The Dark Mountain Blog

The Empty Countryside

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I thought the sheep was dead. It was lying in the middle of a big grass field with its legs in the air. I wasn’t surprised; those fields are rented by a farmer who can’t afford to run his business in the way modern farming demands. He doesn’t own enough land to scale up his production by borrowing against its value. The result is not too many beasts on the farm, but too few: in this case six scraggy ewes roaming 15 acres. As I walked by, the dead one waved her legs. Alive then, but stuck on her back by her weight of wool. I trudged across to her, put my foot on her side and pushed her over away from me. She scrambled to her feet and ran off, fleece bouncing, bleating confusedly. If I hadn’t rescued her she probably would have died. No one would have noticed in time because no one passes this way.

For thousands of years, the English countryside has never been so empty of people and animals as it is now.

The part of West Dorset where I live was once a busy network of small farmsteads, most with fewer than 100 acres, keeping Red Devon cattle for meat and milk. Today, the old farm names on the Ordnance Survey map are a roll call of lost activity: Prime, Oselhay, Middlebrook, Taphouse, Lower Park, Purcombe, and Higher Sminhay. Their land has been sold and consolidated into bigger agricultural landholdings. Some of the farmhouses are second homes or holiday lets. Many more settlements have simply disappeared. The 1861 census lists Dodseye, Brickhouse, Poor House, Froghouse and Duckpool – all gone. Those that have survived are inhabited by far fewer people that at any previous point in their history. In 1861, there were eight people living in our house, these being the farmer, his wife, children and brother, plus a carter and a ten-year-old ploughboy. Today there are three of us.

That reduction – eight to three – is about average round here. Add in the lost homes as well, and you have a massive difference in the number of people who once lived in the Marshwood Vale. Villages were bigger and tattier with an astonishing array of services – shops, forges, pubs, bakeries, brewers, butchers and cobblers. Outside the villages, there was more than farming going on. For the price of two guineas, the 1830 Beerhouse Act allowed homeowners to buy a licence to make and sell home brewed ale. In the 19th century, our house used to have one of these simple pubs in the end room, an arrangement that would have been familiar to Thomas Hardy. No one in the Vale was rich and they made what they could from the natural resources the landscape had to offer, whether that was wood, building stone, brick clay, cheese, milk or meat.

Of course it wasn’t Eden. Country living was hard, especially with lots of people to feed. Farmworkers were part-paid in local cider (another product of the land), which sounds idyllic but wasn’t. The amount consumed damaged their health – a couple of pints before even starting work – and their families were stinted for money. In 1795-7 the poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived at Racedown Lodge on the edge of the Vale. The Wordsworths were appalled by the poverty and primitive living conditions they found here. They too were poor and had to grow most of their own food. It was a hardscrabble existence – every poet for himself. Wordsworth built a fence to keep loose cattle out of his vegetable garden and was enraged when vagrants stole the wood for fuel.

Wood was still valuable to those in need as late as the 1950s. An older farmer I know remembers his father saying that when they cut and laid a hedge, they would leave the brash (the thinnest twigs) on the ground overnight and by morning it would all be gone, collected for firewood by the poorest. Not just as kindling to light a more solid wood fire in a house that had other sources of heat, but as one of the main fuel sources. Bigger pieces from the hedge, about the thickness of a wrist that could burn for some length of time, were even more prized. These were gathered and sold, or taken by the hedge layers as payment for their work – it would have been considered stealing to scavenge them.

Lay a hedge today and the brash is a nuisance to be burned on a bonfire when the landowner has time. Those same, slim hedge logs, the ones that could pay a working man for a full day’s hard labour, are more or less worthless. My farmer friend calls them ‘ugly sticks’. He uses them in his own stove quite happily, but the customers who buy his logs all want good-looking, split chunks from felled trees that they can stack into attractive log-piles. In the past, that kind of prime wood would have had many other uses and been too expensive to use for fuel by ordinary people.

 

Marshwood Vale Oak 3 low res

It’s not only people who have gone – where are the animals? This is dairy land, not sheep pasture, but the cows spend most of the year indoors in barns – the farmers allow them access to a bit of summer grazing but the ground is deep clay and too wet to support more than a few weeks outside for the numbers of beasts needed to make dairies economically viable. So the farmers mostly use the fields to grow silage and maize fodder and keep the cows indoors milked by robots. It sounds brutal, but the irony is that the welfare standards for the cows has arguably risen over the last 30 years; they are well-fed and don’t get the foot-rot and rain scab they would suffer if they lived out all year up to their hocks in churned mud and shit. In the 1970s and 80s there were times when starving and emaciated beasts had to be literally pulled out the winter mire by tractor, some dying on their feet before they could be freed.

Back in the 1970s, the system was already out of balance. Farming methods had changed dramatically with mechanisation after the Second World War. By the late 70s, the type and size of cattle kept here had altered. Farmers had abandoned the smaller, lighter and less productive Red Devons, which were bred to cope with the local land conditions. Instead they introduced a Holstein/Friesian/Charolais/Hereford mix. These breeds were larger and heavier, churned up the soil far more and were less suited to the local conditions, hence getting stuck and scabby and perhaps being better off indoors for much of the year, if they had to be kept here. Overall, of course it would be best for both the cows’ welfare and the ecology of the Vale for them not to be here at all, and for the area to have either no cattle of any kind, or fewer numbers of the better adapted Red Devons. The Devons can do well here under a management system that doesn’t involve being incarcerated in sheds, milked by robots and separated early from their calves. But there’s not enough money any more in that way of doing things.

Even using new methods, it’s still hard to claw results from the land. To hit the milk production levels needed to stay viable, each farm must keep more cows than the land can truly support, unless the farmer changes the nature of the land. In order to feed the cows in their sheds, most of the ancient meadows have been ploughed and re-seeded with monocrop ryegrass on rotation with maize. Those lost, unimproved grass meadows supported a complex bio-system of plants, insects, animals and birds, which cannot exist in the new habitat. Some species cling on, many have gone. You never hear skylarks in the Vale any more because early and frequent grass cutting for silage has destroyed the nests and young chicks, wiping out the local breeding populations.

The full disaster goes deeper than the loss of biodiversity, tragic as that is. This is one of the wettest areas in the UK. Its micro-climate has some of the highest levels of rainfall in the country and water from the surrounding hills drains down into a bowl of clay. The soil in the old meadows was bound in place by a thick thatch of turf anchored by established root systems built up over years. The new ryegrass growing in fields frequently ploughed and re-sown, has shallow roots and does little to stop the soil washing away. Maize is even less use – it’s notorious for increasing soil erosion in any environment. It would be difficult to think of a more ecologically unsuitable crop for this place. Enormous quantities of slurry from all those indoor cows is collected in vast pits and then spread on the fields. The farmers don’t do this to fertilise the pasture, they do it to get rid of the slurry. They often (illegally) choose to spread when heavy rainfall is forecast or actually underway, so that most of the shit washes off into the streams, poisoning the waterways. There’s a recognised term for this tactic: ‘dilute and pollute’.

The truth is that modern dairying methods are fundamentally incompatible with this particular landscape. The machinery needed to produce and harvest maize and silage is too big for the network of narrow, medieval lanes. Everyone hates the massive tractors, which crush down the roadside banks with their giant tyres and push the farmers to slash back the hedges to gain an extra couple of inches width, but there is no other way to do the work now that there are so few people employed on the farms. It’s impossible to increase the labour force because the income from all this effort and destruction is not enough to pay the extra wages, especially in an area where housing is so expensive.

The lack of labour brings us round again to the emptiness of the countryside and the lack of humans, which is not a good thing in itself. The Dorset landscape around me, like all of lowland Britain, has been created by hundreds of generations of people living on and working the land. Their efforts created habitats in which many species flourished. Take the nightingales, which used to nest in the woods across the lane from us. In the 1970s, the old lady who once owned our house held annual nightingale parties. Her sophisticated London friends would sit on the damp lawn drinking cocktails, bitten by midges and showered with birdsong. Somewhere in the late 1980s the nightingales disappeared. They left because their breeding habitat was lost.

Unlike the meadows disappearance, the nightingales habitat went because of what people stopped doing rather than what they did. As the value of wood products fell and the old woodsmen died, coppicing ended and the woods were left to grow on without intervention. The scrubby lower growth and sunny glades that nightingales require disappeared and the understory became a dingy cave shadowed by tall ash, oak and alder. The forest floor was swamped with pendulous sedge, crowding out other more delicate flora such as orchids and anemones.

The idea that untended nature is always better and richer is a specifically Romantic conceit. Coppicing, long established and correctly managed, can produce stupendous ecological diversity comparable in its riches to rainforest.

Coleridge was wrong when he wrote so beguilingly about the nightingales he imagined thriving in unworked, neglected woods:

And I know a grove
Of large extent, hard by a castle huge,
Which the great lord inhabits not; and so
This grove is wild with tangling underwood,
And the trim walks are broken up, and grass,
Thin grass and king-cups grow within the paths.
But never elsewhere in one place I knew
So many nightingales

In the woods across the lane there are praiseworthy efforts at regeneration by the newish, conservation-minded owners. In the last five years they have coppiced and fenced sections of the wood to protect the new growth from deer. But it’s a hugely expensive and time-consuming process and the areas involved are a small percentage of the whole. There are still no nightingales.

Give those neglected woods another 200 years without human intervention and they would probably revert to a more mixed habitat – in the meantime they are eerily quiet and wildlife poor. I don’t think we can afford to wait two centuries in the hope that nature will restore itself without us. Rewilding through the complete withdrawal of people and activity is not always the answer, especially in landscapes where people have been part of the ecosystem for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Our yearning for rewilding can run the risk of placing humans somehow outside of nature, maybe even counter to it. This gives people special status; a version of the old idea that humans occupy some kind of unique category distinct from the rest of the living world. But we are not strangers or interlopers in the wild world; we are part of it. The wildness is in us and we are in the wildness.

The truth is that farming has always been a deeply compromised activity, focusing as it inevitably does on gain and control at the expense of land and beasts. There isn’t an obvious fix and maybe our belief that we should find one and sort things out is part of the problem. We are looking into the darkness, we don’t know, all we can do is to try to listen, think and tell stories, trusting that from telling, listening and remembering many stories, we might become attuned to a certain frequency that speaks to us.

What says the land? Those who listen, know that it is undergoing profound change. This change reaches further than any individual ecological, topographical or social insults wrought by agriculture. The actual genius loci, the spirit of place, is altering. Something fundamental has shifted in the deep and tangled relationship between people and the land.

There seems less of everything, the natural variety fading and flattening. Increasingly, the English countryside is a nowhere place where, away from celebrated beauty spots and organised, marked trails, people don’t go for any length of time. No one notices the lack of wildflowers or the silent woods. It’s becoming a dull, closed waste of ploughed-out paths and cracked mud. We forget how animating and exciting it once was to those who were part of it, and it was part of them.

Here is a story about one of the old farm labourers in the Vale who died in the 1980s. He never travelled more than 30 miles from the village where he was born. One of the most exciting incidents in his entire life, which he would recount to anyone who’d listen, was the day a fierce storm came across the farm. He was convinced that the oak in the field where he was working was going to fall on him. He spent all day hiding in an old barn nearby, watching the hissing tree twisting and thrashing in the gale. It didn’t fall on him and the storm passed.

It’s hard to understand such intense, visceral excitement being conjured up from a landscape without what the modern mind sees as real justification. After all, no damage was done. And in any case, he could easily have left the field and got away from the oak. The oak was rooted in place; he was not. It was only a tree, only a storm, what would it have mattered if it fell? The answer is that he was as rooted as the oak; it was part of his life and its drama was his drama. He couldn’t leave, he was bound to the tree and had to watch and wait, sharing its groans. The time was frightening but also exhilarating – he was part of the oak and the storm and the world was alive in him and around him.

Images:
The Marshwood Vale from Pilsdon Pen. Photo by Kerrie Ann Gardner.
Oak on Lamberts Castle overlooking the Marshwood Vale. Photo by Sara Hudston.

Sara Hudston is a writer and editor living in rural West Dorset in an old house with tarpaulins on the roof. Occasional newts in the downstairs bathroom. Guardian Country Diarist.

 

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Coming Down the Mountain: a farewell

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Eighteen months ago, I spent four days and four nights alone in a very old wood in Devon, in the West of England. I took a tarpaulin and a sleeping bag, a lot of water and no food, and I sat in a small area of woodland, on a stone escarpment, overlooking the rolling forest. It was a contemporary version of a very old experience – an initiation, a vision quest – which many cultures on Earth have practised for as long, probably, as there have been people.

Even at the time, I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing there. I had come looking for answers to questions I didn’t yet know how to formulate. Perhaps I still don’t know, perhaps I never will. I just felt a pull: I knew that this was something I needed to do. I didn’t really expect anything to happen, and in one sense, nothing did. There were no great revelations, no magical experiences, no blinding lights, no clear answers. But in another sense, a lot happened. Things which seemed small at the time seem bigger in retrospect. Animals, birds, winds and weather patterns appeared at moments which seem now to be perhaps significant. One evening, I sat on the escarpment looking down over the great, old, seemingly empty forest and I heard music where no music should have been. There was nothing and nobody there which could have been creating it, but it was music for sure. It sounded like pipes. I have no explanation.

Strange things happen when you go out searching.

After four days I walked back down into the valley, tired and hungry, where a small camp was being held by a group of guides for the half-dozen of us who’d been out in the woods going through this experience. We all told our stories, and then we came back home. We were warned, at this stage, that the trickiest part of this experience was not the four-day fast, but the return. That sitting out there with no food and little sleep for days was easy compared to going back out into the world and explaining to people what we had been doing, and making sense of the experience of being tossed around by the wild world in some strange green embrace.

This turned out to be true. Most people I know don’t quite understand why I would have done this, and I find it hard to explain. Mostly, I don’t explain. But in my own small experience here, as in the old folk and fairy tales from pre-modern societies, as in the old indigenous wisdom traditions, it is the case that coming down from the mountain is sometimes more of a challenge than going up it. You need to climb the mountain to get some perspective on your life and on the world you live in. But you can’t stay up there forever. Eventually, you need to return to the village and bring back what you have learned, even if you don’t quite know how to put it into words.

I tell this story now because one of the results of that experience, one of the things I have learned, is that it is time now for me to step back from my work with the Dark Mountain Project, which I helped to found. It’s time for me to come down off of this mountain and see what I can do with what I found up on the slopes.

It’s been a long, strange journey.

Ten years ago this month, I announced on my then-blog that I was ‘resigning’ from the media. The landscape of ‘news’ and ‘features’ journalism that I had been working for, fitfully and increasingly reluctantly as a freelance journalist, didn’t seem to be telling any of the stories that mattered. That was the summer my father died; death tends to bring life into clear focus, and it became clear to me that I had to stop doing something I no longer believed in. From now on, I decided, I was a writer, not a journalist.

