Wednesday 22 February 2023

On the move!

Hello dear readers - I am presently shifting my online work to another location. This trusty blog will be kept as an archive, so do have a look around! Otherwise you will be able to find my latest pieces, news, events and teachings on the new website:

charlotteducann.net

Hope to see you there!

Thanks and all best wishes, Charlotte 


Tuesday 4 October 2022

VIGIL

'We’re all of us living on borrowed time: the brevity of our personal span of existence now mirrored by a biosphere under intolerable pressure, its every life system beginning to fray and unravel under civilisation’s weight. We witness its collapse every day now, in new stories of cataclysmic weather events, of lives lost, of flora and fauna weirded, disrupted, gone. However incipiently or unconsciously, we live at a time of collective grieving – no life exempt from the consequences of this relentless devastation and what it has set loose'. 
Borrowed Time: on death, dying & change, ed Richard Povall and Mat Osmond (art.earth) 

Last November I took part in a series of events on death, dying and change called Borrowed Time.  It was hosted by the Devon-based organisation art.earth who also collaborated with Dark Mountain's 'requiem' Issue 19.  Following three lockdowns, and a year later than scheduled, the main gathering eventually took place online. And even though its subject was vast and unfathomable and usually observed with silence, deference, bound tight by tradition and form, the intimacy of the screen discussions brought us into a sudden and startling kinship. Each of us touched by our own and others' mortality in a way that felt both ancestral and entirely modern.

In response I wrote the following  text to capture of some of their mood and existential attention, accompanied by artwork from the Dark Mountain edition. The book is a gathering and celebration of the voices, images and creative practice made m in the wake of the symposium by organisers Richard Povall and Mat Osmond.

  

MORTUARY 

Somewhere a vigil through the long dark night is being held, while most of us are sleeping. 

While most of us have our eyes on the road, Kathryn Poole alights from the bus to Stockport, her eye caught by the flapping of a dead owl’s wing in the tailwind, as if it were still alive.  She will render the speckled feathers in pen and ink as a memorial. While most of us neglect the cost of toil on human bodies, Tom Baskeyfield enters a mortuary on the side of a Welsh mountain, and puts his hand on the cold slate slab. He will render the stone on paper with graphite, stippled with the lives of the men who died while mining this slate, and once were laid  here. 

While most of us avert our gaze, forests are disappearing, the animals are leaving, the seas are emptying, our hearts are yearning without knowing why. No canvas seems large enough to hold it.

 


SHROUD 

On an island in the Baltic that is the last matriarchal community in Europe, women in flowering dresses gather around a casket in the dead woman’s kitchen, to pray and sing and mourn. In Armenia, the academic told us,  where the villagers also once gathered in each others’ rooms to bid farewell, there are now  specially built funeral houses. Grief is no longer a shared thing among the community, but an individual concern. A quiet has prevailed, where once there were tears and sorrowing. 

We gathered as if in these old kitchens, learning over tables, looking into each other’s faces. sharing prayers and blessings, in the spirit of the vigil. We spoke of the dead. We found that there are still women in our own land who stitch their own grave goods boots from deerskin, decorated with oak gall, who provide felt blankets to swaddle the dead before they go back into the cold ground. 

Who will wrap us, who will sing for us? Who will remember our passing through? The warmth we once held?

Who will keep vigil for us in the dark night as it approaches, keep the fire of the world alight?  


MEMOIR

I am writing this from memory, long  after the gathering that was the Borrowed Time symposium last November. I am remembering,  because time doesn’t go in a straight line, like history. To bring renewal to the world it needs us to loop and feed back, in gardens and culture.

In her memoir about grief and mourning A Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion realises her cataloguing everything about her relationship with her dead husband was an attempt to reverse time, to stop the forty years of living closely from disappearing into a black hole. Her fearless remembering of the minutes and years, are a writer's capacity for finding moments that are like keys to a closed door: significant because they reveal the life that counts, our presence here together. What remains when you take away the issues, the opinions, the thoughts and numbers, that whirl about in our heads. What really matters.

I lit a fire, she said, I closed the curtains. He praised my work. We swam with the tide into the cave at Portuguese Bend, You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change, he said.


TUMULUS

Sometimes I go to sit on the tumulus down towards the Blyth river. Crowned by silver birch and rowan trees, it houses the dead from hundreds of years ago.  Why is it that these archaic places feel like a solace, an anchor in rocky times? Not my kith lie buried here, but my kin. People who lived close to the land, and these ancestor trees, the deer, the lichen on the rocks. My body, my blood. Once we waited here at  winter solstice for the light of the new sun to fall into the chamber, holding our breath, the breath of the year. 

How can I value my life, if I do not have the dead close to me? Who else can take us back down into the kiva and kur, where all life and regeneration begins, to remind us of our obligation to give back. 

WAKE

I made a book of the dead  with fellow writers, wrapped in a winding sheet. In it we placed the keening of birds and people, these staffs with hands that clasp the wind, the flowers that light the way to the Underworld 

Everything I write, my body, my intelligence is  compost for the future, said the poets. We are a nurse log for the new, happy to sit in the dark with you, doing this work, not knowing what comes after.

It is a mood and an attention that is held in these encounters, because the dead, our kin are in the room, because with this relinquishment, the fierce joy of remembering the presence of living beings comes to us. The memory you keep treasured in the heart’s locker for others to stumble upon. 

What does the mind remember? A grinding sound, keeping the machinery of an illusionary world in place, an ancient hostility, distracted by a fast-flickering screen.

