The Dark Mountain Blog

Extending the Glide: An interview with Jem Bendell

Flooded intersection of Eagle and Charlotte Streets, Brisbane, 2011 (Image: Andrew Kesper)

Flooded intersection of Eagle and Charlotte Streets, Brisbane, 2011 (Image: Andrew Kesper)

I first met Professor Jem Bendell at a festival in the middle of a Swedish forest. This was back around the beginning of the 2010s, and he wasn’t a professor in those days, and to be honest we didn’t find that much in common.

The festival was called Future Perfect. The organisers had brought together sustainability thinkers, ecologically-minded designers, organic food entrepreneurs and a whole smorgasbord of buzzwords. At several points, I was provoked into forceful interventions, which led to the invention of the role of ‘difficultator’ – a kind of anti-facilitator or heckler-in-residence – in which capacity they invited me back the following year.

My impression of Jem from that event was of a big NGO, sustainable development, Corporate Social Responsibility guy. He was living in Geneva, working as a consultant to the UN. He’d done things: the Marine Stewardship Council was one of his projects, and he’d been in at the beginning of the UN Global Compact. He was all about getting big business to drive sustainability. He struck me as driven, ambitious, serious, but I didn’t get much sense of someone wrestling with the existential implications of the mess in which we find ourselves. And fair play, he was too busy for that.

So it came as a surprise when we crossed paths again last year and he told me that Dark Mountain had been much on his mind. I’d been aware of the ripples made by a keynote that he had given at a climate change conference in Australia, setting out an agenda for what he calls Deep Adaptation, based around the three ‘R’s of Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration. It’s been picked up in places like the Planet B festival in Peterborough last summer and a forthcoming season of events at the NewBridge Project in Newcastle – while Charlotte Du Cann wrote about it in the call for submissions for the next Dark Mountain book.

When I caught up with Jem over Skype a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d been struck by how far he had travelled since our first meeting, so I was curious to know what had set him on that journey.

JB: I gave my inaugural professorial talk in March 2014 at a big literary festival in Cumbria. I’d already become aware of some of the latest science on climate change, so I decided to frame sustainability as an adventure – to say that we have to let go of our incremental, non-ambitious, conformist approaches. I gave a speech about that, because it was a frame that could be palatable to my colleagues, my employer, my academia and my audience. But I was coming down with the flu during the speech. And for the week after, I was in bed ill.

There’s something emotional about a conclusion – that’s what you do in an inaugural lecture, you try and synthesise twenty years of your work, and by summarising, you’re also concluding it. So I spent that week in bed, with a fever, not doing much apart from reading scientific papers and watching traumatising videos from the Arctic. And I actually went into despair.

It took years before I became more deliberate and public about this, and in a way it’s taken me until now to realise that I’ve been going through a professional catharsis which goes back to March 2014.

DH: I read a piece that you wrote for openDemocracy later that year, arguing that the mainstream debate around climate change had become detached from the facts that were now coming in from the science. You highlight four different conversations going on around the edges which you say have more to do with the reality of where we find ourselves, one of which is a conversation you identify with the radical end of Transition Towns, the work of people like Charles Eisenstein, as well as with Dark Mountain.

JB: The reason I wrote that article was that after the experience I’d had that year, I couldn’t help but have conversations with friends about this topic, and I found that I just left people sort of staring into space with their jaws wide open. So I wanted to give them something that would help them think things through, and then they could end up with whichever of those agendas that I mapped out in the piece – and working on any of those agendas would be better than the mainstream denial of how things are.

DH: That brings me to the speech where you presented what you call the Deep Adaptation agenda. Can you say a bit about how you arrived at that framing?

JB: Looking back over the last few years, I didn’t really know what to do about this realisation that we can’t fix climate change, that so much of the impact for our civilisation is already locked in. I didn’t know how to work on that. And I realised that one of the reasons was the lack of a framework to get your head around all this. So I thought it might be useful to come up with a map for people who are climate experts, policymakers, researchers about what this might mean. A map that would sound approachable, but would actually be the thin end of a wedge, in terms of where it would take them.

This coincided with an invitation to a place in Australia where I used to work, Griffith University. It was the tenth anniversary of their centre and they invited me to give the keynote. They are at the centre of the climate change adaptation network of Australia, so they had hundreds of climate change policymakers coming from across the country, and researchers and academics. And I couldn’t justify flying down there and just giving a speech about, you know, the latest great ideas about investment in solar, and so on.

I was a bit scared, because I knew the guy who was organising the conference and I knew he’d want me to be dynamic. Everyone who’s organising a conference wants to be upbeat – and suddenly the keynote person is going to give a speech about the end of the world, or that’s how it might come across, anyway.

It was a bit of a coming out. Standing in front of these climate experts who work with this all day and saying: well, this is my reality, this is what I’m struggling with, and this is a map that I have that I think we could use to work on it.

I called it Deep Adaptation. I introduced the three ‘R’s: Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration.

DH: So this is where you’re trying to say, OK, what kind of stuff is worth working on, if you start from climate change as an unfolding tragedy, rather than as a problem that can be fixed and made to go away. Can you just elaborate on what falls within each of those three spheres?

JB: Sure, well the first one – Resilience – I chose because it’s so mainstream already in the adaptation field. Even in the business schools and the sustainability field, the term resilience had become popular. Because businesses have been experiencing, through their supply chains in particular, disturbances and disruptions through weather events correlated with climate change. But I talked about resilience in a deeper sense than just, ‘How do we diversify our suppliers so that if one gets knocked out by a hurricane, we’ve still got something else?’ So for example, I was talking in a hall which was next to the Brisbane River, which had had flood water lapping at its doors just a year previously – and I pointed out that the place had been refurbished with the electric sockets still near the ground. We need to think again, to switch our mind-sets. These once-in-a-century events will be happening every five years, so resilience needs to wake up to that.

That brings you into Relinquishment which is about not just, how do we preserve what we want to preserve, but what do we need to let go of? Because if we don’t let go of it, we’ll make matters worse. And I felt that the discourse of sustainability would have seen that previously as peculiar and defeatist – and I wanted to say that, we’re going to have to let a whole lot of things go, ways of life, cultural patterns. You know, in that room we were all wearing suits with ironed shirts and ties, with blasting air con. There are patterns of behaviour which we have to let go of – and I thought, give it a fancy name and you recode it as something interesting, rather than defeatist.

Then the third one, Restoration – again, it exists already, with people talking about the restorative dimension of environmentalism, restoring ecosystems. Not just stopping the damage, but improving things. But for me, I wasn’t saying that in terms of how we can fix everything, but that you rewild because it is going to happen anyway and you build that into your thinking. But it’s also about restoration in terms of how did people have joy, fun and love, and wonder, celebration and meaning, prior to this hydrocarbon civilisation?

So Resilience is ‘how do we keep what we really want to keep?’, Relinquishment is ‘what do we need to let go of?’ and Restoration is ‘what can we bring back to help us through this?’

DH: So you said you were nervous in the run-up to that speech. What kind of reaction did you get?

JB: I was surprised and delighted at the warm round of applause and the things people were saying to me afterwards. I remember one lady came up to me and said she used to be a pilot in the Outback of Australia and in her training, they used to do quite a spooky exercise which was called ‘extend the glide’. And it’s about, if the aircraft has a problem with the engines and they cut out, how do you then extend the glide to just give yourself more time to find yourself a safer place for the crash landing, but also on the off-chance that the engines might kick in again. And she said, that’s what you’re inviting us to start working on: how do we extend the glide?

There were other people coming up to me and what I understood was that they had already been talking about these things in their own ways, making sense of it, but not really in their day-jobs, despite being paid to be environmental professionals.

DH: How has this changed the work you’re doing – that experience of despair and catharsis that you described, going back to 2014, and then creating a framework for those who want to work with this professionally – where has that taken you in the years since?

JB: Well, in 2017 it took me into politics, writing speeches for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, because it seems to me that we need a cultural shift towards compassion and a spiritual awakening, an awakening from the delusion of materialism. We don’t see much of that in politics, but Corbyn was saying something similar in a secular way.

Meanwhile, I decided to approach education in a very different way, as a sort of emancipation from your received assumptions and received wisdom, as a preparation for people to be able to approach these very disturbing and troubling times. But also to see it as an amazing – it’s kind of crazy to say, isn’t it – an amazing opportunity for reflection into the true meaning of being alive. Because climate change is holding up a severe mirror to our consciousness: it means we have to really ask why we are here. Because somehow, we delay that question, and now we can’t.

So on the one hand, I see that I’ve been doing quite a lot of stuff that I’m OK with that flows from that point in 2014, but I also realise that part of this has been getting busy in order to distract myself, because I didn’t have a good way of living with this knowledge. My sense of self-worth as a good guy, working hard, becoming an expert, becoming a professor – along the way, I made sacrifices in order to achieve that, and then suddenly I had a loss of a sense of self-worth, my role, my identity in life. So I think quite a bit of what I’ve been doing over the past years has been reconstituting a sense of self.

So thank you for inviting me to talk about this, because it made me reflect in the last few days, and I realise that maybe it’s useful to share this. Because this cathartic process that I went through, some of it conscious and some of it actually only making sense to me looking back, is perhaps something that other people will go through and need to go through. And maybe it’s something we can go through together and help each other.

I guess I’ve gone through a grieving process and now I realise that it was pretty damn obvious that I will die, everyone I know will die, any community or culture I could ever contribute to will die out, this human species will die out, and the Earth and everything on it will die – well, that’s just obvious, we all knew that, anyway.

DH: Yes, all of those things were true before the great hydrocarbon episode in humanity’s history. Arriving at that is an important part of the journey of making sense of what it means to be alive right now.

JB: I feel free of some forms of delusion, some forms of social pressure, and I am approaching things with fascination and playfulness. And what I didn’t have over the past few years were fellow travellers and community, and now I’m realising that I do need a community around this very realisation that we’ve been talking about. And what will emerge from that, I don’t know, but there will be love within it, there will be creativity within it, there will be a sense of wonder at being alive at this incredibly strange moment in human history.

Jem Bendell is Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria. He is now taking applications for full- and part-time PhD students to work on aspects of deep adaptation, to be located in Cumbria or remotely, with a start on 1 October, 2018.

Dougald Hine is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project and has just launched HOME: A school for culturemakers. On 11 April 2018 he will be opening the NewBridge Project’s Deep Adaptation season with a workshop called The Kind of Hope Worth Having.

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The Sparrow and the Twig (1)

One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it.
—Barry Lopez, ‘Landscape and Narrative’

We are polite and tentative with each other. Many of the 18 participants wear the trademark rewilder outfit of buckskin and carry sheepskin rugs. There are flasks made of wood and plenty of hand-carved spoons and bowls stashed neatly on shelves in the hut where we store our utensils and any extra food we have brought. My industrial-era enamelware is out of place, ruining the vibe, violating the aesthetic. I am looking at people’s feet. Some of the shoes look handmade. There is jewellery crafted out of leather and bone, holey sweaters fastened with buttons made from deer claws. There are tufts of fur. I do not look like these people. A few of us city-dwellers wear clothing that shouts ‘civilisation’ and ‘sweat shops’ and I am grateful not to be the only ‘civ’ here.

As if from nowhere, Lynx Vilden bounds barefoot like a cat towards us. I had first heard of Lynx when I was living in Montana. She is revered in the West for living as our Paleolithic ancestors did. Her knowledge of ancestral skills is vast and rumour has it she can get a fire started in 30 seconds with only two sticks. She is all buckskin clothing, chiselled cheekbones, spiky blonde hair and eyes the colour of a mountain lake. Born in 1965, Lynx is exactly my age but looks like Brigitte Nielsen’s younger Stone Age sister. For a rewilder (they tend to be a quiet bunch) she has quite an online presence. The tagline on her website is: ‘We aim to “live” in the wilderness, rather than “survive” it to get back to civilization.’ I never managed the seven-hour drive from my bungalow in Missoula to her yurt in Twisp, Washington. So, when I heard she was teaching ancestral skills for a week in April somewhere in Dartmoor National Park, I pounced.

Lynx silently motions with her hands for us to gather and then begins to walk away. We are to follow her to a nearby patch of flat ground where she instructs us without words to take off our shoes. She is holding a hand drill – a flat piece of wood called the hearth, and a stick, which is the bow. She motions for Leah, one of the participants to hold the bottom of the bow onto the hearth while she spins it. Lynx gestures for us to gather some dry grass. It takes maybe 45 minutes for us to take turns holding the hearth and spinning the bow to get enough heat for the grass to light. Lynx carries this smoking bundle through the woods and we follow. I am not used to walking barefoot over hard early spring ground. The pine needles, sticks and rocks hurt my soft city feet.

