We are thrilled to announce the publication of our twenty-fourth book, available now from our online shop. This special all-colour issue, 'Eight Fires', is an ensemble exploration of the eight ceremonial fires of the year, based on our workshop series, 'How We Walk Through the Fire'. Our third showcase post comes from the Imbolc section, a time of emergence from winter in the northern hemisphere. In that spirit, Catherine Bush and Forest Woodward bring us stories by way of the voices of owl and coyote. With artwork by David Ellingsen and Forest Woodward, and a creaturely extract by Dougie Strang.
Walking with Giants by David Ellingsen. Collage, pigment ink on cotton rag paper.
Catherine is the author of five novels, including
the climate-themed Blaze Island (2020). She lives in Toronto and the countryside of eastern Ontario. Forest is a formally trained visual artist
and informally curious tinkerer of wordscapes and
woodshapes based in Missoula, Montana.
I once spent a summer looking after a friend’s cottage in Argyll. Having been away walking for a few days, I returned to the cottage to find an owl at the kitchen table, its talons clamped to the top of a chair. It must have fallen down the chimney and would have been quite the fright for any mice raiding the cottage in my absence. Tawny owls are a big presence in a small kitchen. I sat down at the table, opposite her, and we observed each other in silence. I practised blinking my eyes when she blinked hers, and turning my face like the moon when she turned hers. After a while, after a sense of something being passed across the space between us, she allowed me to pick her up and carry her to the door, both of us vulnerable – the hook of her beak only inches from my face.
In his book The Unexpected Universe the American anthropologist Loren Eiseley writes: ‘One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human.’ The self I met in my encounter with the owl was calmer than I expected, and less circumscribed, more porous. When I took her outside, she launched herself from my arms and flew off into the woods. I didn’t think I’d see her again, but for the next few nights she returned to hoot at me from a tree in the garden.
A willingness to slip boundaries, to be porous, is part of the practice of traditional and indigenous cultures around the world. The cosmologies of such cultures recognise a shared ancestry with the animals that they hunt and live alongside and they foster empathy and an ongoing kinship – in the beginning there was no separation.
– Dougie Strang (from From An Eye Other Than Human, introduction to Imbolc)
In the Park, the Great Horned Owl Calls to His Mate
Below, as darkness grows, rabbits leap over melting snow.
A spray of pellets skitters. Voles crackle dead leaves as they pass.
The ones blued by little fires held close to their chests stumble out of the woods,
pour into their land of lights.
Later, in darkness, Coyote, scruffy Emperor of the forest, and his limping Queen
bolt out of the trees, through the park gates, pad along the hard tracks. A wrestle of
bodies reaches my ears, scream of a cat, guts ripping.
You. I call. And again: You.
Soon you will come – perch high on a pine branch. As you exhale, the feathers at
your throat will flutter. Mottle, flicker, swerve of neck, twitch of feathered horn,
burn of yellow eye will fix me as, from branch to branch, we speak to each other:
You, yes you, yes you.
For so long we have done this.
The sun turns, fades, returns.
How can one who was here be not here?
I call again: You. Yes, you. Yes, you
I listen. The screech owls stir in their hollow branches. Chipmunks, tucked in
their burrows, quiver. Fox sniffs and lifts a paw. Beavers, in their stick house,
chew the green wood. Sap runs – a soft gush.
All day, the bright-eyed hunters soar, talons flexing. Higher than birds, a flash of
flint turns with a great groan. At night, in this aged forest, ghosts cross paths
with the living. Beyond the spell of the gnarled oaks, blinding lights roar along
Free of ice, the creek trickles. The Queen and her Emperor are digging a den for
Where are you?
Dogs ransack the woods. Again, the trees turn into silhouettes. The vast lake, out
beyond the blaze of racing lights, gurgles and lisps.
Was there a night when you, the swooping whoosh of you, smashed into a
blinding, speeding spectre and fell aflutter?
How can I be here without my other? Alone, I wait in this high pine, amid the
rustle of needle and creak of wood.
If I call into the space where you were, into the silence that expands into absence,
will you hear?
With my call, I will draw you close. Conjure you to return, across time, out of the
ether, out of the earth.
– Catherine Bush
In this time I came to care less for the sound of my own voice. As the noise of a machine world faded over ridgelines and behind riverbends, older voices of rock and rain emerged. Tales of time passed, time present, and time to come. The pedestals upon which I had so carefully curated my human knowledge crumbled, eroded by wind and water, trampled by the wuthering herds, picked over by the ravens, defecated on by my new friend coyote. ‘Leave these here,’ they told me. ‘Your formulas and dogmas will not serve you where we are taking you, for yours are dogs without tales or teeth.’ They took me then to the mesa, where red flesh rocks ate the sky at the base of a great pedestal. Rough and gnarled, eroded from the hillside, it beckoned. ‘Go ahead,’ nodded coyote. ‘It is for whoever wants to go.’ Eagerly I clambered up, hand over hand, grasping weathered cobbles and skittering at the red dust under my toes. It was necessary to be unclothed, and so I let my strange wrappings flap to the ground, where coyote quickly slid into them, stood up and walked to town. ‘Time to go shopping,’ she offered, somewhat cryptically over her shoulder. This gave me pause, as I wondered then if I should go shopping as well, but decided against it. My claws grew long in the rock. Up up up. Seemingly without end, eventually I reached the top, and cast my body down on the warmth of the worn rock pedestal, aware of each bone in my body, able to count it, to pluck it out, examine, and replace it. I lay in this state for some time, watching the clouds pass. It was winter, and then spring, and winter again, and still I stayed, waiting to see what it was that was on the top of the pedestal. Fall and summer passed again as well, and I watched as the ravens gathered a council on the cliff above me. Later they began to gather my bones from where I lay. ‘Where are you taking those?’ I asked. ‘We are taking them to a new human,’ they said. ‘It is their turn to stand up.’ Comforted by this news, I continued to watch the clouds, waiting for the enlightenment coyote had promised. Once a pair of parrots passed overhead, flying north. It had not rained, they said, in a hundred years. I wondered at this. At night sometimes coyote would pass by, far below, singing songs of what she had seen in the city. Mostly they sounded like nonsense. It was clear she was having a grand old chuckle and could hardly catch her breath. Occasionally though a word would emerge and I gathered that we humans had become rich, rich beyond the dreams of any animals, and powerful too. We could fly and swim, and burrow and climb as well as any of the others. We had tamed all the creatures, or perhaps bored them to death, maybe killed a few by accident – ‘It was an accident,’ they stressed. Seven snows passed, and with the last came word that we had been afflicted with the great loneliness once more. Rumour had it we were now planning to leave, to go find another world. I wondered at this. And though my bones were gone, I wandered far, tracing strange patterns along the contours of the horizon, looking for edges that might hold passage to a place where the other creatures who still wandered might be. ‘You are a pretzel of enigmas, long after the dough stopped rising,’ coyote shouted up at me one day. ‘Maybe you should come down now.’ But I did not want to come down, and I did not want to be a pretzel, and so I did not reply. At last the rains came again, and I felt, more than watched, as the pillar of stone beneath me began to erode, and the pedestal began to topple. Soon I was plunged into mud, and coyote was standing over me. ‘I see you found your enlightenment,’ she laughed, then turned to lope across the mudflats. I watched as the river rose from her banks and arranged a heap of bones carefully in the mud next to me. I wondered if they were mine. ‘Do you mind if I leave these here?’ she asked. ‘We’re done making the mudmen now.’ Without waiting for a reply she turned, folding into the whorl of the eddy line. In time the wind spun round us, the dry silt of the lakebed dusting the darkness.
– Forest Woodward
TOP IMAGE: David Ellingsen
‘Walking with Giants’ Collage, pigment ink on cotton rag paper
(‘Der erste Elefant’ courtesy National Library of Austria.
‘Untitled’ [tree and faller], private collection)
Speaking through photographic history, this image is part of a project that compiles hundreds of appropriated images into collage works reflecting on the human relationship with the living world. At a time when a re-framing of this relationship is urgently called for, these often disturbing works employ extraction as a metaphor for the wider story of our attempts of dominion over the natural world.
David Ellingsen is a Canadian photo-based artist making work with a focus on forests, biodiversity and climate. Recent exhibitions include China’s Lishui Museum of Art, the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, Lithuania’s Kaunas Photo Festival and Canada’s Campbell River Museum.
Dougie Strang is a writer, storyteller and performer. He and his wife help run a small hill farm in Argyll, on the west coast of Scotland, and he’s been involved with Dark Mountain since the project began. His book, The Bone Cave, has recently been published by Birlinn.
In our second report from India, we go to the forests of Assam with researcher Shrishtee Bajpai to hear the story of the sacred Hajong lake. and how Indigenous storytelling is a key to a reconnection with the living speaking Earth.
Writer Salena Godden battles with snails and against the odds creates a jewel garden in the dark hour of the pandemic. Then learns that the voracious creatures were not in fact the enemy but her mysterious allies.