I decided something else too: I wanted to start a new publication, which would hunt down the stories, and the ways of telling them, that I wasn’t seeing anywhere in the so-called ‘mainstream’. As I wrote at the time, I wanted to start:

… A new publication: not a magazine, exactly, not quite a journal either, but something between the two and somewhere else as well. A publication which will match the beauty of its writing with the beauty of its design. A publication whose mission will be to reclaim beauty and truth in writing, but without sounding too pompous about it. A publication which will reject both celebrity culture and consumer society with equal vehemence. A publication which will celebrate our true place in nature in prose, poetry and art; which will hunt down ancient truths for modern consumption.

That was the vision. I even had a name for it: the Dark Mountain Project.

Beyond that, things were less clear. Quite what this thing would be – what it would look like, what it would contain, who would write for it, how it would be published, where the money would come from, what shape it would all take – I didn’t know. What I did know was  that I couldn’t do it alone, so I asked, in that same blog post, for ‘collaborators; fellow writers and artists who see a space out there for something deeply, darkly unfashionable and defiant, and who would like to help make it happen.’

Big things often start from small beginnings.  

Two years later I found myself standing on a makeshift stage in the back room of a pub on the River Thames with a man who had responded to that call, and together we launched into the world a little red pamphlet we had called Uncivilisation. Dougald Hine and I were both disillusioned journalists and confused environmentalists, whose answers to the problems we had seen around us in our society seemed somehow not good enough anymore. The notion of ‘answers’, in fact, seemed increasingly to be part of the problem.

And we were writers too, aspiring artists. We had a stumbling intuition that the role of creativity, of stories, images and myths, of the mystery underlying our small existences, had some role to play in negotiating the strange falling apart of the society we were living in. Inspired by the Modernist manifestos that had appeared a century or so earlier, at another time of turmoil and change, we wanted to start some kind of literary movement. We weren’t sure what it would look like, or what it would quite do, or how we could do it, but we knew we wanted to encourage a certain type of writing and art: the kind that would try to engage truthfully with what it was like to live through an age of climate change, extinction, ecological and social collapse. We wanted to know what words, images, dreams, poetry could do to help us as humans on the path ahead.

Eight years on, our little pamphlet has gone to a lot of strange and unexpected places. It has inspired writers, academics, activists, playwrights, scientists, musicians. It has led to an ongoing publishing project, to public events, festivals, films, plays, albums, academic theses. We have helped, in our way, to do something which I still haven’t quite seen done anywhere else: to curate a school of writing and art which engages with the really big question of our time: how can we live as humans in a world which humans are destroying?

At times this work has overwhelmed me; it has often taken up every waking hour and some sleeping hours too. Everyone who has been involved in running Dark Mountain knows this feeling. We started with nothing, never quite really knowing exactly where this thing would go, and we had to invent everything from scratch. I have had to learn, over the last eight years, how to run a business, how to start and grow a small but expanding publishing house, how to run a festival, how not to run a festival, how to deal with unexpected and sudden financial crises, how to handle the media when you’re promoting something that even you find it difficult to explain. Most of these I have not learned very well. Others around the core of the project have shared this steep learning curve with me, and have had their own to contend with.  

All of this has been exhausting, frustrating, inspiring and fascinating in equal measure. Over the years, we have inevitably engaged in politics, argument, sometimes even fights. Our work invites it. If you base your new initiative on the notion that the society around you is falling apart, that maybe it deserves to fall apart, and that most of the ‘solutions’ proposed to prevent this are inadequate or beside the point, you can expect people to throw rocks at you. You should expect the rocks, and not complain about them. Still, if there is one thing I would change, looking back, it would probably be to spend less time dodging the rocks, or throwing them back again. Despite what some people thought, and maybe continue to think, Dark Mountain has never been a political project. Its central purpose was never to ‘change the world’, least of all to ‘save the world’. Rather, the state of our planet, our society, our culture, our minds – this great dying, of species, systems, stories – is the backdrop to the work we set out to do.

What was that work? The answer would have been the same in that Oxford pub as it is now, eight years on: to create and curate writing and art appropriate to the moment we are in. To promote and promulgate what we called, what we still call, ‘uncivilised’ writing and art: work which steps outside our bubble of human narcissism, and which engages with the ecological crisis – which is, at root, really a human cultural crisis. To curate a cultural response to the times we live in.

I tend to use the word curate a lot these days, I’ve noticed. Back when we launched the project, I think I used to use the word create instead, because then I thought our challenge was to make this kind of ‘uncivilised’ work happen. This turned out to be misguided. This work was already happening, all around the world, with or without a label. The planet, it turns out, is packed with writers and artists dissatisfied with the state of things, unhappy with both the civilised story and the standard responses to it from the acceptable dissidents. We didn’t, it turned out, need to tell anyone what to do. We just needed to create a space in which they could do it, and give them some pointers: a framework, perhaps, for their explorations.

It’s interesting to me, looking back, to see how the world, and the debate, has shifted since we started. The claims we made in that manifesto all those years ago – that the human Machine is hitting a wall, that the wall cannot be avoided, and that engaging with that reality is a creative as well as a political or economic duty – seemed edgy and unusual when we made them. They seem less so now. Articles with titles like ‘The Case Against Civilisation’ made regular appearances on this blog in the early days, and would usually see us attacked as ‘doomers’ or ‘nihilists’ by angry denizens of the cult of Progress. These days, such essays can be found in the glossy pages of the New Yorker. Eight more years of failed treaties, of rising emissions, of expanding human numbers, of plastic in the oceans, of species slipping away, have made the reality clearer to us all. In another eight years, it will be clearer again.

None of the vaunted ‘solutions’ to this predicament, from nuclear fission to colonising Mars to top-down ‘new stories’ developed by worthy intellectuals, shows any sign of shifting the Machine from its designated course. Here we are. What do we see? I see, I suppose, the same thing I saw back then: a riddle without an answer. I hope that the work we have all done here, up on this mountain, has helped to make things clearer; to provide some insight, some guidance, some help – hopefully, too, some beauty.

But I don’t know what more I can add, myself, now. I have said and written everything I can say and write. I have argued everything I can argue. I have done everything I came to do. So this post is an announcement and a valediction; a farewell. I’m stepping back now from my role as one of the directors of the project I helped to found. I leave this strange, messy, contradictory, wonderful, necessary thing I helped to birth in the hands of a group of people who I know will steer it onwards in new directions. There comes a point in any organisation when a founder, with his or her particular vision, has to step back to give new people and ideas some space to breathe. It’s time to do that now; to leave this thing to move on without me, and with my blessing.

I can’t pretend I don’t have mixed feelings about this. Dark Mountain has been a major part of my life for the last decade. But we ignore the inner voice at our peril. There is a time for everything, including endings. There is some bend in the road ahead, and I have to walk around it. I don’t know what I will see around the corner. But it is, it seems, time for me to come down from the mountain. I will miss it. But it will always be there, on the horizon, rising over the lights of the city, older than the lights.

This project began, appropriately I suppose, with the words of a poet – Robinson Jeffers, whose work, when I discovered it in 2007, thrilled me with what seemed a stark and sharp voice, from half a century back, warning of what was to come. Jeffers’ poem Rearmament provided me with the inspiration to name this project. So it was with some excitement, and a sense of having come full circle, that I recently accepted an invitation to speak at Jeffers’ self-built stone home on the Californian cliffs, Tor House. I ended that talk – which you can listen to here if you’re so inclined – by quoting what Jeffers said in 1941 in a packed speech to the US Library of Congress.

I’ll end this piece, and my own journey on the dark mountain, with the same voice which began it. I will steal Jeffers’ words and use them as the epitaph for my work here, because they say what I want to say. And I will remember that over all of these words, over all of the human words and beyond them, speaks the voice of the mountain itself: the stone, the streams, the low cloud, the cry of the hawks. The great Earth, entire of itself, moving and listening, making its way and ours. Life, still churning, and all of the rivers flowing on.

I have heard myself called a pessimist, and perhaps I have written some words of ill omen in my books … and perhaps I have spoken tonight some words of ill omen – but they are not words of despair. If we conjecture the decline and fall of this civilisation, it is because we hope for a better one. We are a tough race, we human beings; we have lived through an ice age and many ages of barbarism; we can live through this age of civilisation; and when at length it wears out and crumbles under us, we can “plot our agony of resurrection” and make a new age. Our business is to live. To live through… anything. And to keep alive, through everything, our ideal values, of freedom and courage, and mercy and tolerance.

Image: Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine launching Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain manifesto, in Oxford, summer 2009.

Paul Kingsnorth is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project. His personal website is here.

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Being Human – Call for contributions to Dark Mountain: Issue 13

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‘Fusion’ by Kate Williamson

We thought we would try something new. For the last few years the call-out for our classic Spring anthologies has been based on a loose theme or focus. For example, we’ve looked at Post-Cautionary Tales (Issue 4),The Humbling (Issue 9) and Endings (Issue 11). For Issue 13 there are several strands of inquiry to inspire submissions. We’ve asked this issue’s four main editors what topics for debate or reflection have struck them this year and what kind of pieces they would like to see included.

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Cate Chapman (currently Coventry Canal, England). Itinerant boat-dweller, sock-knitter, freelance copy-editor, co-director of the Ecological Land Co-operative, book editor for the Dark Mountain Project and occasional scribbler of poems.

I read, as a contributor, at the launch of Chelsea Green’s Dark Mountain meta-collection Walking on Lava the other day. There were eight of us, and each person was invited to read from their respective essay or poem, prefaced with some short introduction about the work, themselves and the impact of the Dark Mountain Project both in their own lives and as a wider cultural movement. Public speaking mildly terrifies me, and as I was up last I sat through the other readings with my heart beating somewhere up near my throat. I further enhanced the agony by not preparing anything to say in advance; sometimes it’s interesting to just see what comes up in the context of the place, the people and what has already been said.

Listening to the other work and the way that others have contextualised Dark Mountain, and particularly in hearing Dougald Hine talk about the need to make space for questions that we can’t necessarily answer, here’s the thing that struck me: it’s deep in our natures to bend our minds to a problem and find a solution. As a species, we make and we mend. It’s one of the things that has made us so successful. Despite our relatively fragile bodies, we’ve innovated – shoes, shelters, weapons, cookery, music, maths… it goes on and on. And that’s great. That’s a huge part of who we are. It is the nature of human animals to create and to find solutions. What this does mean, however, is that we tend to be highly solution-orientated – always reaching up and out for the next thing. We see a problem and we want it fixed. We see climate collapse, species collapse, cultural decay, and we want it fixed. We instantly grasp after solutions. We want action, hope, change… and then change doesn’t come. We are a species of problem-solvers – so why not?

There are, of course, a whole bunch of answers to this, among them: inertia, comfort, ignorance, avarice, vested interests and corruption, disempowerment and poverty, hopelessness and loss of faith. For me, Dark Mountain explores the idea that while all those things are of course true, it’s our starting point that’s the tap-root of the problem. Western civilisation has cut our most basic of moorings and we’ve drifted so far into our own myth of humanity – of civilisation –  that we don’t know where we are or who we are any more. We have set ourselves apart from all the other life around us, isolating and decontextualising ourselves. And that means we’re playing a huge game of blind man’s buff, groping around in the dark, cutting off our own senses but still seeking solutions.

So as a starting point for this book, here’s my question: What exactly is it that we’re doing here? What does it mean, fundamentally, to be alive as a human being? Right here, wherever you’re standing – with mud or concrete or carpet or the damp give of a forest floor under your feet. What is it to be alive now, and not for so very long, with each precious heartbeat numbered? To be part of this complex, fragile web of all life, with the Earth turning solidly below us and the endless sky stretching, unguessable, above? There is much, certainly, that we need to let go and give up, but what do we need to reclaim, reinhabit? Where is it that we’re starting from? I don’t think we’re even close to answering that question, and until we do I’m not sure how confidently we can step out into any kind of future that includes us.

As one of the text editors, I have a particular interest in poetry. However, I’m interested in seeing written work in any genre, or pieces that cross and confuse traditional genre boundaries.

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Charlotte Du Cann (Suffolk, England) lives by the North Sea where she writes, swims, forages, and sometimes rehearses. She also works for Dark Mountain as an editor, curator and distributor.

Like Cate, I have found myself on different stages this year without a script. There’s something about putting yourself on the edge that feels – apart from the terror – a more honest way to approach our present set of ‘wicked problems’. We belong to a civilisation that thinks it knows everything – but none of us know for sure where or how or why we will weather its fall.

One of these performances was called ‘Testaments of Deep Time’ with four fellow Mountaineers in Wales. In a black suit and a bowler hat adorned with oak leaves, I ‘played’ the Cumaean Sibyl who once guarded the door of the Underworld beneath the fiery volcanic fields outside Naples. One of ten Sibyls, she embodied a link to the pre-patriarchal ‘uncivilised’ world, a guide for a lineage of poets, from Virgil to Dante to Sylvia Plath. Refusing to give herself to the god Apollo, he denied her eternal youth, so that only her voice was left for us to hear.

In performance, it is our oracular voice that gives us access to parts of our creaturehood kept silent by the dominant narrative of Empire. Beneath the surface of polite words, in the surprising caldera of our physical selves, we can find a store of indigenous and archaic knowledge: that speaks about how to be a real human being on Earth.

Which is why perhaps I was struck by the recent submissions call-out from the arts organisation NewBridge Project in Newcastle. Based on the ‘Deep Adaptation agenda’ proposed by Jem Bendell at the University of Cumbria, the project was looking for deeper creative responses to the crises we face and an exploration of ‘the three R’s’ of Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration.

This central R word caught me: the de-storying of the myths we live by and the powerdown of our own self-importance. Relinquishment was the key move in all Underworld mysteries, the point where you found your heart and your destiny down there among the poplars and the asphodels. And perhaps it is our most useful role now, as storytellers and record keepers, to help compost those old tales and inventories, to nurture and make space for other possibilities to occur.

So my question for this issue is: what fairy tale illusions, mindsets, ways of seeing, do we need to abandon in order to discover the riches of our uncivilised inheritance? How can we reclaim the voice and body of ourselves, suppressed by civilisation for millennia?

As art editor and producer for this issue I’d also add that all genres of artwork are welcome, so long as they work within the Dark Mountain frame: paintings, prints, photography, illustration, sculpture, found art, testament, installation. For the colour plates, works in colour; for the text pages, graphic drawings, prints and monochrome photographs. We’re particularly drawn to artworks that have a story behind them, where the artist puts themselves on the line. We are also on the lookout for a striking cover.

*

Eric Robertson (Utah, USA) lives in the high desert of the American West as an environmental humanities scholar, pushing people to push back against increase as reproductive ecologies of all kinds continue to flourish on land begging for some peace and quiet.

How do we find joy in curating and encouraging the stories of the West’s Great Letting-Go?  (A monumental task.) How do we not let the unknowable ecological endings dictate the potential beauty in our stories of the here and now? Relinquishment is and has always been, it seems, the heart of great storytelling. Part of such an ethos, it seems to me, is the need to let go of much of the ecological angst that has built up inside us and swelled beyond our capacity to act in emotionally productive ways. How do we keep and employ our righteous angers and sorrows, but let go the damaging psychology of an anxious future that is neither here nor there? This is not a walking away from the precipice, but striking a joyous, defiant pose at its edge.