Lynx lights a larger fire with the bundle and we sit around it in a circle. Our week of living outdoors on Dartmoor has officially begun. Dusk is settling. A wind picks up and I straighten my legs so my bare feet catch some of the warmth of the fire. We pass around a talking stick and tell each other what ‘miracle’ brought us here. (2)
Back at camp, Katie the cook has a large pot of venison stew waiting for us. The meat came to us from Bob, a local deerstalker. Any worries about the animal’s welfare are put to rest. After supper we take turns saying what we are grateful for. Many people list the deer we have just eaten. Thanking the food and the land seems to be a common thread. It would be easy to be cynical, to do a Portlandia-style satire on the middle-class Paleo folk who don their buckskin, make fire from sticks, play their handmade flutes, and thank the stones for being stones. But there is more here. I can feel it although I have no name for it, yet.


After dinner, we tell the group what we were passionate about when we were seven years old. I talk of my upbringing in the soulless Canadian suburbs. Most of the participants tell tales of playing in streams and catching frogs. Canadian suburbs are designed for cars, for life with sunken living rooms, dry bars, rec rooms, where everything is tinted by the glare of TV. I hated growing up in those suburbs and now I am feeling as I so often do, somewhat disappointed, even a little angry that my childhood was spent not in the woods but in a place where soil was called ‘dirt’, where lawns were mowed to a buzzcut every few days and where bees were swatted to death for fear they might ruin the barbecue. I had no connection with the place I grew up in. This has always rankled me. My birthplace has left me empty-handed of stories, unlike the ground I am sitting on now with its hauntings and druids, ghost stories, songs and rituals involving stone, bone, moss, fertile swathes of soil and rainsoaked ferns.


 The next day I tuck my knife into a cloth bag with some bread and cheese, a bottle of water, my journal and Crossing Open Ground by Barry Lopez. We begin a silent walk where each one of us is led to a spot to sit for an hour or so. From my rock I can see a decaying stone wall covered in moss. Fallen trees are criss-crossed with ivy. Gigantic bees buzz around me but what I notice most of all are the birds: wood pigeons and the quick trills of what I think is a wood warbler. Sunlight struggles to make its way to the floor of the forest through the branches of very tall oaks. Where I sit, the air is cool. I am aware of the two landscapes we all move between: the one outside us and the other that exists within.

Our assigned task is to gather ‘vegetal matter with a utilitarian value for the whole group’. This way of thinking is so foreign. We have all become so individualised, so atomised with our own phones, computers, flats, social media accounts. City life is the opposite of what Lynx is creating here which in a word can only be described as a tribe. I bristled when I heard it being used earlier in the day. I felt it was a word one needed to earn. But now I am beginning to understand that a tribe can be formed when we rely on others for our food and shelter, warmth and companionship.

I am seeing the landscape for what it can do rather than as a collection of named objects; as active, not passive. Barry Lopez captures this idea in his essay ‘Landscape and Narrative’ when a black-throated sparrow lands in a paloverde bush: ‘the resiliency of the twig under the bird, that precise shade of yellowish-green against the milk-blue sky, the fluttering whir of the arriving sparrow’, these are what he means by ‘landscape’. It is by watching the landscape that one learns it, not necessarily by knowing the names of things.

I spot some fiddleheads. My mother would buy small packs of these velvety green ferns at vast expense from the supermarket in Ottawa. She would unwrap them from their clingfilm, lift them from their Styrofoam trays and then soak them, boil them and sauté them in butter. We would savour the two or three on our plates as if they were gold. I harvest a few to bring back to the group. I look around for something else I might be able to share. I pull off a hunk from a charred stump. We could draw with it. Then I spot a bone. This could be a ladle or a spoon. I put that in my bag and top it up with some young nettles. We can use these for tea. My inadequacy is making me manic. Just then I see members of the group approach. I take a breath and join the line. Some of them have bulging bags and I wonder what foods and implements they have conjured from these woods.

We walk silently across fields and through forests of bluebells. Eventually we come to Blackingstone Rock, a 75-foot high, Christmas-pudding-shaped tor of pure granite flecked with shiny feldspar. Running up the back of the tor, like a spine, is a metal ladder. We climb to the top where the wind whips and where the views over Dartmoor spread out on all sides.

The Dartmoor chronicler William Crossing believed that in an attempt to settle an argument, King Arthur and the Devil hurled a giant quoit at each other. As the quoits hit the ground they turned to stone creating the two tors, one of which was Blackingstone Rock and the other Hel Tor. The tor is pockmarked with small circular basins, which I am told were druidical altars. Like a cat, Lynx curls into one for a nap.

Lynx curled up.hor
We head back into the forest, quieter now, feeling the effects of the sunwarmed stone on our backs. Lynx instructs us to gather two dry sticks and eight switches of hazel. People are running into the woods, knives and folding saws at the ready. I am feeling lost. Ella and Carlos, a couple who I had spoken to earlier, notice my anxiety and patiently show me what hazel looks like and offer me the use of their saw.

Once we have our sticks, we head back to camp. Katie has prepared fried pollock with mashed swedes, parsnips and celeriac. I am hungry. In my effort to lighten my backpack, I took out a lot of my food. Hunger is something I have forgotten how to live with. I am shamed by this.


 As I try and sleep that night, I hear an owl’s repeated hooting and the response from a more distant owl. They are marking their territory. I fall asleep with a burning desire to understand them. It is only when they stop their hooting around 4:00 a.m. that I wake. It is the silence that has roused me. A very faint light creeps over my tent, almost like a shadow. I feel I am suspended in that fleeting moment between night and day, between the animals of the dark and those who emerge with the light. I am inhabiting a precious liminal moment. At 52, I am suspended between youth and old age and this sense of being between things seems to be the frequency I am tuned to. The word comes from the Latin limen, or threshold. I am feeling it everywhere. A strange sense of total and utter wellbeing consumes me. And then the birds of the morning take over. The woods around me fill with sound. Life can continue for another day.


We are to find a partner and forage for our lunch. I am paired with Lynx. We walk together down a lane away from the camp. Lynx had seen some very young, green spruce buds. She shows me how to remove the brown husks from the lime-green almond-shaped buds. They have a sharp, astringent lemony taste. She spots a curved slice of fallen tree bark to put them in. It makes the perfect receptacle which in New York or London would add about £20 to the price of a meal in a restaurant (‘served on a hand-harvested spruce board infusing the buds with the taste and smell of wilderness’).

With her survival skills, Lynx shares similarities with Preppers. But, rather than fill her bunker with dried food, bottled water and ammunition, she is prepared in another way: Lynx can live in the wilderness by hunting, gathering, making bows, arrows, clothing and whatever else she needs; she does not have to escape the wild in order to survive it. The Doomsday approach of Preppers who see themselves surviving the economic collapse by storing up on man-made supplies is based on fear and a mistrust of government. A bunker lined with tin cans and bars of gold is finite, whereas Lynx has the skills needed to survive indefinitely – skills that can be passed on. They might both share a mistrust of the system, but their approach could not be more different.


We all place our foraged food onto a picnic table. The colours are spectacular. We silently take turns trying every plant, taking in the smells and tastes and textures: stitchwort, garlic mustard or Jack-by-the-hedge, gorse flowers, pink purslane, primrose, violets, landcress, pennywort or navelwort, dock leaves, hawthorn leaves and spruce buds. It is like eating a fairytale.

That afternoon we are to begin our baskets. This is what the sticks are for. I break into a sweat. I have only ever made one basket and it looked like those photos of webs made by spiders on LSD: anxious, wonky and a bit mental, revealing more about me than I care to.

Lynx shows us how to strip the bark from our hazel sticks, how to bend them and tie them into a U-shape using animal hide as string. I feel my body move in sync with the making of my basket: I bend to make the wood bend, my muscles contract when I tie the struts together. When the deer hide is soaking, I stand, relaxed, watching it soften in the water. This work is three-dimensional, tactile. There are smells and sounds – it is anathema to the flat, backlit screens we all spend our days staring into. It is this physical dimension I have been craving without knowing it.


On our second-to-last day, there is a snow flurry. As the snow gets heavier, we take shelter in the lodge, the one structure with a roof, and watch the grove of beeches bleach to white. A wind whips the flakes around us. Lynx announces we will walk out onto the moor with what we can fit in our baskets and we will camp without tents. Many of us think she is joking and look at each other and laugh. We go silent as we realise she is being absolutely serious. I am not prepared to camp in the snow. An elderly gentleman from France comes over and whispers to me, ‘This is too much!’ He is on the verge of a very Gallic rebellion.

‘Let’s see what the weather is like tomorrow,’ Lynx says as a way of placating us.


The following morning the inside of my tent is a golden pink. I step out onto crispy, white grass. We had agreed that if it wasn’t raining we would head off for our night of wild camping. I pack. We hike out late morning walking through bluebell meadows, crossing streams on bridges made of fallen granite slabs and we say hello to the inhabitants of the few small towns we pass through. They stare at our buckskin and hazel baskets strapped to our backs. We are filthy and giggle like children at the disconnect between us and the villagers with their Lidl bags, heading home to their running water and televisions.

After about three or four hours we come to a wall of Herculean boulders. We scramble up. On the other side is a tiny patch of flat ground, just big enough to cradle a fire and our bodies around it. We set up camp and Katie heats up some leftover stew made from Chunko the lamb, whom we had been eating throughout the week. She adds nettles and throws a few garlic heads into the fire along with some sweet potatoes. We eat with our hands and there is something wonderfully primitive about being here, eating like this from the land. We sing, we laugh, we chat. The group is one unit now.

After dinner, I am told the temperature will sink below freezing. I move my bivvy bag from between two slabs of rock to a spot next to Tiffany, a woman with a surplus of blankets. We agree to ignore the ticks. I go to bed before the others. Maybe it is because I am the youngest of seven children, but I feel comforted falling asleep to the faint murmur of voices. When I was young, much of my education came from this late night eavesdropping. Perhaps it was my attempt to recreate tribal life in those cold, atomised suburbs.

I listen to the laughter and the crackling of the fire. I watch the stars above me. I never want to leave. I am suspended here. We all are. This is the discovery I make: we are all living liminal lives. Denying this is part of the madness. The only real thing is the liminality of life, the moments when we can inhabit fluidity, accept the threshold. We are just passing through, why should we expect anything other than being between places and times and states of being. I let my tears quietly fall. There is that familiar tickle as the salty water slides along my cheekbones into my ears. This is right. I should be crying. I have lived another day. We have all lived another day. This feels like the miracle it is. Sleep comes to me before the group has dispersed for the night. My dreams are more vivid than they have been for a long time.


I get back to London very late that night. My ten-year-old daughter is still up. She runs to hug me. ‘You smell of dead animal,’ she says excited at this meaty version of her mother.

My husband Jason asks, ‘So, are you a new person?’

Me: ‘Um, yeah.’

Jason: ‘Will I like this new person?’

Me: ‘I don’t know.’

Jason: ‘Do you like this new person?’

Me: ‘I don’t know yet. I have no idea.’

All photographs by author

Joanna Pocock is an Irish-Canadian writer living in London via Montana. Her writing has appeared in The NationOrion MagazineThe Tahoma Literary ReviewThe Los Angeles TimesDistinctly MontanaLitroMslexia and 3:AM. She is currently writing a series of linked essays on extreme relationships between humans and their environments.



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Mapping the Edges – A Call for submissions to Dark Mountain: Issue 14

Monique for Issue 14

Looking over Barcelona from ‘A Sea Journey by Foot’ by nomadic artist Monique Besten, tracing her walk to Paris COP in 2015 (Issue 9)

The Dark Mountain Project began as a journey: a call for writers, artists and thinkers to set out into unknown territory, to scale the mountain in order to look back at the twinkling lights of the cities below, and to gain a sense of perspective before the inevitable descent. But as well as a summons for fellow travellers, the manifesto also emphasised the need to ‘celebrate work rooted in time and place’ and to ‘write with dirt under our fingernails’ – not to have our head in the clouds, but our feet firmly on the earth. From its inception Dark Mountain has been both an embarkation and an act of coming home. It is these interwoven themes – travel and dwelling, moving and staying, journeying and returning – that we are keen to explore in our fourteenth issue.

The lands that we inhabit and the borders that enclose us have long defined conventional cartography and informed our perspectives on the wider world. Yet like any human documents, maps are far from neutral past explorers who made arduous journeys to resolve the ‘empty’ spaces on the periphery of their own maps inevitably crossed paths with peoples for whom these edges were a known centrepoint. Now those early atlases, their margins decorated with mermaids or monsters, may provoke nostalgia or controversy for maps are the most temporal of artefacts. Sea level rise, desertification, new ideologies and regimes, the razing of some cities and the growth of others, and the migrations of species (including humans) in response to conflict and climate change: all these challenges demand that we redraw our maps, and take a different approach to understanding terrain. The new horror vacui on the horizon is the future. How can charts evolve to record our changing world? What diagrams will direct our steps forward in a time of collapse?

