The Dark Mountain Blog

In Other Tongues: Badger Dissonance

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

Hare Shrine

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

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

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

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

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Taking Rewilding Seriously

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

Wildness is the Focus

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

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

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

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

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

The Land Comes First

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

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

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

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

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

Start from the Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GeronimoRinehart

Rebuke the Idols of Civilisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we ready to be viewed like the Ishmaels?

Live Wild

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

John Jacobi is a part of the Wild Will Project.

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

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To a Faith in Place

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

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

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

Stephen, a hardy man in a young body.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 You can watch the film trailer here.

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

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The Dark Humanities: Cosmic comfort in the Anthropocene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Day After We Sold the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A Part of Its Breathing

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

I am Night. I am everywhere light is not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes

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Bottleneck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A baby passes through a bigger aperture.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

‘I’m sorry,’ says Clare.

‘For what?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you following a news story?’

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

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

‘When I get round to it.’

‘Seriously, you look tired.’

‘I’m in training.’

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

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

‘It’s good to be back.’

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


***

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

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

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

‘Huh?’

‘You seem preoccupied.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I think I can manage something simple.’

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

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

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

‘If what matters?’

‘In the grand scheme of things.’

‘Ajay.’

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

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

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

‘What do you mean?’

‘See for yourself.’

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

‘Shall I bullet point it for you?’

‘No, just tell me outright.’

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

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

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

‘You said they gave assurances.’

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

‘So who owns the largest share?’

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

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

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

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

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

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

‘Can’t hear you, love.’

‘I’m thirsty.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their child is coming into the world.

Nothing can stop it now.

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

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

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

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

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‘There’s Something Wrong With the Bees’: On Sun Hives and Crisis Houses

NBKT Sun Hive 1

The form of an organism – and its relationship to the space around it – will reveal to us the characteristics of its being1

The Bee

I have a memory of having to do an exercise at school. A sheet of paper was divided into two columns, with pictures of animals on one side and pictures of animal products on the other. You had to draw straight lines to match them up. Cow and milk. Sheep and woollen socks. Bees and honey. I wonder why I remember this. It must have unsettled me in some way. It wasn’t an intuitive way of viewing animals, at least not to a child’s mind. Maybe characteristics such as the sounds they make – moobaabzz – (or in Germany where I spent a few of my younger years – muhmäh – summ) would have seemed more appropriate. From the earliest age, we are encouraged to look at life in terms of what can be extracted from it. What we can take, rather than what we can give. We do not think of ourselves as stewards, guardians of the earth. We are managers. Consumers.

When we think about bees, we often refer to them as a colony. A family may consist of up to 50,000 bees, all related by blood, scent and purpose. Another way of perceiving the bees, and one that appears quite naturally in mind if you spend any length of time with them, is as a single organism consisting of all the individual bees and their honeycomb together. In this way each bee is akin to a cell, the cells together forming organs, the organs together a system, an organism with many parts, each aspect indivisible from the others. Thinking about a single bee is like thinking about a single cell in an eyeball without considering its context in the body – its dependence on arteries, tissues, orbit, muscles and brain – all the things that together permit sight. You may choose then to refer to the Bee, a name encompassing all the bees in a particular nest as well as their comb.

The hive is in many ways similar to a mammal. Its heat is carefully regulated – on hot days bees will stand in the entrance and fan their wings to introduce an air current. On cold days they’ll cluster within the hive, ensuring that the temperature is maintained at the warmth necessary for the survival of queen and young. This temperature is precise – only slightly lower than the temperature of a human body. Young bees are raised internally, in an area called the brood nest.

The bees waterproof their home with propolis, an antibacterial paste made from the resin of trees. The scent of propolis is heavenly. A transcendent perfume. One sniff and you are transported into the realm of the Bee – one of nectar, air and light.

Once you begin to think of the bees in this way, the idea of removing a comb as it pleases you, of extracting honey and using wax for candles and beauty products becomes problematic. You are not just reaching into a box of insects, but entering the body of a living animal.

