Where the Wild Things Aren’t

'How do I stay wild here? How do any of us? How do we remember the stories the Earth tells us, when we are surrounded by asphalt? How do we see the stars, when the streetlights burn so bright?' Latest in our Becoming Human series, Philip Webb Gregg reflects on city life after an upbringing in the wilds of southern Spain. 
is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, interested in the relationship between narratology and nature. He is an occasional editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

 London is a very liminal place. With a few easy steps you can move from a street of poverty and hardship to one of the richest areas in the world. Of all the oddities of this city, it’s this juxtaposition which has struck me most. Before I moved here, a little over a year ago, I thought London was a whale, or a kraken or some other kind of indomitable monster. I was wrong. London is a coral reef: an interconnected web of organisms, dependent and faithful to one another. An ecosystem, if you like, but one entirely centred on the human experience. It’s a place obsessed with itself. Aided by the insular nature of technology and the internet, people are invited to ignore the outside in favour of the secluded self. 

If you take the underground, you will push your body against the bodies of strangers; you may feel someone’s breath on the back of your neck or even sense the baby hairs of their arms brushing your skin. You might have to suffer the rankness of sweat or endure the cacophony of too-loud headphones. All of these things you will do and put up with. But you will not, under any but the most exceptional circumstances, look anyone in the eye. When you order an Uber, the driver may talk or they may not. The app has already told them your destination, so there is no real need to say anything at all. These days, a dozen people from a dozen different countries can sit in a café and ignore each other with absolute fluency.

 It occurs to me that Dark Mountain is also a liminal space. A place, like an idea, that exists in people’s heads and hearts and intentions. It is virtual, in a sense, and physical. It dwells somewhere between the boundary of the real and the imaginary. Its readers, also, are spread across the fringes and peripheries of society. It exists in an in-between, spreading its focus across both the exterior and the interior. The Manifesto states that Dark Mountain is ‘writing for outsiders’. It argues that ‘literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels’. There is an intention to look at the world with a wider lens. An invitation to take a step into the unknown. Outside of comfort zones, genres and personal experiences. To see oneself as part of a greater reality, rather than the centre of it. 

These are difficult ideas to deal with when you live in one of the largest cities on the planet where nearly nine million people jostle for attention, status, and wealth. London can feel like the heart, or at least one of the essential organs, of the engine driving  the Anthropocene. So, I ask myself: how do I stay wild here? How do any of us? How do we remember the stories the Earth tells us, when we are surrounded by asphalt? How do we see the stars, when the streetlights burn so bright?

*

I grew up in a place very different from this. Until the age of 16 my home was a tiny, delightfully ruinous house under a giant eucalyptus tree in the south of Spain. My mother found refuge there in the late ‘80s, when cars were still a novelty, and almost everyone had a mule. She was looking for a spot where she could bring up her kids without worrying about fast roads, toxic food, or strange adults who have strange intentions towards children. I was the stereotypical hippy child. I ran with the dogs and swam naked in the lake. On full moons I howled at the sky. For a while I even wore a necklace of goat’s teeth around my neck, for good luck. To be clear, my mother had no specific desire to ‘rewild parenthood’. She just wanted to give us the freedom to fall out of trees and get dirt under our nails.

In 2005 Richard Louv, the American author and journalist, coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD) with the publication of his book Last Child in the Woods, the essays of which centred mainly around children who grow up detached and desensitized from the natural world. He was particularly concerned with the ubiquity and obtrusiveness of technology upon our everyday lives. He writes: ‘Today, children and adults who work and learn in a dominantly digital environment expend enormous energy blocking out many of the human senses in order to focus narrowly on the screen in front of the eyes. That’s the very definition of being less alive.’ 


The concrete throbs with ghosts, dreams and nightmares, which have, for better or worse, helped to shape the world we live in.

This problem is greatly exacerbated within inner city areas, where children grow up having very little or no interaction whatsoever with actual nature (the park bench doesn’t count). When Robert Macfarlane wrote Lost Words he was raging against a similar problem; his book is a battle cry directed partly at the OJD and partly at society in general. A society where most children couldn’t tell you the difference between a daffodil and a dandelion. There is a similar phenomenon, known as Nature Knowledge Deficit (NKD), which is the straightforward lack of personal experience and therefore understanding of the natural world. This lack of understanding is curious because it exists in direct contrast to the increased levels of learning about the world and the world’s problems: many of us read about climate change or increased sea levels, but that’s not the same as walking through a desert or swimming in the ocean. Louv once again attributes this fall in experience to the rise in technology and technological teaching: ‘A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rainforest but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.’

As someone who was lucky enough to experience these things on a daily basis during my formative years, I can say that it had a massive effect upon my worldview and I am hugely and continually grateful and yet, as wonderful as it was, it wasn’t enough. Vegetable beds and cicadas in the evening are magnificent things but I yearned for a wider culture. Theatre, art, museums, ideas, people. Yes, I howled at the moon every month. But I also listened to BBC Radio 4 every night and played video games addictively. It’s a juxtaposition that has followed me all my life. One which has eventually led me here, to London, much to the dismay of my mother and brothers, who were very disappointed to hear that I was ‘moving to Babylon’.

*

The conflict of city and country, inside and out, is one of the oldest and most frequent themes in our collective history. It reaches back through our narrative culture from the shimmering castles of Gawain and the Green Knight, to the mead-halls of Beowulf, all the way to Gilgamesh, and the first great city of Uruk. From the very beginning, our stories have been told from the perspective of heroes (usually male) who inhabit urban spaces. Whereas the monsters, gods and demons (very often female) who play the role of antagonist in these tales belong, almost without exception, to wild woods, deep caves and melancholy lakes. It’s not a difficult conclusion to come to: men within beasts without. It’s a rule that’s been passed down from fire-side to textbook  seemingly forever. 

In part, this is easy to understand. For a long time, the natural world was seen as a constant foe, needing to be harnessed and cut back every year in order to establish anthropocentric dominance. However, for many of us, now this perspective appears like a  madness. A mistake, or a villainy, which has rampaged unchecked for thousands of years, the global consequences of which are only now becoming fully apparent. And so, what next? Now that we have reached a stage where we no longer need to huddle together for protection against the things that dwell beyond the fire’s edge, what do we do? How do we live? Should we abandon the cities, after all this life?

It is difficult to deny that there are certain benefits to being here. In this great cross-pollination of cultures, I can walk down a road and hear a multitude of languages spoken. I can take a stroll around central London and visit more than 20 museums in a day. I can sit and read a book in the spot where William Blake was born. The concrete throbs with ghosts, dreams and nightmares, which have, for better or worse, helped to shape the world we live in.

My upbringing has given me a certain view of the world which no longer aligns with the place in which I live. I feel uprooted and disconnected

In the Extinction Rebellion Handbook, This Is Not A Drill, Paul Chatterton, professor for Urban Futures at Leeds University, tells us that: ‘The climate emergency is also a city emergency.’ His analysis of the importance of urban areas in relation to the climate breakdown is bold in its confrontation of the reality that cities aren’t going away anytime soon. So, we’d better learn to live with them if we want to live at all. 

‘The way cities respond to the climate emergency will determine the very fate of humanity. We … need to save the city from high-energy, high-emission, high-inequality life.’ 

There is a clarity in this article which opens up a rational discussion as to the problems and potential solutions of the emergency. City life may not be so disruptive on an individual level, but on a collective scale it has led to the current breakdown, and will lead to further catastrophes if it’s not curtailed in short order. This would involve massive political, cultural and economic shifts, requiring imagination and energy, while maintaining a degree of thoughtful contemplation. 

*

The question of city life is one that I ask myself almost every day. My upbringing has given me a certain view of the world which no longer aligns with the place in which I live. I feel uprooted and disconnected and judgemental of my surroundings. It’s become obvious to me that there is something terribly wrong with this city and the people who inhabit it. 

There is an awful sense of busyness that haunts every waking moment. An obsession with efficiency that steals the poetry from the day. Sometimes, your only freedom is the 30 minute commute on the underground, where the work emails can’t reach you. And it makes us unhappy. It makes us care about careless things. Odd things, like schedules, wristwatches, restaurant bookings, the height of a heel and the nominal difference between a double macchiato and a skinny cortado. Things which, frankly, are as ephemeral as the spring sunshine and nowhere near as beautiful. And the worst thing is: everybody knows this. If you ask them anyone from the banker to the millennial blogger what is important in life, they will give you essentially the same answers: family, love, the state of the world, maybe music, art or writing if you’re lucky. People here aren’t stupid, but they are distracted. And our distraction is driving us to desperation. It’s a desperation that comes from within; from too many walls in our minds and in our hearts. The technology-led, patriarchal rule of capitalism has seduced us into believing that this way of life must be the best way, the only way. 

This, of course, we know to be a lie. Through projects like Dark Mountain, through storytelling and art-sharing, through gatherings and protests, the world is changing and we are learning different ways of living. We are re-authoring our stories. But the city is unavoidably still part of that narrative, whether we like it or not. 

After nearly a year in London I’ve learned that, while sometimes difficult to find, there is certainly meaning and purpose between these walls. There are ways of fighting, of pushing back against the inner obsession of the urbanites and the technophiles. These ways are not complicated, nor do they require any special equipment quite the opposite. They involve listening, seeing, feeling. Harnessing the organic technology of our human bodies: our senses. If we allow ourselves, we may begin to notice that nature is everywhere, just as it always has been. And it is possible to feel like a part of a wider world, even here. There are birds perched on blackened chimneys and squirrels running across abandoned railways. There is a wound of green cutting across the grey pavement. There are trees which explode with life in spring and then wilt into sleep in autumn. The breeze is still cool in summer. In winter, the cold takes no notice. The rain doesn’t care.

‘Jack in the Green’, London from Northala Fields by Colin Bushell

And that, to me, is at the core of what the wider world stands for. The lesson we can take home, into ourselves, is that nature is the essence of beautiful indifference. Like gravity. Like the sun. Like the earthquake or the wildfire or the drought. These things are neither cruel nor loving, they merely are. And seeing them, sensing them, should remind us that we are no different. Though we build structures between us and the real world. Though we divide and separate and rift. We should remember that we have the outside within us, regardless of cities or walls. We ourselves are liminal, able to inhabit both worlds at once.

*

It is the 15th April and I am standing in the centre of the city of London, right outside the Houses of Parliament. They are shrouded in scaffolding like the bandages of a leper. Next to me, someone is shouting. All around me, children and grandparents are shouting. I am shouting. A man in a fox mask is holding a big balloon in one hand and waving a placard in the other. Everyone is waving placards. The sky is full of them. They show the stark outline of bird carcasses and flowers, all embroidered with an hourglass held within a circle. XR.

Over the next 11 days, four prominent roads in central London will be blocked, and more than a thousand people will be arrested. During these days, there will be countless conversations had between strangers about the current state of the world. Talks and discussions and poetry readings and songs will abound. It will sometimes feel like a festival. Teenagers will do cartwheels down the road. People will flirt and laugh and maybe find love on the barricades. In the dead of night, on the bridges, surrounded by police officers in wraithlike hi-visibility jackets, it will feel like the end of the world. 

But all that is days away. Right now, it is the first day, and there is genuine hope in the air. I walk around the square a dozen or so times, joining a march here, a debate there. Most people seem just as keen to sit on the grass and have a picnic as they are to change the world. Just as I’m thinking of leaving, I pass the central podium. On it is a man, standing staring into space. The audience, some thirty or forty people, is enthralled, looking up at him with their mouths open. He’s holding a device in his hand, and from it trails a wire. The wire leads into an amp, and a second wire links the amp to a set of speakers on either side of the podium. From the speakers a pair of massive monoliths standing like two-thirds of a trilithon comes the sound of birdsong. 

It booms across Parliament Square with an eerie softness. Nightingale, chaffinch, common blackbird, magpie, green woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker, greenfinch, garden warbler, European robin, starling, lapwing, goldfinch, redshank. On and on it goes. There is utter silence in the crowd for at least 20 minutes, and then people start to laugh and cheer. They try to imitate the calls, falling into peals of laughter at the difficulty. Everybody is clapping furiously and chirruping at the top of their lungs. There is a beautiful madness to the moment that feels like sanity at last.

Image: Sam Lee by Hugh Warwick

On Monday 29th April, members of the Extinction Rebellion movement came together with others for an evening of music, poetry and remembrance – and to stream nightingale song from their phones. ‘To understand nature we have to love it,’  Sam Lee, a folk singer and member of The Nest Collective, told a crowd of two to four thousand. Lee led the crowd in practice runs of an old French round about the nightingale, and an adapted version of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, composed in 1938 and made famous in 1940 by Vera Lynn, later reprised with a string band. If it wasn’t a folk song before, Lee later said, it is now.

Hugh Warwick is an ecologist and writer with a particular fondness for hedgehogs. His books include A Prickly Affair, The Beauty in the Beast, and Linescapes. He is the spokesperson for the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and occasional photographer.

Image: Jack in the Green by Colin Bushell
London from Northala Fields

(From Dark Mountain: Issue 14 – TERRA)

Contrary to Benjamin Franklin’s famous maxim the only real certainty in the universe is the persistence of life. As Jethro Tull sang in 1978, Jack in the Green persistently weaves herself through the cracks in the pavements, the motorways and concrete that we lay down upon her.

Colin Bushell is an award-winning writer and photographer, born in London and now living in Brisbane, Australia. A photojournalist, he also teaches photography and creative writing and runs Curious Engine Photography Experiences, leading photography safaris around Australia.

 

Private: Dark Mountain: Issue 15

The Spring 2019 issue is a collection of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that responds to the ‘age of fire’.

 

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Comments
  1. hello to you,
    thank you for this attempt to answer this difficult question. I’m in a similar situation right here in the center of Hamburg. Okay, it’s not that mammoth dimension like London but it exposes me to the same challenge.
    I’m capable to do the seat. It’s a core-routine of Jon Youngs Wilderness-Awareness-School. Every week i find myself in the Altonaer Volkspark and just do observing what surrounds me in the very moment: Trees, light, rain, birds, insects, children, passengers, winds, mice etc.
    It’s just a moment in which you shut up fully and just observe with all skills/senses you have.
    Fully one our, often more i do this at different times the day. I practice using all my senses one after another and all by the same time.
    I began in February and do it still. I saw the wheel of the year turning through the seasons, full of life, all the different beings coming and going…
    What i experience is a increasing ability getting more and more hidden or unseen. Or in other words: The Meetings with all the animals out there in the center of this city make me feel that i’m learning to stop sending irritations in the environment i’m sitting in.
    It is a real pleasure practicing this.
    And the awareness being a vivid part of this nonhuman world…
    and the awareness that we have to defend this nonhuman world like kind of keepers…
    There is something comig, and something is changing

    1. Hello Nils, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate you words. Yes, that sounds a lot like the practice I try to maintain. As you say, it’s about nothing more complicated than a meeting with the world and meeting with the self. Keep it up, my friend.

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