The Dark Mountain Blog

Five years on a Mountain

Five years ago today, I stood in the draughty backroom of a pub on the banks of the River Thames, on a slightly elevated stage next to a man I didn’t know very well, and together we launched the Dark Mountain Project. Perhaps 50 people were there. It rained, I think.

What did I think I was doing? Trying to recover the past from the vantage point of the present is always hard: perhaps it’s impossible. We tend to mythologise our own stories, or at least to construct after the event a narrative that makes them seem more seamlessly interlinked or rational than they actually were. ‘We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives’, wrote WG Sebald, ‘as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious’. This little event turned out to be a decisive step in my life, and it’s taken  me about five years to become more conscious of what those adjustments were.


At the time and on the surface, what I thought I was doing was quite simple:  I was starting a new literary movement. With Dougald, my co-conspirator and soon-to-be friend, I had written a strange little manifesto, which demanded that its readers open their eyes to the huge shifts which our world was undergoing, and then start to write as if they were real. This was always supposed to be an artistic rather than a political document. For me, its inspirations were not Leninists or Maoists but Dadaists and Vorticists. Like its forebears a century ago, I wanted this manifesto to emerge from the collapse of the old world and herald something new.

Despite this grand and probably self-regarding ambition, the movement I envisaged emerging from this little document was to be something quite modest. I thought we might get a writers’ circle together, perhaps. Maybe we’d meet every couple of weeks in the pub, ten or 20 of us, and talk about how to bust open the rotten citadels of literature and pour the healing waters of uncivilisation down upon its thirsty inhabitants.

Things did not go quite to plan.

Five years on, this Dark Mountain Project is many things. It is a sprawling global network of like-minded people. It is a small ‘organisation’ which produces two books a year of art and writing. It is a series of happenings and comings-together, events and festivals and gatherings. It is a conversation. It is a search for new stories. It is one part of a much wider global shift towards a new way of seeing nature and civilisation. It is a controversy and a call to action and a call to contemplation. It is a journey. It is a place you can come to give up hope so that you can find it again in a new shape. It is a crucible and a strange shape-shifting beast. Even after five years, it is almost impossible to describe the thing. But we know it works, and we think it is needed, because we’re still here and we’re still running to keep up.

A few weeks back, Dougald and I gave a talk at Schumacher College in Devon, in which we challenged ourselves to draw out some lessons we had learned on this five-year journey. You can watch a film of that event at the top of this blog post. I thought I’d mark this anniversary here by offering up five lessons I’ve learned: one for each year. I’m a slow learner, but I’m pretty sure that through this journey I’ve picked up a few useful lessons about myself and about the world I’m living in, as well as something about this odd thing I spawned. If that’s the case, it’s thanks to the many people I’ve met this past half decade, whose company and wisdom and friendship are the most valuable thing I will take away from it all in the end.

1.  Never have a plan

Seriously. Having a plan is simply setting yourself up for failure. Look what happened to me. More usefully, look at what’s happening around the world: there is no shortage of plans for a Sustainable And Just Society, and none of them are going anywhere other than the remainder bins of bookshops. Having a plan is a recipe for frustration. Having intentions and precepts and guidelines and nimble feet, on the other hand, might get you somewhere, if luck is on your side for a while.

2.  There is a space between hope and despair

Our manifesto and some of our early work was interpreted by some, particularly campaigners and activists, as promoting  giving up or giving in, hopelessness and despair and inaction. Accepting that great changes were underway, and that our powers were limited, was seen by some people as a betrayal of a better possibility. From this vantage point, I can understand this reaction. But there is a space between hope and despair, which it is necessary to inhabit. False expectations and foolish dreams lead to the very despair they claim to want to banish. And that despair  is a rational reaction to much of what is going on in the world; sometimes it is necessary to embrace it. Between the forced hope and  gritted teeth of the activist worldview and the dark hopelessness of the  apocalyptic narrative lies a space that is worth sitting in for a while.

3. Grief matters

We are in an age of climate change and mass extinction and much of this is irreversible. This is what we were given to live through. To be able to look at what the human machine is doing to this living world without feeling grief or despair is an impossibility for anyone who experiences normal human emotions. Grief is not only a natural reaction to the state of the world today, it is a useful one. It is something that should be navigated and understood and accepted and discussed. Like the death of a loved one, the current death of much that is good in the world is something that can’t be denied or wished away: it has to be lived with. It doesn’t follow from that nothing good will ever happen again, or that you can be of no use in the world.

4.   I am not alone

… and neither are you. Barely a week has passed over these five years without us receiving a communication from somebody, somewhere in the world, along these lines: I have felt like this for years, I thought I was alone, my friends think I’m mad, I’m so glad to find you. What this tells me is that there are many people in the world whose honest reaction to the current state of things can’t be incorporated within either the mainstream story of progress and growth, or the acceptable dissident stories about enlightened people power leading to radical change.  In this context, our work of tentatively exploring new stories and new ways of seeing is hopefully useful.

5. Stories matter

This was the central insight of our little manifesto, and it’s one that I think has held up. Everything is a story: everything about the way you see the world, everything you think about the way the world works, and who you are and whether you’re anyone at all, and how things are organised and what change means and whether it matters. Everything. All cultures and all civilisations run on stories like cars run on fuel, and like fuel, the wrong story can be poisonous. I get the sense now, in a way that I didn’t five years ago, that this recognition is becoming more widespread.

The world has changed a lot since that day five years ago. Back then, an economic crisis was just beginning and nobody knew how quickly it would play out. Back then, people still talked about preventing climate change rather than mitigating it. The world has changed a lot, and not changed at all. But some shift is being played out around us: some change in the weather, some groping towards a new way of understanding the world. Something is changing; something has broken and will not be put back together. This shift will long outlive us, but if we have played some part in it – well, that’s not bad work.

More than anything, perhaps, I’ve discovered that this strange expedition up this forbidding peak is more enlightening and enjoyable (not to mention safer) if it is not undertaken alone. And I wonder what lessons my fellow mountaineers can draw from this half-decade. I’d love to hear them.

To Dwell on Our Dreams

I was having one of those long fuggy dreams that you can only recall by a sense of being stuck somewhere that isn’t home. It was somewhere like India. Before waking, becoming more lucid, a deliriously beautiful scene unfolded. A huge shiny muscled man in pink robes and feathers appeared floating upwards into the sky. People beside me said he is just a balloon. But I could see by his eyes that he was living, and he started to beckon with his hand. In front of us, what had been a towering cityscape became a glittering verdant mountain, trees rising up from the concrete. Then this whole mountain lifted up to his beckoning and became a spaceship, symmetrical in form, green underneath too and incredibly entangled. Iridescent green beetles emerged from the surface and pulled it gracefully up. I did not dare look at what was left behind on the earth.

My dreaming brain switched from seer to interpreter. We are losing our green mountains, I thought. This god had become incarnate to show that nature was always in itself arising, but also that we were losing it, left with wastelands. I saw that this floating god had a monkey face, and it was this which woke me up as I grasped at my memory of the Ramayana.

Source of image: Wikimedia Commons/Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In the Ramayana epic, Hanuman, the monkey god leaps off to the Himalayas to find a magic herb to save Lakshman, so badly wounded in battle he might die before sunrise. Hanuman can’t find the herb quickly so he lifts the entire mountain and carries it back like a waiter bearing a tray. This was a necessary sacrifice.

Then, as I came more into daylight thoughts, I recalled that China is removing seven hundred mountains, filling the valleys with the rock, to make more space for cities. This sounds like an incredible fable of human hubris, but it turns out to be a fact. Humans have really become like giant ape gods, able to lift mountains. I then remembered how India, now under its new presidency of Narendra Modi, is at an energy turning point where it intends to reduce emissions by 25% by 2020 – mainly through solar renewables – but is also ramping up coal production. Modi is signing off clearance of more forests and mountain tops and India is still walking the path of hot coals. In the Ramayana, Sita carried out a fire test set by Rama to prove her loyalty to him. She emerged unharmed from the fire path, as the flames transformed into flowers as she walked. Like this, the conversion of fossil residues into money, allowing countries to modernise and ultimately tackle climate change, is a simple story that most leaders seem to believe. For example, Australia, Canada and UK are exploiting fossil fuels as hard as they can, thinking they can put the brakes on later to fulfil their legal targets of reduction. But it isn’t a simple story with a good ending. There are externalities and repercussions of emitting carbon, and more impacts to come that we cannot easily foretell. Coal is the dirtiest fuel, and its contribution to CO2 load will cause climate change for centuries.

All this intense dreaming must be because my brain has been recovering after Weatherfronts, a two day course for writers and climate researchers, organised by Tipping Point. It aimed to connect writers with scientists, to explore how we could write about climate in ways that might be true, effective, emotional, aesthetic and authentic. One of the central questions was ‘what kind of story is climate change?’ This was asked by one of the main facilitators, Dr Joe Smith of the OU, who has been awarded AHRC funding for a project called Stories of Change. He proposed that the climate story has been dominated by the ‘truth war’ over whether it is real, manmade and happening, and that it must now progress to stories about the future, with more positive solutions and human responses. This is a refreshing response to the often-heard call for new kinds of stories, in pointing out what we need new kinds of stories to do.

The course ended with a launch of the book Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, which extends these questions. I especially liked a piece by its co-editor Renata Tyszczuk, who categorises many types of cautionary tales about climate, but comes at the end to recommend ‘precautionary tales’. She writes that ‘a precautionary approach … suggests an experimental and transformative attitude to history, one which involves being mindful of the risks we are taking now, in taking care of the future … Precautionary tales invite us to worry not so much about foresight or prognostics – there is no telling what the future holds or where it will end. Instead, these tales might work with an imagination of the future based on an ethics of care rather than solely on the technical management of the challenge of the predicted risks…’

The fundamental ethics of care do not need to be invented. They can be found in the oldest stories. But these ethics do need to be retold, or inserted generously and systematically into new stories that anticipate how we might live in future, both in mitigation of and adaptation to change. But how can we achieve this? A more ecologically conscious ethics of care will not emerge just through more arty-science, more science-y art, or more moralising.

The human ecologist Alastair McIntosh would tell us we need a more profound shift, that we need to cultivate spiritual perception and go deeper than the normal level of consciousness. I witnessed one of his ‘sermons’ at the recent Carrying the Fire, a Dark Mountain gathering in Scotland. This was the morning after we had tramped to a shoulder of Tinto mountain to lay a Life Cairn, one stone laid by each to honour an extinct species. On Sunday morning, Alastair stepped down the aisle of our congregation, one foot in the mythopoetic realm, the other in the logical realm, reminding us that we walk the silver faerie path. He exhorted us to integrate the mythos and logos in ways that do not let the logical mind spoil the enchantment of the mythical.

Life cairn on Tinto mountain at Carrying the Fire

This is a difficult practice for me to embrace, having been reared an atheist and educated to deconstruct all literature, to be ever alert to its hegemonic snares. I grew up knowing that myths, especially the ones concreted into religions, are fabrications, however delightful or useful. I once scandalised a teacher by explaining that Jesus was just a man. I think many of us are the same even if not so atheistically trained. It is true that at times, when the time is right, we might emerge from story-charms and dreams with a new capacity for making sense of and imagining better ways. But usually the time is not right. We are all too clever for our own good. We wake up and sweep away the story webs. We are too busy to dwell on our dreams.

So, for a moment back to my dream of India. According to Vedic scriptures, we are at the end of the 5,000 year long Kali Yuga, the last of four eras. Kali Yuga is the dark Age of Iron. This is also an age of coal which was first used mainly for forging iron to make weapons and armour, at first in China then spreading Westwards. The Kali Yuga is a time of increasing patriarchy, rape, migrations, loss of wisdom and conflict. At the end of this Yuga, rain will cease, crops fail, people starve and retreat to the remaining forests and mountains. The sacred rivers, especially Ganga, will dry up and become polluted. Now, in reality, the Tibetan glaciers feeding India’s northern rivers are retreating faster than other glaciers in the world. Also, the sacred rivers are so polluted that their people are more prone to cancer than anywhere else in the world. The belief is, though, that a more just and harmonious Yuga is soon to come.

I don’t suggest the story of the four Yugas is literally true. There are some blazing ‘errors’. For example, in the telling of the three Yugas before ours, humans were giants and lived for thousands of years, the earlier the Yuga the bigger they were and longer they lived. These stories were written long before the excavatory kind of science that exposed our ancestors’ remains. Perhaps it was always obvious to all listeners that the previous Yugas could not be known, so they were turned into a mathematical metaphor, a kind of mandala of expanding time and scale into deep past. I’m talking about the Yugas because they are an example of how mythical thinking can generate profound truths through the knowing use of metaphor. In the same way, I don’t know what my green mountain dream really means, but I know what it made me feel and think about.

Many indigenous cultures have a version of the Kali Yuga. The American Hopi, as in the Vedas, believe that we are at the end of the fourth age and entering into the Fifth World. Their predictions have been linked to interpreting the atomic explosions (a gourd of ashes falling from the sky), the internet (a global spider’s web), and a ‘spiritual conflict’. It is no great surprise that the Hopi way of life is primarily threatened by the fossil fuel industries, through appropriation of land, pollution, diversion of water and climate change. What is unfolding now has been foretold by many, not just by these two cultural groups, but these predictions are dismissed by media commentators as nonsense.

