The Dark Mountain Blog

Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics

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Today we’re delighted to announce the launch of our second themed book, Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics

This beautiful hardback volume of essays, poems, artwork and interviews, accompanied by an audio CD, is a unique gathering of writers and artists coming together to reimagine what it means to be human today. You can order it for £15.99 from our online shop, or for a special rate of £9.99 if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.

In the meantime, over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing a tantalising selection of what you’ll find in its pages. To get you started, here’s the editorial…


The Cracked Urn

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
– John Keats, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’

When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by people who are not afraid to be insecure
– Rudolf Bahro

There’s something dishevelled and unsettling about poetry. In 2016, at a time of escalating global violence and uncertainty, poetry might seem irrelevant. What’s the point of poetry when the streets of Syria have been bombed beyond recognition? What’s the point of poetry when the permafrost is melting? But poetry matters because it offers an alternative reality – it refuses the logical, reductionist, materialist aspects of industrial culture; aslant, it invites us to feel our way in the dark. And most importantly, it matters because it often fails. Poetry often fails to speak universally, but succeeds in trying over and over again to speak. Poetry is a shabby, uncivilised failure that we badly need in these unravelling times; if for no other reason than as a mirror for our human imperfection.

American poet Adrienne Rich, in her anthology Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (2001), asks ‘what kind of voice is breaking silence and what kind of silence is being broken?’ In this tenth Dark Mountain anthology, our second themed publication, myriad voices continue to break silence on the crumbling narratives of our time: ecological, social and cultural. Many ask what it means to experience a felt sense of the world, when the lives we inhabit are defined by the ‘self-congratulatory self-promotion of capitalism’, gasping against a backdrop of resource depletion. With our centuries-long reliance on logocentric thinking and being in the world, how do we feel our way to an understanding of what it means to be human today? Poems, resilient and germinal as they are, can forge a path into these questions.

It’s true that we don’t have to read poems to discover poetry, since it can be found just about anywhere. Poetry isn’t necessarily language or the construction of carefully crafted syntax and rhythm. Poetry can be found in the silence, the spontaneous images and realisations that emerge from a creative contemplation of the world: poetry as awareness or revelation, from which we gain new insight into ways of seeing and being in the world. But poems are always striving to reveal their poetry and the more poems we read, the more chance we have of discovering some. It’s precisely this chance that Uncivilised Poetics is inviting readers to take. This is an anthology of poems, essays, visual art and an audio CD, which urges us, at a time of converging crises, to reimagine ourselves and the world in which we live. As American poet William Stafford suggests, ‘it is important that awake people be awake.’

Robert Bringhurst writes about the survival of poetry depending ‘to a degree, on the failure of language’; that is, on the failure of language to try to pin down or co-opt poetry. Unlike many things in the 21st century, poetry (as distinct from poems) cannot be bought or sold, locked up or put on display. If there’s one thing that remains free of the tentacles of capitalism, free in fact from any system or ideology or marketplace, it’s poetry. Not anthologies of poetry – not even this one, uncivilised as it may be – but poetry that equates to an imaginal shift, that moment of awareness or revelation, which Margaret Atwood calls a ‘state of free float’.

In 2016, it’s true that poems, like most things in our materialist culture, have become business. Not just in the sense that publishers can make money – albeit little – out of successful poets, but in the way in which poets may be tempted to slip more and more towards a kind of formulaic writing; to produce poems which tick all the right boxes in terms of scansion, syntax and poetic strategy. These days there’s often praise for the sonnet that doesn’t put a single foot wrong, or the esoteric, perhaps hyper-intellectual poem, which only a small coterie can relate to. Not that there’s anything wrong with crafting poems – hyper-intellectual or not; the problem is the misperception that the business-like attainment of poetic craft equates to the production of poetry. Federico García Lorca suggested that ‘ability is not important, nor technique, nor skill. What matters here is something other.’ Technique and skill aside, it’s true that without that something other, poems remain at the level of linguistic foreplay, clever Homo sapiens’ system construction, the bones of something with no wind blowing through it.

Perhaps, in order to participate in poetry, we must open ourselves – writers and readers alike – and realise that poetry is accessible and alive to anyone who waits patiently, listens attentively and responds. Even the simplest poem– such as Najat Abdul Samad’s ‘If’– can uncover poetry; can, as Lorca suggested, have that ‘something other’. Reading and writing poems is a way towards discovering poetry, if we remain open, perhaps even vulnerable, in the face of poetry’s power and integrity. It isn’t that poets should stop writing poems – on the contrary – but that we come to recognise ourselves as immersive participants, writing with dirt under our fingernails, instead of as ‘poets-to-be-watched’ in a world that, frankly, has very little to do with poetry at all.

In recognition of the fact that human beings have failed to understand the axiomatic truth that we inhabit this Earth alongside other beings, we have chosen to place interrelationship at the heart of this anthology. Uncivilised Poetics is woven together to highlight the essential, relational nature of co-existence. Both written and spoken work is gathered to reflect (on) the relationship between species; between genres; between oral and literate, and between logos and mythos. In a culture which encourages the idea that humans are separate and ‘apart from’ other beings, and which reinforces an individualistic perception of being, it feels necessary, even urgent, to counter this with the reality of interrelationship. In keeping with this, we’ve chosen to honour and celebrate the original languages in which the poems were written: there are inclusions here in Mexican Spanish, Japanese, Swedish and Arabic, alongside their translated counterparts.

The Uncivilised Poetics CD is the first audio release made to complement a Dark Mountain publication. It includes a mix of well-known poems, accompanied by music and soundings (Robin Robertson; Mairi Campbell reading George Mackay Brown); fiery new poems by Francesca Beard and Mark Rylance; bioacoustics by Bernie Krause, and a sound recording by Peter Cowdrey. The audio component of Uncivilised Poetics is intended to celebrate the necessity and potency of oral poetry – not just as a reminder of poetry’s origins, but of its performative nature, a form that connects us, amongst other things, to land, myth and dreamtime. Poetry needs to be heard as much as read.

Why ‘poetics’? Traditionally, the word refers to the analysis of poetic syntax and form, linguistic techniques. But there’s an elasticity in the term that allows it to encompass both poems and poetry, and therefore both poems and other artforms. Poetics feels like an exploration rather than a presentation of creative work; there are open-ended questions inherent in its making, rather than a fait accompli assertion that here be poetry. Uncivilised Poetics because modernity and its colossal ideas are collapsing. The urn has cracked. The work gathered here explores what happens in the gaps, what shape the shards, when the world as we know it fails. A kind of kintsukuroi in book/CD form – that careful Japanese art of building a new pot from its broken predecessor; not patching back together, but moving beyond original form to one which embraces flaws, even sees beauty in imperfection.

It’s possible to arrange the work in Uncivilised Poetics into different categories: ecological poetry; socially-engaged narratives; artistic explorations into the relationship between land and body, human and animal; contemplation of the spiritual and ineffable; ecofeminist calls to act; philosophies of ‘the real story’– and none of this would be necessarily incorrect. We could talk about the way in which the contemporary nature poet is turning her attention to an ever more rapidly diminishing natural world in today’s technological, consumer capitalist era (Susan Richardson); or the way in which we have lost touch with the oral poem and its shamanic origins (Daniel Nakanishi-Chalwin). And we could talk about the radical importance of guerilla poetry in the cities (Audrey Dimola) and the mountains (Robert Montgomery). But sometimes such analysis and categorisation seem to lead us away from an appreciation of poetry, no matter what artform it arises in, towards a troublesome pinning down, explaining and controlling –precisely the opposite of what poetry is in the first place. As Bringhurst suggests, it feels like ‘one more step in reducing the world to human terms.’

Essentially, Uncivilised Poetics is a holding vessel for multiple voices, well-known and new, human and nonhuman, trying at a time of global suffering and loss, to honestly express what is. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ but that isn’t all we know on Earth and it isn’t necessarily all we need to know.

The Editors, August 2016

Cover design by Nick Hayes
Crayon
‘I was given two poems to work from for this front cover, each telling a story of the importance of poetics in the wake of a devastated environment. I wanted to draw an image of time passing, the sun and the moon, the cold spring and warm autumn colours, and give an idea of nature flourishing through the ruins of civilisation. The image of the two silhouetted characters is meant to suggest the function of storytelling, providing a line of communication through past time. And the severed statue head and the Greek urn were references to Shelley and Keats respectively, and their words on poetics and the fall of civilisations.’

Text from ‘A Ritual to Read to Each Other’ by William Stafford.

Nick Hayes is a writer and illustrator living in East London. He has published two graphic novels with Penguin Random house: The Rime of the Modern Mariner and Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads. The third book, Cormorance, will be out this autumn. His website is foghornhayes.com, and Instagram is #nickhayesillustration

There’s more where that came from…

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

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It is Time to Kiss the Earth Again

We can never recover an old vision, once it has been supplanted. But what we can do is to discover a new vision in harmony with the memories of old, far-off, far, far-off experience that lie within us.
— D.H. Lawrence

All things are full of gods.
— Thales

One existence, one music, one organism, one life, one God: star-fire and rock-strength, the sea’s cold flow
And man’s dark soul.
— Robinson Jeffers

kalina_hunter_gatherer

For the last three decades, anarcho-primitivism, a particular subculture that developed out of the anarchist community in the American Northwest in the 1980s and ’90s,  has been the dominant form of anti-civilisation critique. During this period, the crisis of techno-industrial society has intensified to previously unimaginable levels. For those of us who are enemies of civilisation, we are sure of the problem but the solution is less clear. Many anarcho-primitivists have adopted the tactics of other anarchists; property destruction, sabotage, tree-sits, vandalism, and other form of direct action. The underlying idea that motivates these actions is that they will eventually cause people to ‘wake up’ and recognise the oppressive nature of civilisation. As such, anarcho-primitivism orients itself as an essentially political movement. In this essay I will argue that the critique of civilisation must be liberated from all politics and reframed solidly within the context of religion and spirituality, that primitivism must part ways with anarchism.

While certainly acknowledging its impact on the natural world, anarcho-primitivism tends to emphasise the ways in which civilisation is harmful to humanity: alienation, poverty, depression, mass shootings. Hunter-gatherer society is held up as a ideal of perfect human happiness and equality while all forms of social injustice are linked to civilisation. Civilisation, in other words, is essentially presented as a social problem. It is conceptualised as a particular form of social organisation that has produced a number of undesirable circumstances. In this regard, anarcho-primitivism is no different from socialism or any of the other post enlightenment social philosophies that present a vision of society without suffering. Its critique of civilisation is based on what is best for humanity.