In this era when no place is considered ‘off the map’ and the globe can be crossed in a day by oil-fuelled transport, humans are travelling more than ever; whether this takes the form of holidays with all the tourist trappings or work trips to confer with overseas colleagues and clients. While some catalysts for travel might be defined as luxuries, other journeys are essential for self-preservation: the seasonal nomadic quest for food and shelter, or a flight from fear and oppression. However dangerous, these travels preclude a more desperate alternative. Every single journey – over the ocean or across the Earth – alters the landscape for subsequent travellers, whether the trail it leaves is carbon condensing at high altitudes or the erosion of plant life on the tundra.

Each wanderer faces questions of belonging, whether the interrogation takes place at a customs barrier or within their own heart. Do we possess a return ticket, or face permanent exile? Do we know our destination, or are we drifting with the tide? Do we take a map, or is getting lost necessary? In a restless, globalised culture which dictates that all places be the same and none of us loyal to a heartland, it is sometimes hard to make ourselves at home on Earth. As Martin Shaw writes, to become ‘of a place’ is to trade ‘endless possibility for something specific’. Some of us commit to deepening our investigations of one place, digging in and giving voice to the inhabitants (human and non-human) of the neighbourhoods in which we live. What are the stories behind the dwellings we construct within these familiar spaces? We may look out at the world from the window of a moorland hermitage, or view the vast metropolis from a high tower. What does it mean to have a home that is in motion: a caravan, a boat, or even a shrinking raft?

For the fourteenth issue we seek work which challenges borders and celebrates transgressions. The book’s editors – Charlotte Du Cann, Nick Hunt and Nancy Campbell – are looking for writing from new voices and established thinkers, working across genres of both fiction and non-fiction. Send us your reports, journals, photo-essays, folktales, letters and log books. The editors are also looking for artwork that documents place and maps of real and imaginary journeys. We welcome artwork in different media from line drawings and printmaking to photography, but please note our vision for this issue is to produce all artwork in black and white.

This issue will encompass the diverse geographies of the planet: urban spaces and the green corridors that saunter through them, footprints crossing deserts of both sand or snow. Show us routes through first forests and bold new plantings. From the watersheds of mountains to the beds of the oceans, this book will represent all points of the compass. We’re looking for submissions from all over the world, and in particular encourage writers to submit work from the global south, as most of our past submissions have come from the northern hemisphere. In addition to this call, in a first for Dark Mountain, we have commissioned three ‘scouts’ Akshay Ahuja, Sarah Thomas and Daniel Nakanishi-Chalwin to seek out work to broaden the geographical and cultural range of contributors.

The fourteenth issue of Dark Mountain will be published in October 2018. The deadline for submissions is 18 May 2018. Please note that the maximum word limit is 4,000 words, and check the submissions guidelines carefully for details of how to send your work. We cannot read or respond to work which does not fit within our guidelines.

– Dark Mountain Editors


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Dark Kitchen: A Recipe for Belonging

This week we continue our Dark Kitchen exploration of food and eating in times of collapse. For our final course this month,  food campaigners Olga Bloemen and Bella Crowe tell the story of how a cafe and two refugee Syrian cooks brought warmth and imagination (and falafels) to a small market town in Aberdeenshire.


There is a story about a soup made of stones that is told in many languages across Europe. In all versions, one or more travellers – tramps, pilgrims, monks or soldiers – arrive in a strange village, hungry, only equipped with an empty soup pot. They ask locals for some food to share but everyone refuses: they barely have enough to feed themselves, they say, their food stores are running empty. Disappointed, the travellers go to the stream, fill their pot with water, put a stone in it and place it over a fire.

One of the villagers can’t resist and ventures out of her house to ask what they are cooking up. We are making the famous and delicious ‘Stone Soup’, the travellers say, if only we had a little more veg, that would make it taste even better! The villager doesn’t mind parting with some of her carrots which are added to the pot. Another villager comes by, curious, and is told about the Stone Soup. If only this soup had a bit of seasoning, the travellers lament, and, of course, the villager brings them some. And so it goes on, with each villager who passes, enticed by the delicious smell and rumours of a feast, adding more ingredients. Then, the travellers (secretly) take out the stone and the hearty soup is shared by everyone, during a feast that lasts long into the night.

Food speaks to us, to our hearts and our guts. Food can reel us into a distant past or conjure up a person or place in our minds. Food can be artwork, crunchy salads bursting with colour and texture, hot soups with such intricate blends of flavours. And we speak through food. Cooking a special meal might be a message of love for friends or family. But what about at a societal level, what are we saying? When the response to poverty is food banks; when cauliflowers are more expensive than doughnuts, when companies advertise unhealthy food to children who grow up addicted to sugar, when farmers are paid less for their milk than it costs to produce it, are we valuing the bodies, lives and dignity of people?

Hayat Shahoud and her family fled from their home in Homs, Syria and spent five years in refugee camps in Turkey before being ‘resettled’ in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. One of the few things Hayat managed to bring with her is her stainless steel falafel press – even, finally, across the UK border controls. Wherever they were, the shape of the falafels that fed them was exactly like at home.

When you don’t speak the language of a place, food speaks even more loudly. We can only imagine what messages Hayat and her family received when they arrived in Scotland, a place where not many folk would think of kitchen utensils as prized possessions, where Mars bars are fried instead of falafels. A nation afflicted by diet-related ill health, where growing and preparing food are not inscribed into modern life.

Still, there are other food stories which are being told, more quietly, of hospitality and conviviality. In projects across the UK, people are growing, preparing and sharing food together. In this time marked by unpalatable narratives of us and them and who deserves to be where, food can create a common ground on which to meet. In Granton, Edinburgh, neighbours have begun to dug up the street corners to create growing spaces and Scottish, Nepali and Kenyan families, as well as others, are now sharing skills and crops and stories. Granton’s home-grown kale is turned into irresistible pakoras at their weekly community meals, and last year they harvested their first quinoa crop. In Glasgow, the High Rise Bakers meet twice a week in a borrowed kitchen in one of the local flat blocks to make nutritious, affordable bread for the community. The bakers, many of whom are refugees and migrants, enjoy Tanzanian chai breaks with cardamom, cinnamon and ginger tea while waiting for the loaves to rise.

As for Hayat, together with Abeer Alhalabe (another Syrian woman new to Scotland) she now helps run No. 11: a community café in Huntly, a small, rural market town. Not many months ago, No. 11 Gordon Street was an empty shop on Huntly’s high street, now it is a home for the slow and messy work of building relationships, an initiative of Deveron Projects, which connects artists, communities and place in Huntly.


No. 11 was started as a pilot project by Marc Higgin and Aya Haidar – a British anthropologist and a Lebanese-British artist, who wanted to create a place where people are valued for the different skills and experiences they bring. The doors opened in November 2017, and since then many hot and tasty meals have served to bridge the language barrier.

It’s a brisk January Friday, and they’ve got a lunchtime event happening. Project volunteers drop off bowls, tablecloths, and chairs taken from their own houses, kids are crawling over the floor, the chatter is rumbling contentedly over cups of tea. Hayat brings in a great pot of steaming Syrian vegetable stew and rice. After she explains with few words and gestures that in Syria, people eat with their hands, people start dunking warm flatbreads in olive oil and za’tar – a delicious nutty green herb blend, combining thyme, sesame seeds, and salt. Fingers deftly scoop up the hearty flavours, so familiar to Hayat, but new to others in the room. She proudly watches while everyone digs into the food and encourages late-comers to help themselves too: ‘Eat, eat!’. We sit and talk around big tables; the food is by donation.

At No. 11, it is Syrians who are hosting the Huntly locals. Rather than be bound by the expectation of gratitude and demure behaviour, Hayat and Abeer can bring their creativity and energy, and tell their own story. They can practise their English, while locals strike up some Arabic, aided by Google Translate on their phones. And the café is a welcome addition to Huntly’s high street, which was lacking low-threshold community spaces.

Originally, Marc and Aya thought about calling it ‘Al-Nofara’ – ‘The Fountain’ in Arabic, after the oldest café in Damascus, but realised that this may exoticise the place and alienate some locals. They also don’t shout about the cuisine being Syrian, but hope that No. 11 allows Scottish people to understand from direct experience all there is to gain from refugees who are contributing their lives, skills, ideas, smiles, and culture to this country. Food is a necessity and it entices people in who wouldn’t normally get involved in ‘integration schemes’. Something different can happen when sharing a meal with others, and experiencing new flavours that taste of different lands. It is a living invitation to remember that the world beyond what is known is full of treasures and that difference can be full of wonder rather than fear.

With the growing season starting, No. 11 is looking to link up more with Deveron’s ‘The Town is the Garden’ project that encourages people to grow their own food in their gardens, allotments and public places. In this time of transience and virtual realities, it is not only refugees and migrants who have been uprooted, and even those born and bred in a town might struggle to feel a sense of belonging. Just as sharing food can help us see each other in new ways, putting hands in the soil can bring new perspectives to the place we live. Digging up street corners with neighbours, feeling gratitude for rain and sunshine on behalf of the plants, or excitement about worms and bees: we live beyond ourselves when we start growing food. While our physical surroundings, in turn, become part of our bodies.


Yet, however powerfully growing, preparing or sharing food together may speak to us and through us, these projects have an enemy lurking, fostered by negative headlines and sly politicians. It is the scarcity narrative: ‘there is not enough’. In times of imposed austerity, it breeds fear for the loss of support and demands gratitude for meagre provisions.

While this narrative looms over poor communities, telling its urgent tale of the need for frugal accountancy, the rich in society dine still more extravagantly. It is inequality that is endemic, not scarcity: here in Scotland, there are many more empty homes than homeless people – more than 37,000 were left vacant in 2017. Yet the dominant narrative. drowns out the solid facts, and the pushback is weak.

It is this mixed-up context that makes spaces like No. 11 essential, but also means that most of the people who are dropping in are Huntly’s more affluent residents, who don’t feel any threat to their vital support. It is easy to connect over plenty. In contrast, Ruth Lamb from Govan Community Project in Glasgow (who gave a presentation during the Friday lunch) described how it is their food distribution service which brought ‘locals’ and ‘new Scots’ into the same room. People are thrown together by the common and stressful experience of scarcity. While collectively we do have enough and everyone could experience abundance; across Scotland, there are kitchens with empty cupboards, and people who do not have a kitchen at all. With mouths to feed and no money to do it with, projects like this one in Govan are providing essential basic nourishment. But in the desperate space of hunger, and under the weight of stigma, there is little room for warm conversation or curiosity.

Despite its neat outward appearance, Huntly is a town where many people are struggling, poverty is rife and the austerity agenda has debilitated public services. People are enduring benefit cuts and waking each morning with a fresh struggle, another form to fill in, another ultimatum. The stakes are high, with hunger and homelessness constants on the horizon. This demolishing of public support for people in poverty can create bitterness towards newcomers, with the thin allocation of resources stretched over ever more human beings.

Last year, Inverurie, the nearby town where most of the refugees in Aberdeenshire are resettled, was hit by floods. As water gushed through the fields and the streets, people were forced to leave their houses. The culprits for this destruction are many: from climate change, to poor rural planning, yet it was refugees who received some of the fury. There was a vocal backlash against the council for providing housing to refugees when so many local people were struggling.

Open Doors at No.11 Cafe -photo Joss AllenHowever just as in the story there always was enough to go around, and there is more than enough today. Yet our wealth is disastrously distributed and our narratives close doors. Many of us have forgotten how to host – or be hosted. The art of connecting with people we do not know is getting lost in ‘meals for one’. Individuals face real, hard scarcity while society shivers in a false perception of it. Perhaps, one piece of the puzzle are projects like No. 11 that work a bit like the Soup Stone, that create – as if by magic – shared spaces and a sense of abundance. Places where people, wherever they come from, can bring skills, stories and resources, where the community is much more than the sum of its parts.


Hayat’s Falafel Recipe


1 kilo of dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in plenty of cold water (no need to cook)

1 large onion

5 cloves of garlic

1 tbsp of cumin

Pinch of chilli flakes

Sunflower oil for deep-frying

Makes enough to feed Hayat’s husband and three (hungry) boys.

Drain the chickpeas well and add to food processor/or mincer together with the onion (roughly chopped), garlic and spices. Blitz into rough paste and move to a bowl. Leave for an hour or two out of the fridge. Heat oil in a pan until hot enough (about 180C). If you don’t have a falafel scoop, use wet hands to shape a palmful of the mix into a ball and the flatten slightly. Drop carefully into the oil – if they disintegrate, add a bit of gram flour to the mix. They’ll be ready in about 3 minutes. They should be a dark, golden brown  – the colour of falafel is known as baked bread.

