Tuesday, 4 October 2022

VIGIL

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

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

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

  

MORTUARY 

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

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

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

 


SHROUD 

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

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

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

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


MEMOIR

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

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

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


TUMULUS

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

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

WAKE

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

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

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

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

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

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

We borrowed it, and forgot to bring it back. 

Our return is overdue.

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

Saturday, 28 May 2022

After Ithaca – Journeys in Deep Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

After Ithaca

(excerpt from the title essay)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Psyche and Venus

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

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

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

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

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


The deal

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

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

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

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

But mostly take us down into the dark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Monday, 25 April 2022

My Body, The Ancestor

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo Harper Cowan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Sunday, 3 April 2022

Plant Dialogues


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


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

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

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

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

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

 
Practical information

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

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

Note all time zones are welcome to participate.

Group size: 16 people maximum

Price: £55

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, 4 November 2021

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

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

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


Notting Hill, London 1990 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a pause. 

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

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


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

Saturday, 25 September 2021

When the Bones of our Ancestors Speak to Us: A Fugitive Conversation with Bayo Akomolafe

Earlier this year I interviewed the postactivist philosopher Bayo Akomolafe for Dark Mountain: Issue 19, our spring collection of art and writing on death, loss and renewal.  I had just completed his innovative online course We Will Dance with Mountains which has just begun again this month. 


I am preparing to leave a house I have lived in for 18 years. A gathering of starlings loop and swerve overhead in the falling light, and in the distance you can hear the grind and thump of the sugar beet harvesters in the winter-flooded fields. For the last two  months, as we pack up, I have been focused on a task with four strangers from different places and ports of origin (Manchester, Holland, Nigeria, Germany, Jamaica and London): to consider the fate and future inscribed in the bones of an unknown slave woman, unearthed from a burial site in the Port of Rio de Janeiro in 1996. 


The archaeologists named her Bakhita (after the Sudanese slave turned Catholic saint) and all we know of her life is that she did not survive the Atlantic crossing to work in the sugar cane fields of Brazil alongside an estimated five million of her compatriots from West Africa. Our task is to rebuild the slave ship, set by the philosopher, writer and ‘recovering psychologist’, Bayo Akomolafe, as part of an online course he has been spearheading called We Will Dance With Mountains.


I wanted to speak with Bayo because this issue’s contemplation of death and dying also revolves around change; how, in times of fall, we allow a known world to collapse and reform from within. In no other modern thinker have I come across such a dynamic approach to undertaking that radical act of consciousness, embedded as it is in the startling imagery of the transatlantic slave trade.


Bayo works in intense metaphor, using metaphysical infrastructure to enable us to perceive how we are kept trapped by civilisation and how we might liberate ourselves from its invisible manacles. The building blocks of his lexicon include the slave ship (with three decks of colonisers, slaves, and Earth resources); the plantation, where we are set to work; and the fugitive who escapes the capture of both. Sanctuary is a gathering place where fugitives might flock and find other ways of being together.


Charlotte Du Cann: In the Bakhita Project, we have been meeting in the transformative space of sanctuary to consider the ancestral consequences of the colonial slave trade. Do you feel our legacies can ever be resolved?

Bayo Akomolafe: The legacies of the slave ship are yet-to-come. Modernity captures the slave ship in the same way it captures black bodies, white bodies, all kinds of bodies, and allots them prescribed ways of behaving and responding to crisis events, like the idea of racial injustice and climate chaos. It looks at the white body and says you are the enemy, and to black and brown bodies it says you are the victim here. Sanctuary is this emergent space which might be tethered to a post-modernist escape from modernity. 

The slave ship was an instrument of oppression and capture, an instrument of horror, but when I lean into my traditions, when I listen to the tale of the trickster Èṣù and the tricksters of other cultures, such as Pan or Loki, the boundaries of what is supposedly horrific and evil, it is also shape-shifting. It is moving, productive, generative, and escapes our modern gaze. Our elders are asking us to look at the slave ship, not as a thing that is gone and done with but as a thing that is energetically present, right now.

We are all in a slave ship: capitalism is a form of slave-shipping and we are captured here, ontologically incarcerated – master and slave. The very architecture of the slave ship is hinted at in the ways we perform hierarchy and order bodies on a scale of worthiness – with the other-than-human world being below black bodies.

