Saturday, 21 May 2016

The Shape of Things to Come

We are now fully booked for Base Camp, the Dark Mountain gathering to be held at Embercombe this September. Although we have both organised other events - Carrying the Fire festivals and recent book launches - this is the first full-on UK gathering my fellow curator, Dougie Strang and I have put togther and we are really excited about the programme and the people who will be taking part, Full details can be found on our website.

Welcome to Dark Mountain Base Camp 2016

At the heart of our gathering you can find a question: if we no longer believe the stories civilisation tells us, what are the ones that might bring meaning and joy for the future? Since The Dark Mountain Project began it has looked at collapse and ecocide, felt grief and despair, found its roots in place and time, brought together fellow artists, writers and thinkers. So what do we need to know and speak to each other about now?

This is the territory we will be exploring during a weekend of talks, workshops, performance, encounter and conversation.

Like all good stories, our programme will have a beginning, middle and an end - a welcome, a celebration and a farewell.

Here is the outline plot:

Different Paths to the Mountain 

Base camp is the transition point in any expedition. It's a pause, a taking stock and a honing of intent. It's the place where things get real, where we see the track before us begin to rise more steeply, leave behind what is no longer necessary and gather what really matters to move ahead. In this introductory session, hosts Charlotte Du Cann and Dougie Strang will invite everyone to take stock, share where we have come from and what has brought us to the Dark Mountain. 

Gathering at the Fire   

unciv '12 by andy letcher 3
After a full day of listening, discussion and part- icipation, Saturday evening will be about singing and dancing - a grand ceilidh in the main hall. And then, in the dark, a procession to the woods to gather at the hearth, to sit between the shadows and the flames and to sing and tell stories into the night. Expect surprises!   

Redrawing the Maps - The Return 

Base camp is about what we take with us for the rocky road ahead. What can we take from the experiences of our gathering at Embercombe to make sense of a world that is falling apart? We set out to ascend an unknown and difficult path and at the same time find ourselves descending into a forgotten valley that feels like home.
This session will invite everyone to create the road maps that will sustain us on that paradoxical return journey – in language, in culture, in myth, dreaming and action - maps that cohere and connect and convene, and lead us towards the future.

Looking forward to seeing you in September!

Images: Base Camp signiture - Crow Wing for Manon by Rebecca Clarke (Issue 9); Where To? Where From? by Garrett Hupe (Issue 7), Fireside celebration, Uncivilisation Festival, 2013 (Photo: Andy Letchworth), Detail from Map of the Journey, Dark Mountain Workshop, curated by Dougald Hine with artist Monique Besten in February 2016, Stockholm, Sweden

Monday, 18 April 2016

the art and culture of uncivilisation

This week The Dark Mountain Project publishes its ninth journal of writing and art. It's the fifth book I've designed and produced as Art Editor with Christian Brett of Bracketpress, aiming to find work that expresses the look and feel of a culture undergoing collapse and transformation.

This volume's visual pages reflect the loose theme of 'The Humbling' and contain some luminous artworks, including Rogan Brown's 'time fossil' paper sculpture, cover artist Rebecca Clark's plant and animal studies and (above) Kate Williamson's visionary New Zealand seascapes. There are also several texts by artists too: Brett Bloom on his immersive practice of Deep Listening, Monique Besten's paper trail walk to Paris summit and  DM regular Robert Leaver's poignant and challenging Hole Earth project. The book's 'Cabinet of Curiosities' begins with the photographic work of Nicholas Hahn & Richard Selesnick in their extraordinary 100 Views of The Drowning World.  

Over these years the aesthetic content of Dark Mountain has changed, but the original purpose I had for the books remains, which is to uncover and celebrate uncivilised art of all genres. In a way of looking back and looking forwards here is a (slightly amended) archive post I wrote when I worked on the first (Issue 5) book. If you would like to hear more about the artists represented in the volumes, some will be joining us at Base Camp this September, so do come along!

seeing through a glass darkly

Those people were some kind of solution ('Waiting for the Barbarians', CF Cavafy)
I'm exploring a territory I have not stepped into before. Maybe none of us have yet. I am not sure if aesthetic is the right word for it, but it's the one that comes to me as I begin a new role as the arts editor for the next Dark Mountain collection, as the editorial crew sift through the material for a fifth volume in a fifth uncivilised year.

 Images form an intrinsic part of the Dark Mountain anthologies - photographs, paintings, drawing and illustration appear in all of them. The books themselves are beautifully and deliberately constructed; handsome hardbacks with covers the colour of damsons and field maple leaves. A physical thing you wouldn't want to throw away. But what about the look and feel of the Dark Mountain Project that extends beyond its text? Is there an aesthetic we share as writers and artists, makers and thinkers? And if so how can we best showcase it within the pages of a book?

