Monday, 23 February 2015

EARTHLINES - Putting down roots

As the new edition of EarthLines is posted all over the country, here is my Life in Transition column for their winter issue, on history keepers, relocalisation and anchoring yourself in the neighbour- hood.

I am lost amongst the heather, at sea in an ocean of dusty fragrant purple. Walking down the coast towards Westleton, I’ve taken a cut across Dunwich Heath.  I do this walk almost every year as summer tilts into autumn, but somehow I always lose my way. I’ve arrived at one of the silver sanded tracks that wend across this luminous landscape, fringed with birch and lime woods.  Do I go left or right? The left will take me back to the visitor centre, which peeks above the Scot’s pine like a cliff top beacon, and the right will take me towards a place I cannot see. 

I’m not going to get it right this year either. I will plunge myself into a repeat cycle: following the path that goes alongside the reed beds, getting frustrated, losing time, asking visitors who know the heath even less than I do, and finally,  taking a risk, I will double back on myself and come across a tall old man with a scythe cutting bracken, who points out the way. 

It turns out I was on the right path all along, just going in the wrong direction.

Last week my neighbour David Moyse was buried in the local churchyard. His grandparents once lived in my house, a brick cottage tied to the local farm. His grandfather was in charge of the horses that ploughed all the surrounding fields, his father was the village blacksmith. In the church, listening to his childhood friend Ruth talk about his working life as an engineer, it sounds like a litany of enterprises that were once intrinsic to every country neighbourhood: the dairy, the laundry, the school.

For a decade we talked with David over his gate. About the weather, about flowers, about making wine from rosehips in a bucket. I had found his leeks one winter dusk on a stall made from an old pram and something in me felt exultant as if I had suddenly found harbour after a storm. Later we stood together in defence of the lane against a tourist development, and the action broke a barrier that sometimes exists between ‘incomers’ and local people with deep ties to the land.

The following autumn David gave me a bag of his home-growngreen tomatoes, and I made chutney for both our larders. It was the first direct exchange I made in my new neighbourhood, and the encounter formed the basis of most of the Transition pieces I then wrote about making ourselves at home. David gave us wood when he chopped his trees, he lent us his mower when ours broke down. But most of all he was always there at the top of the lane, like a guardian of the place, the church steeple keeper and key holder, the history man of the village. We always waved at each other, as we cycled by. Here we are, here we are!

For years I yearned to return to the countryside I had once encountered when I was young. For a long time I thought this was a nostalgia for a summer seaside childhood – an escape to a rural idyll from a cynical city world. When I came to live in Suffolk I realised it wasn’t a personal longing: the sparkling sea, the rustling marsh, the big sky, the oak that spread its arms wide, the scent of marram on a hot July day were all part of my becoming a real human being. Which is to say a human being who is at home on the Earth. This wasn’t just about having a relationship with the land. It was also about recognising the people who were already anchored in the territory.

David was like the country people I knew when I was a child, who were fierce and yet kindly, who grew cabbages and dahlias in their gardens, who knew the names of the birds and kept their tools in good order. And although we were from a different generation and different backgrounds, we loved the same place.

When he died, it was as if a great ship had been unmoored, and you could no longer hear its mast stays rattling in the wind. That’s when I realised at some point you have to become the kind of people you want to see in the neighbourhood. And perhaps the greatest gift I have gleaned from Transition is a narrative, a frame of how to become an anchor in a place. A chance to start again.

Relocalisation has been a task. Because there is a big restlessness in the world. I am one of millions of disconnected people yearning to belong, who at the same time, are pulled and pushed by a culture that demands that everyone moves all the time.

What happens when you stop? What happens when you don’t leave? What happens if you go to the place where your heart leads you to go, and are prepared to forego the conveniences and glamour of an urban, consumer-driven life?

There are stats you come across when you run a newspaper about grassroots activism that make the environmental and social challenges we face very clear. One of them is that 86% of energy in the UK comes from fossil fuels. The other is that the UK also has the richest and poorest neighbourhoods in Europe. We are more unequal and less prepared for a low-carbon future than most other countries.

When I first came to the lane I interviewed a man called John Minahane who had given up his city life to live in the country. He was the warden of a reserve, rich in salt and freshwater plants.

You can make a living here, if you are not proud,” he told me. And though this may be true of many places, you have to have strong reasons for taking a deliberately downward step, and something you love to sustain you. For John, this was a grand vision for a handful of scratch meadows on the curve of the road to Southwold. He wanted to create a habitat for bitterns. And in the last decade of his life he did:  he helped transform those fields into reed marshes, that now house otters and water voles, as well as the shy booming birds he loved.

Looking at the stats it’s clear a lot of us need to take a downward step if we truly wish to live in a sustainable world. What stops us are the pleasures of being a visitor, granted by the use of fossil fuels: holidays, cheap fancy food, the individualistic lives we can control at the flick of a switch. In harder times, our pride will not help us. But nature will, if we can access it in our ordinary lives.

For the last six years I’ve been involved in a collective practice that you can do (almost) for free anywhere: growing  veg, saving seeds, living with the seasons, making plant medicine, walking, wild swimming, foraging, chopping firewood. Learning to see the working of the universe in the small beauty of everyday things.

These are not, I’ve learned, add-on skills: these are skills that signify and embody a different way of being on the planet. In the opening essay of the latest edition of Dark Mountain, The Focal and the Flask, Tom Smith discusses the difference between the technology-based world and a human-framed ‘focal’  one – where cultures are built around the collective focus of a fire. Focal things ‘involve real reconnection with people, species and landscapes… entail greater involvement, greater work and knowledge, greater negotiation with others, all often seen as inconveniences in the narrative of modernity.”

To reverse the destiny of our restless machine-driven world we need to take up practices that go in another direction entirely. We need to learn another way of relating to and framing our lives, the practices another generation knew.

I am sitting beside the last sunflowers, winnowing tiny brown seeds on a tray. They are the seeds of asparagus kale: a monumental and handsome brassica that soars six foot into the air from green-grey leaves. You can eat its tender shoots in Spring like asparagus – or let it flower in golden sprays beloved by bees. It’s a heritage variety you can’t buy from a catalogue, but is one day handed to you by a fellow grower. There are thousands of seeds in these husky pods. Some of them are finding their way into envelopes to be dispersed this winter.

You can’t take a downswing without the planet’s help, and how you get that help is not done by pushing buttons or paying money. It is done the slow way, the hard way, with encounter, with patience, with loss, with solitude, with exchange. By walking in the opposite direction of restlessness. By knowing a place deeply and intimately, and not wanting to be anywhere else.

You can’t become a belonger on holiday or at a festival, on a retreat or at a workshop. You do it by immersing yourself in a neighbourhood over time, and not moving. And when the romance and nostalgia have blown away like chaff from these seeds, the territory will reveal itself for what it truly is. These moments appear like the flash of dragonfly wings, like a shooting star at dawn, and you need to be alert to recognise them:

You mean Minsmere Woods?” the old man said, as he paused with his great scythe. “Well, if you follow the track over this rise you will find a kissing gate. Go through the gate, and you will be there.”

