The Dark Mountain Blog

Beyond the Single Baseline: Towards a Re-storyation of True Work

My hand fits perfectly through the neck of a two-litre mason jar. I’ve known people who couldn’t push their hand through, or those who, having forced the fit, got stuck for a few minutes. So I honour my particular luck by shoving my knuckles into strips of salt-brined cabbage and ginger-chilli paste at the bottom of the jar, ignoring the burning of spices in a cut on my finger, pushing down until the cabbage gives up its juice and packs down.

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I am making kimchi, a traditional Korean ferment or ‘pickle’ similar to sauerkraut but, in my personal opinion, much more delicious because of the ginger-garlic-chilli-onion paste added to the salted vegetable strips and packed into a jar. I also add a bit of miso paste, a Japanese ferment that takes several years in its own right before it’s ready (I stole this twist from a friend who has higher confidence experimenting with food processing than I do). It already smells delicious, but if I wait a couple weeks for the microbial magic to ensue, it will be divine. I’ll add it to cheese toast, pop some arugula and a fried egg on top, and lose my mind for a little while in the sensory immediacy of flavour.

I’ve got sweet tea for a kombucha ferment brewing in a large bowl, sourdough starter proofing for bread in the morning, eight-month old mead (a honey ferment) ageing quietly in the back of a dark cupboard, a pillow I just sewed and stuffed with raw, burr-filled cotton waiting to have its last corner stitched, and hand-spun wool yarn drying on a hook after I simmered it with red cabbage and alum and it turned a pale silver lavender colour (surprisingly, since the dye bath turned the colour you’d get if you accidentally massacred a field of beets with a shovel).

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But throughout this flurry of homesteading, I am getting more and more frustrated with myself, thinking about how I really should be getting some work done.

I seem to have decided, stringently and without much questioning, what counts as ‘practical’ and ‘productive’, what counts as work and what does not, and my parameters seem to have little to do with effort or time expended. But I have found examples of this disregard for certain efforts, and reward for others, outside of my own kitchen, in interpersonal interactions and historical trends. Have I created this unilateral definition of what counts as productive, or have I inherited it?

More and more of us live in largely industrialised, centralised, capitalist societies. By definition these systems have certain inherent characteristics that we often don’t see or notice because they are deeply ingrained in the patterns of our days, entrenched in the structures of our culture, and widely accepted as unquestionable, given truths, rather than what they are: phenotypes of human-designed systems. And these systems are built on designated narratives that convey certain value to certain things, certain people, and certain behaviours, as any human system does.

In order to function, industrialisation depends on standardisation, mechanisation, and single baselines of productivity. There is usually one type of endeavour that counts as productive — are you able to do this one motion fast, get as many animals through the slaughterhouse as possible in a given time, etc. Centralisation tends to diminish as well the diversity of things and speeds that might be considered productive, because of a funneling or pyramid pattern — the definition of value is often created far away and far up the ladder. And capitalism is by definition attached to a particular single pattern of productivity: the exponential generation of more capital.

We could debate the merits and pitfalls and ills of our political and economic systems, and wherever we came out, however we feel about the systems we live in, create, benefit from, are oppressed by, and play outside of, those systems do affect not only our external patterns, but our internal cultural and personal systems of value as well. This makes sense — we’re immersed in them all the time. And they give us a certain definition of our own value. A certain definition of ‘work’, of productive contribution, of, when it comes down to it, having earned the right to deserve to matter in our communities and in the world.

The problem here isn’t the simple fact that the narratives of our cultural systems give us our personal and interpersonal narratives of value — of course they do, because that’s what cultural systems do. And at first glance, it’s not even this particular version of value defined by these systems and their narratives that concerns me.

It’s that there’s only one.

There is one baseline for productivity, for value, for good work: how hard and fast and long can you work to produce more.

This is absurdly heartbreaking for many of us. It also makes no sense. Healthy ecosystems do not ever depend on ‘one’ anything — a single input or output, one organism, one fertility source, one speed or type of growth. Diversity is ecologically essential for systemic resilience. This is why a monoculture (single-crop) farming system requires so many external inputs of fertility and pest control substances in order to even survive, and, in contrast, why a diverse forest ecosystem can often tolerate fluctuations in weather or insect population rates without extra-system inputs, and while remaining largely intact and thriving.

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Such resilience is not optional, not a superfluous luxury, in either ecosystems or human communities. We need to have lots of different ways of contributing, of finding value in the true work others contribute, or we miss an incredible number of essential ‘inputs’ for our own health, happiness, resilience, thriving. Being resilient beings ourselves, we do find myriad ways to contribute. But often when we do, these methods of contributing go ignored or undervalued, unpaid (since they don’t fall into that single baseline of production), or are considered luxuries, hobbies, or extravagantly artisanal activities, unnecessary to ‘real’ production and survival. Humans usually create community and co-care outside of the narrow industrial definition of value, but because we’re doing so in the context of larger systems that don’t recognise these contributions strongly or at all, it depletes us. It’s untenable, a motion that cannot be sustained for long, like swimming upstream.

We live in a scarcity ecology. We use the relationship between perceived scarcity and perceived need (‘supply and demand’) to determine value — these days, ‘scarce’ connotes ‘valuable’ so automatically that we practically hear them as synonymous. When we learn about supply and demand as economic principles in school, they are taught to us as givens, as natural and inborn principals of life, rather than as chosen drivers of a human-designed system.

We’re so invested in scarcity as our driving force, in fact, that we’ve defined entire groups as less valuable, less deserving, when they do work, even if it’s the kind of quantifiable work our culture values. This can be seen in wage inequalities amongst demographics doing equivalent work, unlivable minimum wages across service industries, the relegation of certain work to the unpaid ‘home’ sphere, and beyond. We’ve decided there isn’t enough work to go around in this country (scarcity again). The single baseline should not be confused with an even playing field — our systems are set up so that privilege and profile carry immense leverage. We have defined certain genders, races, bodies, classes, ages, professions, regions, as doing work that is less valued or not valued, usually work that we at the same time depend heavily on. So there’s this single version of work’s value — do more faster — and we make more or less of that value available to certain groups, and to the work associated with those certain groups.

It shows, this single definition of value, like any single seed that goes wild in disturbed soil and becomes a weed, spiking the exponential growth curve and then crashing. It shows in our mental and emotional health, in our physical health, in our spiritual and community exhaustion.

The single baseline of ‘be as productive as possible at the same level all the time to earn value’ is not only physically and psychologically untenable, not only does it starve or cancerously overfeed our selves and our human and ecological communities, but it’s also deeply unjust. Because of this definition, we have lost our elders as a society (though this varies with background and many subcultures in the US defy this pattern with intergenerational households). Those deemed physically less productive are sidelined to the geographic and social margins. We don’t have an economics of wisdom; we don’t have an ecology of mutual support in our dominant models. Elders might have much to offer in terms of mentorship, storytelling, intergenerational thinking, community memory, cultural ethics, magic, stillness. Thriving human ecologies include these things. But those things don’t generally bring in income in the current context. If you can’t use your hands, brain, computer at a high speed, you can’t earn ‘value’. This is an extremely ableist model in general — certain bodies are ‘valuable’ only so long as they can perform in certain ways. Getting sick, in this story of value, is a sin, a failure, a discrepancy, rather than a natural state of flux, of the changing needs and offerings of any living body.

This core story of single-value baseline, and its concurrent injustices, percolate into communities and cultures even that define themselves in direct opposition to dominant cultural systems. Activist communities, organising groups, radical schools, garden education programs; the ‘what’ of what we work for in these communities pushes to change the larger systems. Meanwhile, the ‘how’ of how we do it, the containers and models we work and play within, can end up directly mimicking the systems we’d like to change. There are certain ways to show up as an activist that are often considered most valuable, most effective, most passionate. And these ways are often enabling to certain mental and physical health patterns and bodies and ages and ways of contributing, and intensely disabling and depleting to others. While fighting for just, thriving, abundant communities and systems in the larger world, we end up building unjust, starving, exhausting systems within our organisations, and ultimately within ourselves.

So this piece is in part an invitation for prefigurative politics in our communities and work — to let the ‘how’ begin more and more to be the ‘what’. To open up as wide a diversity of recognised contribution methods as possible, and to make space and value for modes of contribution to shift even within one individual over time.

There is never a time when we don’t have something to offer. While that statement may sound dreamy and cliché, it in truth stems from the very real, nitty gritty life and death cycles of ecological systems, which depend upon a vast array of interconnections, services, and yields for their functioning, and which do not appear to include our concepts of ‘uselessness’ or ‘waste’. The changes that are inherent to being an organism — to being made of matter on this planet of birth and death and breath, of constant transformation, union and then differentiation — these changes bring along with them a wide diversity in what we each offer at any given time. This variation is needed. It is socially and biologically necessary. We desperately need elders. After all, single-generation thinking has, to say the least, not done great things for our relationship with other organisms, our ecosystems, our selves or our planet. We need storytellers, homemakers, farmers, mothers, spiritual speakers, people who can cook chilli. We need slow movement and fast movement and stillness all.