‘Look’, they say, ‘those primitive people predicted the apocalypse but they were wrong because  it hasn’t happened yet and we’re still here’. This is a denial, despite unprecedented access to the facts, of what is happening already. Many people whose worlds are in fact ending are not heard, are unable to speak or are all already gone. These are the peoples who must abandon their lands or villages due to loss of infrastructure and the influx of terror. These are also all the non-human species that are ‘endlings’ in this age of extinction. We must also take into account the losses of settled cultures and species still to come in this century.

At the Weatherfronts course, the diplomat John Ashton insisted that ‘Climate change isn’t about science, environment, economics. It is all these but it is really about the theft of our voice.’ So perhaps our question should be not so much ‘what kind of story is climate change?’ but ‘who is speaking and are they heard’? Are these hearings leading to greater conviction, to a deepening of love? Are they helping more people learn to be affected?

The familiar argument of spiritual ecologists is that we must regain the enchantment of mythos over the argument-winning power of logos. I think this is right, but it needs to work. The challenge is to dramatically ramp up people’s ability to think with passionate immersion.

Traditionally, when the Ramayana story is told in India and beyond, work stops for several days – a festival of performance and reflection takes over. Maybe we can learn from this to give more space for stories. This would honour stories more – providing more aids to enchantment, more ritual, more effective injunctions to ‘listen’, more respect for the witnesses and tellers. Also, more synthesis of meaning and less fragmentation of stories into shareable media-atoms. Moreover, there needs to be more space around stories for others to take over the story, to satirise it or to tell their own. There needs to be more space for enquiry in response to art and stories, to explore ‘what if?’ and ‘what next?’ Charlie Kronick from Greenpeace has suggested that the biggest opportunities for storytelling now are not so much transformation through catharsis but through disruption and satire. I think we need more catharsis and enchantment, not less, but this alongside more interpretation, more support for those who need to be heard and then more political action. We need to dwell on our dreams but this so that we can wake up from a worsening nightmare.

Flow India summer camp in Gurgaon, 2013, creative responses to the Ramayana

Bridget McKenzie is a cultural learning consultant and writer, whose company Flow has bases in both UK and India.

Crawling Home

bad day at office

I am alone and having second thoughts. Wearing my father’s pinstripe suit from the ’60s, vintage, rumpled, a little big on me and worn out, like maybe I got it out of a box at the Salvation Army.

Waiting for my wingman at the very bottom of Broadway. This route was once a game trail that wild animals ran on, then a hunting path for indians, then a muddy dirt road for the white man. Now this. It would be so easy to not do this. I’ll bet the guy who walked on a tightrope between the twin towers felt that way. But what he did was so brave, so exciting and risky. It was the opposite of this. Can crawling be brave? I am crawling from the bottom of this island all the way up Broadway to my home in Washington Heights. Why am I doing this? Suddenly I can’t remember.

My brother called me as I walked south past Wall Street and he asked me not to do it. He sounded worried and that’s unusual. At moments like this I realise he’s getting older and supposedly I am too. He’s making sounds like this crawl might be a sure sign that my unraveling is finally at hand. I’ve done plenty of weird things in public and everyone knows I don’t embarrass easily — but somehow this one is giving people pause.

‘What about your wife and son, man,’ he says, ‘what do they think?’ ‘Is this a cry for help?’ he asks. ‘Why are you doing this?’

‘I’m crawling so you don’t have to,’ I tell him.

I imagine if you don’t live in Manhattan crawling up Broadway could seem sort of self destructive. It’s true, I could get vomited on, or kicked in the face, or spit on. An insane homeless man limps by me now with bare torn up feet, muttering to himself, stabbing at the air with his hand. He might jump on my back and try to ride me. I see construction workers who look sort of drunk on the sidewalk smoking and spitting and cat calling at passing women. What will they say when I crawl by? Then again maybe the person who is dangerous is the one who is crawling.

Teddy, my wingman for the day, arrives. He’s got a camera. He’s hip, low key and alert. He checks out passing women as I put on the knee-pads.

I need to start. I need to silence these doubting voices in my head. Is this just self abuse? Is this just me being bitter or wanting attention? No. Fuck that. This is an offering. A loving gesture to my fellow man! My sense of why I’m crawling flickers in and out of sight inside my head.

Can something be profound and pathetic all at once? Of all the things I could be doing with my time. This is lame.

Shame. Penance. Punishment. Blah blah blah.

Come on Leaver, you’re all talk no action. Stop thinking! Start crawling!

I put on my gloves, worn leather work gloves from upstate stone walls. I want to make sure I don’t panic and crawl too fast. I don’t want to meander or crawl too slow. A confident purposeful crawl seems like the way to go. I guess I’ll know it when I feel it.

I haven’t crawled more than a few feet since I was a baby, back before I could walk. Back before I could walk… That’s where I’m going.

People are starting to get out for lunch and fill the sidewalks. I take a breath and take a look up at the overcast sky. Deep in the financial district. I get down on my hands and knees and nod to the earth beneath me. I start to crawl.

Deep in my subconscious an alarm sounds telling me that I am in trouble. It’s not right to be down here like this. Adrenaline is released and I get a surge of energy. It’s harder than I thought, physically, like little pushups. The movement torques my core. It feels wrong on so many levels. I’m vulnerable and claustrophobic. A voice inside says get up. Walk. Don’t’ crawl. Stand. Don’t crawl. Run. Get up! Fight! But I stay down and climb the flat sidewalk forward.

I can’t really see up ahead unless I stop and twist my neck. My wrists are going to be sore. I should be using my fist knuckle, like an ape. I can tell this flat palm method will strain my wrists. My kneepads are slipping and my knees are on their way to raw and I haven’t even crawled a full block. I try to concentrate on my pace and hug the right side of the sidewalk, out of the way of the main flow. Some pictures get taken. I feel like a dog and a clown and holy man.

A young cop leans down into my vision and his voice is genuinely nice and concerned. ‘What are you doin?’

‘Personal project,’ I say, like it’s nothing to worry about. I keep moving. I’ve got it under control.

‘OK.’ He says and that’s it. He disappears. I was going to say ‘private challenge’ I think that might have worked too.

Nobody says anything to me for a while. I hear people take pictures and make sounds about the guy on the ground, but nobody engages with me directly. Nobody asks if I’m okay. I wasn’t hoping they would. But still… I must seem like I’m OK.

My crawling form must make me look like I don’t need help. I take a break on my knees and trade a nod with Teddy, then I keep going. I look down, 18 inches or so below. It’s like a view from a plane as I pass over black smears of dry gum, tiny lakes of spit, cigarette butts, and wide pristine plains of smooth cement.

After a while I stand and a uniformed doorman asks me how I’m doing. I tell him ‘I’m crawling home to Washington Heights. Something I’ve always wanted to do.’ His eyes get wide and he nods. He sort of likes it, or gets it, or maybe he’s pleased to have a new story to tell his family tonight at dinner.

I realise that like walking you can crawl as if you know where you’re going, like you mean business, like you might not be someone to trifle with. Even in this defeated position one can project strength.

I feel like a fish, a man salmon swimming up this concrete river of commerce, indifference and pain. Up Broadway I go to spawn and die.

It is lonely down here on my hands and knees in the Canyon of Heroes. Huge parades came through here. I wasn’t expecting to feel so lonely. Is this an act of desperation? There is desperation in the air. Does that make me desperate? Voices in my head told me to do this. Since when did voices in your head get such a bad rap? Maybe I’m praying. Maybe this is a meditation, or a migration. I am going home.


Robert Leaver is a writer and performance artist who makes music and sculptures when he can.  He splits his time between Manhattan and his home in the Catskill  Mountains. You can follow the rest of his crawls on his blog Crawling Home.

Photos by Teddy Jefferson/ Larry Fessenden.

A Feral Palmistry

two hands

River otter tracks, webbed and clawed, five-toed and perfect. Beside them, a great upheaval of sand where, at dawn, the silky-dark family of five rolled and tumbled and slid back down again into the lagoon. The mind’s eye sees this, a knot of water-wet bodies, those wise black snouts. But my first instinct is always to reach down with my own hand and lay a pad in a pad, a fingerprint in the print of a metacarpal the shape of some curved island. A teacher once told me that deeply skilled trackers, like the San Bushmen of the Kalahari, can place a finger in a track, or cup the hand just above, hovering as if over a living flower too beautiful to touch, and in a flush that I imagine like rain coming, see the animal who made the track and where it went, how it moved, where it is now, in that eye of the mind where dreams and stories are also made.

River otter slide marks

I can’t see with any certainty the river otter who made these tracks, or the coyote who made others as she side-trotted down the muddy trail just up from Wildcat Creek at dawn. I do know that when I cup my hand above those pawprints like they are alive and holy, my hand hums. Once or twice I have, for all of three seconds (and apparently ‘now’ — or maintenant, literally ‘time-at-hand in French(i) — lasts for three seconds in the human mind) felt my whole mind become coyote, shaggy and trotting at dawn, body a lithe taut joyous thing, the whole world a web of smells so sweet and rich and rank and big they filled as much of my senses as sight. It’s a flash, a breath, a story I’ve made from my hand to my head, then gone. And always coyote. He has an interest in humans that the other animals don’t in the old indigenous tales of this land — Coast Miwok, Ohlone, Pomo, depending on where you are. Creator of the world from the tops of various local peaks (Mt. Diablo, Mt. St. Helena); fire-bringer; maker of death. Maybe he’s curious about this five-fingered, deadly-dexterous, beautiful hand, and so the story of his morning sniffs nearer than the river otter’s, the newt’s, the white-crowned sparrow’s.

The human hand has more neural innervation than any other part of the body save the lips and tongue, where our speaking and our loving and our tasting come from. Lips and hands give caresses, carrying the story of love or healing between two bodies. Lips and tongue taste and take in the lives of others — plant, animal — that sustain us as food. There’s a reason, when you see something beautiful that lifts your heart to your throat and lurches it sideways, that you reach out your hand to touch: orange poppies in full bloom in sunlight, shimmering suppler than any silk. Maybe your nose follows, to test the smell, to get dusted with pollen. Somehow, having your hands near or touching those petals brings the bloom in, as if your heart had done it. Reaching out with a foot, or an elbow, or even your lips wouldn’t be the same. The hands, cupping, seem to understand, as if in the touch they are imagining the whole creation of that flower, in whatever humble or rash way they can manage. Because this is what hands do, at their best: they make. They play creator, like Coyote at the top of Mt. Diablo crafting humans from feathers and land from mats of tule.

Our hands are muscled and shaped the way they are for and from the crafting of tools, and then the crafting of other things with those tools — arrowhead, awl, basket, bead, shoe, cape, hat, pot, flute. And on, and on. You know where this may lead — has lead, does lead. When I see a little Bewick’s wren rasping her tinny voice above me in the grape vines, distressed about a cat near her nest, her underbelly and tail feathers an intricate banding of brown and white, my hands itch a little, not to catch her, but with wonder, imagining that small wren in my palm. How light, how quick, the prick of her claws and the warm ferocity of her feathers. Somehow, I can’t imagine knowing her intimately without touch — taking into my body the story of hers. Neural innervation: the nerves in the hands making stories for the mind (and, I would add, the heart too, for we have many neurons there as well).

Viscerally, all of this makes me understand, inside my gut — that root place where the world very literally becomes me — something of the emotional gist of the utterly stunning handprints that accompany the Palaeolithic cave paintings of horse and reindeer, lion and auroch, in such caverns as the French Pech-Merle and Chauvet. The first time I saw an image of the multitude of handprints at Chauvet — ochre red — I felt a thrumming chill through my whole body. I wanted to weep. I felt like the breath had been taken out of me.

Those handprints reach out like ghosts, exactly the same as your own would look if you dipped them in ochre-red paint and placed them side-by-side: 30,000 years luminous between your palms, and theirs. In Pech-Merle, the handprints, thought to belong to adult women or boys due to their size, undulate around the bodies of gloriously speckled horses. Those handprints are like signatures, saying — I (or we) created these creatures on the womb-walls of this cave. But deeper yet, the hands reach out, riding the wild gallop of those hooves, dancing in a kind of palmed frenzy. They get to join with the Being of a horse by making it in cinder and ochre red. Something of the shape shifting of ancient animistic shamanism is at work in this union of hand and horse, hand and cave-wall, hand over coyote track, hand itching to feel the tender wonder of a Bewick’s wren landing there, on the skin.

We tend to imagine the Palaeolithic people who worshipped and sang and painted in these caves as so different from ourselves that they are barely relatable or comprehensible: men and women in furs and skins with stone tools and nomad ways, saber-toothed cats in their dreams and life-spans we scoff at. And yet, and yet, I see those handprints and I see a longing that has not left us. I see a longing that has become tempered or misshapen by sadness, by a story of exile, but the same — held up in praise, in awe, to touch the mystery of the wild beings so like us, and yet not us at all. Held out because in touching we make, we love, and we kill, and how can we know all three, and not carry a sorrowed praise through all of our days?


Our hands made our minds what they are. It is the hand that separated us from the rest of animal-kind, in the sense that it allowed us to eventually step out of the natural processes of evolution and natural selection. It allowed us to make, yes — and so beautifully — but it has also allowed us to take as much as we want, at least to a point. We have yet to reach that point, but we are near, and we know already the kinds of devastation — myriad as the kinds of song — that we can wreak. It is the hand that makes us different (not better, lord no, for in it is our own undoing, and the world’s). Yet it is also the hand that reaches out in the cave paintings of Pech-Merle to make a bridge between human and horse; my own hand reaching down to bridge woman and coyote.

