The Dark Mountain Blog

2016: Donald Trump ushers in the Anti-Future Age

2016 has been a year of turbulence, revolt and change, especially in the West. Over the next month Dark Mountain is publishing seven blogs by seven different writers, stepping outside the bubble of instant opinion to reflect on the wider significance of these changes. Following on from Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘2016: The Year of the Serpent’, the series continues with novelist and cultural critic Hal Niedzviecki.

During the 2016 presidential campaign in the USA, and during the primary season which preceded it,  the eventual winner Donald Trump was the only candidate to come
 out as hostile to that darling of both traditional parties and their corporate pals, the technology sector. Asked about his thoughts on the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in an interview, he said: ‘I have always been concerned about the social breakdown of our culture caused by technology. I think the increased dependence and addiction to electronic devices is unhealthy.’ 

When US high-tech industry CEOs started a lobbying and education group to advance the cause of expanding the H-1B visa programme, which they rely on to bring foreign computer programmers and engineers into the country, Trump was unmoved. In fact, one of his few clear policy pronouncements was to oppose the H-1B visa programme altogether. Trump also said he would initiate anti-trust action against Amazon and promised to force Apple to make its products in the United States – later calling for a boycott of the company when it declined to unlock the iPhone of a suspected terrorist. And sure, Trump used social media in his campaigns, but not the way the other candidates did. As one commentator noted, candidates were ‘dropping $5,000 to $10,000 per month’ on social media management and delivery systems like Sprinklr or Hootsuite, ‘with the exception of Mr. Trump who definitely’ managed ‘all his accounts by hand.’

While Trump was trashing or ignoring the techno standard bearers, his opponents were eagerly deploying slick social media and analytics technologies and kowtowing to the new gods of so-called innovation. Blackberry-bearing Jeb Bush hailed an Uber to the San Francisco startup Thumbtack where he praised the digital economy to the skies. Hillary Clinton travelled to San Jose, CA, in Santa Clara County, the centre of Silicon Valley, national leader in average wages despite a poverty rate higher than 10 percent. Clinton called San Jose ‘a city that’s all about the future: the future of our economy, the future of our society, of how we’re all going to be stronger together.’ During his presidency Barack Obama visited an Amazon factory and compared the workers there to Santa’s Elves, completely ignoring Amazon’s reputation for mistreating perpetually precarious workers, shuttering stores on Main Street and soaking up state tax breaks for the privilege; his White House website featured a whole section dedicated to innovation and ‘winning the race to the future’. Back when Trump was perceived as just an annoyance, Hilary Clinton was giving speeches talking about the ‘on demand or so called “gig” economy … creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation.’

Trump rejected the prevailing ideology of future-first both in words and in symbol. His campaign slogan – Make America Great Again – evoked not the future or even the present, but the past. Trump conjured up a fantasy era when America was (mostly) white and mostly just one union job on the assembly line away from a car and a house and a wife who stayed home and took care of the kids. His signature campaign policy was also very instructional: a wall separating the US from Mexico. A wall. Not lasers or satellites or big data or colonising Mars or getting to the future first. Trump constantly talked about his real estate holdings, his wealth. During the primaries and presidential campaign, he took time out to cut the ribbon on a new Trump hotel in Washington DC. He visited his Scottish golf course. He held forth on his net worth and his ability to outfox creditors and evade the taxman. Trump embodied his rhetoric – make real things, cut through the crap, get rich and get away with whatever you can.

These thoughts whirled through my mind throughout the campaign. I found myself fascinated with the highly ironic fact that of all the candidates, only Trump seemed to be able to signal (if not actually say) that, as I and others have argued, many of the so-called advances in technology over the last twenty years have been harnessed to create efficiencies that significantly reduce employment and compensation. Only Trump was able to repeatedly signal agreement with the conviction that, as one journalist wrote in the aftermath of the election, Silicon Valley ‘is out of step with [a] national and global mood’ beset with ‘social and economic anxieties’ at least partly caused ‘by the products the industry devises.’ For Trump, this was just a part of his overall bricks-and-mortar-build-the-wall rhetoric; but it was a terribly important part, a core element of his spiel’s appeal.

Still, though Trump, as with Bernie Sanders, sensed the intense anxiety around technological displacement and precarious labour, though he seized on it, he didn’t – and doesn’t – have any meaningful course of action to resist or rebut it. It’s not like he was out garnering votes in small-town Ohio by telling the unemployed that that the virtual Eden perpetually promised by the demi-gods of future is a dangerous chimera that needs to replaced by pragmatic action to replace consumption with community. As New York Times columnist David Leonhardt writes: ‘Clinton didn’t lose to Donald Trump because he had a more serious set of policies for revitalizing working-class America.’ Trump’s election, like his anti-future campaign, is a rebuttal, but not an answer.

Instead we should think of Trump’s win as the sudden swoon from flight into lifelessness for the canary in the coalmine. It’s as evocative a sign as the relentless California drought and the looming extinction of most of the planet’s largest mammals. The ascendance of Trump signifies that we’ve moved past the point of conventional politics, past, in some ways, the point of return. It signifies, if nothing else, that progress is hard to sell in a world that is literally getting hotter and more unlivable every year. Though many reject man-made climate change (a Chinese conspiracy, blusters Trump), and many more of us refuse to give up the luxuries that might avert the worst, the spiritual emptiness of living, powerless, in a time of perceptible decline, is our primary common value. We all find ourselves emotionally emptied with noticeably fewer prospects than our parents and even their parents.

In response, more and more of us are rightly rejecting technology-as-saviour and future neoliberalism (from both the right and left). But with no better option being offered to us, into the void the strongman is promising to return us to ancient ritual, the sword and the scythe, blood dripping onto land. With Trumpites pumping nostalgia direct to our veins, far-right conspiracy theory preppers round the circle with far left anti-vax dropouts. This is what a Trump win signifies: the post-political void at the end of the capitalist fantasy. Guess what? The world was burning while we looked for meaning in our Netflix echo chamber of Stranger Things and Celebrity Apprentice reruns, neato plans to terraform other planets and social media campaigns to save the species of the month.

Like a lot of people, I stuck my head in the sand during the campaign and said to myself: not yet; it’s too soon; I’m with her. I second-guessed myself, talked myself into believing that we hadn’t yet gotten to the point at which all we had was rejection, was void. But like everyone else, I was wrong. It happened. It is happening. Into the vacuum of contemporary politics voided by technological displacement, rapacious capital and the existential threat of climate change arrives Donald Trump, Brexit, Putin, Turkey’s Erdoğan and the PhillipinesRodrigo Duterteanti-future emblems of an unquenchable thirst for simplified belief systems, circles of life, the easy path back to the idyllic pre-literate past.

These yearnings are not solutions or ends. They are, instead, impulses and desires, angry fires burning our brittle principles right down to their foundations. In the anti-future we build walls. We fall back upon primal impulses. We turn inward, turn tribal. We rage impotently against the machine’s virtual reality rainbow and seek an impossible return to a real which doesn’t exist, which never existed. We vote Trump for president because, if nothing else, he was the only one; the only one who told us he loved us; the only one who promised to save us from the future and make us great again.

Hal Niedzviecki is an author of fiction and nonfiction including Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future.

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Our 2016 series continues on 27 December with writing by Charlotte Du Cann. Watch this space!

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2016: year of the serpent

2016 has been a year of turbulence, change and revolt, especially in the West. Starting this week, Dark Mountain will be publishing seven blogs by seven different writers, reflecting on the significance of what these changes might mean. The series begins this week with Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth.


We take almost all of the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious.
– W. G. Sebald

Last weekend, I was sitting in a packed room in the middle of a wild and wet Dartmoor listening to the mythologist Martin Shaw tell an old northern European story called The Lindworm. It is a tale about an unhappy kingdom. The king and queen want a child, but no child will come. An old wise woman tells the queen what she must do to conceive. She must breathe her desires into a glass and place it on the ground. From that ground, two flowers will grow: one red, one white. The queen must eat the white flower; under no circumstances must she eat the red one. Then she will bear a healthy child.

Of course, the queen is unable to resist eating the red flower too, despite all the warnings. The king and queen agree to tell no-one of the transgression, and the queen duly falls pregnant, but at the birth something terrible happens. The queen gives birth to a black serpent, which is immediately caught and flung in horror through the window and into the forest. People act as if nothing has happened, and the serpent is quickly followed by a healthy baby boy. But when the boy becomes a man, he meets his serpent brother again in the wood, and the huge black snake comes back into the kingdom to wreak terrible damage.

It’s a strange and disturbing story, and if it contains a lesson, it is, suggests Martin, that what you exile will come back to bite you, three times as big and twice as angry. What you push away will eventually return, and you will have to deal with the consequences.

