have never seen one.’

Annemarie Opmeer started out as a comparative literature and gender studies major, ended up as editor-in-chief of Down to Earth, the independent magazine of Friends of the Earth Nederlands, survives by having helped the start of Against The Stream/Dharma Punx Netherlands, lives in their favourite Dutch polder.

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