Serve with warm flatbread, hummous or tahini, and sliced tomato and chopped parsley.

Next course:

This is the last course in our Dark Kitchen February feast. Dark Kitchen will continue as an occasional series when the new-look Dark Mountain website is launched in April. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to series editor Charlotte Du Cann ( Thanks all and bon appetit!

Images: Aya writes up the menu on No.11’s blackboard; drawing from ‘Walking without Walls’; open space at No 11 (all from Deveron Projects); outside window of No.11 (photo; Joss Allen)

Olga Bloemen and Bella Crowe both work for Nourish Scotland, an NGO campaigning for food justice. Olga was born in the Netherlands but moved to Scotland to study Social Anthropology. Now she’s surprised to find herself still living in Edinburgh and wonders whether it has become home. In her work she explores food and popular education as vehicles for social change. She’s also involved with Tripod: Training for Creative Social Action. She never makes the same bowl of porridge twice, and would like to care for an apple orchard one day.

thumbnail_bella photoBella eats breakfast every Thursday morning on the top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. She has explored the politics of food in different ways in recent years, from volunteering on farms in Palestine to grappling with food policy and legislation in Scotland. She is involved in the Scottish Radical Herbal Network is seeking to move away from policy documents on an office screen to experience and write about the rough paradoxes of a wider world.

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Dark Kitchen: Salmo Salar

This week we continue our Dark Kitchen exploration of food and eating in times of collapse. For our third course in the series, travelling filmmaker and cheesemonger Max Jones records the tale of Ireland’s last smoker of purely wild Atlantic salmon.


‘The mountain is like the sea, Max. She gives you life, but she can also take it,’ explained cheesemaker Catherine Richard through a wrinkled grin, as she hung up her cheese cloths to dry outside her remote stone chalet, 2000m high in the shadow of an Alpine glacier. It’s a phrase that has stuck with me, and eventually led me to a tiny fish smokery in Ireland, amongst the hills and standing stones of the West Cork coastline.

There is a sense of normality and purpose in the lives of true artisans of food, people who have learned how to engage with their environment to feed themselves. They represent the great passing on of human knowledge, with a profound understanding of how to live in a given landscape – a nobility in their craft that is threatened but unsullied by big industry. I am drawn to these folk, like Catherine, living harmoniously within the alpine peaks, locked into the seasons as she migrates her small herd up and down the mountain each year. As inevitably as the ebb and flow of the tide, the snows yield to the summer sun, revealing wild mountain flora on which the animals graze before the cold season tightens its grip and they must head back down to the safety of the valley. A sustainable tradition that is hundreds of years old, where the unique, natural cheese produced from the herd’s milk will feed a community through the winter months – an uplifting evocation of the abundant summer, brightening the soul in darker days.

And now, to the sea.

As an angler, I had become increasingly despondent about fishing in the British Isles. Each hopeful trip out of London led to stillwaters and reservoirs, concrete man-made holes, circled with middle-aged men as grey as the water, fishing for genetically modified, triploid (sexless) rainbow trout that exist only to be caught.

Last year I learned about a producer of wild Atlantic smoked salmon in Ireland. I was intrigued as I had been thinking about the king of fish Salmo salar, too. How something that is meant to bring you close to the water – using skill to catch something wild for your tea – has become unobtainable, reserved only for those willing to spend hundreds, if not thousands of pounds for the privilege of hooking something real, which usually dies, even if returned, as the angler has consumed all of the salmon’s energy for reproduction in the fight. In a time where fish stocks are dwindling dramatically everywhere, our relationship with the salmon was all wrong. I was irked, saddened and confused to the point where I asked myself whether or not we should be killing this animal at all.

Trusting in how artisans glean the truest knowledge from living, and hearing that she was about to cease production in a losing battle against Environment Health Officers (EHOs) and government bodies forcing her to adhere to factory standards, I went to find fish smoker Sally Barnes. I drove to West Cork with the goal of trying to learn anything I could from this last human being who has devoted her life to master the techniques of preservation of one nature’s greatest ingredients.

Sally and Salmon lowres

Salmo salar is the epitome of the cyclical rhythm of life and circles in nature, with an ability to eternally provide.  The mythology of the returning and transforming salmon is deep rooted in our psyches:  a creature revered by the pagans and still honoured with joy and respect by First Nations people, and eaten by all.  Fionn MacCumhail gained the knowledge of the entire world by eating a salmon in Irish folklore and its distinctive shape has even been found in the 20,000 year old Cro-Magnon cave paintings in France.

It begins life in a stream as an egg nestled amongst glacial gravel beds formed at the end of the last Ice Age. In this ideal camouflage, it hatches into alevin before emerging into the clear, cool flowing water as fry. It feeds on invertebrates and develops markings to blend in to the greens and browns of fresh water becoming parr, that stays and feeds in the river for three years until it is about the size of your hand. Then, when it feels the call, this astonishing being begins smolting, swapping its river markings for a silver veneer of solid scales, undergoing internal changes to adapt to saltwater. The smolt finally turns to face downstream and heads out to sea, perceiving pheromones, chemicals and information from its lateral line that allows the fish to feel movement and changes in pressure which will guide the returning salmon to that same native inland stream. There it goes, past the pike’s snapping snout, bobbing, barbed Willie Gunn the angler and the cormorant’s probing beak, through brackish water into the estuary, weaving and dodging the seal’s snarling jaws then out and away, into the staggering might and infinite dark of the Atlantic Ocean.

The adult salmon now spends one to three years, sometimes more, riding the North Atlantic Drift to feeding grounds west of Greenland and the Norwegian Sea, hunting shoals of herring, devouring clouds of krill and other crustacea in the Arctic Circle, imparting the salmon’s flesh with its characteristic deep, red hue. It is wild and true. A colossal journey. The fish navigates the Earth’s magnetic fields using a ridge of iron-filled grey-brown flesh that runs the inner length of the lateral line, something you’ll recognise when cooking salmon. When it feels the urge to return to its native stream to spawn, it gorges itself till it can feed no more, having built up a hefty reserve of energy stored as belly fat.

The mature salmon now fasts until it has spawned, heading for its river. It is long and lean if its birthing stream be lazy and slow, or squat and tough with hog-like shoulders, a 15kg powerful beast with strength to crash through rapids and leap over rocks as its morphology corresponds with a particular body of water. Having reached its goal, it expends the last of its energy in reproduction, then usually dies. Carrion feeders will grab decaying salmon carcasses, drag them up a bank or tree and eat them at their own leisure and the remains will rot down and act as nutrition for plant life, and then insect life, which in turn feed the young fry.

Today however the gravel beds have been removed for construction developments, the polluted water has been acidified by the subsidised use of fertiliser and pesticides which pour into the rivers from farms. Salmon smell their native streams from miles out to sea, but some are no longer returning because the water has become toxic. Even though the angler may release the fish after netting it, its energy has been consumed in the fight and it will often perish. Global warming is changing the currents to the feeding grounds. The krill is being removed, harvested to make pellets for the farmed salmon, so that they can dye the flesh and market the product as organic.

This wild, migratory animal is crammed into vertical columns, where it festers in its own waste, attracting fatal amounts of sea lice. Sprayed with pesticides that poison the water, the mighty salmon becomes a deformed and unnatural creature debased by man, whose diseased state is poisoning its wild counterpart. It is mass production on a gruesome scale.

It is the degradation of the wild salmon that has so upset Sally Barnes: ‘I couldn’t give that passion and awe to a creature that I feel nothing towards. I wouldn’t have the heart to turn something fabulous into a commodity’. For Sally, it is the undeserved humiliation of a magnificent animal and friend. A fisherwoman and fisherman’s wife who began smoking fish to provide an income to support her young family, she attempted different recipes through trial and error when the fish were so abundant she would be eating wild salmon most nights of the week, eventually developing a delicious product that she could sell through the winter when the salmon season was over. There were three other smokeries in Ireland who processed wild fish, and now all of them have moved on to farmed fish. There are so many sanctions placed on wild salmon that it has become extremely difficult to get hold of, and in totally non viable quantities for a business. But Sally has stuck to her guns and will not touch farmed fish, as it is not the same animal.

‘It is a different species and should have a different Latin name’.

IMG_7980 lowres

Stuck in the muck of a farm on a coastal hill in between Skibbereen and Castletownshend in the Irish rain, I eventually found myself spinning up a lane flanked with baling twine and dry (more like wet) stone walling dimpled with pennywort, up to the Woodcock Smokery. It is a modest farmhouse with a two room smokery and attached shipping container. Stepping inside, the first thing you notice is the remarkably sweet smell of beech-wood smoke, and surprising absence of fishy odours. The place seems very homely for a workshop, feeling lived in and tidy, clean overalls hung on pegs at the entrance and inside, three ancient wooden chopping boards attached to the wall opposite a single rack of yellow handled boning knives, the blades half the width they once were, having been expertly sharpened a thousand times. The two stainless steel smokers seem somehow friendly with their unique, chestnut brown smokey patina. Through into the packing room are two freezers, a fridge, a phone, some cast-iron scales, pots of pens and pencils, books, photographs, sun-bleached awards, a hundred Post-it notes strewn over the back wall and a 1980s vacuum-packer with just two buttons.

The whole workshop would seem like the extension of Sal’s home, were it not for  anachronistic blue and white plastic signs dotted around the place: ‘HAND WASH SINK ONLY’, ‘CLEAN CLOTHES’, ‘DIRTY CLOTHES’, ‘TEMPERATURE CHECK’ they patronisingly blare, the fittings loose over time, pointlessly hanging at forgotten angles; the only purposeless objects in the workshop. Similarly the blue plastic apron and hat she has to wear seem anomalous to her mastery. What did she do in all the years of production before being obliged to use them?

Sally’s daughter, Joleine was set to take over from her mother 15 years ago – a perfect succession, as the elder imparts the knowledge of a lifetime to the new generation. But Joleine quit the smokery after a year involving over 20 unannounced visits by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, who were attempting to apply the same systems and protocols to a small artisan producer of a few hundred fish a year to that of a mass producer of farmed fish in their hundreds of thousands. The tremendous amount of extra work, bullying and hostile attitude almost killed the Woodcock Smokery.

I asked Sally if she had thought of processing more fish and perhaps employing more people, to ease up on work and earn a bit more money:

Well! D’you know! All of us in this life, if we’re lucky, have a job and it pays the bills, puts a roof over your head, food in your belly and the odd bottle of wine. And I’m really fortunate that I can now do that on a very limited number of fish. When I started there was no way I was interested in, you know: expand get big. That’s the drive when you do business training courses. I think they all think I’m completely mad because I haven’t gone to the next level and built a massive factory and employed about 400 people, because I’m working with a wild resource which is variable year on year.

You work with nature and nothing is guaranteed. Nothing. I would love to see many different smokeries in villages of the coastal communities, that take just what is needed when they can and nothing more. I have seen it, and it is sustainable, and I am trying to uphold that.

Catherine’s words echo in my ears. The sea is like the mountain, Max. It gives you life, but it also takes it away.

Sally is an example of real, human existence. Humble and full of respect for the planet, she is working in nature, with nature. She abhors human meddling and the poisoning of land and sea, and guards the methods that have been around for millennia. By continuing to produce wild smoked salmon, she is bearing the standard of how we can live in a genuinely sustainable way, but the standard is getting heavier and she is not as strong as she once was. Her unfaltering integrity is as inherently strong as the salmon’s call, and her journey just as tough. What she has learned of the land and sea through the salmon holds the key to the future of food and for this, I will be moving to Ireland in three weeks’ time to relieve her of her duties in the workshop, so that she may put her knowledge to paper in writing a book for the benefit of the memory of humankind.


Sally Barnes style Cold Smoked Salmon

The best time to catch wild Atlantic salmon for food is when they are just about to enter the estuary for their journey up river at the peak of their physical being. Wild Atlantic salmon is radically different from farmed fish. The massive white lines of fat between the muscle bundles are greasy and not a polyunsaturated fat like the wild salmon, which are much leaner and properly exercised from their adventure swimming against the current.  Were the farmed stuff not dyed, it would be white, whereas wild salmon varies in colour depending on the dietary preference of each individual animal, with those preferring crabs and shrimp turning out deeper red in hue to those who have a penchant for sand-eel and herring.

Now, Sally has honed this method over a lifetime of production. There is nobody who can reproduce the astonishingly delicious balance between salt, smoke and fish quite like her, as she knows her smokers and is completely in tune with the humidity, temperature and pressure’s effect on the draw of air and subsequent effect on the salmon on any given day. There are no real set rules, just feel what is happening and adjust accordingly. Pure intuition.  

‘Ten hours for the smoke like yesterday, Sal?’

‘No, no, no.’ she says, breathing in deeply, ‘Can’t you feel that? Can’t you hear outside? Give it five and half hours.’

You will need:

– A side of wild Atlantic salmon (this method is also good for fish like pollock)

– Fine sea salt

– Cold smoker (easy to build)

– Beech-wood chips, fine and coarse

– A spray bottle filled with water

– A plastic container big enough to hold the salmon

Pour 2-3cm of salt in the bottom of the container, skin side down. Cover the fish with salt, leaving three finger’s width of the tail bare, as it can get too salty being the thinnest part of the fish. Leave to salt for at least 4 hours, until it markedly holds its shape when you balance it on the back of your hand.

Wash the salt off the fish under running water and place it on the rack in the smoker.

Pack your fire box with beech-wood chips alternating between coarse and fine, two layers of each, spraying the chips wet with each layer. When full, push down firmly to condense the wood. Top up with fine wood-chips leaving only a half inch gap for oxygen at the top. Spray the last layer quite heavily with water and set the bottom alight.

Cold smoke for up to 10 hours, ensuring the temperature of the smoking chamber does not reach above 30 degrees C and the firebox does not flame. It needs to be a gentle smoulder throughout.

Look for when the fish will be a deeper colour, with some of the delicious oils rising to the top forming on the surface and the pin-bones are sticking out. Remove them with some pliers, pulling in the direction in which they are pointing. If you get all 32 bones then you most definitely deserve a celebratory pint.

Return the side to the smoker for anywhere between 1 and 10 hours, weather depending. Re pack the firebox if necessary.

When you check on it, look again for a matt finish, with more of the oils released above the pellicle which has formed. This is the mildly translucent layer of flesh that has subtly hardened, like amber, and is about half a millimetre thick. It is the natural barrier to the outside world that allows for the long life of this cured food. You will know when it is done.

Allow to cool with the chamber doors open, then leave to rest at four degrees C for at least 24 hours.

Serve with soda bread and unsalted cultured butter, avoiding lemon which is usually used to cut the slimy nature of farmed salmon. Sal likes to have it with a drizzle of light honey. But also with eggs, on toast, in pasta, risotto… this is real food!

I owe everything I know about salmon to my heartiest of pals and one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. If you’re really serious about smoking wild salmon and wish to glean a deep understanding of her intuitive way of smoking, go and do a course with Sally Barnes, at the Woodcock Smokery.

Next course:

The Dark Kitchen series will run throughout February, but will continue as an occasional series when the new-look Dark Mountain website is launched in April. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to series editor Charlotte Du Cann ( Thanks all and bon appetit!

Images: Salmon tail from Woodcock Smokery; portrait of Sally Barnes, view across the Smokery roof and still life of smoked salmon by Max Jones

MaxJones-1Itinerant cheesemonger Max Jones has sought out to learn and live with true artisans and obscure makers of cured food from the Alps to the Cambrian Mountains, documenting processes of essential crafts that are at risk of becoming forgotten, sharing his findings through food workshops and film work.

Instagram @mfh_jones


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Dark Kitchen: Making Friends with Microbes

This week we continue our Dark Kitchen exploration of food and eating in times of collapse. For our second course in the series Mark Watson interviews Norwegian artist Eva Bakkeslett about the ancient and modern language of fermentation.

Eva with rommekolle

‘It’s the next big thing,’ said Alexis, and handed me a jar of home-made kimchi 

 ‘Is it safe to eat?’ I asked, nervously peering into the pungent and compelling Korean ferment. 

It was a very modern reaction: industrially processed, refrigerated, microbe-free and squeaky clean (dead) is good. Everything else is dangerous. 

For thousands of years the arts of fermentation have transformed and preserved raw food in cultures across the world. Yet even though some of our strongest and most loved flavours – coffee, chocolate, cheese, salami, olives, as well as soy, miso and tempeh, wine and beer – are still alchemised via the life-death-life process of bacteria and yeasts, live, fizzing vegetables can be a challenge. 

It was reading Sandor Katz’s encyclopaedic The Art of Fermentation that turned things around and got me hooked, with its hands-on approach to reviving the practice of fermenting just about everything. The house started filling up with bubbling Kilner jars of fruit and flowers and vegetables –mead elixirs in the summer, kimchi in the winter – as my distrust gave way to bold, and delicious, experimentation. 

Eva Bakkeslett is an artist, teacher and microbial cultural revivalist from Northern Norway. I came across her work with sourdough cultures and kefir in Lucy Neal’s Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered. Later we met and she gave me some Ivan Chai (an intense black tea of fermented rosebay willowherb leaves) made by wildcrafting colleagues  in Russia. 

I wanted to ask Eva about how she got into fermentation and microbes, and how they relate to current planetary, ecological and social conditions. 


MW: What’s going down in your ‘dark kitchen’ right now, Eva? 

 EB: Well, I’m tending to about six different ferments, so loads of little creatures are living on my kitchen bench: very old Scandinavian rømmekolle ferments, various kombuchas, Bulgarian yoghurts, kefir from the Caucasus, and an amazing sourdough from Russia. I’ve also started fermenting earth, using a Japanese composting method called bokashi, where you add microbes to your food waste. It speeds up the process and you get great compost for growing vegetables. 

I started with bread. I always say the bread was talking to me. Fermenting bread has a very quiet language of its own. Put your ear against the rising dough and you hear these clicks and bubbles. I really wanted to learn about this extraordinary language. I wanted to befriend these guys. So it all started through language. 

When I was growing up we fermented milk and bread, so when I started discovering the bacterial processes behind it I didn’t really have to overcome any distrust. I just remember being delighted at discovering this community of microbes I could make friends with. I started making kombuchas and vegetable ferments, then explored the rather funky outer edges, like fermented shark in Iceland or kimchi with fish. That really tests the friendship – can I really be friends with somebody, you know, that funky? 

 MW: In Playing For Time you discuss rootlessness, and the relationship between place, belonging and fermentation. How can remembering the stories behind fermentation reconnect us? 

EB: For some years now I’ve been exploring this yoghurt-like Norwegian milk ferment called rømmekolle. In my childhood everybody fermented it – in certain areas people wouldn’t have survived without it. And the culture that develops between the place where the bacteria come from, and the material you ferment, in this case milk, and the humans that then share the culture, makes you very rooted to a particular place. 

We now know from neuroscience research that there’s a huge connection between the bacterial flora in our guts and the way we think… so if everybody in a particular village is eating the same rømmekolle, you’re sharing that microbial community within your bodies; people would somehow be bonded through bacterial flora within a community, and to the place. And this was happening all over the world. 

Also, people would closely guard their ferments and bring them wherever they went. A family from Finland emigrating to America, say, would dry their milk cultures on handkerchiefs, put them in their pockets and set off. When they settled, they’d put their handkerchiefs in milk and revive the bacterial culture. 

Nowadays, with everyone constantly moving around and not connecting to places, we often feel fragmented. One way of rooting yourself is to befriend the local bacteria by growing vegetables and connecting with the soil. Ferment those vegetables and you’ll definitely communicate with the microorganisms in that particular place!

Pumpkins_kefir_and_kombucha lowres And the further you go into it the more you get excited about the taste, texture, colour – all the aesthetic elements of food and place. It’s a very rooting experience, as well as an antidote to industrialised food with its processed salts, fats and sugars: you start reconnecting and engaging with your food, the seasons – and time. 

Fermentation has its own world and timeframe, and it can really help move you out of the hyped-up, driven pace of the modern world. You don’t even have to think about it. The relationship with the microbes just has that effect on you. 

When people say they don’t have time for sourdough bread-making, I tell them it’s about working with time, replacing one way of thinking about time with another. 

I see three elements to fermentation – time, conditions and ingredients – and the balance between those three. A vegetable ferment going for six months can be super-strong, a six-day one will be very mild. Time sits in the taste. It’s implied and embodied in the ferment and your experience of it. 

Like growing vegetables, where you can’t rush your carrots, you can’t work against the fermentation process, you have to work with it. You heighten your awareness of what’s happening and your relationship with time changes. It roots you in the fabric of life. 

MW: How can we learn from microorganisms? 

EB: Bacteria communicate with each other with an incredible alertness, and they’re like magicians of adaptation. The hundreds of thousands of members in a culture communicate through this language called quorum sensing. And if something’s not working they’ll suddenly take a different course. 

At an earlier time on the planet, bacteria eliminated all their food resources. They had to invent a way of processing the sun and transforming it into a new life substance through photosynthesis. I feel we can learn a lot from them, because we’re very set in our ways. It takes humans a long time to change. 

MW: Right now we seem to need more time to get back on track with the planet, but don’t seem to have that much time. Can humans both bring time into the way we go about things and change swiftly enough? Also, so many of our collective stories seem outdated and resistant to change. Does fermentation have a story to counterbalance that? 

EB: Well, we’re generally so removed from natural processes and going so fast, it seems almost impossible to slow down to a pace where we can have a natural relationship with time. 

But I think through a close relationship to bacteria and to our earth, without us thinking that we have to change, it will happen naturally, through gentle action and collective absorption. If you create those relationships. 

I’m fascinated by the sharing aspect of fermentation, when people give cultures to each other – especially through milk ferments and sourdough. There’s the sharing of the physical substance with the bacteria, which keeps it going, along with the sharing of cherished knowledge. With that goes the sharing of stories, which accumulate within the bacterial cultures as people form their own relationship to them. Somebody gives you some, and it already has a story; it enriches your life, and another layer of story is added to it. These stories create a different bond between people, the bacteria, and the Earth itself. 

Fermentation is a beautiful way of transforming the way we live and communicate with each other. It’s an incredible thing that happens when your kefir is thriving, producing more and more grains, and you’re thriving from it, and so you go and meet your neighbour and tell them about kefir. Or like me you incorporate it into art events and share it publicly with people. 

My favourite Christmas card this year was from a lady who came to an event I held in England in 2012. I gave her some of an old Romanian yoghurt culture that had travelled to a little Jewish café in New York. She’s been cultivating it ever since, and there it was in the photo, sitting amongst her Christmas decorations! 

MW: What kind of art do you do with fermentation? 

EB: A recent exhibition I gave in  Bodø in Norway was with rømmekolle. It had disappeared, but I managed to find some eventually and I’m cultivating and sharing it now in all my events. I gathered archive photographs of people’s relationship to their milk animals. Milk can have a bad reputation nowadays, but many people have traditionally had a close relationship not only with their cows, but also reindeer, buffalo, goats and sheep. The modern milk industry is another chapter entirely. 

Sunday Best Rommekolle

The rømmekolle culture was very sociable. On Sundays people would share a huge pot up in the mountains dressed in their finery. I interviewed old people about their relationship to this ferment for a radio programme and video. So I’m bringing rømmekolle into the public sphere through these stories. 

This exhibition included a bucket of worms with scrap food and a video camera and microphone attached. You could hear the worms talking – they have an amazing language, and when they’re happy they talk a lot. So I’m sharing the wonderful world of fermentation in a bucket, in the production of earth through worms. 

I often do talks about bacterial connections, starting with when the Earth was formed, and about bacterial language – these always include some physical fermentation of milk or vegetables. I’ve also held a festival of different bread traditions. It takes different forms. 

MW: It’s a lot about what’s worth keeping, isn’t it, particularly now when so many things are disappearing? A kind of cultural preservation. 

EB: When you pay attention to these bacterial processes, you see we have to get to the roots in order to go forward.  It’s like etymology. Often a word will go astray and start taking on a totally different meaning. But once you start looking at the roots of the word you realise there’s something fundamental in here that’s been lost. The bacterial world teaches me a lot about the way forward, because it has so much to do with the essence of life. So that’s the preservation part for me, more to do with not losing contact with the processes of life than preservation. 

People often go ‘Eeeugh!’ when they see a bucket of compost, or smell one of my stronger ferments. Many people live in a very clean bubble where life processes can’t come in. I think it’s really important to stick our fingers in the earth, and for our kids to as well. 

I bought a piss bucket recently and shocked my family: ‘You’re not going to make us piss in that are you?’ they cried. ‘Well, yeah,’ I said, ‘because piss is an amazing fertiliser, and nowadays we just think it’s something horrible and smelly. But it’s a life-giving property, right here in our system, and we just waste it.’ I want to bring back into the life-cycle all those vital things we just keep getting rid of. 

I like this idea of the uncivilised. Many young people who come to my events are fed up with modern lifestyles. They’re get really excited about hands-on life processes like fermenting. When I get overwhelmed by the horrors of our fragmented world, I remember so many people have a real need for uncivilising, for seeing a different way. Things have been sterile for too long – we need to get grimy again. 