Superficially, our hands don’t look very different from a chimp’s. But beneath the outer structure, our hands are muscled — especially our thumbs, which rotate in a complete circle in their sockets, able to make precise, firm contact with each finger-pad — and innervated in ways that are utterly unique. The combination of flexibility, strength and precision in our grip, our palms, our forearms and our fingertips, is so complicated that it instigated a total overhaul, or re-working, of a large part of our mammal brains in order to make it all work. The nervous system had to change dramatically in order to respond to each new need and action of the hand — from the overhand throw of a rock to the flint-knapping of an obsidian blade to the incredibly difficult and precise act of threading a fishbone needle. Or, more literally, they evolved together — hand, nervous system, brain.

leonardo hand-120508

Neurologists such as Frank R. Wilson, author of The Hand, asserts that tool-making came first, and after it, or from it, our own particular brand of spoken language. He claims that ‘evolution has created in the human brain an organ powerfully predisposed to generate rules that treat nouns as if they were stones and verbs as if they were levers or pulleys. […] We humans are instructed (or constrained) by our genes to build sentences the way we build huts and villages. (ii) Just as the making of a tool has steps — a beginning, a middle and an end and then the anticipated use that has nothing to do with the present moment but an imagined future, or even an imagined array of futures — our minds likewise took form around this growing sense (or feel) for sequentiality.

In other words, as our hands became unusually skilled and deft at making tools, clothes, then objects of ritual beauty and adornment, our minds started making things too — stories. They started making narratives, sequences of events that told us who we were, that attempted to explain the inexplicable all around us. Being makers-with-hands, we want to know how everything else is made, and functions, especially that most inexplicable thing of all at the far end of the sequence: carve, polish, lash, aim, throw right into the heart of a deer. Death. Our making hands made our making minds, not the other way around, and our knowledge of the workings (think tools) of the world all around us, our own bodies and lives and deaths, made us the beautiful and terrible creatures that we are.

I could go on with this topic in a pinwheel of directions, each spoke offering a new thicket of connection. How we speak of mental understanding as grasping, getting a feel for, getting a grip. How, as babies, we learn to speak simultaneously as we learn how to manipulate objects with our hands; or, as Wilson writes, ‘playing with anything to make something is always paralleled in cognition by the creation of a story.’ (iii) How palms have been read for thousands of years as somehow containing the story or map of a person’s life. How many healing traditions have centred around the power of the hand, as in the story of the Greek god Asclepius (whose statues were later made with gold hands to represent the healing power of his touch) or the ancient Japanese practice of Reiki. But my mind — and my writing hand, as it were — lingers with the way a skilled palm can read the story of an animal track, the way 30,000-year-old handprints beside the roiling backs of wild horses make my own palms hum. I am caught by the idea of the hand as a bridge as much as it is also a scissor, severing us. And I am above all, as a writer and a maker of myth-inspired, ecologically-rooted tales, waylaid by the idea that stories might actually, in some sense, reside in — or come through — the fingers and hand as much as they do the mind.

I have long known that something very particular and very important happens for me when I make use of those very fine human motor skills needed to delicately wield a pen — a grip and an action very similar to the threading a needle and sewing: embroidering a tale, spinning a yarn — and put it to paper. I cannot write fiction on the computer at all, unless I am already so fully in the flow of the story that it has unfurled far, far down the path of my imagination. Something is loosened, or triggered, or whatever it may be, in my mind when my fingers grasp the pen and the ink flows across the page. I’m no good at all at telling a tale aloud, probably in part because some circuit, luminous in my heart as any moon, has been made in me (since age seven or so) between index, thumb, pen, and mind, so that the story comes out best when those muscles are activated, and my eyes can read the words like coyote tracks across the page as I go. When I’ve seen truly brilliant storytellers spin their tales aloud, such as the wild and wonderful Martin Shaw, their hands move with their words, mesmerising, perhaps helping to coax those syllables out of the air and firesmoke, the wingbeats of passing pelicans. A story told aloud without the dance of the hands is hard to imagine; the hands can’t help themselves. They want to make that tale too, be it wooden spoon or fairy-tale.

my hand

There’s a story that holds all of this in its palms. It’s a story so old and so unshakeable that it can be found from Japan to South Africa, from Hungary to Egypt to England: The Handless Maiden. A young woman’s hands (or arms) are cut off by her incestuous father, or the Devil, or an evil brother. Handless, she wanders the woods and becomes a wild thing herself, tended by does, eating as they do by reaching out for food with only her teeth. She steals pears from the orchard of a king in the Hungarian version I know best. The king falls in love with the handless maiden; marries her; makes her silver hands. They are happy for a time, but a war breaks out and the king must leave. Alone, the handless maiden gives birth to a child, and all seems well until the Devil meddles again, tricking both king and then queen-mother so that the handless maiden is cast out once more, alone in the woods again, this time with a baby at her breast. As she wanders, and eventually finds refuge with wood-folk (or underworld folk, or desert folk; wherever the tale might be set, these are the folk of the wild ways, in my mind, the folk who know the many-tongued language of the living land), her hands grow back like two fruits, like the stalks of evening primrose, from bud to bloom, re-storied. The king, at the end of those seven years, having sought her for just as long, and become himself a bearded wild-man, finds her and the child at last. All of them transformed.

monkey flower

Some say the loss of the woman’s hands is about patriarchal control and oppression, the feeling of one’s ‘hands being tied’, of powerlessness in body and mind, that their loss ‘represent[s] a feminine being-in-the world that is psychically so bedeviled by the patriarchal attitude that the emblematic hands of self-expression are rendered passive.’ (iv) All of this may be true—stories in the mythic tradition have room for countless meanings. Yet I believe there is another, older layer of resonance here. I agree with Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés that this is a very ancient story of female initiation, a story whose roots find themselves in the goddess cultures of the early Neolithic. But I will take a creative, mythic leap and hazard to push the origins of this story back even further, into the 40,000-year depths of the Palaeolithic, because I see her, the girl without hands, in the handprints on the walls of Pech-Merle.

In its initiatory significance, I believe that this story is about coming into right relationship with the more-than-human, with the wild land, the creatures whose lives we take in hunting, in gathering berries and nuts and medicines (in fingers, in palms, in baskets). The story is about a falling-out of that relationship, and then a healing, a regrowing, a rebalancing, all situated in the hands. Something goes sour in the human community: fathers desire their daughters, or bargain away their daughters’ hands for riches offered by a Devilish stranger. And yet, when the girl loses her hands there is this echo of the shaman who is dismembered by wolves or other animals in the initiation stories and visions of animistic peoples the world over. Dismembered by animals, one is restitched with a wild needle. Hands lost, the handless maiden is at last somehow only animal again. Her arms become weight-bearing limbs, no more, like a coyote’s front paws — maybe used to bat down pears from trees, but not capable of grasping.

Without her hands, does her mind start to change in the way it experiences the world? What might a girl become, inside, without her hands? Does she become more doe, more hare, and the world too? As Estés writes, ‘it is not by accident that the one-eyed, the lame, those with withered limbs or other physical differences have, throughout time, been sought out as possessing a special knowing. Their injury or indifference forces them early on into parts of the psyche normally reserved for the very, very old.’ (v) What part of the mind-spirit grows differently in the maiden, without her hands? How is the mind re-storied, or rather un-storied, without the hands to read and make, to sow and take, the hands which have a nasty habit of laying claim and ownership over that which cannot be owned? A silver pair, no matter how lovingly made, no matter how ingenious the maker, will not solve the problem. The woman must regrow, not remake — like a plant and not a human — her ten fingers, her two palms, in the company of deer, and woods, and strange folk who dwell at the edges, mediating the boundary between human and ‘more-than-human’, as David Abram likes to say. Those two new hands have been tempered in the fire of the great, fecund mysteries of the wild land, the world of wren and fox and lizard, bee and herb and oak and dirt and sky. Those hands are the hands that know how to paint shifting lionesses and antlered reindeer on the womb-walls of caves, leaving palm-prints like proof of a pact of honoring, of right balance, of humility. The handless maiden’s new hands have a whole new set of fingerprints, wildly re-mapped, and you bet she can cup her palm over a coyote track and see the whole story.


Please don’t misunderstand me — I am not out to make the literal dismemberment of hands or any human body parts a good thing; I write here in mythic and metaphoric terms, in the language of myth-time, from the land of imagining, the place in the mind that dreams, and stories, and sees the life of a coyote unfurl from a single track. I’m saying that our collective hands have become devilish, terrifying, dangerous; that these hands, made by this world, need to be done away with. The hand of this culture which has lost its wild-knowing palm, which has not been tempered in the mud and deer blood and pure creek-water of reciprocity and humility before the land which is our mother — that’s the hand the Devil has soiled, the hand that needs to go under the blade of the axe. But the handless maiden does not remain handless. We are what we are. Whatever animal wisdom she may gain from wandering the woods without ten fingers, two palms, she is no elk. We are not elk, nor lion, nor horse. We are human, which means we are handed, which means we are full of story. At our best, we temper ourselves, our hands, in service to the balance of the greater ecosystem. At our worst, we are capable of destroying every living thing in our path, as if every being save ourselves (and much of our own kind to boot) were the same as an object we might take or throw away indiscriminately.

A lot of attention has been paid The Handless Maiden story in Jungian circles for the past several decades. Like I said, there’s no doubt about it — The Handless Maiden certainly has a lot of psychological resonance to it, a wonderfully feral example of the female ‘Hero’s Journey’ cycle. But I wonder if it’s still with us (certainly stories hang around for a reason) because it is also about our relationships outside of ourselves, with the more-than-human, with the wren, the orange poppy, the elk, the polluted creek and the warming air. Maybe nothing can really and fully be resolved or healed inside, until the way we handle the wild world in which we live is healed first. ‘To many indigenous people, there is not an ‘inner’ that does not include starlings, tundra and antelope—[…] intellectual retreat is part of the problem. It is making us crazy,’ (vi) writes myth-teller Martin Shaw. Our psyche lives not inside of us but inside the psyche of the whole land. And if our hands somehow have something to do with the shaping of these minds of ours, wherever they dwell, what does it mean (in this culture) that their repertoire of uses is rapidly narrowing around the screen and the keyboard, as machines of all varieties increasingly replace human hands in other endeavors? What stories are we absorbing, and patterning inside of ourselves, this way?

What would happen, on the other hand (pun entirely unavoidable), if we touched the tracks of animals, the petals of poppies, the bark of trees, every day, just for a moment? What would happen if, no matter your day-job, you kept your fingers busy with poems, with sketches, with the strings of instruments and the handles of garden spades? Even though we don’t ‘need’ to weave our own baskets, spin our own yarn, sew our own pants, whittle our own spoons, tan our own buckskins, string our own bows (well, we may very well need to know of all this, and soon, depending on your faith in the current model…) maybe our minds desperately do need us to carry on with the physical tasks that shaped them anyway, for our own sanity, for the sanity of the land wherein our psyches dwell. And so long as those spinning, carving, story-telling fingers pause every day to reach out in the act of caressing and holding something wild — fir bark, rain, earth worm, thistle-down, otter-track, Beloved — maybe we can begin to regrow our hands. Maybe they will come back full of a new story about what it means to be human in a world that is not, and never was, ours to grasp.
It is ours, however, to story, to sing, to praise, palms ocher-red with longing on the cave-walls where wild horses run.

coyote and fingers

* * *

From March 2013 to April 2014, I sent out re-wilded fairytales (set in the ecologies of my native Bay Area) to subscribers around the world in a Wild Tales By Mail project called the Gray Fox Epistles. They arrived on the new moon, wax-sealed, hand-delivered by post-man or post-woman. I have launched a new Wild Tales by Mail project this summer solstice — called Elk Lines — whose first issue will arrive on Lughnasadh, August 1st, with the ripening of California’s wild blackberries. It is a re-wilded telling of this very story, ‘The Handless Maiden’, told over the turning of one wheel of the year and set in the past, the present and the future of the Point Reyes Peninsula. For more information about this project, and my other work, you can visit or contact me at

(i) Jay Griffiths, A Sideways Look at Time (New York: Penguin, 2004),34.
Frank R. Wilson, The Hand (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998),169.
(iii) Wilson, The Hand, 195.
Ami Ronnberg, ed., The Book of Symbols, (Cologne, Germany: TASCHEN, 2010), 380.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves, (New York: Ballatine Books, 1992), 427.
Martin Shaw, Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet, Black Branch of Language (Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 2014), 34.


Deep Time: Finding Old Tjikko

Skärmavbild 2014-03-22 kl. 17.45.48

We care about trees. A few years ago there was some controversy about the decision to cut down a 600-year-old oak in central Stockholm. Vigils were held, demonstrations organised and the tree became quite the news item. It helped, of course, that it was located just outside the headquarters of Swedish Broadcasting. Protests were to little avail however and the oak was cut down and hauled off an early November morning. In the local newspaper today there is another tree that has stirred up emotions — a black poplar wedged between a public school and a 19th-century army building converted into daycare and high-end design studio. I go and have a look at the tree and run into two officials from the real-estate company that owns the lot the tree sits on. Curious fourth-graders peer out their classroom window, and presently we are joined by a small entourage of children, whose first words to us adults are: Don’t cut down our tree!

