The Dark Mountain Blog

Swansong for an Old Forest

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abhithakuchalambal
March 3, 2014

The Animal Envoys

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

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

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

*

METAMORPHOSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

BIRD-WOMAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ground takes their weight.

*

SWAN

I

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

*

BLODEUWEDD IN A PARKA

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

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

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

But oh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

WRITING ROOT & CLAW: a workshop with Susan and Em

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

Both write work that is set against the backdrop/foreground of ecological crisis and an awareness of the unravelling of ‘civilisation as we know it’. The workshop won’t engage formally with questions of collapse, but will ask questions about self and other – about the relationship between humans and nonhuman species; about ‘radical intimates’ and ‘strange strangers’ (Timothy Morton). The weekend will be a kind of ecopoetic meditation whereby we don’t just sit inside thinking and writing, but we also walk outdoors, talk round bonfires and scribble notes on the backs of our hands. For more information please visit: http://emstrang.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/writing-root-claw-a-weekend-workshop/

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

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

Rounding Bolus Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End of the End of Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fail

With the latest issue of Dark Mountain now available, we wanted to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages, so we’ve been publishing a selection from the book on the blog. For our last offering, we lead you into the woods to get lost with Charles Foster.

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

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 A student came to a Zen master, and said, ‘I am seeking the truth. What state of mind should I train myself to have, so as to find it?’
xxxxThe master said, ‘There is no mind, so you cannot put it in any state. There is no truth, so you cannot train yourself for it.’
xxxx‘If there is no mind to train, and no truth to find, why do you have these monks gather before you everyday to study Zen and train themselves for this study?’
xxxx‘I haven’t an inch of room here,’ said the master, ‘so how could the monks possibly gather? I have no tongue, so how on earth could I call them together or teach them?’
xxxx‘How can you lie like this?’ asked the student, outraged.
xxxx‘If I have no tongue to talk to others, how can I lie to you?’ asked the master.
xxxxThe student said sadly, ‘I cannot follow you. I cannot understand you.’
xxxx‘I cannot understand myself,’ said the master.

There are four life stages in the Vedic ashram system. The first is Brahmacharya, the stage of dedication to the great quest – to realize Brahman in oneself. It is entered into by bright-eyed youths and entered or re-entered by repentant, cloudy-eyed dissipates. Its music is that of sometimes quiet, sometimes exultant consecration. Then there is Grihashtha – the stage of settling down. Wives and mortgages are acquired, children are born, cars are polished, lawns are mown, businesses grow, fortunes are made. Then, when the children fly the nest, the wives sag, and the machinations of the firm become unbearably grey, there is Vanaprastha.

The Hindu goes into the forest, and begins to prise from his soul the deadly things that have stuck to it over the years of domesticity. He pays off his debtors, and tries to pay off the demons too. He has been dying since he was born, and now is the time to do something about it. The house is sold; the business is given to the sons. He takes with him into the forest only the sacred fire, the cultic implements and, optionally and unusually, his wife. He lives off wild food; his hair and nails go uncut; his capacity for delusion is gradually ground down by austerity and meditation. Eventually he may see clearly enough to go into the final stage – Sannyasa. Then he will wander alone through India, begging. The ties with the old life and the old self will have been severed; he will be teetering on the edge of enlightenment, or living in it. He will know his place in the mind of Brahman, or at least where his place is not.

It is a stern system, now rarely followed. It has generated immense spiritual wealth. There is nothing in the system that cannot be described very well in the words of St. Paul.

I thought that my adolescent contempt for the suburbs meant that I had transcended Grihashtha, and so I took a bus, a train, another bus and a rickshaw to a hot wood. In my rucksack, since I didn’t know the botany of India well enough to live safely off berries, I had lots of tinned fish, a bag of apples and a sack of porridge oats. I brought very little else of any sort with me. In particular I brought no spiritual resources of any kind, as the episode brutally showed.

Things happen in woods, whether you are prepared for them or not. To begin with, you think that you’ve found things. Wisdom, later, tells you that you’ve found nothing at all, but that you are in the process of being found. Finding, in fact, is the business of being found. And to do that (as I now notice happens in all the Arthurian legends that I love the most), it helps to be utterly lost.

My bit of wood was about a mile from the nearest road. The road was a rutted, dusty track along which trundled occasional bullock carts loaded with improbable bric-a-brac going from nowhere to nowhere. Walking into the fringes of the forest I nearly trod on a jet-black cobra which slid into a stream, looking fiercely back over its non-existent shoulders.

I’d thought of building the sort of leafy bivouac in which I’d spent many a summer night in England, but when I got to the place where I knew I should stay, I couldn’t bear the thought of looking up at the sky through something I had made. I’d thought of finding the edge of a glade, but I found that I wanted desperately to burrow as deep as I could into the wood. If I could have squeezed myself inside a tree trunk I would have done. So I kept on walking until, at midday, there was more shadow than sun, and I threw my kit down by the bole of a tree that must have fed on the same light that shone on the Mughals.

I sat and I listened. It seemed to me that I heard with my nose: the silence here smelt different to the silence of the clouds in which I’d been living. It didn’t last for long. It was a response to my own clumsiness. The forest was holding its own breath so that it could listen to me properly and watch more steadily. Soon it began to breathe again. When it began, it did not begin tentatively, with a tweeting of little brown things. It exhaled suddenly and loudly. A coucal lumbered through the bushes by my side, booming to the sky. A brainfever bird began its own shrill frenzy, and a wave of noise crashed over me. Colour exploded out of the green. The fallen leaves undulated with the life burrowing under and over and through. A bush rat sat on a branch, looked at me, and beckoned with its nose to another.

Over the next few days I lay for many hours flat on the forest floor, my face in the mulch and my eyes at the level of a bandicoot. I saw the gently depressed roads through the leaves where the mice ran; the questing antennae of the woodlice; the aphids tapping columns of plant sugar; the delicate shifting shadows cast by little things. I looked into the ancient eye of a mildly modified dinosaur (a Green Barbet), which was trying to work me out. Because I was still for long enough, and because it does not live for long, in three days I became part of its memory as old as my memories of life as a ten-year-old. For the gnats and the fireflies, I was a part of the landscape, known for several generations. For all the animals there I am a folk memory. Each thing here lived its whole life with an intensity I could not match for a single heartbeat, and with an intimacy of relationship with everything else that has no parallel in any human experience other than marriage and parenthood. Each came from a family incomparably older than the crass hairless ape.

