Monday, 29 August 2016

Flight Path - On Reading David Fleming's 'Surviving the Future'

 Every civilisation has had its irrational but reassuring myth. Previous civilisations have used their culture to sing about it and tell stories about it. Ours has used its mathematics to prove it.
The man you might not know. And yet if you know anything about the Green Party, Trade Energy Quotas, the Transition Movement, New Economics Foundation or the Soil Association you would have met his ideas and his vision many times. His name is David Fleming and for thirty years he carried a large manuscript around with him, amending, adding, editing and re-editing, as each year progressed. This September, six years after his sudden death, it sees the light of day in the form of two books.

Shaun Chamberlin, a rigorous Boswell to this Dr Johnson of the future, has not only skilfuly shaped his immense dictionary into a finished form, but also forged a narrative introduction to it. Daunted by the prospect of reviewing the rather unlean Lean Logic, I took the slimmer companion volume, Surviving the Future - Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy on a train trip and then into my summer garden. This is a short response to this multi-layered, beautifully constructed treatise.

The future is a fraught place for those of us who realised over the last decade we are boarded on the Titanic and heading for a mighty reality check. Some of us have thrown up our hands in horror and despair, some of us have heroically dug gardens, some of us have analysed fossil fuel graphs and turned off our central heating. Most of of us have looked at this wicked problem and tried to work out what on earth is needed now, not as individuals but as a people. One thing is for sure, at some point this all-powerful ship will founder and David Fleming's clear proposals for an alternative social organisation are welcome reading for all those whose eyes are trained on the lifeboats, rather than the dancing girls in the bar.
lean logic

Slack and elegance

Surviving the Future is a linear pathway through Lean Logic's diverse and visionary eco-system. Where you might and indeed are encouraged to explore the larger work's interconnected range of entries, the small volume keeps you on the main track. Here I am on the 16:00 from Liverpool Street coming home, surrounded by shopping bags and folk staring at their mobile phones, listening to music, eating fast food, wrapped up in their own worlds, and it is hard to imagine that all this might shift into the scenarios David is describing in these pages. And yet it is compelling in ways you do not expect. Even though there are fascinating insights on the more familiar subjects of religion, myth and culture-making, the chapters that grab the attention are undoubtedly those on lean economics, specifically the seven points of protocol which pull in an entirely different direction to the conditions in which the globalised market economy flourishes; the latter which is driven by competition and price and the former which works in an entirely different paradigm.

Economics is not a subject that most of us care about. However, the market economy is a system and creed we live by and has put us on this collision course. We are all embedded within it as we sit in this train carraige rocking through the East Anglian barley fields. Clear thinking about this behomoth and how it might be replaced are paramount and you could have no more inspired or radical guide than David Fleming in this uncertain territory.

For Fleming a viable future means being rooted in the small-scale local economy and cultivating the resilience of the community you live in. It means creating a thriving culture that will enable people to use their native intelligence and good will to work out how to proceed when the chips are down and the social and technological infrastuctures we take for granted are no longer in place. His premise is that through time localised, interdependant communities have been the norm and that our hyper-individualised hyper-urbanised lives are an anomoly and only made possible because of a destructive oil-based growth economy.
The book looks at key areas, such as food, growth, ethics, employment and waste, through the lens of lean times, and proposes that intead of living in a mono-culture where the price is the measure of everything, we live in a community, where our presence, our loyalty to its shape and interactions matter.

It is a better book to read in the garden, where there is space to breathe. Because, above all things, the book brings space and intelligence and wit to areas that are normally written about in lumbering opinionated prose. In a genre weighted down by tribalism, righteousness, political rhetoric and scientific data, his words come like a fresh breeze. Where other books would feature graphs, he has woodcuts of the English countryside.Where others might beat you over the head, his light and precise use of language effortlessly guides you from high altitude systems thinking to the utterly miserable times endured by the workers of the ancient 'hydraulic' cultures.

