‘I used to care but things have changed’ – Bob Dylan
Afterwards we will climb into canoes and silently cross the lake to the woods where the class will fan out and encounter the wild spaces on their own. The copper leaves of the beech trees will shower down on our endeavour to connect with the living, breathing planet. A lot of the students will have problems getting beyond the whirl of their technology-driven minds.
‘Everything is hitting against that zenith of the summer solstice and resisting the fall,’ remarks Tony. ‘The violence and destruction happens, so everyone can jump the process and begin again.’
For the last two weeks I have switched off the computer, and tried to look back at this tumultuous year from the perspective of where I live, a small lane in East Anglia on the edge of England. Most of my working and social life is done via this machine, so when I go offline the world and its headlines vanish. The physical place comes closer, and with it a depth of perception that all the buzzy discussion about politics and celebrity, about money, about the end of globalisation, never allow in. You get a sense of the mood of the times.
One thing is clear: you can’t skip the fall, no matter how much you try.
The growing year came and went down the lane. The machines thundered past our windows, wresting commodities of peas, sugar beet, maize and wheat from the clay. The hawthorns and wild roses put on a beautiful show in the hedgerows, though the cold spring meant many of the growers’ roadside stalls would be closed by September. On May morning Mark, Josiah and I went to a tiny meadow of frosted green-winged orchids, marooned in an industrial prairie of barley. When the sun rose a hare bounded past and the skylarks sang above us. We realised that none of us could call ourselves community activists anymore. Our attention was on other things, but the place still connected us, in ways we had no words for.
The lane is one of a series of lanes behind the village church, skirting reed beds and broads that were shaped by the Ice Age 12,000 years ago. It houses a few indigenous Suffolk families who have lived here for generations, but mostly well-off incomers who live in converted barns and cottages and have a penchant for lacquered willow fencing. This year the suburbanisation continues its mission creep, replacing bird-singing scrub with ponies and crunchy driveways. Delivery trucks chew up the verges. The outdoor lights flare a ghoulish green into the night, on the once elegant Queen Anne facade of the big house on the corner, now owned by a multi-millionaire clothing entrepreneur from Jamaica. The field opposite our house, known as Hare Field, has been enclosed with a rabbit-proof fence, so now we look at meshed wire where once we caught sight of the wild creatures bounding past. The big ash trees have begun to die back.
It is not what it was when we came. It has devolved, said Mark.
I don’t like to think about that much and keep my eyes up into the sky, tracking the geese coming in from Siberia, the fly past of jackdaws at dawn, the light which reflects amber and gold on the trunks of the oaks as the sun goes down. But I can’t not look. The lane is part of brutal Britain, the rabbit-proof fence is all fences in Europe that keep out the unwanted, the pesticide-wrecked soil, every industrialised arable field in the world, the felled and dying trees, all forests killed to maintain our zombie lifestyle.
And he is right. It was more beautiful. There were more creatures – hedgehogs and stoats and hares. You could hear nightingales singing in May. Butterflies once covered the buddleia in August. David Moyse, the village’s history man and steeple keeper, would wave to us as we cycled by and give us green tomatoes for chutney. It was wilder, more country, sweeter.
It was still feudal though. You still had to deal with a frequency loaded with ancient snobbery and hostility. Us, the landowners with our gamekeepers and huge cars and you, renters, with your second-hand boots and pesky questions about RoundUp. Some things don’t change. Some things haven’t changed in England for a thousand years or more.
There was a period in the community activist years when there was a kind of bridge with some of the people in the lane, where I could be enthusiastic about non-threatening subjects like give and take days and community gardens and share jars of foraged damson jam, so long as I didn’t push the climate change, fossil fuel dependence thing, or talk about factory farming or flying. So long as I could say how calm and blue the sea was this year, the best swimming year in a decade, and not mention the sandy cliffs at Easton Bavents that continued to fall into the waves.
But in 2016 that bridge fell down. What do you do? had became a conversational mine-field:
‘Oh, an editor, how interesting, and what’s the Dark Mountain Project?’
‘We’re a network of artists and writers looking at social and environmental collapse...’
Not a great opener over the canapés and Chardonnay.
Which is why I can’t really tell you what is being discussed this season down the lane. I have to travel elsewhere to have those conversations.
Here I am today in Colchester in early November meeting Christian Brett for the first time. For three years we’ve worked together shaping and producing the Dark Mountain books via the telephone, long conversations between a tower block in Rochdale and a tied cottage in East Anglia. He is setting up an installation called ‘The Sound of Stones in the Glasshouse’, a work he conceived with the artist Gee Vaucher whose ‘Introspective’ is about to open at the town’s modern art gallery. It’s a bold, uncompromising work: a glasshouse made of panels engraved with the names of every intervention the US military has made in the last 100 years. Around the walls are excerpts of presidential inaugural speeches talking about freedom and democracy and the numbers of the dead caused by wars on their watch. In the centre of the glasshouse a video of soldiers emerging out of a trench plays on a loop, and a patch of bare earth.
We go for lunch and talk and it feels the same as it does on the phone, except we’re not looking at computer screens, we’re looking at each other. The rain falls down on the capital of Roman Britain, now a nexus for the modern Armed Forces. The show was opening on the 11th.
If you are an artist, or a writer, you have to see differently from the conventional world that appears to own and control everything. You have to look outside the echo chambers, beyond the burning issues of the day, beyond the headlines, into something deeper, more intrinsic, not bound in time. You have to see what Sebald once called the 'Rings of Saturn', as he walked down the Suffolk coastline, the machine of history that crushes us in its talons.
‘Have you got Mr Trump in the wings?’ I ask.
‘We have them both ready,’ he replies.
In the space of a year two people I used to be close to took their own lives. What struck me when I remembered them wasn’t to do with their brilliance as editors and designers, or their long struggles with mental illness. It was about their presence and their intensity, a certain kind of intimacy you rarely experience with people. It felt as if their spirits had burned out of control, like a forest fire, and no-one knew how to deal with the blaze. It felt that whenever you leave out what you most love about people, our deep feeling natures, what used to be called the soul, something always crashes. It crashes in individuals and in collectives and in nations. The spirit of this trauma lives in all of us by virtue of being born into the system. No one escapes that, not the rich, not the poor, not the powerful, nor the meek. The question we face as Rome falls is: how can we speak with each other and get out of the cycle?
When I switch off the machine and the headlines recede, I realise we are not in a political crisis; we are in a spiritual crisis, an existential crisis. We don’t know what it means to be human anymore. We have lost contact with the meaning of time, our presence here. How can we be human in a collapsing world? How can I be female outside the patriarchy? How can I matter in a community where I am one of the unnecessariat, the precariat, part of the low-income, left behind, just about managing, tax credited, zero-contract gig economy?
When I switch off the machine, I step out into the lane and walk into the twilight. You can feel everything more closely in the dark, especially the trees, your senses open up, your feet feel the ground, the wind coming from the south. Venus outshines the glow of the brewery distribution centre on the horizon. That’s when I realise that to this place, I matter. My presence, my intense engagement matters. To the dead, to the ancestors I matter. To consciousness, to the fabric of life I matter. We matter. That is no small thing.
What we need is a new social contract.
In the spiritual years – I guess that was mostly the '90s – I slept in moon lodges and dreamed of medicine people and Cathars and Indian gods, and I sang and danced alongside a band of fellow seekers moving through the great landscapes of the Americas. We were searching for a deeper relationship with the world and our ‘hard yoga for the earth’, as Gary Snyder once described it, pushed us into some very difficult corners, not least among ourselves. We spent a lot of time dealing with the karma of our families and connecting with indigenous medicine plants. We all thought, foolishly, that the collective shift of consciousness we yearned for would somehow just happen. We were coming from the future and had been born into the past. We thought we could travel forever and live in bamboo huts on the sides of sacred mountains, but history or destiny dragged us back to our home countries. The ancestors told us: those who caused the problem have to deal with it. And then they disappeared.
The problem, we knew, wasn’t going to have a neat solution, like a mindfulness class you could do every Tuesday. I am another yourself was not a mantra: it meant going through all the files your cultural history threw at you, being treated like an exile, losing most of your dignity and your spending power, and then having to start over again. Few of us wanted to go through the emotional mangle that would make us human. Most of us resisted the fall in our own ways and stalled.
When we said we were looking for a new narrative, we meant we were looking for a new language. At some point we knew the theory would have to become practice. We were waiting for something to move.
'Strange attractors' are so called because they make a particular shape in phase space which radically alters the dynamics of a system, sometimes called the shape of uncertainty. Strange attractors allow chaos to break up rigid forms and create new ones. Civilisations by their design are fixed systems living within vast non-linear systems. Fatal attractions are their undoing.
Strange attractors, as we might have noticed in 2016, don’t always look like the pleasing butterfly shapes you see in chaos theory manuals. They have bad haircuts and bad attitude and send shockwaves through social media. Their chief characteristic is that they hold all the missing information, so when they exert their influence they challenge the order that is dependant on certain things kept out of the picture.
In 2016 a lot of missing people suddenly appeared in the picture that had excluded them for aeons and did the only thing that the Establishment allowed them to do: they voted. For decades the dispossessed of North America’s Rust Belt and England’s factory towns have held the collective shadow of the classes above them, so the multicultural hi-tech uberfolk of the metropolis could shop and tweet and travel with impunity.
In 2016 a lot of those '90s words like transformation and chaos became a way to look at the string of political events that had crashed the world views of the privileged. The shadow had reeled into the open. Nigredo is the first stage of alchemy, bringing to light the dark materia that needs to be transformed. The nigredo is a scary moment. You have to know how to negotiate it. When the hidden rage of millions is unleashed – generations of people humiliated, derided, told they are worthless and have no future – you have to hold fast to your humanity. Here be dragons. You can’t be righteous and float above this scary territory, because that fury is in you and me. No-one in the system escapes its hostility. You can refuse to carry the shadow of your culture, only if you have dealt with it yourself, only if you are not still blaming mummy and daddy and your first boyfriend and that prick in HR who doesn’t recognise your true value. Only the system wins in the system.
Nigredo is all about the reveal. When the US election result is announced it feels less scary than 2008 when everyone was whooping with joy and hope about the future. Trump entered stage right, the pantomime villain, the bad cop, to loud hisses from the gallery, but the exiting good cop with his suave saviour style had been less easy to discern. However, as the Glasshouse reminds us, all cops are cops when it comes to ‘full spectrum dominance’. The Empire is the Empire whatever country you now live in. We are all Romans and all slaves.
This alchemical moment has nothing to do with social justice, or environmentalism or any of the grassrootsy stuff I have found myself advocating during last decade. There are initiatives and networks around the world focussing on these worthy things, but none of this transforms anything if we are the same people inside, if we haven’t dealt with our stuff – as we used to say in the '90s – if we haven’t uncivilised ourselves, made contact with the layers of dead under our feet, in the sky, in the rivers. If we haven’t stood with the Lakota, or with the yew trees, with the rainbow serpent, with the glacier, with the tawny owl. If we haven’t found a way to dismantle the belief systems that keep us trapped in the cycles of history, if we haven’t dealt with our insatiable desire for power and attention and found ways to live more lightly on the planet, we are not going to make it through this stage. And it is a 'we' because, in England at least, we are on a very crowded island and no matter how much we say we don’t like our neighbours, they live next door.
In 2016 I am 60 years old and do not collect my bus pass.
‘In the old days we would be putting our feet up by now Ellen,’ I say, hauling another sack of Issue 10 into the Post Office.
‘Don’t get me started,’ says Ellen.
On my birthday I go in search of foxgloves on Walberswick Common. It has been a peerless year for bluebells and primroses and seakale, the wild flowers I track each year. But foxgloves are nowhere to be seen. I curse as I stumble over burned gorse and birch tree stumps. Bloody management systems! If I had been more attentive I would have remembered that foxglove is a heart medicine and this was the site of a brutal enclosure in 1624 and known as Bloody Marsh. I hear their strangulated voices first, and then I see the group, walking down the old railway track as if they owned the whole planet, and before I know it a fury surges through my chest: why don’t you people fuck off back to London!
‘It wasn’t just me,’ I say when I find Mark again. It’s not just the repressed violence inside ourselves that roars out of our mouth in the nigredo, it is the rage of the dead. We have a task to recognise that. Take notice.
That night I watch moon daisies swaying under the starlight, under the influence of the tiny English liberty cap. The silver sea is breathing in and out, you can taste the salt on the night air. It’s summer solstice and everything is peaking, reaching its ultimate growing moment. The 12-foot hogweed at the end of the garden lifts its giant head to the full moon. Hooligan flower, outlaw flower, shining with light. En-ger-land En-ger-land!
‘What?’ says Mark.
‘Something is revving up!’ I say, laughing. Something is shifting gear.
I can’t say we felt the shock about the referendum vote to leave Europe in the lane a few days afterwards. Nor about the result of the US election later in the year. No-one spoke about it. People were no more racist than before, nor any less fond of French wine or Danish crime thrillers, or Ravi the baker, or Señor Vila the dentist, or the Polish bus driver whose name we don’t know on the 99 bus to Lowestoft. The white and blue postcard town carried on serving the rich weekenders from the city. The day-trippers kept eating the disappearing cod and chips down by the pier. The small shops, hammered with higher rents and rates, continued to be replaced by chains and boutiques selling high-end sailor tops and children’s clothes manufactured in China. The hospital and the police station remained closed. The Post Office lost its crown status and the staff had to wear corporate-style uniforms and work on Sundays. The delivery drivers looked more and more harassed as they took our boxes of books from the door. The Library held sales to keep open. Nothing was secure.
In May the asparagus, once picked by the women from the surrounding villages, was gathered by bands of young Eastern Europeans. They pick and sort fast and are gone when the season is over, carrying home pay packets that are worth more in their own countries – a scenario that is played out across the flinty vegetable fields of the Eastern seaboard, in Norfolk and Lincolnshire. No one knows where this will end. If you have been to the jobseeker centre recently in Lowestoft you might guess who will be picking asparagus in the future and for whom. No-one will care however if this person is you.
When I boarded the boat train at Harwich I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a moment of homecoming that I never had when I was a traveller, when England was a country I wanted to get away from. The carriage was shabbier than any in IKEA Europe, and air on the platform smelled of winter, of salt and rain and green. The conductor walked down the passageway and three men who were travelling together and drinking beers laughed out loud. No-one had laughed on those Dutch and Danish trains and no-one had made an entrance like that, a deliberate music hall swagger down the aisle, like a rolling English road, like the curve of the Oxfordshire hills, almost, you could say, hobbity. Not of this time, nor of this dimension.
A door that seemed shut in the schoolroom in Denmark suddenly swung open. A joy ripped through me. The mythos was still here!
You can look at nature, the writer Richard Mabey once wrote, as a tragedy or a comedy. It depends on your point of view. The character of a people is not the same as a society hamstrung by a corporate global economy. As the curtain closes on 2016, it’s worth bearing in mind that the drama changes tack the moment we give up our high tragic roles and become ordinary players. It’s true, comedy is used to paper over the dark things, to make light of serious matters; the Empire has used entertainment to distract people forever. Strictly Britain is not very militaristic, as George Orwell once noted. We’re more interested in theatrics which is why we are such dismal suckers for Punch and Judy politics and royal parades, even as the joke is so often on us. That’s the way to do it!
However comedy is not just about laughing, or poking fun, it is seeing life from a certain perspective, with heart. It gives an agency to situations where tragedy can only offer a solitary death, it reminds us above all that life is an ensemble act that brings affection, even in the hardest times. We are in this show together. Tickets please, ladies and gentlemen.
In spite of everything, I realised I wanted to go home to the lane. Though the Empire will keep telling me I do not belong, I know that I do. And no kind of politics will take that relationship away. I am not going anywhere else. I am not a nationalist, a flag waver, a patriot, I don’t know what ‘British values’ are, I can’t tell you the names of any football players or newscasters or the kinds of questions aspiring UK citizens are tested on. But I can love this place, these marsh birds, these oaks. I can cohere in a fragmenting time, I can remember in a forgetting time. We don’t need a grand vision, another story right now, we need to get through the nigredo, the seismic shaking of the jar, and allow the seeds we hold inside us to break open their coats.
Afterwards will come the albedo, the deep memory of water, and the rubedo, the solarising forces, the warmth and light of the sun. We will unfurl ourselves then. All is good, all is return, all is regeneration in alchemy. We just have to have the stomach for the work. We have to trust that whatever happens in our small lives, whatever move we make to undo the unkindness of centuries will affect the whole picture, that we are not on our own. Everything matters. The ancestors are behind us: all good comedies end in a dance, they say.
Pictures: ‘Midsummer Eve Bonfire’, after c.1917, by Nikolai Astrup (from Painting Norway at Dulwich Picture Gallery); 'The Stones in the Glasshouse' by Christian Brett and Gee Vaucher (photo: Douglas Atfield/Firstsite’ ); feather at Base Camp, Dark Mountain gathering at Embecombe, Devon (photo: Warren Draper); excerpt from the documentary, Human by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
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