The Dark Mountain Blog

Us and Them

The seventh issue of Dark Mountain is now available through our online shop for £12.99 – or £8.99 if you subscribe to future issues. Over the next few weeks, we’d like to share some of what you’ll find in its pages. Today we bring you Mat Osmond’s essay on Ecocide, Empathy and the Graphic Ecofable.

SECTION 1 - 4 Mat Osmond_Big Meat Grinder (from Pit's Letter) - Sue Coe (1)[Above] Image from Pit’s Letter, the 2000 graphic novel by reportage artist and storyteller Sue Coe, in which industrial civilisation is imagined from the perspective of a laboratory dog.

The reportage artist and storyteller Sue Coe’s 2000 graphic novel Pit’s Letter examines our civilisation from the perspective of a laboratory dog. Coe’s story imagines a team of vivisectionists striving to locate and to eliminate the ‘empathy gene’ once and for all – to root out that awkward lingering capacity for interspecies fellow-feeling that would dare obstruct the onward march of human progress. Like the rest of Coe’s extraordinary and prolific graphic oeuvre, Pit’s Letter expresses an unambiguous moral agenda, reflecting her unwavering commitment to making visible the hidden obscenities within our culture’s treatment of animals. As one of her many print-works puts it: ‘Go vegan and nobody gets hurt’.

Pit’s Letter belongs, then, to a body of animal-rights campaign literature that forms one important cultural background for the emergence of a new genre of storytelling – one that we’ve begun to call the ‘ecofable’. For the emergence, in other words, of a newly defined ambition for storytelling: ‘What if we could tell a story that made people care about what’s happening to Earth? And what if our story moved them enough that they’d go and do whatever it took to stop it from happening?’

I want to look, here, at two recent graphic novels that typify this now familiar aspiration – Stephanie McMillan’s and Derrick Jensen’s As the World Burns: 50 simple things you can do to stay in denial, and Nick Hayes’ The Rime of the Modern Mariner. And in asking what it is exactly that these stories are trying to do, I want to use them both to explore the related idea of ‘cultural psychotherapy’, proposed by the human ecologist Alastair McIntosh in his 2008 book, Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition.

McIntosh argues that we become capable of collectively destroying our world only by having first become dead to it, and that we become dead to it through the violence we’ve internalised since birth from our ambient culture. His proposal is that the principle challenge for artists, faced with an accelerating collapse of the Earth’s life systems under the pressure of human civilisation, is to puncture our cultural hubris. Hubris is what McIntosh sees as the ultimate source of the systemic violence behind ecocide, and he suggests that in tackling that, artists may help to ‘re-kindle the inner life’ of our culture. Fostering this process, he argues, hinges on one, essential quality: empathy.

This is an undeniably noble intent – but what would addressing ecological crisis by fostering empathy look like, in practice? What has that to do with our actual experience of art and storytelling, and what, against a backdrop of global catastrophe that increasingly overshadows our local environmentalisms, might one be hoping to achieve in the attempt? Appropriate questions with which to approach something that we might call ‘the graphic ecofable’.

1. Us

And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it.

The Dark Mountain Manifesto

Chris van Allsburg’s 1990 children’s picture book Just a Dream offers a good place to start. Opening with the memorable Pogo quote from Walt Kelly’s 1971 Earth Day poster: ‘We have met the enemy and he is us’, Allsburg shows us a careless American boy who can’t be bothered to do the recycling, and who, upon falling asleep, is whisked away into a series of prophetic nightmares. It’s a green cautionary tale in the pattern of A Christmas Carol, in which the boy wakes, in dream, to the future that will flow from his present mode of living: meeting there a future-earth smothered in humanity’s rubbish, stripped of trees, its oceans emptied of life. And as with Dickens’ Scrooge, our boy wakes from these night terrors filled with a new appreciation for what hasn’t yet been destroyed, and… runs out to do the recycling. A story told to inspire children with a sense of the beauty and the fragility of their world, warning them that actions have consequences, intended or not. Just like that other 1971 vanguard of picture-book eco-fables, Dr Seuss’ The Lorax, Allsburg’s book is telling its young reader: ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not’. All well and good. ‘After all’, we might ask, ‘what exactly are we supposed to say to today’s children?’ But 43 years on from The Lorax, this kind of light-green propaganda is coming up against a situation playing out on a very different scale – and finding both its language and its strategies insufficient to address it. In fact, of course, this is by no means simply a question for children. Philip Pullman’s observation that there’s nothing a child reader cannot deal with, so long as it’s given to them within an appropriate story, might usefully be extended to all of us staring dumbly at this new word in our lexicon – ecocide.

13c[Above] Kranti, the character who provides the principle mouthpiece for Stephanie McMillan and Derrick Jensen in their 2007 graphic novel As The World Burns, 50 simple things you can do to stay in denial.

2. Them

Ecocide demands a response.

The Dark Mountain Manifesto

This growing sense of a gulf between problem and strategy is where the 2007 graphic novel As The World Burns: 50 simple things you can do to stay in denial comes in. Occupy cartoonist Stephanie MacMillan teams up with her fellow American, environmental campaigner and author Derrick Jensen, to jeer us out of our fuzzy green complacency. For its intent to be understood, their story needs to be seen alongside Jensen’s better-known non-fiction work. Its plot extrapolates from his maxim that if aliens came did to our planet what civilisation is currently doing, we’d view that as a situation of all-out war, and respond in like manner.

As the World Burns describes a race of alien robots coming to eat the Earth, with the naïve collusion of the corporate state, who see in their arrival only another opportunity for profit. It imagines the Earth’s wild creatures, and their few human friends, banding together to repel the invasion before turning, as the story ends, on the establishment that sold them out. Its central characters are two young girls: one with an ardent zeal to save the Earth in the familiar terms that Allsburg et al promote: recycling, voluntary abstinence, letter writing, peaceable marching. Her dark-haired friend – the authors’ principle mouthpiece in the text – picks these hopeful strategies apart as a string of empty promises that divert attention from the real enemy – the systemic insanity and violence driving the all-consuming engine of civilisation.

50c

[Above] Kranti is referred to a psychotherapist, and finds the ‘adjustment’ he proposes wanting. From As The World Burns, 50 simple things you can do to stay in denial, Stephanie McMillan and Derrick Jensen, 2007.

Among the primary targets of this story’s derision is just that sense of hope proffered by green tracts such as Allsburg’s. For Jensen, such hope isn’t simply an empty promise. With relentless – at times ferocious – logic he analyses hope itself as a key element within a dangerous denial mechanism. It is hope, Jensen argues, that allows us to avert our gaze from civilisation’s innately ecocidal trajectory – that of continuous escalation. As one of the principle voices behind new radical environmentalist movements such as Deep Green Resistance, Jensen asserts that unless it’s brought down by direct – and where necessary, violent – intervention, the juggernaut of civilisation will never be turned around, and that in the absence of such an intervention, all of our greening lifestyle choices have, at best, a short-term feel-good value.

That this story comes from America isn’t incidental. Jensen understands civilisation to be ‘a culture of occupation’ – a perpetual encroachment on all non-human habitats, and on all indigenous cultures. This perspective owes much to his involvement with the struggles of Native American communities, past and present, to resist just such an implacable process of incursion. In particular, Jensen reads this situation in terms of an Algonquin myth, an idea he takes from the Native American scholar Jack D Forbes: the wetiko psychosis. Taken as a lens through which to view the unstoppable spread of Western civilisation, in particular, the wetiko myth presents us a with a sickened culture both infected by, and transmitted as, a virulently contagious form of moral insanity – the wetiko, or cannibal psychosis – wherein consuming other beings’ lives for profit, once begun, becomes an involuntary compulsion shaping our collective behaviour. Without this knowledge of Jensen’s wider polemic, we might easily read this graphic novel as a piece of tongue-in-cheek green wish fulfilment. But behind all that trenchant sarcasm lies a call to direct and disruptive action that is seen, by its authors and by a steadily growing number, as the only coherently empathic response to accelerating ecocide.

3. Stories

8. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of world full stop. Together we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.

The Eight Principles of Uncivilisation

If we find Allsburg’s light-green ethics faltering before the scale of unfolding events, we may yet find ourselves recoiling at the implications of this war-on-civilisation rhetoric. What practical help might an ecofable then offer a perplexed reader, faced with our culture’s current direction of travel? At face value, a realistic answer to that question seems to be: almost nothing. Were that the case, we might stop for a moment to consider whether we are in fact asking the right question. Suppose, for instance, we were to absolve the ecofable, as it gropes for images through which to fathom ecological crisis, of a responsibility to produce solutions of any kind to the situation that it seeks to explore? The pressing need to innovate practical adaptations within a rapidly shifting situation is of course an essential factor in our current politics. But might it not be said that this is not, and has never been, either the primary concern or the most valuable function of art and storytelling? For all his heroic aggression, I think Jensen shows another way forward here, almost by accident. Buried within his 2011 non-fiction work Dreams, a 600-page tirade against the instrumentalist rationality of scientism, is a question that he tosses out as a casual aside: ‘What stories could we tell that would help us to fight off a wetiko infection?’

It may be unfair to take As the World Burns as Jensen’s own answer to that very good question. But I think this story reveals something important, and not just for the anti-civilisation crew. It offers a portrait, in high-relief, of a mindset that would couch ecological crisis in terms of an evil-over-there – a process driven by ‘them’ – a them who we can name and point to, and then marshal ourselves against. Amidst the defiance, there’s a curious shrillness in its fantasy of tearing down the machine – a shrillness that reflects, I think, its misdiagnosis of the infection that it would seek to fight off. The authors’ militant agenda has a compelling, emotive logic, so long as we imagine our own lives to be somehow separable from the problem itself. But in the context of global ecological crisis, I’d suggest that this amounts to a comforting, yet ultimately paralysing mistake – a mistake that the eco-philosopher Timothy Morton, following Hegel, has valuably framed as ‘beautiful soul syndrome’.

5. Chris Jordan - Midway (webfile)

[Above] One of the images from Chris Jordan’s Midway project, documenting the effects of ocean plastic pollution on albatross colonies in the Pacific, that first pro- voked Hayes to write his graphic novel.

Surely we need more from the ecofable than heroics? Need stories that allow us, as Morton puts it, to ‘deepen to our own hypocrisy’, as we turn towards our lives, and our shared systems of living, to find them on all sides complicit in the very problems that we would address. Stories able to steer us between that soporific platitude, sustainability, and the misanthropic guilt that bedevils much environmental discourse. Most of all, perhaps, we need stories able to speak to the creeping sense of futility that shadows environmentalism – a kind of un-sayable subtext, that usually – when it is spoken aloud – goes something like: ‘We’re fucked’.

All of which brings us to our second take on a contemporary ecofable: the political cartoonist Nick Hayes’ 2011 graphic novel, The Rime of the Modern Mariner. In Hayes’ story, we find Coleridge’s mesmeric Rime used as a dark mirror in which to contemplate the phenomenon of ocean plastic pollution. This exponentially growing problem is now notoriously evident at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where a revolving soup of plastic detritus currently accumulates, recently estimated to be larger than the USA, and reaching from the ocean’s surface to its floor.

Screen shot 2015-04-21 at 12.22.04

Screen shot 2015-04-21 at 12.22.21

[Above] Nick Hayes: Coleridge’s albatross is re-imagined for an age of ecocide. From Nick Hayes’ graphic novel The Rime of the Modern Mariner, 2011.

