The Poet and the Machine

is the co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, of which he was director from 2009-2017, He is the author of nine books - three novels, two poetry collections and four works of non-fiction - all of which, it turns out, tell the same story: how we walked away from the wild world, and how we might get home again, if we can. He runs the Wyrd School which teaches wild writing and art and lives in the west of Ireland.
Edward Thomas, the young, post-Georgian poet, experienced a painfully brief flowering of his creativity – a few years of verse, unnoticed in his lifetime – before he went to the trenches in World War One and was silenced by the guns.

His poems are close-up studies of rural south England in its last Golden Age; the days before its identity and meaning were lost forever, before the war and the car and the suburbs ate it alive.

At hawthorn-time in Wiltshire travelling
In search of something chance would never bring

Travelling before the national grid and the motorways, before the bombing planes and the suburbs and the business parks and the factory shops. At hawthorn time in Wiltshire today the hawthorn can still make you catch your breath, but Thomas’s world is long gone. Golden Ages are always just too far back to touch, something that Thomas himself seemed to know (‘The past’, he wrote, ‘is the only dead thing that smells sweet.’)

In his introduction to the painfully slim Selected Poems, his namesake, the Welsh lyric poet R. S. Thomas, suggested intriguingly that ‘somewhere beyond the borders of Thomas’ mind, there was a world he could never quite come at.’ That phrase, that image, has always stuck with me. R. S. was referring – as he always referred – to a quasi-mythical Welshness of the blood which he believed the younger man had been influenced by, and which he offered as a partial explanation for ‘the vein of melancholy and dissatisfaction which runs through Edward Thomas’ verse.’

Of course there’s something very English, too, about melancholy and dissatisfaction, and I’m not at all sure that the Celtic imagination was what Edward Thomas was trying to come at in his writing. I think, rather, that his dissatisfaction, and the almost painfully evocative poems which flowed from it, may have been a result of living in a world on the brink. A coming European war hung over the rural railway stations and hawthorn lanes of which Thomas wrote and, beyond that, the tearing-up of everything he loved in the pre-motor car and – in many places – still pre-modern English countryside.

I never noticed it until
’Twas gone ’ the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill

Thomas never lived to see what industrial agriculture, mass car ownership or consumer capitalism would do to that countryside, but I think he must have felt, on those lonely walks down the holloways, a foreboding. A function of poetry is to give words to intuitions which, if expressed in prose, would fall apart under their own flimsiness; to see what is coming and try to express it and not to have it understood until everybody else can also see it, at which point they will claim that they saw it all along.

Sometimes I think I might know how Edward Thomas felt. He was in love with the lanes and the downs and the people who called them home, and he knew – no, he intuited, felt but could never quite intellectualise – that these things were flaming down a dying arc. He knew he would love and lose, and he wrote to understand how to live with that. The battlefields of Flanders meant that he never had to.

I used to read Thomas religiously, and would often wonder what state he was in before he was killed in 1917, at Arras, at the same age I am now. How did he feel? What gripped him? The melancholy, still? Despair? Stoicism? Even hope? He had a wife and children back in England. He must have known that, if he ever got back, nothing would ever be the same; that walks down the same lanes could never conjur the same lines.

Now I know that Spring will come again,
Perhaps to-morrow; however late I’ve patience
After this night following on such a day.

Edward Thomas was in love with a world that was dying, and all he could do was be present. Perhaps this is a timeless human condition, or at least a Western condition (we often confuse the two). The sweep of history is the story of worlds dying, after all. Perhaps it is the poet’s condition (the theft of his world literally sent John Clare mad.) It’s certainly a condition that speaks to us today, and to this project in particular.

The challenge of Dark Mountain is the challenge of facing this inevitable, unstoppable momentum without flinching – but it is to face, too, the fact that the overwhelming characteristic of our age is that of loss.

Recently, I have been researching the impact that humanity has had on the natural world since I was born, in 1972. It’s been sobering. Since my birth, Homo sapiens sapiens has managed to kill off between a quarter and a third of all the world’s wild ’ ie, non-human ’ life. This bald figure takes in 25% of all land-based species, 28% of marine species and 29% of freshwater species. We’ve wiped out 35% of the planet’s mangrove swamps and 20% of its coral, over a quarter of all remaining Arctic wildlife and 600,000 square kilometres of Amazon forest. Extinction rates are currently between 100 and 1000 times higher than they would likely be were humans not around. This is before we even get to climate change. And it has all happened in less than forty years.

Sit back and think about the magnitude of that. Try even to begin to understand its scale and scope and speed. You can’t; not really. Beyond a certain point, number crunching hinders rather than helps comprehension. Humans were not built to think on this scale, which may be how we got to this point. But however we got here, the Dark Mountain challenge is to face this sometimes agonising reality openly, and honestly, and without any pill-sugaring fantasy talk of turning it all around with ‘sustainability’ or UN treaties or ethical shopping or eco-socialism.

This, I think, is important; in fact, I think it’s vital. But it is not enough on its own; not enough to help us live with it, because it only takes us halfway. Something has to come next. Recently I have been spending more and more time wondering what that something is.

I have been wondering this because I feel – and this is little more than an intuition – that the Dark Mountain Project has probably reached the end of the beginning. I think we have begun to build a genuine cultural movement based around a sense of what might be called ‘green stoicism’: an acceptance of what is coming and what has come, and of our part and place in it and of the limits to what we can do now. But what do we do with that knowledge?

One thing we do – and this is the other key strand of the Dark Mountain mission – is to strive to create a counter-narrative to the mainstream diet of junk about progress, growth, development, control and the inevitable forward momentum of an all-triumphant humanity. This is a big task, which will not be complete in our lifetimes if ever.

But what has been gnawing at me is a question that perhaps goes beyond even this: how do we live? I mean, in the everyday. A lot of people have asked me this since this project began. How do we live with this, they say, what do we do? What do you do? A counter-narrative is crucial, new stories and old ones that seek to unravel the poisonous mythology of industrial Man. But each day, each day that more is lost – how do we get through it, and what can we do to stop the worst of it? What still makes sense? How to live, through it and with it?

The second Thomas – R. S., the caustic and contradictory Welsh priest whose later poems in particular are bombs thrown into the cosy front rooms of his countryfolk ’ used to refer to the onward march of industrial civilisation simply as ‘the Machine’:

The still, small voice
is that of Orpheus looking
over his shoulder at a dream
fading. At the mouth
of the cave is the machine’s
whirlwind, hurrying the new
arts in.

Thomas feared and loathed the Machine so much that he used to preach to his rural parishioners, according to his son, about ‘the evils of fridges.’ His wife tore the central heating out of their ancient Welsh cottage to escape from those new arts which were breathing at her door. But Thomas knew – intuited – that the Machine could not be stopped, only lived with. He lived with it by increasingly retreating into a kind of Celtic Twilight (one brilliantly captured by Byron Rogers biography of the poet) – moving further and further west, to smaller and smaller parishes, searching for a place to belong and never finding it because the search turned out to be the goal. Nostalgia, the retreat, is always a risk. We see it woven like a golden thread through the peak oil and the primitivist movements, both of which have much to say of importance but which often too give off the tantalising odour of wishful thinking.

I am as prone to nostalgia as both Thomases, and visions of past Golden Ages hold a visceral appeal for me. I can dream of those pre-industrial hawthorn lanes for hours, dream until I can physically smell them. But they’re gone, like so much else is going, and we are going to have to live with it. Nostalgia is one of life’s pleasures, but it can only, in the end, take you down a dead end.

Perhaps the answer is summed up by a third Thomas, Dylan, whose famous injunction to ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ calls angrily for a last stand even when the battle is clearly lost. That’s part of it, I think: a determination to fight for what is good and right, to fight against the encroachments of the Machine even though you know that the Machine does not die, only ever slumbers; takes blows but always rises again, because the Machine is us and part of us loves it even as it takes our world apart.

What does this mean in practice? It means, I think, respecting the past – its tools and technologies, our connection to it, the fact that it continues to live in us – without collapsing into nostalgia for it. It means understanding that nothing is coming back, that the future will be very different from then and now, but that the future will be very different from how we recently understood it to be also. Not only will we not be getting the jetpacks and moon bases I was longing for as a child, we will not be getting the pensions and secure jobs I was told to work towards as a student. The future looks more like improvising a way of life as our certainties collapse. But it also looks like holding on to whatever we can of the other-than-human world.

Anything could happen in the next hundred years. The two extremes? Well, we could devastate the Earth and collapse into chaos and mass slaughter and runaway climate change. Or we could create a global ‘sustainable’ society based on large-scale renewable tech, mass rollout of GM crops, nanotech and geoengineering – a controlled world of controlled people living in a closely monitored scientific monoculture. Brave New World with windfarms and CCTV. Which would be better? Who would deliberately aim for either? Why do both look frighteningly possible?

Faced with these poles, the middle way looks like a stumble towards the guns armed only with penknives and tin trays. But that’s where we are. What it means, I think, is that our task – mine, anyway, because I wouldn’t want to speak for anyone else – is to save as much of the wild world as can be saved, even if that means buying half an acre of English woodland and starting a coppice cycle to get the butterflies and the birds back. And it is to practice and to teach ways of being and doing that worked once, work now and will work tomorrow, when the cars look as lumbering as airships and the roads have gone from dirt to asphalt and back again.

Something Edward Thomas would still recognise today is Papaver rhoeas – the common poppy. Famously, these flowers sprung up all over the battlefields of Flanders where Thomas died. They did so because the common poppy seed can lie dormant in the soil for up to 80 years – it can be paved over, built upon or oversown, and it will wait patiently until the plough or the guns tear up the soil again and breathe life into it. The common poppy flowers when everything is turned upside down.

Be a poppy then, in the face of the Machine? It seems, to me, a good task to set myself. To wait and learn and save and sow seeds and wait for them to flower, knowing that they may not do so in my lifetime. In an age of loss, our task is surely to keep safe what we can when the Machine passes by, hungry and howling for blood. To be still and stoical and protective, to pass on truths and skills that will always be truths and skills, and never forget to remember what we are losing, every day that we live.

Poems quoted are Edward Thomas’s ‘Lob’, ‘First Known When Lost’ and ‘March’, and R. S. Thomas’s ‘One Life’.


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