Cate Chapman (currently Coventry Canal, England). Itinerant boat-dweller, sock-knitter, freelance copy-editor, co-director of the Ecological Land Co-operative, book editor for the Dark Mountain Project and occasional scribbler of poems.
I read, as a contributor, at the launch of Chelsea Green’s Dark Mountain meta-collection Walking on Lava the other day. There were eight of us, and each person was invited to read from their respective essay or poem, prefaced with some short introduction about the work, themselves and the impact of the Dark Mountain Project both in their own lives and as a wider cultural movement. Public speaking mildly terrifies me, and as I was up last I sat through the other readings with my heart beating somewhere up near my throat. I further enhanced the agony by not preparing anything to say in advance; sometimes it’s interesting to just see what comes up in the context of the place, the people and what has already been said.
Listening to the other work and the way that others have contextualised Dark Mountain, and particularly in hearing Dougald Hine talk about the need to make space for questions that we can’t necessarily answer, here’s the thing that struck me: it’s deep in our natures to bend our minds to a problem and find a solution. As a species, we make and we mend. It’s one of the things that has made us so successful. Despite our relatively fragile bodies, we’ve innovated – shoes, shelters, weapons, cookery, music, maths… it goes on and on. And that’s great. That’s a huge part of who we are. It is the nature of human animals to create and to find solutions. What this does mean, however, is that we tend to be highly solution-orientated – always reaching up and out for the next thing. We see a problem and we want it fixed. We see climate collapse, species collapse, cultural decay, and we want it fixed. We instantly grasp after solutions. We want action, hope, change… and then change doesn’t come. We are a species of problem-solvers – so why not?
There are, of course, a whole bunch of answers to this, among them: inertia, comfort, ignorance, avarice, vested interests and corruption, disempowerment and poverty, hopelessness and loss of faith. For me, Dark Mountain explores the idea that while all those things are of course true, it’s our starting point that’s the tap-root of the problem. Western civilisation has cut our most basic of moorings and we’ve drifted so far into our own myth of humanity – of civilisation – that we don’t know where we are or who we are any more. We have set ourselves apart from all the other life around us, isolating and decontextualising ourselves. And that means we’re playing a huge game of blind man’s buff, groping around in the dark, cutting off our own senses but still seeking solutions.
So as a starting point for this book, here’s my question: What exactly is it that we’re doing here? What does it mean, fundamentally, to be alive as a human being? Right here, wherever you’re standing – with mud or concrete or carpet or the damp give of a forest floor under your feet. What is it to be alive now, and not for so very long, with each precious heartbeat numbered? To be part of this complex, fragile web of all life, with the Earth turning solidly below us and the endless sky stretching, unguessable, above? There is much, certainly, that we need to let go and give up, but what do we need to reclaim, reinhabit? Where is it that we’re starting from? I don’t think we’re even close to answering that question, and until we do I’m not sure how confidently we can step out into any kind of future that includes us.
As one of the text editors, I have a particular interest in poetry. However, I’m interested in seeing written work in any genre, or pieces that cross and confuse traditional genre boundaries.
Charlotte Du Cann (Suffolk, England) lives by the North Sea where she writes, swims, forages, and sometimes rehearses. She also works for Dark Mountain as an editor, curator and distributor.
Like Cate, I have found myself on different stages this year without a script. There’s something about putting yourself on the edge that feels – apart from the terror – a more honest way to approach our present set of ‘wicked problems’. We belong to a civilisation that thinks it knows everything – but none of us know for sure where or how or why we will weather its fall.
One of these performances was called ‘Testaments of Deep Time’ with four fellow Mountaineers in Wales. In a black suit and a bowler hat adorned with oak leaves, I ‘played’ the Cumaean Sibyl who once guarded the door of the Underworld beneath the fiery volcanic fields outside Naples. One of ten Sibyls, she embodied a link to the pre-patriarchal ‘uncivilised’ world, a guide for a lineage of poets, from Virgil to Dante to Sylvia Plath. Refusing to give herself to the god Apollo, he denied her eternal youth, so that only her voice was left for us to hear.
In performance, it is our oracular voice that gives us access to parts of our creaturehood kept silent by the dominant narrative of Empire. Beneath the surface of polite words, in the surprising caldera of our physical selves, we can find a store of indigenous and archaic knowledge: that speaks about how to be a real human being on Earth.
Which is why perhaps I was struck by the recent submissions call-out from the arts organisation NewBridge Project in Newcastle. Based on the ‘Deep Adaptation agenda’ proposed by Jem Bendell at the University of Cumbria, the project was looking for deeper creative responses to the crises we face and an exploration of ‘the three R’s’ of Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration.
This central R word caught me: the de-storying of the myths we live by and the powerdown of our own self-importance. Relinquishment was the key move in all Underworld mysteries, the point where you found your heart and your destiny down there among the poplars and the asphodels. And perhaps it is our most useful role now, as storytellers and record keepers, to help compost those old tales and inventories, to nurture and make space for other possibilities to occur.
So my question for this issue is: what fairy tale illusions, mindsets, ways of seeing, do we need to abandon in order to discover the riches of our uncivilised inheritance? How can we reclaim the voice and body of ourselves, suppressed by civilisation for millennia?
As art editor and producer for this issue I’d also add that all genres of artwork are welcome, so long as they work within the Dark Mountain frame: paintings, prints, photography, illustration, sculpture, found art, testament, installation. For the colour plates, works in colour; for the text pages, graphic drawings, prints and monochrome photographs. We’re particularly drawn to artworks that have a story behind them, where the artist puts themselves on the line. We are also on the lookout for a striking cover.
Eric Robertson (Utah, USA) lives in the high desert of the American West as an environmental humanities scholar, pushing people to push back against increase as reproductive ecologies of all kinds continue to flourish on land begging for some peace and quiet.
How do we find joy in curating and encouraging the stories of the West’s Great Letting-Go? (A monumental task.) How do we not let the unknowable ecological endings dictate the potential beauty in our stories of the here and now? Relinquishment is and has always been, it seems, the heart of great storytelling. Part of such an ethos, it seems to me, is the need to let go of much of the ecological angst that has built up inside us and swelled beyond our capacity to act in emotionally productive ways. How do we keep and employ our righteous angers and sorrows, but let go the damaging psychology of an anxious future that is neither here nor there? This is not a walking away from the precipice, but striking a joyous, defiant pose at its edge.
Ursula Le Guin’s brilliantly spare short story ‘The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas’ comes to mind. She portrays the simple walking away of individuals from a prosperous society when they discover that their beautiful lives are based on the suffering of a single neglected child. They choose to walk away without agendas, without clear ideas of destinations or future adaptations, to begin new ecologies of contraction. For me, the West’s next great adventure is the relinquishing of the comfortable social body to favour the challenges of one’s own real, biological body, as unthinkable and impossible many of us consider that choice to be.
Queer theorist Jack Halberstam helps direct us toward that great leap of faith with what she describes as a ‘new wild’.
The communal is the new wild, a place where the human ends or even an inhuman or even an outhuman begins as a dream of ecstatic contact that we continue to seek out in life, in love, in dreams, in material objects, in the neutral, and in the skies.
This ‘new wild’ is not found in wilderness surrounding the lonely wanderer dwarfed by geologic majesty. The ‘new wild’ is not about land-grabs or monuments or family road trips to choreographed and narrated overlooks of natural wonders. This is the wild of human bodies at last stripped of social convention and experienced as ecstatic agents in networks of being that think less about preserving progress and sustaining the damaging ecology of the individual, and more about creating the communal networks of bodies living physical lives as biotic constituents and not just as social conscripts.
I’m excited to read stories of bodies, old and new, reimagined, refashioned, and reconfigured to help us all lean into the upheaval we face.
Tom Smith (Tipperary, Ireland). PhD candidate in Geography at the University of St Andrews. He is currently relinquishing one life stage, and grasping towards another; a process he describes as ‘both painful and beautiful’.
‘It is, I promise, worse than you think.’
Those opening words, an admission that things are going to change, sent a chill down many a spine this summer, mine included. ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, a piece in New York magazine by the journalist David Wallace-Wells, hit a nerve, both for myself and others. Outlining extreme climate scenarios which look more ‘normal’ with each passing year, the piece sent shock rippling through the global commentariat, who responded in the instantaneous manner so symptomatic of our times.
Tellingly, these responses were not about what the piece had said – after all, it had been carefully fact-checked by a number of climate scientists and stayed within the realm of scientific probability. Nor, for the most part, did they come from ‘climate skeptics’. Instead, damning responses were issued by climate scientists who, in lieu of substantive disagreement, raised concerns about what writing a piece like this does. They worried that entertaining thoughts of catastrophe would disempower and disillusion: ‘If there is no hope, there will be no action, and goodness knows we need a lot more action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions right now’, wrote Jennifer Francis, an atmospheric scientist. The piece was described as ‘irresponsible’ by Michael Mann – of ‘hockey stick’ graph fame – purveying what he called ‘a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness’. Poetry and science collided, then, on the topic of the power of the stories we tell, of how we will endure as the future plays out.
Becoming the most-read piece in the magazine’s history, what this flurry of interest demonstrated was a stubborn unwillingness to even begin peering over the precipice. Indeed, rejoinders to ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ signalled climate denialism of a different sort: a denialism of change and the depth of adjustment which will be needed.
If we’re going to speak of an uninhabitable earth, let’s relinquish the fairy tales of our humanism. For many (indeed, most) human and non-human beings on the edges of civilisation, the Earth is already uninhabitable, and is perpetually becoming more so. A more sensible response to the piece came with the sombre observation that ‘dystopian visions are easy to conjure these days; they come with scientific probabilities.’
The future will not be like the past or present. Truisms such as this are easy to write but much harder to absorb into your bones, let alone into the heart of a culture. We need to get to the roots of more spectral, cultural, forms of adaptation. My interests tend towards non-fiction, though of course we invite pieces of all genres which navigate the tension, as we move forward, between acknowledging our human-ness, as Cate does above, and relinquishing those traits, mentioned by Charlotte, which we’ve come to view – with tragic results – as all too human.
Human, outhuman, non-human, non-humanist, inhumanist. Who are we really? Relinquishment, remembering, restoration, reclamation (and any number of Re-words). What is our destiny in these forms we hold? These are all kick-off points for the new Spring issue. We do, of course, also welcome pieces that just feel ‘Dark Mountain’ and do not follow these threads. A Dark Mountain anthology is a collective space that allows for many voices to be heard and we’re looking forward to listening to all of them and seeing your responses.
Dark Mountain: Issue 13 will be published in April 2018. The deadline for submissions is Friday 17th November 2017. For details on what and how to submit, please read our submissions guidelines carefully. We cannot read or respond to work which does not fit within our guidelines