Ursula Le Guin’s brilliantly spare short story ‘The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas’ comes to mind. She portrays the simple walking away of individuals from a prosperous society when they discover that their beautiful lives are based on the suffering of a single neglected child. They choose to walk away without agendas, without clear ideas of destinations or future adaptations, to begin new ecologies of contraction. For me, the West’s next great adventure is the relinquishing of the comfortable social body to favour the challenges of one’s own real, biological body, as unthinkable and impossible many of us consider that choice to be.

Queer theorist Jack Halberstam helps direct us toward that great leap of faith with what she describes as a ‘new wild’.

The communal is the new wild, a place where the human ends or even an inhuman or even an outhuman begins as a dream of ecstatic contact that we continue to seek out in life, in love, in dreams, in material objects, in the neutral, and in the skies.

This ‘new wild’ is not found in wilderness surrounding the lonely wanderer dwarfed by geologic majesty. The ‘new wild’ is not about land-grabs or monuments or family road trips to choreographed and narrated overlooks of natural wonders. This is the wild of human bodies at last stripped of social convention and experienced as ecstatic agents in networks of being that think less about preserving progress and sustaining the damaging ecology of the individual, and more about creating the communal networks of bodies living physical lives as biotic constituents and not just as social conscripts.

I’m excited to read stories of bodies, old and new, reimagined, refashioned, and reconfigured to help us all lean into the upheaval we face.

*

Tom Smith (Tipperary, Ireland). PhD candidate in Geography at the University of St Andrews. He is currently relinquishing one life stage, and grasping towards another; a process he describes as ‘both painful and beautiful’.

‘It is, I promise, worse than you think.’

Those opening words, an admission that things are going to change, sent a chill down many a spine this summer, mine included. ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, a piece in New York magazine by the journalist David Wallace-Wells, hit a nerve, both for myself and others. Outlining extreme climate scenarios which look more ‘normal’ with each passing year, the piece sent shock rippling through the global commentariat, who responded in the instantaneous manner so symptomatic of our times.

Tellingly, these responses were not about what the piece had said – after all, it had been carefully fact-checked by a number of climate scientists and stayed within the realm of scientific probability. Nor, for the most part, did they come from ‘climate skeptics’. Instead, damning responses were issued by climate scientists who, in lieu of substantive disagreement, raised concerns about what writing a piece like this does. They worried that entertaining thoughts of catastrophe would disempower and disillusion: ‘If there is no hope, there will be no action, and goodness knows we need a lot more action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions right now’, wrote Jennifer Francis, an atmospheric scientist. The piece was described as ‘irresponsible’ by Michael Mann – of ‘hockey stick’ graph fame – purveying what he called ‘a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness’. Poetry and science collided, then, on the topic of the power of the stories we tell, of how we will endure as the future plays out.

Becoming the most-read piece in the magazine’s history, what this flurry of interest demonstrated was a stubborn unwillingness to even begin peering over the precipice. Indeed, rejoinders to ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ signalled climate denialism of a different sort: a denialism of change and the depth of adjustment which will be needed.

If we’re going to speak of an uninhabitable earth, let’s relinquish the fairy tales of our humanism. For many (indeed, most) human and non-human beings on the edges of civilisation, the Earth is already uninhabitable, and is perpetually becoming more so. A more sensible response to the piece came with the sombre observation that ‘dystopian visions are easy to conjure these days; they come with scientific probabilities.’

The future will not be like the past or present. Truisms such as this are easy to write but much harder to absorb into your bones, let alone into the heart of a culture. We need to get to the roots of more spectral, cultural, forms of adaptation. My interests tend towards non-fiction, though of course we invite pieces of all genres which navigate the tension, as we move forward, between acknowledging our human-ness, as Cate does above, and relinquishing those traits, mentioned by Charlotte, which we’ve come to view – with tragic results – as all too human.

***

Human, outhuman, non-human, non-humanist, inhumanist. Who are we really? Relinquishment, remembering, restoration, reclamation (and any number of Re-words). What is our destiny in these forms we hold? These are all kick-off points for the new Spring issue. We do, of course, also welcome pieces that just feel ‘Dark Mountain’ and do not follow these threads. A Dark Mountain anthology is a collective space that allows for many voices to be heard and we’re looking forward to listening to all of them and seeing your responses.

Dark Mountain: Issue 13 will be published in April 2018. The deadline for submissions is Friday 17th November 2017. For details on what and how to submit, please read our submissions guidelines carefully. We cannot read or respond to work which does not fit within our guidelines.

Image: ‘Fusion’ by Kate Williamson. Acrylic on canvas. Kate is a contemporary New Zealand artist who lives on the Otago Peninsula. Renowned for her large and striking artworks, She uses paint to express her concerns about climate change and the gift of paradise we are interweaved with. Described as ‘intuitive, spontaneous action painting’, ‘Fusion’ expresses the almost musical meeting of sky, water and land, and people. paintinglive.co.nz

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Walking on Lava: Shikataganai

This month we’re excited to announce the official launch of Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times. A one-volume introduction to Dark Mountain containing forty pieces selected from our first ten issues, Walking on Lava is published by Chelsea Green and available through bookshops or through our online shop.

To give you a taste of what’s inside, we’ve been running a series of excerpts from the book. Our fourth and final offering is Florence Caplow’s extraordinary essay about an abandoned Japanese-American internment camp in the Californian desert, and the meaning of shikataganai – accompanied by a powerful image by Bruce Hooke.

8 - 1 Emerging

Bruce Hooke, ‘Emerging’, Paria Canyon, Arizona, USA

I want to tell you what I know about shikataganai. I learned it in an empty prison, a long way from anywhere, and understood it as I sat in meditation in a garden in the middle of that prison. I offer it to you as a gift, as it was offered to me.

The landscape of the Owens Valley, east of the California Sierras, is both vast and enclosed. The long desert valley is held by great ranges – the Sierras a white wall of granite and ice to the west, the Inyos and White Mountains a subtler but equally awesome wall to the east, all rising precipitously more than 12,000 feet above the valley floor. On the floor of the valley are the remnants of a once-vast lake – Owens Lake, now reduced to alkali flats. And beyond the Inyo Mountains, Death Valley, drier, vaster still.

My first visit to the Owens Valley was in late May 2006. I drove north from the roar of Los Angeles into an emptier, emptier, and still-emptier landscape, my heart growing happier mile by mile. When I got to the tiny town of Lone Pine and turned west into the high desert, towards the jagged 14,000-foot peaks of Mount Whitney, lit by the light of an early summer sunset, I thought I might explode with joy at the beauty there. I found a campground out on the tilted, open plateau of the upper valley, and settled in.

Over the next few days, I learned a little of the history of the place. Before 1861, it was all Paiute country – desert, mountains, and at the southern end of the valley a great alkaline lake, rich with birds and fish and tule beds. Then white settlers started moving in, and for the first few years the Paiutes and the settlers co-existed with some peacefulness. Then, as settlement continued, there was increasing concern by the new settlers about the presence of the Paiutes. After a few skirmishes, a military force was dispatched to the valley. At first the Paiutes fought back, but their resistance was broken when the military herded a group of 40 Paiute women and children into the lake, deeper and deeper, until they drowned. The remaining Paiutes were then forcibly relocated from the valley.

I sat with that story, and the almost unimaginable images it evoked, up in my campsite overlooking the lakebed where it had happened: the armed men on horseback, the children crying, the inexorable push into the water, and the end, after the struggle. I considered how this story is woven into the fabric of this place, many places; a part of the history of my own country that I can barely stand to see or know.

The history goes on. After the Paiute were removed, the valley was irrigated by the waters of the Owens River, and became known for its rich fields and orchards. And after that, in the early years of the 20th century, the city of Los Angeles showed up, quietly, and began buying land and water rights. A huge aqueduct was built, an artery from the valley to Los Angeles, and the waters of the Owens Valley were sent south. The lake was emptied, the farmers bankrupted, and the valley returned to desert. Later, there was another little boom when Hollywood discovered the rocky hills above the valley as a setting for Westerns, but even that has dried up now. The alkaline sediments that blow from the empty lakebed promise to keep the Owens Valley mostly empty for a long time to come. Now there are just a few handfuls of eccentrics, ranchers, retirees, Paiute and Shoshone (descendants of those who did not die in the lake, and who came back, years later), and tourists like me, wandering through.

As I watched the light at dusk over the dry lakebed, I was struck by the piercing ironies in its history. The lake that once nourished the original people of the valley becomes their grave. Then the water is taken to fuel the dreams of those who displaced them, before they are displaced in their turn, casualties of the continuing gold rush of Los Angeles.

A few days later, when I headed north in the mid-afternoon heat, I discovered another part of the history of the Owens Valley. A small sign on the highway pointed left towards what appeared to be a landscape much like the rest of the valley, except for one large building that was about the size of an airplane hangar. The sign said, ‘Manzanar National Historic Monument’. At the entrance was a small, beautifully constructed stone gatehouse. On both sides of the road were concrete slabs, cracked pavement, and weeds – all that is left of the most famous of the Japanese internment camps (or ‘concentration camps’, as they were known at the time): Manzanar.

In the weeks after Pearl Harbour, when the Roosevelt administration chose to round up every person of Japanese descent in the Pacific states, I imagine some bureaucrats were given the task of finding suitable places to put them for an undetermined length of time. Maybe there were requirements like ‘far from habitation’, ‘inexpensive land’, ‘easy to defend’. As is still true, when the US government needs a place to put a military installation, a prison, a nuclear waste site, or other secret and unpleasant institutions, it looks to the American deserts, otherwise mostly the abode of light and rock, jackrabbits and roadrunners. The Owens Valley hadn’t been a desert a few years before, but now land was once again inexpensive, far from habitation and easy to defend. Anyone trying to escape from Manzanar would have to cross miles of open desert, and then the highest portion of the Sierras. No-one ever tried.

Ten thousand men, women and children (two-thirds of them American citizens) were interned at Manzanar, beginning in March 1942. Most of them lived there for more than three years, in 500 hastily and poorly built barracks. The large building I’d seen from the highway was what remained of the high school gymnasium, now the National Park Service interpretive centre. The barbed wire and barracks were gone, bulldozed after the war, during the time when the Japanese internment was a largely hidden part of American history. Manzanar was made a national monument after decades of lobbying by the survivors, who were determined not to allow their history to be buried and forgotten.

I went into the small museum inside the former school gymnasium. It was hard to look at the large photos, at the shock on people’s faces (old men, old women, children) in the first days of internment, at the photos of barbed wire and armed guards in the towers. It was hard to read the hate-filled editorials in newspapers around the country, on display in glass-topped cabinets. It was hard to look at the rage in the faces of the young men in the camp. In one corner of the exhibit there was a large blank book where people could write their responses and reactions. Over and over again, sometimes in childish handwriting, sometimes in graceful cursive or in quick scrawls, visitors wrote, in various ways: never again, this should never happen again.

I was moved by the responses, but I also thought: some of us remember, and some of us forget, and even now there are innocent people waiting in our immigration prisons and secret overseas interrogation rooms. It seems to be so tempting to do what was done here – to the Paiute, to the Japanese – and to think, ‘This time it’s justified.

This time these people really need to be treated this way, for our protection, or for theirs.’ Only afterwards is there some larger realisation of going astray. I thought, what a world it would be if we could all remember and truly put into practice, never again.

There was an auditorium where a film was being shown: footage from the time of the camp, and interviews with internees still alive today. That’s where I first heard shikataganai. An old man was trying to explain how he had survived the experience of being an internee. ‘Shikataganai,’ he said. ‘What is, is.’ His expression was powerful and clear and his eyes looked straight at the camera. Later, I found that the usual meaning of this Japanese phrase carries a strong sense of resignation, even of fatalism, the Japanese equivalent of a shrug: ‘Can’t be helped. Nothing to be done.’ But what I saw in the eyes of the old man was something far beyond fatalism. I felt that he was saying to me, to all of us, ‘What is, is. Now how will you respond?’

The footage in the documentary began with the camp in its desolate first days, when the barracks had been put up in the empty fields and the people struggled to survive the dust and the heat and the cold. Then, as the footage went on through the months and years, something miraculous began to unfold. Gardens appeared everywhere, springing up from the desert floor like mushrooms after rain. There were pleasure gardens, flowering trees, stone bridges, pools. There were ladies strolling with parasols, couples laughing on the grass, artists painting, poets writing, and students dancing in the high school gym. In an extraordinarily short period of time, and with virtually no resources other than their hands and hearts, inside a prison in the middle of a desert in the middle of a war, a people that had had everything taken away created culture. They invited life to flower behind the barbed wire.

I walked out of the documentary filled with outrage, amazement, and a kind of piercing, poignant sorrow. It was quiet in the Park Service bookstore, and I wasn’t ready to leave. I started chatting with the blond woman behind the counter. I asked her about the gardens, and whether anything was left. She said, ‘You know, there were gardens in many places here, but most of them are gone. Even what you can see now, all the plants are gone, and most of the stonework is gone too, but there’s one place … ’ – and I could see that she loved this place – ‘there’s one place that all of us who work here love to visit. There’s something about it.’ And she pulled out a map of the site and drew directions for me. I would have to walk through the empty, weed-filled fields, along what was once a road between lines of barracks, to a particular spot. I would know it when I got there.

Then I noticed small, carved stones in a basket on the counter. Each was carved with one of two sayings: ‘Never forget’ and ‘Shikataganai’.

I went back into the heat and sun and the empty Manzanar National Historic Monument. I was the only person there, it seemed. Map in hand, I drove the straight roads now leading nowhere at all, bisected by the remains of other roads. The map showed the names and numbers of the blocks of barracks, but nothing was visible except the flat valley floor, weeds, broken concrete, and the distant wall of the Sierras.

It reminded me, eerily, of another place built at nearly the same time, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the desert of eastern Washington, where I spent three summers as a field biologist. There you can (if you have the proper security clearance) drive the roads of the Hanford Town Site, where more than 50,000 people lived, secretly, while they built the reactors that would eventually produce the plutonium for the bomb that destroyed the city of Nagasaki – surely the home of relatives and friends of the people who were behind the barbed wire at Manzanar. Now, just like Manzanar, there’s nothing at the Hanford Town Site but straight roads leading nowhere at all, weeds, and broken concrete. The physical and historical resonance of the two places was eerie: both once a home for thousands of people during a time whose terrors I can barely imagine, each now just this, descending back into the desert’s silence.

Following the map and directions, I left the car and headed off the paved road onto the eroded remnants of a smaller road. It was spooky to walk out into the heat and emptiness, and improbable that there would be a garden anywhere in this place. I kept walking, stumbling over broken asphalt, past the merest outlines of foundations. Finally I saw a grove of trees ahead of me: tough, scruffy locust trees from the steppes of Eurasia, survivors of 60 years with no water. I knew that someone must have tenderly planted them at a time when barbed wire and guard towers separated the man or woman who tended them from the outside world.

Under the trees it was abruptly cooler, like stepping from one world to another. My eyes adjusted to the quieter light, and I saw a network of paths and stones. It took a moment to realise what I was seeing. Beneath the trees was a small but exquisitely intricate construction, no more than 15 feet wide and 30 feet long. Winding through the grove of trees was a series of empty concrete pools and channels, sensuously curved. It seemed as if someone had shaped the concrete like a potter working clay, with a deep assurance, a kind of joy in shaping. A stone bridge arched over one of the channels, flat stones placed just so for the walker’s feet, everything still solid and strong.

Along each side there were paths beneath the trees, outlined in stone. Larger boulders were placed here and there, inviting the walker to sit, to look. Everywhere the shadows of leaves were dancing.

And carved, carefully, into the wall of the largest pool, was a date: ‘August, 1942’. Only five months after the camp was begun.

I sat down at the base of one of the trees, near the stone bridge. I folded my legs and sat zazen, the joyful ‘just sitting’ that has been central to my life for 20 years, transmitted to my country by Japanese Zen Buddhist priests. The quiet was very deep, except for the sound of a very small breeze in the trees above me. I felt held by this garden and the long-gone hands that had made it, safe like a child hidden beneath a bower.

After a while I began thinking of the spirit of the person who had imagined this place, perhaps only a few weeks after arriving in the camp, carrying all the pain of dislocation, dispossession and uncertainty. Someone leant over and began to gather stones, chose boulders from the desert, poured the pools, planted trees, brought water and made a simple place of peace, inside a prison in the middle of a war, not knowing what lay ahead. I considered what a gift the teachings of Japanese Zen have been in my life, and how Zen carries within it the same spirit that was so tangible here in this garden – generosity, simplicity and courage. I considered shikataganai, that ineffable Japanese expression: nothing to be done. What is, is.

I came to Zen when I was in my early 20s, like a thirsty person finding water. The path that leads towards anything is always mysterious, but for as long as I could remember, I’d been struggling with a koan, a deep question, and I think that it was this question, in part, that brought me to Zen. I’d spent portions of my childhood in Italy. The Second World War had only been over for 25 years or so, and the scars of that time were tangible. Most of us in America grow up shielded from the sufferings of great violence and disaster, but I walked streets where battles had been fought and saw ancient buildings still not yet rebuilt from the Allied bombings. My mother’s closest friend had been attacked as a young girl by an American soldier. My father is Jewish, and I had an inkling of what would have happened to me if I’d been living in Italy during the time when the fascists came to power.

At the time I was quite sure that I would be utterly broken by … well, by almost anything, but particularly by the brutalities of war and violence. I felt the presence of disaster close beside me, as it is beside all of us. My koan was: how does a person’s spirit survive when life becomes seemingly unendurable, as it can at any moment? How will my spirit survive? And how do I live with this fear?

In Zen, I learned to sit still with my life, whatever my life was at the moment: joy or sorrow, grief or fear. And gradually I discovered that something holds all of the dramas of being human, something larger and quieter, and gradually it’s gotten easier and less frightening to be alive. Disasters of various proportions have happened, and I’ve learned that life comes back after great fires.

But in Manzanar, sitting in the shade of those trees planted 60 years before, surrounded by a deep silence, I saw another, more radical possibility. Someone chose those stones and planted those trees in the midst of all that they wished was not occurring. They used what they knew to make a place of peace, for themselves and for those around them, even as they were powerless and without recourse. Right there, where loss and fear were in every heart, and where there was truly nothing to be done, shikataganai.

I thought of the cellist in Sarajevo, who played on the street corner day after day as the bombs rained down, asserting, with every note, that music cannot be destroyed. Or the Paiutes who watched their children die in the waters of Owens Lake, and who somehow survived to come back to their homeland and keep the flame of their people burning in the midst of those who wanted them gone. The power of the human heart rising up in the middle of darkness – this suddenly seemed as beautiful to me as anything in this whole world. As a child in Italy I remember hearing the nightingales singing in the middle of the night: there’s nothing like that song.

A few weeks after I’d been to Manzanar I went walking in the hills of Northern California with a friend, a man who happens also to be a creator of gardens. His grandfather had been born in Japan, and was a community benefactor in San Francisco. Because he was seen as a leader, he was separated from his family and sent to fearsome military prisons in the Arizona desert and in New Mexico, reserved for those who were considered particularly dangerous. When we arrived at the trail, my friend pulled out three walking sticks that had belonged to his grandfather, each carved from a different desert wood. One was made from a dark, hard wood, highly polished, with a curved head. One had a head that was a sort of latticework – an ocotillo plant, whose red flowers draw hummingbirds in the early spring. And the third came from the stalk of a century plant – the great candelabras of white flowers that rise from the desert floor. This one was light and strong, and on the upper portion were a series of beautifully carved Japanese characters, carefully filled with red ink. The calligraphy is so exquisite and sophisticated that no-one now is able to read them.

A few months later there was an exhibit in San Francisco of craft and art from the internment camps. There were watercolours and sketches, delicate carved wooden birds, flower pins made from hundreds of shells, inlaid Buddhist and Shinto altars made from packing crates, children’s toys made from crushed cans, and weavings made from the threads of onion sacks. I wondered how many were made as gifts, to cheer a friend or family member when things were hard. It seemed that each object, no matter how humble, had a quiet radiance, born from the care and love with which it was made. On the wall was a quote from Delphine Hirasuna, who had been an internee: ‘Everything was lost, except the courage to create’.

Wherever you are in your life, whatever lies ahead of you, I offer you this story and this word, like a small, carved stone you can hold in your pocket, to be taken out when needed. Shikataganai. What is, is. Not resignation or passivity, but perhaps the beginning, the first step, when faced with great difficulty: to admit and accept the place where you are, no matter how grim. And then to have the courage to turn and begin your garden, one stone at a time, one tree gently planted into the yielding earth.

Image

Bruce Hooke, ‘Emerging’, from ‘The Immersion Project’, Paria Canyon, Arizona, USA

What does it feel like to physically immerse myself in nature and what can I learn from doing so? It is easy to use nature as a place to challenge ourselves; a place to get an adrenaline fix. I want something else. I want to slow down and feel nature more fully, more deeply and more physically; to rediscover the relationship between my body and the natural world. We come from mature and we will return to nature. In between we seem to have lost our connection. We wander in a human-made wilderness.

The images in this series were made on medium-format film, using a Hasselblad 503CW camera. I created a remote-control system that allows me to trigger the shutter once I am in position.

Florence Caplow is a Unitarian Universalist minister, Soto Zen priest, former conservation biologist, activist, writer, and editor. She edited and contributed to Wildbranch: An Anthology of Nature, Environmental and Place-Based writing, and The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Woman. Her essays can also be read online at Slipping Glimpser: Zen Wanderings and Wonderings.

Bruce Hooke is a photographer and performance artist residing in the small, western Massachusetts town of Plainfield. His work focuses on the evolving human relationship to nature. He heard about Dark Mountain from a friend and felt an immediate connection between his work and the mission of the project. bghooke.com

9781603587419Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times is published by Chelsea Green, and brings together essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork selected from the first ten issues of Dark Mountain. It’s available from all good bookshops, but if you want to support our work then we’d encourage you to order it direct from the Dark Mountain online shop.

 

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Walking on Lava: Squirrel

Last week we launched Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times. A one-volume introduction to Dark Mountain containing forty pieces selected from our first ten issues, Walking on Lava is published by Chelsea Green and available through bookshops or through our online shop.

To give you a taste of what’s inside, we’re running a series of excerpts from the book. Today we bring you David Schuman’s brilliant short story from Dark Mountain: Issue 6, accompanied by Emily Laurens’ image of disappearing birds from Issue 7. We hope you enjoy…

5 Birds

Emily Laurens, ‘Memorial to the Passenger Pigeon’, Llangrannog Beach, Wales. Photograph by Keely Clarke

It was in the grass. He thought it was dead. It seemed as if it had been there for a while, like the grass had grown around its body. But it wasn’t dead. It quivered as he drew near.

‘Go climb a tree,’ he said to it.

He nudged it with the edge of his flip-flop. It sprung up as if shocked and landed on the top of his foot. As he tried to shake it off, it bit. Then it fell from his foot and ran across the yard. It pressed itself against the fence.

He reached down to touch the bite and then thought better of it. It was more of a pinch.

He went inside.

‘A squirrel just bit me,’ he announced.

‘What?’ his wife said. She sounded sceptical and accusatory at once.

Dolly looked up from the table.

‘Maybe it has rabies,’ Dolly said.

His daughter was a sullen and frightened girl. She perked up at any suggestion that the world wasn’t as safe as her parents assured her it was.

His wife dried her hands on a towel. ‘Maybe you should call someone,’ she said.

‘Who?’

‘Animal control,’ said Dolly. She was the authority on disasters. She ordered preparedness pamphlets from government websites.

‘Is it bad?’ his wife said. She folded the towel and put it on the counter. She patted it.

‘It’s more of a pinch.’

‘Let me see,’ Dolly said. She came around the table and looked at his foot. ‘It’s bleeding a little. If there’s blood it isn’t a pinch. It broke the skin.’

His wife squeezed the bridge of her nose with her thumbs.

‘I’ve got to get ready,’ she said. ‘I’m showing a house in a half hour.’

‘Go on,’ he told her. ‘I can handle this.’

She walked out of the kitchen, testing her hair with her fingers.

He took a waffle out of the freezer and slotted it into the toaster.

‘Aren’t you going to call?’ Dolly asked.

‘I’m going to eat this waffle first,’ he said.

When his wife came back into the kitchen he was eating.

‘There’s coffee,’ she said. She took some earrings out of the junk drawer. She kept her favourite pairs in there, for some reason.

‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘I’ve got juice.’

‘I’m going now,’ she said.

‘You should go around the front,’ he said.

‘Why?’

She became so easily annoyed.

‘It’s still out there,’ he said. ‘In the yard.’

‘What?’

‘The squirrel. He was sitting near the fence.’

Dolly rushed to the glass doors.

‘God,’ she said. ‘I think there’s something wrong with it.’

‘It looked OK to me,’ he said.

‘You’d better call someone,’ said his wife. Then she left, using the front door. It hadn’t been opened in a while. It made a crackling sound. It had warped in its frame and needed sanding.

‘Do you need the number?’ said Dolly.

‘I’ll call information,’ he said.


*

‘It bit you,’ said the man from animal control, reviewing a fact. The man had a sweater on over his coveralls. It was the kind of colourful sweater that men of a certain age receive as gifts from their families.

‘Right here,’ he told the man, pointing down at his foot.

The man didn’t look. His concerns were animals.

‘Was it doing anything strange before the attack?’

He thought that was a strange word for the man to use, but he supposed it was the right word.

‘It was just in the grass,’ he told the man.

‘And afterwards?’

‘It ran away, but only to the fence. See it over there?’

‘I see it,’ said the man. ‘Can you remain in the domicile while I fetch a few things from the van?’

The man came back with a long net.

‘Where’s the other thing?’ he asked the man.

The man looked at him quizzically.

‘You said you were going to get a few things from the van.’

‘I meant one thing,’ the man said.

Then the man went out through the glass doors and put the net over the squirrel. He flipped the net and bounced it to make sure the squirrel went into the bottom. It seemed easy.


*

It was Saturday, so he’d be alone with Dolly all day. He asked her what she wanted to do.

‘Don’t you want to wait for the results?’ she said.

‘I doubt they’ll be in today,’ he said. ‘The animal control guy said he’d never heard of a squirrel getting rabies.’

‘They’ll have to cut its brain out to be sure,’ said Dolly. ‘And a tetanus shot. You’ll need one of those.’

‘I had one last year,’ he said. ‘The thing with the pruning shears.’

‘Oh, right,’ Dolly said. She turned back to the TV.

‘We’re leaving this house today,’ he told her.

‘OK, OK,’ she said. ‘I’d like to go to the cupcake shop and I’d like to drive down and see the whale.’

Her mother wouldn’t like the cupcake idea. Dolly was getting doughy around the middle. ‘She can be weird or she can be chubby,’ his wife had said more than once. ‘But she can’t be weird and chubby.’

He told Dolly OK and to get ready.

‘I am ready,’ she said.

*

A small whale had been attempting to beach itself near Sandy Hook for the last three days. It was on the news. When the whale got close to shore, groups of volunteers would coax it back out with their hands and gentle chanting.

On the half-hour drive he stole glances at his daughter. She had chocolate frosting in the corner of her mouth. A few years ago he would have reached over and wiped at her lip with the pad of his thumb, but she was old enough now to keep her own face clean. Thirteen was a hard age, he understood, though it hadn’t been particularly difficult for him. The drudgery of school, yes, but mostly he remembered the bright summers, the smell of chlorine, the snap of a ball in a glove. It was easier, maybe, for boys. If you had an interest in sports and could throw and catch, it wasn’t hard to get by.

‘Do you know we’re in the middle of a major age of extinction?’ Dolly said. ‘Bigger than when the dinosaurs died, even.’

‘That’s interesting,’ he said.

He meant it. He himself often thought along those lines. For example, was evolution still happening to human beings, and if so what would they look like in a million years? He recognised that, at the rate things were going, it might be a moot question. It wasn’t something he was going to discuss with Dolly, who worried enough as it was.

‘People always tell you something bad is interesting when they don’t intend to do anything about it,’ she said.

‘I don’t think there’s much I could do,’ he told her.

If only his daughter’s disappointment was bred by smaller things. He wanted to make her happy.


*

The wind whipped off the ocean and tugged at their jackets. He pulled his collar up. A gust lifted the hair off his forehead. He felt vaguely heroic, approaching the beach under a sky of steel. Like someone out of a World War Two novel. The sand was coarse and grey, littered with twisted pieces of black wood. It was winter sand. But winter was still a few months off.

A few huddled groups were scattered on the beach. Primarily they wore parkas but a few were in full-body wet suits. There was only one person in the water, a surfer straddling his board about a hundred yards from shore.

A young woman jogged towards them purposefully. Her jeans were soaked up to her thighs. She had a red eager face. She squinted as if she were visualising her ideals.

‘He came in, but now he’s back out,’ the young woman said. She shouted to be heard over the wind. ‘This is my third day.’

‘Do you sleep here?’ Dolly asked. His daughter was hugging herself against the cold.

‘Sure,’ said the young woman. ‘We take turns combing the beach with flashlights. Twice last night we had to push him back from shore. Nobody’s helping. The Coast Guard was here, and then a guy from the aquarium, but they gave up. We’re the only ones who believe he doesn’t really want to die.’

The flush was dissolving from the young woman’s cheeks, a blossoming played backwards. He thought the worst part of being grown was realising how inevitable everything is. He thought how astonishing it would be if he grabbed the young woman and kissed her. He pictured his daughter’s astonishment.

The surfer came up from the beach, carrying his board. He was bearded and thin, with wet ropes of silver hair down his back. He stuck his surfboard into the sand near them. On the bottom of the board was written, ‘This machine kills fascists.’ The surfer put his arm around the young woman, who shivered into his embrace.

‘He’s out there,’ said the surfer, pointing at where he had been. ‘He’s right out there, waiting.’

They peered at all the grey water. Something broke the surface. It looked like an inflated plastic garbage bag bobbing up. There was a spray, like a sneeze, and then it went under. Along the beach other groups were pointing and calling out.

‘You’ve seen a whale,’ he said to his daughter.

You could divide your life this way, he thought. I have not seen. And now I have. This must be what bird-watching was all about. Or maybe everything.

‘He’s not really a whale anymore,’ said the surfer. ‘He’s been touched by man. A whale’s one of those things not meant to be touched by human hands.’

‘He’s like a dog, then?’ said Dolly.

‘Something sadder than that,’ said the surfer.

‘Michael teaches economics,’ the young woman said.

The whale bobbed up and blew again.


*

By the time they got back it was dark. His wife had come home while they were gone, but left again. There was a note on the kitchen table that she was meeting with her memoir group and wouldn’t be back until late. She’d drawn a sad face, which meant she hadn’t made a sale. Along with the note, she’d left take-out menus from Angelo’s and the Chinese place. Dolly said she wasn’t hungry and went to her room. She kept several bags of chips in her closet and candy bars in her nightstand. He didn’t know how she came by these things. She never asked him for a dime.

He heard her settling into her bed, and then the growls and percussive gunfire of the zombie game she played whenever her mother was out. He took a jar of pickles out of the refrigerator and fished inside with two fingers. There was only one left, and it evaded him. He thought of Dolly as a baby, how he’d been the one who could rock her to sleep in his arms with a pattern his wife could never master. One, two, dip, bob. One, two, dip, bob. The deep reward of her eyelids beginning to flutter and relax, like the feathers of a settling bird. He remembered the squirrel and rolled down his sock. The skin around the bite was inflamed and tender. But he felt the same.

At the beach a single tent was luminous against the night. Inside, the young woman and the surfer made blunt love. The whale, within shouting distance but forgotten for the moment, turned seaward.

On the other side of the world, a tiger padded into an encampment. She bore the smell of shit and meat. In her teeth were strands of lung, liver and intestine, offal of her own young. She entered the light cast by the fire. The tiger’s muscles slid beneath her stripes like prisoners behind bars. The three men warming themselves, poachers, stood with shock and fear. This was the very beast they’d stalked for days, whose cubs they had found in a hole beneath the roots of a fallen baobab and eviscerated on the spot, taking what they needed and leaving a small pile of wet guts where each had slept. Now the tiger had come to rip them down and tear out their throats. They found themselves unable to run. Their rifles, leaning against a tree fifteen feet from where they stood, were like distant things in a dream. The fire popped loudly and they heard the heavy shuffling of their elephants in the woods.

And then the tiger, like a house cat, rolled onto her back and offered her heart to her hunters.

Image

Emily Laurens, ‘Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2014, Memorial to the Passenger Pigeon’, Llangrannog Beach, Wales.
We need to find new ways to commemorate the passing of places, ecosystems and species. One hundred years ago and 4000 miles away, the passenger pigeon became extinct. From billions to none in the blink of an eye. With that in mind, I went to where the civilised, farmed, human-dominated land meets the wild untameable ocean to draw passenger pigeons with my friends in that liminal space. Within those fragments of rock that sea and time have crumbled to near dust, I trace their shapes with my garden rake. In the blond brown sands I draw a small flock of pigeons, like shadows passing overhead. And then I watch them disappear. Photograph by Keely Clarke

David Schuman grew up in a New Jersey suburb about 30 miles from Manhattan. His parents, both teachers, told him he could do anything he wanted in life as long as it wasn’t teaching. So, of course, that is what he does now. He lives in St Louis, at the nexus of many aspects of America’s present cultural moment. Discovering Dark Mountain through the New York Times, he found the story ‘Squirrel’, which he had written months earlier, made sense in a way that it hadn’t before. So he submitted it for publication.

Emily Laurens is one of Feral Theatre’s co-founders and co-directors and lives and works in rural West Wales. Her work uses and utilises myth, clown, ritual, mask, puppets and movement to explore loss, transformation and our connection to the Earth and its non-human inhabitants.

WalkingonLava_coverWalking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times is published by Chelsea Green, and brings together essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork selected from the first ten issues of Dark Mountain. It’s available from all good bookshops, but if you want to support our work then we’d encourage you to order it direct from the Dark Mountain online shop.

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

Walking on Lava: Prospecting for Equanimity

This week we’re excited to announce the official launch of Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times. A one-volume introduction to Dark Mountain containing forty pieces selected from our first ten issues, Walking on Lava is published by Chelsea Green and available through bookshops or through our online shop.

To give you a taste of what’s inside, we’re running a series of excerpts from the book. Today we bring you the first part of Jason Benton’s story of home in rustbelt Appalachia from Dark Mountain: Issue 7, accompanied by Ron Hagg’s ‘Abode Farmhouse’ image from the same book. We hope you enjoy…

1 Adobe Farmhouse.(b&w) jpg

Ron Hagg, ‘Adobe Farmhouse’, New Mexico, USA

The stakes are in the meadow … the fields are overgrown
The winds of change are blowin’ through the place I’ve called home
They’re digging at the edges to build the power line
Same old story … but now the story’s mine […]
It all began 300 years before
What story is beginning
If this one is no more?

– Railroad Earth, ‘Lone Croft Farewell’

This story is nothing special, nothing new. It is a story of time, my home, my family, and how this story continues to consume our time and space to be human, creating existential crises in individuals (myself). Environmental writers write about childhood because, it seems, this is the only place where, if lucky, we are now afforded the habitat to be human for a short while before we’re forced into the fold. This is not one of those articles. It is a recounting, in my words and my grandparents’, of how things have changed and of the unfolding discontentment across generations. Out of this arises a patient hope – for what, I still cannot say – but it is not for what we have now.

This place, Western Pennsylvania, the western foothills of Appalachia, has produced a lot of coal, gas and steel (and a lot of broken backs, broken families and cancer) but also Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey and Rachel Carson, though most of us around here have never heard of them. What abides are strong family ties and proud gardeners, a connection to the land (what is left of it), and a stubborn independence, although for how long I do not know. It is a place I will continue to call home until I die or it is taken from me.

I left here as an eager teenager and returned a decade later married with kids and a mortgage on a four-acre plot. A curious thing happens after spending time away. Aesthetics and idiosyncrasies of time and space – a workday commute, a weed or ambient sound – become more pronounced, as the difference between the present and memories of the past reveals the quality of relationships, change and often injustice. Discontent and love arise hand in hand as objects and experiences resurrect these memories, revealing something new and something old and a living story which lies in between.

Some of these objects and experiences are products of civilised life. Civilisation goes about its business condensing the raw elements of life (including people) into capital and products, and in the process condenses the experience of time and space into things like gasoline, trucks, p-values, and phones – potent mediators to the experience of life and reality. This business permeates even my thoughts, behaviours and sometimes desires. In the process, stories fragment and memories fade. It’s the ‘same old story’ once again.

But there is always room to rewrite, re-create, and be reborn. I’m still just as eager for something different, something new – perhaps because I was born of this place which has been in constant flux since my farmer ancestors immigrated here from Germany, Ireland, Scotland and Denmark over 200 years ago.

This eagerness is not for what most would think. I’ve travelled enough of the world to find that the best things in life come from my garden, kitchen and bed. And an adventure away from it all, a solitary place to get lost and lose myself, I can often find within my garden or the local woods. I spent most of my time away living in Boston. I do miss its diverse and witty people, the White Mountains nearby, and a walk to the Atlantic for a dip. But I wouldn’t call it home. This will be – probably until I die. This will be the place where I’ll always return after getting lost, after losing myself. After many generations of being pushed aside, something within me has decided that it is time to remain still and quiet, at least for now.

Much of this place has changed. The fields are now dotted with giant houses and gas wells. Gas lines vein and artery the land, ever-vascularising new territory and depths, varicosing to the surface for stations, valves and utilities. Churches have water ministries (not to be confused with baptism) helping families with contaminated or lost water. People seem richer and poorer, which is nothing new to this business. Once non-existent or seldom-seen, smartphones, stink bugs and drugs are now ubiquitous – luxury and its victims reinvented.¹

The woods are posted. When I was little I used to be able walk miles in most directions from home without bothering anybody except Mom who would, having exhausted her voice, wail on her hefty iron triangle bell to call us in after we were gone too long. Impossible now without breaking some law, namely trespassing, as the countryside is increasingly owned by businesses or individuals who live far away. I remember her heaving the antique from its nail on the wall, a symbol of a time when kin worked within earshot – although in her case she slept alone every night; still does, with Dad working night shift at the plant.

We boys roamed the countryside, pretending to be trappers and homesteaders like Daniel Boone, but found someone had already beat us to it and then disappeared, leaving behind ploughs, animal traps and trash. Those relics became our rusty treasure, shifting our ambitions from rocks, plants and animals to more neurotic, civilised pursuits: archaeology, anthropology, and something else – for those rusty relics became something like Yorick’s skull, leading to various questions of existence:

‘Who were they? Where did they come from? Where did they go? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Who am I? And if all the Daniel Boones are gone – their tools, land, and dreams absconded – where is this fantasy taking me?’

When I was 12 my brother, a year younger, wept when we learned that someone was planning to build in the woods behind our house where the old sawmill used to be – where we played like giants along the stream, shot, trapped and caught countless helpless critters. We booby-trapped the place with animal skulls and snakes to dissuade them – it worked, so we thought. That place was sacred to us. We still pause each time we pass there, now with our little ones, in awe of how tall the sycamores have grown, how little we now feel. We stand mouths-agape peering at the ivory heights, wondering if sycamore fruit is edible, eyeing a viable avenue to the top.

‘I wonder what those taste like … Hey, where are the kids?’

When I was a child, time was absent, but now everything is moving and accelerating, especially those little ones. My great-grandparents’ world was no less chaotic, but for several generations prior to theirs there was a relative homeostasis, a sameness from one time to the next (they would have disagreed). Change has been constant, bulldozing the past, yet still dictated by the same intensifying powers – powers that as I grow older I find all around me and even within my own conscience; and sometimes, to my annoyance, my unconsciousness.

I try to pluck such infiltrates from my soul just as I do the stink bugs (an Asian insect who stole away on Chinese imports during my decade away) from every nook and cranny of my home, or as I once plucked them from my toddler’s shoulder. As for my children, I just can’t say what time will be or bring for them. Will they stay? Will they return? How will the pressures of time and these powers form them?

The mining frenzy hasn’t changed, even since the first Drake oil well was drilled just north of here in 1859. We’re always moving and being moved by the energy industry, which powers what William Cobbett² called ‘The Thing’, and others have called progress, GDP, revenue, industrial warfare (‘the War effort’), democratic capitalism, The Machine, The Man, development, growth. Grandpap recently shook his head in disgust – shocked that they all-at-once strip-mined and fracked the vast rolling fields across from his childhood home:

‘That was still good land! Been farmed long before I was around – a lot of people took care of those fields.’

The Thing has given us much, though. Compared with my great-grandparents we live like royalty – more convenience and luxury; however, less freedom and less time. If they saw us now they would quietly nod and politely say, ‘That’s nice,’ then gratefully, skilfully return to their work. I romanticise, but these were folks who lived life abundantly, and without electricity or indoor plumbing. My brothers and I have careers now, and if you’ve got one around here you are likely tied to mining or the energy industry, and invariably tied (or perhaps noosed, knotted, lassoed or wedded) to The Thing.

One of us counts and recounts the surplus, one ensures it is safely acquired, and I manage the side effects – as a psychiatric nurse. I say manage, for true prevention would be anathema to growth, to luxury – to the noose. At work I see the double edge of our way of life: the rich man who feels alone and empty, and the poor single mother who is exhausted from working three jobs, neither of whom have time for their children. Cobbett protested against this onslaught, for fairness, longing for the nation of his childhood. But turning back the clock is futile, and with only three weeks of holiday a year, there’s no time left for dealing with ‘hucksters, governments, or favourable representatives.³ The soul needs daily restoration: at home I have my children’s youth and my wife’s love to enjoy, there are beans and berries to pick and preserve, someone needs help with a shovel, the winter wren offers a song and dance, there’s food to cook and share.


*


Dozers and trucks, symbolic and steel, can become deeply personal. Grandma had the noisy, dusty coal processing plant nearby, their dairy farm razed for progress, which is now Moraine State Park. My childhood home (the actual house) had been relocated from its hilltop farm to the edge of the woods in order to make way for strip mines. I have peered and peed into more than one open mine pit. Stepping from a wet vernal paradise teeming with life to a silent dusty pit the size of a small village, I found myself asking then, as I do now, ‘Is all this really necessary?’

My friend lived in the trailer park down the road – his father was a drag-line crane mechanic, always reeking of diesel, piss, tobacco and sweat from sleeping in a rig or his pickup. They would operate those draglines 24/7: one was a mile away, lighting the horizon and drumming the earth. You didn’t notice its constant racket until it suddenly broke down, sometimes with a thunderous echoing boom as the house-sized bucket fell to the ground. Right then, an etheric, proverbial breath was released: silence wind birds breath heart and mind quickly settled to the fore of consciousness. The land and I exhaled, and for a brief moment possibility opened her door.

Equanimity restored.

*

For as long as I can recall I have been awakened by the drone of early-morning coal trucks on nearby Routes 19, I 79 and 422. As a teen I spent the night at my girlfriend’s (now wife’s) parents’ house. The road lay parallel, just a few yards away, to a couch in the foyer where I slept – once. Jake-brakers! The noise of slowing trucks is loud enough to shake houses, make dogs bark, babies cry, throw china from cupboard shelves, and unhinge windows and your mind.

Today the morning drone is accompanied by cavalcades of frack water and rigging trucks. On my morning commute I share the highway with the trucks carrying coal, water, pipes and rigging, and also windmill wings hundreds of feet long on their way to the Appalachian mountaintops east of here. There are pillars of fire on every horizon, which always lend images of a biblical Israelite camp and tabernacle, like the posters on a Sunday school wall.

At work, many of my patients are coal miners, roughneckers, truck drivers and their wives and children – the children I worry for the most (and what of their children’s children, including my own?). Too many of those young people look at their exhausted, indebted, irritable, unhealthy, addicted and divorced forebears and ask me the question: ‘What’s the point?’ without a story to tell or fulfil. I have no answer that will satisfy their soul and I almost appreciate their protest: sitting idly, already disillusioned, without ambition or hope.

The miners come with bent backs and spirits, fearing they are no longer useful. The roughneckers always find a way to gaol: heroin, fights, more heroin. The truckers, anxious and paranoid: running against time, traffic and debt. There are also surveyors, land grabbers, rich well owners, poor pipe welders and an arrogant rookie accountant setting up some kind of hedge fund for the drilling companies. Many, though, are jobless, clinically poor, and by the time they see me are beyond their wits’ end with their struggle. People around here (myself included) aren’t apt to ask for help, particularly from a stranger, and more particularly from a shrink. During our lunch conversation my co-worker tearfully shares the news: ‘It’s a malignancy’. She’s the fourth in our office diagnosed with cancer this year. My boss complains that ‘They’re dumping in the stream again’ behind her house. She isn’t sure how to stop them or clean it up.

The daily 10am and 2pm trains rumble and screech outside my office window, a mile of coal, oil and chemicals in tow. I drive home with the trucks and need to use my windshield wipers when following the frack water salvage trucks as they leak an oily, briny residue onto my car (destined to be dumped in old wells in Ohio). On the car radio, I listen to a politician argue that in order to save the future existence of Pennsylvania farming we need more gas operations on farmland.