The Sun Hive

German sculptor and beekeeper Günther Mancke united his extensive observations and artistic vision to guide the creation of a new kind of hive for the bees. He called it the Weissenseifener Hängekorb. In English we call it the Sun Hive. Round in shape, it is designed with the needs and natural preferences of the bees in mind. This marks a profound difference between the Sun Hive and ‘conventional’ hives, which have developed according to human convenience, prioritising ease of access, ease of honey harvest.

NBKT interior view of Bien house
Günther noted that bees often choose to make their homes in the hollows of trees, at a preferred height of between 2.5 and 6 metres. The Sun Hive is therefore suspended from a tree or from a purpose-built frame. It must be sheltered from the rain. When unconstrained by the boxes we put them in, bees build rounded combs. The curve of the comb is determined by the arc of a chain of bees stretching from one side of the nest to the other and can be calculated according to the formula for a catenary curve. The form of the Sun Hive mirrors this curve, allowing the bees to build their comb without impediment.

The shape of the Sun Hive echoes the oblong form of a bee’s body. It consists of a combination of two skeps (coated with cow dung for warmth) and wooden support structures. Skeps are baskets woven from natural materials, usually rye straw (biodynamically grown where possible). They have been used as beehives for hundreds of years, although the use of box hives with movable combs quickly became more popular by the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Sun Hive is a conservation hive whose form is guided by the needs of the bees rather than the aim of honey production.  A bee-centric approach recommends minimal intervention in the life of the hive. The Sun Hive is therefore seen by many conventional beekeepers as a threat not only to their practice of honey harvesting but also to the health of bee populations as a whole. Advocates of the Sun Hive often refer to themselves as bee guardians or natural beekeepers – they aim to provide habitat for the bees but to otherwise leave them in peace. Some see this hands-off style of beekeeping as irresponsible. The chemical treatments used to control bee pests such as varroa are claimed to be indispensable, despite the fact that untreated, unmanaged bees do just fine on their own as they have done for millennia. The Sun Hive is designed with a movable comb system, unlike a traditional skep basket. This permits the bee guardian to inspect the hive when necessary, although such inspections are kept to a minimum and the bees are not treated with chemicals.

Weak colonies die. Strong colonies swarm. They split in two. This is their means of reproduction. A virgin queen goes forth on her mating flight and only the strongest, healthiest, fastest males are able to mate with her. Swarm suppression, queen breeding and importation, artificial insemination, the use of chemical treatments and pesticides – is it any wonder that ‘colony collapse disorder’ is occurring with increasing frequency in places where practices such as this are mainstream? Humans interfere with natural processes and then wonder why things go awry. Must be something wrong with nature, we say. There’s something wrong with the bees.

The boxes we’ve built for the bees reflect our own homes with their angular walls and corners. Our cubic, linear thinking. We find it hard to think in curves. The move away from keeping bees in skeps has been ‘a move away from the principle of rounded forms to that of cuboid and square ones, and thus from the holistic and organic to the atomistic and additive. That is to say, the materialistic modes of thought that have been developing since the fifteenth century have also come to permeate the relationship between mankind and the bee.’2

Each bee has a role within the hive. This is a fiercely and undeniably interdependent community in which the work of each serves the needs of all. Far from the ‘rigidity of parallel lines and the monotony of equal distances’3 characterised by conventional box hives, the Sun Hive epitomises love – both the love of humankind for the bees, and the principle of love at work within the hive itself. As author and social activist bell hooks writes: ‘remember, care is a dimension of love, but simply giving care does not mean we are loving’.4 Just showing care for the bees is not enough – ‘there can be no love without justice’.5

With our shrinking forests and dwindling forage, the bees face a diminishing habitat. The Sun Hive and other bee-friendly hives, such as log hives and the Freedom Hive (a cylinder made of wood and straw, lighter than a log hive and easily hoisted into trees or placed on a tripod stand) created by beekeeper Matt Somerville, seek to restore lost habitat. A resurgence in traditional practices such as tree beekeeping (in which hollows are formed in living trees) and the work of communities of natural beekeepers and allies such as the Natural Beekeeping Trust, based in southern England, represent a vital turning of the mind and will towards giving to rather than taking from the bees.

