Sunday, 12 August 2018

Letter to Mr. Gurdjieff

Last week the upcoming Dark Mountain: Issue 14 on place and belonging went to Bracketpress to be typeset and designed. After months of forging its pages and the new sparkly website, I am finally posting an essay I wrote for the spring journal, set in the Wyre Forest in the depths of the winter solstice (in very different weather!).

‘I teach that when it rains the pavements get wet.’
Dear Mr. Gurdjieff – I don’t know why exactly I am writing to you today in the stillness of midwinter, except the sound of your name came, like a train whistle, pulling me into the kitchen where I first heard it:


I am standing on a Navajo rug looking at one of Peter’s paintings, tens of thousands of coloured dots on a long vertical canvas, and behind me, Carmen is lighting a Mexican votive candle as she did each evening on her return from Cochise County Library.

‘Gurdjieff taught we were bombarded by the influences of the planets, pulled in all directions by cosmic forces inside ourselves, and we needed to be able to handle them.’

And now, here in this darkness in an English forest, years later, watching the sparks of a midwinter fire fly up into the canopy, dressed in a black overcoat and a hat covered in oak leaves, I felt an urgent desire to recall everything I knew about you.

I wasn’t interested in your complex cosmic system then, but I liked Carmen’s stories about you: how you would send your students into restaurants and instruct them to leave without paying, how you gleefully went about stepping on everyone’s corns. I liked that you drank and made everyone else drink and cook and dance. ‘Everything in the Universe is material!’ you said about your worldly practice, a method of self-transformation in ordinary life, made famous by the mathematician and thinker, P.D. Ouspensky, as The Fourth Way. Carmen was part of a Gurdjieff group that had been running in the hills above Tucson for years: she played your compositions on her grand piano in the old miner’s hotel, and tried to dance your sacred steps, until she twisted her knee and had to stop.

‘I am too rigid!’ she would wail and didn’t sound too pleased about the  metaphor. On the Day of the Dead she would bake three small cakes, pan de los muertos, for her Three Gs: you, George her old mentor, and God. She wasn’t pleased with any of you either and battled with all of your pronouncements and demands for a spiritual life. Sometimes I would find her pushing a broom with an intense look in her eyes. ‘I am focused on the task,’ she would say. I raised my eyebrows. I was not into gurus, and still am not into gurus, or temples, or being a follower of anything or anyone. Sometimes I’ve avoided the transmission – or thought I have – in my own annoyance with humans grovelling at the feet of great holy masters and their emissaries.

When we returned from America at the turn of the millennium, we found ourselves without direction in a place where we knew no-one, and during that first winter we stoked up the fire each evening with elm and birch wood and read the whole of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. It was a long book, over a thousand pages. Mark read out loud, I listened, the fire roared in the grate.

‘We have to make ourselves at home’, I said. ‘We have to start again.’

Being Effort is required.

You see, even though that was 15 years ago and I no longer have your books, I can remember the language, its strange and yet familiar terms, how they helped us do what seemed impossible at the time. Here by another fire, in the dead of winter, I felt I needed to make an account.Only this time it’s not personal. Perhaps it never was – I just didn’t see it at the time, wrapped up in my own seeming exile and grief. It had felt like the end of the world.

Bobbin-kandelnost – the force that exists in the three centres ofthinking, feeling and moving within the self; that acts like a coiledspring and can lose momentum and run out by overuse (see also‘Die like Dog’).
You wrote that three-brained beings don’t want to wake up to the terror of the situation, the realisation we are all asleep and stuck in automatic behaviours, our minds and personalities all over the place, reacting to outside events and never coming from within. The book, the ‘First Series’ of your All and Everything trilogy, opens with a description of a bellringer in a town, who curses the populace each morning as he climbs out of bed, so that their curses would deflect away from his work in the belltower. No one wants to wake up, get out of bed, do the thing they are supposed to do, to be a live conscious being in a difficult time. Fewer still want to ring that bell.

You wrote your masterpiece in the twenties, as the world rocked towards the Depression. You had arrived in Paris with the mass psychosis of the Russian revolution at your heels. People may say, with the clarity and dispassion of historians: well, it wasn’t so hard then to be awake, there was less to consider planetarily speaking. But it is always hard, the burning issues of the day are always the burning issues of the day, whether the spectre of another war in Europe or a climate catastrophe. You can be awake to that moment in the way poets in the trenches and gulags were awake, you can sacrifice yourself nobly to a cause to change the destiny of people, or you can be awake and not comply with the orders to stay asleep. You can embody an intrinsic inner move that can break the machine.

There is a moment in the Tales that struck me: you are sitting in the Paris cafe, where you are writing in several notebooks, dressed in a vanilla-coloured overcoat and a red fez. There is a bottle of brandy on the table and you are surrounded by the clatter of cups and knives and forks to hone your  mentation, your absolute focus on the matter at hand, as you turn your Saturnian face, with its drooping moustache, towards a woman greeting a group of friends. You suddenly see this scene at the table played over and over through time, through every civilisation and city, and still here the same petty relationships, the rivalries, the posturings of society, the things that take up the minds and hearts of people and no progress made at all, in spite of everything that has been said over and over again by poets, by mystics, by philosophers, by you.

Bored Secretary – the challenge of thwarting the associative mind that goes into the mental filing cabinets for facts or trivia; the pursuit of busyness out of superficiality and lack of rigour.
Most people remember the dramas and the gossip: whether you were or were not the last magus of Europe, or a carpet dealer and charlatan who slept with your students, whether your teaching really did come from the ancient Sarmoung Brotherhood in the Hindukush; or they mention your famous quarrel with Ouspensky, or how Katherine Mansfield died in your care at Le Prieuré, and a string of anecdotes and quotes and photographs of people in white tunics in elegant dance salons.

I am not a storyteller, I told Lucy and the women as they melted into the darkness tonight. I come from a line of engineers and lawyers, I have a forensic mind and love of structure. We have come here to initiate a network that will connect the women and the trees of these islands. It is a bold project. I know what needs to happen won’t take the shape of a narrative that we might already know, that to change really, truly, deeply, we have to let go of all those happy-ever-after stories of romantic love, of reconciliation and redemption. We need a rigorous practice that will break us open. A shock that will push us in another direction.

Your esoteric teachings were all about the musical scale and though I know now how your name should be pronounced (Gurrr-jeff, gruffly like a Russian bear), I cannot pretend to know their intricate meanings, any more than I understood how all those dots related in Peter’s painting. Yet the impression of a cosmic map remained, and one point shone outward  like a star you might recognise in the night sky: there is a stage as you increase your knowledge and practice and ascend the scale, where something has to come in from the outside to boost your inner transformation.

These encounters come but we are not ready for them, or they knock us over, or we forget to make the move. I thought I would never get over my exile from that desert place, from Carmen’s kitchen, from my life on the road – so I put a hand out and found a book and that’s when you came in with your convoluted metaphors, with your rants about tinned food, with your strange vocabulary, part-Armenian, part-English, part-Russian, for a transmission that I was open to without even knowing I was open to it.

I was born six years after you were buried in the Île-de-France, and the circumstances of my arising and my own nature would mean, even if I had been of your time, I would never have come to one of your packed lectures in New York, or danced a sacred dance in a white tunic, even with Carmen playing the piano. But here I am, having worked on self-pity and inner-considering and contending with everyone else’s. We still live in times of mass psychosis. The experts continue to wiseacre. The world is still asleep.