So, you might say that the invitation to rebuild the slave ship is to revisit the conditions of our incarceration, to look around us, to look again, and to see that these boundaries are never still, always movable. So I don’t want to make the legacies of the slave ship  OK. I want to make it sensuous, inviting, I want the wall to be porous, olfactory, membranous, I want it to be exposed and open, experimental, diffracting one thing into another. This is how new things are born. 

I refuse to categorise artifacts of history as evil or good, because we do away with a lot of resources when we stabilise these things in those ways. When we name their colours too soon. So, to step into a space that is as troublesome as the slave ship is the trickster’s way, to play with trouble, and that might help us to transform.

CDC  This book’s theme is centered on death, dying and change. Is that collective space of sanctuary also where things can die and provide energy, or compost, for transformation?

BA  We think of death too strictly I think, as this absolute terminal point. I am interested in spaces in culture, for gatherings, where we touch the traces of our unbecoming and notice where we are falling apart. Where we reimagine death not as something down the line, but a paradigm, a thick now, an immanent field of loss and creativity that is entangled with what we rudely tease out as ‘life’. Modernity is about putting things together neatly, proliferating still images, being coherent, noble, independent. Consider what might be produced if, instead of thinking of death strictly as a firm line or an isolated event, we find ways to experiment with how we are already falling away, and how, for example, your identity is dying, how you are nomadic, diasporic, constantly moving, even when the habits of my perceiving you compel me to see you as a white woman. If we had  practices to notice the ways where our names, our bodies are changing and giving way to something else. How we are actually ghosts.1

I think dying well is about becoming with our traces and learning to touch the traces of our falling away. In a literal sense, I am leaving my cells here and there, I am less or more than I was a few minutes ago. Maybe a practice like this is the urgency of the hour. This is what I mean by fugitive exile, about leaving the plantation which reproduces images and instead helping us to see we are beyond static images. We are not as photographic as we think we are. We are abroad in ways that escape the ‘Man’, the head of the pyramid, of the capitalist structure. And that is the invitation of a constellation, of processional relational ontologies.

CDC  Your teaching of ways of being and becoming in many ways echoes one of the principles of Dark Mountain’s Uncivilisation: taking that Man out of the centre and letting life be in the centre. You have called it ‘a constellation of fugitive technologies that allows us to meet the world differently’. Could you name a few of those that most urgently need paying attention to?

BA  By fugitive technologies, I refer to sites of encounter where we might be met by the world in return, where we might learn to listen and cultivate humility in the face of a world that exceeds us, a world that never receded to the background of human ascension, even when we pretend that it did. And it is very difficult to talk out of context about what this constellation of practices might mean for different communities, which is why I have hesitated to frame making sanctuary as a universal, ahistorical process that I can plant anywhere I want.  

Someone told me that poetry doesn't appeal to this moment and that we need facts. And I countered by saying: poetry is the spirituality of fact. Facts vibrate at the speed of mystery and poets are attuned to that, that facts are not as stable as you think. When people hear about fugitive technologies, they say: well, here is a practice that if I do, I might be saved. Here is a product, let’s call it ‘racial healing system’, here is an app for emancipation, here is an idea, a concept that is already neatly packaged. The very presence of the word fugitive dismantles that. The fugitive is a figure that is constantly moving, so I am not talking about the arrival state, the Coca-Cola at the end of the factory line. I am talking about the methods of dis/inquiry; I call it dis/inquiry to remove ourselves from the centre of the inquiry. The inquiry is how to get lost. The question of the fugitive is how do I lose my way? How do I lose this plantation? How do we get as far away as possible? So, these technologies I speak of are not fixed products one can scale up; they are cartographies of lostness, rehearsals in losing one’s way in order to meet the world anew.

Making sanctuary is a gathering place, a village of these technologies. The Bakhita Project is premised on post-qualitative/post-anthropocentric research, decentring the anthropological figure as the central researcher and storyteller and learning to listen to the world. What might that do to us? The idea of becoming lost is to become otherwise by virtue of encounters with the more-than-human world. This is not research that is intended for us to be better, or to get back to business, to our shiny ivory towers.

I might ask, right now, for the purposes of our conversation: how is Charlotte learning to trace her ghostliness, the legacies made in her name? What are the recipes for your undoing? How are you noticing the extraordinary that is packed within the ordinary? How are you sharing these recipes of your undoing around you so that we form a politics of mutual undoing?

So, my sister, it has to do with dis/inquiry, the methodologies of exile.

CDC  You talk about a state of betweenness, finding the cracks, a state that is neither inclusive nor exclusive. Is this engaged with by oneself or with others or both?

BA   I am very wary of individual journeys of salvation or emancipation, of personal enlightenment workshops. I am not sure what the ‘individual’ is anyway anymore, when we find microbial communities living in our guts, and viruses living within bacteria. Post-humanist processes are always involved. Even if you deem it fit to focus on yourself as a separate entity, you would need physical resources to do that. Thought is not always as internal as cognitive scientists would have us believe. I feel it is environmental and ecological and that you are pulling on outside resources, even as you turn to your navel.

The basis of a fugitive politics-to-come always involves an irreducible collective of bodies, humans and more-than-humans, even when a single ‘individual’ is in focus. I am interested in framing a project that does not privilege humans as the starting point, how bodies are forced to think by the environment, by happenings in the world. So for me the instigator of thought isn’t human. A virus has forced India to rethink education. Because of the pandemic we are forced to go in a different direction. 

I think making sanctuary is gathering those who have been disarticulated by cracks in the environment to work with those cracks, rather than patching them up and returning to normal. Are things awkward for you? You don’t know how to proceed with work? You have existential questions with politics? If you feel that despair, you are not alone. Let’s gather here and instead of trying to run away and fix the problem, let’s move away from those solutionisms and stay with the trouble with our dis/inquiry. Let’s do research which might be ecologically framed and culturally framed as katabasis. Going under and finding ways to go deep into the ground and honour ancestors, to listen beyond ourselves. We can call it individual or collective work, or human and non-human. But I just feel nothing is as isolated as we think it is. Sanctuary is making space for the world to exist.

CDC  I feel civilisation has held us in a fixed grip for thousands of years, beyond even those centuries of the transatlantic slave trade, and when you consider this and the fact that slavery still exists widely in the world, you ask yourself the bigger question: why have human beings been slaves, or commanded them, for so long?

BA   I’m very shy about responding to why questions! The standard official explanation for what happened over 400 years to black bodies is that it was due to (human) evil or wickedness. I understand the legacies of such responses, but it does not feel generative for me. It’s a conversation-stopper and doesn’t do anything except label people, and might perpetuate the dynamics of the slave ship that feels so horrific to the imagination. 

But if we consider that things are assemblages, acting upon other assemblages, suddenly there’s somewhere to go that does not necessarily terminate prematurely at a moral judgment. When I touch the assemblage of the transatlantic slave trade that features heavily in my work, if you look at the ingredients that made it possible – the Catholic enterprise of rationality that emerged from the Enlightenment, its ideologies and philosophies; sugar cane and its metabolism within human white European bodies; the climate that drove people away from chilly Europe to the sunny Caribbean – and how assembling the pieces together and noticing how those ingredients interacted together became the conditions for slavery, it might free us and liberate us in ways that go beyond just answering why.

It helps to ask: if sugar was an active non-human agent in the proliferation of that economy, that arrangement of master and slave, then what kind of moves can we make today to make sure that doesn’t happen? Then we talk beyond just active legislation, or healing people of their evil. We talk about meeting sugar cane, the idea that we are framed in unmasterable fields and forces that go beyond the liberal humanist project. 

We need to create rituals of humility to know we are not masters of ourselves. Just framing it as something beyond us, without belittling accountability. Framing it as something that is more than human. That is what I am interested in as ‘postactivism’.

CDC  It could be said that Dark Mountain was founded as a postactivist project, in that the art and writing it hosts is created by sitting with the trouble rather than fighting it. How do you define postactivism and how do you see it as a force within culture?

BA  It’s a pervasive myth that we are independent thinkers, that I think my thoughts, Charlotte thinks her thoughts, and that there are as many thoughts as there are people on the planet and that we all have our separate thoughts, that we act from some volitional force or agency that comes from within. 

What escapes that analysis is that we are connected in very sticky ways. We actually think territorially, ecologically, we run, we hide, we look at people like us and we congregate together. And patterns and sticky formulas are at work that are occluded when we think of ourselves as individual activists. I bring that up because when we talk about activism today, it seems activism is colluding conspiratorially with the world it is trying to change. The way we tend to see it in the ‘developing world’, in the Global South, is that the very solutions passed down to us only deepen the problem we want to get rid of, so we tend to be stuck in a cycle of repeatability. The IMF comes down and says here is a structural readjustment programme, here is austerity, something to help your people, let’s buy laptops for African children, so they can learn. And the laptops come and introduce new problems of their own. 

I read somewhere that the ‘West’ exports psychological and pathological categories. As a clinical psychologist I have gone into villages in Nigeria and been told: you are the expert, tell me what’s wrong with me. What they were in fact saying was that since I was trained in Western psychology, I was superior to them, and their own indigenous experiments with being and becoming were discardable. The solution of my discipline and my expertise was supposed to cancel out the problem. It was just an allopathic response that compressed the problems and left the sickness intact. 

I think activism is as materially complicit in the problems we are trying to solve, and as entangled as anything else. Postactivism is not a superior, spiritual way of responding. It is not saying here is a stream of thinking and acting, a way of behaving that will guarantee you utopia or a place of arrival. Postactivism is a democratising of responsivity. It’s saying we have been stuck on a highway of responding but there are other ways that are not tethered to this highway, where we can investigate and which might lead to another kind of transformation. 

So postactivism is in alliance with a different theory of change. We have thought change is what humans do. We are burdened with the idea of change, and feel we need to change the world. Posthumanism comes into the picture and tells us humans are not central to the world, we have never been central to the world, we did not create the world. We are always immersed in a field of differential becomings, what Deleuze would call ‘transcendental materialism’. We are not stable things. We are diffracted, porous and transcorporeal. 

Postactivism is based on posthumanism. It is my way of saying that change is not human, it is not our work. We can only ally and build stronger coalitions for change with the world around us (and not just with humans). Postactivism is the opening to this. It is about cracks and faultlines and fissures. It is like a hungry teenager, who asks: what can we do with this crack? How might this help us to build a partnership with this alien over there, in order to ask complex and new questions about the world we are in? It is not about solutions, though solutions are welcome. It is about wonder, building new alliances for becoming different. Touching the material body of activism and allowing it to shudder.

CDC  You said at the beginning of your course you deliberately pivoted its enquiry not within the United States, but in Africa. What was the reasoning behind this?

BA  Empires colonise conversations about change. They capture conversations that might redeem it from what you call the holding station, and then take these conversations and put them in the family way. Soon the ways we speak about decolonisation and racial justice, which might otherwise ring true for other people and cultures and lead to new sites of shared power, become about how do we appeal to the powers that be, or use certain languages or phrases to signal I am woke, or woke enough.  Soon, the nuances and complexities of navigating a difficult world are reduced to a few codes, a few linguistic choices, which Empire selects, and which others must adhere to in order to be righteous. So it becomes very territorial. 

I am looking for conversations that are fugitive, that escape, that grant themselves permission to do what they want to do, and do not look towards the plantation, saying can you allow me to be seen? The fugitive does not want to be seen. And America is the most visible trope. 

As such, I did this decentring for me, and to let our brothers and sisters in America know that they are not central to the world. You are not carrying the burden of change, you don’t have to change us. The boundaries of America are not the boundaries of the world, you are just a small aspect of what is happening. That should be liberating. So I think I am being hospitable when I say it is not about you.

CDC  What often happens regarding any conversation about race, or slavery or emancipation, is that it centres on the United States and thus limits our imagination and allows people to say in Europe, for example, well it didn’t happen here, it happened in the colonies. As a result we don’t get to look at this properly. So having the pivot of inquiry in Africa allows other kinds of knowing and awareness to happen. Which wouldn’t have happened within a North American frame – it would have become stuck in what you call the ethical monoculture, a Christian duality of right and wrong.

BA  I don’t think the pivot is even in Africa. It’s off the coast of Africa, maybe somewhere off the Bight of Benin, in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s definitely in the waters, where things are rippling and diffracting. That’s the site of the course, where there is no land yet.

The kings in Africa also sold the slaves; we also sold our brothers and sisters into slavery. That is one part of the conversation we need to have – not that I am trying to create an equal culpability situation here. We are entangled in this as well.

CDC  I sometimes find writers shy away from metaphysics or the work of transformation while those who are focused on consciousness work resist putting it into a creative or physical form, holding their knowing in a kind of abstract cloud. I feel everything needs to be spoken out loud, or danced, or cooked, earthed in some kind of way to be effective, to let these approaches become entangled as you say. Do you ever feel hemmed into a role of spiritual teacher?

BA  I think people use me, as you use the future or food or a pen. The people that I sometimes work with use me as a magical Negro (laughs) because of the way I appear and because of my experiences as a black person. There is often a sense of ‘just listen to what Bayo says’ which could be patronising. I don’t want to be trapped there, into being a spiritual guru. I like to have a conversation, pose questions of my own. This is not a transmission from some ancestor, or angel, or alien, but a diffracted meeting of each other in the middle. 

We are all on this slave ship. You might be on the upper deck but we are all in this holding station that pegs our bodies in place. The gift of this paradigm of diffraction, or this idea that things lose their edges, this relational ontology, is that it allows us to meet each other. As I said earlier, activism can become very industrial. The way we think about transformation is very categorical. You are an artist, you do artist stuff; you are a dancer, you dance into oblivion; you write about this and that, and it becomes an industry in itself, and modernity is quite happy with that. It’s not scandalised about you doing your work.

CDC  Mostly, it doesn't take any notice of it, Bayo!

BA  It doesn’t care, so long as you stay in your place. What scandalises modernity is when things spill. And facilitating spillage is good work. Diffraction allows me to read  myth, through quantum dynamics, through performativity. When we see things through each other, that is when the new has a chance to emerge. So that is what we need to learn today, to become citizens of diffraction, to become fugitives.

CDC  One aspect of the sanctuary which really grabbed me is that the site of transformation is where the real power is, where the change can happen, rather than  dominating forces of civilisation which activism is always trying to defuse or stop or take over from. It explained to me why writers have always had a very bad deal, because they bring that to the fore, that change is always possible in any moment, the fact you can change, or that you are porous, or that something can come out of nothing, or that the immanent god you spoke of is always becoming, is always creating within us. Which is why writers are silenced and flung into gaol, because they are trying to stop that change from disrupting the fixed control of Empire.

BA  In this quest to be seen, to be noticed, which in the Deleuzio-Guattarian literature might be indexed as the politics of recognition, can be found  a different power that isn’t tethered to being seen. There is historical precedent for this. When the slaves were crammed into a tight space, they tried to escape. There are accounts of their efforts to take over the ship and wrest power away from the captain, but the ships themselves were designed to keep them at bay; certain structures would demarcate where the non-citizens were, and those who needed rehabilitation and those who were embodiments of purity. 

The slave ship worked against them. It’s almost as if their efforts to escape only enforced the trade, it made it stronger, because the slavers could get together and say, ‘why don’t we make the space smaller, dehumanise them further?’ To keep their property busy and sellable, they even invented practices like ‘dancing the slave’. The slavers did this both for entertainment and to keep these appropriated bodies economically viable.

The beautiful tradition of capoeira, the dance encoded with martial arts, which is famous in Brazil, could not have happened without the boot of the oppressor on the necks of the slave. The limbo dance is the slave trying to navigate the structure of the slave ship. And I can give many more examples of how oppression became the alchemy for transformation. How disarticulated bodies became portals for other ways of being: in dance, music, rituals, ways of interacting with the world, religions, spiritual systems. 

This is why the elders said Èṣù the trickster, travelled with them. The trickster works in places you do not expect generativity. You expect death and dismal silence, but there life springs. So to go back to our original conversation about death and dying, modernity has framed death and dying as eternal silence. But through the eyes of the glitch, the eyes of the trickster, death is an invitation, a lively vocation to recreate, reformulate and use our porous skins, our disarticulated bodies, to become different.


Bayo Akomolafe is one of the keynote speakers for the upcoming Borrowed Time summit on death, dying and change, hosted by art.earth on 31st October 2021

Dark Mountain: Issue 19 is available from the online shop here