This is a problem because at the root of the civilised consciousness is the idea that human beings are the most important thing in the universe. Thus, if anarcho-primitvists continue to focus their critique of civilisation on its harmful effects on humanity and continue to champion hunter gatherer society as an egalitarian paradise, they will ultimately be perpetuating the belief that what occurs among humanity is more important than anything else.

Is it true that in the absence of civilisation many humans would be healthier and happier than they are now? Probably, yes. The problem with this perspective is not that it values humanity but that it values humanity above all else. To remove the anarchist or political or social justice element from the critique of civilisation is not to say that the suffering of humans is unimportant. It simply puts that suffering into a larger, broader context. The suffering of a human is no more or less important than the suffering of a fly. Needless to say, as human beings, we will naturally experience the suffering of our family and friends more intensely than the suffering of a fly. This ultimately does not make it any more significant, however.

If we accept that the life of a fly or a speck of moss is as important as a human life, as I suspect most anarcho-primitivists do, we must also accept that we have left the realm of politics behind. In this context, the concerns of human society, the specific struggles of this particular group or that, are irrelevant. I love the earth more than I love humanity. At the core of this position is a fundamentally religious attitude that I believe primitivists should embrace.

Animism is the belief that all natural things — not made by humans — have souls: trees, ferns, grasses, rivers, mountains, pebbles as well as all creatures. Everything in the world is sacred and nothing more or less so than anything else. This understanding of sacredness is not dependent on any particular idea of god, it is simply the acknowledgement of the divinity in all things. And this divinity does not need to be substantiated or proven. As the ancient daoists understood, any attempt to say ‘what it is’ must be doomed to failure. The dao that can be named is not the dao. We, as creatures of civilisation, have been conditioned to accept nothing without precise definitions and convincing logic. This desire is the desire of the scientist, the engineer, the technician.  Likewise, the soul that can be named is not the soul. Any definition of this soul or divinity that exists within all things must necessarily be hopelessly limited by human consciousness and language. Though perhaps we can say, like the ancient Greeks, Romans, Hindus, Jews, Chinese, and others, that the concept of the soul or spirit is related to the breath. And, if we quiet the mind and listen carefully, we can perceive the breath of the rocks, the streams, the desert sands.

Historically, animism has been tied to particular places, specific mountains, specific rivers. There are as many different animisms as there are tribes and peoples. As such, any particular animism cannot be universal. The animism of one particular tribe of central American peoples cannot be the same as a particular community of Scandinavians or Mongols. In this regard, however, we can think of the zen koan: the finger can point to the moon’s location but the finger is not the moon. The finger matters little; the moon is really the thing. In other words, the particular animistic spirits of a particular community are merely the finger. We must look to the moon: the universal sacredness of the earth.

Until now, anarcho-primitivism has insisted on engaging in the realm of intellectual arguments. For all that critics of civilisation reject the social and cultural structures that dominate our lives, there is a strong tendency to tacitly accept certain civilised modes of thought, namely secularism and empiricism. In much anarcho-primitivist literature by seminal writers such as John Zerzan and Kevin Tucker, there is a clear commitment to demonstrating truth through the presentation of valid empirical evidence and persuasive logic. Appeals to reason are made. Arguments are constructed and deployed. Facts gathered by experts are cited ad nauseum. These are the master’s tools, civilised tools, and history is the graveyard of the ideologies that thought themselves immune to the influence of the tools and tactics they used.

Anarcho-primitivists seek to ‘make their case’ to those who do not reject civilisation.  People that embrace civilisation do so not because they don’t have ‘the facts’. One could present thousands of facts ‘proving’ the relative happiness and ease of hunter gatherer life and not a single person would be willing to abandon their current way of life or even concede that the critique of civilisation has merit.

Ultimately it does not matter what hunter gatherers did or did not do. It doesn’t matter which historical societies were authoritarian or cultivated crops. The critique of civilisation should not be based on arguments. The critique of civilisation should be made based on the belief in the spirits of the earth. Civilisation is not bad because it causes groups of humans to quibble amongst each other and suffer. Suffering is an inescapable part of life and need not be lamented. Civilisation is bad because it is a war against the gods.

In their fervour to convince others anarcho-primitivists become increasingly dogmatic. They rage against ‘leftists’, they argue about veganism, they debate the relative merits of immediate-return economies versus delayed-return economies, they become hopelessly bogged down in endless bickering concerning the morality of violence, they delight and despair alternately in the face of new abhorrent technologies. As such, the critique of civilisation is utterly solipsistic. And it is not merely that anarcho-primitivists tend to theorise endlessly without any attempt to apply praxis. The few actions that one does see, as we have said above, are meaningless and only symbolic in the broadest and most vague terms.

It is time to leave all of this behind. It does not matter what the philosophers say. It does not matter what the scientists say. We must accept that our beliefs are religious in nature and depend on faith.

It is time to reassert the nature-based spirituality of our collective human past. If the natural world is not sacred, then why should it matter? The only alternative is to say that the natural world is important because we depend on it for our own survival as a species. This is to say, as we have seen above, that humanity is really the thing we care about and nothing more: that the natural world is important to us only insofar as it serves our needs. Any argument for the inherent value of all natural things can only be made from spiritual grounds.

It is time to give up writing pseudo-scholarly books, essays, and articles, fighting cops, organising protests, destroying ATMS, and setting things on fire. These are the tactics of those who wish to improve human society for particular groups of humans. These are not actions that reflect the belief that natural life is sacred.

Humanity will not change its fate through action. Not through the actions of governments and companies, not through the actions of mass movements, and certainly not through the actions of a handful of disgruntled anarchists. Humanity’s fate is sealed. The world it has known for 10,000 years will not last. It is foolish and vain to try to predict the nature of its collapse or to picture the world that will follow. Will it be good? Will it be bad? It does not matter. It will occur and humanity will be forced to respond to it. Perhaps human society has a future in some other form. Perhaps humanity will be extinguished entirely.

The path has always been clear to those who choose to see. We must shun civilisation and the things of civilisation. In our hearts if not in the wild world itself, we must go into the forest and never come out. We must reunite our souls with the souls of the trees, the rocks, the streams, the dirt. We must meditate on our place in the cosmos. In doing so, we will not change the fate of this world but we will be, at last, true to our nature once again. The world of the Paleolithic hunter gatherers is gone for good. We cannot return to the past. But the gods that we once knew are still waiting for us in the wild places of the world. If we go to them, they will embrace us.

Ramon Elani lives with his wife and son among the hills and forests of Western Massachusetts. He holds a PhD in literature. His doctoral work focused on critiques of civilisation and continental philosophy. thetigersleap.wordpress.com

Image of Kali’na hunter-gatherers by Pierre Barrère, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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The Ik and the Old Way

james-suzman-kalahari-san-bushmen-moowon-20

Due to drought and disruption by national boundaries of the traditional cycle of movement, the Ik live in such a food- and water-scarce environment that there is absolutely no advantage to reciprocity and social sharing. The Ik, in consequence, display almost nothing of what could be called societal organization. They are so highly fragmented that most activities, especially subsistence, are pursued individually. Each Ik will spend days or weeks on his or her own, searching for food and water. Sharing is virtually nonexistent. Two siblings or other kin can live side-by-side, one dying of starvation and the other well nourished, without the latter giving the slightest assistance to the other. The family as a social unit has become dysfunctional. Even conjugal pairs don’t form a cooperative unit except for a few specific purposes. Their motivation for marriage or cohabitation is that one person can’t build a house alone. The members of a conjugal pair forage alone, and do not share food. Indeed, their foraging is so independent that if both members happen to be at their residence together it is by accident.

Each conjugal compound is stockaded against the others. Several compounds together form a village, but this is a largely meaningless occurrence. Villages have no political functions or organization, not even a central meeting place.

Children are minimally cared for by their mothers until age three, and then are put out to fend for themselves. This separation is absolute. By age three they are expected to find their own food and shelter, and those that survive do provide for themselves. Children band into age-sets for protection, since adults will steal a child’s food whenever possible. No food sharing occurs within an age-set. Groups of children will forage in agricultural fields, which scares off birds and baboons. This is often given as the reason for having children.

The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter

A people of northern Uganda, written about in the 1970s by anthropologist Colin Turnbull (The Mountain People). Wikipedia reveals that Turnbull’s methods and conclusions were later called into question: his study of the Ik was limited to a period of famine brought on by a two-year drought, and he over-relied on informants from a rival grouping.

Nevertheless, there is enough that’s credible in Tainter’s retelling of Turnbull’s findings to chill you to the marrow. Tainter’s point is that the Ik hadn’t always lived that way. Clan surnames and village cohabitation indicated a former level of social organisation that had collapsed – whether lost or abandoned.

It’s a familiar trope. Strip away the veneer of civilisation and what remains is the Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all. The dystopian destiny of The Road. There’s a Lord of the Flies in all of us, by this way of thinking. It’s simply who we are. Thank goodness we have the modern world to keep a cap on all that.

But maybe we’re not doing ourselves justice. The boys in Lord of the Flies are exemplary little mid-twentieth-century Brits, crudely replicating the hierarchies and violence of empire in which they’ve been schooled. The Road is peopled by survivors of a nuclear winter who also happen to be remnants of an arrogant, rapacious civilisation overrun with soulless weapons and machines. And the Ik who Turnbull encountered were in the midst of a holocaust, with no-one to nurse them back to health. In each case, victims-turned-malefactors, equipped for a hazardous new environment with the wrong skills and values – skills and values developed for their formerly complex, sick society.

The Kalahari Bushmen who in the 1950s were still living in what Elizabeth Marshall Thomas called ‘the Old Way’, clung to an apparently precarious existence on arid terrain among lethal predators. But they were not sick and there was no war of all against all. Theirs was an interdependent way of life, honed over hundreds of generations and tailored to the available environmental niche. A way of life which, if Marshall Thomas is right, long pre-dated humankind’s sideways step, via settlements and farming, into civilisation.

