Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
– W.H Auden The Fall of Rome
Anita McNaught, ex-Middle East correspondent and no stranger to the collapse of nations, leans forward and keeps pressing the question. Will it be oil, or water? Will it be political, agricultural, financial, biospheric, spiritual? In systemic collapse the break can occur anywhere and affect everything at once. No one is able to predict where or when it will come. Except that one day, it will.
In a year where biblical calamities have rained down upon the world – as floods, bush fires and locust storms– this fracture has not emerged in the highly stressed natural world but from within a globalised human society. After ignoring the cries of Cassandra for decades, the horse has finally entered the gates of the cities, releasing billions of tiny invisible lifeforms that are no respecters of age, gender, wealth, position or race.
The fracture point is what many of us have been searching for in these last years. Because, as every storyteller knows, the crack reveals everything that needs to be told: the flaw in the character that can bring down whole kingdoms, the chink in the prison wall that speaks of liberty, the wake up call to a cruel fairytale that has enthralled you and generations before you. And maybe the crack is, as Buckminster Fuller once described, the moment the chick, struggling for space as its food runs out, catches a glimpse of blue sky beyond the shell – and not apocalypse at all.
The crack comes when you least expect it and turns your safe world upside down: the moment when, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I found a copy of the psychologist Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child and my host yelled at me for not sharing her chocolate ice cream and neglecting her needs. I had just seen a documentary about the AIM activist Leonard Peltier and the Wounded Knee siege of 1973, and looking back now these three things appear synonymous: the bulemic woman whose family had escaped Auschwitz, a disputed murder on an indigenous massacre site, the children whose lives were torn apart by inherited violence.
It was late at 36 to have found out that our true selves are not related to the role we have played within our family or culture. It is late to find out that human beings are not meant to live in denial of the barbarism that underpins every civilisation. Most of all it is late to learn how to weather these encounters with reality and replenish the Earth we have so long taken for granted. To find out, as fear now grips the world, how to hold the line and not fall apart.
In a time when the story falters, the golden story of human promise and progress, the myth reveals itself, like broken bones in a midden. For the last decade I have been unearthing these remains to see what they can tell us about our ancestral obligations. Not the aspiring hero myths that bring glory to civilisations but the downward ones that connect us with the non-linear forces of the planet: Kairos who brings the intervention that cracks open our small linear worlds; Inanna who takes us down through the seven gates of the kur or Underworld; Wayland who waits, hamstrung, slowly crafting swan wings that will allow him to escape captivity; Ariadne who shows us the labyrinth is not a prison for a beast but a dancing floor.
Having resisted every warning and admonishment to transform and change our ways, we are now, as a collective, being forced into a cocoon ourselves, to do the work we should have done generations ago.
But as the world falters, one myth stands steadily and quietly in the wings. Not an epic tale of gods but the story of a human girl and her struggle with the alchemical forces of love, beauty and justice. Her name is Psyche which means soul or butterfly, the creature that transforms itself from caterpillar to imago in the hermetic space of a cocoon. Having resisted every warning and admonishment to transform and change our ways, we are now, as a collective, being forced into a cocoon ourselves, in lockdowns and self-isolation, to do the work we should have done generations ago.
Psyche has to undergo change to earn the love of the winged boy she has lost. This love is not given freely, even to the most beautiful girl in the world. The mystery of metamorphosis lives underground, in the dark, and to learn the deal we have with life, to be symbiotic with the Earth, rather than a parasite on its bounty, we have to undertake that journey into the place some call the Underworld.
The love story of Psyche and Eros lies at the heart of The Golden Ass, a novel written by Apuleius in 2AD at the end of the Roman Empire, and inside this metamorphic tale, like the final Russian doll inside its layers, you find the four tasks the girl is set by Eros’ mother, the goddess Venus.
Tasks are the stuff of a female initiatory process, sometimes called kitchen work, because the changes they demand take place amongst the ashes and pots and pans. Male initiatory quests depart on shining horses that head into the forest; female initiations bow our heads, cut off our hands, put a cape of rushes or moss around our shoulders. We are forced to take off our princess dresses and challenged to sweep the floor before sundown. Either way, everyone goes downstairs.
