We need to have a sense of who we are as a people, whatever that means to us, and who our ancestors are. Otherwise we’re just individualists. We need a sense of being part of something across time. And we also need a sense of being able to say ‘This is my home.’ It doesn’t have to be where you’ve come from, but it’s the place you are, where you’ve said, ‘This is where I’ve put my feet down.’
If you look at that from a non-human perspective, it starts to make a lot more sense. Because you’re not just saying, ‘Where is my human culture? Who are my people?’, arguing about all that endless identity stuff that everybody kills each other about all day. You’re saying, ‘I don’t even necessarily need to be from the place I’m in, but I can pay attention’, to what Aldo Leopold called the biotic community of the place you’re in.
So I don’t come from where I live at the moment, but as a family we have managed to find a couple of acres to put down roots in and paid lots of attention to everything that lives there. And the community is not just the people.
As you say, you put your feet down in a place, and then you look around and you see what lives here and find out what it needs. You can do that anywhere. It seems to me that if there’s an imperative for writers, it is to ask: ‘What does it mean to be human, in a landscape, at this time? And what can you do to serve the wider community of everything that lives in it?’
And that’s a task as well.
There’s always an enormous pulling inside you as a writer.In a pre-modern culture, creators would create as part of a tradition bigger than themselves.So a storyteller will tell a story that’s part of their culture; or if you’re a religious teacher, you’ve got a big tradition that you’re working in. We’re people with no tradition, because that’s what modernity has done. It’s made us all into little individuals. So the story we tell, we have to come up with ourselves. And then we’re endlessly in pain, because we’re always driven to try and work everything out. Because we’re not supported by ancestry, we’re not supported by a culture. The bargain of modernity is we have no tradition to hold us back, but we also have no tradition to support us. So all the storytellers have to come up with their own vision which is why writers end up shooting themselves, or drinking themselves to death…
Or rediscovering old myths, old texts…
Yes. And what Dark Mountain ended up doing quite a lot of: talking about myths, folk tales and religious stories. Almost unconsciously, Dark Mountain ended up as a place where you could start looking for old stories. One of the things we got wrong in the manifesto was this notion that we need a new story, when we needed to rediscover the old ones. Martin Shaw was one of the people who really made me focus on that, because he said, ‘Look, the stories are already here, it’s just that we don’t know them anymore.’
There’s something else contained in these old stories which no new narrative would probably say, which is that you have to go through a process of transformation or on an underworld journey in order to be properly human. So where do you feel that those stories have a place now?
The underworld journey and the alchemical transformation is the story at the heart of every religion I’ve ever come across. An individual has to be broken open in some way, has to go through the fire and come out the other side. That’s what our culture is doing at the moment. And all of the official stories that we tell ourselves don’t involve undergoing the underworld journey. The green narrative that we can fix everything and it will be alright, is now actually giving way to a more traditional structure in which we all have to go through the fire, and then we’ll come out completely transformed into something else.
But we don’t like that as a culture. We don’t like transformation.
It hurts and you end up in a state of crisis.
And you have to go through that… The other thing that religions teach is that you get wisdom through suffering. It isn’t popular but life is suffering and how you manage it and what you learn from it must be the lesson of life. We have created a culture which tells us that progress will prevent us from suffering. We like that story because no-one wants to suffer but it’s not working, it’s just delayed lots of suffering that we’re going to have to go through now.
So the heart of the story that interests me now is what it means to go to the Underworld and come back marked, but with some wisdom. You know, Odin has to be hung on the tree for nine nights, and then he has to lose his eye, before he gets the vision that’s given to him in the runes.
There’s a story cited by Derrida via Plato about the invention of writing. Thoth, the Egyptian god of medicine and magic, tells the king he has created a method that will help the people remember and be wise. But the king tells him: the people will put all their wisdom in the writing and forget to hold it themselves. Eventually he agrees, with the warning that henceforth writing will be both a poison and a remedy. He calls it the pharmakon.
It seems to me that writers often embody the medicine of the pharmakon themselves and that your journey as a writer, and in Savage Gods in particular, relates to the holding of these contradictory forces.
Yes, the question at the heart of that book is:
how much in these words is so divorced from the thing they’re pointing at that they are useless or damaging?
In the book I talk about being torn between this notion of sitting around a campfire with my tribe and wanting to be part of that long lineage tradition. And then wanting to sit up on the mountain and look down at the campfire and go, ‘Look at all those idiots just being comfortable around their fire instead of coming out here and exploring what might be possible.’
That’s the human condition. We’re all around the campfire and on the mountain. As a writer, you’re never going to be content with either. And that’s OK, so long as you can hold that as your work.
I’m very content in my personal life. But existentially and culturally and ecologically, no. If you do the kind of writing that happens in Dark Mountain, if you don’t think the world is going in the right direction, or the culture has got it right, or the stuff that surrounds us is the stuff that we should be surrounded by, you have to carry that contradiction all the time. And I’m better at carrying contradictions now than I was ten years ago. You just have to carry it and not be eaten by it.
The writer, within the frame of the story, is also a rememberer of a certain kind of wisdom, whether it’s remembering how to be with the land or remembering the old stories, bringing them back into the field of attention or acting as a bridge to the non-human world.
That’s the big story for me now. How can you possibly tell the story of the world that isn’t human? How do you build a culture which sees the world as a living, sacred community of which you are part? Because you can either do that, or burn. And out of the ashes of this whole machine will have to come a re-attending.
And do you think words are part of that?
What happens if you go to a place and try and write it? In a way that carries the stories of that place, that sees that place as a living, functional network that’s watching you at the same time as you watch it.
I had a conversation with the writer Charles Foster recently at the launch of Savage Gods, and the conclusion we both came to is that if words have a value that’s the value they have. Can words come out of a bigger tradition that carries them, that is not just about you as a person, torn between your various desires, but as part of a grand, living tradition?
What happens if you go to a place and try and write it? In a way that carries the stories of that place, that sees that place as a living, functional network that’s watching you at the same time as you watch it. How would you write if you were trying to write that? And the answer is: entirely differently. And I don’t know whether you can do it in prose.
A lot of poets get close to it.
I wonder if it’s still something that poetry does that prose almost can’t do. I did an event in New York in 2017 with Amitav Ghosh, who wrote The Great Derangement. And we had a conversation about what would it look like if you were trying to write the non-human world. And he said in some of the old Indian stories it’s totally natural to have the land speaking. It’s true of the old fairy tales of Europe as well: you get speaking trees, you get magical things happening in woods. And it’s all completely standard. It’s just assumed that if you go into the forest, everything’s alive and weird things are going to happen. So, it’s not magical realism, it’s just realism.
One of the things that’s so difficult is that the planet doesn’t speak rationally, so you have to learn another language.
I think it probably doesn’t speak in modern English prose, if it speaks any human language. It certainly doesn’t speak in the kind of literary prose that I thought I had to write. The act of paying attention somehow creates a different kind of writing – analytically, intellectually. It’s all experiential.
Most humans throughout history have not spoken or communicated in literary, analytical prose with each other. Or rational, modern conceptual language… Every language is obviously very particular, and we’re talking a slightly bleached version of English that’s become the language of the global machine. You talk to Irish people, and they say that the words that you would use to represent a certain feeling or a sense of place or time, are very different from those the English came and imposed upon the people.
And that’s why empires, including the British Empire, want to wipe out indigenous languages: you people speak English, because that’s the rational, modern language of industry, the language of the civilised people. You get rid of all of the words that allow you to relate to your places and your culture and your ancestors, because that’s the way we destroy a people. We take their language away.
So how do we decolonise, to use a very modern term, our own words?
For those of us who are English, or who speak English, it’s almost a harder task, because, you know, if you’re Irish you can at least relearn your original language, whereas what’s our original language?
In some ways withThe Wake you went back to something like this…
Well, one of the things I was trying to do was to explore one version of the original language of the people of that place. Regional languages might be another answer, all the dialects that have been wiped out all across England, by this southeast BBC English that I was brought up to think was the way you were supposed to speak if you wanted to get on.
But when we are stuck in this imperial language, we also fail to see that other, particularly indigenous, people outside Europe have a different way of looking at reality.
Absolutely. Because that’s what language is. It’s a way of looking at reality. So if everybody speaks the same language, they all look at reality in the same way. That’s the purpose of it, that’s why it’s an imperial language. You eliminate all of those different ways of seeing and relating and you say everyone should speak this one, which happens to be the language of mechanism and progress and machine-thinking and individuality…
It’s very Orwellian: if you can create a language which you can impose upon people, it will be literally impossible for them to think incorrect thoughts because the words aren’t there. That’s the theory behind newspeak.
The minute there’s an orthodoxy of language and an orthodoxy of thought, which we all feel we have to stay within otherwise we’re going to get punished, or cancelled, then that’s the end of expression, that’s the end of any attempt to explore outside the boundaries. It’s what every orthodoxy from fascism to communism to theocracy tries to impose on the people to purify the culture, by forcing out anyone who thinks or speaks incorrectly.
You’ve just completed the final book of the trilogy, and then you’re going to take some time off…
Until the end of the year, I’m not writing anything, not one word. I’ve just written this novel set a thousand years in the future called Alexandria...
CDC After the library?
Yes. At least partly… the great repository of all human knowledge. And the project of that book, at least part of which is also written in another language, is exactly this question of what does language look like when it comes from a non-human place, and how does the Earth speak when it’s sentient? So it is ambitious and possibly insane, and disastrous, but it was fun to write and to push yourself forward a thousand years to what the world could be like…
There still is a world?
There’s still a world. I was really taken with that question about landscape that speaks, sentient landscape, how people have relationships with and communicate with things that aren’t human, that’s really central to the book. The narrative of the human body and how it relates to the body of the Earth.
If you were looking to the next ten years of Dark Mountain I would say that’s the big question. If the Earth doesn’t speak in prose, what does it speak in? How can you hear it? And how can you possibly represent it in words. How do you get this burden of machine English off your shoulders and start to plunge into something messier? Almost like taking the language back a thousand years, or forward a thousand years…
Which is what you’ve done…
So, if you want to see things differently, you have to have different words to see them through, or different words to express. This language, as it’s currently spoken, certainly written in prose, is not remotely adequate to represent what you can actually see and feel when you go into a forest – it’s the opposite of indigeneity.
The roots must be there though. Orwell advised writers to use Anglo-Saxon words, and avoid the abstract Roman or Greek ones, because they are based on things that you can touch.
They have to be there, yes. All the languages must have been earthy and indigenous and rooted once. This culture was just as indigenous and rooted as any other one before it became modern. So the question is: how do you get through to it, how do you get through to the root of things?
Paul Kingsnorth co-founded the Dark Mountain Project in 2009 and was one of its directors until 2017. He is also the author of two novels, two poetry collections and four books of non-fiction. His novel Alexandria, the final book of The Buckmaster Trilogy, will be published by Faber next May
IMAGE Wetland for Christine Byl, for her essay, ‘Crane, Water, Change: A Migratory Essay’ by Katie Ione Craney
Photographs, blueberry-dyed gauze, found maps of Denali, silver leaf, and encaustic on hand-cut scrap metal
Observing nuanced environmental change in Denali National Park, author Christine Byl links crane and cranberry as ‘the eater and the eaten, a berry connects the Athabaskan and the European, a bird connects a berry to a mother tongue.’ This piece is part of Landfalls, a series of dedications to Alaskan women authors and storytellers.
Working primarily with found and discarded materials, Katie Ione Craney’s work explores the urgency of a rapidly changing northern landscape and the human and non-human response to the climate crisis. She lives in a small community in southeast Alaska, along the edge of the deepest glaciated fjord in North America. katieionecraney.com
Dark Mountain Issue 16 – REFUGE is now available from our online shop.
Don’t forget! Our book launch is at the Poetry in Aldeburgh Festival this Saturday 9th November, 7-8pm. Hope to see you there!