The team (that's Em Strang, Nick Hunt, Cate Chapman and myself) are now looking for new visual work for Dark Mountain 10 so this post is an invitation to contribute as well as an exploration. I wanted to talk about aesthetics in a wider context, because, even though I have long rejected the words that once earned me a good living in the city - style, design, fashion, taste - I know the look of things, their shape and form, are as important a part of a new narrative as words. The fact that civilisation holds us so tightly in its unkind embrace is not only because it controls what some call 'industrialised storytelling', but also because it manufactures the images that powerfully and unconsciously distract and misinform us, keep us endlessly looking at the shiny surfaces of what we feel is our cultural reality.

I want to ask: what are the arts of uncivilisation? What happens outside the gallery and the multiplex, what are the barbarian images that might liberate our vision, that bring us home? If we live in a culture that is separated from and in control of what is seen, how can we make an unofficial art created within experience to include dimensions our ordinary attention might miss?

 Behavioural scientists observe that change happens slowly and deliberately over time but artists know it happens in a split second: a chink in the door, a wild unexpected moment that appears before you and for no reason you change lanes. A flash of quicksilver that can transform the dark materials of a whole culture.

When I walked through the trees at the Uncivilisation Festival past sticks arranged in a circle on the ground, people in animal masks, slates hanging from the boughs of a tree, I recognised something that made sense of a long journey I had once made.

A coyote on a television looking across a valley, a hare leaping inside a poem, Rima Staines' Weed Wife covered in flowers on a sheet of oak, Dougie Strang's Charnel House for Roadkill, like an archaic Tardis on the steps of the Glasgow Art Gallery.

Charnel House by Dougie Strang

uncivilising the eye

 I have to tell you a story about the journey. Because that's where this exploration begins. Late '80s,walking down Bond Street, my eye is caught by a room full of vast chunks of stone and a pale suit hanging on the wall - an Anthony D'Offay exhibition of Joseph Beuys' The End of the Twentieth Century. The stones are hewn from basalt, a stone that will form Beuys' perhaps most famous work, the planting of 7,000 oaks in the city of Kassel in Germany.

The suit is made of felt, the material the artist was wrapped in by nomads when his Luftwaffe plane crashed in the snowy wastes of Crimea. Felt and fat saved his life, but they also transformed his life. They became the materials that defined his art. On a video Beuys is telling the world: in the future everyman will be king.

 I could say this was the moment I walked out of galleries and stopped writing copy about Bond Street. Because shortly afterwards I left the city whose high culture I had been steeped in for 35 years. The change happens quickly but it sometimes takes years to thrive in the world without those beautiful clever things that shielded and once defined you.

Cairn 1
Roland Barthes in his elegant deconstruction of the bourgeois mindset, Mythologies, laments how hard it is to forge a culture unbound from a market economy. He points to a painting of a Dutch interior where a wealthy burgher sits surrounded by his possessions. His library, bolts of cloths, furniture. Shipped from all round the world, the goods set a pattern for material desire that has become the stuff of Sunday colour supplements ever since.

This is the art of civilisation. Globalised goods, fetishisation, possession. This is mine, all mine! Houses, horses, naked women, rich and poor, the painter who paints the canvas and the canvas itself. And even when art has rebelled against the pattern in a hundred dexterous and avant-garde moves the painting (or sculpture, or drawing) is still possessed. It is still property, a commodity in the minds and hands of those who could buy it - once the Church and then the collector and the State museum.

Amy Shelton image 2
 What do art and aesthetics look like within the frame of collapse? What does photography look like that is not alienated from its subject? How do we love the world in a time of extinction? I look at my own collapse in order to see what that might mean. Because although I was educated in the dominant culture, there were strains of an uncivilised aesthetic that ran counter to everything I was taught, flowing dangerously beneath the surface like the river Styx. I wrote about the one perfect gleaming designer chair but my eye was always caught by rougher stuff that felt it had content and not just form. Like a linguist in search of a lost language, I would sometimes stumble upon its broken vocabulary.

A circle of driftwood in Derek Jarman's garden, a spiral of stones on a table at Kettle's Yard, a path that led through the tundra, walked by Richard Long.

These were the creative salvage years in London where makers like Tom Binns conjured 'unjewelry' from keys he found in the Thames foreshore or seaglass from his native Donegal; where welders like Tom Dixon made furniture from scrap metal. Post-punk warehouse years before corporate style had taken hold, when the original cut of your coat, or tribal marking distinguished you. There were chinks everywhere if you looked.

One of those chinks I went through in Bond Street and found myself in Mexico. To liberate yourself from the mindset, you sometimes have to leave the city that bore you, or crash into another territory entirely.