Being-Partkdolg-duty – twin methods of soul-making and waking up: conscious labours (also known as being effort) and intentional-suffering, the greatest of which is the ability to endure the ‘displeasing-manifestations-of-others-towards-yourselves’.
This wood is made up mostly of coppiced oak trees. An industrial forest in the 18th and 19th  centuries, the Wyre sits between the green hills of  Wales and the manufacturing sprawl of the Midlands. Sooty-faced charcoal burners once built great pyres in the clearings and made the charcoal that fuelled the iron forges of Birmingham, the smelters of a revolution that would rock the world. Until the discovery of coal, only the high temperatures of charcoal could melt the metal, and even now it is the favoured fuel of blacksmiths and sword makers.

Now the wood has become a neglected monoculture of oak trees, some streaked black with disease, with no space for them to branch out or for other trees to grow. They are sleeping, the curator said when I arrived, and told me his plans for restoration. Except for the yews. The yews stand there like red-armed sentinels from another time, some of them over 800 years old. When the snows came this winter, herds of deer sheltered underneath the white roof oftheir branches. This morning I stood in their hoofprints and listened to the rain fall quietly around me, listening out for an ancestral tale I might tell around this fire that might spark another kind of revolution.

Charcoal makers lived in the woods in shacks, feared and despised as ‘the devil’s men’. The work was hard and long and dangerous. They built up a pile of logs and covered it with soil and turf. The process took days and sometimes weeks. The gases produced were highly toxic and still are where Charcoal is now made, mostly illegally, for modern barbeques, in the forests of Africa and South America. The work for the women in the forest was also hard, as they stripped the bark from the coppiced trees for the tanning of leather.

The sparks in the fire come from old spruce fence posts and some birch, but mostly felled oak, where they are making space for other things to flourish here. ‘Who are we doing it for?’ asked the curator. For the nature lover who values butterflies, for the runner who likes to run along a straight path, for the forester who likes good long planks for carpenters to work with, for the charities who own it to make it pay its way when the subsidies run out, which they will surely do someday soon?

When you don’t know what to do or what you are doing life for, you build a fire, and you wait for something to spark you alight again. We are in the time of the winter solstice, the day that breaks the circle of the year, between its last outward breath and the first inward pull of air: the place of no breath.

After your first car crash, at the point when Le Prieuré, your school in Fontainebleau, was faltering, you pushed everyone aside and went into the forest and made up a great fire, and for days you sat in front of it. The fire remade you.

How heated do things have to become until we can reforge ourselves,to work the iron in our soul? If we fed the fire all our stories, everything we needed to die to, could we reforge the world into a different shape?

Inner Considering – the act of chewing over incidents which you feel guilty about or wish had been otherwise; to be replaced by outward expression (see also ‘Remorse of Conscience’).
What you need, above all, is the courage to face the terror that feels like annihilation. There are almost no words to describe that feeling because it is happening in a place that no one has working words for: as if you are being crushed by air or engulfed by flames that devour your memory; as if you are being dragged downwards into a pit and a force is sucking all the awareness and sweetness out of you.

When I returned I needed a techne to restore myself. I fed the fire my travelling story: I fed it my capacity to love a certain place on Earth that felt like home, my capacity to love certain people, my companions. These things wouldn’t happen again in my lifetime. Afterwards I found myself in another position, holding the reins of a carriage in my hands.

To get our horse and carriage into shape was core to your teaching. In order to behave like a human being, rather than a machine, we had to gather our wits about us and become fully conscious. The horse was our emotional body, the driver our mind, and the carriage our physical body. Only when these three parts of ourselves were working together could the passenger alight. Not to hail us occasionally like a hackney cab, but to be fully on board.

The techne of consciousness is hard, on-the-edge work. You have to persuade the horse not to bolt at every turn, you have to instruct the driver to have a feel for the horse and the bumpy road ahead. The
carriage needs to be roadworthy, kept in good nick. These three parts of ourselves need to work together. Otherwise we are not able to carry the passenger.

Who is the passenger? It is our conscious awake self, our spirit, our intelligence. The ‘being-I’ who knows what is going on and what we are doing together in this English forest, as the longest night holds us in its embrace and the owls call to each other from the canopy.

In those desert years I had climbed down and worked with the horse. I had become a whisperer of my own feeling being. We are held hostage by our feelings and, like the nervous, imaginative creature who has borne us loyally all these years, remember every blow received, so that when we see a shape we associate it with a dark presence we once knew, we rear up, or we refuse to move. Somehow, we have to unlearn all that fear and trust the driver. The driver has to walk beside the horse, repair her will which has been broken over thousands of years.

I let the horse lead me to regions that were not on the map: to reclaim my heart lost in childhood nightmares, into the forgotten kingdoms of trees and birds and sea to recover my place on Earth.  Most seekers focus on the driver and become too controlling, hampering the horse with bridle and whip; others work on the carriage, becoming obsessed with paint and cogs and springs. But I knew we go nowhere in the land of fire without the horse.

Mr. Self-Love and Mrs. Vanity – self-importance; twin attributes of self-obsession which lock human beings inside themselves and prevent influences both bad and good from entering (to be distinguished from the Self Love of essence which brings freedom– see Life is Only Real Then When I Am).
 The moment of solstice is exact. The pause between the expiration of the year and its great inhalation. There are ancient stories I can tell about this moment, how the oak changes place with the holly tree, the robin with  the wren, how in my country in the east, the men with blackened faces come over the marsh holding firebrands, and the women with hats draped with ivy, who back them playing the music of fife and drum. The dance is slow and heavy, their boots stamping the earth awake, the sticks clash and click like antlers, like flint against flint.

But most of all this is a techne for showing that life can begin again, so  long as we relinquish  everything we know in this moment of no breath, so long as we can admit none of us know what is going to happen or how. The techne comes through the mouths of people you don’t even respect, or a book that falls into your hands in a second-hand store that you open without knowing why.

Or now, as I find myself clicking two sticks of rainforest wood Aurelia gave me that spring night in Oaxaca for a performance we called the Earth Medicine Show. As she drummed and Mark sang, I danced and Julianne told us her heart that had frozen over in the Minneapolis winter had suddenly melted, and afterwards the five of us went out to dinner arm-in-arm to the square. That rooftop performance was our first and our last, and even though we rehearsed and talked about it for years, only now do I understand that it wasn’t the right time for shows. My carriage was robust but the horse was too nervy, the driver prone to flights of fancy. My eye was not on the road.

I don’t like to think that every radical move I’ve made in these years has been caused by outer shocks’. To be inwardly free – the ultimate goal  of Gurjieffian thinking – you have to transform the world’s hostilities and not submit to them. Because I was thrown out of America, because I underwent my own financial katabasis and had to face the reality of the job centre, because I had to suffer, more-or-less consciously, the ‘nullities emitting atmospheres of unendurable vibrations’ telling me I was worthless, knew nothing, or ignoring me entirely, I am here now dancing by the fire.

Self-calming – an act of deception we practice to pretend everything is all right when it is not; false assurances that prevent reality from being perceived.
When I think of you now I see your flat in Paris, where you spent your last years with the curtains drawn. For some reason I imagine it is one of those ateliers, with a crammed larder of jars and sausages swinging from hooks, though it was probably grander than that. You have given up on the world you say and now only teach a small band of women, mostly lesbians, called The Rope. When the Occupation is over you host great dinners and toast the idiots with glasses of vodka. You insist that everyone has to read your work at least three times to understand it.

I don’t know the 17 kinds of idiot you need to be totally awake (what is a round idiot, a square idiot?). It took me a long time to realise that an idiot was not an idiot, but that in different moments of awakening you appear like an idiot to everyone else in the status quo, to your family, to your best friend, to your culture and nation and history, that to be ready for the passenger to hail you is a great and noble task because you are doing it for the forest and the deer, and all who flourish under their branches. That is no small thing.

I have been a compassion idiot, a seeker idiot, a relinquishment idiot, a community activist idiot, a real democracy idiot. At each turn I imagined that if everyone woke up, got conscious, the world would turn around. Even though when I go to the city (which is not often) it looks as though we have become more like automatons than ever, our attention captured by small lit-up screens. And then I remember that this Earth is a chance to start again and, every year, time gives us that possibility, this moment.

In many ways I too have closed my curtains on the world and stocked up my larder. I have spent too much time chasing Mrs. Serious Problem (as you called the demands on you to secure funds) and the book I wanted to write is unfinished. But one thing you learn from being a writer: you are good at waiting, you are good at holding out, you can weather the moment of no breath, knowing that one day the spark will happen, the sentences will tumble out, and that they are only good if the form of their creator is newly-smelted. You wait for a long time, until the fire is hot enough to burn you without consuming you, to suck the moisture and then the oxygen out of you.

You wait for the opportunity, and when it arrives you toast all the idiots you have met whose common presences have helped shaped you, put the reins back into your hands. You look at them across the table, on the other side of the fire, and you raise your glass:

Salut Carmen, salut Peter, salut Aurelia, salut Lucy, salut Mark, salut George Ivanovich!

Kundabuffer – invisible organ that controls perception and turns any encounter with a disturbing reality upside down; a force that prevents you from seeing the truth when the truth would cause you to lose hope; a filter that requires dismantling.
In 1918, women in Britain finally won the right to vote (though only if  you were a householder over the age of 30). In 1918, the young men of Britain did not return to the Forest from the trenches of Flanders. Those who survived went instead to work in the factories of the Black Country. In 1918, your father was shot amongst the throng in the Armenian genocide in your home city of  Alexandrapol, and, posing as a scientist, you left Essentuki with a band of family members, companions and pupils and walked through the Caucasus Mountains. It was the beginning of a long journey west that went through Georgia to Istanbul to Paris.

You wrote that humanity was at a standstill and that ‘from a standstill there is a straight path to downfall and degeneration’, that nothing pointed to our evolution. And 100 years later it seems women are no more emancipated than human beings are more evolved. We have the vote, some of us are kinder to animals and some of us realise the effect of our actions on the living planet – but as a species we appear to be as stupid, cruel and greedy as ever. Our technology has evolved but we are
less vigorous, less alive, more timid, more pursued by ghosts and the trauma of history through generations, at a standstill where we feel responsible for everything and nothing at all; where our key fault is still our passivity and suggestibility – our lack of ability to think for ourselves and to handle those forces that battle for supremacy inside and outside ourselves.

Our buffers allow us to say one thing and do another: we lament deforestation while sitting on teak chairs, lament the state of the ocean whilst eating its disappearing fish, we think we are enlightened because we have read books, and pretend the slave trade is over when it is worse than ever. We’re still stuck in patriarchy, in a dualist Babylonian mindset – the cause, you once said, of all wickedness in the world – and we continue to nurture the ‘artificial, the unreal, and what is foreign, at the cost of the natural, the real, and what is one’s own.’

But maybe a standstill is a place to start from. Maybe if we just stopped here together, sat with the disturbing reality of that fact, something  else would kick in. Maybe if we shifted out of our predilection for stories, away from our desire to grovel at the feet of shiny saviours and patriarchs, our obeisance to the genetic mummy-daddy-baby machine,our longing for the community to love us, to succeed, to be a star, to be left alone – maybe some awakening would happen.

We would need to go against nature and against god as you once said – not against the Great Nature of the glacier and the tiger but our own propensity for passivity and suggestibility; not the solar and cosmic forces but the violent gods we worship and pray to in blind faith, instead of engaging in The Work that would make us function at higher vibratory levels, and thus the world, that would break us out of the prisons of our mind and from all our gaolers. That could allow us to be grander and kinder and more intelligent than these small rooms allow us.

Solioonensius – a time of solar or planetary tension which energises the Earth so people strive for freedom – then turn that striving for freedom into war or revolution, into destruction; a time when old ideas can no longer move the world and new ideas have not yet gained momentum; when certain new directions can be implanted into general culture.
Sometimes I remember what lay outside Carmen’s kitchen and I can feel the blue sky arching forever, and the empty roads that go on forever, the way in late March the flowers of the ocotillo lick the air like the flames of epiphany, and the scent of chaparral permeating the world after the rain. How I used to feel with the women in Mexico, as we sat beside the water, our colours and laughter and fluidity. I remember the space and that feeling of freedom I can never sense in my own country. How this lightness, this liberation, is what we all look for and yet here we are on this crowded island, in this sleeping forest, my muddy lane with its power possessor driveways and toxic runoff from barley fields, threats of development on all sides. Dispossessed, precarious, unnecessary. This is the territory I have to wrestle and contend with after the hope-for-something died in the high deserts of America.

You have to make yourself matter, become an active agent in the fabric of the world. If you are versed in myth and story, in the beauty of the bird and the flower, it is easy to feel at home on the Earth, but being at home amongst your fellow human beings is a task once you forgo the lullabies and cradle songs of Empire, and awake to find a bell rope in your hands.

We wield great terms above our heads like axes – social justice, transformation, shift of consciousness, power of community – ready to split enemy heads apart with their force. But still we are asleep, reacting, neglecting The Work down among the people in the petty shops and tearooms, enduring the unbearable vibrations of the office bully, the personages that control the boardrooms and parliaments.

A network is not a community, I told the women. We stand on miles upon miles of mycelium networks, connecting the forest, nourishing the roots of all beings underground. The community gathers the people together round the fire, it looks inward. The further you are inside it the warmer and more connected you feel. Outside a cold wind blows and you push and jostle to be in the throng.

A network is not concerned with belonging. It is self-directed and interested in the connections it makes. It works outwardly, focused on the matter at hand. The more the network is resonant and alive, the stronger it feels. Living networks depend on living breathing plants and creatures and microbes that are everywhere around us. We are an industrialised, neglected wood – asleep – but there are networks communicating beneath our feet and ancient yews amongst us, and men who make space for other things to happen. And here a band of women unafraid of the dark, standing with the forests, with our sisters of the world, and one of us, remembering you, in the flicker of a fire.

And if time is the great mystery of these islands, of this Earth, we are surely not alone in this moment, in this time of destruction, because if we step into this ancestral moment, in the presence of all beings, all creatures, all trees though time, then this is the moment that things can turn around.

Outside, the Earth waits in the stillness, as glaciers crack and tigers move across the snowline, as the roots of everything are ready to stir in the cycle of the year. Of itself, Great Nature can do nothing to effect our change, except we awaken, open to the spark of the sun inside ourselves. Of itself, the sun can effect nothing, except that we allow it into our physical forms, let it mould our selves anew.

After the fire, I will follow the women back up the track to the barn, as we feel our way with our feet in the dark. Tomorrow we’ll get up at dawn, light the stove and move out into the orchard in silence. We will stand under dripping hazel trees at the edge of the Forest, with the apple trees in front of us and the oaks standing behind us, and pay attention to the moment. Somewhere deep in the forest a deer will wait underneath a yew tree, as she has waited since the Ice Age in these borderlands. The sun will rise, even though we will not see it through the cloud.

The light shifts imperceptibly and a hawk flashes past, its scimitar wings cut the air. We hold our breath.

All images from Dark Mountain: Issue 13: Rock art for cover by Caroline Ross; Stepping Out by Bruce Hooke; The Night You were Reborn into the Eternal Home by Ilyse Krivel.

Dark Mountain: Issue 13 is on sale here. 
Editorial for the issue (and other extracts can be found on on the Dark Mountain website)

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Everything That Rises Must Converge

The writer keeps the door open, so the world doesn’t close down ...When you stand on the edge of the society you have been taught is everything, and plunge into an unknown territory, you feel you know everything in parts of your self you did not know existed.  (from Snake in the Box)
'In the future the real function of the artist will to act like a host and to gather the people'. On the leafy woodland stage at the last Uncvilisation Festival, Fern Smith is playing Rachel Dutton,  the artist who walked out into the American wilderness with her husband and collaborator, Rob Olds in 1993. They left their art and city life behind and had only their tracking skills to hand. The critic Suzi Gablik (who interviewed them) stepped away from the conventional art word, arguing for a Reenchantment of Art. In this reenactment of their seminal interview, Doin’ Dirt Time, the trio discuss a return to the roots of creativity, how writers and artists lead the collective in the direction they need to go.

Fern has just left the theatre she founded 25 years ago and is also stepping into the unknown. In 1991 I left a conventional bohemian life as a journalist in London and never went back. Sometimes it feels as if you cannot go anywhere new unless you relinquish everything and swim heroically against the collective current. And yet the challenge to host and gather, raised by the play, has found me in this last decade working in communities, curating events, editing collaborative books and online platforms, showing  people how to write and edit as a team, and most of all finding ways to discuss, outside among the trees or in a teaching circle, what happens when our loyalties are not to the work we have been doing all our lives, or to the social classes we have or we have not been brought up in.

What happens to us as writers when we relinquish our inchoate desire to wage war on a childhood or imperial past, circumstances over which we had no control? Will we find other shards of ourselves buried beneath the drifting sands, tracks we can follow into the uncivilised wilderness?

In a time of fall and fragmentation , if you are wise, you do not look for the powerful Ones with their faraway promises and angry rhetoric. What you find yourself searching for is something real, something coherent, something you can count on – your relationship with the fabric of things, a certain meaning that comes from the natural world, held instinctively in the forms of creatures and plants. And also in a deeper part of ourselves, if we could but find them and give them voice.

What does coherence look and feel like? One thing I have learned, coherence does not emanate from the me-only writer in their cell of solitude. It comes from the writer-within-a-group, in symbiosis with everything around them. The writer who speaks on behalf of others in the human and non-human world. It comes from asking questions on the edge of things and having the courage to wait for the answer. It comes as an invitation to take part that you proffer, even when your conditioning pulls you to hide in your small room, hunched over the keys, playing with sentences like an emperor of a lost kingdom.

Here is the paradox, so clearly outlined in that small play: if we don’t ask key questions of each other, we won’t find any answers.

Writing in a Moment of Fall

This summer I am co-hosting two gatherings around non-fiction writing and editing in times of radical change. At the end of May, a group of us will investigate how we might learn from the honeybee hive, not just about the challenges bee colonies (and we) face, but also about their innate gifts of harmony and co-operation, in order that we might bring those shapes and skills and stores of sweetness into our own creative lives. We will be converging around the apiaries of the Natural Beekeeping Trust in Sussex, guided by their visionary 'curator' Heidi Hermann, and tuning into the world of the honeybee on both practical and inspirational levels.

Flights of Imagination: Writing with the Bees  will be taking place in Forest Hill, Sussex on 25-27 May 2018. This will be the first of such writing courses that explore working with the natural world in different places around Britain (see also Carrying the Fire weekend set in the heart of the Cairngorms this November).

In mid-June I will be teaming up with my friend and colleague, theatremaker Lucy Neal (whose book Playing for Time - Marking Art as if the World Mattered I helped edit in collaboration with 60+ artists). It will be our third course for Arvon teaching the craft of collective and dramaturgical writing. And this year we are delighted to welcome the novelist, editor and columnist, Nikesh Shukla as our midweek guest. Nikesh is the compiler of the groundbreaking book, The Good Immigrant - a collection of voices not often heard in mainstream circles and has just published his third novel, The One Who Wrote Destiny.

Writing to Make Change Happen will be held at Totleigh Barton, Devon on 11th–16th June 2018.

If either of these courses/gatherings sound as if they are for you, please do register your interest by the end of the month and we look forward to meeting and voyaging with you soon!

Image: Still from MAHAPRALAYA: The Great Dissolution by Gustaf Broms; Horse Island Woman by Kate Walters. Both images are from the recently published Dark Mountain Issue 13, a collaboratively edited book of over 60+ writers and artists, looking at 'Being Human in an age of social and ecological collapse'. You can find all details about the book on the Dark Mountain online shop.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Dark Kitchen: Uncivilising the Table

This week I introduced a new Dark  Mountain series that explores food and eating in times of collapse. Follow us during this Lenten month as we travel through different kingdoms and terrains, sharpening our appetites and cooking knives, in the company of artists, filmmakers, writers and activists.


We are looking at a plate. Tiny translucent slices of fish are artfully arranged around its rim. It is 1990 and we are in a Japanese restaurant in downtown Manhattan. 'Who is going first?' we wonder and laugh nervously. I am with Hamilton and Steve. We'll all go at once we decide and put the poisonous raw fugu in our mouths, declaring that a tingling was definitely happening. The dish costs $50.

We are looking at a plate. On it piled in chunky layers are home-baked sourdough bread, crispy seaweed and a poached egg. It is 2017 and we are outside in the lee of the Dorset cliffs, cooking on a camping stove. Everyone wants to go first. I am with Caroline, Jack and Mark and yesterday we cut the bright green fronds from the rocks, as the aquamarine sea swirled about our feet. We declare this is possibly the best breakfast we have ever had and laugh.

This is a story about food and powerdown. It could seem like a personal story except that it is not: it is a social story about how everything changes when you break the illusions your civilisation is wrapped in. In 1990 I am staying in the Algonquin Hotel, covering the US fashion collections, and I know nothing about the industrial food system; in 2017 I am staying in a hut on a beach, talking about Dark Mountain, and I know all its dark secrets. Decades later the Spring collections will still send beige raincoats down the catwalk and the forests of kelp will continue to wave their ancestral arms in the currents of the English channel - but the world I am documenting, like the food I now cook, is radically different.

This is a series called Dark Kitchen: a set of pieces that will look at and question the culture of food in times of fall. It's not a subject Dark Mountain has focused on before, even though writing and cooking share a creative terroir, not least in their ability to bring things to the table, to alchemise raw material into food for the mind, heart and body. Up to now any focus on food has been practical: the Uncivilisation festivals hosted foraging walks, we've published pieces on mead making, bread baking in Australia and a recipe for a very rooty, roadkill pheasant stew; this series aims to bring a writer's and artist's particular attention to food from a Dark Mountain perspective.

Our focus will not be on the labyrinth, the whirlygig of distribution centres and trucks that thunder along our roads, all the data and polemic, but on finding the dancing floor beneath it. Around all our sentences lie the deforested lands, the denuded and poisoned oceans, the lost soil, the vast herds of creatures living and dying invisibly in dark sheds. We know what is going down. Our core question is, once you have railed at the machine that holds us in its palm-oiled maw, what do you do as an artist, as a storytelling human being, knowing that every time you venture out with a shopping basket, you return with blood on your hands?

Dark Kitchen aims to gather some of the stories about food that go untold at the edge of our civilisation. All civilisations flourish and flounder according to their ability to feed themselves. All of us, as human animals, no matter where we exist, on what social and political map, need to eat to live. Like death, this is a fact of our existence here. How we can we do that sustainably, with kindness, with fairness, is a question many grassroots organisations and activists ask themselves.

One they do not necessarily ask however is: how do we change the story of our lives, built as it is on millions of years of living in hunter/gatherer bodies, thousands of years living in wheat and barley-fed civilisations, in nomadic milk-herding geographies? Food is not a matter of intellectual debate: it is physical and feeling memory, deep time memory, cultural and personal history. It is people and relationships with domestic and wild creatures, conviviality, tradition, hunger, belonging, snobbery. Roast dinners, fish and chips by the sea. It is hunting deer and keeping chickens, curry on a Friday night when you were a student. It is visiting the markets of Morocco, or France, or your gran who cooked the best lemon meringue pie ever.

How do you come up with a new way of interacting with the world that means all that culture stored inside of you and everyone you know, constantly reflected from shiny magazine pages, on TV screens, on your best friend's Instagram, has to go?

Roland Barthes observed in his seminal work Mythologies how the modern left faltered before the sheer power and sexiness of the capitalist advertising industry. How can you match the pull it has on your most basic desire: to eat delicious food, tasting of fat and salt and sweet, ready made without effort, without thinking of where it has come from, a food without consequence, untainted by guilt. Every day feast food, seeped in the lure of luxury, convenience, pleasure, control - the defining signature of a corporate lifestyle.

A humble recipe for vegan nut roast is not going to cut the mustard, any more than modern socialism has been able to counter market fundamentalism. The glamour and snobbery of high culture, and the physical desires and  habits of most people, are too strong. Something else has to pull you more powerfully in another direction: something that has its roots in the land, in a deeper culture that also looks prophetically to the future,  that has intelligence, meaning and ethics and still tastes good.

One thing corporate dining, for all its cheffy fancies and huge glasses of wine, does not have and never will: the relationship with the non-human, with the earth, with the plants and creatures who stand to go down with us if we don't dismantle the labyrinth. This relationship is above all things a matter of the heart. Dark Kitchen is about remembering one of the oldest and simplest stories ever told: a love affair with the fabric of life.


Bread b7w
Where did the shift away from that plate of fugu begin? I read a cookbook by Colin Spencer with a no-holds-barred description of slaughterhouses. I gave up eating meat. I read End of the Line by Charles Clover. I gave up eating fish. I read Eat Your Heart Out, Felicity Lawrence's document about corporate control and the fate of African workers in the glasshouses of Spain and Italy. I gave up buying out-of-season tomatoes. I stopped going to supermarkets. Then I went to a documentary hosted by a local Transition initiative where Derrick Jensen spoke about the agricultural revolution and how it had decimated the wild world. Somewhere a restaurant door slammed shut and an allotment gate clicked open.

In Transition I bumped into everything that the advertising and supermarkets keep in the dark: land grabs, slavery, GM, pesticides decimating insect and bird populations, slurry from pig farms killing the rivers and oceans. I started to look at the barley and beet fields outside my window in a new light and shudder.

In those grassroots community activism years, food growing connected us all: we knew that growing radishes would not change the world but it would radically change our relationships with the earth and with each other. I became a serial food blogger charting the downshifting moves within food production: growing co-ops, box schemes, gleaning networks, apple-pressing weekends, potato days, community bakers, seed swaps, the plight of the honey bees, and the ex-Agriculture minister John Gummer telling us at a farmers' conference on Climate Change and Food Security:
This is the biggest issue agriculture has faced, and unlike the Depression in the 1930s and the Black Death we are not facing this in ignorance. And because we know we are responsible. People don't want to know of course, because once you know it changes you and you are ashamed.
It was a time where people on panels said these kinds of things and prophesied that bio-tech loaves and fishes would feed the 9 billion. It was a time of bringing potatoes to Occupy camps and wild weed salads to low-carbon meetings, of rescuing a whole side of salmon and punnets of strawberries from the Latitude festival recycling bins, cooking Mexican and raw food feasts for community diners. It was a time where The Monitor in the kitchen told me exactly how much power was eking out of the fridge and the kettle. When some women wept and struggled with their Tesco habit, and others implored me not to tell them exactly what their shrimp habit was doing to the seabed or the coastal mangroves of South East Asia.

But something was missing. Everything I wrote had this evangelical tone. We need to reduce our energy use! Get in season! Make your store cupboard resilient! Wake up to the real price of consumerism! I realised neither knowledge nor social justice gives enough heft for people to change tracks. To be in synch with the living systems, to restore the land, to eat beautifully with conscience, to find meaning in an everyday humble meal, an imaginative relationship with the physical world had to be created. Our hearts had to be rekindled by something stronger, more alluring, than any feel-bad information. Something you never thought of before  like seaweed for breakfast on a limestone beach in September.

A short story about beans

Beans 2
I am standing on Dark Mountain's Base Camp stage, holding a handful of field beans. These beans are what this weekend is all about, I am telling the gathering. Field beans have been grown here in Britain since the Iron Age and embody one of the uncivilised principles of the manifesto  being rooted in time and place.

The beans are produced by my friend Josiah, who started a small business in a nearby Suffolk market town with Nick and William five years ago. The beans were all about shortening the supply chain, encouraging farmers to grow a crop that was either given to cattle or sold to the Middle East, and that was nutritious not only for an eat-less-meat-and-dairy-cook-from-scratch culture, but also for the soil that is being rapidly depleted by fossil-fuelled farming.

But most of all the beans were about telling a different story. A Jack in the Beanstalk story about a boy who sells his mother's cow for a handful of beans that totally changes their luck. The beans were followed by peas of many colours, and then quinoa (grown not in Bolivia but in Essex), and now lentils, naked barley and oats, and a host of other grains and pulses, grown with the same kind of attention to place and provenance that has made local craft beers rocket in popularity in the face of corporate brewing. In short, a whole shelf of basic goods that would normally be imported, in fields that would normally host monocultural commodity crops grown for the global market. Last year Hodmedods won BBC Producer of the Year and had to move warehouses, as everyone else began to agree those beans just took you to places that Mr Heinz never could.

One of the successes of the fava bean is that it is a beloved ingredient in the fragrant and spicy cuisines of  the Middle East and other countries. To end each of our Dark Kitchen posts we'll be cooking up a recipe that will capture the flavour of some of the story we're telling, that shows though we may live in more austere restricted times, there need be no limit to our imaginations and flair and generosity. This is a classic North African dish made with fava beans instead of chickpeas and served with quinoa instead of couscous. It can serve two to four people  just add less or more veg.

Seven vegetable tagine

Soak a big handful of fava beans overnight and then cook until soft (approx 40 minutes). Keep to one side. Whole beans keep their shape but split fava is OK too if you don't mind a bit of collapse in your cooking (no need to soak).

Chop one onion and fry gently in olive oil in a largish saucepan. When softened add 2 cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of ras el hanout spice (or a mix of cumin, coriander, mixed spice and chilli pepper) and fresh green chilli if you like it hot. Stir and then add your roughly chopped seven veg which will depend on season: swede, leeks and parsnips in winter for example, courgettes, green pepper and turnips in the summer. You're looking for a strong taste and a chunky texture, so celery and carrots are good. Cabbage however is key and can be added half way through the main cooking so it keeps its form.

Stir in the spicy oil for a minute or two then add 2 tomatoes and a squeeze of tomato puree, or the equivalent in tinned tomatoes, and water to just below the level of the veg. Throw in a handful of sultanas and half a preserved lemon (or a couple of slices and the juice of half a fresh squeezed lemon). Stir, pop on the lid and cook until the veg starts to soften (about 15 minutes). Add the beans for a further five.

Before serving add salt and black pepper to taste, plus a big handful of chopped coriander and/or parsley. Served with quinoa, flavoured with orange zest, cinnamon and toasted sunflower seeds, a bowl of slaw or salad, and some feisty harissa.

Next course:

The Dark Kitchen series will run throughout February, but will continue as an occasional series when the new-look Dark Mountain website is launched in April. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to Thanks all and bon appetit!
Images: Medlars in a Sieve by Food/ Still life photography: Sue Atkinson; loaves from a co-operative oven, Can Piella, Catalonia by Phillip Evans ; a handful of (field) beans by Mark Watson

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Life and death on the Sussex Downs

Last month I travelled to Brighton to discuss the new Dark Mountain website and afterwards went with fellow ed Nick Hunt to meet some of our Brighton subscribers for a drink in The Foundry pub.  It was a lively evening that brought its own return invitations: Nigel Berman, founder of the School of the Wild, asked me to run an Earth Dialogue event at the beginning of  next year and Clare Whistler to create a burial installation (above in action!) for an art show she is co-curating at ONCA gallery both of these acting as collaborative markers in the compass of the turning year.

As I tackle the material for The Book (my winter task!) one thing has become clear: to answer the question DM's Issue 13 sets 'What an Earth are we doing here? we need to locate ourselves in time and space. We need to remember who we really are, where we really are.

And sometimes, as this darkling decade advances, it seems only art and encounter can point the way.

SAMHAIN: Ancestors 

Proper Burial

Temescal, Chihuahua High Desert, Arizona
Luna de los Muertos, November 2000

This is a memory of a ritual I took part in years ago. It took place on my friend Mimi's land on the borderlands between Arizona and Mexico. Her partner, the curandero Fransico Ozuna, built a temescal in the back of the garden, so we could hold a vigil through the night of the Moon of the Dead (the full moon that occurs around the Day of the Dead). One of its intents was to bury the ashes of a dead friend.

A temescal is an underground sweat lodge and Fransisco spent days creating the small chamber, shovelling red earth and constructing a roof and steps. That afternoon we had gathered different kinds of branches (palos muertos)  from the nearby creek bed: hackberry, black walnut and agave stalks, as well as mesquite wood from the desert. Huge bunches of wild marigold he found on the way to the ranch were placed on top of the earth mounds flor de muerto, traditionally offered on the Day of the Dead and which grows abundantly in Mexico after the late monsoon rains.

As modern people we don't observe the dead: we shunt them aside with awkward funerals, and this ancestral doorway of the year that was once celebrated in our own islands, has become a commercial children's party. But indigenous people (Fransisco was part-Apache, part-Yacqui ) know the dead are part of the Earth. Once mourned properly they can assist the living, rather than hinder them as forgotten shades.

Shovel (for earth and stones)
Wood for fire (mesquite and other dead branches)
River stones (these are flat and smooth) 
Branch of juniper (for brushing off sparks and ash from the stones juniper is used world-wide as a banisher of negative energies)
Ash (to delineate the fire circle)
Osha root (for endurance). Other ceremonial herbs include sage, sweetgrass and copal
Creosote tea

Inside the small space is exciting.  The desert night is cold but under the earth where we've taken the heated stones. naked under moon and starlight, the heat embraces you. The tea is bitter in your mouth, the osha root is sweet. We  are silent and then sing and howl and chant until our bones shake. Afterwards we throw buckets of cold rainwater over each other and dance round the fire. Fransisco chants all night.

The ritual is there to burn out the dross you hold and cede it to the fire as fuel and then as ash to the ground. Ghosts can cling to you, the dead that have not been mourned. Some of these phantoms are yours and some are not. Some are parts of you and your lineage that need to die in order for the new to flourish. Proper burial means burying something at the correct depth, so that it can feed the living and not haunt the earth.  That is a work. 

Only the elements of the Earth can transform these invisible bonds in this way; only your self that is connected to this Earth can undergo that process and walk that path. Most would rather do the ritual without the suffering and endurance that it demands which is worse than doing nothing. Because you feel you have done something meaningful, when you have not.

Seventeen years later in England we still grow those marigolds that burn like bright orange suns until the frosts come. Their name in Nauhatl is cempoalxochitl, and their vibrant colour represents the sun, which guides the dead on their way to the Underworld. The strong scent of the flowers attracts the spirits when they return to visit their families on this day, helping them to find their way. 

The roots in this circle are from the angelica plant which is a substitute for osha or bear root, traditionally used in Native American sweat lodges to purify the air as well the body. A bear medicine from the mountains, the root assists dreaming and connection with the ancestors. 

I remember this ceremony as if it were yesterday.

Clare Whistler's installation is part of the exhibition Extinct Icons and Ritual Burials that runs alongside the Rememberance of Lost Species Day at ONCA gallery, Brighton, 22nd Nov-10th Dec. 

Image: The Witch of St Kilda by Mother Eagle.

Imbolc: Emergence

Earth Dialogue

How can we connect and communicate with the non-human world, how can we feel at home in the wild places, on Earth? 

Earth Dialogues are essentially communications between the natural world and your own physical intelligence.

Part discussion, part encounter, part perception exercise, an Earth Dialogue is an opportunity to engage, individually and as a group, with a wild place - the Downs, at a certain time of year, the time of emergence, sometimes known as Imbolc
as well as the challenging times we are living in. It enables you to shift your attention away from a busy mindset and sense of isolation, and instead behold the planet as a key participant.

An Earth Dialogue is a way of experiencing the Earth not as ‘landscape’ or ‘the environment’ but as a meeting place of many elements, in which human beings form one particular strand. Its core act is learning how to swiftly tune into and physically connect with a place and all its inhabitants
plants, creatures, wind, stones.  It involves sharing your experience afterwards, using the tools of listening, speaking, holding space, keeping time and remembering; and finally, turning those insights into images or words and creating a collaborative 'dreaming map' of the day.

The day will start inside by the fire with introductions and instructions for making contact with the land, followed by an hour of solo time outside. You will then return to the fireside to discuss your encounters and together we'll create a shared map. Working as a group allows us to makes more sense of the land we live in together and strengthens our connections, as well as our presence, within it.

The Earth Dialogue is one of a set of practices developed over a decade that explore the territory of dreams, myths, places and plants. It has been shared with people in many locations: up a mountain in California, around a loch on Rannoch Moor, in the Calder Valley in England, in the depths of a winter forest in Sweden.

Once learned it can be practised anywhere with anyone. All you need is time.

Part of this session will be outside, so bring warm clothes and something to sit on in case of wet ground. And a winter picnic lunch to share afterwards!

The School of the Wild runs outdoor classes in the woods and wild spaces of Brighton and Sussex, 'to pull you out of the city and reconnect with the land'.  Earth Dialogue will be taking place at Saddlescombe Farm on Sunday 4th February 2018, 10am to 2pm. All details can be found on School of the Wild website.

Images: snowdrop woods, Dunwich cliffs, Suffolk,; by feral apple tree, Thorpeness dunes, Suffolk (see last chapter in Roger Deakin's Wild Wood). Photos: Mark Watson

Friday, 15 September 2017

Under the Volcano

Last week the new Dark Mountain collection, Walking on Lava - Selected Works for Uncivilised Times was published. We held a great launch at Juju's Bar at the Old Truman's Brewery, Brick Lane where I put on my not-quite-famous red coat and read from The Seven Coats, alongside five contributors and fellow editors, Nick and Dougald. This is a piece I wrote for openDemocracy to introduce the book and the project.

On a mountain in Wales in the teeming rain, we sit in a yurt packed with people, the five of us, on hay bales, dressed in black suits and bowler hats. One of us has a pack of cards up his sleeve, another an African folktale, another a guitar and a song by Nick Drake from the 1970s. I have oak leaves in my hatband to signify an instruction circa 600 BC from the Sibyl who once guarded the door to the Underworld in the Campi  Flegrei outside Naples. A link to the pre-patriarchal ‘uncivilised’ world, she guides a lineage of poets to the territory under the volcano where all deep transformations take place: Virgil, Dante, T.S, Eliot, Mary Shelley, Sylvia Plath. Denied immortal youth by the autocratic god Apollo, her desiccated body kept in a jar, only her voice is still left for us to follow.

Dougie stands up and invites the audience to take part in a demonstration of two figures from the ancient world: one is Chronos, the inexorable march of linear time; the other a young man with a lock of hair over his forehead, who intervenes and interrupts him. His name is Kairos, and sometimes ‘Possibility’.

We’re giving a performance called ‘Testaments of Deep Time’ to introduce the work of The Dark Mountain Project - itself an intervention into the linear narrative of ecological and social calamity  As the rational world attempts to control the dominant narrative against its Hadean consequences, cracks have begun to appear. Through those cracks, archaic, indigenous knowledge, hidden for safekeeping against Roman and other empires, slips through; fleeting glimpses of another future reveals itself. Some of this is stored in the literary project we have all stumbled upon in similar ways, in tents on mountains, around fires, in the inner caldera of ourselves.

This encounter, we know, is what changes everything.


Walking on Lava takes its title from the manifesto which spearheaded the Dark Mountain Project in 2009. Written to challenge the contemporary lack of response by culture makers to ecological overshoot in the aftermath of the financial crisis, it was called simply Uncivilisation. 

Many people picked up this gauntlet recognising it, not as a challenge to a duel, but an invitation to explore a territory yet unmapped. It has led to collaborations with writers, musicians and artists, which, alongside the books and weekly blogs, has generated five festivals, a year-long theatre workshop in Sweden, teaching encounters in the mountains of Spain and moors of the West Country, performances built around the celebrations of the solar year by the river Thames and the ancestral wilderness of Scotland, as well as this kind of curated space in Wales, where the 24/7 broadcast of progress can be switched off and other voices apart from the mainstream can be heard.

Of course, grassroots Earth-defending organisations and progressive movements can claim these alternative platforms also, but what singles out Dark Mountain, what can grab people’s attention in a rain-soaked yurt, is that it is 1) a creative response to prevailing crises and 2) lacks an evangelical agenda to fix them. The maniesto can act as a frame, but there is no drive to act in the space that frame creates. There is no pressure to shut down power stations or convince your neighbour to stop flying, or your community to reduce its carbon emissions. In other words, it provides a space that has space and time in it, the opportunity to look at things differently, and for other slower realisations to occur - for interactions, connections, deep thought, as reader, listener or contributor.

‘Are you against environmental activism?’ I was asked recently by a television researcher. ‘No,’ I said ‘We’re not against anything. It’s a conversation not an argument. We’re a creative network.’
 If this manifesto has travelled further than we imagined, one explanation is that it has helped people to get their bearings in a world where the thin, shiny surface of prosperity has cracked. Trying to make sense of our own experience it seems that we put words to a feeling that others shared... a feeling that there is no way through the mess we find ourselves that doesn’t involve facing the darkness, and being honest about the scale of the unravelling that is under way, and the uncertainty as to where it will end. A feeling that it is time to look down. 
(Dougald Hine from the Introduction to the 2014 edition of Uncivilisation).
This rallying point, the agreement to look down, to acknowledge we sit on a crater’s edge rather than a firm foundation, creates not only a different literature, but a very different feeling towards that literature and those who write it. If there is one shared response to the contacts made by people towards the Project it is the sense of relief and comradeship in a world where a possible eruption to the status quo is  manifestly denied.

However there is no mantra or belief system to take refuge in here. Dark Mountain is a collective work-in-progress, initiated by ‘recovering journalists’, disillusioned by the green movement and its mice-like approaches toward change. It doesn’t offer a road map for a sustainable future. It can offer you a place by the fire, an opportunity to dig beneath the distracting surface of industrial late capitalism, to produce work that asks the question: how can we reclaim the voice and body of ourselves, suppressed by civilisation for millennia?  The deadline is never far away.

The fact is we have all taken the red pill, we all know the boat is leaking and the captain lied. We know the stats about climate change and acidified oceans and decapitated mountains. The news that the numbers of kittiwakes on St Kilda have plummeted or the ancient trees of Sheffield have been felled pains us. We don’t numb out that pain, nor do we indulge it, in the see-saw of hope and despair.

We know the Earth is not an abstract concept of environment or ‘nature’ and requires a very different relationship, one that wrests the material of life out of the hands of the ‘quants’ and economists and gives it due respect. The question we face is always: what do you do when you know, when you allow yourself to see and feel what is shut out by that broadcast? Because you can’t keep writing conventional love stories and detective novels, or hoping Hollywood will get in touch once you know.

What kind of literature and art does this awareness produce?  A diverse body of work that does not fit neatly into a monocultural, corporate bookshelf or gallery wall. Inspired by the inhumanist poetry of Robinson Jeffers, its voices do not come out of a narcissistic and alienated highbrow culture, discussed by the chattering classes of Boston or London, but from a library of stones, from the desert and forest hermitage, from conversations around convivial fires.

The space is existentialist, ringed as it is by urgent questions about what kind of human being can be so numb, so dumb in the face of catastrophe; its tone elegiac, rather than trimphant. In many ways it returns the artist and writer to their original function, as the people who push the edge and keep the door of possibility open. People who embody and stand by their words, for whom those fiery brimstone fields are home.

It's in this spirit that we have created this collection is drawn from the first ten hardback journal as a showcase introduction to the Project. Following their shape it is made of work of contrasting voices and genres – poetry, flash fiction, essays, artworks, photography, interviews – and structured around the manifesto’s,Eight Principles of Uncivilisation.’

Here in these pages is Robert Leaver walking along Broadway in New York on his hands and knees; here is Christos Galanis shooting a thrift store copy of the Iliad in the New Mexico desert; here is Emily Laurens sweeping the brown sands of the Welsh peninsula in honour of the disappeared passenger pigeon and the millions of species now going extinct. Testimony, encounter, protest art and praise song of a different kind.

I imagine the people I have seen on Broadway, and maybe the world over, feeling a weight on their backs, in their hearts and souls. Maybe this weight is the burden on modern life, the burden on being conscious in a world gone mad. Crawling seemed to be a way to maybe show compassion or solidarity, to make a metaphor of this collective burden we all share. Instead of crawling I could have curled up in a foetal position in perfectly chosen locations. But this crawl was never about surrendering. I went down and kept moving, kept pressing on as so many humans are doing every day. The idea has always been to keep on, to get through this journey, to make it home safe and sound.
(Robert Leaver – Crawling Home).

What happens when you get bitten by a squirrel, or when you return to your homeland now crawling with bulldozers and fracking trucks? When the story you were told by your teachers and parents is broken, when the Earth makes contact with you, you may stumble upon art with a different kind of attention: a feral stew of roots and road killed pheasant in the highlands of Scotland, a dreaming woman carrying a horse in her womb in Cornwall, a meditation on graphite in the winter-wet Cumbrian hills.

In this collection, we  invite you to a few places the Project has visited in these last eight years, to encounter some of the material that has fleshed out the principles on which the book is based: to whisk you in your imaginations to the mountains of Bolivia, to the tribal areas of India, to the coast of Greenland, to walk you through the Mahabharata, through a history of the future, to 18th century England, to medieval Florence to the Younger Dryas.

Kairos, daemon of opportunity, had a shaved head, meaning that you had to grasp the opportunity that faced you, for once the light-footed one had disappeared the chance to see in all-at-once-time had gone also. In the long count of civilisations, stretching from the early city-states of Sumer towards the modern global metropolises, there are only so many opportunities to sense the volcano that rumbles beneath us. Rarely do we find the way to the cave where the Sibyl sits, or pay heed to those who struggle to return from the darkness of the Stygian lake.

We live, as Marshall McLuhan once noted, in a third world war of narratives, of competing controlled ways of perceiving the world – all of them hostile to people and planet. In the quiet, in the depths, in the wild places, in the struggle of our hearts, those who always kept a true link to the wider, wilder world, writers and artists, are forging another story. It is our hope and our intention in these pages to show how some of that new collective tale unfolds itself. 

Walking on Lava – Selected Works for Uncivilised Times (Chelsea Green) has been edited by Charlotte Du Cann, Dougald Hine, Nick Hunt and Paul Kingsnorth.

Images: Cover of Walking on Lava. ‘Where from? Where to?’ Mount Patterson from the Wakupit Range, Alberta, Canada by Garrett Hupe; Extinction Cabinet’ by Richard Kahn and Nicholas Selesnick from ‘Truppe Fledermaus: 100 Stories from a Drowned World’; writer and artist Robert Leaver in his performance ‘Crawling Home’ in New York. Photo by Larrey Fessenden.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Divesting for Beginners

This summer I have taken some time 'off' to focus on two writing projects. One is a book about the mythos of return in times of collapse. The other is a performance/ presentation called 'Divesting for Beginners'. Based on a story I wrote for Dark Mountain called The Seven Coats, it is having its first showing at the Festival of the Dark in Reading on 7th September.

The Festival is set around the solar stations of the annual growing cycle during 2017. At the Spring Equinox, I took part in an ensemble performance called The Night Breathes Us In as the Cailleach-as-Heron in among the reeds of the river Thames. As we head up to the Autumn Equinox, I'll be in a different guise: among the mythical reeds of the Tigris and the Euphrates, celebrating a key moment in the ancient world, as the year goes into 'fall' and tips towards the dark.

Here's the central question of the piece: what connects a 4000-year-old myth and the modern fossil fuel industry?

One answer would be place: the country now known as Iraq, once ancient Sumer, birthplace of the world's first Fertile Crescent civilisation. Another would be dimension: both these stories happen underground. The myth follows the descent of Innana, Queen of Heaven and Earth, as she steps into the kur, the Underworld, in search of her sister Erishkigel; the fossil fuel is crude oil, that bubbles up from beneath the desert floor and now runs in (mostly invisible) pipelines across the world; the power that fuels every aspect of modern life and is a principle driver of climate change and all the Hadean crises it brings in its wake.

The piece follows Innana as she goes through the seven gates of the 'Great Below'; and also the track as I begin my own 'divestment', the shedding of a high consumerist culture. At each gate we have to leave an aspect of our upperworld power behind. It's a fairytale turned upside down, a widdershins Cinderella story.

But it is also a physical and imaginative encounter with the planet and the transformative forces that Innana forgoes her Upperworld privilege and authority to secure. I forgo my place in a city-based world to discover a relationship with the Earth, and with a self that has been suffocated for years, and is now waiting in the dark with the clock ticking. From this position the only way open is to follow Innana's path and divest from those destructive powers. How do we do that as ordinary people, in our everyday lives, in our actions, in our hearts, as individuals and together?

Here's another question: how do we get off the hook? What kind of people do we need to become for the future to happen?


For a long time now I've been trying to find a creative form that could encapsulate the urgent, extraordinary task of powerdown. When I joined the Transition movement with my fellow performer Mark Watson in 2008, our key wake up moment happened watching a film about climate change; when we realised - along with everyone else in the room - that everything that powers our culture is normally kept hidden from sight. Known as the 'End of Suburbia moment' (after the documentary), it was a consciousness-breaking second in which you saw that oil was in everything: from your toothbrush to the clothes you wore, from the food you ate to every trip you took in the car, the train, the plane.

For many of us however the task of enabling our communities to engage in 'Energy Descent' proved overwhelming. Not only did we lack the heft required to relocalise our local economies, but also the ability to dismantle the belief systems that prevent people perceiving the 'wicked problem' we are in, let alone doing anything about it.

What endured was held in the singular idea of powerdown - the reliquishment of our energy-dependant lifestyle. Divestment is usually understood in the shape of climate activist campaigns that pressure institutions - trades unions, universities, local councils - to take their financial investments out of Big Oil and put them into alternative ventures. But this is not the only kind of divestment that can change the culture we live in. In the winter of 2009/10 Mark and I were part of a group in Norwich who cut their annual carbon footprint by half (to four tonnes) and logged the radical effects on every aspect of our lives. It changed everything we did. We did not look back.

When Mika Minio-Paluello, who co-wrote The Oil Road, began the 11-year odyssey along the trans-European pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the city of London, she said she knew was in the long game. People in the divestment business don't give up easily. It's because they see something is awry and won't stop until it gets back into alignment. Innana doesn't stop until she goes through the seventh gate. Even though our original Transition initiatives fell apart, the movers and shakers within them carried on: protesting against the old, building the new. I never turned the central heating back on or went to supermarkets again. We weren't going to unsee what we had seen.

If you look at the nature of indigenous dissent around oil, from the forest lawyers of Ecuador to the 'water protectors' of North Dakota, you see people who have been in the long game for a very long time. They live on the wrecking edge of our civilisation, and do not benefit from its riches. Yet, because their allegiance is to the Earth, rather than a conquistador Empire, their actions are backed not only by their culture but also by the planet itself. These kinds of connection, these roots, are something we, as modern city people, have had to forge for ourselves.

Entering the kur

The Seven Coats starts on the day when I stop being a community activist and find myself unable to write the Transition story anymore. When I realise we cannot 'reset' our civilisation because its shiny stories of ascent are holding us in their spell. No matter how many articles I might write about the new narrative, how I might pile them up with scary data or joyful community projects, something was trapping us in an unkind grip. Something wasn't getting through.

Divesting for Beginners takes the form of a performance, or set of instructions, as the actions of powerdown are more a series of moves, of changes of heart and direction, than a linear story. The piece is a voyage through practices that Mark and I developed in order to communicate with the Earth, ourselves and with others. It follows our tracks from the New Mexico desert to the East Anglian waterlands, engaging in what Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilisation called the dramaturgical, changing roles and positions in order to fully understand life. It's a short performance with interventions (and tea!) to spark a discussion with the listeners of this tale about how we can collectively curb our appetites and transform an extractive culture.

Because one thing is clear: something has to happen inside at a deep inner level to make any kind of effective change on the outside. These existential wake up moments once came at the mysteries or initiations, which provided a core encounter with the forces of life. They happened in caves and kivas, in the dark, at key times of the year, like the Eleusinian Mysteries at this equinox, and often at adolescence.

This descent however is for the grown-ups. Innana is no ingenue: she is both lover and mother, who in her youth outwitted the god of Wisdom and procured the Me (attributes of civilisation) she wears at the outset of the tale. She knows however that some part of her essence is missing, some depth, some meaning without which she is not whole within herself, or for her people. Innana goes to find that part buried beneath the walls of the new civilisation of Sumer. She can hear her dark sister bellowing, and knows somehow she is responsible for her wrath and suffering. When Innana finds her, Erishkigel puts her bright sister's naked body on a hook.

One of the reasons we find it hard to face the facts about collapse and climate change is because there are so few imaginary or real life stories about powerdown. There are plenty of success-through-adversity stories, hero stories, princess stories. You could say there is success in the Innana story, as she is rescued by her back-up team and is restored to the Upperworld. But it is her downward path that grabs us now as we hear sounds of lamentation all around us for which we are accountable. Because here is a figure who deliberately divests herself of power, not knowing either the territory she enters, or the outcome of her passage. And somewhere in the bones of ourselves we know this is a key to our future: we don't know the outcome of the play. Or whether back up will arrive. We go in anyway. Something is pulling us. It's time.

Divesting for Beginners, a powerdown story will take place on 7th September at St Bart's Theatre, Reading as part of Dazzle, an immersive micro-festival exploring community,  imagination and ideas. Tickets available here.

Images: Wearing the red coat in the blackthorn tunnel (photo: Mark Watson); construction of the Central European Oil pipeline from Genoa to Ingolstadt, 1961; Bearers from The Night Breathes Us In at Reading station, Spring Equinox (photo: Georgia Wingfield-Hayes); Mark shaking up the elements in 'Raw and Wild' demonstation, Bungay (photo:  Josiah Meldrum).