The Dark Mountain Blog

Finding Magic in the World


Serious-minded people — rational adults — do not believe in magic… or so we are led to believe. To suggest that magic is in any sense real is often to disqualify one’s ideas from consideration. Even those who believe in burning bushes and talking snakes would likely be offended at the suggestion that what they believe in is magic. The phrase ‘magical thinking‘ is used for a variety of common logical fallacies and mistaken ways of thinking. The belief may be considered natural in children but almost pathological in adults. Belief in magic is amongst the ‘childish things‘ that we are supposed to shed. And, indeed, most do shed the belief but I suspect they do it because it is expected of them rather than through any carefully considered decision or gathering of evidence. As children the world is overflowing with magic but as adults we collectively pretend the world is more of a machine than an animal, more of an object than a subject, something to dominate rather than revere.

So am I suggesting that magic might be real? Well, I want you to keep reading and so, for moment, I’ll need to keep those cards close to the vest. But it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect that something may be up my sleeve.

Much like asking if God exists, the answer hinges almost entirely on the definitions being employed. He or she who defines the terms will surely win the debate. A world full of magic may look identical to a world completely void of magic if interlocutors are employing the term in radically different ways. Likewise, even the most zealous of atheists may happily concede that gods exist provided certain definitions. The assertion that ‘there is no god’ is often made within the context of traditional Western theism; stepping outside that context toward a radically different understanding of what is meant by ‘god’ makes for a significantly different conversation and different possibilities.

Returning to magic, consider the following dialogue from Richard Linklater’s recent film Boyhood:

Mason: Dad, there’s no, like, real magic in the world, right?
Father: What do you mean?
M: You know, like elves and stuff… people just made that stuff up.
F: Well, I don’t know, what makes you think that elves are any more magical than something like a whale, you know what I mean? What if I were to tell you a story about how underneath the ocean was this giant sea mammal that used sonar and sang songs… and it was so big that its heart was the size of a car and you could crawl through the arteries? I mean you’d think that was pretty magical, right?

The confusion is created by incorporating the idea of the supernatural into the very definition of magic. Many standard dictionary definitions will include the idea of the supernatural but this is not helpful; indeed, it’s a trap. It means that if something is part of the natural world that it is not, as a matter of definition, magical. We already know (or assume) that there is no magic in nature. So, for example, we know whales aren’t magical because we can go out and observe them or convert them into oil for lamps. Magic is supposed to be more elusive.

Anselm argued one need only to adequately understand the concept of God in order to know, with certainty, that He exists. For Anselm, God was ‘that than which nothing greater could be conceived’. To trace the consequences of this definition meant that God necessarily exists. If you are thinking of a being that is perfect in every way but lacks existence then you not thinking about God; you are not thinking about ‘that than which nothing greater could be conceived’. Anselm thought that to exist would certainly be greater than to not exist.

And yet Anselm’s Ontological Argument is not very convincing and is widely considered to be inadequate. The generally identified flaw was initially provided by Kant who pointed out that existence is not appropriately described as a characteristic or a perfection.

We ought not incorporate existence or (non-existence) into our definitions.

Returning to the natural world, Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass writes:

‘The very facts of the world are a poem. Light is turned to sugar. Salamanders find their way to ancestral ponds following magnetic lines radiating from the earth. The saliva of grazing buffalo causes the grass to grow taller. Tobacco seeds germinate when they smell smoke. Microbes in industrial waste can destroy mercury. Aren’t these stories we should all know?’ (Kimmerer 345)

While not explicitly about magic, Kimmerer breaks down the wall that many of us have erected in our minds that divides poems from facts. The former are often treated as fluffy and frivolous while the latter are regarded as solid, dependable, and gathered through the hard work of trained professionals. We entertain ourselves with poems and build spaceships with facts. But the divide is artificial and the characterisations of what can be found on each side nothing but stereotypes and superstitions serving to convince us that the divide makes sense, that it needs to be there, that something must be one or the other and not both.

So who is really guilty of the sleight-of-hand when answering this question about magic? No one and everyone.

Whether there is magic in the world is, on a certain level, purely a matter of definition. For most of my life I have defined magic out of existence. It is only in recent years that I have been finding it everywhere as a ubiquitous part of everyday life: as mundane and as exciting as the air.