Trees evoke an emotional response in us city-dwellers, particularly when they are being threatened. A lot of this has to do with a perception of time and permanence. Most trees in the domesticated context of a city tend to outlive the human inhabitants; thus providing a physical point of reference which not only bears witness to changing seasons, but also at the same time stands for something fixed and stable in a dynamic environment. But there is something else at work here, something that goes beyond notions of sentiment and nostalgia, a more deeply rooted yearning which feels violated when a certain familiar tree is cut down. The reaction of the fourth-graders suggests as much when they perceived a threat to ‘their’ tree.

I got interested in the longevity of certain trees, and decided to embark on a project with the aim of finding out what made them and their contexts so special. The perspective on time and change provided by the 600-year old oak made me look at extremely long-lived trees; some of them several thousands of years old and still counting. Few living things, or for that matter artefacts, have survived that long. How have these trees endured throughout the ages, and how could they inform a discussion about sustainability and resilience?

My first stop is Old Tjikko, held to be the oldest living individual clonal tree in the world. There is plenty of information on the internet about the specimen. It was discovered in 2004 by Leif Kullman and Lisa Öberg. They were conducting a study of the effects of climate change on alpine and subalpine areas in northern Sweden when they identified Old Tjikko and Old Rasmus, two spruces well above the visible tree line on the Fulufjället mountain in Dalarna. The trunks of these trees have emerged from a shrub-like existence sometime during the 20th century as a response to warmer conditions, but the roots of the specimens have been found to be some 9,500 years old, using radiocarbon dating. On a geological time scale, this means that Old Tjikko has been around since the end of the last ice age, setting up shop as soon as the ice sheet disappeared.

When I start calling around to make practical arrangements I am not exactly stonewalled, but certainly given a lot of vague answers with regards to the exact location of Old Tjikko. An official at the local County Administrative Board tells me that yes, I can go and see the tree, but I should not take any photos that would reveal the exact location and not disclose how to get there. I explain that I am an artist, that I am doing this as an art project with an environmental slant, and that I have no intention to harm the tree, but that I need to find out more specifics about the route in order to plan my excursion. She concedes, and gives me a contact at the Fulufjället National Park. All trees are protected in a national park but it seems that this particular specimen is something extra. An image search on the web yields numerous pictures of Old Tjikko, and it does not look like much. A scrawny spruce in an otherwise treeless landscape. But it is extremely old, and a friend I run into a few days after starting to make my research tells me the location is kept more or less secret to avoid massive hordes of tourists, particularly those that would be wont to take parts of the tree and boil them into extracts that would give… potency? Longevity? Something like that.

A few days later I get a hold of Eduardo Zuniga, who manages the national parks, at Naturum, the visitors centre at the foot of the mountain. Eduardo says sure, he can take me there. Before I have a chance to ask him if it would be possible to stay at the site for a while (I need time to set up my cameras and equipment), he tells me that now is perhaps not a good time. The tree might not even be visible — there has been a lot of snow this year, and chances are that only a few twigs would be sticking up. He then says that he’ll be going up the mountain the following day, and will scout the area to see what it looks like. Will I need skies?, I ask. Most definitely, he replies. Or snowshoes. No other way to get up there. And he is not even sure that the shorter route is passable on account of all the snow. But he promises he’ll get back to me tomorrow, and we hang up.

I go back to look at the pictures posted of the tree. It looks scrawny and not that impressive, but I thought it would be a bit taller than the 2-3 metres Eduardo claims it to be. Even so, 2-3 metres of snow sounds implausible. Maybe he does not really want me there. Perhaps he has more pressing matters at hand than escorting an artist up the mountain. Maybe I have been a bit too enthusiastic about the prospect of visiting the world’s oldest tree. I recall a passage from Leif Kullman’s webpage: ‘With no exceptions, the exact position of these trees are not revealed to the public, since extensive trampling around the spruces would certainly risk their continued existence.’

The extreme conditions on top of the mountain have contributed to the tree’s longevity, and it would make sense to get a winter view of the site, to be counterposed with a future summer shot. Dilemma. I see myself hiking up there with several cameras and tripods, only to arrive at a scrawny twig sticking up out of the snow. Not much of an image, be it an ancient twig or not.

Next day I call Eduardo again. I suggest a date a few weeks ahead, having realised that maybe it’s too short a notice for a guided tour. He hesitates, and says there have been some complaints, that the guided tours provided by Naturum were cancelled last year due to damage on the site. He suggests I get in touch with some entrepreneurs in a nearby village, a Dutch couple who might be able to help me out. He adds that he will have to get in touch with his supervisor, and promises to get back to me when a heads up for my modest expedition.

At this point I am thinking why not just go up there, rent a cabin or check into a hotel, rent some skies and just extrapolate the position of the tree from the many photos posted online — or talk to the locals and get someone to show me. It can’t be that hard. Then I look at the topographical map again. The park spans some 38,000 hectares, and landmarks are most likely under a deep cover of snow. Maybe I will find the tree. Maybe not.

On my way up to Dalarna, I make a mental arrival form: ‘The purpose of the trip is: Business/Pleasure/Other’ and make a check at ‘Other’. Reluctant to call myself a tourist and almost certain that the trip is a not-for-profit undertaking, I opt for the alternative of ‘Other’, which seldom, if ever, is available on official immigration forms. However, I am fully aware that I am about to do a good deal of sightseeing, which would qualify me as a tourist. The multitude of cameras I’m carrying for one thing. The artist as a tourist; a sightseer, or — in the words of Robert Smithson — ‘a great artist can make art simply by casting a glance.’ And since my profession is that of image-making I could conceivably also claim the ‘Business’ option. I am hoping that I am entering a slightly more reciprocal relationship to the vistas and trees than the ordinary tourist, although I suspect I’ll be doing a bit more than casting a glance while on site.

‘This,’ my guide says, ‘is how long it takes.’

I’m looking at a smooth grey tree; a dead pine worn silvery by the seasons. My guide, Dick, is the entrepreneur that Eduardo recommended to me, and all of a sudden I am grateful not only to have a guide to show me the tree , but also to learn something along the way. Dick is a passionate guide, outspokenly dedicated about keeping the touris footprint in the park to a minimum. He shows me black enclaves of charred wood on the trunk, remnants from a wildfire
some 150 years ago. The coal is soft to the touch and leaves a faint smudge on my fingertips. Nestled in a fold of burnt wood, a small tuft of yellowish-green lichen the size of a golfball. This is wolf lichen, an endangered and protected species that will take hold on dead wood, provided that the circumstances are just right. Lichens are particularly fussy when it comes to air quality, temperature ranges and precipitation, and this particular specimen bided its time for over a hundred years before making a home here. Extremely poisonous, the lichen has been used for killing off wolves by grinding up the plant with crushed glass, a method devised to make sure that the active agent in the lichen enters the bloodstream rapidly.

Fear of the wolf is a deeply entrenched cultural trait in Sweden. Yesterday, upon arriving in Särna, the small village at the foot of the mountain where I am staying, I see a group of teenagers by the gas station. They are hanging out on their snowmobiles; Thursday night in Särna and not a hell of a lot else going on. One of them wears a hoodie that reads ‘våga vägra varg i Sverige’ on the back — ‘just say no to wolves in Sweden’. A few days later I’m told that wolves have been found mauled by snowmobiles; perhaps by accident, but just as likely a purposeful roadkill. The trick is to throw the dead wolf onto a passing log truck in for a long haul away from the scene of the crime.

The area surrounding the National Park is basically all pine and spruce forest. Most of it is planted, harvested and processed by big timber corporations. The two main economies in this part of Sweden (and indeed in large parts of the country) are forestry and tourism. As the two tend to overlap in the great outdoors, there is an inherent conflict of interest here — the scenery of any given landscape very much coloured by the lenses of the beholder. Even the great naturalist Linnaeus saw the landscape in primarily economic terms, and his notes from a journey through the area in 1734 reveal as much. His comments on agriculture, forest management, minerals and available game in the area read like an instructive manual for exploitation and many of his suggestions were put into practice, notably the use of rivers for transportation of timber.

If unsightly in the winter I can only imagine what the clearcut patches look like come spring and summer when the full extent of the wreckage is laid bare. I have always been fascinated by landscapes of this kind — rendered apocalypticall empty but for a few remaining deadwoods, and often, as is the practice in much of Sweden, thinly veiled behind a curtain of trees along the highways. The mire at the entrance to the National Park offers a different view — a veritable time field with spruce and pine in different stages of growth. Nutrition and minerals are scant in the mire and the rate of growth is slow and arduous, judging from the twisted, gnarled features of a 500-year-old pine. Bent and twisted branches start pointing downward as centuries wear on as if they are drawn back into the soil from whence they sprang. The industrially cultivated forests nearby have none of this variety, which also means that they are poorer in terms of suitable habitats for other species — and infinitely more vulnerable to pests and natural disasters. The gnarly trees in the mire are perhaps less useful for our purposes, but they have mastered the art of resilience. The presence of wolf lichen is but one example of the benefits of allowing a forest to take its time.

Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Review fame, has written an excellent book called The Clock of the Long Now, where he puts forth arguments for a perspective on time that relates to an ongoing, long-term chronos rather than the more immediate and short-lived kairos; an argument which feels particularly pertinent when looking at the trees in this mire. Trees like these manifest that which lasts, endures and somehow manages to cope with changes over time. My daily life is very much along the kairos timescale, with time neatly divided into allotted segments for work, family and ’other’; usually meaning eating and resting. That there is a lack of superstructural flow in some segments becomes painfully evident when we’re running late for daycare in the mornings: my five-year-old and his little sister deep in their game give me blank stares when I say that we must go because it’s getting late. They simply don’t get it: the abstract concept of time as denoted by the clock. Their time is the ongoing kind, same as it is for a tree.

The snowshoes on my feet feel awkward at first and only permit forward motion. Walking up the mountain is part of what I think my guide Dick means by sustainable tourism. In order to get to the tree, we have to climb up the side of the mountain, and there is no other viable way with snow that is at times soft and very deep and sometimes encrusted with an crispy sheet of ice. Snowmobiles are off limits in the park with the exception for a designated route some kilometres away. In the silence that is the absence of anything motorised, I become more keenly aware of my breathing, and, as the ascent gets steeper, of my panting. After a while I get better at negotiating the tricky parts, and follow Dick’s example of leaning onto the face of the mountain, carefully lifting one spiked snowshoe at a time with the other one firmly inserted into the icy snow. We stop to rest every 20-25 metres of altitude gained, catch our breath, and arrive at the crest with a sense of accomplishment — on my part mixed with a great deal of excitement about being here and not having lost any of my jerry-rigged equipment along the way.

The big white plateau of Fulufjället stretches out before me. It is overcast, and the light reflected in the snow erases the line where earth and sky meet. This is an indeterminate landscape, a place that seems to be expanding in all directions at once. The wind has free reign in the flat topography of the mountaintop, but despite the gusts that rip at my clothes and take my breath away, I sense a great tranquility here. I am reminded of the deserts I have seen in South West Texas — a reduction of stimuli that seems to free up space for a more face-value experience of the elements and landscape I am in. The pull of an absent horizon. I have an impulse to start walking and get lost, adrift and vanish into the threshold of land and sky; this is the scene where I walk off into the far and simultaneously see myself getting smaller and smaller… I am momentarily lost in reveries. A delicious derailing of the train of thought, attractive, perhaps, primarily for its manifest lack of utility. Timelessness.

‘There’s the tree,’ says Dick, and points at a tiny black speck across the frozen mountaintop. Halfway there, I see another spruce, its top half broken off in the wind. Judging from the direction of the break and the way all the remaining branches seem to point one way, I guess the prevailing wind comes from the Norwegian side. The broken tree is a good landmark, and I will use it as a means of orientation on my next trip up the mountain.

I set up my cameras. Old Tjikko stands all by itself on the frozen tundra and looks every bit the ancient being it is. Dick has made sure that the coordinates match with his preprogrammed GPS so that I get the right tree: a few other spruces are scattered over this end of the plateau, each one keeping a respectful distance to its relatives. Chances are that they are just as old as Old Tjikko, perhaps even older, but the radiocarbon dating has yet to prove that. I pry rocks loose from the ice a  bit further up and carry them back to the tripods for weights. One of my cameras is a home-made pinhole camera the size of a large shoe box, and I need it to stay immobile for the 24-hour exposure. A small wide angle digital camera of the kind used in action sports sits atop the other tripod. I have programmed it to take a frame every minute, hoping the battery will last long enough to give me an overnight sequence. After making sure that everything is up and running, I take a few more pictures, gather my stuff and head on back down the mountain again with considerably less gear to carry.

The hike up the mountain feels shorter the next day. There has been a shift in the weather from yesterday’s mildness, and as I make it over the ridge onto the plateau I see rapidly approaching clouds with an ominous look. The weather can change in an instant here, and I just hope I won’t have to navigate through a snowstorm on the exposed tundra. By the time I get to the tree it clears up again, and I find all my equipment where I left it. It is such a small fraction of this tree’s life I have come to witness. A few hours altogether. My cameras have hopefully seen it through the night and early morning. My impulse is to stay, to linger, to become a human bonsai next to the tree, to slow up and take root in a field of lichen and moss slowly revealed, to start casting glances that span the millenia; but it is snowing now and getting colder by the minute so I head back across the plateau. Halfway down, circling above the Njupeskär waterfall which is Sweden´s highest fall, I make out a Gyrfalcon. I turn back a take a last look — casting a glance as it were — in the direction of Old Tjikko, but the tree has been lost in a flurry of swirling crystals of snow blowing in from the west.