The Bushmen devoted much energy to establishing and maintaining harmonious relations, both locally and across a dispersed web of kith and kin. The necessities of life were shared, and there was a constant traffic of long-distance visits, facilitating the spread of news and the circulation of little gifts, handmade hairclips and the like. Qualities or advantages in an individual which might manifest as arrogance, or trigger envy, were downplayed. Discord was discouraged, with the whole community on hand to pacify and reassure disputants. Violence was rare. There were no stockades and no Lord of the Flies-style brutality. Children were not cast out to fend for themselves.

The Ju/wasi [Bushmen] were unfailingly good to their children. An infant would be nursed on demand and stay close to its mother, safe in the pouch of her cape, warm in cold weather, shaded in hot weather, complete with a wad of soft grass for a diaper. Ju/wa children very rarely cried, probably because they had little to cry about. No child was ever yelled at or slapped or physically punished, and few were even scolded. Most never heard a discouraging word until they were approaching adolescence, and even then the reprimand, if it really was a reprimand, was delivered in a soft voice. At least the tone was soft, even if the words weren’t always.

We are sometimes told that children who are treated so kindly become spoiled, but this is because those who hold that opinion have no idea how successful such measures can be. Free from frustration or anxiety, sunny and cooperative, and usually without close siblings as competitors, the Ju/wa children were every parent’s dream. No culture can ever have raised better, more intelligent, more likeable, more confident children.

The Old Way: A story of the first people by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Those confident, likeable, intelligent children grew into accomplished, collaborative, self-assure adults. But it’s gone now, the Old Way. The Bushmen were evicted from their ancestral lands to make way for pastoralists, farming settlements, and safari-style game reserves. They were thrust into the cash economy on its bottom rung, exposed to the ravages of extreme poverty just as they were struggling to accommodate complete cultural dislocation. Yet the Old Way, the memory of it, was their culture’s parting gift. An ancient code for living relatively peaceably, relatively in balance with nature, without the prop of modernity.

That capacity for harmonious living in challenging circumstances must be deeply rooted in all of us, beneath those more recent codes and values we rely on to function in this bewitching, troubled world. Amid relentless pressure to compete and consume, the rest be damned, we do still find ways to support and encourage one another, and nurture our habitat to boot. Perhaps the fate of the Ik, in their time of crisis, doesn’t have to be the only future that awaits.

Christopher MacDonald is a Mandarin translator and interpreter who lives in Cardiff in the company of two thoroughly daft children. His book The Science of War: Sun-tzu’s Art of War re-translated and re-considered, will be published in early 2017. He blogs at: https://doncropper.wordpress.com/

Image by kind permission of James Suzman at Anthropos. See more of his Kalahari portraits at Things from the Bush. ‘The Holboom is a giant baobab tree estimated to be 4,500 years old. It lies near the village of Djokxoe in north-eastern Namibia. It feeds both the Ju/’hoansi [Ju/wasi] and elephants that devour its pods.’ 

 

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The Man in the Tower

‘The Man in the Tower’ is part of a web of stories that depict the state of urban West Africa, in the ‘not-so-distant future’. The general idea is to create a portrait of urban West Africa as if current systems are to persist – for instance, the unequal distribution of wealth. With that general picture in place contemporary issues are evolved and discussed in the future context along with approaching confrontations with ecological collapse.

screenshot-2016-09-27-at-12-08-24

Chapter 1

Jeff stood in front of his bathroom mirror clutching his toothbrush and staring at nothing. Realising himself, he continued to brush his teeth.

Stroking from side to side about a dozen times. Then up and down another dozen. He spat the fizzy sweet-tasting paste into the basin and rinsed. The décor of his bathroom shun with sleek modernism. The sink, the showerhead, the ashy black floor tiles and even the toilet all spoke a language. Maybe French? Definitely something sophisticated. The toilet’s flush was actually quite impressive. Every time he finished shitting, a pleasant squirt of water would rinse his ass before his shit got washed away, never to be thought of again.

Thoroughly applying the Axe ‘vigilante’ gel, he fingered his scalp brutishly before slicking his hair back, then combing it all towards one side of his head. Just outside his bathroom door Scrappy, his little white fluffy dog, was fervently awaiting Jeff. Scrapping and snatching at his master’s ankles he followed Jeff to the bedroom. Jeff kicked his also white fluffy slippers underneath the bed, then unlaced his silk gown trotting over to the walking closet to pick an outfit for his Sunday stroll with Scrappy.

Walking his dog was always a fashionable moment for Jeff. In fact his SnapChat followers had accrued to over a 100,000 viewers all because of his sense of regal and sleek.

Wait.

He noticed that a shirt was missing. Yes! The purple low-cut v-neck. The one with the hanging shredded long sleeves. He considered where it could be. It was most likely his maid, Ama. Her sense was as broking as her English and Jeff thought that he should really call the agency and fire the fool.

Ah yes. The simple white long sleeve shirt was always a classic.

Wilfully wandering the acclaim he would receive from his SnapChat followers, he scanned the bottom deck of the walking closet to pull out his tea blue short-shorts. Ramming his short-shorts way up his waist then tucking in the white shirt, he grabbed his go-to boat shoes before picking Scrappy’s blinged-out collar.

Before leaving, Jeff yelled at Siri to inform him of the weather forecast for the day.

‘It will be perfect day today, in Accra! With temperatures ranging between 23-26 degrees Celsius. Some slight winds are to be expected!’

‘Mmmm. Can you message Dr Togbe, tell him I’m bringing Scrappy over right now.’

‘Sure Jeff! Do you need me for anything else?’

‘Make a note to remind me to ask Ama about my shirt. I keep on telling her to remind me when she is taking things out for laundry. It has happened now way too many times.’

‘Sorry. Did you mean to say ‘Unkempt telephones are my hobby’?’

‘What?! No. That will be all Siri.’

Chapter 2

‘God what a wonderful day!’ Jeff thought as he strutted down his gated community garden. Sure it was quite hot. But the fabric of his shirt was soft, and light, and incredible in all the ways a shirt can be. He was simply immune to the sun. He was immune to everything. No jab or insult thrown Jeff’s way would do him any wrong. A truly outstanding kind of obliviousness. He waved to the gardeners, who were too busy toiling on the ground and couldn’t pay him any notice.

Airport residential had become absurdly detached from the realities of bitter poverty and inequality ravaging Accra. So much so, the social bubble had bubbled up into the minds of the tenants. Lavish parties, soirees, libraries of cars, garages full of slave-workers, and sacks of money that was spent like nobody’s business.

Yes! The residences were in a champagne bubble – shiny, perfectly round, and delicate. Why not be? It’s better living without a care in the world! Living life like a motion picture.

screenshot-2016-09-27-at-12-08-42

Anyway, Jeff had gone to one of those lavish parties the night before. Music and drugs were all on point. Ladies were fabulously dressed and the guys’ haircuts were as sharp as knives. Jeff had gone with his girl friends, Lana, Esi, Blair and Shevan. Those bitches got shit wasted and Jeff was forced to be the ‘responsible one’ for the rest of the night.

Dr Togbe’s house wasn’t far now and Jeff knew that he could maybe order a lite breakfast while waiting for Scrappy to get his checkup. Last time though, they were serving this traditional option called waakye. Black beans and rice, sultry spicy stew with shitto, topped with sautéed tofu. Hardly a lite breakfast but a mouth-watering one nonetheless.

He checked back with his phone to see if it was the next left, which he knew it was, but he always needed to check again. Ushering Scrappy onto the other side of the street they made their way up the front stairs of Dr Togbe’s clinic.

Chapter 3

Dr Togbe’s house/animal clinic had just had its walls plastered with pictures of all the adorable pets that had come to his clinic. Jeff leaned over the pleather chair to stare at the portraits. There was this one photo, which was just unbelievable. The owner had found a way to make it seem that his dog was holding him like newly weds do. Same silly smile as any bride would have and the groom sweeping under his face all bits of anxiety.

Before he realised how far deep his knees had sunk into the chair’s cushion, Dr Togbe had come out to greet Jeff with his usual sunny disposition.

‘Jeff! Got your message, how can I help you?’

‘Just a general checkup doctor, my little boy here Scrappy hasn’t been here for two months. You know I don’t want what happened to Ama Sam’s poodle to happen to Scrappy – isn’t that right Scrappy!!’

While Scrappy scratched and spat at the furniture of the lobby, Jeff and Dr Togbe finalised payments before the doctor took Scrappy into the back office for his checkup.

Jeff stood idle in the waiting room. He hadn’t had anything to eat since late last night with the girls. Summer was fast approaching as well. There was a need to keep his pudgy figure intact but leaner would be preferable. ‘The waakye though!’ he thought concedingly. When would he be here again?!

He strutted over to the cafeteria on the second floor/dining room to ask the chef if there was any waakye. But just before he got to the counter the chef pulled out a couple of takeaway packs, probably for some other patient. The aromas permeating the room were heavenly. Chewing the edge of his fingers Jeff realised that his fickle resilience to food would be broken once again this morning.

‘Please can I have a pack of waakye. Pasta, boiled egg, black pepper stew, fried plantain and some salad on the side please. Need to eat healthy right? But it’s for my friend anyway.’ The chef smiled and went to fetch Jeff’s order, returning in a matter of minutes smiling curiously. Jeff snatched the package and hopped back downstairs slightly embarrassed and overly aware of his tummy bouncing up and down with him.

Chapter 4

Scrappy was as snappy as ever by the time he was done with his checkup. Jeff and Dr. Togbe immersed themselves with some neighbourhood gossip before Jeff pardoned himself out of the office.

Jeff stepped out of the building and was met with the full force of a rushing wind all of sudden.

Checking his step and adjusting his feet he scooped Scrappy and pressed him to his chest.

‘What! – The Hell! – Is Going On?!’

The words that left his mouth never seemed to form fully as they were swept along with swooping and powerful gushes of wind. It was so ferocious, the wind, and it was uprooting the whole street in front of Jeff’s eyes. The stop sign pole had bent over and its plate was banging on the sidewalk. Plastic bags twirled high up in the sky and closer to the ground the earth was scattered across the street. There weren’t many people out because it was a Sunday, but you could hear wild screams from all corners of the neighbourhood as the buildings creaked to the force.

Jeff was incapacitated and seeking shelter in Dr Togbe’s office was the logical thing to do. But the urge in him to change his outfit was too strong to reason with. It looked too worn now and there were sweat patches at the armpits giving the white this awful piss-like stain. Going back was not an option. So he continued onward.

