The Dark Mountain Blog

Autonomous Nature

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


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

– Thomas Merton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over to you.

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

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

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Finding Strength in Stones


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramon Elani lives with his wife and son among the hills and forests of Western Massachusetts. He holds a PhD in literature. His doctoral work focused on critiques of civilisation and continental philosophy.

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

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What is This?


Book review:

The Abundance 
by Annie Dillard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Image by Schnuffel2002, via Wikimedia Commons

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Poacher’s Pilgrimage: an Island Journey

Extract from Poacher’s Pilgrimage: an Island Journey (Birlinn, 2016)

Best known for his ground-breaking book Soil and Soul, Alastair McIntosh’s latest work was twelve days in the walking, and seven years in the writing. This extract describes his first of four nights entirely alone, out on the moors that traverse the mountains between Harris and Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Poacher’s Pilgrimage is a book of beautifully compacted writing – clear, strong and constantly surprising – a fortnight’s walk that contains a universe.

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Out here, it’s mainly dark beds of heather interspersed with little greens of tough and spiky grass. Pools of water, mostly shallow some profound, lurk amongst the bare rock sheets.

It’s now so dark you have to second guess each step. You have to walk with toes upturned to reduce the chance of stumbling. They used to say in Inverness that city dwellers could tell the country folk by their ceum a’ mhonaidh – their ‘heather loup’. Test every footfall with your heel before committing weight. Watch for hidden trips and dead man’s drops. Watch, too, for wider patterns in the land – the flow of shadows that distinguish different types of vegetation, or the raised ground from the dips, or the dry from the wet. Let the eyes accustom to these mottled shades of grey and black, for here is ‘relief and drainage’ abstracted from the abstract school geography books. Here it is, all set out in the raw.

I remind myself (as if to give a pinch) that if I hear a sudden shriek, it’ll just be some poor critter, startled from its slumbers, and more alarmed than me. But all is still. I haven’t even heard the drumming of the snipe. The night has claimed the day, and cold itself stands watch and takes the helm. The moon is on the wane this week and won’t be out ’til after midnight, but when she rises, there she’ll ride. Banrigh na h-oidhche – the Queen of the Night. Lòchran àigh nam bochd – the Joyful Lamp of the Poor.

It’s written that, in both the Catholic and the Protestant districts of these parts, when folks would first catch sight of the new moon they’d greet her with the invocation:

Siud agaibh a’ ghealach ùr – Rìgh nan Dùl ‘ga beannachadh!
‘There is the new moon – the King of the Elements bless it!’

And I have to say, that kind of peasants’ Christ attracts me more than the arid version of urban theologians. Give me any day the one who’d go and pray alone up mountains, who’d wander with the angels and wild beasts.

The village has dropped out of sight. I come up to a flattish spot of moss and grass. This will do to pitch my tent. Up it goes, more by a sense of touch than by the light of dithering torch. It looks a little kinked, but no-one will be looking. It’s good enough to do the night, especially as the mink trapper had said the forecast was for cold but calm. I feel my fingers numbing as I blow into a valve and roll out my mattress, fluffing up my sleeping bag to lay it down. At last, I crawl inside with a cosy sense of relief, zipping shut the flaps as if to roll a boulder across the entrance of my cave. Only then does it occur to me: I clean forgot to eat! Oh well – I’ll just have to take recourse to childhood reading on survival training. The Famous Five, with their chocolate bars beneath the stars.

I’m lying here, aware the stars are out above the flysheet. When we were young growing up on the island, the old folks used say that on a moonless night, they’d move from house to house by just the light of a glowing peat taken from the fire. You could make a biography from those peats. Their great migration paths from hearth to hearth. Their kindling, dying and rekindling. The stories that they’d hear along the way.

It would be fun to walk at night by just the moon. Not even with a compass, just going by the Pole Star. And no way, GPS! But satellites – now, they’re a strange addition to the constellations.

I remember the first time I ever saw a satellite, transiting across a Hebridean sky.

In those days, when the nights were mild, Dad and I would go out fishing once he’d finished with the evening surgery at seven.

It would be just him and me, out on a moorland loch. He’d be on the rod. Me, at the oars. We’d talk, and catch the evening rise. We’d usually land a few, then drive back home. He was kept so busy with his burden of responsibilities. It was probably the closest that I ever got to him, just a boy and a man, together in a boat.

I think it must have been September or October. Which, exactly, doesn’t matter; but it must have been late in the season, for although the nights had not yet chilled, twilight had fallen fast. We were out on Loch na Craoibhe – the Loch of the Trees. It lay at the end of the peat cutters’ road, up from the council houses at Balallan. It had an island full of rowans, safe where the sheep couldn’t get at them. Dad and his good friend, Dan Smith of Sildinis, had stocked the water with a golden-coloured strain of hybrid trout, called Sunbeam. They’d been given the fry by the Highlands Board. This was in the experimental days of fish farming and restocking.

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Dad was single-handed at the time, on call 24/7, with eighteen hundred patients for whom he had to be available. He held his patients like a hen would mind her chicks. The loch was up behind the police station. If needed, they would come and fetch him for emergencies. For a time, the Balallan folks called it ‘the Doctor’s Loch’. That’s how places get or change their names. They knew he couldn’t go and fish just anywhere out on the distant moors. Poachers, though some were, it’s said they did the decent thing, and left the fish on Loch na Craoibhe to him and Dan alone – there is a poacher’s honour.

That night, the evening rise had run far on into the dusk. Dad was reeling them in, and me, scooping them up with the landing net in virtual darkness. Nice half-pounders mostly. I asked how they could see his three tiny flies in such poor light. He said they felt vibrations in the water down the lateral line. That’s why the twitching motion of the rod must be just right.

We filled the wicker basket with a hefty haul. Then the wind dropped. It went flat calm, and that was them, gone off the take. Usually we’d have packed in there and then. But this was such a ‘glorious night’, as Dad would say. That was his favoured turn of phrase. He laid his rod across the stern, lit a cigarette, and passed me back a chocolate bar.
I shipped the oars and crossed their butts beneath my knees. We drifted, pensively, out from the island of the berry-laden trees, off the headland where the water lay the deepest. The world had settled to a hush untroubled by the slightest ripple. The sky was settling down to midnight blue on charcoal.

Then we saw the fires come out. Odd embers blown ablaze at first but gradually, the speckled sheen of shimmered starlight right across the Milky Way. And we were there. Inside of all of this. Just the two of us.

A shooting star streaked by, and then another. You glimpse your life as held in cosmic splendour on such a night as this. Dad pointed out a satellite, a sight still rare back then. We watched the tiny speck of light, as if a distant carriage that was lantern-lit and pulled by pounding horses through the freckled constellations.

Such depths of silence let you feel another person’s spirit. In ways I hadn’t known before, I felt Dad’s layers of being. His qualities of presence. His standing, in the sense of all he stood for. I was growing up, and he, it must be said, was growing older.

