The Dark Mountain Blog

The Man in the Tower

‘The Man in the Tower’ is part of a web of stories that depict the state of urban West Africa, in the ‘not-so-distant future’. The general idea is to create a portrait of urban West Africa as if current systems are to persist – for instance, the unequal distribution of wealth. With that general picture in place contemporary issues are evolved and discussed in the future context along with approaching confrontations with ecological collapse.

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Chapter 1

Jeff stood in front of his bathroom mirror clutching his toothbrush and staring at nothing. Realising himself, he continued to brush his teeth.

Stroking from side to side about a dozen times. Then up and down another dozen. He spat the fizzy sweet-tasting paste into the basin and rinsed. The décor of his bathroom shun with sleek modernism. The sink, the showerhead, the ashy black floor tiles and even the toilet all spoke a language. Maybe French? Definitely something sophisticated. The toilet’s flush was actually quite impressive. Every time he finished shitting, a pleasant squirt of water would rinse his ass before his shit got washed away, never to be thought of again.

Thoroughly applying the Axe ‘vigilante’ gel, he fingered his scalp brutishly before slicking his hair back, then combing it all towards one side of his head. Just outside his bathroom door Scrappy, his little white fluffy dog, was fervently awaiting Jeff. Scrapping and snatching at his master’s ankles he followed Jeff to the bedroom. Jeff kicked his also white fluffy slippers underneath the bed, then unlaced his silk gown trotting over to the walking closet to pick an outfit for his Sunday stroll with Scrappy.

Walking his dog was always a fashionable moment for Jeff. In fact his SnapChat followers had accrued to over a 100,000 viewers all because of his sense of regal and sleek.

Wait.

He noticed that a shirt was missing. Yes! The purple low-cut v-neck. The one with the hanging shredded long sleeves. He considered where it could be. It was most likely his maid, Ama. Her sense was as broking as her English and Jeff thought that he should really call the agency and fire the fool.

Ah yes. The simple white long sleeve shirt was always a classic.

Wilfully wandering the acclaim he would receive from his SnapChat followers, he scanned the bottom deck of the walking closet to pull out his tea blue short-shorts. Ramming his short-shorts way up his waist then tucking in the white shirt, he grabbed his go-to boat shoes before picking Scrappy’s blinged-out collar.

Before leaving, Jeff yelled at Siri to inform him of the weather forecast for the day.

‘It will be perfect day today, in Accra! With temperatures ranging between 23-26 degrees Celsius. Some slight winds are to be expected!’

‘Mmmm. Can you message Dr Togbe, tell him I’m bringing Scrappy over right now.’

‘Sure Jeff! Do you need me for anything else?’

‘Make a note to remind me to ask Ama about my shirt. I keep on telling her to remind me when she is taking things out for laundry. It has happened now way too many times.’

‘Sorry. Did you mean to say ‘Unkempt telephones are my hobby’?’

‘What?! No. That will be all Siri.’

Chapter 2

‘God what a wonderful day!’ Jeff thought as he strutted down his gated community garden. Sure it was quite hot. But the fabric of his shirt was soft, and light, and incredible in all the ways a shirt can be. He was simply immune to the sun. He was immune to everything. No jab or insult thrown Jeff’s way would do him any wrong. A truly outstanding kind of obliviousness. He waved to the gardeners, who were too busy toiling on the ground and couldn’t pay him any notice.

Airport residential had become absurdly detached from the realities of bitter poverty and inequality ravaging Accra. So much so, the social bubble had bubbled up into the minds of the tenants. Lavish parties, soirees, libraries of cars, garages full of slave-workers, and sacks of money that was spent like nobody’s business.

Yes! The residences were in a champagne bubble – shiny, perfectly round, and delicate. Why not be? It’s better living without a care in the world! Living life like a motion picture.

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Anyway, Jeff had gone to one of those lavish parties the night before. Music and drugs were all on point. Ladies were fabulously dressed and the guys’ haircuts were as sharp as knives. Jeff had gone with his girl friends, Lana, Esi, Blair and Shevan. Those bitches got shit wasted and Jeff was forced to be the ‘responsible one’ for the rest of the night.

Dr Togbe’s house wasn’t far now and Jeff knew that he could maybe order a lite breakfast while waiting for Scrappy to get his checkup. Last time though, they were serving this traditional option called waakye. Black beans and rice, sultry spicy stew with shitto, topped with sautéed tofu. Hardly a lite breakfast but a mouth-watering one nonetheless.

He checked back with his phone to see if it was the next left, which he knew it was, but he always needed to check again. Ushering Scrappy onto the other side of the street they made their way up the front stairs of Dr Togbe’s clinic.

Chapter 3

Dr Togbe’s house/animal clinic had just had its walls plastered with pictures of all the adorable pets that had come to his clinic. Jeff leaned over the pleather chair to stare at the portraits. There was this one photo, which was just unbelievable. The owner had found a way to make it seem that his dog was holding him like newly weds do. Same silly smile as any bride would have and the groom sweeping under his face all bits of anxiety.

Before he realised how far deep his knees had sunk into the chair’s cushion, Dr Togbe had come out to greet Jeff with his usual sunny disposition.

‘Jeff! Got your message, how can I help you?’

‘Just a general checkup doctor, my little boy here Scrappy hasn’t been here for two months. You know I don’t want what happened to Ama Sam’s poodle to happen to Scrappy – isn’t that right Scrappy!!’

While Scrappy scratched and spat at the furniture of the lobby, Jeff and Dr Togbe finalised payments before the doctor took Scrappy into the back office for his checkup.

Jeff stood idle in the waiting room. He hadn’t had anything to eat since late last night with the girls. Summer was fast approaching as well. There was a need to keep his pudgy figure intact but leaner would be preferable. ‘The waakye though!’ he thought concedingly. When would he be here again?!

He strutted over to the cafeteria on the second floor/dining room to ask the chef if there was any waakye. But just before he got to the counter the chef pulled out a couple of takeaway packs, probably for some other patient. The aromas permeating the room were heavenly. Chewing the edge of his fingers Jeff realised that his fickle resilience to food would be broken once again this morning.

‘Please can I have a pack of waakye. Pasta, boiled egg, black pepper stew, fried plantain and some salad on the side please. Need to eat healthy right? But it’s for my friend anyway.’ The chef smiled and went to fetch Jeff’s order, returning in a matter of minutes smiling curiously. Jeff snatched the package and hopped back downstairs slightly embarrassed and overly aware of his tummy bouncing up and down with him.

Chapter 4

Scrappy was as snappy as ever by the time he was done with his checkup. Jeff and Dr. Togbe immersed themselves with some neighbourhood gossip before Jeff pardoned himself out of the office.

Jeff stepped out of the building and was met with the full force of a rushing wind all of sudden.

Checking his step and adjusting his feet he scooped Scrappy and pressed him to his chest.

‘What! – The Hell! – Is Going On?!’

The words that left his mouth never seemed to form fully as they were swept along with swooping and powerful gushes of wind. It was so ferocious, the wind, and it was uprooting the whole street in front of Jeff’s eyes. The stop sign pole had bent over and its plate was banging on the sidewalk. Plastic bags twirled high up in the sky and closer to the ground the earth was scattered across the street. There weren’t many people out because it was a Sunday, but you could hear wild screams from all corners of the neighbourhood as the buildings creaked to the force.

Jeff was incapacitated and seeking shelter in Dr Togbe’s office was the logical thing to do. But the urge in him to change his outfit was too strong to reason with. It looked too worn now and there were sweat patches at the armpits giving the white this awful piss-like stain. Going back was not an option. So he continued onward.

Each step felt like Jeff would be swept off his feet and Scrappy had sunk his nails deep into his shirt. After a while, Jeff could not think about how good he looked. He was too focused on trying to keep his centre of gravity as low and steady as possible. About half way to his apartment the relentless wind became somewhat bearable and he picked up his pace to a brisk jog. Panting and heaving desperately for breath he staggered into the lobby of The Magnificent.

‘Home! Finally, home. Sweet-sweet-safe-secure. Home. Jesus, Scrappy! Fucking calm down!’

By the time he was in the elevator and headed up to his room on the 79th floor, Jeff had regained some composure.

Deep breaths, that was the key! One… Two… Three…

All the way up, a hideous feeling was bubbling in his stomach. Each level the elevator climbed the more violently the building cringed. Scrappy was shivering, scratching and snapping all in one long annoying fit. Jeff was planning to dump him in his ‘bad dog’ hole where all Scrappy’s antics would be muted by the soundproof walls of his caged cubicle.

Lurch!

The building jerked sharply and Jeff lost his balance forcing Scrappy to leap from his falling hands. He slowly picked himself up. Trembling. Hoping that it been safe.

He managed to corner Scrappy after some time, and pet down his dog’s shaking fluff before the elevator stopped at his floor. Luckily, all of Jeff’s windows were shut and the wind had not menaced his apartment.

‘Siri! Turn on the TV to CNN: Ghana for me. Now! This can’t just be happening here!? Maybe it is something that is passing through? Siri didn’t you say it would be slight winds? Do you know what slight winds are?! Does it look like its slight winds!? Whatthehellisyouruseifyougivemefuckingstupidinformation?!’

‘Sorry Jeff. Would you like me to turn on the TV now?’

‘Yes! Yes! I just said!’

‘Sorry Jeff. Turning on TV to CNN: Ghana. The current conditions today are sunny and slightly windy.’

It was sunny, but Siri must have misinterpreted what ‘slightly’ meant and Jeff was in no mood to continue quarrelling with his phone again.

The two CNN: Ghana broadcasters (Katie Robinson and Jakob Lamptey) were sporting some ridiculous windbreakers and wearing foolish smiles as they joked about the unexpected wind.

