The Dark Mountain Blog

Is the World Living or Dead? Or, the Trouble with Science

Orbit diagram for the solar system, showing Sedna and 2013 VP113

All myth, all deep insight, means the same as and no more than the falling of the solar system on its long parabola through space. Kenneth Rexroth

I spent the beginning of this year immersed in works of popular science. Completely absorbed, the way I have been by few works of fiction. Hours spent poring over books and articles on chaos theory, cosmology, string theory, stopping only to try to imagine some consequence or take note of some insight. Why, I had to ask myself, do I care so passionately about the arcane world of theoretical physics? Science had never been my talent or my discipline; my math was poor, my academic studies were in that softest of all subjects: literature. But for many years I had had these bouts of real absorption with the ideas of science, particularly physics. I realised it had something to do with the need to understand the reality in which I lived to the fullest extent, in a particular way that nothing else but science seemed capable of now.

As a student of literature, I favoured the idea that stories and storytelling were the chief means through which we attempted to convey our understanding of the cosmos, and what our place was within it. And this had always been the case, at least since humans developed complex language. Highly specialised societies became the norm, and with them we lost myth as the organising narrative of our lives, but we still looked for narratives and rituals that filled its function. In every area of human activity and thought, we continued to develop stories that served to position us with respect to other beings and to fundamental principles at a cosmological or near-cosmological scale.

But one after another, the disciplines we had fractured out of myth had seemed to fail at doing justice to this role: theist religion, politics, history, and the arts had mostly downgraded or dismissed the non-human world, the vast majority of reality. And either they withdrew from the ultimate questions about the nature of the cosmos and the idea of our purpose and belonging within it, or else considered them patly resolved by some suspiciously anthropoid superpower.

But not science. I grew up with the ideas of two great humanist popularisers of science, Jacob Bronowski (The Ascent of Man) and Carl Sagan (Cosmos), intimately beamed into my adolescent brain by television. The story they told was exhilarating and beautiful. Modern science was a hard-won triumph over bigotry and ignorance; it was the ultimate homage to nature. It had discovered many of the laws that governed the physical world, and yet there was so much more to know. Science was a great adventure, and there was room for us all to join. Carl Sagan told us that humans were ‘star stuff’, grown to be able to contemplate itself and the cosmos, and now longing to return to the stars.

saganCarl Sagan

Together with evolutionary biology, theoretical physics was the only contemporary endeavour seeking to present a complete picture of the cosmos and explain how it is and why it is as it is—without closing off the process at some point by attributing it all to a metaphysical dimension or super-being. I understood enough of its methods and conclusions to see that physics was striving, without any social coercion, through a union of observation and speculation, for a fundamental, all-encompassing, coherent, and beautiful picture of reality. Which was exactly what I was looking for. And with increasing urgency, in recent years, as the society that surrounded me became more fragmented, disconnected from the living world, and apparently unconcerned with any deeper understanding of it.

But now there was a problem that became clearer to me the more I read.

The picture of reality that physics has been developing since the last quarter of the 20th century is troubling: it is not coherent, it is not all-encompassing, and it cannot say what is truly fundamental. And at the same time, one of its most elegant attempts to produce a unified picture of the basic physical forces is retreating from the idea that observation and experiment are even necessary to the establishment of scientific truth.

Instead of illuminating ever more of the cosmos, theoretical physics now seems to be making it disappear in a cloud of unknowing: it proposes that the universe is almost entirely made up of matter that we cannot observe and do not understand, and that it is being torn apart by anti-gravitational energy in quantities unpredicted by any theory, whose source is also unknown. Intensely violent releases of electromagnetic radiation (observed, but again, previously unpredicted) are attributed mostly to unobservable, exotic objects whose internal physics are paradoxical. And (according to string theory) the universe is dependent for a unification of its major forces on the existence of infinitesimal extra dimensions that can never be observed or completely described because they are infinitely variable, and generate an infinity of hypothetical universes that can never have any meaningful relation to ours.

The universe described by physics today is an obscure, turbid, conflicted place, where reality at the smallest scales essentially disappears in paradox, and cannot be made continuous with reality at the largest – or even at the size of the molecule. Organic life is considered a freakish anomaly, and apparently doomed to remain so. Isolation and disorder will inevitably dominate the universe as it expands and degrades, finally becoming total and eternal.

If Dante had lived today, he might have found this the perfect description of the structure of hell.

And yet, ironically, the deeper we look into space, all of what we actually see is beautiful, dynamic, multiform, filled with light and the possibilities for life – and grandly structured, with all visible matter connected in a great web that stretches across unimaginably vast distances.

But the more I read, the more I saw that the trouble with science went beyond the bizarre speculative cul de sac that theoretical physics seemed to have entered.

To most of us today, what physics talks about is really no different from science fiction – except that the plot is thinner. The Big Bang, black holes, wormholes, multiverses, superstrings, dark matter, dark energy – not one of us can independently confirm the existence or non-existence of these, or even grasp more than dimly the means scientists have used to hypothesise them. They are like mythological entities revealed to us by modern priests with hieratic knowledge.

This is not just because there has been a failure to teach science adequately in schools, or because our mass communications media have no incentive to convey complex information, although both of those things may be true. It is simply characteristic of societies that are highly specialised that extreme concentrations of wealth, power, and knowledge emerge. And those who possess them seek to retain their elite status, and have disproportionate leverage to do so, so the distance tends to increase.

At some point – but the big question is what point? – the anti-social effects of such concentrations of knowledge come to outweigh, even compromise, the value of the insights gained, however compelling they are. I would give you the example of the Mayan priest class’ astoundingly complex and elegant understanding of time, which could not save their civilisation from the perpetual war and ecological overshoot that brought about its collapse.

I discovered that a few contemporary scientists, from within their disciplines, had begun to call out that something was wrong with the current picture. Not with the scientific method per se, but with science as it was actually being practiced in the 21st century. It was at risk of turning reductionism, abstract mathematics, and pet theories into dogma, of violating its own spirit of open-ended inquiry. While internal critics like biologist Rupert Sheldrake or physicist Lee Smolin approached this with their experience in and love of both theoretical and experimental science foremost, they were outriders nonetheless. They had largely been ignored or even insulted by their colleagues both for their chosen scientific approaches and their concern with the sociological ramifications of science. This was at least in part because they were saying that science, and scientists, were not immune to behaviours that characterised the larger society.

In other words, once an omnipotent Church had tried to stifle science, but in the 21st century, science was at risk of becoming a new Church, filled with careerism, narrowness, arrogance, and orthodoxy – and now it stifled itself.

In 1996 a physicist named Alan Sokal had perpetrated a hoax that gained him notoriety throughout the academic world. He submitted an article to the journal Social Text called ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. The article, published as written, was gibberish, purporting to Sokal that the triumph of postmodern approaches in the humanities made it impossible to distinguish profundity from tripe, or privilege the kind of falsifiable claims to truth that science prided itself upon. His demonstration was meant to prove that science would never stoop to such obscurantism or lack of rigour.

But when I read Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics (2006), I noted that he also spoke of physics entering a ‘postmodern’ phase – by which he meant that the elaborators of theory, particularly string smolintwptheory, had developed such an insular arrogance about their convoluted mathematics, and were so sure it was right, that they no longer felt constrained to defend it scientifically. In fact, he said, the mathematics produced a model of reality that was incapable of generating unique predictions testable by observation or experiment. There were also a functionally infinite number of potentially valid string theories. String theorists had unleashed a cosmological mise en abîme. It ironically bore some resemblance to that apocryphal little old lady’s remark about the ancient myth that the earth rested on the back of a giant turtle. What did the turtle rest on, then? It’s ‘turtles all the way down, I suppose,’ she responded.

So Smolin was claiming that physics too was guilty of postmodern obscurantism, and of succumbing to making non-falsifiable pronouncements. Sokal had scoffed at the idea that science was simply one more way humans had devised to tell themselves stories about the world. But Smolin said that the founders of quantum theory, upon discovering what’s called the ‘observer problem’ at the sub-atomic level, also became social constructionists in a way. They decided that it simply did not matter if the presence of an observer always determined what could be said about quantum states; the theory was too good to jettison. So they would give up looking for what Smolin called the Real World Out There at the smallest level, and simply keep on cataloguing the behaviour they could observe. Making Sokal seem wrong again to deride only non-scientists for saying that truth was ‘merely’ a human construct.

But even Smolin seemed not to understand just how determinative our ‘sociology’, as the frustrated scientists dismissively call it, really can be in determining what stories get told. He was an avowed believer in human progress, and surprisingly, for someone with a capacity for deep comprehension of highly complex systems in physics, it was of a reductively linear kind. He presented a thoroughly damning picture of an entire culture, and then expressed a vague hope it could all be sorted out by slight modifications in behaviour here and there.

Yet there’s considerable evidence that human social behaviours, even in the most specialised and highly technologically mediated societies, have not really evolved much in sophistication and may even be said to have regressed in some ways, compared with the prior understandings of peoples living at a much lower level of specialisation and technological intervention. For we have accepted monstrous imbalances of power and seem to have lost the determinative notion of reciprocity that gave some earlier forms of social organisation their stability. And sadly, it is science, aiding and aided by capital, which has actually been key in dismantling the idea of social and environmental reciprocity and instead justifying a profoundly anti-social and anti-ecological set of behaviours.

Above all, science is complicit because it presents us with the consensus idea that the world, at almost every level, consists solely of non-living, non-conscious material, which can thus be acted upon without the consequences of acting upon conscious living things. In fact, experimental science has shown that even other living things can be acted upon by humans in any way, exclusively for our own benefit, without the need for reciprocity of any kind. This is said to be ‘progress’ over the old, unenlightened view that the cosmos and everything in it was alive.

The model of nature accepted by the majority of contemporary scientists is that of a highly complex machine, something that – once certain unchanging laws and basic parts are identified – can essentially be manipulated at our will. Everything in the physical world also functions this way, including ourselves. The parts are separable from one another and the whole is reducible to the sum of its parts.

The reductionist consensus in biology and neuroscience, for example, sees human emotions as window dressing, basically remnants of primitive survival behaviour, now mostly just a way of gauding up our lives. They have no epistemological function and can get in the way of rational understanding. Our sensual experience is reduced to a simplistic pleasure/pain binary – instead of being a legitimate path to understanding and participating in complex, dynamic relationships without requiring the intervention of technology or oversight from the rational mind.

The scientific method must dismiss anything that anything that cannot be measured with ever-increasing precision (with the exception, perhaps, of those unruly quantum states). Anything that persistently confounds measurement is considered irrelevant, a so-called epiphenomenon. This includes all subjective experience, not to mention human consciousness itself, for many evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists. All the more so, then, any other types of consciousness there might be in other types of matter.