After visiting Old Tjikko in late March, I spent the following month testing different constructions for extremely large-format pinhole cameras. A tree that old deserved a longer look, and I started experimenting with cameras that would yield an image in scale 1:1, and yet somehow be portable. I kept on building models for this in my studio, using a dead oak in a field nearby as a model, writing this text and getting further into the general idea of organic life with long life spans. In preparation for a trip to NYC, I Googled New York’s oldest tree and came across another artist who had been working with old trees and plants for a good while. I got curious and looked her up: Rachel Sussman, artist and author of the beautiful and tremendously well researched book The Oldest Living Things in the World (University of Chicago Press) released on April 2nd 2014, a few days after I got back from the mountain… a summer view of Old Tjikko is on the cover. So here was someone who had been working with the theme of resilience, longevity and continuity as exemplified by extremely old trees and other living things for over a decade, just when I had gotten started… I still feel that old trees have a lot to teach, but I will take this as a cue to reformulate my project and find another approach. In the meantime, I warmly recommend Sussman’s book on the subject — a good read with images that evoke a sense of deep time in all its resilient glory!

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

Black Spider


It’s mid-afternoon Sunday on a high 30s day in February, the country is as dry as a goog and there’s a steady wind blowing out of the north. That’s the way the weather patterns go, the high-pressure system will sit right over us. Steady days of bright sunshine and clear blue sky, the long slow dry, the heat, the gas of condensed eucalyptus and the crunch of dry beneath my feet. And then from the south, every five or six days a frontal system will sweep up into South Eastern Australia, a cool cloudy change and the pressure is off as the temperature drops by 15 degrees or so. But before she sweeps in with her promise of cool and rain the departing high-pressure system will suck even drier and hotter air down from the interior, the desert red country. Those are the fire danger days, 40 plus degrees and a gusty dry hot wind .

On a day like this it is inevitable that at some time fire will start. It’s just the where and the when. Later it’s the how and the why. Maybe a dry lightning strike, one of those fronts from the south teasing with her dark clouds but carrying nothing but thunder and forked tongues of lightning. Maybe a spark from heavy machinery, a steel blade dragged across rock, maybe a hot exhaust on dry grass, a careless camper ignoring the fire bans and cooking billy tea mid-morning, or an arc from a welder or a spark from an angle grinder. Fires happen here, it’s part of the cycle, part of the circle. Sometimes it feels as if the country wants to burn, all that combustible material leaning in, leaning close, the wave of tall dry kangaroo grass and the ribbons of candle bark. In 40 degrees it all wants to burn and as the day heats up the trees will shed more leaves and more bark. The air heavy with eucalyptus oil, all waiting so patiently.

They say that this country, like everywhere else, will heat up, that there will be more and more days over 40 degrees, that there will be less rain, stronger winds, it will all dry out quicker. Doesn’t take much to realise that we will get a fair few more bushfires.

Every small community has a fire brigade, a fire truck or maybe two, the whole village fights a fire. We have modern equipment, pagers, fireproof gear, four-wheel drive, 3,000 litres of water, retardant foam, huge Psi, multiple hoses, all to throw at the fire.

The pager goes off mid afternoon, buzzing and whistling, and I don’t even stop to look at the details, just grab the bag with my boots and helmet and overalls. It’s breakneck speed for the two miles down to the fire shed, who ever turns up at the fire shed will crew the tanker. You don’t choose the crew, time and space, fate dictates. If you get on to the tanker, you work together. In some way we are lucky to have a common cause, a common enemy to fight, it’s one of those rare things in life that brings us together, asks us to work as one.

And when the extent of the fire is seen, tankers are called from all the communities in a great broad circle around the fire. From Boho and Creightons Creek, Marraweeny, Ruffy, Tatong, Violet Town, Caniambo. They come out of the hills and the flat country heeding the call, all manner of people, dropping whatever they were doing to fight fire. When I first saw this, all the willingness to come and fight, it blew me away. This unwritten law of aid, we all fight the dragon together, stand side by side, as one day it will roar over the back fence of our homes. It is well into the night before we rest up.

So the fire has burned 1,200 hectares of forest and scrub and high grazing country, no lives lost, no houses or sheds destroyed, the edges are contained and now the crews must go back over the country and black everything out, extinguish burning stumps and fenceposts, fires still funnelling up through hollow eucalypts. This can take days, and it must be done. Save the next day into the 40s with a high wind, could pick up a spark or ember and carry her glowing five kilometres and here we have another fire. I guess it’s a thankless task , but it is a more relaxed and stress-free task than facing a fire head on.

We meet down at the fire staging area at 7.30, there are 24 tankers going over the country. I am a crew leader, means I control the tanker with a crew of four. It’s my job to make the calls, the risk assessment, to look after the wellbeing of my crew, hydration, safety, protection. I take my orders from the strike team leader. The strike team is made up of six tankers.

At the briefing I’m handed the maps, our sector of patrol, and briefed on the task ahead. The community has come together to feed and refresh all of the firefighters, and we are fed a good cooked breakfast. Then it’s out to the fire ground there to drag fire hoses up the sides of rocky hills and down through dry creek beds.

So just before hopping on the tanker, I stop to take a piss. Here in the urinal by the football club oval is a large black house spider. She is soaked and drowning, drowning in our collective piss. And brave me stands above her, me the big fireman, the hero of the day, and I can’t for the life of me summon the courage to rescue her, to hook her out of the piss trough. Because something in me can’t stand to raise the jeers of my fellow firefighters, those big burly blokes in yellow. What if they caught me bending over the pisser, hooking out a little bloody black spider, something that most of the world would be happy to screw into the ground with the heel of their boot. So I leave her there in the urinal with the vague hope that she will crawl out. And I carry her around all day.

I’m thinking of the parts in the old stories where the mouse is asked to remove the splinter from the lion’s paw, where the hero is asked to step aside from his quest and rescue the drowning bird, to guide the beached pike back into deeper water and to give his last meal to the hungry wolf, that place where we are asked to wonder from our tracks and projections, to help, to perform a small task to maintain the fabric of nature. And I’m not thinking of these tasks as a way to some unseen reward, to the hand in marriage of the lovely princess, to the holy grail. I’m thinking of these tasks as an absolute responsibility to the world that we live in.

I’m wondering how much louder that lovely spider could call to me. That maybe if she were to cast her golden web about my head and to scream in my ears, oh, then I’d rescue her. No I’m afraid not, I’m still stuck in the world of appearances and I’m bloody sick of it. When my shift that day was over I returned with my tanker and crew intact to the staging ground, filthy and exhausted. I went back to the urinal and there she was, that lovely black spider, as I expected, dead. Drowned in our piss.

There has come a point in my life where the old tales and passed-down stories, they have begun to seep in, where mythology so hems its way into nature, where its every word is so intricately woven into the fabric of time and space, its delicate golden threads skate precariously through the unseen and just for the briefest of moments flit into the seen. There are kings and heroes, brave knights and scaly dragons to fell, there are lovely eight-legged damsons to rescue and possibly a princess is bound and trapped at the top of a doorless tower.

Our ancestors asked us to listen and to look, to pay attention to the details, the inlaid filigree of minute details that we are faced with moment by moment. And if chance and circumstance should have it we can for a moment shake our clumsy learned habits of looking good and saving face and shake off the caked-on layers of shame, then perhaps there is a possibility that we can actually meet this world full in its beaming face. You see to listen and to watch, to truly inhabit our common senses, is to begin to speak the secret language of the world, the language that we two-leggeds have forgotten. The language of creation.

I’m one of those lucky people that gets to live and work in part of the world that is still filled with birdsong. There are still chance meetings with the otherness of the world, with ringtail possums and wombats and sugar gliders. I can still gaze up into the sky and see a wedgetail eagle floating at an impossible height, the yellow-tail black cockatoo still brings news of coming rain and in late winter unruly mobs of firetail finches dance through my garden. I guess there was a time when we all spoke this broader language, when our meetings were part of a much more intricate speech, and our here and now was a far, far wider plane.

I have to tell you now how that spider entered me, how she crept inside, whilst I was busy fighting fires, how she has built the most intricate web deep within my consciousness, in a corner unhurried by breeze and human movement somewhere deep in the centre, between potential and regret. Here she waits, with all her lovely patience, waiting for the minute vibrations, the frightened beating wings and heart beats of tiny insects. And when she moves, when those long black limbs and knees begin their deliberate path to the kill. When her skinny spider shins and fingers tickle some part deep within, then this is when I’m alerted to the world around me, to move out of my mind and into the greater sphere of being.

Tears still well up all these months later.

However there is a kind of postscript to the story. The next time I was out on the fire truck was in late winter. We were burning some piles of brush on a road that heads into town, there’s four of us, burning of these piles. And on the side of the road there is a dead tawny frogmouth owl, she has been hit by a car, maybe the night before, her eyes are still bright. She is beautiful, her feathers and plumage the softest shades of grey. Those eyes, that depth of night pools, that doorway into another world. I’m holding her cradled in my palms, wishing her back to life. I’m squatted down by the side of the road, a rake in one hand and a dead owl in the other. And I’m suddenly brought back to the world around me by my fellow crew members standing in a circle around me. ‘What are you doing with that dead bird, Simmo?’ And I’m so happy to be holding this, this lovely otherness in my hands, there is no embarrassed or ashamed. And I hold her up and point out the miracle of her feathers, the curve of her beak and the depth of her eyes, I uncurl her claws and the conversation turns to being a vole and the surprising hurry of death as the owl attacks and night vision and the calls of nightbirds. And why plovers make their nests out in the open. And I’m not surprised that my fellow firefighters are intrigued and enchanted by the otherness of nature. And here I am standing with the last tawny frogmouth in the world, and by the way gentlemen if nobody here minds she will be riding in state in the front of the fire truck, and of course nobody does mind. So she comes home with me, and she’s buried out by one of the big peppermint gums by the gate.

And deep inside, a black house spider returns to her place in this vast web to watch the world.

Swansong for an Old Forest


Conservation by neglect enables a forest without predators to flourish – as has happened on land owned by temples in Tamil Nadu for centuries.

Gopika is employed as forest watchman but I’ve only seen him in the old forest a few times in all these years. The forest does not inspire him; he’s just the watchman. Before big festivals he repairs the thorn barricades surrounding it: this is his duty. His cows graze in here: one of his perks. Most of most days he sits on a cement bench in the roadside shrine area nearby, from where plastic bags blow in to the forest. He sits waiting for ears to hear his problems – convinced that he is a victim of black magic.

People rarely go inside the forest because wilderness is frightening to the modern man. Ghosts inhabit forests. Occasional suicides find consolation preparatory to hanging themselves from obliging trees. Occasional drinkers brave it and leave little messes. Desperate ladies are also sometimes encountered but they only take old wood furtively for their kitchen fires. Except for my grandson Prabhu, who still begins to whisper upon entering, I’ve never seen a child in here.


On one of my first walks around Arunachala Mountain many years ago I stepped impulsively from the circuit road into the forest and only after several hours did I return. From then on I went frequently for many years. Sometimes I’d sleep there in a bed of leaves in the place that became my place to die.

Noticing the barrenness of the surrounding area it occurred to me that it was a miracle that this old forest survived. As far as I know there is no old growth forest like this for a radius of 30 kilometres of conspicuously barren plain surrounding the sacred mountain, and rare trees flourish here even now. Years ago the locals told me that we could attribute this miracle to the little Ambal — the goddess in the shrine next to the frog pond. It is she who protects the forest. Although a community that regards trees as firewood standing up has worshiped Arunachala for millennia, this solitary old forest could very well be virgin. The surrounding community is exploding monumentally now in the age of progress and we are just beginning to wake up to the fact that trees are our lifeline, although the mountain still burns every summer.

This old forest is a robust seed bank for the diminishing dry deciduous trees of South India. The very beginning of the greening of Arunachala was the pleasure of my young daughter Ambal and I collecting seeds here. Women members of the Arunachala Kattu Siva Plantation continue to collect seeds here now.

Thirty years ago I would climb up one of the big trees to secure a comfortable spot and wait, curious to see who came into the forest. People didn’t come, and the Bonnet monkeys soon revealed themselves to be distinctly different from the urban Bonnets around where I lived four kilometres away. The forest Bonnet monkeys were shy, but they were not hesitant once they became used to me, and it was an honour to witness the integrity of their family life. The old forest still offers a sanctuary for monkeys, although the descendants of the families of those old days are not often seen inside the forest now since there’s a plentitude of fast food available on the roadside.

The langurs come down in summer when their water sources on the mountain are dry; they drink discreetly from the old tanks near the shrines at times of day when the fewest persons are likely to be about. They don’t take fast food, although Hindu humans would be more than happy to feed them with biscuits and buns in honour of Hanuman, Lord of the Ramayana epic. Aristocrats the langurs are; they rely on the nutritious abundance of the forest.

Let’s go in. We can quickly vanish from the road down a path through the thorn barricade festooned with old plastic bags. The sound of the road is not unwelcome once the forest envelops, the pressures from outside don’t dent the rim of this forest at all; the depths of restorative leafy shadow are well protected.

There are a couple of avenues a little way from the shrines that were reinforced at some ancient time by large stones now almost entirely hidden by the rich leaf mould that elevates the forest floor over centuries. A great many smaller winding tracks weave ways connecting all the different areas of the forest; Gopika’s cattle and my dog and I keep these tracks in good condition, although in wet weather many become impossibly boggy since the adjacent seasonal lake on the mountainside leaks in on the forest floor. Later, after the rains, when all the small plants proliferate, these paths are obscured temporarily until the heat sets in and shrivels the leaves of conquistadors.