In Mexico I did not go to museums or churches. I watched market squares and mountains, the colours and the vernacular of places. Later I looked at plants and at dreams. For six years I stopped writing and taking photographs, took out a notebook and studied living forms and the shapes of my imagination. I was uncivilising my eyes: shifting my attention, away from an aesthetic moulded by the hard lines of Balenciaga and Mondrian and Diane Arbus. I learned not to be enticed by the siren images, the fairy world of haute couture and Hollywood.

I learned to wait in the long American afternoons, for the slow and deep and resonant thing to appear.  

Architectural details in Karl Blossfeld studies of seeds and leaf; Eliot Porter's portraits of the boojams and elephant gums in the desert landscape of Baja California.

It was as if I had never paid attention before to the world. These glimpses became the main track: images that were archaic and aboriginal, that spoke of trees and elements and beasts and weather, that linked the people to the dreaming of the planet. The rough beauty of the woodcut, the mythic fairytale, rock and cave painting, the shapes that follow the contours of the earth. The art that invites us to engage and remember, rather than possess and to forget. To ask questions rather than feel superior with our great knowledge of paintings and history.

Although I did not go to exhbitions in these years, I met artists. I met scultors and painters who lived in Bogota and the Arizona desert. I met the Slovenian peformance artist, Marko Modic, on his way back north from Tierra del Fuego where he had travelled alone with a dog and a camera. Marko was an extreme caver and mountaineer and he brought that wildness and strangeness into every room he entered. And that's when I realised that the buying and showing was not the true function of art. It was the practice of the artist themselves: their capacity to live against the grain, the shape they made, the line they took.

corn dolly

  From them I learned that the ancestors do not look like the gods. That barbarians do not speak in perfect prose. All artists wait for Prometheus to arrive with his firebrand to lighten a darkened world. The best of them know that time is a gift, not a curse, and that waiting is part of the art. That all paths lead inevitably away from Rome.

The artist is the one who can find the chink in the door and allow us to push it open. In a fixed and atrophied world they act as strange attractors bringing chaos and freedom and new life. Their work and their practice break dimensions in time and space, throw wild seeds into monocultures. In a disconnected world they bring connection. And sometimes they bring us back.

Following the track of the coyote

There is a moment of return and that too comes as a surprise. I am in the Museum of East Anglian Life, at an event called What if . . . . the seas keep rising? As the director of nef and a woman advisor from Natural England talk about climate change and what this might mean to the marshlands and coastline of Suffolk, there is a photograph on the wall that has transfixed me. It's by the sculptor, Laurence Edwards. Two men with long poles are taking clay giants on a raft down the river Ore. These are the Creek Men, the beings of these waterlands that have emerged from the landscape, from the artist's imagination and from his hands. I can't stop looking at that image. Like an anchor among a babble of voices that I will not remember, it was an image of belonging that made sense of everything.

I realise now what grabbed me was something that Mexico taught me years ago. At some point the ancestors return and reclaim the earth. All civilisations which ignore their original blueprint live out the consequences of that defection. And whether you understand 'the ancestors' as the primordial forces that govern this planet, or a part of yourself that makes sense of everything, to which you are loyal in spite of your upbringing, they are always here: we just have to see and feel them. Make space for them in paper and stone, in a corner of our tidy lives. In that journey I understood that artists are the ones that remember the tracks those ancestors made in the beginning. Those shapes and colours appear in dreams and on canvas, and artists follow them, in the cities and on the seashore, walking across the land, reminding all of us who watch them of the way back. And when the rational world seems to make less and less sense, becomes more and more incoherent, so it is that the artists come with their intelligence and their wit, their delicate brushstrokes, the rivermud under their fingernails, their mask and their surprise to push the door.

It is my hope as the new 'curator' of the Dark Mountain pages dedicated to visual content, that we will be able to publish some of those uncivilised shapes and colours, lines and images. We are now open for submsissions for original work (paintings, drawing, photography) for the next volume (Dark Mountain 10). Please look at the submission guidelines for details and send your work to Deadline is 31st May.

Images and artists: A Soft Rain by Kate Williamson; Hole Earth (Montana) by Robert Leaver; Laurence Edwards with Creek Man, Butley Creek, Suffolk; The Visitors by Rima Staines; Cayton Bay, Scarbourough by Phlegm; Honeyscribe by Amy Shelton; Corn mask 1 by Anne-Marie Culhane; Cairn for Lost Species by Andreas Kornevall (Book 4); Walk of Seven Cairns by Richard Long; High Water Mark by Laurence Lord (Book 2);cover for Dark Mountain 9, The Family Tree by Rebecca Clark

Article originally published by Dark Mountain Project

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Launching this Spring...

This blog has been quiet this year so far - partly because I have been working behind the scenes to launch two big projects this winter, as well as co-edit and produce the latest Dark Mountain journal. Like London buses on a cold dark night they all converged in one week. You can catch all their details here - and do jump aboard!

Buy the book! 

Introducing the Grassroots Directory

We are very happy to announce the launch of our crowdfunding campaign with Unbound Books. We're hoping to raise enough funds to produce this all-colour, all-connecting A-Z in 2017 and we would love to have your help and backing to make this happen. Here's the text of our call out video!

The Grassroots Directory is a new source book that aims to showcase the most innovative, practical and exciting community-led projects in the UK.

This A-Z guide to grassroots Britain will list more than 200 enterprises that will take you all the way from Alternative currencies to Zero waste. You can find out where they are, what makes them tick, how to set one up in your own hometown.

homebaked liverpoolFlick through, and you’ll find that H is for Hops grown in neighbourhood gardens for a micro-brewery in Brixton. And it’s also H for Hydro in Scotland and Hens in your backyard and Hackerspaces and Hubs popping up everywhere in between.

Looking for a co-operative bakery in Liverpool? No problem! Look under B for Bakeries at the front, or Liverpool at the back. And you will find the story behind the wonderful Homebaked in Anfield. You might even pick up some tips about baking an essential sour dough loaf for your community harvest feast.

Joining the dots

Everything in this book is connected. Take an apple: you can pick one for free in a community orchard or become part of a fruit foraging scheme and collect enough unwanted apples from your local gardens and street trees to make juice and cider – like Dan and Joe from the incredible Moss Cider Project in Manchester.

Or if you want to juice those apples yourselves, why not check out your local Library of Things for an apple press. Got one already but it needs fixing? Take it to your local Repair Cafe and find out how to mend it (along with your old smartphone and broken umbrella). Got juice left over? You can share it at your community kitchen or junk food cafe, and take the residue to the community compost pile. And don’t forget to join the local wassail for the next planting year!

David Young with the apple press at Queens Park Day 2011
We started The Grassroots Directory after being involved with community projects since 2008. We felt there were some great stories happening that people would love to know about. So we started writing them down: what it was like to start up an urban farm, to learn how to chop firewood and plant potatoes, organise a bike lane, a community bee group, or local currency. We created a co-operative local blog, then a national one, then a national quarterly paper. Now we’d like to put these stories in a book: one place for everyone to share their knowledge, skills and good-time experiences.

We want The Grassroots Directory to be full of possibilities for people looking towards a future that is fairer, more Earth-friendly, and – yes – more fun! You can use it for inspiration, for practical know-how, to find out what is going on in your region (and everywhere else too).

By the way, if you know of a lively community project in your area do get in touch. We’d love to hear from you!

Charlotte Du Cann and Mark Watson

Come to the show! 

Welcome to Base Camp at Embercombe 2016

Calling all fellow explorers on the edge of civilisation! The Dark Mountain Project is setting up BASE CAMP at Embercombe in Devon on the weekend of September 2nd-4th 2016 and you are invited to join us.

It's the first large gathering to be held by Dark Mountain for three years and will be a great opportunity to explore the issues the project has raised, to share ideas with real people in a real place, to sit round a hearth and hear stories from the other side of the fire.

We are thrilled to be hosted for the first time by Embercombe, on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon, England - an amazing place, set amidst fifty acres of permaculture woodland, fields and gardens, with a variety of eco buildings, yurts and a lake for swimming

The programme for the event will include speakers and performers who are producing some of the most interesting and creative responses to this era of converging crises. Just as important, throughout the weekend, there will be a chance for everyone who attends to actively contribute.

BASE CAMP aspires to a rich mix of talks, workshops and performance, and to the kind of alchemy that can happen when you honour the spaces that open in-between. It's a chance to replenish, to take a fresh look at the maps and to plan new routes and adventures. If you're an old friend of Dark Mountain, or have just discovered us, we hope you'll want to be part of it.

In keeping with our desire for an intimate, participative event, we are limiting numbers to 150. Tickets are now on sale. Do follow our blog meanwhile and keep up to date on our Facebook event page.You can find all the necessary information from transport to accommodation on the website. Hope to see you there!

Charlotte Du Cann and Dougie Strang

Images: Brixton Pound £5 note designed by Jeremy Deller; Homebaked crew with their famous pies in Anfield; apple pressing by Jonathan Goldberg; Wing (for Manon) by Rebecca Clark; yurts at Embercombe.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Wayland and the Futuremakers

Essay written for latest edition of Dark Mountain on Techne

I am lying on the belly of a grassy mound that moves through the winter silence like a whale. Below me lie the bones of my island ancestors in two burial chambers, stacked one on top of the other, ringed by tall beeches and flanked by an ancient track. We are in the first days of a new millennium. A robin sings in a spindle tree: red breast among pink berries, tiny dots of colour in a sere, frost-bitten landscape. The barrow was built at the advent of Neolithic agriculture, a technology that would change the dark leafy face of these hills forever. The place, however, is named after a later technology, the working of metals, and the arrival of bands of Nordic Saxons in the fifth century. It is called Wayland’s Smithy.  