Each step felt like Jeff would be swept off his feet and Scrappy had sunk his nails deep into his shirt. After a while, Jeff could not think about how good he looked. He was too focused on trying to keep his centre of gravity as low and steady as possible. About half way to his apartment the relentless wind became somewhat bearable and he picked up his pace to a brisk jog. Panting and heaving desperately for breath he staggered into the lobby of The Magnificent.

‘Home! Finally, home. Sweet-sweet-safe-secure. Home. Jesus, Scrappy! Fucking calm down!’

By the time he was in the elevator and headed up to his room on the 79th floor, Jeff had regained some composure.

Deep breaths, that was the key! One… Two… Three…

All the way up, a hideous feeling was bubbling in his stomach. Each level the elevator climbed the more violently the building cringed. Scrappy was shivering, scratching and snapping all in one long annoying fit. Jeff was planning to dump him in his ‘bad dog’ hole where all Scrappy’s antics would be muted by the soundproof walls of his caged cubicle.

Lurch!

The building jerked sharply and Jeff lost his balance forcing Scrappy to leap from his falling hands. He slowly picked himself up. Trembling. Hoping that it been safe.

He managed to corner Scrappy after some time, and pet down his dog’s shaking fluff before the elevator stopped at his floor. Luckily, all of Jeff’s windows were shut and the wind had not menaced his apartment.

‘Siri! Turn on the TV to CNN: Ghana for me. Now! This can’t just be happening here!? Maybe it is something that is passing through? Siri didn’t you say it would be slight winds? Do you know what slight winds are?! Does it look like its slight winds!? Whatthehellisyouruseifyougivemefuckingstupidinformation?!’

‘Sorry Jeff. Would you like me to turn on the TV now?’

‘Yes! Yes! I just said!’

‘Sorry Jeff. Turning on TV to CNN: Ghana. The current conditions today are sunny and slightly windy.’

It was sunny, but Siri must have misinterpreted what ‘slightly’ meant and Jeff was in no mood to continue quarrelling with his phone again.

The two CNN: Ghana broadcasters (Katie Robinson and Jakob Lamptey) were sporting some ridiculous windbreakers and wearing foolish smiles as they joked about the unexpected wind.

‘Jakob, I guess we won’t be needing our plane tickets any more. We can just JUMP and FLY to Tamale.’

‘HAHAHAHAHAHA, wasn’t that funny guys?’

*Applause from studio audience*

‘Let us give it up to Katie Robinson. HAHAHA. I guess you won’t be needing a hairdryer either!’

‘HAHAHAHA. Oh MY GOD. Jakob you really BLOW me away.’

‘HHAHAHA. Aaah there is a tear in my eye. Let us give it up to Katie Robinson.’

*Applause from studio audience*

Jeff all of a sudden found the idea of mashing a comedy talk show with presenting news stupid and obnoxious. He had to watch for another thirty minutes before he got some actual details on what was happening with the weather in Accra that day.

Apparently, the winds were being caused by a sudden depression of cool air. As Jeff understood it, it was something of an extraordinary event. No weather channel had predicted this occurrence and the climatologists who were busy waving their pointers trying to explain something they didn’t quite get, looked confused and excited all at the same time. Finally, an official statement from the mayor of Accra deemed it unsafe for anyone to go outside. Jeff didn’t quite know what to make of the news but felt comfortable enough to saddle up for the night by making some hot cocoa and marshmallows and possibly a movie.

As he opened the tap to fill the kettle, a strong gush rocked the apartment building sending Jeff tumbling to the ground again. He could hear Scrappy squealing madly from his hole. But there was little Jeff could do. He would have to wait till the building stopped rocking before he could be sure of reaching Scrappy safely.

Realising the ridiculousness of the situation Jeff suddenly felt the gravity of it all weigh on him. He was literally stuck on the floor of his apartment shaking with fear over the possibility that the building might collapse! The apartment itself was falling apart. The kitchen appliances clanged and crashed as they fell onto the ashy tiles. White noise from the TV churned and crackled while the winds whistled and whipped outside. Glass décor fell over and shattered into millions of tiny little pieces.

Sharp shards flew across the floor to the corner where Jeff was cradling himself.

Soft tears were creeping down his cheeks. Staring only at the floor, he hoped for it to be over soon.

Chapter 5

Ama knew it was late. She was also terrified at the thought of having to walk through the storm of winds lashing outside on the streets of Accra. But if she didn’t return Jeff’s shirt she would surely be fired and that will make it even harder for her to get another job to support her family. She found a collection of items in the recycling bin of her neighbourhood that looked like it could deflect the winds.

Wrapping herself in rubbery textured trash she felt unbelievably stupid. But failure to deliver the shirt could lead to unthinkable disaster for her and her family. Tightening her belt over her makeshift wind suit Ama was ready for the worse.

Initially, Ama seriously considered turning back. But after a while the winds seemed to just zoom past, over and underneath her. She would sometimes walk sideways to be even more aerodynamic and other times she would lie flat on the ground and sort of crawl onwards. After weaving through the narrow side streets and walkways Ama could see Jeff’s apartment a-way-away.

It was swaying.

She could see it bending?

Like a cartoon almost.

Ama stood still watching the monstrosity of the apartment building swing back and forth. Buckling at frightening angles. Twisting impossibly.

An incredible burst of wind suddenly caught underneath Ama and she felt its force rise up. The pulse of nature was pounding on her eardrums and there was an unbelievable pressure weighing on her immediate surroundings. She quickly bent down to stop herself from being caught in the current that was sweeping over the whole world it seemed! Recovering from the rush she looked back up.

The top half of the apartment was hanging at a perfect right angle. She could see large metallic beams break from the building’s failing structure as the wind punched and beat it to submission.

It balanced for a moment as the wind withdrew from its onslaught.

There was no sound but the moans of the squirming metal.

The sun was now cast at sunset.

The silhouette of the building made for an odd horizon.

A collective breath being drawn.

Then it dived down.

Descending with a jarring metallic tear the building crashed into the ground. The crash split the world in two and tore the world around Ama into shreds. She found herself behind a wall, crouched but shaking with fear and disbelief. She could feel clouds of dust blast past her, tossing and ripping anything that was caught in its wrath.

Compacting herself, her hand clutched on to something soft in her wind suit. She absent-mindedly pulled out a shirt. It was Jeff’s shirt. The one with the horrid sleeves. She tied the arms together and wrapped the top around her face to shield her eyes from the wind. The mist of sand and debris was still difficult to manoeuvre, and the air was difficult to breathe. But she decided to trek back home regardless. It was the only thing she could do amidst the tower’s wreckage.

Manuar Smith is a Ghanaian writer and sustainability science student. He has lived in Accra, Ghana for most of his life but was born in the US. He lives a life of extreme mental solitude and is trying to take over the world by creating the future.

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Answering the Call of the Wild Spadefoots

Finding water-loving amphibians in the hot, dry Arizona desert seems unlikely, but there they are. At our Sonoran Desert acre outside of Tucson we’ve seen the big old Sonoran Desert Toad (Bufo alvarius), the Sonoran Green Toad (Bufo retiformis), an occasional Red-Spotted Toad (Bufo punctatus), and the not-toad Couch’s Spadefoot (Scaphiopus couchii). The Spadefoot is really a frog, with smoother skin than true toads.

1-Couch's Spadefoot
The Sonoran Desert gets some rain in the winter, and monsoon storms in the summer. The native Tohono O’odham call the gentle winter rain female, and the intense summer thunderstorms male rain. Global warming seems to have made for smaller and more intense storm cells. It has flooded less than a half-mile away while our place – we call it Wild Heart Ranch – remains completely dry. By late July 2016, this season’s official total rainfall at the Tucson Airport measuring station was 2.67 inches, with much more in some areas. At Wild Heart we recorded just 6/10th of an inch, with a long spell of 105-110-degree days.

That has noticeably affected our toad population. When we accumulated that meagre total on June 30th and July 1st we were glad to hear the distinctive Spadefoot mating call, a loud, grating quaaaackkk, and to find a male and two females in our little artificial pond on July 2nd.

2-Looking for Love

Spadefoots have adapted to the desert by digging deep into the sand, using the ‘spade’ on their rear feet, and waiting for the vibrations of rainfall to waken them. They find puddles, call for mates, and get together quickly, the male hugging the female and spraying sperm over her eggs as she excretes them. The process moves incredibly fast.

3-Mating

On July 3rd there were strings of jelly-like eggs, thousands of them, in the pond. On July 4th there were hundreds of tiny tadpoles. I boiled romaine lettuce to simulate algae for their food, and they were voracious eaters. In two days, by July 5th, they had doubled in size. I took about 50 over to the Picture Rocks Community Center for their kids’ programmes to observe, with coordinator Adam Bernal taking on the lettuce-cooking chores at his end.

4-Tadpoles

By July 13th a number of the tadpoles had sprouted hind legs and a few even had tiny front legs as well. I divided them into five groups with containers and set them out in shaded garden areas with rocks for an escape route and latticed covers to keep predators out. Pollywog predators in this neighbourhood could include some birds and insects, and that big gluttonous Sonoran Desert Toad, of which there were a couple around. Fortunately our dog, Gus, avoids them, even when they occupy his water dish. They can be toxic to dogs.

5-Sonoran Desert Toad

By July 18th virtually all of the 60 or 70 tadpoles were metamorphosing and had four legs. They still had tails which propelled them to the lettuce, and they seemed quite happy. Metamorphoses as short as nine days have been recorded, with an average of two weeks, so we were right on schedule. Other frogs and toads outside of the desert take up to twelve weeks to make the transition.

6-Morphing

On July 19th most of the Spadefoots now appeared to have four legs and to have absorbed most of their tails. They still swam, but also hopped, covering an amazing distance for their still-tiny size, no larger than a short fingernail. It was just about time for liberation.

7-Ready to Go!

On July 20 I went to release the toadlets but the Pollywog Liberation Front had beat me to it. A light rain overnight had sent all but a few of the tiny Spadefoots out into the world. They were all in shaded and well-watered gardens where they could find tiny bugs to feed on. They would gorge themselves and dig down to grow and wait for the next storm, whether it came this year or next.

At the community centre Adam directed the release of his toadlets into protected park areas with the kids all participating. For some reason, perhaps related to sun and shade, those tadpoles took about a week longer to morph.

Maybe we had taken a small step to combat the ravages of climate change, to repopulate our little piece of our world. We had no idea how many would survive, but I’m looking forward to monsoon season 2017 to find out. At age 78, it gives me something more to live for.

Albert Vetere Lannon was a San Francisco blue collar worker, union official and labour educator. Obtaining his high school diploma at 51, he earned several degrees, published two history books, and won several poetry prizes.  He retired to Arizona to chronicle community news, fight a proposed highway, and raise pollywogs with his beloved Kaitlin Meadows.

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Self-Preservation in Our Protected Places

Longs

Oh ye mythic landscapes of growing fame. Oh ye badlands of terrestrial divinity. You haunt me. You break my heart. I know this, for certain, because I’ve been attempting to read Terry Tempest Williams’ latest book, The Hour of Land – a proclaimed personal topography of America’s national parks – yet I get a few pages in and put in down. A few pages in, put it down. I can’t do it, as much as I admire the prose; as much as I cherish the content. It’s too painful – a haunt, a broken heart – because America’s national parks have become too personal to my own topography.

Six years ago I set the goal of visiting all the US national parks – a goal not borne out of a desire to become Instagram famous, or to sell feature articles to major magazines, or even to have a unique bragging right – but a goal generated by happenstance: I coincidentally found myself living on the border of Rocky Mountain National Park the same summer my best friend died in a terrorist attack in Kampala, Uganda (being there to visit friends while working for the same non-profit where we’d met). To cope with the loss, and my already compounding clinical depression, I withdrew, finding solace only across that national park boundary. I began going on hikes every free moment I had; began reading extensive books on the wilderness I now found myself within. Nature held the fundamental truths I needed to start reconstructing a dismantled psyche damaged by all the transgressions a civilised world permits: violations of civil, humanitarian, and environmental rights. And the more I learned about nature, the more I learned about myself.

To prove this, I made a drive down to Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado.

It was equally as stunning as Rocky Mountain National Park, yet unique in its own geological splendour. I needed to see more. So that fall I moved to California and began planning a new adventure for every weekend, filling my car with anyone curious enough to accompany me: Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Channel Islands, Saguaro.

I have since been to fifty-one of the fifty-nine US national parks, from the rainforests of American Samoa to the taiga of central Alaska.

IMG_2786

In hindsight, my progression with the goal oddly mirrors the history of the park system itself. Initially, the national parks were proposed by dignitaries as an attempt to solidify our fledgling country’s sense of autonomous pride, because, at the time, we couldn’t compete with Europe in terms of architecture, or legacy, or the arts. But we had natural wonders without comparison – first seen at Niagara Falls, then the Yosemite Valley, then Yellowstone. We began building an identity around this.

I, too, was searching for a sense of pride. Or self-worth. And I felt this restlessness while traversing glacier-cut terrain or water-deplete deserts or volcanic depressions. I was re-learning how to identify myself.

Next came monumentalism, or this idea that we, as a country, only needed to protect the most indisputable of terrain: deep valleys, geothermal plateaus, massive trees. I, too, was first drawn to these parks of notoriety: I wanted to stand before El Capitan, I wanted to hug a sequoia, I wanted to dip my toes in Cater Lake. But this is only the honeymoon phase of becoming a naturalist: love starts with the obvious then cuts to the idiosyncratic.

An example: about sixty years after Yellowstone was established as the first national park in the world, the Everglades also joined that roster of federal designation. This was an interesting occasion because Everglades National Park was the first park protected for the primary purpose of environmentalism – for ecological preservation. And we see this as a shift away from monumentalism in the way that the Everglades’ watersheds were also considered for protection, from Big Cypress National Preserve up to Lake Okeechobee. A more holistic consideration was at work here: plots of land no longer needed a Teton-like range to turn congressional heads; a river of grass, in Southern Florida, could now demand similar respect.

I, too, began understanding that environmental consciousness meant more than just visiting the famous parks and pointing my camera lens at them. I began looking at all land differently: from wilderness areas created by the 1964 act, to national forests, to wildflowers across the Bridger Range of my backyard, to my mother’s garden.
Something more holistic was at work within me, too.

***

The national parks saved my life. I’m not saying this in a ‘these are the most pristine places on the planet’ sort of way. Or even in a ‘nature heals’ sort of way. They were just my target of attention at a time of need: a goal set during ultimate tribulation, giving myself arbitrary trajectory, which then gave me a reason to push through the existential darkness of a faith lost in humanity. It was submerging myself in nature, away from my fellow companions, that made me re-realise there is good in us, and hope, and unabated kindness.

This was my new lens to analyse the world through, finding logic that ran deeper than my mental illness, and yet, was so intimately intertwined within it—an individual ecosystem of sorts, everything contingent on the other.

So here I sit, Williams’ book at my side, containing 395 pages of stories that I want to read, yet, I’m reluctant. These parks are mine. I’ve wrapped my ego around them. Found salvation within them. And defend them like I would my own children. Still, funny enough, it’s hard to see someone else celebrate them. But that’s the ultimate beauty of public land: These parks are mine. They’re everyone else’s too. For whatever purpose – everyday or epic – that they need to serve.

IMG_6561
Born and raised in Montana, Tyler Dunning developed a feral curiosity at a young age. This disposition has led him around the world, to nearly all of the US national parks, and to the backcountry of his own creativity and consciousness. He’s dabbled in such occupations as professional wrestling, archaeology, social justice advocacy, and academia. At his core he is a writer (currently working on a memoir entitled
How We Reach for the Sun: A Field Guide to Losing Your Friends). Find his work at tylerdunning.com and follow his adventures on Instagram (@tylerdunning).

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Last, or Earworms in the Wilderness

safe

Edges are where things get interesting. They are where transitions happen — or don’t happen — from one state to another. Ethnic assimilation, for instance, is an edge state, where you’re neither fish nor fowl, and you have to navigate for yourself how much of which culture you want to take on when and with whom. The fringes of urban areas are another edge, where wild animals like coyotes and ravens live amidst humans.

I wrote the novel Last to explore edges. I made my protagonist, Last, a creature who belongs nowhere. He’s a sasquatch who was orphaned young and raised in the woods by a human woman (Clare). Not only does he have no companions or peers, he’s not even a proper sasquatch because he was raised by a human, is culturally human, speaks American Sign Language, and in his mind he’s half human. He can’t remember his native language, native culture, or even what his parents looked like. So Last is in this horrible limbo state where he is the only one in the world like himself. No longer a child, he wants friends, he wants a mate. He wants to find a place where he belongs. So he’s on a walkabout and crisscrossing the wilderness in his home state of Maine, looking for other sasquatches, although he suspects the species has gone extinct (hence the name he calls himself, Last).

Clare’s ex-boyfriend Nils is a failed biologist who wants to make his name by releasing film, sound and DNA evidence on Last. When he learned that Last had left for a walkabout, he shot him with a tranquiliser gun and fitted him with a radio collar.

Last awakens from thirst. He is still groggy. Around his neck is a new constriction and weight.

He is wearing a radio collar. He cannot get it off. He feels for its mechanism but cannot figure it out.

From now, his every movement will be tracked.

He does not know this. He just knows he has something on him that is a man thing and that means no good. But there is nothing he can do about it.

He picks himself up and walks in a direction he hasn’t tried before. He goes south.

***

Where to find the Others? He follows the winding trout streams in the general direction south. Skirting lake after lake, bog after bog, walking the deer trails from mountain to mountain. He travels from dusk to dawn, sings the songs he remembers from Clare’s iTunes collection. He can’t make the words but he can sing the melodies.

No-one answers.

The wind picks up. From far in the distance, he hears a rhythmic banging. A vaguely familiar banging, a sound from childhood, a sound from before thoughts could be put into words.

He follows the banging. The People, that’s how they called each other. They banged, and you knew where to find them. The banging continues, bang! bang! bang! and he chases the sound.

He imagines them, a family who looks like him. He imagines them alone and lonely, and delighted to meet another like them when they are so few.

He imagines smiles of welcome. Outstretched arms.

He runs to this vision as fast as he can until his breath comes ragged and he has a cramp in his chest.

And then he sees it, the broken branch knocking against a trunk, hanging by its inner bark as if from a hinge.

The wind sighs and it bangs.

He comes to a stop and drops to his knees.

***

There is nothing to do but to go on.

The collar has a heavy box that chafes and it is wearing away the hair on his neck. He holds it as he walks, because his collarbone has begun to bleed.

And then he stops holding it, and just keeps walking on.

***

At night, all he hears is crickets. He calls out to the Others, as he had called as child in the swamp.

No response. Maybe if he travels farther south…

Sometimes he hears the high-pitched yip of a coyote, also calling with no response.

He travels farther, and he still hears that coyote. It is as though they are travelling together, a mile apart.

At dawn he sees the silhouette of a coyote loping on the ridge.

She is so skinny he can see the points of her vertebrae. Pointy nose, pointy ears, spiked hair, she is all points. She trots on.

Full sun, from a hilltop. He sees her hunting mice in the meadow below. She listens, head cocked. Listens, listens. Then pounces with her forelegs, grabs the mouse with her teeth and whips her head from side to side.

Mouse neck snaps.

She slits the skin and unzips the flesh, crunches it down in a few bites, and then resumes listening.

Last admires the coyote’s practiced, efficient technique. In his mind, he calls her MouseBreath.

Listening, head cocked, silent trot, listening for hours, earning each bite. This is a coyote down on her luck, working hard, and hungry.

***

It is getting late in the season but the trout are still running. Last keeps an eye out for people and stands in a good stream, awaiting fish.

Cold feet.

Claws would help. Sometimes he grabs a fish just as it swims between his
legs, but his numb fingers move too slowly, fish gone.

Slippery.

He remembers, I used to be good at this. What happened? Farmed food? He keeps at it, grabs the next trout and flips it onto the bank, where it flaps, gasps, and expires.

Little brookie. All bones.

He eats his raw trout and tries again. It does not take long. Another trout on the bank, and as he wades out of the water he sees the coyote watching, pacing the opposite bank. He knows, she wants his fishing spot.

He eats his fish, then goes back into the water, squats down, looks the coyote in the eye, and cocks his head to a spot downstream.

She hesitates.

He cocks his head again, eyes the spot, and then resumes fishing and ignores her.

The next he looks, she is standing in the water downstream, waiting patiently. Last scoops up a trout and lets another slip between his legs.

She plunges her face in the water and grabs it, all teeth. Then she raises her head, fish flapping, and proudly climbs up onto the bank to eat.