I saw ants taken by a jungle babbler, a babbler taken by a Shikra hawk, and a Shikra eaten by ants. I lay there watching the wheels of karma turning; wheels within wheels; intricately geared; powered by thirst, pain and desire. My wish to bury myself in a tree now seemed morbid – a wish for annihilation of something that I called myself. I ran from the wish and stood up, suddenly the tallest animal there. It was a journey of six feet and about 3 million years. The perspective, the intimacy and the fear dropped away. I brushed the last of them off with the last few leaves in my hair. I’d failed the first, ecological stage of the process of identification with Brahman.

I slung my pack on my back and walked back to the road. The road took me back to somewhere. I started walking along the road out of town, and that’s where I am still. The editor of this book asked me to end this piece by explaining where I am now, but that’s the best I can do. I’m on a road out of somewhere. A road’s not a bad place to be. But it’s not as good as a wood, because you can’t really get lost on a road, and so you can’t be found. But some roads lead to woods.

There’s more where this came from in our latest book.

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

Charles Foster is a writer and a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford. Recent books include In the Hot Unconscious: An Indian Journey, Wired for God? The Biology of Spiritual Experience and The Selfless Gene. He is currently working on a book about animal perception. charlesfoster.co.uk

Lean Logic

With the latest issue of Dark Mountain now available, we wanted to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages, so we’re publishing a selection from the book on the blog. Today, we share some extracts from the late Dr. David Fleming’s Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It (2011), reproduced with kind permission of his estate. * points to another entry in the dictionary.

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

David 1 June 2010

Carnival. Celebrations of music, dance, torchlight, mime, games, feast and folly have been central to the life of *community for all times other than those when the pretensions of large-scale civilisation descended like a frost on public joy.
xxxThe decline of carnival in the West began in earnest alongside the transition from a rural-centred culture to a city-centred one. There were many reasons. The early stirrings of capitalism encouraged habits of soberness, and it has this fixation about people turning up for work on Monday morning. Some carnivals were getting out of control, becoming the starting-point for rebellion and riot: Robin Hood’s career began as a carnival king; Robert ‘Ben’ Kett’s rebellion in 1549 started in Wymondham at a festival for St. Thomas à Becket. And the invention of firearms had its effect: it meant, of course, that a reckless crowd could also be dangerous, but – more important than that – it introduced a need for discipline, especially in armies. The loading and firing of a musket is complicated; it requires a sequence of steps – 43 of them, according to Prince Maurice of Orange’s ‘drill’ – each of which must be done exactly, at speed, and (on occasion) under fire. Discipline becomes critical: sober *citizenship, which is good for armies, and good for trade, calls for self-awareness and self-control, and it gets lost in the spontaneous exuberance of carnival.
xxxCarnival has been subdued, and its loss is serious. The modern market economy suffers from play-deprivation. It does exist to a weakened extent in sport, but even there the aim of winning is increasingly taken as the literal purpose of the event rather than the enabling *myth. When such critical cultural assets as *trust, *social capital and the *humour which blunts insult are in decline, *play is in trouble. Insult and rough-and-tumble are now largely forbidden; if an invitation to play is rejected or misconstrued, if a joke goes wrong, there is shame or worse.
xxxIt invites the bleak question: ‘What is the point?’ The consequences are various, no doubt, but among them may be loneliness, boredom, anxiety and depression; if society is less fun, its inequalities are more resented. There is no constant reminder of the teeming vitality beneath the surface of other people; there is a loss of authority by the local community, which becomes less audible, less visible, less alive, less fertile as a source of laughter. Barbara Ehrenreich wonders whether the waning of carnival might have had something to do with the awareness of depression which, in the early 17th century, seems to have developed almost on the scale of a pandemic. Before then there was, of course, pain, and grief – all the dark emotions – but loneliness and anxiety…? *Tactile deprivation (the sadness of not being touched)…? The sense of the party being over…?
xxxHomer tells us how the art of the ancient dream world lay in wait to seduce Odysseus and his crew as they were about to encounter the Sirens, whose bewitching song lures everyone who hears it to their death, their bodies added to the pile of mouldering skeletons in the meadow where the Sirens sat. On the advice of his mistress, Circe, the goddess who lives on the island of Aeaea, Odysseus stopped up the ears of his crew with wax, so that, unable to hear the song, they were not distracted from the real work of rowing. He himself, being securely strapped to the mast, could now listen to the Sirens’ voices ‘with enjoyment’, as Circe puts it, and without being drawn irresistibly into their power. This has various interpretations, but one of them makes it a decisive detachment from art: the sound of ancient myth which once drew its hearers in, without means of escape, is rendered sensible and civilised, reduced to a concert, a sort of Hellenic musical evening with female chorus and a professor of Greek to tell us something about the local legend that lies behind it.
xxxOn this view we see the breaking of the link between art (music, in this case) and politics: now you only need to buy your ticket, be a spectator of the arts for an hour or so, and then home for herb tea and bed.

Distraction, The Fallacy of. Diverting attention from the argument.
xxxConsider the proposition that two and two makes four. Distraction might urge, for instance, that the idea is old-fashioned, that the time has come to move on from *traditional thinking on the matter, or that it is too technical for the public to understand. It could take the form of an ingratiating assurance that the only thing that matters, naturally, is the well-being and happiness of everyone concerned. Distraction might urge that it is perfectly OK nowadays to think that two plus two makes five; or that even thinking about it means an unforgivable neglect of the far more important proposition that three plus four makes seven. You might be invited to take note that there is *money to be made by taking a different view of the matter, or that we have to move on from the notion if we are to be *competitive, or that the proposition is a bit rich coming from someone with a private life like yours. Or it could insist with some passion that, contrary to the view that two plus two makes four, we must take our place at the heart of Europe.
xxxDistraction might add, with hoped-for finality, that the argument has already been lost: two plus two is going to make five in the future, whatever we do.
xxxDistraction, evidently, has the power and freedom to cause havoc wherever it likes. It is a spoiler, worse than the cheat: the cheat at least recognises the existence of the rules on which argument depends if it is to make any sense, even though he then proceeds to break them, hoping not to be found out. Distraction recognises nothing except conquest: the argument is too serious to have any connection with the orderly rules of honourable play; it will be settled by other means. Rules? What rules? It presumes the death of *logic.
xxxA characteristic form of distraction is to make an assertion which is not true, but which is hard to disagree with. This happens, for instance, with the appeal to the inevitable: the distracter does not argue for or against a proposal; instead, he simply asserts that it is going to happen anyway, and he may do so in a slightly bored drawl that passes off the sell-out as if it were a routine comment on the weather. Don’t stand for this: it is one of the ways in which our citizens’ right to have a say in deciding for ourselves dwindles into a loss of belief that we can influence anything at all. It is designed to induce give-up-itis, an acceptance that technology and the sweep of history make the decisions. What we are then supposed to do is to surrender, to make sure we are not in the way.
xxxSee also: *Ad Hominem, *Big Stick, *Cant, *Rationalism, *Shifting Ground, *Straw Man

