The Dark Mountain Blog

Uncivilisation Republished

DMIt’s early in the morning and, in between the tasks that get the day started, I have been reading snatches of the news from Greece. Hopeful news, for once, though who can say how much of that hope will survive the collision with financial and political institutions that must follow? We’ll take whatever snatches of hope we can, these days.

The reading sets me thinking back, six years now, to the time when we were writing the Dark Mountain manifesto, the new edition of which is published today. The text came together over a period of six months between the summer of 2008 and the early weeks of 2009. It was the autumn Lehman Bros went under: the panic of powerful men was visible on the TV screens, even as they continued to insist that all of this was under control.

If the manifesto travelled further than Paul or I could have guessed when we wrote it, one reason is that it has helped people find their bearings in a world where the ongoing crisis is no longer a far-off consequence of systems in which we participate, but a visible unravelling of those systems that comes close to most of our homes. The crisis through which we are living – economic, social, political, ecological – plays out on a timescale that intersects only intermittently with the attention span of the news industry, the statistical representation of the economic cycle, or the day-to-day rhythms of getting on with life. People look for larger frames within which they might be able to make sense of what they see around them. This manifesto has offered one such frame.

It is not a political manifesto, a plan of action, a platform for government or for revolution. In the early days, when we were still working out how to explain what we were doing, someone asked me if Dark Mountain was a political project. ‘I think there may be times when it is necessary to withdraw from today’s politics,’ I wrote, ‘in order to do the thinking that could make it possible for there to be a politics the day after tomorrow.’ Not that any of us can sustain the detachment this suggests, not consistently. None of us spend all our time up on the mountain, but the perspective we get there may change what we do when we return to today’s tasks.

The manifesto was not a definitive statement, but a first attempt to articulate the perspective we had begun to find. What did that consist of? Here are some of the elements that I recognise now, as I reread it.

A sense of the precariousness of most of what we have grown up taking for granted. (Who is the “we”, here? The manifesto was written by two white men, both English, both ex-journalists, Oxford graduates, bookish and middle class. It continues to amaze me how many people with lives quite different to ours have recognised something of their own experience in what we wrote.)

A sense of the depth of the mess – social, economic, political, ecological – in which we find ourselves. (Here the “we” is broader.) Also, a sense that there is something powerful about naming this and looking hard at it, rather than trying to avoid it, or rushing immediately to the language of solutions, answers and action.

A suggestion that the depth of the mess in which we find ourselves has been obscured by the stories that we have been telling ourselves – about history, about the world and our place within it – and that these stories have played a greater role than is often acknowledged in how we got into this mess. The manifesto names two of these, in particular: the myth of progress and the myth of human separation from nature.

Another suggestion – that the power of myths cuts both ways. That humans live by stories, that the idea that we outgrew the need for myths is itself a myth, more dangerous for not knowing itself to be one. In this light, the problem with the myth of progress or the myth of human separation is not that they are myths, but that they are bad myths, or at least myths that are badly out of joint with the situation in which we find ourselves. They are maps that probably never fitted the territory as well as we thought, but that have now become actively dangerous.

Out of this grows a project, sketched only loosely in the manifesto, but based on the suggestion that culture has a role to play in this mess in which we find ourselves – a role that goes beyond the invitation to help get the message out, to enlist as a sophisticated extension of the communications department of campaigning organisations. How good or bad a job we make of living through the times ahead will have a lot to do with whether we find other myths by which to steer. These are unlikely to be found by any systematic process, but they are likely to come from the margins, from those who are already living with one foot in the unknown world ahead and from those who have kept alive the supposedly obsolete.

That is one route through the manifesto, not the only one that can be taken. To summarise it in this way is to be reminded that there is much here that had been said before, in other contexts. Even as we wrote, others were arriving at similar thoughts from different directions. What we did was to assemble it as it looked from where stood, during those months as 2008 rolled into 2009.

It is not common for a self-published twenty-page manifesto to be given a two-page lead review in the New Statesman, and rarer still for it to start a movement which the New York Times can introduce to its readers as “changing the environmental debate in Britain and the rest of Europe.” These are two of the more official markers of what happened next. The reactions were so intense and so contrasting that it feels now as though the lines of argument running through it are also the contours of a dark shape, an inkblot shape in which readers find reflections of their own fears and hopes.

The text of the manifesto has always been available on our website, but last year we sold out of the fourth edition of the hand-stitched pamphlet in which it was originally published. After some discussion with our friends at Bracketpress, we decided that rather than wear out their hands with a larger print run, it was time to republish it as a paperback. This also allowed room for a new essay, introducing the manifesto and reflecting on the process by which it came about.

Six years have passed, six years further into this unfinished crisis. If you were to ask either of us now whether we stand by what we wrote, what would be our answer? As I put it at the end of the new introduction:

We stand by it, not as a stockade to be defended, but as a first attempt to say something, to work out how to say something, the fuller significance of which we are still discovering in the company of a growing gang of friends and collaborators, most of whom would never have met if we hadn’t been brave enough, or foolish enough, to commit these words to print.

The new paperback edition of the Dark Mountain manifesto is available here.

The Eumenides

In the morning, flocks of children take to the air. They jostle, they elbow for position. Occasionally one throws another to the ground. Children stacked like sardines in the air, as dawn spreads forth its first tentative probes of pink. The sky is black with them.

Below, the Eumenides crunch across the frost on their way to work. They rub the sleep out of their eyes. Their breath condenses before them, and they pull on their gloves. The metal will be cold on their hands.

These four are the first shift. They take their places at the guns, and start to aim.

No ear protection. The Eumenides are deaf to all appeal. Suddenly the air shatters with a cacophony that will last the rest of the day, and from the air, the children start to fall.

Even miles away, on the Island, the Virgin could hear the guns. Like the baboons, she paid them no heed. She was too far away to see the falling bodies. She didn’t care about them.

How do you think she got to the Island in the first place? She was a fallen body too. She just happened to have lived.

baboons_swimmingThe Virgin played war games while the apes made origami. They roasted banana and fish on the beach. The sun was warm, the food was plentiful, and the sound of the guns was far away.

And then one day, the apes ran out of typing paper. A great wail went up from the island, and the animals cried real tears. There would be no more origami.

Weeks passed. Suddenly idle, the baboons had no idea what to do with themselves. They fought. They stole. Some smoothed out old pieces of origami, someone else’s origami, any scrap of paper they could find, tried to fold it anew, but inevitably another would be looking on, enviously.

Paper. They had a lust for paper.

More often than not, two apes would engage in a tug of war and each would be left with a shred.

The origami got smaller and smaller. Tinier and tinier shreds of paper.

And finally, not even shreds.

And then the first murder.

The Virgin did not do origami. She did not understand the passion for folding. But she knew that peace on the island was over.

Someone would have to get more typing paper.

*

The Island was a beautiful place. White sand beaches and palm fronds swaying in the breeze. Hot sun, blue sky and blue water. In the distance, where the sea met the sky, the horizon blurred. Water became air and air became water, and all was in consonance in the world. It was as though from the Island you could see Eternity.

It was nothing like the Mainland. It was nowhere near the Mainland.

And although she had left as a child, she still knew, the Mainland was the only place you could get something that had been manufactured, something that had been man‐made. How to get back?

The Virgin had arrived by air, so she tried to return by air. She tried a hop, a leap, a running jump. No way to launch; every time she went up she came straight back down. How long had it been? Had it been years? She had forgotten how to fly. She would have to find another way.

The journey to the Island had taken no time at all. It was an Icarus fall, over in seconds. But that was air. The journey by sea – she had no idea what she was getting into.

The water was cold and rough. She didn’t realise how far she would have to swim. It seemed to take years. It seemed to take years off her life.

By the time she washed ashore, almost dead, she was an old woman. She lay in the dark shivering and waited for the sun.

She had crossed an ocean, she had crossed latitudes, but the ground she found was not a beach. It was a northern shore, rocky and covered with seaweed. A tan froufrou of foamy pollution edged the water, kissing the mussels. About a quarter of a mile away, she could see oil tanks. Flanked by an embankment, a narrow ribbon of sand traced the coast. Above that loomed the highway. Even at dawn, cars whizzed by.

The Gunner had been up all night. He had drunk until there was no more money and no more booze. He was happy. He was walking home along the beach.

He didn’t see her until he tripped over her, then the ground slammed his cheek. ‘Ow,’ he said, in delay.

She opened her eyes but said nothing. He was a young man, handsome, wearing the uniform of the Eumenides.

She remembered from way back. Even children know about the Eumenides. She remembered them on the street, with their guns. Even as a child, she noticed their beauty. The Eumenides stand tall and straight and proud, like ideal men. And they kill.

‘What you doing there, naked lady,’ he said. ‘You’re a pretty lady.’

She surmised she didn’t look as old as she felt. ‘I’m cold,’ she said. He puked and passed out beside her.

The sun rose in the sky. She didn’t get up because she didn’t have the strength. She needed food. She needed rest and warmth.

He awoke fresh as an athlete in training. ‘Hey look, it’s a girl,’ he said, having forgotten the night before. He nudged her. ‘Hey, girl, are you OK?’ She shook her head. ‘Can you get up?’ Again, the shake. He got to his feet, bent over and threw her over his shoulder. ‘I’m going to take you home.’

Home was a basement apartment with Masonite clapboards and broken steps to the front door. Dirty, drafty windows. He laid her on a flowered couch of astonishing ugliness and covered her with a granny‐square afghan. Grateful, she fell asleep.

He woke her with a bowl of ramen noodles and a peanut butter sandwich. He wasn’t eating; he had a beer. She consumed the food as though she hadn’t eaten in weeks and asked him if he had anything more.

He said, ‘Yeah, it is funny that I don’t have a TV but the truth is I put my foot through it when the Dolphins beat the Patriots, so I just watch at the bar now.’

She asked him if he knew where she could find typing paper.

He said, ‘Yeah, the uniform. I work as a gunner for the Eumenides. My old man was a gunner too, he always was pushing me to do this. I hate this work, it sucks.’

That was when she remembered that the Eumenides are deaf.

‘My old man,’ he said, ‘He was big on manhood. He always said, “The Eumenides, now that’s a job. You thin out the herd, pick off the weak. The Eumenides, you gotta be a hard man to do it. You can’t feel mercy. You gotta be a man.” My old man was an asshole.’

She realised she would have to ask someone else.

He offered her a beer but she turned it down. She pretended to have her mouth all stuck up and made the motions of a joke: beer doesn’t go with peanut butter.

He laughed. ‘Everything goes with beer.’

The next day he went to work, and she put on some of his clothes and went for a walk. Every person she met, she asked them where she could find typing paper. Nobody had ever heard of such a thing. She walked and walked.

Bodies lay haphazardly on the street and on the sidewalk. Occasionally one fell from the sky; she had to keep her eyes open. Some of them were dead but most were still alive.

On the sidewalk, a young woman of extraordinary beauty lay, crying.

The Virgin helped her up and saw that half her face, the side on which she had been laying, had been shot off. The woman said to her, ‘Now no one will love me. Why couldn’t I die?’ The Virgin had no answer.

Once she encountered a Eumenides walking his beat. He came upon a body that was still alive, shouting for help. He shot it in the head. She gasped and put her hands over her mouth. He shrugged his shoulders and explained, ‘Mercy.’

Another day, she went into a 7‐11 and asked the clerk, ‘Why does no one stop the Eumenides?’

The clerk said, ‘Stop them from what?’

She tried a different tack. She said, ‘Is there any way to help these people, all these bodies in the street? Is there any medicine?’

He laughed and said, ‘Oh no one can heal them. They have to heal themselves. Look.’ He showed her two little bald spots, one on both sides of his head. ‘Bullet went in one side and out the other. And look at me! I picked myself up, I’m right as rain. Just because someone shoots you down, it doesn’t mean you have to stay there.’

She wondered, ‘Are you brain‐damaged, or are you right?’

*

On the fifth day, she stumbled into a Staples. The clerk told her no one typed anymore so no one made typing paper anymore, but you could buy printer paper if you had the money. It occurred to her, she had been on the Island a long time. She asked him what money was and he got sarcastic. She asked him how one went about getting money and he laughed at her. ‘What do you think I’m wasting my life here for? You get a fucking job!’

She applied for waitress work. She applied for secretarial work. She applied for metermaid and mail carrier and barmaid. No one would hire her.

One day she stumbled into a zoo. She saw the baboons pacing behind bars, and tears came to her eyes. She grabbed a guard and pointed to the apes. ‘They need an occupation,’ she said, ‘or they will go mad. Get them some ty – printing paper.’ The guard made her leave the zoo.

But she came back, day after day. The baboons knew when to expect her, and they brightened up at her arrival. When she asked the warden if she could have work feeding the baboons, he agreed. She had a job. And she had a troupe of new friends. ‘When I get some money together,’ she whispered, ‘I’ll bust you out.’ She winked, and the baboons winked back.

swimming_with_baboonWithin a couple of weeks, she had bought her own clothes. She could have left the Gunner, but she stayed because she liked him.

‘I can spot them a mile away,’ the Gunner said, ‘all the hopefuls.’ He was playing inside with a soccer ball. He tossed it up with his instep, hooked it with the curve of his arm, coursed it over his body as sinuously as a snake. He flowed around the ball, the ball flowed over him, like water around a rock. He and the ball in motion together was the most graceful sight she’d ever seen. While he played, while he kept the ball in motion, he talked.

‘The Eumenides, they picked me,’ he said, ‘because I almost made it. I was good. I was a star. I lived for the game. And I was just a kid, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. By the time I was eighteen I started to lose it. It was the booze. But hey, it’s part of the game. You play hard, you party hard. Only I partied a little harder, and soon I couldn’t stop it, and I wasn’t playing well anymore. That was when I got shot out of the sky. They didn’t leave me to die, they came and got me. I was a recruit.

‘Now I can see, when I’m at my guns, who are the ones with talent. I can smell them. Not just soccer. Baseball, football, anything. Who are the hopefuls. Who’s arrogant. Who thinks he’s invulnerable. Who needs to be brought down, taught what the ground feels like. I am a Fury. I am Fate.

‘They picked me because I can and will pick off the ones who fly too high. If you think you’ve got what it takes, you belong to me. I keep order in the universe. I keep everyone even.

‘And maybe I won’t kill them. Maybe I’ll just give them the opportunity to learn how to go on when they’ve lost everything. I show them what they’re really made of. Some of them never really heal, they just limp through life – most people just limp through life. Some of them don’t even pick themselves up. Sometimes what they’re made of isn’t much.

‘Course sometimes I miss. I mean, you drink as much as I do, sometimes you’re going to miss. Some get through. But most, I’m pretty efficient.’

*

The Virgin didn’t know she had a look of repulsed horror on her face. He noticed, and the ball stopped in mid‐flow. She opened her shirt and showed him her scar. Just under the clavicle, where she’d been shot.

‘Did I do that?’ he said. He folded her in his arms. ‘Maybe it was a stray bullet,’ he said. ‘Maybe it was one of my buddies. It had to have been an accident. I wouldn’t have shot you.’

She looked in his eyes to see if he was telling the truth, and he was.

She said, ‘If you’re so sad about not playing soccer anymore, why don’t you quit drinking and go back to it?’

Of all things for him to understand. He looked at her blankly, looked out the window, then threw the ball down hard, turned, and left.

The apartment was strange without him around. He didn’t come back that night, or the night after, or the night after. The Virgin was worried and went looking for him.

She went to the Anti‐Aircraft Control Station, where the gunners take their posts. He wasn’t there. One of the other gunners saw her and elbowed the one beside him. The other gunner looked, saw her, and the two laughed. She came up to them and asked if they had seen him. They didn’t even turn around. They just went on shooting. Oh yeah, deaf. Still, she knew they knew something. No one’s that deaf.

Then she thought of their laugh, and she really started to worry. What did they know?

He didn’t come home for a week. One night the doorbell rang. He leaned in the doorway, newly skinny. His face, his normally‐pressed uniform, his hands, everything was covered with filth. He looked sheepish.

She threw her arms around him as though she’d thought he was dead, which she had.

‘I lost my keys,’ he said.

She laughed, and tears streamed down her cheeks. She hugged him again.

‘And my wallet,’ he said. ‘I passed out and when I woke up, everything was gone.’

He flopped down on the bed, still in his filthy clothes, still in his shoes. ‘I lost my job,’ he said.

She crawled onto the bed with him, then leaned down and gave him a kiss. She smiled broadly. ‘Congratulations,’ she said. ‘You did it on purpose, didn’t you?’

‘Not me,’ he said.

She noticed that now they spoke the same language.

After that, they shared his bed. She held him at night.

‘You got a name?’he asked.

‘I don’t remember,’ she said.

‘You need a name.’ She wracked her head. The only names she remembered were the ones she had known as a child. Dick and Jane. She didn’t want to be Jane. She didn’t want to be Dick.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked him.

‘Typhus.’

‘Isn’t that a disease?’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘It’s cool. It’s brutal out there, you don’t want some pussy name. You want a name that’ll kill.’

‘Typhus sounds very masculine,’ she said. He nodded in the dark. She said, ‘I think I should be called Copralalia.’

‘What the fuck is Copralalia?’

‘It’s when you can’t stop cursing.” It seemed to her that if you got shot out of the sky, it would be perfectly right and normal not to be able to stop cursing.

‘That’s a stupid name,’ he said. ‘You can’t die of that.’

‘OK,’ she said, ‘then how about Pneumonia? If you hadn’t saved me, I would have gotten pneumonia.’

‘Pneumonia’s a very feminine name,’ he approved.

He didn’t quit drinking. He couldn’t. She didn’t make enough money to support him, and the amount of money he could spend on alcohol was bottomless.

Meanwhile, Pneumonia thought at night of the baboons back on the Island. Of how long she’d been gone. She wondered if they were still alive.

‘I’ve got to get on,’ she thought, but the problem was no longer just bring back a ream of typing paper. She would have to bring several reams of printer paper.

She would have to keep them dry in the passage. She would have to figure out how to make the passage and still survive. She would have to bring all her friends from the zoo. What had once been a difficult task was now insurmountable.

A boat, she would need a boat. She saved her money a little at a time. A dollar here, a dollar there.

Then sometimes it would all be gone. The Gunner needed it for booze. Didn’t matter where she hid it. He always found it.

Still. He was looking for work. It’s not like he wasn’t trying.

When they had sex, he would hold her tight with his arms all around her, cheek to cheek. She couldn’t see his face. He didn’t want her to see his face. When he came, he wailed, as though in anguish, as though he were trying to crawl all the way in, and the anguish was that he couldn’t.

When she was with him, her eyes leaked. When he was gone, she yearned for him.

‘I don’t know why you love me,’ he said.

‘I don’t either,’ she said, ‘but I do.’

‘I love you more,’ he said.

‘Let’s not get into that again,’ she said. ‘I have to get back to the Island.’

He looked away, then left the room.

At work, the baboons were losing patience. ‘You lied to us,’ they said. They began to hate her. When she came to work, the mandrills snarled, then showed her their blue butts. They narrowed their eyes. They thought about biting.

Every penny she saved, Typhus knew it was to get back to the Island. He drank it away.

‘It’s not going to work,’ she thought, and started taking long walks again. ‘I’m not going to be able to earn a way back.’ She wrestled with this problem night and day. She walked the streets. She walked the shore.

One day, about a hundred feet out, she saw a skiff, moored to an anchor marked by an empty bleach bottle. She worked it out in her head. Swim to the skiff. Row it to shore. Fill it with paper, and take off.

She would steal her boat.

Could she take anyone? Could she take a single baboon? Could she take Typhus?

Could she live without Typhus?

Pneumonia worked it out in her head. On the Island, there would be no booze. Typhus would go nuts, but he would quit. If he didn’t kill her. And then he would be OK, he would be healed, and they could be together, with the baboons. They would roast bananas and fish on the beach. They would sleep in each other’s arms.

The case of printer paper was too heavy to bring to the beach all at once. On her day off, she brought it, ream by ream, with the box to keep them all together. Assembled them, then went back for Typhus.

‘Come with me,’ she said. ‘I’m leaving.’

‘Then go,’ he said, opening a beer. ‘Fucking go.’

Pneumonia stood in the doorway, not knowing what to do, and then she turned and went.

A block away, she heard his feet pounding as he ran after her. Typhus ran with the grace of a born athlete. ‘Don’t go,’ he said.

‘Come with me,’ she said.

‘I can’t,’ he said.

Just then, she heard a shot. He was already dead before he hit the pavement. The Eumenides had got him.

The row back across the ocean was long and arduous, but far easier than the swim. As the air got warmer, as the sun got brighter, Pneumonia thought of her friends and the beautiful Island and couldn’t wait to be back. She hoped she had not been gone too long. In her mind’s eye, she saw a crowd of happy baboons, jumping up and down when they see the reams and reams of paper. She and they would run together, they would groom each other, they would swim in the blue lagoon.

When she made land, the devastation of the beach shocked her. It was littered with bones, and the bones were half‐covered with sand. She lay on the beach with the useless printer paper still in the boat, and cried and cried for her friends. For the baboons here, for the baboons there, for Typhus, for all the children shot out of the sky. She looked to the horizon, to Eternity, so cheerful, so blue, and felt the big universe. She had saved no one, and to Eternity, that was just fine.

Two days later, one baboon came to greet her. A tiny old male, who had hid during the murders. The baboon had pulled out all his hair, had hot spots all over his flanks. Nervous licking. Nervous licking. Nervous licking. The old baboon was mad.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked the baboon.

‘I don’t have a name,’ he said.

‘Can I call you Dick?’ He nodded. She changed her name to Jane.

They roasted bananas and fish on the beach.

Shelah Horvitz was originally trained as a writer (Wheeler School and Brown University) but turned to painting because her writing professors told her that at 19, her work was juvenile. She spent the next 30 years painting and exhibiting in galleries and museums, until she hit the limit of the complexity of ideas she can explore with painting. She is now working on her first novel. Shelah lives in Massachusetts, USA with her husband and dog.

Retrieval, resilience and wild planning

after sustThis is an edited extract from John Foster’s new book After Sustainability: Denial, Hope, Retrieval, recently published by Earthscan from Routledge. Described as ‘philosophy on the edge’, the book is about thinking our way towards retrieving resilience in our heads, as a necessary precondition of whatever resilience we may be able to retrieve on the ground.

Resilience must be a central concept for retrieval – that is, for the capacity of communities to bring something humanly habitable out on the other side of the unpredictable stresses and dangers to which climate change will (now unavoidably) expose us.

Rob Hopkins in The Transition Handbook defines the idea of resilience more specifically thus:

‘…the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as still to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks’.

He glosses it as referring ‘in the context of communities and settlements…to their ability not to collapse at first sight of oil or food shortages, and to their ability to respond with adaptability to disturbance’. Retrieving socio-economic resilience clearly means taking the ‘too big to fail’ tendency out of all our systems: food distribution, energy supply, transport, banks – the lot.

The components of resilience as Hopkins identifies them are diversity, modularity and tightness of feedbacks within a system. Respectively, these refer to the number and variety of system elements; the extent to which these elements are not vulnerable to a ‘domino effect’, but can self-reorganise to survive a shock which takes out of some of their number; and the ability of parts of the system to register and respond to impacts on other parts – that is, the capacity of the system as a whole to use internal information flows effectively in the process of self-reorganisation.

In its account of what will need to be done, locality by locality, to recreate these features in communities from which they have been progressively stripped over the past century by the centralising and alienating processes of an oil-based economy, Hopkins’ Handbook seems to me second to nothing of its kind which has recently been produced. Its leading themes for the transition which we must all now get ready to make are ‘energy descent’ (preparing to do with less centralised output, rather than relying on the implausible substitution of renewables for all fossil fuels at something near to current consumption levels); regenerating the local economy, in particular as regards food production (replacing ‘food miles’ with ‘food feet’, and similarly for much else of what we need); and rebuilding the networks and institutions of real human connectedness within which communities will have to operate to achieve and maintain these recovered local strengths as the globalised systems surrounding them start to unravel.

These have of course been familiar themes of green thinking for as long as there has been a green movement, but they have latterly been much overlaid by the mainstreaming of that movement as ‘sustainable development’. The coming coincidence of Peak Oil with intensifying climate change means the end of that fantasy of modulated progressivism, and Transition offers both a timely reassertion and a lively, congenial framing of what the green movement had kept in its heart all along.

For all that, it badly needs underpinning by the understanding and practice of what I have called existential resilience. This means the strength to accept (rather than resolutely denying, as progressivism so characteristically does) that the human condition is tragic. That involves recognising that good and evil are inextricably intertwined in our experience and cannot be weighed off against one another; that we can’t ever be sure of the future, and are never really in control; and so that there are never any guarantees that things will get better, nor even that they won’t get worse. And it means a welcoming openness to the fact that these conditions of human action require us to listen for and trust to our wildness, in order to go on living in anything deserving to be called hope.

The easiest way to see the practical need for resilience of this order is to flag up a fundamental problem with on-the-ground resilience as Transition envisages it. This is essentially a business of ‘preparing for the unexpected’: we need to be ready for anything, and in particular to be ready for what happens in any given case to turn out differently from what we had been anticipating would happen. But this can’t mean being ready for literally anything to happen, or all sense drains out of the idea of preparation. To be prepared for anything (even if such a state were psychologically imaginable) would be to be prepared for nothing. As a matter of logic, it would seem, expectation and preparation must involve at least some focussed anticipation.

But then: any focussed anticipation of what we judge likely to happen, equally as a matter of logic, must concentrate our attention on what is thereby prioritised as focal, and thus leave us to just that extent unprepared for anything different. So being ‘prepared for anything’ seems to mean: not being.

The process of building resilience is liable to be analogously exposed to paradox. The UK Government’s National Adaptation Programme, for instance, affirms robustly that ‘through good risk management, organisations can become more resilient’. The same expectations, and commitment to a concerted managerial response, inform the very recent Royal Society report on Resilience to extreme weather. And it is certainly true that accurate estimation of the likelihood of something’s happening can contribute to our developing the ability to respond to and hopefully survive that anticipated impact, if it does indeed materialise. But implicitly or explicitly quantifying risk in this way can also reduce resilience: it will focus anticipation and preparation in particular directions, and so generate increased path-dependent vulnerability to something unanticipated happening. This is all the more a danger, to the extent that we are moving in a domain of the unpredictable and in various ways indeterminate, as with environmental and climate futures we always are. Here the real risk is that the quantified prioritising done in ‘risk analysis’ will reflect what we want to think probable or possible, or (still more insidiously) it will tacitly frame out what we just don’t want to think about at all, with the chances of what actually materialises coming on us unexpectedly increased pari passu.

This matters hugely when we are confronting what might well be called billowing indeterminacy. Climate-change and environmental futures are not completely unspecifiable – what we must recognise to be coming isn’t just random. These futures do however involve very significant uncertainty over, in the first place, which among the range of possible impacts – on food, water and energy supplies, ecological support systems and human physical and psychological health – are to be anticipated. And then right across this spectrum, uncertainty also attaches to the scale of impact in each kind (from small shift to upheaval), their timing (from short-term to distant future, several centuries out), their multiple interconnections and their significance in terms of our reactions to them. All this amounts to effective indeterminacy across the whole arena of climate change consequences. To know what we know when we have stopped pretending – that is, that what is inescapably coming is going to be somewhere on the range between very severe and catastrophic – is to know, if we are honest, hardly anything about the combinations of factors in which those conditions are actually going to manifest themselves. Indeed, the extent of our inevitable sheer ignorance here is an important part of what we mean by ‘severe to catastrophic’.

Now building on-the-ground resilience must involve – otherwise we should never get started – building capacities to pursue pre-identified pathways through all the above. An example is Hopkins’ local Energy Descent Action Plans, each of which ‘sets out a vision of a powered-down, resilient, re-localised future and then backcasts, in a series of practical steps, creating a map for getting from here to there’. But creating genuine resilience also means designing into our systems options for shifting onto other plausible pathways, sometimes at short notice, and a review and revision function, to ensure that scenarios, options and plans are re-crafted ongoingly as necessary in response to emergent conditions. Moreover, making this function effective involves maintaining as far as possible not just alertness to the current plan (tracking milestones, indicators and measures) but the very best we can achieve by way of what might be called ‘full-spectrum alertness’, in order to inform this ongoing review function with earliest-possible awareness of all relevant unanticipated factors which may be emerging to affect scenario plausibility, option status, and therefore the need for new arrangements ad hoc.

The crucial thing in all this is that under ramifying uncertainties of the range, scale and volatility outlined above, ‘full-spectrum alertness’, the fourth requirement just noted, is going to be absolutely vital to genuine resilience – but it calls for a kind of non-directed attention which option- and scenario-based planning will inevitably tend to be channelling in particular already-identified directions instead. So there is a clear and potentially disabling tension between the first two and the second two requirements for building on-the-ground resilience. Given a broad spectrum of fairly open possibilities, organising for real action always involves taking a bet on reduced full-spectrum alertness.

The issue here, of course, is that of Donald Rumsfeldt’s notorious ‘unknown unknowns’ – the upcoming shocks which escape getting factored into risk quantification because they are off our risk-assessment radar altogether, so that we don’t even register that we don’t know their probability of happening. Building capacity to absorb disturbance and system shock involves anticipating likelihoods among potential sources of that shock, and in a situation of significant uncertainty this is likely to veil from us ‘left-field’ possibilities. The danger that shock will come from unknown unknowns is indeed increased in a situation where we think we have our bases covered in respect of the known unknowns, because our plans and preparations for building path-dependent resilience actually create unknown unknowns just insofar as they focus attention on the possibilities for which we know we have to condition.

How do we prepare for those shocks? The only possible appeal here is to a notion of responsiveness without control, or poised spontaneity, which we might call ‘wild planning’. This is preparation which is not under our control – an intuitive readying for whatever might come, corresponding to the intense non-specific sensitivity to its impinging environment which a wild creature must constantly deploy in order to survive. It is a matter not of identifying what is likely, but of living in and from the permanent possibility of the unidentified and indeed unidentifiable. In human beings, this must rest on a capacity and readiness to deploy alertnesses which we don’t know we have, in support of those of which we are aware.

‘How do you know what’s going to happen until it happens?’ That is usually a cogent challenge to over-confident prediction, but it is also plain that nothing capable of envisaging its own future, about which that question expressed the whole truth, could possibly have survived. Creatures which can register the world as including a dimension of futurity have to be able reliably to anticipate that future on at least the large majority of occasions – since consciousness of that kind brings with it also the capacity for self-delusion into a false sense of security, and unless a creature is able routinely to correct the associated tendencies, it will not be fit for any environment in which it finds itself.

Human beings are no exception. We ‘reliably anticipate’, and to a far greater extent than any other conscious creature, by reflexively conscious prediction, which ordinarily involves assigning probabilities, and in the standard case where some kind of action has to be based on the anticipation, we rely on this assignment in order to invest preparatory effort proportionately. I might judge, for instance, that it will quite probably rain, because those dark clouds to the West most likely mean rain and they will be driven in this direction unless the wind changes, which it shows no signs of doing: and I might therefore plan to do something requiring a significant time-commitment indoors, but not something which I absolutely couldn’t put on hold in case it doesn’t in the event rain and I can get out into the garden. Here my judgement of the probability of its raining expresses my degree of confidence in the way the evidence of the clouds and of the wind combines – the rain is only quite probable, because I could be wrong about either.

But now it might seem that a question should arise as to how probable it is that I have got my judgements of the evidential factors right. That would be to ask, for instance, how probable it is, and on what grounds, that the given darkness of the clouds does on this occasion portend rain – and if I take that to be highly probable on the grounds that all such clouds that I can recall have yielded rain, how probable it is that my memory isn’t playing me false here? Clearly a regress is in prospect, which I can only stop by taking some level of evidential grounding as non-probabilistically given. But I cannot do that on the basis of what I explicitly know about the coming rain, since that has already been summed up in my judging that rain is quite probable. Thus not everything I need to rely on as knowledge, about the future can be probabilistically warranted if I am to have probabilistic knowledge at all. We must always be in possession of more grounds for the assignment of an operational probability than are ever explicitly committed in that assignment.

In other words, all planning must be fundamentally ‘wild’, in the sense that it must tacitly rely at some level on our having more grounds than we can know ourselves to have about the probabilities in question, and so on our ceding authority, just so far, to a warrant which must shape our plans from the life in us which lies beyond our conscious awareness and cognitive control. The application of this to planning for resilience in face of serious climate jeopardy should be clear. The greater the uncertainty under which we are predicting and planning, and the more potentially destructive and even catastrophic the unknowns could prove, the greater our overt reliance on the element of wildness in all planning has to be.

A suggestive analogy, though perhaps an initially surprising one in this context, is that of battle-readiness. A soldier going into battle confronts an individually catastrophic possibility – his own sudden and violent death – under conditions of almost complete unpredictability. He cannot do this as an ego-self, since ‘my life is for me’ would be a paralysing awareness at that juncture and must be transcended for him to act. Armies have training and drilling methods to ensure that this happens, making disciplined submission to the goal-directed activity of the relevant collective – unit, platoon or other formation – a kind of second nature even under these conditions. The component corresponding to wildness here is the subsumption of individual awareness of dangers and opportunities into the multiple, diverse and de-centred awareness distributed across the collective entity of which the individual soldier feels himself an integral part. The soldier is able to go into battle resolutely because he goes not only with the multiple eyes and ears, but also with the common being and purpose and the (comparative) indestructibility of his unit, just as a wild creature can be protected not just by its own alertness but by a shared alertness distributed through the group or flock in which it belongs. Achieving goals under conditions of battlefield danger needs a collective form of survival knowledge-in-readiness, something in which each individual participates, and on which he relies for his chances of individual survival, but which he cannot know himself, as merely an ego-self, to have.

But then, how do we bring that kind of recognition to bear on our present case – on the News-from-Nowhere version of Transition, the chummy Garden-City and farmers’-market models of retrieval which are all we presently have to work with? Currently Transition protagonists, and more generally environmental activists, tend to come preponderantly from the left-liberal end of the political spectrum and are predisposed to disregard, where they are not actively hostile towards, the kinds of association in which wild preparedness could flourish. These intuitive communities of retrieval must be held together by local or patriotic feeling, flowing from beyond its members as individuals, in forms of unity which are not negotiated or conditional but borne on the currents of livingly coherent cultural tradition. For building real resilience, that kind of association is going to be indispensable. To confront dangerously unknown unknowns, we shall need to base our common action not in intellectual analysis and means-end rationality, but fundamentally in what the philosopher Roger Scruton has dubbed oikophilia. This is love of the household, or more broadly of home – meaning, wherever we can think of ourselves as unconditionally belonging, as the soldier in battle belongs, to an actual or imaginable object of one of the most basic forms of loyalty. For the kinds of reason which we have been considering here, recovered real localities and territorially-defensible nation-states towards which such loyalty is strong, or could feasibly be strengthened, offer by far the best prospects for retrieval in the conditions which are coming. That is why the strong movement towards such recovery presently visible right across Europe (for instance) is so vitally important, however much it presently manifests itself in blind and ecologically-ignorant forms of nationalism.

Retrieval, in other words, is going to involve some new and on past form politically quite uncomfortable alliances, for a green movement which takes it seriously. The need for them is a long way from being widely recognised as things stand. But the more we condition for retrieval and survival in acknowledgement of our tragic situation (including our inability to predict or control, which will only increase, and the associated absence of guarantees), the more we will be opening ourselves to a kind of attention which corresponds as closely as we can yet come to the relevant kind of ‘battle-readiness’ – to forms of community which inherently know more than we can know ourselves to know, and help us find in ourselves more active hope than we can rationally expect to be available.

John Foster is a freelance writer and philosophy teacher, and an associate in the department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, UK.

Time is of the Essence

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IRRELEVANT INTRODUCTION

I think what I love the most in the whole wide world is this. Early morning, still dark outside, to sit in front of the fireplace with Sigurd, bear pup, drinking coffee, slowly. Looking at the flames. The crack in the glass (there’s a crack in everything). Dark shadows. Ashes. Embers. The way he leans his head up against my shoulders. The silence. I love that. I love this. The smell of the fire burning, the sound of the cast iron expanding.

November is so rich in colours, the golden grass and the deep green of the forest, as the light slowly, slowly returns to the world the colours almost quiver. I watch it through my windows. Heavy wind today. It might snow.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Old man said: ‘Well, the interesting part is actually what you are going to write about now. So many stories out there about establishing something new, new projects, new stories, changes, changes, it’s always about the changes. But what is your life going to be like now that you already did all that? How does it feel? You should blog about that.’

I don’t mind taking advice from elders. It’s a new hobby of mine, actually. Too much wisdom is being thrown out with the bath water, too many babies.
We can’t go around forgetting what it took centuries to learn. On the practical level: how does one live without all of the luxuries? How does one use the resources? How to cook, how to grow, how to harvest and build. So much knowledge earned through stormy winters and hard work. We can’t just forget that.

We are not allowed to just forget that.

I’m not saying we should do everything as they did. Absolutely not. We can make it better, improve, adjust, innovate — that´s what humans do, but we can’t just forget that everything we have…. is something we have because people fought for it. Bled for it. Believed in it. Carry on the fire.

Yes?

On the emotional level: why was it so essential for our forefathers to build a nation with a good welfare system, a security net?

I think it’s because they knew that we need each other. On a real practical and emotional level (that can’t be replaced by any system, we’ve learned that now).

No?

Let’s not just forget.

As of lately I spend a lot of time listening to my elders.

THE SIMPLE LIFE OF SOLIDARITY

After I quit social media my whole way of thinking has changed. As have my reading habits. What kind of author doesn’t read any books? Well, me for one. I read social media instead. I dove right into it, head first. I wanted to read you. But somehow it all got corrupted, somehow the deep human need for connection and communication got distorted. We were bought and sold. We were manipulated. Social media has become a weapon and they took away that which could have saved us.

Makes me sad to think about.

I might be a weirdo living alone (with my family) in the forest. This might be because I’m an introvert or can’t cope with the stress of modern society, something like that, or maybe I’m angry. Like Thoreau was angry when he moved into the wild and wrote: ‘Most men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.’

Or Edward Abbey, a voice in the wilderness: ‘How to Overthrow the System: brew your own beer; kick in your Tee Vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.’

What I mean is: I might be weird and I might be angry about society (it’s an evil empire, run!) but you know why I write? Why I didn’t just turn my back on everything and engaged with ‘the simple life’, so pure, spiritual and whole?

Because I’m still into you.

I always was. Even Thoreau and Abbey were. We all were. Always.

CHALLENGE OF OUR TIME

I believe this to be the true challenge of our day and age. The age of individualism and egoism is over. We know this. We know we need to connect and communicate to solve the mess that we’re in. On the deepest human level. The collective soul. Aren’t we flock animals? After all? Don’t we realise that lately things have become seriously dangerous and we need to… rise?

What we need to do now is to shape these vague contours, articulate, tentatively, that which have dawned on us.

We. Need. Each. Other.

THE PROBLEM OF ESSENCE

Personally I’ve been reading a lot since I quit social media. Turns out that’s pretty social too. Another kind of social. And I need it. Man, I’ve been in dire need!

I’m a fast reader but for years I’ve been even more than fast, I’ve been in super speed turbo mode; too quick to even read a book to the end, short sentences, please! Get to the point already! How is this relevant for me? As for articles: could you please stop doing irrelevant intros? Bitesize. Shareable; does this reflect positively back on me if I share? As for the bloggers like me ‘how do I make people share?’

The very act of sharing has become the goal. Not the actual content. Which I suspect is taking the deep need for human connection maybe a bit too far. It’s the human connection more than the actual message that seems to be in focus. It sounds beautiful, only it’s not.

It makes us stupid when we connect without essence.

Look! Memecat!

WHAT THE ELDERS SAY

Impatient.

We have all become so impatient.

That’s what the elders say. In my books. In my books.

They say that if you don’t take the time that it takes to change… nothing is going to change.

They say that things take time.

They say that beginning and end is the same. That time is not linear and that destruction and creation are interwoven.

That’s what they say.

And I’m guessing they have a point. We talk about change all the time as if we could somehow just materialise it without any costs. Without bleeding.

I don’t think we can. To reach out and connect with others, like I have done for instance with my book… it bloody well killed me. The elders say it’s supposed to be that way. So suck it up already and get back onto your high horse. The battleground of our day and age is called ‘time’. To put essence into it. To fill it with essence. To expand it. To give it.

TIME

So here’s what I think. I think true rebellion lies in taking back time. To take time. Make time.

We might have gone a bit overboard with the sharing and the connection — dosn´t mean that this is wrong, I don’t think it’s a solution to isolate or turn your back to everything, I truly don’t. To be absolute truthful I do think that’s kind of a cowardly or weak thing to do. So no. But to insist on some kind of essence. To keep on writing long blogposts without any (shareable snacksize) point.  Blogs takes time you know, both to write and to read, it’s a whole universe you enter, not a quote.

Conection takes time. Real time.

To meet a lot. To read a lot. To comment, write long emails, insisting on content, if you need to be a troll then at least be a troll of content.

Wouldn’t that be worth something? Back in the old days I would write long letters to friends, now I think it’s a waste of time if I write to only one person, as if I could optimise my message, quantity over quality, capitalism in our heads! I want back the space between my braincells, I want the time it takes to inhale. Lots of people suffering from lack of time, it’s a disease. As if time was an element just like air, people can´t breathe anymore!

I’m going to write in length (about the time after the change). I’m going to read for hours. I’m going to take back my own time. Call it rebellion because it is.​

Andrea Hejlskov is an author and speaker living off grid in the wild woods of Värmland, Sweden. Mother of four, doer of things. She is also a heathen. Read more on her blog: www.andreahejlskov.com

A 2015 Calendar/ Mandala

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One of the founding myths of our culture is the idea of linear time. Like the most powerful stories, it’s one we are barely aware of. It’s the basis for the notion of ‘progress’ —in moral, technological or economic terms.

The cyclical model of time is ancient and universal. Look at the Celtic wheel of the year, the Mayan calendar, the Taoist yin-yang symbol or the Dharma wheel in Buddhism. Yet it’s been completely discarded by modern cosmology; though a recent book, Cycles of Time (2010) by Roger Penrose, inventor of the non-periodic Penrose tiling, suggests it may be coming back into fashion. Ironically.

For as long as I can remember, my internal picture of the year has been a circle, with summer opposite winter, spring opposite autumn. The more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed that there were no calendars which depicted the year in its natural form, the shape of the Earth’s orbit around the sun (technically an ellipse, not a circle, but the difference is negligible).

Most calendars showed time as an infinite sequence of rectangular boxes, reminiscent of the boxes—classrooms, houses, offices, cars—in which we spend so much of our lives. Eventually, since I couldn’t find any round calendar designs that I liked, I decided to go ahead and make my own.

As well as a practical wall calendar and year planner for 2015, it’s also meant as a mandala—an object for meditation, featuring both radial and fourfold symmetry. And what better than a round calendar to help you meditate on the transitory and cyclical nature of all things?

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About the calendar

To avoid confusion, I should explain that I’m not proposing a new system of organising the year, just an alternative way of visualising it.

We still use basically the same calendrical system introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, despite reforms having been proposed by everyone from French revolutionaries to the Kodak company. It’s not likely to change in a hurry. (If I could make one change to our way of organising time, I would get rid of ‘daylight savings time’, which only dates back to World War I and seems to me a total waste of time. As if by making everyone change their clocks, the politicians could somehow control time itself!)

The calendar includes the days (named in English and Spanish), weeks, months, and phases of the moon. You may notice that the moon symbols spiral around the calendar, gradually working their way from the outside into the middle. That’s because a lunar month is 29.5 days, so each phase (new, waxing, full, waning) lasts on average 7.4 days, just over a week.

The calendar also shows the eight cardinal points of the solar year—the solstices, equinoxes and quarter days (the midpoints of the four seasons, often known by their Celtic names: Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas, Samhain). These are the basis of many holidays, such as Christmas (the winter solstice), Easter (the first full moon after the spring equinox), May Day (Beltane) and Hallowe’en (Samhain). But holidays vary a great deal between (and within) countries and cultures, whereas the eight cardinal points are universal. For that reason I’ve omitted holidays from the calendar, leaving you free to add your own favourite celebrations.

The calendar / mandala is meant to be posted up on the wall, not viewed on a screen. It should be printed in colour and at least A3 size (A2 is highly recommended). It is free to dowload from abrazohouse.org/calendar, where you can also leave some feedback.

© Robert Alcock, December 2014

Robert Alcock is an ecological designer based in northern Spain. He spends most of his time between zero and one hundred and forty metres above sea level, where he lives with his partner and two daughters in a self-built house overlooking a tidal estuary. abrazohouse.org

 

The Persistent Hope

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Google has recently begun efforts to build an enormous trans-Pacific cable system to connect the US to Asia at faster speeds. Obviously there are many problems inherent in this project, particularly the impacts it has on the ecosphere. But sharks aren’t having any of that. Google is having to put a protective guard around the cables because the sharks keep biting them, which could potentially cause widespread internet outages. The sharks have actually been at this for a while — at least since 1985, when shark teeth were discovered embedded in an experimental cable near the Canary Islands.

This is a clear example of nature biting back. Obviously the sharks aren’t conscious agents of revenge for an all-powerful Mother Earth. But they are part of a complex and interdependent ecosystem, which will invariably cause problems for technologies that disrespect and disregard it. All around us we can see examples of this.

Squirrels have similarly caused problems with power-lines, for example. In 2013 New York Times author Jon Mooalem reported that over a four-month timespan, squirrel attacks on power lines made the news at least 50 times. Even more impressive, the Nasdaq has been shut down by squirrels twice: once in 1987 for 82 minutes and once again in 1994. In fact, much of power infrastructure seems to be particularly vulnerable to natural attacks. The primary cause of most power failures is weather, but the 2003 Northeast blackout was caused by power-lines brushing against a few Ohio tree branches. All of these cases is indicative of the way industrial society regards nature: it doesn’t. As a result, natural processes end up causing a lot of problems for industrial infrastructure.

As with all happenings that contribute to the fall of industrial society, these eco-attacks are bittersweet. Some activists from the ’80s heralded ‘nature biting back’ in such a callous way that it sometimes carries with it downright nasty undertones. Christopher Manes, for example, once suggested AIDS as a population control mechanism. And while it is — all sickness and disease is — that is certainly no reason to suggest many people dying from AIDS as a good thing, as he did. We can see hope in nature fighting back, but there must also be anger that the technocrats have redirected the attack toward the poor.

The recent Ebola outbreak is another example of this. A small outbreak happened, but, to the fault of mass transportation systems and the way cities force large numbers of people to live closely together, it quickly grew, crossing borders and now continents. As of October, the death toll has passed 4,500 people. This is not nature’s fault, however. Again, these eco-attacks are not conscious acts of vengeance; rather, they are natural processes continuing as they have for millions of years, but amplified into disaster through technological augmentation. In this way you might say that nature is merely giving the industrial system the rope to hang itself.

Grieving here is important, because lives that will never come back have been taken, ecosystems that will never come back have been destroyed. But what is left are West Africans with an afterimage of betrayal, an understanding of industrial society’s true nature, a glimpse of future disasters to bring death of a greater magnitude. Left are the West Africans who have experienced industrial disaster (and Ebola is an industrial disaster). The hope lies in their resistance.

Continuing on this note, wild retaliation is not confined to non-human elements of nature. All around us we can see the squirrels and the sharks and the trees and the clouds acting with persistent hope that their wildness will win, but only in civilisation’s story are humans separate from everything else. As humans placed firmly on the side of wild nature, we have a duty to fight with the sharks and the squirrels. And some of us are.

In many regions in the US, for example, people are fighting back against fracking. In Italy, No TAV protesters are fighting against a high-speed rail. And when was the last time a G20 summit didn’t have protestors? In the next few decades, this resistance will only increase. While for several decades first-world citizens have been able to live a life separated from the nasty industrial base that creates it, the energy crisis is forcing production to move into places that once again put the first-world in touch with the underbelly of their lifestyles. And if their response to these industrial projects is like their response to fracking, then there will definitely be opportunity for new stories about the nature and civilisation to take hold.

What these stories will look like is yet unknown, but I certainly have an idea for one. Recently, a video of a hawk taking down a drone circulated around the internet. I imagine one day there will be the ruins of many drones taken down by hawks. A human might come by some of the ruins and rummage through them to repurpose some of the metals into tools. He’ll head back to his community, who lives in an old bank building, set down the tools, and join the tree roots in breaking up the pavement so he can use the soil underneath for a garden. And after a hard day of purposeful work and play, with tools made and seeds planted, he’ll sit around a fire with friends and family, telling stories and listening to raccoons cause trouble in the night.

John Jacobi is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the editor of an anti-industrial, ecological publication, FC Journal. He regularly blogs at medium.com/@jf_jac.

The Wrong Side of Seeing

 

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What lies between our origin and our destination?
Rushing from Point A to Point B,
Entire epochs flash by in the blink of an eye.
But if we don’t blink?

We are privy to privvies.
Ugly views submerged in the urgency of Time.
Through sealed windows and smudged glass,
Nothing to see, yet there’s always something before us,
Even if it’s the things not meant to be looked at.

Decaying factories and billboards locked in aphasia,
Dumpsters and portable toilets,
Parking lots and powerlines.
Infrastructure. Effluvia. The occasional man.

Traveling along the clattering spine of civilization,
We see not the face of the world, full of promise and deceit,
But the back of its head.
Nothing to meet our impertinent gaze and nothing to gaze back at us.
We find ourselves on the wrong side of seeing.

Paul Cantagallo is a writer who lives Mt. Airy, Philadelphia with his forever-girlfriend and some animals. A distinguished graduate of Harvard University, he’s since held a series of undistinguished posts as a tea lady in Cambridge, England, filmmaker in Brooklyn, server in Los Angeles, property manager in Manhattan, leaf-collector in New Jersey, and most recently paralegal in Philadelphia.

 
Daniel Cantagallo studied visual art and filmmaking at Harvard University. Whenever necessary, he photographs nothing in particular. He has worked in the documentary field in New York, London, and Los Angeles. He is currently trying to stay put. 
The brothers’ work can be found at: http://nooutletgroup.wordpress.com/

On the centenary of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon

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Aldo Leopold, 1947, writing after the unveiling of a statue dedicated to the memory of the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon, shot in September 1899

Men still live who in their youth remember the pigeons.
Trees still live who in their youth were shaken by a living wind.
But a decade hence, only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.

There will always be pigeons in books and in museums – but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights.
Book pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause at mast-laden woods.
Book pigeons cannot breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota, and dine on blueberries in Canada.

They know no urge of seasons, no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather.
They live forever by not living at all.

pp

Etta Wilson, resident of Petosky, Michigan, and eye witness to the events in the woods there in May 1878

Day and night the horrible business continues. Bird lime covers everything and lies deep on the ground. Pots burning sulphur vomit their lethal fumes here and there, suffocating the birds.

Gnomes in the forms of men wearing old, tattered clothing, heads covered with burlap and feet encased in rubber boots, go about with sticks and clubs knocking down the birds’ nests, while others are chopping down trees and breaking off the over-laden limbs to gather the squabs.

Pigs have been let loose in the colony to fatten on the fallen birds, and they add their squeals to the general clamour when stepped on or kicked out of the way.

All the while, the high, cackling notes of the terrified pigeons, a bit husky and hesitant as though short of breath, combine into a peculiar roar unlike any other known sound, which can be heard at least a mile away.

Of the countless thousands of birds bruised, broken and fallen, comparatively few can be salvaged — yet wagon-loads are being driven out in an almost unbroken procession, leaving the ground still covered with living, dying, dead and rotting birds. An inferno where the pigeons had builded their Eden.

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1857 Ohio State Senate Select Committee report

The Passenger Pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.

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Once upon a time

An old story tells of a commonwealth of birds, where there were countless different birds of all shapes, sizes, temperaments, appetites. Their vast principality spread from ocean to ocean, from snowy mountains in the north to desert in the south, with birds perfectly adapted for every space.

Wandering the seas and coasts were loons, grebes, albatrosses, fulmars, shearwaters, storm petrels, tropicbirds, pelicans, boobies, gannets, cormorants, darters, frigates, jaegers, gulls, terns, skimmers and auks. Diving in the lakes and bays were herons, bitterns, storks, ibises, spoonbills, flamingos, swans, geese and ducks. Birds of prey roamed the skies: kites, hawks, eagles, harriers, osprey, caracaras, falcons and vultures.

Grouse, ptarmigan, quails and turkeys nested on the heaths and uplands, while cranes, limpkins, rails and gallinules dwelt in the marshes. Coots, oystercatchers, stilts, avocets, plovers, sandpipers and phalaropes trod the shores. Owls and nightjars hunted in the dark. Parrots showed off their dazzling plumage. Cuckoos laid their eggs in others’ nests. Kingfishers, woodpeckers, tyrant flycatchers, larks, swallows, jays, magpies, crows, titmice and nuthatches ate caterpillars in the forests and meadows. Dippers, wrens, mockingbirds, thrashers, thrushes, gnatcatchers, kinglets, pipits, waxwings, and shrikes all sang their hearts out. Vireos and warblers were known as the sprites of the woodlands. Meadowlards, blackbirds, orioles, tanagers and finches lived in jubilant flocks. Swifts, hummingbirds and pigeons were superb aerialists.

Eventually, humans arrived too. The birds watched them, and saw how they hunted, how they sang songs, how they raised their children. A conference was called, to see what should be done. After long deliberation, the birds decided to welcome the humans to their kingdom, and discussed who should offer what gift. The Carolina parakeets and the Ivory-billed woodpeckers offered their plumage. The Bachman’s warblers offered their songs. Great auks offered their soft down and their glistening fat. And then the birds looked around to see who would offer themselves as food. All eyes fell on the passenger pigeons, of whom there were so many. And the passenger pigeons said yes, there are enough of us: some of us will offer our bodies to the humans as food, to make them welcome, to share our beautiful world with them.

So a single white passenger pigeon flew down from the conference to a Seneca camp by the side of the Allegheny River. She landed on the shoulder of the oldest person there, and told him what the birds had decided. I don’t know what he said in reply.

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November 30th 2014 is the International Remembrance Day for Lost Species. Hold your own extinction memorial event, or just light a candle, in memory of the three species lost to eternity every hour. 

If you’re in the south of England, join us for a service at the Life Cairn on Mount Caburn, East Sussex. There’s also a group visiting extinct animals at the Natural History Museum in London. Or us know what you are planning and we will add it to the online map of Remembrance events

The names of the birds are taken from Audubon’s Birds of America, 1827, contents page.

With thanks to Mark Avery’s ‘Message from Martha’, pub. Bloomsbury

Images of Llangrannog beach flock by Emily Laurens, photographer Keely Clarke
Image of Funeral for Lost Species by Feral Theatre

 

Waking up to the Water – An ecocentric vision of human identity in the 21st Century

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Life is all about information. Whether you are a plant, a tree, a chimp or a human, all living things are continually influenced by information from the past. The more useful the information we can get, the better able we are to solve our problems in the present in order to survive. Through the process of natural selection, such information has come to reside not only in the DNA of lifeforms but in some species it has also evolved to be, maintained externally in the form of culture. As a group’s knowledge and understanding of the world are handed down from generation to generation, our interactions with the world scrape away our ignorance, bit by bit, so that eventually we are better able to solve our problems, or else we and our ideas die.

However, not all ignorance gets scraped away by the cold, harsh truth of nature but is instead protected in order to continue to confer considerable power onto an individual, ideology, institution or civilisation that is built around that vision, which they therefore insist must be maintained at all costs. Although we should never underestimate the stubbornness of ignorance, history has shown us that eventually there comes a time when such powers and such visions must adapt or die as the inaccuracies of their vision lose out either to competitors whose perspective is more accurate, reliable and more useful; or they lose out at their own hand as their analysis of reality is fundamentally flawed, unreliable and less useful to solving the problems that life can present – ours is but one of many civilisations since 8000 BC that have risen and fallen by first exploiting nature and then by suffering the weaknesses that over-exploitation brings and the ensuing reduction in resilience to what may once have been minor threats that ultimately lead to collapse.

The fraying Western worldview of industrial civilisation is made possible by the harnessing of cheap energy, which has allowed for a boom in human population growth and standards of living unlike anything that has come before it. The cultural information passed down that helps us to harness this power and the industries arranged around its exploitation has proven to be truly transformational, allowing us to overcome countless problems related to our survival. But now, when used, this same information has led to global energy insecurity, over-consumption, widespread destruction of non-human life, environmental degradation and climate change, all of which threaten to undermine the natural and social systems of the planet.

Furthermore, through a type of neo-colonialism, transnational corporations have ensnared the world in the Western rhetoric of economic growth, comparison and competition that fossil-fueled societies make possible and with it has come greater economic and social inequality and instability, as well as exploitation, giving rise to growing levels of conflict and ill-health both mentally and physically. Instead of solving many of our problems, the reproduction of Western culture is instead globalising them in the pursuit of continued profit.

It’s been said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism, so ubiquitous is the ideological project of neoliberalism in the modern world – like goldfish in a bowl that are totally ignorant of ‘water’, we often fail to notice how colonised our consciousness has become by capitalism and how our resulting ideology permeates our perception and participation of a vast amount of our lives. So much so, that we find ourselves using the same thinking that caused our problems to fix them. After the recession of 2007 and the growing litany of environmental harms our development has caused, including climate change, Western governments have doubled down on more neoliberalism, not less: greater austerity, greater inequality, less regulation, greater global CO2 emissions – all in the quest for continued economic growth. We find ourselves hitting the accelerator instead of the brake as we mercilessly try to do things better, when really we should open our eyes to the ‘water’ all around us and start to do better things.

Our problems are those of ideology, belief, perception, values and identity – in essence, we need a shift in our ideology, our culture and our identity if we are to overcome our current problems. This is a complex and overwhelming task without a singular and correct way of achieving it. But for what it is worth, I would argue that a good place to start that makes possible many different responses is to look to science and to learn what it can tell us about ourselves and our relationship to nature.

Over the last century, developments in our scientific understanding of human origins have shown us that we are not separate from nature and put here but that we are in fact fundamentally a part of it. Contrary to the claims of anthropocentrism (human-centredness) that have been maintained solely by cultural inertia, man is not separate from nature and put here but is in fact interdependent and interconnected with it as all things share one origin. Despite the fact that this information has not been culturally assimilated as yet, this understanding provides a shift in pre-analytic vision that engenders alternatives to our current, flawed cultural information. It allows us to see the water of Western ideology and encourages us to think anew from an ecocentric rather than anthropocentric point of view, which, as is discussed below, has the potential to reframe our identity, our values and therefore our culture so that we and future generations may be better placed to solve the problems essential to our survival.

The first discovery in question comes from the 1920s, when by observing that the galaxies are moving away from us in all directions and that the ones furthest away are moving fastest, Lemaitre and Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding. The principle of this discovery also infers that if we were to rewind time so that the expansion becomes a contraction we can see that at one point in the very distant past everything in the universe was in one place, that it originated as a singularity, an almost infinitely dense and infinitely small point that expanded to form the universe as we know it today.

The other discovery of existential importance here is Darwin’s work, the facts of which have permeated our culture but its understanding in combination with Lemaitre’s and Hubble’s work, in the main, has not. In taking the theory of evolution to its natural conclusion it demonstrates that all life on Earth has descended from a single common ancestor, often called the Last Universal Ancestor (or LUA), a single-celled organism not too dissimilar from a bacterium today which is estimated to have lived some 3.7 billion years ago. From both discoveries we can see that every living thing shares a common origin as do all things in the universe and the story of how we came to be here takes on a whole new light.

Our story, as we know it so far, begins at a single point of near infinite density at the quantum level that saw an inflationary kick that released the energy of the Big Bang, which as it cooled, gave rise to hydrogen and helium atoms; as the gravitational fields of these atoms drew them together into clouds that amassed over millions of years, their growing friction and compaction saw the birth of the first stars that lit up the universe; inside these stars hydrogen atoms (1 proton) were fused to form helium (2 protons), helium atoms fused together to form heavier atoms and so on and so forth. Through a cosmic cycle of birth and explosive death, bigger stars were formed that could fuse even more protons into atoms up until iron which has 26; elements heavier than iron, such as gold with 79 protons, couldn’t be fused in the hearts of even the biggest stars, instead they needed a supernova, a stellar explosion so large it would have outshone a galaxy and emitted more energy in a few weeks than our sun will produce in its entire lifetime.

The next time you look at the gold in your jewellery, you can remind yourself that you are wearing part of the debris of a supernova that exploded somewhere in the depths of space. You can also remind yourself that as such stellar fusions and explosions produced all the elements in the universe, including the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, calcium, phosphorus and many other atoms that make up you, that you yourself are made from such Big Bang debris — albeit filtered through the countless iterations of cosmic evolution that saw the emergence of our galaxy, solar system and planet, from which emerged the LUA and all the species that came and went, to the ones that remained including us, Homo sapiens. This almost magical sounding story of what happens when you leave hydrogen alone, governed only by the laws of nature for 13.8 billion years, is also much like its contents in that the story itself is constantly evolving as we learn more about it. It is not a static meta-narrative but a developing, dynamic story that changes the more questions we ask of it and the more we discover about the universe over time.

The fundamental conclusion of this story is that we are part of an on-going cosmic evolutionary process. Every atom in our bodies was forged in the death throes of stars across the universe; we share DNA with all life on Earth be it trees in a rainforest or fungi in the Cornish soil, the woman across the road or a dog you passed in the park. Despite the cultural inertia of anthropocentrism, science tells us that we are not separate, we are one. When we re-position our perspective in light of this recently deciphered origin narrative it sheds new light on what it means to be human. It’s no longer all about us but about something much larger of which we are a part. Without the knowledge and understanding of this story, anthropocentrism creates a false duality that separates and alienates us from our home and fundamentally from ourselves.

The Copernican-style revolution of our identity that emerges from the scientific origin narrative re-situates not only our idea of where we are but of how we came to be here. It challenges us to think about what it is to be human in that it shows us that we are as much a part of the universe as the Milky Way, that we are in fact a way for the universe to know itself. The hegemonic notion of anthropocentrism in the West misses this completely and is therefore not adequately aligned with our understanding of reality and of the evolutionary process to help us solve our problems. The continuation of our current Western ideology may therefore see us deviating from the arc of evolution to reside alongside the countless other empires that failed to see the water and that subsequently disappeared as a result.

Explorations of non-anthropocentric human identities based on critical reflection of the world around us are therefore essential, and would hopefully reclaim the argument for a shift in self-realisation away from the more flimsy ‘scientism’ of New Age proponents. Findings from such explorations should also seek to influence our culture not by moral or ethical insistence alone but by facts, knowledge and understanding, by reason, reflection and insight and most of all through stories that share our understandings and feelings of what it is to be human in the 21st century. And of course, it should also be noted that the scientific origin narrative and the ecocentric perspective that it encourages is an ideology too, one that needs and should welcome continual readjustment in light of new information. In this sense, the group maintenance of an ecocentric perspective is not about its continuation but its constant questioning and improvement.

However, it is important to note that such a shift in perspective as outlined above does not ensure some kind of deliverance, far from it – there is no such panacea. The notion that such a shift can help us avoid our crises simply by sharing a new story of our origins is misgiven, but that it might help us deal with them and recover from them is more plausible. Our crises aren’t going away just yet and certainly not in response to a story in the short-term. However, the point of this origin narrative is to reframe our identity and thereby reframe our culture and values — our pre-analytic vision — in order to better solve our problems. This process, I would imagine, would take a considerably long time and is in little danger of being of concern to our mainstream, industrial society anytime soon. Nevertheless, such a reframing might help those in the margins to keep going and to share a vision and set of values that bring us together at a crucial and fundamental level.

We are living in a particularly transitionary phase of human history, a time of great uncertainty as one thing ends and another is yet to become. Due to this difficult perspective and point in time it is easy to see why so many want the security of continuing business as usual even if it means denial but we need to step back a little and see our current predicament from a larger historical viewpoint, perhaps even a cosmological one that goes beyond our individual lives.

Our role in all of this is therefore an even more challenging one that asks us to further displace our egos by working for an end that we may very well never see in our lifetimes. Rather than jumping ahead to a post-apocalyptic utopia, primitivism or technological salvation, we must instead sow the seeds for a world we ourselves may not live to see come to full fruition and do so amidst a backdrop of great upheaval and conflict. We’re planting trees in the margins that will grow whilst much around them will die. Ours is a long journey that requires great patience and great vision to cut a path for our children that we ourselves may not get to walk in full. This isn’t to martyr ourselves or to suffer but to liberate ourselves from the shared cultural delusions of Western civilisation and take on new responsibilities, to wake up to the water all around us and to enjoy a different way of seeing the world and ourselves that is fundamentally joyful and emancipatory.

Though there might not be an end in sight, or a clear and discernible goal, we can still have a direction of travel because to help us on this journey we can at all times be guided by two well established pieces of advice that from an ecocentric perspective take on greater significance: ‘know thyself’ and ‘to thine own self be true’. To take our first steps then, let us take a look at ourselves, our planet and the life upon it as well as the cosmos itself in light of all we have discovered and ask: what is it to be human and how should we live as a result?

Rob Plastow lives by the sea in Cornwall with his wife and their growing hoard of animals including two unruly horses, some chickens and a puppy. Central to his writing is a critical, ecocentric perspective that has been developed from a deep love of art and science through years of working in music, education and muddy fields. When he has a spare moment outside of work and looking after the animals he indulges in his favourite past-times of reading, staring at the stars or the ocean (sometimes both) and writing short stories. To read more of his work go to woodfordroberts.com 

Image courtesy of Earth Observatory

Animal Encounters

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There is a place in Bolivia where you can live with animals, as an animal. In my early twenties, I found my way into the jungle and started working with rescued big cats. And everything I thought I knew about myself, and the world, changed.

Her name was Wayra. Her mother had most likely been shot by hunters and she had been taken, as a baby puma, to be sold on the South American black market. She became a house pet until, at the age of ten months, she grew too big, aggressive and demanding for her owners to care for. So they left her at Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY), a Bolivian NGO that runs a series of animal refuges across Bolivia. They look after creatures like Wayra, many of which, due to their history, can never be released. CIWY lacks money, governmental support and manpower, and utilises the steady stream of travellers to give volunteers like myself the chance to work with cats, monkeys, birds, tapirs… a list of abused creatures that often feels endless.

CIWY’s core principle is to give the animals lives that are as close to how they would be in the wild as possible. There is a strong focus on enrichment, and with the cats this means that – wherever possible – they are taken out of their solitary jungle cages and walked, by volunteers, on jungle trails. Come floods, fires and mosquitoes, each cat is walked every day with an almost fanatical determination to ensure they are given a little slice of freedom.

Wayra was terrified when I met her. So was I. Having come from a desk job in London, I wasn’t sure about this jungle business. There was no electricity, no internet, no real washing facilities, no way to keep ‘the wild’ out. There were construction duties, such as lugging rocks on your back through waist high water, armadillos in the toilet and worms that hatched under your skin.

But I was privileged enough to spend all day, every day, with a puma. In the morning Wayra would lead me out of her cage and, tethered to each other on a rope, we would walk together through the trees. She would hiss and spit, bite and scratch me. But as I grew less scared so did she, and at some point the bites stopped. They became licks and licks became long naps side by side at the lagoon. When she caught the scent of a monkey, she let me chase it with her. When she swam, I swam too. These were animal encounters of the first order. And, as anyone who’s formed a relationship with a non-human will understand, she was the closest friend I have ever had.

Eventually, when I returned to England, I was heartbroken. I was the weirdo in the corner, the one who smelt slightly stale and didn’t want to talk to anyone. I couldn’t get it. I had been living with animals – I had been an animal myself, as was proper – but then suddenly, I wasn’t. I was ‘human’ again. And isn’t there something wrong there because, shouldn’t I be both? I had come to understand that I was, integrally, animal, but now that understanding made no sense.

In the end, after much faffing about and a bit of misery, I decided to set up a charity called ONCA. This stands for One Network for Conservation and the Arts and we launched in November 2012. Overturning an empty shop front in a dilapidated part of Brighton, we made the only inner city contemporary art gallery and performance space in the UK that asks questions, tells stories and initiates conversations about environmental change. Our exhibitions include visual art, storytelling, poetry, puppetry, performance, debate and music. We have curated projects about bird extinctions and the ice caps, journeys and migrations, plastic pollution, unrecyclable Christmas paper, bees and dogs and whales, human happiness and human loss.

the-onca-gallery‘Ghosts of Gone Birds’ exhibition at ONCA, 1 Nov 2012 – 31 Jan 2013

When I first started, many people didn’t think there was much longevity in the idea of an environmental art gallery – particularly in a city centre. Environmental art is often stigmatised by the view that it doesn’t have much weight; it is the kind of art that observes rather than questions, documents rather than enquires. But as our sense of place in the world is beginning to change, so are artists stretching the boundaries of what ‘environmental art’ can do. Environmental art is becoming an essential and critical medium in our drive to understand the coming future. I was, and will continue to be, surprised that there was no other gallery that wanted to address, on a permanent basis, these types of questions. I believe such questions deserve and demand physical homes, and placing those homes in cities enables the most unlikely and disinterested audiences the chance of engagement. From the unconcerned town dweller to child to eco-activist, there is a permanent hub for debate and education, stories and conversations – both positive and negative.

ONCA has now been open eighteen months. We recently ran a programme of exhibitions about animal encounters in the forest, a theme that is very close to my heart. This is, of course, why I started the gallery in the first place. I wanted to address our disconnection from the animal inside, and the boundaries that we hide behind to ensure we remain strictly ‘human’. Some people have asked, but what represents more clearly our separation from the animal kingdom than an art gallery? Creativity is what sets us apart, and so how can a gallery enable us to reevaluate our connection, or disconnection, from other creatures? Everything there will be human-centric by nature and, as always, the stories told will be ours and ours alone.

We recently curated an exhibition entitled Exile. It was about this very issue, and we brought together over 30 artists, performers, storytellers, poets and puppeteers, trying to tell stories from a non-human viewpoint. Each piece explored the fragile relationships in our ecosystem and questioned whether humans can, in fact, be both animal and human.

One artwork that was particularly successful was a video piece entitled Licking Dogs by Angela Bartram. The camera zooms in on the profiles of a woman and a dog, facing each other. The participants spend the film licking, often enthusiastically French kissing each other. The woman, Bartram herself, stays constant whilst the dogs change. Some dogs are more enthusiastic about the process than others. One small black dog chooses not to engage at all, and there is an uncomfortable few minutes where he tries to look anywhere but at Bartram. The whole piece is so difficult to watch that many people refuse to. Why is it so repulsive? If it were a cat and a dog, a donkey and a dolphin, we would find it bizarre definitely, but the licking wouldn’t turn our stomachs. And this encapsulates the question that was at the centre of Exile. Who do we think we are, why do we think we are any more special than all other creatures on this planet, and how, ultimately, can we articulate this?

During an ONCA/Brighton University debate exploring how becoming animal can help to promote ecological activity, panelist Joanna Coleman cited Dr. Neil Theise’s estimation that we have 400 trillion cells in our bodies, only 4 trillion of which are human. She then went on to discuss Australian environmentalist Val Plumwood’s personal account of a crocodile attack whilst canoeing in the 1980s in Kakadu National Park:

Few of those who have experienced the crocodile’s death roll have lived to describe it. It is, essentially, an experience beyond words of total terror.

And yet, rather than spurning a ‘massive crocodile slaughter’, as Plumwood says most crocodile attacks in North Queensland often lead to, this experience inspired Plumwood to reform her understanding of place in the world. In 1996, she wrote about it in an essay entitled ‘Being Prey’:

Before the encounter, it was as if I saw the whole universe as framed by my own narrative, as though the two were joined perfectly and seamlessly together. As my own narrative and the larger story were ripped apart, I glimpsed a shockingly indifferent world in which I had no more significance than any other edible being. The thought, ‘This can’t be happening to me, I’m a human being, I am more than just food!’ was one component of my terminal incredulity. It was a shocking reduction, from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat. Reflection has persuaded me that not just humans but any creature can make the same claim to be more than just food. We are edible, but we are also much more than edible.

Large predators like lions and crocodiles present an important test for us. An ecosystem’s ability to support large predators is a mark of its ecological integrity. Crocodiles and other creatures that can take human life also present a test of our acceptance of our ecological identity. When they’re allowed to live freely, these creatures indicate our preparedness to coexist with the otherness of the earth, and to recognize ourselves in mutual, ecological terms, as part of the food chain, eaten as well as eater.

Our denial of this, of our true meaninglessness within a greater cycle, strikes hard when we consider the title phrase of our debate. Becoming Animal – why should we need to become, when we already are?

Debate chair Alan Boldon, Deputy Head of School at Brighton University for Research, Economic and Social Engagement, suggested that such events as Becoming Animal, where metamorphosis and paganism sit alongside conservation and science, do not happen enough – particularly in university settings. We all wear the blinkers of particular disciplines, but to see clearly we must seek help from others as we build up new visions of the world. ONCA is a gallery for the building up of these new visions. We bring people together from different spheres, and new discourses – new ways of seeing – are developed. Prior to Exile, we brought one hundred artists and young people into the gallery and asked them to create a piece of work, inspired by a tree, no bigger than 20cm cubed. Alongside this, we committed to planting one hundred new trees in central Brighton. Each artist and artwork symbolized a root, the same but infinitely different. Each interpretation was unique and, presented as a gallery exhibition, it appeared to me like the idea of tree itself became richer. I saw tree like I had never quite seen it before.

On the 18th September, the third in our series of forest/animal exhibitions launched. To the Trees: A Changing of Home is a solo exhibition by artist Jennifer Hooper. Hooper’s work is based on her nine-week residency at Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi in Bolivia. It feels, almost, as if the gallery has come full circle. I brought back the idea, and now Hooper has installed the jungle and its animals within it. Sadly there is no Wayra as she was too nervous for Jennifer to meet, but that doesn’t matter – for me, she is always there. What she taught me over the years lies at the very heart of ONCA. During the Becoming Animal debate, award-winning nature writer Eleanor O’Hanlon discussed how she believes Eden not to be a place, but a state. A state, both commonplace and normal, which we can return to if we live in balance with the earth and its creatures. I have never in my life experienced this balance more than when I was in the jungle with Wayra, when I looked in another’s eyes and knew it didn’t matter what skins we wore.

7-6-1024x1024‘Young Howler Monkey’ by Jennifer Hooper

People ask what I want the gallery to achieve. It is, and will always be, a medium through which to tell stories about the changing environment. But now I see that it is also about articulating this idea of balance. And exploring, through as many different mediums and skillsets as possible, how the city can – or rather needs to – feature in this balance. ‘My tears taste of fish’ is a line from a poem by eco-poet Susan Richardson, told beautifully during Becoming Animal. I find it difficult to imagine, my tears tasting of fish, as I sit at my desk and watch the cars speed by. Up on the hills later on, as the grass curls under my feet, it is easier. I would like to feel then that through places like the gallery and writers like Eleanor and Susan, we can bring these kinds of animal encounters – these not becomings of animal but beings – into daily life. And at some point, we can truly be animal again.

Laura founded the ONCA Trust and Gallery in 2012, and has a background in art history, arts administration and teaching. She is currently crossing the Atlantic on the eXXpedition.

ONCA, One Network for Conservation and the Arts, is an environmental arts charity based in the South East of England that runs exhibitions, workshops and performances at their gallery venue in Brighton, initiating conversations about ecological change and raising awareness for frontline conservation projects.

On November 30th 2014, ONCA will observe the International Remembrance Day for Lost Species with a service at the Life Cairn on Mount Caburn, East Sussex. If you can’t join them there, please take a moment to mourn extinct species in whatever way feels right.

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