The Meniscus Moment

Much of the original work Dark Mountain has published is held between the hard covers of  books that are now out of print. Today we bring a occasional series of prose and poetry from the archive, introduced by people who have been  at the heart of the project for many years. For our first post, Dark Mountain's chair and events director, Dougie Strang chooses an essay by fellow Scottish writer, Margaret Elphinstone  first published in the summer of 2012.
Margaret's latest novel The Gathering Night is about Scotland’s Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, and how they connected to the living world around them. In response to escalating environmental changes, she is now a climate change activist and is writing a book of essays on the theme of re-connections.

There are many strident voices speaking out about the consequences of climate change and ecocide. I’ve been one myself; it’s hard not to be when discussing the collapse that is now unfolding. But as is often the case in a crisis, it’s the quieter voices that are worth paying most attention to. Margaret Elphinstone is one of those voices – quiet, thoughtful, but certainly not meek. She’s best known for the novels she’s written, loosely defined by the genre of historical fiction, though it would be a mistake to limit her work in that way. Her most recent novel, The Gathering Night, is the most compelling account I’ve read, in fiction, of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who once lived on these islands. 

In Dark Mountain: Issue 4 we published an essay by Margaret, ‘The Meniscus Moment’, which looks at contemporary environmental concerns through the lens of a different era of disruption and change: the period, early in the first millennium, when the frontiers of the Roman Empire began to shatter and retreat as its centre imploded. By providing prior knowledge of civilisational collapse, Margaret isn’t trying to comfort us or offer relief; but she does, at least, give perspective and a glimmer, like the lantern bearers she writes about, beyond the moment of crisis. For that, as well as the simple clarity and honesty of her prose, I’m glad that we can introduce this essay to a wider audience.  (Dougie Strang)


I’ve known, and yet not known, for a long time where we stood. Being laid up last autumn I found myself returning to the literature of my childhood, an archeological process of sifting through the layers of a lifetime’s experience, and realising that major motifs have a much longer history than I had supposed. Fifty years ago Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite authors. Rereading her Eagle trilogy as I lay on my sofa, I came upon this exchange in The Lantern Bearers, a novel set at the tipping point in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Aquila, a young decurion, or junior officer, is home on leave, at the farm in the British South Downs which his family have owned for 300 peaceful years.

‘The farm looks good to me,’ Aquila said, and added with perhaps a little too much vehemence, ‘it looks so sure – as though it had been here as long as the downs have been here, and must last as long as the downs remain.’

‘I wonder,’ʼ their father said, suddenly grave. ‘I wonder how long it will last – just how long any of this life that we know will last.’

Aquila shifted abruptly. ‘Oh, I know…But the worst never seems to happen.’

He knows that he is living in a world that might fall to pieces at any moment but for Aquila that is the status quo: this has been the case all his life. An hour or two later a messenger arrives, recalling Aquila to his legion. He hurries back to Rutupiae, on the Kent coast, and finds the army preparing to embark. His commander tells him ‘We are being withdrawn from Britain.’ Three days later the legions have gone, but without Aquila. He deserts, to stay in Britain where he belongs, rather than fight for a collapsing empire abroad. For the first time in three centuries the lighthouse at Rutupiae is unattended. Alone in the empty fortress surrounding the light tower, Aquila lights the beacon for the last time – a pointless act, but somehow necessary. Later in his travels, he meets people who saw the light burning after the legions had gone, and took it as a sign of hope.

As a child, thanks to Rosemary Sutcliff, I was fascinated by the long sunset of Roman Britain. I grew up near Aquae Sulis, and I still have the tesserae and Roman tile which I picked up in a field close to my home on the site of an unexcavated villa. My parents took me to R.C. Sherriff’s play, The Long Sunset, at the Mermaid Theatre in London. In Sherriff’s play, as the darkness falls on the province of Britannia, the parents wait stoically for death at the hands of the approaching Saxons. The young people leave just in time. Like Aquila in The Lantern Bearers, they plan to head west to join the new champion of a dying cause, Ambrosius, or Arthur. The curtain falls on an empty stage. Only a little light is left burning, the final glimmer of a dying civilisation in a darkening world. One is left hoping that the little light will never quite go out. As a child I knew – or kind of half-knew, because I was already too old to believe it – that Arthur and his knights were sleeping under Glastonbury Tor, or Cairnsmore of Fleet, or Arthur’s Seat, or indeed any other of several mountain contenders, ready to return in Britain’s hour of need.

Several years before anyone explicitly told me that our own civilisation, like that of the failing Roman Empire, was also in its long sunset, I already knew the story

Several years before anyone explicitly told me that our own civilisation, like that of the failing Roman Empire, was also in its long sunset, I already knew the story. The image of the long sunset, and finally the last little light, belongs deep down in my mind. I have always known that no civilisation lasts for ever. As a child, I had yet to discover the ecological basis for imperial collapse. Through years of exploitation Rome turned the granaries that fed an empire into a North African desert. They should have known – there were plenty of precedents – that empires are not environmentally sustainable. But politics and economics obscured ecological facts. In the end the empire was overrun by the shifting peoples who lived beyond its boundaries. The pressure on Rome came from land hunger elsewhere. Contrary to the idea of marauding barbarian hordes which has come down to us, whole peoples only start emigrating when they have to. They move into other people’s spaces when for political or economic reasons it becomes even worse to stay in the place they call home.

The Long Sunset came out in 1955; The Lantern Bearers was published in 1959. Of course the story of Rome’s long sunset had been repeatedly told for some 16 centuries before that, but narratives are as much, if not more, about their own times than about the times they tell of. In the post-war, post-Hiroshima world of the 1950s in which I grew up, these two very different British writers focused on the same image. Sherriff was old enough to remember the world before the First World War; Rosemary Sutcliff was 19 at the beginning of the Second. The difference between their generations and mine is that they experienced not only the build-up to the cataclysm – to which one could pay more or less attention, just as Aquila knows things are deteriorating but doesn’t think about it much – but also the cataclysm itself. The unthinkable, as far as they were concerned, could and did eventually happen. And when it did, it was every bit as atrocious as they had feared.

Last September, when I was suddenly told that I was ill, even though I felt perfectly well, at first I couldn’t quite believe it. Weeks of waiting followed. I longed to get it over. The day before the operation I climbed one of my favourite mountains. On the summit, surrounded by the hills of Galloway and the distant Lake District, the whole thing felt perfectly gratuitous. I was well; nothing had changed – why was I about to do this thing that would stop me being myself for weeks on end, or worse? If fear and denial had ruled, I would have run away. But that didn’t seem to be an option.

How many other generations, at any time or in any place in the history of the planet, have lived within such a long-lasting illusion of stability? The Chinese blessing – may you live in uninteresting times – is not conferred all that often. To live for over six decades without experiencing first hand war, famine, pestilence, or even much death, is most unusual. Children, who experience the few years they have been around as forever, naturally believe that what they know in their first years is simply the way the world is, a norm by which all future changes can be measured. To live into adulthood, or even old age, within a habitat and an ideology that seem not to change very much, appears to be an extraordinary privilege. But one can only hold on to that childlike illusion with one’s eyes shut. Of course things have changed. Since the 1950s our environment has become desperately impoverished. The capitalist ideology of perpetual growth has proved itself not only unsustainable but lethal. The rich have grown richer and the poor have grown poorer. The capitalist West drifts at increasing speed towards the waterfall. The current has caught us now: we can’t turn back. The roar of the falls grows louder. We make minor adjustments to our boat, just as if we weren’t about to tip over. It’s less than 25 years since we watched the Soviet empire disintegrate within a few years. And still we cannot internalise the simple fact that this is going to happen to us.

I belong to the generation that thought it could change the world. At my school there was an annual lecture, endowed by a Victorian benefactor, entitled ‘The Moral Progress of the World in the Preceding Twelve Months’. For the senior school, attendance was compulsory. We sat, waiting to be bored out of our skulls, as a middle-aged clergyman stood at the lectern. His first sentences electrified me – something like: ‘To begin with, we can dismiss the title of this lecture. There has been no moral progress in the world in the last 12 months. What is moral progress anyway? We need to totally re-think morality in the face of the threat to your futures. You need to know that life as you know it cannot last. If you as adults continue to destroy the planet you live on as my generation has done, your grandchildren will face extinction.’ He went on to tell us why. This was 1964. It was the first time anyone had suggested to me that I lived in an unsustainable civilisation, and that something ought to be done about it.

From there to student activism was a short step. Then on to seeking alternatives, living in communities, joining the emergent Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, heading for Greenham Common, demonstrating against nuclear war, apartheid, environmental collapse. The years passed and suddenly all that activism seemed to be over. Maybe, even in Thatcher’s Britain, I could write something that would make a difference? But no. Gradually it was borne in upon me that I – that we – on the necessary planetary scale, were not making any difference at all.

There remained a bass note, gradually rising to a crescendo. What was it? The sound of ice floes crashing into warming seas? The sound of floodwater? Or the chorus of mourning for lost lands, murdered species, and broken lives?

Life went on. A few things got better and some got worse. But there remained a bass note, gradually rising to a crescendo. What was it? The sound of ice floes crashing into warming seas? The sound of floodwater? Or the chorus of mourning for lost lands, murdered species, and broken lives? Rosemary Sutcliff’s Aquila, living in the last days of Roman Britain, could, just as I can, see the signs all round him. His father’s farm is in bad repair. Buildings stand derelict. Cultivated land is reverting to wild. Luxuries from abroad are no longer available. There is increased violence on Rome’s borders. Wars escalate, whose knock-on effects threaten the Pax Romana, even to the furthest ends of empire. These changes have been going on all Aquila’s life. He can see, but cannot read, the signs, because this gradual decline is simply what is normal. He has always known that his civilisation has passed the point of no return. One day soon it will come to a tipping point. But the tipping point is exactly the bit that Aquila can’t see, until he finds himself living through it. The tipping point is when a long-known nightmare comes true at last.

It’s like the hypnotic effect of watching a glass about to overflow. The water rises. It swells around the top of the glass, held in check by the meniscus – the surface tension that holds the water back from spilling. It looks for a moment as if the meniscus will hold the liquid in place. But the pressure’s too great: the water breaks away and spills over.

Like Aquila, I can’t fully apprehend the escalating rush towards the tipping point, because I internalised the evidence long ago, and accepted it as normal. However much each detail shocks me for a moment, I know it’s just part of the familiar pattern in which my days have been lived. Its very familiarity is a spurious guarantee that this life will go on for ever. My unexpected autumn has told me that just because I’m not dead yet, and don’t feel anywhere near it, I’m not after all immortal. Nor, by extension, is the world I inhabit.

At the same time I’ve rediscovered narratives which look squarely at the tipping point. Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels are surprisingly dark – I’d forgotten how dark – but they don’t advocate despair. The plot goes on. Aquila survives into a different world, although he is emotionally scarred almost beyond recognition by loss and suffering along the way. He cannot save the farm or his family: that world has gone. Nor, in the end, could Arthur hold Roman Britain against the Saxons. The world, according to the narratives we inherit, is plunged into darkness. The arts, philosophy and science of Rome, and even basic creature comforts (for citizens, at least) are lost for a thousand years. No-one could have stopped it.

At the heart of the narrative about the tipping point is a frail, ephemeral, human light. It’s the Roman lamp that the family in The Long Sunset leave burning in their abandoned villa. It’s the lighthouse at Rutupiae, lit for the last time ever, shining out where no Roman ship will ever sail again. The light is not a victory light, because there has been no victory. It’s not useful: there’s no-one left to be illuminated by it. It doesn’t offer any kind of hope for the future, because as soon as the oil, or wood, runs out, the light will go out too. There is even less chance of renewal for our civilisation. We, unlike the Romans, have destroyed the very fabric of our planet out of which civilisations are created. We can’t change the plot now, but we have the power to affect character, motive and response. As long as we exist, we can continue the story.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s title, The Lantern Bearers, suggests what the last light signifies. It’s about carrying on the story. The lights of civilisation have gone out, one by one, but little pinpricks of lantern light traverse the darkened landscape. It doesn’t make anything better – the situation can’t be made better – but it means there is still consciousness. And while there is still consciousness, there will still be a story. It may not last long, and it won’t have the kind of ending we like to hear. But it might mean that even when the tipping point comes, there is room for awareness, choice and the kind of heroism that lives to see, and tries to understand.



IMAGE: Stag by Anne Campbell
Analogue photograph, hand printed using lith chemicals
They tried to map the soul as we watched the old stag turn,
disappear into the blizzard,
as the mist rolled down, reclaimed the hill.

One of Europe’s last wild places, the Flow Country sits at the northern edge of mainland UK. A vital defence against the effects of climate change, this fragile environment often lies under a blanket of snow during winter, making it impossibly treacherous for humans to cross, yet somehow the deer still manage to pick their way through, to the hills and forests beyond. (from Dark Mountain: Issue 17)

Anne Campbell is an artist and photographer living and working in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, where she teaches analogue processes at Grays School of Art. She loves peripheral landscapes, all things north and feeding the badgers at her back door.



Dark Mountain: Issue 4 (PDF)

The Summer 2013 issue is a collection of writing and artwork telling 'post-cautionary tales'.

Read more


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