At some points his references to art and philosophy may appear old-fashioned, his fondness for the feast-days of the Middle Ages romantic, but the main theme is utterly modern, thought-provoking and often surprising. At the suggestion we might employ Christanity's rich liturgy and architecture as a cultural holding place, I find myself exposulating to the runner beans. Hang on a minute, David, when the Church of England is on a all-time attendance low in the UK? Are you suggesting we go backwards and have to worship gods again?

I put the book down and dive into some shade between the buddleia and the raspberry canes. Above me the scarlet admiral and peacock butterflies drink the nectar from the flowers, the light shining through their jewelled wings, above them on a southerly breeze the seeds of a black poplar drift by in search of new territory and above them a marsh harrier circles in the updrift, soaring higher and higher.

OK, so how do you organise society in the absence of competitive pricing? I laugh. This book is subtle! I have no idea: but it is a very good question. One that revolves around loving the earth and sky, that's for sure. It has to start here. It has to start with this moment.

I reach out to pick several large raspberries and realise that it was Fleming's ideas about community resilience that had entirely forged my own. These canes from Rita and Nick and Jeannie, the apple trees from Gemma and my fellow writers on Playing for Time, all these vegetables from seed swaps, my clothes from Give and Take Days, my involvement with Dark Mountain via the Transition movement. Everything in my house and larder and woodpile, in my relationships with neighbours and local shopkeepers, with this sandy, salty, wild territory, has come here through the informal economy. In all these small ways I am already living in the future he describes. And in that I know I am not alone.

This shift is not just personal, about me and my downshift style: it is social, about nurturing communities of 'reciprocity and freedom'. And this is where this book acts as a decisive catalyst. We need deep blue sky thinking, to ask ourselves questions we have never thought about with rigour, to look around us at what we have now between us, a bird's eye perspective, because if we can't we will be surely engulfed by the struggle on the ground:
The task is to recognise that the seeds of a community ethic and indeed benevolence still exist. It is to join up the remnants of local culture that survive and give it the chance to get its confidence back. We now need to move from a precious interest in culture as entertainment, often passive and solitary, to culture in its original, earthy sense of the story and celebration, the guardianship and dance that tell you where you are, and who is there with you...

But given this is the one alternative that resonates, that makes sense, it is worth giving it our every last creative shot. If you are prepared mentally, physically, emotionally, for a different world and have deintensified  your way of life, you are resilient and fluid in a way folk that have never thought about these things are not. That makes you a valuable presence in any kind of climacteric, a flexible open agent within a close, rigid system. I realise this late summer day, the lean localised future so astutely and elegantly mapped out in these pages was the future I chose a long time ago, and the task Fleming sets all writers and artists takes us resolutely out of the sidelines and puts us right where the action is and where else, given the choice, would we want to be?


 At the upcoming Dark Mountain gathering this week we are delighted to welcome Shaun Chamberlin, David Fleming's close friend and associate, who will be holding a workshop exploring some of his core ideas, and also to be able to sell both books, hot off the press, at our book stall (£30 and £10 respectively, or £35 for the two ).

I like to think David Fleming would have enjoyed Base Camp, at seeing a future-thinking culture being created by people aware of the impending social and economic crises. He might have recognised the lean thinking amongst its strands of myth-making, food growing, knowledge-sharing, music and conviviality. Celebrations and convergences are the bedrock for a society he envisioned could survive and thrive in a rocky future, and it is in this spirit that we publish a short extract from his chapter on Carnival, edited by Shaun and originally published in Dark Mountain Issue 5.

Extract from the late Dr. David Fleming's Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It (2016). Extensive references are given in the dictionary itself, but are omitted here.
* points to another entry in the dictionary.

Carnival. Celebrations of music, dance, torchlight, mime, games, feast and folly have been central to the life of *community for all times other than those when the pretensions of large-scale civilisation descended like a frost on public joy.