This view, of course, will continue to alienate us from ourselves, as it bears no relation to life as we actually experience it. ‘The one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know,’ says science journalist Jonah Lehrer, defending art (including the storytelling arts) as a way of knowing, in Proust Was a Neuroscientist (2011).

Some scientists, like the world-famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, complain about the irrational fear of science. He is right that a blanket rejection of science is an enemy of understanding and has become a tool of dangerous reaction, particularly in the US, where it has played right into the hands of powerful backers of an ecocidal status quo. As the existential threat denialism poses becomes clearer through the haze of sponsored lies, the champions of science are gaining ground. But fighting dogma with dogma, as Dawkins does, misses the real issue: is ‘faith in science’ any more likely to get us into right relationship with the living world than faith in the supernatural?

For what, precisely, is irrational about fearing something demonstrably capable of erasing reality as you know it, something whose processes and mechanisms are in the hands of others who are largely unknown and completely unaccountable to you? Is it only our ignorance, or is their hubris also to blame for that fear?

Great scientists are among our modern heroes. Yet 20th-century physicists created the first weapon capable of extinguishing all life on earth. Chemists developed poison gas. Psychologists have been involved in refining torture techniques. Biologists are exuberantly manipulating genetic material in ways that could be bringing about the collapse of large-scale, complex ecosystems. They do not say no, even when the stakes are that high.

We have mapped and measured, we have formulated to degrees of complexity beyond the capacity even to measure with the tools we have – or possibly ever, in the case of some cosmological theories. And yet none of that captures essence in any way – nor, the most humble and righteous scientists will quietly allow – is it meant to. The more arrogant scientists would have us give up the idea of essence, or say that it lives Platonically in mathematics alone. But mathematics, no matter how eerily well it reproduces patterns and gives holographic representations of many aspects of the physical world, is still a human language. Our formulae do not exist in the Real World Out There any more than does Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ or the subject-verb-object construction of a sentence.

Ironically, of course, in climatology and zoology scientists are trying desperately to warn us of major, irrevocable changes in the biosphere, but their graphs and models have so far proved no match for the power of unimpeded flows of capital, and the unleashed infinities of human desire. Here, at the opposite end of the methodological spectrum from string theory (which achieved a kind of mainstream scientific consensus without any physical evidence whatsoever) climatologists have been laboriously accumulating data for decades and developing rigorous standards for testing theories – but nobody really wants to believe the story they are telling, because it is not about infinite possibility but about the dreary, real constraints of living systems, even at the largest scale we know.

Capital, having perfected the art of buttering its bread on both sides, thus somehow manages to benefit both from the triumph of science for the production of consumer products or infrastructure, and from the fear and resentment it induces in the mass imagination when it comes to the need for system-wide behaviour change.

While the scientific method is a great tool for many purposes, including an understanding of aspects of the physical world, the practice of science, like any human activity, is neither intrinsically beneficial nor destructive. Science as it is practiced today is patently not sufficient to guide humanity to a socio-ecology that is dynamic and harmonious – one that can mimic a complex ecosystem capable of thriving for hundreds of thousands of years, like a forest or a coral reef – or even the tens of thousands of years that some indigenous peoples managed without any reliance at all upon the scientific method.

On the contrary, the triumph of scientific hubris could just as well lead to our extinction. The scientific method gave humans an unprecedented power over matter – and we used it to make possible the relentlessly efficient machinery that is already facilitating climate change and the earth’s sixth great extinction of species. But somewhere else in our minds we know that unchecked aggression and hubris will destroy us too. We have a short history relative to the cosmos, but it is long enough to have given us the lessons of great failures. In fact, mythic stories recounted those truths for millennia. But a reductive materialism has degraded the meaning of myth to ‘a counterfactual belief’.

At every step, in every field, since the late 20th century, the unbuilt, pre-existing world of nature has been telling the physical sciences how far ahead of them she is. Even the mind-boggling (and beautiful) infinite recursions and bifurcations of chaos theory produce only drastically simplified approximations of common dynamic processes in nature, ones that you observe by watching a flowing stream or the passage of clouds.

Their own mathematics warns scientists that their solutions to complex or ‘non-linear’ problems can only be so approximate as to be useless in most cases. A more profound insight that can be derived from them is how a finite natural system can contain and be bounded by almost infinite complexity, and thus, how sensitive it is to change. Emerging systems theories, like biologist Stuart Kauffman’s, are just beginning to sketch the minority report on irreducible complexity – while the reductionist consensus, with vast resources to back it up, gallops on towards the machine dreams of its venture capitalists and ‘visionaries’.

There is a warning bell ringing loudly now in our ears: reality eludes all efforts to reduce it too much, or to use only formalisms to describe it. It seems to be trying to tell the scientists who will listen that things in connection with one another, evolving in time, are not just different in scale from things studied in isolation but fundamentally different in kind. Time has lost all fundamentality in mainstream theoretical physics. And yet time not only rules our human lives and everything our senses can perceive, but its flow is somehow essential in creating this qualitative difference.

If scientists took time seriously enough, they might even find it to be capable of altering the rules by which physical change happens (Smolin is one of a small group of theoretical physicists considering this idea. And Sheldrake has also proposed that ‘nature may have habits rather than laws’). But the scientific method constrains science to isolate things in space and remove them from the passage of time in order to make statements about them, to act upon them. It’s highly unlikely that a discipline thus constrained will be able to permit the notion that the cosmos itself is alive, for life is characterised not just by a set of molecules but by its particular relationship to the flow of time.

Humans remain on a trajectory that is predominantly profoundly anti-social, hubristic, and mechanistic. But if we fail as a species, it won’t be because our theoretical physics wasn’t good enough, or our theories of consciousness, our engineering, technology, medicine – or even our art, music, or literature. It will be because the stories we accepted as most profoundly true, the ones that determined our social behaviour, dismissed the idea that treating the world as dead would ultimately be deadly to us too.

In a mountain village in Peru once, I met an old man who was introduced to me as an Inca priest. (The Inca civilisation is long gone, of course, but like the Mexica and Maya, those who call themselves its descendants continue trying to keep its philosophy alive.) The priest was baking bread; that was his daily work in the village. In his view the mountains that towered over our heads were just as alive as the birds that sang in the scrub trees, the loaves of bread he pulled from the clay oven, or any of us. I was with a group of people who were interested in what they called spiritual questions, and someone spoke wonderingly of the fact that there were so many religions in the world.

‘But the Truth is One,’ the priest replied.

That raised an old anti-theist red flag: it sounded too nice and easy to be true. I wanted to see more evidence. I find I want that more than ever, nowadays. I still appreciate the power of science to take on the ultimate questions, and the rigorous beauty of some of its hypothetical answers. I’m inspired by the scientists who are challenging the reductionist and mechanistic dogma of their disciplines. But I’m afraid they may always be the minority report. If science remains dominated by the lure of power over matter, or the belief that its own abstractions are the ultimate reality, it will never be able to find the evidence I seek, or weave us back into the story of, a single, living world.

Recommended Works:

Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics; Time Reborn

Rupert Sheldrake, The Science Delusion (US title: Science Set Free)

Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe; Reinventing the Sacred

James Gleick, Chaos: The Making of a New Science

David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order

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

The Light Extraordinary

Northing

Dunwich

Shrike girdled the
Slit eyed
Marsh hallows, the feather beaten
call to gallows

Worth a deft pass
Enshruddled mist
Lickered craw, now the tendons stick
To thumps of silence raw

Slinking moon permits
An autopsy
Revealing sin, rotted planks tarred
Long seaborne scarred

Through marram threads
The noose
Permits, flightless mud dweller skips
And under slips

Dittany

Eidolon

She is the seed-knowledge in the ravines
Under concrete, soft-headed sleeper
Dreams beneath gum patina and feet tramp
Ignored static bleeds angry stamp
Seeps through seams
Where a shadow forest creeps
Under the glum fabric of man
All her whispers are leaf brush
The delicate fan of night branches
Her speech is the soft dirge of mush
Preaching forgotten implores
This army of lurking shades
Phantoms in paving slabs
Viridian certainty, poised potential
Chasms in her skin boil with life
Ruts in the valleys,
Thunder-claps on the peak
Bats in the grammar, sly as the adders
Wound about her roots
Each a tendril, tender seeks
There is no turning the head
Unfound, the eyeless thief
Cracks every question of your heart
And answers them, piece by busted piece

These poems are taken from a wider collection called ‘The Light Extraordinary’, the first poem of which was featured in a short film shown on Channel 4. Daniel is writing a book, Wildonomics, ten social experiments to connect humans with nature. See more of his work on danielcrockett.co.uk. @dancrockett

Kleifarvatn Lake

800px-Kleifarvatn_3

People say there’s only one main road in Iceland. It’s not true, of course – there are plenty of them – but there is one in particular that goes right around the perimeter of the island. At points, along this road, there are gravel tracks leading off and sometimes into the interior. We took one of these and it led us to Kleifarvatn Lake.

Kleifarvatn is a volcanic lake, the largest in Iceland. It lies on the southern part of the peninsula on the fissure zone of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, although when we arrived there I hadn’t seen it on any map. We were three. I was travelling with Georgie, a friend and ceramicist from England, and we’d met Haraldur, a friend of a friend and artist living in Reykjavik, a couple days before. He’d heard we wanted to explore the island and had offered to take us to the lake.

The lake is big. It stretches further than any distance I can judge by seeing, and sits within a crater of rock that is black, or dark brown, or dark brown with flecks of grey and red in. You look around and feel strangely contained – in a place – although the place is huge. And still. There is no movement anywhere you can see. You can see three things – Rock. Sky. Water. There is nothing else. There is the light, which shifts with the wind over the water, so that sometimes it might be moving towards and at other times away from where you stand and look. Cliff becomes rock becomes the sand under your feet that stretches and then slips down into the water. The water is clear like the sky, and bluer. There is no trace of time here except the slow burning of your face and the slippage of tidemarks at your toes. There are no rivers running into this lake and it makes no contact with the sea; the level changes according to the groundwater below.

But I can’t describe this place without also describing how it hit me.

All that week we’d been seeking experience. We’d gone after heights, swimming holes, staying out, going further, the sun, wind, rising steams. When I got out of the car at the lake it was different. Something changed direction, an experience found me; I wasn’t seeking it out. I walked very slowly to the edge. I was looking ahead, but the further I got the more I was struck by a feeling. I felt so sad, to see that place. ‘Sadness’ is the wrong word for the strangeness of it. Maybe a kind of alone. The lake was huge and stretching, it was beautiful, and I felt opened; but through the silence came this impossible feeling. I’ve been wondering about it, and about the lake, ever since. Trying to work out what it was, where it came from, whether it belonged to anyone/thing. What it was about that place that called it up in me.