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So there is never a time when we don’t have something to offer, even if we have no idea what it is or who it will impact. In the permaculture design ethos, a primary principle is faith in the ‘unknown good benefit’ of an action or element. Even when all I have to offer is a request for help, even when the gift I give is simply the act of being honest about my needs, this is an essential offering.

Articulating our needs constitutes a crucial offering because people are waiting for invitations to give their own offerings. They are waiting for ‘the ask’. Just as chronically unmet needs exhaust and starve us, chronically unexpressed gifts or offerings with nowhere to go stagnate in us. Energy and fertility misplaced or underutilised becomes pollution. Think of what happens when you dump human waste into a body of water — too much fertility in the wrong place overfeeds algae, they overgrow, block the sun, and end up starving out the ecosystem below. A request can be an opportunity for someone else’s offering, energy, to be fully expressed, fully utilised, given space, purpose, life.

So this is an invitation to widen, enrich, open up the range of what we consider offerings, what we consider contributions, what we consider valuable work.

But it is also a deeper invitation.

Because the single-mindedness, the one-dimensionality of our internalised industrial understanding of work and its value is not the sole question at play here. Deeper, down, into the subsoil, lurks the radical root, the original, underlying query: what is work? Under the ‘one way of contributing, one type of productivity’ narrative lurks not only the insidious idea that there is one way to ‘work’, with certain amounts of corresponding value available based on privilege, but also the deeply held belief that we only earn our value at all when and if we work.

This concept allows us to believe that people need to earn the ‘right’ to deserve shelter (many people without housing actually have one or more jobs which pretty much busts this myth wide open anyway). It allows us to structure our economy and our culture on the perceived necessity of working constantly in order to fight off scarcity, to earn the ‘right’ to eat, to drink clean water, to be safe from violence, to support and be supported by the people we love, to get healing when we are sick. No wonder addictive accumulation, rather than abundance, has expressed itself as the core modality of our current model: we are trying to build walls of safety, of ‘value’, of essentials, between ourselves and the threat of scarcity, of ‘not deserving’, of running out. This response to perceived danger is understandable.

But these walls cut us off from each other and our larger ecological communities, and this is in large part where our massive violence towards each other and the earth gets its fodder. We consider it ‘lazy’, within this paradigm, to believe ourselves inherently and unconditionally worthy of basic and essential things. We are really, really scared of scarcity. Our fear of scarcity fuels our belief in that scarcity’s existence, and our resulting actions, and creation of cultural structures, then result in scarcity. Instead of changing what ‘work’ means so that there are a myriad of recognised offerings and plenty of value to go around, we have kept to our commitment to scarcity by going so far as to define certain humans as not human, as not deserving of the right even to earn ‘value’, let alone to matter implicitly. So our culture defines work very specifically. Yes, we can widen that. But our culture still demands work in order to earn value at all.

What happens if we turn that ‘earned-value’ idea of work on its head? We might start with a belief that human beings, all beings, have intrinsic value. We have seen that what we have to offer can shift, but does not diminish, when we are ill, or disabled by our environment and circumstances. As we get older our offerings will shift. All those offerings are needed, but even they are not what make us deserve to be valued.

I am already valuable.

If I get rid of the old narrative, if I don’t have to earn my value, then why work? What even is work? First off, I want to work, I love to work, I need to offer, to connect, to express, engage, to gift and receive — I am not interested in avoiding work when work can have so many different ways of being defined. But my work, even when diversified, is not an act that ‘allows me’ to deserve or earn value.

My work is an expression of the value that is already there, that I already contain.

It is a range of expressions of what is already in me, or what is growing. It is an ecological and communal act of interdependence. It is connective and relational, it is iterative. Diverse in their manifestations, and rooted in expression rather than fear, work offerings generate abundance, rather than serving as a reaction to scarcity. Work weaves a dance of asking and offering, of curiosity and openness to the wild diversity of ways to meet needs. It is also about power, about moving from the internal self to action and change in the world, the capacity to walk that bridge and connect to others’ offerings, needs, to move into collaboration, from the act of self-expression into the larger self. It’s not easy. It’s often really hard. But it’s not, at its best, something that has to feel desperate. It’s the kind of difficult that generates strength, the kind of tired where you’ve run hard and your muscles are growing, not the kind where you’ve sprinted uphill against the wind and broken something in your ankle but you have to keep going so you don’t fall backwards into the chasm of scarcity.

I work in order to express and connect my value into, and in conversation with, the world.

So what does healing look like in this world of work? How do we shift our internal narratives, as well as those of our culture, towards value-expressing, abundance-generating work? I don’t have an instant answer, which is probably a good thing, since instant answers from single perspectives seem to be a symptom of the very ‘do-more-quick’ privilege-based model I’m asking that we let go. Mostly I have queries. Offering gifts and requests, putting what feels good, even if it’s a jar of fermented cabbage, into conversation (or co-eating) with others, playing with informal economies of abundance, reconsidering ‘need’ as a potentially connective trait rather than a label for a source of shame, hearing from others on these questions — these seem like some places to start. Want to come over for kimchi?

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Rachel Economy is a land-centred educator, poet, and permaculture gardener based in Berkeley, California. Currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Social Innovation and Sustainability at Goddard College, with a focus on the place of story in resilient systems design, Rachel teaches creative writing, garden and wilderness skills, and place-based poetry to all ages, emphasising safe space, justice, and play. She often writes about bodies that think they are landscapes, or vice versa. You can find her teaching work at wildwordworkshops.wordpress.com and her written musings, as well as the recently launched ‘Index for the Next World’ story collection project, at gatecitygardener.wordpress.com.

Green Bang

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$54 trillion a year

— Estimated upper value of the world’s natural capital and ecosystem services, according to ecological economist Robert Costanza

It was a warm autumn day, and the ecosystem service providers were buzzing in the natural capital. The foliage was consuming the light. Anders was sitting in his usual chair. Sophie and Sasha were on their way, and this afternoon he would go with Sasha to an area of outstanding natural beauty to forge a closer familial connection while recreationally walking.

No, that was not correct. Anders rubbed his head with his thumb. It wasn’t an area of outstanding natural beauty, it was twelve hectares or thereabouts of medium to low quality indigenous fauna habitat, but Sasha need not be concerned about that. Sasha was nine years old. The place was pretty – yes, it was pretty – its cultural and recreational value was adequate for their purposes, and such qualitative definitions, he thought, were not of importance to children.

Such definitions were not of importance. Anders closed and reopened his eyes. He gazed at his trouser legs stretched across the patio, and then at the pebbles around the lawn and the trees beyond the garden. The trees were mostly rowans and oaks, and during a night of sleeplessness that had occurred some months ago he had calculated the value of each to about six hundred ecos a year – taking into account such factors as sequestration of atmospheric carbon, electricity conservation through shading and wind reduction, interception of particulate matter, and raising property values through leaf surface area. He looked at them now, doing their part. It was a ballpark estimate, and something about it bothered him now. The leaves were moving in the light. He rose from his usual chair and took a few paces, frowning.

He had woken up with that ache again, the one behind his collarbones. Every morning for the past few weeks – a dull, familiar bruising. He took a few paces and stopped, absently rubbing around his neck, and then checked his phone to see the time. They would be here any minute. He turned to go back into the house, wondering if he should change his jumper. He thought the last time had gone quite well. Sophie had cooked them all a meal, and then he had taken Sasha to the multiplex to watch a film. The film had been a good idea, because it had given them shared points of reference. Even if they hadn’t discussed it – her mother had wanted her home straight after – Anders hoped the experience might connect them still.

The film had been about cartoon animals fleeing the effects of a supervolcano, but his recollection of the plot was vague. Some had escaped and some had perished, but he couldn’t remember how, or why, or what situation the animals had been in when the film ended. He thought back to Sasha’s face, impassive in the light of the screen, the way he had strained to look at her without her knowing he was looking. He hadn’t really been able to tell whether or not she’d enjoyed it.

He found himself at the end of the garden, and suddenly realised he was crying. Well, perhaps he wasn’t crying – but water was coming from his eyes, and he didn’t know how he had got there. He’d thought he was going into the house. He was going to change his jumper. Wiping with the backs of both hands, he realised he didn’t feel sad, could think of nothing to be sad about. Confused, he retraced his steps, and by the time he had reached the back door the phenomenon had ceased. He looked back towards the trees, the rowans and oaks holding and slowly increasing their value year by year, converting energy from the sun into fungible units of worth, diligently running through their economic functions.

Ironically, it was an economy he was no longer useful to, practically no longer part of. After all he’d done, he was finished now, relegated to the role of consumer – and these days, hardly even that. His consumption levels were negligible. When she had first visited here, a sort of preparatory check ahead of Sasha’s visit today, Sophie had accused him of being a hermit. Actually it felt as if every word she spoke to him, since she’d started speaking to him, was an accusation of some kind, and he’d long since abdicated the right to defend himself. He was in the house now, moving through his possessions. Evidence of former worldly engagement was displayed haphazardly: dusty flatscreen monitors from the days when he still traded from home, a few framed photographs dating back to the early Bang, technology he no longer noticed but most of which was worth many times the value of the trees outside. His jumper was draped on the back of a chair. He pulled it over his head and walked through the room putting it on, bumping into furniture. They would be here any minute. He checked his phone again.