The decline of carnival in the West began in earnest alongside the transition from a rural-centred culture to a city-centred one. There were many reasons. The early stirrings of capitalism encouraged habits of soberness, and it has this fixation about people turning up for work on Monday morning. Some carnivals were getting out of control, becoming the starting-point for rebellion and riot: Robin Hood’s career began as a carnival king; Ben Kett’s rebellion in 1549 started in Wymondham at a festival for St.Thomas à Becket. And the invention of fire-arms had its effect: it meant, of course, that a reckless crowd could also be dangerous, but – more important than that – it introduced a need for discipline, especially in armies. The loading and firing of a musket is complicated; it requires a sequence of steps – forty-three of them, according to Prince Maurice of Orange’s “drill” – each of which must be done exactly, at speed, and (on occasion) under fire. Discipline becomes critical: sober *citizenship, which is good for armies, and good for trade, calls for self-awareness and self-control, and it gets lost in the spontaneous exuberance of carnival.

Carnival has been subdued, and its loss is serious. The modern market economy suffers from play-deprivation. It does exist to a weakened extent in sport, but even there the aim of winning is increasingly taken as the literal purpose of the event rather than the enabling *myth. When such critical cultural assets as *trust, *social capital and the *humour which blunts insult are in decline, *play is in trouble. Insult and rough-and-tumble are now largely forbidden; if an invitation to play is rejected or misconstrued, if a joke goes wrong, there is shame or worse.

It invites the bleak question: 'What is the point?' The consequences are various, no doubt, but among them may be loneliness, boredom, anxiety and depression; if society is less fun, its inequalities are more resented. There is no constant reminder of the teeming vitality beneath the surface of other people; there is a loss of authority by the local community, which becomes less audible, less visible, less alive, less fertile as a source of laughter. Barbara Ehrenreich wonders whether the waning of carnival might have had something to do with the awareness of depression which, in the early seventeenth century, seems to have developed almost on the scale of a pandemic. Before then there was, of course, pain, and grief – all the dark emotions – but loneliness and anxiety...? *Tactile deprivation (the sadness of not being touched)...? The sense of the party being over...?

… Homer tells us how the art of the ancient dream world lay in wait to seduce Odysseus and his crew as they were about to encounter the Sirens, whose bewitching song lures everyone who hears it to their death, their bodies added to the pile of mouldering skeletons in the meadow where the Sirens sat. On the advice of his mistress, Circe, the goddess who lives on the island of Aeaea, Odysseus stopped up the ears of his crew with wax, so that, unable to hear the song, they were not distracted from the real work of rowing. He himself, being securely strapped to the mast, could now listen to the Sirens' voices 'with enjoyment', as Circe puts it, and without being drawn irresistibly into their power. This has various interpretations, but one of them makes it a decisive detachment from art: the sound of ancient myth which once drew its hearers in, without means of escape, is rendered sensible and civilised, reduced to a concert, a sort of Hellenic musical evening with female chorus and a professor of Greek to tell us something about the local legend that lies behind it.

On this view we see the breaking of the link between art (music, in this case) and politics: now you only need to buy your ticket, be a spectator of the arts for an hour or so, and then home for herb tea and bed.'
Images: David Fleming on Hampstead Heath by Henrik Dahle. All woodcuts from Lean Logic - A Dictionory for the Future and How to Survive It edited by Shaun Chamberlin and published by Chelsea Green on 8th September.

Originally published on Dark Mountain blog

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Suffocated Clover

I've just finished a story about poetry and mythology for the upcoming Dark Mountain issue on Uncvilised Poetics. Called The Red Thread it looks at the myth of Ariadne and the Labyrinth and how poetry can fast-track you into the urgent realms of the metaphysical. 

The threads are lines from certain poems that have pulled me into different directions in my life, including the local poet George Crabbe. So I thought I would repost a piece I wrote originally for 52 Flowers That Shook My World, which is based around the flowers (and people) he catalogued in the fenny, marshy lands of the Suffolk coast.

marsh samphire - walberswick

southwold, suffolk 04

When I first came to live in Suffolk I was shocked by many things. I was shocked by the tameness and emptiness of the agricultural land, the restraint of villages but most of all I was shocked by the conventional human world in which I found myself and its relationship with plants. I was no longer living amongst the alternative earth warriors of Oxford, nor with the radical medicine people of the American desert. This was small-town England where flowers lived under tight control in gardens, or in nature reserves for their scientific and educational interest. Of course the wild strip of shifting coastline was exciting, its birch copses, mudflats, and gorse-scattered heath. I had loved these waterlands for many years and was happy to return. But becoming part of its human community was something I had not bargained for.

 In your twenties, in the bohemian city, friendships come easily. You dance together, you sleep together, you get drunk together, you give each other work, live in each other’s houses; everything is shared. But as you get older life can calcify and become static - a fixed house, job, family - and these easy-going social relationships end. If you go travelling this open exchange continues because everyone’s lives are still fluid; people come and go, in and out of your life, and it doesn’t matter what age you are.

But in Southwold it really does.

When I walk into a local lecture given by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, practically everyone has white hair. It is given by a warden of a nearby area called the Breckland. Once known as the desert of England, with sand-dunes and strange forest pools, it is  a particular territory with its own distinct flora and fauna. The keeper explains the measures they take to keep this flora and fauna in abundance. Whenever he shows a slide of something good happening (Breckland thyme is increasing) everyone in the audience goes ooooh, and when there is a depressing statistic (the numbers of sand larks are down this year) aaahh goes the audience,  as if we are in some kind of old timer’s music hall. At the interval I ask the speaker about the particulars of a certain rare wormwood that grows there, and he gives me a queer look. Artemisia campestris, he says. Field wormwood. And I realise it is a look of horror, of a man trapped in a net. I do not go back.

sea lavender - river blyth

However I don’t give up on my human and plant communications. On May day I go to the blessing of the nearby bluebell wood by a band of local vicars. In the summer I take part in the Suffolk Hedgerow project, detailing all the trees in the neighbourhood hedges. I go to plant sales, flower festivals, garden openings and Greenpeace fairs, but there is something about joining in with these ventures I can’t quite do. There is something in the women’s faces, the ones who serve the tea and cake, the volunteers who seem to organise everything. They are my age or older. There is something in their eyes, in the way they are nervous and jittery with each other, sometimes making mistakes with the money, or silly comments - something repressed, inverted, as if their natural intelligence and creativity will never be allowed to burst out of them whilst they are serving in these places.

One warm August evening a small old lady approaches me at a garden party. She has overheard me talking animatedly about sheep’s bit scabious. Her name is Pam Ellis and for the last twenty five years she has run a botanical show at the local museum. “You are going to take over from me,” she said. “Do you know the Latin names.?”“Yes,” I replied, “Good,” she said. And carried on talking to the others.

Of course I had no intention of taking over. I had a horror of becoming one of those Women Who Did the Flowers I had seen at the church jumble sales. But I had not counted on Pam’s persuasive powers. She was a formidable botanist and mycologist, as was her husband who had begun the flower display originally, when the museum was also a natural history collection. Botanists, like writers, rarely give up their passion. In fact, this passion usually increases with age. When the curator rang asking me to visit them at the museum, I found myself saying I would do it on one condition, that I was allowed to write a paper each week to go with the exhibition.

“I’m radical!” I warned them.

The curator smiled. He had found my weak spot. “You can write what you like,” he said. “Now these are the jars and this is where you fetch the water.”

southwold museum
I loved doing the flowers. I loved getting up with the hares and the foxes, moving through the dawn, roaming the woods and riverbanks in search of plants. I loved cycling into Southwold with a basket full of wild flowers flying behind me, and diving into the sea after the setting up was finished. I loved putting all that life and colour amongst all those dry fossils and facts, locking up the ancient door leaving behind a beautiful show for others to enjoy.

But most of all I liked sitting down at my desk and deciding what I was going to write for the wild flower collective, as I called it. It was like having a column again, something I had not had enjoyed for years. I was unashamedly enthusiastic. I wrote about politics and poetry, railed against agricultural pesticides and the council’s slaying of roundabout orchids, the radical apothecary Nicholas Culpeper; I  interviewed ecologists and ornithologists and the guardians of the local woods and reedbeds;  I  walked for miles over the heathlands, sat in preserved meadows and hidden wastelands, wrote about vibes of places and gave the medicinal properties of all the plants, their countryside lore and their Latin names (as promised to Pam). By the end of the summer 180 different wild plants had appeared on the museum’s sunny windowsill.

But I never met any people. Occasionally the curator or one of the volunteers when I went in to refresh the flowers would praise the display. Everyone loves it, they told me. And you are so knowledgeable! But something in me rankled. I didn’t like to think about it, but I knew nobody took any notice of what I was writing. I had a feeling that I was being humoured. Just so long as the flowers were done.

I went to interview the creator of the Hedgerow Project and asked him about the community and the countryside. He had spent a good deal of his time travelling to villages all over Suffolk and I thought he might give me a clue about belonging. He looked at me

“There is very little enterprise,” he said mildly. “It’s mostly newcomers who get involved.”

One week  I decided to write about the 18th century poet and part-time botanist, George Crabbe. George Crabbe is an unusual poet. He is well known as the poet of this coastline, but although his lines are suffused with the nature of these marshes and shores there is nothing romantic or poetic about them. His poem The Borough is famous for inspiring Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, however the classical music festival founded on this opera, bears little trace of the nature of the poet, let alone the damned heroes and heroines of his epic tales. Crabbe hated Aldeburgh, and yet it transfixed his imagination for his whole life. His passion lay in the waterlands that surrounded the town. For in his heart, he was a lover of wild plants.
People speak with raptures of fine prospects, clear skies, lawns, parks and the blended beauties of art and nature,” he wrote to his friend Edmund Cartwright in 1792, “but give me a wild wide fen in a foggy day with quaking boggy ground and trembling hillocks in a putrid soil; shut in by the closeness of the atmosphere, all about is like a new creation and every botanist an Adam who explores and names the creatures he meets with.”
I set myself the task of reading the works of Crabbe, to find all the plants that appeared in his poems for the next exhibition and to find appropriate quotations for the cards.  I spoke with Neil Powell, a local poet and writer who had just published a new biography of Crabbe to ask about the flowers. You have to read about suffocated clover, he told me. It’s key. He had spent hours on the beach between Thorpeness and Aldeburgh looking for this tiny plant.

“Did you find it.?” I asked.
“I think I did,” he said. “But then I am not sure.”

viper's bugloss - cambridgeshire
Suffocated clover is not an easy plant to find, even for a botanist, and Crabbe is not an easy poet to read, even for somebody who has spent a good deal of her life studying and reading all kinds of literature. Classical in construction, most take the form of moral tales which are inordinately long. However something about the tone of them was compelling and familiar. He was writing about a Suffolk that I recognised, in spite of the difference in centuries. Trained as an apothecary and surgeon, a man who worked as a reluctant curate all his life, his eye is not on the poetic and the lyrical landscape.  It bores into the minutiae of life, of the oppressive and shifting moods of the collective, into the spiritual despair, and mostly into the betrayals and indignities that the community heaps on individuals who dare to step out of line. Be different. Or like himself, creative.

 Meadow clovers are easy to see. They appear profusely in midsummer, beloved by bees, honey-bringers, nitrogen-fixers. They appear in their different colours in the jars on the windowsill:  crimson and white, sometimes a pale tufted yellow, or in the shape of strawberries. But to distinguish the smaller clovers you have, like Crabbe to get down on your knees and have a good look. On the bare ground, on the heathland track, you find them, squashed and tiny amongst the rabbit-bitten dune grass, burrowing, reversing, clustering, suffocating, hiding themselves away from human tread. As you peer among the other pea-flowers, trefoils and fenugreek, miniscule sparks of yellow and white, you find yourself in a different world. The startling pink veins of the birdsfoot show you all the beauty of the small things, of myriad other worlds within this one. You feel the enormity of being alive, of so many possibilities, as if you could begin again, yet the human world is so old, so repressive, how can you shine in your own right? How can the future begin?

You might not want to look closely like this, but somehow you have to. You have to think of Crabbe as he stands exhuberant in the primordial fen, downtrodden and despised in his various curacies. You have to consider yourself, squashing your  knowledge and breadth of vision for a new world into these small cards on a windowsill. You want like all writers to share this knowledge, your love of the natural world, have an intelligent and lively conversation with your peers, but the old forms will not let you. Hemmed in by taxonomy, by a restricted imagination, by minds trained to dismiss the wild and the beautiful, you can get no further than a smile. You are clever to know the Latin names, the women will say down at the museum and look away. Nature table, says the guide to the local museums of England.

sandwort - southwold
Community is a feel-good word in the modern world, but there are good historical reasons to be wary of them, for their unconscious collective intent can stifle one’s very life-force. People from the outside, visitors, city people, often imagine country communities to be well-meaning friendly village things. They do not recognise them, as agencies of constriction and conformity. No one who has paid close attention to the testimonies in Akenfield recorded by Ronald Blyth in the late sixties however could be romantic about community in Suffolk. Everyone yearns to get out of Akenfield; no one would want to live in The Borough. Enjoying a country retreat is one thing, becoming part of the local collective is another. No creative individual really wants to belong to a community. Not if they are smart. It provides you with roles that you have no business playing.

When you read poetry you need to crack the poem’s linguistic code, and find out what the poet is really saying, beyond history, beyond literature, underneath all that difficult style. The flowers cracked the code of Crabbe’s writing for me, as I struggled through pages of rhyming couplets. Bitter and repressed plants are everywhere in his work. Especially the end-of-the world wormwoods. Artemisia campestris is one of the plants he requests for his botanical garden in Mumford. “Wholesome wormwood” is spied by Orlando in The Lover’s Journey as he speeds through the green lanes. Southernwood appears outside Ellen Orford’s door in The Borough.
Like the clovers and grasses he loved to seek out, Crabbe’s human subjects are the undistinguished worth paying attention to,” I write for the exhibition in late July. “And he presents their lives with all the accuracy of a botanist, rather than the idealisation of the romantic or classical artist. Where he can be as florid and as mannered as anyone of his time, writing to the aristocracy for patronage for example, when speaking of plants and the land his language is modern and direct. It blows like a breath of fresh air through the formal gardens and hierarchical houses and universities which as a saltmaster’s son from Aldeburgh he was not heir to.

emerging sea kale - aldeburgh beach
 I walked around Crabbe’s Aldeburgh in search of the “unsightly weeds” his son wrote were so precious to his father. I walked around the fens and waterlands, finding the “soft slimy mallow of the marsh”, creeping dwarf sallows, wiry-stemmed salt lavender, bull-rush, sea cotton and sea asters that appear in his poetry, and the atriplex he loved to grow in his botanical garden. I walked through the blighted agricultural fields, finding painted viper’s bugloss and field poppy, sea poppy and sea-pea along the Aldeburgh shoreline. I thought I found suffocated clover. But I am not a botanist and tiny introverted clovers are not easy to distinguish. 