Ian Erik Smith lives in Eugene, Oregon. His academic background is in philosophy and his writing has appeared in Fifth Estate, Philosophy Now, the Journal of Critical Animal Studies, and the recently released volume Animals and War: Confronting the Military-Animal Industrial Complex. He blogs at

Image © Karen Snyder

The Oldest Tree in New York

tree queens top kopia 2 smallThere is a small park in lower Manhattan that is fenced off to the public. Through the wire fence one can make out a rectangle of unkempt vegetation — trees, grasses and bushes thriving among rocks and stones. The lot measures 25 by 40 feet and is an artwork called ‘Time Landscape’ by Alan Sonfist. Inaugurated in 1978, the work represents what the island of Manhattan might have looked like before it was settled by the Europeans in the 1500s. There is nothing spectacular about the trees and plants growing here; what is remarkable is the extent to which this miniature landscape contrasts with the world on the outside of the fence — the urban setting of New York where most traces of woodlands, marshes and groves have all but disappeared. Like a cabinet display in a museum, the piece evokes a certain nostalgia; and as I grapple to define exactly what I pine for in the past, I am overwhelmed by the more immediate sensation of standing in the middle of a vast monument; a monument in constant flux to celebrate the ceaseless toil of human hands putting one brick on top of another in efforts to shape to our desire the lands we settle. I demote my feeling of nostalgia to the rank of artificial sensation — since, in my limited experience, no woodland ever covered this part of lower Manhattan. What I can (and do) feel nostalgic about is rather a certain café a few blocks down and the printing facility I used to patronise across the street, both gone in the 20 years since I lived here. There is a sister concept to nostalgia, a neologism coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, called solastalgia. The term is defined as ‘the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment’. (Wikipedia,, accessed on Jan 8th 2015). Reluctant to apply a decidedly anthropocentric concept to a tree, I still get curious to what extent, if any, one would be able to sense a certain solastalgia in the vicinity of a tree that has had the opportunity to witness the radical transformation of New York over the centuries.

New York’s oldest tree is a tulip poplar in the easternmost part of Queens, some 18 miles from Sonfist’s art work. The Queens Giant, or Alley Pond Giant as it is also called, is a 133-foot-tall poplar with an estimated age of 450 years. The tree would have been a sapling when the Dutch first arrived, and is likely the oldest living thing in New York. It sits in a sunken grove within definite earshot of two major highways — the six-lane LIE and Cross Island Parkway. The top of the tree is reportedly visible to motorists travelling west on the LIE. Since the passing of time when measured in decades and centuries tends to enter the realm of the abstract, I decide to ride my bike from Houston and West Broadway to Alley Pond Park in Queens, to get a lay of this land once dominated by groves of beech, cedars, cherry trees and witch hazel. There is also a notion of pilgrimage at play. I want the hours on the bike in order to prepare myself and take a series of consecutive deep breaths – and get realigned for this meeting with a representative of time measured out in centuries. Tree-time is sequential and ongoing; a flow which in so many ways differs from the pulse of this city with its fierce devotion to the opportune moment; to that which is Flash! Fresh! and to the kairos of existence. (Brief note on realigning my spirit while driving or on a bike: it has been a much-coveted idea of mine to go on a road trip when faced with an emotional dilemma to sort things out… turns out I can’t think of much else than driving when I am on the road. Taking a walk works better.)

At the outset of this project, I had an idea to explore ideas of resilience and sustainability against a backdrop of ancient trees. My premise was this: if a tree had managed to survive for extended periods of time, surely there must be something in the immediate environment that still works; something beyond soil and climate conditions. I wanted to see the context, to get a feel for the site of the tree itself and establish some kind of idea of what that something might be. The idea to designate certain areas as off-limits to human settlement, exploitation and harvesting is by no means a modern-day invention, but it turns out that most trees that have been identified as extremely old reside within the confnes of man-made compounds. The vast spectrum of parks and wildlife sanctuaries provide distinctively varied on-site conditions for old trees. One common denominator is the question of continued resilience and health in an age of rapidly escalating environmental upheaval.