Dunwich Heath, 2014; bunch of asporagus kale and kale buds from the veg patch; Hen Reed Beds; one of the archive photographs from David Moyse's book about Reydon, The Village Where I Went to School, published by Southwold Press and available from Wells of Southwold or Boyden Stores, Reydon, £7; EarthLines Spring Issue 2015

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Farewell My Lovely

Yesterday I closed the paper. It was a tough decision and threw many un- answered questions into the air: about the limits of agency within grassroots and progressive culture, about how media is valued, about 'sustainable' livlihoods, about those who forge and record the 'beautiful solutions' in a time of collapse. We received some wonderful and heartening responses from people who have been involved in the project since it first began in 2011 - from fellow activists/writers/distributors and Transitioners. For me those relationships, as well as the integrity and coherence of the paper, made it a worthwhile project to devote many many long hours to. Here is my last post on our website:

Dear Readers and Supporters of Transition Free Press,

I am sorry to inform you that our innovative grassroots newspaper will not be published this year. We were hoping to relaunch this Spring with a bright new expanded edition but have been unable to raise sufficient funds to pay for our core costs.

For the past three years we have produced seven issues, all of which have documented the actions, skills and intelligence of Transition and affiliated progressive movements. Our purpose was to reflect the cultural shift many of us are involved in and to act as a communications tool for Initiatives and groups. Thanks to over 150 contributors, over 100 distributors, 50 advertisers and a collective editorial team, over 70,000 papers have appeared all over the UK - in shops, in cafes, universities and libraries, waiting rooms and market stalls. At public events and in private moments.

We have never been at a loss for material. 

TFP_Advert_STIR_Final Running newspapers is hard work and it was always our intention that TFP should be a co-operative social enterprise that paid people for their skills and dedication. Backing from a crowdfunding campaign and grants from Network for Social Change and Transition Network has given us time to build up a social infrastructure, with the aim of eventually becoming a self-sustaining enterprise.

However to become a sustainable business involves a paradox. Even though our editorial might challenge a 'growth-at-all costs' culture, we ourselves needed to grow massively to keep going. We needed to sell tens of thousands more papers, charge much more for them, dedicate more of our pages to advertising and find hundreds more subscribers. And fast.

Image1507 At the end of last year we did (finally and happily) succeed in finding funds for two of our proposed 2015 issues. but not for the whole year. To fulfil our obligations to become 'financially sustainable' meant we would have needed to make at least £20,000 pa profit to pay our core costs, and if we wanted to pay ourselves the minimum wage, over £30,000.

This was beyond our capabilities. We have always covered our production costs, but have never made the kinds of sums that make business sense. So even though the big picture public debates, from the May elections to COP15 in December, probably need the presence of a free press more than ever before, TFP will not be there to discuss them. Nor will we be there to record and celebrate the small events, actions, gatherings, projects, productions and conversations that make up the grassroots culture of a world-in-flux.

As the paper's editor and co-founder, I had hoped we could make a livelihood from our professional work within Transition. However, I now realise that for that to be the case independent journalism needs to be held in far greater esteem than it does at present. It has to matter there is a free press, that what we write matters, that our voices be heard. Because until our words are given space and attention the new story of community and collaboration everyone is waiting for will not be told.

I hope that new alliances, such as Real Media (see Amy Hall's post here) will demonstrate why the future needs a people-friendly, Earth-friendly media and that TFP's contributions and insights will have helped make that happen.

Meanwhile, dear readers, thank you for supporting us during these years. Thank you especially to our contributors, our subscribers (whom we will be refunding) and also our loyal distributors who, sometimes against the odds, have kept selling the paper to their communities. Thank you to my fellow writers, editors, designers and managers at TFP. Thank you all for your generosity, creativity and for giving it a go.

With best wishes, Charlotte Du Cann

484997_460945680613821_965150950_a Images: Charlotte Du Cann (Editor) reading TFP3; Trucie Mitchell (Designer) reading TFP2; our first reader on the train, reading the preview issue: Mark Watson (Distribution Manager) reading TFP4

Monday, 26 January 2015

The Krunchy Kitchen

2014 was a raw year.  It began with dandelion flower beer in Spring. A gentle fizz of golden heads. In June I 'uncooked' a meal with the Happy Mondays Community Kitchen crew. We rubbed kale, filled Vietnamese lettuce 'tacos', blended almond cream, talked alchemy, wellbeing and social fermentation. The long table buzzed. Everyone wanted to do the raw thing. At our autumn Transition Free Press meeting, we had a major honey high on a summertime mead Alexis made from redcurrants and roses. Mark gave his first raw food demos at Simon's shop: sunflower seed cheese, cauliflower tabbouleh and courgetti with home-grown pesto. Then he started fermenting for real: kimchi, kraut, kvass and all manner of krunchy transformative things in jars. I'll let him tell his lively story here. Here's my rather more sober take for Future Perfect, a new storytelling project going global this year. Feel the fizz! 

Fermenting Change 

We must reclaim our food. Food is much more than simply nourishment. It embodies a complex web of relationships. It is a huge part of the context in which we exist. Reclaiming our food means actively involving ourselves in this web.” (from ‘A Cultural Revivalist Manifesto’ - Sandor Ellix Katz)

The ancient culinary craft of fermentation is bubbling back up. Revived in workshops, discussed in on-line forums, taught in community kitchens and shared in mead circles, fermentation has become one of the many ‘reskilling’ projects taking place in grassroots cultures from Europe to the US in response to economic and environmental drivers. 
Extracting nutrition via the bacteria and yeasts that live on the surfaces of food sources has traditionally enabled people all over the world  to make use of seasonal abundance for leaner times. And crucially in times of climate change without the use of fossil fuels. 

“To ferment your food,” declares food journalist, Michael Pollan, “ Is to lodge an eloquent protest – of the senses – against the homogenisation of flavours and food experiences. It’s a way of engaging with the world... a declaration of independence.” 

Because this revival is not just learning how to prep and preserve cabbage: it’s also a way for people to get their hands (literally) on another social narrative and activate a different relationship with life. It runs counter to an industrialised and passive consumer lifestyle “now rolling like a great undifferentiated lawn across the globe”. Fermentation requires time and intuition and participation in a transformative process where no two sauerkrauts will turn out the same. And it can bring people together in practical and surprising ways. 

In England members of Transition Plymouth, part of the worldwide Transition movement, meet regularly over their kitchen tables to chop vegetables: “Dried, tinned, bottled, cooked, irradiated, pasteurised, supermarket fare is predominantly dead food- deliberately made in order to ‘protect’ our health and enhance shelf life,” explains Colin Trier, one of the group's activists. “Our fermentation workshops have served many purposes: to reintroduce us to making our own live foods; bringing us together as a community exchanging recipes and skills; seeking out and sharing local sources of supply; and developing resilience through home preservation of much more than jam."  