Would someone else have called it ‘awe-inspired’? I thought that was about God, or at least a kind of presence. But I felt nothing else in that place. There was no life. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere so stripped of connection. No plants growing between things, nothing muddied, no movement or signage or any kind of direction – only things in their most mineral forms. It was bare, unlifted. I felt wrong to be there, in all my layers and coverings. Exposed, to be from a world that has built so much up around itself.

I’m not sure what would have happened if I’d been there alone. Maybe I would have nodded my head at the vastness, or sat on the beach a bit. But I wasn’t alone, I was with two others. Georgie had gone off in another different direction and I was walking with Haraldur. Our feet made a slow rhythm in the sand and the rhythm made us close, so that as I looked out at the vastness I also felt an intimacy, and I think perhaps that these two things combined were what opened me to the feeling. What opened the feeling to me.

My Dad is ‘a bit low at the moment’, my Mum says. Which might be a way of not saying Depression. I don’t think I mean depression in a medical way. I’m thinking of rocks and surfaces, about what it is to live in a place that tends towards sunkenness. How you move through a place like that. What effect it has on the kinds of lights and landscapes you start seeking.

Volcanic lakes can result from three quite distinct processes. A caldera lake is formed where the slow subsidence of a thin crust creates a depression in the earth’s surface that then fills to form a lake. A second type is created through the blockage of waterways by mud, lava flows or ash. Crater lakes, by contrast, are formed when a volcanic explosion opens a crater in the earth’s crust to form an enclosed basin in which water accumulates.

I haven’t been able to find anyone who can tell me how the lake was formed, so it is only a hunch, but I don’t think Kleifarvatn was about subsidence or blockage. It was low-lying, but I felt no sinking feeling. I saw something bright down there, a shocking lucidity. This is something I’ve been wondering about recently. What it is to be brought down, stripped back – to come close to the ground, your feet, the rock. How to keep a very tactile and moving relation to things, eyes unblinkered and skin exposed. It is challenging, to me, to think about.

We drove a little further along the track and then stopped for a banana sandwich lunch, hunched in a crook of rock, crumbing an apple cake we’d made without any of the right ingredients. A coach-load of American geology students pulled up, out of the nowhere. The teacher told me that the black rock we were standing on was formed of volcanic ash and is being constantly eroded by the wind. The whole landscape is changing all the time, he said. ‘Just not at a rate we can see,’ I said, thinking I’d got it. ‘Well, yes,’ he nodded. ‘But it could erupt again at any moment.’ Everything here could be transformed, changed, thrust apart. He pointed to the skeleton of an old geyser that had dried up, and to other geysers still active and shifting like eczema across the mountainside. All stillness is deceptive, and so is my perception of change as well as time.

We found Haraldur chatting with the bus driver. ‘What were you talking about?’ I asked, as the kids started climbing back into the coach. ‘I was asking him about the road.’ ‘What did he say?’ ‘Yeah,’ he shrugged, ‘he said the road is good.’

Helen lives in Oxford and runs an arts programme for the homelessness charity, Crisis.

image courtesy of Christian Bickel

Otterhead

As it happens, we do communicate across the timelines of the Omniverse. Communication is indirect and difficult. The quantum entanglements on which it depends are themselves randomly unpredictable. It is most often through catchy tunes and mnemonic devices that information can be transmitted more or less intact. We receive these messages in dreams and inspirations, sudden words that appear from nowhere. They appear in the mind and then fade quickly, unless they have form and structure that helps us hold onto them. Nursery rhymes… simple songs may carry an important message. Most of the ones we know were left here by time-travellers ages ago. This is a story about one such song, and the tale that it tells of a future we hope may never come to pass.

The sound creates a vision, and we see a circle of men, women and children gathered around a fire, humming a sad and mournful chord in a minor key. Their clothing is strangely modern in style, yet obviously handmade. An old man’s voice is raised up and cries to the heavens like a child to its mother, the last words of each line hold out long in a plaintive wail, trailing off at the end as if in exhaustion. Other voices hum a drone that forms a background with the crackling fire.

Ottherhead, otterhead, can’t you see
Gotta be otters playin’ in the sea
Ain’t no good if they all gone away
Gotta be otters bobbin’ in the bay

Large trees, fir and pine, surround us. Beyond the fire in the darkness we faintly sense the thunder of crashing waves, as if we are in the woods atop a sea cliff. A gentle breeze carries the salty smell of the sea. A hand drum begins to beat a simple rhythm. The voice rises again in time to the drum and begins to sing…

There once was a little girl sat by the shore
Reading library books of animal lore
A photograph, taken this very place
Showed an otterhead with a whiskered face

We see the girl-child as she sits happily reading a large picture-book on top of a grassy hill overlooking the sea. There is sun and wind and the crying of birds. A photo in the book clearly shows an oddly shaped rock in the bay. The little girl looks up, and sees that there is that same rock, though the water is much higher than in the photo. She realizes that the picture was surely taken from almost this exact spot! We see her brows furrow as she looks back and forth in confusion from the book to the bay. She gets up and walks quickly with her finger holding the page of the book. Her father is working at a wood-carving bench shaving spokes for a wheel. He looks at the picture, hears her question, sighs, and tells her the truth.

Little girl, went and she asked her pa
Then she ran and asked her ma
Parents told her, through their tears
There hadn’t been an otter for a thousand years

She turns and runs frantically to her mother working in the garden. The man follows wiping his hands on a towel and shares a glance of sorrow with the woman. From where she kneels on the ground the mother holds the girl and tells her the same, that the sea otters are extinct. The girl breaks into sobs and cries on her mother’s shoulder for some minutes.

Ottherhead, otterhead, can’t you see
Gotta be otterheads in the sea
Ain’t no good if they all gone away
Gotta be otters bobbin’ in the bay

Then the little girl rallies and questions her parents closely. She cannot believe their story and points to the picture book as proof. But her parents explain that it all happened long long ago, in a time before the grandparents of their great-grandparents were even born.

That can’t be true, the picture book said!
But that book is old, the author’s dead.
When the sea rose up the kelp all died
The otters went away, nobody knows why

Much information has been saved from the olden days before the world changed dramatically. Books can be reprinted, though the information they hold is often obsolete and there are very few new books. The little girl becomes angry and vows to find someone with the power to fix things. She adopts a determined stance and refuses to accept that this is just the way of things.

Little girl cried ‘How can this be,
That there’s no otters in the sea?
I’ll take my case to the highest man
And ask him to do whatever he can.’

Her parents are kindly folk and are willing to indulge her, and soon they are dressed in their best. They hitch up the pony cart, and drive to the nearest large town, which is not too far away. There they seek out the one man the little girl knows is the most powerful in all the world. Surely, she reasons, he will help her bring back the otters.

The very next day they went to town
Little girl wore her finest gown
They went to the place where the big man stays
On his golden throne with a silver sleigh

She waits her turn patiently in line as there are many others before her to make their pleas. Finally it is her turn. An attendant elf helps her up onto the knee of Santa Claus, yes… Father Christmas himself, who now seems to be the center of all civil authority in this strangely familiar place. He is big and jolly and smells like fresh bread, and she tells him what she wants. Santa smiles sadly, and nods.

Santa said, ‘Little girl, I can see you’re sincere
So I’ll do my best, now don’t you fear.
I’ll bend time, make it go the wrong way
And you’ll see the otters on Christmas day.’

Santa’s chief elf leans over and whispers in his ear… ‘Boss… what are you doing? You know that’s against the rules!’ Santa has a faraway look in his eye, shakes his head, and waves the elf off. And so the little family goes home again, and the little girl seems happy once more, though as they leave we can clearly see that Santa is not happy at all.

Ottherhead, otterhead, can’t you see
Gotta be otterheads in the sea
Ain’t no good if they all gone away
Gotta be otters bobbin’ in the bay

But things are not well with the little family, the harvest is poor and the times are hard, and as summer passes into fall the girl falls seriously ill. It is a common illness in those days, oft seen among the children, and incurable as everyone knows. Some people say it is because so many of the old nuclear power plants had melted down all those ages ago and spewed forth their filth. Others ascribe it to the work of evil spirits. Whatever the cause, the child weakens quickly and becomes bedridden in just a few weeks. Her mother smilingly cares for her with true love, yet weeps when she is alone in the kitchen. Her father busies himself in the workshop and quietly builds a wooden box.

The little girl died on Christmas Eve
Her cancer, it gave no reprieve
But Santa remembered what he did say
And she played with the otters on Christmas day

The child wakens on Christmas morning to find bright sunshine and a blanket of newfallen snow. She feels wonderful and runs out to the bay, and lo and behold… the otters are there! They beckon and call to her. She feels no cold and no fear, and runs barefoot on strong legs through the snow and into the surf to join them.

Ottherhead, otterhead, can’t you see
Gotta be otterheads in the sea
Ain’t no good if they all gone away
Gotta be otters bobbin’ in the bay

There’s gotta be otters bobbin’ in the bay
Gotta be otters
Gotta be otters
Gotta be otters
Bobbin’ in the bay

Tom Maringer is an educator, writer, musician, environmentalist, adventurer and craftsman living and working in the Ozark Mountains region of the central US. He’s got degrees in Geology and Geography and enjoys caving, climbing, and getting out on the river, but spends most of his time working on creating fantasy artifacts from worlds of fiction and mythology. His stories almost always involve interactions between parallel timelines of the Omniverse, an existence theory that goes far beyond the popular Multiverse ideas of modern physics. The artifacts he creates are intended to be viewed as being FROM those other realms. His novel A Superior State of Ideas is one such. His website is shirepost.com and he may be contacted at maringer@arkansas.net 

Letters to a Young Planet

IMG_2615Yours, letters to a young planet

Dear, it’s raining––and everybody here says: At last! Even the birds; but what would you say if you no longer had your sun . . . ? All the same, it was rain we wanted, it’s falling softly, tenderly, each drop a caress, almost a kiss.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Rilke, Letters to Merline: 1919 – 1922)

For a long time I have been an avid reader of Rilke, though I never really understood why. This is not to say that I believe there to be reason behind our reading habits. Reading is irrational most of the time – erratic, emphatic, insane (and in this sense, reading is so much akin to the weather… erratic, emphatic, insane). This is just to say that certain writing becomes visible for distinct yet discrete reasons, seeking our attention for reasons we may only later discover.  And it is this ‘seeking’ that has necessary meaning. There is so much text in the world. There is crushingly little time.

Some months ago, I started collecting found postcards, and interspersing reading these with reading Norton’s translation of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet; his Letters on Cézanne, and MacDonald’s translation of his Letters to Merline: 1919 – 1922. This blogpost contains an extract of a work contemplating my inability to contact the writers of these found postcards from the near past. The letters in this blogpost respond to a handful of the thousands of postcards in the collection. They attempt to tell the writers what these aesthetic objects tell me about the changing climate.

IMG_2620Dear A.L.,

GWENT. 1976.

Your postcard was the last to arrive – just days ago – from GWENT. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. That is all I can do. I cannot, as you say, ‘send your love to Aunt Daisy,’ nor write to you of the increasing wind, how I imagine your tan from the warm Wales sun has by now left your skin, with all your thoughts… I cannot write in this of my imagined moment of you cleanly unleashing this colourful postcard into a postbox in 1976 – how did you spend that 6½p in the post office? How did you look upon the August weather out the window, how on your browning skin? I cannot discuss these things, for fear of… Nothing touches the past so little as this remorse.

Dear Mr & Mrs H.,
TUNISIA. 14-9-2002.

Writing is difficult, and you must pardon my delay in responding to your postcard from ‘Hotel Kanta, Tunisia’ of 14-9-2002. I want to tell you that your postcard gave me an unspeakable pleasure and stirred the deepest fear within me – that ‘spectacular thunderstorm,’ not unlike the ones 11 years from your writing; floods, downpours, gales, high winds catching posts and carrying them across waterlogged fields. I want to tell you not to feel the crystal comfort of the safety of the ‘sunny a.m.’ that followed on its heels. Unspeakably alone, I leave you empty-handed; and many things must happen, in a world that feels suddenly necessary through your brief, beautiful words.

Dear D.,
TÜRKIYE. 19__

Letter by letter, I type the flight number and the time of arrival and date from the stamp and your holiday destination into Google. My search doesn’t match any documents. I do not fear you never landed at ‘Gatwick at 5.55am as is invariably the way with the enchantment of disaster, had your flight fallen from the air into the ocean between Gatwick and Türkiye, that moment in the wonderful, wide fabric of our history would – laid like thread alongside an infinity of others – lack the unimportance to disappear beneath the patterning of the sea. Yet, I fear that this postcard is the only relic of you. And I must tell you that its status as an aesthetic object, its awful banality and its rupture into the inevitable critique of this response, petrifies me into a thrilling terror and hardened alarm.

Rilke writes: ‘Read as little as possible of literary criticism – such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word-games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view. Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism.’ (Letters to a Young Poet)

Letter by letter, I search the words you chose to describe the foreign weather: ‘The weather is very nice not too hot with a breeze but it gets quite cold at night.’ My search does not match any documents.

It makes ‘Suggestions’:
– Make sure that all words are spelled correctly.
– Try different keywords.
– Try more general keywords.
– Try fewer keywords.

Letter by letter, I search a correctly spelled digestion: ‘hot weather cold night’. I try to let each letter have the swell of its impression, become an embryo of reaching back through a duration into your gone moment, to square the circle of the postcard, but the message becomes obscured by the British swelter of summer 2012, instructions on ‘How to sleep in hot weather’.

Rilke: An artist stands confident in the storms of spring, unafraid that the summer may fail to come.
Me: Another stands in silence, under the ruin of the skies.

Dear C.,
LLANDUDNO. 1045AM. 23 AUG. 1979.

. . . This morning your long thoughts are with me under the awful blue of a Wednesday market sky, as I hold forth the brevity of your postcards, stealing somehow beyond itself into the immensity of your ‘Tuesday sunshine,’ akin (I think) to this one, with all your words, with all your words . . . It is a precise moment. And Rilke is with me through this. And Rilke writes to a young, aspiring poet of the powerlessness of his words to tell that poet how to become a poet – such critical asceticism, and Rilke, how you open a terminal space of disaster, where your words unleash a distant sense of what instructions on poetry might look like.

Yes, it is in the not-writing that Rilke writes of writing. Yes, it is in the venturing into privation, into elusiveness, toward the enormous namelessness that writing writes around, that Rilke somehow magically liberates words, things, emotions, even poetry of its own sad walls. C., you write home on a Tuesday in 1979 how you have ‘seen the sun though – several times. It has been sunny most of the day today.’

Only this . . . for Tuesday . . . for a thousand other moments of precision, cumulating into an imperceptible history . . .

[a brief interlude to transcribe a poem on the impossibility of exciting the distant past to change]

‘The lungs …’

The lungs
are rosette lungs
set upon
the surface of the kitchen
counter
like an elegiac joke.
Here is a future.
Here is a bag of cold
uncooked potatoes.
Here is sprouting into a witness
of a ghost you brought
about speaking around
our dancing
in the kitchen (Christmas) room.

Dear T. and L.,
ARONA. ITALIA. 6/8/81.

Perhaps if I recount the facts, this past that is so deeply taken with it-self will listen back, become another future? ‘6/8/81. Mum and I are here in Italy visiting the family and we are having a really lovely time. The weather here though is far too hot for comfort – as we are not used to it. But I am going to take advantage of it and make myself very brown.’
Yes, I wonder if in my failed effort to instruct you to re-read those signs and signal instead to each other of the coming danger, I might liberate this postcard from itself, into nameless clue.

Dear Mum,
EDINBURGH. 22-JUN 1961.

You write: ‘weather has not been too good has changed for better this morning lovely country wonderful town have made friends and shall have a nice holiday if the weather keeps fine.’
I think: Yes, in the mutiny of the strange weather of this May morning I wonder if in my failed writing I might undo the meaning of my own words through you. Your semantics remind me of the tracts that arrive for me from my own mother. And I wonder if I turn to . . .

[a brief interlude to transcribe a poem on the impossibility of reaching other humans in a confined space such as the Tube]

To the man who must be a boxer

It is a beautiful thing
to see you pass
hand over hand
fold over fold
through this evening’s paper
to wince as you clip
the scab on the knuckle
of your ring finger
to clamour at words
through inflated eyes.

Dear Joan & Jim,
LLORET DE MAR. ESPAÑA. 1968.

‘Monday
Dear Mother, got more settled now, and have had a scorching day today. We are soaking ourselves in oil + lotion but I bet we suffer in bed tonight!!’
A heat too close for comfort: I do not wonder which of you wrote this postcard, knowing the hand so well – (hiding inside, I found this postcard in my attic) – The ‘J’s of your two names familiar-curving into my own hand’s lineage, spinning out from my childhood into the poetry I never knew you had within you, Nan:

‘Still can’t believe we are in Spain until we look around at the different buildings and the way of life. The shops at night are brightly lit and they are just like huge bazaars down narrow streets.

‘the church is a beautiful one – set right in the heart of the shops.’

A line begins to take shape. A map begins to form. An unforeseeable map; not quite art, not quite science, beyond description-shot through with the personal, the homely, the individual, the historical moment of my writing and that of the person I can touch and speak to now, but may never address with these confiding words about the volatility of the world. This proximate distance of speaking and writing, mapped through the constellation of Nan, her postcard, and me, perfectly describes the current state of climate dialogues within our writing communities: our writing of unanswerable, unheard letters. Our dreams of impossible maps composed of poetry.

IMG_2625

IMG_2650Weather etc. Writing Home

There are infinite ways in which to respond to the postcards, which offer a wealth of information around individual and social relationships with the weather. And so, with support from the Royal Meteorological Society and King’s College London, we are building a public network of contributors to a new exhibition entitled Weather etc. Writing Home.

Weather etc. Writing Home is a collection of publicly donated postcards and accompanying social, artistic and scientific stories. Accumulating over a year, Weather etc. Writing Home is an invitation to search through your home to find postcards from friends, relatives and years gone by. To read and reflect on messages about the weather found in these charming postcards, and to share these to become a part of this new scientific and artistic inquiry.

At a time of rising social awareness of the changing climate, we are gathering a collection of postcards to begin reconsidering how people write and communicate a changing climate. The weather is becoming more and more of a social emergency; the climate is a political question, and climate science is grappling to answer these socio-political questions of fear, terror and amazement.

Surprisingly enough, those cast-aside postcards lying around your home have a vital scientific purpose. Climate scientists are already using unexpected tools like Twitter to crowd-source information from the general public to map the weather. And in projects like Old Weather, meteorologists are already using archives from the past to be able to reconstruct maps and models of historical weather. Weather etc. Writing Home promises to contribute new stories and maps to weather history. Scientific researchers in the field of meteorology can use your postcards to understand what the weather was doing in the past. By digitising the postcards, they can compare their weather messages to weather records, developing new understandings of what people feel, think and write about a changing climate.

We currently have over 2000 postcards in the collection. Beautiful and sometimes comical in their brevity, delightful in their stories, and profound when gathered as a collection, each one offers a unique snapshot into how people think about the weather. This growing collection is only made possible by the continued generous donation of postcards by members of the public. Please send postcards, with any accompanying stories, to the following pigeon hole:

Penny Newell
King’s College London
Department of English
Virginia Woolf Building
22 Kingsway
London
WC2B 6NR

The exhibition will take place in Spring 2015. All submitted postcards that are used will be credited, but unfortunately cannot be returned. With enquiries, please contact: penny.newell@kcl.ac.uk

Lines of Flight

The filmpoem Lines of Flight is an audio-visual manifestation of a conversation we had over four months about belonging, migration and journeying. As a creative collaboration it is an experiment in finding ways to express our exploration of these themes in shared metaphors and imagery.

Having had an inkling to work together without a clear idea of how or on what, we found a starting point in Jeppe’s blog post Lines of flight in a time of endings. The image of lines representing individual experiences provided an opening for a conversation about finding community and home in a time characterised by change and uncertainty.

When Emily received an invitation from Alastair Cook to make a submission for the Filmpoem Festival 2014, we began to think about how our inquiry could translate into audio-visual representations. And so the ideas for Lines of Flight slowly developed in conversation and in written exchange once we had found this beginning – we have created this piece entirely through online contact, and have only met in person once before.

The collaboration developed as iterations of conversation, individual reflections, sketching and experimenting with different forms of expression. The themes of migration and journeying connect with recent life experiences for us both and became a crucible for deliberating these aspects of our lives together. It was a new way of working for both of us which provided a growing vocabulary for describing our thoughts and feelings and new means of expressing these artistically.

What perhaps characterised our mode of working together in particular was a shared sense of detachment from the outcome of our inquiry and an openness to let new elements enter the work whenever they arose. This meant that we felt free to follow the themes we were exploring wherever they took us. We often sensed immediately when we had hit on an image or phrasing that had a particular power to us, and in this way a structure gradually emerged which guided further experimentation – our personal and different lines of flight finding a resonance.

It is in some ways strange to compare the process of co-creating the filmpoem with the ‘final’ version as there has been a strong element of serendipity involved in its creation. The filmpoem holds a lot of personal experiences and points to ways of relating to each other and our wider circles of friendship which we are only beginning to see more clearly. ‘Circling amongst each other, we know when to turn’ suggests that we are part of a slowly evolving network of strong relationships between people who are living through a particular kind of transition. That we are not alone. This has partly grown out of the Dark Mountain Project, which is also how we first met.

We have tried to creatively address the balance of migration/nomadism in modern life and the sense of coming back to ground; feeling at home in a place, possibly more than one place and always in our own journeys. We see the meditative quality of the filmpoem, almost like an incantation evoking feelings of empowered rootedness, as a kind of antidote to the anxiety that accompanies moving around which allows finding a sense of trust in an unfolding path, of living in transition.

The poem has another particular power for us: the patience to wait for what is really worthwhile, to tap into a deep sense or inner knowing that meaningful and sustainable change takes its own time. Something about it invokes what is meant to be (even if that is unknown or not easily described). And there are still many aspects to the poem which we can’t quite put into words because it grew out of questions which we are still inquiring into.

In many ways it feels like we have only scratched the surface of Lines of Flight, and we hope some to use the content as starting points for further work. Building this collaborative narrative has activated new ways of working and supported multi-disciplinary creativity. Making Lines of Flight has been a powerful way of tapping into our inner sense of direction and passion. We hope that our work has a similar effect for viewers, in offering a little poetic orientation to help navigate each of our journeys through a time of personal change and wider transition.

Lines of Flight was screened at the 2014 Filmpoem Festival in Antwerp.

Jeppe Graugaard is a researcher and writer who explores the connections between cultural narratives, worldviews and social change. He is currently finishing his doctoral thesis at the University of East Anglia. You can find out more about his work on www.refiguring.net or catch up with him in www.patternwhichconnects.com.

Emily Wilkinson is an artist and wordsmith who works in mixed-media, textiles and words. She is interested in the poetic relationship between materiality and language, exploring recurrent themes of place, environment, emotion, journeys and transformation. Emily has exhibited at An Tallas Solais in Ullapool, at Calgary Arts on the Isle of Mull and at Twenty Twenty Gallery in Shropshire. Her work has also been published in Earthlines magazine, and earlier this year she was artist in residence at Wenlock Books. See www.emilywilkinson.net.

 

Five years on a Mountain

Five years ago today, I stood in the draughty backroom of a pub on the banks of the River Thames, on a slightly elevated stage next to a man I didn’t know very well, and together we launched the Dark Mountain Project. Perhaps 50 people were there. It rained, I think.

What did I think I was doing? Trying to recover the past from the vantage point of the present is always hard: perhaps it’s impossible. We tend to mythologise our own stories, or at least to construct after the event a narrative that makes them seem more seamlessly interlinked or rational than they actually were. ‘We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives’, wrote WG Sebald, ‘as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious’. This little event turned out to be a decisive step in my life, and it’s taken  me about five years to become more conscious of what those adjustments were.

P1070191

At the time and on the surface, what I thought I was doing was quite simple:  I was starting a new literary movement. With Dougald, my co-conspirator and soon-to-be friend, I had written a strange little manifesto, which demanded that its readers open their eyes to the huge shifts which our world was undergoing, and then start to write as if they were real. This was always supposed to be an artistic rather than a political document. For me, its inspirations were not Leninists or Maoists but Dadaists and Vorticists. Like its forebears a century ago, I wanted this manifesto to emerge from the collapse of the old world and herald something new.

Despite this grand and probably self-regarding ambition, the movement I envisaged emerging from this little document was to be something quite modest. I thought we might get a writers’ circle together, perhaps. Maybe we’d meet every couple of weeks in the pub, ten or 20 of us, and talk about how to bust open the rotten citadels of literature and pour the healing waters of uncivilisation down upon its thirsty inhabitants.

Things did not go quite to plan.

Five years on, this Dark Mountain Project is many things. It is a sprawling global network of like-minded people. It is a small ‘organisation’ which produces two books a year of art and writing. It is a series of happenings and comings-together, events and festivals and gatherings. It is a conversation. It is a search for new stories. It is one part of a much wider global shift towards a new way of seeing nature and civilisation. It is a controversy and a call to action and a call to contemplation. It is a journey. It is a place you can come to give up hope so that you can find it again in a new shape. It is a crucible and a strange shape-shifting beast. Even after five years, it is almost impossible to describe the thing. But we know it works, and we think it is needed, because we’re still here and we’re still running to keep up.

A few weeks back, Dougald and I gave a talk at Schumacher College in Devon, in which we challenged ourselves to draw out some lessons we had learned on this five-year journey. You can watch a film of that event at the top of this blog post. I thought I’d mark this anniversary here by offering up five lessons I’ve learned: one for each year. I’m a slow learner, but I’m pretty sure that through this journey I’ve picked up a few useful lessons about myself and about the world I’m living in, as well as something about this odd thing I spawned. If that’s the case, it’s thanks to the many people I’ve met this past half decade, whose company and wisdom and friendship are the most valuable thing I will take away from it all in the end.

1.  Never have a plan

Seriously. Having a plan is simply setting yourself up for failure. Look what happened to me. More usefully, look at what’s happening around the world: there is no shortage of plans for a Sustainable And Just Society, and none of them are going anywhere other than the remainder bins of bookshops. Having a plan is a recipe for frustration. Having intentions and precepts and guidelines and nimble feet, on the other hand, might get you somewhere, if luck is on your side for a while.

2.  There is a space between hope and despair

Our manifesto and some of our early work was interpreted by some, particularly campaigners and activists, as promoting  giving up or giving in, hopelessness and despair and inaction. Accepting that great changes were underway, and that our powers were limited, was seen by some people as a betrayal of a better possibility. From this vantage point, I can understand this reaction. But there is a space between hope and despair, which it is necessary to inhabit. False expectations and foolish dreams lead to the very despair they claim to want to banish. And that despair  is a rational reaction to much of what is going on in the world; sometimes it is necessary to embrace it. Between the forced hope and  gritted teeth of the activist worldview and the dark hopelessness of the  apocalyptic narrative lies a space that is worth sitting in for a while.

3. Grief matters

We are in an age of climate change and mass extinction and much of this is irreversible. This is what we were given to live through. To be able to look at what the human machine is doing to this living world without feeling grief or despair is an impossibility for anyone who experiences normal human emotions. Grief is not only a natural reaction to the state of the world today, it is a useful one. It is something that should be navigated and understood and accepted and discussed. Like the death of a loved one, the current death of much that is good in the world is something that can’t be denied or wished away: it has to be lived with. It doesn’t follow from that nothing good will ever happen again, or that you can be of no use in the world.

4.   I am not alone

… and neither are you. Barely a week has passed over these five years without us receiving a communication from somebody, somewhere in the world, along these lines: I have felt like this for years, I thought I was alone, my friends think I’m mad, I’m so glad to find you. What this tells me is that there are many people in the world whose honest reaction to the current state of things can’t be incorporated within either the mainstream story of progress and growth, or the acceptable dissident stories about enlightened people power leading to radical change.  In this context, our work of tentatively exploring new stories and new ways of seeing is hopefully useful.

5. Stories matter

This was the central insight of our little manifesto, and it’s one that I think has held up. Everything is a story: everything about the way you see the world, everything you think about the way the world works, and who you are and whether you’re anyone at all, and how things are organised and what change means and whether it matters. Everything. All cultures and all civilisations run on stories like cars run on fuel, and like fuel, the wrong story can be poisonous. I get the sense now, in a way that I didn’t five years ago, that this recognition is becoming more widespread.

The world has changed a lot since that day five years ago. Back then, an economic crisis was just beginning and nobody knew how quickly it would play out. Back then, people still talked about preventing climate change rather than mitigating it. The world has changed a lot, and not changed at all. But some shift is being played out around us: some change in the weather, some groping towards a new way of understanding the world. Something is changing; something has broken and will not be put back together. This shift will long outlive us, but if we have played some part in it – well, that’s not bad work.

More than anything, perhaps, I’ve discovered that this strange expedition up this forbidding peak is more enlightening and enjoyable (not to mention safer) if it is not undertaken alone. And I wonder what lessons my fellow mountaineers can draw from this half-decade. I’d love to hear them.

To Dwell on Our Dreams

I was having one of those long fuggy dreams that you can only recall by a sense of being stuck somewhere that isn’t home. It was somewhere like India. Before waking, becoming more lucid, a deliriously beautiful scene unfolded. A huge shiny muscled man in pink robes and feathers appeared floating upwards into the sky. People beside me said he is just a balloon. But I could see by his eyes that he was living, and he started to beckon with his hand. In front of us, what had been a towering cityscape became a glittering verdant mountain, trees rising up from the concrete. Then this whole mountain lifted up to his beckoning and became a spaceship, symmetrical in form, green underneath too and incredibly entangled. Iridescent green beetles emerged from the surface and pulled it gracefully up. I did not dare look at what was left behind on the earth.

My dreaming brain switched from seer to interpreter. We are losing our green mountains, I thought. This god had become incarnate to show that nature was always in itself arising, but also that we were losing it, left with wastelands. I saw that this floating god had a monkey face, and it was this which woke me up as I grasped at my memory of the Ramayana.

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Source of image: Wikimedia Commons/Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In the Ramayana epic, Hanuman, the monkey god leaps off to the Himalayas to find a magic herb to save Lakshman, so badly wounded in battle he might die before sunrise. Hanuman can’t find the herb quickly so he lifts the entire mountain and carries it back like a waiter bearing a tray. This was a necessary sacrifice.