Dignified solitary standing stones command considerable presence in the mysterious green. Occasionally playful rocky outcrops set their own stages for surprising configurations in the botanical kingdom. Depressions in the forest floor fill with water in the rains, providing temporary venues for frog concerts. In dry times these depressions form magical little clearings, then solitary stones impress their individual distinction. A handmade round-rocky water-holding place lies at the flow-entrance of the old water tank behind the Ambal shrine. The very deep old tank bordering the forest next to the little Ganesh temple used also to reveal the handiwork of past centuries in its boulders but they are smothered now by concrete progress.

Huge termite nests are scattered throughout the forest. Years ago little clay oil lamps, flowers and incense left traces of a devoted worshipper who sometimes coated the mud of one termite mound with brilliant yellow turmeric and left juicy half-limes dabbed with blood-red kum kum, and sometimes milk and honey for the cobras who lived in the labyrinthine termite tunnel. The worshipper discontinued her devotional practice many years ago.

Copses of one type of tree or another are here where glades forming sky-wells draw beams of light. Patches of many kinds of grass are flecked with dew in early mornings when the dry season sets the stalks to their golden advantage and lends a softness to the eyes. Keyholes to the vast sacred mountain standing golden behind remind me that the name of the forest is Sonagiri: Gold Mountain. Where the giant ancient trees stand, particularly the illapais – claimed by the District Forest Officer to be four to five hundred years old — the canopy formed by the lianas above is very thick and strong, creating an entirely different atmosphere in the vivifying shade below. In a heaven-pool among the thick lianas, the late afternoon sun will spotlight the arch of smooth light on a graceful tree corpse. The surrounding leafy crown drops lianas swooping and looping, with squirrels descending, others escalating, frolicking.


Spiders’ skillful webs spread between the elbows of old tree roots and stumps with sprinkles of fallen leaves suspended in their nets, and soft white webs scatter little misty orbs on the carpet of tiny ground plants flowering stars of blue and white. Porcupine quills are often found here, Prabhu smiles mysteriously when he finds one. Brilliant feathers also provide great occasional finds since we have no predators except the civets with their long tails and possumy faces who rarely venture so near to the roadway, although a mother and three babies did live in my roof until it needed re-thatching, after which they moved under a culvert in the garden; I caught sight of them in the dead of night every few weeks for a long time.

The heavy swooping branches of the giant tamarinds are a favourite langur spot, giving an excellent vantage point on the edge of a series of big old neems, the curvy branches of the graceful soapnut and the tall majestic grandparent illapais. The canopy is so strong here that the huge langur king and company, with their beautiful big behinds and long loping tails, can gallop very fast across from one side of the forest to the other. The langurs have tiny heads, very small black leathery faces and their grey fur is wig-wammed on top. Definitely aristocrats.

On the edge of the series of big trees with the marvelous canopy, voluminous branches encircle a big glade that was once a water-holding tank centuries ago when rains were regular and the water table healthier. Some big old fortifying boulders have been set by human hands to strengthen one side. In the rains it becomes marshy in here; dormant water plants suddenly proliferate and mongoose holes can be seen under the overhang of earth on the sides of the glade. Mongooses can be seen in person especially at dusk and dawn, both the soft ferrety small ones and the bigger bandicooty boys. And a big rat snake lives here also — very long golden yellow in the rainy season. The frog concert held at night can be heard at my house on the other side of the Rain Goddess shrine behind the road.

The weight of the lianas bends smaller trees to join in the riot of festoons with bulbous knobbly trunks. My bones bush lemon, a humble tree, bears a skeleton trunk reaching into the exuberance of fancifully twisted branches. The floor beneath the bush lemon is leafy bare since ground plants don’t grow well here and the fallen leaves are dappled greys to browns to soft pinks, very pretty. After the rains the lush leaf mould on top and the rich earth below will be nosed up by the wild pigs and porcupines, releasing sweet smells from the breathing earth bordered by delicate surface creepers on the edge. At a slanted distance the ground creepers look like moss but closer inspection reveals speckles of yellow fallen leaves in between the strands of tiny fragile creepers.

There’s an ancient stillness here and even in the rustles of summer green can be breathed. The long thin earth roots of one canopy vine fall like a curtain of stalactites through the undulating branches of an old tamarind. The canopy itself dips and rises under its own weight and sunlight streams through open heaven-pools onto a dappled carpet. Old lianas corkscrew into enormous fierce embraces and the liana that makes walking sticks for sadhus will suddenly add its thick spiky protuberances to the forest’s riotous display.

Birdsong is almost constant. An astonishingly big bird lives in this forest – far bigger than a garuda; every now and then for many years it takes off heavily from the canopy when we approach below and I marvel at the size of it. Little honey eaters flit about in multitudes at the time of the bursts of butterflies when flowers are blooming and the hoopoe is often seen too, dapper with its black and white stripes, its cheeky face and little red crest, tapping at the hoary barks. Timid little quails hastily retreat into secluded undergrowth as we approach, and occasionally I’ve seen the male paradise fly-catcher with the immaculate white flowing tail weaving breath-taking trails of glory through those slanting beams of sunlight seeking the forest floor. On the mountain side of the forest — on the other side of the leaky embankment — lucky ducks and other water birds gather after the rains on the seasonal lake there; they don’t come into the forest but pass overhead above the canopy.

For some weeks recently a shawl was lost — a good big bright one; I searched but did not find it at home. However walking one morning on a track seldom used I found it lying where I sat beneath a tree quite some time ago; conspicuous it was lying there, purple in the green. Clearly nobody had ventured by this spot during all this time because in this poor rural community an abandoned shawl is a golden opportunity.


All the substantial trees in this forest are numbered in white paint by a recent mobilised bureaucracy; tree number 2040 for example, is quite young, maybe ten years old. Old branches now dead and the corpses of old trees are much respected, they harbour the sprouts of new trees and feed the voracious termites whose labour is essential to the forest. And the old bodies of trees particularly host the bright orange fungi-shelves that evoke the mystery of old tales in whatever culture.

I love the early summer. I love the summer although it’s far too hot because then the dry deciduous forest comes into its own — crackly, crinkly. The percussion of the dry seedpods joins the muted brittleness of the golden grasses, with sunny smells and the austerity of the dormancy required to flow thankfully with the heat, and the fragile textured softness of the season. Many of the trees lose all their leaves. The barebones of the sacred mountain exposed behind is red in the after glow of summer sunset.

In the very middle of the scorching summer the genius of the forest is revealed. Suddenly activity bursts out with unfailing confidence, tiny little buds appear on stark branches, pristine little leaves open slowly, enfolding into shiny new light-catchers to soak up and transform the sun’s radiant energy and spread the green of wellbeing. And then the flowers begin to join in the rejoicing. The indwelling spirit of the forest communicates to us all that this world works.

What will follow in this primeval seed bank are the pods containing the seeds for the future. Women from the Arunachala Katthu Siva Plantation will collect them, clean them, store them and later sprout them in our nursery, fostering and nourishing them for plantation on our still remarkably barren mountain.


Throughout these years as a guest of India I have wandered at home in this forest to my heart’s content. At times when it is exceedingly difficult to accept events in turbulent times, to acquiesce another moment in our deceitful fabrication of substance and certainty, or come to terms with the underlying lies that riddle human experience, or talk about the blind eye we turn from our shared emptiness and the great unknown in our faces, from our failure to acknowledge the way we deceive our children or the tenacious denial of our profound kinship with all that is; when these burdens are all tipping, then, every time, this forest has soaked me up – soothed me and rejuvenated my inner silence. It assures me, as I now do you: that if all attempts at ecological restoration are in vain, we can acknowledge with gratitude and dignity that extinction is no disgrace.

March 3, 2014

The Animal Envoys

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREIn The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell talks about the animal as teacher and guide. The ‘animal other’ – as co-existent, strange and intimate fellow-being – can behave as a kind of psychic impulse in mythopoetic work, capable of nudging reader and writer to contemplate the relationship between self and other, human and nonhuman. ‘Whatever the Palaeolithic shaman experienced on entering the caves, is visited by us today, nightly in our sleep,’ says Campbell. The almost 30,000-year-old panthers and bison, bears and ibex are still speaking down there, even though we’ve yet to work out exactly what it is they’re saying…

But it’s by day that birds come to me. As a poet, the animal other (more often than not a bird) performs as a kind of wayfarer on a journey into the dark forest of the 21st-century Western mind. I write ‘about’ birds because I’m not a bird. I write about them because I don’t understand them – their flying lives, their feathered lives – and, frankly, because I don’t have a say in the matter: birds arrive in my poems without my having consciously chosen them. In this era of endings, it seems only natural that they should speak of death and violence. But alongside this, they seem ‘to make visible that which could not be perceived by the ordinary senses, and [to] create a way into the realm of transfigured humanity.’ The animal other can open the doors of perception and invite readers and writers in.

Here are two poems by Susan Richardson (‘Metamorphosis’, Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, Cinnamon Press, 2007) and ‘Blodeuwedd in a Parka’, (Where the Air is Rarefied, Cinnamon Press, 2011); and two poems by me (‘Bird-Woman’, runner up in the 2013 Wigtown Poetry Competition, and ‘Swan’, previously unpublished). All four poems explore ways in which the animal other engages us in the age-old and more-relevant-than-ever conversation about what it means to be human, and what it means to be animal.



To begin with, nothing drastic.
The odd cold bath, air con on max,
the utter absence of shivers.

Then, the skin tingles, each pore forcing
the shaft of a feather forth, like a lid
with a push-through straw.

I go right off garlic, crisps, samosas,
bright red curtains, Gaughin prints.
If I must stay indoors, I want plain
white tiles, a single chilled porcelain sink.

And oh, the fingers. Useless, as if mittened.
And stretched, the tips skimming the floor.
Scissors, chopsticks, forks – all binned.

Breasts blend with belly, waist, hips.
I’m lugging a two-fifty-litre rucksack
in an outsize black wetsuit and wellies.
My tears taste of fish.

Fresh fears keep me from sleeping.
The flecked throats of bull seals.
Ice melt. Oil slicks.

I make a nest from the last
strands in my hairbrush and what I once
knew as pencils, and string.

Soon I must push
this hard new truth between my legs
and hatch it.



Nothing is yet in its true form – C.S. Lewis

The bird-woman is in the field
in her blue dress, small bird
wrapped in a rag of cotton in her hand,
legs like twigs, throat between songs.

The sunlight is squeezing her,
squeezing the field-grass
until her blue dress is a distant boat
and the field is the sea,
somewhere used to slipping boundaries.

Then two men, hands in pockets,
feet sinking into the grey-black of the road.
The sun is hot and high and they wade
into the field, lose themselves
to the waist in straight, green blades.

The bird-woman is scuffing the soft, loose earth,
making a bowl for the body.
She lays the bird
with its broken neck
and covers it with clover,
small red flowers,
lucky leaves.

When the men capsize her
the pleats of her dress unfurl.

The ground takes their weight.




To curl gracefully
away from people.
To know the silver-lining of the flood at night,
the hidden depths of fields.
To slake all honking at dawn
in a choir of ghost-birds and grass pipes.
To turn the whole world into a synecdoche
for soulfulness and/or indifference.
To have a neck like a Dutch pump,
an albino eel, a Little Miss Uppity.
To have a face like a flag
for someone else’s futility.
To live on white goods,
matchboxes, Valentine’s cards.
To swim stoically, insubordinately – yes, both -
towards the tossed crusts of kids.
To know nothing about bitterness
except sourgrass and apple pips.
To understand white noise
better than any human.
To snap fingers.
To gulp toddlers.


When the year turns she flies in,
lily white amongst the river reeds

and the boys knew to stay away,
her power neck, her mute beak.

The women pace the shore
from first light, feet like eyes,

but it’s dusk before they find them,
clothes torn, skin in tatters,

faces peeled like apples. The mother
only knows them by their hands.



i am winterstill
a mountain aven
i am a flirt of white
in the cave of the raven
the quiverwait
for the birthburst
of the sun
i am a tease
of roots nudging
the rocks trying
to budge
the permafrost
i’m a flutter
of eight lashes
round a yellow eye
that winks
at the sky as i seize
my one
brief chance
to bloom

and now i am taken
by the shaman,
xxxxxxxxxxmixed with milkvetch,
birch, moss campion
to make petalflesh
limbstamen womb.

I am the wife of Ilukaq.
I stew berries and blubber for him to eat.
I chew sealskin to make soft boots for his feet.
With snow goose feathers, I sweep clean our home.
I carve him totems from the ice-bear’s thigh-bone.

But oh

I am another man’s lover,
a man whose touch uncovers
xxxxxxxxxxxxxmy desire
like a caribou licking
up lichen from under the snow.

So what am I to do but harpoon Ilukaq,
leaving him frozen in the only pose he knows –
kissing the lip of the seal’s breathing hole and

xxxxxxxi am xxsnatched
xxxby the xxxxshaman
face xxxsmashedflat
xxxxxxxxxxxxagainstx ice
xxshoulderblades xxxscolded
xxxxxxxxxxxxxinto wings
xxtoes xxxcrooked
xxxxxxxxinto claws
xxvoice xxxxxxxxscraped

i hunt rodent dreams,
xxxxxxxxplunder the tundra,
feed them to children,
xxxxxxxxstoke their troubled sleep

i am the famine-owl,
xxxxxxxxa hunger-howl -
the weeping of the people
xxxxxxxxis steepled on my wings

i’m the mood-most-foul
xxxxxxxxof those who fail to claim
the Pole – i’m so mad
xxxxxxxxi could wring my own neck

i am the sadness
xxxxxxxxof the melt -
my featherflecks reflect the eruptions
xxxxxxxxof rock through ice

when i shut
xxxxxxxxmy sundog eyes
i’m shocked to realise
xxxxxxxxthat i’m still here


WRITING ROOT & CLAW: a workshop with Susan and Em

Susan and Em are running a writing workshop, Writing Root & Claw, 17-19 October 2014 at the Haybergill Centre in Cumbria, UK.