There wasn’t much to do inside, so he returned to the garden. There was something about those trees, something he hadn’t yet got right. It bothered him and he didn’t know why. His collarbones still ached. He went to where the trees began and laid his hand on the nearest trunk, feeling the coolness of the bark and thinking automatically of the process of evapotranspiration cooling the air around his home, the calculations that flowed from that – suddenly he felt tired. He pressed his forehead to the trunk. An ecosystem service provider was fumbling a path through the branches, colliding with the lower leaves, heading to its next pollination event. He watched it stagger drunkenly, and felt a small surge of affection. As a younger man he had made, and lost, a large amount of money on pollinators, buying forest habitat credits on behalf of tropical coffee plantations – until commodity prices had plunged, the coffee was replaced by pineapple groves to which pollination services were an active hindrance, the forest ceased to serve any purpose and the credits had depreciated in value by tens of thousands of ecos. But he was young then, starting out – he bounced back from things like that. Was it affection he felt, or nostalgia? Sometimes he missed who he had been. The service provider went on its way. The day was warm, but wet weather was coming. Soon it would be redundant.

He realised he had got distracted, and retreated to the middle of the lawn in order to look at the trees as a whole. Six hundred a year, a rough calculation. But the oaks were surely worth more than the rowans, both in terms of services rendered, due to their greater size, and their leaf surface area appeal – maybe even cultural appeal. How to quantify that? He took a few paces back. One and a half rowans, say, might equate to a single oak – was that a permissible starting point? The canopies were starting to brown. A couple of leaves detached themselves from the branch he was looking at and made their slow way down to earth, and that was when it jolted him: never mind the conversion rate between trees, what was the value of a leaf? He felt a tingling of nerves. The sensation was deeply familiar but had the effect of making him nervous. Rapidly, as if to get the whole thing over with, he selected a sample branch and estimated the number of leaves on that, multiplied that by the number of branches – an even wilder estimate that gave him one hundred and eighty thousand – then divided six hundred into that. Point zero zero three three ecos, or point three three cents, per leaf. Approximately three leaves to the cent. Three hundred leaves to the eco. He felt slightly sick in the warmth of the day. He might have to take off his jumper. Stooping around the lawn he began to sort them into a pile, counting under his breath as he went, fifty-eight, fifty-nine… one hundred and twenty-six, one hundred and twenty-seven… two ninety-eight, two ninety-nine, one unit of natural capital… then he straightened up, feeling ridiculous. He knew he should turn around.

‘Dad.’ She was in the garden, wearing wellies and a purple coat. Sophie was watching from the door, and Anders had the immediate impression that Sasha had been silently coaxed to utter the first word of greeting – he imagined a series of urgent mimes taking place between them, Sophie encouraging, Sasha refusing, until her mother’s will won out. Now she had accomplished her task the girl was staring at her feet, her face vaguely worried.

‘What are you doing?’ Sophie asked.

‘Tidying leaves,’ he said. There was a moment of silence, during which he dropped some leaves. ‘How did you get here?’

‘We drove,’ Sophie said.

‘No, in the garden.’

‘The door wasn’t locked. We rang the bell, but you didn’t come. Sorry to barge in.’

‘Hello, Sasha,’ he said to his daughter. He bent at the knee and hugged her awkwardly, conscious of Sophie’s critical eye.

‘Hi,’ said Sasha again. She created a small smile.

Sophie came out, but there was no hug. Instead she touched him on the arm. ‘Shall we go inside?’ she said. ‘I’ve got stuff to make sandwiches.’

‘I bought her a present.’

‘Tell her, not me.’

‘I bought you a present.’

‘Thank you,’ said Sasha. But once they were inside the house he forgot where it was – even what it was. He was feeling unpleasantly warm again, but didn’t want to remove his jumper for fear his shirt might smell of sweat. Sophie had gone into the kitchen and was slicing bread for sandwiches. Her apparent familiarity with his home seemed less personal than professional, like a social service provider doing a house call.

Sasha sat on the edge of the sofa, her wellies dangling over the floor. Anders liked seeing her there, but he didn’t know what to say to her.

‘How are you?’ he asked, hovering near.

‘I’m okay.’

‘How’s school?’

‘It’s okay. I like Mrs MacGregor.’ She thought for a while. ‘I don’t like games.’

‘We’re going for a walk.’

‘I know.’

‘Are you driving there?’ asked Sophie, bringing a carrier bag full of sandwiches and other things. She was facing him, but he knew that her eyes were peripherally focused on the room, evaluating the conditions of his life. He wished he’d remembered to clean up a bit.

‘No, it’s just along the road. An area of low quality indigenous… outstanding… natural habitat.’ The words were getting mixed up before they reached his mouth. Sophie was looking at him oddly. ‘A woodland, woods,’ he managed to say, but it came out strangled.

‘Are you alright?’ she asked at the door, when Sasha had gone on ahead. ‘You seem a bit… distracted, or something. If this isn’t a good time…’

‘I’m fine. It is a good time.’

‘We can do this another weekend.’

‘Really, I’m looking forward to it.’

‘Try to relax. She’s just a bit shy. She wants to like you, you know.’

They felt like the nicest words she had said to him for a long time, but immediately he wasn’t sure. What did that mean, exactly? Anyway, there were no more concessions, and when they parted at the car her eyes were distant and alert. She kissed the top of Sasha’s head, told her she’d be back at three, nodded to Anders in a manner that seemed exaggeratedly formal, and a moment later the car was gone and father and daughter were standing alone.

‘Right,’ said Anders, pointlessly. A helicopter rattled overhead. Brown leaves descended from the trees, economic units that had served their usefulness.

***

They walked together side by side, Anders holding the carrier bag, Sasha scuffing in her boots which were a little oversized, past the golf course, the ice hockey centre and a pre-developed development site, until they reached the start of the trees. Protected Natural Habitat Area was displayed on the entrance sign, and a system of green stars indicated its biological, cultural/recreational and sequestration values, none of them especially high – in fact, Anders thought some were lower than when he last came here. Beyond the car-park two square posts indicated the starting points of the Common Toad and Hedgehog Trails, each with its cartoon representation of the indigenous creature in question, along with statistics about the various services they provided. The common toad wore sunglasses, and the hedgehog had a little hat. Wood-chip pathways sliced through the trees in two different directions.

‘Which way shall we go?’ asked Anders.

Sasha shrugged.

‘Which one do you like the look of most?’

She pointed to the one in the hat. ‘Are there hedgehogs?’ she asked with hope.

‘Theoretically there could be,’ he said as they set off down the path. ‘That is, it’s a suitable habitat. But I don’t know much about their habits or current distribution. We might not actually see them.’ Sasha didn’t respond to this. He wished he was better at talking to children. The path was wide enough to walk abreast but she seemed to want to walk slightly behind him, and they progressed like this for a couple of minutes without saying anything more. He analysed the quietness, and didn’t think it felt so bad – it was better to walk in silence, at least, than sit in silence in a room. The ache beneath his collarbones seemed to have subsided.

They wouldn’t see hedgehogs here, he knew. There weren’t enough green stars. These woods were less than ten years old – some of the smaller trees still wore protective mesh cylinders, though what they were protection against he wasn’t entirely sure. These twelve hectares of medium to low quality habitat had been forested by a soft drinks company, offset against a single hectare of rare/endangered species habitat somewhere in Spain, he seemed to recall, which the company needed to develop – he couldn’t remember the species involved, but thought it was some kind of snail. He knew this because he’d taken an interest when the deal went through. He’d long been out of the game by then, but the existence value of a natural habitat area near his home had been higher than he’d anticipated – although of course there was no telling how long its existence might actually last. Like everything else in the world, it was only waiting its turn.

One hectare for twelve, he thought to himself. It seemed scarcely credible now. He couldn’t even begin to guess what the rate might be in today’s climate, the markets booming and crashing with increasing randomness, positive feedback mechanisms kicking in all over the place. He couldn’t keep up with it any more. It wasn’t like in the early days, when things had at least been predictably unstable. It was a different market now. It no longer made any sense.

The woods were quiet, apart from the sound of traffic rushing down the nearest road. Service providers of various kinds were active in the undergrowth, and intermittent birdsong added further bioacoustic appeal. He realised he had dimly imagined the little girl would be somehow running, jumping over water features, chasing fritillaries. He felt very anxious all of a sudden. He listened to her dutiful footsteps on the path behind, the rustle of her jacket as she moved her arms. What was she thinking?

‘Do you like it here?’ he asked.

‘It’s pretty,’ she said.