MW: What about the future? Given our bodies are host to so many microbes, might we be our own microbial revolutions? 

EB: Well, the current misuse of Earth and its resources is leading us to disaster. But many small groups of people are experimenting in living and doing things differently. They don’t believe in the predominant systems and want to uncivilise themselves. So from that disaster a lot of social fermentation is happening, bubbling in the corners, creating another type of atmosphere, temperature and timeframe for other things to blossom and thrive. 

And I think learning about fermentation and bacterial communication, and exploring the way bacteria have adapted and survived, is a huge beginning. 

The word culture comes from the Latin cultivare: to prepare the ground for something to grow. The word is used for everything now, including TV shows. But its original meaning implies a sense of mutual nurturing: we prepare the ground and the ground gives to us. And of course bacteria is alive, and makes up the earth, and us. 

A Red Cabbage Kimchi ‘Slaw’ 

Kimchi-Squash fermenting

INGREDIENTS (Organic, local and home-grown vegetables if available) 

1 small red cabbage or ½ large one
1 large carrot
Japanese or daikon radish (mooli), equivalent size to carrot (optional)
Handful chives or small bunch spring onions
½ cup sea salt (not table salt)
5 cups filtered water (ratio = 1 part salt to 10 parts water) 

1 small or ½ large pear, peeled, seeded, chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled,  roughly chopped
1 thumb ginger, peeled, cut into small chunks
1 or 2 fresh red chillies, deseeded if too hot
1 tablespoon raw organic cane sugar OR 1 tablespoon RAW honey
½ – 1 small cup stock: liquid from 5-6 shitake mushrooms soaked in warm water plus 1 level teaspoon kelp powder (optional)
1 dessert spoon Korean red pepper flakes/chilli flakes OR level teaspoon smoked paprika powder

Note: for some ferments I omit the red pepper/chilli flakes/paprika, and use one or two homegrown ‘Ring of Fire’ chillies in the sauce This gives just the right heat, definitely hot without going into overburn! 

Chop/shred red cabbage. Remove hard centre and keep intact for use as plug in the jar.  

Place shredded cabbage in a bowl with water and sea salt. Stir and put plate on top of the bowl so all cabbage is submerged. Weight plate down with something heavy. Soak for 2 hours (at least), stirring and turning the cabbage thoroughly a few times. 

Meanwhile soak five or six shitake mushrooms in warm water for 20 minutes. 

Julienne carrot and daikon/mooli. (I often soak the carrots with the cabbage in the salt water.)

Rinse cabbage a few times and let drain in a colander. 

In a liquidiser/food processor place pear, roughly chopped garlic, sugar/raw honey, chives/onion, ginger and mushroom and kelp stock (without the mushrooms). Blend to smooth sauce. 

Place prepared vegetables in a bowl, pour the sauce on top and add red pepper flakes/smoked paprika. Gently and thoroughly mix in all the ingredients. 

Place ‘kimchi slaw’ in a clean jar (mason jars are great) and push down firmly. Fold a few outer leaves of the cabbage and cover the slaw. At this point you can put the cabbage heart on top to hold the vegetables down further. The vegetables should be submerged under the liquid. Close the jar, or cover with a cloth. 

IMPORTANT: Keep in a cool visible place. If you’ve put the top on, you must burp the jar frequently to prevent it exploding — seriously! You can start to eat this delicious ‘slaw’ after three days. Mine rarely last longer than a week before they are eaten up! 

 Next course:

The Dark Kitchen series will run throughout February, but will continue as an occasional series when the new-look Dark Mountain website is launched in April. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to series editor Charlotte Du Cann ( Thanks all and bon appetit!

Images: Eva giving a workshop on the art and culture of viili, Finish live yoghurt, at Halikonlahti Green Arts in Salo, Finland  (photo: Tuula Nikulainen); pumpkins, kefir and kombucha in Eva’s kitchen (photo: Eva Bakkeslett); sharing rømmekolle in the snow, northern Norway, 1940s (archive photograph); fermenting pumpkin and red cabbage kimchi (photo: Mark Watson); Mark shaking it up at a raw food demo, Bungay Suffolk (photo: Josiah Meldrum)

Eva Bakkeslett is an artist, filmmaker, curator and cultural activist exploring the potential for social change through gut feelings and gentle actions. She creates spaces and participatory experiences that challenge our thinking and unravels new narratives that connect us to the earth as a living organism. Eva lives in North Norway and shows, lectures and performs her work worldwide.

Oct2015MeadMark Watson connects people, plants and places through walks, talks, teas, meads and other ferments. He has led medicine plant walks at Dark Mountain gatherings, and demonstrated how to make mead in five minutes at the launch of Dark Mountain: Issue 8. As well as proofreading and downshifting, he is also part of the Dark Mountain production team and writes an occasional blog, Mark in Flowers. 

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Dark Kitchen: Uncivilising the Table

Today we begin a new series that explores food and eating in times of collapse. During this Lenten month we’ll travel through different kingdoms and terrains, sharpening our appetites and cooking knives, in the company of artists, filmmakers, writers and activists – starting with an introduction by series editor Charlotte Du Cann.


Medlars in a Sieve by Food/ Still life photography: Sue Atkinson

We are looking at a plate. Tiny translucent slices of fish are artfully arranged around its rim. It is 1990 and we are in a Japanese restaurant in downtown Manhattan. ‘Who is going first?’ we wonder and laugh nervously. I am with Hamilton and Steve. We’ll all go at once we decide and put the poisonous raw fugu in our mouths, declaring that a tingling was definitely happening. The dish costs $50.

We are looking at a plate. On it piled in chunky layers are home-baked sourdough bread, crispy seaweed and a poached egg. It is 2017 and we are outside in the lee of the Dorset cliffs, cooking on a camping stove. Everyone wants to go first. I am with Caroline, Jack and Mark and yesterday we cut the bright green fronds from the rocks, as the aquamarine sea swirled about our feet. We declare this is possibly the best breakfast we have ever had and laugh.

This is a story about food and powerdown. It could seem like a personal story except that it is not: it is a social story about how everything changes when you break the illusions your civilisation is wrapped in.  In 1990 I am staying in the Algonquin Hotel, covering the US fashion collections, and I know nothing about the industrial food system; in 2017 I am staying in a hut on a beach, talking about Dark Mountain, and I know all its dark secrets. Decades later the Spring collections will still send beige raincoats down the catwalk and the forests of kelp will continue to wave their ancestral arms in the currents of the English channel – but the world I am documenting, like the food I now cook, is radically different.

This is a series called Dark Kitchen: a set of pieces that will look at and question the culture of food in times of fall. It’s not a subject Dark Mountain has focused on before, even though writing and cooking share a creative terroir, not least in their ability to bring things to the table, to alchemise raw material into food for the mind, heart and body. Up to now any focus on food has been practical: the Uncivilisation festivals hosted foraging walks, we’ve published pieces on mead making, bread baking in Australia and a recipe for a very rooty, roadkill pheasant stew; this series aims to bring a writer’s and artist’s particular attention to food from a Dark Mountain perspective.

Our focus will not be on the labyrinth, the whirlygig of distribution centres and trucks that thunder along our roads, all the data and polemic, but on finding the dancing floor beneath it. Around all our sentences lie the deforested lands, the denuded and poisoned oceans, the lost soil, the vast herds of creatures living and dying invisibly in dark sheds. We know what is going down. Our core question is, once you have railed at the machine that holds us in its palm-oiled maw, what do you do as an artist, as a storytelling human being, knowing that every time you venture out with a shopping basket, you return with blood on your hands?

Dark Kitchen aims to gather some of the stories about food that go untold at the edge of our civilisation. All civilisations flourish and flounder according to their ability to feed themselves. All of us, as human animals, no matter where we exist, on what social and political map, need to eat to live. Like death, this is a fact of our existence here. How we can we do that sustainably, with kindness, with fairness, is a question many grassroots organisations and activists ask themselves.

One they do not necessarily ask however is: how do we change the story of our lives, built as it is on millions of years of living in hunter/gatherer bodies, thousands of years living in wheat and barley-fed civilisations, in nomadic milk-herding geographies? Food is not a matter of intellectual debate: it is physical and feeling memory, deep time memory, cultural and personal history. It is people and relationships with domestic and wild creatures, conviviality, tradition, hunger, belonging, snobbery. Roast dinners, fish and chips by the sea. It is hunting deer and keeping chickens, curry on a Friday night when you were a student. It is visiting the markets of Morocco, or France, or your gran who cooked the best lemon meringue pie ever.

How do you come up with a new way of interacting with the world that means all that culture stored inside of you and everyone you know, constantly reflected from shiny magazine pages, on TV screens, on your best friend’s Instagram, has to go?

Roland Barthes observed in his seminal work Mythologies how the modern left faltered before the sheer power and sexiness of the capitalist advertising industry. How can you match the pull it has on your most basic desire: to eat delicious food, tasting of fat and salt and sweet, ready made without effort, without thinking of where it has come from, a food without consequence, untainted by guilt. Every day feast food, seeped in the lure of luxury, convenience, pleasure, control – the defining signature of a corporate lifestyle.

A humble recipe for vegan nut roast is not going to cut the mustard, any more than modern socialism has been able to counter market fundamentalism. The glamour and snobbery of high culture, and the physical desires and  habits of most people, are too strong. Something else has to pull you more powerfully in another direction: something that has its roots in the land, in a deeper culture that also looks prophetically to the future,  that has intelligence, meaning and ethics and still tastes good.

One thing corporate dining, for all its cheffy fancies and huge glasses of wine, does not have and never will: the relationship with the non-human, with the earth, with the plants and creatures who stand to go down with us if we don’t dismantle the labyrinth. This relationship is above all things a matter of the heart. Dark Kitchen is about remembering one of the oldest and simplest stories ever told: a love affair with the fabric of life.



Bread b7w

Where did the shift away from that plate of fugu begin? I read a cookbook by Colin Spencer with a no-holds-barred description of slaughterhouses. I gave up eating meat. I read End of the Line by Charles Clover. I gave up eating fish. I read Eat Your Heart Out, Felicity Lawrence’s document about corporate control and the fate of African workers in the glasshouses of Spain and Italy. I gave up buying out-of-season tomatoes. I stopped going to supermarkets. Then I went to a documentary hosted by a local Transition initiative where Derrick Jensen spoke about the agricultural revolution and how it had decimated the wild world. Somewhere a restaurant door slammed shut and an allotment gate clicked open.

In Transition I bumped into everything that the advertising and supermarkets keep in the dark: land grabs, slavery, GM, pesticides decimating insect and bird populations, slurry from pig farms killing the rivers and oceans. I started to look at the barley and beet fields outside my window in a new light and shudder.

In those grassroots community activism years, food growing connected us all: we knew that growing radishes would not change the world but it would radically change our relationships with the earth and with each other. I became a serial food blogger charting the downshifting moves within food production: growing co-ops, box schemes, gleaning networks, apple-pressing weekends, potato days, community bakers, seed swaps, the plight of the honey bees, and the ex-Agriculture minister John Gummer telling us at a farmers’ conference on Climate Change and Food Security:

This is the biggest issue agriculture has faced, and unlike the Depression in the 1930s and the Black Death we are not facing this in ignorance. And because we know we are responsible. People don’t want to know of course, because once you know it changes you and you are ashamed.

It was a time where people on panels said these kinds of things and prophesied that bio-tech loaves and fishes would feed the 9 billion. It was a time of bringing potatoes to Occupy camps and wild weed salads to low-carbon meetings, of rescuing a whole side of salmon and punnets of strawberries from the Latitude festival recycling bins, cooking Mexican and raw food feasts for community diners. It was a time where The Monitor in the kitchen told me exactly how much power was eking out of the fridge and the kettle. When some women wept and struggled with their Tesco habit, and others implored me not to tell them exactly what their shrimp habit was doing to the seabed or the coastal mangroves of South East Asia.

But something was missing. Everything I wrote had this evangelical tone. We need to reduce our energy use! Get in season! Make your store cupboard resilient! Wake up to the real price of consumerism! I realised neither knowledge nor social justice gives enough heft for people to change tracks. To be in synch with the living systems, to restore the land, to eat beautifully with conscience, to find meaning in an everyday humble meal, an imaginative relationship with the physical world had to be created. Our hearts had to be rekindled by something stronger, more alluring, than any feel-bad information. Something you never thought of before  like seaweed for breakfast on a limestone beach in September.


A short story about beansBeans 2

I am standing on Dark Mountain’s Base Camp stage, holding a handful of field beans. These beans are what this weekend is all about, I am telling the gathering. Field beans have been grown here in Britain since the Iron Age and embody one of the uncivilised principles of the manifesto  being rooted in time and place.