What does the writer remember? The shape and colour embedded in stone, leaf, skin, lichen, the sound of water, the curlew calling from the river, your voice. This library of Earth, sunlight held in matter.

The great mystery of Earth is time, said the blind writer, holding a book in his hand. 

We borrowed it, and forgot to bring it back. 

Our return is overdue.

 Borrowed Time: on death, dying & change, ed Richard Povall and Mat Osmond is published this month by art.earth: https://art-earth.org.uk/product/borrowed-time/ 

Saturday 28 May 2022

After Ithaca – Journeys in Deep Time

My latest book After Ithaca – Journeys in Deep Time has just been launched into the world. Here is an excerpt  from the title essay published by the Dark Mountain Project, with an short introduction about how it was sparked alight.

'Sometimes you need an encounter with the dark to crack your old way of seeing apart.' In 2011 I am sitting by a fire under the stars  in the Hampshire woods, when a man in a bear mask emerges from behind the trees, ringing a bell. I jump and laugh. Not because his appearance is any way comic but because something ancient and mysterious has jumped out from nowhere and shaken me awake. It was the second  Dark Mountain Uncivilisation Festival, and my life was about to take a radical new turn.

Many of the pieces in this book were first published by the creative project I stumbled upon that August night. I had been documenting grassroots changemaking in the face of ecological and social crisis, but as I sat round the festival fire listening to a Siberian tale. I realised that no one had been talking about the role of art and writing or the Earth in this seismic shift.

Most calls for responding to planetary breakdown are based on climate science, or behaviour studies. They are all tidy outer affairs, discussed in airless rooms. But the kind of shift needed to navigate times of collapse is a difficult inner change of form, requiring us to have our feet on the earth and hold fast as a conventionally-shaped world falls about our ears.

Now I know myths as a techne, as bridges that take us across chasms of time and place, that give us the reasons, steadfastness, language, helpers, clues about the kind of inner changes we need to make. For the last decade since that first encounter, I have been unearthing myths to see what they can tell us about our obligations to the Earth that succours us. Not the aspiring hero myths that bring glory to civilisations but the downward ones that connect us with the non-linear forces of the planet: Kairos who brings the intervention that cracks open our small worlds of time; Inanna who takes us down through the seven gates of the Underworld; the hamstrung Wayland who waits, slowly crafting his swan wings that will allow him to escape captivity; Ariadne who shows us the labyrinth is not a prison but a dancing floor.

But as the world falters, one myth emerged that spoke eloquently of the descent we needed to undergo: an upside down Cinderella story of a human girl and her struggle with the alchemical forces of love, beauty and justice. Her name is Psyche which means soul or butterfly, the creature that transforms itself from caterpillar to imago in the hermetic space of a cocoon. This book is shaped around the tasks she is set by the goddess Venus, which also became my own: an Underworld journey about leaving one way of life and forging another.

 

After Ithaca

(excerpt from the title essay)

I am standing in front of a wall covered with small yellow notes. There are connections between the names of people and places and myths on those pieces of paper that I keep moving around – like suspects in a crime drama. Only I am not sure if I am the detective or the murdered girl here. Or maybe I am both.

The window is open and a fresh breeze blows in. Here I am, living in a damp cottage on the edge of the kingdom, having travelled for a decade and stopped, having worked for a further decade and neglected this case. The sea bounces like a silver mirror on the horizon beyond the marsh. Why even look for links between these names? Because they tug at me. Something is missing and I know if I don't solve these connections, I won't be able to sleep.

Underneath every case you can find a buried woman. I don't know if we need another story about how she got there with her throat slit, abandoned in a city skip, buried with her face down, her skull adorned with mammoth teeth and hemp seeds.

Maybe I'm looking for myself, or part of myself, hidden from view no story from my empire world, or psychology can reveal to me.

What is clear is that there needs to be a search, a kind of archaeology, for the pieces that lie missing beneath the storyline, like the sherds of a pot.

In the cities that lie beyond this house, there is a clamour for a new story to make sense of a world that is falling apart. But maybe what we need is not a new story with a beginning, middle and happy-ever-after end, but an ancient curvy one hidden beneath our feet. One that can give us instruction at a time of calamity. That can show us how to make moves in a culture that has become rigid and stuck.


Psyche and Venus

This is not a love story, nor a family story, the stories that underpin most Western literature, but a story about undergoing change. It’s about the tasks given to a girl who knows nothing, so she encounters the deal you make with life, and how you earn love if you pass the test. It is about a relationship between two female beings: one an ingenue who knows nothing and one who knows everything. The instructor is not the wise La Que Sabe, the bone-collector of fairytales whose territory is the desert, nor the wild demanding Baba Yuga of the northern forests but an alchemical goddess, the goddess of love and beauty whose husband is the smith Vulcan, though she sleeps with other gods. Eros her son, was fathered, it is said, by Mars, the god of war. But others say his roseate fast-spinning wings were bequeathed to him by Venus’ other lover, her fellow alchemist, Mercury.

The territory of change is a geography never taught us by our teachers and families, who follow the roadmaps of obedience and tradition (and their counter actions, rebellion). The alchemical territory is where the base of yourself and your relationship with life is radically altered because you have agreed to become a different kind of human being. To suffer, as the wily magus Gurdjieff once said, consciously. To change in this way you have to recognise you are working with materials that need refining – to undergo an inner process, symbolised by the transformation of lead to gold. To start you have to agree you cannot evolve unless you do the work. Human beings have to agree to evolve themselves, either because they belong to a culture that recognises the necessity, or because their individual soul pushes them towards such an undertaking. The latter, which is the normal route for people living in industrialised, individualistic societies, is a rocky road.