Then, as I came more into daylight thoughts, I recalled that China is removing seven hundred mountains, filling the valleys with the rock, to make more space for cities. This sounds like an incredible fable of human hubris, but it turns out to be a fact. Humans have really become like giant ape gods, able to lift mountains. I then remembered how India, now under its new presidency of Narendra Modi, is at an energy turning point where it intends to reduce emissions by 25% by 2020 – mainly through solar renewables – but is also ramping up coal production. Modi is signing off clearance of more forests and mountain tops and India is still walking the path of hot coals. In the Ramayana, Sita carried out a fire test set by Rama to prove her loyalty to him. She emerged unharmed from the fire path, as the flames transformed into flowers as she walked. Like this, the conversion of fossil residues into money, allowing countries to modernise and ultimately tackle climate change, is a simple story that most leaders seem to believe. For example, Australia, Canada and UK are exploiting fossil fuels as hard as they can, thinking they can put the brakes on later to fulfil their legal targets of reduction. But it isn’t a simple story with a good ending. There are externalities and repercussions of emitting carbon, and more impacts to come that we cannot easily foretell. Coal is the dirtiest fuel, and its contribution to CO2 load will cause climate change for centuries.

All this intense dreaming must be because my brain has been recovering after Weatherfronts, a two day course for writers and climate researchers, organised by Tipping Point. It aimed to connect writers with scientists, to explore how we could write about climate in ways that might be true, effective, emotional, aesthetic and authentic. One of the central questions was ‘what kind of story is climate change?’ This was asked by one of the main facilitators, Dr Joe Smith of the OU, who has been awarded AHRC funding for a project called Stories of Change. He proposed that the climate story has been dominated by the ‘truth war’ over whether it is real, manmade and happening, and that it must now progress to stories about the future, with more positive solutions and human responses. This is a refreshing response to the often-heard call for new kinds of stories, in pointing out what we need new kinds of stories to do.

The course ended with a launch of the book Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, which extends these questions. I especially liked a piece by its co-editor Renata Tyszczuk, who categorises many types of cautionary tales about climate, but comes at the end to recommend ‘precautionary tales’. She writes that ‘a precautionary approach … suggests an experimental and transformative attitude to history, one which involves being mindful of the risks we are taking now, in taking care of the future … Precautionary tales invite us to worry not so much about foresight or prognostics – there is no telling what the future holds or where it will end. Instead, these tales might work with an imagination of the future based on an ethics of care rather than solely on the technical management of the challenge of the predicted risks…’

The fundamental ethics of care do not need to be invented. They can be found in the oldest stories. But these ethics do need to be retold, or inserted generously and systematically into new stories that anticipate how we might live in future, both in mitigation of and adaptation to change. But how can we achieve this? A more ecologically conscious ethics of care will not emerge just through more arty-science, more science-y art, or more moralising.

The human ecologist Alastair McIntosh would tell us we need a more profound shift, that we need to cultivate spiritual perception and go deeper than the normal level of consciousness. I witnessed one of his ‘sermons’ at the recent Carrying the Fire, a Dark Mountain gathering in Scotland. This was the morning after we had tramped to a shoulder of Tinto mountain to lay a Life Cairn, one stone laid by each to honour an extinct species. On Sunday morning, Alastair stepped down the aisle of our congregation, one foot in the mythopoetic realm, the other in the logical realm, reminding us that we walk the silver faerie path. He exhorted us to integrate the mythos and logos in ways that do not let the logical mind spoil the enchantment of the mythical.

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Life cairn on Tinto mountain at Carrying the Fire

This is a difficult practice for me to embrace, having been reared an atheist and educated to deconstruct all literature, to be ever alert to its hegemonic snares. I grew up knowing that myths, especially the ones concreted into religions, are fabrications, however delightful or useful. I once scandalised a teacher by explaining that Jesus was just a man. I think many of us are the same even if not so atheistically trained. It is true that at times, when the time is right, we might emerge from story-charms and dreams with a new capacity for making sense of and imagining better ways. But usually the time is not right. We are all too clever for our own good. We wake up and sweep away the story webs. We are too busy to dwell on our dreams.

So, for a moment back to my dream of India. According to Vedic scriptures, we are at the end of the 5,000 year long Kali Yuga, the last of four eras. Kali Yuga is the dark Age of Iron. This is also an age of coal which was first used mainly for forging iron to make weapons and armour, at first in China then spreading Westwards. The Kali Yuga is a time of increasing patriarchy, rape, migrations, loss of wisdom and conflict. At the end of this Yuga, rain will cease, crops fail, people starve and retreat to the remaining forests and mountains. The sacred rivers, especially Ganga, will dry up and become polluted. Now, in reality, the Tibetan glaciers feeding India’s northern rivers are retreating faster than other glaciers in the world. Also, the sacred rivers are so polluted that their people are more prone to cancer than anywhere else in the world. The belief is, though, that a more just and harmonious Yuga is soon to come.

I don’t suggest the story of the four Yugas is literally true. There are some blazing ‘errors’. For example, in the telling of the three Yugas before ours, humans were giants and lived for thousands of years, the earlier the Yuga the bigger they were and longer they lived. These stories were written long before the excavatory kind of science that exposed our ancestors’ remains. Perhaps it was always obvious to all listeners that the previous Yugas could not be known, so they were turned into a mathematical metaphor, a kind of mandala of expanding time and scale into deep past. I’m talking about the Yugas because they are an example of how mythical thinking can generate profound truths through the knowing use of metaphor. In the same way, I don’t know what my green mountain dream really means, but I know what it made me feel and think about.

Many indigenous cultures have a version of the Kali Yuga. The American Hopi, as in the Vedas, believe that we are at the end of the fourth age and entering into the Fifth World. Their predictions have been linked to interpreting the atomic explosions (a gourd of ashes falling from the sky), the internet (a global spider’s web), and a ‘spiritual conflict’. It is no great surprise that the Hopi way of life is primarily threatened by the fossil fuel industries, through appropriation of land, pollution, diversion of water and climate change. What is unfolding now has been foretold by many, not just by these two cultural groups, but these predictions are dismissed by media commentators as nonsense.

‘Look’, they say, ‘those primitive people predicted the apocalypse but they were wrong because  it hasn’t happened yet and we’re still here’. This is a denial, despite unprecedented access to the facts, of what is happening already. Many people whose worlds are in fact ending are not heard, are unable to speak or are all already gone. These are the peoples who must abandon their lands or villages due to loss of infrastructure and the influx of terror. These are also all the non-human species that are ‘endlings’ in this age of extinction. We must also take into account the losses of settled cultures and species still to come in this century.

At the Weatherfronts course, the diplomat John Ashton insisted that ‘Climate change isn’t about science, environment, economics. It is all these but it is really about the theft of our voice.’ So perhaps our question should be not so much ‘what kind of story is climate change?’ but ‘who is speaking and are they heard’? Are these hearings leading to greater conviction, to a deepening of love? Are they helping more people learn to be affected?

The familiar argument of spiritual ecologists is that we must regain the enchantment of mythos over the argument-winning power of logos. I think this is right, but it needs to work. The challenge is to dramatically ramp up people’s ability to think with passionate immersion.

Traditionally, when the Ramayana story is told in India and beyond, work stops for several days – a festival of performance and reflection takes over. Maybe we can learn from this to give more space for stories. This would honour stories more – providing more aids to enchantment, more ritual, more effective injunctions to ‘listen’, more respect for the witnesses and tellers. Also, more synthesis of meaning and less fragmentation of stories into shareable media-atoms. Moreover, there needs to be more space around stories for others to take over the story, to satirise it or to tell their own. There needs to be more space for enquiry in response to art and stories, to explore ‘what if?’ and ‘what next?’ Charlie Kronick from Greenpeace has suggested that the biggest opportunities for storytelling now are not so much transformation through catharsis but through disruption and satire. I think we need more catharsis and enchantment, not less, but this alongside more interpretation, more support for those who need to be heard and then more political action. We need to dwell on our dreams but this so that we can wake up from a worsening nightmare.

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Flow India summer camp in Gurgaon, 2013, creative responses to the Ramayana

Bridget McKenzie is a cultural learning consultant and writer, whose company Flow has bases in both UK and India.

Crawling Home

bad day at office

I am alone and having second thoughts. Wearing my father’s pinstripe suit from the ’60s, vintage, rumpled, a little big on me and worn out, like maybe I got it out of a box at the Salvation Army.

Waiting for my wingman at the very bottom of Broadway. This route was once a game trail that wild animals ran on, then a hunting path for indians, then a muddy dirt road for the white man. Now this. It would be so easy to not do this. I’ll bet the guy who walked on a tightrope between the twin towers felt that way. But what he did was so brave, so exciting and risky. It was the opposite of this. Can crawling be brave? I am crawling from the bottom of this island all the way up Broadway to my home in Washington Heights. Why am I doing this? Suddenly I can’t remember.

My brother called me as I walked south past Wall Street and he asked me not to do it. He sounded worried and that’s unusual. At moments like this I realise he’s getting older and supposedly I am too. He’s making sounds like this crawl might be a sure sign that my unraveling is finally at hand. I’ve done plenty of weird things in public and everyone knows I don’t embarrass easily — but somehow this one is giving people pause.

‘What about your wife and son, man,’ he says, ‘what do they think?’ ‘Is this a cry for help?’ he asks. ‘Why are you doing this?’

‘I’m crawling so you don’t have to,’ I tell him.

I imagine if you don’t live in Manhattan crawling up Broadway could seem sort of self destructive. It’s true, I could get vomited on, or kicked in the face, or spit on. An insane homeless man limps by me now with bare torn up feet, muttering to himself, stabbing at the air with his hand. He might jump on my back and try to ride me. I see construction workers who look sort of drunk on the sidewalk smoking and spitting and cat calling at passing women. What will they say when I crawl by? Then again maybe the person who is dangerous is the one who is crawling.

Teddy, my wingman for the day, arrives. He’s got a camera. He’s hip, low key and alert. He checks out passing women as I put on the knee-pads.

I need to start. I need to silence these doubting voices in my head. Is this just self abuse? Is this just me being bitter or wanting attention? No. Fuck that. This is an offering. A loving gesture to my fellow man! My sense of why I’m crawling flickers in and out of sight inside my head.

Can something be profound and pathetic all at once? Of all the things I could be doing with my time. This is lame.

Shame. Penance. Punishment. Blah blah blah.

Come on Leaver, you’re all talk no action. Stop thinking! Start crawling!

I put on my gloves, worn leather work gloves from upstate stone walls. I want to make sure I don’t panic and crawl too fast. I don’t want to meander or crawl too slow. A confident purposeful crawl seems like the way to go. I guess I’ll know it when I feel it.

I haven’t crawled more than a few feet since I was a baby, back before I could walk. Back before I could walk… That’s where I’m going.

People are starting to get out for lunch and fill the sidewalks. I take a breath and take a look up at the overcast sky. Deep in the financial district. I get down on my hands and knees and nod to the earth beneath me. I start to crawl.

