This week we launch a call out for our next spring issue, an exciting new collaboration with art.earth, whose summit, Borrowed Time: on death, dying and change, also has a call for proposals today. art.earth is a loose collective – a family – of artists, writers and researchers, redrawing understandings of what it means to be alive in times of ecological unravelling. They organise annual summits on themes – such as In Other Tongues – as well as regular talks and gatherings, short courses and exhibitions. The publication of this collection next April will herald a year of events, talks and teachings, both online and in person, that will build up to the Borrowed Time summit in Dartington, Devon, in November 2021.
With the coronavirus pandemic, this loss of life has come home. As cities fell silent and skies cleared, the Covid-19 virus outstripped even the most ardent activist’s ambition to stop the world. Mortality, usually kept at bay, entered everyday conversations. The invisible microbe threatened not only our bodies but an entire way of existence. In lockdown, we began to ask questions about what really matters in life (and death), existential planetary questions which many people had before been too busy, or distracted, or numbed to formulate.
How can we create a culture that not only acknowledges the present state of the world, but the need to be able to grieve and let go? Mourning is made unacceptable in industrialised societies because the poisoning of rivers, the clear-cutting of forests, the decimation of indigenous cultures and languages, are considered acceptable by-products of Progress. Though ‘natural’ death and dying is hidden away from ordinary sight, our imagination is littered with human corpses, our drama plots and storylines centred around the untimely demise of individuals: the vanished father or child, the murdered woman.
Our forebears, however, knew the effect the dead have on life and the importance of proper rites and acknowledgement. Across the British Isles, for example, the burial chambers and tumuli that housed their bones contained a knowledge, rooted in time and place, that could be bequeathed to the living. The dead were kept close. To understand why, you only have to experience how these places still feel, thousands of years later, and compare them to the modern mortuary and crematorium. A proper burial for our ancestors meant being honoured by the people and given a rite of passage; it meant bearing in mind those who followed and not leaving vengeful ghosts to linger and haunt the Earth.
Born into a materialist, rational culture, lacking a moral and mythic structure for living here, few are aware of the underworld that lies beneath consensual reality; of Maat waiting in the wings with a feather to weigh our hearts on departure; of Charon waiting to ferry souls across the river Styx. But a culture that has no recourse to the underworld, nor to the wisdom of its ancestors, is a culture that has no capacity for regeneration. How can regeneration come from an entropic, linear worldview, when it is intrinsic to the death-life-death cycle that nurtures all Earthly forms?
A culture that has no recourse to the underworld, nor to the wisdom of its ancestors, is a culture that has no capacity for regeneration.
We often lack, too, the mourning ceremonies that might express our collective grief, that might give us counsel and offer solace. Even after the mass deaths caused by the pandemic, the brusque rhetoric of governments forbids such sorrow to be publicly expressed, for to admit death is to admit culpability or impotence.
We stand on the bones of the dead – not only the people who went before us, in every land, but the bones of the creatures slaughtered in the name of civilisation, the trees torn down, the insects rendered extinct. We are made of the flesh of the dead – animals and plants and fish – and the gratitude we have for their dying is almost nowhere in our discourse. And even though the concept of regeneration might be on the lips of progressives everywhere, there can be no restoration without death, just as there can be no new narrative without the unstorying of ourselves. We resist and hold on to our tales of self-importance and sorrow, sacrificing people and places in our stead, and still the world burns; in times of urgency, it behoves us to ignite that bonfire of vanities ourselves and make meaning of ashes, lest the hostilities of history break down our doors and our fundamental humanity.
And just as rites of passage exist in our collective memory, spanning centuries and continents, which could help us in this endeavour – there are also places where such existential transformations can occur. In his recent essay about Covid-19, Bayo Akomolafe called this space of transformation the ‘sanctuary’, a place apart from the clamour of the world, where we can sit with our brokenness and confront our collective shadow:
Making sanctuary is not a place for answers, for wholeness, for spiritual bypasses, for ‘going deeper’. It is a compost heap, a burning bush.
In Bayo’s Yoruba tradition this site is ushered by Èșù, the trickster god at the crossroads, whose power is not the domination of Empire, which activism seeks to overthrow, but the power of transformation. In the West we might recognise him as Mercury, winged patron of writers, innovators and medicine makers, the guide of souls to the Underworld and back.
For our new issue we invite submissions which look at change in this light, as an opportunity to enter these alchemical spaces and chthonic realms, and to examine death as meaning-maker of life. To ask ourselves what destructive belief systems, mindsets and pathologies we can put in the fire to restore the world. This book will be created in tandem with Borrowed Time, as a way to engage with end-of-life practices and funerary arts across the world, ancient prayers and new rituals, conscious conversations and preparations we might make, the languages humans use to speak of and to the dead, our mythic and non-human intermediaries. How our voices change in the rooms of the dying, how we occupy those spaces, how we might communicate our losses and include the more-than-human world in our ritualised mourning: a kaddish for a lost species, an elegy for a glacier, an obelisk for a forest. How a book might itself function as a memorial, and what other memorials – graves, necropoli and codes, from the Rosetta stone to nuclear warning messages – we might construct. How we might hold healing rituals for the land, the ruins of destruction and records of genocide held in the earth, the death of settlements and their cultural memory. Where the art we make is a way of mourning and honouring.
We are interested in submissions of non-fiction, fiction, artwork, photo essays and interviews – as well other contributions that might not fit any of those categories – that delve into stories of death and dying and change. Please send us your elegies and odes, your shrouds and sarcophagi, your encounters at the crossroads; the ways you have mourned a forest or ocean, or liberated a place from a haunting. As with all our spring anthologies, we also welcome work on subjects that are not specific to this submissions call but that might find a home in Dark Mountain. Have a look at the Manifesto for an idea of the uncivilised writing and art we might be seeking.
We look forward to seeing what you send us between now and November.
Dark Mountain: Issue 19 will be published in April 2021. The deadline for submissions is Friday 13th November. For details on what and how to submit, please read our submissions guidelines carefully. We cannot read or respond to work that does not fit within those guidelines. The parallel call for submissions to the Borrowed Time summit in November 2021 is here and further info for the event here.