She catches Last’s eye and smiles her coyote smile: ears back, hair down. Last
smiles back his ape grimace.

They fish on, separate but together.

***

She follows closer now. At night, they call out, Last to his people in the language he remembers, which is the baby talk of a five-year old. The coyote calls to her people in her language — high-pitched yips and half-howls. No sasquatch answers, no coyote answers. But the call of each, through the night, is a sort of answer. Another found, not kin but kind.

***

In the woods, MouseBreath lopes as silently as fog.

Last struggles to keep up with her. But they are friends now. She doubles back to him, scouts forward, doubles back.

Soon she tires of travelling three times his distance, and she waits for him when he is out of sight. The coyote sits in the bushes or in the tall grass and listens, aware of everything around her.

After one of these forays, Last finds her sniffing the ground, skittish. She stops him with a look, looks at the ground, directs his eyes.

A loop of wire, a tree bent to the ground. Snare.

She trots off the trail, drags over a rotted branch, drops it on the wire.

The tree snaps up, carrying the branch with it. It dangles high in the air.

Last marvels and has new respect for the coyote.

They trot on.

Another day she stops to show him a big slab of rock. One end is on the ground, against a log. Underneath one end is open, and at the opening, a piece of cheese. But through the cheese, a twig, and the twig supports the rock by a
precarious balance.

Now it is Last’s turn. With a found branch, he bats the cheese, stick and all, out before the rock crashes down. They grin at each other and split the cheese.

Friends for life.

They come upon a fox with a leg caught in a steel trap. The fox whines and gnashes at them. Its eyes are bloodshot. It has tried to chew off its leg and has only gotten part through.

The coyote trots past. She has no intention of stopping.

Last sees the panic in the fox’s eyes and can’t leave. MouseBreath rounds a turn and is gone. Last has never seen a steel trap before. He has faith he could figure it out. He pulls at this and that.

On the hilltop, just the points of the coyote’s ears are visible, as she watches and waits.

A crunch of gravel. Axe in hand, a trapper walks along the trail, breathing heavily from his exertion.

The coyote yips.

Last freezes. The fox struggles. The birds go silent, the only sound the footfalls of the man.

Having no better ideas, Last pries open the jaws of the trap. The fox jumps away and bites him, hard. He lets go of the trap and it snaps shut.

The man’s head snaps towards the sound.

The fox runs away on three legs.

Last looks back in the direction of the man and hurries up the trail towards MouseBreath.

The trapper fires on Last but misses. And then Last is gone.

***

Last catches up with MouseBreath, who is still waiting for him. He holds out his arm, to show that he is has been bitten. MouseBreath licks the wound.

***

They come to a highway. The sun glares low in the sky and orange light glints on the metal machines that rush past.

All sounds are drowned out by the roar of the cars and trucks, and all smells are drowned out by the stench of their breath. Faster than the fastest animal, the machines follow nose to butt, with scarcely a gap between.

The trail continues on the other side. Last and MouseBreath have to get to the other side. And the machines are in the way. Last has no idea how to cross. The sky turns red, then purple, then gray. MouseBreath looks up and down the highway. She catches Last’s eye: watch how it’s done. She crouches low, wiggles her butt in the air, and takes off. Weaving through the traffic, she runs as fast as she can.

The cars do not slow.

At about 80mph, a truck hits her and she flies up into the air. The truck passes underneath.

Then she crashes to the pavement and the car behind rolls over her, BUMP bump, front wheels then rear wheels.

The next car doesn’t even swerve. BUMP bump.

Afterwards, the cars that follow, the bumps grow softer, as MouseBreath spreads out over the pavement.

Last hears screaming. It goes on and on. He realises he is the one screaming, and stops.

***

The light empties out, sucked into the machines’ glowing white eyes and red butts. And into the night, they hiss along the highway and exhale filth.

Last stands by the side of the road, a black hulk against the black forest, because he does not know what to do.

Flashbacks: his mother has just died, his father has just died, he is a little boy alone in the wilderness. He calls and calls and no-one answers. He is hungry and lonely and tired and no-one comes.

The emptiness, the despair, the panic of his abandonment comes upon him now with the full force of repetition.

He understands wordlessly that he is alone in the world and there is no help for it. It is dark, and his friend is spread out all over a highway, killed for no reason, and he has no home and no people, and his heart is broken.

***

When he comes to himself, he notices the cars are gone. The moon is high, and he can see the expanse of MouseBreath spread across the pavement.

Last had not known about such things as rush hour, or the fact that a highway empties out in the middle of the night. Now he knows. The middle of the night is the safe time to travel.

He walks out onto the empty highway and scrapes MouseBreath off the asphalt. She comes away in pieces. He gathers the pieces together and lays them in the woods, on the far side of the highway, at the base of a fir.

Ravens will do the rest.

The Mourner’s song. He remembers there was a Mourner’s song. He still doesn’t remember how it goes.

A tune passes through his head, and he hears words he understands but can’t pronounce:

Underneath the bridge
the tarp has sprung a leak
and the animals I’ve trapped
have all become my pets
and I’m living off of grass
and the drippings from the ceiling
but it’s OK to eat fish
‘cause they don’t have any feelings.
Something in the way. Oo-ooh.
Something in the way, yeah. Oo-ooh.

For some reason, this reminds him of his father’s tumour and the stench of the paper mill.

Something wrong, something messing up his life, something bigger than him, something he can’t fix.

Something in the way.

***

They watch the blip on the screen. Beep. Beep. Beep.

‘He made it across the highway,’ says Nils.

Clare breathes, ‘Thank God.’

***

Day by day the air grows colder. Now he walks north, into the cold wind. The oaks drop their leaves. The ground is covered with acorns. Squirrels are busy in the trees. Last bites into the acorn from a red oak and it’s so bitter he can’t get it down. He remembers he had eaten a lot of acorns as a child but he doesn’t know how his mother made them.

The whitetails are rutting.

Too big for the little stones he throws with precision. That leaves squirrels, woodchucks, partridge. He eats them raw and misses cooked food. He misses the underground cabin, warmth, and Clare.

He fails to bring down wild turkeys. He fails to bring down deer. He has been eating farmed food too long and has forgotten how to hunt.

The first few flakes of snow dust a landscape queerly silent. Overhead, a dozen geese fly with military precision.

Too high to hit.

Skinny Last is starving. He is lightheaded all the time now. He’s cold.

He sings as he walks, sometimes Nirvana, but mostly the Stones ‘Miss You’.

Ooh hoo, hoo-hoo.
Ooh hoo, hoo-hoo.
Oo-oo hoo-hoo.

Who does he miss? People he’s never met.

On the horizon balsam firs. He walks towards them. Underneath, deer scat and not a sound.

The snow comes down in earnest. White ground, gray sky, black line of trees in the distance. Behind him, his own footprints stretch back forever.

He can’t feel his toes.

He searches for tracks, shrivelled apples, berries, anything to eat. He is dizzy.

He is afraid he will starve to death. He is alone, and this brings up the memory from his childhood of wandering lost and alone and cold and hungry, of calling out until he is hoarse, of no answer, no answer, no answer. He is that scared five-year old orphan again, lost in his memories, seeing nothing before him.

His feet hurt from the cold and the pain brings him back to the present.

There is nothing to do but to keep on keeping on. He signs to himself while he walks. He sings the songs that go through his head. Oo-hoo-hoo-hoo. Oo-hoo-hoo-hoo. And then the tune, because he can’t make the words: ‘Lord I miss you.’

Then one day, someone sings back.

Shelah Horvitz is a writer and a painter. For 30 years she has painted and exhibited in galleries and museums, and her artwork has appeared in books, magazines, and on television. Her writing has appeared on various blogs. This excerpt is from Last, or Earworms in the Wilderness, her recently-completed first novel. 
 

She lives in Maine and Massachusetts with her husband and dog.

Illustration by Shelah Horvitz

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Flight Path – On Reading David Fleming’s ‘Surviving the Future’

Hampstead Oak Nov 2010 - taken by Henrik Dahle

Every civilisation has had its irrational but reassuring myth. Previous civilisations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used its mathematics to prove it.

The man you might not know. And yet if you know anything about the Green Party, Tradable Energy Quotas, the Transition Movement, New Economics Foundation or the Soil Association you would have met his ideas and his vision many times. His name is David Fleming and for thirty years he carried a large manuscript around with him, amending, adding, editing and re-editing, as each year progressed. This September, six years after his sudden death, it sees the light of day in the form of two books.

Shaun Chamberlin, a rigorous Boswell to this Dr Johnson of the future, has not only skilfully shaped his immense dictionary into a finished form, but also forged a narrative introduction to it. Daunted by the prospect of reviewing the rather unlean Lean Logic, I took the slimmer companion volume, Surviving the Future – Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy on a train trip and then into my summer garden. This is a short response to this multi-layered, beautifully constructed treatise.

The future is a fraught place for those of us who have realised over the last decade we are boarded on the Titanic and heading for a mighty reality check. Some of us have thrown up our hands in horror and despair, some of us have heroically dug gardens, some of us have analysed fossil fuel graphs and turned off our central heating. Most of of us have looked at this wicked problem and tried to work out what on earth is needed now, not as individuals but as a people. One thing is for sure, at some point this all-powerful ship will founder and David Fleming’s clear proposals for an alternative social organisation are welcome reading for all those whose eyes are trained on the lifeboats, rather than the dancing girls in the bar.

lean logic

Slack and elegance

Surviving the Future is a linear pathway through Lean Logic‘s diverse and visionary eco-system. Where you might and indeed are encouraged to explore the larger work’s interconnected range of entries, the small volume keeps you on the main track. Here I am on the 16:00 from Liverpool Street coming home, surrounded by shopping bags and folk staring at their mobile phones, listening to music, eating fast food, wrapped up in their own worlds, and it is hard to imagine that all this might shift into the scenarios David is describing in these pages. And yet it is compelling in ways you do not expect. Even though there are fascinating insights on the more familiar subjects of religion, myth and culture-making, the chapters that grab the attention are undoubtedly those on lean economics, specifically the seven points of protocol which pull in an entirely different direction to the conditions in which the globalised market economy flourishes; the latter which is driven by competition and price and the former which works in an entirely different paradigm.

Economics is not a subject that most of us care about. However, the market economy is a system and creed we live by and has put us on this collision course. We are all embedded within it as we sit in this train carraige rocking through the East Anglian barley fields. Clear thinking about this behomoth and how it might be replaced are paramount and you could have no more inspired or radical guide than David Fleming in this uncertain territory.