Suffocated clover is the “new species” of plant that Crabbe was delighted to come across and name. However it was also identified by another botanist in Norfolk, and the plant’s “discovery” was formally given to him.  It was a disappointment to Crabbe. Disappointment was a great part of his repertoire. Disappointment, despair, derangement, and most of all claustrophobia. It was this emotional tone I recognised from my own experience of rural Suffolk, a dark undertow that you can hear in Britten’s music also – a certain gloom and oppression, a feeling tone linked with the spirits of the oppressed:
He knows the plants as he knows the difficulties of the villagers. He writes as an insider with an outsider’s eye, unencumbered by the classical allusions of eighteenth century poetry, or the reforming zeal of the nineteeth century novel. It is the ‘what is’ of his writing that is startling and original. This makes him however a difficult and unfashionable poet to read: for the suffering of Keats or Shelley can still speak to every youth with a strong imagination and desire. And there is none of this sensitive poet in Crabbe. The suffering is of a deeper, maturer sort. It comes from experience: not only an awareness of his own difficult childhood, his awkward position in society (he burned his botanical treatise for example when told by a Cambridge don it was worthless because not written in educated Latin) but also from his first hand observations as an apothecary, surgeon and curate at the beginning of the industrial era.

Crabbe's (hidden) opium addiction connected him to the dark mental and emotional residue that English society does not wish to account for: uneasy moods, fickleness of perception, lack of compassion, blighted lives, cursed outsiders, the nightmare visions of his tales for which the marsh and fen and sea are perfect mirrors. The ‘wild amphibious race’ he writes of are the same as the boggy ground and sterile soil of Suffolk. These are not metaphors.

This is why E.M. Forster says ‘to speak of Crabbe is to speak of England’. He is saying what exists, not what should or could be. For these things he is the poet of our thistles and tares. Those plants, like himself, which struggle out of the inhospitable soils. Not for him the dancing daffodils of Wordsworth or the mystic rose of Blake or the imaginal globed peonies of Keats. His poetry is full of real human weeds rejected and scorned by the land-owning society. No one is going to come to Crabbe country in the way they can go to Hardy country or the poetic Lake District. Who would want to identity with the sadistic Peter Grimes or the religious maniac Jachin, the Parish Clerk? And yet to this day, the characters he describes are still here amongst us, within ourselves. Just as the Cambridge botanical garden he collected seeds from still exists. Just as the tiny suffocated clover still grows on Aldeburgh beach and the thistles in the fields spread their prickly arms, threatening war.
opium poppy - aldeburgh dunes
I finished the shows on the Autumn Equinox as the last of the year’s flowers were departing. Shortly afterwards I was invited by the curator to a drinks party to celebrate the museum’s year with all the trustees and volunteers. So many people enjoyed the show, he said. But I couldn’t somehow enjoy myself as I made an attempt to mingle.  I felt constrained and inarticulate in a way that was totally unnatural to me. I stood awkwardly with a glass of sticky wine, whilst an old man ran down the arts centre where I had just begun work.

These creative places never last of course, he said dismissively.

I could not answer him. As I struggled to find the words to defend myself, I felt a sudden immense pressure bearing down on me. I could hardly breathe. Then I noticed a certain agitation around me. My eyes glanced nervously around the room, as a sea of grey-haired people wearing red poppies began to merge together. Then I realised: it was November 11, and almost eleven o’clock. I looked at the crowd and they all suddenly seemed like dead people drinking a toast to war and more war. May it never end!  I though I was going to pass out. The atmosphere was suffocating.

Before I knew it, I was rushing out of the Red Cross hut into the wild fresh autumnal air. Running, half-crying, half-laughing, as far away from death, from grey-haired community, from the ooh and the ahh and the ghosts of the thousands of women who did the flowers.  The relief was extraordinary, as if I had been let out of a prison. I was bursting out of hundreds of years of  church fetes and bell ringing and jam cakes and politeness and charity cases and men who crushed the spirit of any creative enterprise before it had a chance. We are free, I called to all the poppy women constrained all these years, to all the plants, to all the writers, as I ran and I ran across the green, the sea shining in the distance, with the gorse-scented wind in my hair.

common wormwood - thorpeness

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: