The Dark Mountain Blog

In Other Tongues: Conjuring Yew Trees and Mountains

Today we bring you the fourth instalment of our series about learning to listen to the myriad other voices beyond the human. Inspired by In Other Tongues, a three-day creative summit held this summer in Dartington, UK, we invited six contributors – artists, writers, academics, poets, performers – to explore the ways in which language and culture are influenced by the non-human, and more-than-human, voices that permeate and shape our world. The series continues with Christos Galanis on language as a form of spell casting, and how our culture’s ‘inanimism’ might be eroding the coherence of reality itself.

Yew Tree communication workshop with Michael Dunning, 2016

Yew tree communication workshop with Michael Dunning, 2016

You, my friend, are alone, because
We, with words and pointing fingers,
gradually make the world our own
– Nietzsche

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Language’ – in part – as: ‘the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.’

As a troubling of this definition of language, I would suggest that language is more than a medium through which humans communicate. Further, I’d like to suggest that language goes even deeper than the broadest notions of language as a medium for communication, such as body language, or birdsong.

I’d like to trouble the very ontological underpinnings of language – ontology being the field of inquiry that has to do with the fundamentals of being itself, whose practitioners circle round questions of what exists, and what does not exist. I suggest that language might be thought of instead as spell casting; spells whose enactment themselves allow for the conjuring of particular realities and relationships to co-emerge into the world. Where David Abrams reminds us that ‘spell’ as in magic, and ‘spell’ as in writing share the same root, the understanding of language as spell-conjuring offers a relational landscape within which to consider methods of communication between ourselves and non-human beings that are not limited and impoverished by understandings of language as a blunt unidirectional instrument for naming and categorising; in other words, an inanimist’s appropriation of language as a taxonomic tool for slicing up and measuring an external, objective composite of dead matter.

By slightly re-working a standard definition of ‘animism’, I propose that inanimism could be defined by:

• a belief that the vital principle of organic development is exclusively materialistic
• a denial of conscious life to objects in – and phenomena of, nature – or to inanimate
..objects
• 
denial of the existence of spirits separable from material bodies¹

wild animals

chicken


Within such a comparison, the difference between ‘
spelling’ as labelling of parts, vs. ‘spelling’ as a co-emergent conjuring, becomes clearer when one considers the roots of the word.

The etymology of ‘spell’, from its Proto-Germanic roots, means something like: ‘to tell or utter a story or a myth’. It also means ‘to enchant the thing of which you speak’, where enchantment, from the Latin incantare, means ‘to sing’. The formal greetings of ‘enchanted’ in English, enchenté in French, or encantado/a in Spanish, retain their original pre-inanimist understandings of being and relationship. In a pre-inanimist Europe, ‘enchanted’ did not function as a polite way of saying: ‘it’s my pleasure to meet you.’ Rather, it was a gesture of humility and acknowledgement that one’s own being relies upon the other for its existence. ‘Enchanted’ literally means: ‘thank you for singing me into existence.’ And if a song might be understood to be a way of telling a story, then thank you for spelling me – thank you for conjuring me.

‘Conjure’ – from the Latin com, ‘together’, and iurare, from which we get the word ‘jury’ – means to swear an oath. And ‘swear’ means to speak, or say or tell, while an oath is a solemn appeal to a deity to witness a truth or a promise. So to conjure is to swear – together – to a truth or a promise in the presence of the divine.

Taking this spiralling route to consider what this thing we call language is, I would suggest that what we call language is a conjuring in which the divine, or great mystery, or that which dwells beyond our capacity for understanding, is invoked in the enchantment of a story that is true. Malidoma Somé explains that among his people, the Dagara, there is no word that translates directly as ‘the supernatural’. Rather, he describes the word that they use – Yielbongura – as ‘the thing that knowledge can’t eat’. For him this word suggests that ‘the life and power of certain things depend upon their resistance to the kind of categorising knowledge that human beings apply to everything.’²

Each language – each tongue, each assemblage of communicative protocols and citational iterations – is itself a unique bundle of spells whose conjuring is attended to by the animating force of life itself, which by its very nature can never be known but only invoked through the co-mingling of the immaterial with the material.

 

Detail of the Rosetta Stone

Detail of the Rosetta Stone

In all Indo-European languages, which include, among others, English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Persian, it’s not possible to utter a sentence without locating it within either the past, present, or future. In these languages, reality itself cannot be conjured anywhere outside of a linear, progressive spectrum of time.

In just one comparative example, when describing an event or condition in Hopi – an indigenous language of north-eastern Arizona – you must use grammatical markers that specify whether you witnessed the event yourself, heard about it from someone else, or consider it to be an unchanging truth. Hopi speakers are forced by Hopi grammar to habitually frame all descriptions of reality in terms of the source and reliability of their information. I offer the possibility that certain realities, certain bundles of spells, are beyond one’s capacity if one doesn’t have the ability to know and integrate the language, or the articulated tongue, that conjures those particular spells; spells which require their own particular protocols or grammars, and whose conjuring allows for particular relationships to potentially co-emerge.

It’s in this context of language as a co-conjuring that I want to introduce two individuals that I’ve been working and studying with. Michael Dunning is a native of Glasgow who now lives in the state of Massachusetts, and Jaki Daniels left her birthplace of England as a young child and has lived in Calgary, Alberta ever since. Their respective journeys are unique and wholly their own, however there are overarching similarities between them which are the reason why I’m choosing to draw on both their experiences to better observe, understand, and describe the qualities of non-human communication which greatly shape their lives.

The full extent of Michael and Jaki’s journeys are well beyond the scope of this post. What’s similar is that neither had any previous experience or priming for entering into a mutually communicative relationship with yew trees or mountains and each in their own way were initially confronted and called into these relationships by the tree or mountain themselves. What subsequently followed these initial contacts, once accepted, was a process of initiation, teachings, and preparation which was both physical and intellectual, extremely demanding, and repeatedly pushing them to the very limits of their capacities. For Michael, it began when an acquaintance brought him to an ancient yew tree, guiding him through the thick bramble and into the cathedral-like understory of this thousands-of-years-old tree, in whose presence Michael experienced a kind of ecstatic quickening which initiated a process of healing him from severe illness. Upon subsequent visits, he would come into apprenticeship to the tree itself, returning to it ceaselessly over a period of nine years in which his physical and energy bodies were deconstructed and restructured in a manner to allow him to act as a conduit for the kinds of teachings and medicines which the tree was offering to impart through him. Without any guidance or contemporary context for his deepening relationship with the yew tree, Michael dug through history and mythology to make sense of what he was experiencing, and eventually uncovered a wealth of long-forgotten knowledges that were once thick throughout these very British Isles. What Michael was discovering along his journey was the ancient cult of the yew tree; an indigenous spiritual tradition which was spread throughout Europe, and most concentrated in the British Isles. Among these indigenous British cultures, being apprenticed to a sacred yew tree to become a healer was likely a significant event, yet nothing strange or unusual within the ontology, or beliefs of the culture itself.