The purpose of the myth is to complete the tasks, or to go through the seven doors of the kur, or to bring back the fire in the skull to your dark sisters. Whatever tale you follow, work is required.

Eros' wings touch you when you are young and romantic, full of lightness and possibility, then as age sours you and brings your feet into land, that fleeting moment goes and he departs. Alchemy brings the boy back into your life but not in the way you might imagine. To become a butterfly, to return to that lightness, you have, like Psyche, to undertake the tasks that demand courage and fortitude and openness to instruction, to learn from your heartbreak and small failures. The myth acts as a crucible for that kind of soul change in a time when such transformations are not admitted.

All archaic and Indigenous peoples have these forms of change embedded in their cultures, to break childish ties with family, to break open a fixed sense of self, to reveal the cosmic nature of life on this Earth, and what it demands in return. Their myths and prophecies remind them that there are consequences to not honouring life. And in these years, when I have been recording the cases on yellow paper on that wall, a litany of catastrophic consequences now surrounds them: climate change and deforestation. fires and floods, extinctions and a host of biblical plagues and locusts that currently beleaguer us.


The deal

The seeds Venus asks Psyche to sort before sundown are the ones that can be found inside the ruined larders of every civilisation, in the Fertile Crescent, across Europe, and now stored in vast silos across the world. Civilisations are dependent on these cultivated seeds. But when we sit down to eat bread or drink beer, hummus and dal, we do not see the arable fields that fostered them that now lie under flood water, drenched with fossil-fuelled pesticides and fertiliser. We have forgotten our original deal with the plants and the soil in which they are grown. We do not even recognise their green and golden forms, staggering under the summer heat, as our cars from the city speed by.

As agriculture advanced out of the Neolithic age, we knew we would lose sight of our contract with the Earth, unless we made reparation and rituals that still honoured the wild nonlinear planet. And for a long time, up to the time Metamorphoses was written, the mystery schools ran alongside the empires of the ancient world to remind its citizens of those obligations. Unlike the democracies on which Western governments are founded, they were open to everyone: to foreigners, to slaves, to women. Their initiations were not for the benefit of the state but to tend to the business of being alive and to the meaning of our brief human lives together on this Earth.

Ah, you might say, but these schools are all gone now. We have forgotten. Listen, you don’t need a mystery school to go into the Underworld, or to converse with chthonic gods. The stories are still here, like a map we trace with a nervous index finger, and then feel impelled to follow. And the writers are still here, reminding us, sometimes annoyingly, of our contract with the wild world. It is the writers who know you need the structure of a story in your hands, as you advance to the gates of Hades and face the threshing of the Underworld - a grinding process in which you lose or die to your tough conditioned husk and discover the germ within. The germination of the seed is the core of every spiritual practice and encounter. It is a metaphor for soul work, and it is also the physical seed itself: without these seeds, embedded in grain-based civilisations as we are, we perish. A deep relationship with these seeds remembers us: who we are as a people, and our place on the planet as a species.

These stories delve into deep time and put us back in touch with the shapes of the world when we were still kin to its breathing, with its cave paintings and kiva, longhouse and tumulus, the spirals on stones across the world. They lie hidden at our feet, in myths that break up our linear moment and stretch it outwards in all directions.

But mostly take us down into the dark.

Our 200-year-old industrial civilisation wants to keep the lights on, but millennia-old cultures don’t think like that. Because they know that dark matter is the primordial stuff of the universe, and this world of appearances is a brief moment in time. The dark is where everything is born, animal and human, where seeds burst their casings before they emerge in spring. This is what the seed mysteries tell us - the corn and the beans of the Hopi mesas, the barley of the Eleusinian mysteries, the wheat stalk in the solar chamber in NewGrange in Ireland.

Underneath the patriarchy, another body of knowledge remains that we sometimes unearth, like the Gaelic female poets buried face down, or women buried with hemp seeds and horses, swords and coloured skirts, on the far steppes of the North. We find it hidden, sometimes like this story, the kernel of the Roman writer’s novel, disguised as a fairy tale.

Apuleius depicts the goddess as a hussy and her son a naughty rosy-cheeked boy, but we know that this is a clever device: Apuleius, an initiate of many schools, is hiding a phial of quicksilver inside a ribald tale. Venus is a planetary force and Eros is the primal creator,, sprung from a silver egg at the beginning of time, who sets the universe in order.  So she is not the shrewish mother-in-law, but the matrix of a dynamic between these stellar forces and the human Psyche.

Venus knows being beautiful is not enough, being high-born and a daddy’s darling is not enough, there is no beauty of soul unless it is transformed. You need to open the kist and find the ledgers on which are written what you need to look at, your lineage, your nation, the legacy of being human in an industrial empire and learn how to-put a crooked thing straight.

Can we break out of our individualism and listen to instruction about how to sort the seeds, how to honour the animals and the spring, how to enter and return from the Underworld? Can we resist the plaintive pleas of the souls of the Underworld, and steer our own passage? Can we take the coins into our mouths to pay Charon and the barley cakes for the three-headed hound of Hades? And can we then, finally do what every female being does in their infinite curiosity, disobey the order from our elders and betters, and open the box?

You need a strong memory and imagination to undertake these tasks, neither of which are ever encouraged by the village, city neighbourhood or nation state you find yourself in. We live in superficial times. The tasks ahead are all about depth and return. The older and more fixed you are the harder it is to fulfil them, but the richer and more rewarding also. When you are younger you feel you have more to lose, but when you are older, you lack desire and feel you have lived your life already. Either way it is tough. Either way, it's not just about you. You don't do the work for just you. That is what gives you strength, what stops you from despairing, staring down from cliffs into the foaming sea, or into the obsidian waters of the Styx.

You engage in these tasks to cohere the fragmentation of the collective you see and feel all around its broken heart, its confused mind, its twisted and enraged will. You do it to remember what was once called Original Instruction, the right way to engage with earthly life. You do it for the luminous planet that hosts you.

The work is exacting and challenging and can give you every shred of meaning you might have longed for in a world that has lost its way, but it comes at a high cost: the loss of a self you and everyone you know once knew.

My own search took me to many places on Earth, into inner and mythic landscapes, far away from everything I had once known and loved. But as I found out, this journey is not about going out or away. It is all about coming back.

 

After Ithaca is published by Greenbank Books, an imprint of Sumeru Books, in association with the Dark Mountain Project. To order worldwide, please visit the Dark Mountain online shop 

After Ithaca will be launched with Loss Soup and Other Stories by Nick Hunt this Thursday 19th May at Schumacher College, Devon and online on Thursday 26th May. All details and booking here.

Cover image: Immense as the Sky by Meryl McMaster. More about her work here: merylmcmaster.com

Monday 25 April 2022

My Body, The Ancestor

Mycelial Threads by Graeme Walker
Excerpt from a mycelial conversation with the poet and ecological storyteller, Sophie Strand for the spring issue of Dark Mountain 21, shaped around the theme of confluence.
 

Her words caught my eye: a lament for a robin, its wing like a sundial on the road for Dark Mountains requiemissue. She startled me: speaking about becoming compost for the future at the Borrowed Time summit on death, dying and change. And yet her stories are all vibrantly entangled with life: the nectar-seeking of hummingbirds, the anarchy of the vegative god Dionysus, the fortitude of the hermit crab who waits on the strand for others to appear, so they might simultaneously exchange shells they have outgrown: that moment of vulnerability, of exposure, we need to inhabit a different form. How life happens in between states, a collective dance we dont always see yet is everywhere all about and inside us.[/drop-cap]

Poet and writer Sophie Strand lives in a liminal world, at the confluence of a river and a creek in the Hudson Valley. Her ecological storytellingtaps into the interstitial web of life, where metaphors act as bridges to other dimensions, criss-crossing like the hyphae of fungi, and delve into the microbial underworld. Some of her acute sensitivity to the natural world has been catalysed by trauma and an incurable condition that sends her body into meltdown at unpredictable times.

I wanted to talk with Sophie because she speaks of opening out and connecting in a culture of closing down and control, of merging with others in a time of individualism and constriction. In a series of luminous short essays she writes of a practice of deep lifewhereby we can stitch ourselves backinto our local territories and feel and think as ecosystems. We spoke across the continents and waterlands one winters day.

 

CDC Your writing and Dark Mountain both focus on weathering collapse when the current responses to planetary crisis are to try to save and fix. How do you use this as a metaphor in your writing?

SS – Collapse can be the most generative experience. We can't manage an ecosystem! What hubris to think human beings can enter into millions of interconnected, complicated, refluxing, pricking, stinging, collaborating relationships, and manage it. Just as we can't organise an ecosystem, we can't plan collapse. We can't narcissistically techno-fix a way through this. We have to enter into it.

Im in a body that does collapse sometimes. I can take all the right medicines, take care of myself and it will still melt. Contracting around that inability to control myself limits my improvisational ability to dance with uncertainty. Collapse is when things that shouldnt be connected merge. When the river overflows its banks and inundates the soil and washes things away is the moment when materials and elements that would never meet each other, touch. I think there is something inherently haptic (in the sense of meaning touch and also fasten) in this. Its what hyphae do in the soil when they connect plants and trees: that mycelial interrogative intelligence that fastens things together by touching. For me the intelligence of collapse is in the unruly, funny, uncanny connections that happen by the nature of emergent systems.

CDC – Mycelial intelligence emerges strongly in your writing. How did you stumble into this teeming world underneath the surface of things and engage in those life systems?

SS –  I grew up in the woods and I loved decay and rootlets and mushrooms. I connected them with fairytales and to the magic which isn’t necessarily ‘good’ but chaotic, in the trickier sense of fairies being capricious and unpredictable. But then I became mysteriously ill at the age of 16 and couldn’t be diagnosed. At the same time I became interested in mycorrhizal networks and rhizomatic thinking as a philosophical lens. Then, at the point that these concepts became a key part of my poetic, ecological inspiration, I finally got diagnosed with my condition which was connective tissue disease (EDS). It felt as if I had been seeded genetically with this passion because fungi are the connective tissue of the soil, holding it together, creating highways for bacteria, breaking down dead matter and providing nourishment for other beings. And what I needed was healthier connective tissue.

So for me it’s become a frame: how can we wed our personal wounds with the wounds of something more-than-human? How we look at our physical ailments, our psychological anguish not as something that teaches us about ourselves but that reorients us to something else outward.[/interview]

CDC – Did your practice to explore ‘deep life’ arise out of your condition also?

