The Dark Mountain Blog

The Writing of Mountain Calls

2015_02_06-Rax-pines rock 01 mono 1080 (1)

It has Zen. It has motorcycles. It has talking mountains. I don’t know how else to introduce my environmental novel Mountain Calls, apart that is from its subtitle: ‘A philosophical eco travel romance murder mystery.’ The point about anything environmental or ecological is that it has to haul in everything to be anything. As John Muir says: ‘Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.’ For me, this sense of everything being connected to everything else is a religious or spiritual feeling, and there lies the problem. nature writing in its recent Western incarnation is determinedly secular, non-spiritual, non-religious. It is an exciting blend of science and aesthetics. But, in my opinion, it does not know how to take the insight of the great ecologists – that everything is indeed connected to everything – and apply that with any subtlety.

The connection that really mattered to me in writing Mountain Calls is with the last peak in the Austrian Alps, a mountain called the Rax. I regularly visit family in Vienna and on one particular trip in winter I longed for some snow, quite absent that time in the Austrian capital. My cousin suggested a day-trip to the Rax, an outing that led to profound changes in my life and outlook. That is because at the end of the day, looking back up at the peak from the valley below, the Rax spoke to me.

I had taken a double-decker electric train – a engineering marvel of the German-speaking world – to a village close to the mountain, and then a bus to the lower station of the thousand-metre cable car. In the lounge and car park at the bottom of the mountain, temperatures hovering just above freezing, I fell into conversation with two Protestants intent on converting the Catholic majority of Austria to Protestantism. I have adventures like that. We continued our discussion as the steel-and-Perspex cabin bumped and swayed its way to the top, temperatures there at around minus nine Celsius. We further continued our theological debate as we walked across the plateau from the cable-car station cum guesthouse to another guesthouse some miles away, a place frequented by Sigmund Freud on his summer holidays and the site of one of his major psychoanalytical insights. (I think it was to do with one of the waitresses.) On the way back, in intense discussion over the status and nature of disembodied spirits, we got lost in a blizzard and only realized our mistake in time before darkness descended. I bought them bean soup at the cable car station and in return they gave me a lift along the valley. At my request they dropped me off a mile or so before the train station, leaving me with the distinct impression they were glad to get rid of me. My theology was not to their taste.

I walked perhaps a half mile, conscious of the peak of the Rax lit up by the sunset behind me and looming ever larger as I walked away from it, clearly some kind of optical illusion. Then it spoke to me.

We are anxious about what your kind are doing to our world.

I did not hear it as English words, but was forced by the intensity of the experience to record it in this way. The sense was clear. There was an anxiety. And it was about what humans are doing. And that this world is shared between the human and the non-human.

For four years this experience lay in the background of my busy life as a university lecturer. I knew I had to go back, and that I had to write up the next trip as a novel, a travelogue of a journey into the unknown. I had to converse with the mountain again and I had no idea what would come of it. To prepare myself for the longer exposure to its snowstorms and blizzards – I felt that winter wildness was essential to this process – I had formulated a question to put to the Rax. I think I grew up with a sense of the land as situated, as the great eco-philosopher Arne Naess puts it. When you place a Cartesian grid over the land, build grid-like buildings, and live with the Lego-like modernism of contemporary interiors that sense of being situated through a living thing like a forest, or a mountain or a river is lost. To live the more deeply connected life that nature demands of us means to have a consciousness that roams over the entire planet, encountering all of its situated peoples and asking of them: what are you doing to our world? The grid is at one end of a spectrum occupied at the other by war, all of which hurts and disrespects nature. Our bombing leaves small-scale ecological disasters in its wake, all part of the mosaic of the large-scale ecological disaster whose first face to us is of catastrophic species loss. So, with all this in mind I had a question for the mountain, a way of focussing our conversation, though I knew well enough that no preparation I could make would be adequate for the coming encounter.

My journey to Austria for that second winter-time visit to the Rax began with the human activity of the London Underground, Luton Airport, and then the incredible view of the planet from the EasyJet 737-700, not that different really in its impact from ‘Earthrise’, taken by astronaut William Anders in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission. Comparing that image of the planet with the deeply poignant account by Julian of Norwich of seeing the world as a hazelnut in her palm, fragile, vulnerable, sustained only by the love of God, I wondered what would sustain us now, transported by the luminosity of the view. The clouds that mostly obscure the land below had a lacunarity, a rhythm, and density that varied from vermicelli, to can-end spurted shaving cream, to cake icing. The piles of cloud-stuff were punched, twisted, blurred, re-focused, scattered and drawn together; heaped and roped – topologies and geographies of the temporal, just like the limestone-granite of the Alps but on a different timescale and plane. Like the membrane of an egg-sac the cloud-cover stretched brilliantly under the shimmering blue – what would sustain the globe beneath it? For humanity has now so disrupted the biosphere that its very future is in doubt.

This time it was minus fifteen Celcius on the mountain. Over just three days I walked in hired snow-shoes in wildly varying weather, pretty much alone, as the busy season for the Rax is in summer when the wild-flower meadows of the plateau soothe and bewitch visitors and present few dangers, as long as you do not wander near cliff-edges. In a blizzard you have to be more careful, but at the same time it gave me the right conditions. The snowstorms obliterate everything human. I was protected only by my winter clothing and my wits; otherwise I was still, silent, available. I did not expect anything specific. My earlier years pursuing various meditation practices had taught me that. You make yourself available, as Henry Thoreau did at Walden Pond, and wait for ‘it’ – as he called it – to happen. You walk and make yourself available for grace, undemanding, uncomplaining. So I flomped around on snow-shoes, the sharp cold air in my lungs and the dramatic skies above me, alternately opening to brilliant sunshine and closing in to cocoon me in soft grey swirling silence, alone, available.

Nothing happened. Of course. I knew better than that. But in the guest-house in the valley below on the last night I lay in an overheated bedroom, melting snow dripping from the big red pines outside my window, and, yes, I heard again from the Rax. It was faint. I tested it, because we have to be clear about one thing: the human imagination would always like to rush ahead and arrive at the desired outcome. It doesn’t like to wait. But I tested what I heard by eliminating all that could possibly be my desire and my imagination and I got something I didn’t like at all.

The next day I walked in the valley, along a river made blue-green by cobalt minerals from the Rax. I thought that its looming presence would clarify for me what it was saying. The mountain was snow-peaked but maroon-tinged by the early spring buds of deciduous trees on the lower slopes; its presence never left my consciousness as I walked under it. I watched a chaffinch as the day warmed; I sat on a park bench by the little Victorian railway line that would have taken Freud and his family from their hotel in the valley to the cable car, and was baffled by the flight of a large insect, or was it a small bird? It was neither, it was a bat. At midday? That is the point of being in nature. It always surprises.

The mountain had spoken to me that night. The first impact of it was an incredible benignity. It took months to wear off after I returned to my family and university life in London. It is a sense of peace with others, an expansiveness that is a direct parallel to what the mountain seems to be: a nurturing presence. Mountain minerals run through our fields, give nutrients to plants and animals and sustain all of life; in the oceans too the limestone and granite residues feed the brilliant quicksilver ballets of predation in the green light of its depths. The mountain is not concerned over the sufferings and deaths of individuals. That is what makes the it non-human, but in the non-human of the mountain and in all of the non-human life that depends on it I am made human. Indeed if I wanted to say one thing in my novel it is this: that the non-human makes us human, and if we imperil the non-human we imperil ourselves. But the message I did not want to hear from the mountain on that second trip was that its anxiety had been replaced by another sentiment.

It is not at all certain that we are going to avoid environmental catastrophe. It is already upon us with the mass extinctions of the Anthropocene. But it is ‘anthropos’ – man – that the mountain has adjusted its understanding of, and so made me think differently about what it is to be human. It has taught me this: that we are the unique animal, the special animal, one that can recapitulate all of nature within us. And so the mountain loves us uniquely, specially. Yes, in a dim and now largely discredited way Ernst Haeckel suggested that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ meaning that the human recapitulates animal forms in the womb. But the mountain meant it at a far deeper level than Haeckel could imagine, in an animist or shamanic way perhaps. Does not the shaman, on donning a fox-fur mask, do so to recapitulate that animal, to experience the manner-of-being-in-the-world of that animal? What is more, we are the only animal that can fully recapitulate all the other creatures within us, all of nature within us, and that is our role.

It is not our role to save nature. We have to do what we can of course, but what really matters is that as individuals we go to nature, find it within us, and preserve the Earth inside our souls. The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent. We cannot know the timescale over which the Earth shall come and go. Hopefully we can collectively avert disaster. But merely avoiding polystyrene coffee cups, turning down the central heating, buying electric cars, wearing second-hand clothing, living in an earth-build or whatever we actively do to halt catastrophe, is neither enough – probably – nor where the only effort should lie. It should also lie in profound communication with nature in the smallest ways, observing a robin on the window-sill, a London plane tree towering over choking congestion, the world as reflected in the eyes of an interlocutor, whether friend, family or strangers in a blizzard on a mountain. One can do it looking up at the sky, working on an allotment, or walking by a city canal with its cormorants and herons and the other few birds remaining to us. It lies in putting oneself in the way of nature.

So I walked that day, under the mountain, sustained indirectly by its mineral sustenance, only a few alimentary processes removed from those of the bat which ate the insects, the flying minerals hatched directly in the blue-green waters that flowed from the mountain’s snow-fed springs. I danced in synchronicity with the bat as I attempted to keep its gorgeous orange-brown fur, ears and nose framed in my binoculars. I had to give up the choreography of alignment as the bat flew into the bushes but I continued to dance inside, to a music that was the gift of the mountain above me. And I knew I would return to its upper slopes yet again, another year, to put myself in the way of its winter moods, when the non-human would take me yet deeper into the human.

Mike King was Reader at London Metropolitan University, now retired and working as an independent multi-disciplinary scholar. He has published over sixty papers, book chapters, film and book reviews, and six books in religion, film studies and economics as well as three novels. He is a Quaker, grows vegetables and likes to walk in fields, mountains, woodland and riverbanks.


Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Psalter, For Now

The snow had finally given way and the river – coursing through Alaska’s lesser known temperate rainforests – ran high. Up ahead a hummingbird elevated and descended repeatedly amidst church-bell blueberry blossoms, boring its needle bill in and out. Unmindful of my approach, it sucked its nectar with aplomb while the spruce overhead bled what was left of the morning rain into mosses and witch-finger devil’s club.

Brown bears wear the trail smooth all summer and fall, seeking sockeye, pinks, and cohos, and fishermen wear it further in pursuit of the same. The hummingbird, a rufous, let me get within feet then raised out of the bushes, flying to the snow-beaten salmonberry stalks lining the other bank. The bird bounded from one stem to the next, looking for starry pink blossoms that hadn’t quite bloomed. Giving up, it lifted above the twisting alders before buzzing upstream, and I pressed toward the first of several sun-friendly willow brakes that hopscotched the danker conifer realms.

Bear droppings lay along the last of the spruce-shaded trail. Dark and fibrous, they reflected the vegetable-rich diet of spring, and looking down on one, I noticed a wolf, too, had been here. Four torqued tubes of moose and beaver hair, vole fur and bone fragment crisscrossed one another in a fresh bear print, while the canine’s own deep pads had left tracks in the mud where the first willow clearing began.

By late spring, moose cows range thick along this watershed. Willow growth is lush in the soggy ground and the big animals come here to drop calves, nursing them as best they can on milk and buds. Losses, though, are high. Wolves and bears have their own young to fret, and a thousand generations of knowledge, along with ever keener noses, lead both species to these same broken meadows to sniff out the humid musk of moose placenta and track the easy, weakened feast at its source. I looked up. Five ravens – myth-makers to the native Tlingits, as well as the land’s carrion eaters – were perched high in a cottonwood, watching. They, too, knew what played out in this country.

Pulling a water bottle and energy bar from my pack, I listened to a fox sparrow whistle deep in the willows while a ruby-crowned kinglet warbled atop the spruce wall across the meadow. After swallowing half the bar, I raised the bottle to drink.

We’re new to this, all of us. Whether banished from Eden or evolved from hunting and gathering is irrelevant. Either way, we’re a collective eye-blink from integration. There was a time when I wouldn’t have fussed much over sparrows or hummingbirds. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been alone, but in a band, right here, tight-knit and stitched by kinship. It’s no energy bar that would’ve sustained me, but knowledge, the same knowledge as the wolves and bears. My clansmen and I inhale, deep, through the nose, scenting words, sentences, orisons. Another breath. There it is, sticky and fresh. We fan out. She’s lying down, worn, licking her slick and floundering calf in birthy grasses. The bears are out here, too, and the wolf pack, but we find her first. A couple of quick yips by the discoverer and the rest come running – barefoot, hungry, strong. The mother tries to rise but can’t. She’s speared and the calf clubbed. Some members cut the animals up while others spread out in the brush, crouching, protecting. We’re grateful, and express so in some old, abandoned way. Divinity, I imagine, meant something else then.

I put the pack back on. A pair of orange-crowned warblers, competitors, had joined the kinglet and sparrow in song. Upstream, over the spruce tops, the sun caught the snow on distant peaks.

I enjoyed this, I knew, all of it, and was comfortable, even deeply moved, in these places – forest, desert, anywhere – but didn’t belong. None of us do. That world is gone, the language lost, and as I looked off the bank into swollen waters I wondered if I hadn’t burned up most of my life decoyed by a defunct god.


It’s hardly new, this sheared linkage. Unsettled by technology, people persistently look rearward, lamenting the lifestyles steadily bleached by whatever gizmo of the day is in their hands, from chariot whips to iPhones. Each mechanised leap forward breaks away equal shares of terrain behind us, and we mourn. Today, blitzed by the digital age and the innovative flood wrought first by steam then internal combustion, we tend to mark such crippling nostalgia from people like Henry Thoreau or the Romantics, for whom the source – nature and our fundamental indivisibility from it was grossly jeopardised by the Industrial Age.

Like humanity itself, though, the practice has no definitive origin. Socrates feared writing would wreck the human mind, and millennia before, unrecorded, it can be assumed the yoke and scythe roiled the human soul as much as today’s pixels and touchscreens. Even fire-on-demand likely spawned regret.

Standing on the river bank, I tried to put the current malaise of myself and so many nature-charged people in that context, but couldn’t help seeing this long lineage as a wave, one generated nearly at the start that is just now compiling to break. Even standing within it, we appear so decoupled from our quintessence – that original seamlessness in nature – that both our and its existences seem just that, separate entities.

We say it so often. However slick, however comfortable, our modern lives may be, they’ve leached away our vital interior. We know something critical is gone, and I knew it too by the river, but watching dark water move over stone, now a varied thrush hop from moss to limb then back again, then half a salmon skeleton – ribs cuddled around a nest of alder-snagged flood debris – I wasn’t sure that I or anyone else really understood what was gone, only that it was.

A jet flew overhead, descending into the village a few miles away, one of two daily flights in and out. Turning, I headed for the truck, knowing I yearned for something I couldn’t define while being dependent on things I wished I wasn’t, an ambivalence that had far greater potency than expected.


Born lucky, I’d always been a happy sort, well-grounded and largely immune to the depressive fogs that hamper so many I know, particularly in what we’ve increasingly accepted as the Anthropocene. Unable to shake the detachment I’d felt on the river that day, then, was something new, and as the weeks gave way to the short summer it became a concern.

My job with the state fish and game department kept me constantly in the woods, often alone, monitoring salmon spawning grounds. Normally I felt at ease there, as close to myself and the world as could be hoped, within fingers’ reach of that coquettish god I’d chased since childhood. Now, though, sloshing in streams shaded by spruce, listening to birdsong while watching the first salmon stage their fertility rites, I felt alien, alone, like a deer scratching ash in a burnt timberscape. Scratch enough, though, and revival comes, though when and of what I couldn’t know.

As so often happens, nothing dramatic did it. I didn’t climb a breath-taking peak nor repair to a remote lake for a healing hermitage. I simply moved through the same woods I always had, where the birds and the trees and the fish had lost what for me had been their lifelong enchantment. In a moment, though, during the sockeye run, in the normality of my job, it all returned.


The stream
is named for the fish I meant to count, and if you’re looking for split-second majesty Sockeye Creek isn’t much to see. The land is flat and tree-shrouded. No Half Dome rises here. No Grand Canyon sinks nor Old Faithful spews nor Bering Glacier churns. No god on the half-shell. In a few spots I could jump across it, and for most of its length it runs no more than five yards wide. You have to walk this place, sitting from time to time, watching. Do it enough, learn it by years and seasons, and the old questions seep through like mist.

Floods had left generations of spruce trunks tangled in jams and crisscrossing the current along its length, and I worked my way up, over, and under the slip-throughs and catwalks that I always had, clicking fish off on the little device we called a tally-whacker. With no sockeye in a normally reliable pool, I cut across the bare gravel hemming it, noting a shred of rapidly drying milt – torn, buff-white, marred with a spider-burst of rotting blood – stuck to the stones, a lone vestige that the mink and jays hadn’t scavenged from a bear kill.

Coming to a large windthrow, I straddled one leg on each side and laid the rifle carried for bear protection on decaying wood. Tiny mushrooms, filaments of them with dew-drop heads, black in the stem and orange at the tip, were clustered in front of the gun. I had no idea what they were called, only that above the gurgling waters their delicacy of form belied a rapine for what the old tree still retained. For all its elegance, life’s every cell is complicit in a feral symbiosis, and if I was taken by the mushrooms’ frail splendor, it wasn’t lost on me that their wormy mycelia had been devouring this tree long before it toppled.

A sockeye finned in the pool above, then another. Still sitting, I ran a hand across my head, pressing sweat. July. Birdsong declines, but a fox sparrow husked a few notes from the salmonberries across the creek, lacking the lustful declaration of a few weeks before, while below, caddis larvae moved about the stream bottom inside the makeshift pebble tubes meant for self-protection, their bent, mechanical legs dragging them forward. Downstream, a grey, unimposing dipper dropped off a rock to enter the water. Emerging, it gained another stone, extracted a caddis from its dwelling, then swallowed. Nature seems so peaceful at times that we believe it to be so, and I wondered if joy wasn’t life’s only say, the rebellion against all that we – from people to buntings to tadpoles to stoneflies – don’t see, and may never comprehend.

Standing, I resumed the count, clicking off sockeyes. Some stretches were clean, not many fish and not many blow-downs, while others were choked with both. I came to the drowned forest where the channel had shifted some time ago, inundating trees in one line of wood while leaving the old route dry. The mountains, miles away, are visible here. The creek bed opens the forest in such a manner that a gravelled, timberless draw can be seen between two ridges. The slopes face south, and every year the same melt pattern lingers in the shadiest joint they share, one vertical line intersected by a shorter near the top. This cross clings through mid-July, and I looked upon it. Pure white save round the edges where the earth’s heat and burning sun ate the snow away, a run-off channel below it ran turgid, carrying flecks of mountain downslope. Standing there, in the jostled creek bed, with the peaks deliquescing in the distance, you can rightfully amend the old haiku: Though the capital may fall, the mountains and rivers remain. At least for a time.

When I reached the sickle-shaped pond where the count would end, I stepped out of the dark woods to enjoy the sunshine. The forest beyond the pond gives way to muskeg, a spongy, mossy morass. I stood at the water’s edge while the creek whispered behind me. A few tree swallows coursed above the water, nipping the surface. The sun had triggered a hatch, and midges found their way from water to air. All along the short beach bleached salmon relics, translucent, lay scattered among gray broken stone. Gill plates and ribs, a few jaw lines. Sockeye, pink, and coho. The valley of dry bones.

Squatting, I laid the rifle down then bowled my hands, splashing my face. Across the pond a tribe of monkshood grew from the sedge, their purple, downward frailty veiling the poison inside. A salmonberry stalk drooped nearby, weighted by a dozen fruits hung over the water. Rosy on top, green-revolving-to-red on bottom, the pimpled berries absorbed the sun, tempting bears, birds, and people. It starts with plant life, all of it, while plant life starts with that unfathomably far-off solar fission, and I realised that this was probably as close as I’d come. In all that searching, in all that god-crazed, purpose-crazed hounding that had slow-cooked most of my life, I wasn’t sure if I’d found anything at all, only doubting if we’ve ever really improved on truths we knew from the beginning, that the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog after all.

Piercing and persistent, a familiar sound cut the air. I stood. Not many birdsongs are unwelcome, but the monotone screech of a lesser yellowlegs is one of them. They stand atop dying evergreens alongside wetlands, scourging all comers with their well-developed alarum. This one, though, was hurt. Large for a shorebird, they’re otherwise unremarkable, with a needle bill, plump body, and stilted legs. Such a one now circled the patch of marsh that led from pond to muskeg. Normally their legs stick straight behind, but here an appendage dangled below in sad inutility. Stammering its protests downward in atonal succession, the bird ascended with each circumference, as if it could out-wing its fate, but it was no matter. It looked to the grass below, circling the circle of its own demise.

The swallows just then were as pleased with their lot as the shorebird was agitated by its own. Many more had gathered to revel in the reap of midge-life. They twittered about, arcing and slicing, intercepting the insects’ uncertain careers. Rise and descent, rise and descent, filling themselves with food. You understand joy when you see it, and as the swallows continued snapping midges from the air I sensed it as well, rising up to the burning blue, a stiff challenge to whatever indifference glowered upon them.


‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.’ Shakespeare gave that to Hamlet, and it’s become increasingly accepted since that we’re the divinity he implied. Maybe that was intended. Regardless, we seem to have as little control over how our ends are shaped now than if there is indeed outside agency.

As both master and slave, then, we press on, currently bound to destroy much of the world in which we developed all the old gods and all the old ways, the fossilised fragments of which so many of us seek. Watching the swallows, though, and witnessing the yellowlegs feather out the last of itself high above them, I gave myself over to the present. The future, I finally understood, can’t be known, and the past, enticing and instructional as it may be, is no oracle. The present, however, offers joy, our sedition, and the opportunity to marvel what’s at hand.

I’d moved to Alaska from New England, where settlers colonised Plymouth nearly four centuries before. The land there is changing, at least some of it. Commercial cranberry farms, operating for two centuries, are giving way to cheaper operations out west. In a few places, Plymouth included, people are restoring the bogs to their natural state. Excavating 200 years of human-piled sand, they weren’t sure how to re-vegetate the newly relieved wetlands. They didn’t have to. Dormant seeds sprouted from the peat, weaving their reeds, mosses, and grasses as if the English had never showed. Two hundred years of dark, a season of sun, then revival.

I’d lament the loss of life, I knew, the vanished species and all the rest, but seeds, it seems, have patience. How the devolution of modernity will play out is unknown, but everything dormant within us and without us will, eventually, germinate, giving rise to new gods and new ways, however shaped by the old. We’re not the wise ape, but we are the storytelling one, and will find, as we always have, fresh myths to sustain us. In the meantime I had the present, and birds and insects and fish with their own ways and myths before me.


Mike Freeman lived in Alaska for many years.  This essay is adapted from the memoir Neither Mountain Nor River: Fathers, Sons, and an Unsettled Faith.

Photographs by Nate Catterson.


Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

A Wild Compliance


I’ve got maps spread out
all over the kitchen floor

headwaters splintering into deltas
whose braids are hollowing
my spirit of its untruths
the snow blowing down my collar
the rain leaking in through my boots
the river depositing silt into my hair
whittled down to sap
I’m letting the light in

however it wants to get in

Out in the darkness of the frozen lake

there are fish suspended
in the top six inches of ice
who will hold the dreams
of last summer’s water
through the winter,
and then pass them along
in the spring when the ice melts

and water again begins to flow

The part of me that is Watercress

Wolverine, Lark Sparrow and Bluestem
has been waking
in the middle of the night
near the fork of a creek
at the foot of a hill
and cannot return to sleep without asking,
how far away are we
and what must we do
to collectively imagine
a liberated future;
where the way we live
does not compromise life
where watersheds are not choked
where human beings
are not wage slaves
and our value system
is based in generosity

not accumulation?

These questions howl through me

like rivers and runaway witches
my life the voice to ask them with
my heart the tool shaping

the resilience and renewal they reveal

As the tamarack bogs never refuse a Moose

my resistance is an act of love
and my questions come not in judgment
but in service of life, as an invitation
to hear all that is silent in the river
all that clings with the burrs and sunset
to the Coyote’s tail
that does not require one to
comply with an economy
willing to sacrifice the braids of our ecosystem
Red Fox, Monarch, Hawk,
White Bark Pine, Salmon,
Bears Ears, Lake Superior,
Kawishiwi, Menomonee, or Yellow Dog
for a deluded version of wealth
that enriches supremacy,
fear, complacency, and disconnect,
but instead complies with
the entangled lives of
Box Turtles and thunderstorms
ancient forests and the joy of

Earths’ wild reciprocity.

Ben Weaver is a songwriter and poet who travels primarily by bicycle working to strengthen relationships between the water, land and the communities he visits.  His most recent record is called Sees Like a River.  You can learn more here:

Image by Jonathan Levitt

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Singing stories, telling tales

Once upon a time, in the mountains of the Himalayas, when an old man was about to die, he beckoned his son to come closer. As the son drew near, the old man whispered, ‘son, I have only one piece of advice for you, sweeten your madua before you eat it’. Soonafter the man passed away, leaving the son slightly confused with his last message. Trying to follow the instructions, the son tried to eat madua with different sweet additions like gud, honey and sugar. Years went by and the son forgot about his father’s curious message. One day he went to the forest to collect firewood. He worked hard and by the time his chores were over, it was evening and he was very tired and hungry. He realised that he had brought along a few stale madua rotis tied in a cloth. With relief and gratitude, he opened the cloth and started eating the rotis. He was stunned. For never had madua tasted sweeter, taking him back to the words of his dying father. Now he finally understood what the old man had been trying to tell him. To really be able to taste the sweetness in your food, you need to be really hungry. To be really hungry, you need to have really worked.

Hirma Devi Sumtiyal, who is known to many in the village Sarmoli in Munsiari as Thul-Aam or ‘Elder mother’, told me this story. But she had not made it up. She had heard it during one of the countless Aan Katha sessions. Aan Katha sessions, where often the elders teased and challenged the younger people with riddles and puzzle-stories, would start in the evening on snowy winter days and continue late into the night. Or they used to. In the present age of ubiquitous televisions and smart-phones, families and societies have found other ways of entertaining and educating themselves.

All corners of India reverbrate with different forms of storytelling, orally passing tales from one generation to another from time immemorial. There is a richness in their diversity of form (which may be songs, couplets, riddles or long prose) and content (romantic, funny, sad, practical, simply amusing, adventurous or even propagandist). In my own homeland of Punjab, my mother recollects summer nights of storytelling by her parents and grandparents, which was done only when the children promised to give a hungaara i.e. say ‘hmmm’ at regular intervals to indicate that they are listening.

Stories have always had an important place in human history. According to Yuval Noah Harari, author of the book Sapiens, ‘Any large scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination’. According to Harari religion, nationalism, and even belief in justice and human rights, are all on account of our ability to believe in fiction. Following his logic, it seems that in some ways wars, invasions, conversions, even political elections, are actually about a clash of stories – who can weave the most captivating, enthralling, bewitching tale that would make us want to believe in them.

In the meetha madua story that I began with, the food will be tastier if you have worked, making work as a reward unto itself. In that way, stories reflect how we rationalise life to ourselves. Stories can also reflect our value systems. In another mountain village, in Ladakh, I was told that people feel obliged to welcome wayfarers into their house and offer them shelter for the night. ‘Hospitality is a way of life. If a person is too possesive about their house, they will become a tortoise in their next life. Because a tortoise carries its house upon its back,’ said Tsering Angmo of Gangles village.

Stories can reveal to us connections. For instance, in the creation story of Santals, an indigenous people of India, the Earth rests on a tortoise. Oceans apart, in the North American story of Anishinaabeg, a turtle volunteers to have the Earth placed on its back. Such similarities could indicate either common origins of the tribe, or commonalities in the historic incidences that were recorded in form of story. In fact, there are many who assert that myths are a method of storing memories. It is said that Aboriginal Australian storytelling records sea-level rise taking place between 7,000 and 18,000 years ago. That story was passed orally to the present over 300 generations of people.

Stories can also be just about wit and pleasure. For instance the paradoxical one-lined story that grandmothers in villages of Maharashtra tell their grandchildren mischieviously when they are nagging them for a story – ‘Once upon a time, there was an old lady who died when she was a child’.

But it seems like in our present times, we are losing systems that wove and passed on these stories, and even the tongues that held them. In the last five decades, over 220 languages have gone extinct from India. In Australia more than 100 Aboriginal languages have died since white settlement and 75% of the remaining are critically endangered. I know that many people would say that it is an acceptable loss, an inevitable part of ‘evolution’.

But in our hearts surely we understand enough about ecology to realise the flaw in that argument. For isn’t there a link between the forces endangering wildlife and our environment, and the forces threatening our diversity of cultures and languages? At the root of both is perhaps our rush towards economic growth and development, fast transforming and redefining our ‘needs’, social networks, landscapes, and livelihoods. Our coping mechanism to this unprecedented pace of change has been to take refuge in homogenity and conformity, to let our folk stories echo in their own silences. In a kitchen colonised with wheat and rice, in an evening now colonised with television’s blaring noises, what happens to the likes of Hirma Devi, holding on to not just the aan kathas but also her small cloth bags filled with madua and old spices?

Imagine stories that have survived for centuries being lost in a generation or two. In many communities, what we retain at present is just the left-over warmth of embers of a flame already spent. Just fragments of stories, strings of words, holding fading memories slowly ebbing away to oblivion as bridges of communication between one generation and the next burn off to ground. It is a spiral of losses, losses of not just words, phrases, stories, languages but losses of ways of being, ways of thinking, ways of expressing, ways of knowing, ways of making sense of the world. In a world where there is no space left for diversity, we will be stripped of our most elemental tools. Will we be able to feel whole as persons, or will our sense of incompleteness intensify, taking with us everywhere we go a nagging feeling at the back of our mind that we are part of an incomplete jigsaw, that we are witnesses to an unfinished sky? Or perhaps, we will return from this juncture of loss, our need for stories and our need for diversity getting the better of us. Perhaps we will pick up what remains of the old and refashion it to make new stories for our time, taking once more the effort to look up, look around, look within, and converse. If someone was to study us a hundred or a thousand years from now, what would they say were the defining myths of this century? How are our stories evolving? What are our beliefs?

I am not romanticising the idea of stories. I know that like most other mediums, stories can be used by the powerful against the weak, to perpetuate victimisation. Yet the capacity of evil does not make the medium and the entirety of its content evil. I feel that in a land of diversity of cultures and landscapes, there is much wisdom and truth for us to learn from these oral mediums that were localised yet widespread, captivating imaginations and inspiring the passing on of strings of words over hundreds of generations. Getting a deeper understanding of our possible pasts may help us think of different, perhaps even better, possibilities for a future.

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

Image: Indian Kathakar Storyteller 1913, Wikimedia Commons.

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

In the Clearing

From February to December 2017, the grounds of Compton Verney Art Gallery hosted a collaborative artwork by Alex Hartley and Tom James (who published part of his Future Manual here two years ago). Inspired by the utopian communities of the 1960s, the Clearing is a geodesic dome constructed from reclaimed materials on the shore of a lake, and occupied year-round by a succession of ‘caretakers’ – an evolving experiment in reskilling and living off grid, ‘a reconstruction of the future as it might be.’ For nine months this space hosted workshops on making fire, growing food, baking bread, keeping chickens, brewing mead, navigating by the stars, and how to die. I spent a week as caretaker there at the start of October.

The day before I come to the Clearing I’m in a car crash. I’m sitting in a traffic jam when another car slams into mine, stoving in my rear bumper and giving my friend whiplash. For almost four hours the following morning – which I wanted to spend packing supplies for my week off grid – I’m on the phone to insurance companies and filling in online forms. My car’s a write-off, apparently. I try telling them it’s fine apart from a dented rear end, but they want to take it away for scrap. They say it’s not worth fixing.

The timing’s perfect, actually. It’s a great example of the stupid culture the Clearing was built to move beyond. This experiment is an insurance policy – or part of one, at least – against the larger, longer crash that awaits us all, when the whiplash will be global.

I arrive six hours later than planned, my car written-off but roadworthy – it should be a contradiction in terms – arriving at Compton Verney just ahead of darkness. Amber is leaning on the gate. She’s lit the woodburning stove and put the chickens to bed. The structure is beautifully simple, containing only what it needs, but enriched by twenty-seven weeks of the things that people have offered to it: small repairs and beautifications, improvements, adornments, ornaments, artworks, tools, implements, paintings, books, sculptures. Someone has whittled an oar out of wood. Someone else has built arms for a chair that didn’t have them. There’s a jar of homemade elderberry syrup and a single chicken’s egg. There’s a feather quill and ink made from charcoal. It smells of woodsmoke, sawdust, wax. As soon as I step inside the dome I feel myself, very slowly, starting to breathe out.

Amber tells me what I need to know and then leaves me to work out the rest for myself. I pull up a chair and sit outside, on the deck over the lake, and let my buzzing urban mind catch up with my body.

There are things to do. Many things – small things, but important. I must feed the stove. I must make my bed. I must light candles. I must cook. I must order my supplies. I must see what books are on the shelf. I must make an inventory of the foodstuffs others have left. A busy evening lies ahead, filled with necessary tasks, but it’s a different species of busyness from this morning’s work. Instead of quoting my policy reference number for the sixteenth time, I must boil some water for food. Instead of being put on hold, I must put myself on hold.

The borders of the lake turn dark. Bats flicker in the sky. The water is extremely still. There is nothing blacker than the blackness of yew trees at night.


I wake to a clear autumn day and a slick of brown oak leaves has covered the outside decking. The chickens whitter curiously at my new face peering through the wire. Released from the coop, they rush forth to scratch around their world. By the time I’ve returned from fetching water they are far down the shore, exploring the offerings of the night. I boil water in the Kelly kettle and when it bubbles over, popping the cork lid from its mouth, they rush back in a state of high excitement. Four eggs are waiting for me in the snugness of the coop.

‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘Don’t peck that, it’s hot.’ ‘Don’t go in there, that’s my house.’ Less than one day here, I’m already talking to the chickens.

I eat their eggs by the lake and gaze across at the grand stone mansion on the facing shore. The house and the dome seem to stare at each other, one through tall imposing windows and one through triangular plastic panes, as if they are sizing each other up. The house seems very far away, a symbol from another world, absurdly obsolete. Glass and steel skyscrapers will appear like that some day. When you look with certain eyes, they already do.

After an hour of sitting and watching, I’m seized by a sudden frenzy of small reorganisations. The dome, filled with seven months of leavings from past caretakers, suddenly feels cluttered, confused. I have a desire to simplify, to make the space my own. I move the oak leaves off the table. I sweep away carefully placed acorns. I clear a space on the shelf to line up the books I’ve brought. I put my tomatoes in a bowl. I wipe away old cobwebs. When I’ve finished, the changes I’ve made would be meaningless to anyone else, but they mean a lot to me.

Being here, I’m starting to see, is not a passive experience. It’s an active engagement with place, a negotiation of the point where I end and the dome begins. Already, when this work is done, that point feels clearer. (1)

Wood is the afternoon’s job. First I carry the big unseasoned logs from the pile under the yew and chop them into smaller logs. Then I chop those into smaller logs. Then I stack those in the shed and move the seasoned ones to the dome, tessellated behind the stove, and split some sticks for kindling. The air smells sweet with chopping. It’s a steady procession of wood getting smaller and smaller in size from one position to the next, whose ultimate and inevitable destination is the fire. Then it will get smaller still, ending up as nothing.

‘Prometheus stole fire from the gods,’ says an old lady casually when she comes to look around. But stealing fire is the easy part. Keeping it fed is harder.


There seems no rhythm to the day. It is oddly jointed. Rather than doing one thing at a time I seem to be doing many things, constantly interrupting one task in order to start another. I sit down intending to write and find myself in the vegetable patch, wondering where the chickens are. I start to boil water for coffee and realise I’m cutting wood again, or sweeping dead leaves from the door, or standing up reading a book in the centre of the room. I chop half an onion for a meal but before I chop the other half I go for a walk around the lake to see what the Clearing looks like from the other side.

It looks like exactly the kind of place I’d want to walk around the lake to explore if I were standing here not knowing what it was. It looks like an improbable dream. On the way back I find watercress, and pick some for my meal.

I can’t find the chickens at dusk, and search anxiously through the grounds. Then I remember what Amber said – they will put themselves to bed – and that’s exactly what they’ve done. They are perched trustfully in their coop, waiting for me to close the door so they will be safe from the black of night. I shut them in, then go to the dome to do the same thing to myself.


The morning brings waves to the lake. The water is black-grey. Wind rushes through the trees in long rhythmic blasts, a deeper noise in the oaks and sharper in the willows. The chickens haven’t laid any eggs and I notice the straw in their coop is filthy, so once they are out pecking around I sweep it out for the compost. I take a large amount of pleasure in laying a bed of new, clean straw, scattered with dry leaves, imagining the pleasure they will have when it is cosy. Half an hour later I return and two eggs have been laid.

The wind gives trouble to the stove. Its vacuum suffocates the fire and drags smoke back down the flue to burst in thick puffs through the vent, filling the inside of the dome with a grey, choking cloud. The smoke alarms start to blare. I shut them off but they start again. I fan the flames in the grate but the wind extinguishes them once more, driving another gritty cloud into the room. I can hardly see the walls. Eventually the fire takes and equilibrium is restored – the chimney drawing as it should and the smoke-demon expelled. The grey cloud slowly dissipates, turning blue in the light and wafting out the door.

My clothes and hair reek of smoke. My eyes are red and itchy. A visitor comes to look around. ‘It smells like the Iron Age in here,’ he says approvingly. (2)
The smoke is gone by the time that Caroline comes to join me here. The dome’s population doubles. Now I’m in Amber’s role of showing her where everything is, how everything works, what everything does, why everything is here. It gives me a sense of proprietorship but also one of letting go, a gratifying push and pull between owning and sharing.

Despite the clouds and threat of rain we build a fire and cook thick slabs of marrow on the grill. Food tastes better here. The chickens are magnetised. They take clumsy leaps at the flames to peck the sizzling vegetable until we banish them to their pen. They appear unbothered. Later, when the rain hasn’t come, we sit on the deck and watch the light leaching from the sky. Caroline finds a fishing rod made from a willow branch, baits its hook with chorizo and casts out the line. No fish bite. We are glad of this. A heron skims the water.


Our world has shrunk quickly here. Even crossing the woods to the car park comes as an unpleasant shock – getting into my car and driving half an hour on motorways feels positively insane. After roundabouts and ring roads I find myself in a suburban cul-de-sac in Coventry, a displaced hermit reeking of rain and stale woodsmoke. I am here to visit my granddad’s girlfriend in her old people’s home. She turned ninety-six this year. My hands are the colour of bark. My hair smells like a bonfire. Kitty doesn’t seem to mind. She reminisces about my granddad with tears in her eyes and flirts with me outrageously. Occasionally she calls me Steve. Three hours later I leave, dazed from the overheated room, having consumed quantities of biscuits and weak cups of tea, and have the reassuring sense that I am returning home. On the drive I suddenly realise I should have taken Kitty too. An afternoon surrounded by trees and chickens and the rush of wind would have been better for her soul. It would have lodged in her memory like a peculiar dream.

Under the reddening sky, Caroline is fishing. She has swapped chorizo for worms. Still the fish don’t bite.

When darkness falls the dome becomes a hemisphere of candlelight. Fields of stars are visible in the blackness through the panes. I hope that if I reach ninety-six I’m somewhere like this, not somewhere like that. If not, at least the world allows me to be here now.

*** (3)
It’s all still a very long way from a sustainable future, of course. Our drinking water doesn’t come from the lake but from the taps in the gleaming facilities next to the visitors’ centre. The lake is full of Weil’s disease, and health and safety came down on that like they came down on the compost toilet and the coracle someone built, now sadly decommissioned. Half our food comes from packets and tins. We’ve picked a handful of tomatoes and runner beans from the vegetable patch, but that harvest’s over now. We’ve failed to catch a single fish (perhaps we willed ourselves to fail). We’ve cooked over embers in the cob oven, on the woodburning stove and in the drizzling dark over an open fire, but we’ve also brought a mini gas stove, which is definitely cheating. There’s a solar panel to charge a phone, and wifi drifts intermittently from the mansion over the lake. Occasionally a visitor likes to remind us of these shortcomings: ‘You wouldn’t have that in the apocalypse, would you?’ ‘You’d be lucky to find yourselves here when the world falls apart, with loads of firewood and a lake all to yourselves.’

It’s true. We would. But that isn’t the point. The Clearing isn’t an arrival, but one point on the dimly glimpsed and obstacle-strewn descent ahead – not a perfected vision of the future, but a place with a slightly clearer view. It’s a negotiation between the world as it is and the world as it might be – an attempt to articulate something we may not have the language for yet. It’s the start of the story, and that’s enough for now.

Our last night. Caroline carves a chess set from a willow pole. I hammer in splints of wood to fix the axe-head that came loose in this afternoon’s round of chopping. After dark we walk in silence on the grey path through the black trees, wondering if we will see a badger. We see three. They are only a stone’s throw from the Clearing, huddled with their noses together as if they are making a secret pact. As we approach they merge with the darkness and are gone.

To find out more about the Clearing (its past and its future), see here.

Nick Hunt is author of Where the Wild Winds Are, which describes a series of walks following Europe’s winds, and Walking the Woods and the Water, which tells the story of a walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. He works as online editor for Dark Mountain.


Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night

To mark the release of our latest book, Dark Mountain: Issue 12 (SANCTUM), we will be holding a launch with a difference – a day of workshops with the book’s editors, followed by an evening of shared food, drink, live music and performance.

It all takes place this Saturday – 9 December 2017, 1pm to 10.30pm – at the beautiful Dartington Hall in Devon, UK. You can book tickets for the event here.

Today on the blog Steve Wheeler, one of the book‘s editors, plunges into the question of ritual: how to ‘bring participants out of their heads and into that other space in which more interesting things can happen.’


Detail from SANCTUM incipit by Thomas Keyes

There was a moment, during the performance of Liminal at Dark Mountain’s Uncivilisation festival in 2011, that I knew we had stumbled upon something of power.

‘Performance’ is the wrong word. Liminal was a promenade experience (the first devised by long-time Dark Mountaineer Dougie Strang, who has since convened remarkable ceremonies, testaments and spectacles in Devon, Glasgow, Edinburgh and, most recently, on an island on the River Thames). A crowd of people walked together in the dark under the black branches of the trees, and encountered the strange, the off-kilter, and the unexpected: a group of figures moved mechanically, repetitively, while intoning fragments of proverb and folk-rhyme; a naked figure lay in a pit surrounded by animal bones; a dark, antlered shape snorted in the bushes, the dark and the woods keeping us from catching more of it than quick, partial glimpses.

It was this last that let me know there was something worth pursuing here. Even knowing that it was part of a performance, the darkness lent power to the figure in the bushes. Without a clear sightline, it could not be pinned down by the conscious mind, not reduced to the comfortable categories we like the objects of our perceptions to inhabit. Old evolutionary patterns awoke in people’s hearts – fear, alertness, confrontation, and a sudden sense of the surrounding dark as a thing of weight, a blanket of unknowing that fundamentally altered our relationship to the world around us.

It is easy to understand such things intellectually, and not to be changed by them, but the actual experience is one of transfiguration – of the world around us, and of our own sense of self. To be in a wood with a large beast snorting in the undergrowth only feet away, with every sensory faculty reaching out into the darkness, is in many ways the opposite of what we experience in the day-world of our civilised lives. It is to be taken out of the artificial aquarium of our heads and to be flung out into the living world.

Other experiences followed. In 2012, the strange figures of the Mearcstapa roamed the festival site and road leading to it, emerging from the treeline and disappearing again, pushing against the boundaries of the normal. Such things are not always to everyone’s tastes, of course. In his not-entirely-glowing review of the festival that year for Aeon magazine, Ed Lake reported his horrified text to his wife at home: Directed to the car park by someone literally in a Wicker Man mask’.

In 2013, I (‘head shaved smooth and wearing a kimono’, as the New York Times memorably described me) literally strode round a burning wicker tree as flares firing off at the four points of the compass, and told the story of our gathering:

And the trees welcomed the people
Blown here on the far winds of the storm
From North, from South, from East, from West,
From foxhole and culvert,
From dogleg and ragwort,
For four seasons of the Earth,
To stand in this burning moment,
Here, on this spinning ball,
Here, on this scrap of chalk,
Here, in this ragged grove,
Here, by these tangled dreams.
May the burning of the old be the rebirth of the new.

I can claim no credit for the remarkable, and very strange, spontaneous events that followed, continuing into the small hours. I led a workshop the next day, and an older gentleman remarked that he had somehow, uncharacteristically, lost his watch during the night, as if in a symbolic manifestation of his stepping outside the ‘clock-time’ of everyday reality. Even stranger, he said, was that he found it right next to him in the tent when he woke up the next morning.

At times we have referred to these events as ‘rituals’. The word entices some people and alienates others. Many recognise that ritual was a form of cultural and social technology that served particular, and vital, purposes for human societies, and that its absence from our own is just one more factor in the dysfunctionality of our way of life. But others associate the word with the realm of religion, and all the entanglements of hierarchy, misogyny, superstition, deception and coercion that are undeniably bound up with that realm.

In the past, I have talked about ‘playing’ with the language and form of ritual; clearly, we could not go back to experiencing ritual as it was within the framework of a shared religious sensibility (nor would we want to, some would say), so perhaps we would need to adopt a more anarchic, combinatorial sensibility to explore it. I did not mean, however, that we should treat ritual simply as raw material for an aesthetic game – something by which to produce an artistic ‘spectacle’, but not to engage with in any deeper, more visceral sense. By requiring our communal presence, our physical engagement with movement, sound, speech, and matter, ritual is something that takes us out of our heads and reinstates us in the world. To play with such a powerful technology is necessarily to be playing with fire.

The invocation I spoke around that fire four years ago was not intended to be ‘mere’ poetry; but nor was I pretending to spiritual knowledge – that my words would invoke some specific, hidden, super-material force – I did not have. I spoke, simply, from that place between; from intuition; from a faith that a sincere heart, channelled by an artful mind, can sometimes make Something Happen.

This is, after all, what invocation means – it is to treat the world outside our heads as if it might be equally meaningful as the contents of our own psyche; as if it might have something to say back to us. The philosophers and metaphysicians can keep themselves busy arguing the precise ontological status of the world’s reply; but, as with any relationship, it is often more valuable simply to listen to what is being said.

This might serve, too, as a rough definition of ‘the sacred’ amongst this ragged band we call Dark Mountain, with all our disparate beliefs and perspectives: to attend to the sacred is to believe that there is something meaningful outside the machinations of our own minds; that the world may be greater than our understanding of it; it is to believe that, with a bit of luck, there might still be a chance for Something to Happen.

Editing, writing in and, now, presenting to the world Dark Mountain: Issue 12 (SANCTUM) has been, in a way, my coming-out as one of these beings. I admit it: I think the reality we are immersed in, and from which we are so often separated from by our thoughts and abstractions, might really be real. Not only do I think Something might Happen, I think it is already Happening right now.

When the time came to hold a physical gathering of people to launch this book, it was clear that we would need to do things a little differently. Dark Mountain book launches have always played somewhat ‘outside the box’, but we wanted to take this a little further. So we have arranged a launch this Saturday with a few differences.

Rather than simply holding an evening event – a brief window of exposure with little time to connect – we decided to take a whole day, running a workshop on art, the sacred and ecology for those who wanted to explore these issues collaboratively and in greater depth. SANCTUM’s lead artist and Art Editor, Thomas Keyes, will be joining me on to lead a hands-on afternoon of discussion, nature connection and collective creation.

We did not want our launch to take place somewhere without poetry or character, so we booked the ancient timbered space of the Upper Gatehouse at Dartington Hall in Devon. In the same way, we did not want our launch to be separated entirely from the outside world, that open realm of darkness, wind and life that moved something in me during the experience of Liminal. So we will be hosting a promenade experience of our own at 6pm, using the beautiful grounds of Dartington Hall as a setting for something that will, hopefully, help to bring participants out of their heads and into that other space in which more interesting things can happen.

After this, it would not seem right to ask people to simply sit indoors passively while passages from the book are read out at them. So we have a programme unlike anything we’ve done before – music and interactive theatrical performance mixing with readings and conversation. And, making a virtue from a necessity – as so many of our contributors are based elsewhere in the world – we will have audio and video from contributors interspersed with the live event.

Alas, I still cannot pretend to have magic powers. We cannot claim that our programme next Saturday will teach you the deep secrets of being, give you a transcendent experience of the divine, or awaken you to the timeless peace underlying all things. But to make a whole book about the sacred, to ask a group of people to join together in its creation, giving freely of their time and art, is itself a kind of ritual act. And to gather together to celebrate its existence, to join sincere hearts to mindful craft, to share food and music and words together is a ritual of another sort. We hope those of you who can join us on Saturday will do so.

Steve Wheeler is one of the editors of Dark Mountain: Issue 12 (SANCTUM).

DM12_PPC_1Join us for the official launch of Dark Mountain: Issue 12 (SANCTUM) at Dartington Hall on 9 December 2017. Expect an afternoon of workshops and an evening of wildness. Places are limited, so make sure to book your ticket

You can order a copy of Issue 12 from our online shop for £18.99 – or for a special rate of  £9.99, if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.



Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Malaise Traps

Remembrance Day for Lost Species, held on the 30th November each year, is an occasion to honour and mourn the countless thousands of species driven to extinction by human activity. To mark this year’s theme – Lost & Disappearing Pollinators  author and beekeeper Helen Jukes writes of this year’s devastating news of insect decline, of the wonder of honeybee hives, and of the need to widen our vision by paying closer attention to small things.

bee pic


Type honeybee into Google, and a drop-down menu appears with a list of suggested search terms. I add a ‘c’ and it throws up honeybee collection or collapse; add a ‘d’, and it’s declines or decorations for your home. I work my way through the alphabet; ‘l’ is unequivocal. Honeybee losses 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014.

Some days I can’t tell if honeybees are coming or going. In a sense, they’re everywhere – collecting on our shelves, decorating our homes. In the supermarket this week I passed bee-themed mugs, place mats, bath towels and lunchboxes – not to mention the honey (I LOVE bees, the girl at the checkout told me, when I told her I was a beekeeper. She showed me her bee earrings and a bee-shaped pendant. I really love them, she said, tucking the necklace back inside her shirt collar). And yet, elsewhere, out there, where the real bees live, we’re told there are losses and declines and last month I heard a new word, insectageddon.

That came from an article about a study in Germany, among the first of its kind. Between 1989 and 2016, 1,500 insect samples were collected across 63 sites – a total haul of over 50kg, and several million flying creatures. The results are disturbing: a 76% drop in numbers, over 27 years.

Since the paper was published, more scientists have stepped forward to suggest the findings are likely to reflect a pattern occurring across Europe and beyond.

We’ve heard already about losses to honeybee, butterfly and bumblebee populations; these findings dramatically extend the scale. Around one third of our global food supply is dependent upon honeybees and other pollinating species – if flying insects were to disappear, not only would we lose individual species; our landscapes, our ecologies, our diets and so even the stuff of our own bodies, would also be radically changed.

It’s one thing to read headlines like these; another to absorb them. The words are big. They’re dramatic, they’re catastrophic. I imagine they’re probably driving the appetite for honeybee mugs and bath towels – loss can make us grabby. Yet when I look out of the window, it is not catastrophe, not ageddon, that I see.

A few years ago, when I was living in Oxford and about to become keeper to a colony of bees, this was something I’d been struggling with. I’d read about honeybee losses in the papers. It sounded bad, but it felt remote; I wondered what would happen if I stepped to one side of the newspaper headlines and got to know a colony firsthand. Would I sense a slippage, a thinning? And would I, in my slim end terrace with a weedy garden out back and a work/life balance tipping dangerously towards collapse, find a way of sustaining the bees in my care – of keeping them?

I bought a suit. I got a colony. I was suddenly more involved in another creature than I had been for years. I tended them, fretted over them. I hefted pieces of hive and beekeeping equipment. It was both a love and a labour.

My garden was bordered by a crumbling wall, a hedge and a high fence; standing inside it, I couldn’t see very far at all. I could see the sky. I could see a warehouse roof, our neighbours’ house, the tops of the trees lining the allotments. I could hear the traffic on the road outside, and the man who shouted as he walked. I wasn’t mindful of much of this; I was busy focusing on the hive. I had to become very attentive to what was happening inside it; to watch for slight shifts in the activity of the colony that might signal disease or pests or a drop in available forage. I wanted to get to know their rhythms, understand their processes (these were different, I realised, on different days – a colony is as changeable as the weather).

Up close like this, I learned a little about the landscape. A little about how bees make sense of the world, how they perceive it. And, by watching their journeys, by looking for what they were bringing back, I learned something about what they were finding out there, beyond the fence; about what their world was composed of. Honeybees collect pollen for feeding young and nectar for making honey; they temporarily ingest the nectar when they carry it back to the hive, and stick the pollen to their knees. A few months in, a friend showed me how to tell the source of these pollen nubs by their colour, and so make a fairly reasoned guess as to where the bees had flown. Deep yellow might be dogwood; soft green was probably meadowsweet. I felt like a detective, sifting for clues. Except that, for the most part, the clues were in a language I didn’t speak.

A honeybee colony is like nothing else. It froths and boils and quivers and shakes; it murmurs and thrums and whines. Lifting the lid of a hive and taking a look inside can be a disorienting experience – the bees are so foreign, so far from your familiar, they can make you feel completely lost; they can also turn you around, and inside out – they can rearrange how you see. They rearranged and reorientated me.

I’m writing this on a wooden stool, in the window of a small cafe. They have baklava and free wifi. I can look out and see a road and a row of houses; I can look out and see the silvery rim of a stand of beeches, a heap of ivy hanging over a wooden fence, two kids in jeans with mud on their knees kicking a punctured football at a wall. For the last half hour, I haven’t actually looked out of this window at all; I’ve been reading about that German study, the one that prompted calls of an insectageddon.

Today I am interested not so much in the findings, but the method. I have been learning (as the football bounced off the window of a passing car, and the car stopped, and the boys made a run for it,) about malaise traps. A malaise trap is like a tent on stilts, pitched at one end and made of netting. Inside the pitched roof there’s a funnel leading to a collecting cylinder with a quantity of ethanol inside, a killing agent. The other end of the tent is wide open; when insects fly in, they head up through the funnel and get trapped in the collecting cylinder. The basic design was invented in 1934 by René Malaise, hence the name. It was the sole means of sampling in the German study.

Over the past 27 years, between the months of March and October, malaise traps were placed in 63 nature reserves across west Germany. The cylinders were emptied and their contents weighed every few days. The work was done not by scientists but amateur entomologists, who visited and monitored the traps and made detailed recordings of the weather. They had strict instructions. The samples were weighed (with minute accuracy, since the creatures were featherlight); the weights later combined and compared. Leaving a trap open for a prolonged period can be harmful to local insect populations, so those used in the study tended to be moved from one year to the next, and for this reason the pattern that emerges reflects not the individual stories of specific sites, but something more like an accretion; a collecting up and laying out through time of umpteen temporary and scrupulously recorded views.

I wonder about those amateur entomologists who emptied the collecting cylinders, who tramped down to the tents each week. Did they have a sense, as they tipped the alcohol-soaked specimens onto the weighing scales, of the extent of the pattern unfolding? Did they sense disaster? Or was the change was too small, too slight to notice week-to-week?

Nature reserves exist with the sole purpose of preserving ecosystem functions and biodiversity, so to find such a sharp decline in resident species is alarming. The researchers studied the findings; they factored in changes to land use and the weather. Neither could account for the declines, which occurred throughout the growing season, and irrespective of habitat type. Large scale factors must be involved, they reasoned – but such factors lie beyond the scope of their investigations.

A nature reserve is a protected space but it is also a form of island, and recording only the environmental changes inside the parks will never give a complete picture because islands don’t exist in isolation. Almost every reserve included in the study was surrounded by agricultural land, which over the last half century has undergone a process of rapid intensification. Farmland has very little to offer for any wild creature, Professor Dave Goulson, one of the researchers, is quoted as saying. With the loss of field margins, increased pesticide use and year-round tillage, vast tracts of land [are now] inhospitable to most forms of life. It is possible that insects were flying beyond the perimeter of the reserves to find their foraging and nesting habitats had disappeared; or that chemicals present in the wider landscape were directly harming them.

There is an urgent need to uncover the causes of this decline, the researchers conclude. And so call upon all of usscientists, amateur entomologists, beekeepers, supermarket cashiers, and people sitting in cafe windows – to join in the work of uncovering. To come close enough to see the detail, to pay attention to small things with the express aim of extending our range of vision, of better reading and making sense of the whole. Such a task will involve getting lost, giving up some of our go-to means of understanding the world, and drawing connections in places we hadn’t before. It will be a love and a labour. And it can start right now.

RDLS_logo-copyRemembrance Day for Lost Species, held on 30th November each year, is a chance to explore the stories of species, cultures, lifeways and habitats driven extinct by unjust power structures and exploitation, past and ongoing. It emphasises that these losses are rooted in violent, racist and discriminatory economic and political practices. It provides an opportunity for people to renew commitments to all that remains, and supports the development of creative and practical tools of resistance.

In light of the recent sharp declines in the populations of pollinators, on whose vital environmental contribution so many species (including humans) rely, the theme of Lost & Disappearing Pollinators is offered this year as inspiration. These are animals which move pollen from the male to the female part of a flower, thus fertilising it. Well-known pollinators include bees, butterflies and moths. Certain birds and mammals are also important pollinators, notably bats, hummingbirds and many other animals. Some pollinators, such as the small Mauritian flying fox, are already extinct at human hands, with swathes of others being critically endangered or feared lost, e.g. Franklin’s bumblebee.

Participate in Remembrance Day for Lost Species by joining  or holding  any kind of memorial to lost species or ways of life. This could take the form of an art project, a procession, lighting a candle, planting a tree, or any kind of action you like. Collaboration and inclusivity are at the heart of this initiative, so any offering is welcomed. Please share your plans with us here.

See, or @lostspeciesday on Twitter, or Remembrance Day for Lost Species, 30th November for more information.

Helen Jukes is a writer, beekeeper, and writing tutor. Her first book, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings, is due out in July 2018 with Scribner. @helen__jukes


Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Stories Made of Rivers

We have created every living thing from water.
– The Koran, Chapter Al-Anbiya, Verse Number 30

The view from the Hot Springs Motel, White Sulphur Springs, Montana

The view from the Hot Springs Motel, White Sulphur Springs, Montana

1. Civilisation

The first story I was told about rivers can be summed up like this: there is direct line from the Sumerian Ziggurat of Ur to the Chrysler Building. I was around nine.

2. Civilisation II

Rivers allowed us to grow food, store it, build houses, libraries, museums, cities and empires. I was maybe ten when I heard this one.

3. Cells

In sixth grade, the story shifted from history to science when we memorised that our hearts and brains were 73% water. I have always seen fresh water as precious, magical. I used to believe that water could think. If my brain was mainly water, why not?

Every single living and non-living, visible and non-visible object around us – our computer screens, the retinas in our eyeballs, the dust in the air – all of these rely on fresh water. Our body is a walking river. Water flows from us. The liquid inside us will out eventually.

4. Cycles

In middle school, we were taught about the water cycle: river to rain to snow to mountain glacier to melting ice, back to river. We coloured in those diagrams and added those arrows diligently. But we were not told that this cycle was one of the many ways the earth breathes in and out. Nor were we told that bathing in the River Ganges frees the bather from sin, the outward cleanliness symbolising inner purification. This waterway is fed by the glaciers in the Himalayas, the Mountains of the Gods, and feeds the Indian plains as if descended from the heavens.

5. Hygiene

The fact that we as humans spend nine months growing in water also passed us by at school. The giggles of embarrassment in Hygiene class drowned out any information about babies rolling around in their water-filled pods.

6. Secrets

Water’s ability to seemingly clean itself, to rejuvenate, to flow and keep flowing no mater what we throw at it is a strange sort of illusion. If you fell a forest, the trail of destruction is there for people to see. But water is different, it keeps the secret for you.

7. Flow

Many rivers – despite their dams, their drying out, their dead fish, their pollution – are still flowing. Sometimes they run yellow or orange or green. Some may look crystal clear but are carrying thousands, if not millions of particles of arsenic, cadmium, phosphorus, nitrogen, mercury and lead. Two hundred and twenty-six million pounds of toxic chemicals are dumped in American rivers every year. Of this, 1.5 million pounds are carcinogens, 626,000 pounds are chemicals linked to developmental disorders and 354,000 pounds are associated with reproductive problems. Some rivers, such as the 1,900-mile long Rio Grande, are drying up and disappearing altogether, but many, in a heartbreaking display of trying to do the right thing, just keep flowing.

The Clark Fork River, Missoula, Montana

The Clark Fork River, Missoula, Montana

8. Float

When I lived in Western Montana, ‘floating’ was what you did on hot days. You’d drive to the Blackfoot or the Clark Fork with a spare inner tube strapped to the roof of your car or in the bed of your pickup. You’d throw it into the river, stick a hat on your head (that searing Montana sun), lean back into your rubber doughnut and let the river take you. We were lucky in Montana: 40% of its rivers are deemed ‘good’ by the Environmental Protection Agency as compared with, for instance, 21% in the coastal plains around the Gulf of Mexico. You know things are bad when the best bill of health is one in which you are more sick than healthy.

The Hot Springs Motel, White Sulphur Springs, Montana

The Hot Springs Motel, White Sulphur Springs, Montana

9. White Sulphur Springs

Here’s another story. A more recent one, which isn’t taught in schools because it is about me and a guy I once met near a river:

It is a damp December morning in 2016 and I am driving through a starlit, pinky dawn from Missoula to the town of White Sulphur Springs (population 1,000). The morning light has crested above the distant mountains as I roll down Main Street. The town is a mixture of boarded-up storefronts and some new, thriving businesses. There is a real estate office, a cinema, a pizza place, a few gas stations, a couple of bars, and, off the main street, a library. And then there is the unfussy Hot Springs Spa Motel with its pools of sulphurous, health-enhancing spring water. It was while soaking in one of these springs a few months ago that I heard a man with an Australian accent talking about the mine. My ears immediately perked up. I bumped into him later that day in a bar down the road from the motel and we started up a conversation. We were two out-of-towners waiting for our drinks.

I Googled him that night only to discover that he is Bruce Hooper, one of the directors of Tintina Resources – a Canadian and Australian mining company which is behind the proposed copper mine in White Sulphur Springs. I find out that he also worked for BP and Rio Tinto – companies behind some of the worst ecological disasters of the past few years. Tintina are dying to get their hands on the world’s largest lode of copper which is buried 13 miles from Sheep Creek, a major trout-spawning tributary of the Smith River. The Smith is one of the last great untouched rivers, and it pays its keep: about $4.5 million a year is made from floaters who travel its 60-mile limestone canyon between the Little and Big Belt Mountains. But none of this matters in this story.

Tintina’s project is called Black Butte, after the black butte which sits atop the deposit of pure copper. It has been on the table for several years, and Tintina are waiting for the green light. Judging by who holds the power these days, it’s probably not long until the trucks start rumbling and the ground is ripped open. The copper will make the company millions, and the River, well, it’s a river. It will keep flowing no matter what shit they dump in it.

The Mint Bar, Main Street, White Sulphur Springs, Montana

The Mint Bar, Main Street, White Sulphur Springs, Montana

10. The Tour

I book myself into a tour of the proposed Black Butte copper mine in White Sulphur Springs. I ask about the tailings – the toxic water that is the result of blasting the copper-laden rock from the earth – and am told that they’ve got a ‘great idea’ for that. The guy leading the tour speaks in a soothing homespun way which does the opposite of reassure me. Doesn’t he know what mines do? All his metaphors for the violence of this proposed mine are couched in Pinterest-style baking terms. The rocks left over from the excavations will be pulverised to the consistency of ‘icing sugar’ and will be blended with the chemical-laden water until it is a sort of paste. They’ll be made into ‘cakes’ and will be shoved back into the holes in the ground. ‘Cheesecloth’ is involved. No-one will ever know the land was ever mined. According to my tour guide, this story has a really happy ending, like a Martha Stewart cake recipe: everyone gets a piece of it.

The Black Butte, Montana

The Black Butte, Montana

11. West

In 1872, when miners were flocking to Montana to stake their claims, a law was passed which allowed them to dig up what they wanted, inject whatever chemicals they needed to separate mineral from rock, gold from stone, copper from its vein, and walk away without cleaning up the waste. There are thousands of abandoned mines all over the state. Exactly a hundred years later, the Clean Water Act was created. The 1872 act is older but often supercedes the Clean Water Act.

It is difficult for people outside of the American West to grasp the enormity of the reclamation problem. Scott Fields, an environmental health writer, admits there is plenty of controversy around abandoned mines: how many, how lethal, how best to clean them up. But according to him, experts can agree on at least a few major points: ‘the scope of the impacts of abandoned mines isn’t well understood, the damage that untended mines cause is increasing, and adequate funds aren’t available to address even the largest, most harmful mine sites. And although scientists are developing new methods to treat abandoned mines, the field of mine remediation is still in its infancy.’

12. Place

There are two main types of mining: placer and hard rock mining. Placer mining is all about water. The word comes from the Spanish, placer, meaning a shoal or alluvial deposit. It has also given us place and plaza. Gold is the place, roads are paved with it in our imaginations, it is central to our way of thinking, our economy, our myths, our histories. It centres and grounds us.

13. Twin Creek

This is a more recent story. This one has a happy ending:

It is the end of April and Paul Parson is driving me to Twin Creek, 20 miles west of Missoula. Paul is a restoration coordinator for the river conservation group Trout Unlimited. In his late thirties or early forties, Paul has an easy, relaxed manner and speaks quietly and deliberately, choosing his words carefully – something I have come to associate with this part of the world.

Steering his truck with his knees, he looks over at me and asks if his driving makes me nervous. ‘Not at all,’ I say, trying to be nonchalant.

We turn off the I-90 onto Nine Mile Road. This landscape is the stuff of screensavers and calendars. Mountains in the distance, wooden fences and photogenic barns slanting at attractive angles. It was once ranching land but is no longer.

Paul is talking to me about mining. He sees it from the other side, from the side of the rivers that have had just about everything poured and leached into them and left for dead. ‘Private mining claims often follow rivers as you need a lot of water to mine. And mines just decimate them. Rivers can heal themselves if you give them a leg up and plant the right things near them and get their meanders right, but…’ he shrugs, leaving me to finish that thought.

This is what Paul does all day: he reclaims, remakes, and designs rivers, although he dislikes the term ‘designing’ when it comes to what he does – too pretentious.

Paul Parson and members of Trout Unlimited, Twin Creek, Montana

Paul Parson and members of Trout Unlimited, Twin Creek, Montana

14. Replanting

Paul and I park a short walk from Twin Creek and meet up with two of his co-workers, Dave and Rob. Paul says we can kill two birds with one stone by doing some planting – he is too humble to call it rewilding – and checking out how Twin Creek, one of Trout Unlimited’s latest reclamation projects, is coming along. To an outsider, the stream looks perfect – too perfect. Small waterfalls of aesthetically piled rocks appear at intervals. Each stone, dip, and curve of the creek has been ‘designed’. It is alarming how this near-perfection in nature looks unnatural. I watch the three men walk along the stream. If you didn’t know them, it would be clear to you that they were not out for a hike. They run their fingers through the grasses and shrubs they planted from seed: willow and hawthorn and rose. They touch the trunks of the three cottonwoods they left in place which have seeded others nearby naturally, as well as the conifers which they planted as saplings. They poke at the mushrooms and squat to examine some scat: elk and bear and goose, full of seeds. It’s all looking good.

‘We know what a healthy stream looks like,’ Paul says, ‘it’s in our mind’s eye’. They stop and listen to the sound of the water and talk of the meander. Like artists or physicians, they call upon all their senses to review their work. Certain plants are thriving more than others. For the first time in a long time, the creek meets up with the Nine Mile River and will soon be able to support trout. This is a success story.

‘Native trout are really sensitive to climate change,’ Paul says. ‘They can’t survive in warm water. They are an ice age fish. Ex-mining water is the worst for them. It’s often standing water, doesn’t flow, gets warm as a result, and the flows that were created from the digging go in straight lines and this causes a lot of sediment. Trout are very sensitive to sediment.’

Standing water at Mattie V Creek, Montana

Standing water at Mattie V Creek, Montana

15. Soup

Paul wants to show me what a creek looks like before he and his team have done their work, so I have something to compare Twin Creek to. We head to the Mattie V Creek, named, I believe, after Mattie Hixson who married a Montana man in the 1920s. Mattie died in 1985 at the age of 83 and her namesake creek has been sitting stagnant and polluted for a long time. Paul took Mattie’s great grandsons fishing to show them what a good stream looks like and said, ‘This could be on your property’. They got totally behind the clean-up. It is a horribly ugly spot. The still water is split-pea green. It buries the trees half way up their trunks. Hills of sludge have been piled into grassless tors around the site. It is unnervingly quiet and claustrophobic. We don’t stay long.

16. Desire

We are lulled into thinking that because these sacred waterways – and every river is sacred – are constantly flowing, they possess what we desire more than anything: eternal life and an ever-changing nature that gives the impression of permanence. They are everything we want to be. But even rivers can die.

17. Reclamation

The first known use of the word ‘reclaim’ is in the 13th-century anonymously penned poem Cursor Mundi, whose title in English means ‘Runner of the World’. Its 30,000 verses were written by a cleric in the North of England as a way of tracing history and religion up to his lifetime. In the Cursor Mundi, to ‘reclaim’ is to ‘call back a hawk’. In the 14th century the word was used to mean ‘to reduce to obedience’. And today the word retains that sense of control in its definition ‘to bring land under cultivation’. But now among ecologists, rewilders, and environmentalists, to ‘reclaim’ land is to return it to a pristine Eden-like state. But just how far back do we go in reclaiming a river or a tract of land? Does one try to ecologically wind the clock back to pre-ice age times? Or to one of the interglacial ages? If so, which one? They are all very different with their own unique flora and fauna. Does one go back to 1492 when Columbus set foot on American soil, which is what some American rewilders used to think. Others, however, believe that 1778 is more desirable – the year Captain Cook landed in Hawaii. Whereas for some the foundation of Yellowstone Park in 1872 is the ecological baseline to which we should be aiming in our reclamation projects. And for the more dedicated contemporary rewilders, we should be looking to our Stone Age ancestors, to the hunter-gatherers, for the most ecologically healthy baseline. The debates are ongoing. But we all seem to think we need to look back in order to move forward.

Paul Parson of Trout Unlimited, planting native seeds, Montana

Paul Parson of Trout Unlimited, planting native seeds, Montana

18. Illusion

In 1963 the National Park Service published the Leopold Report, named after the zoologist and conservationist A. Starker Leopold. Starker was the son of Aldo Leopold, one of the founders of the land conservation movement in the United States, whose book A Sand County Almanac contains a chapter on Ecological Conscience in which he put forth the idea that ‘conservation is a state of harmony between man and land’. But the authors of the Leopold Report were already aware of the problems and the conflicts in reclamation. They wrote: ‘restoring the primitive scene is not done easily nor can it be done completely … a reasonable illusion of primitive America could be recreated, using the utmost in skill, judgment, and ecologic sensitivity.’ Even in 1963 there was the awareness that wilderness could only exist in America as a ‘reasonable illusion’.

The rivers Paul Parsons reclaims are not wild rivers, they are illusions of wild rivers. Just because a river flows does not mean it is not dead. We can and we should reclaim as much of the earth as we can even if it means dreaming ourselves back to a time very few people can remember, before history was written and stories were on paper. I would much rather wander through the reasonable illusion of Twin Creek than the toxic reality of the Mattie V. For now, and probably for the rest of our time on earth, humans will have to come to terms with the reasonable illusion of wilderness, because the real thing is disappearing fast. The story goes that we can call back the hawk, although we know in our hearts it is too far away to hear our cries.

Joanna Pocock is an Irish-Canadian writer living in London via Montana. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, Orion Magazine, The Tahoma Literary Review, The Los Angeles Times, Distinctly Montana, Litro, Mslexia and 3:AM. She is currently writing a series of linked essays on extreme relationships between humans and their environments.

Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Dark Mountain: Issue 12 – Coda

DM12_PPC_1Two weeks ago, we launched this year’s autumn special issue of Dark Mountain. SANCTUM is a themed issue which takes as its focus ‘the sacred’.

Here on the blog, we’ve been introducing different aspects of the book – and in the final post in this series, editors Dougald Hine and Steve Wheeler reflect on the early responses to the book.

Detail from incipit to Kedernath, Drury Brennan

Detail from incipit to Kedernath, Drury Brennan

DH: In a talk given almost forty years ago, the novelist Alan Garner explains that he never looks through the printed object of a finished book. There is one brief moment, when it arrives from his publisher, before it goes onto the shelf unread: ‘I do open the book, but only far enough to see the international copyright symbol. Then, at last, I know that the book has been written, and I rejoice and emotionally collapse at the same time.’

That passage came back to me, in a wistful moment, reflecting on the experience of writing for, editing, publishing and promoting this latest Dark Mountain book. The way we work, any member of the editorial team will find themselves, at times, shouldering a stack of different roles. It was ever thus, no doubt, for those foolish enough to run a small journal with big ideas – the editors of the little magazines of the early 20th century may be remembered as modernist poets, but their editorials are full of prosaic appeals for funds.

Anyway, as we reach the end of this series introducing our twelfth book, before I rejoice and collapse, it seems worth reflecting on a few of the unusual aspects of this book – and the response which it has so far generated – before I give the final word to Steve Wheeler, my co-editor, whose idea it was in the first place to devote an issue to ‘the sacred’.

The first thing to say about the response is that it has been huge. In the two weeks following its publication, the number of orders and subscriptions coming in has been more than twice what we’ve seen for previous special issues. Much of that interest seems to have been generated by Thomas Keyes’ introduction the artwork and Sylvia Linsteadt’s reflections on creating the marginalia that runs through the book.

We’ve also had a small number of regular readers who reacted against this particular issue – and while I’d guess that there were those who found an issue dedicated to poems and poetics (Autumn 2016) or craft and technology (Autumn 2015) didn’t light their fire the way they look to Dark Mountain to do, I doubt that those themes generated reactions of the same intensity. Having lived with this book intensely, through the months of its making, I’ve found much to think about among those reactions.

One point that seems worth underlining is that the departures we made in this book do not represent the new direction of Dark Mountain, but the adventure of this particular special issue. We began publishing two issues a year in 2014 and soon realised that this called for something other than a doubling of the volume of the familiar anthologies, with their range of essays, poetry, art, stories and conversations. So we hit upon the rhythm by which each autumn, one or more editors strikes out in a direction with a special issue whose form and content can vary widely, while each spring we return to the heart of our work with a book that belongs recognisably within a continuous line stretching back to Issue 1, which Paul and I edited in the spring of 2010. The hope is that this rhythm allows us to stay alive and adventurous, to surprise our readers and ourselves, without losing hold of what matters to people about our books.

This year’s special issue was a larger-format, full-colour book, made up of long-form non-fiction, of various flavours, woven around with a set of artistic collaborations and a fictional commentary from a 3000-year-old prophetess. The only thing I can tell you about next year’s special issue is that it is unlikely to be any of the above. Meanwhile, in April, we will be back with a book whose format and mix of content will feel familiar to many.

For me, personally, this issue was a return to the editor’s chair for the first time since 2014. Paul and I edited five issues of Dark Mountain together, joined by a growing team of fellow editors. Then I stepped down, in order to cope with the less visible parts of the running of the project which had become my responsibility – and with Issue 6, Steve Wheeler took my place on the editorial team. When that issue arrived, it was a strange sensation to open the book and read it from cover to cover, rather than already knowing its contents inside out.

Six books later, Steve and I finally got the chance to work together, and we took on the challenge of this book with a determination to stretch the boundaries of Dark Mountain as wide as possible – not as a model for what future special issues ought to be, but to open up a space that would allow their editors to be as adventurous as Paul and I envisaged in our earliest conversations about starting a journal.

The work on this book began as I was reaching the end of two years as leader of artistic development for Riksteatern, Sweden’s touring national theatre. That role gave me plenty of chance to reflect on what ‘artistic development’ actually means. How does an artwork – especially one as collaborative as a piece of theatre – come into being and come alive? What conditions and processes make that possible? As Steve and I hatched the plan for SANCTUM, and began conversations with Thomas and Sylvia about the collaborations they went on to develop as lead artist and ‘marginalian’, I realised that this was the first time I’d experienced the making of a Dark Mountain book as an artistic project, rather than an editorial project.

To make a book about ‘the sacred’ is to get tangled up with the history of religion – and among the responses came the suggestion that a project which started with a manifesto called Uncivilisation had no business with religion, except to attack it. If you’ve read this book, you’ll know that the voices it contains come mostly from the edges and, where they do relate to institutionalised religion, this relationship tends to be complex. You won’t find much proselytising in these pages. But a couple of things seem worth saying, all the same.

For one thing, the first issue of Dark Mountain led off with an article by an Archdruid and featured contributions from a Hindu clergyman and a Quaker activist, so there’s clearly something about this project which has drawn the engagement of people grounded within various religious traditions from the start.

Beyond this, it’s worth recalling what Paul and I actually wrote in the manifesto. About ‘the myth of civilisation’, we said:

It has led the human race to achieve what it has achieved; and has led the planet into the age of ecocide. The two are intimately linked. We believe they must be decoupled if anything is to remain.

This is stark language, but it is not a call for an attack on a thing called civilisation – it’s a call to challenge the story we tell about the existence of such a thing. It urges a process of decoupling, disentangling the things which that story insists on linking together. Four years on, writing the FAQs for this website, we underlined that we did not have in mind ‘a call to destroy civilisation’. And while there’s always been room within the Dark Mountain conversation for ‘anti-civ’ thinkers like Derrick Jensen and John Zerzan, our first issue also contained Ran Prieur’s essay, ‘Beyond Civilised and Primitive’, with its emphasis on the power and the limitations of such binary thinking. This project has always had more of the trickster about it – as Steve observes, in his essay for the current book, ‘we are not here to take sides.’ And it is in that spirit that we made this venture among the ruins and the relics of the many different ways in which humans have made sense of the sacred.

But if this is part of the territory in which Dark Mountain travels, it is only one of many parts – and with the end of this series, the focus moves on. Other themes will come to the fore on the blog in the weeks and months ahead. And, in the background, we’ll be working on our new online publication.

We are not quite finished with the theme of Issue 12, however. When the new site launches, it will include a one-off online edition with new writing to complement the work published in SANCTUM. We look forward to making a couple of announcements in the near future about an event in Cambridge in the spring – and a further development of the artistic collaboration around this book! And meanwhile, we warmly invite you to join Steve, Thomas and several of the book’s contributors for an afternoon of workshops followed by an evening launch at Dartington Hall, Devon on Saturday 9th December.

At which point, all that remains for me is to hand over to Steve, whose idea it was to do this book in the first place…

*   *   *

SW: It seems a long time ago that I first suggested a themed anthology on the subject of ‘the sacred’. It felt like something we’d been circling around for a long time, but always been just a little too coy to address directly. We would use some of the language of the sacred in describing our relationship to nature or art; we would employ some of the ‘religious tech’ of ritual and incantation in festivals and performances; and, in pieces like Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘In the Black Chamber’ or Dougald’s conversation with David Abram on animism and the sensuous, perspectives were discussed that, if not overtly spiritual, had nevertheless stepped a long way out into the world of metaphysics.

But there still seemed a certain reticence in taking this aspect of the human experience seriously. Perhaps through an awareness that plenty of our colleagues, friends and potential readers were resolutely rationalist, or a distaste of our own for the various flavours of superstition and idiocy that travel under the flag of religion, we tended to shy away from outright contact with ‘the sacred’. Yet the more I looked around, the more I noticed that the people involved in Dark Mountain were drawing their inspiration from something that operated outside the usual circle of rationalist ideology. There was no shared dogma or creed – indeed many would strenuously disavow any relationship to ‘the sacred’ or ‘the spiritual’ – yet there was a common grounding in something other to the mechanistic, pseudo-objective, Enlightenment version of reality. And the further we went in our creative and intellectual exploration of the issues concerning civilisation, the more we found ourselves back on this ground.

We have featured such voices and themes before, of course, and will do so again. But it seemed there was merit in looking directly at this theme – not to suggest a particular programme of belief, of course (could anything be less appropriate to the anarchic polyphony that is the Dark Mountain ‘voice’?), but to explore this area with tact, sincerity and an open mind. It quickly became clear to us that the singularity of the subject matter required a singular response – something that departed from our usual format, that exhibited a thematic and aesthetic unity appropriate to the subject matter and that sought to embody this feeling of otherness in its very being.

Creating this book has been a long, strange dance. It loomed ahead for years, slowly approaching like some distant mountain. The climb itself, over the past six months, was at times gruelling, at times exhilarating. And now we stand at the summit, having released the book into the wild only a few weeks ago, there is certainly a sense of accomplishment. I’m convinced that it is the most beautiful book we have yet published.

In many religions, the condensed intricacy of illuminations, icons or mandalas is itself symbolic – a sign of the energy that has been poured into a task for no purpose other than glorification of the divine. There is something of that feeling in this book – but, without a shared agreement on the nature, or existence, of ‘the divine’ amongst the contributors, that energy seems to lead us somewhere else – towards a sense of hope, perhaps, that something new and beautiful can still be kindled amongst the gathering shadows.

We brought the makers of this book together with a call that referenced the ‘devil’s door’, and it feels like a kind of portal; into thirteen very different takes on ‘the sacred’, but also into a new chapter of Dark Mountain publications. More mischievously, a part of me enjoys the idea of breaking the neat row of Dark Mountain anthologies on the bookshelf. As someone who is a little too attached to owning ‘the complete collection’ of books – gazing at them lined up on the bookshelf with a sense of satisfaction that is entirely out of place in an age when all the old certainties and securities of the material world are shifting – the complete collection of Dark Mountain books now begins to look a little like a graph of the last decade, tracking the increasing disruption and variance in the world as the books become increasingly wild and unruly in their shape, size and format.

In the same spirit, we’re looking to do something a bit different with the launch event for the book. There will be an afternoon workshop with myself and Thomas Keyes, Art Editor and lead artist for SANCTUM, whose work graces the front cover as well as in many places within. We’ll be discussing what it means to draw on sacred traditions while making art that speaks to the secular realities of our current global predicament.

Then the evening event, the launch proper, will take things a little further. Alongside readings from the book by some of its contributors, there will be live music from David Osbiston and Blythe Pepino, video from across the world, and some very special theatrical performances. It should be a memorable evening, and a perfect way to mark the completion of a long, strange journey.

Dougald Hine and Steve Wheeler are the editors of Dark Mountain: Issue 12 (SANCTUM).

DM12_PPC_1Join many of the editors and writers who worked on this issue of Dark Mountain for its official launch with an afternoon of workshops and an evening of wildness at Dartington Hall, Devon on Saturday 9 December – places are limited, so make sure to book your ticket.

You can order a copy of Issue 12 from our online shop for £18.99 – or for a special rate of  £9.99, if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.





Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.

Dark Mountain: Issue 12 – Believing in Holidays

DM12_PPC_1Two weeks ago, we launched this year’s autumn special issue of Dark Mountain. SANCTUM is a themed issue which takes as its focus ‘the sacred’. Here on the blog, we’ve been introducing different aspects of the book – and today we continue that series with a conversation with one of the book’s contributors, Elizabeth Slade.

In her essay, ‘The God-Shaped Hole’, Elizabeth writes about her journey as a rationalist atheist, with a background in science communication and healthcare, who developed a suspicion that something important might have gone missing when people stopped going to church. Today on the blog, she talks to one of the book’s editors, Dougald Hine – but we start with an extract from the essay itself.

Detail from Incipit to 'The God-Shaped Hole', Thomas Keyes

Detail from Incipit to ‘The God-Shaped Hole’, Thomas Keyes

We sit on cushions in a circle, about 25 of us surrounding one lit candle. Each of us is invited to place a personal object in the middle. Some put jewellery, a hat, a piece of quartz. I stay still, very conscious of being in a minority: not wearing yoga pants, not barefoot, no piercings or tattoos. I’m wearing a top from Whistles, for fuck’s sake.

I feel the stiffening in my shoulders as a wave of discomfort passes over me. My cheeks flush with embarrassment – what would the me of just a few years ago have made of this situation?

Now, I’m able to notice the discomfort, let it go (mostly), or just be OK with noticing it. I know that through the discomfort the good stuff lies. I notice my desire to stay in a safe, practical, intellectual, rigid, mask-wearing state, and I gently try to put these elements down.

The work involves sharing meaningful personal stories with each other. Gazing into the eyes of strangers. Exploring political issues that we care deeply about and retelling them from different personal angles. We’re firmly in the emotional and out of the intellectual.

This is London, days after the Grenfell Tower fire. Everyone has a lot of pain.

And when the workshop is over, back in the circle around the candle and altar of objects, we all feel connected. It’s like our hearts are bigger than they were at the start. There is an undeniable connection between all people, all life. Afterwards, it occurs to me that this is the third role of the sacred: between the sky of possibility and the ground of being held, to encourage the felt knowledge of connection.

When big events come, a hunger for connection breaks the surface of our current way of living. I remember the 7/7 bombings in London back in 2005, long before I had any interest in the sacred. That sunny day, after news of what happened spread, everyone left work early to slowly make their way home and it was inarguably apparent that we’d all go to the pub. I look at something I wrote back then: ‘In earlier days (or in America), people would have gathered their families together and prayed. In London, we got our mates together and drank.’ It was a kind of communion, I guess.

Last November, on the day we learnt that Donald Trump was going to be president, my minister opened the church for the evening. About fifteen of us sat in candlelight and shared how we felt, and a violinist played exactly the right music, and we wept. Brits, Americans, people in their twenties and their eighties, all feeling the need to be together.

On days like that, people recognise the need to be close to others, to gather together while they’re hurting or scared, for their emotions to be held in the right way, whether oiled by beer, or by candlelight and violin and the work of an experienced minister. It feels like a very basic human thing, so I assume we had the words for it long before the language of church.

* * *

DH: What you’re saying in the piece is that, until the last fifty or sixty years, in our part of the world, it was very normal that lots of people were part of a local church. That was part of the fabric of society, and it went away pretty quickly. And maybe we haven’t got the measure of some of what was lost, things that aren’t necessarily to do with your big cosmic beliefs about the Universe, but about some basic human needs. You draw on your own experiences with new kinds of non-religious gathering spaces like Sunday Assembly, as well as your local Unitarian church, where the minister is an atheist who used to be a scientist at MIT – but you’re also looking at it from the perspective of the work you’ve done with public health?

ES: Absolutely. So some of the work that I’ve done has been around the limitations of the health care system. You know, if you’ve broken a leg or something, it’s really well geared-up to treat you. But doctors have known for a long time that so much of what makes us healthy happens outside of biomedical health. It’s more to do with how we live – and that’s so much more than just, take more exercise, stop smoking, don’t eat as many doughnuts! We can live in ways that create health and that has a lot to do with how we live in our communities and the sense of purpose that we have in our lives. All those things that are not well provided for either by the state or the market. And right now, we can’t see what we’re missing, because there’s been this sort of generational gap there. There’s not a lot of common language to talk about these aspects of our lives.

DH: You’ve been thinking about the role of serving a community that might have been played once upon a time by somebody who wore a strange collar and stood up in front of a building full of people on a Sunday morning. And it’s not necessarily a desire to herd everybody back into churches that you’re talking about, but a sense that there is a role there that we need in other ways and haven’t necessarily got good at recovering?

ES: Yeah, definitely. And the language does get in the way and I’m really conscious that I use a lot of church-based language which to a lot of people is either alien or meaningless. But yes, there is a kind of role of ministry. I don’t think there’s an appetite in our culture to have someone who stands up in front and has all the answers – I think there’s something a bit repulsive about that idea – but we can be equipped to support each other, to be each other’s ministers and spiritual guides and help each other through life. And people are doing that, but it’s not yet a role that’s really valued in our culture. It’s not really something that’s seen. So you know, back when I went into the church for the first time, I didn’t feel: oh, I really need some kind of counsel from a minister. I didn’t really know what it was I wanted, I just had a sense of a gap, but it feels like it would be a hugely valuable thing if it was like, oh, I need a bit of guidance – I need to go and speak to someone who is in one of these community leadership roles with certain skills and knowledge. It would be good if we had some understanding, some way of talking about this, as a culture.

DH: It strikes me there are skills that in other times and places would have been regarded as something that you spent twenty years of your life learning how to do, before you were let loose as somebody could practice, where now we think you can go on a few weekend courses and get a certificate that allows you to sell your services – and that’s true whether we’re talking about some of the things that go under the name of ‘hosting’ and ‘facilitation’ these days, or whether we talk about some of the more New Age spiritual services that are on offer. So I wonder, without simply copying and pasting from the way things have been done in the past or in other cultures, how do we home in on a less flimsy way of dealing with these parts of being human?

ES: Thinking about the health care example, there’s been a lot of discussion in the last few years, reminding nurses and doctors alike, ‘Oh, we should be caring and compassionate.’ And you know a lot of people go into those roles because they are caring and compassionate – but actually, if the culture of the organisation loses its way and focuses on the hard clinical outcomes and the costs and all of that stuff and forgets ‘Oh, we’re here to be caring and compassionate’, then you have to remind people to do it. And so, in this sort of new, post-church spiritual world, there’s a sense of there not being much of an appetite for dogma. You don’t really want to say, ‘Oh yes, we all believe this, we all believe the same thing and these are the rules.’ But there is a danger of exploitation, people using powerful tools and techniques from the world of the sacred for their own gain, or just using them clumsily.

DH: We’ve been talking about how removed our culture has become from the experience of what you’re saying the church, at its best, used to provide. But there’s also a rediscovery going on in lots of places of what you might call the technology of the sacred – ritual, the mountaintop experience, the things that take you to those wild beautiful moments of meaning – which is often drawing on knowledge and practice that has existed within religious or spiritual cultural traditions. Maybe it’s tempting for us, as these things are being rediscovered, to focus on these ecstatic experiences?

ES: Yeah and you can see why, because it feels like that’s where the action’s happening. It’s exciting to be part of a ritual where you enter a different world for a little while and you know that the people around you are also entering that different world, that different mind-set, for a little while. And all of that stuff is hugely valuable – and still I think it’s a very tiny slice of the whole picture and actually the value is much more in the slow, gentle, day-to-day engagement with the sacred. Which can’t be these euphoric experiences, you know. You can’t have Christmas every day.

DH: You can’t live on a mountaintop. You go there to spend four days in retreat and have a powerful experience, but you still come back, hopefully to somewhere more sheltered.

ES: If the thing that you’re looking for is the euphoric experience and you’re looking to find it in a way that fits your everyday life in a sustainable way, I don’t believe that’s possible. So it’s more about accepting the slow and gentle, day-to-day, and having the things in your life that make that sustainable. Rather than just like, oh, if I can just get through to Christmas, then I can get through all of this difficult stuff that I know I’ve got on, but you know, just around the next corner, I’ll be OK. A lot of our culture at the moment is – oh, get through to your next holiday, get through to the weekend. You know, wait till you get home and you can have a glass of wine. And yeah, I guess I was totally in that pattern of living, pre-church, and I’m not entirely not within that pattern of living now, I guess! But I totally see that those bits of cultural infrastructure that you can bring into your day-to-day, just help us cope with this brilliance of being human so much better. Because it feels like we’re missing a lot of the sort of struts and supports that would really help us, I guess, stay level.

DH: Where I’m sitting, it’s also about coping with – or just not cutting ourselves off from – some of the darkness of what it means to be living at this moment. Living with the paradox that our ways of life are tangled up with processes that we’ve set in motion that are making it hard to imagine that we’ll be able to go on living like this – you know, it’s hard to imagine that this is going to be made sustainable. And at the same time, as you describe it, there’s a lot within even the privileged, successful version of that way of life which is not worthy of being sustained. Because living for the weekend, living for the next holiday, that doesn’t seem much like making a good job of being a culture.

ES: Exactly, it’s just deferring, isn’t it? It’s like, we don’t believe in heaven anymore, but we do believe in holidays.

Elizabeth Slade accidentally became an expert in spiritual infrastructure for the non-religious. From a career improving the way health systems work, she now wants to do the same for the spiritual health of communities. She lives in London and after 15 years is still trying to work out how her bumpkin soul can thrive there.

Dougald Hine is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project and one of the editors of Issue 12.


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

You can order a copy of Issue 12 from our online shop for £18.99 – or for a special rate of  £9.99, if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.





Sign up here to get an email alert when a new post is published on the Dark Mountain blog.