Anders felt a wave of relief quite out of proportion to her words – he felt almost dizzy with it. ‘It is,’ he said. ‘I’m glad we agree. Pretty places are very important. They have high recreational value, some might even say spiritual value. The world would be a worse place without them.’

There was silence again after that. He wished she would start a conversation for once, so it wasn’t always down to him. But that was ridiculous, she was only nine years old. He tried to picture himself through her eyes: an awkward stranger who was attempting, for reasons she probably didn’t understand, to fit himself inside her life where he hadn’t fitted before. Uncomfortably dressed, unapproachably tall, seemingly incomprehensible. She wanted to like him, Sophie had said. And he wanted her to like him too. If both of them wanted the same thing, then surely it couldn’t be so hard. What had Sophie said about him? Did she know the mistakes he’d made?

He was pretty sure she knew nothing about him – about who he was, or who he had been. How could she be expected to know? Her rubber boots scrunched on the path. There was a pigeon somewhere. The trees were spindler round here, the foliage less mature – through the regular spacing of trunks, the ice hockey centre was visible metallically looming past the woods. He had walked this path dozens of times, and never noticed it before. How many visits, he wondered, to a medium to low quality habitat might equate to a single visit to a pristine boreal forest? Was there a qualitative rate of exchange – the way that, in a bygone age, two pilgrimages to certain shrines had been worth one pilgrimage to Rome? It was the kind of thing he’d once have discussed in the bar after work, a half-forgotten lifetime ago.

Twenty years ago, even ten. He found it almost impossible reaching his mind back to those times. His daughter might see him as shabby and odd, but he’d been part of something great. Someday, when she was older, he’d explain it all to her – how his generation had opened the world, how they’d changed everything.

Seized with sudden urgency, he opened his mouth to tell her this – but could find no starting point. He cleared his throat instead, squeezed shut his eyes. The problem was, his head got so full – he had to make a conscious effort to simplify the complexity. He found that his breath was short. The ache had returned.

Presently they came to a stream, not much more than two foot wide, with a sign that detailed its provisioning, regulating and recreational services scored by the usual green stars, which he didn’t look at. The water was spanned by a little bridge, and as they stepped onto the bridge Anders, in a kind of desperate inspiration, reached down and took his daughter’s hand. He amazed himself with this action – he had done it without thinking. Sasha’s fingers stiffened in shock. She didn’t pull away, at least. He realised his heart was beating fast, pounding beneath his shirt – this is ridiculous, he thought. But he felt very pleased.

‘It’s nice to see you,’ he said. ‘It’s nice to go for a walk with you. I know you don’t always… understand me. I mean, I try to make myself clear. But you’ll get to know me, and I’ll get to know you. Our relationship will progress. It will get better and better…’

Silence. Of course there was silence – what possible answer could she give? Her shyness and embarrassment were like a cloud keeping pace with her, as his own kept pace with him, moving at the speed of travel. But she didn’t pull away. They walked on for a while like this as the trail looped through the planted woods, and, not wanting to say any more, he silently counted the steps they took. It averaged at one and a half of hers to every one of his.

***

They ate their designated picnic in the designated picnic area, where wooden tables and benches were set alongside recycling bins shaped like hedgehogs and common toads. They were near the edge of the woods again, within proximity of the road, but the trees were rustling with wind energy so the traffic was less audible than it had been before. Anders sat on one side of the table, and Sasha on the other. The picnic was comprised of cheese and pickle sandwiches, trail mix, chocolate bars, banana yoghurts and carton drinks. Anders wasn’t remotely hungry, but Sasha consumed her share with quiet diligence. He offered her his chocolate bar, but she shook her head and averted her eyes in a manner that seemed almost chaste.

‘It’s meant to be for you,’ she said.

He put it in his top pocket.

Despite the fact he had held her hand, which made him glow when he thought of it, he still didn’t know what to say to her, how to keep a conversation running beyond the initial sentences. He had no practice with her at all. She looked so much like her mother, so little like him – although perhaps he didn’t have the ability to judge. He hadn’t known her for the greater proportion of her life. He had sent cards, of course, birthday and suitable seasonal presents, and he had paid the appropriate legal share towards her upbringing. But until very recently, when Sophie’s force of will had impelled them back into contact, he had accepted the fact of his daughter’s existence only in the abstract. Part of him had assumed he deserved this – part of him had been happy to escape. Now the gratitude he felt was rather startling.

It was already too late, he supposed, for his presence to ever seem normal to her. She understood the world through his absence – this condition was fixed in her now, and probably could not be changed, no matter how many recreational walks they might engage in. Shifting baseline syndrome was what they called it once. What you consider normal as a child is what you consider normal as an adult, whether your background habitat is severely degraded or anything else. Certainly his own baseline had shifted more than once in his lifetime – for two decades he’d managed to keep pace with it, the peak and plateau of his career, before that grand systemic wobble that had ended everything. He could hardly claim to be keeping up now, keeping up with any of it – a hermit, Sophie had said. Was that a joke? He supposed it was funny, considering the intricate involvement of his life before. But the system had grown too complicated. His course over the last few years was less a retreat than a simplification.

He watched his daughter as she ate, secretly, as if looking for clues. She was a self-contained unit, an existence entirely separate from his. She was wearing a purple coat. She had banana yoghurt at the corner of her mouth. The merest fact of her sitting there was astonishing to him. He felt a small pulse of despair: surely he would never understand her life, as she would never understand his. Today he might be obsolete, a historical irrelevance in the Green Bang’s fading afterglow – but, once upon a time, he had added value to the world. That was the worth of his life, no matter what her mother might say.

It was the last great liberalisation, deregulation’s final frontier. He had started off in carbon credits, like most of his contemporaries, buying and selling the right to emit sanctioned units of pollution. It was hardly groundbreaking work, but the theoretical sleight of hand that such an industry involved – transforming a negative externality into a tradable asset – had put him in a good position to expand into the other derivative markets taking shape at the time: pollination service provision, biodiversity offsetting, riparian and wetland banking, endangered species credits. He had been in the right place at the right time. All he had done, along with perhaps a thousand other bright young things in no more than half a dozen fortuitously placed companies, was to take the next logical step. The dominant global trend was comprehensive deregulation – the climate was highly favourable. He made good money. He travelled a lot. It was around this time he’d met Sophie. There was a sense that the world was changing, that he was a part of that change. How many people could say that, looking back on their lives? Once natural units were quantified, once they were fully fungible, it became possible to trade across different markets – to exchange endangered species credits, say, for carbon equivalent or peat bog futures, depending on the market rate. As more and more assets of natural capital were absorbed and integrated, there was exponential expansion. A critical mass was achieved: the green economy exploded. He and Sophie were living together. His office overlooked the Thames – itself transformed, in the new paradigm, from a greasy tidal river to a super-prime provisioning and regulating water service provider. He was one of the Men Who Sold the World, as the media unimaginatively had it. He and Sophie argued a lot. The market grew to include streams and mountains, icecaps, wetlands and high chaparrals, every conceivable biotic unit from apex predators to bottom-feeders. Speculation had even begun on complex systems such as ocean currents, forest biomes, mycelium networks, wholesale ecosystems – there was no upper limit. He was a high-net-worth individual. Of course, there were warning signs. Was Sophie pregnant around then? It was all a little disordered.

When things had gone wrong, they had gone wrong fast. Anders couldn’t actually recall… he felt very tired all of a sudden. The day was warm, and leaves were falling. Sasha still had banana yoghurt at the corner of her mouth.

‘Dad?’ She was glancing down into her hand at what he realised was a mobile phone. ‘Mum wants to know what time we’ll be back.’

‘Oh.’ It was an effort to think. ‘What… what time is it now?’

‘It’s twenty to three. She’s coming at three.’

‘Oh. Yes. We’ll be home by then.’ He watched as her thumbs tapped out a message. It made her look unexpectedly older. He noticed, for the first time, that she had earrings in her ears, and wondered if they had been there before. ‘You have yoghurt…’ She raised her head. ‘Yoghurt, just beside your mouth.’

She wiped it away with a solemn expression, which made her look like a child again. She put the phone in her pocket. Anders slowly put the rubbish in the bag. A yoghurt pot. A small plastic spoon. It felt too soon to leave.

‘Sasha?’

‘Yes?’ Her solemnity grew, as if she sensed they were nearing that time – one of those adult conversations she’d probably learned to dread already. A siren whooped once, far away. She sat there very still.

‘There was a time, before you were born, when a tree was just a tree… that’s all it was, just that. And it was the same for other things. A mountain, a waterfall and a blade of grass were once just a mountain, a waterfall and a blade of grass. A bee was once just a bee. There was no reason for them.’

She gazed at him with worried eyes. He knotted his hands on the picnic table and concentrated on the words, on simplifying the complexity.

‘And even longer before you were born – before there were any bees, or dinosaurs, or single-celled organisms, or anything else you might have heard about – the world itself, the planet we live on, that had no reason either. It was only a ball of minerals waiting for something to happen to it, for something to give it meaning.