SS –  My life goes through bottlenecks, and the practice emerged out of an oscillation with going in and out of restricted mobility and illness. The pandemic has been a megaphone for this experience. There is too much information, we can’t hold it all in our minds, and there’s a problematic idea that we feel we need to know everything to be environmentally active. But it is impossible and it paralyses people. What is more interesting to me is to ask: what is happening within a five mile radius of my home, what are the invasive species that live here? What is the Indigenous history, can I go out and walk every single day? Can I find a sit spot? Can I begin to gather a council, a world of witnesses that constitute me relationally?

The air I am breathing is infused with the microbiome: with pheromones, with smells, with pollen, the spores of a very specific place. It is easy to be focused on charismatic causes, old growth forests that are whole continents away, or animals that are very attractive, but the truth is the thing that holds you and metabolically constitutes you is your home, so how can you go deep with a home?

I was inspired by adrienne maree brown and their work on how movements are often very superficial, a mile wide but an inch thick, so the connections are not resilient. Resilient ecosystems have that tight-knit connectivity that make a landscape or environment able to shift and adapt intelligently to ecological pressure, to anthropogenic activity. So I am much more interested in the inch-wide, mile deep movement, where the connectivity is so intense and intimate it actually helps people and other beings survive.

CDC – A lot of our approach to the ecological crisis uses the lens of science. In the sense your writing is an exercise in imagination, what role do you feel imagination plays to help penetrate these deeper levels?

SS –  I gained my main inspiration for deep life from the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who used scientific facts in his work but infused them with a healthy dose of miracle mind and imaginative poetic sensibility. Bachelard believed that poetry was the closest way to get to the truth, not facts, and this is also how I function. Science is a useful tool, a way of asking questions. But we can also invite more people into these interrogative relationships with their ecosystems, landscapes and local issues, not by creating a sterile language but by infusing this interrogative tool with sensuality, by embodying it. I’m interested in enfleshing ideas rather than shaving them down. Can we use science to root us back into the landscape?

CDC – If writing and art can create a culture that faces crisis, rather than distracting from it, do you feel this poetic imagination helps us navigate what is happening in the world?

(Photo Harper Cowan)

SS – We have a problematic cultural aversion to beauty being useful. Poetry is connected to my ideas about beauty. Not an objectified artificial glamour but beauty as being the thing we are attracted to, in the way a bee moves towards a flower and incidentally pollinates it. As you pay attention to what you love and what you are attracted to, it will guide you into your ecological niche, where you are most useful.

So if we pay attention to the poetry in our lives, it shows us where we belong. Acting like an acupuncture needle in a landscape, we will find the beings, the issues, the stories, we need to provide a mouth for.

CDC –You speak about being a mouthpiece for the expression of the more-than-human world and that sometimes the knocks and difficulties we undergo are actually an invitation to open, and allow a wound to be a doorway, and allow other forms to speak through us, to be an expression in words and song and image for the planet. What has been your experience of that process?

SS –  I think the dominant cultural paradigm is we must be constantly progressing, integrating, healing, so that we can get back to work, and that for survivors of violence and sexual trauma, and illnesses that don’t have a cure, those narratives don’t work, they don’t map on to our lived experience.

So instead of thinking we are always failing, narratively and physically, what would it mean to recontextualise these wounds as portals? As connective tissue. Although we are more porous how does that porousness allow us to understand microbial life, ‘smalls’, beings that don’t necessarily get our attention? I’ve done a lot of healing and therapy, but I’ve never been fixed, so instead of problematising that incompleteness, that liminality, I’ve tried to think of it in terms of process philosophy, so I am a doorway which matter flows through, and my experiences have opened that door wider. Instead of trying to close it all the time and enter back into a legibility culturally, what if I open that ‘door’ wider and open it so that I can be in service to the general aliveness and not to my particular aliveness?

CDC – You also speak about your work as creating compost or soil for other beings later on. This is a whole different attitude to writing and requires a different kind of generosity.

SS – ]If we look at the history of storytelling, it was not about individual authorship. Homer is actually a practice, people stepped into the role of Homer; in the same way as when composing Orphic hymns, people became Orpheus. You embodied Orpheus.  This is important because of my condition. I have stories I want to tell, things I care about, but I also know that my individual life may not be long enough or hardy enough to complete this work. So what if I reframed authorship and took it out of modernity and said: what if I am making good soil, what if I am beginning the composting process of these ideas, so my particular life is not the only vehicle of its completion? What if someone else can come plant in this soil and sprout something else? So when I make art these days it is about creating space which other people can enter into, it’s not about me as an individual charismatic author. 

CDC –You write in one of your essays of perceiving your body as an ancestor, an assemblage of ecosystems, how do you tap into that kind of awareness?

SS – This porousness that was caused by trauma and illness gave me a big sense of myself as an instrument being played  – by microbes, by yeasts, by fungi, by other people. So sometimes the music that comes through me is not my own. And then when I read more about the science of the gut-brain axis, and about deep time and the history of our cells, I was given a comforting lens that I am a collaboration. When we focus on an individual sense of ourselves, it can act and feel like a weight. We always have to be an author, to know what the next best step is, and be in control of our lives. But if we think of ourselves as being a kind of ecosystem, we can understand that we are sometimes acting intuitively, in relationship with something else that is authoring us. 

So in the essay, ‘Your Body is an Ancestor’, what I was thinking about is that we don't need to create rituals. Our body is a ritual, our cells are a product of anarchic queer lovemaking whereby mitochondria and ancient prokaryotes fused to create the cells that build our bodies today. We are the product of these fusions.

In relation to confluence, there is a neo-Darwinian idea that evolution is an arrow of time that it is always pulsing forward, but the truth is that just as evolution is about forking, it is also been about fusing: these transversal intimacies, whereby beings and species suddenly and chaotically, unpredictably exchange information and fuse. Lichen is a good example, as it is an algae, sometimes a yeast, sometimes other bacteria, and a fungus, collaborating to create a new being. It is one of the dominant refrains in evolution that life is not just about forking. And I get this from fungi and anastomosis, which is a term from mycology and ecology when hyphae come back and fuse together, that moment of confluence, that anastomosis which means to provide a mouth for. Those moments of fusing, or collaboration and confluence, are about providing a mouthpiece for something else. 

Then it is less that we are individual species and more that we are relational. All thinking, all beings are interstitial. Thinking happens between mythic gradients, between beings, between conversations, between those ideas, those relational units where our roles are played out.[/interview]

CDC –  How does this affect us as storytellers and writers in a culture where everything is about the stars shining in the sky rather than the dark spaces in between, the invisible relationships that happen? Do you ever see your writing as acting like a mushroom in the sense of breaking things down, so that another form might happen?

SS –  I think the most important aspect of my writing is that it doesn’t happen in solitude. I share my work publicly on social media, and I open it up to critique and conversation, so my writing happens not in me or in my readers but in the spaces in between. It is always being moulded and adapted according to the conversation. There’s an idea that you have to write in secret, come up with your own ideas and publish them in this sterile, finished product. But this is a very alphabetical, textual approach and it is also a recent idea. Stories and myths and scripture were originally oral and adaptive to changing social and ecological conditions and political climate. So I think the main thing about this interstitial space is always inviting my readers in to change me, to risk being changed by our conversation.

You can read the full version of this conversation in Dark Mountain: Issue 21. If you take out an annual subscription to Dark Mountain you can buy this issue for a reduced price. 

 

IMAGE: 'Mycelial Threads' by Graeme Walker
Acrylic on board
I made this artwork for my anorexic friend to explore the complex, mycelium-like interconnections of her personal history – rather than addressing the symptoms alone, which are like poisonous fungi, popped up in the forest. They may be what everyone can see, and what they immediately want to treat, but it is in exploring the giant, hidden, underground web, out of which these toxic bodies fruit, that will give her true understanding.

Graeme Walker is an artist who makes contemplative objects, paintings, poetry, stories; philosophical prompts; paradoxes on our relationship between life, mortality and nature; questions around the cultural inhibition and release of agency. His work calls humanity into potency, into meaningfulness, as a way of resisting nihilism. graemewalker.art

Sophie Strand is a writer based in the Hudson Valley who focuses on the intersection of spirituality, storytelling and ecology. Her first book of essays The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Sacred Masculine is forthcoming in Fall 2022 from Inner Traditions. Her eco-feminist historical fiction reimagining of the gospels The Madonna Secret will also be published by Inner Traditions. You can follow her work on Instagram: @cosmogyny and at sophiestrand.com.

 

Sunday 3 April 2022

Plant Dialogues


This year I have been co-producing a series of Dark Mountain creative workshops centred around the. eight fires of the ancestral, solar year. Called How We Walk Through the Fire, this ensemble practice has so far placed attention on Kinship with Beasts, and Walking into the Wind. This month I'm sharing the fire-keeping with my fellow 'radical botanical' Mark Watson. Here is our call out. Do come and join us! 


Our fourth workshop will focus on connecting with the plant kingdom in times of ecological crisis. We will be joined by Dark Mountain’s Mark Watson to explore how we might re-entangle ourselves with the intelligence and beauty of wild plants, working with the key leaves, flowers and trees of May.

Plants give human beings everything they need to sustain their place on Earth: the air we breathe, the food and medicine to nourish us, fabric to shelter us. But their diverse and colourful forms also entwine themselves into art, into poetry, into cultures and ceremony throughout the world, as they provide a bridge into the mythos and the sentience of the planet.

How can we honour these relationships in difficult times? How can plants help root us in place and time, help us remember the role imagination plays in communication with the more-than-human world –from the smallest daisy on the roadside to the forest’s mightiest oak?

For this fire gathering, set around May Day on 1st May, we will tune into the plants of our local territories. We will be creating work to celebrate what we encounter, and share our stories of what it means to become kin with the world.
Do join us in this hands-on ensemble investigation into the art and practice of plant dialogues as we welcome the greening of the growing year.

About the Eight Fires series How We Walk Through the Fire aims to forge a collective practice amongst writers, artists, and creative practitioners; and to host a culture that can both weather the storm and lay the tracks for a more ‘biospheric’ relationship with ourselves and the more-than-human world. 
Each of the fires will explore different themes and approaches to this practice, from storytelling to plant medicine to performance – but all aim to foster resilience and radical kinship, and to strengthen our creative voices within an ensemble. Together we’ll ‘walk through the fire’, letting go of what no longer serves, and discovering what might bring repair and regeneration to a world, and a culture, in crisis.
How We Walk Through the Fire workshops are hosted by Charlotte Du Cann and Dougie Strang who have created many immersive, dramaturgical events and teachings for Dark Mountain, based on reconnection with deep time and the mythology of place.

 
Practical information

The course comprises two x 2 hour group Zoom sessions, with time for a solo walk/encounter and a creative task during the week in between. It will include exercises and discussion and provide opportunities for:
- Working within a Dark Mountain frame
- In-depth conversation with fellow writers and artists
 - Deepening your practice
 - Exploring relationship with the living world

When: Saturday 30th April and Saturday 7th May, 4-6pm BST

Note all time zones are welcome to participate.