The first task Psyche is set is to sort a vast pile of grains and pulses. These are the seeds that have sustained civilisations for millennia: chickpea, lentil, poppy. Psyche is a foolish girl. She is beautiful but she knows nothing. We are the most technologically advanced culture in history but we know nothing about obligation or relationship with anything apart from ourselves. I have been a food editor in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world but known nothing about industrial farming or the seeds that now grow outside my window: wheat, barley, field bean.
These myths from the ancient world ran alongside civilisations for thousands of years. Like the ancient pueblo culture of the South West, they housed a spiritual relationship with the corn and pulses that sustained them. And with a tiny flower seed that reminds us how we must go underground, and die to the husks of our former lives, before we discover the kernel of life inside.
In 2009 panic has derailed the Transition conference at the Seale Hayne Agricultural College in Devon. We are used to reading peak oil and carbon emission graphs, we know we are embedded in a fragile agricultural and supply system that is entirely dependent on fossil fuel, that most of the crops grown in the subsidised, soil-wrecked fields are for biofuel or livestock feed. But Nicole Foss has just introduced the spectre of ‘losing your property’ and the monstrous consequences of debt in a heartless market economy. Vinny the Kneecapper will be at your door!
The first fracture point will most likely be breadbasket failure, declares Jem Bendell eight years later, as his paper on Deep Adaptation has a similar seismic effect within the academic world. We can no longer turn our fossil-fuelled Titanic civilisation around and fend off ecological and social catastrophe but need to adapt. We have to learn ‘how to best prepare for the inevitable and navigate our climate tragedy’.
Resilience is the first of the first three R’s of Bendell’s curriculum – the ability of communities and ecosystems to bounce back after drastic events, such as floods, fire, war, or pestilence. In Transition we have given up flying, supermarkets, palm oil, fish, chocolate. I have written 400 blogs on the culture of downshift and my kitchen hosts a row of fermenting jars and oddly shaped loaves. But I am not sure that these small measures alone will help any of us thrive when the reality of collapse knocks on our doors.
In each of the four tasks Psyche is helped by a small voice that speaks to her as she despairs of completing them. My sisters can help you, a kindly ant whispers in her ear, and the colony sort the seeds. A swaying reed offers her advice, an eagle battles dragons on her behalf. When Venus gives her a box to take to Persephone, Queen of the Dead and bring it back unopened, a stone tower tells her how to undertake the perilous journey.
We are not going to break out of our collective dilemma if we cannot hear the voices of non-human creatures outside the door, and humbly accept their help. If, as it is assumed, this pandemic is a result of the woeful treatment of wild animals (60% of new human diseases are zoonotic), we have a lot of reckoning to face. It is hard for human beings, who have for generations never learned to say thank you to the planet that has hosted us all our lives, where it has never crossed our minds we had to honour life and give back, nor that we had soul work to do, legacies and tasks that we hold like a small kist in our hands, when we are born.
The powerdown years have taught us how to put our feet on the ground and hold fast when the rage and grief and terror of aeons rocks the room.
It would be easy in this moment to say ‘we told you so’ (for indeed many writers, activists, visionaries, scientists have done so for decades, not least Dark Mountain’s prophetic manifesto), but hindsight is not useful here. What matters is not a hostile response but a clarity of mind and heart that recognises what may or may not happen at this time. The powerdown years have taught us how to put our feet on the ground and hold fast when the rage and grief and terror of aeons rocks the room. Most of all they have put the myths of regeneration into our hands, to give a purpose and nobility to our flawed endeavours.
In 2011 there was a story about the butterfly that went around the Occupy tents in the cities. When it first enters its cocoon and begins to dissolve everything it knows about its consuming life, the old caterpillar forms rise up to defeat the imago that is beginning to shape itself, its wings and new colours. So it falls back into the soup. but then it begins to rise again and this time the imaginal cells that hold the blueprint of the butterfly link up and hold the line: the butterfly becomes stronger and eventually breaks out to become a pollinator of the world.