Deep in my subconscious an alarm sounds telling me that I am in trouble. It’s not right to be down here like this. Adrenaline is released and I get a surge of energy. It’s harder than I thought, physically, like little pushups. The movement torques my core. It feels wrong on so many levels. I’m vulnerable and claustrophobic. A voice inside says get up. Walk. Don’t’ crawl. Stand. Don’t crawl. Run. Get up! Fight! But I stay down and climb the flat sidewalk forward.

I can’t really see up ahead unless I stop and twist my neck. My wrists are going to be sore. I should be using my fist knuckle, like an ape. I can tell this flat palm method will strain my wrists. My kneepads are slipping and my knees are on their way to raw and I haven’t even crawled a full block. I try to concentrate on my pace and hug the right side of the sidewalk, out of the way of the main flow. Some pictures get taken. I feel like a dog and a clown and holy man.

A young cop leans down into my vision and his voice is genuinely nice and concerned. ‘What are you doin?’

‘Personal project,’ I say, like it’s nothing to worry about. I keep moving. I’ve got it under control.

‘OK.’ He says and that’s it. He disappears. I was going to say ‘private challenge’ I think that might have worked too.

Nobody says anything to me for a while. I hear people take pictures and make sounds about the guy on the ground, but nobody engages with me directly. Nobody asks if I’m okay. I wasn’t hoping they would. But still… I must seem like I’m OK.

My crawling form must make me look like I don’t need help. I take a break on my knees and trade a nod with Teddy, then I keep going. I look down, 18 inches or so below. It’s like a view from a plane as I pass over black smears of dry gum, tiny lakes of spit, cigarette butts, and wide pristine plains of smooth cement.

After a while I stand and a uniformed doorman asks me how I’m doing. I tell him ‘I’m crawling home to Washington Heights. Something I’ve always wanted to do.’ His eyes get wide and he nods. He sort of likes it, or gets it, or maybe he’s pleased to have a new story to tell his family tonight at dinner.

I realise that like walking you can crawl as if you know where you’re going, like you mean business, like you might not be someone to trifle with. Even in this defeated position one can project strength.

I feel like a fish, a man salmon swimming up this concrete river of commerce, indifference and pain. Up Broadway I go to spawn and die.

It is lonely down here on my hands and knees in the Canyon of Heroes. Huge parades came through here. I wasn’t expecting to feel so lonely. Is this an act of desperation? There is desperation in the air. Does that make me desperate? Voices in my head told me to do this. Since when did voices in your head get such a bad rap? Maybe I’m praying. Maybe this is a meditation, or a migration. I am going home.

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Robert Leaver is a writer and performance artist who makes music and sculptures when he can.  He splits his time between Manhattan and his home in the Catskill  Mountains. You can follow the rest of his crawls on his blog Crawling Home.

Photos by Teddy Jefferson/ Larry Fessenden.

A Feral Palmistry

two hands

River otter tracks, webbed and clawed, five-toed and perfect. Beside them, a great upheaval of sand where, at dawn, the silky-dark family of five rolled and tumbled and slid back down again into the lagoon. The mind’s eye sees this, a knot of water-wet bodies, those wise black snouts. But my first instinct is always to reach down with my own hand and lay a pad in a pad, a fingerprint in the print of a metacarpal the shape of some curved island. A teacher once told me that deeply skilled trackers, like the San Bushmen of the Kalahari, can place a finger in a track, or cup the hand just above, hovering as if over a living flower too beautiful to touch, and in a flush that I imagine like rain coming, see the animal who made the track and where it went, how it moved, where it is now, in that eye of the mind where dreams and stories are also made.

River otter slide marks

I can’t see with any certainty the river otter who made these tracks, or the coyote who made others as she side-trotted down the muddy trail just up from Wildcat Creek at dawn. I do know that when I cup my hand above those pawprints like they are alive and holy, my hand hums. Once or twice I have, for all of three seconds (and apparently ‘now’ — or maintenant, literally ‘time-at-hand in French(i) — lasts for three seconds in the human mind) felt my whole mind become coyote, shaggy and trotting at dawn, body a lithe taut joyous thing, the whole world a web of smells so sweet and rich and rank and big they filled as much of my senses as sight. It’s a flash, a breath, a story I’ve made from my hand to my head, then gone. And always coyote. He has an interest in humans that the other animals don’t in the old indigenous tales of this land — Coast Miwok, Ohlone, Pomo, depending on where you are. Creator of the world from the tops of various local peaks (Mt. Diablo, Mt. St. Helena); fire-bringer; maker of death. Maybe he’s curious about this five-fingered, deadly-dexterous, beautiful hand, and so the story of his morning sniffs nearer than the river otter’s, the newt’s, the white-crowned sparrow’s.

The human hand has more neural innervation than any other part of the body save the lips and tongue, where our speaking and our loving and our tasting come from. Lips and hands give caresses, carrying the story of love or healing between two bodies. Lips and tongue taste and take in the lives of others — plant, animal — that sustain us as food. There’s a reason, when you see something beautiful that lifts your heart to your throat and lurches it sideways, that you reach out your hand to touch: orange poppies in full bloom in sunlight, shimmering suppler than any silk. Maybe your nose follows, to test the smell, to get dusted with pollen. Somehow, having your hands near or touching those petals brings the bloom in, as if your heart had done it. Reaching out with a foot, or an elbow, or even your lips wouldn’t be the same. The hands, cupping, seem to understand, as if in the touch they are imagining the whole creation of that flower, in whatever humble or rash way they can manage. Because this is what hands do, at their best: they make. They play creator, like Coyote at the top of Mt. Diablo crafting humans from feathers and land from mats of tule.

Our hands are muscled and shaped the way they are for and from the crafting of tools, and then the crafting of other things with those tools — arrowhead, awl, basket, bead, shoe, cape, hat, pot, flute. And on, and on. You know where this may lead — has lead, does lead. When I see a little Bewick’s wren rasping her tinny voice above me in the grape vines, distressed about a cat near her nest, her underbelly and tail feathers an intricate banding of brown and white, my hands itch a little, not to catch her, but with wonder, imagining that small wren in my palm. How light, how quick, the prick of her claws and the warm ferocity of her feathers. Somehow, I can’t imagine knowing her intimately without touch — taking into my body the story of hers. Neural innervation: the nerves in the hands making stories for the mind (and, I would add, the heart too, for we have many neurons there as well).

Viscerally, all of this makes me understand, inside my gut — that root place where the world very literally becomes me — something of the emotional gist of the utterly stunning handprints that accompany the Palaeolithic cave paintings of horse and reindeer, lion and auroch, in such caverns as the French Pech-Merle and Chauvet. The first time I saw an image of the multitude of handprints at Chauvet — ochre red — I felt a thrumming chill through my whole body. I wanted to weep. I felt like the breath had been taken out of me.
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Those handprints reach out like ghosts, exactly the same as your own would look if you dipped them in ochre-red paint and placed them side-by-side: 30,000 years luminous between your palms, and theirs. In Pech-Merle, the handprints, thought to belong to adult women or boys due to their size, undulate around the bodies of gloriously speckled horses. Those handprints are like signatures, saying — I (or we) created these creatures on the womb-walls of this cave. But deeper yet, the hands reach out, riding the wild gallop of those hooves, dancing in a kind of palmed frenzy. They get to join with the Being of a horse by making it in cinder and ochre red. Something of the shape shifting of ancient animistic shamanism is at work in this union of hand and horse, hand and cave-wall, hand over coyote track, hand itching to feel the tender wonder of a Bewick’s wren landing there, on the skin.

We tend to imagine the Palaeolithic people who worshipped and sang and painted in these caves as so different from ourselves that they are barely relatable or comprehensible: men and women in furs and skins with stone tools and nomad ways, saber-toothed cats in their dreams and life-spans we scoff at. And yet, and yet, I see those handprints and I see a longing that has not left us. I see a longing that has become tempered or misshapen by sadness, by a story of exile, but the same — held up in praise, in awe, to touch the mystery of the wild beings so like us, and yet not us at all. Held out because in touching we make, we love, and we kill, and how can we know all three, and not carry a sorrowed praise through all of our days?

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Our hands made our minds what they are. It is the hand that separated us from the rest of animal-kind, in the sense that it allowed us to eventually step out of the natural processes of evolution and natural selection. It allowed us to make, yes — and so beautifully — but it has also allowed us to take as much as we want, at least to a point. We have yet to reach that point, but we are near, and we know already the kinds of devastation — myriad as the kinds of song — that we can wreak. It is the hand that makes us different (not better, lord no, for in it is our own undoing, and the world’s). Yet it is also the hand that reaches out in the cave paintings of Pech-Merle to make a bridge between human and horse; my own hand reaching down to bridge woman and coyote.

Superficially, our hands don’t look very different from a chimp’s. But beneath the outer structure, our hands are muscled — especially our thumbs, which rotate in a complete circle in their sockets, able to make precise, firm contact with each finger-pad — and innervated in ways that are utterly unique. The combination of flexibility, strength and precision in our grip, our palms, our forearms and our fingertips, is so complicated that it instigated a total overhaul, or re-working, of a large part of our mammal brains in order to make it all work. The nervous system had to change dramatically in order to respond to each new need and action of the hand — from the overhand throw of a rock to the flint-knapping of an obsidian blade to the incredibly difficult and precise act of threading a fishbone needle. Or, more literally, they evolved together — hand, nervous system, brain.

leonardo hand-120508

Neurologists such as Frank R. Wilson, author of The Hand, asserts that tool-making came first, and after it, or from it, our own particular brand of spoken language. He claims that ‘evolution has created in the human brain an organ powerfully predisposed to generate rules that treat nouns as if they were stones and verbs as if they were levers or pulleys. […] We humans are instructed (or constrained) by our genes to build sentences the way we build huts and villages. (ii) Just as the making of a tool has steps — a beginning, a middle and an end and then the anticipated use that has nothing to do with the present moment but an imagined future, or even an imagined array of futures — our minds likewise took form around this growing sense (or feel) for sequentiality.

In other words, as our hands became unusually skilled and deft at making tools, clothes, then objects of ritual beauty and adornment, our minds started making things too — stories. They started making narratives, sequences of events that told us who we were, that attempted to explain the inexplicable all around us. Being makers-with-hands, we want to know how everything else is made, and functions, especially that most inexplicable thing of all at the far end of the sequence: carve, polish, lash, aim, throw right into the heart of a deer. Death. Our making hands made our making minds, not the other way around, and our knowledge of the workings (think tools) of the world all around us, our own bodies and lives and deaths, made us the beautiful and terrible creatures that we are.

I could go on with this topic in a pinwheel of directions, each spoke offering a new thicket of connection. How we speak of mental understanding as grasping, getting a feel for, getting a grip. How, as babies, we learn to speak simultaneously as we learn how to manipulate objects with our hands; or, as Wilson writes, ‘playing with anything to make something is always paralleled in cognition by the creation of a story.’ (iii) How palms have been read for thousands of years as somehow containing the story or map of a person’s life. How many healing traditions have centred around the power of the hand, as in the story of the Greek god Asclepius (whose statues were later made with gold hands to represent the healing power of his touch) or the ancient Japanese practice of Reiki. But my mind — and my writing hand, as it were — lingers with the way a skilled palm can read the story of an animal track, the way 30,000-year-old handprints beside the roiling backs of wild horses make my own palms hum. I am caught by the idea of the hand as a bridge as much as it is also a scissor, severing us. And I am above all, as a writer and a maker of myth-inspired, ecologically-rooted tales, waylaid by the idea that stories might actually, in some sense, reside in — or come through — the fingers and hand as much as they do the mind.

I have long known that something very particular and very important happens for me when I make use of those very fine human motor skills needed to delicately wield a pen — a grip and an action very similar to the threading a needle and sewing: embroidering a tale, spinning a yarn — and put it to paper. I cannot write fiction on the computer at all, unless I am already so fully in the flow of the story that it has unfurled far, far down the path of my imagination. Something is loosened, or triggered, or whatever it may be, in my mind when my fingers grasp the pen and the ink flows across the page. I’m no good at all at telling a tale aloud, probably in part because some circuit, luminous in my heart as any moon, has been made in me (since age seven or so) between index, thumb, pen, and mind, so that the story comes out best when those muscles are activated, and my eyes can read the words like coyote tracks across the page as I go. When I’ve seen truly brilliant storytellers spin their tales aloud, such as the wild and wonderful Martin Shaw, their hands move with their words, mesmerising, perhaps helping to coax those syllables out of the air and firesmoke, the wingbeats of passing pelicans. A story told aloud without the dance of the hands is hard to imagine; the hands can’t help themselves. They want to make that tale too, be it wooden spoon or fairy-tale.

my hand

There’s a story that holds all of this in its palms. It’s a story so old and so unshakeable that it can be found from Japan to South Africa, from Hungary to Egypt to England: The Handless Maiden. A young woman’s hands (or arms) are cut off by her incestuous father, or the Devil, or an evil brother. Handless, she wanders the woods and becomes a wild thing herself, tended by does, eating as they do by reaching out for food with only her teeth. She steals pears from the orchard of a king in the Hungarian version I know best. The king falls in love with the handless maiden; marries her; makes her silver hands. They are happy for a time, but a war breaks out and the king must leave. Alone, the handless maiden gives birth to a child, and all seems well until the Devil meddles again, tricking both king and then queen-mother so that the handless maiden is cast out once more, alone in the woods again, this time with a baby at her breast. As she wanders, and eventually finds refuge with wood-folk (or underworld folk, or desert folk; wherever the tale might be set, these are the folk of the wild ways, in my mind, the folk who know the many-tongued language of the living land), her hands grow back like two fruits, like the stalks of evening primrose, from bud to bloom, re-storied. The king, at the end of those seven years, having sought her for just as long, and become himself a bearded wild-man, finds her and the child at last. All of them transformed.

monkey flower

Some say the loss of the woman’s hands is about patriarchal control and oppression, the feeling of one’s ‘hands being tied’, of powerlessness in body and mind, that their loss ‘represent[s] a feminine being-in-the world that is psychically so bedeviled by the patriarchal attitude that the emblematic hands of self-expression are rendered passive.’ (iv) All of this may be true—stories in the mythic tradition have room for countless meanings. Yet I believe there is another, older layer of resonance here. I agree with Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés that this is a very ancient story of female initiation, a story whose roots find themselves in the goddess cultures of the early Neolithic. But I will take a creative, mythic leap and hazard to push the origins of this story back even further, into the 40,000-year depths of the Palaeolithic, because I see her, the girl without hands, in the handprints on the walls of Pech-Merle.

In its initiatory significance, I believe that this story is about coming into right relationship with the more-than-human, with the wild land, the creatures whose lives we take in hunting, in gathering berries and nuts and medicines (in fingers, in palms, in baskets). The story is about a falling-out of that relationship, and then a healing, a regrowing, a rebalancing, all situated in the hands. Something goes sour in the human community: fathers desire their daughters, or bargain away their daughters’ hands for riches offered by a Devilish stranger. And yet, when the girl loses her hands there is this echo of the shaman who is dismembered by wolves or other animals in the initiation stories and visions of animistic peoples the world over. Dismembered by animals, one is restitched with a wild needle. Hands lost, the handless maiden is at last somehow only animal again. Her arms become weight-bearing limbs, no more, like a coyote’s front paws — maybe used to bat down pears from trees, but not capable of grasping.

Without her hands, does her mind start to change in the way it experiences the world? What might a girl become, inside, without her hands? Does she become more doe, more hare, and the world too? As Estés writes, ‘it is not by accident that the one-eyed, the lame, those with withered limbs or other physical differences have, throughout time, been sought out as possessing a special knowing. Their injury or indifference forces them early on into parts of the psyche normally reserved for the very, very old.’ (v) What part of the mind-spirit grows differently in the maiden, without her hands? How is the mind re-storied, or rather un-storied, without the hands to read and make, to sow and take, the hands which have a nasty habit of laying claim and ownership over that which cannot be owned? A silver pair, no matter how lovingly made, no matter how ingenious the maker, will not solve the problem. The woman must regrow, not remake — like a plant and not a human — her ten fingers, her two palms, in the company of deer, and woods, and strange folk who dwell at the edges, mediating the boundary between human and ‘more-than-human’, as David Abram likes to say. Those two new hands have been tempered in the fire of the great, fecund mysteries of the wild land, the world of wren and fox and lizard, bee and herb and oak and dirt and sky. Those hands are the hands that know how to paint shifting lionesses and antlered reindeer on the womb-walls of caves, leaving palm-prints like proof of a pact of honoring, of right balance, of humility. The handless maiden’s new hands have a whole new set of fingerprints, wildly re-mapped, and you bet she can cup her palm over a coyote track and see the whole story.

lizard

Please don’t misunderstand me — I am not out to make the literal dismemberment of hands or any human body parts a good thing; I write here in mythic and metaphoric terms, in the language of myth-time, from the land of imagining, the place in the mind that dreams, and stories, and sees the life of a coyote unfurl from a single track. I’m saying that our collective hands have become devilish, terrifying, dangerous; that these hands, made by this world, need to be done away with. The hand of this culture which has lost its wild-knowing palm, which has not been tempered in the mud and deer blood and pure creek-water of reciprocity and humility before the land which is our mother — that’s the hand the Devil has soiled, the hand that needs to go under the blade of the axe. But the handless maiden does not remain handless. We are what we are. Whatever animal wisdom she may gain from wandering the woods without ten fingers, two palms, she is no elk. We are not elk, nor lion, nor horse. We are human, which means we are handed, which means we are full of story. At our best, we temper ourselves, our hands, in service to the balance of the greater ecosystem. At our worst, we are capable of destroying every living thing in our path, as if every being save ourselves (and much of our own kind to boot) were the same as an object we might take or throw away indiscriminately.

A lot of attention has been paid The Handless Maiden story in Jungian circles for the past several decades. Like I said, there’s no doubt about it — The Handless Maiden certainly has a lot of psychological resonance to it, a wonderfully feral example of the female ‘Hero’s Journey’ cycle. But I wonder if it’s still with us (certainly stories hang around for a reason) because it is also about our relationships outside of ourselves, with the more-than-human, with the wren, the orange poppy, the elk, the polluted creek and the warming air. Maybe nothing can really and fully be resolved or healed inside, until the way we handle the wild world in which we live is healed first. ‘To many indigenous people, there is not an ‘inner’ that does not include starlings, tundra and antelope—[…] intellectual retreat is part of the problem. It is making us crazy,’ (vi) writes myth-teller Martin Shaw. Our psyche lives not inside of us but inside the psyche of the whole land. And if our hands somehow have something to do with the shaping of these minds of ours, wherever they dwell, what does it mean (in this culture) that their repertoire of uses is rapidly narrowing around the screen and the keyboard, as machines of all varieties increasingly replace human hands in other endeavors? What stories are we absorbing, and patterning inside of ourselves, this way?

What would happen, on the other hand (pun entirely unavoidable), if we touched the tracks of animals, the petals of poppies, the bark of trees, every day, just for a moment? What would happen if, no matter your day-job, you kept your fingers busy with poems, with sketches, with the strings of instruments and the handles of garden spades? Even though we don’t ‘need’ to weave our own baskets, spin our own yarn, sew our own pants, whittle our own spoons, tan our own buckskins, string our own bows (well, we may very well need to know of all this, and soon, depending on your faith in the current model…) maybe our minds desperately do need us to carry on with the physical tasks that shaped them anyway, for our own sanity, for the sanity of the land wherein our psyches dwell. And so long as those spinning, carving, story-telling fingers pause every day to reach out in the act of caressing and holding something wild — fir bark, rain, earth worm, thistle-down, otter-track, Beloved — maybe we can begin to regrow our hands. Maybe they will come back full of a new story about what it means to be human in a world that is not, and never was, ours to grasp.
It is ours, however, to story, to sing, to praise, palms ocher-red with longing on the cave-walls where wild horses run.

coyote and fingers

* * *

From March 2013 to April 2014, I sent out re-wilded fairytales (set in the ecologies of my native Bay Area) to subscribers around the world in a Wild Tales By Mail project called the Gray Fox Epistles. They arrived on the new moon, wax-sealed, hand-delivered by post-man or post-woman. I have launched a new Wild Tales by Mail project this summer solstice — called Elk Lines — whose first issue will arrive on Lughnasadh, August 1st, with the ripening of California’s wild blackberries. It is a re-wilded telling of this very story, ‘The Handless Maiden’, told over the turning of one wheel of the year and set in the past, the present and the future of the Point Reyes Peninsula. For more information about this project, and my other work, you can visit wildtalewort.net or contact me at grayfoxepistles@gmail.com.

***
(i) Jay Griffiths, A Sideways Look at Time (New York: Penguin, 2004),34.
(ii) 
Frank R. Wilson, The Hand (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998),169.
(iii) Wilson, The Hand, 195.
(iv) 
Ami Ronnberg, ed., The Book of Symbols, (Cologne, Germany: TASCHEN, 2010), 380.
(v) 
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves, (New York: Ballatine Books, 1992), 427.
(vi) 
Martin Shaw, Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet, Black Branch of Language (Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 2014), 34.