2016, in the West, feels like the year the exiled serpent returned. Many things that were banned from the public conversation – many feelings, ideas and worldviews which were pushed under, thrown into the forest, deemed taboo, cast out of the public realm – have slithered back into the castle, angry at their rejection. Some people thought they were dead, but it doesn’t work like that. Dark twins can’t be destroyed; terms must be met, agreements made. The serpent must be accommodated.

And so some people’s idea of history, and its direction, comes down upon their heads, and those people flail, screaming, pointing fingers, blaming everyone else for the appearance of the monster. In the New Yorker magazine last month, editor David Remnick, friend and champion of outgoing president Barack Obama, tries to get his head around the rise of Donald Trump. How did this serpent get into the palace? Unable to deal with the possibility that the authorities themselves opened the doors – that royalty ate the flower which created the snake – Remnick comforts himself with the notion that the arc of the moral universe, in the words of Martin Luther King, bends towards justice; by which he means towards his notions of justice. ‘History does not move in straight lines’, he writes; ‘sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backward.’

History goes backward. It’s an almost comical notion. History, of course, does nothing of the sort: it is just the story of things happening, one after another. But Remnick is using the word in an eschatological sense: history to him is the continuing, inevitable path towards goals which he and his fellow ‘progressives’ consider to be just: the dissolution of the nation state, global human equality, a cosmopolitan world civilisation, fair and free trade, the spread of personal liberty and secular democracy to all corners of the globe. These goals are so obviously desirable that it is inconceivable that we should ever stop progressing towards them. Their triumph is tied in to the very fabric of time itself. The election of Donald Trump, who opposes at least some of them, thus represents a kind of anti-history. Not the real thing; an aberration which can’t last. Like a dammed river bursting its banks, progress will inevitably resume its natural course, sooner or later.

This unashamedly Whiggish view of history has been the standard worldview amongst the opinion-formers of the Western democracies since 1989, but it is now crashing, with a terrible screeching of metal and gears, directly into other notions about how the past feeds into the present. Looked at from a longer-term perspective, as a conservative would patiently explain, there is no moral arc bending in any particular direction. The elites of ancient Rome or the Indus Valley civilisation or Ur of Chaldees doubtless believed that the arc of justice was bending towards their own worldview, too, but it didn’t, in the end.

When I look at the state of the world right now, I see an arc bending towards something that dwarfs any parochial concerns about particular presidential elections or political arrangements between human nations, and which should put those events into deep perspective. I see a grand planetary shift that has not been seen for millions of years. I see that half the world’s wildlife has gone, and half the world’s forests, and half the world’s topsoil. I see that we have perhaps two generations of food left before we wear out the rest of that topsoil. I see 10 billion people needing to be fed. I see the highest concentration of carbon in the atmosphere since humans evolved. I see coming waves of political and cultural turmoil resulting from all of this, which makes me fear for my children, and sometimes for myself.

2016, from a small, localised perspective here in the wealthy democracies of the Western hemisphere, can look like the year that everything changed. But it isn’t, not really. This is not the year that the queen gave birth to the serpent, and it certainly isn’t the year that she first ate the flower. That happened a long time ago. This is the year that the serpent came back out of the forest and into the kingdom, and we got a look at its face. This is the year when we were finally forced to acknowledge what we have exiled.

Anyone who has tried to talk to someone with different opinions about the election of Donald Trump, or the British exit from the European Union, or climate change for that matter, will know that there is a madness in the air right now which goes far beyond the facts of any particular case, and which engulfs them until they are lost in the fog. When people argue about Brexit, they are not really arguing about Brexit. When they fight about Donald Trump, they are not really fighting about Donald Trump. These things have become symbols, archetypes of the kind of future we want and don’t want, the kind of people we think we are and the kind of people we think others are. It’s as if we are fighting over myths, stories, representations of the world as it is and as we want it to be.

This is an easy time to take sides, and that is why it’s a good time not to. I am a writer, and Dark Mountain began life as a writers’ project; which, at the core of its being, it remains. In times of great change, when shifts occur, when cracks appear, the public role of the writer, in my view, becomes very hard to ignore. But what should that role be? Some will join battle; many do. But I think that the terms offered are too narrow. What if neither army represents your – our – true interests? What if the battle is a distraction from the deeper malaise?

Our stories are cracking: the things we have pretended to believe about the world have turned out not to be true. And the serpent has a lot more damage to do yet. In such times, we write to make sense of things, and to examine our stories in their proper perspective. We write new stories because the old ones are half-dead now. We turn from the heat of the anger before it burns us, we let the names fall away, we walk up the mountain, sit down at the summit, breathe – and pay attention.

I think we could make a case that most of the world’s great religions, philosophies, artforms, even political systems and ideologies were initiated by marginal figures. There is a reason for that: sometimes you have to go to the edges to get some perspective on the turmoil at the heart of things. Doing so is not an abnegation of public responsibility: it is a form of it. In the old stories, people from the edges of things brought ideas and understandings from the forest back in to the kingdom which the kingdom could not generate by itself.

In the story of the Lindworm, it is not the king or the queen, nor a heroic knight on a white charger, who finally draw the serpent’s threat like poison from a wound. It is a young woman from the margin of the woods, who brings new weapons, and new cunning, into the court, and does the job which the owners of the kingdom had no idea how to do. But she does not kill the serpent. Instead, she reveals its true nature, and in doing so she changes it and everything around it. She forces the court to confront its past, and as a result, the serpent is enfolded again back into the kingdom.

Paul Kingsnorth is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project. His latest book, Beast, is published by Faber and Faber. His personal website is here.

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Storm of Progress

2016 has been a year of turbulence, change and revolt, especially in the West. Starting next week, we’re commissioning some familiar and not-so-familiar voices to reflect on the past twelve months, stepping outside the clamour of angry instant opinion to bring you a series of blog posts from the Dark Mountaintop. Watch this space!

In the meantime we bring you a bird’s eye view of progress, by Keith Helmuth.

A year ago this past January
, under the light of the full moon, I looked from the window of a jetliner over a vast expanse of the Amazon watershed. I saw the large slowly winding main trunk of the great river gradually disappearing into the eastern horizon. Just ahead I saw the confluence of a large tributary that had begun its multi-stream course on the flanks of the northern Andes. Closer at hand, and just below, another major watercourse curled into view from under the body of the plane, and meandered for some distance on a northward course before also merging into the main body of the Amazon River.

I was not prepared for this view. I was transfixed for over an hour, taking in the slow rolling scene of the slow rolling rivers and the vast forest of this still largely intact upper basin region. I knew the route and had followed the flight path monitor closely on the overnight trip to Buenos Aries two weeks earlier. But two weeks earlier there had been cloud cover, no moonlight, and I was sitting on the side facing the Andes.

Looking far to the east I could see clusters of lights at points along the river bank signalling human settlements. Scanning closer as we came directly over the course of the river, I could also see smaller clusters of lights coming further up stream. A few lights were also dotted here and there on small tributaries now visible. These settlements rose up in my mind’s eye: A fishing village here, rubber tappers there, hunters, loggers, mineral prospectors, plant researchers, all with their diesel generators pushing like demons ever deeper into the biotic integrity of the land. Indigenous peoples, resource raiders, and bio-pirates all mixed up on the leading edge of the great storm of progress.

Then, the scene changed. Coming even with the great river, and looking to the land flowing north and east, I began to see rectangular outlines and distinctly different shadings in variegated blocks. Between them and through them ran arrow-straight lines of a much lighter hue: Roads through the forest, and whole tracts of forest gone.

I have seen a lot of clear-cut forestland close-up, but from 36,000 feet the vast scale of this destruction was stunning. When I was earlier looking down on forestland yet intact, I thought about the communities of life that are tucked into every nook and cranny of this region. Those of nocturnal habit would now be out. Later, with the sunrise, another group of residents, adapted differently, would employ their life skills to good effect. With clear cutting, this fabric of life is blasted, smashed to smithereens. With clear cutting, the storm of progress has truly mounted to hurricane force.

Lifting my eyes to gaze one last time over the whole panorama rolling out to the horizon, another story of this land came into view — fire. To the southeast I saw a few smudges of orange flame and hanging smoke. And then due east and to the north, more fires; some small, some very large, considering the distance at which I was seeing them. The refuse of the cleared forestland was being burned, releasing large amounts of carbon from long-term storage into the atmosphere.

Here was another feature of the storm of progress; firestorms burning up the rain forest, preparing the way for the beef industry and the soybean business. I slumped back in my seat and thought about Bruce Cockburn’s classic 1988 song, ‘If a Tree Falls’. Speaking specifically of rain forest clear cutting, he sings:

Green brain facing lobotomy
Climate control centre for the world
Ancient cord of coexistence
Hacked by parasitic greedhead scam –

Take out trees.
Take out wildlife at the rate of a species every single day.
Take out people who have lived with this for 100,000

If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?

Does anybody hear the forest fall?


There is a kind of knowledge that comes to us as a fully rounded comprehens
ion of reality, a sense of overarching and underlying relationship that cannot be achieved by understanding an accumulation of details. Formed as we are within spheres of relationship, this knowledge is born of participation. We can call this knowledge the wisdom of the soul. Coming to this knowledge is not a matter of chronological age. It is a matter of a certain kind of experience of the world. And the earlier in life we come to this experience, the greater our chances of living within the order of the soul.

We can come to this kind of experience in delight and wonder. We can come to it in anger and agony. Wherever on this spectrum we come to this defining experience, its signal characteristic is communion – that merging of identity with the forms, presence, and process of the great world beyond the boundary of our skin and the reach of our mind. Cockburn’s song runs the gamut of this experience. Its presentation of vision and pain had long contributed to my image of what is happening to the great rainforest of the Amazon region and to many other forested areas of Earth.

Seeing the Amazon by moonlight has lodged an image in my mind that is among the strongest and most deeply imprinted experiences of my life. It resides in a zone of memory that comes into focus unbidden and with great frequency. It has become one of those constant images that connect.

To be so powerfully imprinted by a landscape from over six miles in the air, and at night, is hard to account for. It is a puzzle, but a puzzle with an answer. And the answer lies in the image, and in all the prior images and the stories they compose about this region of Earth that I have had the good fortune to encounter.

This unanticipated experience of the Amazon landscape by moonlight has enlarged my sense of communion and added to my knowledge of what it is that cannot be fully understood but, nevertheless, in our quest for guidance, must be communicated among us.

Author’s note: The irony of my story does not escape me. My experience of the Amazon was delivered while cradled in the wings of an agent of the storm of progress – an ozone-blasting jetliner. This is not a trip we ever imagined making, but when one of our sons married a woman from Buenos Aries, and a grand celebration with her family and friends was scheduled, we booked our flight. Such are the wonders of the storm of progress. Such is the story I have to offer.

Keith Helmuth has had careers in college teaching, library development, bookstore management, farming, and non-profit publishing. With his son Brendan, he is developing a small publishing company from their home in Woodstock, New Brunswick, Canada, which is focused on advancing a sense of place — the natural history and cultural heritage of the St. John River Valley.

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Remembrance for Lost Species: Why Do We Need To?

2016 has been a year of turbulence, change and revolt, especially in the West. In December we’re commissioning some familiar and not-so-familiar voices to reflect on the past twelve months, stepping outside the clamour of angry instant opinion to bring you a series of blog posts from the Dark Mountaintop. Watch this space!

In the meantime, we bring you news of this year’s Remembrance Day for Lost Species.


30th November is the international Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

Recently I was talking to a friend about an event in commemoration of species now extinct. She looked a bit puzzled. ‘Why?’ she asked. OK, that threw me. I’m not good at explaining stuff on the fly, and everyone else I’d spoken to had just ‘got it’, like a wake for lost species was a completely normal idea. I started talking about the importance of taking time to mourn, of the way society views extinction through the lens of science, but ignores the cultural importance of grief, and…  she interrupted me again, ‘Do we need to? I mean, they’re extinct, can’t we just move on?’

Do we need to? Earlier this year I saw Feral Theatre’s ‘Thylacine Tribute Cabaret‘ (Thylacine: Tasmanian Tiger; hunted to extinction by 1936). A phrase from that stuck in my mind like a tolling bell: ‘Nobody is alive now who knows what a Thylacine sounds like. The world will never hear its voice again.’ Do we really just shrug that off and keep going? We cannot change it, we cannot bring back species from extinction. Scientists are currently trying to clone the passenger pigeon, which was wiped out in 1914. They admit that even if they succeed, it will still only be a hybrid with a ‘normal’ pigeon, and DNA from one animal doesn’t make for sustainable genetic diversity. Surely a failure to acknowledge, or to mark the passing of such losses is just one more disconnect between ourselves and the world we inhabit? We are humans, we are animals. We berate our rich politicians for being out of touch with the lives of the majority, while we ourselves remain out of touch with the lives of the majority of animals on this planet.


If my sister dies of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, would I be ‘normal’ to shrug and say ‘She’s dead, so what? There’s nothing I can do.’ Or would society understand if I asked for a leave of absence from work to grieve, to organise a funeral and write an obituary, or if I suddenly developed an interest in campaigning for cancer research, or restricting government lobbying by tobacco firms? If we can see ourselves as part of the incredible variety of life on this planet, we unlock a sense of connection that enables us to see something as huge as extinction on a much more immediate scale. To truly comprehend that a voice has been forever silenced, not just that a tick box on Wikipedia has gone from ‘Critically Endangered’ to ‘Extinct’.


30th November is a chance to reconnect ourselves to the turning of this planet; to learn about lost species and tell their stories, and to renew commitments to those remaining. It is about art — music, dance, song, stories, all of it — setting its light to fill out the stories that science shows us the bones of. To make it real, immediate, and something that touches all of us. This year, one such event takes place a week later, on 7th December (venue logistics care nothing for your dramatic timing), featuring three amazing artists who each have a strong cause to be drawn to the theme of engagement with nature, environment, and loss. Tim Ralphs, storyteller and interfaith minister, says that when we are faced with something as shocking, hard and seemingly inevitable as climate change or mass extinction, we first need to pause and sit with our fears, our grief, and acknowledge how we feel; to talk, to sing, to find the stories that help make sense of the world. Sarah Smout, poet, cellist, and singer-songwriter, adds: ‘While I can’t berate humans for advancing, intellectually and technologically, I feel that the ensuing disconnection from nature is at the very heart of our destruction to the planet.’ This is one of the things that spurred her to embark upon her ‘Polar Line’ project; a travelling, collaborating, writing project to the Arctic and beyond, to ‘sit in quiet, remote lagoons of thought, to feel the pulse of the land.’ To grieve. Nancy Kerr, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, speaks of our collective need to sometimes just take the time to ‘have a good wallow’. Steeped in the folk tradition, she talks of how folk songs put a name and a human experience to the vast, complex and seemingly uncontrollable forces of war, death and loss.

Together they offer this evening as catharsis, as a connecting with hurt and grief to better understand and move through it. So that we can remain connected and still remain sane, so that we can engage instead of avoiding — and be left bigger by that engagement, not broken by its enormity.

If you are based in the North of England, an evening of Remembrance for Lost Species is at the Moor Theatre Delicatessen, Sheffield, on Wednesday 7th December. Tickets £9/12 available here. There is also a Facebook page here.

If you are based elsewhere in the world, we encourage you to join another remembrance event nearby, or start your own — have a look at the online map of events for 30th November 2016:

For further reading, Remembrance Day for Lost Species made the international press with this Guardian article published earlier this month.

Abi Nielsen is a Cotswold-born, Yorkshire-based artist with a penchant for improbable projects, and a very short attention span. Over the years she has worked with refugees and asylum seekers, both adults and children, and started a community garden on an inner city plot which wasn’t really hers (motto: ‘It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission’ – it worked).

Chats with Dougald Hine and Iona Hine drew her into Dark Mountain; she teamed up with Warren Draper and Rachel Horne to help produce The Telling– another ‘do first, ask later’ kind of project – and with Jon Nielsen to start monthly Dark Mountain conversations in Sheffield (Dark Mountain Thing). She often works with storytellers to produce artwork of all kinds to accompany events, and is a self-taught embroiderer.

Images from top to bottom: Sarah Smout, Thylacine, Extinction Symbol, Tim Ralphs

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Poems of Genesis and Degeneration

2016 has been a year of turbulence, change and revolt, especially in the West. In December we’re commissioning some familiar and not-so-familiar voices to reflect on the past twelve months, stepping outside the clamour of angry instant opinion to bring you a series of blog posts from the Dark Mountaintop. Watch this space!

In the meantime, we publish two poems by cultural critic and author John David Ebert, from his forthcoming collection ‘These Things We No Longer Are’.


Civilisation begins in wonder and awe: the visions of the planets crawling across the ebony sky; the descent of gods from the heavens who came down to take up their dwellings at the tops of ziggurats; the building of the pyramids; the raising of the cathedrals, with their transformation of the metaphysics of light into the jewelled phenomenon of the precious stones of the New Jerusalem; in every single case, it is wonder that is the motivating principle that brings new civilisations into being.

But the vision that brings the civilisation into being, alas, is mortal and eventually dies out. As the inspiring Idea is depleted through the process of incarnating it repeatedly — in art, science, music, literature, etc. — the society loses touch with the vision, and ends by becoming a practical affair of engineering achievements and technological wonders. Hence, the movement from Zeus, Apollo and Athena to the degeneration of the Colosseum, the Roman aqueducts and the huge forums that function as technological supplements and replacements for the beauty and majesty of the early gods. And when that inspiration finally loses touch with the spark that set the initial flame, the flame sputters and dies out and it cannot be revived.

This was the informing vision of Oswald Spengler’s 1918 book The Decline of the West, which Spengler had inherited from Goethe who, before him had taken it from Vico, while Vico borrowed it from Hesiod.

I have structured the following division of poems in accordance with Oswald Spengler’s cultural cycle of the birth and death of civilisation, dividing the first half into ‘Poems of Genesis’ filled with a sense of wonder and awe at the mysteries of the world as a revelation unto itself. In the second half, ‘Poems of Degeneration’, the mystery is gone and technology has taken over, enframing and blasting the world with technological substitutes: in the first cycle, living forms, stars and atoms are made by gods which constitute a powerful revelation of their informing energies. In the second cycle, technology attempts to appropriate the powers of these gods by stealing their creative abilities and substituting them with analogues in the form of genetic engineering, splitting the atom and technical wastage of the planet.

The poems below are from the forthcoming collection ‘These Things We No Longer Are’.



It was not possible
But one day they were digging
And they found the skeleton of a centaur.
In the hot dry dusty air,
They swept the dirt from the bones
Astonished as they examined the vertebrae
Which dissolved and fused with the backbone of a horse.

For a while they simply stood there
And no one knew what to say.
And the empty, scared faces of the archaeologists
Stared at one another, aghast.
But after a debate that lasted all afternoon,
They came to a resolution
And buried it again.

No one was ever allowed to speak of it
And they all agreed that it had somehow been a mistake
      of perception.

Meanwhile, the bones of the centaur slumbered beneath the dirt
And returned to the earth’s memory
Where it dreamed of an age of gods with legs like serpents
And men with the hooves of horses.

Palo Verde

It lay there upon the sand
A wreck from a vanished age
Rusted metal tubing and pipes
Massive chunks of curved concrete
Huge, fossilised, dreaming of another life

But in the desert where palm trees drank the hot sun
People lived in it: they built little houses made out of palm
Trees upon it and they crawled in and out of it
Finding decrepit metal chunks to be used for this or
…..That task
      They knew not what it was or what it had ever been
      For they had no memories of the glorious civilisation that had been there long, long ago.

But after a while some of them began developing sores on their skin
Hair falling out
Teeth loosening
Mysterious burns from some hidden invisible fire appearing on them

One day, some shaman among them said that he had had a dream:
Where they were living there was enormous power buried under the ground
Power that had once been harnessed to run entire cities
And that they must leave at once.
Evil magicians, he said, had cast a spell upon the place.
But nobody listened.

And, one by one, they all sickened and died.

John David Ebert is a cultural critic and author of nineteen books of cultural criticism, including Art After Metaphysics, The New Media Invasion and The Age of Catastrophe.

Image by Mary Church.

Mary Church is an artist whose work is featured on the cover of the poetry collection entitled ‘These Things We No Longer Are.’

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2016 has been a year of turbulence, change and revolt, especially in the West. In December we’re commissioning some familiar and not-so-familiar voices to reflect on the past twelve months, stepping outside the clamour of angry instant opinion to bring you a series of blog posts from the Dark Mountaintop. Watch this space!

In the meantime, we publish a beautiful reflective piece from a new contributor, Mike Freeman.

No need to rush. The sun wouldn’t set for a few hours and the farmers never mind how late we stay. It’s a Historic New England property, part of a constellation striving to do what we all do to varying degrees – embalm heavily-curated visions of the past. This farm has been operating on Narragansett Bay’s Conanicut Island since just after the Revolution, and today’s stewards tend sheep and cows roughly in line with that original family, internal combustion aside. Three days a week the public can wander all two-hundred some acres, most of it outcrop-spattered pasture running down to the bay. Our daughters adore it, as do we.

Shannon was five now, tall, still so wildly autistic that Karen and I ended a recent midnight conversation the only honest way we could:

‘It’s like we’ve healed a crippled wolverine,’ I said, ‘and are just waiting to see if she’ll stay.’

Anyone listening would have taken that as I would have with an outsider’s ear, but from the inside it only plunged our affections deeper. Beyond swimming we weren’t sure if we’d taught Shannon a thing, but for us she’d been a fountainhead.

Having sat on the sun-warmed stones, she was naked now, pitching shale nits to an ebbed tide. Here or elsewhere it wasn’t the first time I’d forgotten dry clothes, and when we reached the shore a half mile from the farmhouse I’d simply stripped her. At the very least, I knew, she’d wade, but with the windless day making the bay more lake than ocean she went right in, paddling up top and below, rubbing salt-soaked eyes. Once out, I sat a few yards behind her with the brine evaporating off each of us and a brace of herring gulls drifting close. Eyeing what she threw, they lilted out front like decoys before a blind.

It can’t be helped. People romanticise. We do it to everything. Past, present, future. Baseball, warfare, nationhood, love. Everything. This farm testifies to that penchant, our gift for breeding nostalgia with the future’s equally idyllic numina, all to heal a present in which we never seem settled. No matter how peaceful the age, no matter how self-satisfied the generation, a hunch shadows the human experience that in this moment – now, right now, across the world – a spiritual rot oozes from our failing morality. If we could only regain the past’s simplicity along with its accompanying rectitude we’d secure our children a spotless future.

I’m as susceptible as the rest. In witnessing the farmers’ earthy work here I succumb, envisioning what might be if we dropped it all for those scythes and shears. There aren’t many mechanical sounds on the acreage, just the occasional tractor huff outdoing the murmuring livestock, the katydids and orioles, the bobolink bustle over the hay. Whatever success, however, in preserving the past is equally attributable to absence – the sights and sounds memory purges. Slavery once poxed these islands, while the ships feeding it departed the bay in fleets, and if any one place could have tilted Native fate another way it’s Narragansett’s southern shores, where three-and-a-half centuries ago two blood-choked years fixed that compass.

Reflection, too, scrubs away life’s lesser dramas, those affecting us from the beginning. In imagining the farmers who worked this land, we only see their honest toil, not the attendant spectrum of untoward behaviour – the back-biting, the infidelities, the petty-intrigues, human life’s everyday grime. Homage, then, is quite a detergent, particularly when projected onto the coming age.

Children, of course, we romanticise most of all. Kids carnalise hope, spawning vision. At a glance Shan might squelch such dreamwork, but in time her primitive core radiates clarity.

As she does, she stood abruptly. She may have seen all she needed of splash patterns. The sun may have been too much, or the naval transport planes – groaning a few thousand feet above, performing near daily manoeuvres – might have finally disrupted her. Regardless, she erected herself, striding knee-deep back to the sea, putting one gull to sloppy-footed flight while the rest edged away. The flier turned, cupping a tight circle overhead, eliciting from Shan a delighted peel.

‘Bird,’ I said. ‘Bird,’ but if she understood or even heard there was no indication.

Wracked by a recent storm, knots of eel grass drew her next and she sloshed ashore, gathering a gnarled ball. Burying her face, she breathed deep then licked a green, ribbon-like blade. The assessment complete, she stepped forward, vaulting the grass ocean-ward, re-piquing the gulls. Whatever bacteria she picks up from such explorations doesn’t bother me, but I’ll never shake other worries. This bay, after all, birthed America’s industrial might, pumping in its heavy-metal postpartum across two centuries.

Toe-walking toward the woodline, Shannon stepped from rock to rock now, wind-milling her arms and torqueing her body as anyone with vestibular equilibrium wouldn’t. She looks like a courting crane at such times, but somehow rarely falls. The low tide had left pockets of aired-out blue mussels. Squatting, she plucked one like a mushroom, pressing it to her nostrils then slipping the oblong capsule in her mouth, swishing it from cheek to cheek before spitting. Out front, mid-bay, an inbound oil tanker cut toward Providence, the heavy August sun lighting blue water all around.

I stood, gathering Shannon’s clothes, her diaper, then followed. She’d gained the wooded trailhead, rooting around in last year’s leaves. Fondling an early walnut drop, she thumbed the green hull before tossing it, next making her naked way to pasture’s edge. Locked in forested shadow, I forgot how helpless my daughter really is, and as she fingered sun-plumped blackberries I let go. Somewhere, I thought, the Bible maybe, or deeper, down in our intuitive substrate, it must say ‘And a child did lead them.’ It must. From the canopy the season’s first cicada let loose its metallic whirr. Summer didn’t have long to go.

Mike Freeman is a full-time parent in New England (USA) and the author of the memoir Neither Mountain Nor River and Drifting: Two Weeks On the Hudson, a river narrative exploring the cultural and ecological frictions currently causing global unrest.

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Things Fall Apart


The day Donald Trump wins the US presidential election, here’s a song from our friends The General Assembly.

‘This is not a single. It is a howl.’

The General Assembly are a band from Melbourne, Australia. Their first EP, ‘Dark Mountain Music’, was released in September 2010. Their debut album is coming out soon. 

Image by Sam Irving Photography

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The Details: an interview with Jan Zwicky

We’re delighted to announce the launch of our latest book, Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics – a beautiful hardback volume of essays, poems, artwork and interviews, accompanied by an audio CD. You can order it for £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been sharing a selection of what you’ll find in its pages. For our sixth and last installment we bring you Jay Ruzesky in conversation with Jan Zwicky, with an image from the Drunken Poet’s Project by Andy Knowlton.

Andy Knowlton: Drunken Poet's Project

Andy Knowlton: Drunken Poet’s Project


JR: You have said, ‘Philosophy is thinking in love with clarity.’ Can you tell me what poetry is?

JZ: Poetry is a big genus! Epic, formal verse, free verse, nursery rhymes, song lyrics to be distinguished, at least sometimes, from lyric poetry it’s a long list! Most poetry involves rhythmically structured or patterned language, but even that (or what I’m trying to point to with that) is not true of prose poetry, which attempts to evoke the mood or emotional tone of lyric poetry while avoiding what we might call a ‘singing’ line. Wittgenstein would tell you that poetry is a ‘family resemblance’ concept: everyone in the family is related, somehow, but there’s no single trait that every family member shares. (Cousin George looks like Grandad Atwater, and Maisie looks like Bill, but none of ’em looks like anybody else.)

Within that family, one of the members, lyric poetry, interests me a lot. And if it’s OK to shift the focus a little, I can try to say something about lyric thought and expression (whatever the medium).

The word ‘lyric’ in English comes from the Greek word for lyre and so its lineage involves music. Music clearly means, but it doesn’t mean the same way that language does. Music’s meaning is a function of resonance and resonance involves a kind of integrity. Think of a chord. The chord is what it is because of the multiple resonant relations that its individual tones have to one another. If you remove one of the tones, or alter it just slightly like turning an E natural into an E flat you fundamentally change the nature of the whole. A perfectly tuned chord, we might say, is coherent. And that, I think, is the basis of what we mean by lyric thought: it’s thinking in love with coherence. It seeks understanding by finding coherence, and it strives for coherence resonant integrity in expression.

So is lyric poetry a kind of poetry that’s literally musical sort of sing-song? Not exactly, or not always: for there are many things we describe as lyric that don’t have any aural component at all. Think about Vermeer. When you hear people saying ‘Vermeer’s paintings are lyric (which they often do) what could they mean?

I’m compressing the argument here, but this is my guess: we say Vermeer’s paintings (or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus) are lyric because every detail counts. Every thing in them is resonant, every aspect is attuned to at least some other aspects. In compositions where the degree of attunement among aspects is very high, there is no real distinction between details and centres; such compositions are, we might say, radically coherent. Lyric poetry is an attempt to express lyric thought or awareness in language, and it tries to use language in a way in which every detail is resonant.

This way of thinking about lyric poetry obviates another conception of ‘lyric’, familiar to lots of English students: the Romantic conception of lyric poetry poetry as quasi-confessional, poetry that exalts the individual ego. In the kind of radically coherent composition I’m interested in, you often don’t get a confessional stance or a preoccupation with the self: you get a preoccupation with the world. The self as inevitable player in the whole can be present; but it’s not the focus. It’s there often as a gesture of humility, an acknowledgement of a perspective on the whole, but reaching toward that whole nonetheless. Is the poem about the moon, or about the finger pointing to it? In the conception of lyric I’m interested in, it turns out almost always to be about the moon.

JR: So poetry opens possibility as opposed to the way language, in a ‘scientific’ or objective way does not?

JZ: Could we make another distinction here? Science itself, and the way many scientists think, is not always that different from lyric thought. So we really do need to use the word ‘scientific’ in scare quotes, as you do, when we’re setting up this contrast. When we use it this way, we’re referring to a picture of science one common in the media and in academic humanities departments. That picture sees science as a kind of thinking bound by rigid and simplistic canons of logic, aimed at exploiting and controlling the world. This is really, still, Francis Bacon’s mid-seventeenth century conception of science.

What is the relation between lyric thought and this Baconian picture of science? I don’t think lyric poetry is ‘subjective’ in a sense that contrasts with Baconian ‘objectivity’; it’s not (principally) aimed at voicing an unchallengeable, irreducibly personal view. But I do think that if you read a good lyric poem, you have to give yourself to ways of thinking that aren’t conditioned by the Baconian ideal. And that allows you to acknowledge that you do know things in a way that Baconian science doesn’t. Culturally, we try to control such knowing by marginalising things like lyric poetry and saying, ‘Oh, the arts are about imagination, and the imagination is for making things up. What they say isn’t true“; they’re not “objective”.’ It’s all politics, that talk. It’s a way to control ways of knowing that are inimical to a cultural alliance between capitalism and technology, which is part of the West’s inheritance from the Enlightenment. The imagination can but doesn’t always ‘make things up’; in fact, imagination which allows us to perceive likenesses and similarities is fundamental to knowing the way things are.

JR: When we think of ‘environmental literature’ there are at least two aesthetic modes we might have in mind. One is the kind of writing (poetry and ‘imaginative’ writing) that is called Literature, and the other is any writing at all about the environment. In the ‘literary’ mode, poetry seems the most common form of expression about environmental ideas.

JZ: Hm. So you’re saying we don’t find as much fiction that has nature as its primary focus as we do lyric poetry? You may be right. And there’s one reason that lyric poetry might be a common way of voicing our experience of the natural world. If every detail in a lyric poem manages to be in resonant relation to the whole, then the poem is a kind of ecology. This allows its structure to be enactive, to express awareness of some other ecology without distorting it. (Of course not every lyric poem is perfect! What matters is that it is a serious attempt at enactive expression; this is what it’s aiming at. So the gesture is not, at root, structurally hostile to what it is trying to say.)

You go down to the marsh, say there are the bull rushes, and there are the water striders, and there are the frogs’ eggs. And there are little downy seeds in the air and they land on the surface of the water as it is cooling. All these ‘details’ matter to how the marsh holds together, and when we are connected to the world, breathing with the world, how we know requires a medium of expression that doesn’t, in its own structural gestures, undercut our insight. The kind of knitting, the kind of coherence we experience in the marsh, and our experience of our relatedness to it, requires a non-Baconian form of expression to do it justice. On the other hand, if you think the world is a machine, then the best way to say that is with language that functions like a machine.

JR: In her review of Lyric Philosophy Phyllis Webb says,The lyric may have had its day. Why? Because of our difficulty in maintaining a coherent world view when our personal, private psyches are fractured and the world we view [is] appalling.

JZ: This is a counsel of despair. This is to say, it’s over so don’t try. No, it’s to say more – it’s over so you can’t try.

I revere Phyllis as a thinker and artist, and agree with her that it’s over; but I think there is much beauty in the world. Even in Western European human beings, even in the midst of barbaric suffering, in the camps, on the streets. And it’s overwhelmingly present in the rainforest, under the prairie sky, on the coast of Ellesmere Island, even as these ecosystems die. I understand why Phyllis says what she says, but I actually think it’s wrong not to respond to beauty with love, to refuse to see because of pain. The world, even under threat of cataclysmic human-induced change, is a lyric whole; and opening ourselves to perception of this can heal our culturally fractured psyches.

JR: You say, ‘It’s over.’ What is?

JZ: I think massive economic breakdown is coming soon. It’s happening independently but it will ride on the heels of environmental degradation. Sea levels are going to rise. That’s all it will take. But we also know that marine ecologies are unravelling at a staggering rate. We also know that global warming is already having serious effects on many biotas. Everywhere. We can’t save them with science. We can’t save them with this culture. This culture will pay the price with its death, and with the deaths of a lot of other cultures and beings, both human and non. My guess is that the cockroaches and the anaerobic bacteria are going to survive, along with the jellyfish. How much else? I don’t know.

JR: That seems like thinking that could scare people into inaction. What other choice is there?

JZ: But don’t we do people a disservice if we think they are what? too ill-equipped? too immature? to handle the truth? Death is coming to this culture and it’s the kind of death that’s going to be like a slow motion car accident after centuries of cultural drunk driving.

‘Do what you can!’ The idea of political activism is itself woven into the fabric of Enlightenment thought. Our culture is not a culture of acceptance, nor of adapting the self to the larger circumstances. It aims to adapt the circumstances to the desires of the self. This attitude is actually part of the problem. But are there alternatives in this culture? Yes, I think so. Our situation is in some ways similar to the Warring States period in China. Think of the way intellectuals and poets reacted then – they withdrew, and embraced poverty, in order to meditate on the natural world. And there are those striking observations of Thomas Merton. He talks (is it in Seven Storey Mountain?) about the sense that he has that somewhere a couple of dozen guys are praying and they’re holding the whole damn thing together. It’s an echo of the Hebrew notion of the Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim, the thirty-six just people. What we see in all these cases is a reaction that is essentially the reaction of prayer. And by that, I don’t mean ‘Let’s pray to God so God will make it alright.’ I mean deep, reflective, meditative immersion in and compassion for what is happening. A widening of the self. There is both an acceptance of responsibility and an acknowledgement of truth in that gesture.

It’s how lyric poetry can matter, if it’s authentic. Praising and mourning. The praise song and the elegy are two sides of the same coin and they are annealed. We speak elegies when the thing that naturally draws praise from us is gone. It is in this praising and mourning really experiencing what is, and what is happening that we begin the reconstructive work of changing the culture.

And, as part of this meditative work, we recycle, and we walk or take public transit, we don’t waste water, we don’t waste heat we try to act responsibly, that is, responsively toward the other beings with whom we cohabit. But we don’t try to ‘fix’ the world. We adapt our desires to what respectful and thoughtful living allows, and in this find joy. Real joy, not some puritanical satisfaction at having ‘done the right thing’. The self widens.

JR: I’d like to ask you about your assertion that the world is ‘real’ and is ‘out there’ independent of us. I wonder if the contention that the world is real and ‘other’ than us creates a bigger separation between people and the world. Isn’t part of the problem that we see ourselves as unnatural?

JZ: Well, you know, I think many of us are unnatural. (I include myself!) Elsewhere, I’ve connected this issue to the notion of wilderness. Wilderness, I think, exists in greater or lesser degrees wherever we allow communities of non-humans to shape us at least as much as or more than we shape them. This is what it is for a human to be ‘natural’. If you don’t pay attention to the clouds and the forest, let the things you do and want be conditioned by what they do and want, you have become, to a degree, ‘unnatural. When you become more responsive, you become more ‘natural’. It is also possible for a person in the midst of an intensely urban landscape to become attuned to the chrome and the glass and so become ‘natural’ there. But then there’s the question of the relation of the chrome and the glass to the non-human world

JR: We seem a little hopeless as a species these days. And yet we do go on. I was listening to Jean Vanier’s Massey Lectures and I picked up on a line I liked very much. He says, ‘The purpose of civilisation is to help us pretend that things are better than they are.’

Somehow we seem bent on seeing order in this chaos.

JZ: We have to define ‘civilisation’. If we mean ‘culture, it’s quite clear that not only human beings possess civilisation in that sense. It’s another word for ecology. When we think of human cultures, we sometimes think of stuff artistic and intellectual efflorescences, or more recently, in this culture, technological ones. But really culture is a way of being in the world, a set of dynamic relationships.

Clearly non-humans live in cultures too. Just spend half an hour paying attention to the world ‘out there’! It’s not chaos: it’s a succession.* Plants, animals (as well as human animals) interact, depend on, communicate and have relationships that are extended in time. The idea that only humans have culture is at the heart of an anthropocentric way of seeing. Maybe that is the quintessence of this culture: that it imagines non-humans live in a kind of chaos. This is deeply sad.

JR: That sheds new light on my question: does Nature speak or does Nature listen? Well, nature speaks, we just don’t get it.

JZ: But we get enough of it to know that communication is happening, which is why there can be real, deep, interspecific relationships. And we can get better at getting it. There are human cultures that are much more predisposed to ‘get’ more of it. Sustainable cultures. If you have the good fortune to be born into a sustainable human culture, chances are the natural world is speaking loudly and with complexity to you most of the time.

JR: Such a culture would hear the resonances!

JZ: Exactly, because the humans in it would be listening.

University of Victoria, 23rd May 2008

*a term in botanical ecology


Andy Knowlton
Drunken Poet’s Project

Found materials

‘The Drunken Poet dolls are small dolls that I make by hand from trash I find on the streets. Each doll holds a little bottle and inside of the bottle, I put an original poem. I leave the dolls on the streets for people to find and keep. It feels like I am making a personal gift for someone, and hopefully, when they find it, they feel something special. I want to take people’s minds off of their daily routines by surprising them with something unique. I have made over 300 dolls, and I leave them in different neighbourhoods all over Seoul, but I have also taken them to Japan, Taiwan and the United States.’

Andy Knowlton is a poet and mixed media artist based in Seoul, South Korea. After graduating from university, he wrote a novel and several short stories, but realising it was hard to get published decided to put his poetry in the public for people to read. He put his poems in coffee shops, inside the books at the bookstore, in the pockets of clothes at the clothing store, in the cracks in the wall, and, in the Drunken Poet’s Project, in small bottles held by dolls.

Jay Ruzesky is a poet and fiction writer whose most recent book is a work of creative non-fiction called In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage (Nightwood 2013). He is on the editorial board of The Malahat Review where he has edited special issues on environmental writing (The Green Imagination Issue) and on the work of poet P.K. Page. He teaches at Vancouver Island University.


Jan Zwicky has published nine collections of poetry, including Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, Robinson’s Crossing and Forge. A new collection, The Long Walk, which deals directly with ecological cataclysm, is forthcoming in 2016. Her books of philosophy include Wisdom & Metaphor and Lyric Philosophy, recently reissued by Brush Education, as well as Alkibiades Love, published by McGill-Queens. Raised on the northwest corner of North America’s great central plain, she now lives on a small island off the west coast of Canada.

There’s more where that came from…

You can buy a copy of  Issue 10: Uncivilised Poeticsfor £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain. With poems, essays, visual art and an accompanying audio CD, contributors include Sheryl St. Germain, Mark Rylance, Robert Montgomery, John Kinsella, Susan Richardson, Robert Bringhurst, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Caroline Dear, John Haines, Bernie Krause, Robin Robertson, Alberto Blanco, Mourid Barghouti and Robert Hass.

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Seven Circles in the Book of Sharks

We’re delighted to announce the launch of our latest book, Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics – a beautiful hardback volume of essays, poems, artwork and interviews, accompanied by an audio CD. You can order it for £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been sharing a tantalising selection of what you’ll find in its pages. For our fifth installment we bring you a poem by Rob Carney, with artwork by Kate Walters.

Kate Walters: Creature Carrying Humans

Kate Walters: Creature Carrying Humans

The cousin of a shark is a manta ray;
and the cousin of a manta ray, a hawk;

and the cousin of a hawk is lightning, the ocean reborn,
returned skyward and alive with storm;

and the cousin of storms is a waterfall;
and the cousin of falling is the wind;

and the cousin of wind is erosion
leaving rock, the bones of the mountains, scattered;

and the cousin of the mountains is a row of teeth,
and another, and another behind;

and those teeth are the cousin of the manta ray,
lightning, the wind


In a story seldom remembered, sharks were ghosts
guarding the afterlife

since their rendered bodies had no skeletons,
just teeth.

The shock of that discovery
must have added new verses to songs

and widened the net of old omens,
but nobody knows. Those details

aren’t the details that lasted.
Only this: The dead

step out of their bodies, walk down
to the sea, swim out to the horizon.

For some, the passage is easy
a day, a night, a warm current there to guide them.

For others, the journey goes on and on
if they killed a bear, or left a wolf’s mate howling

and the water is cold as a shark’s eyes.
And then they see the fins.


Under the first full moon of summer,
they would carry bowls of water,

the light reflected on the surface making more,
a procession of moons moving forward.

In the centre of town was a rowboat
being filled one bowl at a time,

and this was the boat of anyone lost at sea,
gone without a burial.

Those in mourning floated candles and petals.
There may have been music on flute or strings,

but we don’t know; it’s a ritual fallen away,
and all we have left are the wives’ tales.

They say their empty bowls filled with quieter sorrow,
and with memories of the dead to carry home.

They say the boat would be gone come sunrise,
just the anchor there,

still as a headstone
by others from the years before.


We have one such anchor on display in the museum,
arrangements of fishhooks,

even spears tipped long ago with sharks’ teeth,
and figure, That’s that,

think the past
fits into our pockets.

We wander about
then buy a bar-code souvenir.

But the past is more like the wind behind us,
and the present more like a ship,

and the only pockets on a ship that matter
are the sails


and they’re wrong about the skeletons,
apart from the age of the bones,

bones buried deep but seated upright together,
all of them facing the sea

so the ancient world believed in guardian spirits
watching over the living,

and a salmon was placed with the deceased
to keep the spirit fed.

Fish bones wrapped in deerskin
were discovered in every grave

a plausible explanation, but it’s wrong.
The living were playing the part of angels,

guiding the dead to the edge of heaven,
seating them upright to find Forever in the waves.

But what about the salmon?
Well, that’s counterclockwise too:

The salmon were meant as an offering,
a present for the sharks,

a thank-you for taking our spirits
into their home.


Spearing a shark means seven days of work
that long to do the rendering

and all you get is a set of jaws and teeth,
some fragment to hang in a window

or look at over the fireplace
instead of at the fire.

I’ve heard there are monks somewhere
using human skulls as paperweights.

Not to keep old scrolls from rolling up,
or pages in place while they bind them,

but to bear in mind
we aren’t the measure of Creation. Just a part.


The edge of the sea is a teacher
so many bones:

all the shells and the sand dollars,
all the barnacles encrusted on the pier,

even wood
it used to stand upright in forests

even ash left behind in our fire pits
dug to keep warm, to boil water

and empty our crab pots
even steam rising up like the spirit of rivers,

joining clouds that drift above our graveyards,
and higher still

the moon keeps sailing through its phases,
all of them the colour of bone.


Kate Walters

Creature Carrying Humans
Monotype with oil bar and ink

During last winter I spent six weeks working on the Isle of Iona. The Bhagavad Gita was a constant companion, as were Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’. I was particularly inspired by what Rilke explores in the ‘Eighth Elegy’: animals always being in the womb of creation. In this picture the Creature carries us all, in all our stages of imperfection.

Kate Walters studied Fine Art in London, Brighton and Falmouth. She has exhibited in Jerwood Drawing and in many other national selected exhibitions and has taken part in several residencies, including the Isle of Iona (2015 – 6), the RCA (National Open Art Resident artist) and in 2017, the Isle of Shetland. Interested in sharing the phenomena which illuminate and inspire her, she’s given presentations at many UK and European Universities. As a curator, Kate recently brought together a group of artists working with the feminine paradigm called Drawing down the Feminine. Her work is inspired by many poets, especially Rilke, Raine, Mallarme and the raw physical poems of First Nations peoples.

Rob Carney is originally from Washington state in the northwest corner of the USA. He is the author of four books of poems, most recently 88 Maps (Lost Horse Press, 2015). His work has appeared in dozens of journals, as well as Flash Fiction Forward (W.W. Norton, 2006). He is a regular contributor to the online journal Terrain: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments, where his poems and features are archived at He is a Professor of English at Utah Valley University and lives in Salt Lake City.

There’s more where that came from…

You can buy a copy of  Issue 10: Uncivilised Poeticsfor £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain. With poems, essays, visual art and an accompanying audio CD, contributors include Sheryl St. Germain, Mark Rylance, Robert Montgomery, John Kinsella, Susan Richardson, Robert Bringhurst, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Caroline Dear, John Haines, Bernie Krause, Robin Robertson, Jan Zwicky, Alberto Blanco, Mourid Barghouti and Robert Hass.

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No More Words for Snow

We’re delighted to announce the launch of our latest book, Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics – a beautiful hardback volume of essays, poems, artwork and interviews, accompanied by an audio CD. You can order it for £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been sharing a tantalising selection of what you’ll find in its pages. For our fourth installment we bring you an essay by Nancy Campbell.


And if the sun had not erased the tracks upon the ice, they would tell us of […] polar bears and the man who had the luck to catch bears.
– Obituary for Simon Simonsen, called ‘Simon Bear Hunter’ of Upernavik¹


Ilissiverupunga, Grethe muttered. Id only recently learnt the word. It meant Damn! Ive put it away in a safe place and now I cant find it.

Mornings at Upernavik Museum: an endless round of kaffe and conversation as local hunters dropped by to discuss ice conditions. Wishing to make progress in my research into Greenlandic literature, Id asked Grethe, the museum director, whether she knew of any poetry books. But the bibliographic collections held mainly old black-and-white photographic records of the settlements, and kayaking manuals.

Illilli! Grethe called an hour or so later, There you are! She emerged from a doorway almost obscured behind a stack of narwhal tusks and proudly presented me with a 1974 hymnbook, its homemade dust-wrapper culled from an offcut of pink wallpaper.


Upernavik is a small, rocky island on the west coast of Greenland. At 72º north, it is well within the Arctic Circle, and the museum claims to be the most northern in the world. The regions coastline is described as an open-air museum. That is to say, people suspect there are interesting artefacts lying, undiscovered, everywhere under the ice. No matter that they cannot be seen. They exist, and the empty museum building awaits their arrival patiently. One of the museums prize possessions is an old motorboat in which, during the short summer, Grethe visits people in distant coastal settlements who claim to have found an interesting specimen, perhaps a carved flinthead or an unidentified bone. As these visits are often combined with trips to distant family members and rarely seem to result in artefacts being brought back to the museum, the institution evidently fulfils a social function, knitting together isolated communities along the shores of Baffin Bay.

During my stay on Upernavik as writer-in-residence at the museum, I wanted to discover more about my peers, the contemporary poets of the Arctic. The local people I met denied any knowledge of such activity. Research doesn’t always lead in the direction you expect: instead of books, it was my conversations with the islanders and observation of their interaction with the landscape that gave me a new perspective on the practice, and the endurance, of poetry in Greenland.

Grethe’s hymnbook was a perfectly logical offering. In Arctic tradition, elevated verbal expression took the form of songs rather than poems. These songs have been roughly categorised as charms, hunting songs, songs of mood and songs of derision. The ‘charms’ were used in shamanic rituals to cast spells or cure illnesses, and were closely guarded secrets; they could be used, for example, to stop bleeding, make heavy things light, or call on spirit helpers. The other categories were public, being performed at feasts and flyting matches, accompanied by drumming and dancing. When the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen began to transcribe the songs, he declared that his neat written language and [] sober orthography [] couldnt bestow sufficient form or force to the cries of joy or fear of these unlettered people

The measure of poetic success was that a song was worth listening to, as Tom Lowenstein demonstrates (in his translation of Rasmussens transcription of a song by Piuvkaq):

I recognise what I want to put into words,
but it does not come well-arranged,
it does not become worth listening to.

Lowenstein describes the intense performance anxiety the poet might suffer: Forgetting the words, in a culture without paper, would be like losing the song. No-one would be there to prompt. It would be as if the words no longer existed at all. This fear of forgetting is resonant, considering the losses faced by Inuit culture today, now that many traditional practices have fallen out of common use.

For a long time the Inuit did not know how to store their words in little black marks They had no inclination to. Had they felt a need to apply their technical ingenuity to the problem of recording language, the course of bibliographic history might have been altered. As it is, publishing technology was introduced to Greenland by Danish missionaries during the late 19th century. The printing press preserved some legends, but the songs – because of their strong shamanic connections, not to mention occasional explicit content – were suppressed. The drums used in shamanic rituals were burnt in an attempt to oust heathen beliefs, an act as sacrilegious as a book-burning in Europe.

Hushed and drumless, the Danish colonists tried to locate the rich sounds of Kalaallisut, the Greenlandic language, within their known orthography. The Roman alphabet was introduced to facilitate printing with conventional metal type imported from Europe. Kalaallisut, the standard dialect, is caught between cultures, one of the few Eskimo-Aleut languages to use an alphabetic rather than syllabic orthography (compare its close relative, Inuktitut or ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑐᑦ, found in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, Canada). Yet what impact has two hundred years of printing made? In 2009 the Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger designated Kalaallisut as being ‘vulnerable’ and predicted that the North and East Greenlandic dialects will disappear within a century.


When I began to learn Kalaallisut I had to ask my teachers to write the words down. They were bemused that I should find this more useful than hearing them spoken. Each time a word was written it would be spelt differently, and so the bemusement was passed on to me. Grethe told me that schools are not overly concerned about spelling: little children are bamboozled by the long words, and surely it is understandable that they get lost in the middle and miss out a few syllables? Teachers are more inclined to indulge the children than instil superficial spelling conventions.

Many of the islanders found expressing themselves in writing challenging. Speech is still the touchstone for communication: mobile phones and Skype are just as popular in Greenland as they are in the UK, whereas emails are approached with even more dread. It seems inevitable that future Arctic archives will be as sparsely furnished as those of the past.

I began to find English finicky and prim in contrast with Kalaallisut. As though they were knucklebones used in a game of dice, I shook up my tiny words and scattered them before my audience, having little influence on the score. Kalaallisut is more densely woven than English, with its smaller alphabet (18 letters) and polysynthetic words. When it is spoken, the suffixes are uttered so softly that an untrained ear cannot hear them. Sentences seem to trail off into silence.

Kalaallisut will use a single word to express a concept that English tiptoes around with a phrase. I was delighted to find signifiers for the sea rises and falls slowly at the foot of the iceberg (iimisaarpoq) and the air is clear, so sounds can be heard from afar (imingnarpoq). The language is famous for its many words for snow. This wide vocabulary for environmental conditions is of fundamental importance in understanding the Arctic ecology. As Barry Lopez points out in his book Arctic Dreams, contemporary scientists who arrive in the Arctic to assess climate change without a grasp of Kalaallisut risk being as crude as the early explorers who rushed to make their conquests of the North Pole without using established Inuit techniques for transportation and survival on the ice.

A map by the cartographer R.T. Gould in the National Maritime Museum in London delineates the last known steps of one such expedition led by Sir John Franklin, an ambitious Victorian quest to find the North-West Passage (18458). Goulds map depicts a land marked not by geographical features but by ominous xs: caches of letters, pemmican and bones found by search parties. These clues to Franklins disappearance, linked by a red dotted line, eventually peter out in a question mark surrounded by blank paper.

The North-West Passage can be located by satellite these days, and few uncharted regions remain for those wishing to make their reputation as explorers. Yet despite advances in knowledge, Arctic geography still challenges the complacency of the modern traveller. Much of the visible environment is characterised by transience. The Pole is a shifting entity rather than a fixed point. Icebergs drift along the horizon, an ever-changing mountain range. The shore-fast ice forms an increasingly unpredictable border between land and sea; it disappears almost as fast as the tracks that pass across it. The geographer Nicole Gombay writes that these conditions ‘require an awareness that the future cannot be predicted. As a result, people must focus on the present. Inuit have often told me, “Today is today, and tomorrow is tomorrow. Dont bring today into tomorrow, and dont bring tomorrow into today.”’4 Peoples distrust of fixing future plans is balanced by an ability to let go of the past. As Heraclitus might have said, it is impossible to step on the same ice floe twice.


ome mornings when I sat down to write at my desk overlooking the harbour, the sea outside my window seemed like a black cauldron covered with dark frost smoke (as Robert Scott once described the phenomenon in his Antarctic journals). Other days, it was hidden by ice, and I watched the hunters make their way across the perilous expanse until they were just little black marks in the distance. The shadowy figures stepped carefully, pausing often, and tested the ice with their chisels before putting any weight on it. They were adept at interpreting patterns and sounds in the ice, which told them where to step to avoid falling into the freezing water. Each man’s understanding of the ice was essential to his survival. (Once upon a time, the intense dangers faced during such expeditions had inspired the composition of songs, and even provided a metaphor for the process of composition: in a common trope, ‘the right words’ are as elusive to the singer as a seal or a caribou.)

The hunters ramshackle workstations awaited their return. These illukasik had no walls, no roofs and no doors. There was nothing to obscure a hunters view of his terrain, and nowhere to hide a secret. Domestic objects were left to rust under the open sky. The snow was a part of these skeletal structures as well as their backdrop; deep drifts were conscripted as tool racks. Ladders were lashed to the upright timbers but rather than providing a means of ascent they held struts together or secured them to the ground. Green twine wound about the cornices in endless orbits that stood in for more sturdy knots. The whole island appeared to be held together by an armature of twine and chicken wire beneath the snow.

Illukasik evolve. Beams are nailed to the joists, clothes racks tied to the beams. Sealskins are sewn to stretching frames and fish are hung up to dry out of reach of ravenous dogs. An accumulation of clothes pegs, knives and beer bottles adds a distinct signature to each hunters creation. Between snowfalls, the outer boundaries of the illukasik are pitted with holes cast by phlegm, drops of oil and cigarette butts. Fresh lines of blood are traced across the island nightly as seal carcasses are hauled from the successful hunters plots to waiting kitchens.

Sometimes, silhouetted in twilight, the illukasik looked like creatures rising from the sea. In these manmade objects I sensed something more than functional architecture. Folk tales describe hunters who created living monsters, tupilak, from sticks and stones and breath. The traditional Inuit religion is animist, and the culture is strongly influenced by the belief that an inue or soul imbues every material thing, from a rock to a harpoon head, informing its purpose. And so, as the wind howled around the illukasik, I thought of them as expressive marks on the landscape, almost akin to song. While Inuit songs were intensely personal, and singing anothers composition without crediting the original author was frowned upon, the singers employed respectful variations on traditional themes. The ikiaqtagaq or ‘split song’ was a conversation over time, its lyrics added to, and developed, by successive singers. Likewise, the design and materials of these improvised buildings diverged little from those I had seen in old photographs in the museum. Here was the continuation of a creative tradition that I sought.


When you store something away in a safe place, there’s always the danger you won’t find it again. Perhaps it is simpler to accept loss at the outset. The absence of printed language in the Arctic seems to hold more poetic resonance, more potency than the more tangible literature I had grown up with. I wondered whether a poet writing in English today could be active without publishing, and even whether there might not be a case for silence as a poetic stance in a culture so unremittingly orientated towards self-preservation and self-promotion?

With these thoughts I turned from the museum’s bookcase (or, as I had learnt, illisivit the root word of ilissiverupunga) to the gallery vitrines. There I found evidence left by earlier visitors: barometers and log books from explorers’ vessels, and the highlight of the collection – the Kingittorsuaq Runestone, engraved with a short text by three Norsemen around 800 years ago and left in a cairn on a nearby island. Only the men’s names could be read; the second half of their message is lost, written in mysterious characters that can’t be deciphered, even by experts. The truncated story of these Viking travellers is emblematic of the history of the Norse in Greenland. None of these settlers would survive the 15th century, in part because they were unable to withstand the cooling climate of the Little Ice Age. The Runestone also demonstrates that giving a message material form does not necessarily guarantee communication.

With the media saturated by images of the Arctic, it seems no longer necessary to convey its appearance, but rather the timbre of its many voices. The anthropologist Edmund Carpenter suggests that in cultures where transience is more evident, process is valued over preservation: ‘Art and poetry are verbs, not nouns. Poems are improvised, not memorised; carvings are carved, not saved. The forms of art are familiar to all; examples need not be preserved. When spring comes and igloos melt, old habitation sites are littered with waste, including beautifully designed tools and tiny carvings, not deliberately thrown away, but, with even greater indifference, just lost.’5 

It is increasingly apparent that our planet, including all its museums and libraries, is facing a devastation even more extreme than that of the great Alexandrian repository. Gombay addresses Western society as well as that of the Inuit, saying, In the face of knowledge that ultimately we are at the mercy of forces over which we have no control, how are we to react? We can choose to ignore such awareness – dig in our heels and do all that we can to find a means of establishing supremacy over the essential instability of existence, or, we can give in to it and accept that our experience is ephemeral.6  When the last of the ice has melted, the vanished tracks upon it will be the least of our concerns. No-one will be there to prompt. It will be as if words never existed.


1 Quoted in Hansen, K. Nuussuarmiut: Hunting Families on the Big Headland, Meddelelser om Grønland, vol. 345: Man & Society, vol. 35, 2008, p. 146
2 Rasmussen, Eskimo Folk Tales, Kessinger Publishing, 2010
3 Ibid.
4 Gombay, N. ‘“Today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow”: Reflections on Inuit Understanding of Time and Placein Collignon B. & Therrien M. (eds), Orality in the 21st century: Inuit discourse and practices. Proceedings of the 15th Inuit Studies Conference, INALCO, 2009
5 Carpenter, E.S. Eskimo Realities, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1973, p. 57
6 Gombay, op.cit

Images by Nancy Campbell.

Top: Houses look out over Disko Bay, in Ilulissat, Greenland. Ilulissat means ‘icebergs’ in Kalaalissut.
Bottom: Kayaker in Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland.


Nancy Campbell is a writer and book artist whose work responds to cultural and climate change in polar and marine environments. Nancy’s publications include How To Say I Love You In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet (winner of a Birgit Skiöld Award) and the poetry collection Disko Bay, shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016. She is currently touring The Polar Tombola, a live literature project documenting the relationship between endangered languages and landscapes.

There’s more where that came from…

You can buy a copy of  Issue 10: Uncivilised Poeticsfor £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain. With poems, essays, visual art and an accompanying audio CD, contributors include Sheryl St. Germain, Mark Rylance, Robert Montgomery, John Kinsella, Susan Richardson, Robert Bringhurst, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Caroline Dear, John Haines, Bernie Krause, Robin Robertson, Jan Zwicky, Alberto Blanco, Mourid Barghouti and Robert Hass.

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.