A fermenting revivalist

Some of this revival is due to the bold maverick moves of Sandor Ellix Katz, a self-taught fermenter based in rural Tennessee, whose on-line demonstrations and guide books have grabbed the imaginations of cooks and homesteaders everywhere. In his latest book, the encyclopaedic Art of Fermentation, he documents fermentation practices around the world, capturing the voices of modern and indigenous voices as he goes, discussing everything from molecular biology to cultural history, from philosophy to health benefits.
Before refrigeration came into our houses and global supply chains most of our winter stores were salted, pickled and dried. Many of those strong compelling flavours found in European delicatessens come via fermentation: coffee, chocolate, cheese, salami, olives. Likewise the mainstays of Oriental cuisine – soy, miso and tempeh - and the whole of the world’s drinks cabinet, from African palm wine to English cider.

If you were wary of venturing into this unknown territory alone, you could not hope for a more enthralling guide than Sandor: “My advice is to reject the cult of expertise. Do not be afraid. You can do it yourself.” There is no recorded case, he assures us, of poisoning from fermented vegetables.

Because fermentation is not just another culinary fashion. In the same way baking bread or growing vegetables helps decouple us from the industrial food system, remembering these skills puts the art of production back into our own hands and brings back the meaning and joy of eating into everyday life.

Who could not be excited by the prospect of making herbal elixirs from raw honey and wild fruit, or discovering how to make South Indian dosa pancakes, or turning a garden glut of beans and beets into a colourful row of shiny bottles? The act of fermenting not only makes us aware of the living microbial world that underpins all life, but connect us to thousands of years of human hands-on knowledge and ingenuity. 

Sharing the heritage

 Fermentation is above all a creative process. Eva Bakkeslett, artist and ‘gentle activist’ from north Norway teaches ‘Living Culture’ workshops that inspire people to reconnect with the traditional skills of making kefir, yoghurt and sourdough bread:
I explore fermentation in my art practice because it reveals how a living cultural process works and shows the key ingredients we need to cultivate sustainable cultures for the future: time, conditions (warmth), nurturing and sharing, good quality materials and a touch of magic. It makes us aware that living on Earth entails a seamless sharing between species and makes it hard to define the self as an isolated entity. (from How to Be a Cultural Activist for Playing for Time)
 Eva works with heirloom microbial communities from all over the world: a yoghurt culture originating from Eastern Europe and cultivated for over 100 years in a small Jewish café in New York to an old Russian sourdough from England’s real bread campaigner, Andrew Whitley, to a kefir from the Caucasus, originally made in leather bags hung by the entrance of a house, so everyone passing would give it a knock to keep it going.

Her workshops are not just about food: they are places for social fermentation, where conversations and new perspectives can emerge and the generous, self-organising nature of sharing cultures, skills, knowledge and stories can thrive.   

A healthy practice  

Fermenting as a preservation technique has evolved, like our digestion, over thousands of years. Today one of its main attractions is a way to maintain and restore good health, often impaired by a fast, factory-processed diet. Full of enzymes and beneficial flora (some appearing in different times during the process) ferments help heal the gut wall, and see off harmful invaders. The intestine, as Katz reminds us, is the largest part of the immune system in the body. 

“Fermented foods tick all the boxes,” says London Transitioner and health writer, Gill Jacobs. “They are traditional foods, underpinned by the wisdom that comes from being passed down over time. They also run counter to our modern fixation with ‘germs’ and foods that are sterilised to help shelf life but not our bodies.” 

Where to start with ferments? Gill suggests one of the easiest is beetroot kvass,  an excellent blood tonic and liver cleanser. All you need is a large jar into which you pour 2 litres of filtered water. Add 3 medium sized organic beetroots, peeled and chopped, together with 1 tablespoon of sea salt, and a ¼ cup of whey (or you can omit the whey and double the salt). Leave out for two to three days. Transfer the strained liquid to the fridge. Start each day with a 4 oz glass.

Reclaiming these cultures is beneficial both for people and the planet as refrigeration, the modern fossil-fuelled source of preservation, intensifies. In China, where fermentation has its ancestral roots, industrial refrigeration is transforming a diverse vernacular food culture into the supermarket and distributor hub model that dominates global markets. 

This is not good news for climate change. Cooling is already responsible for 15 percent of all electricity consumption worldwide, and leaks of chemical refrigerants are a major source of greenhouse-gas pollution. If current trends in refrigerant use continue, experts predict that hydro fluorocarbons will be responsible for almost half of all global emissions by 2050.
Time to get out the pickle jar! 

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is published by Chelsea Green

Images: dandelion flowers ready for beer making (Mark Watson); klass on kimchi making with Sandor Ellix Katz (Wild Fermentation); Eva Bakkeslett's workshop on making viili in Finland; Mark's red cabbage and pear kimchi and fermented pumpkin; Now rub your kale! Norman's stall, Southwold (MW)

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Seven Coats

Happy New Year everyone! In this first doorway month I will be looking back at some of the work and events that took place down our lane and elsewhere in 2014. Today, as the Dark Mountain editorial team are shaping the upcoming Spring Journal, I am posting my story from our Autumn Issue 6. Why am I wearing a brown anorak in this pic? Find out below....
From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below
I am taking off my red coat. In its pockets are seeds, rosehips, bus tickets, notes from meeetings. The coat has mud on its woollen sleeves where I have dug festival ditches and community gardens, stains where I have poured tea in church halls and slept in protest tents, where I have chopped wood in my garden, a badge on each lapel that says ‘we are the 99%’ and another that declares freedom for Palestine. We can turn the ship around, I have been writing these last six years, we can do it ourselves. We can repair, resolve, remember, restore, re-imagine the world we see before us falling apart.

I stand in the corridor, with the six coats upon their pegs, lined up like so many books on a library shelf: my life laid out in sequence. I wanted to write how it is when you leave the coat on a hook, pulled by a line that was written five thousand years ago.

I wanted to tell you about the first yellow coat, as I walked beside my mother down Queensway, London, how it determines all the others. It’s made of primrose Harris Tweed, signalling that I come from a certain class of beings who live this city. This is my first moment of consciousness. I am me! I declare and in this moment break away from her.

My mother walks onward past the sawdust floors of butchers and the cool leafy interiors of grocers. It is the end of the 50s. I am a small light in a darkened city. This feeling I realise does not come from my mother, or my father who is working in the law courts of the city, defending small murderers and thieves. I know, even though I do not yet have the words, that this existential moment is stronger, more alluring, more meaningful than anything I am surrounded by.

To be free, to awaken, to be your true self, to know the secrets of life you have to let go first of your mother’s hand. To live is to know how to die. But when you have died, you also need to know how to be reborn. And to recognise that moment when it comes.

When Innana tricked her father Enki of the Me that conferred on her the powers of her office the greatest she held was the gift of discernment.

FASHION My adult coat was not always red, or second hand. Once it was tangerine and new and caught the eye of my friend Alexander in Rome.

“Why have you got the hook outside of your coat?” he asked.
“It’s a fashion detail,” I said. “It means the coat is by Jean-Paul Gaultier. It’s his signature."

Alexander laughs. We are on the Spanish steps and my friend the seminarian, quizzes me with all the force of his Jesuit education, I don’t tell him this is the most expensive coat I will ever buy, or why that deep orange embroidered frockcoat was the only colour and shape to be wearing that season. Or that why in spite of all my learning that I am writing about men who design beautiful things.

“Who is he?” he said.

The question you have no answer for, that holds you to account, is what shifts everything.

CLOAK Once the coat was a grey cloak with a scarlet lining with my name stitched is its collar: blue to signify my house, Ridley named after the Christian saint. Inside its deep inner pocket there is a battered copy of Ulysses. a book I will silently devour, while the rest of the chapel will pray to a god who was spent three days in ‘Hell’ before rising to the sky realms. The institution has taught me to sing psalms, recite Shakespearean metre, pronounce French verse, and in moments of disobedience, read Joycean prose without a full stop.

I have learned from these texts that the true power in writing lies not in clever argument, but in listening: but only from the last do I learn its greatest trick of all, which is to break the rules.

FUR When I was twenty, I broke the rules of all my class and education and went to Belfast to be with my first love and he gave me a coat made of soft grey rabbit skins. He had worn it when he was in a rock band. We stood on the Ards pennisula and watched a hundred swans land on the black sea. It was the middle of the 1970s, and all my encounters were ventures in uncharted territory. From my lovers I discovered how it is live in the industrial north, in South Bronx, to be a Jew, to be ashamed of
poverty, to be a policeman, to be sent to the madhouse, to prison, to fight with god - subjects never mentioned in my father’s house.

“How come you are hero in everything you write?” asked the man I did not sleep with.

I did not know. I was experiencing life by proxy.

BROWN When I go on the road to experience life for real, I will wear a honey brown car coat that once had a belt when it swung in the Dover Street shop alongside cedar drawers of soft silky shirts from Tibet. My sister gave it to me one freezing winter’s night in New York and afterwards we went out like furry twins to catch a cab and to eat Moroccan and drink large glasses of pinot grigio.

The alpaca coat will serve as a blanket in the cold mountain nights in the Andes and Sierra Madre. I don’t fly anymore, or eat in restaurants. When I think of New York now I remember the tramp on Broadway who told you: you have something golden in there in your brain, y’all take care of it, you understan’?

BLACK “I like to see you smiling there,” said my father as he lay dying. and the summer storm raged outside the hospital window. In my hand I was holding a raven feather, now buttonholed in a small black frockcoat I found in a thrift store on our last road trip to Utah.

I wanted to tell you, how it was when we arrived in Zion Canyon that spring, how it was when my father’s spirit roared into the night, the stories held within the fabric of each of these coats, but each time I go there I run out of words and a small quiff of terror runs through my veins.

I am standing in this corridor, facing the coats and realise they are no longer my store of material: not these childhood nostalgias, these bildungsroman, these young rebellious love stories, these glossy magazine articles, these poems about birds and ancestors, treatises on plant medicine, not even the latest narratives about collaboration and downshift.

What next now that everything is written, now there are no hooks left?

The Line

In the introduction to her retelling of the Innana cycle Diana Wolkstein writes of her first encounter with the Sumerian scholar, Samuel Noah Kramer. Kramer had been working with the 5000 year old inscriptions for 50 years, a cycle of myths and hymns she will describe as “tender, erotic, shocking, and compassionate - the world’s first love story that was recorded and written down.”

From the Great Above she set her mind to the Great Below.

“What exactly does mind mean?” she asked.
“Ear,” Kramer said.
“Yes, the word for ear and wisdom in Sumerian are the same, but mind is what is meant.”
“But - could I say ‘ear’?”
“Well you could.”
“Is it opened her ear or set her ear?”
“Set. Set her ear, like a donkey that sets its ear to a particular sound.”

As Kramer spoke, Wolkstein recalls, a shiver ran through her.

”When taken literally, the text itself announces the story’s direction. From the Great Above the goddess opened (set) her ear, her receptor for wisdom, to the Great Below.”’

‘The Descent of Innana’ is the fourth and final myth in the quartet, and the four together are understood to be the cycle of a complete human being – specifically a female being. This final part records how the Queen of Heaven and Earth goes into the Underworld, where she is killed by its Queen, her sister Erishkeigel, and then is restored to life.

Innana has to go through seven gates before she gets to her dark sister’s throne room. At each gate she has to give up one of her Me, the attributes of civilisation, from her crown to her breechcloth - all seven seats of her physical and material power. She enters the kur, the Underworld, to know the secrets of rebirth housed there, which are not the physical attributes of the middle earth but belong entirely in another dimension.

You shiver, because you know you can’t follow the words of her myth in your mind. You follow her track the way dancers hand down their choreography through time: by imitation.


The Myth and the Story

The myth is not the story. The story is extrinsic. I walk out, fight dragons, lose myself in the forest. I return, get married, live in a castle, inherit the kingdom. I do this, then I do this, then I do this, then I hang up my coat on the back of the door and tell you a story. You listen to my tale, gripped by adventure. It fits into the ordinary world we know. Our lives are built around these stories with their happy or sad endings. We are rewarded or punished, the good triumph, the bad die, or do a far, far better thing and suffer both fates.

But the myth is not this. It demands we open our ears to another wavelength. It is a complex, non-linear, and runs alongside the story of our middle earth lives, with its clawed feet in the underworld and its beaky head in the sky realms. It doesn’t fit what we see around us. It lives in caves and out in the desert wind, and sometimes looms up in the city darkness and tells us to take care of something inside us that we cannot see with our everyday eyes.

When the story loses its sense, the myth emerges like the bones beneath the soil. It promises something that makes sense beyond the endings we predict, yet leaves us puzzled by its inscriptions on stone and clay, with its bird heads, its masks and painted bodies. With the goddess who rides on the back of a lion, who is conquered and then transformed.

The myth is intrinsic. It works from the inside out, looping back on itself and lives in all time. In myths, like our dreams, there are savage things that don’t make sense. You cut off heads of people who seem to be giving you direction, or asking for help. You eat the things you should not, and open the box you should not. You are married to your father and your brother and your son. You are a strange heroine. Discernment is your greatest gift. Curiosity and a thirst for knowledge pulls you where angels fear to go.

Angels don’t lose their clothes, and in the Underworld you lose everything. The clothes are least of it.

I am standing naked, before the hook and my sister’s wrath. The myth will kill me and put my body on the hook for three days, which is the statutory amount of time a soul stays in the Underworld before it returns to the sky realm. My ascent will involve complicated deals with sky fathers and loyal servants, betrayals and praise, and someone I love who will take my place. Nobody goes into the underworld and returns. Except you who breaks the rules.

The ways of the Underworld are perfect. The ways of Heaven are perfect.I am imperfect and incomplete. Like all earth creatures I bring change by undergoing change. As a people we can change the law, but only through our own journey which demands we give everything away that up to that point has conferred power upon us.

Civilisation tell us we should be stay still, be perfect and never change. It gives us coloured coats to wear and says by these outer forms you shall be known. But this is not the life that illuminates our being. You go into the Underworld to find that out the hard way. It takes off the layers one by one, peels them, all your worldly colours, until you stand stripped in the strange twilight of the underworld, infused by its lamps of asphodel.

Mostly you go to meet your sister, whom you have been told, is furious with you. Somewhere buried in this myth from Sumer is a key about the future. And for weeks now I have been waiting for it to appear. The first known piece of writing was written by a woman in 3200BC in praise of this being – who was not a mother goddess, but embodied the morning and evening star, and her myth of descent is the first of the ‘mysteries’ to emerge from the city cultures we call civilisation.

It is hard to imagine a world shaped by such a descent, because we live in a world framed by monotheistic gods, who sacrifice their sons to war and Empire, and sentence their daughters to servitude. You have to go beyond millennia of saints and masters and sages into the strife-torn deserts of modern Iraq to find where Innana first held sway, before she became by association, the whore of Babylon, her alchemical moves reduced to a strip tease of coloured veils, performed for a bored tourist in Istanbul.

Embedded in her myth is a way to go beyond civilisation’s impasse. Because the life ordered by the Underworld is not the life ordered by Empire: it has another structure and practice entirely. As modern people we like to hold the myth philosophically, culturally, psychologically at arm’s length. What we fear is to walk in its tracks, lose control over our lives. We do not like to question our existence at every turn. So we toy with the mythos in our minds, at the end of our typing fingers.

Erishkeigel, we say, is our shadow, and become small professors in the arts of deities and griffins. This means that, we say, with our breasts puffed up like chickens. It’s about numbers, and cycles of planting and growing, the seven planets, seven colours of the rainbow, seven chakras. Innana is a fragment from the matriarchal era. She is Venus who appears as the morning star, disappears under the earth, and reappears in the evening.

But information is not the myth. Myths are enacted, dramaturgical, protean, existential. You allow the myth to be played out through your being, suffer its effects consciously. The meaning and the expansion it brings happens inside of you, wordlessly. When you stand by the hook, you are scriptless. Libraries disappear, all your smart lingo of Eng Lit and fashion and philosophy. You are in the place without words. The words take you here and then abandon you.

Writers are born with the kind of memory that calls them to go through the gates of the kur. They remember, not just for themselves, but on behalf of the people: we have to undergo change, or we are not people and the Earth is not the Earth. When we make our moves the edifices tumble down, the institutions crack, illusions dissolve like mist.

It comes to me in this moment is that I have run out of the storyline. I don’t know the ending to my own story, or that of anyone around me. And maybe this life isn’t a story anymore. Maybe it’s something else. The future stands before me like an empty quarter, like the desert road, edged with sunflowers, like the twilight in the garden after the rain. I take a deep breath. I am here, I say and step forward.

The hook holds what you most fear, which in my case is meaninglessness. The void hits you like a mallet and you tremble. You break apart like a seed pod. Collapse happens inwardly and suddenly.

At the moment Innana is killed by her sister, Erishkeigel begins her labour. When her servant, Ninshubar goes to heaven to ask Innana’s fathers for help. the first two refuse. Then the third, Enki the god of wisdom, creates two beings made from the clay under his fingernails who slip into the Underworld unnoticed and assist Erishkeigel give birth by sympathising with her pain and glorifying her greatness.

Oh, oh, oh my inside, oh, oh, my outside!

Innana goes into the Underworld because she knows her sister has something more powerful than any of her Me. That’s what pulls her, that’s what pulls us, thousands of years later, caught by the first line. We are hooked on that moment.

Some of us have been so hooked on that moment we forgot what we went down there to find in the first place.

Leaving the City Inside

The story of civilisation tells us we will be rewarded if we toe the line: but though some may receive a moment of glory, or own a fine house or dine on meals that slip extravagantly past our lips, none of this will give us kinship with the beasts, or our fellows, or return us whence we came. None will tell us what we need to undergo to become real people – which is to say people who value life on Earth.

The myth tells you if you give everything to life, the Earth will give you everything your heart desires: which if we are writers, means knowledge is given to us – a lineage that stretches back through time, to this moment when our words were first inscribed in clay. That is why we go to the Underworld and face the hook, even at the risk of losing those words that have kept us safe all these years. All those poems and articles, adjectives, and smart lines. All those narratives.

The writer is the one who remembers the myth and keeps telling it to the people. Nothing happens for the better unless we let go and change our forms.

The ways of the Underworld are perfect Innana. Do not question them.

What is hard for our duality-driven minds to comprehend is that Innana and Erishkeigel are the same being, that to turn the ship around we have to follow her mythic track. Rebirth takes place in the Underworld, and in order to reclaim, remember, re-imagine, we have enter its domain.

And we absolutely don’t want to go down there. We want to stay in our cosy colour supplement lives and cling to our ideas of happy families and romantic love, our knowledge of buildings and history, our Shakespearean quotations. We long to keep our shirts perfectly ironed in cedar drawers, to repeat the epithets that fall from the lips of holy men in robes.

Who am I without these coats of class and institution?
Who am I without my work?
Who am I without my new found community?

When Innana returns to the Great Above the person who has not mourned her departure is made to take her place. Her consort, the shepherd Dumuzi, who is also Tammuz and Adonis and Dionysus, and all dying and resurrecting ivy-wreathed gods of the ancient world, and further down the line, the sacrificed man on a cross who does not remember her name. Whose books tell us we don’t have to go there, because he did it all for us.

The rebirth we seek does not happen without our descent. The world becomes flatter, uglier and unkinder, determined by the unconscious mass, the untempered leader, the foolish woman, the words that do not set their ear to the Great Below. Venus, the embodiment of love, beauty and a fair fight, steps into the arena to bring new life. She doesn’t do that by chanting a new mantra or changing her shopping habits, she does that by grabbing you by the throat and pulling you towards everything you have so far refused to see or hear. She takes you towards the unspoken, the missing information in every transaction, each time you have jumped the consequence and refused to hear the beast or child cry out, your sister trapped in a factory a thousand leagues away.

The unconscious snarls back, rages and rants, complains, resents our every intrusion. It is not polite, or reasonable, or forgiving. You have to withstand its every humiliation: inside yourself and outside amongst the people you love and fear.We think to know the facts is enough, that good behaviour is enough, that to write of our wounds and sorrows is enough. But it is not enough.

To let go of earthly power is a real thing. To be conscious within the realms of unconsciousness, is a real thing. To face your raging sister, to move out of the cycle of history, to liberate yourself from your line, to have empathy for the man, for the child, for the tree, for the fish and the barbarian, these are a real things. Not to give up, even when you have given up and the world has turned its back on you.

To die before you die is the core tenet of all the mystery cycles that emerged in the early city states before the father gods took command. It has been a task undertaken by writers in the civilisations that followed - content that we labour conveniently in the Underworld as volunteers and substitutes to carry their shadow and suffer on their behalf.

But Innana’s myth does not end there.


It is the moment I hang up the red coat. The moment I expect the hook and find none.

I am on the beach on a warm blue July morning. There is one day a year like this, and today it is here. The sea shimmers and stretches out before us at low tide, and the breeze carries the dusty scent of marram and sea holly. In the sea the currents move around the sandbar, this way and that, and tumble me into the foam. Every time I put my feet down the sand moves too and small fish who lived buried in the seabed. Everything is moving. I am laughing, tossed by the waves. This is how it is on the tip of the future, as you look at the sun on the horizon, as you look at the empty page and don’t know what to write anymore.

I wanted to tell you what that is like when you have done your time in the Underworld, the moment that delivers you into a vast unmapped space, and frees you from the past that has been howling and pawing your coat it seems for centuries. I wanted to say how it was all worth it, though I am left naked on a beach, bookless, featherless, empty-pocketed. Because at this moment I want to be nowhere else but here with the future unwritten before me. Because the golden feeling I had in the core of my self when I was two years old is still with me at 58, and keeping loyal to that awakeness is what I steer by more than anything I see falling apart around me, and I know I am not alone in that. And mostly because I remember what my sister told me before I left the city:

“You have been the anchor, you have kept this house together, you have absolved our father’s guilt, buried our mother with honour, held our hand, listened to us, grieved with us, written our story - now it is my turn.”

I put my feet on the firm wet sand, on the shoreline, on this beautiful day. We are here, I say.

Images: brown anorak, birch, tumulus, winter solstice 2014 (Mark Watson); embroidered coat from Soft Armour by Monique Besten (Dark Mountain 6); honey-coloured coat, Real de Catorce, Mexico 1999 (MW); seal depicting Inanna, Iraq; Feeding the Fire From Below by Kate Walters (DM6) Poppy Capsule by Deanne Belinoff; Urban Weed Apothecary by Sophie Mason; Anima by Daniel Mack (DM6) entering the sea, high summer 2014; Inanna - Queen of Heaven and Earth by Diana Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer (Harper & Row). Dark Mountain Issue 6 is available via the DM website.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Gift of the Heart

Last week I received an email from Andrea Hejlskov, a Danish writer who lives in the wild woods in Värmland, Sweden. She had read my last post and wanted to ask about the shifts I discussed. Would I contribute to a a series she was running this month about gifts on her own blog? Here is the result of our conversation. Normally acting as the Interviewer, it's a rare and wonderful thing to be asked questions, to be able to reappraise where you stand in the river of your own life. I first came across Andrea's work through a great post she wrote for Dark Mountain about living offgrid. Her book about her experiences will be published by Two Ravens Press next year.

What happened to you? Who are you now in relation to who you were when you first became an activist? Is that deep urge gone?

When I first joined the Transition movement I took part in the Transition 2.0 initiative in Norwich, where small intentional community and neighbourhood groups decided to cut their individual annual carbon emissions to four tonnes (the UK average is 9 tonnes). We measured and shared our home energy, transport and food consumption and held deep discussions about personal carbon reduction around each others’ kitchen tables.

I changed almost everything I did on a household level that year (2009/10), including switching off the central heating, sharing a car and only wearing second-hand clothes. I took part in reskilling sessions, building a community garden and helped set up ‘Give and Take Days’ where everyone could exchange goods for free and tons of rubbish could be diverted from landfill.

These are things everyone can do – but it’s far far easier to act if you are in a group and your actions are framed within an intelligent appraisal of planetary drivers such as climate change and resource depletion. For many of us Transition supplied that initial frame and network. However once you have acted on the information, you find you also need to act very differently in your ‘real’ life. In short your work and all your relationships need to embed those changes.

My trade is in communications, so I put my experiences with my fellow Transitioners into print and pictures. The Norwich ‘Circles’ provided the material for a community blog (This Low Carbon Life) in which our stories could be shared and stored. Subsequently these became a national blog (The Social Reporting Project) and then the newspaper, Transition Free Press.

The urge to change and transform is very strong in me. I stand by the changes I made in those Transition years and the social frame in which they happened. However the cliché “you can’t change the world with the same mindset that created it” means that just altering your behaviours and engaging in your local community is not enough. Transition and other progressive movements work principally on an extrinsic mind/body axis, from what some people call a ‘left hemisphere’ perspective. For real change to happen we also need to include the feeling/spirit axis and shift our values intrinsically. We need to allow the right hemisphere to influence our walk through the world. The heart is the only part of us that can hold and cohere these different aspects of ourselves.

So in answer to your question: I guess my deep urge now lies within exploring and documenting this shift of axis. It requires a different language and a different way of interacting with people. In my own life this has meant moving my focus from Transition towards the work Dark Mountain do. Essentially away from the pragmatic towards the creative.

What are you feelings about change now?

I feel our human blueprint is to undergo change through time. We are natural transformers in the same way mushrooms or bacteria activate and change other substances by their presence. All archaic and indigenous cultures celebrate these processes through their art and song and spiritual practice. We live however in a civilisation that prevents these kind of change from happening. People in industrialised culture are trained to be workers and consumers and act according to ‘fairytales’ told them by their education and media. We have become functions in an artificial system, not natural symbionts with the Earth.

So change always upsets the ‘stability’ of this known world. It exposes the reality underneath the dysfunctional narratives of our civilisation. Most people don’t want to look at the full implications of what they do every day without thinking. Not because they are mean, but because they instinctively fear the consequences. When you let go of that unnatural cramped position you have been holding for years, there is a lot of pain and anger and bewilderment to deal with and very little to guide you. Changing your shopping habits is the least of it.

Radical change is far more demanding than either modern spirituality or community activism make space for, partly because there are feedback loops to cope with. There is no way to jump this suffering but there are a lot of ways of making it easier to bear. Sharing them with fellow Transitioners is one way. Turning them into creative material is another. However we have to weather this process because we need to become a different people, people who can live in synch with the Earth and each other. That’s an outer and an inner thing. It’s personal and it’s planetary. And it is also political.

One of the reasons Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything says institutions deny climate change is because they know that you can’t act on climate without radically altering the whole system, without acting on capitalism, without bringing in social and environmental justice.

That’s the same for individuals. When you change one thing, you end up changing everything. The systems are interlocked.

How do you celebrate Christmas? What does this season mean to you? What happens to you around Christmas? What do you wish for it to be? Do you have New Year's resolutions?

I don’t think I’ve ever made a resolution! I gave up Christmas in my 20s (way too much family arguing!) and went travelling with my friends instead. I never looked back. However I do celebrate the winter solstice. In the Celtic tradition there was a time either side of the solstice called the Halcyon Days, after the mythic kingfisher who builds her nest at this time. And so I keep those 14 days as free as possible and tune into the world outside my door: the weather and light, the frost and trees, to keep an ear out for the moment the birds start to sing again. I usually do most of the pruning of the apple trees and hedges at this time (by hand!) and so am outside in all weathers. I love the winter twilight, chopping the firewood, watching the stars come out. It’s easy to forget those things when you are indoors or working.

We (that’s with my partner and colleague Mark Watson) mark all the eight stations of the year, the solstices and equinoxes and feast days. We light a new fire at night and watch the sun rise the next morning from under the neighbourhood oak. or by the sea. Usually I go for a long walk through the land, or visit our local tumuli. It’s about paying a certain attention at these times. They are all doors that usher in another season and make sense of the relationship between the sun and the Earth that plays out in the growing year and in the larger cycles of life. They help keep us on track and rooted in time and place.
I know you lost heart as an activist. Is your heart back? What makes your heart pound now?

My heart is no longer the way it once was when I was fully immersed in a creative project or at the start of my involvement with the Transition movement, which is to say full of excitement and enthusiasm. But the heart needs to undergo radical change too. It needs to become the central governing intelligence of our lives and not be limited to the things we normally associate with it, such as passion or romantic love or inspiration.

My practice as a community activist in the last 6 years has been a social practice. This opens you in ways that you do not expect. You can’t really live a conveniently personal life once you have accessed your community self, because you are not separate from the people you live among. Here in England there is a lot of hardship and inequality and a desire to escape. Like everywhere else the land is being badly treated and we are the inheritors of a bloody history. We bear the scars of these things, and only a big medicine will turn that around.

So I find I can still celebrate the small joys of life – the light on the sea, the taste of food, daily interchanges with people and creatures – but looking at the state of the planet with true eyes needs our very adult attention. I don’t think we know what that really means yet. When I look around me I see a lot of childish and adolescent behaviour, but not much depth and integrity or fairness. So that’s what I am trying to bring into everything I do. The heart desires equality of exchange. It is exacting in these matters. You need to get back as much as you give. Making those demands for yourself, for the people, for the land, requires you to be a tough negotiator in a hostile culture that is used to giving nothing in return.

I think the heart changes its function as you get older (I am 58). So it doesn’t pound in the way you felt it pound when you loved the boy in the next room, or the words you once wrote for a glossy magazine. One day you wake up and realise that not only can you not go to nightclubs any more, you can’t keep flying to other countries either, or eating fish, or thinking you are special, and that’s a sobering thing.

Our civilised lives are off kilter and we are not at home or in time. The sober heart straightens this out from the inside and changes the way you walk through the world. It teaches you to make yourself at home and how to live in time. So perhaps it would be fair to say a pounding heart, an excited, upbeat heart, the kinds of feeling and kinship I originally felt when I joined my Transition initiatives, do not create the best state with which to face the future. You have to meet it on its own terms. And that’s not been done before by a post-industrialised people.

For me the people who know how to live with that kind of challenge, with uncertainty, who can provide beauty and depth and meaning, who can regenerate and remember the world, are my fellow artists and writers.

Creativity is the best gift we can give – and the best any of us can receive”.


Images: illustration from Andrea Hejlskov’s book Og Den Store Flugt by Danish artist Signe Kjær; Sustainable Bungay Give and Take Day crew, 2010; holding russet apple grafts for community orchard from This Low Carbon Life; Waylands Smithy, Oxfordshire; reading Dark Mountain 4; Winter solstice sun, Suffolk (all photographs by Mark Watson)

Friday, 14 November 2014

where do we go from here?

"I am taking off my red coat. In its pockets are seeds, rosehips, bus tickets, notes from meetings. The coat has mud on its woollen sleeves where I have dug festival ditches and community gardens, stains where I have poured tea in church halls and slept in protest tents, where I have chopped wood in my garden, a badge on each lapel that says ‘we are the 99%’ and another that declares freedom for Palestine. We can turn the ship around, I have been writing these last six years, we can do it ourselves. We can repair, resolve, remember, restore, re-imagine the world we see before us falling apart.
(The Seven Coats, Dark Mountain: Issue 6)
For some time now I've been wondering where to go. Where do my words belong, in which direction do my feet need to walk? It seems like a long time, but maybe it isn't. Maybe it's the absence of something crucial that has made it feel so long. If writing can be defined as the excitement of stringing sentences together and putting them down on a page, then I could describe this state as 'writer's block'. The sentences did come sometimes, but they soon fizzled out and could not cohere beyond a paragraph. I would feel deflated, and no longer connected to what the words were saying. It felt as if my material had run out.

When I stumbled upon the Transition movement six years ago I found I had a vast treasure store of words at my fingertips, and I spent 2008-13 sharing them in over 400 posts and newspaper and magazine columns. There seemed no end of things to say to about powerdown: about giving up central heating and radicalising my store cupboard. About working in groups and searching for a new narrative. But after a while the collaborative writing projects I created began to run aground, and I found myself losing heart. As we used to say, the EROEI just didn't stack up anymore.

I thought at the beginning I was in Tranisition for the long haul. I thought it would shape my life and that I would make a livelihood from it and forge some deep and lasting connections with fellow activists. Then I realised my engagement was a transition in itself. It was a territory that needed to be encountered and navigated, like an ocean voyage, and my outpourings and photographs were its captain's log. Once I had understood the need to frame what I saw within the planetary ecological and economic drivers, from a social perspective (no longer stuck in a little individualist cocoon), I could move on.

I had a lot to be grateful for: immersing myself in community activism broke my own disenfranchisement, it broke my silence, it gave me a rough education and skills in areas I knew nothing about, from global finance to splitting my own firewood. But by 2013 I was coming up against certain limits. Some of these limits were in my fellow Transitioners, unwilling to forgo their conventionality, or face collective demons - which made working in groups very difficult. Some were to do with the governance of Transition itself, of having an organising network where all the funding and authorial voice is concentrated in one small place.

The main limit however was to do with writing, my trade. In 2012 at the national Transition Network Conference there was a moment when I realised my love affair with the movement was coming to an end: I was standing with my fellow 'social reporter' Teen (also an ex-journalist) in an imaginary High Street of the Future. Everyone in the Battersea Arts Centre was busy building shops and enterprises out of cardboard boxes along its chalk-etched pavements. Our printing house was the first to finish and we needed to find some custom. So I went to the Job Centre.

We only have people with skills here, I was told tartly, you need to go to the Bank. Teen went outside to  have a cigarette. I went into the lobby to email some recipes for a community meal I was organising. I left a preview copy of a new newspaper in our cardboard office.

That wasn't make believe.

the sentences

I write spurred by an urgency all writers feel: to voice the collective messages you wrest from your individual experience of the world. That urgency comes when you wake up at dawn with sentences spinning like fireworks in the dark, desiring you to put them into a meaningful order. You can't keep those kinds of sentences to yourself. You have to get them down, and then you have to get them into the fabric of the world somehow.

In the era of the Internet writers no longer have to wait for publishers and agents to sign them up. You no longer have to wait for a bored editorial assistant to reply to your 1000th email, telephone call, or book treatment. You can just go and ahead publish your work yourself. By 2009 I had become, like everyone else, a blogger. I was busy creating several Transition-based collaborative blogs to record our low carbon lives in a time of social change. After 14 unpublished years, it was a heady liberation.

But writing on line has a downside. Free words are not the same as words that are printed, paid for and given proper attention by an editor and reading public. Something about the transaction is not right. After three years on a continuous deadline I realised, though I didn't like to admit it, that the messages embedded in the stories were being ignored. They were at best a moment of "beautiful writing" that flitted across the screen and then disappeared.

I realised that no matter how many pieces I wrote, or projects I  co-ordinated, editorial skills were not considered important in this grassroots territory. Everyone can write blogs, so what is the big deal? 'Comms' in a corporate-shaped world is not true editorial, but a hybrid creature lurking somewhere between marketing and HR (and occasionally filed under 'well-being'). When I stood by editorial in these Transition transactions  I started to feel that invisible crushing force normally experienced in real High Street Job Centres or the bowels of US immigration:

You should do writing as a hobby/as a volunteer/in your spare time and get a real job.

"Why should you be paid for something you enjoy?" asked my (retired) neighbour at the community meal last month, as he argued against the Arts Council funding artists and their work.

Something in me rebelled that night. I have been editing a book about artists funded by the Arts Council for the last two years, so have some insight into how most artists earn their money and what they do to secure it. I saw the writing 'limbo' I had been in all these months was in fact some kind of strike. No matter how many stories I had up my sleeve, no matter how many great connections I had made, I couldn't keeping writing about a movement where people didn't care if their media makers earned less than £2 a hour, or where funders were happy to pay 'official' Transition staff decent salaries, but their cultural freelance activists, little or nothing.

After six years I realised my work as a 'citizen editor' was leading nowhere. The sentences no longer came to me at dawn. I hadn't used the camera for over a year. That's when I realised that the bitterness I sometimes expressed was not a sign of failure, or defeat, or envy for the better fortune of others. Like all bitter things it came from a place that was demanding my attention: it came from the heart.

the empty quarter

In the latest Dark Mountain journal I've written a story called The Seven Coats, based on the Sumerian myth of Innana. Unlike the 400 blogs I had written so blithely at dawn this one took weeks to finish. It is, in some ways, about the block.

In the story I stand in front of "the six coats upon their pegs, lined up like so many books on a library shelf: my life laid out in sequence" and consider what it means to let go of all the forms of writing I have known up to then. The seventh scarlet coat is the one that has kept me bright as I documented the bumpy terrain of Transition.

Even though I have been writing since the age of 14 and worked as a journalist in my 20s and 30s, I did once stop writing books and articles for six years and only keep notebooks. I was in those years charting a territory of dreams and plants and found I could no longer write as I had in my working and travelling years. Those sentences just wouldn't form. Every time I wrote I or We I shuddered from the sound of my own authorial voice.

Sometimes it's not a lack of material that stops you writing: but a call to change your position and see another world.

Dark Mountain is a singular territory: it does not argue for sustainability, or feel we can turn the ship around if we change our shopping or voting habits. It doesn't say business can go on as usual either, or insist that all life is brutish and without meaning, or that we cannot as a modern deracinated people find our place on Earth. Even though the writing and art Dark Mountain curates look unswervingly at the collapse of ecological systems, the works themselves cohere. The people who converge around this Project hold together at the edge of a space that has no words. In a harsh and fragmenting civilisation it allows, through its creative prism, a deeper intelligence and connection between us to shine through.

The Seven Coats is about going through the seven doors of the Underworld, to discover this space of upper light and air. At each door Innana is subject to humiliation and told to remove her clothes that represent her wordly powers. A professional ability to write and edit and bring a team of people together, was perhaps the last of my old world capacities I had to forgo. It was a hard and Hadean struggle. "Your self-esteem is tied up with this blog," railed one of my fellow Transitioners, as he tried to oust me from editing the project I had created. "You are a bad writer/ a communist/I don't want to hear you talk about money again!" yelled other comrades-in-arms.

Bitterness is taboo in this world. In the same way the ruling caste will accuse the disenfranchised of envy, without considering their own privilege, writers are often accused of self-pity or ego if they complain about the poor hand they have been dealt. Shame is heaped upon you if you dare to ask for payment for your work. You are supposed to do this for free!

However bitterness is a quality of the shadow heart. The heart demands we make a good deal. It is the superlative judge in all things that matter. The Earth is a complex matrix of exchange, and if our exchanges are not fair, then something is amiss. If you are bitter it is because your heart is telling you have been been tricked in some way.

The deal is not straight for writers or artists in this culture: the culture depends on our ability to see, feed back, transform, delight, inform, question, honour, celebrate and berate the world that is all around us, to transmit a hundred messages that arise from the deep void as colourful sentences at dawn. It depends on our feeling the urgency to create. If we can't tell the real stories of our lives, it means there is no story. And a culture without a story is on its way out.

When I arrived at the Uncivilisation Festival in 2011, I realised there were people who knew the value of words and who knew the story we need to be telling has yet to be written. It was in many ways like coming into harbour after a bad storm. What attracted me was not the "doom-mongering" that the conventional media accuses Dark Mountain of, but the creative project that deliberately holds a certain kind of space. Before a story can come together, space needs to be made to allow its structure and meaning to cohere. There needs to be what the great plant metaphysician, Dale Pendell, calls a Ground State Calibration.

When you hit dry land after a long voyage you need to recalibrate - to find the existential basis for all your following actions that lie deep inside your being. You have to locate the star by which you will navigate the next journey.  If we are really co-creating the future, as Transition and other optimistic narratives assert, I don't want that future world  - by which I mean human society or what we know as civilisation - to be the same one I have been painstakingly critiquing for 40 years only with a different vocabulary, with other More Important people in charge. To be worth working for it has to have certain basic conditions: it has to have real kinship with the Earth and it has to heed the creators who are in the room, each with their names and singular virtues. It has to value the bright words we forge in the darkness of ourselves. No less, no more. Otherwise there is no deal. The story won't get written.

Today I looked at the sea: it was big and rough and the light bounced all over it. It was alive. I was alive. It was a good feeling to be standing there on the edge of England, in November. This is a good place to begin, I thought, as out of nowhere a sentence began to take shape....

Images: cover of Dark Mountain 6 by Eunah Cho; Transition Town Totnes badge (Emilio Mula) from Transtion Free Press preview issue 2012; connecting the words at the Transition Network Conference 2012 (Laura Whitehead); butterfly shaped strange attractors in phase space; covering an Occupy Norwich assembly (Mark Watson); Feeding the Fiire from Below by Kate Walters (from Dark Mountain 6) light on the sea at Southwold (MW)