We youths were wrangled by the horns from the cities and sent, with nothing but our strong freckled shoulders, up to the mountains. The first days were spent gouging out drains and burrowing deep into the earth, the nights dancing to Paul Desmond in the ruins of the rebel villages.
A day of excavation would leave your jaw locked and fingers in a claw; the boys’d have to crack a smile to the girls, who would inevitably rub it out. As we moved up to the peaty sections, the diggers’ naked bodies were left with an oily, stygian pelt; we wore it as a mark of pride, and soon couldn’t get turned-on without it. We’d lie in the sun, bodies melting into one another, chewing on bundles of pine needles with relish.
The planting happened naturally, almost unconsciously, in the midst of a great solar orgy; our bodies became vectors, our mouths fertilisers.
Our work is grown now, as am I. The sitka spruces shoot above my head, each one shivering slightly in recognition as I stroll past. Inspections are the highlight of the job.
The model stopped being profitable long ago; now it’s done purely for the sex appeal.
Something wafts through the herbicide smell. Decay. I turn the corner; in the slatted light on a pair of sitkas, two rebels hammered to the trees as warnings. Pity. Nails ruin the scales of a bark.
A wasted tree always puts me off. I move across the avenues, find a good spot and unbuckle my belt.
He rises unsteady – pulling out with a grimace – and swells. Undulates, groans. Just as quick, satisfaction is overcome again – endless hunger.
He grabs his clothes draped on a branch. Struggles into them. Cold light makes its way to his skin from above; fuck, I’m getting pale.
As he buckles his belt with hands large for grasping, a flicker of colour licks his eye. Movement along the slope, just visible down the barrel of the drainage trench. His hackles rise, he drops down, and moves to stalk.
Voices are unwelcome beneath sitka’s mantle. This place is a tomb to iconophilia, a monolith to absolute consolidation. Plantations were always intended as the logical conclusion to Eden – endless sex, endless conquest.
He slows his approach and watches from a ridge.
Three hulking forms move slowly through the forest; the lolling stroll of a cow fresh after milking, and the grace of a slug climbing across pebbles.
The first is the largest; her lank flaxen hair curtains her face as she marches, step by cadenced step, breasts swinging slowly under an ill-fitting woollen jumper. The load on her back is enormous, microwaves and electrical cables, butchering knives and tinkling glass bottles, all tied together in a great spitball. Twigs pop and fly off her shoulders.
The second is taller and gaunter, her back straddled with a few tattered clothes, hands to the ground in an act of acrobatics; she feels under the pine needles and round the burgeoning roots as she walks. He cannot see her face, but can tell her sight is poor; her hands are her eyes.
The third is the smallest, sickly and yellow. She carries almost nothing, but walks with a humpback and walking stick. Every few steps she stops; tastes the air with the flick of a tongue – sighs, as if to expire – and is berated by the sister in front.
The planting happened naturally, almost unconsciously, in the midst of a great solar orgy; our bodies became vectors, our mouths fertilisers
‘Will you come on ta fuck? Tisn’t anything here.’ Her voice is gravel and car engines.
‘We’re close, so we are.’ A dogged whisper.
‘Yera, I’ll give you close.’
The middle one smiles, grabs a cigarette sitting on her ear, and lights. A slow pull, exhale, fag stays in the mouth while the hands return to the ground. Her voice is ashes and alder leaves. ‘She’s on the ball. We’re not far off.’
The big one takes heed of this. ‘I’ll slow myself so.’
They don’t let them age like this in the lowlands anymore. Fucking rough.
He follows them along the ridge; they continue their bickering, moving ever down the mountain. Funeral procession, cultist caravan.
A clearing is reached, where a sitka has fallen. The ground has begun to eat it, and the whiff of rot is like a bomb. He squirms at the sight, and feels his scrotum tighten. The sitkas around the clearing lean in, scrambling inward and upward for the light, as if in a dance circle.
The little one yelps. ‘Tis here.’
The big one turns to the tall one. Raises an eyebrow in question. He steps backward, almost seen. Big’s face is a perpetual smirk, frozen to one side and complimented by a squint.
Tall one lets her gaunt, splotchy hands be consumed by the dead growth. Feels around. ‘Tis.’
She rises, smiles, snaps her head to face him. Her eyes are milk, and he freezes. She nods. The fat one turns her head too, blinks, laughs. ‘Young man – yes yourself! Will you come here and give us a hand or what?’
He cocks his chest and descends the slope. Breaks into a toothy smile.
‘Afternoon ladies.’ Pigs.
Fatty and lamppost smirk. The sick one eyes him with curiosity.
The big one fills the silence. ‘Well young fella. Are you joining our evening stroll?’
‘It’s a pilgrimage of sorts.’
‘A band of merry men. Strawgirls.’
Lamppost spits out her cigarette, puts her hand carefully on the fat one’s shoulder. ‘Whisht.’ She turns to him. ‘We’re in processing.’
‘We are. On our way to town now. The roads are blocked.’
‘Flood warnings. Rain on the way.’
‘Oh.’ Those fucking eyes. ‘ID please.’
She nods. The fat one groans in exasperation. They raise their arms and roll up their sleeves.
He recognises the tattoos. McKee sisters. One of the last families holding out in this jurisdiction, they lived in a rancid cabin on the western slopes. Admin had been dogging them to sell out for years, to no avail. He had always wanted to try them himself. Who got there first? Eager cunt.
The axiom leaves his tongue automatically: ‘Thanks for choosing a green future.’ Smile, goddamn it.
He awaits the agreed response. Yellow-skin bobs her mouth up and down, lardy chews invisible cud, and the third continues to stare. Nothing. Fine.
Suddenly the fat one – the foremost, he knows from their file – has a shovel in her hand. She moves quickly, almost alluringly, until she is grasping his arm and her skin is sandpaper and the shovel is in his hands large for grasping. ‘Love, we gave ye a good price for the house. Will you dig out something for us? We lost it years back and’ve remembered where tis.’ She tightens her grip. Are her nails drawing blood? Yes? Oh.
He finds himself cutting into the soil; it is dry, and does not weep. His arms become jelly. It is perverse; murderous; wondrous. The sisters watch around him, as the conifers bow ever inwards. Eventually he throws away the shovel and dives into the soil, as the old instincts kick in. They speak above him all the while.
‘Why did we bury her in parkbawn?’
‘This isn’t parkbawn you eejit, this is barnawee.’
‘Barnawee? My teeth have more gaps than this place. Not a gust of wind here either.’
‘Gobshites the both of you. Sure tisn’t barnawee tis barnaneeg.’
‘What’d that make it?’
‘Not a deer here.’
‘Not a wind here either.’
‘You’re both wrong anyway. ‘Tis riskamoge we buried her in.’
‘Fuck off with that. Oul’ Long John gave you that one, man is far gone. Probably had his teeth in wrong. Sure his people are blow-ins.’
‘I’m telling you he’s right.’
‘Gwan down to the halla so and move in with him.’
‘I will so.’
When he wakes he is digging. When he dreams, he is digging. He is digging for seconds, hours, years, unending, for a single instance lolling in the ecstasy of youth that once was. Brown beautiful needles and stems and fibrous roots and humus; great writhing clay temples and sandstone boulder gods.
Dig too deep, and old monsters arise. A musky, oxygen-rich scent rises from the spoil heaps. Wild garlic and buttercups are sprouting
A scratch; nails against limestone.
He blinks, stumbles. Hands on the scruff of his neck, and he is dragged from the hole. No more than three feet deep. The sisters jump in as he watches from the dirt pile above. Like three rats with great cancerous growths on the backs, they scrape away at the emerging structure, meticulous and frenzied. Toasters and blankets fall from their backs. Their breath heaves through the clearing, rebounding off the conifer wall. The clearing becomes church, the heaving a requiem chant.
The well within is dry. The corpse inside its tumbled drystone wall is badly wrapped in black tarpaulin, with lumps of clay sticking to eyelashes and little gleaming slugs feasting round the fleshy diaphragm.
They rewrap the body with slow, waltzing flourishes; a well-practised dance. They emerge from the hole, walking downhill; each sister with a hand on the tarpaulin, whose load swings between them, almost as if swaying by itself.
They sing. Beautiful and terrible. Off-key.
‘Moy more iss tolock
Far marve in awr gyle
Sooleen sa farkeen
Iss droleen an ayle!’
‘Come on mammy, one last dance!’
‘Off to ride the furze!’
He sits, and hours pass. He is alone. Placenames ring through his head.
Dig too deep, and old monsters arise. A musky, oxygen-rich scent rises from the spoil heaps. Wild garlic and buttercups are sprouting. A film of water has risen to the pebbly base of the well. Bubbles pop and stutter as it slowly rises.
Standing, he heaves. Pine needles spew from his mouth, covered in sticky, resinous bile. He blinks, breathes, and for the first time looks down at his great beautiful hands. The man takes a step, leaving the clearing that was once Bearna Luachra. He walks down the mountain.
Two overseers look out over the hills in horror. The flood came from nowhere, carrying with it the shallow-rooted sitkas in a groaning, heaving march, a slow sluggish army or brown listless tsunami sprawling downwards. The trees move past them almost casually, as if out for an evening stroll. They wobble and bend with the current as half-buried legs flailing above-ground. The mountain itself is coming undone.
It’s a matter of hours until the mudslide reaches the city. Reports have been flowing in; felling machines have been wrecked, bridges bombed and broken. Willows, furze and bluebells are sprouting in the deadzones. The surviving sitkas are being cut – no, fucking chewed – by something in the plantations.
A mad prophet is wandering through the forests, into the lowlands, to preach dangerous names.
If you take out an annual subscription to Dark Mountain you can buy this issue for a reduced price.
Exquisite Corpse – Collaboration Process:
The story began with William’s desire to explore the concept of meitheal (an Irish term for neighbours gathering to save the hay, crops, turf) and Micheál’s anger at the Irish commercial forestry model.
We wanted to see how these two forces would react with one another – how to mediate between a human culture that is oral and diverse, and a resource extraction process that is silent and monolithic. What is our contribution to the Ark as west-Irelanders?
One answer: through native place names, invocation of land, and the suggestion of direct action. The place names are all real field names. These ones are in the East Clare hills, now consumed by forestry – the form no longer reflects the name.
The photographs were taken by William while walking, observing, interacting with the landscape. They are located in a Sitka plantation in West Cork: two recent images taken in native Irish woodlands in Skibbereen and Co. Clare and two taken during lockdown in May 2020.
Ultimately, this piece is a desperate scream from its authors, who believe that if one digs deep enough and speaks these names, old wells can erupt and sweep away these monocultures.
William Bock is an interdisciplinary artist working internationally exploring relationships between people and the environments they inhabit. He uses photography, field recording, performance and installation to delve into the experiences of living between cultures, landscapes and identities in the context of a changing climate. William is recipient of the 2022 Irish Arts Council Arts Participation Bursary. williambock.com
Dark Mountain: Issue 22 – ARK
Our full-colour Autumn 2022 edition is an ARK carrying a cargo of testimonies, stories and artwork gleaned after the flood