Thursday, 17 September 2020

Tufton Street: Fiery Words Under a Police Helicopter

 On 2nd September I joined 19 other rebel writers to call to account the lobbyists and climate deniers who direct government policy outside their Westminster office. Here is a piece about that event and the role of writers-as-challengers to their conjuring of dangerous fictions. 

The next revolution – World War III – will be waged inside your head. It will be a guerrilla information war fought not in the sky or on the streets, not in the forests or even around scarce resources of the earth, but in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, on TV and in ‘cyberspace’. It will be a dirty, no-holds-barred propaganda war of competing world-views and alternative visions of the future.

Marshall McLuhan – Culture is Our Business, 1970

It is raining softly in Tufton Street and I am sitting in a doorway, at the feet of five police officers, listening to voices calling to account the neo-liberal lobbyists who convene at number 55. Long ago I came to this street to play with my childhood friend Gaye. Her father was a Conservative MP, as was my uncle who also lived here, beside these steps that by the end of this evening will be covered in fake blood.

This is not a story of nostalgia.

The Times columnist David Aaronovitch once asserted that no one in the privileged classes ever descends the social scale willingly. Except writers. Writers are by the nature of their trade rebels – rebelling against the past and its hostilities that hold us all ransom, breaking convention, the rigidity of the status quo, so that entropy does not set in and life can flourish. Their loyalty is not to their upbringing, but to their art.

Writing is how a velvet-collared turncoat came to be standing on this ensemble platform, decades later, with a quote by Marshall McLuhan up her sleeve about the future that now feels like the present.

I don’t know exactly what I am going to say in these few minutes but I do want to say why it matters that writers rebel, not only as individuals, but together – as we are here on this night in post-lockdown London: 20 of us holding scripts and books in our hands, reading poetry and fiery statements out loud with a police helicopter whirling above our heads. Who else can challenge the dangerous fiction, constructed behind these doors, and change the plot mid-sentence?

It’s an old story, the story of Empire, and thousands of writers have deconstructed its twisted plots through history, even in the trenches and the gulags, even, as Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria wrote, in the face of certain execution. We know what we see: a story of domination repeated through centuries and continents. The question now is: how do we unstory it?

Writers – those true to their archaic function to hold people within the wild psyche of the Earth, true to what John Berger called the fraternal future – step outside conformity as a strategic act. Because they know the story of their time is not just theirs and they do not tell it just for themselves. This ‘powerdown’ enables them to listen and speak out on behalf of those without voices, for the creatures and the trees and all those who maintain and suffer the charade of civilisation in silence.

‘If you know yourself and do not know the enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer defeat’, quoted Paul Hilder from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. A key reason the climate deniers and Brexit propagandists of Tufton Street broadcast a violent and hostile narrative is so they won’t suffer defeat. They have been trained in their dark nurseries to quash all feeling and fuel their will to victory – and they will sow every kind of confusion, blame and division among the ‘ruled’ in order to maintain the upper hand.

What can writers demonstrate in the face of this, in the face of a world falling apart?

We are keeping our eyes open and do not swerve our gaze. We are not distracted by fake news, or intimidated by the bullish rhetoric of a comms-directed government. We know the difference between the myths that underpin life on Earth, and the fantasies that manipulate it. Words are our business after all.

We have long memories. We remember what it means to be human, beyond our economic function as a consumer or voter. We have the wild world as our ally and our ancestors stand behind us.

We can bring space and time into the small panic rooms the powerful command, and open the door. Like a warrior band outwitting the invader, we know this geography of heartbreak. We know the mountains and the forests and all the hiding places. Imagination is our finest tool and our attention is fearless. We have already travelled to the Underworld and back. We are in the long game and will prevail. In a fragmented time, we can cohere; in a culture of covering up, we will reveal. Our task is to remind people that they are not alone in their struggle.

When we speak of power, we mean the capacity to undergo change, to transform dark materials into beauty. The powerful cling to their bastions and buildings, their loyalty to form, and refuse to change their dragonish behaviours. But in a time of upheaval, no amount of authoritarian rule will prevent the consequences of destroying the vast and complex dimensions of Earth, anymore than it can control a tiny anarchic virus.

Their storyline is simple: we are the conquerors and we are in charge. We are more powerful than you and deserve your sacrifice. Our lust for power and riches has no end and we will defend the right to rule you with all the might and violence we can muster. You can find this ‘law’ inscribed in stone in ancient Assyria and Babylon, rejected by the Gnostics in the early Christian era, challenged by every slave uprising, peasant revolt and citizen rebellion through time. We can hear this voice in our own heads, inflamed by the headlines and opinions of media, and have learned when to hold our tongues. ‘If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.’

Sometimes barbarians who do not worship the city gods surprise us. In 1947, a poet writes the line, ‘I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK’, observing the decline of Empire, sensing the fleetness of reindeer hooves on the Northern rim. (W.H.Auden, ‘The Fall of Rome’.) In 2020 the unimportant clerks of flu-infected cities say: we don’t want to come back to work, and the story of civilisation falters irrevocably. Tonight in Westminster the tourists have stayed away, the posters of the theatres have disappeared.

The show is coming to an end. We’re writing the final act.

You can watch the Writers Rebel Tufton event here.


Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Sitting with the Trouble

The Saint and the Oystercatcher by Kate Walters
Sit with me: I am in a circle in the back room of a small pub in North Oxford, under the shelter of a giant copper beech. Spring is unfurling its leaves. A man is talking. His name is Edward and he is the oldest person in the room, the unofficial guardian of the ancient common land of Port Meadow. Edward is describing how at ‘rainbow gatherings’ people sit in council to come to a unified conclusion about how to proceed, how it differs from our combative democratic process.

‘What happens if they don’t all agree?’ I ask, rather defensively.
There was a pause.
‘They wait until they do,’ he smiled. ‘Sometimes it takes days.’

I am not in my usual territory. Yesterday I found a notice on a lamppost that invited people to meet and discuss ways to prevent the building of hundreds of new houses alongside the leafy canal and its wastelands. Join in! declared the notice and my curiosity got the better of me. I don’t know this yet but I am about to shift position, from being an individual seeker on the road to being a community activist, rooted in place, a move that will define my life for the next fifteen years.

Sitting with the trouble and waiting for a solution to emerge however is something I do know. I know it from being a writer, and from working with medicine plants and dreams. I have been sitting with this essay, this subject, since the goat willows went into bloom and now the elder and dog roses are at their height. I wanted to write something useful in these times of lockdown and uncertainty, to share practices from those years that might help others navigate this unknown territory. I’ve been sitting with this title, staring at the blank screen, or the pages of a blue notebook, as the cherry blossom drifts around this Suffolk garden. I used to be able to write as soon as my fingers touched a keyboard. Sentences would tumble beautifully out of nowhere. Now they don’t. Sometimes in my life, when words stopped coming, it signalled a move of position. So, even though I don’t like to admit it, I know something inside me is trying to shift. I can only wait and watch the spring.

There is a scene in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Kean where the famous 19th century actor faces an existential crisis but he cannot find the right way to deal with it. As he stomps around the stage, he strikes different poses and each time finds himself in another Shakespearean character: Hamlet, Lear, Richard III. All of them from plays in which he starred. He can’t get to the man because the actor is in the way.

When things shift you throw off the costumes, nervous that perhaps there is nothing beside the roles you have identified with all your life. You start new paragraphs but they all sound dead and disjointed. You wince at the sound of your own voice. In the absence of the script you know by heart, questions come in you don’t want to face: who are you, what is your value, what are you doing here? Do people care what you think? Are you even a writer at all?

The dreaming practice

Before I joined that circle in Oxford and began to campaign for the neighbourhood’s wild and feral spaces, I worked with dreams, exploring them using a method called the five levels. The practice is simple. You tell the dream to your dreaming partner, asking the questions: what does this say about my daily life, my biographical life, my self on the social level, on the mythological level and from the perspective of the Earth? You tell the dream out loud. The visitor to the dream listens and can ask questions but only to prompt the dreamer to go deeper into the dream. Not as an inquirer, but as a fellow explorer. As you do the territory opens out between you; you discover its language, its topography, its mood. Something catches your eye, you both look at it and it opens up like a flower. It could be an object, a detail, or a feeling. Mostly though it is a position. Mostly it is a position where you are stuck or held against your will.

The visitor keeps asking: why are you stuck in the jaws of that alligator? I can’t move, you reply. Except that now you can, now you are outside the dream, as well as in it. You are no longer six years old. You can open your mouth, where in the dream you could not. Dreams, you have learned, flee from analysis. Given time however, as you weather their difficulty and speak what you feel out loud, they reveal everything. Agency is returned.

Even though we were stuck in the ‘nightmare of history’, we realised if you placed attention on the underlying darkness of our collective lives, we could learn to free ourselves and the world. Each dream is carefully shaped to fit everyone’s personal legacies, and yet all of them at some point reveal a small child, the heart, stuck in the jaws of an alligator, needing your liberating gaze. Our lives are pivoted around these events and replayed over time. You want to know why you are trapped, what the alligator means, but you learn to quieten the mind’s inquiry. You’re waiting for another kind of intelligence to kick in. What matters is making the move from a stuck place into a fluid open one. Sitting within the dream means waiting until that move is clear, and then making it. The feeling is what invites the dream to reveal itself.

There was a point in dreaming practice with others where the dialogue often became stuck: the moment when your perception needed to shift from the biographical level to the collective level. People could explore the mythological and the Earth level, but when they were invited to see themselves as a social being, as one of the collective, they closed down. When I became a community activist, I realised that even though people were talking about community, they were talking from an individual position, from a small me, rather than a collective we. The circles we held were not about coming to a conclusion in a group but about listening to a series of individuals being paid attention to by others, sometimes for the first time. Invisibly, we were surrounded by alligators and terrified children. We were set on changing the world, the food systems, the energy systems, our governance, but no one was dealing with those snapping jaws. They were not even seen.

To come to a conclusion means you need time and commitment. If there is intention that you are doing something together, you can weather the storm that comes when people who sit in a circle in council decide to do something that is contrary to the status quo. This is not difficult in the sense of organisation, of making actions, even of getting on with several prickly strangers who think they have a better idea than you. What is difficult is negotiating with the invisible forces our culture has no ways of naming. Even though these threats of violence are felt palpably in the room, even though we know in our minds about the nightmare - our long history of servitude, the rulers who hold our hearts in their claws - we find it difficult to admit their influence on our human lives. We lack the language and the techne to deal with their dragonish behaviors, especially when they come out of our mouths in argument. When terror stalks the room and the children who might tell us what is happening fall silent.

Even when we sought advice on how to deal with the fall outs and ‘storming’ that befall all grassroots groups when the start-up honeymoon period ends, we were told to go to psychologists or conflict resolution experts, as if these divisions were a personal defect, rather than an encounter with the shadow forces of civilisation. But from the practice I knew that to withstand the push back from the conventional world, the feudal hierarchies that still rule the world within and without us, another kind of contract was needed.

Then one day I stumbled upon two books I had loved as a child: one of English fairy tales and another of Greek and Roman myths. In these old familiar texts, I found the lexicon I was looking for. And, as if my life were a dreaming practice itself, I found myself moving from the social to the mythological level.

The boy with the strange haircut

The boy is not a god but a daemon. But when he enters the room, the winds of heaven blow through your house, throwing your desk papers into the air. Startled, you look outside the window and feel the enclosing walls around you. You find yourself in time’s prison. He crosses your path at strategic points, a young man with a lock of hair over his forehead, interrupting a line made by the old timelord Chronos with his relentless ticking clock and calendars. You stop, and time opens up, revealing past, present and future all at once. Suddenly you realise you can take a different direction.

Like all daemons, embodiments of the human condition, Kairos, the force of destiny arrives in a moment of crisis, unexpected. His moment of appearance is quick and you have to seize him by the forelock. If you hesitate, the time for that split-second all-moments-now encounter will be gone. You will lunge to grab him from behind, but your hands will slide down the back of his smooth shaven neck. You will fall back into linear time.

Afterwards you have to make time to realise what has happened and integrate that all-at-once time into everyday life. When the pandemic interrupted our Chronos-ruled civilisation, the official story of progress, by which we have measured our worth, was revealed to bear false promise, and although the forces of empire rally to continue to broadcast its all-powerful narrative, although these mortgaged walls still hold us, we now know there is a place outside this house of history and a road that leads to nowhere we have gone before, yet feels like home.

When the merry-go-round stops

Last summer behind the pier in Southwold one rainy afternoon, I heard a familiar tune and found myself following it. It was the sound of a merry-go-round, the old fashioned kind with gaily-painted horses and curly Victorian lettering. Two children in anoraks were riding the coloured wooden creatures, as they went up and down, as their parents called out to them and waved. The fairground hand scowled bitterly at the rain and his lack of customers.

I watched entranced for a moment, pretending it was merrier than it was. The song had pulled me somewhere wistful. A sadness washed over me. It sounded like an old Nina Rota film score, or the kind of plangent accordion music you used to hear in Paris, and maybe still can. Loss. Times I had and wouldn’t find again. A tear fell down my cheek.

Why are you crying, for no reason? I asked myself sharply. As if a force pushed me away, I turned and headed swiftly home. Something inside me had shuddered. The song was taking me into a dead end, into a timeless realm where everything keeps going round in a circle.

When Childe Roland goes widdershins into Elfland to rescue his sister, Burd Helen, he is given his father’s sword and instructions not to eat or drink anything there. If you speak to anyone you need to cut off their heads. When the boy asks the way to the Dark Tower from two herdsmen and a henwife, he cuts their head off – and in some versions, Burd Helen’s as well – and breaks the elven spell. In the old Scottish tales if you were lured by music under the fairyhill you were warned not to tarry, for you would never return to Earth. You had to leave a nail in the door of the hillside, so you might break out of the dancing ring and find your way back again.

The lockdown was that nail in the door, it was the quick boy at the crossroads, the sword that can cut us away from the enchantments we are trapped in: the nostalgias of nations, of lost times of Blitz spirit and suburban post-war paradises, when victory was assured, when our status as superior human beings shone with an Olympian light. You could dismiss the merry-go-round as a mere glamour or entertainment, but that would be to ignore the power of the music’s spell, the desire to be somewhere apart from this present moment, away from the tedium and threats of an industrialised life. It would be to forget the manufacturers of fairground rides and their scowling mechanics. Those who warp time and take it out of the realm of the heart.

In this pause, alongside the death and suffering the pandemic brought, there was also the possibility that Kairos awakens. For months the borders to our neverlands of celebrities and stars, of parties and festivals, theatres and concerts, of cruises and holidays in the sun, were closed. Instead, partners and families spent time together and had to make their own amusement, while the pressure to be somewhere else at all times disappeared. The time of the heart, where all things can be considered, replaced the rush of 24/7 culture where nothing can be. Our fellow workers became the people we cared about, we heard birdsong as if for the first time. Goats and deer and sheep roamed through the empty streets. On laptops and phones, we realised we were all ordinary people in ordinary rooms, sharing the same crisis. As politicians still strove to divide and conquer us, to push their nation’s illustrious story ahead of everyone else’s, we still felt for the people we did not know on the other side of the world. We still longed for mountains when we could not climb them, enjoyed the quietness of a spring without traffic, and the blue untrammelled sky.

As everything is rushed to return to ‘normal’, you feel pushed to get back on schedule again but something in you hesitates. Something in you has stopped. Once where there had been a great noise now there is a kind of silence.

In my community activism years, I was part of a small theatre group in Norwich. One day, rehearsing for an Earth Day performance, we picked different futures out of a hat and improvised who we were and what had happened between 2010 and 2110. Some of the futures were already mapped -- the dystopian, the techno-fixed - but some were not. Mine was Unknown Quantity. When I took the stage I found myself saying: one day people just stopped and started to do something completely different.

For thousands of years the merry-go-round of civilisation has whirled ceaselessly - the wheel of fortune, the wheel of karma, the wheels of commerce and capitalism. It whirls generations round in a frenzy of speed, music and colour. It seems like everything happens at that funfair: everything fashionable, interesting, important. Relinquish the wheel, advises the Buddha. Don’t linger in fairyland, warn the ancestors. It’s all an illusion. But no one takes any notice. The pace of our lives is tempered by that glittering speed. We are compelled to go faster, bigger, buy more houses, more clothes, more holidays, more movies, more machines, more cake. If we step off the ledge for one moment we can’t wait for our next turn on that great production line.

The world is made of that speed and that drive. The drive of the will to succeed, to overcome, to conquer. The force runs rampage over the globe, through all our lives like Alexander. We drink to keep up with it, always late, on a perpetual deadline. 24/7. We cut corners, skip facts, betray our friends, forget the green world outside the window. We are restless, never satisfied, never sure what we want, looking over our shoulder for the powerful people, to be invited to the right party, to wear the perfect suit, to walk with the gods. We fight time and nature with that drive, with our passionate intensity, our desire to escape into all the fun and fantasy of the fair.

We are holding that drive, that inhuman artificial energy, in our bodies and sometimes those bodies, those minds, break down.

Sometimes Kairos crosses our path and we real human beings break through. A moment when we align ourselves with everything else on Earth and powerdown. The drive stops suddenly, the way going to night-clubs once stopped when you were young. You wake up and you can’t do it anymore. It’s not that you decided to. It just happened: it happens because something else has begun to go on in your house, in the neighbourhood, something our unkind minds and ruthless wills had not considered. A harmonious way of doing things, of engaging in the world, that affects our inner and outer lives in ways we never imagined. Focusing on the small things of daily life and the kindness that can exist between people. Remembering what really matters about being alive on the planet.

The uneasy chair

There is a writing class I teach called The Uneasy Chair. The Uneasy Chair is not about becoming a professional writer, but about writing as an existential practice, as a way of perceiving the world and your place in it, about putting your feet on the Earth and a crooked thing straight, involving collaboration and time and imagination. You could say my whole life has been about sitting, or avoiding sitting, in this chair, which is the paradox position all writers have to put themselves in in order to find their true material. You don't want to sit there of course, but you don't get the story if you don't. This is the dual position where you sit in the chair and experience everything going down in the room, and also stand behind the chair, directing and making sense of what you-in-the-chair are experiencing. All chair, and you lose the plot, all observer, and you lose the reader.

The lockdown interrupted our lives like a koan and discombobulated time. We still hold its hermetic effects within us, even as the doors open, as children run out to play around the deserted fountains and broad walks of European cities. It has begun a process past seekers might recognise as alchemy, not of the individual soul, but of the collective. We live in small spaces, like battery hens, but feel more connected to the people and planet outside than ever before, to the birds and the mountains showing their snowy faces for the first time in decades. The more we are held tight in our crucibles, the more our imagination reaches out, the more we remember, the more we reach out to touch others in our longing. The paradox of the hermitage and monk’s cell. Of not moving and yet moving.

The old gods and governments of course, do not want us to sit with the trouble, to consider this paradox, to reach out to our fellows in what Jeremy Rifkin calls the shift towards an empathic civilisation, where we become biospheric, in tune with the planet and all its denizens. When the individualist ‘psychological’ dynamic of the 20th century cedes to the ‘dramaturgical’ age of the 21st, and we are able to step into another's shoes and feel their joy and suffering because we have not denied our own.

Even if these controllers of our destinies, push us back towards the factory lines and depots and the merry-go-round cranks up for its summer season, we have stepped into those pivotal roles already, seeing ourselves as players within a global plague tragedy, whose small scenes are enacted each day on screen in our kitchen-sink theatres. The chorus and spear carriers, all who have been standing in the wings, have taken the stage. We cheered them from the balconies.

Once you have seen, you cannot unsee. Once you have sat with the trouble and withstood the drive that forces you out of your heart, out of that uneasy chair, you do not rush to ride the carousel again. You can see what lies outside the door. You remember how it feels not to be alone, even when you were alone.

One fine day

I have sat with this essay since the lockdown began, as if trapped in its very title. It wouldn’t move, the door would not open and the sentences did not tie up. Then I remembered how it is when you visit a plant or a place and try to discern its dreaming, You can’t do that until the visit is over, when you look back with what the writer about history and myth, Roberto Calasso calls, the douceur of time. I was still in the chair, experiencing what it felt like to undergo the uncertainty I had been writing about from behind it for a decade. Then today a scene came back to me and I realised that the door was already ajar. Because there is a third position in the uneasy chair teaching that can make writing protean, which is to say, connected to life beyond your self. I call it the eagle’s position, where you fly up and perceive those small moves you make in your practice and see how they affect the fabric of the world.

Follow me: I am cycling one early May morning across the harbour bridge, over the river flowing seawards, towards the sleeping village of Walberswick. Along the ridge path towards the marshes, barley fields either side of me, and the sea dark blue in the distance, listening out for nightingales in their thorny gorse fastness, singing up the dawn. I am walking towards the sea, through the wavy reeds, toward the sun rising and the light glancing off the water like a mirror. I am running into the bone-cold salty waves, into the light. There is space all around and singing, immense blue sky, horizon. I open my arms and breathe deep.

I am imagining the people I know in lockdown in London, dreaming of the wide spaces of Montana, of swimming places they cannot go, the lidos and lakes, of the artist who stood in the crematorium alone with her dead husband, without mourners or celebration, of the sick women who struggle to recover, of all the people I don’t know in places where I once loved to go - in Venice, in New York, in the city of Guayaquil by the Pacific ocean. I am remembering how it has been down at the harbour for the past months without visitors, with only the local people walking along the river, towards the bluebell woods in the evenings, the fishermen and boatmen working in a landscape you have only seen in an 18th century painting, standing in the deserted town streets, like a 1970’s sci-fi novel by John Wyndham. How everyone has been greeting each other and waving in the lanes, how a part of us doesn’t want this present moment to end.

I wish I had learned when I was in those gnarly grassroots meetings that what really matters is not how we deal with power or find reparation (which we never could) but how to be able bring this space of light and air into those constricted spaces. Because exposed to this sunlight and fresh air, in this sense of expanded time and connection, the invisible forms that have governed our every move for aeons have no power over us. We thought for years our enthusiasm, our well-meaning natures, would be able to bring a different future into play but we forgot the will that drives the ancient machinery forward, that fuels the whirligig culture: our unconscious snarling dragonish selves. Our hearts were not strong enough on their own. We needed our free wills to make that move.

There is a deal you make with life. We made it a long time ago with the beasts and the plants, only our civilisations buried it in sand to further their own interests. For a long time I was not sure how we could remember this deal together. I was waiting for the perfect group, the right time, the right place. And then I realised it didn’t matter. Because I was already in contact with the people. They were just not on the beach standing beside me.

What I wanted to say in those classes and councils and never could, was that we endure the uneasy chair, the exigencies of the crucible, to remember this deal. How this remembering can cohere the fragmentation of the collective we see and feel all around us - its broken heart, its confused mind, its twisted and enraged will. We do it to remember what was embedded in those ancient stories, once called Original Instruction, the right way to engage with earthly life. We do it to liberate our fellows, trapped in the small places. We do it for the luminous planet that hosts us. So we can finally all find our way home.

I'll be teaching a second round of Coming Back to Earth, an online/outside 'compass' course with Nigel Bearman of School of the Wild at the end of the month. Do join us in a shared exploration of the lockdown times and the keys they can give for life in the future. Mapping, discussion and encounter. Booking and details here.

IMAGE: The Saint and the Oystercatcher by Kate Walters Book page and pen This work was made during one of three artist residencies I had on the Isle of Iona. I was researching St. Brigid and the oystercatcher which came to protect her. I was also beginning to practise a process of tuning into my body in a deep way, and using it to help me sense things around me, in the great beauty and clarity of Iona. Originally published in Dark Mountain: Issue 16 - REFUGE

Kate Walters is based in Trewarveneth Studios, Cornwall and published by Guillemot Press. Time spent in wild places – Shetland, Orkney, Italian national parks and the Hebrides – inform her painting and her writing. Most recently she has been working on a poetry pamphlet with Mat Osmond in response to a dream of an ancient sacred feminine force, The Black Madonna’s Song.

Friday, 20 March 2020


As human societies find themselves gripped in the claws of a pandemic, we encounter a cultural crisis which the Dark Mountain Project has been documenting for over a decade. This long form essay written for the online publication explores a myth of regeneration that might make sense of our predicament.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

– W.H Auden The Fall of Rome

'Where is the fracture point?’ asked the interviewer. We are in the black ‘Rebel’ tent at the Byline Festival on the edge of the Ashdown Forest on the hottest day of last year. The subject under discussion is, ‘Where Does It Fall Apart? How Our Civilisation Will Disintegrate’, and the panellists are Rupert Read (political spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion), Nafeez Ahmed (writer of the documentary The Crisis of Civilization) and David Wallace-Wells (author of The Uninhabitable Earth).

Anita McNaught, ex-Middle East correspondent and no stranger to the collapse of nations, leans forward and keeps pressing the question. Will it be oil, or water? Will it be political, agricultural, financial, biospheric, spiritual? In systemic collapse the break can occur anywhere and affect everything at once. No one is able to predict where or when it will come. Except that one day, it will.

In a year where biblical calamities have rained down upon the world – as floods, bush fires and locust storms– this fracture has not emerged in the highly stressed natural world but from within a globalised human society. After ignoring the cries of Cassandra for decades, the horse has finally entered the gates of the cities, releasing billions of tiny invisible lifeforms that are no respecters of age, gender, wealth, position or race.

The fracture point is what many of us have been searching for in these last years. Because, as every storyteller knows, the crack reveals everything that needs to be told: the flaw in the character that can bring down whole kingdoms, the chink in the prison wall that speaks of liberty, the wake up call to a cruel fairytale that has enthralled you and generations before you. And maybe the crack is, as Buckminster Fuller once described, the moment the chick, struggling for space as its food runs out, catches a glimpse of blue sky beyond the shell – and not apocalypse at all.


The crack comes when you least expect it and turns your safe world upside down: the moment when, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I found a copy of the psychologist Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child and my host yelled at me for not sharing her chocolate ice cream and neglecting her needs. I had just seen a documentary about the AIM activist Leonard Peltier and the Wounded Knee siege of 1973, and looking back now these three things appear synonymous: the bulemic woman whose family had escaped Auschwitz, a disputed murder on an indigenous massacre site, the children whose lives were torn apart by inherited violence.

It was late at 36 to have found out that our true selves are not related to the role we have played within our family or culture. It is late to find out that human beings are not meant to live in denial of the barbarism that underpins every civilisation. Most of all it is late to learn how to weather these encounters with reality and replenish the Earth we have so long taken for granted. To find out, as fear now grips the world, how to hold the line and not fall apart.

In a time when the story falters, the golden story of human promise and progress, the myth reveals itself, like broken bones in a midden. For the last decade I have been unearthing these remains to see what they can tell us about our ancestral obligations. Not the aspiring hero myths that bring glory to civilisations but the downward ones that connect us with the non-linear forces of the planet: Kairos who brings the intervention that cracks open our small linear worlds; Inanna who takes us down through the seven gates of the kur or Underworld; Wayland who waits, hamstrung, slowly crafting swan wings that will allow him to escape captivity; Ariadne who shows us the labyrinth is not a prison for a beast but a dancing floor.

But as the world falters, one myth stands steadily and quietly in the wings. Not an epic tale of gods but the story of a human girl and her struggle with the alchemical forces of love, beauty and justice. Her name is Psyche which means soul or butterfly, the creature that transforms itself from caterpillar to imago in the hermetic space of a cocoon. Having resisted every warning and admonishment to transform and change our ways, we are now, as a collective, being forced into a cocoon ourselves, in lockdowns and self-isolation, to do the work we should have done generations ago.


Psyche has to undergo change to earn the love of the winged boy she has lost. This love is not given freely, even to the most beautiful girl in the world. The mystery of metamorphosis lives underground, in the dark, and to learn the deal we have with life, to be symbiotic with the Earth, rather than a parasite on its bounty, we have to undertake that journey into the place some call the Underworld.

The love story of Psyche and Eros lies at the heart of The Golden Ass, a novel written by Apuleius in 2AD at the end of the Roman Empire, and inside this metamorphic tale, like the final Russian doll inside its layers, you find the four tasks the girl is set by Eros’ mother, the goddess Venus

Tasks are the stuff of a female initiatory process, sometimes called kitchen work, because the changes they demand take place amongst the ashes and pots and pans. Male initiatory quests depart on shining horses that head into the forest; female initiations bow our heads, cut off our hands, put a cape of rushes or moss around our shoulders. We are forced to take off our princess dresses and challenged to sweep the floor before sundown. Either way, everyone goes downstairs.

The first task Psyche is set is to sort a vast pile of grains and pulses. These are the seeds that have sustained civilisations for millennia: chickpea, lentil, poppy. Psyche is a foolish girl. She is beautiful but she knows nothing. We are the most technologically advanced culture in history but we know nothing about obligation or relationship with anything apart from ourselves. I have been a food editor in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world but known nothing about industrial farming or the seeds that now grow outside my window: wheat, barley, field bean.

These myths from the ancient world ran alongside civilisations for thousands of years. Like the ancient pueblo culture of the South West, they housed a spiritual relationship with the corn and pulses that sustained them. And with a tiny flower seed that reminds us how we must go underground, and die to the husks of our former lives, before we discover the kernel of life inside.


In 2009 panic has derailed the Transition conference at the Seale Hayne Agricultural College in Devon. We are used to reading peak oil and carbon emission graphs, we know we are embedded in a fragile agricultural and supply system that is entirely dependent on fossil fuel, that most of the crops grown in the subsidised, soil-wrecked fields are for biofuel or livestock feed. But Nicole Foss has just introduced the spectre of ‘losing your property’ and the monstrous consequences of debt in a heartless market economy. Vinny the Kneecapper will be at your door!

The first fracture point will most likely be breadbasket failure, declares Jem Bendell eight years later, as his paper on Deep Adaptation has a similar seismic effect within the academic world. We can no longer turn our fossil-fuelled Titanic civilisation around and fend off ecological and social catastrophe but need to adapt. We have to learn ‘how to best prepare for the inevitable and navigate our climate tragedy’.

Resilience is the first of the first three R’s of Bendell’s curriculum – the ability of communities and ecosystems to bounce back after drastic events, such as floods, fire, war, or pestilence. In Transition we have given up flying, supermarkets, palm oil, fish, chocolate. I have written 400 blogs on the culture of downshift and my kitchen hosts a row of fermenting jars and oddly shaped loaves. But I am not sure that these small measures alone will help any of us thrive when the reality of collapse knocks on our doors.


In each of the four tasks Psyche is helped by a small voice that speaks to her as she despairs of completing them. My sisters can help you, a kindly ant whispers in her ear, and the colony sort the seeds. A swaying reed offers her advice, an eagle battles dragons on her behalf. When Venus gives her a box to take to Persephone, Queen of the Dead and bring it back unopened, a stone tower tells her how to undertake the perilous journey.

We are not going to break out of our collective dilemma if we cannot hear the voices of non-human creatures outside the door, and humbly accept their help. If, as it is assumed, this pandemic is a result of the woeful treatment of wild animals (60% of new human diseases are zoonotic), we have a lot of reckoning to face. It is hard for human beings, who have for generations never learned to say thank you to the planet that has hosted us all our lives, where it has never crossed our minds we had to honour life and give back, nor that we had soul work to do, legacies and tasks that we hold like a small kist in our hands, when we are born.

It would be easy in this moment to say ‘we told you so’ (for indeed many writers, activists, visionaries, scientists have done so for decades, not least Dark Mountain’s prophetic manifesto), but hindsight is not useful here. What matters is not a hostile response but a clarity of mind and heart that recognises what may or may not happen at this time. The powerdown years have taught us how to put our feet on the ground and hold fast when the rage and grief and terror of aeons rocks the room. Most of all they have put the myths of regeneration into our hands, to give a purpose and nobility to our flawed endeavours.

In 2011 there was a story about the butterfly that went around the Occupy tents in the cities. When it first enters its cocoon and begins to dissolve everything it knows about its consuming life, the old caterpillar forms rise up to defeat the imago that is beginning to shape itself, its wings and new colours. So it falls back into the soup. but then it begins to rise again and this time the imaginal cells that hold the blueprint of the butterfly link up and hold the line: the butterfly becomes stronger and eventually breaks out to become a pollinator of the world.

This is a process people are born to make, as every archaic and indigenous people will tell you. Our caterpillar civilisations do not want us to transform in this way and lose their dominion over our labours, but sometimes the future is more powerful than the old world. Sometimes those old death-into-life myths break into our carefully constructed lives. Clearly most of us will not die from this pandemic, but inside ourselves, in a place that has been locked away for aeons, our souls have quickened. What matters, we realise, is not what we have been told matters. The man with the scythe stands in everyone’s living room. And his presence changes everything.


No one likes to go down. No one wants to be humble, or to have to ask their neighbour to borrow a ladder. We desire nicely pressed shirts and room service, but instead we get a sharp lesson in foraging for firewood, now the central heating has been turned off. When I endure my own downturn, I have to learn to love the dun colours of East Anglia and no longer yearn for the turquoise cenotes of the Yucatan, or the roar of the Pacific Ocean. This is the world, this is life at the end of Empire, the thing we thought could not happen. I would no longer be a person who could be smart and clever at parties. I will wear a second-hand coat, and work very hard to make myself at home in a country where I no longer have any value. When I speak of the realities of energy descent, people will tell me ‘we will be ascended and powerful in other ways’. No, I reply, we all have to go down.

Dale Pendell, the great plant metaphysician, once wrote that the opium poppy affected the brain in such a way that it enlarged the imagination and brought visions of palaces and cities of splendour. Without the poppy, you were bereft of access to these glittering places and felt their absence keenly. I am bereft of access to places and people I once loved. But I know this loss is part of the payback, the great sobriety, what Bendell has termed the second R of Relinquishment, ‘what we need to let go of that is making the crisis worse’.

The underworld is where you come up against the consequences of your actions, not only as an individual but as a citizen. The decision to give up the attributes of civilisation is a hard, hard task. Not only in the physical world, but in terms of our perceived greatness, our reputation, our sense of agency, our immense privilege that can only come at the cost of violence to the Earth, its creatures and to populations of people we never have to care about.

We hesitate at the banks of the great Styx, where the sterile willow trees lay down their branches, avoiding the baleful eye of Charon. But we hold a box in our hands, two coins in our mouth, and barley cakes to deceive the three-headed hound of Hades.

How much does it cost to know the love of the Earth?

When Psyche opens the box and dies, Eros, the primordial creator of the universe, raises her up. When the year turns, the sun returns, the seeds burst open their casing. The women rise up out of the Underworld. The world starts again.

One answer I have searched for in these years: anyone can fall into the Underworld but who can tell us how to return?


You tell us you are looking for a new story for this time of endings – a story with a beginning, a middle and a happy ever after. That goes in a line from A to B. But what if that narrative that gives us direction is not a new but an old one hidden beneath our feet, seemingly broken?’
I am rehearsing for a performance I will give tonight in Frankfurt, Germany, and Julian is rehearsing the pyrotechnics that will close this physical theatre festival. As I walk the steps of an ancient myth from Crete, he is pouring molten fire from a scaffolding tower to the courtyard below. In the kitchen inside this old industrial warehouse, the performers, dancers and acrobats laugh and talk in a dozen languages: a circus troupe at the end of the world.

I chose these myths of rise and fall because they provide a technĂȘ – tools and method and instruction manual – to go beyond the story told by our patriarchal civilisation. They give us a thread so we can find our way out of the labyrinth of our minds and remember the deal we made with the wild oceans and forests of a non-linear planet. These female myths are about tasks, about rigour and courage, and calling for help in times of crisis. The four R’s of Deep Adaptation are tasks, and the third, Restoration, calls for us to repair the fabric of the world.

Beneath our grassroots meeting circles, we began to glimpse the shapes of kivas and longhouses, those archaic circles and spirals left on rocks and barrows. When we held feasts in community halls, sat around the fire in the woods singing together, dug earth together, gathered honey and berries, it felt we were in touch with something deeper and more meaningful than the facts and figures behind climate change. Sometimes a joy ripped through us, as if it were possible to start again.

After the tent universities of the Occupy movement, we spoke differently about finance and hierarchy; after the Extinction Rebellions mainstream political debate included the phrases ‘biodiversity loss’ and ‘climate emergency’. However the challenge of the Underworld means we have to become different human beings and speak a language that connects us with a vast network of beings and our own creative imaginations, that goes beyond the concerns of human settlement.

In 2011 I find myself sitting around an Uncivilisation festival fire under the stars: a man is telling a Russian folktale in a bear mask, a trail of small lights leads us into the woods where a man wearing stag antlers is crashing around the undergrowth and women are speaking in riddles. It is as if all the fairytales I had read as a child have come alive. A crack opens in my heart to let them in.

In the years following this encounter, I find myself standing in front of a circle of river stones, teaching the rhythms of a clock that has been in use for thousands of years. I lead groups of people into the South Downs, into the Cheshire Hills, into a silent forest in Sweden, appear as a heron by the River Thames, as Mistress of the Deer in a Highland moor, at the turns and twists of the solar year. Afterwards we sit around a fire, in the dark, and speak of our dialogues with the Earth. Here in Germany, at the end of winter, we talk of what happens when we bring the creatures and mountains, rivers and valleys into this yurt in the middle of a city. As if they stand behind us. It’s a different conversation.


‘There is a crow who sits on my shoulder,’ said my lawyer father. ‘It is my conscience.’ And then he stared at his shoes in despair. When he died, the crow came to me. You have to tell me everything I said. About conscience.

The crow sat in the corner of my room in the travelling years when I lived on the edge of small towns in Europe and America. Silently, he observed me write my notebooks. And sometimes I would ask him a question. And he would put his head on one side and peer into the mysterious darkness of the void and declare what great law of conscience he located there.

You have, he said, to deal with the files with your name on and leave the rest.

When we embarked on a dreaming practice in Australia at the turn of the millennium, it was as if all those files had blown open and everything that had been buried from our dark houses and histories came to be redressed: animals faced me in the slaughterhouses, children with metal teeth attacked me, friends and lovers lurched out of the shadows, seeking reparation. It would have been good to sit around a table and come to an understanding, but the Underworld doesn’t work like that. Words and good intentions mean nothing, moves are all that matter.

Something else however began to appear at the edge of our nightmares: giant rays and whales, emus and kangaroos, rocky landscapes of colour and light. An Aboriginal man put his hand through a window and shook mine: We are the action, he said. After our long dialogues, Mark and I would go out into the backcountry, or by the sea and watch the dolphins leap in the waves. One afternoon, by a rainforest pool, a boy fell from a cliff, and I sat on a rock beside him, waiting for the shock to subside. A turtle swam by us and a wind shivered through the gum trees. When I looked up I saw a group of men, women and children standing naked in the water, in harmony with everything around them, and there was a peace and a silence between us that seemed to stretch to infinity. I realised I was looking at the future. The practice was freeing up my mind, so I could see it.


I have a book open on my lap. It weighs almost four pounds and is 1000 pages long, a testament to the iniquities of Empire: from the genocides of Africa and Tasmania to the famine in Ireland, from the British slave trade to the European Holocaust. On the left hand page there is a list of the nine Ogoni tribesmen hanged on 10th November 1995. On the right are the names of the Shell executives who allowed the executions of the activists to take place, so they could continue their company’s devastation of the Niger Delta for fossil fuel. All their names have been redacted. Among the nine is the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who wrote:
… the stories I tell must have a different sort of purpose from the artist in the Western world. And it’s not now an ego trip, it is serious, it is politics, it is economics, it’s everything, and art in that instance becomes so meaningful, both to the artist and to the consumers of that art.
This morning, as the world disappears inside its cocoon, it feels impossible to say anything that could count as a message, or speak for the people or a country in the way Saro-Wiwa was able to. But if a writer has an obligation, it is to keep that door to the Underworld open, so the living systems, in which civilisations embed themselves like parasitic worms, do not shut down. And sometimes the way we can do that is to document our own passage through those fracture points, to reveal what powers the world we live in, whether this is George Orwell going into the Yorkshire mines, or Dan Gretton walking to the site of Buchenwald; my own small slide into the kur in times of climate catastrophe.

I thought there were three R’s we needed to learn about for Deep Adaptation. But in 2019 there appeared a fourth, Reconciliation, which inconveniently brings the rest of humanity into our individual restorations, and the thorny territory of social justice.

Reconciliation, writes Bendell, is not only with your death or anger or regret, but
reconciliation between peoples, genders, classes, generations, countries, religions and political persuasions. Because it is time to make our peace. Otherwise, without this inner deep adaptation to climate collapse we risk tearing each other apart and dying hellishly.
The real crisis we face is existential: who we are as human beings, and what our presence means on this planet at this time. Ancestral myths address that crisis, not as a tragedy, but as material, as a moral imperative to put a crooked thing straight. Shifting a paradigm is not an abstract phrase you can wield in a lecture hall or workshop, but something that happens concretely, in the depths of yourself, in your relationships in the real world. How to configure that change is encoded in the ancient myths and fairytales, in our encounters with wildness, in the tracking of dreams, the way the Earth can still speak to us through the jangled frequencies of our minds.

The real crisis we face is existential: who we are as human beings, and what our presence means on this planet at this time. Ancestral myths address that crisis, not as a tragedy, but as material, as a moral imperative to put a crooked thing straight

I thought I would never be reconciled to the dark forces that were revealed in my own life. How could I remedy anything I had witnessed, or read about? ‘Who is it who can walk down these little roads of grief?’ my friend Carmen once asked of the tracks the Apache nation had left behind in their exile. And yet we do, willingly, for this is the task ahead of us. I don’t know if we will make it to any kind of liveable future, but I know it exists on the edge of time. And on a good day, I can see it and I wish it could stay forever.

I wish for so many things as the skies darken. I wish the girls we once were had not had to shoulder that hard legacy from their fathers. I wish that the creatures in Australia had not been burned. I wish that the massacres I am reading about in this book had never happened. I wish my country had not divorced itself from the mainland of Europe, and this plague and decades of hostility had not driven everyone into hiding. I wish I could have reconciled the people who came into my dreams in those years, that we could have sat around that table and found a happy ending. But I have to know that it was enough to speak out their names in the clear morning, under the peeling eucalypt, under the mesquite, under the oak by the curve of the Suffolk barley field.

I did not want to lose my beautiful life but I did. I let it go. I did it to make the world lighter and kinder, to leave a track the way the people have always left tracks for us to follow, in the rocks, in their dialogues with creatures and plants and planets, in their art, in their beauty.

At equinox I will light a fire with the branches of the elm that fell in the winter storm, as the year shifts from the time of the underworld to the light-filled upperworld of spring, as my ancestors have done in these islands, across the world, since we can remember. I will jump over the fire as I did on leap day with Lucy and Mark, in a ceremony we held in a courtyard in Brick Lane, and a hundred people followed in our footsteps, banging drums and saucepans, shouting these words in Persian, in fellowship, with our kith in the East End, in Tehran, in city streets across the world:

Zardi-ye man az to
Sorkhi-ye to az

O fire, I will give you my sickly yellow and I will take your fiery red!

May you have the courage to jump the fire. May you disobey your forefathers and open the box. May all your helpers come in time. May we all sing before the storm as it advances, as Eros approaches us with his great wings. May we have loved this Earth and each other enough for this not to be the end.

IMAGE: The Oil Slick at the BP or Not BP action against BP sponsorship of the Troy exhibition at the British Museum in February ‘Oil is everything that died. Ever. We are the atoms of everything melted and dissolved. We have no compassion. We have no feeling. We take everything in our path. There’s no right. No wrong. But we are also the beating heart. The sap. The visceral body fluid of the earth. They should have left us in the ground… but they didn’t. We are here’. (Photo: Guy Reece from striking faces @strikingfaces)


Miller, A. The Drama of the Gifted Child, 1978, Revised and republished by Virago in 1995 as The Drama of Being a Child
Bendell, Professor J. Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, 2018
Pendell, D. Pharmako/Poeia: Plants, Powers, Poisons and Herbcraft, North Atlantic Books, 1995
Gretton D. I You We Them: Journeys Beyond Evil: The Desk Killer in History and Today, Heinemann, 2019

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

The Earth Does Not Speak in Prose

Reading Dark Mountain by Kit Boyd

A conversation with Paul Kingsnorth for the just published tenth anniversary edition of Dark Mountain about writing in times of catastrophe, decolonising language and how you build a culture that can speak with the land.

In 2008, Paul Kingsnorth was working on two seismic texts. One was a small red pamphlet, engineered with fellow ex-journalist Dougald Hine, that laid down the tracks for what would become The Dark Mountain Project; the other was a post-apocalyptic novel written in a ‘shadow tongue’, the first in a trilogy of books that follows the fate of a man on the brink of collapse in different millennia. Both make strong demands on the reader. Uncivilisation challenges a world view conventionally shaped by progress, technology and human exceptionalism; The Wake, our linguistic skills and capacity to step into the mindset of someone whose land, culture and sense of being in control is taken away by a force outside their known boundaries.  

In 2019, I am sitting opposite the writer who has for the last decade wrestled with these crises in essays, fiction and poetry; who has shaped anthologies, directed festivals and writing courses and brought together a collection of writers and artists to pay attention to the ecological and social collapse we all inevitably face. realise that despite having worked alongside each other during these years, we have never spoken about our mutual craft, and that now is the moment. We are in a coffee shop in the bookish town of Hay-on-Wye. It’s midsummer, a golden day in the Golden Valley. In his just-published non-fiction work, Savage Gods, he challenges himself: on his quest to find a place to belong on the Earth, and on his true worth as a wielder of words. Finally he is thrown the gauntlet by the mischievous god Loki, who, swiping a beer from his fridge, tells him to ‘shut up’ entirely.   

Luckily for you and me, this only refers to writing...  

CHARLOTTE DU CANN  Looking back at the decade, from the time of the manifesto to now, what strikes you as most significant in terms of the zeitgeist? 

PAUL KINGSNORTH  Perhaps the most significant fact about the last decade is how much was said in the manifesto that has become pretty much widely accepted. In terms of the culture, it was quite a wild thing to be saying: that it is not possible to stop the collapse and that we need to write about the situation for real. 

Now the kind of things we were publishing in the first books you can find in the New York Times and the Guardian; in the fact that Extinction Rebellion are called Extinction Rebellion. Most people are saying: we are in the catastrophe now, ecologically speaking. Which is a shame because it would have been nice if we had been entirely wrong.  

CDC The manifesto threw down a gauntlet for writers and artists to respond to this catastrophe. How successful do you think that has been? 

PK Funnily enough, I think that might be the least successful part of Dark Mountain. I had this idea originally that I could found a writer's group like C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, sitting around in the pub talking about orcs, and we would have a little journal. It was Dougald’s idea to publish a manifesto so people would know what we were talking about, and he knew all about crowdfunding, which was new at the time.  

For me it was a literary project partly because I wanted to get away from being an activist. I largely failed to do that, because I couldn't stop writing about the failure of activism and detach myself from the political conversation. Like George Orwell, I was being constantly pulled between: 'I want to be a literary writer’ and ‘I've got to get involved in the world I'm in’. 

CDC In these ten years, the responses to the manifesto have attracted a certain kind of writing that you wouldn’t necessarily call literary... 

PK The difference between Uncivilisation and, say, the modernist manifestos which partly inspired it, is that we weren't suggesting people should write in a certain way. We were talking about tackling a certain set of themes, particularly demolishing the myth of progress and stepping outside our humanness, taking the crisis seriously and understanding where we are.  

The most significant thing turned out to be the non-fiction and maybe the events, and  the creation of a group of people who share that perspective.  

CDC Maybe the function of writing now is that it can address a territory that activism never really looks at, which is the existential crisis that we're in.  

PK In some ways it's not a time for literature. What we call literature is completely inadequate, particularly metropolitan, middle-class British literature that is utterly unconcerned with the great existential issues of our time. That's one of the things that motivated me to write Savage Gods: what kind of writing would you produce in this time if you took this seriously? It's not just a question about subject matter, it's a question about form. And it's also a question about why you would even write anything.  

CDC So where does that leave the role of the writer, do you suppose? 

PK When we wrote the manifesto, I believed very strongly in the writer as an agent of change. And I’m not sure I do anymore. That’s part of the crisis that led me to Savage Gods: writing about losing faith in the written word. And that’s because for me, direct experience is becoming more and more important than experience filtered through writing.  

I don’t have the same belief that I had ten years ago in the idea that a literary movement of people could produce world-changing stuff.  Partly because society is so big and so complex, and when I look back at the manifesto now, I was approaching literature from quite an activist-y mindset. You know, We will use writing to change the future! 

CDC I really enjoyed the references in Savage Gods to people who would definitely be considered writers of literature, such as Yeats or Kavanagh or DH Lawrence. Those writers appear like touchstones, like a lineage. Would you describe it like that? 

PK I didn’t really consciously think about that when I was younger, but I do now. Who would be in my lineage? Yeats would be in my lineage, and Ted Hughes, Jeffers and DH Lawrence, Emily Bronte, Wordsworth, and basically all the great dark Romantics. But also others like Orwell, Chesterton, Huxley. There’s a certain strain of English radicalism that appeals to me which is quite particular. Now that I’ve said that, I’ll contradict it by talking about lots of American writers… 

CDC  Robinson Jeffers is not very English… 

PK Yes, there’s that great American wilderness tradition: Jeffers, but also Thoreau, Edward Abbey. And other writers like Wendell Berry… There’s something about American writing about nature and place which appeals to me much more than the kind of polite, middle-class, Oxbridge-y English nature writing which I find tiresome. I would much rather read someone with this great eagle’s perspective on the world. 

CDC  That is dictated by the land itself, I think. 

PK I think it is. Because it’s a very small, very old part of the country here in Britain. Whereas in America you can still stride out, and maybe get killed by a bear, and have a non-human experience at scale. 

So if I had a lineage, there’s a certain English radical Romantic tradition and there’s an American wild landscape tradition. And then also politically, I think of someone like, say, Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, who was a massive influence on me. Someone who came out of the city and decided to learn about what it meant to be indigenous, to belong to a place and become a revolutionary leader of a very different kind. Firstly, one who’s directed by the people themselves. And secondly, one who’s coming from a sense of place and culture, which is not a kind of unchanging, reactionary sort of everything-was-viable-in-the-old-days-and-we’ll-keep-it-like-that notion. Quite the opposite: the Zapatistas want change. But it’s entirely untheoretical.  

CDC There seems to be a thread throughout all these writers from Marcos to Wendell Berry: that their work comes out of knowing places, it doesn’t come out of the mind. 

PK Yes, this something I come back to again and again in all of my writing. The fact that the global machine which is destroying the Earth flourishes by destroying all cultures, all peoples, all places -- like grubbing up an orchard. As it ploughs through the world everybody is pulled into the engine to feed the growth machine. And so the process of rooting becomes a radical act but also a difficult one. Because what does that mean when everyone is moving around, if I don’t belong anywhere? 

The best places I’ve been in the world in my view have been the most rooted places, where cultures are very old and people have a strong kind of solidity to them, like old trees. And they know their land, and they know it’s where their ancestors are buried and where they’re going to be buried. Compare that to the kind of weird rootlessness of the modern West, of which I’m a part, and there’s no comparison, in terms of the way that people live well. 

Most of us aren’t living like that. I’m not living like that. And there are more and more people moving around all the time, and migrating and being displaced, some of them voluntarily and some of them not. That’s what we’re all doing all the time, internally and externally. How do you get from here to there is the question. 

CDC And it’s not just a matter of finding your place. It’s a matter of having a relationship with that place, whether you ‘own’ it or not. 

PK The reality is that people need to belong across space and time. 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?’ 

CDC And that’s a task as well. 

PK 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… 

CDC Or rediscovering old myths, old texts… 

PK 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.’ 

CDC 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?  

PK  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. 

CDC It hurts and you end up in a state of crisis. 

PK 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.  

CDC 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. 

PK 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. 

CDC 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. 

PK 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.  

CDC And do you think words are part of that? 

PK 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.  

CDC A lot of poets get close to it. 

PK 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. 

CDC One of the things that’s so difficult is that the planet doesn’t speak rationally, so you have to learn another language. 

PK 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.   

CDC So how do we decolonise, to use a very modern term, our own words?  

PK 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? 

CDC In some ways with The Wake you went back to something like this… 

PK 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.  

CDC 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. 

PK 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. 

CDC You’ve just completed the final book of the trilogy, and then you’re going to take some time off… 

PK 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? 

PK 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… 

CDC There still is a world? 

PK 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… 

CDC Which is what you’ve done… 

PK 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. 

CDC 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.  

PK 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? 

This interview was originally published in Dark Mountain: Issue 16 - REFUGE. Copies are now available from the Dark Mountain online shop.