Both write work that is set against the backdrop/foreground of ecological crisis and an awareness of the unravelling of ‘civilisation as we know it’. The workshop won’t engage formally with questions of collapse, but will ask questions about self and other – about the relationship between humans and nonhuman species; about ‘radical intimates’ and ‘strange strangers’ (Timothy Morton). The weekend will be a kind of ecopoetic meditation whereby we don’t just sit inside thinking and writing, but we also walk outdoors, talk round bonfires and scribble notes on the backs of our hands. For more information please visit:

Susan is a Wales-based poet whose most recent collection, Where the Air is Rarefied (Cinnamon Press) is a collaboration with printmaker Pat Gregory on ecological and mythological themes relating to the Far North. Her third collection, skindancing, themed around human-animal metamorphosis and our dys/functional relationship with the wild, will be published in 2015.

Em completed a PhD in Creative Writing (ecological poetry) in December 2013 and is now seeking a publisher for a first collection of poems, Habitude. She is a recent recipient of a New Writer Scotland Award 2014 and teaches Creative Writing in Dumfries prison. She is also the new poetry editor for Dark Mountain.

Rounding Bolus Head

In 2011 I sailed my little yacht Coral from the south coast of England to the west coast of Ireland, round the Blasket Islands and the Skellig Rocks. I took as my ‘text’ for this voyage Thomas Berry’s lament that we modern humans are only talking to ourselves, that we have broken the great conversation with the Earth of which we are a part. More than just a sailing cruise, it was a pilgrimage to explore our human place in the ecology of the planet.

My account of these explorations is told in Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Seafrom which the following is adapted. The excerpt starts as I leave Derrynane Harbour in County Kerry early one morning.


I hauled up the anchor hand over hand, enjoying how it stretched my muscles and got my body moving. Then I carefully followed the leading line out of the harbour, keeping the two white beacons in line astern and passing very close to the reef on the westward side of the entrance. After the winds of the night before, a moderate swell was rolling in, and the sea surged up and down the rocks as Coral passed close by. As she rose on each wave I felt as though I was actually looking down at the water sucking around the rocks, barnacles clinging to their wet surface. Each time the solid water of a wave retreated, I watched the white foam hang in the jagged rocky crevasses, then fall back in tiny glistening waterfalls to join the sea again. In much more of a swell the entrance would be dangerous.

Once well clear of the hazards I turned west toward Bolus Head. Although still no wind, the sky was clearing from the west. I had a moment to look around me at the coast to the north stretching westward from Derrynane to Hogs Head, backed by a row of mountains. Halfway up the slope I noticed a row of houses marking a straight dividing line. Above them rose the rocky, uncultivated land of the mountain, steep, rough, patchy brown. Below, stone walls criss-crossed fields dropping gently to the low cliffs at the edge of the sea. Further along on Hogs Head, sunlight fell more strongly on another cluster of houses nestled in a hollow in the hillside, picking them out bright against dull browny-green fields. The fields themselves were strewn with boulders. This land is beautiful, but it must have been really tough work to make a living from farming it.

As we left the shelter of Hogs Head to cross the entrance to Ballinskelligs Bay the wind arrived, from the northeast as expected and across the beam, filling the sails for a reach toward Bolus Head. I could now see clearly in all directions, back up the Kenmare River, south to Dursey Head, and west to the Skelligs in the far distance. It was a beautiful morning. Coral bubbled along through the water happily, which made me happy too: my early grumpiness and yesterday’s homesickness dropped away with the sea and the sailing. For a moment I was tempted to carry on this fast reach right out to the Skelligs, but decided to stick to my plan and continue northwards.

Bolus Head itself loomed ahead on the starboard bow. The pilot book warned me that the cliffs between Derrynane and Dingle Bay are high and spectacular, but I was taken aback, not expecting to see such an enormous bulk of rock towering above me. Bolus is another eroded fold in the geological strata: the rockface on the eastern face, toward the morning sun, rises from the sea in vertical flat planes, as if carefully split; the end of the head facing the ocean is rough hewn where the sea has broken the rock away. Even though I kept a good distance off, we passed into the windshadow of the headland and Coral’s speed dropped back. Slowly rounding the head, we ventured out into the Atlantic proper and into the ocean swell that rolled around Bolus toward us. It was only a moderate swell, but as each wave approached, higher, it seemed, than Coral’s mast, it blocked off the view. Its peak became the visible horizon: I could see nothing but the water in front and the mass of the cliff above. Coral lifted her bows, rose up the slope of the wave, and for a moment we were on top of the world. I could see clearly in all directions. And then we disappeared again, down the back slope of the swell and deeply into the trough, the wider world hidden from us again.

There was nothing dangerous about this swell. The water was not rough, the waves not breaking. But quite suddenly I felt overwhelmed: the headland, the swell, the sky above were all so massive. How tiny we were, little Coral and me, in these rolling waves and this mass of headland. I had been chatting into my audio recorder to make notes about what I could see, but I was silenced by this awesome contrast of size.

And within seconds, I spotted a bird in the water ahead, just a dot at first, then I saw its strange coloured beak and I realized it was my first puffin. I sang out to myself like a five-year-old, ‘It’s a puffin, it’s a puffin!’ I had never been in puffin-inhabited seas this early in the year when they come from the ocean to nest. I was overawed and overexcited at the same time and had to calm myself down to attend to my navigation.

The koan ‘Wilderness treats me like a human being’, which I was holding through the voyage, unfolded here in another dimension. The headland and the rolling swell put me firmly in my inconsequential place; the puffin gave me a child-like thrill. With skill and experience, information and the right equipment, I could safely navigate this hugeness, make sense of it, appreciate its loveliness, delight in and feel humbled by it.


At this moment I experienced Bolus Head and the Atlantic swell not as things in the world, but as presences with which I was required to negotiate. The world around me took on a subjective presence. And I thought of Coral and myself as ‘we’, for now she was not just a machine for navigating the seas, more a companion in my adventures.

The modern worldview, based as it is on materialist assumptions and scientific method, would tell me that this is a romantic conceit. The objects of nature are composed of inert matter, operating according to causal laws. The idea that a cliff, a headland, has presence, in the sense of any meaning for itself, is inconceivable. The notion that Coral is any more than a machine assembled by human ingenuity, useful and effective for my purposes, is anthropomorphism of the most foolish kind.

But philosopher Mary Midgley tells us that worldviews are not just abstract philosophical positions; they are guiding myths and imaginative visions. They deeply influence our sense of who we are, our place in the world, what kind of universe we live in and what is ultimately important to us. They are the stories we tell about ourselves and our world which are embedded in everyday assumptions and language. If we consider the material parts of the planet to be brute things, even ‘natural resources’ – as we do – it is difficult or impossible see that same material either as interacting in a larger ecological system, or as part of a sacred planet.

About ten years ago, I visited Thomas Berry at his home in the Southern Appalachians. Thomas was a Catholic priest and monk in the Passionist order who called himself a geologian or ‘Earth scholar’. I count him among my greatest intellectual and spiritual teachers, although I only met him personally this once. He died in 2010 aged 94. I had flown down from New York to interview him and write an article about his new book, The Great Work. In this he emphasised that the task of our time, to which all humans are called in some way, is to restore the balance in human-Earth relations and heal the devastating impact of human activities on planetary ecosystems.

Thomas explained to me that it is a mistake to see the universe as a collection of objects. Rather, mind and matter are two aspects of a single reality. The universe as a whole, with its immense diversity, has both an inner, spiritual or subjective dimension – a being for itself – and an outer, physical dimension. There is a spiritual capacity in carbon just as carbon is implicit in our highest spiritual experience. The inner dimension provides the capacity for self-organisation and self-transformation that drives the evolutionary process of the universe. This is expressed in its outer being through the matter and energy of which it is composed. These two dimensions are like two sides of the same coin, different but inseparable. I had read Thomas’ assertion that ‘the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects’ many times before. His view was that this must be the starting point for our understanding of all things, and the only place from which we can act if we are to contribute to what he calls the Great Work. But listening to him now, I was touched more deeply with the idea that the universe and the Earth should be understood as sacred communities.

Thomas felt strongly that all understanding begins with story, and that modern Western humans lack an adequate story of who we are, where we came from and what our purpose is. He went on to tell me how the understanding of the universe that arises from recent cosmological discoveries offers a new story of human origination, a story with the potential to give meaning to our lives. This is not the story of a static thing, but of a great evolutionary, self-organising and self-transforming process of which everything is a part. As Thomas’ colleague, the cosmologist Brian Swimme, puts it, ‘you take hydrogen gas and you leave it alone and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes and humans.’ It is a story in which great transitions occur that are irreversible: the original flaring forth in the ‘big bang’, the clustering of the first galaxies, the creation of heavy elements in the explosions of the first supernovae, the formation of the sun, the solar system, the Earth itself and the emergence of life. These are all moments of grace through which the universe articulates itself in more and more diverse and complex forms, and from which sentience in plants and animals and eventually human consciousness emerge.

This new story shows us that we humans, with our particular intelligent, emotional and imaginative capacities, reflect one of the deepest dimensions of the universe. It is a story that is both profoundly scientific, drawing on and emphasizing evolutionary cosmology; and at the same time profoundly spiritual, showing how our understanding will be distorted if we only see the world in its external, objective aspect. The universe, Thomas explained, is the only self-referential being: everything else originates in, refers back to and is part of it. The story of the universe is the story of which we are all a part and which every being tells in its own way.

Philosophically, this is a ‘panpsychic’ perspective, one that embraces the view that all matter has inner ‘psychic’, ‘subjective’ or ‘experiential’ qualities. While the panpsychic perspective contradicts many modernist assumptions about the nature of the world, it actually forms a strong thread through Western philosophy connecting Plato through the Renaissance to the present day. Yet it remains difficult to find appropriate words for this sense of the presence of the world. Words like ‘subjective’ or ‘psychic’ or ‘spiritual’, are contaminated by the dominant materialist perspective when applied to the physical world. One might borrow words from other traditions, and call it Tao, or Atman, or Great Spirit, but this may not offer any clarity and distort the meaning of these words in their original discourses. Or one might follow the philosopher Spinoza – who is often described as the originator of modern panpsychism – and simply call it God, seeing God as synonymous with Nature. But the word God carries with it such strange baggage that is likely to lead to yet another set of misunderstandings. I am inclined to follow my ecologist friend Stephan Harding and adopt the ancient term anima mundi, literally the ‘soul of the world’ that permeates the cosmos and animates all matter. Anima mundi is not associated with modern meanings of subjectivity, sentience or consciousness, and points to a mysterious and indefinable aliveness permeating everything.

Sailing Coral past Bolus Head I remembered my conversation with Thomas and resisted all those internal voices telling me it was foolishness to see anything other than material objects in these rocks and waves. If, for just a precious moment, the headland and the swell appeared to me as presence, I chose not to dismiss this out of hand. I allowed myself to experience a strange communion with the world, and to feel the immediacy of – indeed, participation with – anima mundi.
15770_Spindrift-web-image-01Peter Reason is a long-time sailor and now Professor Emeritus at the University of Bath. Before he retired in 2009 he was a leading international figure in action research — exploring how direct experience and reflective learning can inform personal and organisational change. Post-retirement he has focused on writing for an ecology in crisis, drawing in particular on his experience of the sea through mindful sailing. 

Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea was published by Vala Publishing Cooperative in April 2014. 

The End of the End of Nature

Black Marble Mountain frame 1

Backpacking in the Marble Mountain Wilderness of California last summer I had a revelation. I stood looking up at a glowing, ancient peak over a small, clear lake a dozen miles from any road with no sign of any human presence but my campsite anywhere in view. And for the first time in such a situation I seemed to feel the contingent, circumscribed nature of the place I was in compared to the vastness of the human-built and intervened-with world that bounded it on all sides. I also understood that its official designation, ‘wilderness area’, was an unredeemable oxymoron. I knew that I was in a park, not the wild. Even more: I knew that wilderness in any meaningful sense no longer existed anywhere on earth. In that moment, at that place, I had cognitively entered what scientists have named the Anthropocene.

The end of the wild as a separate thing, a thing that surrounded civilisation and was never fully penetrable by it, always a threat to its sense of order, to its sense of power – that end was not near; it had come. I was living in it. Now, here and anywhere on the planet’s surface, it was the wild places that were surrounded, besieged. When, ever before in history, had mountains or forests been called ‘fragile’? Our so-called wilderness areas were bounded and gated off, but they were utterly porous too.

Legions of backpackers (sustained, as I was, by factory-made gear and industrial food grown and packaged by somebody else) marched up the Pacific Crest Trail every year through this one, making the trail a dust-stream an inch thick. Planes flew overhead almost hourly. Cattle and sheep grazed at the verges, and frequently managed to stray inside. Firefighting crews helicoptered over or plunged in to fight ever more-frequent wildfires. Cellphone signals were retrievable from all the high places; GPS coordinates had mapped every square foot. And principally, and likewise invisibly, as Bill McKibben had written decades before in The End of Nature – the effects of civilisation were warming the air, drying out the summers, seeping into every molecule of the wild. No atom of ‘wilderness’ on land, sea or air was untouched by civilisation any more.

But then again, the existence of the wild as a separate thing was itself historical. Before civilisations began to emerge it wasn’t a separate thing; it was our home. Once they had emerged, they rose and fell, and the wild returned where the cities fell, even if it was a desert wild, no longer a forest or a marsh. The people who continued to live closest to the unbuilt (I use this term for lack of a better one to replace ‘natural’, which has fatally slippery definition problems) ecosystems on which they depended directly for survival had no concept of wilderness.

Wilderness was never an intrinsic condition; it was a concept that depended for its existence on its opposite, civilisation. It was always the construct of a worldview whose mechanism for understanding and operating on the world was essentially binary. Environmental historian William Cronon, writing about the peculiar history of US wilderness areas says unequivocally: ‘There is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness.’

So what has died in my generation is not ‘wilderness’, because it never existed. What has died is an idea that fired human hearts and minds, and survived many efforts to eradicate it until, pummelled under the unprecedented onslaught of the Industrial/Information Age, it finally gave way almost everywhere: that there was a sustaining and necessary mystery to the living, unbuilt world that humans could never penetrate, even though we were inextricably interwoven with it. The world was alive, at every level, as we were alive, but infinitely more powerful and wise than we.

This mystery may have had many elements that were malign and frightening, but in its essence it was benign. If it bore any likeness to our species here below, it was that it was in some fundamental sense maternal. But even more profoundly it was harmonic and indestructible.

It was a mystery that we simplified rather hopelessly by attributing early on to humanlike gods, and then degraded utterly by projecting into a lone male anthropic God. One who instructed his followers that the world was entirely disposable, a kind of temporary horror that would be cast off like a foul skin. We were thus ordered not to love the fascinating, complex, endlessly creative place that birthed us.

It was a mystery that we degraded as much by scientific hubris, sadly, as by our intolerant and hierarchical religions. Where the unbuilt world is concerned, science tends to proceed in the way Rupert Sheldrake (a much-vilified biologist who dares to propose that there may actually be a kind of sympathetic purpose in nature, and we might even be able to determine this by experiment) describes as ‘burning down a building and sifting through the ashes to try to understand the architecture.’

The cosmos limned by ultra-materialist Western science is almost entirely made up of dead stuff acting mechanically according to unchanging (if elegantly complex) formulae. Life is a rare freak of chance and has no ultimate purpose beyond replication. Humans alone are self-conscious beings and even our consciousness is theoretically reducible to mechanical processes. Life may be fascinating in its potential for variety, but except for its origin, which remains irritatingly elusive, it possesses no real mystery. It is defined chiefly by the presence of a fully identified set of molecules that can be rearranged in ways that we design for ourselves. All matter, organic or inorganic, can be further reduced to particles that when split open release an energy that is instantly and enduringly deadly to all life – this is the single most powerful force our science has unlocked.

And finally, anything that happens inside your head – all that wild feeling: longing, sadness, joy, compassion, desire, thought of any kind except mathematical – is totally irrelevant to a real understanding of the deepest forces at work around you.

But what is it that has truly been degraded by banishing the overarching mystery of a living cosmos? Not the unbuilt world as such, because the cosmos, which we have neither created nor can destroy (whatever it is actually made of), has functionally infinite spans of time and space to play in, to create new, rich, unimaginable environments, and let them grow and decay and seed new ones. Not the wild of this planet either, because, as I say, it never existed, except in the minds of the civilised. What is left?

Only ourselves. In the name of mastery over the living world, we have degraded ourselves, and the species whose fates are most closely tied to our own. All civilisations created hierarchies that relegated some living beings – humans, animals and plants – to the status of objects: possessions, slaves. Now we are trying to do the same even with their constituent molecules.

If the experience of human chattel slavery has anything to teach, it should be that being a slave owner is even more degrading than being a slave. In any morality worth the name, no one would be more degraded, because no one has reduced the potentialities of our species and its consciousness more than the perpetrator of oppression.

But what enables slavery and oppression? The ability to conceive of other living things as if they were essentially dead matter. And this is what all of us have learned to do.

People pay for what they do, said the great James Baldwin, and they do so very simply – by the lives they lead. If we create horror for others, we then live for the rest of our lives in the emptiness of the horror we’ve created, the impossibility of meaning, of belonging, of full consciousness. The bizarre documentary film The Act of Killing (2012) demonstrated this by focusing on the Indonesian perpetrators of mass murder, who live in absolute impunity decades after the killing time, the seeming beneficiaries of their actions.

The killers have become creepy comic book versions of human beings, affable but empty automatons. They are like zombies, eating the substance of life out of compulsion and habit, walled off from their own consciousnesses, unable ever to be fully alive again. It’s not an adequate punishment because it hasn’t allowed their surviving victims, or the families of the dead, any redress, any chance to confront their horror and have it consoled and the conditions that permitted it eliminated or even diminished. That would be the only justice. But the perpetrators’ self-created hell is still of vital concern.

This is because while the perpetrators are extreme cases, we products of civilisation are all on the continuum. Ours is a civilisation that metaphorically and literally eats its own, even as we project the horror of cannibalism into all our mythology. Witness one of the greatest of the European humanist writers, Michel de Montaigne. His musings never complacently come to rest in stark binaries – he invented the essay form as a vehicle for his iconoclastic thought. He understood four centuries ago that people who actually ate real human flesh were very likely less dangerous and degraded than those who professed a horror of the practice, while following a belief system that institutionalised intra-species predation through enormous imbalances of power. The self-described civilised imbued some humans with an absolute authority over others, while turning their enemies into sub-humans instead of honouring their shared humanity as the ‘real’ cannibals did.

In the contemporary world, Montaigne’s nuanced understanding remains apt – and just as irrelevant to mainstream discourse as it was in his own day.

As the last areas from which civilisation had earlier withdrawn or failed to penetrate fully come under another period of siege – and this time, for the first time, everywhere on the planet at once – the indigenous peoples still living in them have become visible to ‘civilised’ peoples once again. Civilised peoples generally divide into two camps on indigenous peoples: the first, that they should adapt to our civilisation and give up tribal life because civilisation is an advance on the way they live, so it would vindicate our faith in the rightness (or at least the necessity) of our way of life. The second: they should stay where they are and retain all their ancient behaviours because by doing so they help us feel better about who we are – we can accommodate ‘diversity’, we are liberal and tolerant, we don’t have to destroy or consume everything to live well ourselves – and also because they will thus accomplish what we have failed to do: protect large swaths of ‘the wild’ from civilisation, from us. Neither one of these mindsets actually has much if anything to do with indigenous peoples themselves. They are not equally and fully real to either mindset; they are simply a metaphor for the empty place in our psyche, and the way we try to fill it.

Those who desperately want a token number of indigenous people to remain in small, bounded reserves safe from rapacious extraction – just as other charismatic megafauna remain in safari parks – so that we can enjoy their lives aesthetically, so that the civilisation from which we benefit can redeem itself, are still on the same continuum as the civilisers, just as the vacant-eyed consumers are on the same continuum as the perpetrators of mass murder. They are still trapped in non-sequiturish thinking, in a false consciousness that requires massive suppression of all that has been and is being sacrificed – in their own bodies and minds as well as elsewhere – in order for civilisation to be maintained.

Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of The Act of Killing, made this explicit in an interview responding to a question about how the perpetrators realised but suppressed their culpability ‘in the same way I realise that the shirt I’m wearing was made in Bangladesh, and the people who made it may well now be buried in a pile of rubble. Thanks to that I can buy the shirt for six dollars.’

Screen shot 2014-04-14 at 14.56.26

The extraction must be slowed and ultimately stopped – whether it’s on the land of the Inuit, a colonial African farm, or in a Texas exurb – and the oppression abolished because we realise they are undermining the aliveness of our life, all our lives. Unless that collective realisation dawns, they won’t be stopped except by a colossal failure from which the species will learn nothing, because this civilisation’s lessons will not be transmitted to the next to arise.

And because of the void in our psyches where a sense of transcendent mystery, purpose and belonging longs to be, made permanent by our radical dissociation first from our unbuilt habitat and now, more and more completely, from one another—we are all struggling psychically to experience life, rather than simply being fully alive. We keep trying to ingest experience – or more frequently, technologically enabled imitations of it – in whatever form we can to fill the emptiness. Or simply out of habit, which our own best musicians, artists and writers still try valiantly to shake themselves, and us, out of. And at which even they can only succeed momentarily.

Only a social system that does not rely on false consciousness to maintain itself could provide a more durable and complete identity for us. The empty place in our psyches is permanent as long as this civilisation lasts, and superfluous consumption of various kinds is an attempt to fill, and when that inevitably fails, wall it up, bound it and make that menacing emptiness as irrelevant as we have made the threat of the wild.

In other words: we feared the wild, we neutralised the wild, and now we have to neutralise the psychic consequences we have wrought upon ourselves in doing so.

We are not condemned to this situation by any external fate, by gods or genes. We are condemned by the daily choices of the powerful to whom we submit, and our own collaboration with them, to hunt for solutions to the problems our civilisation creates, which then generate more problems, for which we then produce even less adequate and enduring solutions. If that isn’t the epitome of the ‘progress traps’ social critic Ronald Wright has attributed to the decline of previous civilisations, you tell me what is.

I have said the broadly collective idea of living nature as both mysterious and purposeful has died, and my generation is living in its aftermath. But such understandings, unlike individual humans or societies, can be resurrected if the material conditions of human life allow them growing space in our psyches. Just as ecosystems rebound with surprising facility when civilisations retreat from them.

In 1983, David Rains Wallace wrote a book called The Klamath Knot, describing various aspects of the regional Klamath Knot coverecosystem in which the Marble Mountain Wilderness is located. He described the large-scale interventions of mining and logging in the 19th century, which reshaped whole features of the landscape with axes, poisons, furnaces, and dynamite. That landscape reconfigured itself yet again after they retreated, so that hunting for evidence of their presence now is almost like hunting for geological fossils.

He also gave a kind of evolutionary history of the region’s geology, flora, fauna, and water systems that was full of the sense of time as the prime mover, the one force sine qua non for the true expression of life. His evolutionary perspective was sanguine. Its surprising conclusion: the real lesson of geological spans of time is that overall, living things are more durable, more resilient than non-living things.

It seems that this is because the relationship to time itself is different. Living things are more flexible, more creative, more capable of a variety of approaches to the problem of existence – and with quantities of time they can produce true novelty, while non-livings things are condemned to a much narrower spectrum of behaviour and incapable of adaptation to, or creating, a changed environment in the same way. Wallace gave the example of blue-green algae, possibly a progenitor species of much of the living world. It is still proliferous in the region’s lakes, and has been in existence far, far longer than any of the peaks that shadow those lakes.

Contemporary civilisation’s idea that machines and mechanical processes are more durable than living things and represent desirable enhancements upon life and even a kind of next-phase triumph over the living world comes to seem particularly shortsighted – in fact retrogressive, in this light.

Montaigne claimed at the outset that his writing was only an effort to understand and present himself. (And so he has been touted as a seminal figure in the Rise of the Individual – Western civilisation’s ghost god, its necessary pillar of consumerism, but in reality more like the villages it keeps ‘[destroying] in order to save.’) But when you read the essays he slyly warns the reader not to waste her time upon, you find that self often engaged in a subtle and thorough critique of the brutally violent, hierarchical, and hypocritical society from which he had withdrawn to write.

And what does he offer, not as its binary opposite but as the exemplary, ineradicable, fundamental mystery that continues to offer it guidance and wisdom? Nature, conceived as something pre-existing and at the same time innate in humans and non-humans both. ‘Nature always gives us happier laws than those we give ourselves.’

Still, Montaigne offers no general prescriptions; he only provides the example of trying to see life more fully for its own sake, because he finds it necessary to do so. He finds no collective identity within civilisation that is not in some way toxic or built on air. He has come to a place I find myself familiar with.

It made me see the need to begin to look at things again, from a simpler place: What behaviours still make us humans lively, vivid, in the truest sense of those words? I found myself noticing people interact in ways that weren’t mediated by much if any technology – talking on park benches, in cafes, or on street corners, doing voluntary manual work together in living places like parks or gardens, or simply, quietly, observing the unbuilt living world wherever it could be found. It seems obvious: to be fully alive you have to interact directly, respectfully and in physical proximity with a variety of other fully living things as much as possible. There is no substitute.

There is no ‘end of nature’ to fear, no end of the ‘wild’. There is only the loss of our own vividness and dignity, and the rich and complex identity that could come from an understanding of kinship with many other living things and the benign mystery that connects and sustains all. That vividness is still accessible to us, even if it seems ghostly in the glare of screens or like a bad joke in the lives of the enslaved, hungry and impoverished. It continues to slip the bonds of all our attempts to neutralise it. And if it really is cosmological in nature, as other humans have guessed, it will always do so, until we learn from it or fade before it.

For now it waits, a possibility, in the immanence of any day in any place where you can lift your eyes from the glow of the screen or the darkness of an interior space and find it inherent in sunlight on leaves, a bird settling on a wall, a fearless and face-to-face conversation with a stranger or a loved one.

That is not enough. But that is what we have to work with now, we the civilised. The emptiness at the heart of civilisation will never be perfect, and that is our chance.

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