In Hayes’ Rime, this gyre pollution becomes a stand-in for the oceanic dead-zone which swallows Coleridge’s mariner – ‘We were the first that ever burst into that silent sea’ – and for the ‘thousand thousand slimy things’ that there assail him. Hayes uses the toxic wasteland which confronts his own mariner as a metonym for that all-pervasive but less graspable set of problems we refer to rather vaguely as ‘the ecological crisis’, of which ocean plastic pollution, for all its mind-numbing scale, forms but one tangible element. And weaving Coleridge with Melville, Hayes’ mariner is driven by this encounter into a process of terminal descent, until at his nadir he sees his life reflected for what it currently is, within the eye of the great whale which he’d come there to kill.

What strikes me as valuable about Hayes’ approach to an ecofable isn’t just the way it invites contemplation of an outward problem while speaking to the soul-condition that it reflects. Rather, it is what follows this descent to the more fundamental relational wasteland underlying the gyre pollution. The latter part of this book, which shifts into a different visual key to mark a significant change of mode, offers a redemptive reverie in which, I’d suggest, we find Hayes presenting us with a very different answer to Jensen’s provocative question. The figure that pulls Hayes’ traumatised mariner to land and to safety is an affectionate portrayal of the late English naturalist and writer Roger Deakin. The healing grove to which Deakin carries the mariner depicts David Nash’s living ash-grove sculpture. Indeed, Hayes has said that the idea for his retelling of The Rime first came from encountering one of Chris Jordan’s Midway photographs of dead albatross chicks, opened bellies full of plastic, many thousands of miles from the nearest human cities. Clearly one aspect of the redemption being mused on, here, concerns the arts’ potential to address cultural insanity, and to re-orient us toward the real.

Nick Hayes 2

[Above] The healing bower to which Deakin carries the mariner – inspired in turn by David Nash’s Ash Grove living sculpture. From Nick Hayes’ graphic novel The Rime of the Modern Mariner, 2011.

Hayes’ is a story which doesn’t preoccupy itself with what hope does or does not remain for redemption of the civilisation currently destroying its ecological base – although it ends with a whisper of our eventual departure from the stage. True to the great ballad that inspired it, Hayes’ story imagines the more subtle hope of decolonising that culture of occupation from within, by the simple act of holding out the hand of friendship to our own contingent, radically dependent nature. Certainly this graphic novel doesn’t pretend to offer solutions to our personal entanglement within an accelerating ecocide, other than, with Coleridge, to turn us towards our innate creaturely empathy with all species. And to leave us, at its downbeat conclusion, with the fallibility, complicity, and inevitable self-contradiction that such empathy throws us back onto, as incurably civilised beings.

This stumbling, unheroic gesture of turning towards is a move that essentially solves nothing. Nothing, that is, except to abandon the subtle violence with which the beautiful soul would disown the evil that it sees – and in seeing, creates – ‘over there’. Caught up within an unfolding catastrophe, the scale and momentum of which renders our remaining choices a good in themselves, or no good at all, it’s an attitude that might offer us a place to stand. Perhaps, in that sense, we find here a workable understanding of art, poetry and storytelling as modes of cultural psychotherapy. It might also help in forming a response to the rhetorical question with which I began: ‘What exactly are we supposed to say to today’s children?’ With this, more forgiving approach to an ecofable’s task, we might find the manifest answers to that question to be neither as thin on the ground, nor for that matter as new, as we’d previously assumed.

Sources

Allsburg, Chris van. Just a Dream, US: Houghton Mifflin, 2011
Coe, Sue. Pit’s Letter, US: 4 Walls 8 Windows, 2000
___. Cruel, US: OR Books, 2012
Forbes, Jack D. Columbus and Other Cannibals, US: Autonomedia, 1992
Hayes, Nick. The Rime of the Modern Mariner, London: Jonathon Cape, 2011
Jensen, Derrick and Stephanie McMillan. As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things you can do to Stay in Denial, US: 7 Stories Press, 2007
Jensen, Derrick. Endgame Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilisation, U.S.: Seven Stories Press,
2007
___. Dreams, US: Seven Stories Press, 2011
McIntosh, Alastair. Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition, UK: Birlinn, 2008
Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2009
___. The Ecological Thought, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2010

Mat Osmond lives in Falmouth, UK. He used to draw a lot, now mostly he writes. He’s currently working on a series of illustrated poems, and an article on the great collaborative friendship between the poet Ted Hughes and the artist Leonard Baskin.

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. 

Dark Mountain: Issue 7 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

 

Brink

The seventh issue of Dark Mountain is now available through our online shop for £12.99 – or £8.99 if you subscribe to future issues. Over the next few weeks, we’d like to share some of what you’ll find in its pages. Today we bring you Jeri Reilly’s piece on war, memory, Neanderthals and the first European conquest…

Screen shot 2015-04-06 at 13.52.11

Reading Sebald’s novel The Emigrants (1) last night. It has photographs, which are uncaptioned. I was disturbed by the pre-war faces of the people in the pictures – the sunny cluster of school boys on a German mountainside, the relatives in familial ease at the white-clothed table. Everyone smiling out from the frame of some fateful year. As if their world would go on. I was disturbed by the repulsion I felt – I was repulsed by the weight and shame of our history staring at me point-blank from these faces. Our history, which, in those moments, was the future bearing down on them, preparing to break their hearts.

I see those smiling people and feel defeated by the accretion of violence and conquest. Always conquest. Now it’s conquest for the last vial of oil, the last tree, the last free human brain cell. (Yes, the programmers of Silicon Valley are bearing down on us with their dreams of singularity.) I look at those faces and see through the hindsight of history the atrocities done to all the extraordinary ordinary people going about their lives.

I write this on September 1, 2014. We are living in a small cottage on the southwest coast of Ireland. Marianne called in this evening to invite us to her house for coffee and cake on Thursday. Her house is several miles away, over the mountain pass. Before she and her husband settled into it year-round eighteen years ago, it was their holiday home – their sanctuary from Berlin. There is a tradition of German people buying cottages in Ireland, going back to Heinrich Böll, who came to Ireland in the 1950s, ‘trying to wake up from the nightmare of history in Europe’. (2) He recorded his experience of finding refuge in a remote cottage on Achill Island in his Irish Journal, which he published in 1957 after his return to Germany. In the introduction to the 2011 edition, Hugo Hamilton, whose mother emigrated to Ireland from Germany during the war, writes that the country the young Böll and his family came to had ‘remained untouched by the Second World War’ and by the ‘post-war rush for material certainty’.

But now at our kitchen table, Marianne has become upset. She has told us that Germany just announced it would provide arms to the Kurds. ‘Today of all days!’ she cried. She was referring to the anniversary of the start of the War in 1939. We asked if she had memories of it, and she described the soldiers marching down the streets of her native Königsberg on their way to the Polish border, seventy-five years ago today. She was eight years old the day that World War II started.

When I met Marianne, I liked her immediately. She’s formidable and huggable at the same time. She likes to talk politics, reads widely, and will have a cigarette when she gets the chance. She wears mascara and lipstick and likes to go to the pub to see her neighbours and listen to music. She is lively company and bakes a delicious strawberry cake. But now her mascara is smudged and her eyes are red. She accepts a glass of wine. ‘Terrible, terrible,’ she says. ‘Do they know what they are doing?’ Königsberg was bombed nearly to the ground and fell to the Russians. A few of its German citizens escaped, some, including Marianne’s family, across the Baltic sea on an overcrowded ferry. But afterward was worse. The guilt. They had no identity, she said. What was Germany? What did it mean to be German anymore?

What is the cause of our violence and our history of conquest? Some people I know shrug and say, it’s human nature. We can’t help ourselves, it’s the way we evolved. But I don’t believe this. I’ve had children. I saw that it was not in their nature to hurt things. The first time my eldest son saw an older boy deliberately step on an insect to crush it, he cried. I felt my duty as a mother was to protect my children from the violent images on television and the cinema. And this was in the 1980s, the early days of the American descent into commercial depravity. But if it’s not human nature where does it come from, the drive to kill and conqueror? Was it always thus?

I have a creation story I tell myself. It is, of course, prelapsarian, as creation myths are. Although it is grounded first and foremost in scientific findings, my story also contains, as most myths do, truths that come to us from intuitions and imaginings. My story goes like this. Once upon a time there was a species with a big brain that had adapted to the cold climate of Europe, where they had lived for at least 300,000 years. They were primarily artists and the subject for their art was the animals with whom they shared the forests and the plains. They may have first painted with blood, as John Berger has suggested, but we know they used ochre. Contrary to what many believe, they were ‘technologically precocious’(3) and developed an advanced tool-making technology known today as the Levallois technique.

They did not need the so-called Enlightenment to discover that the earth was round. They could see the earth was round because they observed that everything in the world is round – the year from spring to spring is round, and the moon and sun are round. Winter after winter they had witnessed the aurora borealis dancing in a circle around the summit of the earth and from this they bequeathed to us the image of the human halo and the crown that is its symbol. They have come to be called the Neanderthals, and because of what happened to them their story has come down to us in a corrupted form.

What happened to them, according to my creation story, was homo sapiens, who walked out of Africa on their famous two legs some 50,000 years ago. No one knows for sure why these humans left their home in Africa and moved to a harsh climate. Some paleontologists think it was because they were too successful as hunters. That their numbers expanded to such a degree they depleted the plants and animals upon which they depended for food, and thus destroyed their habitat.

When the Homo sapiens arrived in Europe they found Homo neanderthalensis already there. The African emigrants learned much from the indigenous people they met. They learned how to use new tools and to make art. They saw that many of the artists who left their handprints next to their paintings on the walls of caves were female. They learned how to shelter and keep warm during winter and what foods could be saved through the coldest, darkest months. They learned the Neanderthals’ music and ceremonies. They learned to place stones over their dead.

Neanderthals had powerful arms and legs and were able to lift heavy boulders and build stone monuments in the places they gathered to mark the cycles of the seasons. They fished with their broad hands, ate small birds, and boiled their porridge in birchbark trays. They gathered nuts and berries and roots and tubers. They were skilled hunters, too. But they considered the animals their brothers and sisters, much like many other indigenous peoples do, and so they developed what we would call a conscience, and compassion for other lives. Their instinct was to gratitude, and this made them kind. They left an offering when they killed an animal, which they did only for special feast days. They were herbalists too, a practice they learned from watching the animals.

They welcomed the humans and, in some cases, mated with them, and that is why today Europeans and descendants of Europeans carry the Neanderthal legacy in their genes.

But the Neanderthal people were not prepared to defend themselves when the humans stopped borrowing and began taking from them – when the climate changed and the glaciers descended and food became scarce. Although they had tremendous strength, they were wholly unprepared to organise themselves for war. They were hunter-gatherers. They were still free. They had no centralised power structure. They did not want to leave their lands because their dead were buried there.

This was the first European conquest: eventually the Neanderthals were driven out of their homelands and banned from their ceremonial circles. They retreated to the waste places and the rocky promontories of hills where they could be on watch for wayward bands of Homo sapiens. And, as far as we know, they died out. A shadow memory of the Neanderthals survives in some folk tales, and it was their presence at the edges of the emigrants’ conquered lands that’s behind the beliefs in fairies and trolls.

The Homo sapiens have ever since told the story of the inferior race with the smaller brain, heavy brow, and stooped back, who had no technology, no art, no respect for the dead. To this day it is asserted that they had no feelings for each other and were incapable of abstract thought. Yet we westerners inflict violence and deprivation on our fellows as if we have no feelings for each other. We act as if our highly evolved capacity for abstract thought is not related to the problem of war and conquest.

Most Europeans today carry between one and four percent Neanderthal DNA.4 Which gives me the hope that we have a one-to-four percent peaceful part, and one-to-four percent artist part. And that this genetic legacy could be cherished and cultivated.