Implicit Truth. One of many forms of truth, implicit truth is the product of *reflection, and is particular to the person reflecting. Different people may reach sharply different insights which may, however, all be true, despite contrasts in emphasis and meaning. They are different in that they are features in the landscape of the observers’ different cognitive homelands. The differences may be consistent with each other, or they may mature into deep contradictions: ‘This is my territory’; ‘The ideal place for our honeymoon would be Scunthorpe’; ‘We’ve won’. All these are true or untrue depending on who is speaking, but all are in the category of implicit truth.

Material Truth. Direct, plain, literal description of reality. There is no interest here in exploring deeper implications, insights and echo-meanings. This is the truth which tells you about the route taken by the hot water pipe from the boiler to the bathroom, how to make flatbread, how to photograph otters, what Darwinism is, why a herd of cows’ milk yield is higher if the cows are named as well as numbered, what a well-tempered scale is, what a Higgs boson probably is, why pregnant women don’t topple over, whether you went to the pub last night. Accuracy is not essential: it does not have to be true to belong in the domain of material truth, but it does have to be the speaker’s intention that the other person should understand it to be true. It can use metaphor that helps to get an unfamiliar idea across. The intention is to provide a truthful and uncluttered description. Here facts matter.

Narrative Truth. The truth present not just in storytelling but in *myth, poetry, art and the whole of our *culture. This is the truth of Pride and Prejudice. It is not *materially true, in that it is fiction; on the other hand, it is true-to-life: it is as accurate an insight into human character as we have. Elizabeth Bennett’s story can neither be dismissed as untrue nor accepted as true; it is in the middle ground. It may or may not report the material truth, but the narrative says something that cannot be said in any other way. It has a shadow-meaning that extends beyond metaphor, and can lead to the discovery of material or *implicit truths, as an explorer in search of the Holy Grail may discover and map real mountains and rivers.
xxxNarrative truth makes sense of the roots of our word ‘belief’, which comes to our literal-minded age from a story-rich antiquity. It can be traced to the ancient Germanic root, galaubjan (to hold dear); the Latin for ‘to believe’ is credere, which comes from cor dare, to give (one’s) heart.
xxxNarrative truth may be a parable with a clear message, or a story for the story’s sake, or the meaning may be forever unknown, a question to be *reflected-on, perhaps the subject of a lifetime’s exploration. It is the domain of poetry, music, laughter; if you ask if it is true, you are at the wrong party.
xxxAnd yet, our culture regularly lacks the mature judgment necessary to distinguish between material and narrative truth. A work of art makes the question of whether it is true or not absurd. It is a category error and should not be asked. You might as well ask whether Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major Deutsch No. 956 likes broccoli.

Needs and Wants. A distinction between needs and wants has been made by many critics in the *green movement and its predecessors, who have argued that consumption in response to our needs is justifiable and *sustainable, but consumption in response to our wants is not.
xxxYet this notion that needs are good and wants bad does not survive inspection. For the anthropologists Douglas and Isherwood, it is a ‘curious moral split [that] appears under the surface of most economists’ thoughts on human needs’. Lean Logic argues that those economists have it somewhat back to front.
xxxThe heaviest burden of the modern *economy, by far, is that imposed by its own elaborations. Any large-scale economy requires massive infrastructures and material flows just to support itself and keep existing. Such sprawling industrial economies have massively multiplied our needs, our *’regrettable necessities’. Regardless of whether we want them, we need the sewage systems, heavy-goods transport, police-forces… Given the substantial scale of the task of feeding, raising and schooling a suburban family, and the increasing challenge of such routine needs as finding a post office, many of us undoubtedly need cars. The collapse of local self-reliance was both the cause and the effect of the massive elaboration of *transport, and when that need can no longer be met, its life-sustaining function will be bitterly recognised.
xxxIt is, then, the elaboration of needs by large-scale industrial life that causes the trouble. Our wants are squeezed out, much missed and light by comparison, not least because they often involve labour-intensive *crafts and services – pianists, craftsmen, dress-makers, waitresses, gardeners with minimum environmental impact. Some wants are also needs, of course, and they cannot be cleanly separated, but if we focus our efforts on finding a way, under the stresses of the *climacteric, of achieving a substantial and rapid liquidation of our needs, we will be getting somewhere.
xxxSee also: *Greening of Waste, *Growth, *Invisible Goods, *Lean Economics*, *Scale, *Slack

Performative Truth. Truth that is created by statements that do something: I challenge, I thee wed, I bet, I curse, thank you. The speaking makes the truth: a promise is brought into existence by being spoken: loyal cantons of contemned love make love come alive.
xxxPerformative truths can also be created by symbolic events or even thoughts. Contracts are an example – they may be recorded, but the contract itself has no *material expression: you cannot see it or say where it is, and if minds change profoundly enough it may simply cease to exist.

Relative Intelligence. Failure to account for the match between mental capacity and the problems that have to be solved.
xxxAs society becomes more complex, the relative intelligence of Homo sapiens declines, leaving us on a lower Relative Intelligence Quotient (RIQ) than a swan, or a beetle.