‘Then people came along, and for a long time they had no meaning either – they just happened to exist, like all the other things. But eventually, people gained reason. They learned how to value each other. Then they learned how to value the things around them – the trees, the waterfalls, the bees, the very world they lived on. Everything was given a purpose that it didn’t have before. Now, nothing exists for no reason, everything is working together – it’s a functioning part of a system that makes people happier. Of course, things go up and down, that’s part of the natural cycle – you’ll understand this some day. But the world has gained… a kind of reason, just like people once did. They used to call this Gaia. Well, we gave Gaia currency. Sasha, do you know what value is?’

It wasn’t a question, and she didn’t answer.

‘It’s another word for meaning. The higher the value, the higher the meaning. The meaning of the world is the total value of the world, all its units added up – all its leaves, its blades of grass, its reserves and its carbon sinks, its networks, systems, processes… everything together.’ Anders took a steadying breath. His hands felt rather far away, and something was happening to his eyes – a familiar throbbing. Sasha hadn’t spoken, hadn’t moved. Wind energy was stirring the trees, rustling the natural capital. Everything would be alright. ‘Sasha, value is the same as love. How can we love what has no value? That is to say… what I mean…’ The phenomenon was occurring again. Water was coming from his eyes, turning the world into rainbow prisms, yet once again he did not feel sad – instead, he felt quite elated. He wiped and snorted, and managed to say, ‘I value you very much,’ before covering up his face and breathing wetly into his hands. He stayed that way for a while.

When he had taken his hands away, Sasha was no longer at the table. But she hadn’t gone very far. Blearily he made her out, over by the recycling bins. He rose a little unsteadily and made his way to join her.

Hey. It’s alright,’ he said.

‘I know.’

‘Everything will be fine.’

She shrugged unhappily. She looked even more like a child.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Clearing up. It’s ten to three. Mum’s coming at three.’

‘Yes, we should be getting back.’ He watched as she separated the rubbish and fed it through the appropriate mouths, paper and cardboard in the hedgehog, plastic in the common toad. The colours stood out bright and strong. The hedgehog looked very brown, and the toad looked very green. Even after this natural habitat area had been exchanged, its services transposed to another sector of the world, Anders knew this was one of those moments that he would always remember.

***

Sophie’s car was in the drive, and she was sitting by the door. She gave Anders a funny look, but didn’t say anything. They went inside, and Anders made tea. They drank the tea in the living room. Sasha had a fizzy drink instead. Sophie asked Sasha if she’d enjoyed the walk, and she said that she had. The woods were pretty, she said again. They talked about this and that.

‘I’ll ring you,’ Sophie said as they left. ‘Look after yourself.’

‘Thanks for having me,’ said Sasha. They hugged on the step.

Two minutes after they’d gone, Anders remembered the present he’d bought. But by the time he’d located it, in a bag hanging on the kitchen door, the car had disappeared from the drive. It was a woolly hat and gloves, with animals knitted in – bobbly penguins and polar bears, grey things that were likely seals. It would have to wait until next time. Anyway, it was too warm.

He went upstairs and had a shower, then dressed again in the same set of clothes. There was mud on the trouser legs. He made his way back downstairs. He felt something against his chest and discovered the chocolate bar in his pocket, not melted yet, but on its way. He unwrapped it standing up, gazing around the familiar room. Dark, heavy furniture, expensive but a little worn. On the shelf, a squeezy rubber globe he’d once had on an office desk. He wandered to the garden again and took a seat in his usual chair. The rowans and oaks bordered the lawn. He slowly consumed the chocolate bar, watching the trees and the light.

He hadn’t finished the story, of course. Sophie would probably do it for him, one of these days when Sasha was grown – when their relationship involved more than watching cartoon films and going on recreational walks. She would tell the other side, if Sasha didn’t know it already. But at least he had attempted to give her the bigger picture.

It was all a little disordered. When things had gone wrong, they had gone wrong fast – or perhaps they’d been going wrong for a while. He’d already moved out by then. A temporary thing, as he recalled – they couldn’t be in the same house together. The baby was due in several months, and he couldn’t think of that. There was a downturn in floodplain banking that was concerning, but manageable. A few analysts were warning that rainforest credit ratings in certain sectors of the market were unrealistically high, that low quality assets had been parcelled up with higher ones, but these concerns were ignored. There had been warning signs, but he hadn’t paid attention.

It was commonly said that no-one saw it coming, but that wasn’t entirely true. Some people had seen it coming, as some people always did. Some people made outrageous fortunes, as some people always did. A few canny hedge funds made a killing – humans were an infinitely adaptive species, after all. He just hadn’t been one of them when positive feedback mechanisms turned millions of square miles of rainforest into tinder in an astoundingly short space of time, wiping billions of ecos off the market – sequestration, species, services, existence, the whole portfolio. The Amazon Basin Credit Crash, as it was later to be known, precipitated the other collapses: icecap reserves, coral reef futures, a whole raft of obscure derivatives like Sahel desertification mitigation credits, some of which he’d never even heard of – everything was interlinked. He hadn’t moved fast enough. He had been wiped out.

Of course it wasn’t the end of the world. A rush immediately began on remaining forest credits, in what was left of Indonesia and Congo, while the released option value of the desiccated Amazon created entirely different bubbles for a new generation of bright young things to make their fortunes on. That was part of the rise and fall, the natural rhythm of capital. Even then, with everything gone, Anders could have got back in the game. But something fundamental had changed. The Amazon crash spelled the end of that phase of multiplying possibilities that seemed to have no limitation, and expansion had been replaced by horse-trading over what was left. It was a new financial climate, one he did not understand. Once-dependable carbon stocks disappeared in a puff of smoke, species banks of least concern suddenly plunged into negative value, speculation grew ever more wild – things were not predictable. The baseline had skewed too far, and he had not adapted.

Anders removed his shoes and his socks, spread his long toes on the lawn. The blades of grass tickled his feet. His generation had opened the world. No-one could take that away from him. He stared at the lawn, his vision drifting from the nearest blades of grass to the grass that spread beyond his feet, softening and widening, speckled with lurid dandelions, until his focus slipped and all he could see was green. The effect was a bit like going blind, or what he imagined might be the first second of the realisation of blindness occurring. The greenness was entirely abstract, not a colour but a sensation – stripped of meaning, stripped of value. It was the outermost edge of panic. He held it as long as he could.

The garden came into focus again, dazzlingly sharp and defined. Nothing had changed. There was no going back. He watched the trees. He watched the light. He finished the last of the chocolate bar. The ache was behind his collarbones, and the leaves were falling.

This story was originally commissioned by TippingPoint Weatherfronts: Climate change and the stories we tell, supported by the Free Word Centre. You can download the full PDF of the Weatherfronts commissions here.

Nick Hunt is a writer and storyteller, co-editor of the Dark Mountain books, and editor of this blog. His website is nickhuntscrutiny.com

Sheds and Stars: Another Sideways Look at the Housing Crisis

trees 2

Life is exactly the way I want it. I get up early and sit on my own all day scratching with a pencil and typing and running and reading and not answering the telephone. Thanks to a grant from the Society of Authors worth six months of gardening, I am donating the next portion of my life to writing about my shed and other shed-related issues. Like ecological obliteration, the housing crisis and stars.

I haven’t actually seen the shed in months. I have no way of knowing for sure if it exists. I am holed up animal-sitting on a small farm in Wales, being so existential I sometimes wonder if I exist. The geese seem to think I do, and the chickens, and the peacocks. They queue up outside the kitchen door every morning and honk at me until I get to my feet and chuck stale bread at them. Sometimes I accidentally hit them with it. They jump and squawk in shock. I seem to be trying to kill them. On the other hand I have bread. Life is risk. Even at breakfast.

The animals belong to a pair of doctors who are volunteering in Africa. As well as animals, they keep books. There are several whole rooms full of them, arranged by subject. There are books on philosophy, religion, chess, Marx, self-sufficiency, stars. I accidentally picked up a book on stars. It began with the following sentence:

Every atom in our bodies was once part of a star.

Another once, when I lived in a tent and was nursing a broken heart, I had temporary ownership of a rusting bucket somebody had found on the beach. Every night I put it in the doorway of the tent and lit a candle in it. The shadows of the light through the holes in the bucket made stars on the canvas above me. I loved that rusting bucket. I couldn’t sleep without it.

While I was living in the tent and crying my way through time somebody tried to comfort me. They said life was nothing more or less than a long process of letting go. I was in my early twenties and wanted to punch them. Then the person who had found the bucket came home and took it back and lost it.

These days I can’t sleep for the ache of time passing.

moon

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I get up and go outside. From inside, outside seems scary, like the black darkness on the edge of the ring of light made by a torch. But if you turn the torch off you can look at the stars. Or the stars can look at you. They can beam their light into your eyeballs from outer space until you can’t stand it anymore and go back inside.

From a certain angle starlight is the ache of time passing. Some of the stars that are watching me are actually dead. Burnt-out wrecks, like cars at the bottom of a gully. The past arriving through infinite space and parking in my eyes while I’m trying to keep my balance on the icy surface of a ball of fire as it hurtles the cutting edge of nothingness at 67,000 miles per hour. Nobody said this was going to be easy. Nobody said anything. Here we are.

Inside it’s tomorrow.

My mind can go great distances while my body is sitting quietly at a table. The table itself is a whirling constellation of atoms. In their electromagnetic way atoms resemble miniature solar systems, the nucleus lording it like the sun in the centre. Atoms cannot be cut, but they are easy to draw. Drawing atoms is one of the few things I remember from school science lessons. It’s been very helpful.

I can draw stars too. I am terrible at drawing. But I can draw how space and time and death and the endless conservation of energy look on the inside of my own eyelids, in a way that you will recognise. But you’ve been there. We’ve all been there.

Every atom in our bodies was once part of a star.

This is a matter of fact. A fact of matter.

I have no idea what to do about my new-found stardom. I have animals to feed. The stars are glowing above me in the sky. Beneath me, packed into the ice, are more stars. Stars trapped inside bubbles. Bubbles trapped inside ice. The bubbles reflect the starlight back to the stars. I’m stuck in the middle with you.

I go to try to shut the geese in so the fox doesn’t eat them. All three of us fall over and slide comically down the hill towards the frozen pond. They have wings, which helps, but not much.

This afternoon I went skating on a frozen puddle in the mountains. I’ve never tried skating before. I could only do it when I didn’t think about it. If I thought about it I tensed up and fell down. On our way back there was a magnificent burning sunset. We stopped the truck and got out and stared at it for a while, helplessly.

The sun is our nearest star. We would fry if the sun was a fraction closer and we would freeze if it was a fraction further away. The ecology of the sun is very delicate. A weirdly precise gravity/temperature/pressure love triangle that somehow stops it collapsing in on itself. The sun has been burning for four and a half billion years. We’re not exactly sure how, and we have absolutely no idea why.

But it was a fun afternoon trying to walk on ice, balanced on the edges of knives.

The horses can’t walk on ice any better than I can, or they won’t, unless I grab them by the hair and pull them. Then they come easily, metal-shod feet sliding outwards like a cartoon. They think I know what I’m doing. I try not to fall over where they can see me. I don’t want them to feel unsafe.

I have never touched a star. I hear they shine even when there are clouds and I can’t see them, or when I’m facing the wrong way. I hear they’re still up there, shining. Friends tell me my shed is still there, too. Still standing. This is good to know.

Back at the table in the house of books I keep scratching pictures of stars. It’s easier than trying to make sense of anything. Easier than trying to unravel the socio-political context of living in a shed. Easier than the long process of letting go. Easier than Life on Earth.

Earth is inhospitable in places. She floods and storms and shakes herself like a wet dog and trees fall down and crush lorries. She pukes magma and cracks open in awkward places and buildings fall into the cracks. She’s wild and beautiful and economically outmoded, insisting that decay is worth as much as growth. She’s a dream and a trip and a cold-blooded killer. She proliferates disease, grows cacti and laughs in the face of Health and Safety.

My shed is inhospitable at times. It blows like a treehouse and clatters like a horse. Rats chew their way through the thin walls when they think I’m not looking. It rots and leaks and forces me to keep a cordless drill and a broken air rifle, which is not safe for anybody. You can’t lock it in summer and the door won’t open in winter. But none of that matters very much. What matters is that I have a home, and that I can see the stars from it.

My shed-home is part of my love triangle of freedom/security/growth. One of the forces that stops me collapsing in on myself while I’m hitch-hiking round the galaxy on a pair of imaginary wings and a bucketload of prayers, hoping not to be chucked off until I’m old enough to deal with my own disintegration.

Confusing home with money represents a lack of intelligence. The housing crisis is just another manifestation of our massive collective blind spot; a loss of ability to read what is written in the stars. ‘An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth – in short, materialism– does not fit into this world’ wrote Schumacher, who also noticed that ‘The stillness following liberation – even if only momentary – produces the insights of wisdom which are obtainable in no other way.’

My shed shines with stillness.

Into the stillness comes the first star I see tonight. I wish upon that star that you too may have a shed. To write your books and bring up your children. To store your rusty buckets and pin up your star drawings. To feel the ache of time passing and be humbled by the setting of the sun. To rest your weary dreams and wash your dusty feet.

This is not, as a matter of actual fact, too much to wish for. As a matter of actual fact, this isn’t a housing crisis. It’s a hoarding crisis. A crisis of trust and power and politics, not supply. Like all our man-made crises. Earth may be volatile, but she’s generous to a fault. There are more than enough houses to go around. According to a recent article in The Guardian, there are about 700,000 ‘long-term empty’ homes in the UK, calculated from local authority council tax data. Overall, and not counting sheds, there are roughly 66 million bedrooms to be shared between 55 million people, and you’d hope that at least some of them would be having sex.

And so, when I later see a shooting star, I wish that those who have taken too many sheds may be granted the wisdom to understand that no amount of extra sheds will ever make them safe. In fact it’s the exact opposite. The more the gulf widens, the more the social fabric cracks apart and the ecological carpet is worried to threads, the more time we spend gazing at bank statements instead of stars, the more likely it is that we will break our cosmic love triangle and collapse into the black hole of obliteration.

And that would be a shame.

Because it’s quite fun trying to walk on ice.

Until it melts away.

skate 3

Catrina Davies is a writer, songwriter and surfer based in Cornwall, UK. She is the author of The Ribbons are for Fearlessness and the accompanying Ribbons EPShe is currently deep in the writing of her second book, a non-fiction fairytale about living in a tin shed – Walden for the twenty-first century – which will also be accompanied by an EP. She is the recipient of a K.Blundell award. catrinadavies.co.uk @_CatrinaDavies

Activists (what the hell do we do?)

In October 2012, Greenport Forum, a neighbourhood climate action group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, met to discuss an essay written and distributed in advance by a member, Steve Wineman. Each activist responded in turn to the essay and to his focal question: How do you feel about what’s happening to the world?

The discussion was videotaped and transcribed by Lydia Eccles, participant-observer/test human for Universal Aliens, a transcendental phenomenological research entity that studies the human experiment. 

The following is an edited transcript.

0 Steve Wineman

Steve Wineman: My intention is not to disparage climate activists who believe it’s still possible to avert catastrophe and are putting enormous energy into that. It’s simply to put out a different perspective. Here are some of the major things I see on the ground.

Atmospheric greenhouse gases measured by carbon are now approaching 400 ppm [As of May 2015, this benchmark has already been reached — Ed.]. The uppermost safe limit that climate scientists have identified is 350 ppm. It keeps going up. And it’s not even clear that 350 ppm is safe.

Even as carbon and greenhouse gases are going into the atmosphere, carbon sinks are shrinking. So the capacity of the earth to pull carbon back out of the atmosphere is going down.

The already-drastic climate changes we currently see are impacts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere roughly thirty years ago — around 350 ppm. Even if we reversed direction on a dime, negative impacts on climate would continue for another thirty years. This time lag, coupled with positive feedback loops, is dire.

Arctic ice is melting. White ice reflects sunlight, dark ocean water absorbs it. The more Arctic water, the more heat you’re absorbing, which furthers warming, which furthers melting, which furthers warming. Another critical feedback loop is the thawing of permafrost, which seals in huge amounts of carbon and methane — two, three times as much as the total emitted in the last hundreds of thousands of years. Permafrost is melting. Scientific expeditions — the first in 2008 — are finding methane bubbling up in huge swaths of the Arctic. While methane has a much shorter lifespan than carbon, it is roughly twenty-five times more potent as a greenhouse gas. Feedback loops, potentially far more potent than our current emissions, also keep escalating over that period of thirty years.

This summer there was record heat, record drought and massive ongoing fires. Two thirds of this country was in drought conditions with severe impacts on food production; there are ongoing issues with growing water scarcity worldwide; and record melting of Arctic sea ice — in expanse and density; record surface ice sheet melt on Greenland. Just off the chart! If the Greenland ice sheet goes, projections in the rise of sea level are twenty feet, which clearly puts us — and many coastal areas all over the world — under water. I think that’s probably enough… [laughter] …to paint the picture, at least to my understanding, of the facts on the ground.

One thing has happened in the last — I don’t know how many — decades that has reduced carbon emissions globally: the great recession at its peak in 2009. That’s it! 2010, without even a robust economic recovery, emissions went back up 10%. For all the efforts so many of us — not just in this room, this state, this country, but globally — have been putting into fighting climate change, the only thing that has actually fought climate change effectively has been the biggest economic meltdown since the great depression. The idea that we could mount a movement to contract economies globally to fight climate change has no traction anywhere.

In my essay, I contrast constructive denial with destructive denial. Constructive denial is, in the face of terrible news, a determination to fight: Nelson Mandela in prison for twenty-seven years; people given death sentences by their doctors, who say, ‘No. That’s not my reality. And I’m going to beat this.’

In the heyday of print journalism there was an article in the Boston Globe about a guy who’d been given a death sentence by his doctor, some horrible cancer. He fought it; he took every drug, was willing to face any side effect. And he beat it. I was so moved that I cut this out and put it on my wall.

People who take that attitude now to climate catastrophe say — for everything I’ve ticked off — it’s not time to give up. Yes, it’s dire, maybe our chances are half of 1%, but if we, as climate activists, say ‘No, it’s impossible,’ we’re putting the last nail in the coffin.

The challenge I would put out to them is, absolutely! And what’s your strategy? What’s a scenario that still makes it possible? What’s a strategy that could mobilise the efforts that it would take, given the thirty-year lag, the positive feedback loops, the political climate? Help us understand how it is still possible! Constructive denial is not denial of reality. It’s a determination, given that reality, to find a way to beat it.

A few weeks after the story about the guy who beat cancer, there was a story about a woman with end-stage cancer who had made peace with death. She was getting ready to die and was just OK with it. I was so moved by that article that I cut it out and put it on the wall right next to the other one. So to frame our discussion tonight: when’s the time to keep fighting, and when’s the time to realise, fighting this is not in my interest?

What makes denial destructive? First, when we lie to ourselves. In terms of climate, saying, ‘I don’t care what all these facts are, we’ve still got to do this!’ How can you fight effectively if you’re disregarding the facts on the ground?

Second, being dishonest with others: ‘We can’t tell people how it really is — they’d get so discouraged they’d just stay home.’ In 2008 when methane was found bubbling up in the Arctic, Bill McKibben put out a mass email saying, ‘The Copenhagen conference at the end of 2009 is our last chance.’ It was a total bomb. Then he put out a piece saying, ‘If we don’t turn it around by 2012, we’re gone.’ Then Keystone was our last chance. And now fighting the oil companies is our last chance. You see what I’m saying! If the target keeps moving, the story keeps changing, you begin to feel manipulated. He’s a great guy, but he’s desperate and he’s just going to say whatever will mobilise people.

0A McKibben KeystoneBill McKibben

Third, depriving people of the opportunity to grieve.

How can we figure this out? When’s the time to keep fighting and when’s the time to start grieving? And if we accept catastrophe — how should we live the rest of our lives? Not only as individuals, but as a community? Because there are a lot of ways we can go down.

There are many scenarios for fighting over scarce resources, warlords, roving bands of displaced people… But there are other ways that we can go into catastrophe, if we mobilise ourselves to support each other and share resources and really, to do it right.

When I became fully aware of the horror of what we were facing, my son was in his teens. For six years I was in the place ofWe can’t let this happen.’ We had individual clusters of successes — we got the city council to recognise climate emergency and the mayor to call a climate emergency congress — we’ve done so many great things — but emissions keep going up! When that finally moved me to say, ‘It’s not going to happen,’ I thought I was going to go into a horrible depression. And I didn’t. It was the most unexpected thing. I actually felt better. And I am not a glass half-full kind of guy. At all.

Instead I found relief. I’d been carrying this impossible burden that was lifted from my shoulders. I started grieving, which wasn’t fun, but compared to the gut-clench of ‘We’ve gotta stop this, we’ve gotta stop this, we’ve gotta stop this…’ I started finding thoughts running through my head like, ‘I don’t know what my son’s life is going to be like in thirty years, but right now he’s having a really good life.’ It focused me on making the best possible use of the present.

We’ll have a go-round focused on a simple, straightforward question: How do you feel about what’s happening to the world?

1 speaker one

Speaker one: I’m a scholar of the deep state — the secret state-behind-the-state made up of elements within the Pentagon, the CIA and the multinational corporate elite. In the last half-dozen years the deep state has built fifteen or twenty large concentration camps in the US under FEMA’s administration.

Last year they issued the first Requests For Proposals for providing food services, supplies and all you’d need to operate a concentration camp. A law was just passed giving FEMA extraordinary powers for controlling and herding the population in the face of big, undefined disasters.

It’s my belief that the most powerful elements in the world agree completely with your remarks. And they don’t plan on sitting on their hands about it. They’re not about to institute solutions that would remove their power. But they will be perfectly willing to introduce solutions such as eliminating a third of the world’s population by untraceable diseases, or doing whatever the hell they think is necessary to save their own bacon.

Among the most powerful people on the planet, there are people drawing up contingency plans — right now! — for what they’re going to do about this global climate collapse that they think is coming. And it appears they think it’s coming in the not-too-distant future.

2 speaker two

Speaker two: It’s like science fiction when I let my mind run to what could happen; all I can really think about is how to do things locally. I have a one-year-old grandson, and I’m concerned about his life. That’s why I came tonight, just to see what people’s ideas were. I absolutely agree, I’m sure it’s out of all our control, actually…

Speaker one: I don’t think it’s out of our control at all…

Speaker two: Well, I do. And there’s one seemingly young person here; you all may be young at heart, but… So I’m also not sure what that means. We should be the first to go, shouldn’t we? Maybe we have to embrace it even more quickly to make room.

3 Leo

Leo: The essay drew me into finally seeing the thing as simply just another iteration of the problem of fruit flies in a jar. Our jar happens to be the planet, and we’ve fouled it. Well gee, what would — what should — an animal do when it has fouled its habitat? Does it just do whatever it wants, which is what any other animal does? What’s the right evolutional thing to do to save the species? Do you even want to save the species? It raises very interesting questions, some of which are addressed in a certain way by the first speaker’s comments.

4 speaker four

Speaker four: Leo and I have these conversations at breakfast almost every day. I’m more the Mrs. Half-Full and [he’s] Mr. Half-Empty. Just in that I act very locally and feel very strongly about some of the things I’m working on in a local capacity, particularly issues of access to food.

5 Lester

Lester: When I started with Greenport several years ago I was pessimistic about the big picture, but I felt it was important to do what we could locally; and I still feel that. It makes sense to both do all those little things to make our homes efficient, and maybe to do psychological preparation, as you talked about. Yet by my nature I tend to be optimistic, nevertheless, in the face of… whatever! Because of my engineering background, I have some optimism in solutions we maybe haven’t found yet. And human beings have a real hard time with predicting what’s going to happen in the future, so that leaves me a bit of room to be optimistic, in spite of all these difficulties.

6 speaker six

Speaker six: When I think about how complex this is, if you look at all aspects… Wow! [laughs] I don’t even know where to start! It’s scary to be aware of that; to feel I will never really understand this, grasp this… I do think it’s very important to work at the local level, still. Even if I don’t think we can avoid the biggest problems to come.

7 Rosalie

Rosalie: I’m not sure there are a lot of activists who still believe we can avert catastrophe. There’s this ‘How huge will the catastrophe be?’ kind-of-thing, and a lot of the so-called mitigation efforts are related to trying to lessen the catastrophe, not deny it.

It’s extremely important that we get in touch with our feelings. I’ve been focusing on providing opportunities for people to get together to mourn and express anger and let those feelings come out in a group situation; to breath through those into coming up with action based on reality. It’s related to the Buddhist model: take in sorrows and let them pass through you. That’s a healthy way to deal with it psychologically.

Because it is going to be really hard. Yeah, this is big, and it’s coming. The US Military thinks this is the biggest threat we face!

8 Sue

Sue: I never considered myself an activist and I never thought it was going make a big difference, so I’m not that cast down. However, I think the mitigation is really important. Because if you accept it’s going to happen, or is happening, then mitigation is vital to… make it better. And who knows what might be discovered? I’ve read far-out news articles about people thinking they’re going to reverse this by putting things in the ocean to sop up the carbon and stuff like that. It’s not like I think that’s really going to do it, but it’s not like I think it absolutely won’t do it either.

I don’t know where the neighbourhood comes in on this. It seems like a really global thing, and I just don’t know what a neighbourhood is going to do — besides come together to help each other — yes. But to do that in any circumstance; it wouldn’t just be around climate change.

9 Paul

Paul: One possibility is that there will be these positive feedback tipping points, but it’s also possible that we’ll get to a tipping point in public opinion, where it’s strong enough to cause effective political action. There’ll be a series of tactics to try and deal with this as the situation deteriorates. A lot of people are never going to give up, even when things seem irreversible. Drastic strategies! People will be working on drastic strategies, like the one you mentioned about the oceans. These could be done by a nation — China could do it — and even if other nations disagree, these solutions would still be tried. So it becomes very complicated.

But a lot of mitigation strategies are the same strategies we’d use to delay catastrophe, because that would give us more time to adapt — renewables, photovoltaics, things like that — and if done widely enough, might even avert it.

10 Sarah

Sarah: Historically I’ve been very discouraged about climate change. Your essay, Steve, made me start thinking about it in a different way. We’re building an energy efficient house out in the Berkshires; it will be net zero. And we’re getting a generator. Part of me resisted that. But when you have a well, if you don’t have electricity you have no water… except what happens to be in the pressure tank at the point when the electricity goes out. I didn’t want to have to worry about that.

We were driving around one night while electricity was out there, and only one house in the neighbourhood was lighted up — they must have a generator. I realised, if electricity went out for an extended time, if things start falling apart, we would have water… and that was something we could share. And I need to find more things like that.

11 Joanna

Joanna: For four years I focused on the coming climate change and then backed off from that; because what seems most important is to change the way people take responsibility for how things are working — the economy, the government. I don’t see much change happening in this country until we have a sort of a people’s revolution.

I’ve been working with the Green Rainbow Party. I don’t think the program our presidential candidate has, Green New Deal, is going to make a huge difference, but we also have ideas about localisation and people taking control of things themselves, delegating the government to do what they want it to do.

The thing in general is sad. But my actions no longer much relate to it.

12 Janet

Janet: We just moved and we’re really near the river. [laughter] And what can I do about that? Also I just came back from visiting my grandchild in California, who’s six. How to think about the world and the future with her in it? Is there going to be a future for her?

And not being able to talk — really — about what we’re all talking about, because I’m not sure how much the parents want to talk about things like that when they’re bringing up a little girl.

I wish our national leaders would realise they need to say something — publicly — because if they did people would mobilise. Like they did in the early seventies about the fuel shortage, when Nixon said, ‘I want everybody to carpool.’ My remembrance is that everybody tried to do that. So I bemoan the fact that hasn’t happened.

13 Ellen

Ellen: I refer to the first speaker here, about ominous schemes that are in process for troubles… national and local troubles, municipal troubles, national security taking over. Boston is advancing quickly on its adaptation studies and Cambridge has one ready for 2015. Unless we do the neighbourhood work, unless we are very bonded — calling it neighbourhood or just calling it enclaves of people who have a lot in common — national security will determine our future when we begin to have collapses and shortages. I don’t see our cities and towns coming up to the bat as they should.

We had a wonderful Cambridge Climate Conference that did not go anywhere. Still maybe we can have another one, now that we’ve come further along and realised limitations in how much we can change things. We have Hansen, the whole scientific community, now on board as to where we are headed. It’s still worth struggling, but that neighbourhood common group thing is absolutely going to be essential.

I recommend Norman Spinrad’s Greenhouse Summer. Talks about some of the things that have come to pass now? And it’s now not so much science fiction.

14 Bette

Bette: What we’re doing is radical in American culture, which forces us to always be upbeat. To actually be able to come out — come out! …interesting choice of words — is very liberating, because otherwise we’re forced to continually — at least I have felt forced to keep all this to myself.

In my regular life I’m not in a situation to introduce this topic to people. If there were a couple of us chatting, it’s just totally — you don’t want to mention it! Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book called Bright Sided. She tears apart the American culture of happiness and denial of anything unpleasant. To actually be able to sit together and deal with something unpleasant is a good place to start — and very supportive. I hope this is the beginning of a new grasp of reality.

15 Carolyn

Carolyn: There’s this wonderful effort on the community level, Cambridgeport. What’s the bigger picture? Since the presidential candidates have not dared mention the environment, and many conservatives deny that there is a problem? How are the people in this room connected to a larger, nationwide effort? Is there even a statewide effort of groups such as this? What kind of action is going to come out of a group like this, other than just telling our feelings?

I’m a person who likes to see some kind of an action plan, measurable objectives and a progression of some kind. It needs to be in the spotlight, on a national level, in a big way.

16 Polly

Polly: I appreciate everyone who’s come and shared their vision. It’s way too scary, this topic, to think cogently by ourselves. I can’t do it. I dare to hope that with a group like this and the connections we already have, we can discover ways a growing band of people can have the safety to actually face this. Then be open to the real mitigations that can happen.

17 Adam

Adam: What’s helped me is studying anthropology and the history of civilisations and how people have reacted to their varying human conditions. We’re perfectly capable of predicting what’s coming, because the pattern is consistent. Civilisations have always collapsed. They may have felt invulnerable up to that point, full of hubris and fascination with their own power; but it’s really laws of nature that say what you can do, where, and when.

Ecological overshoot is a common human condition; cultures large and small have done it. They’ve exceeded the capacity of the world that they’re in — their habitat — to support them. Then things fall apart. It happens over and over again. It’s a predictable pattern.

We aren’t in any way any different about that. Technology is, as far as I can tell, mostly fluff. It is part of the problem. Global warming is a technological phenomenon. And we’re stuck in it.

I take comfort in knowing everybody’s been through this. Cultures have collapsed. Some have had a great time on the way, but that’s the way life on earth is. I thank my billions of forebears for paving the way; and I’m part of that family.

18 John

John: People’s inability to deal with the emotional aspects of what climate change means is an important phenomenon. In public, you bring it up and people wince — not because they deny, but because you hit a nerve. I feel a responsibility — because I have grandchildren, or just as the kind of person I am — to do as much as I can to mitigate before I die.

But… what is that, that I do? I think — I wonder and I almost believe — that emotional connections are the most powerful way we can influence people. Where there are these deep emotions, if we don’t figure out how to use them to reach others, we’re missing an opportunity. A conversation with a daughter who’s just had a child — that’s the most difficult conversation I can imagine having. With two daughters who just had children, I think about this!

There are positive ways to tap our emotions, not just simply make people give up. Part of it is the belief that useful things can be done. Resolve — that’s something we can build together. That might be comforting to people, to see that there are others who are resolved to do what they can.

The fighting we’ve thought of has been associated with anger — being mad at the oil companies, mad at this person, mad at that. But there’s another aspect of fighting and that’s courage. When you’re afraid — historically and in many situations — the only way you can act is to have courage. Perhaps we can think how to cultivate courage; collectively or individually.

19 Randy

Randy: I’m 100% convinced that Steve is right about the direction things are going, in the short term. But I’m a person who tends to see the glass half-full, and I’m an engineer. Climate change is happening, things are going to get bad, but in a fluctuation way. It’s not going to go off a cliff immediately. It’s going to get bad, then a little better, then worse, then a little better.

I’m hoping the world will respond to one of the first bad things that happens; that we can switch away from these climate-intensive fuels to renewables. But it’s going to take a tragedy before people will wake up — an economic tragedy or a human tragedy. That will cause a reaction in the world.

It’s important to continue to act now, locally, to be in the vanguard for when the rest of the world is willing to follow. Which they’re not at right now.

20 Steve Wineman

Steve Wineman: [reading his essay’s epigraph]

Logic and sermons never convince.
The damp of night drives deeper into my soul.
(Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so. Only what nobody denies is so. )

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)

Steve Wineman is a writer, retired mental health worker, and a long-time social change activist. In 2006 he co-founded GreenPort, a climate action group in the Cambridgeport neighbourhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. After distributing his essay, Crossing the Chasm: From Denial to Acceptance of Climate Catastrophe, he received numerous requests for a public discussion of the ideas in the essay. In response, GreenPort held a forum on October 16, 2012 titled ‘Climate Catastrophe: Let’s Talk About It.’ Contact: steven.wineman@gmail.com

Lydia Eccles videotaped/edited the GreenPort conversation to create a booklet and 30-minute video entitled ACTIVISTS: what the hell do we do? She is test human/participant observer for Universal Aliens, a transcendental phenomenological research entity. Her recent documentary, COLLAPSE INTERVIEWS: A Gathering of People With Nothing In Common (2013, 127 min.) features interviews with non-activists as part of the UA Collapse Studies inquiry, ‘What is the human experience of living against an evolving backdrop of warnings of impending catastrophe?’

To contact or request DVDs, email universalaliens@hotmail.com

COLLAPSE INTERVIEWS poster

Choosing Living Over Life

For Kate

Liminal Scrim

In the morning,
to the deeply resonant sound of the Vedas,
they go looking for prints.
To place their fear.

But no trace can be found.

The night before,
the sound of the wolf,
yards away,
made a tear in the liminal scrim.

Bringing them closer to Her.

The next day,
the foxes grainy bark, grates.
Later that night,
the local dogs sound like wolves.

***

The Owl is Nothing Without its Prey

At the moment of death I am yours.
Without my surrender your claws grasp only the yew.
Without me your hollow screech echoes through the snow blasted pine.
Claim me!
You starving, lonely, bitter huskofabird.

***

Where the Breath Turns

The doe lowers her head to drink at the stream,
giving only her mouth to the water.
The rest of her inhabiting the land all around.

Only sleepy humans see all of her down by the stream.

Doe and wolf already feel her in his belly.

After the death of David’s wife, nearly three years ago, poetry began to pour out. A portal opened… a spring appeared. He writes in and through nature… birds, especially black birds, are ever present. He attempts to live in this mythopoetic reality in everyday life… a daily spiritual practice.

David is a father to three children and also works as a psychotherapist and teacher.

Finding Magic in the World

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image © Karen Snyder

The Oldest Tree in New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why No Folk Musicians Vote Tory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sailing for Mares

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

I.

By dusk, our ships had filled with stallions.

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

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

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

So we sailed for mares.

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

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

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

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

We could already feel them.

II.

We found them on an island of ice.

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

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

We wanted earth and they were water.

We wanted roots and they were veins.

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

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

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

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

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

Bluer than juniper, than lapis, than the seas.

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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