Underneath our history of violence and conquest is the fear that the Neanderthal will one day re-emerge from the margins and the rocky outcroppings to reclaim their rightful place and hold the Homo sapiens accountable for 35,000 years of dis-evolutionary behaviour. And for what was done to Abel and the Albigensians, and the Disappeared Ones. To the Jewish citizenry of Europe and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, to the families of Hiroshima and Dresden, and those of Tokyo, Mai Lai, and Gaza. To the elephants, the Bengali Tiger, the bees. To the forests, rivers, and seas.

Marianne is harrowed with worry that we are moving toward war again. Can we not look at Sebald’s pictures and see our own humanity in those smiling faces on the brink?

________________________________________
1 W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants (London: Vintage, 2002).

2 Hugo Hamilton, Introduction to Irish Journal by Heinrich Böll, trans. by Leila Vennewitz, (Brooklyn, NY: MelvilleHouse, 2011).

3 “Early Levallois Technology and the Lower to Middle Paleolithic Transition in the Southern Caucasus,” Science 345, no. 6204 (Sept 26, 2014): 1609-1613.

4 “The Replacements: New Evidence on the Old Mystery of the Neanderthals,” David Quammen, Harpers 329, no. 1972 (Sept 2014).

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. 

Dark Mountain: Issue 7 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

Dark Mountain: Issue 7

The latest issue of Dark Mountain has now landed!

Screen shot 2015-04-06 at 13.52.11

This beautiful new anthology of uncivilised writing and art (with cover designed by the wonderful Stanley Donwood) is now available through our online shop for £12.99 – or £8.99 if you subscribe to future issues. In the meantime, we wanted to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Today we get you started with the editorial… 

Fire on the Mountain

On the third day the crow shall fly
The crow, the crow, the spider-coloured crow,
The crow shall find new mud to walk upon

– Robert Bly

In Aeon’s review of Dark Mountain’s 2012 Uncivilisation festival, the author sounded a warning about the ‘sinister undercurrents’ of the movement: ‘The anti-technology polemics, the witchy nature mysticism and huntsman imagery,’ for this first-time attendee, ‘brought to mind nothing so much as English “neo-folk” acts such as Sol Invictus and Death In June, mainstays of Britain’s far-right bohemia, with its reveries about masks and antlers and the Brownshirts.’

A little less than two years later, the far-right Jobbik party took a fifth of the votes in Hungary’s election, propping up the nationalist and avowedly ‘illiberal’ government of Viktor Orbán. In the months that followed, the same current of volkisch sentiment seemed to be seeping up through the ground across Europe: Marine Le Pen, leader of the French Front National, topped a presidential opinion poll for the first time; the anti-immigration Swedish Democrats party doubled its share of the national vote; while Britain’s UKIP and the Danish People’s Party each took a quarter of their respective countries’ vote for the European Parliament. Although few of these parties are as overtly fascistic as Jobbik or Greece’s Golden Dawn, what was once dismissed as a regressive anomaly now appears to be a genuine trend across the continent.

Most recently, even Germany – a country where, for 70 years, civil discourse has been weighted towards a liberal vision of multi-ethnic rationalism – appeared to have succumbed to the trend when the anti- ‘Islamisation’ demonstrations of the Pegida movement erupted in Dresden, its chants of ‘Wir sind das Volk!’ producing troubling resonances for many observers. Meanwhile, in the US, the right-wing stranglehold on the terms of political debate and the slow erosion of the edifice of American rights have continued unabated despite six years of a Democratic presidency.

What does it mean, at a time like this, when the Enlightenment project of liberalism, democracy and reason seems to be under attack from every side, to be part of a cultural movement advocating a deeper relationship with our bodies, with the intuitive and non-rational aspects of our psyche, and with the land beneath our feet? What does it mean to promote a return to the primal, the wild, the traditional – to a deep belonging?

Are we playing with fire? Are we simply a group of middle-class literati, fetishising the irrational and the powerful, unaware of how our irresponsible intellectual posturing risks the release of savage, chthonic upwellings? Some would say that we ought now to be trying to defend the values of ‘civilisation’ against those who would replace it with a greater tyranny – that it is time to put aside our privileged indulgences in primitivism, Romanticism and back-to-nature nostalgia and to stand with our fellow citizens in holding the line of modernity against an encroaching tide of regressive barbarism.

Or might it be that this is just another one of the false choices we are presented with by our civilisation? That the purported division between a rational, ordered, peaceful civilisation and the blind savagery of times past is another false dichotomy? Just as people point to reforestation or the decline of industrial pollution in rich countries as evidence that the environment is improving – conveniently ignoring that the destruction has simply been offshored to the majority world – so we are invited to view our wealthy bubbles of relative peace as proof that civilisation need not be rooted in violence; all the while repressing knowledge of the fires of conflict burning elsewhere on the globe.

If the ugly face of ‘belonging’ has started to show its face in the West, perhaps it is less a recursion of an ideological disease from the past, and more a symptom of systemic dysfunction; an indication that the post- War deal upon which Western nations proceeded precariously for half a century – that devil’s bargain that gave the mass of working people in Europe and America just enough of the spoils of Empire not to want to rock the boat, not to question where the wealth was coming from, or the human and environmental cost – has started to fail. And as the boat starts to flounder, some, inevitably, look for easy answers; for someone to blame.

That the impact of Empire’s declining power to exploit and extract would generate animosity against the outsider, the immigrant, the other, was both predictable and predicted. Rather than being a regression from reason, though, this can be seen as a failure of story – it is precisely the collapse of the motivationary myth of continual progress that has unleashed so much inchoate frustration; and it is precisely the absence of other stories to replace the officially sanctioned narrative that renders the situation so dangerous.

In Britain, where the Dark Mountain Project was born, we are perhaps insulated from the worst excesses of these dangers: our localism rarely flares into outright animosity; our connection with the soil seems to have more to do with hydrangeas than Hitlerism. Perhaps this gives us an opportunity – and thereby a responsibility – to hold open a space where these issues can be dealt with safely; where the shadow-stuff of anger, fear, exclusion and severance can be allowed out, drop by drop, to be alchemised by the clear light of honesty and understanding.

We have always known that we would be accused of breaking open the tombs of things better left buried; one does not, after all, challenge the fundamental values of a civilisation without treading on the ideological toes of some vocal and influential entities. And we have always known that, despite those voices, we would continue to dig for the rough ores of truth and insight.

For the alternative – as described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, Smile or Die – is of a totalitarian optimism, an enforced positivity which pushes every misgiving, every sign of weakness, every moment of silence and humility down into the deepening sack of bilious, unconscious resentment. Our culture cuts itself off from the dark currents of the blood, and in doing so it both robs itself of their transformative power and plants the seeds of their violent reversion. For it is often precisely when the human desires for belonging, for rooting, for connection to the land and our own animal nature, are stymied and suppressed that they warp into the brutal distortions that fill the pages of the history books.

Confronting the shadow is never easy – it can lead you to uncomfort- able places and introduce you to ill-mannered travelling companions. As you join us around the campfire, you may find yourself conversing with fierce-toothed wolves or primeval lizards; may be confronted with the false coin of travelling tricksters or the hairy stink of ancient machismo; may be served up the oil-stained shrimp of an eroding community, or the raw catch of a broken relationship; you may find yourself crawling down a New York sidewalk, or lying, wire-cutters in hand, beneath the belly of an industrial machine. You may hear a low growl from the darkness at your back.

But wander far enough into these shadows and you may stumble across the unexpected: the tenderness of connection that comes from facing death squarely; a woman, entering the dark of a cave, transfigured into light; the sudden life of a circling swift. And behind the conflicts and chaos of our civilisation’s early struggles lie the traces of an older wisdom: voices of the indigenous, the Neanderthal, the animal whisper to us across the years – or speak directly to us here and now, if only we have the wit to listen.

If the dark forces of conflict and control are indeed encroaching once more upon the ‘civilised’ world, the need for us to learn how to root is more, not less, urgent. As the shadows lengthen through this ‘twilight of the evening lands’, the need only grows stronger for new narratives; for stories, voices, visions and verse that help us remember what it is to be nothing more – or less – than human.

The Editors, February 2015

ILLY - Prospect -JeremyDyerMonumentJeremy Dyer ‘Monument’, archival pigment print on cotton rag

– 

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. 

Dark Mountain: Issue 7 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

Rivershift

great-missoula-flood

During the Pleistocene, a river containing ten times the combined volume of all the rivers on Earth thundered west from its place of origin in a land now called Montana. At speeds upwards of sixty miles per hour, it tore across northwest North America on its way to the Pacific Ocean.

This mightiest of rivers was born from the collapse of the glacial dam that had contained it as an enormous water body known as Lake Missoula. And no sooner had the dam burst than it began to reform again to repeat the cataclysm, likely hundreds of times until the final collapse spilled one last torrent into the warming world of the Holocene.

This terminal river is the one that came to mind as I read Kathleen Dean Moore’s ‘The Rules of the River’ in the September/October 2014 issue of Orion magazine. In Moore’s essay, she equates climate change and the myriad socio-political/economic interests (and disinterests) propelling it with ‘a river rushing toward a hot, stormy, and dangerous planet.’ She goes on to suggest that our work is ‘to make one small deflection in complacency, a small obstruction to profits, a blockage to business-as-usual, then another and another, to change the energy of the flood.’

As I read this I realised, for these countercurrent actions to be as effective as possible, we also need to understand the nature of the river itself. And no real river comes closer to serving as an adequate model for her metaphorical river than the Lake Missoula torrent. By relating her metaphorical river to that ice age river, the reality of our present global predicament becomes clearer as does the full spectrum of our essential work.

The human equivalent of Lake Missoula began to grow ten thousand years ago behind the building ice dam of a new human story that had come to fill and chill the hearts of a swelling agricultural populace. Over the centuries, this story of separation, exceptionalism and control grew and grew, and behind it the human waters rose. Strain built against the relentlessly expanding margins of this story until roughly two centuries ago when the pressure became too great and, with industrial force, the dam burst.

Unleashed, the industrial human flood swept across the Earth, drowning everything in its path that would not or could not join the sweep. And the few generations born of the deluge during its relative geologic instant came to see it as normal. What’s more, they came to depend on it for almost every facet of their existence and derived most of their physical sustenance, self-worth, meaning, purpose, social standing and even identity from their contribution to its continuance. We who have inherited this aberrant normalcy and near-total dependency can now see with unprecedented clarity the compounding and increasingly catastrophic planetary damage our flood has been causing by its very existence. And this vision has produced a heart-wrenching tension too overwhelming for many of us to acknowledge. For those of us like Moore who have the courage to do so, a vital aspect of the work such acknowledgement demands is, as she recognises, deflection, obstruction and blockage of business-as-usual. But such work must be coupled with an awakening to the fact that industrial civilisation is the river. We are the waters. Our story is the flood.

This awareness leads to the other work we must do if deflection, obstruction and blockage are to become anything more than postponements of the total ecological erasure in which we are concurrently engaged in the day to day living of our lives as children of the flood. That other work is the conscious withdrawal of our personal and institutional energy from the torrent and the shifting of that energy into local communities integrated into local ecological cycles, where the fullness of human life may be met without involving the global industrial technological infrastructure with its insatiable demands for the unending and accelerating drawdown of planetary resilience.

It’s as simple (and as difficult) as promoting ways of human living where communication is direct eye to eye and voice to ear, where mobility is accomplished with feet, where the sources of food, water, shelter and all other material necessities can be accessed by those feet, and where the stories, songs and celebrations that matter most are those that directly bind us, our families and communities to the land which gives us our existence at every level: physical, emotional and spiritual.