Straw Man, The Fallacy of the. Invent an argument which the other person did not use, and then launch a horrified attack on it.
xxxThis is *distraction at its most immediate, obvious and intentional. Summarise the other side’s case. Make sure your version of it is as ridiculous as possible. Demolish the summary. Claim victory.
A variant is simply to save yourself the trouble of understanding what the other side is talking about. Alternatively, launch into a free-wheeling parody – a song [Gr. ōid] of mockery [Gr. pará]. Your victim is forced onto the defensive, and possibly into fury. You’re winning.
xxxHere is an example. The target is the organic movement; the tactic is to make it sound like a fundamentalist *religion.
xxx1) Set up your straw man: ‘The high priests of the organic movement tell us that natural chemicals are good and synthetic chemicals bad.’
xxx2) Demolish it: ‘This is utter nonsense. … Arsenic, ricin, aflatoxin are all highly poisonous chemicals found in nature. Yet the supposed superiority of natural over synthetic is the rock on which the organic movement is built.’
xxxGood. Now you can sit back and wait for the other side to go into a lumbering explanation (there will doubtless be something there which, if really necessary, will allow you to unleash another straw man). Here it comes:
xxxOrganic cultivation is not based on ridiculous claims about things being ‘natural’, but on principles of fertile soils, crop rotations, local ecosystems and animal welfare. It builds plants’ and animals’ ability to sustain their own health. It does not depend on pesticides and fertilisers produced from diminishing supplies of oil and gas. It conserves soils, water and energy; it protects habitats. It produces food richer in nutrients than conventionally-grown food, and free of contamination by synthetic chemicals. And local food production, now a priority, will improve food security, relying less on the transport which will be at risk when oil gets scarce, conserving local farming and skills, and building local fertility on productive, resilient principles known as ‘organic’.
xxxHave you quite finished? It makes no difference anyway, because the straw man stopped listening ages ago. Well, he really doesn’t have to, for he has magic powers. He can make inconvenient truths disappear at a stroke. And he can provide his minders with an intoxicating sense of being right. Actually, the straw man has a dark history, but in more recent times he has been a symbol of finality, an old fellow with a short life who had to die at the end of the harvest, and to hand over to the new generation. *Peasant societies used to unwind on the last day by making a straw man from the last sheaf, just to beat it to pieces with the flails they would soon be using to thresh the corn (perhaps to warn the rest of the corn what was coming). And there was a startling variant of this, where the man who cut the last bundle of corn was picked on for special treatment. His face would be blackened; he would be feted and feasted, mocked and parodied. Fortunately, he had an understudy in the form of a straw goat, which he would carry about on his back. In the end, the goat would be placed on the ground and destroyed with the flails.
xxxYou see, you have forgotten about organic agriculture already.

Transformation, The Great. The Great Transformation has already happened. It was the revolution in politics, economics and society that came with the *market economy, and which hit its stride in Britain in the late 18th century. Most of human history had been bred, fed and watered by another sort of economy, but the market has replaced, as far as possible, the *social capital of *reciprocal obligation, *loyalties, authority structures, *culture and *traditions with exchange, price and the impersonal principles of *economics.
xxxUnfortunately, the critics of economics have had a tendency to discuss the whole structure as a tissue of misconceptions. It is a critique that fails. The strength of economics is its considerable, if far from complete, understanding of the flows and comparative advantages that underlie trade, jobs, *capital and incomes, and the logic of optimising behaviour, all backed by glittering accomplishment in mathematics. That makes it a powerful analytical instrument, so that just a few misconceptions – such as a failure to understand the *informal economy or resource depletion – can have leverage: like a baby monkey at the controls of a Ferrari, they can turn it into an instrument with extraordinarily destructive potential. If it were a tissue of errors, it would not be dangerous: it is its 90% brilliance which makes it so.
xxxEconomics has therefore been seductive. The market economy is effective for sustaining social order: the distribution of goods, services and other assets is facilitated by buying and selling, supporting a network of exchange to which everyone has access. It provides suppliers with the incentive to know their markets and respond to them; it uses *’pull’ rather than top-down regulation, and it learns from experience, so it is effective and efficient. It supports a more egalitarian society than any other large-scale state has been capable of and it saves a great deal of trouble: it has appealed to minds glad of a cognitive technology which enabled them to make decisions according to mathematical models, and with little fear of contradiction.
xxx‘Douce commerce,’ sweet commerce, wrote Jacques Savary, an early management consultant, in a textbook for businessmen (1685), ‘makes for all the gentleness of life.’ The authorities themselves agreed: commerce is the most ‘innocent and legitimate way of acquiring wealth’, observed an edict of the French government in 1669; it is ‘the fertile source which brings abundance to the state and spreads it among its subjects.’
xxxIndeed, the government’s main task in a mature market economy is to keep it free of obstacles that might stop it growing – like a bemused farmer would treat the enchanted goose: keep the foxes out so that it can go on magically laying its golden eggs.
xxxIts achievements and answers sound authoritative and final, but what is truly most significant about them is how naïve they are – if the flow of income fails, the powerfully-bonding combination of *money and self-interest will no longer be available on its present all-embracing *scale, and perhaps not at all. And it must inevitably fail, as the market’s taut *competitiveness demands ever increasing *productivity and thus relies on the impossibility of perpetual *growth.
xxxIn the meantime, the reduction of a society and culture to dependence on mathematical *abstraction has infantilised a grown-up civilisation and is well on the way to destroying it. Civilisations self-destruct anyway, but it is reasonable to ask whether they have done so before with such enthusiasm, in obedience to such an acutely absurd superstition, while claiming with such insistence that they were beyond being seduced by the irrational promises of *religion. Every civilisation has had its irrational but reassuring myth. Previous civilisations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used its mathematics to prove it.
xxxYet, when this relatively short-lived market-society is gone, we will miss its essential simplicity, its price mechanism, its self-stabilising properties, its impersonal exchange, the comforts it delivers to many, and the *freedoms it underwrites. Its failure will be destructive.
xxxAnd the end is in sight; during the early decades of the century, the market will lose its magic. It is the aim of Lean Logic to suggest some principles for the design of a replacement.

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

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99

Lean Logic extracts edited by Shaun Chamberlin. Photograph of David Fleming courtesy of Sarah Nicholl.

The Fabric of This World

With the latest issue of Dark Mountain now available, we wanted to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages, so we’re publishing a selection from the book on the blog. Today, an introduction to some of the artwork that appears in the new book.

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

1.Thomas Keyes_Following the Roe to Bennachie_2013.-3

In celebration of the new Dark Mountain anthology, here is a quick peek into the artwork pages (16 in all) that intersect the texts. As well as a photographic record of the four Uncivilisation Festivals, there are two sections of work in various media, from gum arabic to found materials, digital montage to cyanotype.

Dark Mountain art is hard to qualify or put into a box, but what has shaped and defines this selection is the intense focus and relationship each artist has with the matter in hand — stuff that most of us in a 24/7 whirl of activity do not have eyes or time to notice.

Why do we need art? Because only when we pay this kind of attention can we see close up the extraordinary nature of earthly alchemy, or the movement of the heavens above us. That what science drily calls ‘eco-systems’ are in fact beautiful and meaningful patterns that intersect with our own intelligence and planetary presence in a way words cannot easily describe.

Like the Earth, these images are the work of collaborations, of projects — the results of waiting and watching and movements over time. Way marks and tracks, blueprints and shifts: a map of mountains soaked by the rain, the blue zigzags of a Patagonia glacier.

Each one tells a story caught in a glimpse: the story of a pilgrimage through Walthamstow, the story about a collection of plants made from abandoned technology, the story of the sun’s yearly trek across the sky in a grandmother’s house in the far north. The fabric of this world.

Here is one behind the book’s centrefold picture: the story of the man who follows the deer.

Roe Deer in May Birch by Thomas Keyes

Thomas Keyes first appeared in Dark Mountain 3 with a compelling recipe for black pheasant stew. He is a forager and artist who lives in the remote Highlands, with a wood behind his house. What inspires his art are the materials he comes across when he roams the land. Although he fashions works from a wide range of natural stuff — from mushrooms to wasps’ nests to oak galls — his signature canvas is parchment made from the hides of (mostly roadkilled) roe deer; his paints the tar and smoke made from the bark of the tree he loves more than any other: the birch.

‘I like the self-referential nature of the subject of birch and deer. The birch trees are endessly fascinating and so expressive, the more I see them the more I want to paint them. People from the city might see a forest with deer as an image, a pretty picture, but for me they are an important practical part of life. Some people get the paintings and some don’t.’

Keyes is one of the artists taking part in The Foraged Book Project with Fergus Drennan (an Uncivilistation regular) and James Wood, and like many others there is no separation between the stuff he uses and the subject of the painting itself. He uses the scars in the hides to form the kinks in the trees bark for example.

‘Foraging is a way of interacting in a rural environment and of noticing patterns: you start to see exciting things everywhere and have a reason to go places, to be on high alert. I wanted to make something artistic out of the material I foraged, but it didn’t go anywhere until I came across the deer and then I felt obliged in some way.’

The materials came together by chance. The parchment he found was the best way to preserve the deer skin. He had been making the birch tar (used traditionally as a sealant) by boiling it up on an open fire as an experiment. But his intense focus on these two lifeforms is not just because of their look and proximity:

‘Basically birch trees have always been there with people in Europe, as fuel, as medicine. They are one of the constants, which like roe deer, we’ll see into the future. Both have actually increased because of us and agriculture. They are two species that it’s safe and important to form a relationship with. So much of nature is in drama and disappearance, it is good to know there are some things we can count on.

‘What’s really interesting about Dark Mountain is that when you get people together to talk about the premise of collapse suddenly you are talking about what is actually there; whereas before when I was around people who did not accept that premise they were constantly fighting their corner, or arguing the point, with stats about peak oil etc and no one was looking at what lies beyond that. Whereas when you accept the premise you can have a look at the natural world, which hasn’t gone away. There’s quite a lot of it left, bad as things are.’

DM5 cover roe deer in may birch

The paintings beckon a way back into the land most people now feel divorced from. Deracination and lack of connection with the natural world is one of the ways a dominant city-based narrative keeps a hold on our imaginations. There’s nothing out there, it’s all gone! In a time of unravelling however, belonging and being anchored in a place become increasingly vital. In a piece written for the present volume, ‘Finding Common Ground’, Keyes looks back at a land where his own connection was severed:

The parish I reside in still has barely half the population it supported up until the mid 1800s. Incomers are a necessity. As an Ulster Scot I come from long line of incomers: Ulster Scots are professionsal incomers and have played no small part in the colonisation of most former British territories. Clan Hanna were made enemies of the crown and send from Argyll to County Monaghan, beyond the frontier of the Ulster plantation in 1640. My direct, soil-based experience of that land ended formally only a few years ago, when my great aunt Edna Hanna died and the small farm I had visited as child became out of bounds. One break in the chain in 370 years, and it’s over. My children will only ever enter that land as trespasssers, with no emotional connection to it. In fact, once I am not here anymore, they probably won’t bother; their children may never even hear of it. The home those people built, the fields they worked, they churchyard they’re buried in, the relationships built over generations: all gone. I’d be no more home there now than I am back in Scotland, walking through the fading traces of other families’ tragedies.

In many ways, Keyes writes for most of us who no longer live in places where generations of our clans, families or tribes, have interacted with the land. We have now to dig deeper, beyond history, beyond our familial circumstances, to get back to an Earth where we feel at home with all our relations — rocks, plants, animals, trees. An immersion in the shapes and patterns of the natural world frees us from the grids and enclosures set up by Empire, in our physical forms as much as in our imaginations.

When you look at the painting you find yourself following the deer, down the wild track through the trees, toward the mountain — as our ancestors have always done through time. It feels like the only path you want to take.

Thomas Keyes is an artist, gardener and parchmenter based on the Black Isle. He is currently working on the Wild Project and The Foraged Book Project and updates thomaskeyes.co.uk with foraged art.

PLANBee-emergeCalling all artists! We are still open for submissions for original work (paintings, drawing, photography) for Dark Mountain 6 as well as for our next cover. Please look at the submission guidelines for details and send to charlotte@dark-mountain.net. Deadline is 18th May.

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99.

Art works: Following the Roe to Bennachie and Roe Deer in May Birch by Thomas Keyes; Jess X Chen with the diptych Collapse, Emerge (created with fellow artist, Noel’le Longhaul) which formed the cover of Dark Mountain 5. Bluestocking Bookshop, New York.

Escape from Cyberia

With the latest issue of Dark Mountain now available, we wanted to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages, so we’re publishing a selection from the book on the blog. Today wild horses, war and long-tailed keywords collide in Kim Goldberg’s prose poem.

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99

There were wild horses. And a beach. And a storm, I think. No, wait – that’s the cover photo on Susan Musgrave’s timeline. Maybe there were only some big waves the size of tiny houses on wheels, rolling into shore like a sustainably designed refugee camp, each with an innocent Syrian family inside just trying to survive the civil war at Christmas time, desperately awaiting tins of plum pudding from overseas that would never arrive because Indiegogo froze the plum pudding campaign (which had broken all crowdsourcing records in its first 24 hours) after the word ‘dessert’ was red-flagged by the US State Department’s poorly programmed algorithm searching for long-tail keywords – in this case ‘desert’ since that can signify a variety of potentially terrorist activities, as can ‘Bactrian’ or ‘bivouac’ or ‘Babel’. All the tiny doors of the tiny houses flew open as soon as the tiny wheels stalled in deep sand, and the Syrian families were tossed out onto the desert on tiny tidal waves of urchins and starfish and ling cod. The families became wild horses stampeding down the beach to escape the long-tail keywords pursuing them. (Everyone knows horses are afraid of long-tail keywords.) The sharp report of their hooves sounded like machine gun fire, but this was most likely due to the State Department’s residual power of suggestion, so I urge you to rise above it as I have tried to. And from our arisen position, we can now see that the horses are not running down a beach or a desert or a sandlot of any sort but rather the hard ceramic tiles of Woodgrove Mall, parting the red and green seas of Christmas shoppers (as Moses himself did) to expose the International Food Court for the CIA mind-control front that it is: a deep-fried spicy Szechuan offshoot of MKUltra.

I am crouched beneath the battery spin-rack in the Everything for a Dollar Store, surreptitiously photographing the entire Food Court spectacle through the window. I am sitting on absolute fucking gold here. No one but me has this story. This could be my comeback.

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

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99

Kim Goldberg is an award-winning poet, environmental journalist, and author. Her Red Zone collection of poems about urban homelessness has been taught in university literature courses. Her previous collection, Ride Backwards on Dragon, was a finalist for Canada’s Gerald Lampert Award. She is a winner of the Rannu Fund Poetry Prize for Speculative Literature, the Goodwin’s Award for Excellence in Alternative Journalism, and other distinctions. Her poetry and fiction have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies around the world. She holds a degree in biology and is an avid birdwatcher and trailbreaker on Vancouver Island. Visit pigsquashpress.com.

Openings: Freeing Space for a New Cosmology

With the latest issue of Dark Mountain now available, we wanted to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages, so we’re publishing a selection from the book on the blog. Today, Tim Fox’s brilliant essay explores the mythology of a sci-fi future that suddenly feels old-fashioned.

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – orsubscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99

446px-Amazing_Stories_Quarterly_Summer_1931

I remember the rocket.

The house where I lived in 1972 was about nine line-of-sight miles from Cape Canaveral. On December 7th of that year, in the heart of the night, my family gathered with friends and neighbours to watch the massive Saturn V rocket carry Apollo 17 – the final moon mission – into history. We huddled around the TV up until the last minute of the countdown, then my dad hoisted his two-and-a-half-year-old son onto his shoulders and led the way out onto the lawn. There we stood in awe and silence as the fiery dart rumbled into the stars. Even from our distant vantage, I could feel the earth quiver.

Forty years later, the old memory rises to the surface as I pull another thin paperback off the shelf in the little two-room O’Brien Library, tucked among towering Douglas firs, incense cedars and big-leaf maples on the outskirts of Blue River, a struggling rural community in the central Oregon Cascades. The library is stocked by donation, staffed by volunteers and has been running check-out and returns on the honour system for over eight decades. Today is my first shift in the stacks, and my first job is to cull the science fiction section and open up space for new additions to the collection.

On the front of the paperback I hold is a shiny silver rocket, rumbling away from Earth toward a tiny red dot. A thin grey dust layer fuzzes the top of the book. When I lift the cover, it cracks loose as the brittle desiccated spinal glue gives out. Inside, the yellow pages are splotched with black stains that look like a defunct bacterial colony left too long in a forgotten Petri dish. The fine print says this particular novel – a saga of human glory set in a Martian outpost – rolled off the pulp press in the late 1950s. By all appearances, it has not been opened since the Kennedy administration. I lay the front page flat and slam down the stamp of judgment. ‘Withdrawn’. And into the discard box it goes.

By the time my three-hour shift ends, I’ve worked my way up through the Ds and passed sentence on dozens of titles, an inordinate proportion of which fall into one of two categories: the hypertechnic exploits of an intergalactic humanity, and post-apocalyptic home world nightmares. Taken together, the effect seems almost conspiratorial. How else to explain the widespread bias for painting dead and distant worlds in the rainbow colours of promise while this wild, verdant, beautiful Earth, the only gem of life in the known cosmos, is rendered with a palette of shadows?

Perhaps, rather than conspiracy, this small sampling reveals a common cosmology that has, for decades, captivated not only society at large, but a whole legion of science fiction writers who have expressed it through their efforts to rouse civilised excitement about the colonisation of other planets. In particular, Mars, the most promising of the lot (owing to its relatively close proximity and the presence of life’s most essential ingredient, water). These writers, and their dystopian doppelgangers, along with scientists and politicians and people from all walks in between, have been so successful that the fourth planet has been deemed worthy of spending billions of dollars on real probes, landers and other visitation devices, each an automated vanguard in an effort to one day stamp human bootprints in the red dust plain even while our own world turns to dust.

It’s quite an achievement, spinning a frozen, barren, desolate, inhospitable planet millions of miles away into a possible home, while concurrently spinning our beautiful living home into a hell. And the net effect is blindness to the fact that the earth under our feet, even now, in the throes of so many socio-ecological crises, has much more going for it than Mars ever will. Antarctica looks positively tropical by comparison.

What is puzzling is how the collective consciousness came to this blindness in the first place.

I think it has to do with a particular criterion the cosmology of dominant culture has long used in determining what constitutes the so-called good life. That largely unspoken criterion is not the successful long-term inhabitation of a homeland, but expansion beyond it; growth, progress, advancement. And Earth, though still humbly habitable, is a world on which the possibility of expansion is nearly played out.

But Mars – a whole planet virtually untouched, and theoretically within reach – offers a chance, slim though it is, for us to remain in the habit of expansion. We have only to sell out this planet in an all-or-nothing gamble for the war god’s favour. That, after all, is what expansion has always been about, ever since our direct cultural ancestors – the agriculturalists of the Fertile Crescent – exhausted their home soil some six millennia ago and faced a future of limits and reduced numbers or a future of conquest and continued excess, which was, even then, the definition of prosperity among the elite minority who benefited most from it. And so, conquest it was. War.

Such aggression required extreme rationalisations. That task fell to the official storytellers of the day (the priesthood), who began spinning the glory of Mars even before the Romans had given the god his name. Even before Rome existed at all. The force – the spirit – that Mars came to mythologically embody was the colonial conquest and control of others. His spirit was, some six millennia ago, a new force loosed upon the Earth and with it came an unprecedented shift in cultural consciousness, away from an emphasis on ever-deepening integration into local landscapes, toward an emphasis on the golden riches to be found on the other side of an apparently inexhaustible frontier.

That frontier has been spreading outwards from the perceived insular centres of civilisation into a perceived ocean of untamed wilderness ever since. The whole time, the frontier has been a margin of conflict, of colonial aggressors waging a genocidal, ecocidal, even geocidal campaign of theft, subjugation and replacement against the human and non-human lives already dependent upon what the invaders see as their rightful spoils. On a deeper level, the invader incursions represent the replacement of countless grounded cosmologies with an increasingly singular cosmology rooted in longing. And the farthest conceivable reaches of the invader’s longing is the sky.

It’s no wonder, then, that our cultural ancestors eventually imagined the sky as the dwelling place of their gods. For them, divinity found its source in the dependability of the heavens, up and away from the increasing messiness and unreliability of earth, never mind that the biotic abundance on which human corporeality and wellbeing depended originated in the soil’s translation of sunlight into life.

The invader’s mode of existence mined the soil. So the soil continually failed them. It couldn’t be trusted. And everywhere they went it reinforced its untrustworthiness by suffering eventual exhaustion and consequent poor yields. How, under these circumstances, could so feeble and treacherous a goddess as Gaia be revered? What the soil miners failed to see was that her apparent feebleness and betrayal did not derive from the earth, but from their own excesses. It derived from their increasingly alien relationship with the landscape. Rather than heal the relationship by relearning how to live within the limits of the earth – within the planet’s annual solar budget – they turned their gaze upward and sought to emulate the gods above, gods of their own invention perched upon untarnishable golden thrones.

If the people could get better at bringing the lasting power of the heavens down, maybe the messiness and limits could be overcome. That became the programme the storytellers started to sell. The holy goal of godliness. In other words, complete control.

This went on for millennia and all the while the programme of control grew more refined and entrenched. The original kindred enspiritedness recognised as inherent in every star, leaf and breeze gave way to a multitude of anthropoid divinities – many still peripherally bound to the earth through the forces of nature they personified. Eventually, this multitude was further reduced to the equivalent of a spiritual wheat field, the monocrop of a single deity, singularly male, separate and above the mortal realm. He was a book-bound god, purely abstracted, and thus conceptually omnipotent. But what his believers overlooked was the real earthbound precondition on which this god’s omnipotence depended. The frontier.

Wilderness, the ultimate foil for civilisation, had to remain the oceanic realm into which the conquering heroes and their armies could forever advance from their islands of civilisation. And that is how it was until 1893 CE when civilisation crossed a threshold and became the rising ocean surrounding now-shrinking islands of wilderness.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner recognised this moment and expressed it that year by declaring the frontier closed. Actually, at the global scale, the frontier did not close in 1893 CE, but rather, it began closing for the first time since it opened some six millennia earlier. You could think of this event along the lines of the old riddle (slightly modified), ‘How long can you run into the wilderness?’ Answer: ‘Halfway, then you’re running out.’ The year 1893 CE represents the end of civilisation’s long run into the wilderness. After that, it began running out. At an accelerating rate.

But the implications of this new situation went unrecognised and thus, civilisation failed to undergo the essential corresponding social inversion (cultural deceleration, contraction and diversification: in other words, maturation). Instead, it continued to advance the divine programme of monocultural expansion and complete control, thereby becoming increasingly out of sync with reality. And now, barely a century later, the last wild islands are almost flooded. Expansion has again run up against the wall. And eyes long turned skyward for divine inspiration now look that way with a different intent. Divine ascendance. That is the ultimate objective to which we apply our scientific curiosity and exploration. The methods of science (some would say a god in and of itself) remove moral considerations altogether and render the interplanetary colonial effort little more than a technical challenge. And so the scientific priesthood uncritically constructs and rockets mechanical missionaries into space to prepare the way for the next logical wave. Flesh and blood aliens.

Looking back, we can now see that the moon was a practice run.

The colonisation of Mars represents the real deal, the culmination of the programme of complete control begun all those millennia ago. In fact, Mars is a world that will not accept us unless we are in complete control. Only as gods will we be able to exist there. Earth, on the other hand, can and does expose our hubris by resisting complete control in direct proportion to our every effort to take it. So we dream of a red heaven.

Well, not all of us. I, for one, am opening to a different possibility: withdrawal.

Into places where long-latent spirits stir.

I slide the box of discards over behind the circulation desk for the next volunteer who will leaf through the card catalogue and pull the titles. As I’m putting on my coat to leave, I glance back at the shelves. Where I’ve been working, there are large gaps between the remaining volumes. The sight is somehow freeing. In the gaps, I see opportunity; what as-yet-unwritten tales might fill them in? I can’t imagine, but I feel heartened nonetheless as I head for the door.
When I step outside into the cool fresh air, the palette of autumn draws my eyes upward not into the blue sky, but into a vision of vibrant yellow maple leaves in their full glory. They shimmer and seem to glow with their own inner light, offering a rich contrast to the deep greens of the stoic conifers who are cast in sharp relief by long October shadows.

Standing in the forest, I’m suddenly struck by the sense that I’ve just entered another library, a library of trees. The stories to be read on each leafy page would more than fill the openings. I imagine many of those stories would be about a long overdue homecoming set on a world that grows ever more wild, verdant and beautiful every day. A world with people struggling, longing, ceaselessly living to be grounded, integral parts of it all.

A breeze whispers through the canopy. Dozens of leaves release, each a golden spirit. They flutter down to earth.

As they fall, another memory rises, my first memory, deeper than the rocket.

In the heart of a cool summer night, in a green canvas tent set up in a Maryland forest on the other side of the continent, my mother is tucking me into a sleeping bag on the ground. I lay my head down. She bends, gives her two-year-old son a kiss then rises and silences the hissing lantern.

Beneath me, I feel the earth quiver.

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

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99

Over the last 23 years, Tim Fox has worked as an owl researcher, vegetation surveyor, archaeological field crew leader and writer in the fir and hemlock forests of the central Oregon Cascades, where he lives with his wife and son.  His work has been published in Orion magazine and on the Yes! magazine website.  His journal The Mountain Lion, which chronicles his six day writer’s residency at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, is posted in the on-line publication The Forest Logreciproculture.blogspot.co.uk

Picking up the Threads

With the latest issue of Dark Mountain now available, we wanted to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages, so we’re publishing a selection from the book on the blog. Today, we get you started off with the editorial.

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99

DM5-cover

Is there anyone left who actually believes in progress? Even the advocates of neoliberalism fall back to the argument that there is no alternative, no longer making much effort to convince us that capitalism is improving our lives. In the spring of 2013, a survey of public opinion in the US, the UK, France and Germany found large majorities in each country believe that today’s young people will struggle to achieve the standards of living of their parents’ generation. Welcome to the new normal: the grim meathook future creeping into our lives, fulfilling no apocalyptic fantasies, but slowly, undramatically unravelling the fabric of the world in which we grew up. Even the nightmare of climate change makes its way into waking reality as a muddled, muddy sequence of events which, though together they amount to a threat to civilisation, do not satisfy our idea of how such a threat should announce its arrival.

This is where we are, in early 2014. At this point, even a recovery in the official measures of economic progress serves mostly to emphasise the gap between those measures and everyday experience. It is not surprising, then, that the arguments we were making five years ago when we published the Dark Mountain manifesto are heard more often and in some unlikely places, or that media coverage of this project no longer takes the form of reflex denunciation.

Meanwhile, when someone does speak up for the idea of historical progress, it is no longer with the bemused confidence of one reasserting the obvious; instead, the argument is made more often with the intensity of a defender of the faith taking up arms against a sea of doom, relativism and nostalgia. This is an attitude anticipated by Charles Leadbeater’s Up the Down Escalator (2002), or the interior monologues of Henry Perowne in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), and it echoes the embattled certainty of the New Atheists. Fresh strains continue to surface, not least among certain bright young radical thinkers for whom a rebooting of the Promethean project of modernity has become a daring, avant-garde position. The most striking example is the group of philosophers gathered around the Accelerate manifesto, published last year, whose ambitions for humanity are summed up in the slogans, ‘Conquer death!’ and ‘Storm the heavens!’

Our extraterrestrial future features strongly in the Accelerationist writings, a ‘Maximum Jailbreak’ from a planet conceived as a prison. A similar attitude underlies the recent suggestion from Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at Warwick University, that the axis of politics is undergoing a 90-degree rotation: left and right, he argues, will be replaced by ‘up’ and ‘down’. Or, as the disaster engineer and sometime Dark Mountain contributor Vinay Gupta puts it, ‘Pretty soon, you’re going to have to take a political position: either pro- or anti-Mars base.’ So far, so sci-fi, but this reorientation is suggestive. Because, whatever other reasons are given, it seems rather as if space has now become the final refuge for a promise of progress that is out of credit here on Earth (Another tactic, with a similar undertone of desperation, is to borrow against the threat of apocalypse: ‘It has become a case of utopia or catastrophe,’ argues sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, in a lecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, ‘and utopia has gone from being a somewhat minor literary problem to a necessary survival strategy.’)

The other notable thing about the off-planet version of progress is how far removed it seems from everyday reality. This is not simply a matter of physical distance: in the 1950s and ’60s, the Space Age was able to capture the collective imagination, and the contrast to today is telling. It is not only readers of Dark Mountain who find visions of the rocket-propelled future weirdly anachronistic.

Keep following this line of argument and it could start to sound as if the myth of progress were a spent force, but this is too simple a conclusion. We live within a physical and a cultural infrastructure, built up over generations, much of which would have been unthinkable without the way of understanding the world contained in that myth. The sheer weight of these structures still carries our societies onwards: if we do go to Mars – as Tim Fox envisages in the opening essay of this issue – it will be by default rather than with enthusiasm, propelled by the momentum of a faith in which almost no one still believes, or rather the naked momentum of the exploitation machine which that faith once cloaked.

This leaves us with a challenge that goes deeper than argument: to extricate ourselves from deeply ingrained habits of thought, and to do so with care, with an attention to how we treat one another, with a realism about our vulnerabilities and our ongoing dependence on systems with which we are often far from comfortable, with an imagination capable of finding infinity in an hourglass. The Dark Mountain Project is not a political incubator, hatching the ‘down-wing’ of some new vertical alignment of politics (as if what the world needed were another binary opposition). Nor is it exactly what we thought it was, five years ago, when we wrote a manifesto for something like a literary movement. If only things were that simple.

It may just be one space (among others) in which people are able to find each other and start the kinds of conversation out of which new ways of making sense of the world take shape. There is no promise about how far this process will go or where it will take us – and the experience of these first five years has taught us to be open to unexpected turnings. Still, when we turn back to our earliest public attempt at framing the intentions of this project, it still feels like work to which we are alive, worth doing for its own sake, with no promises and no guarantees:

Words and images can change minds, hearts, even the course of history. Their makers shape the stories people carry through their lives, unearth old ones and breathe them back to life, add new twists, point to unexpected endings. It is time to pick up the threads and make the stories new, as they must always be made new, starting from where we are.

Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto (2009)

Thank you to everyone who has joined us over the past five years in the process of picking up the threads and remaking the stories. We hope to see you somewhere along the way.

The Editors,
February 2014

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

Dark Mountain: Issue 5 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99