I arrive home and my daughters and I wander into the garden where dull bituminous and shiny anthracite lie on the ground, dropped from previous mining operations. We pick tomatoes, flicking off confident stink bugs, while the Haliburton pickup drives by and the Shell helicopter flies overhead – every day at 5.45pm.

Entering through the basement door, I’m greeted by my radon detector beeping: the level is still above the EPA ‘safe’ level, even after the expensive mitigation system whose constant hum drives me mad. Some wondered if radon had contributed to my aunt’s early death since she lived in an underground house near gas wells and mining. We’ll never know.

The calm of the evening is periodically interrupted by the wobbly fan blades of my new electric ultra-efficient heat pump, my attempt to warm and cool my house ‘sustainably’. I listen with indignation and vengeful pleasure. I dare not fix it. The blade might one day let loose and destroy its innards, but that is fine. My beloved winter wren couple (and since, a host of other birds, chipmunks, squirrels, a wild kitten and a baby crow) recently nosed around inside looking for a place to build their nest when the fan kicked on. You can’t kill pure spirits like theirs without damage. Winter evenings are warmed by my pellet stove: an insane contraption, always needing fixing, and relying on wood for sawdust, volumes of natural gas to dry and press the pellets, oil to haul and package the pellets, and coal-fired electric to power the thing – all for a simple warm fire. We’re burning even the dust and selling it as an ‘ecological’ heat source, referring to sawdust as waste. Not even the dust is allowed to fall as an offering to future forests, fungi, termites and dirt.

But The Thing is there, so I use it. I’m as patient as a snake, but sooner than later, in a maniacal fit of rage and flurry of pellets, The Thing will be speeding to the scrap yard.

‘Mommy, where’d Daddy go?’

‘He’ll be back, babe. Let’s clean up these pellets.’

I later turn out the lights, burned at the local coal (soon to be gas) plant, just west of here, which I’m told may have contributed to the asthma that nearly killed me when I was three and now suffocates my toddler. I fall asleep to the drone of the trucks.

Notes

1. Ralph Waldo Emerson frequently explored the karmic idea that for every material excess, there is a double-sided, moral/material victim or ‘defect’, e.g. the modern guilt over our excess, and our pitiful attempts at finding ‘sustainable’ methods of having more of the same story. See RWE’s essay ‘Compensation’.
2. See Dark Mountain: Issue 2, ‘The Shuttle Exchanged for the Sword’ by Warren Draper. The Luddites’ ‘same old story’ is what drove Cobbett to stoop to his political endeavours and my ancestors to seek a place in America where they could farm unbothered. That Jeffersonian dream remained a dream for almost 150 years until the story quickly caught up with them.
3. From Robinson Jeffers’ ‘Soul’s Desert’.

Image

Ron Hagg, ‘Adobe Farmhouse’, New Mexico, USA
This is an abandoned adobe farmhouse in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico. It is sad to see a family’s dream abandoned where once there was hope. Today in the United States we are run by a corporate state — small family farms are disappearing at an alarming rate., only to be taken over by huge factory farms. In this photograph I try to capture not only a devastating case of a single family no longer farming, but also a reflection of the state of affairs in our society. Before the arrival of the Europeans in 1700 this area was populated by members of the Taos Pueblo.

Jason Benton has been following a rabbit trail that began with woods and fields and creek-bottomed hills, then cities and oceans, airplanes and theology, mountains and jungles, horses and psychiatric nursing, and now goats and gardens. Presently, he is back home in Western Pennsylvania, with children and homeschooling, work, a very small farm and a large garden.

Ron Hagg is an exhibited photographer, based in Taos, New Mexico, and has worked in the field of education for most of his adult life. His first job was helping migrant farm labour families. When he worked at Hoopa Valley High School in Humboldt County, California, he initiated and coordinated the effort to teach the languages of three of the areas’s Native American tribes, Karuk, Yurok and Hupa. He has written four novels: Jesus of Kneeland, To Keep from Drowning, Dreams of a New Day and Escape in Time. The last of these was turned into a full-length motion picture. haggmedia.com

WalkingonLava_coverWalking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times is published by Chelsea Green, and brings together essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork selected from the first ten issues of Dark Mountain. It’s available from all good bookshops, but if you want to support our work then we’d encourage you to order it direct from the Dark Mountain online shop.

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

Walking on Lava

This week we’re excited to announce the official launch of Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times. A one-volume introduction to Dark Mountain containing forty pieces selected from our first ten issues, Walking on Lava is published by Chelsea Green and available through bookshops or through our online shop.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be running a series of excerpts from the book, starting today with the editorial.

WalkingonLava_cover

Uncentring Our Minds
An Introduction to This Book

Uncivilisation, the manifesto that launched the Dark Mountain Project, was written in the autumn of 2008, at a time of global crisis and collapse. A firestorm was blowing through the world’s financial system, and for a while it was unclear how much of the world would be left standing when it ended. This book was assembled eight years later, at the end of 2016 – a year in which it was the turn of the West’s political systems to feel the force of a storm blowing through history, upending expectations as it passed through.

The timing, in both cases, seems fitting. Dark Mountain was created by two English writers who felt that writing was not doing its job. In a world in which the climate itself was being changed by human activities; in which global ecosystems were dying back before the human advance; and in which the dominant economic and cultural assumptions of the West were clearly beginning to crumble, that little manifesto – 20 pages long, hand-stitched, bound in red paper – asked a simple question: where are the writers, and the artists? Why were the novels, the films, the music, the cultural forms that passed for ‘mainstream’ in our society still behaving as if it were the 20th century – or even the 19th?

Something else, we thought, was needed. Writers and artists, thinkers and doers, needed to own up to the crises enfolding us, instead of pretending they weren’t happening, or that they were just glitches which could be ironed out by technology or politics. An abyss was opening up before us, and the very basis of our civilisation was in question. It was, declared the manifesto, ‘time to look down.’ If we did, might we be surprised by what we saw?

Uncivilisation, like the modernist manifestos it was inspired by, which had appeared a century before at another time of upheaval, asked these questions to shake people up, to challenge them, to throw cats among pigeons. We wanted writing and art that reflected the dark times we were living in. We wanted writers as prophets, artists who spoke with honest tongues, who might not pretend to have answers but who didn’t hide from the questions. We had no idea what this meant, really, or what it would look like, or where to find it, or whether, indeed, it was already out there and we just didn’t know about it. The whole thing, like all manifestos, was presumptuous, loud, and arrogant. But it worked.

Nearly ten years on, a tiny initiative launched in the back room of a pub to about 40 slightly confused people has become an international network of writers, artists, musicians, thinkers, activists and many others without labels, who believe, as we believed, that honesty about the state of the world is not only necessary but is also a source of energy, and even hope. Once false hopes are shrugged off, once we stare into the darkness that surrounds us, we can see new paths opening up; new forms; new words. The question our manifesto raised – where are all the ‘uncivilised’ writers and artists – began to be answered almost immediately. They were out there, but they hadn’t been able to find each other. What Dark Mountain did – one of the things it did – was to raise a flag around which they could gather.

The results of this gathering have taken many forms. We have run festivals and college courses, worked with national theatres and led mountain expeditions. We have appeared in a strange assortment of media outlets, from radio to TV, from Resilience.org to the New York Times. We run a website which reaches hundreds of thousands of people each year. We host concerts and lectures, storytellers and performers, poets and magicians.

At the core of all this activity, though, we are doing what we intended to do all along: publishing books. Since 2010, Dark Mountain has published a series of beautifully crafted hardback journals, featuring writing and art from around the world. Each book is packed with contrasting voices and genres: poetry, photography, long essays, flash fiction, paintings, reportage and much else, all brought together by a team of editors many of whom first came to Dark Mountain as unknown voices published in the early books.

All of this has been an attempt to bring together the kind of writing we called for back in 2009:

It sets out to paint a picture of homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own – a blue whale, an albatross, a mountain hare – might recognise as something approaching a truth. It sets out to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds. It is writing, in short, which puts civilisation – and us – into perspective.

Have we succeeded? That’s for others to say. What we can say is that the years which separate the writing of our manifesto from the publishing of this book have seen a widening awareness of the instability of our civilisation and the seriousness of the threats which face it. The kind of arguments which saw us attacked as ‘doomers’ when we published them in 2010 can be found today on the comment pages of international newspapers. It is becoming harder and harder to deny that what we used to think of as ‘progress’ is faltering badly. What happens next is the interesting part.

What can writing do about this? What problems can art solve? In one sense, the answers are: nothing, and none. But in another sense, these are the wrong questions. ‘All civilisations’, we wrote in the manifesto, ‘are built on stories.’ When the stories fail, we need to know how to tell different ones. We need to have the perspective to understand the failure, and the imagination to offer up new ways of seeing. This is what Dark Mountain set out to do: to play host to voices seeking honest engagement with questions which might be intractable. How else does art get made?

Walking on Lava contains words and images selected from the ten books that the Dark Mountain Project has so far published. It will take you from the mountains of Bolivia to the tribal areas of India and from rural California to the coast of Greenland, in the company of passenger pigeons, squirrels, horses, roe deer and wolves. It will whisk you through time, from medieval Florence to 18th century England to prehistoric India to the Younger Dryas. It will introduce you to the history of the future, walk you through the Mahabharata, teach you to think differently about space travel and give you a recipe for pheasant stew.

As we started work on this collection, we wondered how to select from such a diversity of work: what structure could help a newcomer find their way into the territory of Dark Mountain? Then we remembered what we had written at the end of the manifesto. On its last pages, we offered ‘eight principles of Uncivilisation’: a first attempt to define, point by point, what we stood for and what we wanted to achieve.

The writers, thinkers and artists we have met along this journey have taken us to places that were not marked on our maps, but as we retrace the routes we’ve explored together, what is striking is how far they have deepened our understanding of each of those principles. So as you follow our footsteps, you will find Walking on Lava is organised according to those early categories, with each section of writing introduced by a primal image. This selection is far from a full picture of what we do, but it offers one path across the landscape which Dark Mountain continues to explore. We hope to see you somewhere along the way.

Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times is published by Chelsea Green, and brings together essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork selected from the first ten issues of Dark Mountain. It’s available from all good bookshops, but if you want to support our work then we’d encourage you to order it direct from the Dark Mountain online shop.

And if you’re in London on 5th September, join us for the book launch at Brick Lane’s Old Truman Brewery. The evening will feature readings and performances from contributors and editors, and of course a chance to buy the book. You can reserve your (free) ticket here.

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In Other Tongues: Creating a Vessel

Today we bring you the sixth and final instalment of our series about learning to listen to the myriad other voices beyond the human. Inspired by In Other Tongues, a three-day creative summit held this summer in Dartington, UK, we invited six contributors – artists, writers, academics, poets, performers – to explore the ways in which language and culture are influenced by the non-human, and more-than-human, voices that permeate and shape our world. The series concludes with art.earth director Richard Povall on bad eco-art, the problems with oversimplification, and the imperatives that led to the creation of In Other Tongues.

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I have sat back without comment as the onslaught of ‘eco-art’ has burgeoned, all of it well-intentioned but much of it ill-informed and based on poor (or non-existent) science. So much of this work has no nuance, no greys, and very little by way of cogent argument. In an era where ‘truth’ is often placed in inverted commas, because as a society we seem to have lost any sense of what the word means, factoids and opinions based on little more than gut responses or intuition abound as absolute truth.

I suppose I’m bothered by these simplifications of the functioning of the natural world – all meat-eating is bad, we were never meant to consume cow’s milk, fox hunting is a plaything for the upper classes (‘the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible’ according to Oscar Wilde) – because for much of my adult life I’ve been a rural dweller. Increasingly, we tend to reflect the knowledge of our tribe, and tribal knowledge is often narrowly defined and bucks little in the way of opposition. And I’m very much of a tribe of the non-mainstream where rejection of received (or lazy) wisdom is the common cause. I’m absolutely with the tribe in my views on Trump and American neo-colonialism, on GM foods, on Brexit, on recycling and re-using and shopping local and well… I suspect you know the rest.

But my tribal instincts are blurred by my neighbours and by the places and communities in which I’ve lived and the friends I’ve had and the people I’ve interacted with. I know that grass-fed pasture-fed beef is not the same as grain-fed feed-lot hormone-laced beef; I understand that both place a burden on the planet, but that the environmental cost of the former is so much less than the latter. And yet, when the tribe spews the accepted knowledge about meat, it is only the story of the worst practices that are reflected. I know that fox hunting as it was traditionally practiced in the UK (and still is, to a large extent) had little to do with class (perhaps plenty to do with feudal structures, but that is not the same thing) but had a great deal to do with keeping horses and the horse-stock healthy, fit and strong, and ridding the land of less-than-healthy foxes and others who are considered to be vermin (unlike many others who attack livestock and crops, foxes kill far more than they will ever consume and are therefore inherently ecologically wasteful, rather like Homo sapiens, many of whose activities could also be classed as verminous in this sense of the word).

Just as I had found myself becoming increasingly irritated and lacking in patience with the contemporary art world, finding so much of the work empty, vacuous, and plain silly, so I found myself becoming increasingly irritated with a great deal of so-called ‘eco-art’ which seems to be neither particularly ‘eco’ (in the sense that it is all too often based on ‘intuitive’ tribal knowledge rather than on ecological fact, and rigid in its thinking rather than fluid and open) nor good art.

art.earth grew out of a simple imperative: I felt the need to create a vessel for artists and organisations whose work focuses, or reflects, glories in, worries about, or dwells in this glorious troubled planet on which we live. This vessel is leaky, a bit porous, and probably not very seaworthy, but is nevertheless here to facilitate and support, to encourage and to cheer-lead those who wish to experiment and be bold and acknowledge and revel in the complexity of the questions at hand.

Above all, my original intent was to provide support for work that wasn’t about single-issue environmental tales: not about climate change, not about pollution, not about food.

It’s an attempt, in some way, to redress a balance, to create places where art and the environment can be talked about in forums where sloppy thinking could be challenged or interrogated, where scientists and philosophers could be as much at home as artists. I’m not sure we’ve achieved this yet, but we have gone part of the way and when designing our events or curating our exhibitions we do at least weed out sloppy thinking and ‘intuitive facts’ at an early stage.

In Other Tongues (June 2017) was our third symposium and came from a place that was entirely intuitive on my part: that the languages and knowledges of other-than-human were rich, meaningful and poorly understood by us. I worked with Mat Osmond and with a committee of artists and academics who brought rigour to what was originally quite a flabby idea. They also brought clear thinking and a degree of ruthlessness to the selection of presenters and others who shared their idea at the symposium.

This opening keynote from Prof. Wendy Wheeler exposed many of the themes of the conference: that animals, plants, fungi, bacteria – the stuff of life – are far from being mere living machines, but are semiotic, interpretative systems. ‘It turns out not to be so strange that humans have made art and song, because the nonhuman living systems from which humans have evolved are organised via structuring principles that are much more like art, music and poetry’ she told us. Prof. Wheeler introduced this new world of biological, cultural, human and more-than-human living meanings that biosemiotics uncovers and explores – Wordsworth’s ‘mighty sum of things for ever speaking’.

Our other keynote speaker was poet Alyson Hallett who explored the relationship between the human body and stones: how we interact and how we communicate with one another.  ‘At many times in my life,’ Alyson says, ‘a stone has acted as a compass and pointed me in a direction I might not have taken if I hadn’t listened to it.  What did this listening entail?  What did I hear when I listened?  Was it a stone language?  Or was something in my own imagination drawn out by the stone?’ Instead of seeking to identify answers, she instead meandered along probable and improbable pathways in search of a door that we can slip through and, if we’re lucky, find something we didn’t know we were looking for. And all of this coming from a place where the boundary between the physical and the metaphysical became ever more porous and ever more delicious.

These two approaches were in every sense bookends: as an academic theorist, Wendy Wheeler’s paper was challenging, deeply researched, and the result of a lifetime of thought. Alyson Hallett’s paper also reflected a lifetime of practice, but was utterly unafraid to talk about relationships and communication with objects other tribes would view as inert and inherently devoid not perhaps of meaning but of any ability to communicate or have agency.

Others explored sonic worlds, the penumbral, our animal selves, animal language, and material worlds of field, water, fungi. A number of presentations talked about the prevalence of animals in our myths and stories and their relevance today. Many explored animal being.

Surely all this was ripe for slippery truths, for the ill-expressed and ill-conceived – a factual void. Certainly at the first stage there was a great number of proposals that arguably fell into these categories, but what ultimately emerged was a collection of papers and other presentations, workshops and performances that provided opportunities for new physical and metaphysical explorations without any loss of connection to ground or intellectual rigour.

And for me this is redressing yet another balance. In a life that has embraced far too many academic conferences, I generally found them reflective of the academic world in general: competitive, point-scoring, bitchy, and rather depressing. I so desperately wanted art.earth events to have a different flavour than this rather bitter-tasting one. And so, it turned out, did everyone who became involved.

I’m struck, bowled-over, really, by the openness and generosity of spirit that accompanies these symposia – and our leaky vessel in general. I feel a huge debt of gratitude towards all those who take part and somewhat fearful that the magic will one day dissipate. Thus far, it has held as we have transitioned and grown. Perhaps some of this is due to remaining very open to styles and forms of presentation while not accepting obfuscation and language that has little meaning other than for the fully-initiate. Perhaps it is the setting and the fact that we roam across the ecological richness of the rural Dartington Hall estate. Perhaps it’s because England’s southwest peninsula is something of an edgeland – getting to us is hard and arduous and exhausting and the arriving a reward in itself. Perhaps it comes from selection, and self-selection and the openness of the participants. Perhaps it’s to do with ensuring that there are many ways of attending the event without necessarily paying the full registration rate. Perhaps it’s about tone. Perhaps it’s about flavour. There’s no bitterness here.

But perhaps it’s also it’s about ecology. When I use this word, I’m talking about ways of being, ways of paying attention and ways of interacting. I’m not speaking of ecology as a single truth or a set of scientific understandings but as an openness to knowledge, to organic process, to blurred edges and porous boundaries. I believe the events we create are ecological experiments, tickling the edges between rigorous thought and tribal knowledge. And above all they are about how we live here, on our planet, with our friends, family and cohorts, with our shared and separate knowledges and ways of being.

For more information: art.earth, In Other Tongues.

Richard Povall is a sound artist, researcher and educator and the founding director of art.earth. His practice and research centre around the natural world and ecological systems and art practices. Previously he co-directed dance-theatre company half/angel (UK/IRL) and was a founding Director of Aune Head Arts (UK); he has taught in a variety of Universities and Conservatories in the UK and US and was formerly Director of Contemporary Music at Oberlin Conservatory in the UK and held Senior Research Fellowships at Middlesex University and Dartington College of Arts. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2010.

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In Other Tongues: Ecologies of Meaning and Loss

Today we bring you the penultimate instalment of our series about learning to listen to the myriad other voices beyond the human. Inspired by In Other Tongues, a three-day creative summit held this summer in Dartington, UK, we invited six contributors – artists, writers, academics, poets, performers – to explore the ways in which language and culture are influenced by the non-human, and more-than-human, voices that permeate and shape our world. The series continues with Wendy Wheeler on ‘biosemiotics’ – a recognition that communication, interpretation and meaning-making are not limited to human life, but to all life everywhere.

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I regret the lazy oversimplifications of our time. As our world becomes ever fuller
with accessible information, ever more porous, ever more pressing with demands for our attention, so our subtler semiotic capacities appear to stall before the task. Our attempts at interpretation and meaning-making are overwhelmed: more information means less meaning. In this regard, I am struck by the prescience of the late Jean Baudrillard. Thirty years ago he described the mass media as

“speech without response”. What characterizes the mass media is that they are opposed to mediation, intransitive, […] they fabricate noncommunication – if one accepts the definition of communication as an exchange, as the reciprocal space of speech and response, and thus of responsibility.

Since then, the mass media have swelled with the growth of social media, a surrogate community but conspicuously lacking in the responsiveness and responsibility that Baudrillard thought central to that contract. This has encouraged mob-like hysteria and support for banning, no-platforming and the censorship of speech and thought, as well as amplifying non-communication and non-reciprocity. Words slip and slide. What meant one thing yesterday means something slightly different today. People are frightened to speak. Orwellian duckspeak (speaking without thinking, quacking what’s politically acceptable, even if meaningless) increasingly rules. A new way of thinking about communication, signs and meanings – as biological as well as cultural, and as evolutionary and ecological rather than just as human-made fictions – might help us escape from the dangerous fantasies growing in our midst. Nature and language are made from the same communicative patterns. We are part of the semiotic dance of natural and cultural meanings, but we are not their masters.

Biosemiotics, which bridges the sciences and the humanities, is a new field of study and a new way of understanding the world. It takes its name from bios (Greek for life) and semeion (Greek for sign). Its central insight is that all living organisms experience their world through signs which they must make sense of, or interpret. In other words, all organisms are in a communicative relation with their semiotic worlds, and these worlds are full of other forms of communicative semiotic life. Biosemioticians refer to these semiotic worlds as umwelten (plural of umwelt, or semiotic environment). They consist of all the sign relations which species’ evolution has made relevant to the organism’s meaningmaking. For example, many birds and insects see at the ultraviolet end of the light spectrum, where humans do not. Their umwelt, in other words, is slightly different. For humans, the cultures they have made are relevant to their existence as humans, and these exist as living ideas, artefacts and technology – interwoven with the human umwelt of nature. There is an underlying reality, but every species has evolved to experience it in the way that is most useful for that species’ life and survival.

Biosemiotics came into being as various scientists and scholars in both semiotics and the life sciences realised that information and communication systems involving living beings could not be understood simply in terms either of mathematics and engineering, or in terms of signals alone. Information is only fully meaningful when it is capable of in-form-ing, or changing the form of, something – whether shape, development, behaviour or idea. Signals imply something mechanical (for example, that this chemical or word always automatically causes this response). However, as became clear to many molecular biologists, ecologists and biological developmental systems scientists, let alone to people working in the fields associated with human communication, representation and interpretation (from anthropology to psychology to sociology, literature and the arts), neither cells, nor bodies, nor ecologies nor poems consist of or call for automatic responses. Although much semiosis settles into habit (meanings can’t work without some stability and capacity for repetition; communication depends upon it), meanings are the result of a process of discovery and interpretation. Life is process, and all organisms must be capable of change in response to changing conditions.

Influenced by thinkers such as the American scientist philosopher Charles S. Peirce, the German-Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll and the British biologist and cybernetician Gregory Bateson, biosemiotics tells us that all life, not just human life but all life everywhere, is about communication, semiosis, interpretation and meaning-making. Without it, merely material life is nothing, and could not exist as living at all. Human meaning-making has evolved from meaning-making in nature. Both nature and culture grow from the same evolutionary source. Whether we are super-aware of it or not, we are all influenced by the communicational feedback loops that flow between selves and natural and cultural environments. When meanings (or functions) go wrong at any point in these sense-making circuits, all our living systems fall into potential danger. So what are we doing to ourselves and the planet when we allow this ceaseless slippage of natural and cultural meanings that starts to dismantle the life of our worlds?

One striking effect of this globalisation of human experience – that difficult stretching of selves between the familiar and the far away – is that we withdraw into simplicities. As we have seen in the recent unpredictability of electorates, the old methods of pollsters not only fail to read the new codes of human political behaviour, they no longer even know what they should be reading. Indeed, they have become unsure about whether these are any longer codes they are dealing with or merely broken fragments of codes. Like language going backwards, and in an echo of Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston Smith’s comrade Syme tells Winston ‘You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words’, these broken simplifications are bought at a cost. The complexity of identity is reduced to a fantasy of infantile legibility, one based on reductions to sex, colour or creed, and, via the idea of intersectionality, the places where these depthless identities cross and combine.

So how might it work, retelling the story of human and nonhuman being on this planet in ways that restore some appropriate depth and meaning? Like all good stories, the story biosemiotics tells is one about the finding of purpose and meaning. It turns out that it’s everywhere, wherever there is life. Indeed, the whole universe is legible – which is a strange thing when you come to think about it. This means not only are there regularities, habits in the order of being, but these habits are semiotic. They reveal not simply themselves but much more besides. Recalling that the definition of a sign is that ‘a sign is anything that stands for something other than itself’, the universe is full of signs. As Charles Peirce wrote,

It seems a strange thing, when one comes to ponder over it, that a sign should leave its interpreter to supply a part of its meaning; but the explanation of the phenomenon lies in the fact that the entire universe, – not merely the universe of existents, but all that wider universe, embracing the universe of existents as part, the universe which we are accustomed to refer to as ‘the truth,” – that all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs.

The potential to mean lies in things themselves – even in non-living things – inasmuch as they can serve as signs for living readers, or selves, or meaning systems, which are external to observers or readers themselves. This, which semioticians call physiosemiosis, is what the physicist Carlo Rovelli also says even about non-living entities at the quantum level where relational effects appear operative instantaneously, i.e. beyond the speed of light and regardless of physical distance. This is because while codes and channels must be material, relations in themselves are not. Interestingly from a biosemiotic perspective, Rovelli is making use of the idea that information can inhere in objects relationally, regardless of whether or not it is ever effective. In other words, his is a relational view of information and the universe. This is also true, and perhaps more obviously so, of biosemiotics. As I argue in my 2016 book Expecting the Earth: Life/Culture/Biosemiotics, ontology, i.e. being itself, is always relational. Clearly, this has many implications – not least ones that are fundamentally ecological. I will return to this shortly when I discuss the relational – environed and enworlded – selves, both human and nonhuman, that biosemiotics suggests.

I am prompted to mention Rovelli because at the In Other Tongues conference held at Dartington Hall recently I was struck by the ways in which the many artists present were striving to articulate a sense of meaning-making very closely tied to place. I was especially struck by their use of stones to do it. Several of them brought stones from other places. I have one on my desk before me now as I write. Like all creative people in whatever realm, these makers were following their noses, in this case in order to express a way of bringing something solid about memory, being and place into line with their sense that these things of place ‘spoke’, albeit in other tongues, to creatures. All search for knowledge (in the arts and the sciences) is underpinned by an initial ‘hunch-like’ or ‘informed guessing’ approach to problems. Since it helps us begin the search for new knowledge, abductive reasoning is a part of the logic of right reasoning. It is the starting place for hypothesis, upon which the conscious acts of deductive thought and inductive testing can follow and build. Peirce thought that the surprising successfulness of abductive reasoning was due to our being attuned to nature (i.e. the way things are in our world) intuitively. This kind of knowing draws on the fact that our knowledge is semiotic, associative, and exists nonconsciously far beneath the thin rind of conscious reasoning. As the scientist Michael Polanyi said, we know much more than we can tell.

These kinds of ‘beneath the rind’ semiotic memories are acquired in our human animal experience and can go back through many evolutionary layers. Since the 1940s, Neo-Darwinism has attempted to reduce evolution to genes and genetic mutation alone. We now know that this is wrong because it is a partial account only. There are many factors at work in evolution. Genes are not blueprints for producing bodies. The genome is more like a library. It provides encoded information (the genetic code in DNA) about available materials and their organisation. Both genetically coded signs inside the body, and also environmentally encoded signs outside it, can switch genetic information on and off and influence development. In addition, and in the way first hypothesised 200 years ago by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, some environmental signs (as we now know, often messages about stressors – both natural and cultural) can be inherited by subsequent generations. If reinforced by the environment, such acquired characteristics can eventually doubtless become permanent. Memories, of feelings and place, live in our cells. Epigenetic activities’, such as lateral gene transfer, symbiosis and micro-organism assisted functional development, all contribute to the successful lives of organisms. We are not alone, but many. Approximately 99% of all the DNA which keeps you alive is not yours, but belongs to the myriad other life forms that live in and upon you, and surround and support you.

Evolution itself can most usefully be understood as organisms and ecological systems making creative re-readings of new conditions in the creative and destructive dance of life’s past and potential meanings. The development of the mammalian ear, for example, depends on the movement of two bones in the jaw of an early fish via reptilian evolution. Once moved, the bones form the architecture of the mammalian eardrum. These bones were not made to be ear bones capable of transmitting sound, but they have become capable of doing so. They are sufficiently like what would be needed to carry that function. As such, they can eventually actually carry that function. Just as in human uses of metaphor, on the basis of sufficient similarity of some kind, a new different meaning (or function) is capable of being discovered. The importance of umwelt (i.e. context) for the genetic expression of informational similarity is demonstrated, for example, by research undertaken by the late Walter Gehring into the gene PAX6. This gene governs eye development. When Gehring injected Mouse PAX6 into fruit fly embryos, the resultant fruit flies had eyes all over where they had been randomly injected, but these eyes were fruit fly eyes, not mouse eyes. In other words, just as context influences meanings in human language, so umwelt context (in this case a fruit fly body, not a mouse body) influences formal genetic expression of biosemiotic meanings.

The point about all this is that we live, like all other life forms – animal, plant, fungal, bacterial – in the midst of enormously complex networks of semiotic life. Human culture is just the form that natural culture and evolution has taken with human beings. We cannot step outside these networks, or say that we are influenced and made in one and not in the other. The distinction is nearly meaningless. Most of what we are as people is not conscious at all. It is made of natural and cultural loops of signs and messages, some very ancient, which weave us into the more complex material and semiotic systems of the cosmos. These forms of knowledge live on in our memories, and these memories are cellular and embodied and enworlded as much as they are ‘mental’ and cultural. Our evolutionary life is written in our bodies and our worlds and in our cultural and technological documents and artefacts. Indeed, human mind is made up of all these things. It is, in truth, a living universe of signs.

Whether walking across a meadow or a metropolis, it seems wonderful to know that this whole world is full of ceaseless communication and meaning. The motor of life’s endless creativity and adaptation is not simply random and meaningless mutation but purposeful organismic intelligence lodged in the relation between organisms and their natural and cultural umwelten. Mind, itself, is not a material thing. It is made of biosemiotic relations of similarity, difference and interpretation that flow constantly between a body, an environment and some form of living memory. No colour and no love and no pictures or sounds will ever be found in your brain, just as the things themselves are never found in a poem, a song or a painting. Just as in any ‘textual’, or coded, form of organisation, what resides in your nervous system and brain are encoded correlations to lived experience. It is perhaps highly significant that brains are formed, in embryonic development, from specialised skin. What once touched the world literally, and first began encoding its meanings as literally felt memories of the world right here, now encodes and translates both your world here and now, and also its dreams and abstractions, there and then, once and future. A brain in a vat could never generate meaning. What is needed for mind is a living body in a lived world. Place, or umwelt, isn’t incidental. Places, and the tongues that ‘speak’ there, are a central aspect of what makes us. Human linguistic meaning-making in metaphor does not spring brand new and unbidden from the cosmos. It has evolved from natural metaphors and meanings which are gathered in evolutionary layers in all the life forms of this planet. The evolving organism draws on these hidden and nonconscious layers of meaning-making, and so do the poet, the artist and the scientist as they discover new forms of living knowledge.

This brings me to my final point about the simplification of meanings. There’s nothing simple about them. Material structures – whether of an institution or an organism – are empty vessels without communicative life. Just as thought is built via a sort of scaffolding of half-concepts and thin meanings that will, in time, make possible the building of whole new conceptions and ways of life, so semiotic scaffolding provides the possibility of life and structure to our future growth and development. Material structures provide the necessary channels and codes through which objects become animated, but without the life of signs the clay of things is nothing. True communication involves looping cybernetic flows of semiosis which grow and refine meanings in concert between a responsive organism and a responsive umwelt. This involves the hard work and responsibility of attentiveness and regard. This means that meanings are discovered as what is possible within the constraints of systems and ecologies – and we see this echoed in the historical constraints on the forms they make possible. When meanings become unstable, inventiveness through exchange may be possible, and new habits may be made and laid down. But when reciprocity is refused or absent, then we are nothing but a chaos of broken relations. With that, we are in the presence of what the Estonian semiotician Ivar Puura called semiocide. Carelessness over meanings – in nature and in culture – is a symptom of relational sickness. This sickness can kill the systems it infects.

Image: detail from author’s desk

Wendy Wheeler, PhD. (1994) University of Sussex, is Professor Emeritus at London Metropolitan University. She has lectured at several universities, and is the author of many books and articles on biosemiotics, nature and culture. Her latest book Expecting the Earth: Life/Culture/Biosemiotics was published by Lawrence & Wishart in 2016.



Our series concludes on 30th August with art.earth director Richard Povall on bad eco-art, ecological awareness and how In Other Tongues came into being.

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In Other Tongues: Conjuring Yew Trees and Mountains

Today we bring you the fourth instalment of our series about learning to listen to the myriad other voices beyond the human. Inspired by In Other Tongues, a three-day creative summit held this summer in Dartington, UK, we invited six contributors – artists, writers, academics, poets, performers – to explore the ways in which language and culture are influenced by the non-human, and more-than-human, voices that permeate and shape our world. The series continues with Christos Galanis on language as a form of spell casting, and how our culture’s ‘inanimism’ might be eroding the coherence of reality itself.

Yew Tree communication workshop with Michael Dunning, 2016

Yew tree communication workshop with Michael Dunning, 2016

You, my friend, are alone, because
We, with words and pointing fingers,
gradually make the world our own
– Nietzsche

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Language’ – in part – as: ‘the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.’

As a troubling of this definition of language, I would suggest that language is more than a medium through which humans communicate. Further, I’d like to suggest that language goes even deeper than the broadest notions of language as a medium for communication, such as body language, or birdsong.

I’d like to trouble the very ontological underpinnings of language – ontology being the field of inquiry that has to do with the fundamentals of being itself, whose practitioners circle round questions of what exists, and what does not exist. I suggest that language might be thought of instead as spell casting; spells whose enactment themselves allow for the conjuring of particular realities and relationships to co-emerge into the world. Where David Abrams reminds us that ‘spell’ as in magic, and ‘spell’ as in writing share the same root, the understanding of language as spell-conjuring offers a relational landscape within which to consider methods of communication between ourselves and non-human beings that are not limited and impoverished by understandings of language as a blunt unidirectional instrument for naming and categorising; in other words, an inanimist’s appropriation of language as a taxonomic tool for slicing up and measuring an external, objective composite of dead matter.

By slightly re-working a standard definition of ‘animism’, I propose that inanimism could be defined by:

• a belief that the vital principle of organic development is exclusively materialistic
• a denial of conscious life to objects in – and phenomena of, nature – or to inanimate
..objects
• 
denial of the existence of spirits separable from material bodies¹

wild animals

chicken


Within such a comparison, the difference between ‘
spelling’ as labelling of parts, vs. ‘spelling’ as a co-emergent conjuring, becomes clearer when one considers the roots of the word.

The etymology of ‘spell’, from its Proto-Germanic roots, means something like: ‘to tell or utter a story or a myth’. It also means ‘to enchant the thing of which you speak’, where enchantment, from the Latin incantare, means ‘to sing’. The formal greetings of ‘enchanted’ in English, enchenté in French, or encantado/a in Spanish, retain their original pre-inanimist understandings of being and relationship. In a pre-inanimist Europe, ‘enchanted’ did not function as a polite way of saying: ‘it’s my pleasure to meet you.’ Rather, it was a gesture of humility and acknowledgement that one’s own being relies upon the other for its existence. ‘Enchanted’ literally means: ‘thank you for singing me into existence.’ And if a song might be understood to be a way of telling a story, then thank you for spelling me – thank you for conjuring me.

‘Conjure’ – from the Latin com, ‘together’, and iurare, from which we get the word ‘jury’ – means to swear an oath. And ‘swear’ means to speak, or say or tell, while an oath is a solemn appeal to a deity to witness a truth or a promise. So to conjure is to swear – together – to a truth or a promise in the presence of the divine.

Taking this spiralling route to consider what this thing we call language is, I would suggest that what we call language is a conjuring in which the divine, or great mystery, or that which dwells beyond our capacity for understanding, is invoked in the enchantment of a story that is true. Malidoma Somé explains that among his people, the Dagara, there is no word that translates directly as ‘the supernatural’. Rather, he describes the word that they use – Yielbongura – as ‘the thing that knowledge can’t eat’. For him this word suggests that ‘the life and power of certain things depend upon their resistance to the kind of categorising knowledge that human beings apply to everything.’²

Each language – each tongue, each assemblage of communicative protocols and citational iterations – is itself a unique bundle of spells whose conjuring is attended to by the animating force of life itself, which by its very nature can never be known but only invoked through the co-mingling of the immaterial with the material.

 

Detail of the Rosetta Stone

Detail of the Rosetta Stone

In all Indo-European languages, which include, among others, English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Persian, it’s not possible to utter a sentence without locating it within either the past, present, or future. In these languages, reality itself cannot be conjured anywhere outside of a linear, progressive spectrum of time.

In just one comparative example, when describing an event or condition in Hopi – an indigenous language of north-eastern Arizona – you must use grammatical markers that specify whether you witnessed the event yourself, heard about it from someone else, or consider it to be an unchanging truth. Hopi speakers are forced by Hopi grammar to habitually frame all descriptions of reality in terms of the source and reliability of their information. I offer the possibility that certain realities, certain bundles of spells, are beyond one’s capacity if one doesn’t have the ability to know and integrate the language, or the articulated tongue, that conjures those particular spells; spells which require their own particular protocols or grammars, and whose conjuring allows for particular relationships to potentially co-emerge.

It’s in this context of language as a co-conjuring that I want to introduce two individuals that I’ve been working and studying with. Michael Dunning is a native of Glasgow who now lives in the state of Massachusetts, and Jaki Daniels left her birthplace of England as a young child and has lived in Calgary, Alberta ever since. Their respective journeys are unique and wholly their own, however there are overarching similarities between them which are the reason why I’m choosing to draw on both their experiences to better observe, understand, and describe the qualities of non-human communication which greatly shape their lives.

The full extent of Michael and Jaki’s journeys are well beyond the scope of this post. What’s similar is that neither had any previous experience or priming for entering into a mutually communicative relationship with yew trees or mountains and each in their own way were initially confronted and called into these relationships by the tree or mountain themselves. What subsequently followed these initial contacts, once accepted, was a process of initiation, teachings, and preparation which was both physical and intellectual, extremely demanding, and repeatedly pushing them to the very limits of their capacities. For Michael, it began when an acquaintance brought him to an ancient yew tree, guiding him through the thick bramble and into the cathedral-like understory of this thousands-of-years-old tree, in whose presence Michael experienced a kind of ecstatic quickening which initiated a process of healing him from severe illness. Upon subsequent visits, he would come into apprenticeship to the tree itself, returning to it ceaselessly over a period of nine years in which his physical and energy bodies were deconstructed and restructured in a manner to allow him to act as a conduit for the kinds of teachings and medicines which the tree was offering to impart through him. Without any guidance or contemporary context for his deepening relationship with the yew tree, Michael dug through history and mythology to make sense of what he was experiencing, and eventually uncovered a wealth of long-forgotten knowledges that were once thick throughout these very British Isles. What Michael was discovering along his journey was the ancient cult of the yew tree; an indigenous spiritual tradition which was spread throughout Europe, and most concentrated in the British Isles. Among these indigenous British cultures, being apprenticed to a sacred yew tree to become a healer was likely a significant event, yet nothing strange or unusual within the ontology, or beliefs of the culture itself.

 

 Michael Dunning

Michael Dunning

Some of the yew trees in Britain are thousands of years old, with the Fortinghall Yew in North-Central Scotland estimated to be one of the oldest trees in Europe; perhaps 5,000 years old. While the possibility of having a tree communicate and act as a teacher and guide has essentially disappeared from modern inanimist cultures, the memories of some of our same contemporary yew trees themselves would know human cultures that communicated with them regularly; who knew and understood and practiced the bundle of spells with which they were able to be in profound relationship with such yew trees. From the tree’s perspective, Michael may potentially be but one more individual in this ancient lineage of inter-species apprentices.

For Jaki Daniels, her initial contact came while out for a leisurely hike with a friend in the Kananaskis mountains outside Calgary, during which she was rendered speechless by the voice of the mountain itself – inaudible to her friend but experienced as a booming voice inside Jaki’s head – which simply stated: I have a story to tell.’ Jaki said nothing to her friend, nor to her husband when she returned home, and tried to dismiss the experience as an oddity she couldn’t explain, and had no context for making sense of. When subsequent similar experiences continued in the presence of the same mountain – which she eventually referred to as Grandmother Mountain for its role as an elder and teacher – she finally sought the guidance of indigenous elders, and it was through these First Nations’ understandings of being called into the role of a Medicine Woman by a sacred mountain itself that Jaki began to build an understanding of what she was being called into.

 

Jaki Daniels

Jaki Daniels

Through the support of an elder Cree woman named Pauline, acting as her human guide in these ways, Jaki was similarly initiated and instructed by the mountain itself, and through that primary relationship has been able to build up considerable skill in not just communication with this mountain, but a wide range of animals, plants, and weather-beings. Unlike Michael and these British Isles, Jaki had recourse to seek the knowledge and instruction of local indigenous cultures that still retain some semblance of this pre-inanimist reality, and who keep alive the protocols and traditions that have been gifted to them from their ancestors and the land itself.

 

Grandmother Mountain, Alberta

Grandmother Mountain, Alberta

Last summer, some of us were gathered around a fire in Jaki’s yard in Calgary on a chilly night, sharing tea and stories about mountains in both Canada and Scotland. At one point, the energy shifted and became dense as Jaki shared an insight that had been given to her by an indigenous friend. What had begun to happen, in communities around North America, was that indigenous peoples were reporting to each other how some of their sacred mountains themselves were, for the first time ever, starting to show symptoms of perhaps something like Alzheimer’s; a lack of coherence, a confusion setting in, with the consequences being that they were sometimes having a hard time giving protocols and teachings to the human communities who looked to them as sources of wisdom and inter-species elders. What the various communities suspect is happening is that as the earth’s living systems are increasingly destabilised and compromised, the ability of the very land itself to maintain coherence and lucidity is starting to show signs of unravelling. It’s perhaps not such a stretch to be able to imagine that, in a time of ‘alternative-facts’ and ‘fake news’, all forms of information, even those held in the land, are suffering for a lack of coherence and integrity. It’s possible that ancient grammars are fragmenting under the burden of inanimist culture; totemic tongues may be growing thick and slow, their articulatory capacities calcifying as the land itself strains to remember its own name and its own tongue. And, perhaps, our own forgetting and unravelling is not separate from the land itself, but is yet just another expression of the land forgetting its own nature under the conjured onslaught of inanimist spells. It’s possible.

 

Edward Burtinsky: Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, China (2005)

Edward Burtinsky: Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, China (2005)

And wondering on the nature of Jaki and Michael’s experiences, it’s also possible that their processes represent a remarkable capacity for the land itself to initiate individuals into tongues and grammars that our culture has denied and denigrated for centuries. The modern trinity of church, state and science have done much to delegitimise the tongues that many of our ancestors knew well — the spells that animated relationships between human and non-human in a dialogue that seems unbelievable to many today, and yet continues below the surface, like the subterranean streams of some deserts that are utterly invisible by the harsh glare of daylight. But come the cooling darkness of night, the waters seep to the surface in gurgling spurts, until a steady babble flows across the sands, bringing life with it and sustaining those beings that are called to its mysterious edges.

Colorado River, Arizona

Colorado River, Arizona

I myself am not a whisperer of mountains or yew trees. The quality of communication that Jaki and Michael relate has not come to me in any comparable way. And yet, being with them and learning from them does much to trouble and interrogate the narratives that were imparted to me by my culture. How does one reconcile two stories of reality that are seemingly at odds with each other, and what is at stake when one opens oneself up to the possibility that the conjuring of particular spells allows for dialogue with a mountain or a 5,000 year-old tree? What might a pedagogy of non-human whispering look like, and what stories need to be crafted to foster the capacity for such languages?

There is much to be grieved within the unravelling times we are living through. And perhaps the grief itself is a way through – a gathering to the edge of dark flowing mystery, beyond the hope of struggling on in the same impoverished means that brought us here. And from beyond the obsidian horizon of our capacities for understanding, perhaps the whispered traces of long un-conjured grammars and protocols may be redeemed and recovered, and from which we may once again come to know the articulation of languages that serve to honour, and speak to, and nourish, that which sustains our days.

Notes

1. The original definition of Animism reads as: 1) a doctrine that the vital principle of organic development is immaterial spirit 2) attribution of conscious life to objects in and phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects 3) belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies:  ‘Definition of ANIMISM’. 2017. Accessed 27 June.
2. Somé, Malidoma, Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of
an African Shaman, Penguin, 1995

Christos Galanis is an artist, researcher, and teacher who enjoys migration, facilitated by Greek/Canadian passports. A PhD candidate in Human Geography at Edinburgh University, he is researching practices of walking and belonging within the Scottish Highlands. He holds an MFA in Art & Ecology from the University of New Mexico. christosgalanis.com

In Other Tongues continues on 25th August with Wendy Wheeler’s piece on biosemiotics and the death of meaning…

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