And the time for this shift is now. Unlike the Toklat where Moore found her inspiration, or the Clark’s Fork, the Columbia, the Mississippi, the Nile, the Yangtze, the Amazon… this flood-formed river of human excess (born from the exploitation — in a mere two centuries — of the energy contained in fossil carbon deposits that took hundreds of millions of years to form) is, and can only be, temporary.

The river will subside. The waters will diminish and settle back into well-worn channels carved by the solar-powered cycle of the seasons spinning their ceaseless rounds. And we will once again live with the trophic integrity that is our deepest birthright, our broadest tradition. Most importantly, our stories will frame this transformation to a steady-state in terms of maturation rather than collapse, stagnation, regression or a devolutionary ‘going back’. Thus we will stop struggling at all costs to preserve a ten thousand year condition of arrested development (ceaseless adolescent growth) and embrace our long-postponed adulthood.

In this effort, we have many examples from whom to learn; those who long ago made the shift the citizens of the now-global monoculture of industrial civilisation must make. The following quote represents just one, offered by Jeanette Armstrong, an Okanagan from a land now called British Columbia:

I do know that people must come to community in the land. The transiency of peoples crisscrossing the land must halt, and people must commune together on the land to protect it and all our future generations. Self-sustaining indigenous people still on the land are already doing this. They present an opportunity to relearn and reinstitute the rights we all have as humans.

As Okanagan, our most essential responsibility is to bond our whole individual and communal selves to the land. Many of our ceremonies have been constructed for this. We join with the larger self and with the land, and rejoice in all that we are.

This is the essence of cultural maturity. And it is our most vital work whether we’re Okanagan or not. Committing to this work and making it the undercurrent of our every act is how the flood can end well.

If the notion of the flood ending well arouses incredulity, recall that many of our most respected experts felt the same way about the prospects for life in the blast zone following the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Some of them even anticipated a silent, barren gray-scape for centuries to come and they had the science to back them up. Yet frog song and green shoots and purple lupine and the dark loamy scrollwork of gopher tailings erupted from the ashen land almost immediately, shocking and awing the experts (and the rest of us) perhaps even more profoundly than the eruption itself.

Might life’s response to our maturation prove equally shocking and awesome? There’s only one way to find out. And the time of decision is upon us: will we cling to the cresting wave of the familiar industrial story despite ever more undeniable signs that it is about to break or will we engage, with imaginative intention, an opportunity that has not been available in ten thousand years: the opportunity to restore our waters to the long-abandoned channels of our humanity and from there flow on, immersed in stories buoyed by a lasting river?  

Over the last 23 years, Tim Fox has worked as an owl researcher, vegetation surveyor, archaeological field crew leader and writer in the fir and hemlock forests of the central Oregon Cascades, where he lives with his wife and son.  His work has been published in Orion magazine and on the Yes! magazine website.  His journal The Mountain Lion, which chronicles his six day writer’s residency at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, is posted in the on-line publication The Forest Logreciproculture.blogspot.co.uk

Image ‘Glacial Lake Missoula’ by kind permission of Byron Pickering

The Ghost of Islands Past

Habitat Island 1

Several times a month I cycle by a small island located close to the south shore of Vancouver’s False Creek, a narrow inlet that separates the downtown peninsula from the city. South East False Creek (SEFC), where the island is situated, was the site of the Olympic and Paralympic Athletes’ Village for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. The island’s profile is quintessentially Canadian – rocky shore, brush, tall spikey trees, it is like something from the brush of a wilderness painter. Maybe this connection is what makes it seem strangely familiar, like something I can’t quite remember. The first few times I rode by I did not see anybody on the island, just standing and looking at it from the shore. But over time numbers grew – people began to sit on one of its logs or rocks, walk its path, or lie on its shore. Once when I passed by there was a bald eagle settled on the top of one of its trees.

The island wasn’t always there. It wasn’t there when I left the city in 2007, but when I came back in 2011 it was, a small island connected to the shoreline by a stone walkway. Since I first noticed it, it has fascinated me and drawn me to it for reasons I didn’t fully understand. I resolved to enquire into where the island came from, why it was there, and try and uncover what story it might have to tell. I decided to follow my intuition, which told me that it had something to tell me about a world diminished and in decline.

False Creek, where the island is located, was once marine estuarine wetlands. Historic descriptions of the area describe tidal grasses and swamps at low levels, while higher upland there were dense bushes of Pacific crab apple. Early First Nations people – Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh – came to these shores to fish, hunt and harvest the local plants. The land was then settled by primarily European populations (although no treaties ceding this land to the incoming settlers were signed by the First Nations). Serious ecological changes began to occur through the late 1880s and the early decades of the 20th century with the rise in immigrants, increased economic growth, and the arrival of the railroad. The wetlands were dredged into a 150 metre wide, 7 metre deep canal used for local and regional trade. The increase and importance of lumber in BC also created a need for the waterways to become a zone for lumber storage. Industrial and residential developments in the 1950s through the 1970s resulted in the extensive fill of the area, leaving it without a natural shoreline. As a result of development and ensuing destruction of habitat, species were pushed out and False Creek was turned into an industrial brown field: an area degraded from decades of industrial pollution.

In recent years False Creek light industry has been moved out and the lands have been slowly remediated and developed for housing and entertainment venues (BC Place Stadium, Edgewater Casino and Science World). The 32 hectare South East False Creek Neighbourhood is one of the last areas of False Creek to be developed and is advertised as ‘one of Canada’s leading sustainable communities and Vancouver’s first comprehensive sustainable neighbourhood development… [It] will, when fully developed, provide a mix of land uses, be home to 10,000 – 12,000 people in market and non-market housing, and demonstrate exemplary practices in energy and water conservation, innovative infrastructure practices and transit oriented development.’(i)

Condos at the site were initially used to house the athletes during the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. While the original plan was for the post-Games development to include two-thirds affordable social housing, it ultimately became almost exclusively market driven, with condo prices now in the range of $1,000,000.

It was as part of the landscape design for SEFC that a 0.6 hectare island was created. Sixty thousand cubic meters of rock, cobble, gravel, sand, and boulders left over from construction of the Athletes’ Village were used to build the island, shoreline, and inlet. Indigenous trees, as well as shrubs, flowers, and grasses were planted along the waterfront path and on the island. The island was originally designed to be completely inaccessible during high tide, but public safety concerns and fears that people would get stranded on the island at high tide resulted in the creation of a rocky pathway to the island making it, technically, a peninsula. The island’s street address is 1616 Columbia Street, and its official name is Habitat Island.

It seems that the main reason Habitat Island was built has to do with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Prior to SEFC being developed in 2007 the shoreline on the south side of False Creek was about three blocks back from where it is now. In order to make new land for construction, developers had to fill in that portion of the creek. At the time, the DFO had a process wherein if a project near water was anticipated to cause damage to fish habitat then a compensation agreement had to be reached. In the case of False Creek compensation for habitat loss was arrived at by having developers increase the shoreline by a margin of two to one. Given the space restraints at SE False Creek, the solution was to build an island.

Habitat Island was soon identified by the Vancouver Parks Board as a site that should be included as part of their rewilding plan, an element in the City’s ‘aspirational goal’ to become the Greenest City in the World by 2020.

Since Vancouver was incorporated in 1886, observe the authors of the plan, ‘We have buried nearly all of our former salmon streams; driven species like the yellow-billed cuckoo, western bumble bee and spotted skunk to local extinction; and cut down forests that were taller than any still standing in Canada today.’(ii) But while nature has been diminished, Vancouverites, argue the authors, maintain an enduring attachment to the natural world.

‘Vancouverites deeply value their mountains, ocean and the Fraser River. Within city limits it is possible to see sights – immense flocks of snow geese, prowling coyotes, pods of porpoises – that are the equal of the wildest parts of many nations. We live in perhaps the only big city on earth in which a wild-living creature – salmon – is a part of our identity, as it has been since the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations first cared for these lands and waters.’(iii)

The hope is that by pursing a policy of rewilding, citizens will have more access to the natural world and nature will have more access to the city. ‘It is possible to imagine a city where everyone can have rich and meaningful experiences in nature as a part of their everyday lives.’(iv)

One of the objectives of this policy is to create Special Wild Places in the City. This includes the identification of 28 biodiversity ‘hot spots’. Sites are located on public and private lands across the city and include forest, shoreline, stream, wetland, and marine environments. Habitat Island (coupled with Hinge Park) is included on this list of hot spots:

’27. Hinge Park + South East False Creek Habitat Island. Hinge Park is a small stormwater-fed wetland that is rich in bird life. It connects to the restored shoreline of south east False Creek including a constructed island and intertidal zone. The cobble intertidal zone around the island has been used for herring spawning which has contributed to the return of sea birds and other species. Together these natural areas showcase the City’s recent efforts to restore natural areas within urban neighbourhoods.’(v)

Proponents of the plan note that the island’s vertical snags, native vegetation, and a natural shoreline have already attracted a range of wildlife, including bald eagles and a variety of waterfowl. Fish are also returning. Pacific herring (one of the key indicator species for the health of inter-tidal habitats and a vital food source for Pacific salmon, sea lions, seals, porpoises, eagles, gulls, cormorants and other diving birds) have returned to spawn for the first time in many years. Possibly as a result of the herring spawn, orcas have recently been seen chasing dolphins into False Creek, and a grey whale swam into English Bay for the first time in decades.

Unfortunately, Habitat Island’s visual similarity to a Canadian wilderness island seems to have made it irresistible to visitors yearning for a bush party experience in an urban setting. As a result, by the summer of 2014 Habitat Island was being called by another name: Beer Island.

When recommending the site for locals and tourists, the Bored In Vancouver website says:

‘”Why Beer Island?” You may be asking… Well, for one reason, it’s a heck-of-a-lot better name than ‘habitat island’. Also, this little island (more of a peninsula type thing) is a great location to crack a beer with friends and enjoy a front row view of False Creek, BC Place, Yaletown, and Science World.

A beautiful location, a nature-friendly habitat, and an island that only has one entrance and exit, which makes it much easier to hide tasty bottles of the island’s new namesake if a disciplinary force so happens to come by.

Beer Island can be found in the Olympic Village area. You’ll know it when you see it, it’s in the water. And, it looks like an island.’(vi)

During the pleasant summer weather of 2014 the evidence of partying – empty beer cans, bottle caps, cigarette butts, and beer cases – could be seen littering the island. Parks board commissioner Constance Barnes told the press, ‘What we don’t want to do is discourage people from having a nice beautiful space to go and enjoy. If you’re going down and have a beer and you’re having a picnic or you’re playing your guitar, I don’t see that the park board would really come down on you for that.’ But the parks board asked visitors not to litter or damage the island’s vegetation or be disrespectful of other people using the island.(vii)

The Vancouver Police Department has taken steps to patrol the island more regularly so as to kerb the rowdier antics. The last time I visited the island my friend and I observed a couple enjoying a toke while looking out over the city skyline. Two VPD officers passing by on bicycle patrol saw them and escorted them off the island.

This vigilance has had at least some effect and this winter there is less evidence of serious partygoers on the island (although it seems unlikely that they won’t return with the warmer weather).

Habitat Island is clearly many things to many people. Initially created to fulfill a bureaucratic requirement in the development of an affluent new neighbourhood, it became an element of a rewilding policy and a destination for urban partyers. Might it also be a work of contemporary ecological art? The island is in close proximity to several pieces of public art, including three major ecological pieces. And it has parallels with the work of ecological artists who fuse natural and human elements in an urban setting. In the case of Habitat Island these natural elements include habitat for birds and fish (bird feeders, nesting opportunities, spawning habitat) which, an artist may argue, allow for damaged nature to be repaired in a beautiful and meaningful way. Human elements include its educational value – enlivening the curiosity of people passing by and visitors, Habitat Island stirs interest in the birds, fish that now live there, and raises questions about the loss of nature in the city. As well, people may stop and ‘look’ at it like an art piece, appreciating its whimsy and sense of fun.

Viewed from this perspective, the island is in the company of Cascadian artworks that revere the natural world:

‘Certainly one of the most distinctive cultural values to emerge from Cascadia is an informal, non-sectarian, virtually universal reverence for nature. In the Pacific Northwest, where traditional religion does not pervade the cultural landscape, nature religion … And the visual art we most treasure in Cascadia’s galleries and the stories we read by its most cherished writers are invariably suffused with nature reverence. The popular visual artists, such as B.C. painters Emily Carr and Jack Shadbolt and Washington’s glass-blowing Dale Chihuly, continually employ images of nature to symbolize transformation, power and mythology.’(viii)

But the ecological works that are in close proximity to the island are critiques – they hold up a mirror to society and ourselves:

The Games Are Open by Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser (2010-2013): Construction on this larger-than-life bulldozer, located almost directly across from Habitat Island, began three months after the Athletes’ Village was vacated. During the Olympics great effort had been taken to protect the as-yet-unsold luxury condos from the foibles of their temporary residents – this included sheathing kitchen appliances in the ‘environmentally friendly’, biodegradable wheat board that was used to build the bulldozer. The artists understood that because the artwork was on City-owned land its fate would inevitably be determined by capital and municipal neoliberal strategies. They chose as a symbol a bulldozer, a destructive engine which would later morph into earth with the help of the community, who at the opening were invited to implant seeds into the structure. In the spring of 2013 the City added a thick layer of soil to the artwork to further its greening and within a week a local rogue gardener planted a vegetable garden on the site. That fall the City expedited the process by burying the sculpture and garden in another load of soil, and ultimately the bulldozer returned back into earth. Its remains sit in land slated for development, surrounded by a chain link fence.

The Games Are Open

The Birds by Myfanwy MacLeod (2010): Since being introduced to North America by English settlers in the 1800s (as pest control and out of feelings of nostalgia), sparrows have become so commonplace that they have driven out many other native species and wreaked havoc upon ecosystems. Parallel to this is the impact of white colonialists on the lives of indigenous peoples. The large size of the sparrows (5.5 metres high) makes a visual statement about this impact, while locating this artwork in an urban plaza highlights what has become the ‘natural’ environment of indigenous wildlife.

Birds 1

A False Creek by Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky (2012): Painted chromatic blue stripes on the pilings of the Cambie Bridge, which is visible from the island, mark the midpoint of the anticipated rise in sea levels that will occur with the melting of the earth’s major ice sheets (5 metres). The decorative effect of the stripes is ambiguous when considered in relation to the design’s purpose as a marker and a tool for visualization. Seen in relation to the scale of the engineering of False Creek and the Cambie Bridge, the scale of looming environmental change is visually and physically palpable.

A False Creek

So what happens if the island is viewed as a work of art that is not so much here to ‘repair and educate,’ but to critique? Given the history of False Creek over the past 150 years, it seems fairly straightforward to view the island in these terms. The island speaks to us about how nature has been manipulated and diminished by demands of colonization, capitalism, and bureaucracy; how rewilding is a limited, probably self-deceiving response to the fate that awaits us; and how imagination has failed us in our relationship with nature (Nature = Habitat).

But since first seeing the island I have felt there is something else. Probably because I was initially jarred by its appearance, a sense of familiarity while not having seen it before, it seems to me that the island may have something to say about forgetfulness. Sallie McFague, ecotheologian and Vancouver resident says: ‘Cities are made from nature; one could say they are “second nature”, made of transformations of energy from “first nature”. All human building and transformations are but changes within nature, for there is nothing “outside nature”. This deeper meaning of nature – nature as the source of energy that sustains all life and all change – is the nature we city dwellers tend to forget. We slip into simplistic, dualistic thinking when we think that nature in our cities involves only the trees, gardens and beaches – and that we create the rest….

‘Our gradual transformation of first nature, from when we lived as hunter-gatherers, into second nature – the twenty-first century city – now faces us with the deterioration and destruction of everything we hold dear. The human ability to distance ourselves from first nature, both by changing it and by objectifying it, is causing a deep forgetfulness to overtake us.’(ix)

Natural science and First Nations’ oral traditions tell us that False Creek was once a wetland rich in bird, fish, and animal life. But it has been so transformed that we have forgotten what it was and what we had, as everywhere we have forgotten our deep embeddedness in the source of life. Our efforts at remembrance result in the creation of pale imitations of the ‘natural world,’ a series of Habitat Islands. Ironically, as Beer Island the island has become a place we can go to lose ourselves even more deeply in this oblivion. I now think that what I have been seeing as I ride by on my bicycle is a phantasm, a ghost island, a glimmer from the past of a world soon to be gone forever. Judging by the blue stripes on the bridge, the waters will soon cover the island and surrounding land, at which point the traces of this memory will finally slip deep beneath the surface.

(i) PWL Partnership, ‘Southeast False Creek Partnership’ [accessed September 29, 2014].
(ii) J.B. Mackinnon, ‘Foreword’, in Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, Rewilding Vancouver: From Sustaining to Flourishing. An Environmental Education Stewardship & Action Plan for the Vancouver Park Board, July 2014, vi. [accessed October 21, 2014].
(iii) Mackinnon, ibid.
(iv) Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, Rewilding Vancouver: From Sustaining to Flourishing. An Environmental Education Stewardship & Action Plan for the Vancouver Park Board, July 2014, 5. [accessed October 21, 2014].
(v) Rewilding Vancouver, 52.
(vi) Bored in Vancouver, ‘Enjoy a Cold One on Beer Island’ [accessed October 25, 2014].
(vii) Ian Holliday, ‘Vancouver officials crack down on “Beer Island,”‘ July 10, 2014 [accessed October 25, 2014].
viii Douglas Todd, ‘Introduction’, in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia. Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest, ed. Douglas Todd (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2008), 19-20.
(ix) Sallie McFague, ‘Toward a New Cascadian Civil Religion of Nature’,  in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia. Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest, ed. Douglas Todd (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2008), 158-159.

Margaret Miller is a teaching assistant and editor living in Vancouver, Canada. She enjoys cycling around the city, looking at things. Sometimes she writes about what she sees.

 

Sea Siege

DSC_0068

England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of wat’ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame.
Richard II, II.i

It comes, not with a whimper but a bang. I have seen climate change arrive on the shores of Southern England. I have stood, and quickly stepped back, witnessing its arrival. It is visceral and frightening and not about to be theorised. It is a successions of walls of green water, white capped in its eagerness to unfurl upon me, roaring louder than a highway and aimed directly at my cosy preconceptions of millimetre by millimetre sea level rise as the icecaps slowly melt. Here they are already and charging me down with an unpredictable force that throws heavy spray in the air at sudden intervals. The huge rocks behind me on the coastal car park lay heavy with portent, or actually the pastent of a night even worse, or actually a future lived rather differently. All edges are gone. All boundaries awash. All dualities – sea and land, water and rock, seawater and stone buildings, resources and neoliberalism, nature and culture – are here dissolved in sucked-back sea water. And it is dangerous, disturbing and disruptive to shoreline tourism, fossil collecting, rock pool probing, beach kite flying, fish and chips, coastal nuclear power stations and estuarine cities. To say nothing of English seaside sunbathing and the Factor 54 industry.

Charmouth. A quieter alternative, if one is needed, of Lyme Regis, setting of John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The first weekend in February 2014. The South Coast Footpath dips yet again here between cliffs where the little creek of the Char attempts to make a kind of mouth. Backpackers passing through think they are retreating into the past, but they are the future. We visit a joyous family of friends, shaken in a strange way by the destructive force they thought they had the measure of. A week of this storm has the mother sobbing at the threat to their little sea-living community. It’s not the mess made of its emerging Visitors’ Centre, but something much deeper reached by this storm sea, something washing into her dreams and the futures of her small sons.

At our Charmouth B&B the garden is now smaller, having slipped into the landslip that slipped into the sea. A crack like a seismic line in the far edge of the lawn is the next sacrifice to making a living on this cliff top. The garden fence has gone down in a chaos of mud and vegetation under the command of gravity. How many years before the house itself is called for by the deeps? Behind the house is our modest car. (Soon I will fly to a conference in California about John Muir, Scottish founding father of the American conservation movement.) Fossil fuel has facilitated our visit to the Jurassic Coast. At low tide we walk the boulders that hold huge ammonites up to the gaze. We look down on earlier extinctions, without irony. They are in front of our eyes, clearly circling with stories we carelessly step upon and move on under a burning sun. Is ‘tourism’ a word of the past, like a knapped axe of granite from Langdale? Is it already secretly reduced in its range by the small green people of the planet? Have we already made the first small changes in our lives, if only at an emotional level? Is it really happening now, not with a whimper but this sea sieging bang? Are these three paragraphs adequate to the bang? Is their data in any way useful? How could it be? I am now bound in with several reasons for shame. Is this my only default position? you ask. Tell me what it should be and I will tell you if I can live with it. Of course, you will tell me that I should. Choices are narrowing. Sea is still sieging, you and me, incessantly.

DSC_0079

Terry Gifford is Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Writing and Environment, Bath Spa University and Profesor Honorifico at the University of Alicante. He is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently, with Christopher North, Al Otro Lado del Aguilar (2011), in English and Spanish, and  Ted Hughes (2009), Reconnecting With John Muir: Essays in Post-Pastoral Practice (2006), Pastoral(1999), Green Voices: Understanding Contemporary Nature Poetry (2011 [1995]), editor of The Cambridge Companion to Ted Hughes (2011) andNew Casebooks: Ted Hughes (2015), and is a contributor to The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Environment (2014).

Technê and Technology: an invitation to contribute to Dark Mountain issue 8

Watermark_Burtynsky_2

In the opening essay of Dark Mountain issue 6, ‘The Focal and the Flask’, Tom Smith discusses the difference between the digital technology-based world we increasingly inhabit, and a human-framed ‘focal’ world, in which cultures are built around the collective focus of a fire. Focal things, he writes:

‘involve real reconnection with people, species and landscapes… entail greater involvement, greater work and knowledge, greater negotiation with others, all often seen as inconveniences in the narrative of modernity.’

To reverse the destiny of our restless, machine-driven world, we need to take up practices that go in another direction entirely – practices like growing vegetables, saving seeds, making and repairing things for ourselves. We need to learn another way of framing our lives and another way of relating to the things within it. If we don’t, our lives will be designed for us, and the direction of travel will be away from the physical and towards the digital; that is to say, away from a relationship with the world around us,and towards a deeper immersion in ‘virtual’ worlds made by and for humans alone.

Yet we can’t ignore, either, the technological changes which, with ever-increasing pace, are spreading their runners under our feet, into our homes, and through the very substance of our thoughts: the ever-present web, the hand-held devices, the apps-for-everything, the coming ‘internet of things.’ At the same time that the machinery of civilisation is colliding with ecological limits to growth – in terms of space, energy, resources and the amount of abuse the Earth will absorb before it responds with violent change of its own – innovations in software, robotics, artificial materials and genetic manipulation are accelerating, altering the fundamental relationship of humans to the world and to themselves. It is happening so fast that it is barely possible to measure it, let alone properly assess its impact.

Where does this leave us?

From its inception, the Dark Mountain Project has sought to find ways to reconnect writing and art with the material, the practical, the focal. We took the decision to publish real books and vinyl albums, and to invest in making them well-crafted objects of beauty. At our Uncivilisation festivals, many people learnt to forage, scythe and use traditional woodcrafting tools.

At the same time, we have never seen the value in an artificial regression from our contemporary technological reality – a pretence that we can simply carve our wooden spoons and not think about the hidden infrastructure of technology supporting the fabric of our lives. Instead, we have tried to draw the best from the past as we think about the future, and we have tried to think about that future outside of the often dualistic and divisive frameworks that are set up around the discussion: romantic versus progressive; technocrat versus ‘Luddite’; doomer versus utopian; future versus past.

The seventh Dark Mountain book will be published next month (to get your copy hot off the press, you might want to consider our subscription options) but we are already turning our minds to book 8, which will be published in October this year. And while some previous Dark Mountain anthologies have had very broad themes, we are looking to do something a little different with this one.

Dark Mountain issue 8 book will contain a more focused selection of writing than we have produced before, which engages with a single idea: the relationship between human beings and the things we make; with our machines and our tools, our technologies and our hands, and the future of all of them. The Greek term technê encompasses all of these ideas, its implications stretching all the way from music to motorcycle maintenance, from ancient philosophy to AI.

Specifically, this time around, we are looking for two kinds of contribution:

* Non-fiction of between 1000 and 6000 words, engaging with issues of the human relationship with technology high and low, with making, craft, art and skill. This might be in the form of analytical essays, personal stories or creative non-fiction. For this book, we are not looking for fiction or poetry. Alongside these essays, we are seeking shorter pieces: designs, blueprints, objects, musical scores, recipes or instruction manuals that embed the book and the reader back into the world of doing. We’d like the philosophical and the practical to sit side by side.

* Visual art which offers new and dynamic ways of looking at technologies low and high, including photography, painting, drawing, objects, graphics, portraits of makers. We will also be looking for submissions for a colour cover. There will be more space for artwork in this issue than we have had in previous books, so photo essays are also welcome. For formats please check our submission guidelines.

The deadline for Dark Mountain issue 8 is Sunday 31st May. Please send all submissions as separate attachments to an email addressed to info@dark mountain.net, with the subject line BOOK 8 SUBMISSION. We look forward to seeing what you send us.

Image: Three Gorges Dam in China by Edward Burtynsky from the documentary Watermark.

Worried about the future? Then read A Future Manual

Did you see that? That man on the bike? He was wearing too many clothes and a camping rucksack, with heavy pannier bags stuffed with sticks and rags. He was moving slowly through the traffic jam, ignoring the red lights.

Or there was the man on the patch of grass outside the DIY superstore, remember? He was dressed in a khaki t-shirt and walking shorts; he had his pack next to him and a flask of water, and he was perched on his knee like he was looking out into the valley below. Only he couldn’t have been, there were houses in front of him, buses and cars blocking the view. He only looked a few years older than us. His skin was bronzed from the sun.

Do you remember the woman on the high street, standing still, with a bag on wheels, and five spring onions in her out-stretched palm? She can’t have been selling those spring onions, can she? It must have been some sort of mistake.

There was the transit van driving slowly down the street, with its windows wound down, and one rubber-gloved hand extended out of the passenger-side window, ringing a small bell. No-one will tell you what this means.

There was the man fishing in the concrete channel in the middle of the city, next to the railway station. The man walking through the fields, through the waist high weeds of summer, in a boiler suit, with dark stains across his shoulders. The man in the hi-viz jacket, pushing a trolley full of scrap metal, old toasters, sewing machines around the streets where you live. The couple walking hand in hand along the canal, bow-saws swinging in the crooks of their arms.

If you’d seen one or two of these things, you wouldn’t think anything of it. But the more you see, the more you notice. And all of a sudden, you can’t go anywhere without seeing it. Always out of the corner of your eye, from a bus, in traffic. Always disappearing out of sight. No-one will admit it. No-one will talk about it. But suddenly, it’s all around us. Now, every time I open my eyes, I see the future.

I wrote the above text quite a long time ago. I started seeing these things when I lived in Sheffield, but they increased dramatically once I moved to London. Wherever you’re living, I’m sure you’ve seen them too. I was going to send the writing in to Dark Mountain, get it published, get it read. But on its own, that didn’t seem enough. The more I saw the shoeless old men, and the silent wastelands with traffic jams all around, and the foxes in the day time, the more I thought about what to do about it. Whether to try and stop it. How to start preparing. How to help.

In the end, I decided to create something that could try to help other people, once those visions came true.

future_manual_wood_01

It’s called A Future Manual. It’s a DIY guide to surviving and thriving in the bitter, barren world we’re creating for ourselves and our children. It aims to teach you the skills you’ll need once the oil runs out, and the internet’s off, and the Big Sainsbury’s at the end of your road is knee-deep in flood-water.

Every issue aims to cover one thing, with full step-by-step instructions, diagrams and photographs (where technology allows). Issue one is about how to build a fire: from ignition to tinder to sourcing fuel. There’s also some more philosophical tit-bits, to help keep your spirits up. It comes packaged in a plastic bag, to keep it dry in the floods, and includes a free piece of kindling, to get you started.

future_manual_wood_06

Is it serious? Is it a joke? This is the first question that everyone asks. To be honest, it’s half and half. I wanted to do something to reflect the weird position we’re in: where we know our cosy world is going to end soon, but don’t really know what we should be doing about it, or how to spend the time in between. What should you do to start preparing for a life without central heating and pyjamas and breakfast cereals? Start living in the woods? Get buff like those American guys on YouTube in camouflage? Throw away your phone and form a commune?

I think there’s something really interesting in all this. You can’t prepare for ‘the future’ in the same way that you can for a war or a hurricane, because ‘the future’, at least the one that most of us worry about, won’t be over any time soon. And today, right now, while most of us have full bellies and a roof over our heads, it always feels like you’re pretending, anyway.

future_manual_wood_07

So hopefully A Future Manual reflects those contradictions. It’s half hopeful and half hopeless, half useful and half useless, half tragic, half comic. Because it is funny, at least a little bit, when we put our bananas in polystyrene boxes, and ship them across the world, and then don’t eat them anyway, and then throw those boxes back into holes in the ground. It’s funny in the same way Easter Island is funny, or the extinction of the Dodo. We’re a short-sighted species in an evolutionary cul-de-sac, blindly eating and spending our way to death. It’s a planetary sit-com.

It’s important that it looks right too. I thought of doing it on the internet, as you can reach billions more people that way (I’ve only photocopied 500, after all). But at the same time, it felt like it had to be something physical. Something that could still be produced once YouTube and WordPress and Google Maps are just a distant, magical, almost unimaginable memory. So this one’s printed on a typewriter, and photocopied. Long term I’d like to use things like letterpress, and get the copiers powered by solar, if that’s even possible: answers on a postcard, delivered by hand.

I’m not 100% sure about any of this. How to distribute it, how to write about it, what sort of tone it should be. Perhaps it would be better on YouTube? Perhaps it should be a PDF? Perhaps the time I spend learning to ride horses or jump start ambulances would be better spent campaigning for a 10% cut in carbon emissions, or a worldwide communist revolution, to End Growth Now? But the nice thing is that learning to start a fire with an old file and a piece of flint, or learning to grow a courgette from a seed, is actually an enjoyable thing to do in and of itself. It makes you feel connected. It makes you feel a little bit more capable. It makes you feel a little safer.

future_manual_wood_09

If you’d like a copy of A Future Manual, please send five pounds/ten euros in a well-concealed envelope to
A Future Manual,
239 Fordwych Road,
Cricklewood,
London,
NW2 3LY.

Or you can use PayPal on this website. Don’t worry mum, the website’s broken on purpose. I thought it would be funny.

Issue 2 (Ride a Horse) should be produced sometime in the summer. Thanks for reading. Noah says: build your own ark.

Photos by Andy Felton

The Crossing of Two Lines

The following essay was written as the introduction to The Crossing of Two Lines, a book which grew out of my friendship with Robert and Geska Brečević, who work together under the name of Performing Pictures. They are prolific, relentless artists and makers whose work shows up on stages, in museums, on streets and on the screens of mobile phones, as well as in galleries. Much of this work involves tiny films, built into objects, and from around 2008, more and more of these films and objects took the form of venerative artefacts: shrines, roadside chapels, depictions of the saints of folk Catholicism. The Crossing of Two Lines is a document of this work – most of the book is taken up with photographs of their collaborations in Mexico, Croatia and Sweden – and also an investigation into the discomfort that it seems to have caused among their art-world contemporaries.

kapelica_0022

The walls of the house on the Antešić land at Rab were built in the last years of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, but three generations would go by, and two wars, before it came to have a roof. They were a metre thick, those walls, made of local stone, the openings in places no architect would think to put them. It was the brothers Stjepan and Mile Antešić who began the building. On the island, the family grew olives and grapes, but what paid for the construction was the money Stjepan sent back from his work as a ship’s captain on the Danube.

War came and the building stopped. Stjepan joined the Partisans, fought against the occupying forces and the homebred Catholic fascism of the Ustaša, a stand that lived on in the lifelong anti-clericalism of his daughter, Dorica. It was her daughter, Milica, who married Alojz Brečević, a ship’s mechanic. They had met in Sweden, as migrant workers, and they started a family there, a family that would travel back each summer to help with the wine-making. Don’t get too used to this country, they told their son, each autumn: one of these years, we are going back for good.

That promise was severed by the new war of the 1990s and it was not until 1997 that Robert Brečević returned, alone, on a bus from Munich. Later, he and his wife, Geska, would come to visit the family land at Rab and — together with his stonemason cousin, Đani — take on the task of finishing what Stjepan and Mile had begun a lifetime earlier.

A black oak tree hides the stone house from the road. What can be seen is the small chapel, built the same year that the roof went on the house. In the evening, visitors come from around the island — families, old people, young couples out for a walk—to peek through the keyhole and, as if at a fairground peepshow, catch a glimpse of the moving figure of St Christopher carrying the child who will turn out to be Christ. The patron saint of the town of Rab, but also the protector of travellers, his presence is, among other things, a reminder of the journeys that went into the building of this house.

kapelica_0035_1

‘So when did Robert convert?’

The question came from a mutual friend who had heard that I was writing about the turn in the work of Performing Pictures that led to the projects documented in this book. More often, such questions are left politely unspoken, but they hang in the gallery air when this work is shown.

We are used to art that employs the symbols of religion in ways seemingly intended to unsettle or provoke many of those to whom these symbols matter; yet to the consumers of contemporary art, those who actually visit galleries, it is more uncomfortable to be confronted with work in which such symbols are used without the frame of provocation. The viewer hesitates between two anxieties: is there something here that I am missing — an irony, a political message, a joke — or is this a piece of propaganda on behalf of the believers? (Whatever they may believe, the evening visitors to the chapel at Rab show no sign of such anxieties.)

The turn is striking, certainly. There is nothing in the work of Performing Pictures prior to 2009 that would lead the viewer to expect the saints and shrines and altars we find here. The story behind such a turn deserves exploration. Yet if we want to trace the routes that led to this work, I suggest that the question of personal belief will prove misleading: it will not bring us closer to an understanding of what took place, and it may lead us to overlook those clues that have been left along the way.

pa_lut_4

Geska Helena Andersson was born into a family of small farmers in Skåne, the southernmost region of Sweden. Her parents’ life was anchored to the land — she was thirty before they had a holiday together — though the family had been migrant workers, too, in times when the farm alone could not support them. Her grandmother cycled half the length of Sweden, in those times, picking crops.

These family stories weave into the work of Performing Pictures. Indeed, the presence of the family, within the production process and the work itself, is one thread that connects the projects here to earlier works such as Kids On The Slide and Fathers and Sons, Verging. That young man standing on a Polish beach is Cesar, the boy who took his bucket and spade to the graveyard in Kids On The Slide; now, he and his father are ready to cycle to the Adriatic, installing roadside chapels along their route. Under a parasol on a Mexican hillside where the Virgin of Guadalupe is about to appear, you can make out Katja, four months old, in the arms of one of the women from the Zegache workshop. Đani Brečević, the stonemason, stares past the camera from under the brim of his hat, fixing the cross to the roof of the St Martin chapel in his home village; then there he is again, cigarette hanging from his mouth, looking hardly less at home as he lays bricks for the St Anne chapel in Zegache.

The presence of family is felt in other ways: not least, there is the image of St Anne, a mother teaching her daughter to read. Those placing votive candles before it in the Église Notre-Dame de Bon Secours do not know this, but the St Christopher of Movement no. 6: To Carry a Child is also a family portrait: the saint is played by David Cuartielles; the child, who weighs on his shoulders more heavily than if he carried the world, is his young daughter. On a ledge in the door of the shrine, where people might leave images or scribbled prayers, Robert has placed a photograph of his father as a young man on the deck of a ship.

There is a movement outwards from the earlier work, in which the children themselves were often the subject, to the community and the village. Yet it would be a mistake to see this as a move away from the family or from the domestic; rather, the implications of these themes now reach wider and deeper. The name of the village of Brečevići, site of the St Martin chapel, is only the most obvious clue to this.

TRANSMEX4_0

The sound of the mariachi trumpets goes up into the arches of the church and lingers there. When the service is over, the mourners follow the band through the streets of this dusty town. At the graveside, among the flowers, a video camera stands on a tripod. The band falls silent, the priest says a prayer, the coffin is lowered into the ground. Three of the dead man’s brothers are away, working in the United States, and it is for them that the burial is being filmed.

When John Berger and Jean Mohr made a book about the experience of a migrant worker in Europe, nearly forty years ago, they called it A Seventh Man: in Germany and in Britain, at that time, one in every seven manual workers was an immigrant. Today, one in every three Mexicans lives outside of Mexico, the great majority as migrant workers in the United States. This epic displacement forms the background to life in a village such as Santa Ana Zegache, where the painter Rodolfo Morales founded the community workshops in 1997 as a project to restore the Baroque church, but also to restore life to the local economy, training young women in the crafts required for the restoration of its eighteenth-century altarpieces. Robert and Geska came to visit the workshops in 2008, and it was during a conversation that day that the idea of putting the saints into motion first surfaced, almost as a joke, but a joke that caught everyone’s imagination. Here, in a place where most of the young men are far away, working the land north of the border, you find the point of departure of this work.

In 2011, A Seventh Man was published for the first time in a Mexican edition. Its account of the experience of Gastarbeiters in 1970’s Europe, men of Alojz Brečević’s generation, continues to make sense of the lives of migrant workers on whose labour the economies of the rich countries continue to depend. Berger returned to the subject of migration in a later book, and our faces, my heart, brief as photos. ‘Never before our time have so many people been uprooted,’ he writes. ‘The displacement, the homelessness, the abandonment lived by a migrant is the extreme form of a more general and widespread experience.’

To speak about such homelessness, to acknowledge the loss that it involves, it is necessary to speak about ‘home’, and this is made difficult by the ideological uses to which that word has been put. The language of home is used by those who would stir up hatred against the immigrant worker and also by those who would undo the ongoing transformation of possibilities experienced by women over the past half-century. These toxic associations can hardly go unacknowledged, yet it may be possible to reach behind them, and with this aim, Berger draws on the comparative studies of religion made by Mircea Eliade.

In traditional societies, Eliade observes, home is the place from which the world makes sense. This is possible because it stands at the crossing point of two axes: the vertical line, along which one is connected to the world of the gods and the world of the dead, and the horizontal line, which stands for all the journeys that might be made within this world. (If such a cosmology seems remote from our own experience, consider these axes to stand, among other things, for two sets of relations: to those who went before and may come after us, and to those of our own time.) Emigration may be prompted by hope as well as desperation, Berger recognises: it may represent an escape or a dream, but its price includes the dismantling of this centre of the world.

And yet, somehow, this loss is not the end of the matter: ‘the very sense of loss keeps alive an expectation.’ The substitute home which the migrant finds—and here, again, the migrant experience is an extreme version of the common experience of modernity — is no longer secured to a physical space. ‘The roof over the head, the four walls, have become, as it were, secular: independent from whatever is kept in the heart and is sacred.’

Nevertheless, by turning in circles the displaced preserve their identity and improvise a shelter. Built of what? Of habits, I think, of the raw material of repetition, turned into a shelter.

On that first visit to Mexico, what impressed Robert was people’s ‘way of making a home in something which is totally temporary.’ The images which go up on the wall, the figures, the habits and repetitions that go with them were familiar, not only from the Catholic prayer cards at his grandmother’s home in Brečevići, but also from the ornaments of the household in which he grew up, the little figurines, the flowers and images with lace around them. Misunderstood as kitsch, dismissed or ironically celebrated, these secular altars are also a means of making a home, another form of the ‘popular ingenuity’ by which the displaced continue to improvise meaning. Out of this recognition, the idea of working with shrines took hold.

Oaxaca (Zegache) - day 18 035

As a child in rural Sweden, Geska remembers, anything ‘shop-bought’ had an aura: shop-bought biscuits, shop-bought meatballs, these were the things you pleaded with your parents to have, and the very fact of coming from a shop gave them glamour. Later, living away from home for the first time, it struck her how upside-down that childhood perception had been. Yet the idea that the supermarket version of anything was special, rather than just taken for granted, hints at the tail-end of another world, a world that still centred on the home-made.

All creation stories involve a prising apart of the preexistent. The sky is lifted from the waters, light split out of dark, time from space, and the world as we know it roars into being. The industrial world, the social, economic, technological, political and material realities within which the unprecedented uprooting, the great gains and the seldom fully acknowledged losses of modernity have taken place, began with such a fission: the prising apart of production from consumption, which took concrete form in the new separation of work from home.

The history of the industrial revolution is a history of massive resistance on the part of ordinary people. This resistance fell into two phases: in the first, it was an attempt to defend a way of living; in the second, which began when this way of living had largely been destroyed, it became an attempt to negotiate better conditions within the new world made by the destroyers. What had been lost was a way of living in which most production took place on a domestic scale, interwoven with the lives of families and communities. Work was hard, but it varied with the seasons and required skill and judgement. Many of the basic needs of a household could be met by its own members or their immediate neighbours, not least through access to common land, so that people were not entirely exposed to the mercilessness of the market.

It is not necessary to romanticise the realities of pre-industrial society: the intensity and duration of the struggle which accompanied its passing are evidence enough. (In 1812, at one of the high-watermarks of this struggle, the British government deployed 12,000 troops against the Luddites in four counties of England, more than Wellington had under his command that year in the ongoing war against Napoleon.) The relationship between this first phase of resistance and the labour movement that would arise out of its defeat has most often been presented as a progressive development: the dawning of a new political consciousness, and with it new forms of organisation and effective action. Yet it was also an accommodation to what had previously been fought against: the new division of the world between the space of work, dedicated to the sole purpose of maximising production, and the domestic space, now dedicated to reproduction and consumption. The sentimental idealisation of the home as a woman’s sphere originates in this division, as established in Victorian England. Behind this advertising hoarding lay the real transformation of the home from a living centre of activity to a dormitory, a garage in which the worker is parked when not in use.

Yet even such a transformation, so elemental that we hardly perceive it, can never be the whole story. In the words of Eugenio Montale:

History isn’t
the devastating bulldozer they say it is.
It leaves underpasses, crypts, holes
and hiding places.

The memory of the seasonal return to help with the wine-making, the memory of the shininess of anything shop-bought, these are fragments that have survived the bulldozer, clues to another way of living. More widely, the older rhythms of working life survive in certain historical underpasses, as E. P. Thompson notes in his essay on ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’:

The pattern persists among some self-employed—artists, writers, small farmers, and perhaps also with students—today, and provokes the question whether it is not a “natural” human work-rhythm.

In this respect, the practice of Performing Pictures is hardly exceptional — how many artists could draw a line between work and life? — but certain elements, in particular the involvement of the whole family in the work, resonate strongly with the world whose memory remained alive in their own childhoods, a memory which still finds echoes in the places where this work was made.

Capillas

A priest is fetched to bless the chapel. He comes from two villages away. The proper words and gestures are performed. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that these stones were cut and carved, the door made, the animation shot or the screen rigged to the solar panel, either for or on behalf of the institution which he represents.

‘We have become fascinated,’ Robert writes, ‘by those rural chapels to be found outside of the control of the churches, the patrons and urban plans.’ A series of photographs shows small capillas at the corners of cactus-fenced yards in the lanes around Zegache. Improvised out of industrial materials, concrete and rusting corrugated iron, with shop-bought figures, a virgin studded with LEDs, a vase of drying flowers, these unofficial shrines are also expressions of popular ingenuity. Sometimes, nature adds its own contribution: a spider has caught Christ in a net that funnels into a silk vortex in the gap between body and cross, like an opening to another universe.

Looking through them, I remember another set of photographs, taken by the British artist Rachel Horne in the South Yorkshire coalfield where four generations of her family worked as miners. Many of the former colliery sites have been grassed over, the slag-heaps topped off with public artworks. In Horne’s photos, these sculptures seem to have landed from nowhere, unaware of the pride, the conflict and the loss that these sites represent. They are asking to be vandalised, and, in one case, this has already happened, the stone structure toppled like a children’s toy and a stencil sprayed onto an exposed face.

Modern public art has its beginnings in the assumption by the secular state of a symbolic power which had formerly been exercised by the church. Yet the contrast between those commissioned memorials and the improvised sites of devotion around Zegache suggests the limitations of official art. The capillas are cared for by small fraternities which take responsibility for their upkeep. The shrine as physical object is held within a web of mutuality which lends it a certain resilience, beyond the properties of the material itself. A similar principle applies to the chapels in this book.

‘As media artists,’ Geska points out, ‘you’re not invited to do public space installations, because it’s not something that’s stable, and there’s the electricity, and everyone knows that the technology is going to break within three years.’ The idea for the Chapel of St Anne grew out of the previous collaborations with artisans at the Zegache community workshops, although it required the support of the local mayor to go ahead. In Brečevići, it was a group of villagers who proposed the St Martin chapel and provided the materials. ‘If the screen breaks, there is someone who will make sure it’s mended.’

The thing that redeems this fragile work from being a future piece of junk is its embedding within a community of people to whom it matters. The tasks of maintenance that would have been a line to be cut in a public budget become, instead, part of the rhythm of life for those around the work; or, seen from another angle, this activity becomes part of the work, as in the Maintenance Art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles. The connection is significant: few artists have addressed so directly the schism between home and work. As Ukeles writes of her younger self, ‘She was looking to sew back together a great fabric that she saw rended, torn apart.’ Except that in this case, the context is not the museum — literally, ‘the shrine of the muses’, home to the cult of art — but the vernacular Catholicism of those for whom this work becomes part of their venerative practice.

DSC_1544_screen

The discomfort with work that appears to be an expression of religious faith and the polite avoidance of putting the direct question about the artists’ beliefs are both symptoms of the modern doctrine that religion belongs to the private sphere. Within the boundaries of one’s own home, there is complete freedom of belief, but to bring one’s belief into the public sphere is to threaten the stability of the secular order which guarantees this freedom.

As Robert observes, today’s Sweden has become the kind of radically secular society that the ideologically atheist states of the former Eastern Bloc proclaimed without achieving. In such a society, religion becomes countercultural: to experience and express a religious faith as something stronger than a personal opinion is to put yourself at odds with the background assumptions of the world around you. The forms of religion that emerge in such a society reflect this: faith becomes a conscious foreground statement.

Yet in much of the world — in rural Oaxaca, and even in rural Croatia, despite a generation of official atheism, and despite the toxic entanglement of Catholicism and nationalism — religion remains part of the social background. If one person has more time for the church than another, this is a matter of inclination, rather than a charged personal dilemma. It was in this world that Performing Pictures began making venerative objects. The experience they reflect is not so dramatic as the language of conversion would suggest, neither as personal in its intensity nor as universal in its implications. More like the experience of coming home.

kapelica_0018

When work began again on the house at Rab, its stone and timber construction must have seemed an anachronism; on neighbouring land, a German property speculator was building a set of holiday apartments. Yet it is these which now stand unfinished, ghosts of brick and concrete, abandoned by their owner, who no longer answers correspondence from the municipality. Perhaps, three generations from now, his descendants will return to finish what he began, but as the sun goes down over the Chapel of St Christopher, this seems to stretch our capacity for belief a little further than it will go tonight.

PP_book_08_440 (1)

The Crossing of Two Lines by Dougald Hine and Performing Pictures is available to order through the Dark Mountain shop.

Epilogue

hand-mandala

Jeppe Graugaard is a researcher and writer who explores the connections between cultural narratives, worldviews and social change. For his PhD on grassroots sustainability narratives he wrote an in-depth case study of the Dark Mountain Project. From 2011 through to 2014 he had a series of interactions, exchanges and conversations with different mountaineers as a researcher-participant. He has recently submitted his thesis, which you can find on http://www.refiguring.net/thesis.html. The following is an excerpt from his field notes written at the end of the research.

A year has passed since the Chaffinch flew into this text. Although the Chaffinch and the summerhouse now seem distant – the entire thesis and many life changes lie between then and now – those months were a medicine, a salve which I have kept with me as I travelled on. I am on a train again, travelling from my recent home in Berlin back to my childhood home in Holstebro. We zoom through bright yellow rape fields, pine tree plantations, desolate industrial landscapes and small German towns with their unruly allotments, red brick houses and parking lots. I like trains. They offer a time in between, journeying hours that are not structured by the normal rhythms and schemes of the everyday and which allow the mind to wander in backside views of the places we pass through. Crossing the river Eider on the Rensburger Hochbrücke, I get a magnificent view of the surrounding suburban landscape. Windy streets and open green spaces are dotted with trees and people which seem almost motionless from my window. Sitting here, squinting my eyes against the afternoon sunlight, I think of the journey with Dark Mountain. Or is it to Dark Mountain? Or across? It appears to me that the first metaphors I associated with my inquiry into what Dark Mountain is and means – finding home, settling and becoming rooted – all took as their premise that I was already away or uprooted. But in the last months the possibility of becoming rooted in the journey has revealed itself. And Dark Mountain is, after all, not a place to live one’s entire life but a viewpoint or a place of transformation where the boundaries that define the rest of life can be challenged and expanded. Rather than a home, I found a community of fellow journeyers, people who are experimenting with ways of living which can cope with the disappearance of the certainties and expectations of progress.

My journey began with a search for ways of coming to terms with the great sadness of seeing the social and ecological structures that support life as I know it disintegrate and perhaps fail altogether. This prospect undermined everything I had come to take for granted as a child growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. It is – with a term that my friend Tony Dias uses – an enormity: a circumstance which appears so horrific as to incapacitate or paralyse basic aspects of everyday life. As I began to speak with other mountaineers about this, I found not only support in dealing with this rupture of the future but also guidance in building my own practices to help me thrive. ‘We don’t want just to survive, we want also to flourish’, as Andrew Taggart put it in one of our conversations. And the many conversations, inquiries and collaborations I involved myself in became part of my personal practice. My position as a researcher allowed me to cultivate a practice, develop my perceptual skills and work with the ideas presented in this thesis in a fairly consistent and continual manner. While my engagement with Dark Mountain has in this way been unique, there are many parallels between my experience doing this research and those of other mountaineers. At its very broadest this can be described as a process of breaking out of a feeling of isolation and finding community or a place to retrieve a sense of unity within the lifeworld. This is a shift which locates community in the ongoing stream of life itself and which is expressed as a radical shift in the kind of relations one has with the natural world. A re-integration.

hochbrucke

Journeying with Dark Mountain has shown me that the shift towards re-imagining and embodying a different relationship with the world requires that many of the rationales which structure modern life are left behind. That changing worldview involves a deeper engagement with the beliefs, habits and assumptions that organise how one experiences the world. And that there are no blueprints or big solutions. This condition has been part of my own struggle in doing this research both because I have been encouraged to look for solutions as an academic and because it has been difficult to overcome my deep-rooted urge put right to wrong and try to fix my great sadness. But grief cannot be fixed like pollution cannot be washed away with dispersants. Accepting what feels like inadequacy and letting go of the hope that the enormity can be reversed has by far been the hardest part of my journey. Surrendering some of my deeply held convictions has been disagreeable and challenged my identity. Nonetheless, the great discovery for me has been the understanding that the feeling of isolation and fragmentation that follows in the slipstream of the enormity is the result of a worldview which denies the inherent ‘relationality’ of the world. Although I first sensed this years ago, I believe this is a truth which will keep deepening long into the future as it is a remedy for a lot of the unintended consequences we tend to think of as ‘externalities’ – whether they are social, psychological or ecological.

When our relations with each other, the places we live and the wider natural world are obscured, frayed or ripped we lose not just a connection to the world but a small part of ourselves. Indigenous research paradigms hold that a researcher is answerable to all her relations and one could restate this to say that a person is all her relations. When relationality is broken we become less than what we were before. This has become clear to me especially through my sister Naja’s research and our conversations about our identity as mixed-race Greenlandic-Danes. I was joined by her from time to time last year in the summerhouse when she was writing her Masters thesis on decolonising Inuit politics and identity in Greenland. She writes about the internal dissension that arises when a part of one’s identity becomes isolated and framed as conflicting with the rest of one’s person: “[t]he experiences within mixed-race lives articulate the destruction when our inherent “relationality” as living beings is suppressed”. It is interesting that she has found many parallels to what I have described as threshold or liminal states in her process of resolving this fragmentation. Letting go of certain ideas about oneself can seem like ‘dissolving into nothingness’ but, she finds, “we become more of who we are when we, upon dissolving, embrace our relations as a part of the becoming our expansive selves, our lineage [...] and our embodied memory”.

This possibility of becoming more of who we are seems to me to be a key to many of the problematics related to the sustainability challenge. For me, it has resolved a personal question which I set out with at the beginning of this research: how can I discontinue the relationships that have produced the enormity and where can I help build new kinds of relations? Many of the conflicts I have experienced surrounding this question faded away once I accepted that they were based on a false division between myself and the world: I do not need to act on behalf of “nature” or to “save the world” when I am answerable to all my relations. We constitute each other and in this way they are part of me as I am of them. While this may seem to make sustainability science and research less ambitious or heroic, it also makes sustainability less abstract and immediately relevant to local contexts because it implies something different depending on the personal and collective circumstances in which one inquires about what it means. As a question of meaning, it will be necessary to inquire about what a true or right relationship means and Dark Mountain has a lot to offer for this kind of inquiry because many participants are actively searching for and creating a new vocabulary which can hold the personal and collective quandaries that arise from living in an age characterised by overconsumption, climate change and species extinction.

The inquiries I have become involved with in my conversations with mountaineers have generated a compass of evolving perceptual and conceptual tools with which to navigate my own lifeworld. Some have proved invaluable while others in hindsight were less relevant. I think such creative mapping or indexing is invaluable for making sustain- ability an expression of right relationship – it is necessary for grounding the processes of re-imagining and embodying in the personal lifeworld. It is also required for ‘doing the hard work’ and avoiding simply generating abstract recipes which can be evangelised to other seekers. These vocabularies “must be the kind sketched in the dust with a stick, washed away by the next rain” as the Dark Mountain manifesto puts it. Held lightly and not pressed for answers, the poetics of inhumanism presents a space for the imagination where the otherness of all our relations can emerge and re-orient the settings, plots and vocabularies that guide the course of life.

jutland

The familiar open, flat landscape of Jutland is now rushing past outside my train window. Spring has come later here and the green colours are lighter, almost translucent. I left this country when I was seventeen. Back then I dismissed this domesticated landscape as uninteresting and empty. It took me many years of coming back here to appreciate the finer shades it contains and I am still learning. Much of it is an agricultural wasteland, the ancient forest that once covered this peninsula all but gone. It was cleared for husbandry and used to build the fleet that made Denmark a major seafaring power until it was sacked and stolen by the English in 1807 during the Napoleonic wars. Generations of peasants worked to make the poor soils of Jutland yield, an effort which eventually paid off with the introduction of petrochemicals that made it profitable to grow the wheat, barley, rape and maize that now dominate the landscape. With each generation a small part of the past was forgotten as the changes they lived through became the new normal. It is easy to ignore that the landscape I grew up with is – ecologically speaking – an impoverished version of the past. I sometimes wonder what this country will look like in a hundred years. What will someone like me then see journeying across this land? Will there be trains to journey on? It is a thought which takes me on a tour of some of the things that trains imply: the industrial society that produces them, the places and people they connect, the ways of life they express and the modes of time they embody. Trains are one of the hallmark symbols of modernity. They represent the domestication and harnessing of the wild landscape, the co-ordination and subjugation of local time differences and the drive towards speed and efficiency which characterise industrialised societies. And still I would prefer not to be without them now that they are here.

Over the centuries-long formation of the meta-narrative of time and history as progress, linear storylines have become embedded in our institutions, our technologies and our ways of thinking. In the same way the invention of the steam engine, clockworks and linear schemata ushered in a revolution in means of production and the material world, it altered profoundly the way we think about and see the world. And it gradually led to an extreme de-valuing of the past in favour of the future and the forgetting of our connection with all our relations. It is a mistake to treat ‘environmental problems’ as primarily a material reality: they have deeper roots inside a worldview that leads us to reproduce the social patterns and material circumstances that created pollution, waste and other externalities in the first place. While shifting worldview requires patience and practice to overcome the acculturated blindness to the otherness of the world, my feeling is that in the long run this will be more effective than technical solutions in creating a desirable future. But changing worldview cannot happen in a flash, it is the slow process of working from the margins towards the centre. It is our longest journey and it begins by creating our own maps and tools with whatever we have at hand. I recall Dougie’s tongue-in-cheek question from last year when I was living in the summerhouse: what was it you did there? What will people say of this time and of Dark Mountain fifty years from now?

Here, approaching my destination, I remember hearing a choir of owls, foxes, whales, howler monkeys and (stinking) kippers in the forest and it appears to me that we have broken open our stories, our ways of telling and inter- preting. As a movement in the social imaginary – rather than of people trying to ‘change the world’ – Dark Mountain has opened a door for wildness and untamed otherness to slip back into the lifeworld, offered a way of being which makes it possible to flourish even in the shadow of the enormity. It allows us to embrace and align with our wider relations without requiring us to blow up civilisation in a battle that can never be won. By retreating to the mountains and reorienting our compass it has become possible to dispel the pull on attention which the enormity exercises on us, to decide to focus our awareness on the dark spots on our maps, on the absences wherefrom new things can grow. Journeying in this range shows that ‘civilisation’ is only one name among many for a pervasive logic which divides the world without anchoring complexity in the greater movement of which we all are part. At the edge, hearing the faint voices beneath the clamour of engines, it is possible to perceive the soundscape of a world which does not need us to do anything but to listen and to live our questions now.