Crisis house

I recently took a trip to Scotland, thought I’d spend a couple weeks in these northern lands to which I’m drawn by a mysterious magnetism. I wanted to simply be there, and also to meet with potential doctoral supervisors at universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow. I’d looked forward to this journey for some time, but I’d been struggling with the sense of crushing fatigue that is often a feature of my life with chronic illness. Instead of abandoning my plans, I opted to take the train rather than drive.

With hindsight, I see that I expected to find an illuminated path waiting for me in Edinburgh. Everything would click into place and I’d know what I was supposed to do. Instead, I found myself on a bridge over Waverley Station. I was on the edge, looking. I went back to my rented room and sobbed. I lay silently on the bed staring at the ceiling. It got dark outside.

I called a local Thai place, ordered a curry for collection. Stepped out feeling shaky, pierced by streetlights and voices, unsteady on my feet. I sat on a bench opposite the curry house just south of the Meadows and it was there I realised that I was ill again, that I wasn’t just having an emotional moment, I needed help.

I ended up in a crisis house. I was fortunate to find myself there instead of the hospital. I was free to be myself without the imposition of other people’s prescribed modes of health and being. I was able to express myself, to rest and to recover in a way that felt right for me. When I’ve been hospitalised in the past, I’ve been treated as a case to be managed, a problem to be solved, a body to be confined and kept alive. In a residential crisis house you are regarded as an autonomous human, albeit one in pain. It provides a safe space to be with that pain, to move through it instead of around it, to encounter it instead of numbing or ignoring it. I emerged on the other side of my distress without the need for medical intervention.

There are very few such crisis houses in the UK and in my view there should be more. I have experienced this setting on both sides – as a guest and also as a volunteer at a house in north London, where I served as a befriender for several years. People in crisis are initially befriended over the phone. Conversations may lead to an invitation to stay at the house for five days, free of charge, where the guest will encounter and be befriended by numerous volunteers. The essence of befriending is non-judgemental active listening. Not trying to fix, to deny, to solve, to dismiss, to console. Simply being with the person and accepting them as they are. No matter what they’ve done or what’s been done to them. Honouring their intrinsic value, validating their experiences, holding hope for them when they are hopeless. It was a compassionate and demanding place to work. By no means does it transform the lives of everyone that comes to stay. Five days is hardly enough to undo a lifetime of trauma or heal a broken heart. But providing people with an opportunity to reflect, to be heard, is invaluable. Ultimately the crisis house maintains that humans have the right to choose to end their lives. The hope is that they will find another option, and that they can be supported to think carefully before making this decision.

As someone living with ongoing physical and mental health problems, I feel especially grateful for places that allow me to simply be – that don’t make me feel worthless, dispensable or a burden. The amount of energy that goes into hiding sickness could be better spent on other things. ‘For where I am closed, I am false’, says Rilke. I need contemplative time built into the fabric of my days. If I don’t get it I start to become unwell.

Love is generous and fearless. It creates space for something to be itself, to evolve, to be ever in flux and in harmony with its own nature. Sometimes I feel I’m being forced into a form that doesn’t suit me. I must seek a habitat for myself in which I can flourish.

honeycomb pic

The wisdom of beings

The pathologisation of distress is in many ways akin to the pulling out of weeds we deem unsightly but that may be contributing to the health and balance of the soil. When we think in terms of roundness rather than linearity, we recognise the vast ecological network in which all things are connected. This isn’t to say that there are never times when pulling weeds or medicating distress is beneficial or even necessary to promote wellness. But my instincts tell me we are too quick to judge things on the basis of immediate utility rather than longer-term sustainability and growth.

In considering the Sun Hive alongside my personal experiences of distress, I do not mean to use the bees as a metaphor, to plunder nature for her poetry. Instead I wish to suggest that our reductive attitudes towards both bees and human health may be symptomatic of a prevailing mindset of exploitation and control. When we operate from a place of fear rather than of love, there can be no health, no harmony. There is much to learn from the Bee. By offering our attention and letting go of our received knowledge we may come to understand her true nature, with humility, awe and kindness.

What would happen if we trusted in the innate wisdom of beings? What if we permitted things to live according to their own principles, allowed them to organise their own lives? Consider the wisdom of the swarm. The triumphant joyous flight of a virgin queen. We have much to gain from acknowledging that not everything can be known. That what we think of as ‘understanding’ is often inadequate. Purely cerebral thinking is in many cases disengaged, confined to existing constructs and narrow vocabularies that seek to make sense of and thereby limit life. Our words imply a world of things with secure identities to which things happen, rather than a fluid world populated by beings in a process of becoming. If our language and our modes of being and relating could somehow make room for surprise, discovery and change, how different we might feel. Ultimately our feelings are not the priority, but rather liberation from a human-centric and materialistic way of thinking that limits the potential of humans, bees and the broader ecosystem of which we are both part.


1. Günther Mancke, The Sun Hive. Natural Beekeeping Trust translation of newly revised and expanded version of the German 2005 edition of Günther Mancke: der Weissenseifener Hängekorb – Eine Alternative.
2Mancke, p.74.
3. Mancke, p.70.
4. bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions, Harper Perennial, 2001, p.8.
5.  hooks, p.19.

Sun Hive photographs courtesy of the Natural Beekeeping Trust. Honeycomb picture by Carrie Foulkes.

Carrie Foulkes is a maker, poet, researcher and Bee person. She is currently based in London, where she is an artist in residence at St Katharine’s Precinct, Limehouse. Carrie has been selected to participate in the Bee Time artist residency in Vejer de la Frontera, Spain, in autumn 2017. Her website is carriefoulkes.com. You can find out more about the Natural Beekeeping Trust at naturalbeekeepingtrust.org

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Sculptures from the Anthropocene

A1
Our tenuous hold on life – framed, as it were, within our doctrine of ‘living in the moment’ – seems all the more fragile when one considers the sheer inability displayed by the human species to understand and act on the threats now posed to society. The damage wreaked on our environment by the emissions of toxic chemicals, habitat destruction and the paradigm of ‘growth whatever the cost’ continues, and yet for world governments it’s still business as usual.

From an early age (birth to be precise), our education is designed to rule out informed interrogation into the order of things; subject matter is fed to us purely to equip us for the world of work. The idea that people could live and thrive in an alternative construct of society does not even get discussed, unless it is past cultures which are conveniently described as ‘primitive’. The receptive brain of a child soaks up all it is told; by the time the few with enough imagination to challenge the perceived wisdom voice their thoughts it is too late, they realise they can have any colour – as long as it is black.

As a child, my mother took me to London’s Natural History Museum and, like most children, I was spellbound by the huge dinosaur skeletons – their vastness, their teeth and claws, the sheer scale left me wide-eyed with wonder; and yet, despite the obvious power of these creatures, we were told at school that they were weak and died out very quickly, whereas humans were highly successful, they invented tools, grew food, and, above all, were ‘civilised’. I believed this. In reality, modern human time can be measured in a few tens of thousands of years (with only the last 200 years witnessing the destruction of the environment on a major scale, to the point where the future of humanity is brought into question), whereas the dinosaurs, that weak, ill-equipped species, actually existed for around 160 million years! To my way of thinking, that’s pretty successful.

Seeing these vast vestiges of past life standing still on display in a museum setting, and seeing how we, as humans, view ourselves in terms of time and our place in the world, led me to the area of creative activity that I am currently working on. Humankind now faces the end of an existence in which the planet’s resources can be plundered, destroyed and polluted with complete abandon. It would be easy, as is often done, to blame individuals; in fact, the simple truth is that the current way society is organised is based on growth and profit – the environment, the life with which we share the planet, and indeed people themselves, come second to these objectives. Most people find it impossible to imagine a society that is fundamentally different from that in which we now live – we are told that people are ‘naturally’ selfish, it’s just progress or ‘we’ve got to move on’. Why must we believe this? It is interesting to consider than when the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer societies made the transformation into the Neolithic, agrarian societies, this did not happen over thousands of years – it was a matter of a few generations. To change society into a form in which we grasp the concept of what it is to be human and how we live alongside each other in a mutually happy and beneficial way can happen; it just needs people to understand that this society is flawed and cannot be allowed to continue. I say again – it is not the people but the model we choose to live under.

As I write this, a brief radio news item tells us that scientists have reported that two-thirds of coral on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have now been destroyed – bleached and dead as the water temperatures rise. This was quickly followed by some sports news, then probably forgotten by most listeners. Once lost, do the wonders of our world just get forgotten and cease to mean anything to us? I have never seen a coral reef, but I certainly want it to continue to exist, as I do wildflower meadows, elephants, honey bees, butterflies and indeed, numerous life forms that are now threatened with extinction.

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Imagine for a moment the Palaeolithic hunter; he is hungry, his sense are heightened and acute to a level we simply cannot imagine, he looks out onto a landscape untouched by human activity: rivers full of fish, unimaginable numbers of birds and animals, the air clear and scented with the nearby plants – that is his normality. Would he be troubled by the past or future? What we see today is our reality; if we have never heard a corncrake or seen flocks of lapwings, can we be expected to regret their disappearance? Do young people, shackled as they are to a life of screens, social media and the importance of self, trouble themselves over coral reefs or the decline of butterflies? Do they need to? What they experience is their normality. But I am worried, very worried that our senses have been cauterised and the sheer beauty of life is ebbing away and; in the end, it will not be there even if we want it.

I am fortunate in that my working life has allowed me to spend considerable periods of time over many years living in remote areas, predominantly the Arctic. Through living with the Inuit, still – to some extent, a hunter-gatherer culture– one gets a profound sense of the importance of our connection with the land and animals that provide the means of survival; furthermore (and this seems to happen only after a relatively long period of time), living in a place where human figures are mere specks within a vast untouched landscape, a true wilderness, gives one a clear and deep sense of just how insignificant we are.

To journey through a wilderness with an open mind and for a long enough period of time can allow a person to begin to experience a different level of consciousness which, in ‘normal’ life, would not be attainable. Some years ago I was nearing the end of a 400-mile journey across Greenland’s vast ice cap. I had pulled a loaded sledge containing my food, tent and fuel, but little else for comfort or entertainment. I had one companion.

After 40 days of grinding labour across endless ice fields, mountains and crevasses, I saw the fjords and mountains of the west coast; by this time we had virtually no food and I knew the feeling of hunger. The reason I mention this is because as we left the ice and entered the Arctic rocks and tundra, at the point where the ice sheet meets ‘land’, I had an overwhelming feeling of connection and ‘oneness’ with the hostile terrain I found myself in – it seemed somehow linked to my inner self; I felt hardwired into the landscape, liberated, and was seeing my surroundings through the eyes of a wild animal. It was a truly wonderful feeling which, sadly, dissipated soon after we finally reached a small town on the west coast.

I felt later that this power of connection to nature, the environment and landscape would have been normal for early hunter-gatherer cultures, so much so that they would not have reflected on it any more than we might on other human responses such as sadness, love or pain. The current human condition, particularly in the western world, gives little opportunity and virtually denies people the ability to engage with nature and the environment. The fact that beauty, wonder, happiness and the profound feeling of what it is to be human can be obtained without cost, and simply by engaging with our world, does not sit well with market forces or with companies trying to sell happiness through acquisition.

Our society has now reached the point where scientists are describing the beginning of a new epoch – Anthropocene. The actual geological strata is being affected by the production of plastics, concrete and radionuclides. This, alongside continued and increasing production of carbon means that the human species is successfully and relentlessly destroying the agar jelly of its own petri dish. Society has now reached a state where the majority of people have, not out of choice, ceased to have links with or engage with nature and the environment in a meaningful way. Why are we not seeing mass worldwide protests against a society that is leading us by the hand, willingly it would seem, to an existence that, at best, will be irretrievably damaged or worse, terrifying and dangerous?

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As a sculptor, these questions and concerns constantly flow through my thought processes and subconsciously, or even consciously, guide the chisels, drills and clay of what I do. My chosen materials– stone, metals and earth– and the means of construction– fire and the impact of hammer against stone – also seem to bring something of the land into the work. I have been privileged and lucky enough to feel and have intimate contact with the beauty of our world, but sometimes feel that I am shouting at people who are moving towards danger through sound-proofed glass. I make sculpture because I feel happy working in three dimensions but, moreover, it is the way I feel best able to explore my inner concerns and the way humans have become so entirely self-absorbed and inured to uncomfortable and incontrovertible evidence of damage to the very things that sustain us.

My most recent works set out to confront and explore the way in which we view our past as a species, and our relationship with time itself. I am interested in how we erroneously see ourselves as indestructible. The three figures constructed under the generic title of ‘Anthropocene’ form part of a wider group, designed not as sculptures to be seen close up, but within a landscape, or even ‘unseen’. They were assembled and placed in remote, often mountainous or moorland settings, and left in situ. I did not mind whether they were seen or not; if they were seen, then ideally it would be from a distance. Although the figures are three times life size, and at close quarters have a monumental sense about them, they rapidly become insignificant, even invisible, once any distance is put between them and the viewer.

I tried to imbue both a sense of power and sadness or melancholy into the figures. I wanted all to have qualities of dark industry as well as extreme vulnerability.

In his recent book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh examines the inability, of literature and politics to embrace and grasp the enormity of the catastrophe that awaits us, and questions how future generations will look back on our response (denial?) to this. I feel that artists should be dealing with the unspeakable, using this conduit to communicate in a visceral way that sometimes only art can. Climate change – like warfare, pollution, starvation and the alteration of the planet’s surface – is a symptom of how our society is organised; until humans realise that a system based on growth and profit will ultimately self destruct, then we can expect ‘business as usual’ as we herald the dawn of the new epoch.

All photographs are from Glenn Morris’s ‘Anthropocene’ series. The sculptures are made from recycled timbers and forged iron.

Glenn Morris‘s work is inspired and informed by the beauty and harshness of the environment in the far north, and by our relationship and response to the loss of things that possess beauty in any form. He works predominantly in stone and mixed media, using traditional carving techniques. The forms and works tend to follow two or three lines of exploration: the sensual and feminine, the masculine, industrial form and more objective comments on things environmental. He has a first class degree in sculpture and has had work exhibited in public areas and also at the Royal Academy. glennmorris.co.uk

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Letters With Style: A Call-out for Artists to Collaborate on Issue 12

If you’ve held a Dark Mountain book in your hands, you’ll know that we give as much thought to the artwork that runs through its pages as we do to the writing. A few weeks ago, we made a call-out for writers to contribute to this autumn’s special issue on the theme of ‘the sacred’. Today we follow that up with a call for artists to take part in a special collaboration initiated by long-term Dark Mountain contributor Thomas Keyes. Drawing on his experience as a graffiti artist in Belfast and his exploration of the collaborative techniques that produced the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, Thomas is putting together a team of artists to illuminate this issue of Dark Mountain. Read on for details of how you can get involved – and please share this call-out with artists you think might want to take part.

Screenshot 2017-06-05 at 15.31.46No-one really knows how many artists or scribes contributed to the Book of Kells. Estimates range from one to a more authoritative six or seven, but there’s a problem with the way these estimates are made. They don’t take account of how things work in a culture of letters with style. With an ordinary handwritten document, you can count the number of different ways the letter ‘g’ or ‘s’ is written and use this to determine the number of authors. But when style is the aim of the game, each writer will have several versions of each letter, designed to deal with all the possible scenarios that could occur. Frustrating analysis even further, writers may go back over each other’s work to bring harmony to the final piece. Even dating a piece along conventional lines becomes difficult: references may be made to much earlier work as a mark of respect, individuals practising divergent styles might be brought into the group because of deeper shared values, or an innovation might occur through circumstance and not reappear in future work.

There’s no Picasso in such a culture. It’s primarily conservative; you are carrying a style with respect to where it came from, following its rules and designing within its boundaries. Innovators better be very careful: some rules aren’t for breaking. Some work does stand out, but not that far, and rather than create a postmodern free-for-all, superficial elements are absorbed into the culture while the underlying values remain the same.

The first letters with style that I saw were written by Raid and Den on the Bangor to Belfast train line as it cut through East Belfast towards the city centre. I was probably about eight or nine, in the car going from Holywood to Rathcoole to visit my granny as we did every Saturday. I knew every bit of graffiti on the route and craned my neck around in the car to get the longest possible view. I didn’t know what it was or how to do it or even why it was there, but it was clearly the best idea ever, and I made numerous failed attempts at it before finally getting some guidance at the age of thirteen.

First it’s fun, then it’s cool, then it’s a serious all-consuming enterprise. I’ve spent years perfecting the elements: tags and throw-ups for getting up; dubs, like throw-ups but with more style – maybe a drop shadow and highlights. Then pieces, the most complex form, with multicolour fill-ins, 3D, shading, and connections between letters so complex they become wildstyles, unreadable to most people. The aim of a piece is to create a burner. A burner is a piece or series of pieces where all the elements run together in harmony: the outline must be complex and balanced, yet still reveal the letters, even if it takes a bit of work. The fill-in has to be smooth, colour balanced and varied. Execution must be perfect, no drips, outline tight. It must sit within the culture; you can’t take the word out of graffiti and slap it on a Rembrandt.

The choice of letters is very important: some letters are better than others, and some only work well in certain combinations. SANCTUM has good letters. Even in this font they look good. As simple letters, they fill the space they occupy. There are gaps around the top of the A and under the T, but those are letters which are easily added to, so you can fill the space without corrupting the letter.

Here’s a more problematic word: LIBER. How do you fill the space between the L and the I without corrupting one of the letters into meaningless nonsense, or twisting it to the point that style itself is compromised? I can’t think of a single tag that starts with LI – not in Ireland, not worldwide. I Googled it. Since a graffiti writer can choose their letters, this combination has been avoided. In Lindesfarne around 700 AD, Eadfrith was not so lucky. The scribe of the Lindesfarne Gospels, he encountered a major stylistic challenge that he had no choice but to resolve. The first of the four most important pages, the incipit to the Gospel of St Matthew begins with LIBER. In insular art of this period, the incipit, particularly the first row of letters, are the pieces – wildstyle pieces. They have to be burners. A generation earlier, in the Book of Durrow, letters were getting more prominent but were still very much subordinate features of the text rather than objects of study in their own right. Eadfrith can’t just hide those letters in a corner with a load of spirals and a few peacocks; the hit that the viewer is looking for has to come from an LI combination, and the B has to behave itself as well. Beyond that, he has to follow the rules of his letter culture, the borders, the geometry, and proper proportions and curves based on the insular writing styles.

His solution was radical and ingenious. He didn’t just put the I through the L to fill the gap as had been done somewhat uncomfortably in earlier manuscripts. Instead, he made this move the main feature of the page. The I breaks the convention of diminuendo by being larger than the L, so large it also breaks the border and completely dominates the page in a way that hasn’t been seen before. But he hasn’t broken any rules; far from it. To the eye of one attuned to this tradition, he has made the I, that revolutionary leap, the most geometrically conservative form in the piece.

LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMatt

 
To deconstruct a piece of insular art, you need to find the underlying geometry. It’s always there. By ruling diagonals from the corners, find the centre, then use a compass placed there to draw a circle that touches both edges. The first possible construction line to be created from this arrangement is any two points where the diagonals intersect the circle. There are four options. Eadfrith only uses one, for the alignment of the I. Its left hand-side sits exactly on this line, and its height is determined by the diameter of the circle. All other geometric derivations within the piece are subordinate to this arrangement. The piece is original, the proportions are perfect and the rules of style are upheld. He’s pulled off a burner.

Basically, that’s the benchmark, the spirit of this enterprise. When you get into the territory of sacred books, insular scribes are the style kings, and graffiti terminology is the best way I know to describe their work. Style in the sense of a letter culture isn’t decorating the sacred, it is the sacred. Culture forms around it. By writing a set of letters thousands of times, style is discovered, but so are friendships, a sense of place; stories are created, the history of the art form is understood and added to, and even in the most literal sense a sanctum is established, a secret place for creating complex wildstyles from the black book.

Personally, the project to illuminate Issue 12 is going to be the biggest thing I’ve done with Dark Mountain, but like the other pieces, it’s not really an extra burden. I’ve contributed in the past when what was happening in life and what Dark Mountain was doing seemed to align. I was always making that art or thinking parallel thoughts when I’ve got involved. In this instance, the alignment has been particularly strong. I’ve been making insular illuminations of my own without any books to put them in for the last year, and I’m coming down with piles of parchment. The invitation to do the art for this book couldn’t have come at a better time. Working within Dark Mountain, much like in a graffiti crew, is a great creative atmosphere because there’s an awful lot that doesn’t need to be said. The intent is understood by everyone on a deep level, so the serious business of refining a concept can start at the beginning. I use Dark Mountain more as an adjective than a noun, much as I use graffiti terminology to describe something very specific but complex and hard to pin down outside its context. This book is going to be a very Dark Mountain take on the sacred. Can it also be a burner?

The nature of this call-out is quite specific: it’s to the already aligned. It’s for people already seriously into their craft, a craft that fits with this project. If we’re planning to hit the territory of the sacred by the end of July, we really need people who started looking for it a few years back and think they are getting close. Why this is being done is a question for the writers, but it’s fairly clear how this is supposed to be done from an artistic point of view. We need to tap into style in the same way as the insular manuscript illuminators managed to. My way in has been graffiti, but there must be many more routes, from other cultures and traditions.

So, what are we asking for?

  • This is not a call for new work just yet. Instead, if you want to be part of the team, send us a few examples of your previous work and a statement.
  • The artists in the team will be paired with particular writers and texts that will form the core of Issue 12, and the challenge will be to create a page which stands at the front of a piece, like the incipit in a medieval manuscript, with the possibility of creating further images to accompany the text.
  • While the tradition of the insular scribes is coupled to a particular local flavour of one of the major religions, there are echoes of such illumination and illustration within other cultures and belief systems, and we are keen to find collaborators who can bring other traditions and inspirations to the team.
  • All artwork will be made by hand and rendered at the actual size at which it will appear in the book. No technological enhancement should be used.
  • The ‘incipit’ pages will be on parchment, which we can supply. Beyond this, materials are up for discussion, but some deeper reasoning behind alternative choices will go a long way.

This is an experiment, and a big departure from the way that Dark Mountain usually works – a leap in the darkness for all of us. If you’ve read this far and you think you’d be up for being on the team we’re putting together, or you just want to know more about what this would involve, then write to me at [email protected].

In 2017, we’re asking for your help to fund a new online Dark Mountain publication — so if you like what you’re reading here, please consider making a donation to help us build the next phase of this project. Read more here

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