 

 Michael Dunning

Michael Dunning

Some of the yew trees in Britain are thousands of years old, with the Fortinghall Yew in North-Central Scotland estimated to be one of the oldest trees in Europe; perhaps 5,000 years old. While the possibility of having a tree communicate and act as a teacher and guide has essentially disappeared from modern inanimist cultures, the memories of some of our same contemporary yew trees themselves would know human cultures that communicated with them regularly; who knew and understood and practiced the bundle of spells with which they were able to be in profound relationship with such yew trees. From the tree’s perspective, Michael may potentially be but one more individual in this ancient lineage of inter-species apprentices.

For Jaki Daniels, her initial contact came while out for a leisurely hike with a friend in the Kananaskis mountains outside Calgary, during which she was rendered speechless by the voice of the mountain itself – inaudible to her friend but experienced as a booming voice inside Jaki’s head – which simply stated: I have a story to tell.’ Jaki said nothing to her friend, nor to her husband when she returned home, and tried to dismiss the experience as an oddity she couldn’t explain, and had no context for making sense of. When subsequent similar experiences continued in the presence of the same mountain – which she eventually referred to as Grandmother Mountain for its role as an elder and teacher – she finally sought the guidance of indigenous elders, and it was through these First Nations’ understandings of being called into the role of a Medicine Woman by a sacred mountain itself that Jaki began to build an understanding of what she was being called into.

 

Jaki Daniels

Jaki Daniels

Through the support of an elder Cree woman named Pauline, acting as her human guide in these ways, Jaki was similarly initiated and instructed by the mountain itself, and through that primary relationship has been able to build up considerable skill in not just communication with this mountain, but a wide range of animals, plants, and weather-beings. Unlike Michael and these British Isles, Jaki had recourse to seek the knowledge and instruction of local indigenous cultures that still retain some semblance of this pre-inanimist reality, and who keep alive the protocols and traditions that have been gifted to them from their ancestors and the land itself.

 

Grandmother Mountain, Alberta

Grandmother Mountain, Alberta

Last summer, some of us were gathered around a fire in Jaki’s yard in Calgary on a chilly night, sharing tea and stories about mountains in both Canada and Scotland. At one point, the energy shifted and became dense as Jaki shared an insight that had been given to her by an indigenous friend. What had begun to happen, in communities around North America, was that indigenous peoples were reporting to each other how some of their sacred mountains themselves were, for the first time ever, starting to show symptoms of perhaps something like Alzheimer’s; a lack of coherence, a confusion setting in, with the consequences being that they were sometimes having a hard time giving protocols and teachings to the human communities who looked to them as sources of wisdom and inter-species elders. What the various communities suspect is happening is that as the earth’s living systems are increasingly destabilised and compromised, the ability of the very land itself to maintain coherence and lucidity is starting to show signs of unravelling. It’s perhaps not such a stretch to be able to imagine that, in a time of ‘alternative-facts’ and ‘fake news’, all forms of information, even those held in the land, are suffering for a lack of coherence and integrity. It’s possible that ancient grammars are fragmenting under the burden of inanimist culture; totemic tongues may be growing thick and slow, their articulatory capacities calcifying as the land itself strains to remember its own name and its own tongue. And, perhaps, our own forgetting and unravelling is not separate from the land itself, but is yet just another expression of the land forgetting its own nature under the conjured onslaught of inanimist spells. It’s possible.

 

Edward Burtinsky: Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, China (2005)

Edward Burtinsky: Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, China (2005)

And wondering on the nature of Jaki and Michael’s experiences, it’s also possible that their processes represent a remarkable capacity for the land itself to initiate individuals into tongues and grammars that our culture has denied and denigrated for centuries. The modern trinity of church, state and science have done much to delegitimise the tongues that many of our ancestors knew well — the spells that animated relationships between human and non-human in a dialogue that seems unbelievable to many today, and yet continues below the surface, like the subterranean streams of some deserts that are utterly invisible by the harsh glare of daylight. But come the cooling darkness of night, the waters seep to the surface in gurgling spurts, until a steady babble flows across the sands, bringing life with it and sustaining those beings that are called to its mysterious edges.

Colorado River, Arizona

Colorado River, Arizona

I myself am not a whisperer of mountains or yew trees. The quality of communication that Jaki and Michael relate has not come to me in any comparable way. And yet, being with them and learning from them does much to trouble and interrogate the narratives that were imparted to me by my culture. How does one reconcile two stories of reality that are seemingly at odds with each other, and what is at stake when one opens oneself up to the possibility that the conjuring of particular spells allows for dialogue with a mountain or a 5,000 year-old tree? What might a pedagogy of non-human whispering look like, and what stories need to be crafted to foster the capacity for such languages?

There is much to be grieved within the unravelling times we are living through. And perhaps the grief itself is a way through – a gathering to the edge of dark flowing mystery, beyond the hope of struggling on in the same impoverished means that brought us here. And from beyond the obsidian horizon of our capacities for understanding, perhaps the whispered traces of long un-conjured grammars and protocols may be redeemed and recovered, and from which we may once again come to know the articulation of languages that serve to honour, and speak to, and nourish, that which sustains our days.

Notes

1. The original definition of Animism reads as: 1) a doctrine that the vital principle of organic development is immaterial spirit 2) attribution of conscious life to objects in and phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects 3) belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies:  ‘Definition of ANIMISM’. 2017. Accessed 27 June.
2. Somé, Malidoma, Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of
an African Shaman, Penguin, 1995

Christos Galanis is an artist, researcher, and teacher who enjoys migration, facilitated by Greek/Canadian passports. A PhD candidate in Human Geography at Edinburgh University, he is researching practices of walking and belonging within the Scottish Highlands. He holds an MFA in Art & Ecology from the University of New Mexico. christosgalanis.com

In Other Tongues continues on 25th August with Wendy Wheeler’s piece on biosemiotics and the death of meaning…

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In Other Tongues: An Underswell of Divination

This month we’re running a six-part series about learning to listen to the myriad other voices beyond the human. Inspired by In Other Tongues, a creative summit held this summer in Dartington, UK, we invited six contributors – artists, writers, academics, poets, performers – to explore the ways in which language and culture are influenced by the non-human, and more-than-human, voices that permeate and shape our world. Our third instalment brings you series editor Mat Osmond on Ted Hughes and Leonard Baskin’s Crow. 

Webp.net-resizeimage (2)

A virus that infects all other areas of thinking  

In the 1970s and ’80’s the poet Ted Hughes and the sculptor and printmaker Leonard Baskin worked together on a number of books of illustrated poetry. Among these, their first collaboration, Crow, trailed by its lesser-known sequel Cave Birds, quickly became iconic. Already a household name in the States, Baskin remarked ruefully at the time that his reputation in England rested almost solely on having illustrated the cover of Crow.

What was it that made Crow so contagious an image? Among the ways we might run with that question, I want to suggest here that what we meet staring back at us from Crow’s ponderous, guilty face may include a burgeoning sense of unease, or dislocation, that the writer Timothy Morton, some 40 years later, has spoken of as ‘the ecological thought’.

Far from a conscious preoccupation with ‘going green’, Morton’s ecological thought concerns the all-pervasive entanglement of our immediate experience within a slippery, centre-less ‘mesh’ – a strangely ungraspable web of relations wherein both other beings, and our own queasily interconnected fields of experience, only get weirder, more deeply haunted by a sense of otherness, the longer we look at them.