This is a process people are born to make, as every archaic and indigenous people will tell you. Our caterpillar civilisations do not want us to transform in this way and lose their dominion over our labours, but sometimes the future is more powerful than the old world. Sometimes those old death-into-life myths break into our carefully constructed lives. Clearly most of us will not die from this pandemic, but inside ourselves, in a place that has been locked away for aeons, our souls have quickened. What matters, we realise, is not what we have been told matters. The man with the scythe stands in everyone’s living room. And his presence changes everything.
No one likes to go down. No one wants to be humble, or to have to ask their neighbour to borrow a ladder. We desire nicely pressed shirts and room service, but instead we get a sharp lesson in foraging for firewood, now the central heating has been turned off. When I endure my own downturn, I have to learn to love the dun colours of East Anglia and no longer yearn for the turquoise cenotes of the Yucatan, or the roar of the Pacific Ocean. This is the world, this is life at the end of Empire, the thing we thought could not happen. I would no longer be a person who could be smart and clever at parties. I will wear a second-hand coat, and work very hard to make myself at home in a country where I no longer have any value. When I speak of the realities of energy descent, people will tell me ‘we will be ascended and powerful in other ways’. No, I reply, we all have to go down.
Dale Pendell, the great plant metaphysician, once wrote that the opium poppy affected the brain in such a way that it enlarged the imagination and brought visions of palaces and cities of splendour. Without the poppy, you were bereft of access to these glittering places and felt their absence keenly. I am bereft of access to places and people I once loved. But I know this loss is part of the payback, the great sobriety, what Bendell has termed the second R of Relinquishment, ‘what we need to let go of that is making the crisis worse’.
The underworld is where you come up against the consequences of your actions, not only as an individual but as a citizen. The decision to give up the attributes of civilisation is a hard, hard task. Not only in the physical world, but in terms of our perceived greatness, our reputation, our sense of agency, our immense privilege that can only come at the cost of violence to the Earth, its creatures and to populations of people we never have to care about.
We hesitate at the banks of the great Styx, where the sterile willow trees lay down their branches, avoiding the baleful eye of Charon. But we hold a box in our hands, two coins in our mouth, and barley cakes to deceive the three-headed hound of Hades.
How much does it cost to know the love of the Earth?
When Psyche opens the box and dies, Eros, the primordial creator of the universe, raises her up. When the year turns, the sun returns, the seeds burst open their casing. The women rise up out of the Underworld. The world starts again.
One answer I have looked for in these years: anyone can fall into the Underworld but who can tell us how to return?
‘You tell us you are looking for a new story for this time of endings – a story with a beginning, a middle and a happy ever after. That goes in a line from A to B. But what if that narrative that gives us direction is not a new but an old one hidden beneath our feet, seemingly broken?’
I am rehearsing for a performance I will give tonight in Frankfurt, Germany, and Julian is rehearsing the pyrotechnics that will close this physical theatre festival. As I walk the steps of an ancient myth from Crete, he is pouring molten fire from a scaffolding tower to the courtyard below. In the kitchen inside this old industrial warehouse, the performers, dancers and acrobats laugh and talk in a dozen languages: a circus troupe at the end of the world.
I chose these myths of rise and fall because they provide a technê – tools and method and instruction manual – to go beyond the story told by our patriarchal civilisation. They give us a thread so we can find our way out of the labyrinth of our minds and remember the deal we made with the wild oceans and forests of a non-linear planet. These female myths are about tasks, about rigour and courage, and calling for help in times of crisis. The four R’s of Deep Adaptation are tasks, and the third, Restoration, calls for us to repair the fabric of the world.
It felt we were in touch with something deeper and more meaningful than the facts and figures behind climate change. Sometimes a joy ripped through us, as if it were possible to start again.
It felt we were in touch with something deeper and more meaningful than the facts and figures behind climate change. Sometimes a joy ripped through us, as if it were possible to start again.
Beneath our grassroots meeting circles, we began to glimpse the shapes of kivas and longhouses, those archaic circles and spirals left on rocks and barrows. When we held feasts in community halls, sat around the fire in the woods singing together, dug earth together, gathered honey and berries, it felt we were in touch with something deeper and more meaningful than the facts and figures behind climate change. Sometimes a joy ripped through us, as if it were possible to start again.