That night back in the city I have a terrifying dream. I dream I have a giant safe full of treasure but am being kept in a dark house by a group of men. I escape to France, but am betrayed and wake just before I am murdered with a knife. It is then that I remember the sentence that came to me as I lay on the mound. 

The treasure is in the living, not the dead. 

Sometimes you think you follow the wrong god home, and sometimes you know you have no choice. Wayland is the lamed blacksmith of the Saxon pantheon and forger of the famous dragon-killing swords wielded by Beowulf and Siegfried. He is not the kind of mythical being you would necessarily choose to go on a journey with. He is not an elegant Minoan goddess in a beehive skirt, nor a heroic Greek warrior, nor an exciting blue-faced deity with eight arms standing on top of a tortoise. His maker skills do not bestow wisdom and healing powers like the Celtic or classical patronesses of craft, nor does he promise Hadean transformation or ecstasy. He is a blacksmith who kills boys and eats bears. Like Vulcan and other mythical lamed smiths, he is very rough and very gruff. 

In 2000 I wanted to connect with the ancestral fabric of my native land, an England I could love with my heart, that was not its modern Empire or bloody history but an ancestor place that would make sense of everything I saw happening in the present. I didn’t think much about Wayland at the time. It was just a name that I found myself repeating when I remembered the Smithy during the years that followed. 

But when you are stuck and need to break out of the chains you feel all around you, you don’t go to the mythos for an elegant or noble solution, you look for the man who has the right tools for the job.  

Deep in the Northlands, Wayland lies on his bear rug by the hearth at the end of a long day. He is dreaming of the swan maiden Hervor who has flown away with her two sisters after nine years in Wolfbane. While his two brothers have gone in search of the maidens, he has wrought 700 rings of red gold for her return. When he notices the original ring is missing from its slender thread of bast he wonders: Does this mean she has returned ? Will I find her tomorrow retting flax by the lakeshore where I first stumbled upon her? 

Wayland awakens the next morning to find he is in chains, bound cruelly by hand and foot. Over him stand Vidud, lord of the Nijars, and his warriors who have stolen upon his tower by the light of a waning moon. The king has given the missing ring to his daughter Bodvild. He then casts the lord of the elves on to an island and commands him to make jewellery from a large casket of gold and fine gems. The queen orders that the smith is hamstrung so he cannot escape. Everyone is forbidden to visit him.  

In 1976  an off-set litho press breaks down in the English department of Birmingham University Art Faculty. It is midway through a print run of an arts magazine called Arnold Bocklin (after the typeface), the first publication I have ever helped create. 

Billy Foreman laughs: We will leave it,’ he says, ‘and something will resolve. We’ll come back and know what to do.’   

Billy Foreman, assistant editor from the bluecollar North, is an advocate of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I am a rookie reviews editor from the whitecollar South, learning how to get my hands dirty. I know nothing about machines or class politics or journalism, but I have read a lot of books by the time I find myself at the Flat Earth Press with a staple gun in my hands. We are all students of bibliography and this is our fieldwork. The literature of England is a land we have in common. 

‘The problem with Narnia,’ says Billy, as he shows me how to roll a cigarette with one hand (so the other can be free to work with machinery), ‘is that there are no women. The only woman is an evil witch. It’s the same with Tolkein’s Middle-earth. They are lop-sided. 

I stare at him amazed. I have lived within these otherworld tales all my life and never thought to look at them objectively, like an engineer.

‘Why do you think that is?’ I ask. 
‘Maybe you should take a step back and see for yourelf,’ he replies. 

For millennia people have known that to walk true in the world is to walk with ‘one foot in the logos and one in the mythos’. Our mythologies help our imaginations make connections between the fiery spirit of things and their physical expression. They engineer a bridge between what scientists call the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of our brains and enable us to negotiate their different territories. Since industrialisation however, these myths have become refuges from the ‘reality’ of materiality and science, escapist fairy tales that enliven our lives of hard mechanical labour.  
We have lost our techne for crossing the bridge. Medicine and initiation stories that once instructed us how to live on the Earth are seen as fantasies or children’s stories. At best they serve the psychologist’s couch and the self-help manuals that tell us if we deal with our inner stepmothers you and I will be OK. 

But we are not OK because the world is not OK. Those agrarian and metal-working technologies have now crawled across the entire face of the Earth. Vast machines dig and shift mountains and forests and seas, imprison and process millions of creatures. We look at the living world through pixelated eyes, talk like machines and defend our industrialised, scanned, irradiated, genetically modified with a tiny fraction of our consciousness. 

Wayland the barbarian stands at the edge of his folktale, his eyes grim as a snake’s, resisting any Freudian and Jungian readovers. He is not an archetype you can befriend in a workshop. He is smarter, older and more ruthless than any hero or goddess you might fall for or identify with. He knows exactly who has captured him and what he has to do to make his escape.  

I’m not a lover of Norse sagas, to be honest. I am not thrilled by thralls moving through Mirkwood with their shiny white shield bosses. And though I can breezily tell others to let the barbarians into the city to bring a new narrative, I am not sure I want to let this elven smith into my worldview any more than anyone else.  

And yet his capture speaks to me. Because he is kept and treated the way all makers, all creators are, hamstrung by elites and forced to produce glittering objects and fables to enhance their glory and supremacy.  

Somewhere in my bones I know that to get the barrow of time, to return to the ancestors, you have to liberate yourself from the sovereign who has fettered you and for whom you have toiled against your will. You have to stop making the jewellery that delights and empowers them. 

You need to tell another story.  

Wayland seizes his chance. Lured by the casket of red gold and gems, the king’s greedy-eyed sons secretly visit his island forge. As they peer into the treasure he strikes off their heads and hides their bodies under his soot-blackened bellows. He then fashions a brooch from their teeth for Bodvild, jewels from their eyes for the queen and makes drinking vessels from their skulls for Vidud 

‘Where are my boys?  What has befallen them?’ asks the king, as he drinks from the grisly goblets.  

Wayland tells him that he will reveal their whereabouts if the king swears an oath he cannot break on his treasured tools of warfare:  

Oaths first shall you all swear me, 
By ship's-keel, by shield's rim, 
By stallion's-shoulder, by steel's edge, 
That you will not harm the wife of Volund. 
Nor cause the death of his dear bride, 
Who shall in the hall bring up our child. 

The king agrees. Wayland then reveals where the sons are, their teeth and eyes and skulls, and that his child now grows in the belly of Bodvild. His line has entered the kingdom. 

WH Auden and Paul Taylor’s translation of the Icelandic edda, The Lay of Volund, ends with the king’s daughter confessing that the story is true. She is indeed great with child, though it is not clear whether or not this is of her own choosing: 

Against his wiles I had no wit to struggle. 
                            Against his will I did not want to struggle. 

However Wayland’s story does not end here. He has fashioned a pair of wings from swan feathers and, as he ascends into the sky above the kingdom of the Nijars, he laughs triumphantly.  

Some say he flies to Valhalla where Odin and the swanwinged Valkyrie gather the warriors of Middle-earth for the final battle of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods.  Others that he flies to the British Isles and sets up his smithy alongside the Ridgeway, where every 100 years he shoes the hooves of the White Horse of Uffington. 

Either way this Saxon saga is placed on top of a vaster and older story and hides it from view, in the same way that Daedelus’ Cretan labyrinth obscures Ariadne’s hive-shaped dancing floor. The Smithy appears 4000 years after the first Neolithic burial mounds were established on this grassy hill. For a long time now, sitting beside this story, I have been wondering what I should do with it. 

Then one day I know.  

In 1991, I break away from the glossy magazines I have spent my youth working for as a chronicler of master carpenters, designers, jewellers and craftsmen. I switch off the television, unplug the radio, and walk out of the city. I go in search of a world where the Earth is sovereign, where myths are still tools that help us open the door to other dimensions. I forge practices that can link the world of dreams and visions to everyday life. 

In 2007, I change tack and begin to write about a grassroots culture that is breaking free from fossil-fuelled technology.  As the corporate world tightens its grip, I chronicle the people who are saving seeds, making their own bread, keeping bees, foraging for medicine, exchanging skills and knowledge, learning how to split wood with an axe, gaining sustenance from the trees and hills again: people who don’t want to live in smart houses and hyperreality.  

But in 2015, I am encountering a limit. 

The limit isn’t in this physical world, it is in the mind. No matter how many changes we make in the way things are produced or shared, we are still seeing the Earth with our left hemisphere, our rational minds. We are still stuck on the island of Saeverstod. How can we see the world through mythological eyes, where each thing – each cupboard, knife, pair of boots – has its life history embedded within it, its counterpart in story and myth. How can we fly free? 

That’s when I realised I needed Wayland’s sledgehammer.  

I live in flint country now, far from the rolling hills of middle England, where large glassy stones crouch in the agri-industrial fields like birds. On the eastern cliffs beyond Pakefield I sit and hold a flint that could be a tool from hundreds of thousands of years ago. To the north, Gulliver, the coast’s first wind turbine, moves slowly in the breeze; to the south the dome of Sizewell’s nuclear power station gleams white in the sun. This is the oldest inhabited place north of the Alps, and on certain days you can close your eyes and feel how it was when the hyena and rhinoceros gazed upon a blue tropical ocean, a sea that is still sparkling on this late summer day, though far colder and greyer and emptier now. 

Accessing deep time is a clifftop activity. You think it means digging below your feet, a place that physical effort and academic knowledge will take you, but it doesn’t. Time is a broad thing you can feel in your imagination, like the blue sky opening above your head, when the Earth becomes at once larger and more mysterious than you think, a space in which all times converge and make sense of this one present moment.  

The mind on its prison treadmill prevents our seeing beyond the hostile broadcast of Empire. It keeps us stuck in a history where its rulers are always in command. But sometimes you encounter a strange being, who is neither man nor god, who shows you a way out, though it takes you a long time to realise it.  

To make the future, he instructs you, you have to attempt a kind of gaolbreak. The mindset of Empire is a ruthless vampire on the human imagination and to see clearly, to be free in your thoughts, to live in real time with your feet on the real earth, you have to kill the mechanical thinking that blinds and traps you: self-pity, control, the feeling of doing something wrong, of owing, of being lesser than the people who hold you captive.  

Only when you are free can you see. Only when you see can you act, and trust your every action will affect the fabric of the world.  

The wind drags light across the ocean. WG Sebald walks past the cliff on his way to the Sailor’s Reading Room in Southwold. The rhinoceros moves away through the yarrow flowers. Wayland laughs. His is a master swordsmith and  jeweller, but his true art is flight. 

I wanted to tell you about the things I have loved dearly in this world and the makers who have made them. I wanted to tell you about the teaching house of Tadao Ando in Osaka with its empty tearooms designed in stone and wood and glass, and the history house in Spitalfields where Dennis Severs conjured an imaginary family of silk weavers spinning out their tales in its candlelit rooms. How these encounters revolutionised my relationship with the fabric of places. I wanted to tell you how perception renders our physical lives meaningful, in a way that mere possession of things or virtual realities never can.  

I wanted to tell you how Elizabeth David’s description of her Sudanese cook preparing salted almonds in twists of brown paper and the rough techne of my own kitchen – the Opinel knife from France I have used for 30 years and never sharpened, the molcajete hewn from volcanic rock I found in the dusty border town of Nogales - have helped me create a thousand colourful meals through these difficult downshifting years. 

I wanted to tell you about Sid and Barry and Gene and all the men with grease-smeared faces who mended the cars that once took us to the stony deep time places on this Earth, along the rocky back roads of England and America. But most of all I wanted to tell you about that morning in Birmingham in 1976 when I stood in the shower at dawn and saw my own grease-smeared face and inky black hands in the mirror and laughed. Because I had just printed the first of a thousand publications I will forge in my lifetime, and because I loved Billy Foreman in the way you can only love someone when you are 19 and a student of English literature, and because the smell of Swarfega will forever hurtle me back into that moment when I stumbled upon my craft. 

But I can’t. At least not the way I would like to, which is to say in detail. Because we don’t have time for nostalgia: my personal  recollections of almonds, or London houses, or my father’s deftness with a spade, or my mother’s with a rolling pin, gifts that have been an anchor in a sea of choppy times. I don’t want to usher you into my silo of memories, I want to break it open.  

Wayland brings another technology. Not the kind of hardware that plugs you into a network of virtual worlds and abstractions, but a tool that allows you to access the real network of the Earth. A sledgehammer to break the mind-forged manacles that imprison our imaginations.  
The hammer breaks our link to the past, so we can live in the future, beyond the islands where we have been cast; so that we can know other dimensions exist, where the Earth is a mysterious place, full of colour and beauty and intelligences other than our own. So we can forge a story, not a barbarian fantasy that amuses us before we return to our obedient, dull lives, but one that can act as a working bridge between our fiery consciousness and our material selves that house us here on Earth. 

Only with this relationship can we be free to dream another world. As a people we are bound by the clock, kept in isolation from our true lands. We are all lamed, one way or another, financially, emotionally, mentally, tied to the market state, indentured to cars and houses and a petrol-soaked economy, unable to leave. In our fetters we forget it is the king, our gaoler, who is stuck because he lacks the art that Wayland possesses and because he is addicted, like all dominators, to the cruel and glittering stuff of power. 

But Wayland does not forget. He knows that Bodvild wears Hervor’s ring and the king has enslaved him against his will and stolen his sword. His vision is clear. He bides his time and then he makes his move.  

Making a move is the strategy of the imagination enacted in the realm of the will. You make the move by looking at the energy behind the form and then acting. You break the link to whatever or whoever holds you prisoner; you soar into the freedom of sky. Myths are practical things and blacksmiths are practical beings. Every time you break free, you open the door of time and make space for the future to happen. In this space, the tyrant cannot keep his grip.
Our civilisation rests on the assurance of its rulers that the vast populations it holds sway over cannot make these moves. That their everyday actions are hampered, that we will toil ceaselessly for the mechanics that keep their realms running. But some of us have downed our tools. Some of us, impatient to find our way to the future, have stumbled upon a technology still held in the memory of giant stones and small pieces of flint. 