So the ecological thought, for Morton, isn’t really a ‘position’ that we might choose to accept or reject. Its something more autonomous than that, more devious, even – a thing acting upon us already, like a strand of DNA code. Like a virus, as Morton puts it, infecting all other systems of thinking, feeling and behaviour, altering them from within, gradually depleting the incompatible ones.

A verb that’s sometimes used to talk about what illustration does is to illuminate, as in to shed light on. As a way of talking about image-making, it’s a word closely associated with religion, of course, with traditions of the sacred. So what might it look like for a drawing to illuminate this creeping infection within our inherited notions of the human, and of that sacred animal’s place within what so many now to refer to, following the writer David Abram’s lead, as a ‘more-than-human world’? And what sort of light, in particular, might such an illustration shed on the curious blank spot that grows, like an unthinkable numbness, on the other side of poor environmentalism’s must do better?

With these preoccupations on the table, then, I’d like to look back to Hughes’ and Baskin’s collaboration – to see what their Crow, and his afterbirth Cave Birds, might have to say about all this. So here’s an 11-minute clip from The Artist and the Poet, the film-maker and photographer Noel Chanan’s 1983 recording of Baskin and Hughes discussing the evolution of this work.

A magical operation

Crow and Cave Birds form the core of a 15-year creative friendship between Baskin and Hughes, begun when both were well-established in their respective fields. And, as Baskin puts it, their two streams of work were already ‘crow-haunted’ when they met. Baskin, who seeded the idea for Crow, speaks of their relationship as ‘not one of influence, but of presence’. Of Crow’s presence, we might say, within both men’s lives – their friendship a matter of reciprocal recognition, as each found the face of their abject-exultant familiar mirrored in the work of the other. It was this sort of mutual recognition, perhaps, that sustained the 15-year imaginal dialogue between them – a conversation that flowed both through and about practice, and which operated, as we’ll see, on several levels at once.

And here, then, is our first layer of hidden agenda: that ‘magical operation’ that Hughes observes, swimming through their work at an invisible level. Hughes is being playful perhaps, but his pleasure is palpable as he shares his discovery, years after the fact, of a prophetic element within their collaboration, hiding in plain sight in both words, and pictures – a strikingly precise foreshadowing of Baskin’s soon-to-be diagnosed brain tumour, and of the subsequent operation to remove it.

And there’s a shared sense of confirmation, it seems, in that discovery. But, a confirmation of what? Whatever the nature of this elusive enchantment, one thing we can say about it is that it went about its quiet business, unobserved, as the two men focused their attention on developing the work’s main themes, on honing its constituent parts. We can also note that, for Hughes at any rate, this kind of autonomous, invisible agency within poetry was no less than an article of faith, and a creative touchstone: that any genuine collaboration between artists, for instance, happens ‘at this hidden, telepathic level – or not at all’.

Screenshot 2017-08-11 at 09.38.46
An underswell of divination

Which brings us to a second unspoken presence within Baskin’s Crow, and to – as he puts it – the voluntary ‘iron fetters’ against which their work pressed. Hughes comments in The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly, his introduction  to Baskin’s graphic oeuvre, on his friend’s famously derisive criticality – on Baskin’s insistence, in both art and life, on the tangible, the real, and his abhorrence for anything within art which he saw as departing from that real. And real, for Baskin, meant the weight of ‘our common suffering’, for which – as with his great mentor, William Blake – the only ‘whole and adequate symbol’ was the human form. But, unlike Mr Blake’s, Hughes observes the human form that we encounter in Baskin’s work to be in a highly permeable state of flux, enduring constant incursions by other entities, and undergoing a prolonged, unstable mutation.

And braced against Baskin’s wide-awake, sceptical gaze, Hughes’ essay goes on to observe a pressure, mounting as what he calls ‘a biological weight of necessity’ within that parade of monsters. Hughes imagines its unspoken, insistent presence as ‘an underswell of divination’. Not exactly religious, perhaps, although we’re in that territory.  ‘Something’, Hughes speculates, ‘that survives in the afterglow of collapsed religion’. All of that ‘inward learned Jewishness’ in which the Rabbinically-trained Baskin was saturated, ‘busy dreaming for him’, below his conscious radar, ‘in a rigorous, divining fashion’. And this hidden religious life that The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly proposes as the kernel of his friend’s graphic work, is revealed, Hughes suggests, not so much in the mythic vocabulary which it adopts, as in the mark which transmits all of those cumbersome, zoomorphic angels to the page.

Screenshot 2017-08-11 at 09.40.35
The scratch-marks of an arcane calligraphy

And here, then, is the fundamental constraint framing this collaborative work. One shared, for all their marked differences, by both artists, as they trained their gaze on form, language, poetic resonance. Hughes’ prose writings show how his lifelong interest in the numinous and the supernatural was grounded, at all times, in a close attention to the possibilities of language – to the dangling etymological roots, the emergent rhythms, the incantatory power of words. Likewise, in The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly, Hughes suggests that it is first and foremost in Baskin’s line that we encounter the central character of his work – his graphic line ‘an image in itself – his fundamental image’. The scratch-marks of an arcane calligraphy, as Hughes puts it, ‘improvised from the knotted sigils and clavicles used for conjuring spirits’. And that charge of secretive spiritual exultation coursing along Baskin’s graphic line, most fully personified, earthed, in those mutating raptors he could never quite get away from, who kept precipitating from its presence ‘as crystals out of a supersaturated solution…solid and sharp with the salts and metals of it’, to be absorbed through the eye and into the nervous system of the viewer, where ‘they dissolve back into the real knowledge and presence of it’.

As between poet and the illustrator, then, so between between line and image, between image and word, and between reader, and both: a relationship of presence.

Screenshot 2017-08-11 at 09.38.21
A hole in the fabric of our understanding

If Timothy Morton’s playful entanglement of the ongoing conversations between art and ecology does offer a good line of approach to this work, I think Crow returns the favour, with interest. ‘The current ecological disaster’, Morton tells us, ‘has torn a giant hole in the fabric of our understanding’. Or rather, it hasn’t. It might be nearer the mark to say that ecological collapse has revealed the gaping hole underlying the dominant culture’s relentless, instrumentalist logic – or as my friend Christos Galanis might put that, the hole beneath its aberrant, in-animist worldview.

If there’s a hole here, its surely one that – throughout our species’ lethal 12,000-year swerve off its slow track through deep time – has been here all along. And the crucial role of art in negotiating this leaky territory right under our civilised feet may turn out to have less to do with Green message-dissemination (however urgent, or desperate the cause) than it does with art holding open a space within that dying way of life which is used to accommodating intensity, shame, abjection, loss; used to welcoming persistent imaginal others to the table, familiar visitors who give tongue to whatever grieving, intractable dilemmas civilised humans find themselves unable or unwilling to speak within their brightly-lit, death-phobic culture.

As the warnings of impending disaster get more shrill by the day, Crow’s quizzical stare points out, perhaps, that – as Morton puts it – the disaster’s already happened, so ‘it’s important not to panic, and strange to say, overreact to the tear in the real. If it’s always been there, it’s not so bad, is it?’ Maybe that’s what we can hear in Crow’s unkillable laughter, as he spraddles about inside that hole, looking for stuff to eat. A curious thought, that nothing ecological crisis might throw at us could exceed the sheer, feathered strangeness of our own embodied, animal natures.

Baskin Crow
Sources

Hughes, Ted & Baskin, Leonard, Cave Birds: An Alchemical Cave Drama Ted Hughes & Leonard Baskin, Faber and Faber, 1975
Hughes, Ted, Crow:
From the Life and Songs of the Crow, Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, 1970
Hughes, Ted, ‘The Hanged Man and the Dragonfly’, from Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, Faber and Faber, 1995
Morton, Timothy, The Ecological Thought, Harvard University Press, 2010

The Artist and the Poet, Noel Chanan’s 2009 DVD of his 1983 audio recording of Hughes and Baskin, accompanied by the author’s photographic essay. Copies of The Artist and the Poet are available here: tedhughes.online

Images

1-4: Illustrations for Cave Birds, Leonard Baskin, Faber and Faber 1975. © The Estate of Leonard Baskin, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York
5: Cover illustration for Crow, Leonard Baskin, Faber and Faber 1970. © The Estate of Leonard Baskin, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York

Mat Osmond is a writer and illustrator whose recent work has included a word-image collaboration with the poet Em Strang on her acclaimed post-apocalyptic poem Stone. He was guest art editor for Dark Mountain: Issue 11 and is the series editor for the In Other Tongues blogs. You can see more of his words and images here: strandlinebooks.co.uk.

On 21st August our In Other Tongues series continues with Christos Galanis.

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In Other Tongues: The Migration Habits of Stones

Today we bring you the second instalment of our series about learning to listen to the myriad other voices beyond the human. Inspired by In Other Tongues, a three-day creative summit held this summer in Dartington, UK, we invited six contributors – artists, writers, academics, poets, performers – to explore the ways in which language and culture are influenced by the non-human, and more-than-human, voices that permeate and shape our world. The series continues with poet Alyson Hallett on the migration of stones.

Cadair_Idris_wide_view

It’s August, 2001. Six months since my nan, Hilda Hallett, died. I loved my nan. She lived in a terraced, red-bricked house in Bridgwater, Somerset. We used to watch the wrestling on a Saturday in front of a gas fire and eat the cake she had baked for my visit. Chocolate cake, coffee cake, cherry cake. All of them delicious. Her house was the centre of our lives. The door was never locked. There was a plastic curtain swishing in the hall to deter flies from coming in during the summer months when the door was left open. My nan polished the brass strip at the entrance to her house, she also swept her bit of pavement, and sometimes the stretch of road outside her door. Seven children in one small house and you value the way private space spills into public space. The expansion this gives. The way private and public are stitched together.

I had 26 aunts and uncles and 57 cousins: but when my nan died, she left a gash in our lives the depth and height of Cheddar gorge.

Six months after we took her body to the crematorium in Taunton, my nan appeared in my dreams. You need to go and climb Cader Idris, she said. When I woke up her voice was ringing in my head. I knew that Cader Idris was a mountain in the Snowdonia range in North Wales, but I also knew that I didn’t climb mountains, I was busy and had no intention of doing what a voice in a dream had told me to do. I decided to ignore it, to assume that it would just dissolve, as most dreams do.

How wrong was I?

Night and day Nan’s voice haunted me. It seeped into everything. It was ink in water. Sugar in coffee. The buzz of a trapped fly. Go and climb Cader Idris. Go and climb Cader Idris. In the end I cancelled work, hired a car, threw a tent and a sleeping bag into the boot and set off for Wales. On the long drive there, my mind was febrile. I had no idea what I was doing. Was I mad to be following a voice in a dream? Had I lost the plot altogether? If only I’d had this quote from Anaïs Nin, I might have been a bit more gracious in my surrender. She says:

The unknown was my compass. The unknown was my encyclopedia. The unnamed was my science and progress.

I pitched my tent by a river. Slept badly. Woke early and laced up my boots. Before entering the foothills, I lit a candle and incense and asked for permission to climb. Rituals are important to me. They ground me. Centre me. Allow me to knock on a door and begin lacing together different levels of reality. And as the poet Homer notes, all gods and goddesses love to come down and feast on perfumed incense smoke. That morning at the base of Cader Idris, I was almost hoping to hear the word no, so that I could pack everything up, go home and return to a way of being that I thought of as normal. But no didn’t come. And so I set off, up the stony path, up the steep and stony path that wound its way to the summit.

I was out of my mind. I was in it too. I was a confusion of thoughts. I was walking a stony path. Walking into moss, into the tumbling stream, into the gnarled bark of old oaks that fringed the stream. W.G. Sebald says:

work gets done in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he’s looking for.

I was listening to my animal self, my uncivilised self, the lizard that still inhabits the core of my brain. I was like the dog following its nose, only this time I was following a dream with my feet. In the foothills of Cader Idris, I lay down on a low-lying branch of an oak and dissolved.

‘Foothills Girl, Cader Idris

I’m a dedicated foothills girl
dreaming where the stream runs fast
and trees screech towards the sky.

At home in the crook of an oak
watching moss-skinned stones
while the mountain climbs behind me.

no-one else stops here but me, seduced
by low-life greening and the perfume of pine.
Nothing here is mine and I’m madly in love –

thinking of proposing marriage to a mountain
if you’re allowed to do such a thing.
Love, honour and obey – I’d stay faithful

to this rock more easily than any human.
We’d live out our mutual passion day by voluptuous day
until the floods came or we both melted with the sun.

I continued to climb the mountain. Halfway up I came across a boulder by the side of the path and stopped to stare at it. It looked out of place, as if it didn’t belong. I saw a man approaching from a distance. As he came nearer, he said hello then stopped to talk. He asked why I was looking at the boulder. I’m wondering where it came from, I said. It’s an erratic, he said. A what? I said. An erratic. A stone that broke away from its motherbed and travelled inside a glacier. Really? I said. The man nodded, then told me he was a geologist.

I stared at the boulder – it had travelled hundreds of miles across the country, the glacier making gorges and valleys as it sawed through the ground with its icy prow. And all the while the little boulder inside, like a baby, or an eye, waiting for the sun to warm up, for enough heat to melt the ice and release it.

It took a moment or two for the geologist’s words to sink in. Stones moved. They migrated from one place to another. They did not stop for borders or boundaries. Solid as a rock / written in stone – suddenly everything I knew about stones flipped on its head. They weren’t just fixed in one place; they were travellers.

And that was it. The moment when a seed was planted and took root in the disturbed soil of my mind.

I continued to the top of the mountain, said goodbye to my nan as the mist curled around us and black mountain crows made their strange and eerie sounds.

Over the following four months, the seed continued to root and grow. I became obsessed with travelling stones. With the different ways they moved. Erratics. Ballast in the empty hold of a ship. Pebbles picked up from beaches and taken home. Emeralds, rubies, opals worn around our necks and on our fingers. The way plesiosaurs swallowed stones to stop them from rising when they swam underwater. Animals and birds that swallow stones to aid digestion – chickens, crocodiles, ostriches, penguins, seals, whales.

I applied for an Arts Council Grant to explore the migration habits of stones. I never for one second thought they’d go for it, which meant I had great fun applying. I had an idea that I’d make a piece of public art, that I’d collaborate with a stone carver and site a stone with words carved into it in a public place. I’d done this once before, and I liked the radical democracy of placing words in stone in public spaces – work that existed for anyone and anything.

(Aside: I grew up in the town of Street, home of Clarks shoes. The Clarks family were Quakers and philanthropists. Next to the factory entrance was a Henry Moore sculpture, Sheep Piece. Every day when I walked up and down the high street to school, I passed this sculpture. From an early age, then, it was obvious to me that art was placed in the community; it was for everyone; factory workers, children walking to school, people driving by. Art lived in the open air, it was democratic, it was essential.)

When the grant application form asked about the demand for the work I wanted to make, I wrote a long, philosophical essay about how it was a mistake to think demand could be established before work was made. I talked about creating work that would be given as a gift, quoted the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, argued that my work would be a gift to a planet that had already given me the biggest gift of all, the ground upon which I live my life.

As a mirror to their bureaucracy, I also made an accompanying booklet detailing how they should read my application, and at which point they should reference the relevant notes and attachments. I believed they were never going to fund me and so, I had nothing to lose. In response to the questions about audience, I argued that my audience couldn’t really be counted if I made work that was sited out of doors as it included insects, birds, breezes, people, rain, sunshine, the moon, thunder, lightning. How do you count the rain? I asked. In response to a question about duration, I suggested that if I had words carved into slate the probable length of the piece of work would be around 300 years.

I’ve always been a dreamer, an idealist. And, all those years ago, this was something the Arts Council valued. They said yes, and gave me an Individual Artist’s Award that was enough to live on for a year.

I have been curating this project, The Migration Habits of Stones, for 16 years now and it’s not over yet. I’ve made five stones with words carved into them by the letter carver Alec Peever and sited them in different places around the world. I’ve made an audio-diary for the radio about a stone I took to Australia. I have even talked at the Geological Society, the heart of geological science, about this work. It was here that Bryan Lovell, who was president of the Society at that time, took me to one side and confided that science could take us so far in the understanding of rocks and stones, but it was poets who could take us further, who could take us into the hearts of them.

And stones moved silently…

‘The mode of perceiving nature, under the rule of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical degradation of, nature.’ – Marx and Engels

And stones moved silently across the world
hurled into an empty ship’s weightless hold
folded into a glacier’s freezing mound,
quick-pocketed by tourists and children
with an eye for things shiny and round.

Bound for other lands stones sailed without papers
traffickers in freedom crossing borders
with no regard for guards, guard dogs
or guns. Dumb as the tongueless
their acts alone sounded the long, low cry.

Each stone carried centuries of weight
and meaning. Ballast from Bristol belly-up
in New York’s East river, erratics paused
on the slopes of Cader Idris, fingers of quartz
startling my window sill – all of them travelled

from the place where they began, where we might
have said they belonged. Migrating past line,
border, boundary, their movements a constellation
of questions; where is home, what is home,
and who in this world can claim land as their own?

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Top image: Cader Idris by NotFromUtrecht (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0
Middle image: 
‘Migrating stone number 4’, carved by Alec Perver. Photograph by Alyson Hallett. This stone is located by the coffee shop on the Isle of Iona.  
Bottom image: 
‘Migrating stone number 5’, carved by Alec Perver. Photograph by Peter Stone. This stone is currently located in Los Angeles where it will begin to migrate from person to person.

Notes:

1 – For further information about my work please visit thestonelibrary.com
2 – Both poems in this blog are from The Stone Library, published by Peterloo Poets
3 – The quote from Anaïs Nin is from her Diary (Vol. IV)
4 – The quote from W.G. Sebald is from The Emergence of Memory, Seven Stories Press (2007)
5 – This blog is an extract from a keynote talk that was delivered in five chapters. This is based on Chapter Two. The full talk will be published by Triarchy Press later this year.

Alyson Hallett is a prize-winning poet and Hawthornden Fellow. Besides publishing six books and pamphlets of poetry, Alyson has also written drama and an audio-diary for BBC Radio 4; an essay on Chalk for BBC Radio 3; drama for Sky Television and a book of short stories. Her latest publication is a pamphlet of poems, Toots (Mariscat Press).

In Other Tongues continues on 16th August with series editor Mat Osmond on the work of Ted Hughes and Leonard Baskin.

 

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In Other Tongues: Badger Dissonance

Today we start a new series about learning to listen to the myriad other voices beyond the human. Inspired by In Other Tongues, a three-day creative summit held this summer in Dartington, UK, we invited six contributors – artists, writers, academics, poets, performers – to explore the ways in which language and culture are influenced by the non-human, and more-than-human, voices that permeate and shape our world. We start with a piece by Dougie Strang, based on his unforgettable roadkill litany…

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For a year, the American writer Barry Lopez pulled over whenever he passed a dead creature on the road. Animal or bird or reptile, he picked them up – sometimes he had to scrape them up – and took them away to be buried and honoured. When asked why he bothered, he said: ‘You never know. The ones you give some semblance of a burial, to whom you offer an apology, may have been like seers in a parallel culture. It is an act of respect, a technique of awareness.’

*

My first was a roe deer on the A75. I’d passed it already but this time it spooked me, its dead eye hooked me. I kept driving, got home, put a spade in the boot, went back. Its belly was swollen, crows had started in on the mouth. Cars were slowing, suspicious as they passed: ‘What’s he doing, bothering the roadkill?’

I dragged it down a gully, away from the road. A stream, some birch and elder, the usual cans and bottles and torn plastic. I felt seedy, like a murderer hiding the body. I dug a hole beneath a holly tree and the wind, I swear, the wind played pibroch in its branches – a lament. I tucked the deer into the hole and promised that I’d return.

*

In 1956, in a suburb of Chicago, Leon Festinger joined a cult. Aliens were set to destroy the planet but they, the chosen ones, would be saved. Dorothy Martin, the cult’s leader, prophesied the date, and they gathered at her house to await the end of days. This is a true story. Leon Festinger was a psychologist. He’d infiltrated the cult to find out what might happen on the off chance, the remote possibility, that there would be no death ray, no shiny UFOs come to whisk them to safety.

The sun rose and the sun set. The paparazzi of the day gathered outside the house to await the cult’s response to the non-ending of the world. When prophesies fail there’s a dissonance, when the facts clash with what we believe it creates what Festinger termed cognitive dissonance. It hurts our head and often, to soothe, we’d rather twist the facts than break our faith or hear a different story.

Dorothy Martin informed the press that she’d received a communication from the aliens, in which they told her that because of the strength of her belief, and that of her followers, because of her virtue, they, the aliens, had decided to give earth a second chance. She’d saved the world and, best of all, in the aftermath, the cult’s following continued to grow. Cognitive dissonance – how we’ll avoid it, how we’ll hear only what we want to hear, and see only that which we want to see.

*

I killed the fox myself. Driving home late over the B729, the road empty, the night frosted and starry. A glint of green eyes and then a bump and braking fast, and running back.

The fox was surprised, sprawled awkward on the road, the green fading from its eyes. I picked up its hot fox body and put it in the back of the car and drove home slow, slack-jawed, with the windows wide open, letting in all the dark of the night. And in the morning, I buried it in the garden, offered up my hapless apology, and jumped in the car and drove to work.

*

In December 2012, Jyoti Singh got on a bus in New Delhi. She was beaten and raped on the bus and died a few days later from her injuries. That same week, my wife found a hare on the road and carried it home. These are her words:

I’m carrying the hare along the road. One of its back legs is hanging by a single tendon, blood seeping slowly in the cold. It’s early morning, but the hare is late. The school bus has taken it by surprise, for the last time. I’m holding it like a new born baby, one hand beneath its head, the other beneath its backside. It’s heavy. It weighs roughly as much as a full grown, well-fed tomcat. It’s the kind of weight I’d prefer to sling over my shoulder.

For some time now, I’ve been unable to let the images go: the bus in the semi-dark, the young woman and her male friend; the blood on the men’s hands and all their wide eyes in the confines of the vehicle; the metal air; the woman’s voice which I can hear, again and again, no matter where I look.

The body is still warm and limp, still supple, and I keep half-expecting its eyes to blink, its legs to jerk awake. I half-expect the hare to jump and charge away from me. But it doesn’t. I carry it into the woods and put it down beneath a rhododendron bush. I lay it out in such a way that the gashed leg is invisible and it looks, it really looks, as though the hare is wide alive and running. It doesn’t matter whether I’m doing this for me or for all hares.

I find a few branches and twigs and make a kind of woody tent over the body. I don’t do this for other roadkill, but I’ve been watching the hares all year – there’s a pair. Or there was. They circle the house like sentinels, beginning on the eastern side with the sun and working their way round through the orchard, past the hen-run and into the woods. I watch them through the windows, their black-tipped ears, their long, powerful hind-legs that work like suspension coils, easing the body up and forward, down and forward, perpetually sprung; ready, I supposed, for the unexpected.

By now it’s a familiar story. The woman with a young, smiling face and soft skin. Her softness in the last light of the evening. All the shouting men, their mouths, their drenched clothes.

It’s a small back road with little traffic, but the school bus passes twice a day and the driver doesn’t mean to hit it. He’s late and the kids are waiting, out in the cold on a corner of turf.

I stroke its long ears back against its head, stroke its fine coat, white belly, small face. Hares have kinetic skulls – they’re jointed – which allows for a degree of movement between the front and back sections. It helps absorb the force of impact as the hare strikes the ground.

The iron bar. The shadow faces. The quiet glistening of the steering wheel, an empty glass bottle, an eye.

*

Badger came last. I found it slumped on a humpback bridge not far from home. It was ill-shaped, greasy. More half-filled sack than badger. It’s the first one I’ve seen in the area, dead or alive. It’s dairy country, and even though they’re protected, and though there’s no cull proposed for Scotland, the farmers quietly ensure an absence of badgers. Because badgers are dissonant: they contradict the story our farmers like to hear – about how they’re in charge, how they have the right to protect the herd, for all our sakes.

This one had no need of the cull. No need for shotgun pellets or terriers at bay. Its head had been crushed beneath the wheels of more than one car. So much so that when I dug up the bones a year later, I thought the skull had been stolen, until I noticed the fragments: the curve of an eye socket, a shattered jaw.

Despite the smell and the flies, I carried it home, hands clasping a protective loop, its broken head at my heart.

*

There’s no template for making sense of this. In her poem ‘Frontier County’ Karen Solie says that ‘our separateness / among separate things unites us: a violent wonder / at convergence.’ But badgers are dissonant, and so are the foxes and hares and the roe deer, and I’m sorry, my dears, but there’s little wonder this time, only violence and forgetting, so that we really don’t see the rags of fur and tattered feathers on the roads, the splinters of bone in the verges. We don’t see the congealed blood, like dark blisters, on the tarmac.

Grief is a vessel, a conduit for the living and for the dead. By reflecting on the lives and deaths of these creatures, by honouring them, perhaps we help to carry them home.

Hare Shrine

Top image: Dougie Strang performs Badger Dissonance
Bottom image: Hare shrine

Badger Dissonance was written and performed by Dougie Strang, with the exception of ‘Hare’, which is from a prose poem by Em Strang. It was performed on the opening night of In Other Tongues with musical and sung accompaniment by Kayne Coy. The performance included the creation of a shrine to each of the animals. Barry Lopez is quoted from his essay ‘Apologia’ (University of Georgia Press, 1998). Karen Solie is quoted from her poem ‘Frontier Country’, which appears in the collection Pigeon (Anansi Press, 2009).

Dougie Strang is a performer and member of the Dark Mountain Collective. Em Strang is a poet. Her collection Bird Woman, which includes ‘Hare’, was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney First Collection Poetry Prize and is available in the Dark Mountain Online Shop. Kayne Coy is a singer, musician, and Gaelic scholar.

On 12 August our In Other Tongues series continues with a piece about listening to the speech of stone, by poet Alyson Hallett. 

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Taking Rewilding Seriously

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It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality.
Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto

Wildness is the Focus

Rewilding has become something of a fad. The internet and libraries are chock full of instruction manuals for using primitive medicine, making primitive tools, adopting primitive religious thought… Often attached are calls to ‘awaken our inner primal spirit.’ This seems like rewilding, right?

Wrong. Rewilding, when applied to human beings, cannot only be about lifestyle changes. Of course, you can’t live in nature if you don’t know how to build a shelter or identify plants. You can’t immerse yourself in the wild without basic navigation skills. But the rewilding fad has got it mostly wrong: it isn’t about selling a way to become independent of civilisation; it is about selling an aesthetic, an appearance of authenticity, much like Whole Foods stores are designed to look like local farmer’s markets.

For example, on the issue of navigation: would it be more useful for people to start with a compass, or to start with the stars? Obviously, most industrial humans, who can name at most a handful of constellations, would not want to navigate by the stars. But the rewilding trend is to start with the stars because that’s what our primitive ancestors did.

And on the issue of plant identification: would it be more useful for people to learn our more-than-adequate scientific classification system, or to learn an indigenous taxonomy? The answer is clear, yet I’ve spoken to a handful of people who have explicitly avoided learning scientific taxonomy because it’s scientific, and, therefore, unnatural.

Eventually, we have to ask ourselves: are we trying to rewild — to increase our autonomy from artificial systems — or are we trying to look interesting?

The Land Comes First

There’s a worse side-effect. Rewilding, originally, had little to do with human lifestyles at all. It came from the Earth First! movement, when the founders — particularly Dave Foreman and Howie Wolke — outlined their vision of a vast ecological reserve system in North America. Unlike previous reserve systems, this one included presently non-wild land, because Earth First!ers believed that wildness could be restored by removing artificial systems and edifices, like dams. Foreman writes, ‘We must … reclaim the roads and the plowed land, halt dam construction, tear down existing dams, free shackled rivers, and return to wilderness millions and tens of millions of [acres of] presently settled land.’

It was a radical vision, and although controversial at first, it is now fairly well accepted within conservation biology. In fact, connecting wildlands is one of the foremost concerns of the current conservation movement. Doing so provides a large enough habitat for predators and large mammals, and it reduces species extinctions, which tend to increase as wild areas become isolated ‘islands’. Much of the popularity of these concepts is due to the work of the Wildlands Network, also founded by Dave Foreman after he left the Earth First! movement in the mid-’80s.

Now, it could be that conservationist rewilding and personal rewilding are simply two different kinds of rewilding. In fact, Wikipedia currently has an entry for ‘Rewilding (conservation biology)’ and ‘Rewilding (anarchism)’. But I suspect that the two have too much in common to be considered entirely separate concepts.

If someone were to ask me why I am interested in rewilding, I would explain that I do not want to be constrained by the artificial systems of civilisation; that I would much rather live in nature and put in the work required to survive. In other words, it would appear as though my vision of rewilding is included under the ‘Rewilding (anarchism)’ entry. But I also believe that Foreman got it right: land must come first. Part of the whole philosophy behind rewilding is an acknowledgement that humans are not as important as civilised culture believes them to be. We are largely the product of our environment and our relationship to our environment, just like animals. This is why you can’t rewild an animal in a zoo. It needs a wild habitat first. In the same way, we can’t teach humans skills to rewild and then tell them it’s fine to keep living in civilised conditions. They need a habitat to rewild. To believe otherwise is an error called lifestylism.

Again, while my motivation for rewilding is a personal desire to live outside the bounds of civilisation, in practice rewilding must prioritise the land. This isn’t to suggest a chronology for rewilding. I’m not saying ‘preserve land, then learn skills.’ I’m saying that while we do both, our emphasis must be on habitat.

Start from the Present

Outside of the culture of the fad, people despair: rewilding is impossible, a pipe-dream, they say. I call this nihilism (not the same as philosophical nihilism), and it, too, results from a faulty conceptual framework. For example, nihilists tend to assume that successful rewilding always achieves its ideal, or that successful rewilding must achieve its ideal immediately. But if I want to live a life less controlled by artificial systems, any decrease in those systems’ power is a step on the ladder of rewilding. And, in regards to land, rewilding practices have been profoundly successful.

The trick is to conceive of rewilding as a practical project to decrease the influence of artificial systems over nature (including human nature). Consider Yellowstone. When wolves were eradicated, the whole ecosystem suffered. Elk overpopulated the area, and their grazing led to a decrease in the beaver populations. When wolves were reintroduced, they preyed on the elk and artificial impacts decreased, eventually washing out of the landscape to a profound degree. Of course, Yellowstone isn’t the wildest place on Earth, but wolf reintroduction shielded it from the impact of artificial systems, so made it wilder.

Similarly, zoos frequently preserve populations of animals that they later reintroduce to the wild. They do this by dealing with the situation practically: teach the captive animals the skills they need to live in the wild, then slowly reintroduce them. Keep tabs on them, fix any problems that come up, and try again.

We should take the same approach when rewilding our own lives. Start with outlining all the most important skills you need to learn: how to build shelters, how to identify plants… In every case, be sure to limit your efforts to a tractable problem. Don’t learn how to identify every plant, only the plants in regions you will be testing your skills in. And don’t try to solve every problem. Some things just aren’t going to fall into place until nature, not civilisation, becomes your tutor.

None of this is to say that we can achieve everything we would like to. Extinct species are a permanent problem. And no 21-year-old who was raised in a highly populated city is going to live an entirely wild life — ever. In addition to recognising that we have real, achievable goals, we also need to recognise the proper place for mourning. The move from conservation to rewilding has been touted as a positive vision, a way to move away from the dourness of old environmentalism and conservation. In a certain sense this is true. But the necessity of rewilding is a sad fact about modern life: civilisation has destroyed so many wild areas that we need to restore some before we can fully live by our values.

Sophisticated nihilists will admit that short-term rewilding efforts may very well achieve their goals, but that in the long term, civilisation is bound to destroy wild nature. I do not think this is true, but even if it was it would not be enough to put an end to all rewilding efforts. If the situation is utterly hopeless, with no chance of successful long-term conservation, no chance of rewilding, no chance of industrial decline or collapse, this is only enough to convince lukewarm wills to abandon action. The indomitable spirit, typified by his inability to live without the wild and his frankly reckless willingness to make huge sacrifices for it, would not be able to stomach stillness in captivity. Consider Geronimo, who led natives in battles against colonial powers for 36 years, evading capture and escaping captivity several times. After being detained by General Nelson Miles as a prisoner of war, Geronimo eventually acquiesced to civilisation, allowing himself to be an exotic attraction at fairs. Yet on his deathbed he proclaimed to his nephew, ‘I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.’

I write, then, for individuals like Geronimo — individuals who can earnestly and without reservation shout that most appropriate battle cry: ‘Live wild or die!’

GeronimoRinehart

Rebuke the Idols of Civilisation

And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcases upon the carcases of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you.
— Leviticus 26:30

Lately a new kind of rewilding has been gaining ground: the ‘rewilding’ of ecomodernists. Ecomodernism claims that technological progress will ‘decouple’ civilised people from the land, allowing them to continue living comfortable, modern lives while reducing their influence on the nature around them. Accelerate technological progress; intensify production in civilised areas through aquaculture and industrial farming; shuffle rural people into cities: this, they say, leaves and will leave vast regions of the Earth to the wild.

Outside of the decoupling thesis, ecomodernism’s version of rewilding is more obviously revisionist. For example, some ecomodernists advocate ‘de-extinction’, or using biological technologies to revive extinct species, so that they can reintroduce those species to their once native habitats. While considering these ideas, I have always been struck by a comparison with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, ‘to repair the world’. In recent years, left-wing Jewish groups have utilised this concept to push a narrative of progress, emphasising the fight for social justice as the most important element. But the man who taught me of tikkun olam repudiated these hubristic interpretations, stressing that the concept came from the Aleinu prayer, in which the Jewish people collectively pray for God to ‘remove all idols from the Earth, and to completely cut off all false gods; to repair the world.’ As I learned it, these idols include man’s unending faith in himself to fix the world.

The debate about rewilding is the like the debate about tikkun. Ecomodernists have declared that ‘this is the earth we have created’, so we should ‘manage it with love and intelligence’ to create ‘new glories’. They call this ‘rewilding’. But rewilding is not about continuing technical domination; it is about removing the idols of Progress, the dams, the roads, the corporations — and this includes man’s unending faith in himself.

Many ecological philosophers and conservationists have already tackled the problems with ecomodernism. Eileen Crist writes:

Importantly, modern development proceeds by converting and exploiting a massive portion of the natural world, and that particular portion is not one humanity is decoupled from. The portion of the biosphere that modernization assimilates, humanity is and will be very much coupled with; except that “coupled” is hardly the right word — comprehensively dominated is a more accurate depiction […] On all fronts, industrial food production is a ruthless, machine-mediated subjugation of land and seas as well as of wild and domestic beings.

But Crist critiques ecomodernism from the perspective of bio- or ecocentrism — the original philosophical justifications Dave Foreman and others gave for rewilding — and ecocentrism, too, has some problems. It is a strain of ethics in the Deep Ecology tradition that argues that nature has intrinsic moral worth. Theorists argue over the unit of moral worth — is it the organism, the ecosystem, the biosphere? — but the end result usually looks the same: ecocentrists protect nature because nature is deserving of their moral consideration. And when they are against civilisation, they are against it for the sake of nature. Among other things, this idea leaves room wide-open for decoupling strategies. The ecomodernists are right: under this version of ecocentrism, accelerating the development of civilisation is desirable if it results in more wild lands. It can only be rejected if we proudly claim that the whole point of preserving the wild is because we want to experience and ideally live in wilder conditions. And there are even bigger problems with the philosophy.

Some argue that ecocentrism follows an observable trend of humans expanding their altruistic capabilities from the band to the tribe to the nation and now to all of humanity. The next step, clearly, is to include non-human life. But this argument ignores an important point: an expanded ‘moral circle depends on and is the result of civilised infrastructure. Biologists have found that altruism in organisms, while an important part of their evolutionary strategy, evolves to only a limited degree. In humans, it seems as though natural altruism is limited to about 150 people, after which groups need to devise rules, rituals, and other regulatory mechanisms to maintain cohesion. Of course, the exact number is irrelevant. The issue is that altruism beyond a certain point has to be instilled. This is the difference between solidarity — the altruism of natural man — and civility: the altruism of civilised man.

Norbert Elias writes about a historical example of moral cultivation in the first volume of his magnum opus The Civilizing Process. Elias argues that, instead of simply adopting European social mores, the people of the Middle Ages underwent a long period of education that shaped their behaviour through shame, guilt, disgust, and other such feelings.

For instance, Elias reviews several etiquette manuals and points out that commands now reserved for children were being issued, regularly, to adults. People of the Middle Ages had to be told not to defecate on staircases and curtains, not to touch their privates in public, not to greet someone who is relieving themselves, not to examine their handkerchief after blowing into it, not to use various pieces of public fabric as handkerchiefs, not to use their eating spoon to serve food, not to offer food that they have bitten into, not to stir sauce with their fingers…

Beyond direct instruction, European society also developed taboos around sex, defecation, and urination; they passed laws; and they made non-compliance of cosmic importance by employing Christian dogma. In other words, the European ‘second nature’ developed only through multiple, interlocking systems and over a long period of time.

Elias argues that instilling a second nature into Europeans became necessary because right around the same time the patchwork of feudal territories, chiefdoms, and cities were being consolidated into much larger state-based societies. Nowadays, with states and their systems of education already established, a large-scale social transformation is unnecessary, and citizens usually go through the same processes of education in their youth.

Today the dominant ideology of global civilisation, in terms of power, is secular humanism. Among other things, this asserts that all of humanity belongs to a single moral community, and that each member of this community has a moral obligation to recognise all others’ rights and intrinsic dignity, which, conveniently, includes the right to live industrially. This is the ideology preached by the United Nations, universities, NGOs, and progressive corporations like Facebook. Connectedness between people becomes an important goal; development, another. The ideology is sustained by civilised infrastructure, like mass communication and transportation systems. Without it, humanism is untenable. Ecocentrism would be similarly untenable, because it further enlarges the moral circle to include non-humans. The trick, however, is to reject the artificial moralities completely.

Let me be clear. Solidarity, cooperation and altruism in small, natural social groups, is necessary for human flourishing. The human animal needs mates, parents, peers, elders to go beyond simply surviving and to live well. But civility must be instilled; it is a technological modification. Consider Freud’s thoughts on the matter in Civilisation and Its Discontents, in which he writes that one of the characteristic elements of civilisation is ‘..the manner in which the relationships of men to one another, their social relationships, are regulated — relationships which affect a person as a neighbour, as a source of help, as another person’s sexual object, as a member of a family and of a State’ (much like social manners began to be regulated in the Middle Ages).

But Freud warns that the repressed elements of human nature may express themselves in two ways. On the one hand, these desires might be redirected toward problems within civil life ‘… and so may prove favourable to a further development of civilisation.’ On the other hand, these desires ‘may also spring from the remains of their original personality, which is still untamed by civilisation and may thus become the basis … of hostility to civilisation. The urge for freedom, therefore, is directed against particular forms and demands of civilisation or against civilisation altogether.’ Rewilding cannot be about trying to create a particular form of civilisation, like expanding its concept of justice to include non-humans. Rewilding will involve casting off the chains of artificial regulations that currently bind our ‘original personality, which is still untamed’.

This kind of rewilding won’t look at all like the kind that is found on websites with e-stores, on Instagram profiles, or in lifestyle magazines. It will, in fact, be regarded extremely negatively. For instance, in 1785 a group of freed and runaway slaves and white indentured servants settled in a wilderness area now known as Indianapolis. Peter Lamborn Wilson writes:

They mingled with Pawnee Indians and took up a nomadic life modeled on that of local hunter-gatherer tribes. Led by a ‘king’ and ‘queen,’ Ben and Jennie Ishmael, […] they were known as fine artisans, musicians and dancers, abstainers from alcohol, practitioners of polygamy, non-Christian, and racially integrated […] By about 1810 they had established a cycle of travel that took them annually from Indianapolis (where their village gradually became a city slum) through a triangle formed by the hamlets of Morocco and Mecca in Indiana and Mahomet in Illinois …

Later ‘official’ white pioneers detested the Ishmaels, and apparently the feeling was mutual. From about 1890 comes this description of an elder: ‘He is an anarchist of course, and he has the instinctive, envious dislike so characteristic of his people, of anyone in a better condition than himself.’ […] The observer continues: ‘He abused the law, the courts; the rich, factories — everything.’ The elder stated that ‘the police should be hanged’; he was ready, he said, to burn the institutions of society. ‘I am better than any man that wears store clothes.’

Are we ready to be viewed like the Ishmaels?

Live Wild

Rewilding is an excellent framework for people who want to abandon civilisation, but it’s time to take it seriously. We cannot engage in the error of lifestylism — we must leave the zoo to rewild, and we must hold humans to the same standard as non-humans. And we cannot mistake rewilding for a progressive project — the point is to decrease the stronghold of artificial systems, not increase it. Foreman, in the first newsletter for Earth First!, put it well: ‘Not blind opposition to progress, but wide-eyed opposition to progress!’

John Jacobi is a part of the Wild Will Project.

Images: 
Golden Gate, Yellowstone National Park by Acroterion – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
‘Geronimo’ by Frank A. Rinehart (1861–1928) (credited) – LJWorld.com – Photogalleries, Public Domain

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To a Faith in Place

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

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

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

Stephen, a hardy man in a young body.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 You can watch the film trailer here.

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

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The Dark Humanities: Cosmic comfort in the Anthropocene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Day After We Sold the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A Part of Its Breathing

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

I am Night. I am everywhere light is not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes

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Bottleneck

LdV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A baby passes through a bigger aperture.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

‘I’m sorry,’ says Clare.

‘For what?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you following a news story?’

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

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

‘When I get round to it.’

‘Seriously, you look tired.’

‘I’m in training.’

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

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

‘It’s good to be back.’

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


***

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

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

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

‘Huh?’

‘You seem preoccupied.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I think I can manage something simple.’

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

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

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

‘If what matters?’

‘In the grand scheme of things.’

‘Ajay.’

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

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

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

‘What do you mean?’

‘See for yourself.’

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

‘Shall I bullet point it for you?’

‘No, just tell me outright.’

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

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

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

‘You said they gave assurances.’

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

‘So who owns the largest share?’

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

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

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

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

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

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

‘Can’t hear you, love.’

‘I’m thirsty.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their child is coming into the world.

Nothing can stop it now.

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

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

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

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

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