The satellite crept ceaselessly across the sky, and both of us were rapt, transfixed. Each knew it meant our world was changing. Such signs had not been seen before in Heaven or on Earth. We followed, wordlessly, like shepherds watching flocks by night.

For me, I have to say, I felt the surge of youth’s excitement. It was Apollo’s age when men from NASA reached out to the moon. We were in the space age, right here, right now; and there’d never been a thrill before quite like it – or, for that matter – since.

Dad sat straddled across the wooden thwart. His thick Harris Tweed jacket. His conspicuously Victorian plus fours and gartered socks. Back then, his white or chequered shirts would last a week. Their cuffs and collars were the olden sort, that could detach for daily washing and a dash of starch.

He was conservative in politics, as many country doctors those days were. That said, he was an ecologist of both planet and the body. A man who planted trees, who kept a tank of tropical fish for patients in the waiting room, who delivered a whole generation of babies with the district nurses, and who prided himself on having one of the lowest prescribing rates in the north.

He didn’t believe in a pill for every ill. Instead, he’d make the time to sit with failing patients, to hold their trembling hands, to share about life’s meaning and the future of the world.

That night, we watched the satellite go down on the horizon. I wondered when it would come round again. I wonder, now, what went round in his mind?

Alastair McIntosh is an independent writer, broadcaster, speaker and activist who is involved in a wide range of interconnected issues, from land reform, globalisation and nonviolence to psychology, spirituality and ecology. He is the author of the bestselling Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, described by George Monbiot as ‘a world-changing book’ and Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition.


Red deer on a medieval tomb in St Clement’s Church, Isle of Harris
Mountain loch, Isle of Harris looking over towards Lewis
Beehive dwelling – as used from the bronze age until very recently

Poachers Cover front001

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The Listening Post



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I don’t remember how old I was when I was taught to tend the listening post. The lottery was held when Good Gillem, who taught me, was an old man and ready to be replaced. All the children who were old enough to work were given a pebble; we put them in the box; mine was drawn.

So I had to leave the oasis, where the other children would work all their lives as our parents and grandparents had, to shepherd the tiny spring into channels where a few fish would spawn each year among the cress and rice we planted. To tend and harvest the palms, weave their fibres into cloth, mend the screens and strengthen the mud walls. To grind the flour and bake the dry, flat bread. My work would be different from theirs. I felt sad and proud.

As I stood in the shadowed doorway of my parents’ house, ready to set out, my mother held my shoulders tightly and kissed me on the top of my head. She was not crying, but her face was twisted in sadness. We’ll see you on Year’s Day, she whispered. Be good till then. One day each year they would come to visit me, for once I was at the post I could never leave it again.

On my shoulder I carried the little bundle she’d prepared for me. Alone I walked out beyond the storm screens, to the open desert, which I’d never seen before. I stared. Stretched before me were endless hills of red sand under the burning sky. The vastness of it made my heart jump like a netted fish in my chest. Everything I knew shrunk to nothingness before it. Carefully I followed the old markers that led over the dunes. I climbed the highest dune and looked back down on my home. The oasis looked indistinct, just a grainy shadow behind the screens, its colours, plants, and people gone. I turned my face away, twisting it as my mother had done to keep from crying, and went on.

The sand shifted and whispered around me. It was red, soft, warm, moving like a smooth-limbed body turning in its sleep. For a moment I felt tempted to leave the marked path and just walk into that great red place, join my body with its body and sleep in its softness. I thought I heard it calling me as it whispered: come and sleep with me, little one! Come and lie down in my arms! It was so great and I was so little. Why shouldn’t I do as it wanted?

Another sound woke me from my daze: the clinking of the old metal flags of the marker as I approached. I realized the sun outside the screens was too strong and it had opened a channel in my head for the whispering sand to enter. Quickly I pulled my hood up and wrapped it tight. Behind the screens I mostly forgot to wear it, unless a big storm came. I drank from my water jug until the whispering died down, and went on again.

At sunset I reached the foot of the black rock mountain, and saw the marker flashing at the entrance to the cave. Gillem waited there. He stood leaning on a great staff of knotted wood. It must have been older than he was, perhaps much older, as there were no trees from which to cut such staffs now in the oasis or any of the places we knew.

I followed him inside the cave and set down my bundle on its smooth swept rock floor. Gillem nodded to me in greeting but that was all. My training began at once.

He showed me the wall at the back of the cave, behind a stone outcrop that shielded it from view. Into the wall were set the devices of the listening post. They were like nothing I had seen in the oasis; I didn’t understand them at all. You don’t have to understand how they work, Gillem said. I don’t, nor has any Listener before me, as far as I know. You just have to do exactly as I show you, and the devices will sweep the skies, as they have down all the lifetimes since they were put here, for a message from the stars.

How many Listeners have there been? I asked.

I have never counted, replied Gillem. Each one keeps his archive and when he is finished, adds it to the others, to show that he has fulfilled his task. The count can be made if you want to – he waved his arm at the great archive wall, whose end was lost in darkness – but it would take a long time and it is easy to lose track. There’s enough to keep you busy.

And has any message ever come? I asked.

No message has ever come, he said.

Gillem and I stayed together for the first year. Every seven days the runner brought us our food, and less often brought us seeds or plants for the small hanging garden we had. And I learned how to grow a few vegetables there, in the sunlight at the cave mouth. I learned to tend the listening machine and keep the panels clean that made it run. I always stayed within earshot of the speaking tube, and checked it now and again to make sure its connections were good. But it never made a sound.

Gillem spoke little. When he was not guiding me or instructing me in my tasks, we sat together at the mouth of the cave and watched for birds – rare – or more often, clouds. At night we watched the stars wheel overhead. We passed the time trying to guess which one the message might come from. Listeners learn to sleep only a little at a time, and never fully. This was the hardest part of the training, and Gillem could not leave until he was sure I had mastered it.

At last my training was done, and I truly understood that I could never leave the post, never travel farther than the entrance of the cave, for the rest of my time as Listener, until I was at least as old as Gillem. I could not risk that the message we had waited for so long might come at last, and I would miss it.

That day Gillem nodded to me, took up his staff and walked to the mouth of the cave. I looked out and saw a boy I knew from the oasis coming over the dunes. For a moment I longed with all my heart to change places with him. But then the feeling passed. He left me some dried fish and bread, and then he followed Gillem who, slowly, leaning heavily on his staff, began his journey back to the oasis, which he had not seen since he was a child. Others had been born, wed, had children of their own and died, but he had seen and shared in none of that. No more would I. I watched them go, and then I turned my face to the sky and wished for the night to come on so I could watch the stars and imagine they were tears the sky cried to fill its emptiness.

Not long after, a runner came, bearing the staff. He handed it to me, and I knew old Gillem was dead.

Years passed. Every year, on the same day, my parents came, and we sat together at the mouth of the cave. At first they spoke of things and people I knew about, but as time went by everything they told me was foreign to me and I became indifferent to it. There was little I could tell them; my days were all the same. And we couldn’t speak loudly or long anyway. I must always be listening first and foremost; nothing must distract me from that task.

I grew older, as did they. The long walk over the dunes became difficult for my mother. She and my father seemed weaker and sadder each time they arrived. But there was something else – I could see the runners who came were also troubled, but no one would speak of it. Finally I asked what was wrong.

The spring is drying up, said the runner. Each year for the last ten we have had a little less food. No children have been born for three years now – the people fear they might starve. The oasis may be dying.

What will happen? I asked. What will you do?

If it dies we will die too, she said. And so will you, I suppose.

That was true. My little hanging garden was watered ingeniously by moisture that dripped from the walls of the cave. This was made to happen somehow by one of the devices I tended in the listening post, but the seeds and plants came from the oasis – and the garden produced only a little of what I needed to survive in any case. The runners brought the rest.

Could you go somewhere else? I asked. Although that would not change my fate.

You know there is nowhere else to go, she answered. The desert goes on forever. At least, no one knows where it ends, if it does. We would die trying to cross it.

I hope the spring doesn’t dry up, I said. Yes, she said. We all hope. But every year the water is less.

More years passed. My parents died, and others buried them. No message came from the speaking tube, but I tended the wall as carefully and constantly as all the other Listeners had before me. The runners still came and went, but they came less frequently and brought less food. I began to grow thin and weak. Then one day, the last runner came.

Only my family is left, she said. And we have decided to take poison rather than starve. I was told to bring some for you. Here is the last food. I won’t return.

Is the food poisoned? I asked.

No, she said. Here is the poison. You can choose the time. She handed me a little glass vial.

What if a message comes? I asked.

It will come too late, she replied.

After she left I let the days go by somehow, without taking up the little vial. I ate as little as I could. I kept to my tasks. I thought: after all, why not wait a bit longer? I can choose whenever I want.

Then one evening as I was sitting at the mouth of the cave, waiting for the stars to come out, I heard a sound I had never heard before. The speaking tube!

The message began to come through, at first as if someone were mumbling indistinctly in my ear, and then at last, as the translating device found the signals it needed in my brain, the words became clear:

We are dying… we are dying, it said. We seek no rescue. This is a warning. We set our world afire. We put the torch to everything that gave us life. Now it’s too late; the last of us are dying. Heed us!

I felt struck by lightning. A message at last! From a distant star!

But I knew the oasis was gone, and there was no one left but me to hear it.

Words kept coming from the speaking tube. A poem, said the voice; I didn’t understand most of what followed. I listened, trying to repeat what I could. Then the last words were spoken, and the voice stopped.

I stood at the mouth of the cave, holding the little vial in my hand. As I lifted it to my lips, I spoke softly the words that described what I looked out upon: the lone and level sands stretched far away.

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

Image by Med Rizki ZNIBER (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

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My second novel, Beast, was published this week by Faber and Faber. It’s the story of a man alone on a wild moor. Who he is, where he came from, why he came and what he is there for are questions that may or may not be answered. But it turns out he is not there alone. Something is out there, and he is hunting it. Or it is hunting him.

Like all my fiction, Beast is trying to fulfil some of the demands which I myself laid out in the Dark Mountain manifesto (if I don’t make an effort, who will?) That is to say I am trying to write with dirt under my fingernails, I am trying to pull my sensibility, if not my body, outside the bounds set for it by my civilisation, and – crucially in this case – I am trying to take seriously the notion of the non-human world as a living, breathing thing with which we have a relationship, whether we know it or not.

I’d better not say much more. Novels are for reading, not explaining. If you’d like to find out more, about the book, you can do so here. In the meantime, here is an extract…


I wanted to go into the church. I wanted to be entombed by the cold stone to get out of this heat to sit in an empty pew and ease myself. I wondered if I could work the anger and irritation out of me and have the old stale air of that place carry it away through the stained glass and out into the whiteness. I wanted to go in but I stayed outside. I had come here to watch. I sat down with my back against the trunk of the ancient yew in the churchyard. From there I could see out onto the lane to the place where I had seen it and for some way on either side. If it came back here I would not miss it.

The yew must have been centuries old it was hollow at the centre and the wood I was leaning on had been twisted and gnarled by the ages. Its green needles were thick above me its berries scarlet. I drank more water. I said nothing to myself or to the tree or to anyone I could dream of or think about. I just sat and I watched the lane and the hedges and the fields and I listened for any sound and there was none. Nothing happened.

I sat and watched the lane and the hedges and the fields and nothing happened for hours or what I thought must have been hours. I had no watch and so time was nothing not even a concept time was nothing and nothing happened. When you sit like this you realise that nothing has its own energy that it moves that nothing can happen like an event or an episode. Nothingness extends itself emptiness moves and when you stare into it things happen to you. I sat with my back against the yew and I looked across the churchyard wall over to the lane. Inside me the worm was still coiling though it was moving more sluggishly since I had settled down.

At the end of the hedge where it curled around the corner of the lane and disappeared out of my sight was a tree. It must have been fairly young it had a thin trunk and its slender angular branches hung over the lane. There were no leaves on it so it was hard for me to tell what it was. Maybe a beech maybe an oak. If you sit looking at anything for long enough then everything else fades from your vision and all you have is what you are staring at. I was staring at a small knot above the biggest branch on this tree. Its trunk was black and it was bare in the white heat and suddenly I saw what terrible things trees are. They sprout up from the Earth they reach out in all directions they reach out for you they will smother you they will never stop growing and dividing and colonising. They are so fecund there is no stopping them. Chop them down burn them they always come back up they stretch to the sky these thin green fingers they are indescribable. They are just waiting there waiting everywhere for us to fall and then they will come back and they will grow over everything they will suck it all in and take it up to the sky in their thin fingers. Their roots will wrap around all that we were and our lives will rot down in their litter and theirs will be a silent Earth of roots and leaves and thin grasping and there will be no place for us in their world at all.

Then I remembered a man who would go out every morning and look at his trees. I didn’t know who he was or where I remembered this from but it felt like a memory and it came to me as I stared across at this tree in the lane. He was an old man he wore a tweed jacket and a flat cap and he planted trees. Perhaps they were fruit trees. I remembered that this man whenever I passed he would be in his garden walking slowly between the trees shuffling between them and inspecting them looking at every leaf turning the blossoms over smelling them sometimes. What goes on in the head of a man who looks at trees like that? He did it for years perhaps he had always done it perhaps he is still there doing it now. What went on
in the head of someone who could do that same circuit every day for years forever? Why couldn’t I do that? Who was he that I was not? Today the thought of his circuit the thought of his silent circuit of the trees filled me with horror. How much I hated trees how much I feared things that grew. I was surrounded by trees surrounded by things that grew surrounded by this horrifying green abundance and it all wanted to swallow me and it was so silent so slow it spoke no language I could understand. How I hated it how I hated it and how I wanted to run.

I stopped looking at the tree. I found myself back in the churchyard leaning against the yew but now the church seemed to loom behind me like some presence. Now that I was aware of it I couldn’t put it beyond me I wanted to turn to look at it to make sure it wasn’t moving towards me coming to claim me. Now the church felt like a threat. What if God was a tyrant? The Bible’s God is a tyrant he destroys worlds because people won’t obey him he flies into rages and floods everything he burns down cities he slaughters children he hands down rules which must be obeyed by all and for eternity. He sent his son to die for us and he demands our gratitude for this though we never asked for it he demands that we gather in squat stone buildings and sing his praises if he is not to flood and burn us again. God the Father of all the men who feared their fathers over the centuries all the men who built up his church and who feared their fathers and whose sons feared them.

And outside the church where they go to worship God is god humming in the air god who is the air the unmeasurable and strange thing. This god who is not in books and did not live or die and is not a father or a mother and will not be obeyed and will not be denied. god who is the molecules and the air and the trees this forcing light this strange light roaring out. Before words before language before thought before speaking everyone must have been able to see this clear white light. Now it is all clouded. But you can make the cloud fall away or it can fall without you and then you can see again what is underneath the trees the soil the ideas the opinions what was always underneath them. The light has nothing for you it makes you no promises. It is in the small things it is in the tiny things we walk over and past the tiny things that run the world and we never see them because we believe we are running it ourselves and we are walking past to lay our claim on it first. The beetles the bacteria the earthworms the centipedes the viruses the mycelium the seeds lying dormant in the soil waiting for us to burn ourselves out. For the meek shall inherit the earth.

I was a stranger here I could see it now I was a foreigner an invader an immigrant and they were turning on me. The trees the hedges the beetles the things that live in the soil they were turning on me hissing at me they wanted me out they wanted me gone. The anger inside me had shifted and now it felt like a fear like a great anxiety. I felt all alone in the world I knew there was nothing here for me nothing at all. A bottle of water a walking stick a pair of boots was all I had between me and the trees the grass the gods and the gravestones and they all wanted me gone they were coming for me. This was their world and they would take it back they would take it back from me soon there would be no lane here no church no paths I could see the future and in it was nothing but trees nothing but the things living in the trees and in the soil a great silent green orchestra spread across the whole of the world. I had walked out too far. I had walked to this lonely place and now I was surrounded and they would eat me.

I had to leave. I had not seen what I came for but I didn’t want to not now. It was ridiculous it was impossible it was nothing. I raised my stiff body up and I began to walk back up the lane towards the farm. I carried myself across the moor as fast as I could but it was not fast I leaned on my stick and my rhythm was awkward and all across the moor I felt there were things in the heather surrounding me coming for me I was being watched some great force was just behind me shadowing me stalking me and I couldn’t turn and look back. I just kept walking with this fear this anxiety inside me I didn’t know what it was but I walked I had to walk and I didn’t look back.

Paul Kingsnorth is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project (with Dougald Hine). His previous novel The Wake was published in 2014. You can find out more about Beast, and his other work, on his website.


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Congregation, Total Chaos and Greed: On Trapping Wolves in Montana

lamar valley.03

About three weeks after moving to Montana from East London urged on by a restless mid-life state of mind, I find myself waking up in a motel room in Gardiner, Montana at 4:30 a.m. on a drizzly August day. The sister of a friend of mine, the poet and naturalist Ilona Popper, picks me up and we drive for an hour along the northern range of Yellowstone National Park in the pitch black towards where she thinks a pack of wolves known as the Junction Butte Pack will be hanging out doing whatever it is wolves do.

After about an hour, we park up in the Lamar Valley behind half a dozen cars while a quarter of a mile away twenty or so Gortex-clad wolfers are planting their scopes on the crest of a hill. Ilona introduces me to ‘Rick’ who is getting out of his car. As the biological technician for the Yellowstone Wolf Project, Rick has spent more than fourteen years observing wolf behaviour and pack dynamics. He is locally famous for chalking up more than 5,000 consecutive days (‘without even one day off,’ Ilona whispers at me) watching wolves. Much of what we know about the Yellowstone packs comes from his observations.

Ilona and I scale the small hill and set up our scopes in the rain just as the sky is lightening. After observing a few bison lazily grazing, we spot what Ilona thinks is the alpha female of the pack — the leader and breeder. She is a mottled charcoal colour, very relaxed, lying on her side nonchalantly watching five wolf cubs. The cubs tussle, jump on her and run in circles. As I watch the cubs roll in the grass like puppies, I feel I am watching something forbidden. Their play seems private, intimate — something between them and the land that I have no place witnessing. I am not expecting to have an emotional response to these animals but a kind of awe begins to creep over me — the awe of the European on the Grand Tour when confronted with a waterfall or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It is the awe of the spectator. But then something strange happens. I begin to be able to tell them apart, to identify these cubs as individuals. ‘Look there’s the one who nips ears,’ I am saying to myself. The awe shifts from that of observer to participant. I start to feel part of this land of theirs.

Since their re-introduction to Montana in 1995, the debate still rages as to the extent of good or harm these animals effect. With wolves in Yellowstone hunting and killing prey, the elk population has been reduced, thus increasing the growth of young willow trees, and also invoking the wrath of hunters whose prime target is elk. To conservationists, however, the regrowth of trees is seen as necessary for providing food and habitat for many animals in the Park. By bringing back the apex predator, some scientists and conservationists believe that a healthier balance has been restored. The doomsayer in me who believes that ecological meddling rarely has a happy ending sees this issue as one that is so complex, with so many variables, that our limited human brains cannot fully comprehend it.


A month after seeing the Junction Butte Wolf Pack, I keep hearing about wolves. They are in the news a lot. They have a lot of enemies. People are angry. A quick Google affirms that a lot of Westerners see the reintroduction of wolves as an assault on their hunting rights, on their cattle, on their sense of being the top predator, on their whole way of life. It seems too easy for me, someone who has been living in a large urban centre thousands of miles from the American West for the last twenty-five years, to say that killing these predators is wrong. What do I know? There must be reasons for laying steel in the ground and making war on wolves?

Which is why I have come to Missoula’s Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation on a sunny September day. From the outside, the building is part ski chalet, part country club. I walk into the large open foyer and am greeted by what I will soon learn is a Montana specialty: taxidermy. Tons of it. Lynx, cougars, elk, bears, bighorn sheep, antelope, foxes, martens, badgers and whole dioramas populated with once living, stuffed animals chasing plastic grasshoppers and dragonflies dangling from nearly invisible fishing wire.

elk mountain foundation.03

I follow some deep voices that lead me to the room where the wolf-trapping course is taking place. It’s carpeted in gun-metal grey and chairs have been set up in very neat rows. It looks like we might be gathering to pray. There is one other woman. We clock each other. I smile, but she makes it clear she’s not here to socialise. The men, around thirty of them, wear baseball caps or cowboy hats, and sunglasses are placed backwards on their necks — a look I associate for some reason with military personnel. Three generations head-to-toe in denim, leather boots with spurs and cowboy hats silently fill the back row. The youngest, maybe four years old, is a tiny version of the adults: same clothes, same stoic expression.

On a table at the front of the room, where we have written our names onto a sheet of paper, is an assortment of metal contraptions, pelts and skulls. If someone had told me these metal devices were medieval torture instruments, I would have believed them. But these are foothold traps designed to snap onto the limb of an animal. Conibears (which grip the entire body) and snares (which strangle the animal) are illegal in Idaho and Montana. I am madly writing this all down while a guy behind the table is talking unofficially to a few attendees who make it clear they have used a lot of these traps. They handle these clanking things with familiarity.

Then the day starts for real, and like all courses it begins with introductions. At the front of the room are Mike Thompson, a wildlife manager at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MTFWP) and Jeff Ashmead, who worked as a government trapper, gunner, and pilot in the state of Idaho. He is now a trapper for hire — the go-to guy when you are experiencing cattle and ungulate depredation at the hands of wolves. Ashmead, who looks to be in his early sixties, wears reflective shades, baseball cap, a belt holding up a pair of very tight-fitting jeans, and sports a badge on his hat and shirt emblazoned with his logo of a wolf and the acronym JAWS (Jeff Ashmead Wildlife Specialist). Thompson looks more like a history teacher. He takes us through the stack of photocopied pages we’ve all been given: Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks — Wolf Trapper Education Handbook. In 2011 it became mandatory for all trappers to take this certificate course. I sense resentment in the room expressed in the form of crossed arms, legs akimbo, and faces that seem to say, ‘Can we get this over with quick so I can get back to my traps?’

Once we are through with the rules and regulations in the handbook, Mike Thompson steps aside and Jeff Ashmead rises, slowly, making the most of his six-foot frame.

‘I don’t speak for the Wildlife Services anymore, although I worked for them for thirty plus years. I’m a rancher, father of five kids, a family man’. I could feel the room relax. He is one of them.

Jeff Ashmead explains the fallacy of Mother Nature and her ‘balancing act’. He spits those last two words out in a way that leaves no doubt about his views of natural balance. We get a brief history of wolves in Idaho and Montana. How they were hunted for their pelts throughout the 1880s, set on fire, shot, poisoned, trapped, and were extinct by the 1930s. Bison were being slaughtered in record numbers as well, and their meat was often injected with strychnine to kill anything that ate the meat. There are accounts of trappers setting up camp, shooting bison, poisoning the meat, going to sleep, and then waking in the morning to a field of dead wolves (and eagles and every other scavenger who might like a little midnight bison snack).

After grey wolves were reintroduced to Montana from Canada they remained on the endangered list. Their numbers grew until in 2011 they were delisted. The point Jeff is trying to make is that we’ve been meddling with Mother Nature since we’ve been on the planet, so the idea of preserving things in any kind of balance seems ridiculous to him. He goes on, ‘I mean what is this paradise people are trying to reach? It was never even there in the first place!’
The room is silent with what I take as agreement.

Then we are made aware that the wolf counts done by the state of Montana are inaccurate. Apparently because of the wily nature of these beasts, only a small proportion of them have actually been counted.

Fear Factor Number 1: There are way more wolves out there than you could ever possibly know.

Jeff Ashmead goes into the social structures within wolf packs and something strange happens. He anthropomorphises these animals: wolf pups start trying to find territory where they can bring their ‘ladies’ or ‘girlfriends’. Once the pups are ‘at their peak, when they’re top athletes, they take their girls off to a new territory. They’ve had enough of their dad’s iron fist.’ Ladies? Girlfriends? Athletes? Dads?

He goes on for some time about the social bonds of wolves and how these creatures differ from the many wild animals out there, like bears, who use bluff as a scare tactic. These guys don’t bluff. They kill.

Fear Factor Number 2: Wolves are deadly. Or to put it in Jeff’s words: ‘When a wolf pulls the trigger, someone dies. They play to kill.’

It is essential for any decent trapper to know how the packs function — you can’t trap an animal unless you can work out where it’s going to be. We are told that the alpha males (the pack leaders) get territorial of their alpha females (the breeder of the pack). ‘There ain’t no fornication in my group!’ he shouts out in imitation of an Alpha male.
These wolves not only have girlfriends and trigger fingers, but they fornicate. I sense a vein of sexual thrill in his words, as if killing a wolf is somehow linked to an increase in manliness.

The main reason we are all gathered here today, however, is to talk about ethics. We are taken through the variety of traps before us. Pros and cons and the price options of the differing traps, which have names like ‘Sleepy Creek #4’ and ‘Livestock Protection Company #7’. The proper care and setting of the various traps is explained carefully.
‘Whatever steps in one of these, you’re going to have to deal with. A moose, whatever. You don’t want to get a cow moose in one of these because she’s not going to leave until she’s done some tap dancing on you!’

He gets a laugh.

Jeff tells the room that it is important to weight the traps so that you don’t catch too much of the other ‘stuff’ such as ‘deer, elk, bobcats, coyotes, fishers, and martens’. Especially the last two as they are ‘sensitive species’. Fishers became extinct in Montana and were re-introduced in 1959. They are no longer considered endangered but are treated with some trepidation. Marten fur is what is known as ‘sable’ and is highly desirable. But you wouldn’t want to be seen trapping an animal that was ‘sensitive’ when you are trying to catch a wolf, as that would definitely put a dent in your ethical credentials.

‘You should lay your traplines as if your grandmother were watching you,’ Jeff tells us while wagging a finger. I glance down at the handbook open on my lap and see an Aldo Leopold quote: ‘Ethics is doing the right thing when no one else is looking, even though the wrong thing is still legal.’

It’s break time. A trapper I meet as I stand in a hallway of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation looking at framed photos of past donors is keen to tell me that wolves are bloodthirsty creatures who will prey on just about anything (even children apparently) and they make a point of going for the pregnant ones. That is how evil they are. There is a photo online, he tells me, showing the foetus hanging out of a dead horse. ‘Uneaten!’ the guy is smiling with what almost seems like excitement, titillation. ‘Wolves kill just for the fun of it.’ We are called back to the room for the session to resume and I tear myself away from the guy who will be sending me photos of these uneaten foal foetuses once I give him my email address.

Apart from preventing cattle depredation, the other reason people trap wolves is for their pelts, which can fetch thousands of dollars at auction. Even in death though, wolves cause problems: ‘Wolves don’t give up their hide even when they’re dead!’ Jeff Ashmead exclaims. ‘I can skin a coyote in under ten minutes, but a wolf takes five to six hours!’ Nasty old wolves. Yet despite the fact that wolves are killed in order to reduce cattle deaths and to make money, trapping is often referred to as a sport, or as Jeff Rushmead calls it, an ‘art’. Several guys in the room nod when Jeff Ashmead talks in that homespun way about trapping being ‘our right’ and it being part of Montana’s history and tradition. ‘We’ve always trapped! That’s what we do!’ Kit Carson is mentioned and there is a slight shift in the room’s atmosphere. I might be imagining it, but I feel I am surrounded by people who dream at night of having the freedom of those nineteenth-century mountain men to kill whatever they want with impunity.

But the history these guys are dreaming of is the same history that decimated the bison and most of the native population and degraded the land with intensive beef and sheep farming. How can this be held up as a golden age to which everyone living west of the Alleghenies should be longing to return?

It is almost time for lunch.

My eyes have begun wandering around the room. On one wall, is a poster: ‘It is the land, as wild as we can sustain it, that both the hunter and the hunted need to survive.’ Jim Posewitz.

I make a note to Google him while I have my sandwich. I am the only person who has brought lunch. The others all get into their pickups and drive off. I sit on a bench overlooking the empty parking lot and eat my cheese sandwich, carrot sticks and apple feeling very unlike a trapper.

But I learn that Jim Posewitz is that uniquely Western American who has made it his life’s work to improve ‘the image of hunting with an emphasis on fair chase ethics’ and has focused ‘on putting hunters at the forefront of our nation’s conservation ethic.’ He’s exactly the sort of person I find impossible to understand. Is it just semantics? When he talks of conservation, does he mean the conservation of a way of life based on when the trapper ruled and the West was won by guys who slept under the stars dreaming of the dead wolves at their feet the next morning? As Rick Bass says about hunters in his book The Ninemile Wolves, ‘there’s nothing harder to stereotype than a “hunter”.’ I would add that this is also true of trappers: they claim to love the wilderness, they call themselves sportsmen, outdoorsmen, and yet they are happy inflicting pain on animals in return for the price of their fur. Most hunters eat their prey, whereas trappers do it for money.

I am trying to understand this. Really trying with all my might, but I’m stuck.


After lunch I sense that Jim Posewitz isn’t the only person to have been Googled. I feel distinctly uneasy as the afternoon session begins with Jeff and Mike looking hard at me and talking about ‘the other side’. The funny thing is that I am not an animal rights activist. I don’t belong to any groups. But they can just smell that I am not one of them.

‘The other side’s got lots of money,’ Jeff shouts. ‘So, I encourage you to keep that in mind.’

Fear Factor Number 3: The anti-trapping lobby is rich, so watch out!

There is much talk of how to weight the traps — at least 12 to 15 pounds — to avoid getting all those other pesky non-wolves. You have to make sure to get the wolf ‘above his wrist’. And then there is talk of the ‘dispatch’. Jeff tells us that he once shot an alpha male right through the heart. Communal nod of respect. And it’s imperative to check your traplines every 48 hours. Not only because this is ethical, but because it gives the ‘other side’ less time to photograph squirming animals who might be chewing off their own legs. Although according to Jeff Ashmead, the leg-chewing thing is a myth. But still, you don’t want to risk it.

And we’re back onto the subject of ‘the other side’. I am looking down at the papers on my lap. I didn’t come here as the other side. I came here to see what common ground I could find. But maybe there is none.

‘I got picketed going wolf-trapping for a problem wolf,’ he pauses. ‘I got poked, prodded, cameras shoved in my face and people shouting “the public has a right to know: did you kill the right wolf?”‘ He looks at me. ‘They try and get under your skin, these people. But God gave me two feet to run out of there. And I did.’

Mysteriously some mother-in-law jokes ensue and then he’s back onto the enemy. ‘You know, bear cubs used to be an hors d’oeuvre out here. City people just don’t get how it works. Animals are here for us to use, not abuse. But what I felt coming from those people is hate. Those folks just hated me. It was coming out of their pores. The toughest thing I had to face was those guys going through my pick-up. The police could have arrested them on terrorism charges after 9/11.’ But Jeff says he did the generous thing and let the protesters go free.

Fear Factor Number 4: All trappers are being watched by the media, by anti-trappers, by people who hate them, so it’s best to behave.

This is the preamble to encourage the trappers not to take photos of themselves with their prey. ‘Anyone been around Photoshop lately?’ he asks to laughter. ‘Just don’t post any photos of yourself with dead animals. OK? Just don’t.’ He talks about the recent case in September 2014 of Toby Bridges, a Missoula man, who accelerated his car into some wolves near the Montana-Idaho border and then bragged about it on Facebook, describing his bespoke roadkill in graphic detail and posting photos. The men nod. They’ve seen Bridges’ photos no doubt.

It’s eventually time to go outside and see how we are to lay one of these things. We file out of the meeting room and into the blinding sunshine. Jeff carries a trap and we follow him over to a tree. Knowing how animals work is a big part of laying your trapline. ‘I listen to the birds,’ he tells us. ‘Crows and magpies talk a lot.’ Then we are onto bait. It is illegal, he tells us, in Montana and Idaho to bait your traps. But apparently everyone does it. In the official handbook I am still holding there is mention of a company called The Snare Shop in Iowa who carry lures on their website with names like computer games:

The maker took over 500 predators on this lure alone in 3 years. None better.

This age-old formula is a cat meat based bait.
It is the last bait your predators will ever taste.
Hundreds of predators have been taken on my line with this bait.
Predators can’t resist – compare to any!

Northwest Predator and Wildlife Control Lure.
A M-44 lure that works great at trap sets also.


I had to look up what an M-44 trap was that the Greed bait ‘works great’ with. It is a spring-loaded metal cylinder, baited with scent, that fires sodium cyanide powder into the mouth of whatever tugs on it. According to a former Wildlife Service trapper, ‘It’s not a painless death.’ Animals who ingest the sodium cyanide ‘start whining. They start haemorrhaging from their ears and nose and mouth. They get paralysis and fall over. Then they start convulsing and they’re gone. They are suffering endlessly until they die. It’ll make you literally want to puke.’ A quick look at eBay and other online shops will point you to bottles of scrotum juice, urine and other fine ingredients to add to your traps.

The day comes to an end and I am not sure what the ritual is. People peel off and head to their pickups. No one shakes hands or exchanges numbers. I don’t give the foal foetus guy my email either. We are not here to connect. We are here as a formality so we can head out into the woods, lay some steel, kill some predators, harvest some pelts, make some money. My feelings are beginning to come into some kind of focus. I am a newcomer here and don’t have the right to make grand statements about how Montanans should manage their lands. However my non-relativist voice is saying that trapping is all wrong. Totally unequivocally wrong. I go home, to my new house in the American West. That night I dream of wolves running as fast as they can through the woods. That is what wolves do. They run and run. They cover ground like magic. These silver wolves look at me with hate in their eyes. They don’t know I am from ‘the other side’. That there is nothing that would tempt me to injure any one of them. Nothing at all. From me they are safe.

wolf trapping certificate

Joanna Pocock is a British-Canadian writer. Two years ago she relocated from East London to Missoula, Montana. She is a regular contributor to Litro, UK and has written for 3:AM. In the US her work has appeared in The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Distinctly Montana and JSTOR Daily. She also teaches Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, London.  

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The Height and the Drop


‘There is a difference between measuring the height of a drop and the sensation of falling; between the sight of a wave and hearing it crash on to the shore’, wrote Rafael Behr in a Guardian article after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union two days ago. ‘It was meant to be unthinkable, now the thought has become action. Europe cannot be the same again.’

Since the Dark Mountain Project was launched in October 2009, the distance between the height and the drop, the wave and the shore, has been closing. From the global financial crisis, which destroyed so many people’s faith in the neoliberal narrative of endless, pain-free growth, to the crippling austerity measures imposed on countries around the world, from the fallout of the Arab Spring to the ongoing migrant crisis — not to mention the rise of Donald Trump on the other side of the Atlantic — many previously ‘unthinkable’ things have successfully breached the border to reality in the past seven years. The British decision to leave the EU is only the latest disruption to what we trustingly used to refer to as ‘normality’.

All we can be certain of, now, is that more surprises are on their way. How to navigate the unknown has been central to Dark Mountain’s mission from the start, and today, in acknowledgement of ‘interesting times’, we return to one of the poems that inspired our Manifesto. Written by Robinson Jeffers in 1935, it feels as prescient as ever, and just as instructive in guiding us through territory that becomes less certain every day.

The Answer

Then what is the answer? Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilisations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history … for contemplation or in fact …
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.

Robinson Jeffers, 1935

Image: medieval map of Europe, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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The Dithering Age: Holocene, Anthropocene, and Chthulucene


A sword age, axe age, shields are cloven, a wind age, wolf age, ere the world sinks
— Volupsa

There is no question that anthropogenic activity has profoundly damaged the vast interrelated web of ecological systems that maintain the conditions for life on this planet. Similarly there is an increasingly agreement among climate scientists that we are currently in the midst of a sixth geological extinction event that may cause the annihilation of up to 75 percent of species on earth, including humanity. The only question now is how do we conceptualise this fact and of course, how do we intend to address it. The current debates around the use of the term ‘anthropocene’ to describe the impact of human activity on the biosphere is an example of how environmentalists are trying to wrestle with this issue and also demonstrates how the critique of civilisation is a vital issue that has yet to be dealt with substantively by contemporary theorists. Without placing the phenomenon of civilisation at the core of our analysis of the environmental crisis, any conceptualisation will necessarily be insufficient.

In the most recent issue of the Monthly Review Ian Angus remarks that the term ‘anthropocene’ is currently enjoying a degree of exposure and attention rarely granted to scientific jargon. He writes

‘The word Anthropocene, unknown twenty years ago, now appears in the titles of three academic journals, dozens of books, and hundreds of academic papers, not to mention innumerable articles in newspapers, magazines, websites, and blogs. There are exhibitions about art in the Anthropocene, conferences about the humanities in the Anthropocene, and novels about love in the Anthropocene.’

He goes on to summarise debates over the term within the scientific community as well as provide a brief history of the term and it’s usage. Angus’s ultimate concern is to emphasise the need for ecological Marxists to deepen their engagement with the work of climate scientists in order to properly understand and attempt to deal with the unprecedented levels of environmental degradation we now face. The essential argument of the climate scientists who proposed that we have indeed entered a new phase in geological history (an ‘anthropocene,’ from the Greek for ‘man’), one which is defined by humanity’s destructive impact on global ecological systems, has been too often neglected by Marxists as either catastrophism or a distraction from class struggle.

The key question for Angus is how do we understand the timing of the beginning of the anthropocene in the context of the critique of capitalism. Among the scientific community there are two proposals for how to define the anthropocene; one places the anthropocene around eight thousand years ago when large scale agriculture and urban civilisation began (though some even suggest that the entire holocene epoch, which began around 11,000 years ago, after the last ice age, should simply be renamed anthropocene).

Others argue that beginning in 1945 we began seeing a qualitative change in the impact of human activity on the biosphere. Sociological and environmental trends such as population growth, water use, tourism, paper production, fertiliser consumption, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, carbon dioxide production, etc, which had been gradually increasing since the 18th century suddenly experienced a staggeringly sharp upturn around this time. Nobel Prize winning climate scientist Paul Crutzen, along with Will Steffen and John McNeill, proposed that developments since 1950 could be understood by the term ‘the Great Acceleration.’ Later work by Crutzen et al, revised their model to place the Great Acceleration within a second phase of the anthropocene epoch. This conclusion is echoed by former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who writes

‘Even if the Anthropocene began millennia ago, a fundamentally different phase, a Hyper-Anthropocene, was initiated by explosive 20th century growth of fossil fuel use. Human-made climate forcings now overwhelm natural forcings. CO2, at 400 ppm in 2015, is off the scale … Most of the forcing growth occurred in the past several decades, and two-thirds of the 0.9 C global warming (since 1850) has occurred since 1975.’

The implications of this debate are quite profound. The concept of an early anthropocene is popular among conservatives and anti-environmental lobbyists who would like to demonstrate that the environmental crisis we are seeing now is simply the product of an increase in activities that have been present and consistent with every point in human history. In other words, that this is nothing new and fundamentally does not require new solutions. The recent anthropocene on the other hand is favored by those who place capitalism at the center of the current ecological catastrophe.

Clearly there is a need for synthesis between early and recent visions of the anthropocene. While the qualitative change in human destructiveness within the last half century and the concurrent exponential growth in factors such as technological development and economic disparity are measurably true and must be acknowledged, it is equally true that human beings have been engaging in radically destructive environmental practices for thousands of years. It is vital that we place special emphasis on what has happened in the last fifty or sixty years but it is just as important that we don’t treat capitalism as the root cause of human interference with natural cycles and the healthy functioning of global ecosystems. This is where the critique of civilisation becomes a key element in conceptualisations of the anthropocene.

Ancient Mesopotamians built extensive dams and irrigation systems to grow monoculture crops to feed their exploding urban population. There is also evidence of desertification in north Africa and elsewhere as a result of deforestation by the ancient Romans, Egyptians, and others. Mining was a widespread practice in the ancient world as well and Athenian silver mines were worked by up to 20,000 slaves. We can likewise point to the extinction of numerous species of holocene megafauna following the technological developments of the Neolithic revolution. While Ian Angus argues that the destructive practices of early humans does not constitute a qualitative change from previous holocene activity, when we compare the environmental impact of small, nomadic hunter gatherer communities to that of even the earliest urban, agricultural societies it is clear that we are dealing with a change that is equally if not more radical than what we have seen since the 1950s.

There is another crucial point that Angus’s survey overlooks, does the term anthropocene reinforce anthropocentic attitudes about the division between humanity and the natural world? A landmark essay by Crutzen, Steffen, and McNeil titled ‘The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?’ highlights this problem. The language here is extremely problematic. Humanity may be making the planet uninhabitable for ourselves and a number of other species but ‘the forces of nature’ are incomparably greater than anything human being can do, no matter how suicidal and destructive we are. Humanity does not function according to geological time and a substantial portion of our shared delusion is the idea that we as a species are more important than any other or hold a particular position of dominance.

Jason W. Moore rejects the ‘anthropocene’ in favor of the term ‘capitalocene.’ His reasoning is two-fold. In the first case, Moore argues, if we broaden our sense of capitalism to rightly account for events such as the European conquest of the New World, we can understand the most radical changes in the capacity for human beings to alter their environment in terms of the accumulation of capital. Moore thus places emphasis on ‘the long sixteenth century’ as the period when technical innovations marked a new phase of environmental impact. Secondly, and even more importantly, Moore argues that the term ‘anthropocene,’ and indeed our entire conceptual framework for dealing with the current climate crisis, is deeply informed by a false dichotomy between something called ‘nature’ and human society. Moore argues that the separation of human society from the natural world ‘didn’t come about just because there were scientists, cartographers or colonial rulers who decided it was a good idea, but because of a far-flung process that put together markets and industry, empire and new ways of seeing the world that go along with a broad conception of the Scientific Revolution.’ This division, in other words, is inherently a product of specific conceptualisations of what it meant to be human.

This binary has vast consequences and is the root of all the other divisions that theorists have long since sought to understand and dismantle, man and woman, white and black, the West and the rest, capitalist and laborer. Moore urges a reconceptualisation of capitalism and nature to see that the reality of the situation is much more complex than such stark, simple terms allow for. What is needed, in Moore’s opinion, is new language and new ideas to understand the relations between humanity and the non-human world. Capitalism, of course, does not only determine economic relationships. It likewise and inseparably influences environmental relations, as well as psychological, physiological relations among others. Moore states that when we try to push beyond the simple binaries, we can ‘see how Wall Street is a way of organising nature. We see the unfolding of problems today – like the recent turbulence in Chinese and American stock markets – as wrapped up with bigger problems of climate and life on this planet in a way that even radical economists are not willing to acknowledge.’ To see the connection between the economic and the environmental also puts various struggles in solidarity with each other. The struggle for climate justice and economic justice are the same.

Moore’s point is well-taken and coincides nicely with the critique of civilisation. If we overemphasise the role of industrialisation, for example, in the history of human impact on the biosphere, we will fail to see how pre-industrial societies were quite capable of destroying and disrupting ecosystems. Moore is absolutely right that talking about humanity contra nature is unproductive and in fact, facilitates the exploitation and degradation of the biosphere. He is also right when he points out that humanity as a whole cannot be said to have any particular means of relating to the environment. We have to talk about specific communities and societies.

This is also a key point in the anti-civilisation perspective. Humanity, as such, is useless to discuss in environmental terms. We have to talk about specific issues such as agriculture, mining, domestication, technology, etc. We have to talk about communities and their practices. Lets talk about the practices of hunter gatherer communities, for example. There are to this day a number of communities that live without agriculture or urban settlements, and of course historically this has been the vast majority of human beings on this planet. When we break out of the old binary of human vs nature we can see that it’s not humanity that’s the problem but a specific way of life or specific practices. This recognition also allows us to address particular problems without falling into the trap that somehow and for some reason, usually a religious one, humanity is just destined to have an exploitative relationship to its environment. Again, the majority of human beings historical have lived in a radically non-exploitative way. Which humans are we talking about when we say that ‘humans are destroying nature’? And furthermore, lets be specific about what is being destroyed and how.

If people just hear that humans are destroying the environment, they aren’t given much incentive to act or even think much. We have to remind people that humanity, as a monolith, doesn’t do anything in particular. You have a choice, you are not condemned to exploit the earth simply by being born human. Talking about the environmental crisis in terms of ‘nature’ or ‘the earth’ is likewise insufficient and misleading. The earth is still going to be here and nature is still going to be here, what we are talking about losing is the health and vitality of specific ecosystems, millions of species of animals and plants, and perhaps the extinction of the human race. The planet will keep on turning and new species will develop and grow.

Donna Haraway’s recent engagement with this debate offers further nuance. She cites a paper by Anna Tsing entitled ‘Feral Biologies’, which suggests that we might think about the distinction between holocene and anthropocene in terms of refuge. During the previous epoch its clear that destructive human activity occurred, however, at that point there were still spaces of refuge. This is to say various ecosystems had the capacity to rebuild, species could take shelter and return, biodiversity was largely unthreatened despite attacks against particular species. Haraway writes that ‘The Anthropocene marks severe discontinuities; what comes after will not be like what came before.’ These refuges have all but disappeared. Ecosystems and species, humans certainly among them, do not have the time or the space to replenish themselves. In these terms Haraway argues that our only hope is to do everything we can to make sure that this current period of extinguishing refuge is as short as possible, because it is very clearly here now.

In the context of cultivating new places for biodiversity to flourish Haraway proposes a new term to add to the mix. Haraway’s Chthulucene evokes H.P. Lovecraft’s nihilistic mythology though eschews its racism and misogyny. She stipulates that this term is inspired by ‘the diverse earth-wide tentacular powers and forces and collected things with names like Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa (burst from water-full Papa), Terra, Haniyasu-hime, Spider Woman, Pachamama, Oya, Gorgo, Raven, A’akuluujjusi, and many many more.’ It is a concept that implies the blending of the human and the non-human, an assemblage of multiple species and beings in one. Haraway calls for a paradigm in which human beings and other forms of life come together to recreate a world that can sustain life, to recompose ourselves and reimagine ourselves as being human and non-human. We must act and think from a symbiotic perspective. We have to make kin with the fungi and the bacteria and the myriad species of life. Through this composting mentality, of constantly composing and decomposing, we can rebuild the spaces and time of refuge. Extinction, Haraway reminds us, is not just a metaphor.

Haraway closes by gesturing to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, which describes our current moment as ‘Dithering… A state of indecisive agitation.’ This may ultimately be the best way to understand human hegemony.

Ramon Elani lives with his wife and son among the hills and forests of Western Massachusetts. He holds a PhD in literature. His doctoral work focused on critiques of civilisation and continental philosophy.

Image: Ragnarök (motif from the Heysham hogback) by W. G. Collingwood, 1908. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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