The beans are produced by my friend Josiah, who started a small business in a nearby Suffolk market town with Nick and William five years ago. The beans were all about shortening the supply chain, encouraging farmers to grow a crop that was either given to cattle or sold to the Middle East, and that was nutritious not only for an eat-less-meat-and-dairy-cook-from-scratch culture, but also for the soil that is being rapidly depleted by fossil-fuelled farming.

But most of all the beans were about telling a different story. A Jack in the Beanstalk story about a boy who sells his mother’s cow for a handful of beans that totally changes their luck. The beans were followed by peas of many colours, and then quinoa (grown not in Bolivia but in Essex), and now lentils, naked barley and oats, and a host of other grains and pulses, grown with the same kind of attention to place and provenance that has made local craft beers rocket in popularity in the face of corporate brewing. In short, a whole shelf of basic goods that would normally be imported, in fields that would normally host monocultural commodity crops grown for the global market. Last year Hodmedods won BBC Producer of the Year and had to move warehouses, as everyone else began to agree those beans just took you to places that Mr Heinz never could.

One of the successes of the fava bean is that it is a beloved ingredient in the fragrant and spicy cuisines of  the Middle East and other countries. To end each of our Dark Kitchen posts we’ll be cooking up a recipe that will capture the flavour of some of the story we’re telling, that shows though we may live in more austere restricted times, there need be no limit to our imaginations and flair and generosity. This is a classic North African dish made with fava beans instead of chickpeas and served with quinoa instead of couscous. It can serve two to four people  just add less or more veg.

Seven vegetable tagine

Soak a big handful of fava beans overnight and then cook until soft (approx 40 minutes). Keep to one side. Whole beans keep their shape but split fava is OK too if you don’t mind a bit of collapse in your cooking (no need to soak).

Chop one onion and fry gently in olive oil in a largish saucepan. When softened add 2 cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of ras el hanout spice (or a mix of cumin, coriander, mixed spice and chilli pepper) and fresh green chilli if you like it hot. Stir and then add your roughly chopped seven veg which will depend on season: swede, leeks and parsnips in winter for example, courgettes, green pepper and turnips in the summer. You’re looking for a strong taste and a chunky texture, so celery and carrots are good. Cabbage however is key and can be added half way through the main cooking so it keeps its form.

Stir in the spicy oil for a minute or two then add 2 tomatoes and a squeeze of tomato puree, or the equivalent in tinned tomatoes, and water to just below the level of the veg. Throw in a handful of sultanas and half a preserved lemon (or a couple of slices and the juice of half a fresh squeezed lemon). Stir, pop on the lid and cook until the veg starts to soften (about 15 minutes). Add the beans for a further five.

Before serving add salt and black pepper to taste, plus a big handful of chopped coriander and/or parsley. Served with quinoa, flavoured with orange zest, cinnamon and toasted sunflower seeds, a bowl of slaw or salad, and some feisty harissa.

Next course:

The Dark Kitchen series will run throughout February, but will continue as an occasional series when the new-look Dark Mountain website is launched in mid-March. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to Thanks all and bon appetit!

Images: Medlars in a Sieve by Food/ Still life photography: Sue Atkinson; loaves from a co-operative oven, Can Piella, Catalonia by Phillip Evans ; a handful of (field) beans by Mark Watson

 Peri-urban Forager 1Charlotte Du Cann is an editor and art editor on the Dark Mountain Project. She has worked as a waitress, a cook, a food stylist, a food editor, written a book about food and society (Offal and the New Brutalism) and run a collaborative Transition initiative called One Planet Community Kitchen  She loves to grow asparagus kale but cooks it better.

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A Space for Stories


Do you remember any storytelling sessions from your childhood?

I had posed my long-standing favourite question once more. This time to Saw John Aung Thong, a person from the Karen community living in a village in Mayabunder in Middle Andaman.

There were so many, he answered. During the harvest time we would all sleep in the lower part of our house and have long storytelling sessions way into the night. Our house was like any other traditional Karen house, a bamboo hut on stilts with its lower part set aside for storing grains.

What John said may seem simple enough but it made me realise that I had gotten so caught up with exploring the content of folk stories, that I had given little time to think about the pivotal role played by the site of the exchange. But taking a cue from his observation, I started noticing the connection of space with stories.

For the aan-kath (riddle sessions) of Munsiari in the Himalayas, the kitchen with its central hearth (locally known as raun) was a space for people to gather during snowbound winters for long-winding sessions of guessing-games of local riddles, some hilarious, some educative, and many both. For the Diné tribe of North America, there is sacred significance in holding storytelling sessions in winter in hogan, their traditional circular dwellings with a central fire. Amongst the Guna Yala people of Panama, the sacred history and legends are sung by Saila, the spiritual and political leader, in a special meeting house (onmaked nega).

On a closer look, it becomes clear that many customary forms of storytelling have also had a customary setting. The settings vary. While some require a rooted, bound place for a story, others require more open space. It doesnt have to be a constructed shelter and could be the canopy of a banyan tree, the top of a mountain, the bank of a river.

I once heard Pascal Gbenou from Benin talk about how a tree in their area was known as the ‘chatting tree’ because people would go there for gossiping. The logic was that since it was in the open you had a 360 degree view around you. It was not considered appropriate to ever gossip in an enclosed place for you would never know who is there on the other side of the wall! That made me think about how in my own hometown in Punjab, people spread out cots in an open courtyard in summer and exchanged stories.

The storytelling can sometimes overflow further into the landscapes, as is seen in the songlines of Aboriginal tribes running through the length and breadth of Australia, inextricably linking space with story. These are pathways stretching across the land or the sky that, according to indigenous Australians, were followed by different creator beings at the beginning of time. There are traditional songs that are sung by indigenous people as they travel through these routes, the words and rhythm of which vividly bring the landscape of the route to life.

Can we then really talk about traditions of storytelling and their relevance while ignoring their linkages with the settings in which these arose, took shape and bloomed? What happens when the banyan tree is sawed down? When the kitchen loses its circular setting with the central hearth, and is instead implanted with shelves that force the people preparing the food to turn their back to the rest? When the lower floor of a Karen house on stilts becomes a space filled with rooms instead? When a sacred rock is mined? Or when the Australian landscape of dreaming spirits becomes obstructed by humongous technological structures that may be hideous but more important for progress.

We are losing these spaces which allowed the stories to flow and it is hard to tease out the reasons. Did we lose the space for the stories because we didnt find them relevant enough, or was the loss of stories merely a collateral damage when that space was colonised for other priorities? It is like a chicken-egg paradox. But whichever came first, somewhere along the march of progress, a little by choice, a little by circumstance, we have managed to end up in place that has left little space for stories.

So what happens now? In an age obsessed with recording and broadcasting thoughts and life-events on a minute-to-minute basis and in our tendency to look for one-size-fits-all solutions, the documenting of folklore may seem like a tempting route to take. But for stories that have forever flowed through a different channel, putting these down in ink may end up turning them into dry museum pieces rather than living, flowing entities.

I have little knowledge of the latest architectural trends, and I know that we are at the brink of loss of old spaces, old stories. But perhaps it is still not too late. Perhaps as the need for stories is rekindled, there will also be a rethinking of spaces, rethinking of the design of houses, community spaces, towns and entire landscapes. Perhaps we will be able to save ourselves, coming back from the brink, with a mix of the old and the new.

Shiba Desor is a member of Kalpavriksh, an environmental group based in Pune, and a senior research assistant at Dakshin Foundation. She is also a member of a small women’s collective called Maati, based in Munsiari, Uttarakhand. She is part environmental researcher, part organiser of gatherings, part food-writer. She has co-authored a children’s book on food called Something To Chew On.

Image: David Bradley, White Earth Ojibwe Storyteller, 1980s
By Peabody Essex Museum – Own work, CC BY 3.0

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Numens, ghosts and fugitives: on being buried in the landscape

I found the place dark and deeply rural; it was extremely beautiful and often inexplicable. People did not seem so much to live there as to be holed up.
– Paul Theroux

In the early 1970s Theroux moved to Britain after living abroad for years in Malawi, Uganda and Singapore. He spent the first few months over winter in a rented house on the northeastern edge of the Marshwood Vale in Dorset.

I don’t really know why he pitched up here, of all places, except that, perhaps, it called to him. The house at Bowood gave Theroux the inspiration and setting for an early novel, The Black House, a ghost story. It tells how a retired anthropologist returns to England after years of study in Africa and rents a house in Dorset. At the start of the book he gives a talk to the locals and shows them various items he has collected. One of them, a figurine, goes missing. Things get nastier from there. Over-arching it all is the brooding sense of a dark, rainy, gale-lashed winter. It’s a terrific portrait of this part of the Dorset countryside and how it can oppress, test and expel people. And how it can bind you to it in a harsh, sometimes scary way; something very far from the lifestyle dreams of summer holidaymakers.

Theroux said of Dorset: ‘Everything I had expected to find in Africa I found on the edge of the Marshwood Vale. I was fascinated but I was also a little frightened. These are the emotions that produce fiction.’

Theroux wasn’t the first writer to be ensnared by the weirdness of the Vale. It’s always been a remote, obscure place, cut off from the larger world of human activity. It took two years for news of the Battle of Trafalgar to seep through to the scattered farmsteads. It’s very wet, and in winter, the deep clay made the roads impassable (the roads still flood). People nicknamed it ‘Old Bottom’ and called those who lived there ‘stick-in-the-muds’ – as they were, literally. It was also very poor. For two years at the end of the 18th century William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived at Racedown Lodge overlooking the Marshwood Vale. They walked all over the area – Wordsworth favoured the Iron Age hillfort at Pilsdon Pen – and they were appalled by the poverty they saw. The hunger and want changed Wordsworth’s perspective and inspired much of the social commentary in his early poems. ‘The Ruined Cottage’ where ‘nettles rot and adders sun themselves’ is one of these. It speaks of ‘poverty and grief’ in:

A time of trouble; shoals of artisans
Were from their daily labour turned away
To hang for bread on parish charity,

The Wordsworths themselves were poor and had to grow most of their own food. During the hard winter of 1797, William wrote to a friend: ‘I have lately been living on air and the essence of carrots, turnips and other esculent vegetables not excluding parsnips, the produce of my garden.’

Towards the end of the Wordsworths’ second spring at Racedown, Samuel Taylor Coleridge arrived, leaping over the field stile at the bottom of the garden, having walked all the way from West Somerset. He stayed three weeks, entranced both William and Dorothy, and persuaded them to join him on the Quantocks. It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

But Coleridge wasn’t the only reason the Wordsworths left Dorset. They went there in the first place because they were offered the house free of charge. It was owned by John Pinney, son of John Praetor Pinney, an affluent Bristol merchant and member of the Bristol West Indies Trading Company. The Pinneys were slave owners who had grown rich from their sugar plantations on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Young John was idealistic – Wordsworth met him originally through his circle of radical friends. It’s thought that when hardboiled John Snr. found out the house was being let for nothing, he ordered that Wordsworth should pay rent, or leave.

Praetor Pinney’s decision might also have been influenced by angry complaints from some of his farming tenants. They claimed that Wordsworth was a wizard who had been casting spells on their cattle. Wordsworth generally composed and refined his poems by reciting them aloud while walking. Every day he and Dorothy took long walks of two hours or more across the surrounding countryside. As they walked, William muttered poetry in his strong northwest accent, pausing now and again to survey the view through a pocket telescope. The local, southwest folk couldn’t understand what he was saying, and because of the incantatory rhythms and the fact he kept pointing a strange, possibly magical instrument at their cows, they concluded he was bewitching them.

This interpretation of Wordsworth’s behaviour was logical since the locals themselves used charms on their cattle. As late as the mid-20th century, many of the older farmers still used ‘charmers’ to cure warts, ‘red water’ and adder bites. I heard about this from the farmer who now owns Racedown Farm, opposite the house where Wordsworth lived. In the 1950s and 60s his father was a vet in the Vale. He often came up against folk remedies. Sometimes the farmers called the vet when a cow was ill, and sometimes they went to the charmer. When telephones first came to the Vale, they proved very good for the charmers’ business. Several farmers had phones installed not because those solitary men wanted to chat to anyone – whom would they speak to and about what? – but so that the charmer could talk directly to the cows without the bother of a visit. On more than one occasion the vet turned up to a farm to find a cow in the kitchen with the phone speaker held to its ear so that the charmer could whisper the magic words direct.

We might laugh at this. But who can say that in some ways those sibilant charms and Wordsworth’s muttered poems were not magical incantations? The Anglo-Saxon root of the word ‘spell’ means ‘speech’ or ‘story’. Wordsworth was accused of putting a spell on the land as he walked, but what if the opposite were the case – that the land put a spell on him, which he expressed in the lines he composed as he walked?

It was a story – a spell – that brought me to West Dorset.

A long time ago, when I was a student, I came across a thriller called Rogue Male. Oh how we all laughed at the title: Rogue Male. It became an in-joke – we called an unfortunate friend ‘rogue sausage’ because of his many girlfriends. We built a story around it. That’s how stories work – they flow into us and create new stories. It was a while before I actually read the book itself – and then I was amazed. It was so gripping, so taut, and it seemed to me to be about more than it appeared. There was something totemic in it about the countryside, about the landscape. Time passed and I forgot; the story became buried in my mind. Then I moved to West Dorset, an area I didn’t know at all, and ended up in Powerstock, where some of the scenes are set. Much later I found out that Powerstock was where the author, Geoffrey Household, had lived. With a slow sense of waking up I realised where I was, and it was like a dream soaking into reality.

Rogue Male isn’t a joke. It was the first of a whole genre of tightly plotted action thrillers, before James Bond, before Len Deighton. It tells how an unnamed anti-hero tries and fails to assassinate a Hitler-like figure. He survives an attempt to kill him and flees for his life. There’s a nerve-twisting hunt on the London Underground, which prompts the hero to ‘disappear’. He chooses Dorset; literally burying himself in the landscape. He digs a den in an ancient hedgebank, or holloway, overlooking the Marshwood Vale and holes up, hoping to evade capture. He goes feral and lives as a beast, relying on cunning and instinct to save him from death.

Published in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War, the novel can be seen as an allegory for beleaguered Britain, retreating into its island fastness and ultimately defeating the foreign enemy with a combination of toughness and intelligence. Nearly 80 years later, there are other ways to read his story (apart from the Brexit analogy). Psychologically, the anti-hero is seriously repressed, even by the standards of the time. He sublimates all his emotions and sensations, refusing to give in under torture. In doing so, of course, he reveals to the reader how damaged he is, and how his emotional state has forced him to take refuge in a deliberately ‘uncivilised’ mode of being. In this sense, his retreat into the landscape in search of safety and salvation from the horrors of the modern world follows the same path as neo-romantic artists of the 30s and 40s. I’m thinking of Paul Nash, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Eric Ravilious. In their paintings the landscape is a state of mind. It has a definite sense of place, a sense of the numinous about it.

Numinous. Comes from ‘numen’.

A numen is the spirit or divine power presiding over a thing or place. It’s a Latin word but it embodies a concept deeply embedded in prehistory, before Ancient Rome or Greece existed. Here in Britain we once had many wayside shrines to the small, local gods, symbols of the vivifying numen. They were part of the genius loci, the spirit of the place.

I think we all have a sense of numen. It’s not the same as religious belief. You could regard it as quite a straightforward thing; a reaction that comes from attuning ourselves to the natural world. It might be what we feel when we a faced with the strong perception that there is a real, living reality outside of ourselves, and that we are a small part of it.

Numen is also used by anthropologists to denote the idea of magical power residing in a totemic object: an object like the African figurine that goes missing from the anthropologist’s collection in The Black House. But the Vale, like all nuministic places, has no need of fictional objects and imported ghost stories. It has its own historic totems.

For hundreds of years the old house at Bettiscombe Manor belonged to the slave-trading Pinneys, Wordsworth’s hosts. According to legend, when plantation founder Azariah Pinney retired, he brought back some slaves with him to England. One of them was old, and he fell sick in the cold, damp air of the Vale. During his last hours this slave made Azariah promise that when he died, his body would be shipped back to his family in the Caribbean so he could rest in peace. If Azariah broke his promise, the slave vowed he would never leave him or his family alone. He then died and Azariah promptly bundled him into a pauper’s grave in the churchyard nearby. For the next three nights the manor house was disturbed by unearthly screams. On the fourth night, when all the Dorset servants were on the brink of leaving, Azariah gave in and opened the grave. He found the skull, miraculously picked clean, and took it into the house, whereupon the screaming stopped.

It’s true there is a human skull in Bettiscombe Manor. In the 1960s, the then owner, Michael Pinney, had it formally examined by an archaeologist from the British Museum. He concluded that it was very much older than the 18th century, probably in fact Iron Age, and most likely that of a woman. The skull has a smooth, brown patina of limestone, possibly the result of spending centuries underwater in a spring. Further investigation by Michael Pinney into the slave story revealed that it wasn’t a piece of old Dorset legend at all, but a tale made up in the 1830s by his ancestor, Anna Maria Pinney. She wrote it soon after the bill to abolish slavery in the British Empire was passed. Seen in this light, the story becomes a figuring forth of the buried guilt of her family.

Some places invite responses from the deepest part of the unconscious mind. Dig down through the strata of fiction and history and layers of story and spell will appear.

If stories are, literally, spells, then what are ghosts? I’ll say straight away that wondering whether ghosts exist rather misses the point. Coleridge summed it up when he said: ‘A lady once asked me whether I believed in ghosts and apparitions. I answered with truth and simplicity: “No, madam! I have seen far too many myself.”

There’s a distinction to be drawn between ghosts and spirits. Ghosts, supposedly, are apparitions of dead mortals, be they people, animals, or dead people taking the shape of animals – headless highwaymen on headless horses, legendary black dogs or murdered queens. Or they inhabit objects – like the Screaming Skull. They are trapped between worlds, craving release.

With personality comes human character and history. Each ghost trails its story; its his-story or her-story, without which it would mean nothing, and therefore be nothing. The fear of a ghost story resides in the telling of that story – the gradual, creepy uncovering of buried and forgotten truth. In M.R. James’ classic ghost stories the trigger is often the unearthing of an actual buried object – a whistle say or a crown – which then releases retribution. It’s significant that the objects are historic and that they are buried in the ground. We are back with the anthropological meaning of numen as a sacred object of special power, and the notion of burial in the landscape. Psychologically, we’re back in the Vale, where people, as Theroux wrote, ‘don’t so much live as hole up’.

Spirits, however, are immortal, insubstantial entities, which may not ever have been alive in the same solid sense as the beings who became ghosts. They belong where they are found. In other words, spirits are emanations of place, whereas ghosts are personifications of history.

On the wooded hill at the back of Bettiscombe Manor there is a massive, tilted standing stone set on a peculiar hump with a natural spring bubbling out below. It’s called the Wishing Stone and is said to slide down the hill on Midsummer’s Eve, to return the following morning. It’s not on a public right of way and few people know about it. Michael Pinney was convinced that it was a sacred spot. Sometimes I go there and sit on the wooden bench next to it. The stone points out across the Vale as if it is beaming some kind of invisible ray over the land. Perhaps it is.

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

First: ‘A View from Marshwood’ by Derek Harper (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Second: ‘Byway on County Boundary – the Holloway gets even deeper’ by Chris Reynolds (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Paul Theroux quoted in The Sunday Times, ‘A haunting story in the Wessex Hills’, winter 1986/7

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The Marked Ones


The housing development was called Las Marcadas – The Marked. It sat in a flat plain, firm and abutting against the low hills to the northwest. A nondescript beige sign announced the cul-de-sac entrance in large fonts, overshadowing the smaller National Monument placard pointing north. I parked my rental car and checked my watch.

I was in Albuquerque killing time until my afternoon flight. I don’t know if you’ve even been there but on a late winter’s Sunday there are a million better places to be. The baked brown/grey streets are mostly devoid of life and the air smells of windy sadness. I had asked the hotel clerk how far I could drive away from any of this and still make my 5:00 flight. He suggested Petroglyphs National Monument. OK. That was the plan then.

The drive up to the park headquarters took me through streets of shuttered ‘Big! Lots!’ stores and drooping attempts at suburban gardens. It was all near deserted, save grim-faced pickup drivers and shambling woozy alcoholics, swaying still from the night before. I turned on the radio and sang along to Spanish advertising jingles.

When I pulled up, the ranger was jarringly helpful. Full of caffeine and shimmering dental veneers. I gave him my flight time and asked what I could do in the time I had. He launched into a cavalcade of the myriad tourist possibilities this little corner of New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, offered. He showed me the very many local postcards on display, each with a ‘beautiful view to send the folks at home.’ He was friendly and kind but I was grumpy and already deeply soured of humanity by 10am. I forced a smile and picked a trail at random. Piedras Marcadas. Located in a ‘lightly travelled’ part of the park twenty miles to the northeast.

And now here I was. Mindful of the ‘please secure your possessions/this is an urban park’ warnings, I pulled my coat over my travel bags and locked the car.

The trail skirted Las Marcadas to the north, allowing a glimpse into half-hearted xeriscape backyards and yellow plastic toys strewn as afterthoughts on concrete patios. A large dog was baying in the distance. Wind-dried Walmart bags were tangled in the sage brambles. I hiked up the sandy wash of a path, nodding at passing teen joggers, and headed to the foothills. I could see tracks of jackrabbits and coyote, sharp and recent, in the loosely packed dust. I looked down and kept walking.

It was not long before I saw marks. There – on the high rock to the right – was a handprint. Above was a spiral and what seemed to be a spaceman. A curious looking bird and a snake straight as a wizard’s staff.

The marks were chock-a-block and were tumbled down the hills. There were hundreds cascading down the slopes. Not in obvious places though. Climbing was required.

There is a body-memory delight in clambering up a rocky hill. In scaling boulders looking for petroglyphs. Time becomes fluid and then just slips out of its everyday parameters. I forgot everything else and focused on the ground and rock faces in front of me. But as I scrambled over the land I noticed other marks as well. The graffiti left by modern travelers. Some was of the ‘Trevor loves Mary’ or the ‘Jesus is my saviour’ type. But most was far more subtle. A scratched antelope, like the older running ungulate to the side, only this one just a few years old. A star-scape, fine grained as if pecked by a screwdriver. A man-ghost. (4)

Unlike the scribbled names of passing vandals, these other marks blended in with the landscape. From a distance, last year’s man with a spear could be a centuries-old shaman. These cuts and scrapes left the carver anonymous – his or her own memory of the work as the only testament to their presence. All tracks of their lives here, in suburban New Mexico and three blocks from the nearest Starbucks, erased from view. Instead, what was etched into the so very black surface was more of a longing than of any specific figure. Not an antelope but rather a conduit. A pull to belong to an older community of the land. Back when it was an untamed and unpaved place. Back when it was a place beyond the illusion of modern control and containment.

Vandalism is a scourge throughout our American wild land. Petroglyph National Monument, from all accounts, fares worse than most places. Possibly due to its urban setting alone. Just a few years back someone plastered gold spray paint graffiti inside a sacred cave several miles away in Boca Negro Arroyo. The selfishness and narcissism of these acts is rightly condemned. But what is this other graffiti? This ancestral mimicry? Is it something else? Rather than a shout that ‘I exist – Look at me now,’ it is more of a diminishment. A shrinking of the carvers themselves into the curve of historical time. A dissolution of their present self in exchange for a more primitive connection. A cry for belonging.

It’s a horrible thing too of course. A willful obliteration of the irreplaceable sacred. A violent intrusion into what should remain mythos. Yet a melancholy wind, a grey miasma, surrounds this destruction. It is the same sort of pathos that names a burnt-tan and repetitive housing development Las Marcadas. And maybe it is the same sadness that pulled me out from downtown that Sunday morning to stare at 500-year-old pecks and scratches as well.

A couple from Minnesota walked by. They were seeing the National Parks on a retirement dream trip, and we commiserated about the vandalism. Our words were full of ‘What a shame’ and ‘How could they?’ But my heart wasn’t fully in it. For really, who would not want, in their heart of hearts, to leave the paved and banal American Dream for the wide vistas from half a millennia ago? With less sense of the sacred, and less fear of looming arrest too, would I do the same? No I wouldn’t. But how can I really judge? The same longing resides within me as well.

I was out of time in this place. We all were. The tourists from Minnesota and the vandals from last season as well. I caught my flight and awoke the next morning in the rain-splattered green valleys of my Northwest home, thinking I’d been in a dream for those few hours. I looked at my photos to make sure the memory was real and then filed them away.

Now, over a year later, I’ve forgotten much of that trip. Forgotten the tourist shops of Santa Fe and the recommended posole and tamal cafes. Only the question really remains. Were these vandals seeking something more than defacement? Were they seeking a dissolution of their concrete, paycheck on Friday lives into the surrounding land? And aren’t I seeking that as well?

Over the years, Kim Schnuelle has spent time as a horse trainer, palaeontology student, marine biologist, coroner’s assistant, parolee educator, family law attorney, and occasional poet. She lives in the northwest corner of the United States with her husband and their Texas stray hound Chucho. Although Kim seeks out undeveloped places wherever she goes, she remains unconditionally and head over heels in love with our wild western lands. 


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