After the tent universities of the Occupy movement, we spoke differently about finance and hierarchy; after the Extinction Rebellions mainstream political debate included the phrases ‘biodiversity loss’ and ‘climate emergency’. However the challenge of the Underworld means we have to become different human beings and speak a language that connects us with a vast network of beings and our own creative imaginations, that goes beyond the concerns of human settlement.
In 2011 I find myself sitting around an Uncivilisation festival fire under the stars: a man is telling a Russian folktale in a bear mask, a trail of small lights leads us into the woods where a man wearing stag antlers is crashing around the undergrowth and women are speaking in riddles. It is as if all the fairytales I had read as a child have come alive. A crack opens in my heart to let them in.
In the years following this encounter, I find myself standing in front of a circle of river stones, teaching the rhythms of a clock that has been in use for thousands of years. I lead groups of people into the South Downs, into the Cheshire Hills, into a silent forest in Sweden, appear as a heron by the River Thames, as Mistress of the Deer in a Highland moor, at the turns and twists of the solar year. Afterwards we sit around a fire, in the dark, and speak of our dialogues with the Earth. Here in Germany, at the end of winter, we talk of what happens when we bring the creatures and mountains, rivers and valleys into this yurt in the middle of a city. As if they stand behind us. It’s a different conversation.
‘There is a crow who sits on my shoulder,’ said my lawyer father. ‘It is my conscience.’ And then he stared at his shoes in despair. When he died, the crow came to me. You have to tell me everything I said. About conscience.
The crow sat in the corner of my room in the travelling years when I lived on the edge of small towns in Europe and America. Silently, he observed me write my notebooks. And sometimes I would ask him a question. And he would put his head on one side and peer into the mysterious darkness of the void and declare what great law of conscience he located there.
You have, he said, to deal with the files with your name on and leave the rest.
When we embarked on a dreaming practice in Australia at the turn of the millennium, it was as if all those files had blown open and everything that had been buried from our dark houses and histories came to be redressed: animals faced me in the slaughterhouses, children with metal teeth attacked me, friends and lovers lurched out of the shadows, seeking reparation. It would have been good to sit around a table and come to an understanding, but the Underworld doesn’t work like that. Words and good intentions mean nothing, moves are all that matter.
Something else however began to appear at the edge of our nightmares: giant rays and whales, emus and kangaroos, rocky landscapes of colour and light. An Aboriginal man put his hand through a window and shook mine: We are the action, he said. After our long dialogues, Mark and I would go out into the backcountry, or by the sea and watch the dolphins leap in the waves. One afternoon, by a rainforest pool, a boy fell from a cliff, and I sat on a rock beside him, waiting for the shock to subside. A turtle swam by us and a wind shivered through the gum trees. When I looked up I saw a group of men, women and children standing naked in the water, in harmony with everything around them, and there was a peace and a silence between us that seemed to stretch to infinity. I realised I was looking at the future. The practice was freeing up my mind, so I could see it.
I have a book open on my lap. It weighs almost four pounds and is 1000 pages long, a testament to the iniquities of Empire: from the genocides of Africa and Tasmania to the famine in Ireland, from the British slave trade to the European Holocaust. On the left hand page there is a list of the nine Ogoni tribesmen hanged on 10th November 1995. On the right are the names of the Shell executives who allowed the executions of the activists to take place, so they could continue their company’s devastation of the Niger Delta for fossil fuel. All their names have been redacted. Among the nine is the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who wrote:
… the stories I tell must have a different sort of purpose from the artist in the Western world. And it’s not now an ego trip, it is serious, it is politics, it is economics, it’s everything, and art in that instance becomes so meaningful, both to the artist and to the consumers of that art.
This morning, as the world disappears inside its cocoon, it feels impossible to say anything that could count as a message, or speak for the people or a country in the way Saro-Wiwa was able to. But if a writer has an obligation, it is to keep that door to the Underworld open, so the living systems, in which civilisations embed themselves like parasitic worms, do not shut down. And sometimes the way we can do that is to document our own passage through those fracture points, to reveal what powers the world we live in, whether this is George Orwell going into the Yorkshire mines, or Dan Gretton walking to the site of Buchenwald; my own small slide into the kur in times of climate catastrophe.
I thought there were three R’s we needed to learn about for Deep Adaptation. But in 2019 there appeared a fourth, Reconciliation, which inconveniently brings the rest of humanity into our individual restorations, and the thorny territory of social justice.
Reconciliation, writes Bendell, is not only with your death or anger or regret, but
reconciliation between peoples, genders, classes, generations, countries, religions and political persuasions. Because it is time to make our peace. Otherwise, without this inner deep adaptation to climate collapse we risk tearing each other apart and dying hellishly.
The real crisis we face is existential: who we are as human beings, and what our presence means on this planet at this time. Ancestral myths address that crisis, not as a tragedy, but as material, as a moral imperative to put a crooked thing straight. Shifting a paradigm is not an abstract phrase you can wield in a lecture hall or workshop, but something that happens concretely, in the depths of yourself, in your relationships in the real world. How to configure that change is encoded in the ancient myths and fairytales, in our encounters with wildness, in the tracking of dreams, the way the Earth can still speak to us through the jangled frequencies of our minds.
The real crisis we face is existential: who we are as human beings, and what our presence means on this planet at this time. Ancestral myths address that crisis, not as a tragedy, but as material, as a moral imperative to put a crooked thing straight
I thought I would never be reconciled to the dark forces that were revealed in my own life. How could I remedy anything I had witnessed, or read about? ‘Who is it who can walk down these little roads of grief?’ my friend Carmen once asked of the tracks the Apache nation had left behind in their exile. And yet we do, willingly, for this is the task ahead of us. I don’t know if we will make it to any kind of liveable future, but I know it exists on the edge of time. And on a good day, I can see it and I wish it could stay forever.
I wish for so many things as the skies darken. I wish the girls we once were had not had to shoulder that hard legacy from their fathers. I wish that the creatures in Australia had not been burned. I wish that the massacres I am reading about in this book had never happened. I wish my country had not divorced itself from the mainland of Europe, and this plague and decades of hostility had not driven everyone into hiding. I wish I could have reconciled the people who came into my dreams in those years, that we could have sat around that table and found a happy ending. But I have to know that it was enough to speak out their names in the clear morning, under the peeling eucalypt, under the mesquite, under the oak by the curve of the Suffolk barley field.
I did not want to lose my beautiful life but I did. I let it go. I did it to make the world lighter and kinder, to leave a track the way the people have always left tracks for us to follow, in the rocks, in their dialogues with creatures and plants and planets, in their art, in their beauty.
At equinox I will light a fire with the branches of the elm that fell in the winter storm, as the year shifts from the time of the underworld to the light-filled upperworld of spring, as my ancestors have done in these islands, across the world, since we can remember. I will jump over the fire as I did on leap day with Lucy and Mark, in a ceremony we held in a courtyard in Brick Lane, and a hundred people followed in our footsteps, banging drums and saucepans, shouting these words in Persian, in fellowship, with our kith in the East End, in Tehran, in city streets across the world:
Zardi-ye man az to
Sorkhi-ye to az
O fire, I will give you my sickly yellow and I will take your fiery red!
May you have the courage to jump the fire. May you disobey your forefathers and open the box. May all your helpers come in time. May we all sing before the storm as it advances, as Eros approaches us with his great wings. May we have loved this Earth and each other enough for this not to be the end.
IMAGE: The Oil Slick at the BP or Not BP action against BP sponsorship of the Troy exhibition at the British Museum in February ‘Oil is everything that died. Ever. We are the atoms of everything melted and dissolved. We have no compassion. We have no feeling. We take everything in our path. There’s no right. No wrong. But we are also the beating heart. The sap. The visceral body fluid of the earth. They should have left us in the ground… but they didn’t. We are here’. (Photo: Guy Reece from striking faces @strikingfaces)
Miller, A. The Drama of the Gifted Child, 1978, Revised and republished by Virago in 1995 as The Drama of Being a Child
Bendell, Professor J. Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, 2018
Pendell, D. Pharmako/Poeia: Plants, Powers, Poisons and Herbcraft, North Atlantic Books, 1995
Gretton D. I You We Them: Journeys Beyond Evil: The Desk Killer in History and Today, Heinemann, 2019