‘Jakob, I guess we won’t be needing our plane tickets any more. We can just JUMP and FLY to Tamale.’

‘HAHAHAHAHAHA, wasn’t that funny guys?’

*Applause from studio audience*

‘Let us give it up to Katie Robinson. HAHAHA. I guess you won’t be needing a hairdryer either!’

‘HAHAHAHA. Oh MY GOD. Jakob you really BLOW me away.’

‘HHAHAHA. Aaah there is a tear in my eye. Let us give it up to Katie Robinson.’

*Applause from studio audience*

Jeff all of a sudden found the idea of mashing a comedy talk show with presenting news stupid and obnoxious. He had to watch for another thirty minutes before he got some actual details on what was happening with the weather in Accra that day.

Apparently, the winds were being caused by a sudden depression of cool air. As Jeff understood it, it was something of an extraordinary event. No weather channel had predicted this occurrence and the climatologists who were busy waving their pointers trying to explain something they didn’t quite get, looked confused and excited all at the same time. Finally, an official statement from the mayor of Accra deemed it unsafe for anyone to go outside. Jeff didn’t quite know what to make of the news but felt comfortable enough to saddle up for the night by making some hot cocoa and marshmallows and possibly a movie.

As he opened the tap to fill the kettle, a strong gush rocked the apartment building sending Jeff tumbling to the ground again. He could hear Scrappy squealing madly from his hole. But there was little Jeff could do. He would have to wait till the building stopped rocking before he could be sure of reaching Scrappy safely.

Realising the ridiculousness of the situation Jeff suddenly felt the gravity of it all weigh on him. He was literally stuck on the floor of his apartment shaking with fear over the possibility that the building might collapse! The apartment itself was falling apart. The kitchen appliances clanged and crashed as they fell onto the ashy tiles. White noise from the TV churned and crackled while the winds whistled and whipped outside. Glass décor fell over and shattered into millions of tiny little pieces.

Sharp shards flew across the floor to the corner where Jeff was cradling himself.

Soft tears were creeping down his cheeks. Staring only at the floor, he hoped for it to be over soon.

Chapter 5

Ama knew it was late. She was also terrified at the thought of having to walk through the storm of winds lashing outside on the streets of Accra. But if she didn’t return Jeff’s shirt she would surely be fired and that will make it even harder for her to get another job to support her family. She found a collection of items in the recycling bin of her neighbourhood that looked like it could deflect the winds.

Wrapping herself in rubbery textured trash she felt unbelievably stupid. But failure to deliver the shirt could lead to unthinkable disaster for her and her family. Tightening her belt over her makeshift wind suit Ama was ready for the worse.

Initially, Ama seriously considered turning back. But after a while the winds seemed to just zoom past, over and underneath her. She would sometimes walk sideways to be even more aerodynamic and other times she would lie flat on the ground and sort of crawl onwards. After weaving through the narrow side streets and walkways Ama could see Jeff’s apartment a-way-away.

It was swaying.

She could see it bending?

Like a cartoon almost.

Ama stood still watching the monstrosity of the apartment building swing back and forth. Buckling at frightening angles. Twisting impossibly.

An incredible burst of wind suddenly caught underneath Ama and she felt its force rise up. The pulse of nature was pounding on her eardrums and there was an unbelievable pressure weighing on her immediate surroundings. She quickly bent down to stop herself from being caught in the current that was sweeping over the whole world it seemed! Recovering from the rush she looked back up.

The top half of the apartment was hanging at a perfect right angle. She could see large metallic beams break from the building’s failing structure as the wind punched and beat it to submission.

It balanced for a moment as the wind withdrew from its onslaught.

There was no sound but the moans of the squirming metal.

The sun was now cast at sunset.

The silhouette of the building made for an odd horizon.

A collective breath being drawn.

Then it dived down.

Descending with a jarring metallic tear the building crashed into the ground. The crash split the world in two and tore the world around Ama into shreds. She found herself behind a wall, crouched but shaking with fear and disbelief. She could feel clouds of dust blast past her, tossing and ripping anything that was caught in its wrath.

Compacting herself, her hand clutched on to something soft in her wind suit. She absent-mindedly pulled out a shirt. It was Jeff’s shirt. The one with the horrid sleeves. She tied the arms together and wrapped the top around her face to shield her eyes from the wind. The mist of sand and debris was still difficult to manoeuvre, and the air was difficult to breathe. But she decided to trek back home regardless. It was the only thing she could do amidst the tower’s wreckage.

Manuar Smith is a Ghanaian writer and sustainability science student. He has lived in Accra, Ghana for most of his life but was born in the US. He lives a life of extreme mental solitude and is trying to take over the world by creating the future.

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Answering the Call of the Wild Spadefoots

Finding water-loving amphibians in the hot, dry Arizona desert seems unlikely, but there they are. At our Sonoran Desert acre outside of Tucson we’ve seen the big old Sonoran Desert Toad (Bufo alvarius), the Sonoran Green Toad (Bufo retiformis), an occasional Red-Spotted Toad (Bufo punctatus), and the not-toad Couch’s Spadefoot (Scaphiopus couchii). The Spadefoot is really a frog, with smoother skin than true toads.

1-Couch's Spadefoot
The Sonoran Desert gets some rain in the winter, and monsoon storms in the summer. The native Tohono O’odham call the gentle winter rain female, and the intense summer thunderstorms male rain. Global warming seems to have made for smaller and more intense storm cells. It has flooded less than a half-mile away while our place – we call it Wild Heart Ranch – remains completely dry. By late July 2016, this season’s official total rainfall at the Tucson Airport measuring station was 2.67 inches, with much more in some areas. At Wild Heart we recorded just 6/10th of an inch, with a long spell of 105-110-degree days.

That has noticeably affected our toad population. When we accumulated that meagre total on June 30th and July 1st we were glad to hear the distinctive Spadefoot mating call, a loud, grating quaaaackkk, and to find a male and two females in our little artificial pond on July 2nd.

2-Looking for Love

Spadefoots have adapted to the desert by digging deep into the sand, using the ‘spade’ on their rear feet, and waiting for the vibrations of rainfall to waken them. They find puddles, call for mates, and get together quickly, the male hugging the female and spraying sperm over her eggs as she excretes them. The process moves incredibly fast.

3-Mating

On July 3rd there were strings of jelly-like eggs, thousands of them, in the pond. On July 4th there were hundreds of tiny tadpoles. I boiled romaine lettuce to simulate algae for their food, and they were voracious eaters. In two days, by July 5th, they had doubled in size. I took about 50 over to the Picture Rocks Community Center for their kids’ programmes to observe, with coordinator Adam Bernal taking on the lettuce-cooking chores at his end.

4-Tadpoles

By July 13th a number of the tadpoles had sprouted hind legs and a few even had tiny front legs as well. I divided them into five groups with containers and set them out in shaded garden areas with rocks for an escape route and latticed covers to keep predators out. Pollywog predators in this neighbourhood could include some birds and insects, and that big gluttonous Sonoran Desert Toad, of which there were a couple around. Fortunately our dog, Gus, avoids them, even when they occupy his water dish. They can be toxic to dogs.

5-Sonoran Desert Toad

By July 18th virtually all of the 60 or 70 tadpoles were metamorphosing and had four legs. They still had tails which propelled them to the lettuce, and they seemed quite happy. Metamorphoses as short as nine days have been recorded, with an average of two weeks, so we were right on schedule. Other frogs and toads outside of the desert take up to twelve weeks to make the transition.

6-Morphing

On July 19th most of the Spadefoots now appeared to have four legs and to have absorbed most of their tails. They still swam, but also hopped, covering an amazing distance for their still-tiny size, no larger than a short fingernail. It was just about time for liberation.

7-Ready to Go!

On July 20 I went to release the toadlets but the Pollywog Liberation Front had beat me to it. A light rain overnight had sent all but a few of the tiny Spadefoots out into the world. They were all in shaded and well-watered gardens where they could find tiny bugs to feed on. They would gorge themselves and dig down to grow and wait for the next storm, whether it came this year or next.

At the community centre Adam directed the release of his toadlets into protected park areas with the kids all participating. For some reason, perhaps related to sun and shade, those tadpoles took about a week longer to morph.

Maybe we had taken a small step to combat the ravages of climate change, to repopulate our little piece of our world. We had no idea how many would survive, but I’m looking forward to monsoon season 2017 to find out. At age 78, it gives me something more to live for.

Albert Vetere Lannon was a San Francisco blue collar worker, union official and labour educator. Obtaining his high school diploma at 51, he earned several degrees, published two history books, and won several poetry prizes.  He retired to Arizona to chronicle community news, fight a proposed highway, and raise pollywogs with his beloved Kaitlin Meadows.

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Self-Preservation in Our Protected Places

Longs

Oh ye mythic landscapes of growing fame. Oh ye badlands of terrestrial divinity. You haunt me. You break my heart. I know this, for certain, because I’ve been attempting to read Terry Tempest Williams’ latest book, The Hour of Land – a proclaimed personal topography of America’s national parks – yet I get a few pages in and put in down. A few pages in, put it down. I can’t do it, as much as I admire the prose; as much as I cherish the content. It’s too painful – a haunt, a broken heart – because America’s national parks have become too personal to my own topography.

Six years ago I set the goal of visiting all the US national parks – a goal not borne out of a desire to become Instagram famous, or to sell feature articles to major magazines, or even to have a unique bragging right – but a goal generated by happenstance: I coincidentally found myself living on the border of Rocky Mountain National Park the same summer my best friend died in a terrorist attack in Kampala, Uganda (being there to visit friends while working for the same non-profit where we’d met). To cope with the loss, and my already compounding clinical depression, I withdrew, finding solace only across that national park boundary. I began going on hikes every free moment I had; began reading extensive books on the wilderness I now found myself within. Nature held the fundamental truths I needed to start reconstructing a dismantled psyche damaged by all the transgressions a civilised world permits: violations of civil, humanitarian, and environmental rights. And the more I learned about nature, the more I learned about myself.

To prove this, I made a drive down to Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado.

It was equally as stunning as Rocky Mountain National Park, yet unique in its own geological splendour. I needed to see more. So that fall I moved to California and began planning a new adventure for every weekend, filling my car with anyone curious enough to accompany me: Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Channel Islands, Saguaro.

I have since been to fifty-one of the fifty-nine US national parks, from the rainforests of American Samoa to the taiga of central Alaska.

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In hindsight, my progression with the goal oddly mirrors the history of the park system itself. Initially, the national parks were proposed by dignitaries as an attempt to solidify our fledgling country’s sense of autonomous pride, because, at the time, we couldn’t compete with Europe in terms of architecture, or legacy, or the arts. But we had natural wonders without comparison – first seen at Niagara Falls, then the Yosemite Valley, then Yellowstone. We began building an identity around this.

I, too, was searching for a sense of pride. Or self-worth. And I felt this restlessness while traversing glacier-cut terrain or water-deplete deserts or volcanic depressions. I was re-learning how to identify myself.

Next came monumentalism, or this idea that we, as a country, only needed to protect the most indisputable of terrain: deep valleys, geothermal plateaus, massive trees. I, too, was first drawn to these parks of notoriety: I wanted to stand before El Capitan, I wanted to hug a sequoia, I wanted to dip my toes in Cater Lake. But this is only the honeymoon phase of becoming a naturalist: love starts with the obvious then cuts to the idiosyncratic.

An example: about sixty years after Yellowstone was established as the first national park in the world, the Everglades also joined that roster of federal designation. This was an interesting occasion because Everglades National Park was the first park protected for the primary purpose of environmentalism – for ecological preservation. And we see this as a shift away from monumentalism in the way that the Everglades’ watersheds were also considered for protection, from Big Cypress National Preserve up to Lake Okeechobee. A more holistic consideration was at work here: plots of land no longer needed a Teton-like range to turn congressional heads; a river of grass, in Southern Florida, could now demand similar respect.

I, too, began understanding that environmental consciousness meant more than just visiting the famous parks and pointing my camera lens at them. I began looking at all land differently: from wilderness areas created by the 1964 act, to national forests, to wildflowers across the Bridger Range of my backyard, to my mother’s garden.
Something more holistic was at work within me, too.

***

The national parks saved my life. I’m not saying this in a ‘these are the most pristine places on the planet’ sort of way. Or even in a ‘nature heals’ sort of way. They were just my target of attention at a time of need: a goal set during ultimate tribulation, giving myself arbitrary trajectory, which then gave me a reason to push through the existential darkness of a faith lost in humanity. It was submerging myself in nature, away from my fellow companions, that made me re-realise there is good in us, and hope, and unabated kindness.

This was my new lens to analyse the world through, finding logic that ran deeper than my mental illness, and yet, was so intimately intertwined within it—an individual ecosystem of sorts, everything contingent on the other.

So here I sit, Williams’ book at my side, containing 395 pages of stories that I want to read, yet, I’m reluctant. These parks are mine. I’ve wrapped my ego around them. Found salvation within them. And defend them like I would my own children. Still, funny enough, it’s hard to see someone else celebrate them. But that’s the ultimate beauty of public land: These parks are mine. They’re everyone else’s too. For whatever purpose – everyday or epic – that they need to serve.

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Born and raised in Montana, Tyler Dunning developed a feral curiosity at a young age. This disposition has led him around the world, to nearly all of the US national parks, and to the backcountry of his own creativity and consciousness. He’s dabbled in such occupations as professional wrestling, archaeology, social justice advocacy, and academia. At his core he is a writer (currently working on a memoir entitled
How We Reach for the Sun: A Field Guide to Losing Your Friends). Find his work at tylerdunning.com and follow his adventures on Instagram (@tylerdunning).

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Last, or Earworms in the Wilderness

safe

Edges are where things get interesting. They are where transitions happen — or don’t happen — from one state to another. Ethnic assimilation, for instance, is an edge state, where you’re neither fish nor fowl, and you have to navigate for yourself how much of which culture you want to take on when and with whom. The fringes of urban areas are another edge, where wild animals like coyotes and ravens live amidst humans.

I wrote the novel Last to explore edges. I made my protagonist, Last, a creature who belongs nowhere. He’s a sasquatch who was orphaned young and raised in the woods by a human woman (Clare). Not only does he have no companions or peers, he’s not even a proper sasquatch because he was raised by a human, is culturally human, speaks American Sign Language, and in his mind he’s half human. He can’t remember his native language, native culture, or even what his parents looked like. So Last is in this horrible limbo state where he is the only one in the world like himself. No longer a child, he wants friends, he wants a mate. He wants to find a place where he belongs. So he’s on a walkabout and crisscrossing the wilderness in his home state of Maine, looking for other sasquatches, although he suspects the species has gone extinct (hence the name he calls himself, Last).

Clare’s ex-boyfriend Nils is a failed biologist who wants to make his name by releasing film, sound and DNA evidence on Last. When he learned that Last had left for a walkabout, he shot him with a tranquiliser gun and fitted him with a radio collar.

Last awakens from thirst. He is still groggy. Around his neck is a new constriction and weight.

He is wearing a radio collar. He cannot get it off. He feels for its mechanism but cannot figure it out.

From now, his every movement will be tracked.

He does not know this. He just knows he has something on him that is a man thing and that means no good. But there is nothing he can do about it.

He picks himself up and walks in a direction he hasn’t tried before. He goes south.

***

Where to find the Others? He follows the winding trout streams in the general direction south. Skirting lake after lake, bog after bog, walking the deer trails from mountain to mountain. He travels from dusk to dawn, sings the songs he remembers from Clare’s iTunes collection. He can’t make the words but he can sing the melodies.

No-one answers.

The wind picks up. From far in the distance, he hears a rhythmic banging. A vaguely familiar banging, a sound from childhood, a sound from before thoughts could be put into words.

He follows the banging. The People, that’s how they called each other. They banged, and you knew where to find them. The banging continues, bang! bang! bang! and he chases the sound.

He imagines them, a family who looks like him. He imagines them alone and lonely, and delighted to meet another like them when they are so few.

He imagines smiles of welcome. Outstretched arms.

He runs to this vision as fast as he can until his breath comes ragged and he has a cramp in his chest.

And then he sees it, the broken branch knocking against a trunk, hanging by its inner bark as if from a hinge.

The wind sighs and it bangs.

He comes to a stop and drops to his knees.

***

There is nothing to do but to go on.

The collar has a heavy box that chafes and it is wearing away the hair on his neck. He holds it as he walks, because his collarbone has begun to bleed.

And then he stops holding it, and just keeps walking on.

***

At night, all he hears is crickets. He calls out to the Others, as he had called as child in the swamp.

No response. Maybe if he travels farther south…

Sometimes he hears the high-pitched yip of a coyote, also calling with no response.

He travels farther, and he still hears that coyote. It is as though they are travelling together, a mile apart.

At dawn he sees the silhouette of a coyote loping on the ridge.

She is so skinny he can see the points of her vertebrae. Pointy nose, pointy ears, spiked hair, she is all points. She trots on.

Full sun, from a hilltop. He sees her hunting mice in the meadow below. She listens, head cocked. Listens, listens. Then pounces with her forelegs, grabs the mouse with her teeth and whips her head from side to side.

Mouse neck snaps.

She slits the skin and unzips the flesh, crunches it down in a few bites, and then resumes listening.

Last admires the coyote’s practiced, efficient technique. In his mind, he calls her MouseBreath.

Listening, head cocked, silent trot, listening for hours, earning each bite. This is a coyote down on her luck, working hard, and hungry.

***

It is getting late in the season but the trout are still running. Last keeps an eye out for people and stands in a good stream, awaiting fish.

Cold feet.

Claws would help. Sometimes he grabs a fish just as it swims between his
legs, but his numb fingers move too slowly, fish gone.

Slippery.

He remembers, I used to be good at this. What happened? Farmed food? He keeps at it, grabs the next trout and flips it onto the bank, where it flaps, gasps, and expires.

Little brookie. All bones.

He eats his raw trout and tries again. It does not take long. Another trout on the bank, and as he wades out of the water he sees the coyote watching, pacing the opposite bank. He knows, she wants his fishing spot.

He eats his fish, then goes back into the water, squats down, looks the coyote in the eye, and cocks his head to a spot downstream.

She hesitates.

He cocks his head again, eyes the spot, and then resumes fishing and ignores her.

The next he looks, she is standing in the water downstream, waiting patiently. Last scoops up a trout and lets another slip between his legs.

She plunges her face in the water and grabs it, all teeth. Then she raises her head, fish flapping, and proudly climbs up onto the bank to eat.

She catches Last’s eye and smiles her coyote smile: ears back, hair down. Last
smiles back his ape grimace.

They fish on, separate but together.

***

She follows closer now. At night, they call out, Last to his people in the language he remembers, which is the baby talk of a five-year old. The coyote calls to her people in her language — high-pitched yips and half-howls. No sasquatch answers, no coyote answers. But the call of each, through the night, is a sort of answer. Another found, not kin but kind.

***

In the woods, MouseBreath lopes as silently as fog.

Last struggles to keep up with her. But they are friends now. She doubles back to him, scouts forward, doubles back.

Soon she tires of travelling three times his distance, and she waits for him when he is out of sight. The coyote sits in the bushes or in the tall grass and listens, aware of everything around her.

After one of these forays, Last finds her sniffing the ground, skittish. She stops him with a look, looks at the ground, directs his eyes.

A loop of wire, a tree bent to the ground. Snare.

She trots off the trail, drags over a rotted branch, drops it on the wire.

The tree snaps up, carrying the branch with it. It dangles high in the air.

Last marvels and has new respect for the coyote.

They trot on.

Another day she stops to show him a big slab of rock. One end is on the ground, against a log. Underneath one end is open, and at the opening, a piece of cheese. But through the cheese, a twig, and the twig supports the rock by a
precarious balance.

Now it is Last’s turn. With a found branch, he bats the cheese, stick and all, out before the rock crashes down. They grin at each other and split the cheese.

Friends for life.

They come upon a fox with a leg caught in a steel trap. The fox whines and gnashes at them. Its eyes are bloodshot. It has tried to chew off its leg and has only gotten part through.

The coyote trots past. She has no intention of stopping.

Last sees the panic in the fox’s eyes and can’t leave. MouseBreath rounds a turn and is gone. Last has never seen a steel trap before. He has faith he could figure it out. He pulls at this and that.

On the hilltop, just the points of the coyote’s ears are visible, as she watches and waits.

A crunch of gravel. Axe in hand, a trapper walks along the trail, breathing heavily from his exertion.

The coyote yips.

Last freezes. The fox struggles. The birds go silent, the only sound the footfalls of the man.

Having no better ideas, Last pries open the jaws of the trap. The fox jumps away and bites him, hard. He lets go of the trap and it snaps shut.

The man’s head snaps towards the sound.

The fox runs away on three legs.

Last looks back in the direction of the man and hurries up the trail towards MouseBreath.

The trapper fires on Last but misses. And then Last is gone.

***

Last catches up with MouseBreath, who is still waiting for him. He holds out his arm, to show that he is has been bitten. MouseBreath licks the wound.

***

They come to a highway. The sun glares low in the sky and orange light glints on the metal machines that rush past.

All sounds are drowned out by the roar of the cars and trucks, and all smells are drowned out by the stench of their breath. Faster than the fastest animal, the machines follow nose to butt, with scarcely a gap between.

The trail continues on the other side. Last and MouseBreath have to get to the other side. And the machines are in the way. Last has no idea how to cross. The sky turns red, then purple, then gray. MouseBreath looks up and down the highway. She catches Last’s eye: watch how it’s done. She crouches low, wiggles her butt in the air, and takes off. Weaving through the traffic, she runs as fast as she can.

The cars do not slow.

At about 80mph, a truck hits her and she flies up into the air. The truck passes underneath.

Then she crashes to the pavement and the car behind rolls over her, BUMP bump, front wheels then rear wheels.

The next car doesn’t even swerve. BUMP bump.

Afterwards, the cars that follow, the bumps grow softer, as MouseBreath spreads out over the pavement.

Last hears screaming. It goes on and on. He realises he is the one screaming, and stops.

***

The light empties out, sucked into the machines’ glowing white eyes and red butts. And into the night, they hiss along the highway and exhale filth.

Last stands by the side of the road, a black hulk against the black forest, because he does not know what to do.

Flashbacks: his mother has just died, his father has just died, he is a little boy alone in the wilderness. He calls and calls and no-one answers. He is hungry and lonely and tired and no-one comes.

The emptiness, the despair, the panic of his abandonment comes upon him now with the full force of repetition.

He understands wordlessly that he is alone in the world and there is no help for it. It is dark, and his friend is spread out all over a highway, killed for no reason, and he has no home and no people, and his heart is broken.

***

When he comes to himself, he notices the cars are gone. The moon is high, and he can see the expanse of MouseBreath spread across the pavement.

Last had not known about such things as rush hour, or the fact that a highway empties out in the middle of the night. Now he knows. The middle of the night is the safe time to travel.

He walks out onto the empty highway and scrapes MouseBreath off the asphalt. She comes away in pieces. He gathers the pieces together and lays them in the woods, on the far side of the highway, at the base of a fir.

Ravens will do the rest.

The Mourner’s song. He remembers there was a Mourner’s song. He still doesn’t remember how it goes.

A tune passes through his head, and he hears words he understands but can’t pronounce:

Underneath the bridge
the tarp has sprung a leak
and the animals I’ve trapped
have all become my pets
and I’m living off of grass
and the drippings from the ceiling
but it’s OK to eat fish
‘cause they don’t have any feelings.
Something in the way. Oo-ooh.
Something in the way, yeah. Oo-ooh.

For some reason, this reminds him of his father’s tumour and the stench of the paper mill.

Something wrong, something messing up his life, something bigger than him, something he can’t fix.

Something in the way.

***

They watch the blip on the screen. Beep. Beep. Beep.

‘He made it across the highway,’ says Nils.

Clare breathes, ‘Thank God.’

***

Day by day the air grows colder. Now he walks north, into the cold wind. The oaks drop their leaves. The ground is covered with acorns. Squirrels are busy in the trees. Last bites into the acorn from a red oak and it’s so bitter he can’t get it down. He remembers he had eaten a lot of acorns as a child but he doesn’t know how his mother made them.

The whitetails are rutting.

Too big for the little stones he throws with precision. That leaves squirrels, woodchucks, partridge. He eats them raw and misses cooked food. He misses the underground cabin, warmth, and Clare.

He fails to bring down wild turkeys. He fails to bring down deer. He has been eating farmed food too long and has forgotten how to hunt.

The first few flakes of snow dust a landscape queerly silent. Overhead, a dozen geese fly with military precision.

Too high to hit.

Skinny Last is starving. He is lightheaded all the time now. He’s cold.

He sings as he walks, sometimes Nirvana, but mostly the Stones ‘Miss You’.

Ooh hoo, hoo-hoo.
Ooh hoo, hoo-hoo.
Oo-oo hoo-hoo.

Who does he miss? People he’s never met.

On the horizon balsam firs. He walks towards them. Underneath, deer scat and not a sound.

The snow comes down in earnest. White ground, gray sky, black line of trees in the distance. Behind him, his own footprints stretch back forever.

He can’t feel his toes.

He searches for tracks, shrivelled apples, berries, anything to eat. He is dizzy.

He is afraid he will starve to death. He is alone, and this brings up the memory from his childhood of wandering lost and alone and cold and hungry, of calling out until he is hoarse, of no answer, no answer, no answer. He is that scared five-year old orphan again, lost in his memories, seeing nothing before him.

His feet hurt from the cold and the pain brings him back to the present.

There is nothing to do but to keep on keeping on. He signs to himself while he walks. He sings the songs that go through his head. Oo-hoo-hoo-hoo. Oo-hoo-hoo-hoo. And then the tune, because he can’t make the words: ‘Lord I miss you.’

Then one day, someone sings back.

Shelah Horvitz is a writer and a painter. For 30 years she has painted and exhibited in galleries and museums, and her artwork has appeared in books, magazines, and on television. Her writing has appeared on various blogs. This excerpt is from Last, or Earworms in the Wilderness, her recently-completed first novel. 
 

She lives in Maine and Massachusetts with her husband and dog.

Illustration by Shelah Horvitz

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Flight Path – On Reading David Fleming’s ‘Surviving the Future’

Hampstead Oak Nov 2010 - taken by Henrik Dahle

Every civilisation has had its irrational but reassuring myth. Previous civilisations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used its mathematics to prove it.

The man you might not know. And yet if you know anything about the Green Party, Tradable Energy Quotas, the Transition Movement, New Economics Foundation or the Soil Association you would have met his ideas and his vision many times. His name is David Fleming and for thirty years he carried a large manuscript around with him, amending, adding, editing and re-editing, as each year progressed. This September, six years after his sudden death, it sees the light of day in the form of two books.

Shaun Chamberlin, a rigorous Boswell to this Dr Johnson of the future, has not only skilfully shaped his immense dictionary into a finished form, but also forged a narrative introduction to it. Daunted by the prospect of reviewing the rather unlean Lean Logic, I took the slimmer companion volume, Surviving the Future – Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy on a train trip and then into my summer garden. This is a short response to this multi-layered, beautifully constructed treatise.

The future is a fraught place for those of us who have realised over the last decade we are boarded on the Titanic and heading for a mighty reality check. Some of us have thrown up our hands in horror and despair, some of us have heroically dug gardens, some of us have analysed fossil fuel graphs and turned off our central heating. Most of of us have looked at this wicked problem and tried to work out what on earth is needed now, not as individuals but as a people. One thing is for sure, at some point this all-powerful ship will founder and David Fleming’s clear proposals for an alternative social organisation are welcome reading for all those whose eyes are trained on the lifeboats, rather than the dancing girls in the bar.

lean logic

Slack and elegance

Surviving the Future is a linear pathway through Lean Logic‘s diverse and visionary eco-system. Where you might and indeed are encouraged to explore the larger work’s interconnected range of entries, the small volume keeps you on the main track. Here I am on the 16:00 from Liverpool Street coming home, surrounded by shopping bags and folk staring at their mobile phones, listening to music, eating fast food, wrapped up in their own worlds, and it is hard to imagine that all this might shift into the scenarios David is describing in these pages. And yet it is compelling in ways you do not expect. Even though there are fascinating insights on the more familiar subjects of religion, myth and culture-making, the chapters that grab the attention are undoubtedly those on lean economics, specifically the seven points of protocol which pull in an entirely different direction to the conditions in which the globalised market economy flourishes; the latter which is driven by competition and price and the former which works in an entirely different paradigm.

Economics is not a subject that most of us care about. However, the market economy is a system and creed we live by and has put us on this collision course. We are all embedded within it as we sit in this train carraige rocking through the East Anglian barley fields. Clear thinking about this behomoth and how it might be replaced are paramount and you could have no more inspired or radical guide than David Fleming in this uncertain territory.

For Fleming a viable future means being rooted in the small-scale local economy and cultivating the resilience of the community you live in. It means creating a thriving culture that will enable people to use their native intelligence and good will to work out how to proceed when the chips are down and the social and technological infrastuctures we take for granted are no longer in place. His premise is that through time localised, interdependant communities have been the norm and that our hyper-individualised hyper-urbanised lives are an anomoly and only made possible because of a destructive oil-based growth economy.

The book looks at key areas, such as food, growth, ethics, employment and waste, through the lens of lean times, and proposes that intead of living in a mono-culture where the price is the measure of everything, we live in a community, where our presence, our loyalty to its shape and interactions matter.

It is a better book to read in the garden, where there is space to breathe. Because, above all things, the book brings space and intelligence and wit to areas that are normally written about in lumbering opinionated prose. In a genre weighted down by tribalism, righteousness, political rhetoric and scientific data, his words come like a fresh breeze. Where other books would feature graphs, he has woodcuts of the English countryside.Where others might beat you over the head, his light and precise use of language effortlessly guides you from high altitude systems thinking to the literature of utopia to the utterly miserable times endured by the workers of the ancient ‘hydraulic’ cultures.

At some points his references to art and philosophy may appear old-fashioned, his fondness for the feast-days of the Middle Ages romantic, but the main theme is utterly modern, thought-provoking and often surprising. At the suggestion we might employ Christanity’s rich liturgy and architecture as a cultural holding place, I find myself exposulating to the runner beans. Hang on a minute, David, when the Church of England is on a all-time attendance low in the UK? Are you suggesting we go backwards and have to worship gods again?

fleming 3I put the book down and dive into some shade between the buddleia and the raspberry canes. Above me the scarlet admiral and peacock butterflies drink the nectar from the flowers, the light shining through their jewelled wings, above them on a southerly breeze the seeds of a black poplar drift by in search of new territory and above them a marsh harrier circles in the updrift, soaring higher and higher.

OK, so how do you organise society in the absence of competitive pricing? I laugh. This book is subtle! I have no idea: but it is a very good question. One that revolves around loving the earth and sky, that’s for sure. It has to start here. It has to start with this moment.

I reach out to pick several large raspberries and realise that it was Fleming’s ideas about community resilience that had entirely forged my own. These canes from Rita and Nick and Jeannie, the apple trees from Gemma and my fellow writers on Playing for Time, all these vegetables from seed swaps, my clothes from Give and Take Days, my involvement with Dark Mountain via the Transition movement. Everything in my house and larder and woodpile, in my relationships with neighbours and local shopkeepers, with this sandy, salty, wild territory, has come here through the informal economy. In all these small ways I am already living in the future he describes. And in that I know I am not alone.

This shift is not just personal, about me and my downshift style: it is social, about nurturing communities of ‘reciprocity and freedom’. And this is where this book acts as a decisive catalyst. We need deep blue sky thinking, to ask ourselves questions we have never thought about with rigour, to look around us at what we have now between us, a bird’s eye perspective, because if we can’t we will be surely engulfed by the struggle on the ground:

The task is to recognise that the seeds of a community ethic and indeed benevolence still exist. It is to join up the remnants of local culture that survive and give it the chance to get its confidence back. We now need to move from a precious interest in culture as entertainment, often passive and solitary, to culture in its original, earthy sense of the story and celebration, the guardianship and dance that tell you where you are, and who is there with you…

unnamedOne question that is not solved by this book: what do we do with our unmannered dinosaur politics and our dinosaur ways of relating to each other? How do we deal with untempered social hostility, the feudal class system, and lust for blame? How did David Fleming in his eyrie overlooking Hampstead Heath imagine we would deal with those outer and inner forces that absolutely do not want any kind of slack and elegant future? It might work in theory but how about the practice?  Having seen several grassroots organisations destroy themselves though the taut powergames we have inherited I am unsure this is even possible. As Charles Eisenstein once pointed out in a meeting of Transitioners in London, any kind of preparation we do is playing at present. Most of us have the option to revert back to the old social contract, when the going gets rough, pull on our headphones and keep shopping. It is one thing gleaning apples from neighbourhood street trees because it is a fun and life-affirming thing to do, and quite another because you and your family are hungry.

But given this is the one alternative that resonates, that makes sense, it is worth giving it our every last creative shot. If you are prepared mentally, physically, emotionally, for a different world and have deintensified  your way of life, you are resilient and fluid in a way folk that have never thought about these things are not. That makes you a valuable presence in any kind of climacteric, a flexible open agent within a close, rigid system. I realise this late summer day, the lean localised future so astutely and elegantly mapped out in these pages was the future I chose a long time ago, and the task Fleming sets all writers and artists takes us resolutely out of the sidelines and puts us right where the action is and where else, given the choice, would we want to be?

Carnival

At the upcoming Dark Mountain gathering this week we are delighted to welcome Shaun Chamberlin, David Fleming’s close friend and associate, who will be holding a workshop exploring some of his core ideas, and also to be able to sell both books, hot off the press, at our book stall (£30 and £10 respectively, or £35 for the two ).

I like to think David Fleming would have enjoyed Base Camp, at seeing a future-thinking culture being created by people aware of the impending social and economic crises. He might have recognised the lean thinking amongst its strands of myth-making, food growing, knowledge-sharing, music and conviviality. Celebrations and convergences are the bedrock for a society he envisioned could survive and thrive in a rocky future, and it is in this spirit that we publish a short extract from his chapter on Carnival, edited by Shaun and originally published in Dark Mountain Issue 5.

LL-StF-in-person

Extract from the late Dr. David Fleming’s Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It (2016). Extensive references are given in the dictionary itself, but are omitted here.

* points to another entry in the dictionary.

 

Carnival. Celebrations of music, dance, torchlight, mime, games, feast and folly have been central to the life of *community for all times other than those when the pretensions of large-scale civilisation descended like a frost on public joy.

The decline of carnival in the West began in earnest alongside the transition from a rural-centred culture to a city-centred one. There were many reasons. The early stirrings of capitalism encouraged habits of soberness, and it has this fixation about people turning up for work on Monday morning. Some carnivals were getting out of control, becoming the starting-point for rebellion and riot: Robin Hood’s career began as a carnival king; Ben Kett’s rebellion in 1549 started in Wymondham at a festival for St.Thomas à Becket. And the invention of fire-arms had its effect: it meant, of course, that a reckless crowd could also be dangerous, but – more important than that – it introduced a need for discipline, especially in armies. The loading and firing of a musket is complicated; it requires a sequence of steps – forty-three of them, according to Prince Maurice of Orange’s “drill” – each of which must be done exactly, at speed, and (on occasion) under fire. Discipline becomes critical: sober *citizenship, which is good for armies, and good for trade, calls for self-awareness and self-control, and it gets lost in the spontaneous exuberance of carnival.

Carnival has been subdued, and its loss is serious. The modern market economy suffers from play-deprivation. It does exist to a weakened extent in sport, but even there the aim of winning is increasingly taken as the literal purpose of the event rather than the enabling *myth. When such critical cultural assets as *trust, *social capital and the *humour which blunts insult are in decline, *play is in trouble. Insult and rough-and-tumble are now largely forbidden; if an invitation to play is rejected or misconstrued, if a joke goes wrong, there is shame or worse.

It invites the bleak question: ‘What is the point?’ The consequences are various, no doubt, but among them may be loneliness, boredom, anxiety and depression; if society is less fun, its inequalities are more resented. There is no constant reminder of the teeming vitality beneath the surface of other people; there is a loss of authority by the local community, which becomes less audible, less visible, less alive, less fertile as a source of laughter. Barbara Ehrenreich wonders whether the waning of carnival might have had something to do with the awareness of depression which, in the early seventeenth century, seems to have developed almost on the scale of a pandemic. Before then there was, of course, pain, and grief – all the dark emotions – but loneliness and anxiety…? *Tactile deprivation (the sadness of not being touched)…? The sense of the party being over…?

… Homer tells us how the art of the ancient dream world lay in wait to seduce Odysseus and his crew as they were about to encounter the Sirens, whose bewitching song lures everyone who hears it to their death, their bodies added to the pile of mouldering skeletons in the meadow where the Sirens sat. On the advice of his mistress, Circe, the goddess who lives on the island of Aeaea, Odysseus stopped up the ears of his crew with wax, so that, unable to hear the song, they were not distracted from the real work of rowing. He himself, being securely strapped to the mast, could now listen to the Sirens’ voices ‘with enjoyment’, as Circe puts it, and without being drawn irresistibly into their power. This has various interpretations, but one of them makes it a decisive detachment from art: the sound of ancient myth which once drew its hearers in, without means of escape, is rendered sensible and civilised, reduced to a concert, a sort of Hellenic musical evening with female chorus and a professor of Greek to tell us something about the local legend that lies behind it.

On this view we see the breaking of the link between art (music, in this case) and politics: now you only need to buy your ticket, be a spectator of the arts for an hour or so, and then home for herb tea and bed.’

Charlotte Du Cann works as an editor and distributor for Dark Mountain books. She is co-curating Base Camp at Embercombe with Dougie Strang and is the co-author of The Grassroots Directory with Mark Watson. charlotteducann.blogspot.com

Images: David Fleming on Hampstead Heath by Henrik Dahle. All woodcuts from Lean Logic – A Dictionory for the Future and How to Survive It edited by Shaun Chamberlin and published by Chelsea Green on 8th September.

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Autonomous Nature

Book Review:
Autonomous Nature: Problems of prediction and control from ancient times to the scientific revolution
By Carolyn Merchant

9781138931008

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity,
a dimmed light,
a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness.
This mysterious Unity and Integrity is
Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans.

– Thomas Merton

Two men huddle against the rain in the west of Ireland and use a sledgehammer to pound nine-foot stakes into the squelching, saturated winter soil. Some stakes go in straight, but most, like this one, tilt slightly in the damp. It will have to do. They continue.

Once the field perimeter is marked by stakes they unfurl a roll of chicken wire, bending the base of it out about a foot, to prevent deadly intruders from digging beneath. Foxes, pine martens, mink. The latter have spread across the country after escape – or was it release? – from fur farms.

Above the tight mesh of the chicken wire goes a second layer of fencing, this time to keep out deer. Their trails criss-cross the roads around here and the damage they can do to expensive trees, with the light of dawn, is immense.

There is a saving grace. This is one of the few areas of the country where grey squirrels have yet to spread. Should they appear here, five years, ten years down the line, however, trapping may be the only option.

A year passes and, of course, a pine marten works his way into the enclosure, beheading the defenceless, terrified chickens. There’s blood and shit and feathers everywhere, and the men resolve to give up on poultry. The trees, however, remain safe for the time being, the deer kept at bay.

Whatever this troubling word nature may mean, it is an unruly force. Whether the precarious existence of a smallholding, described above, or the unpredictable debris emitted as a result of subatomic collisions deep under the Swiss soil at CERN, human control appears forever limited and ephemeral.

The human ape does, however, excel at bending natural forces to its will, with astonishing precision. Just as fences temporarily keep wild fauna at bay, so does locating the vast Large Hadron Collider five hundred feet under Geneva protect it to the required extent from natural radiation and muon particles. All the while, baffled scientists huddle safely behind computers creating temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the centre of the sun, momentarily at least.

At a much higher level of abstraction, these are the issues confronted by Carolyn Merchant in her new work Autonomous Nature. Her classic early book, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (1990) drew influential links between the rise of a mechanistic worldview amidst the scientific revolution and the historic subjugation of women and the non-human environment. Now she looks beyond the dawn of modernity, to the treatment of order and disorder in environmental and philosophical thought throughout history, focusing primarily on the interplay between natura naturata, nature as moulded and created, and natura naturans, nature as a productive and unruly force.

The book’s first section, itself titled ‘Autonomous Nature’, begins amidst ancient volcanic eruption, earthquakes and pestilence, highlighting the gradual emergence, from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the Christian theologians of the medieval era, of an idea of order and controllability from within this life-threatening chaos.

However, in spite of this emergence Merchant notes the always dialectical, and often downright conflicting, relationship of natura naturata and natura naturans:

Upsetting this trajectory…intervened the Renaissance dichotomy between a personified Nature acting as God’s instrument versus a recalcitrant Nature acting not in accordance with God’s plan, but on “her” own, creating the problem of how “she” could be managed. By the time of the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution, natural philosophers would respond by developing the idea of controlling a free, recalcitrant nature through the laws of nature and a disorderly society through natural law. (57)

Thus the scene is set for Part II, ‘Controlling Nature’, in which the pestilence and disorder of civilisation doesn’t disappear, but is backgrounded – pushed from the psyche with increasing confidence. Gradually, the world is hollowed out and we encounter the full-blown rise of a dead, predictable and mechanical world, an orderly gift from a benevolent and transcendent God, amenable to vexation and instrumentalisation.

Summarising the view of Leibniz, from his debates with Newton, Merchant writes, ‘God created the world at the beginning of time as a logically perfect world that required no further tinkering or intervention’. After all, ‘the need to intervene would mean that God was an imperfect deity’ (137). Today, of course, the situation is slightly amended. What remained of God in Leibniz and Newton’s early scientific vision has long been banished, of course, and the human species takes its place as a new proto-deity, called on to intervene in a world which struggles to cope with our vexations.

The predominance of rationality, logic and knowability maintains a presence right up to the present day, of course, but Merchant concludes the text with a chapter entitled ‘Rambunctious Nature’, alluding to what can be seen as the re-emergence of recalcitrance in nature. The rise of relativity theory and quantum mechanics in the early 20th century, coupled with theories of chaos and complexity in the second half of the century and the unforeseen consequences of industrialisation – the bursting forth of climate tipping points and diseases spread by globalisation – results in a new paradigm ‘based on natura naturans as the active, creating, but also unruly and unlawful nature that challenged lives and livelihoods from Greco-Roman times to the present’ (150).

This story of new paradigms has been told before, of course, foreseen decades ago by writers of the 1960s counterculture, apparently to little avail. Its repetition up to the present perhaps belies the reality that paradigm changes themselves can’t be predicted, ushered into existence, or even recognised consciously when you’re in their midst. So too will the ‘partnership ethic’ put forward by Merchant in this final section be a familiar sentiment for many, holding that ‘the greatest good for the human and nonhuman communities is in their mutual living interdependence’.

The subtle detail in such a short book is remarkable, with its extensive footnotes as rich as the text itself for exploring the conflicting and contradictory stories told over millennia regarding our relationship to the cosmos. Its true wisdom, however, lies away from seemingly obligatory concluding discussions of hopeful ‘partnership ethics’ and new paradigms. Instead it lies in the more intangible and revelatory hints towards the notion that, to take the words of Paul Feyerabend, in such a fecund and overflowing universe ‘Ultimate Reality, if such an entity can be postulated, is ineffable’.

Drawing on the poetry of Gary Snyder in her epilogue, Merchant poignantly notes, similarly, that ‘there is no single concept of nature; it embraces everything that is fluid, changing, and mysterious. Ultimately, however, to “know nature” on earth is to live within it and to revere it in every way’ (156). In this age of clamour and ecocide, any sign of reverence would be welcome, while few are apparent. Merchant’s book, at least, harbours perennial wisdom for a culture which is not yet here, but which has, it seems, never been far away.

Tom Smith is currently undertaking PhD research at the University of St Andrews, where he focuses on topics including craft, technology, sustainability, non-representational theory, anarchism and objects. He is also the co-founder of a low-impact smallholding and ecological teaching hub in the west of Ireland, An Teach Saor (The Free House). http://st-andrews.academia.edu/TSmith

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The Ends of the World: a call for submissions for Dark Mountain: issue 11

 

reindeer

Russia’s Yamal peninsula rarely makes the news, even in Russia. Situated inside the Arctic Circle, it is sparsely populated, mostly by reindeer herders living traditional nomadic lifestyles in what is normally a cold and austere environment.

Last month, though, the environment changed. In what the director of Russia’s Institute of Global Climate called ‘a colossal, unprecedented anomaly’, a heatwave inside the Arctic circle took Yamal’s temperature up to 34° celsius, The heat began to melt the icy ground – the permafrost – and things which had been frozen for decades began to thaw. Among those things were the bodies of reindeer which had died more than seven decades ago; and among those bodies were the spores of the deadly bacterial disease anthrax.

The anthrax spread among the local reindeer population, killing more than 2000 of them, and then jumped to humans. One boy died; unconfirmed reports suggest his grandmother died too. Then the Russian government took action. Doctors and soldiers poured into the territory and began a programme of mass vaccinations and antibiotic treatment which seems to have stemmed, so far, the further spread of the disease. At the time of writing, hundreds of Russian troops are burning infected reindeer carcasses across the region, and a 12,000km exclusion zone is being disinfected to ensure no spores remain in the soil. According the region’s governor, ‘it is unlikely that anything will grow there ever again.’

Across the world, the ice is melting at rates much faster than predicted even five years ago, and as it does so it is bringing buried things to the surface. Viktor Maleyev, deputy chief of Russia’s Central Research Institute of Epidemiology, warns that the smallpox virus could be released again from thawing graves; so too could recently discovered viruses from extinct and as-yet-frozen mammoths. In Greenland, researchers fear that melting ice may lead to the release of underground toxic waste, buried during the Cold War.

What is certain is that the thawing will not stop; it is only likely to accelerate. In Antarctica, monitoring stations reported three months ago that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have now exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in four million years. Five of the first six months of 2016 set records for the lowest ever levels of monthly Arctic sea-ice extent, according to NASA, while every one of those six months has set new records for high temperatures globally.

If there’s a positive side to runaway global warming, it’s that it should, at least in theory, put human problems into perspective. Down at the human level, though, there seem to be enough examples of runaway politics and runaway economics to distract us from the bigger picture. From the rise of Trumpism in America and nativism across Europe – both symptoms of the cultural and economic turmoil caused by the globalisation project – to the continuing crisis in the Middle East and north Africa, political ructions in South America, spiralling rates of inequality, record rates of migration … every day the old normal is replaced by a new one, and the new one never seems to last very long. All is not well in the citadels of progress.

‘We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling,’ we wrote seven years ago in the Dark Mountain manifesto. ‘All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history.’ When we wrote those words they were, to many, highly debatable. They seem less debatable today, and I would bet they will seem a lot less debatable in a decade’s time. I sense that already there is no turning back; that all over the world, people are pulling their fingers out of the dams and starting to reluctantly turn their minds to the big question: what happens now?

This is the question that will form the loose theme for the eleventh Dark Mountain anthology, to be published in April 2017. In times like these it can sometimes be tempting to talk, in hushed tones and to people we trust, about ‘the end of the world’. But there is, surely, no one end to any world – instead, there are many endings, small and large, tumbling over each other all the time, building up to a crescendo. If you live in Yamal, or Syria, or in a logged rainforest or a spreading desert – your world is ending now.

In our eleventh book, we’d like to dig deeper into what this means. What happens if, instead of focusing on some predicted future catastrophe, we look around us at the many smaller ones which are happening as we write? The word ‘apocalypse’ is often thrown around loosely when referring to frightening phenomena like climate change. But the original meaning of that word is not ‘catastrophe’ but ‘revelation’. As the carapace of progress cracks, as the ice thaws – what is revealed? What dies away, and what is born to take its place? Frightening times can also be exciting times. From the collapse of one way of seeing or being comes the opportunity to build another. As stories crumble, new ones can be told. What do they look like?

Submissions for Dark Mountain: Issue 11 are now open; as ever, we are looking for prose, both fiction and non-fiction and anything in between, poetry and visual artwork, and we would like it to explore, in any way that seems appropriate, what it means at this time in history to be facing the many ends of the world – and what might come from them.

Over to you.

Dark Mountain: Issue 11 will be published in April 2017. The deadline for submissions is 15th November 2016. For details on what and how to submit, please read our submissions guidelines carefully. We cannot read or respond to work which does not fit within our guidelines.

PS – After publishing this call, we realised where the phrase ‘The Ends of the World’ had come from. It is the English title of a book by Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (due to be published later in 2016 by Polity Press). Déborah and Eduardo have been friends of this project for a long time and one of the members of our editorial team had read a draft of the text some months ago, which is how the phrase found its way into our conversations. We can warmly recommend their book to Dark Mountain readers, especially those of you with an interest in philosophy, and we hope that it will stimulate further discussion, on this site and elsewhere, about what it means to be in search of ‘a mythology that is adequate to the present’.

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Finding Strength in Stones

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We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos. I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea. ­
— D.H. Lawrence

Should we fight or should we run? In The Origins of Political Order Francis Fukuyama noted that civilisation or ‘the state’, as he calls it, tended to develop in areas that featured geographic boundaries that prevented people from escaping it. Mesopotamia, for example, is surrounded by rivers and deserts. China, by deserts and the Himalayas. For as long as civilisation has existed there have been those that would rather die than be absorbed by it. Some stood their ground and decided to fight and die where they stood. Others ran. They fled to the forests, the hills, the plains beyond the reach of the armies of the civilised. There they rebuilt their communities and reestablished the old ways. Over time, of course, the cities grew and their need for lumber, slaves, and lands to till for crops continued to grow as well. The resisters were forced to run again, deeper into the forests and the wilderness. This has been the history of the world. The free communities have almost been entirely wiped out and civilisation, the enemy of life, threatens to gobble up every last bit of land and water.

Most people, I believe, simply don’t want to think about such things. They distract themselves and luckily we have a culture that produces distractions above all else. They know that things are bad but they shrug and essential resign themselves to enjoying their lives for as long as they can. A hedonism born of despair. In 1962 the Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georg Lukacs wrote about the Grand Hotel Abyss, ‘A beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.’ Some people might hope that technology will miraculously save the day. Some might even think that god will come down from above to set things right, like at the end of a Greek tragedy. Technology has given us many gifts, it is true. But every one of those gifts has turned to ash in our mouths and brought with it new, unimagined horrors. For those who do have the courage to look into the abyss the question remains, just like it did for our ancestors: do we fight or do we run?

For those who love life its impossible not to want to fight against the madness of civilisation. To try to protect as much of the wild land that remains as possible from development, industry, and exploitation. To try to prevent the extinction of the countless species that are currently at risk of disappearing from the earth forever. To try to reduce the tonnes of waste that our society produces and dumps into the dirt and water, which are becoming less and less able to support life. In short, it is impossible not to want to try to save the world from the horror that civilisation has unleashed upon it. How can we not feel the urge to petition lawmakers despite their narrow­mindedness and greed? How can we not march together and chant for justice for humanity and the earth? How can we not chain ourselves to trees and raise awareness of the dire condition of life on the world where we live? How can we not build organisations, networks, create alliances, and movements to make change?

And there are other ways to fight as well. Some plot in the night. They get the guns and the spears and stand before the enemy, risking everything. They go to jail. They are gunned down by assassins. They mail bombs. They form cells. They set fires. They remind us that ‘the earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.’ They know that a violent, insane system cannot be reasoned with. It can only be destroyed. No amount of pleading will convince the governments and companies to stop. It is a fantasy to believe that they care about what we want.

And yet deep down do we really believe that we can succeed, no matter what tactics we adopt? Late at night, when we are alone with our thoughts it’s hard to banish the thought that there is nothing we can do. That we have already lost. That this is all make believe. The politicians either don’t care or will not act. There are not enough of us to change the minds of the majority. There are too many of them and they have too many guns. And most heartbreaking of all, we have simply already done too much. More and more the scientists are reporting that the damage done is irreparable. The earth is getting hotter and hotter. Sea levels are rising. Lakes and streams are drying out. Forests are dying. Deserts are spreading. And through all of this the human population keeps growing and growing. No matter what kind of cars people drive, no matter what kind of food they eat, and no matter what kind of energy they use to run their air conditioners, more people means more carbon, more waste, and more destruction of non human life. Not to mention the fact that it takes the climate quite a long time to catch up to us. Much of the warming of the earth that we are experiencing has been caused by carbon that released hundreds of years ago during the dawn of the industrial age. What in the name of mercy will things look like when the atmosphere has caught up to what we have been doing since then?

So, if we can’t fight then we must run. What does that look like and how is it different from a politics of despair? No matter how ingrained our myths of human exceptionalism, our needs are the same as every other organism. Survival. We cannot survive without the earth. But we can survive without civilisation. We did for most of our history and, in fact, it is the greatest threat to our survival and the survival of other forms of life on this planet. More and more, people are beginning to rethink what it means for things to get better, what it means to survive. For a long time we have been taught and conditioned to fear the end of the world. To fear catastrophe. But catastrophe means ‘to overturn’, like soil or compost. And it is hard to imagine that the end of this world will not bring the possibility of a better one.

We should not forget that humans have lived in the desert for our entire history. We have known how to find food, water, and shelter in the wasteland. This knowledge is not gone, even though we have forgotten it. There are those out there who keep the knowledge alive, sheltering and protecting it like a tiny guttering flame. In colonial Madagascar many tribes fought the French and died. Many tribes gave up and became slaves. Some tribes ran into the jungles. They hid deep in the forests where the French would not find them. They continued to live as they had and refused to adopt the ways of the invaders. They waited for the French to go away. It took sixty years of waiting but eventually their prayers were answered and the French went home. Colonialism was unsustainable. It was oppressive, exploitative, and destructive. Thus it could not survive. This is true for anything that is oppressive, exploitative, and destructive. It cannot survive. This is especially true for civilisation, which is the logic of oppression itself.

So perhaps the best thing we can do is run. Run into the woods, into the jungles, into the deserts, into the mountains, and the seas. Abandon our cities and farms, like the ancient Mayans, and return to the path of survival. Remind ourselves of the skills that almost all of us have forgotten. Remind ourselves how to survive. And wait. Wait for six thousand years of domestication and greed to collapse under the weight of its own violence and cruelty. Who knows how long it will take? Climate scientist James Lovelock has predicted that by the end the present century the effects of climate change will have reduced the human population to one billion or less. Lots of people think Lovelock is a quack and of course there is no way to know whats going to happen in the future. The important point is that we have to at least begin to entertain the idea that we may not be able to stop what’s going to happen from happening. Perhaps by continuing to try to hold onto the lives we have now and fighting against the tide, we are just ensuring that, as conditions deteriorate, we will be among those billions who succumb during the mass migrations, water shortages, or political upheavals. If we leave, as many of us as possible, we will survive and be able to leave something for those who will come after us. We can teach ourselves and each other how to gather wild edible and medicinal plants, how to build shelter using fallen trees and mud bricks, how to hunt, how to make fire, how to find water, how to survive.

So if we run, we do not run away from reality, but rather towards a new dawn. This is not a journey toward delusion or despair. It is a journey toward the within and without. It is a journey deep into the memories that we bear, the memories in our hearts and in our blood. We journey within in order to find that which we shall bring forth back into the sun of the present. When the time to fight comes, whatever that fight may look like, we must stand boldly with the dreams of ten thousand years at our backs.

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 by Thomas Leubner – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

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What is This?

EclipseTórshavn


Book review:

The Abundance 
by Annie Dillard

There is to be a total eclipse of the sun. A man and a woman drive across country for five hours, from the coast to the mountains, to witness the event; they have never seen a total eclipse before. They drive around until they find an appropriate hill to watch it from, then they park the car, climb the hill and sit on the top among knee-high grasses. As they wait, other people begin to climb the hill, and to climb other hills nearby, to join them in their witnessing. It is a Monday morning in February 1979.

The moon begins to bite into the sun’s face and the world begins to change. ‘The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were now platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This colour has never been seen on earth.’ Surprisingly swiftly, the human eye’s perception is altered to such a degree that the whole comprehensible world seems to disappear and be replaced by another. The shock is widely felt:

‘From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching, a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That’s when the screams began. All at once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed.’

A pleasant journey to watch an interesting natural event has become something wrenching. An abyss has opened, if only for a moment, and in the abyss the people on the hills can see themselves reflected back:

‘The white ring and the saturated darkness made the earth and sky look as they must look in the memories of the careless dead. What I saw, what I seem to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world. We had all died in our boots on the hilltops of Yakima, and were alone in eternity. Empty space stoppered our eyes and mouths; we cared for nothing. We remembered our living days wrong. With great effort we recalled some sort of circular light in the sky, but only the outline. And then the orchard trees withered, the ground froze, the glaciers slid down the valleys and overcame the towns. If there had ever been people on earth, nobody knew it. The dead had forgotten those they loved. Parted one from the other, they could no longer remember the faces and lands they had loved in light. They just stood on the darkened hilltops, looking down.’

There are not many writers who would even conceive of describing an eclipse of the sun like this; as a cascade of visions and revelations, disconnected from each other and yet forming an inevitable whole. ‘Total Eclipse’, the first piece of writing in Annie Dillard’s new book The Abundance, is typical of her method and its impact. It starts small, busying itself with the detail of the thing (‘all the distant hill’s grasses were fine-spun metal which the wind laid down’), its language baroque with new seeing. Then, suddenly, it slides down into the pit, or ascends into the heavens, before the reader knows what is happening. You have to slow down, as that reader, to take it in, but the payoff is a kind of gasping thud in the chest and a rise in the pit of the stomach as the words soar and carry the vision with them.

Perhaps this sounds silly and grandiose, but it isn’t: at her best, that’s how Annie Dillard can make you feel. Writers get called ‘unique’ all the time, mostly by their publishers, and mostly they aren’t. But more than four decades after she first put pen to paper, there is still nobody out there who writes, or thinks, or sees, like Dillard. The Abundance is a true reflection of its author: strange, unique and rather brilliant.

‘What kind of writer is Annie Dillard?’ wonders Geoff Dyer in the introduction to this selection of some of her past writing. It is a question that has become more pertinent since she stopped writing a decade ago. She remains alive and well, apparently as keen a reader and thinker as ever, but she no longer writes – or at least, no longer publishes, which to some critics appears to amount to the same thing. Her reasons for stopping seem simple and admirable: she didn’t have anything more to say, and she didn’t believe she could better anything she had already written. Now she paints instead.

The Abundance, then, is not really a new book at all: rather it is a selection of the best bits of some of her canon, consisting of twelve books which began with the Pulitzer prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1974. Those books include nature journals, meditations on God, a memoir of childhood, advice manuals for writers, two novels and two collections of poetry. What kind of writer emerges from them? Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her flaming debut, published when she was 28, is usually referred to as ‘nature writing.’ Its author, taking Thoreau explicitly as her guide, sets out to explore and describe the landscape around her Virginia home. But, like Thoreau before her, Annie Dillard is not a ‘nature writer’ at all. The non-human world is the subject she often paints, but her real interest lies beyond it, though within it too.

The title of that first book, still her most famous – a long extract from it is reproduced in The Abundance – offers a clear pointer. The person who has come to Tinker Creek is not a naturalist or a scientist or a polemicist or a poet; she is a pilgrim. She is looking for something: in fact, she is looking for everything, here as in all her other books. What kind of writer is Annie Dillard? A religious one. Perhaps she would resist this categorisation, and probably she should: writers should resist all categorisation. But consider this paragraph, which happens to be from Pilgrim, but which could appear in practically any of her books:

‘It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly at its hem. In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God “set bars and doors” and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?’

If all Dillard’s books are questions, the big question is always the same. It is the question that Zen masters have their students meditate on for years, until they break through to the other side of it: what is this? As she puts it early on in her debut:

‘We don’t know what’s going on here…. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.’

Dillard has no dogma to push (on her website, she lists her religion as ‘none’, which seems appropriate: no true seeker is ever happy for long within the confines of a church or doctrine, though neither do they seem to be able to stay away from them for long). But all of her writing pivots on the heightened sensibility which, so many traditions tell us, is a prerequisite to perceiving the world beyond the obstruction of the ego, the mind or the false self – that is to say, the world of the ‘spirit’, whatever that turns out to be.

If religion, like science and like philosophy, is at root a search for truth, then all of them depend upon an ability to see clearly, and usually to see differently: to squint at the world from crooked angles, to describe it in ways that others cannot, would not or have not. This is also, of course, the job of a writer. Dillard is a unique writer because she is a unique seer. She seems to look at things differently to the rest of us, which means she is able to describe them in ways which the rest of us wouldn’t. In an extract from The Writing Life, she lays out her view of the writer’s task. ‘Push it’, she demands. ‘Examine all things intensely and relentlessly’:

‘The writer knows his field – what has been done, what could be done, the limits – the way a tennis player knows the court. And like that expert, he, too, plays the edges. That is where the exhilaration is. He hits up the line. In writing, he can push the edges. Beyond this limit, here, the reader must recoil. Reason balks, poetry snaps; some madness enters, or strain. Now, courageously and carefully, can he enlarge it, can he notice the bounds? And enclose what wild power?’

Notice here not just what Dillard is saying, but the way she is saying it. Her proposal – that a writer should try to push boundaries – is not exactly new. But notice the images, the cadences, the unusual ordering of words (‘some madness enters, or strain’), the building rhythm, personalised like birdsong. The sentiment is not original, but the way it is expressed is; the words recast the meaning and make it new again.

Some non-fiction authors write from a position. They take an opinion, a worldview, a thesis, and then they write to explain or justify or propagandise from it. This kind of writing is, in the end, partial and narrow because it is all answer and no question (I know, because I’ve done it myself.) It obscures reality, rather than illuminating it. Annie Dillard starts from the opposite pole: as far as she’s concerned, she knows nothing at all about the world, and her job – the job of all writers – is ‘to give voice to this, your own astonishment’:

‘Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the solid, turn, and unlock – more than a maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.’

It is a risk to write like this, and to write about this. The true nature of reality, the world on the other side of the veil, is the biggest subject of all, and the easiest to write badly about. In the wrong hands, it can be sentimental, long-winded, full of wishful thinking or just plain dishonest. Dillard doesn’t always get it right: sometimes her connections are so tricksy, her sentences so convoluted and bizarre that her world seems inaccessible. The reader senses that she has gone so far into the gaps that he cannot follow. There are whole pages in her most intense and difficult book, Holy The Firm, for example, which I have read, then read again more slowly, then read for a third time in their wider context, and still come away with no idea what she is on about.

But like Perseus, Dillard carries her own shield, one which protects her from any wholesale descent into mawkishness. Her shield is her awareness of the all-pervasive reality of suffering. Time and again she circles back around to the random nature and distribution of misery and pain in the world. She seems to puzzle at it, to poke it and nudge it and turn it over, to try and understand why it exists at all. This puzzlement threads itself through The Abundance like a trail of blood in a stream. At one point, for example, she is trying to creep up on a small, beautiful frog in the creek. She gets closer and closer, but the frog doesn’t move. And then:

‘… Just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his skull itself seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and crumble and fall … I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water just behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away.’

The frog had been eaten alive in front of her eyes by a giant water bug, a creature which seizes and paralyses amphibians, injects an enzyme which dissolves their muscles and bones and then sucks out their innards. Any reader who might have mistakenly believed Tinker Creek to be an idyll is here introduced to the reality that there is no such thing. This clear-eyed view of life’s cruelty and pain is present in everything Dillard writes; she cannot keep away from it. A young girl’s face is burnt off in a plane crash. A batch of frog eggs are eaten before they hatch. A stunt pilot never pulls out of a dive. A bowl of gunpowder explodes in a man’s face. A chameleon’s tongue is ripped from its living throat by a rooster and eaten. A deer, roped to a tree by three of its legs, struggles for hours to be free. Always, the question hangs in the air: what is this?

The story of the deer tells us something else important about Dillard. When she watches this happen, she is in the Ecuadorian jungle with three North American men. That night, as they lay in the tent, one of them expresses amazement at her ability to calmly observe the suffering animal. ‘“If it had been my wife”, one man said with special vigour, amazed, “she wouldn’t have cared what was going on; she would have dropped everything right at that moment and gone in the village from here to there to there, she would not have stopped until that animal was out of its suffering one way or another.”’

The accusation is clear enough: Dillard is too detached from what she sees; especially, perhaps, for a woman. From her point of view, though, there is nothing unexpected about what she has just seen. ‘Gentlemen of the city,’ she writes, ‘what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know it?’

But perhaps the man’s surprise is not unreasonable, for Dillard is detached from the world to a degree, as perhaps all the best writers are. She watches, she responds, she puzzles over what she has seen, but in some ways she never seems quite part of the show. She takes no positions. We never hear of her politics, or her views on the ‘social issues’ of the day. There are no narrowing, strident defences of or attacks on this or that in-group or out-group; no red or blue, left or right. Those things are for lesser writers. Dillard is straining to see beyond them. What does she find? In one of the most extraordinary extended images in the book, she finds a vision of the shape of existence itself:

‘… A vision or fact of time and the peoples it bears issuing from the mouth of the cosmos, from the round mouth of eternity, in a wide and parti-coloured utterance. In the complex weave of this utterance like fabric, in its infinite domestic interstices, the centuries and continents and classes dwell. Each people knows only its own squares in the weave, its walls and instruments and arts, and also perhaps the starry sky.’

Each of us caught in our small places, caught in our views, our conflicts, our wars. If only we could see the whole picture! And yet, even if we could, what would it change? Here is the great paradox at the heart of Annie Dillard’s work. Sometimes she seems to see the burning bush, to walk out to where the veil is thinnest, to approach the numinous armed only with pen and notebook. But none of it necessarily offers any answers. ‘Say you have seen an ordinary bit of what is real,’ she writes, ‘the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through, and time’s soft-skinned people working and dying under slowly shifting stars. Then what?’

Nothing, perhaps. Or everything. Either way, it may be that our perennial task is to keep our eyes open as we walk; like Annie Dillard, always to pay attention:

‘The universe was not made in jest but in solemn, incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.’

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Paul Kingsnorth is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project (with Dougald Hine). His latest novel, Beast, is published by Faber & Faber paulkingsnorth.net

Image by Schnuffel2002, via Wikimedia Commons

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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.

2015 7 Oct 138
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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