I don’t have a car anymore, so most weeks now I have to cycle for our veg box from Darsham ten miles away. Today I am collecting it from Dunwich, which is only six miles from my house but means I have to push the bike along the beach. It is high tide and the wind is against me. My feet sink into the stones, crunch, crunch, crunch. 

Occasionally I collapse into the shingle laughing, and remind myself I am on the de-industrialising path: no supermarkets, no palm oil, no GM, no pesticides, no central heating, no aeroplanes, no mobile phone, no Facebook, no Amazon, no IKEA, no Primark, but a determination to go a long way for Malcolm’s fresh peas and strawberries. Malcolm has built a mini-observatory amongst the rows of sweetcorn and fruit bushes in his smallholding and today we are converging at Dunwich with his local astronomy group. We are looking through solarscopes, a telescope that allows you to look at the sun directly without going blind.  

‘The thing about H-Alpha,’ an ex-merchant seaman called Terry tells me, ‘is that it takes time for you to be able to see through it.’ 

Hydrogen-Alpha is a wavelength deep in the infrared of the electromagnetic spectrum. Solarscopes use an H-Apha filter to block out all sources of light except this narrow bandwidth. It takes nine months of observation for your eyes to learn to adjust to the wavelength, Terry explains:  

‘Then you start seeing things you never thought were there 

At first you see only a red globe that feels shockingly near. But on a second glance you notice the black sunspots and the flares on the edges of the sphere. You realise that the sun is not this round static disc that brings you warmth and light that you take for granted. It is the fire that smelts life. You expect it to be calm and cool like the far distant stars, or Jupiter or the moon. But it isn’t: it is a raging furnace, stoked to the max.  

Wayland is its blacksmith. 

It is said that Wayland’s flight to the Upperworld represents an ancient shamanic journey that soars up the axis mundi to the stars, a flight you see represented by the birds at the zenith of totem poles and standards the world over. Wayland is returning to the constellation of Cygnus, the swan, and his story acts as door into a world where people are more than mere human numbers trapped in a single moment of history: where we are imaginative creatures who live in many dimensions and that our lives and our presence here only make sense in terms of this journey. All civilisations work by blocking our ancient access to this flight, by saying that Wayland and his smithy are just a story, made up by a rough and barbarous people who no longer exist. 

But we do exist, and so do the stones on the soft green hills of England, and the three swans who fly past my window on their way to the marsh: whuh-whuh, whuh-whuh, whuh-whuh.  

The treasure is in the living, not the dead 

If on a clear summer’s night you gaze up into the sky towards the east you might glimpse Daneb, one of a trio of brilliant stars, known as the summer triangle. Daneb, brightest star of Cygnus, was once our guiding pole star and in the future will be again when the Earth shifts her axis.  

I don’t know if any move I make affects the world I now live in, except that each time I break free from Empire, from the Machine, from someone who commands me against my will, I feel lighter. There is more space, in my mind, in my feelings, in my encounters. There is more room for everything else, for the plants, for the creatures, for the mountains, for the sea, for the stars. Time stretches out and I can feel as I once did among those Oxfordshire hills, immersed in light and air, filled with exuberance, as if I were flying over them. This is when you realise that Wayland is not just a smith, he is also a guardian. He stands by the barrow built 4000 years before his people arrived with their stories of elves and dwarves and dragons, magical rings and swords.  

You can’t get to the barrow’s treasure chest without confronting Wayland, without unshackling yourself from the civilisations that were at that point in time beginning to build their cities in the Middle East and establishing their technologies here in the form of Neolithic agriculture. The Smithy is a doorway in time and something in us knows that in our bones when we lie there on a winter’s day and the robin sings from the spindle tree: I am always here, I am always here. 

If you are a writer of English words you know that your language was smelted in Wayland’s forge, and when you search for a way to show the Earth in her true colours, you use those earth-wrought Saxon words and not the mind-made words that belong to Nidud. You know it takes time to see the fiery red spectrum in everything that lives and breathes on this planet, so you relate what you see to the people with the tools you know best and love with your heart, with words, because this is your own true craft.  

You are the key that opens the door.

All images from Dark Mountain 8: Wayland's Smithy 1999 (photo by Mark Watson); infrared sun from Incident Energy by Marne Lucas and Jacob Pander; megalodont fossils from Travenanzensis by Dorian Jose Braun; blacksmith's hammers from Walter's Tools by Sarah Thomas (photo by Dayve Ward).

Dark Mountain Issue 8: Techne is available from here: