For look, the whole is infinitely newer
than a cable or a high apartment house.
The stars keep blazing with an ancient fire
and all the more recent fires will fade out.
Not even the largest, strongest of transmissions
can turn the wheels from what will be.
Across the moment, aeons speak with aeons.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus
‘It does no good to blame those before you for the world you have inherited, and then do nothing for it,’ say the travelling storytellers Bells, Perches and Boots to a rapt audience of listeners in Tatterdemalion (my book with Rima Staines, forthcoming with Unbound — more on that later). The fire is hot and popping. A kestrel watches from the roof of a red wagon. They are telling their listeners a yet unheard story about the woman they call Anja Born of the Buckeye, the woman whose birth heralded a great upheaval in their world: the Fool’s Uprising. ‘No, our sins were not erased by Anja, not then or now,’ the tellers continue. ‘Anja was birthed by a human woman, Wheel. It is true that she was fathered by a Buckeye, but the only reason for such a fathering was the woman Wheel, how she in her solitude sang to the trees at dusk, stroked and told tales to the woodrats, left gifts out for the stars. You see, she earned the love of the Buckeye, she earned it so completely that he walked out of his own bark and roots to love her in hers. It is true, little Anja was born just as the doors at the edges of the bramble-thickets, fallen houses, stone walls, were opening, but she was mostly the product of a mother’s hard work: her lonely strength, her utter strangeness, her eyes which saw the faces of the spiders and the trees and called them family.’
What I mean is that if we don’t begin to call the spiders kin, and remember at the same time that we and the spiders and their silk and the shape of their weaving is all as old as stars, and of a part — well, I fear deeply what will become of this world. I fear it deeply because I already see it happening. We all do. The way we, sorry species, are ever seduced by what is new, or in other words what is ‘progress’, forgetting that the more we produce and consume, the more we chase the shining high-rise or the gleaming cable, the further we get from true newness —how the coyotebrush is strung with fresh spiderthreads every dawn; how the willow catkin, bursting, is entirely newborn, but also as ancient as the first willow that ever was. That in the daily rebirth of the world, there is Wholeness, but only when we stand within it, not above it; only when the spider and her thread are not objects, but family, the subjects of their own stories which we truly listen to, with great attention and care.
That’s why we are all here, gathered around the hearth in the heart of the Dark Mountain. Robinson Jeffers said it a little bit differently than Rilke, but I think both men meant something similar. ‘I would burn my right hand in a slow fire/ To change the future… I should do foolishly’ wrote Jeffers in his ‘Rearmament’ (revisit the whole piece in the Dark Mountain Manifesto). Rilke is a little bit more hopeful, seeing our hasty and foolhardy fires ultimately burning out in the face of stars and aeons: ‘Not even the largest, strongest of transmissions/ can turn the wheels from what will be.’ We are hurtling toward something dark, but none of us can quite say what or when or where. Both Rilke and Jeffers would have us look to stones and stars to remember the great spans of trans-human time; to re-work the stories we tell ourselves so that they honour the vaster, slower things of the cosmos, and therefore help us weather great change. Wherever it is we find ourselves, now and down the road, we will need stories full of spider-threads and planets alike, to keep our hearts and our spirits whole.
Sometimes I look around — at the freeways choking the Bay Area, always packed with cars; at the frighteningly hot weeks of February weather we’ve been having recently; at the terrors of our presidential campaigns; our actions in the international community; our flagrant national disregard for environmental collapse; our treatment of marginalised peoples in our own country, let alone others (poor, indigenous, non-white, incarcerated; even, in a slightly less acute way, all of womankind) — and I feel great despair, as well as a certain powerlessness, a certain sense that I am not doing enough. I’m probably not. But in the end, I’ve found that the best thing I have to offer is the thing that comes from the deepest place in my heart (the place where I know I am kin to the spiders, that we are all silk, and web, and thread, and star): words, and in particular stories. Stories that bow down to the spider who fashions more wholeness in her short life than I can ever dream. Stories that mind and guide me, and hopefully others too, back into the harmony of aeons.
We are in desperate need of new narratives to help us re-imagine our relationship to the more-than-human world. Tatterdemalion, the book I quoted from above, is one of them. It first emerged in a truly astonishing and powerful moment of what I can only call magic, when I began writing from one of the paintings of the deeply powerful artist Rima Staines. The painting was ‘Lyoobov’, and what came out was not just a scene, not just a character, but a world. A world falling to its knees. A world ready to be reborn. ‘Lyoobov’ was the first doorway. Thirteen more opened, one by one by one, through more of Rima’s paintings, until an entire mythology was created, stitched from so many separate threads. Tatterdemalion is a post-apocalyptic novel rooted deep in the folklore traditions of Old Europe, but set in a wildly re-imagined California, the landscape of my heart, my birth, my belonging.
Through the voices of many different characters (Poppy, who speaks the languages of newts and ravens; a witch stuck in a bottle for six hundred years; a woman with wheels for feet; a Juniper Tree that is also an old woman; the wandering taletellers called Bells, Perches and Boots), our novel tells the story of a world fallen and reborn. It is a call to attention — that we may again listen to the voices of the more-than-human world; that we may again tend to Wholeness.
The book is a radical collaboration with Rima, my words illustrating her paintings, instead of the other way around. As she writes in her Afterword, ‘It is illustration turned on its head: in an appropriate upturning of the linear right-/left-brain order of things, the writing comes after the image, not before. In such a revolution, we are enabled once again to re-track those old once-known paths to the worlds beyond this one; this story has its roots in the magical earth of intuition because it came from the art. I believe this lends Tatterdemalion an unusual power: it is a story created by women in an upside-down way, celebrating the oddest and most marginal of characters and ways, and is utterly unhesitant about re-imagining an uncivilisation — ancient, wild and once more acquainted with the Dreaming.’
And here’s some exciting news — Tatterdemalion is being born into the world right now, with the help of hundreds of wonderful readers and supporters around the world.
Given that the book has a strong revolutionary edge — Jay Griffiths calls it ‘Angela Carter gone feral with Ursula Le Guin’ — the wonderfully revolutionary publisher Unbound has picked it up, putting its fate directly in the hands of a community of readers. The way Unbound works (for those of you not here when Paul Kingsnorth first published The Wake with Unbound in 2013) is that they have their writers raise the print-cost of a book through pre-orders, which is what we are doing right now!
In just a fortnight, we are two-thirds of the way there, which is truly miraculous and heartening, and for which we are very grateful. But we still need your help, for this is a big undertaking. We would love to have you join this wild caravan. Tatterdemalion is our prayer for all that is feral, all that is spider-made and stone-sung in our hearts, and in the heart of this wise old world.
At Unbound’s site you can pre-order a book, watch a film that explores Tatterdemalion and its characters more deeply, read a longer excerpt, and see more of Rima’s beautiful paintings. Also, stay tuned — if we fund and publish the book soon enough, Tatterdemalion may be joining the Hedgespoken stage at the upcoming Dark Mountain Gathering Basecamp: Embercombe in September!
Every single book pre-ordered is a stepping stone on this wild path, so do come join us — your name will be listed in the back of the first edition among a merry crew of fellow supporters! We would be so grateful, and so happy of your company.
I will leave you with Lyoobov, the wheeled and elephantine beast who starts, and ends, the whole novel. Lyoobov is dreamed up one day by two desperate artists named Rose and Ash at the end of our known world, and becomes a living vehicle for wild revolt. It always starts, after all, with a band of outcasts, but we only know it in hindsight…
‘It was then that we saw the people following in our wake. It was then I looked behind and saw them all, a thick road back through the snow, a banner unfurled of thousands — black-haired and brown, red and yellow and silver and white, one blue, some barefoot, tennis-shod, booted, in work clothes, in nightdresses, in winter coats. They were walking to reach him, our last and final dream, our desperate creature born in the dead of winter from all the dreams that wouldn’t fit. They were playing a quiet music through the snowfall — sung and slapped, picked on rubber-bands, tapped with the broken parts of cellphones, whistled through metal pipes, hummed on a simple old jaw harp. They carried all the last candles from the pantries, the ones saved for power-outages. They followed the dream of all things living, all things wild, they followed the last paths the bears had once walked toward their dens and favourite acorn groves. In the snow, in the night, our footprints were wagon-wheels of wood and skin and bone. They were tennis shoe and bare foot and fox paw. The ghosts of those ancient bears, they rose, slow and silver and broad, they walked between us.
In the night, he led, we marched.’
Rima Staines is an artist using paint, wood, word, music, animation, clock-making, puppetry and story to attempt to build a gate through the hedge that grows along the boundary between this world and that. Rima’s artwork has appeared in and on books, magazines, and record covers on both sides of the Atlantic. For more about Rima, you can visit her passionately followed intothehermitage.blogspot.com, or her website rimastaines.com