Group size: 16 people maximum

Price: £55

How to apply: As the course has limited space and we are looking for a diverse group of participants, please could you let us know a bit about yourself: where you are writing from, your current practice and why you would like to take part in the course. A few sentences are fine! Send your email to info@dark-mountain.net and we will be in touch.

Deadline for applications: Monday 18th April 2022
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Wednesday 2 March 2022

After Ithaca - Voyages in Deep Time to be published this May!


A pile of seeds, a tuft of wool, a vessel of water, a closed box 

What happens when the heroes disappear, when the battle for the city is over, when you return to the island and find a box in your hands? There was an instruction once that told us why the box should never be opened. But you don't believe those stories anymore. You always open the box. 

After Ithaca is a non-fiction work – part memoir, part essay, part travelogue – that follows a real life journey of descent in a world on the tip of crisis. It is set in the Peruvian rainforest, in the backrooms of Suffolk towns, in Japan, in France, Australia, in the desert borderlands, in borrowed houses and Occupy tents, in kitchens and burial chambers, underneath a lemon tree on an abandoned terrace… 

The book revolves around the four initiatory tasks of Psyche, set by Venus, the goddess of love and justice: four territories that map this search for meaning and coherence in a time of fall. Each chapter starts with a memory of place as a clue to the investigation: the recovery of a relationship with wild nature, with being human, a kind of archaeology for the pieces of self that lie missing beneath a broken storyline, like the sherds of a pot. 

It is a personal story and also a social story, about the relinquishment of a certain world, that looks at writing as an existential practice: showing how myth can be a techĂȘ for finding our lost voice, our medicine of how to put a crooked thing straight. 

How to pull ourselves out of the wreckage, and start again


After Ithaca with Loss Soup and Other Stories by Nick Hunt are Dark Mountain's first fiction and non-fiction single author titles. Published by Greenbank Books on 15th May 2022 and available in UK, US, Canada and Australia.

Thursday 4 November 2021

52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth (reissued): 1 - Epazote

High Desert, Arizona on the border with Mexico, where some of the book takes place
High Desert, Arizona on the border with Mexico, one of the book's main territories

Twenty years ago I had a dream that changed the course of my life utterly.  It was about a weed that grows along the waysides in Mexico, a plant I had never met. Ten years later I wrote a book called 
52 Flowers That Shook My World where it heralds the encounters and medicine stories behind a radical departure from everything I had once known. Today, in celebration of the the book becoming available in PDF format, here is its first flower.


Notting Hill, London 1990 

That night I had a dream. I was walking through a green land and an Indian woman came up to me and put some herbs in my hand. I have been having dreams about plants since I returned from Mexico. Men and women are appearing silently from nowhere and giving me sage tea to drink, or instructing me to plant bulbs, or I find myself walking through fields of wheat and maize and seeing how their growing patterns have been disturbed. This dream was unusual, however, in that this native woman spoke the names out loud: one was liquorice root and the other had a name I did not recognise, epazote. 

In the dreams I know about the cornfields but I do not know about the herbs. I particularly do not know about this herb called epazote. That night I got up and sat at my writing table and looked at my hands. I have the familiar corn in my right, but in my left, I hold a plant I do not know. It is a stranger. 

I am in my flat alone in the middle of the night, holding this strange herb from a dream. I am surrounded by everything I know: shelves of books, thousands of them, line the walls of this kitchen study. In the adjacent living room the treasures of a thirty-something life sit in the darkness: pottery bowls from markets, pearwood chairs from auctions, a long handcrafted table where people meet, an Indian mattress where people sometimes sleep. I could pick up every object in this room and tell you its story: who was there when I found it, what it means, how it defines me; how this jacket came from Paris, the paella pan from Madrid, the blue meshed larder from Athens, this stone from a certain beach in Wales, these cow bones from the New Mexican desert. I could tell you all the recipes that I cook in these earthenware dishes, with my junkstore utensils that lie in a drawer, in my alchemical workplace of words and cooking pots, my rooms with a certain atmosphere many people love to come to, even more than being with me. Charlotte’s for supper, with its table and familiar objects, with its rough panelling, its windows without curtains, where you can hear the occasional sound of a bus passing, or a drunk reeling down the road. With its inspirational physical style. 

In this moment I feel all the attention that I and others have placed on these objects dwelling in these rooms. I feel the way I move about them, write about them, handle them is becoming more important than my own living being, and something in me shudders. 

I realise that my being is about something else that is not dependent on these objects. Life is not about things that others or I can handle. These objects are a replacement for a relationship with life. But nothing replaces that relationship, not really. It is a comfort, as a child is comforted in the night by a toy. But it is not the real thing. This plant I do not know yet is telling me this. It is having a certain effect as I sit and contemplate it. Everything I am surrounded by has become imbued with a different feeling, has become less secure in this moment. It as if these objects no longer have anything to do with me. They are losing their hold, unhooking themselves, as I hold this strange herb in my left hand. 

The entrance of the stranger on the solar path is the pivotal point, the point when it begins. The stranger is something about which you know nothing, that you allow into your life. Sometimes this is a person and sometimes a new idea. But whatever form the stranger takes, it comes like a strange attractor and breaks the limit cycle of our lives, like a philosopher’s stone that begins the strange alchemy of our souls. Our worlds are normally so circumscribed that we automatically do everything to keep this stranger out. We are programmed to defend ourselves, like genetically modified plants, to deport any visiting outsider as an undesirable alien, in order that we continue to conduct our affairs in the same small way, without questioning their validity. 