For Fleming a viable future means being rooted in the small-scale local economy and cultivating the resilience of the community you live in. It means creating a thriving culture that will enable people to use their native intelligence and good will to work out how to proceed when the chips are down and the social and technological infrastuctures we take for granted are no longer in place. His premise is that through time localised, interdependant communities have been the norm and that our hyper-individualised hyper-urbanised lives are an anomoly and only made possible because of a destructive oil-based growth economy.

The book looks at key areas, such as food, growth, ethics, employment and waste, through the lens of lean times, and proposes that intead of living in a mono-culture where the price is the measure of everything, we live in a community, where our presence, our loyalty to its shape and interactions matter.

It is a better book to read in the garden, where there is space to breathe. Because, above all things, the book brings space and intelligence and wit to areas that are normally written about in lumbering opinionated prose. In a genre weighted down by tribalism, righteousness, political rhetoric and scientific data, his words come like a fresh breeze. Where other books would feature graphs, he has woodcuts of the English countryside.Where others might beat you over the head, his light and precise use of language effortlessly guides you from high altitude systems thinking to the literature of utopia to the utterly miserable times endured by the workers of the ancient ‘hydraulic’ cultures.

At some points his references to art and philosophy may appear old-fashioned, his fondness for the feast-days of the Middle Ages romantic, but the main theme is utterly modern, thought-provoking and often surprising. At the suggestion we might employ Christanity’s rich liturgy and architecture as a cultural holding place, I find myself exposulating to the runner beans. Hang on a minute, David, when the Church of England is on a all-time attendance low in the UK? Are you suggesting we go backwards and have to worship gods again?

fleming 3I put the book down and dive into some shade between the buddleia and the raspberry canes. Above me the scarlet admiral and peacock butterflies drink the nectar from the flowers, the light shining through their jewelled wings, above them on a southerly breeze the seeds of a black poplar drift by in search of new territory and above them a marsh harrier circles in the updrift, soaring higher and higher.

OK, so how do you organise society in the absence of competitive pricing? I laugh. This book is subtle! I have no idea: but it is a very good question. One that revolves around loving the earth and sky, that’s for sure. It has to start here. It has to start with this moment.

I reach out to pick several large raspberries and realise that it was Fleming’s ideas about community resilience that had entirely forged my own. These canes from Rita and Nick and Jeannie, the apple trees from Gemma and my fellow writers on Playing for Time, all these vegetables from seed swaps, my clothes from Give and Take Days, my involvement with Dark Mountain via the Transition movement. Everything in my house and larder and woodpile, in my relationships with neighbours and local shopkeepers, with this sandy, salty, wild territory, has come here through the informal economy. In all these small ways I am already living in the future he describes. And in that I know I am not alone.

This shift is not just personal, about me and my downshift style: it is social, about nurturing communities of ‘reciprocity and freedom’. And this is where this book acts as a decisive catalyst. We need deep blue sky thinking, to ask ourselves questions we have never thought about with rigour, to look around us at what we have now between us, a bird’s eye perspective, because if we can’t we will be surely engulfed by the struggle on the ground:

The task is to recognise that the seeds of a community ethic and indeed benevolence still exist. It is to join up the remnants of local culture that survive and give it the chance to get its confidence back. We now need to move from a precious interest in culture as entertainment, often passive and solitary, to culture in its original, earthy sense of the story and celebration, the guardianship and dance that tell you where you are, and who is there with you…

unnamedOne question that is not solved by this book: what do we do with our unmannered dinosaur politics and our dinosaur ways of relating to each other? How do we deal with untempered social hostility, the feudal class system, and lust for blame? How did David Fleming in his eyrie overlooking Hampstead Heath imagine we would deal with those outer and inner forces that absolutely do not want any kind of slack and elegant future? It might work in theory but how about the practice?  Having seen several grassroots organisations destroy themselves though the taut powergames we have inherited I am unsure this is even possible. As Charles Eisenstein once pointed out in a meeting of Transitioners in London, any kind of preparation we do is playing at present. Most of us have the option to revert back to the old social contract, when the going gets rough, pull on our headphones and keep shopping. It is one thing gleaning apples from neighbourhood street trees because it is a fun and life-affirming thing to do, and quite another because you and your family are hungry.

But given this is the one alternative that resonates, that makes sense, it is worth giving it our every last creative shot. If you are prepared mentally, physically, emotionally, for a different world and have deintensified  your way of life, you are resilient and fluid in a way folk that have never thought about these things are not. That makes you a valuable presence in any kind of climacteric, a flexible open agent within a close, rigid system. I realise this late summer day, the lean localised future so astutely and elegantly mapped out in these pages was the future I chose a long time ago, and the task Fleming sets all writers and artists takes us resolutely out of the sidelines and puts us right where the action is and where else, given the choice, would we want to be?

Carnival

At the upcoming Dark Mountain gathering this week we are delighted to welcome Shaun Chamberlin, David Fleming’s close friend and associate, who will be holding a workshop exploring some of his core ideas, and also to be able to sell both books, hot off the press, at our book stall (£30 and £10 respectively, or £35 for the two ).

I like to think David Fleming would have enjoyed Base Camp, at seeing a future-thinking culture being created by people aware of the impending social and economic crises. He might have recognised the lean thinking amongst its strands of myth-making, food growing, knowledge-sharing, music and conviviality. Celebrations and convergences are the bedrock for a society he envisioned could survive and thrive in a rocky future, and it is in this spirit that we publish a short extract from his chapter on Carnival, edited by Shaun and originally published in Dark Mountain Issue 5.

LL-StF-in-person

Extract from the late Dr. David Fleming’s Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It (2016). Extensive references are given in the dictionary itself, but are omitted here.

* points to another entry in the dictionary.

 

Carnival. Celebrations of music, dance, torchlight, mime, games, feast and folly have been central to the life of *community for all times other than those when the pretensions of large-scale civilisation descended like a frost on public joy.

The decline of carnival in the West began in earnest alongside the transition from a rural-centred culture to a city-centred one. There were many reasons. The early stirrings of capitalism encouraged habits of soberness, and it has this fixation about people turning up for work on Monday morning. Some carnivals were getting out of control, becoming the starting-point for rebellion and riot: Robin Hood’s career began as a carnival king; Ben Kett’s rebellion in 1549 started in Wymondham at a festival for St.Thomas à Becket. And the invention of fire-arms had its effect: it meant, of course, that a reckless crowd could also be dangerous, but – more important than that – it introduced a need for discipline, especially in armies. The loading and firing of a musket is complicated; it requires a sequence of steps – forty-three of them, according to Prince Maurice of Orange’s “drill” – each of which must be done exactly, at speed, and (on occasion) under fire. Discipline becomes critical: sober *citizenship, which is good for armies, and good for trade, calls for self-awareness and self-control, and it gets lost in the spontaneous exuberance of carnival.

Carnival has been subdued, and its loss is serious. The modern market economy suffers from play-deprivation. It does exist to a weakened extent in sport, but even there the aim of winning is increasingly taken as the literal purpose of the event rather than the enabling *myth. When such critical cultural assets as *trust, *social capital and the *humour which blunts insult are in decline, *play is in trouble. Insult and rough-and-tumble are now largely forbidden; if an invitation to play is rejected or misconstrued, if a joke goes wrong, there is shame or worse.

It invites the bleak question: ‘What is the point?’ The consequences are various, no doubt, but among them may be loneliness, boredom, anxiety and depression; if society is less fun, its inequalities are more resented. There is no constant reminder of the teeming vitality beneath the surface of other people; there is a loss of authority by the local community, which becomes less audible, less visible, less alive, less fertile as a source of laughter. Barbara Ehrenreich wonders whether the waning of carnival might have had something to do with the awareness of depression which, in the early seventeenth century, seems to have developed almost on the scale of a pandemic. Before then there was, of course, pain, and grief – all the dark emotions – but loneliness and anxiety…? *Tactile deprivation (the sadness of not being touched)…? The sense of the party being over…?

… Homer tells us how the art of the ancient dream world lay in wait to seduce Odysseus and his crew as they were about to encounter the Sirens, whose bewitching song lures everyone who hears it to their death, their bodies added to the pile of mouldering skeletons in the meadow where the Sirens sat. On the advice of his mistress, Circe, the goddess who lives on the island of Aeaea, Odysseus stopped up the ears of his crew with wax, so that, unable to hear the song, they were not distracted from the real work of rowing. He himself, being securely strapped to the mast, could now listen to the Sirens’ voices ‘with enjoyment’, as Circe puts it, and without being drawn irresistibly into their power. This has various interpretations, but one of them makes it a decisive detachment from art: the sound of ancient myth which once drew its hearers in, without means of escape, is rendered sensible and civilised, reduced to a concert, a sort of Hellenic musical evening with female chorus and a professor of Greek to tell us something about the local legend that lies behind it.

On this view we see the breaking of the link between art (music, in this case) and politics: now you only need to buy your ticket, be a spectator of the arts for an hour or so, and then home for herb tea and bed.’

Charlotte Du Cann works as an editor and distributor for Dark Mountain books. She is co-curating Base Camp at Embercombe with Dougie Strang and is the co-author of The Grassroots Directory with Mark Watson. charlotteducann.blogspot.com

Images: David Fleming on Hampstead Heath by Henrik Dahle. All woodcuts from Lean Logic – A Dictionory for the Future and How to Survive It edited by Shaun Chamberlin and published by Chelsea Green on 8th September.

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Autonomous Nature

Book Review:
Autonomous Nature: Problems of prediction and control from ancient times to the scientific revolution
By Carolyn Merchant

9781138931008

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity,
a dimmed light,
a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness.
This mysterious Unity and Integrity is
Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans.

– Thomas Merton

Two men huddle against the rain in the west of Ireland and use a sledgehammer to pound nine-foot stakes into the squelching, saturated winter soil. Some stakes go in straight, but most, like this one, tilt slightly in the damp. It will have to do. They continue.

Once the field perimeter is marked by stakes they unfurl a roll of chicken wire, bending the base of it out about a foot, to prevent deadly intruders from digging beneath. Foxes, pine martens, mink. The latter have spread across the country after escape – or was it release? – from fur farms.

Above the tight mesh of the chicken wire goes a second layer of fencing, this time to keep out deer. Their trails criss-cross the roads around here and the damage they can do to expensive trees, with the light of dawn, is immense.

There is a saving grace. This is one of the few areas of the country where grey squirrels have yet to spread. Should they appear here, five years, ten years down the line, however, trapping may be the only option.

A year passes and, of course, a pine marten works his way into the enclosure, beheading the defenceless, terrified chickens. There’s blood and shit and feathers everywhere, and the men resolve to give up on poultry. The trees, however, remain safe for the time being, the deer kept at bay.

Whatever this troubling word nature may mean, it is an unruly force. Whether the precarious existence of a smallholding, described above, or the unpredictable debris emitted as a result of subatomic collisions deep under the Swiss soil at CERN, human control appears forever limited and ephemeral.

The human ape does, however, excel at bending natural forces to its will, with astonishing precision. Just as fences temporarily keep wild fauna at bay, so does locating the vast Large Hadron Collider five hundred feet under Geneva protect it to the required extent from natural radiation and muon particles. All the while, baffled scientists huddle safely behind computers creating temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the centre of the sun, momentarily at least.

At a much higher level of abstraction, these are the issues confronted by Carolyn Merchant in her new work Autonomous Nature. Her classic early book, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (1990) drew influential links between the rise of a mechanistic worldview amidst the scientific revolution and the historic subjugation of women and the non-human environment. Now she looks beyond the dawn of modernity, to the treatment of order and disorder in environmental and philosophical thought throughout history, focusing primarily on the interplay between natura naturata, nature as moulded and created, and natura naturans, nature as a productive and unruly force.

The book’s first section, itself titled ‘Autonomous Nature’, begins amidst ancient volcanic eruption, earthquakes and pestilence, highlighting the gradual emergence, from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the Christian theologians of the medieval era, of an idea of order and controllability from within this life-threatening chaos.

However, in spite of this emergence Merchant notes the always dialectical, and often downright conflicting, relationship of natura naturata and natura naturans:

Upsetting this trajectory…intervened the Renaissance dichotomy between a personified Nature acting as God’s instrument versus a recalcitrant Nature acting not in accordance with God’s plan, but on “her” own, creating the problem of how “she” could be managed. By the time of the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution, natural philosophers would respond by developing the idea of controlling a free, recalcitrant nature through the laws of nature and a disorderly society through natural law. (57)

Thus the scene is set for Part II, ‘Controlling Nature’, in which the pestilence and disorder of civilisation doesn’t disappear, but is backgrounded – pushed from the psyche with increasing confidence. Gradually, the world is hollowed out and we encounter the full-blown rise of a dead, predictable and mechanical world, an orderly gift from a benevolent and transcendent God, amenable to vexation and instrumentalisation.

Summarising the view of Leibniz, from his debates with Newton, Merchant writes, ‘God created the world at the beginning of time as a logically perfect world that required no further tinkering or intervention’. After all, ‘the need to intervene would mean that God was an imperfect deity’ (137). Today, of course, the situation is slightly amended. What remained of God in Leibniz and Newton’s early scientific vision has long been banished, of course, and the human species takes its place as a new proto-deity, called on to intervene in a world which struggles to cope with our vexations.

The predominance of rationality, logic and knowability maintains a presence right up to the present day, of course, but Merchant concludes the text with a chapter entitled ‘Rambunctious Nature’, alluding to what can be seen as the re-emergence of recalcitrance in nature. The rise of relativity theory and quantum mechanics in the early 20th century, coupled with theories of chaos and complexity in the second half of the century and the unforeseen consequences of industrialisation – the bursting forth of climate tipping points and diseases spread by globalisation – results in a new paradigm ‘based on natura naturans as the active, creating, but also unruly and unlawful nature that challenged lives and livelihoods from Greco-Roman times to the present’ (150).

This story of new paradigms has been told before, of course, foreseen decades ago by writers of the 1960s counterculture, apparently to little avail. Its repetition up to the present perhaps belies the reality that paradigm changes themselves can’t be predicted, ushered into existence, or even recognised consciously when you’re in their midst. So too will the ‘partnership ethic’ put forward by Merchant in this final section be a familiar sentiment for many, holding that ‘the greatest good for the human and nonhuman communities is in their mutual living interdependence’.

The subtle detail in such a short book is remarkable, with its extensive footnotes as rich as the text itself for exploring the conflicting and contradictory stories told over millennia regarding our relationship to the cosmos. Its true wisdom, however, lies away from seemingly obligatory concluding discussions of hopeful ‘partnership ethics’ and new paradigms. Instead it lies in the more intangible and revelatory hints towards the notion that, to take the words of Paul Feyerabend, in such a fecund and overflowing universe ‘Ultimate Reality, if such an entity can be postulated, is ineffable’.

Drawing on the poetry of Gary Snyder in her epilogue, Merchant poignantly notes, similarly, that ‘there is no single concept of nature; it embraces everything that is fluid, changing, and mysterious. Ultimately, however, to “know nature” on earth is to live within it and to revere it in every way’ (156). In this age of clamour and ecocide, any sign of reverence would be welcome, while few are apparent. Merchant’s book, at least, harbours perennial wisdom for a culture which is not yet here, but which has, it seems, never been far away.

Tom Smith is currently undertaking PhD research at the University of St Andrews, where he focuses on topics including craft, technology, sustainability, non-representational theory, anarchism and objects. He is also the co-founder of a low-impact smallholding and ecological teaching hub in the west of Ireland, An Teach Saor (The Free House). http://st-andrews.academia.edu/TSmith

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The Ends of the World: a call for submissions for Dark Mountain: issue 11

 

reindeer

Russia’s Yamal peninsula rarely makes the news, even in Russia. Situated inside the Arctic Circle, it is sparsely populated, mostly by reindeer herders living traditional nomadic lifestyles in what is normally a cold and austere environment.

Last month, though, the environment changed. In what the director of Russia’s Institute of Global Climate called ‘a colossal, unprecedented anomaly’, a heatwave inside the Arctic circle took Yamal’s temperature up to 34° celsius, The heat began to melt the icy ground – the permafrost – and things which had been frozen for decades began to thaw. Among those things were the bodies of reindeer which had died more than seven decades ago; and among those bodies were the spores of the deadly bacterial disease anthrax.

The anthrax spread among the local reindeer population, killing more than 2000 of them, and then jumped to humans. One boy died; unconfirmed reports suggest his grandmother died too. Then the Russian government took action. Doctors and soldiers poured into the territory and began a programme of mass vaccinations and antibiotic treatment which seems to have stemmed, so far, the further spread of the disease. At the time of writing, hundreds of Russian troops are burning infected reindeer carcasses across the region, and a 12,000km exclusion zone is being disinfected to ensure no spores remain in the soil. According the region’s governor, ‘it is unlikely that anything will grow there ever again.’

Across the world, the ice is melting at rates much faster than predicted even five years ago, and as it does so it is bringing buried things to the surface. Viktor Maleyev, deputy chief of Russia’s Central Research Institute of Epidemiology, warns that the smallpox virus could be released again from thawing graves; so too could recently discovered viruses from extinct and as-yet-frozen mammoths. In Greenland, researchers fear that melting ice may lead to the release of underground toxic waste, buried during the Cold War.

What is certain is that the thawing will not stop; it is only likely to accelerate. In Antarctica, monitoring stations reported three months ago that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have now exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in four million years. Five of the first six months of 2016 set records for the lowest ever levels of monthly Arctic sea-ice extent, according to NASA, while every one of those six months has set new records for high temperatures globally.

If there’s a positive side to runaway global warming, it’s that it should, at least in theory, put human problems into perspective. Down at the human level, though, there seem to be enough examples of runaway politics and runaway economics to distract us from the bigger picture. From the rise of Trumpism in America and nativism across Europe – both symptoms of the cultural and economic turmoil caused by the globalisation project – to the continuing crisis in the Middle East and north Africa, political ructions in South America, spiralling rates of inequality, record rates of migration … every day the old normal is replaced by a new one, and the new one never seems to last very long. All is not well in the citadels of progress.

‘We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling,’ we wrote seven years ago in the Dark Mountain manifesto. ‘All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history.’ When we wrote those words they were, to many, highly debatable. They seem less debatable today, and I would bet they will seem a lot less debatable in a decade’s time. I sense that already there is no turning back; that all over the world, people are pulling their fingers out of the dams and starting to reluctantly turn their minds to the big question: what happens now?

This is the question that will form the loose theme for the eleventh Dark Mountain anthology, to be published in April 2017. In times like these it can sometimes be tempting to talk, in hushed tones and to people we trust, about ‘the end of the world’. But there is, surely, no one end to any world – instead, there are many endings, small and large, tumbling over each other all the time, building up to a crescendo. If you live in Yamal, or Syria, or in a logged rainforest or a spreading desert – your world is ending now.

In our eleventh book, we’d like to dig deeper into what this means. What happens if, instead of focusing on some predicted future catastrophe, we look around us at the many smaller ones which are happening as we write? The word ‘apocalypse’ is often thrown around loosely when referring to frightening phenomena like climate change. But the original meaning of that word is not ‘catastrophe’ but ‘revelation’. As the carapace of progress cracks, as the ice thaws – what is revealed? What dies away, and what is born to take its place? Frightening times can also be exciting times. From the collapse of one way of seeing or being comes the opportunity to build another. As stories crumble, new ones can be told. What do they look like?

Submissions for Dark Mountain: Issue 11 are now open; as ever, we are looking for prose, both fiction and non-fiction and anything in between, poetry and visual artwork, and we would like it to explore, in any way that seems appropriate, what it means at this time in history to be facing the many ends of the world – and what might come from them.

Over to you.

Dark Mountain: Issue 11 will be published in April 2017. The deadline for submissions is 15th November 2016. For details on what and how to submit, please read our submissions guidelines carefully. We cannot read or respond to work which does not fit within our guidelines.

PS – After publishing this call, we realised where the phrase ‘The Ends of the World’ had come from. It is the English title of a book by Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (due to be published later in 2016 by Polity Press). Déborah and Eduardo have been friends of this project for a long time and one of the members of our editorial team had read a draft of the text some months ago, which is how the phrase found its way into our conversations. We can warmly recommend their book to Dark Mountain readers, especially those of you with an interest in philosophy, and we hope that it will stimulate further discussion, on this site and elsewhere, about what it means to be in search of ‘a mythology that is adequate to the present’.

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