With its banners and rucksacks, drums and hiking boots, the assembly squeezing through the lanes looked like a cross between a protest and a Sunday rambling club. The atmosphere was boisterous, purposeful, and angry. Past a sign that read ‘No Man’s Land’, the crowd spread out across the moor, and for half an hour the protest turned into a picnic. But then a drum began to beat. Chthonic happenings were afoot. Storyteller Martin Shaw stepped up, and summoned Old Crockern.
From the brow of a distant hill Old Crockern jigged and shuffled above the crowd, accompanied by guitars, fiddles, accordions and drums – a stooping, bone-faced, dancing thing, part horse and part not-horse. The mythical guardian-spirit of southern England’s largest and wildest moor had been raised from his sleep to defend Dartmoor from the greedy.
Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager who owns the 4,000 acres of moorland that make up the Blachford Estate, had taken the national park authority to court to argue that the time-honoured right to camp on Dartmoor – the only place in England where sleeping freely under the stars was legal – had never existed. The High Court ruled in his favour, replacing the ancient right with permissive rights subject to each landowner’s whim. Campaign groups, including Right to Roam and The Stars Are For Everyone, had organised this protest in under a week. They expected several hundred to come. They got around 3,000. Despite the carnival atmosphere, amidst the music and mummery, there was a tangible sense of outrage.
Before long, Old Crockern ceased his dance. It was already late in the day and, on this January afternoon, darkness would be coming soon. People began leaving the moor, walking in small groups or alone, and within an hour the Blachford Estate was empty, as it had been before. Like all who love the land, the protest left no trace. But something in the air had changed.
We have drifted so far from what once sustained us that it takes a struggle like this to remember what we have lost. To remember that in England and Wales we have access to only 8% of our land, and barely any rivers. To remember that a Right to Roam is not a utopian dream, but a piece of law in Scotland and in other countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland. And to remember how separation from the land means separation from the Earth, the severing of the original relationship between us and the rest of nature.
Separation from the land means separation from the Earth, the severing of the original relationship between us and the rest of nature
Because this isn’t only about camping. ‘Hands off OUR land,’ read one of the protest signs. Darwall’s estate appeared in the Domesday Book, handed out as part of the Norman plunder. The Darwall family describe themselves as ‘custodians’ on a mission ‘to conserve this special place’, but to many their actions were more evocative of the trauma of empire within the British Isles. The enclosures and the witch hunts broke the power of the peasantry, pushing them from a self-sufficient life on the land into wage slavery and a capitalist system from which we have never broken free. And as that system continues to gut what once was ours, it is ever harder to go back.
Their actions were also in the spirit of other dispossessions, inflicted on so many other cultures by European colonists. These were land grabs that stole resources and labour, dignity and souls. Today the colonists come in the form of extractive landlords and corporations, infrastructure projects and agro-industries, hedge funds and investors, but in truth little has changed. They masquerade as reforesters and rewilders, promising the Earth while ignoring the people that have forever lived on and protected that land.
So while on the surface this protest was local, concerned with a small corner of southwest England, the waters from which it drew were deep. Dark Mountain’s 25th issue is a plunge into those waters.
Taking inspiration from struggles over land rights, and wrongs, our spring 2024 anthology will be a book about resistance and reconnection. We seek submissions not only from protesting hikers, wild campers and swimmers, but from tenants wanting security, and fighting for rights to a dwelling place; dispatches from peasant and indigenous communities from India to Bolivia, Australia to Romania; from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups, landless workers and food sovereignty campaigners in the Global South, and from others for whom dispossession and marginalisation is a daily reality.
We’re interested in perspectives both current and historical. What of the older, deeper movements that the latest campaigns are drawing on – from the anti-road protests of the 1990s to the Diggers and Levellers who challenged the enclosure of land in 17th-century England? What has feminism got to say about land rights, with women in many societies having been excluded from them for millennia? How can we think beyond the current legal ownership paradigm while we are still living within its reality? And as rivers, forests and other natural features in Canada and New Zealand, Ecuador and even Spain are currently being recognised as legal, living entities, what changes if we understand the land as having its own rights, too?
On the surface, many of these questions might seem mired in legality, but – this being a Dark Mountain book – we are also interested in what lies beyond the human. As grand pronouncements are made in courtrooms and judgements handed down, it is often forgotten that what we term ‘land’ is not truly owned by anyone: the protest sign ‘No Man’s Land’ might better read ‘No Human’s Land’. Constrained as we are by our human minds, how might we tell the stories of the more-than-human intelligences to which the Earth is also home, the multiple plant and animal species that make the planet a living thing? What does ‘belonging’ mean, in a deeper biological sense? In an age of ecological breakdown, in the face of cascading mass extinctions, what might it take to reawaken our sense of being part of an animate world, when machine life is colonising so much of our consciousness?
What might it take to reawaken our sense of being part of an animate world, when machine life is colonising so much of our consciousness?
The protest on Dartmoor is only a tiny strand of a greater story. It is one of the oldest stories we have: the story of how we live, as a species and as individuals, alongside many other species on a finite territory. Against the backdrop of collapse, the fight to preserve the right to camp on a few thousand acres of southern England might seem vanishingly unimportant – but sometimes small things can have outsized effects. Six months after this right was removed, the High Court reversed its decision after a successful appeal brought about by the Dartmoor National Park Authority and campaign groups, making wild camping legal again. This wave of protest has galvanised many, and who knows where its ripples might spread, or how they might merge with other upwellings around the world?
Old Crockern might have left the moor, but something is still dancing.
For this spring anthology we are interested in non-fiction, fiction, artwork, poems, photo essays, portraits, interviews and testimonies – as well other contributions that might not fit any of those categories. In terms of artwork, we are particularly interested in work that is connected to, inspired by or made directly on the land.
As with all our anthologies, we also welcome work on subjects that are not specific to this submissions call, so do read the Manifesto for an idea of the uncivilised writing and art we might be seeking.
Dark Mountain: Issue 25 will be published in April 2024. The deadline for submissions is Friday 10th November. For details on what and how to submit, please read our submissions guidelines. Please note this is an online submission process and form, so do read carefully. We cannot read or respond to work that does not fit within those guidelines.
Submit your work for Dark Mountain: Issue 25 here.
‘Road to Nowhere’ by Esther May Campbell, from the exhibition Out of Darkness
Untethered (Growing in Stone) by Emily Joy
Ink on postcard
A nostalgic image of the Swiss Alps is transformed through erasure, the isolation of elements creating a new narrative with unexpected possibilities: a mountain reduced to a rock, a rock split to reveal the endolithic growth. It is part of a series of alterered postcards retracing an Alpine journey made 50 years ago, a journey of personal and environmental mourning.