But sometimes we let the stranger in anyway. Sometimes by accident, and sometimes fired up by an ancient curiosity, our native love of secrets and mysteries, our desire for keys and clues and signs. Our souls lie in wait for such a moment, the moment when our consciousness starts to ask questions and rouses us out of bed to look at our hands. 

What has awoken me this night from my sleep is the memory of Mexico. This first germinating seed is a wild plant known as Mexican wormseed. Epazote is not a grand plant; in fact it is a common weed that flourishes by any highway, ditch or vacant lot from Sonora to Chiapas. Its name derives from the Nahuatl word for skunk, due to its unmistakable pungent aroma. It is a member of the goosefoot family, a whole tribe of flourishing weeds like tumbleweed and fat hen, all with small flowers and nourishing rich green leaves (beetroot, good king henry, spinach are all goosefoots). However, epazote’s power lies not in its leaves but in its rank and bitter seeds, which are a formidable anti-parasitic and vermifuge. It was once cultivated throughout the world as a cure against the ravages of hookworm. It has been used for centuries in Mexican cooking to flavour and act as a digestive aid in beans. In fact, once you have tasted its strange and musty scent, you can’t cook beans without it. 

Once I had tasted Mexico, I could not do without Mexico either. Its strange and bitter flavours. When I had travelled there with Mark that spring I had gone without any references. It was unexpected, something I had not calculated for. ‘No one I knew knew Mexico,’ as I would write later in a book about this journey. Mexico did not exist in my library or my internal world, so its presence could act on my being absolutely. And absolutely it did. This did not just mean the unusual physical senses of the place: the scent of tuberose, the colours of the painted walls, the long bus rides through valleys of glow-worms, a hot turquoise sea – but also things of a deeper, more cosmic level. It meant taking hallucinogenic mushrooms that tore my consciousness open in the Mayan rainforest, and now, as I am looking at my hands, it means Carlos Castaneda and the warrior’s path, a path of heart that goes through the desert. A certain desert of thorns and cactus. 

When you start the solar journey, you hunt for ways to begin. If you are a writer, you start with books, and of all the many books I was reading at this time, it was Castaneda’s account of his apprenticeship with the Yacqui seer don Juan in Mexico that spoke most urgently to me. While others I knew were fascinated by the book’s description of power and the control of dreams, I was absorbed by its meticulous description of the energetic acts of the warrior, those strategic steps of the will that enabled one to live with fluidity in the world: the assuming of responsibility, the letting go of self-pity and self-importance, encountering the mysterious presence of twilight and the concept of impeccability. 

The other ‘new-age’ works I looked at during this time had very little to do with impeccability. They concerned themselves with important gods and goddesses, family psychology and wounded healers, archetypes and temples. They belonged to the bourgeois city parlours I recognised from my novel-reading days. But Castaneda’s books were talking about something that did not originate in the city. The writer-anthropologist had left the city of Los Angeles in the early sixties in search of a plant called peyote that grew out in the desert chaparral that lay between Arizona and Mexico. There was something clear and autonomous and mysterious in his quest that resonated with my own being. His journey reminded me of the deliberate life I had come across in the works of Sartre when I was young. Don Juan’s teachings spoke of a rigorous and affectionate relationship between man and earth that was both sparing and tender, that lived quite beyond this indulgent, acquisitive, objectifying world I lived and worked in. Because everything he spoke of worked within the framework of death. 

Most of all Mexico meant death. Death is your advisor, don Juan advises Carlos Castaneda. We are all beings who are going to die. Every act you make as a warrior is your last act on earth, so you don’t have time for petty moods or failures. You don’t waste your time. 

I had not considered death before, my death. Death is something you don’t think about in the eternal shopping world of London or Los Angeles, but in Mexico death looks at you directly in the eye, rattling its smiling skeleton in the face of your artificial parasitic life, whose currency is inflated ten times its actual value. At a certain point, if you care about life, you turn to face death. You let go of the world you have been involved in constructing and start to work for the spirit of things. You realise you are not going to be on this earth forever and certain strategic moves need to be made if you want to experience this mysterious place while you are here. 

In Palenque that spring I had realised my life in the world meant nothing. It wasn’t worth a handful of beans. In the annihilating force of the mushrooms, I could hold on to nothing of this existence, not even my name. So I let them go. And what was left in its place was a relationship to life that now demanded my full attention, linked both with my own heart and with the mysterious man whose destiny now appeared inextricably bound up with my own. Mark. 

One day shortly after this epazote dream, I picked up the telephone. ‘Mark, Let’s go to Mexico for six months,’ I said. ‘We can write a book together.’ 

‘Oh, yes!’ he said. ‘But what about your flat?’ 

There was a pause. 

‘I’m going to sell it,’ I said. ‘I’m going to sell everything I own.’ 

When I left London I was thirty-five. The age when you let go of the corn you have been sowing in your right hand, and take up what destiny has given you in your left. When Death appears at your door, when the mysterious woman with her wand of wormseed comes to you and suggests you face another direction entirely. When you let go of everything you know and walk toward the sun, towards an unknown horizon.


You can order 52 Flowers That Shook My World from The Dark Mountain Project online shop here. Unpublished chapters are also posted on this site. You can read them here.