A tree within the confines of a city park may enjoy a slightly lower degree of legislative protection than does a tree in a national park. To the layman visitor, however, this is a moot point. It is clear from the moment you step into the park from the street that whatever grows here cannot be cut down and brought home for decoration or firewood. But human impact can affect a tree by sheer proximity, and I was curious how a NYC park would compare to the home of Old Tjikko, a 10,000-year old spruce on a desolate mountaintop in Sweden I visited earlier this year. On the face of it, Old Tjikko would seem the more vulnerable of the two, as it probably would take all of two minutes to chop it down with a handsaw. However, the combination of growing in a remote location and a consensus (on part of Park officials, scientists and local guides) to keep the tree’s exact location on a need-to-know basis is working to its advantage. So far, this relative secrecy has provided enough of a deterrent for random acts of vandalism. The Queens Giant, on the other hand, is reachable by NYC transit system and appears as an icon on my smartphone’s map when I type in the name of the park. There is even an informational plaque on the fence surrounding it. (Or at least there was when I looked online. When I got to the actual site, the plaque had been removed – much in the spirit of a city where everything that is not hot-riveted to something inordinately big and heavy eventually will be pried loose and carried off.).

A little while ago, I gave a brief outline of the what’s and why’s of my work to an acquaintance. He asked me to what extent I would factor in elements of chance, randomness — and by extension, sheer luck, if that term can be applied to the survival of an individual tree. I replied that my work had no immediate scientific pretensions and that elements of luck and randomness were allowed the same dignity as soil conditions, climate specifics and human interference. Aferwards, I found reason to re-examine this stance: true, I am not a scientist, and neither equipped nor qualifed to discuss soil conditions in depth; on the other hand, my choice to visit a specific tree owes more to instinct than chance, and being a visual artist, I am somewhat biased in my processing of information. I think what he was getting at was this: how do we know that this is the oldest tree in New York? How do we know that the 10,000-year old spruce in Sweden is the oldest tree on that mountaintop? How do we know that there might not still be trees, plants and even animals that by far surpass the longevities that we currently have on record? The answer is, of course, we don’t, and indeed there might be. Which is an idea I fnd rather comforting. I would much rather think of the world as a place not-yet-wholly-explored than a finite rendering readily available at the touch of my keypad. The flip side of my devotion to grey zones is how my feelings about climate change and environmental issues fall into a similar, but more sinister category of information that leaves much to the imagination. The discourse on climate change is a realm where the map has become largely illegible and redundant, with white patches overlapping areas of infnite complexity. I sometimes wish for an instantly googlable route through this territory, only to realise that what I really need is a level of acceptance of the situation at hand. My work with old trees helps me gain a slightly more sober perspective on the present, with all its need for attention to concepts of sustainability and resilience over longer periods of time.

Riding a bike from the centre to the outskirts of a large urban area such as New York is an exhausting experience. There is a constant barrage of sensory stimuli and information to be processed in order to stay in lane, to get where one is going and to avoid getting run over. In other words, much like riding a bike in any larger city. (Bike lanes were a pretty much unheard-of concept when I first moved to NYC in the late ’80s. Today, there is a rather well-developed network of bike paths that crisscross Manhattan; a network that slowly dissolves the further one gets from the island.) The shift from high-density Manhattan to the lower buildings and capita per square-foot neighborhoods in Brooklyn takes place roughly midway across the blue Manhattan Bridge. From that point on, I navigate a string of environments that alternate between the residential, the commercial, the light industrial and the sacred: From the civic centres of Downtown Brooklyn, to the quaint residential streets of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, onwards across the lethally contaminated Gowanus Canal (on the shores of which a newly erected Whole Foods megastore resides, with revolving solar panels and wind turbines galore); uphill to affluent Prospect Park, where I get lost on the park’s meandering bike paths, out in the street again in Prospect/Lefferts Gardens where I take a wrong turn and get my directions confused all the way into south Flatlands. I double back up to Brownsville where a commercial strip is a-swinging to the most unexpected twang of Texas country and western, and continue along the perimeter of the cemeteries of Cypress Hills, with its endless rows of anonymous white crosses that parade across green lawns until they come to a stop at clusters of ornate monuments and crypts in granite and stone. Finally, in need of a rest and a place to eat, I stop under the elevated subway tracks on Jamaica Avenue in Woodhaven.

I want to bring a cake to the tree, thinking that it would be nice to designate this day as the tree’s birthday, thus in a way formalising my visit. I arranged an impromptu birthday celebration of-site for Old Tjikko earlier this fall, in conjunction with the opening of an exhibition with works that featured the tree. The guests at the opening sang to the tree, and a local baker generously provided a blueberry marzipan and cream cake for the celebration, much to the enjoyment of the participants. I am thinking that a locally made cake would be appropriate for this occasion, and look around for a bakery. There is one right by the subway entrance, and a sign on the window assures me of the establishment’s local credentials: ‘Anyone wearing a ski mask or hoodie on these premises will be considered trespassing’. Seems reasonable enough, as I have just read another sign posted at the cemetery a few blocks down the road that informed me I was not allowed to bring a handgun (or any other firearm) into the dead folks’ resting place. I end up getting a square piece of cake that looks like tiramisu topped with maroon and yellow fruit. It is perfect: colourful, eclectic and easy to transport in a tidy styrofoam container.

The last couple of miles bring me into areas of increasingly suburban character. The borough of Queens is about to merge into the extensive sprawl of Long Island. There is a sudden proliferation of well-manicured gardens with glimpses of heavily trafficked freeways through carefully trimmed hedges. Old men on their front lawns raking up leaves in neat piles. Perfectly aligned recycling containers. A yellow school bus stops to let off students at a Catholic school. A few blocks further on another school bus caters to an Orthodox Jewish community. I have lost count of the churches, tabernacles, synagogues and mosques that I have seen along the way. The majority of them have a well-kept outer appearance and bear witness to active congregations that make up an important part of the motley fabric that is New York. The sacred is thriving next to the profane.

I leave my bike chained to a railing along an overpass. Below, the incessant flow of cars and trucks on the Long Island Expressway. The descent into the grove where the tree grows takes a mere five minutes, and although the roar of the traffic is somewhat muted by the lush vegetation in this remote corner of the park, it is still present enough to erase any notion of a place enjoying special protection. There is absolutely nothing sacred about this place. The few pieces of litter along the pathway above the grove show signs of age and wear; this part of the park is obviously a less often frequented area. Alley Pond was designated a city park in 1929, in response to the rapid growth and development of the city. The giant poplar fell within the park’s boundaries with a few feet to spare; perhaps owing more to luck than careful planning. As I make my way down through dense thickets of thorny bushes and tangled-up creepers, I keep looking for the right tree. A broken chain-link fence surrounding a massive trunk indicates the end of my journey; as I look up and skyward, I can just about make out the outline of the tree’s crown, shooting up improbably high from its base at the bottom of this bowl. For a moment, the sound of cars and trucks seems to subside. I unpack my bags and get up close to the foot of the tree, holding out the cake in a gesture of offering. I take a bite of the ridiculously sweet pastry myself, and start singing Happy Birthday in English to the tree. I realise how incomprehensible this intrinsically human custom must be to a tree, but it gives me a sense of being here, in the presence of a 450-year old poplar, however indiferent the tree might be to my offering. In order not to seem rude and wholly ignorant of what a tree might need or want, I decide to conclude the ritual by taking a pee on the trunk, thinking that it’s the least I can do on a hot October day like this.

I sit down on a stump of rotten wood near the tree. Colourful little mushrooms thrive on the decomposing matter; a
colony of ants nearby makes their own highways across the terrain. I fail to imagine the racket of the wildlife at home here in the grove some 400 years ago, but I can vividly depict the succession of conflicts and flags that have since swayed through these lands. The tree has outlived every single person buried in the cemeteries I passed on my way here. It has been witness to change and transformation on a local scale over centuries, and has surely come to feel the effects of the shift in climate on a global scale. Owing to good fortune, circumstance and the inherent capacity for longevity of the Liriodendron tulipifera species, the Queens Giant seems to be doing quite well. No hint of remorse, depression or weakening of the spirit; the massive trunk looks securely anchored in the soil by its log- size roots; high above the majestic crown funnels light down to the darker reaches. The sum of events, human interference and climate conditions that have come to pass for centuries here must have been largely benefcial to the tree. As I get up and brush of pieces of damp organic matter from the seat of my pants, I decide to come back to the tree on my next visit to the city. This time I will bring my 13-year old kid here, whose age prevents any deeper forays into the realms of nostalgia and/or solastalgia, but whose perspective on the city he lives in could benefit from a cordial visit to a 450-year old denizen of the Big Apple. We will bring cookies and milk.

Patrik Qvist is a Swedish artist based in Stockholm. His website is here

Why No Folk Musicians Vote Tory

The seventh issue of Dark Mountain is now available through our online shop for £12.99 – or £8.99 if you subscribe to future issues. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been sharing a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Today – with the upcoming UK general election in mind – we bring you Charles Foster’s timely piece on the politics of folk music.

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A fair amount of my life is spent in pub sessions, playing old tunes, badly, on whistles. Not one of the musicians could ever vote Tory.

This, on the face of it, is rather strange. For many of them are conservative. That’s why they’re in the pub rather than watching Simon Cowell’s flashing bridgework. They tend to pay their taxes, and be faithful to their spouses, and wear tweed waistcoats, and go to drink cherry brandy with the foxhunters on Boxing Day.

I’m not making a cheap point about the tawdriness of the modern Conservative Party: about its abandonment of real conservatism and the alienation of its old constituencies. There’s something more interesting going on.

It’s true that folk music is the music of the folk, rather than the bosses; the shepherds, rather than the gentlemen farmers. Yet for every song celebrating mass trespass, or condemning the bloated manager who waters the workers’ beer, there’s one lauding the chivalric exploits of a mediaeval toff, or cheering on the hounds as they close on a stag, or telling the tale of a young soldier who bled obediently for the Empire, or being otherwise chauvinistically English in a way that would delight the smallest-minded Little Englander. The songs bemoan the ills of feudalism, but rarely question the rightness of feudalism itself. In the English folk canon the rich man is in his castle, the poor man is at his gate, and God, who has made them high and lowly, and who unquestionably wears tweed himself and can blast pheasants effortlessly out of the sky, has ordered their estate.

So the songs themselves neither express nor shape the politics of the musicians. The politics are in the way that folk music happens.

Someone nervously starts a tune. Everyone else stops chatting and listens. Gradually they join in, until that initial tentative scraping becomes a rapidly evolving organism, with characteristics that have never before existed in the entire history of the universe, and which will never exist again: an organism woven from counterpoint; an organism whose DNA is deference and mutuality; Primadonnas make it die. The brave scraper who started it always has control, however exuberantly divergent from the original line the tune has become. She’ll lift her leg or wave her flute to stop it.

No one who has been part of this ecstatic co-dependence could ever believe the libertarian lie, whose primary axiom is that we’re all atomistic entities, like billiard balls. The free market says that we are self-made, and that our thriving consists in Self-making. Ask a free-marketeer who he is. He’ll not pause. It’s a simple question. There’s nothing fuzzy about his shape. Its frontiers are the crisp contours of his suit. He is, simply, John Smith, courtesy of John Smith and a helluva lot of hard work and risk-taking, and you can do a money-laundering check to confirm that if you like. There’ll be no mention of any other people. He owes nothing to anybody. He’s a self-birthing wonder who came from nowhere, wiped his own bottom from birth, and has no dependents since dependency is culpable. No one will weep when he dies, and nor should they.

John Smith is absurd because, although his claims are common, and form the basis of the most influential political and economic policy, no one – no one – is actually the way that John Smith says he is. He had parents and a genetic inheritance shared overwhelmingly with flatworms. He had nappies, spoon-feeding, neural plasticity and, in the early hours of the morning in that Canary Wharf penthouse, ontological vertigo. He’ll die and be eaten. John Smith is absurd because he’s a biological impossibility. He’s in desperate danger because prophecies are self-fulfilling. If you say repeatedly that you’re X, and X doesn’t exist, you eventually become X, and evaporate.

Who’s Charles Foster? I’ve no idea – other than that he’s a misty, craven, derivative, chimerical creature whose position can only be described in terms of the nexus of relationships in which he exists and of which he consists. He’s the cousin of Jurassic shrews. He gave very little help at his own birth. He can only write anything at all if the children are fighting around him. He comes from Yorkshire and Somerset and Ireland via everywhere else. Too many of his molecules, despite his best efforts, regularly come from China and Thailand, and he fears loneliness like death – which indeed it is. In short, he is ordinary, and he exists.

The fact that this is the way that humans are is the fact acknowledged and addressed in the pub. It’s unlikely to be congenial to the non-existent John Smith. It’s too messy. Who owns the tune? The person who started it? But she’ll make no claim. She wouldn’t have started it if there weren’t anyone else there. The person who plays it for the first time, and for whom it becomes a foundational joy? And who is playing it? The only answer is: an organism, just as real as a coral reef, which exists only for the purposes and the duration of that tune, and whose characteristics are determined by the tune, the age of the beer, the diddly-dees of the bad whistler in the corner, the draft under the door, and the swirling lusts and jealousies.

Folk music works because it acknowledges that there are no real boundaries between people – or at least that the boundaries are thrillingly porous; that I’m defined entirely by my relationships. In the case of folk music, those relationships are not just with the other fiddlers or squeeze-boxers or mandolinists or singers; they’re with the land that’s being sung about and is being sung back to life, and with the dead whose tunes these were. A folk session is an advaitic séance with beer. And that’s simply too interesting to be Tory. Or, for that matter, Labour, Lib Dem, or anything else with a rosette.

Charles Foster is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford. His books include Wired for God? The Biology of Spiritual Experience, In the Hot Unconscious: An Indian Journey, and Tracking the Ark of the Covenant. His next book, Being a Beast, will be published by Profile Books.

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

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

Last Act

The seventh issue of Dark Mountain is now available through our online shop for £12.99 – or £8.99 if you subscribe to future issuesThe cover (below) is taken from a screenprint by artist and writer Stanley Donwood – whose story ‘Culture of Entitlement’ also closes the book  and this week we asked him to write something about how and why he found himself on the Dark Mountain.

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1. I’m at the theatre, and this plot, it’s really hard to swallow. It’s about the future  and it’s set in the present day  and the basic premise is that we can all just carry on just as we are. Driving to the supermarket, buying a flat-screen TV, mowing the lawn, whatever, yada yada. And we can export this enviable lifestyle, where we all live like Louis XVI, to the whole world. Except for a servile underclass who manufacture all the stuff we consume, everything from snacks to computers to the vehicles we use to truck these things around. The idea is that essentially we’ve created a stable sediment for ourselves to wallow in. It’s so obviously a deranged fantasy. Whoever wrote this is having a laugh.

However; I continually attempt to suspend my disbelief, to ignore the proscenium arch, to just watch the play, to enjoy the thing, and to ignore the fact that around me the building is crumbling, the theatre company is bankrupt, the actors are dropping like flies, screaming their lines in a terrible anguish and the audience  all around me  are animated, drooling, fleshless cadavers, applauding, laughing, crying. And I applaud, and I laugh, and I cry.

2. As I sit here, buds are bursting, roots are probing; the sun is out, new-born leaves move in zephyrs of air, and somewhere there is a bird making a noise that sounds like someone manually inflating an air-bed. Children are playing in the street outside; it is a vampire game. One of them feigns sleep for a while, whilst the others venture near to check if the eyes are open or shut. If they open, and you are close, then it’s likely that you will join the ranks of the undead. Sometimes things go wrong and there are screams of anger. Sometimes a car alarm goes off, and sometimes the siren of some emergency vehicle echoes around the valley. Occasionally a police helicopter whips around above, doing whatever the fuck it is that they do up there. More occasionally a military jet screams over. The passenger planes are ubiquitous now; no-one really notices them. It’s spring, at last, and the sky is often blue and there’s a general feeling that the worst is over.

Although to believe that the worst is over, to believe that things will be okay  that takes a real effort of mental will. Because it isn’t over, and it won’t be okay. The only people who you can find that believe that we can continue on this path of perpetual economic growth, of permanent extraction of fossil fuels, of insanely unsustainable suburbanisation; they’re all fucking crazy! I mean, actually insane. What’s harder to understand are the corporate stooges, the political marionettes, the ones who are just saying it for the dollars. What are those people going to do with the payola? Join the elite? Earn the right to be the last to starve?

3. Because of what I do I am sometimes interviewed, and as with any conversation this can go badly or it can go well. One question that seems to recur is quite a simple-seeming query, but I find it hard to answer. It’s along the lines of  why is your work so depressing and/or miserable and/or dystopian and/or apocalyptic? Sometimes I skirt around it, often fixing on the word ‘apocalyptic’ and explaining that the apocalypse isn’t exactly what they think it is, not exactly. Other times I pretend that it’s some sort of cathartic auto-therapy, that I’m a fine example of mental health, not despite but because of all this depressing/miserable/dystopian/‘apocalyptic’ artwork on the walls. But the honest answer is  why do you fucking think? Look around you, you’re not blind.

So yes, right. Spring is here, the birds are singing, or perhaps that’s actually a car alarm. Anyway, the worst is over. So me? I’m going to keep drawing, keep painting, like some fucking monkey in a cage, hooting at the bars, throwing shit, pacing aimlessly, rocking backward and forward for hours, clapping, laughing, crying. Enjoy the interval. Last act’s soon.

ILLY - Donwood -hole[ABOVE] This is a drawing from a series called ‘Modernland’. The Modernland project itself is a natural and political history of an imagined ‘European’ country. It is partly reminiscent of a postwar Eastern European nation state, but one that might have existed had there been no Second World War, and one in which authoritarianism had been taken to its ultimate position, and the entire population had been ‘resettled’ elsewhere. At the same time, the resources of the country have been utterly and ruthlessly plundered. It is inhabited only by the shadows of ghosts.

Stanley Donwood’s graphic and illustrative work on Radiohead’s albums and associated artwork has gained him worldwide recognition. ‘For a long time, being asked the question “What do you do?” resulted in a sort of mumbling and staring, before a stuttering response which didn’t make either my interlocutor or myself any wiser. But more recently I’ve been putting on exhibitions and having books published, which along with my longstanding association with a well-known rock band has given me a slightly increased level of confi- dence. So nowadays I can say, with what I hope is calmness, that I’m an artist and a writer. Although you are, of course, free to decide about that yourself.’

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

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

Sailing for Mares

The seventh issue of Dark Mountain is now available through our online shop for £12.99 – or £8.99 if you subscribe to future issues. Over the next few weeks, we’d like to share some of what you’ll find in its pages. Today we bring you the following poem from Raquel Somatra.


By dusk, our ships had filled with stallions.

They shimmered like wind under moonlight
and they snarled like the smoke-spirits
that haunt the Gold Forest Islands.
Their edges blurred like morning,
their voices awakening even the starfish fossils
light-years under the shore.

They demanded to be fed first, before
we rigged the sails. Even before
the sea priests’ blessing.
We tried not to stare too long at
their gold-trimmed braids while
spiking their rum with flecks of salt.

At midnight the captain gathered us ’round.
The stallions were concerned, he said,
too long without mares.
They’d go wild,
they’d unlearn hoovery,
the tips of gold on their braids would pop off
and float away along this spinning sea.

So we sailed for mares.

Earth-sunken roots and driftwood,
full and fertile mares
who knew how to tell stories,
to draw up shelter with nothing but song,
to listen to the chants of stars.

Soon, it seemed, all we spoke of were mares.

Charcoal and mahogany, round and soft,
white smoke escaping their dark lips,
dressed in silks dipped in blood berries,
trimmed with saffron tassels.

Mares that would know how to run in thick
forests with their eyes closed.
Mares who could barter with spirits,
who walked bare-hooved across tops of bogs.

We could already feel them.


We found them on an island of ice.

Their coats were dull and grey like shadows
and snow, like their pale lips.

They watched the hard sorrow in the stallions,
who inwardly cursed our find.
These weren’t true wild mares.

We wanted earth and they were water.

We wanted roots and they were veins.

We wanted driftwood and they were drops of oil in the dark,
a sweet, slick heartbeat.

But they were mares,
and so we hoisted them into the ships.
Six or so died in the struggle.

We lined their water bowls with poppies so they could rest,
and we combed their manes until they reflected
the moon on the sea.

We painted their lips but they licked the colour away.
They missed their muzzles of snow.

And when they knew we couldn’t hear,
they whispered,
Our island was bluest.

Bluer than juniper, than lapis, than the seas.


We unloaded them into the golden forests and
pushed them inland,
our new home.

We’d spend the night on the port,
so I stretched and took a deep breath
and asked our mares
to tell us a story.

The mares had long stopped their crying by then.
They wrapped their beautiful, grey bodies
with red silks under the wicked sun.

And they said,
Once, we lived on ice.
Once, we wore silks made of sapphires.
Once, through masks of snow, we could translate the stars.

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

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


Us and Them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Us

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

The Dark Mountain Manifesto

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

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

2. Them

Ecocide demands a response.

The Dark Mountain Manifesto

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

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


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

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

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

3. Stories

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

The Eight Principles of Uncivilisation

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

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

5. Chris Jordan - Midway (webfile)

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

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

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

Screen shot 2015-04-21 at 12.22.04

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

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

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

Nick Hayes 2

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

Screen shot 2015-04-06 at 13.52.11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Mountain: Issue 7

The latest issue of Dark Mountain has now landed!

Screen shot 2015-04-06 at 13.52.11

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

Fire on the Mountain

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

– Robert Bly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Editors, February 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ghost of Islands Past

Habitat Island 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Games Are Open

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

Birds 1

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

A False Creek

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

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

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

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

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

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