Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Temescal

Barrow by Dan Porter (Dark Mountain: Issue 19

For the last six months I've been working as art editor and producer of the just-published Dark Mountain: Issue 19. I also contributed two pieces: an interview with philosopher and teacher Bayo Akomolafe and this extract from my new book After Ithaca, a collection of essays and memoir about mythos and cultural change that revolves around the four Underworld tasks of Psyche.


‘Only bitter fare here, my dear,’ said Mimi, handing us cups of creosote tea, as we climbed up the mud steps from the temescal. It was 11th November, la luna de los muertos, and we are in the borderlands between Arizona and Mexico. Francisco Ozuna, curandero, has built a temescal in the back of Mimi’s ranch, and today will lead a vigil through the night. We will make an invisible bridge between the dead and the living, he tells us, and bring ‘the powers of wisdom hidden in the dust’ to the surface.

Francisco had worked for several days on creating the small underground sweat lodge, shovelling red earth and constructing a roof and steps from mud and stones. That afternoon we had gone to the creek and gathered palos muertos, wind-dried stalks of hackberry, black walnut and agave, and curly mesquite wood from the desert for the fire. On the two flanking earth mounds were set huge bunches of marigolds Francisco found abandoned on the highway – the fire-coloured flowers offered on the Day of the Dead that grow abundantly in Mexico after the late monsoon rains. Then we drew a circle of ash and amaranth seeds around the temescal and the central fire. When evening came and the people gathered the ceremony began: the flat river stones were heated in the fire, then hauled out, brushed with juniper branches and carried into the chamber on a big spade. 

Inside, the small space is exciting. The desert night is cold but under the earth where we've taken the hot stones, naked under moon- and starlight, the heat embraces you. The tea is bitter in your mouth, the osha root is sweet. We are silent and then sing and howl and chant until our bones shake. Afterwards we throw buckets of cold rainwater over each other and dance round the fire. Francisco chants all night. Mark sings beside him.

Modern people don't observe the dead: we shunt them aside with awkward funerals, and this ancestral doorway of the year, once observed throughout the archaic world, has become a children's party game. But indigenous people (Francisco is part-Apache, part-Yaqui) know the dead are part of the Earth. Once mourned properly they can assist the living, rather than hinder them as forgotten shades.

In Mexico, across the border, there is a tradition of honouring the dead. People go to visit the cemeteries with candles and cakes and sing songs and write the dead messages at this time. But on the American side of the border things are very different. In the town there are very silent groups who come to collect the dead from the mortuary where the ravens gather and cackle on the roof. From our apartment opposite, we sometimes see coffins being delivered from the trucks. There doesn’t seem to be much singing and dancing going on. 

The marigolds’ name in Nauhatl is cempoalxochitl, and their vibrant colour represents the sun, which guides the dead on their way to the Underworld. The strong scent of the flowers attracts the spirits when they return to visit their families, helping them to find their way. Osha or bear root is traditionally used in Native American sweat lodges to purify the air as well the body. A bear medicine from the mountains, the root assists a shift into dreaming and connection with the ancestors.

I will remember this night, long after the story of why I was in this high desert fades. Rituals can burn into the memory like fire, open up a portal, so that your ears keep the sounds of a man digging the red soil with a shovel, the sensation in your feet as you climb down the oozy steps and change places with a tarantula, the feel of the fresh night air when you emerge. There had been hard invisible difficulties between us all leading up to the ceremony but when evening came what remains is Francisco laughing as I led everyone in a dance around the fire when things got a bit grim, how our car sloshed through vast rain  puddles as we brought breakfast for those who had made the night-time vigil, and that we buried the ashes of a friend of Mimi’s who had been sitting on her bookshelf for a very long time.

I don’t remember it as a bitter time.


Crow lineage

‘There is a crow who sits on my shoulder,’ said my lawyer father. ‘It is my conscience.’ And then he stared at his shoes in despair. 


When he died, the crow came to me. You have to tell me everything, I said. About conscience.


The crow sat in the corner of my room in the travelling years when I lived on the edge of small towns in Europe and America. Silently, he observed me write my notebooks. And sometimes I would ask him a question. And he would put his head on one side and peer into the mysterious darkness of the void and declare what great law of conscience he located there.


You have to deal with the files with your name on, he said, and leave the rest.



When we embarked on the dreaming practice in Australia, it was as if all those files had blown open and everything that had been buried from our dark houses and histories came to be redressed: animals faced me in the slaughterhouses, children with metal teeth attacked me, friends and lovers lurched out of the shadows, seeking reparation. It would have been good to sit around a table and come to an understanding, but we soon found dreaming doesn’t work like that. Words and good intentions mean nothing, moves are all that matter.


After our long dialogues, Mark and I would go out into the backcountry, or down by the sea and watch the dolphins leap in the waves. Here now in the desert, we sit on the roof and watch the sun come up over black mountains, walk the creeks and arroyos, go with Mimi into the canyons, into the wild scrub as the day’s heat fades. We are learning the names and the meaning of the flowers in these dry lands, the tough, the spiny and beautiful, the bitter leaves and sweet-tasting roots of ceremony that help us face the journey. 

The ritual of the temescal is there to burn out the dross you hold and cede it to the fire as fuel and then as ash to the ground. Ghosts can cling to you, the dead that have not been mourned. Some of these phantoms are yours and some are not. Some are parts of you and your lineage that need to die in order for the new to flourish. To mourn and bury the dead, so that they can feed the living and not haunt the Earth. 

Only the elements of this Earth can transform these invisible bonds; only if you are connected to this Earth can you undergo that process and walk that path. Most would rather do the ritual without the suffering and endurance that it demands. For a long time, I did not realise why we were so assailed by ghosts and dreams of the past; then I realised I was in the place the ancient world knew as the Underworld, and it was not the stories or rituals of native America that would help me navigate it, but a memory of that book with a pink and green cover: The Legends of Greece and Rome. I needed a different lexicon to see and map its mythic territory.


Door of Hades

You go into the Underworld because the god in you lives in the darkness. To fulfil what some call destiny, the deliberate journey you make on this Earth, you have to go where no one wants to go. Once it was understood that human beings were incomplete unless they took a transformative journey in this place. It was a pact you made with time, with the gods, with the Earth, with the ancestors. In Europe these soul journeys once had collective maps but these were burned, the names of the territories were erased, the entrances to the initiatory caves filled with stones. And yet the people still had the desire to go deep and abilities within them to do this work. We were still being born.

The way into the Underworld is the path we are most loath to take. Because it demands you go backwards, into the past, against the flow, widdershins, into faery, into the moon, into the Other, into denial, into terror, into the void. Into yourself. And not the self you know, the one you don’t, the one you don’t want to know and have always pushed away, tried to hide and not invite to the Upperworld party.  

As we sat with the dreaming practice, we were faced with the refuse heaps of our own lives, our families’ lives, our tribal lives, humanity’s lives, thousands of them, heaped like so many piles of ashes and broken cars, rooted by red-necked vultures and savage dogs, through corridors of forgotten files, managed by a clerk who has never seen the light of day and a concierge who bears you a grudge you do not understand. 

Transformation of consciousness is the hard work of the Underworld. What you transform is the dark stuff, what is known as the shadow: everything civilisations keep throwing outside the city gates, hoping time will help it decay and disappear. Except it never does. Its poison seeps into the sewers of every settlement, into the minds of the powerful, into the terrors of the night.

Releasing the shadow means going through this rubbish heap, through the files the crow brings to your attention – not all of them but those with your name on – remembering what happened, making sense of it all, seeing the pattern, crying the tears of the forgotten, holding the hand of the terrified, of the lonely, the lost, it means shouting at zombies, at ghosts, being raped by Hades, mourned by Demeter. It means feeling the nightmares that woke you as a child and to keep feeling them until you stop shaking, until the dawn comes, until you are no longer afraid. It means finding a way in and out of the Underworld, because no amount of evangelising or prayer or good intention will wipe our human shadow away. 

The shadow exists because no one has been a human being yet; not you, not me, not the man in the rainforest nor the priestess at Delphi. We have all been kind for a day. But living fully as human beings alive together with all our relations, the trees, the fish, the barbarians, the dead? 

We have not done that yet.  


Psyche and the map of stones

The love story of Psyche and Eros lies at the heart of The Golden Ass. And inside the metamorphic tale, like the final Russian doll inside its layers, you find the four initiatory tasks that Psyche is set by Eros’s mother, the goddess Venus. For her final challenge, Venus hands Psyche  a box and instructs  her to humbly ask Persephone Queen of the Dead for some beauty ointment, and to bring it back to her. Whatever you do, she is told, do not open the box. Psyche, as always, despairs, thinking that her own death is the only way to enter Hades. She climbs a hill intending to throw herself from the summit but a tower of stones speaks to her. He gives her specific instructions for entering and returning from the realm of the dead.

On your return you will be faced with three distractions, he tells her: an old man with a limp, another who clings to the boat, a woman who sits spinning by the shore. They all want your help. Keep silent and do not give it to them. And the tower then tells her where to find the entrance to Hades at the cape of Taenarum in Mani. 

The territory of the underworld is well mapped by the ancient world, its rivers and lakes and fields. Poets have famously described it and what they saw on their guided journeys. But the Underworld is not a fictional place you can play with in your mind, it is a geography that exists alongside the waking one and you have to approach it with steely caution and  a cartographic eye. You can fall into katabasis by accident, your mouth full of ashes instead of obols. Shades cling to your boat as you cross. You have already forgotten the stones’ instruction. Or you don’t know where to start. For aeons seekers have sought knowing in the place of unknowing, a place where you spend half your life in darkness, your dreams. So I began looking for the entrance to Hades in my dreams. It did not take me long.


Charon

When we returned to Britain from Australia, my dreams had shifted their focus, some of them sparked by visits I made as we were searching for places to live in Oxford: woods, public talks, old buildings. One night in a hotel room, I dreamed that Britain was covered in a greenish glow that was called the seal light. It was like a collective miasma that hung around the edges of the islands. Then a dark ancestral being who was in charge of the burial mounds of England told me about ‘proper burial’. Things need to be buried at the proper depth, he told me, to be returned to the earth. Proper burial requires returning everything to its natural place and not keeping anything or anyone stuck in some personal memory locker. This keeping of essences stuck in a place or time was creating ghosts. This included our own. The seal light was making the whole land sicken. 

Sometimes it felt, as we walked out in search of a home, as if the country itself, obsessed by its own history, was some kind of burial ground in need of a ritual return.


One winter’s night in Oxford I dreamed I was at a suburban railway station. The conductor is a black man who says, ‘I don’t care whether you come on this train horizontally or vertically, this train is only going to NIMROD.’  The train is like the ‘A’ train to Brooklyn. I see people returning from Nimrod. All the seats in the carriages are ripped up, very few people have come back. They are all tattered and bashed up, fragments of people. I realise the train had gone beyond Nimrod into someplace else.

I am trying to cross the border and get to Mexico but am waylaid on the platform by a host of gay men. One is carrying a woman’s dress. He winks at me and says, ‘I’ve been to Nimrod and been a woman’. I have lost my passport and am late for my connection. 

In the second part of the dream I am running with a band of  people, following a shallow watercourse that flows down a corridor. At the end of the corridor is a little room and the sea lying beyond a window. The room is full of sand and I can’t get to the sea. It is in a 1930s building with a slightly abandoned feeling.

I have this dream after going to a lecture given by a Native American from the Ojibwe nation from the eastern seaboard of the United States. It’s a strange meeting, held in the Quaker House in the middle of Oxford. Like many Native Americans the speaker has a look of supreme endurance on his face, as he surveys the timid English crowd in anoraks. One drop of pure water can clean a whole swimming pool of darkness, he declares, and holds up some plants – white sage and osha root which would assist us in overcoming the world of suffering. Someone asks in a small voice about reincarnation.

His stern face relaxes at the point and he laughs: ‘We call it recycling,’ he says. ‘We’re not going to be recycled, we’re going home.’ And then he throws his head back and sings a chant that shakes the foundations of the well-behaved church rooms.


‘What am I doing here?’ I say irritably to Mark in the practice. I feel I am wasting my time with these corridor and train people. I would rather be going to Mexico and meeting the ancestors. ‘You can only recycle paper so many times before it turns into fragments,’ I say. ‘Before it falls apart’.

And we stared at each other in horror.

Nimrod is the mythical emperor who built the Tower of Babel. His astrological tower was destroyed by the sky god Jehovah, along with his people’s ability to communicate with each other. Up until then everyone on Earth spoke the same language. All Nimrod’s people dispersed across the globe because they no longer spoke the same language and could no longer collaborate with one another. Everything fragmented. The Babylonian mystery tradition that begins with this mythical figure, half man, half dragon, underpins many of the dualist religions that concern themselves with punishment in an afterlife hell.

At first in these dreaming practice years, I thought I needed to save people who were stuck in the Underworld until I realised that my actions never saved anyone. I just became waylaid, trapped in the small locked rooms of abandoned houses. I was stuck in other people’s stories about their past, other people’s secrets, other people’s houses, other people’s hells, when I needed to move out of these places. I had many dreams of rescuing soldiers stuck in time, caught on the wire, visiting hospitals, going into prisons, all sorts of grim places in history. I met people who were stuck at eternally repeating dinner parties because of their shame. Dead mentors would come and tell me to instruct the living to let them go. Dead children would ask their mothers not to weep for them anymore. And sometimes I would tell the living these things. But no one listened.

In the Underworld years, I saw dead mothers who were trapped in photographs. I met men who wore dead men’s coats to borrow their power. I saw people hang on to their dead because they wanted the pity of others, because they could not stop raging, because they were full of guilt. 

But like everything else in the Underworld this was about learning discrimination. You cannot be a go-between at the behest of the dead if you want to go home. At some point you realise that no one, dead or alive, is helping you leave. You have to get out yourself. Where everyone goes after life is a mystery. But one thing was clear, where you did not want to be heading was Nimrod and the great recycling depot. 


Realm of ashes

Sleeping in my mother's old studio in London under the eaves in an attic room years before the practice, I dreamed about crossing the line of death. Mark and I covered our faces in ashes and tricked the border guards. As we crossed I fell into the ocean and the great crab mother embraced me in her giant claws, a huge embrace of love, and then she let me go. As I flew into the air I saw a line of people floating towards a spiralling tunnel of light and then elsewhere a blue square surrounded by gold high in the sky. I knew that was where I was going. So I went.

I found myself in a place where everyone understood each other without speaking. We worked together in small groups of four creating extraordinary things. It was a place of beauty and abundance; we lived in straw houses on a flowering hillside that reminded me of a valley we used to visit in Ecuador in our travelling days. The difference was that unlike my earthly life there was great joy and harmony between the other beings and myself. We were in complete telepathic communication with each other. Why did I leave? I left because I went to an interdimensional place like a silvery lake and met a Mexican seer on its pale sandy shore, who told me about time and about the place of time called Earth. I was so excited you could measure yourself in terms of time, I said: I want to go there. And so I did.

You come because of your great desire. You come because you are curious. You come because of the challenges, because of the experience and the exchanges and the beings you will meet here. You come for all sorts of reasons that only in your soul’s language you will understand. Some of these reasons are to be found in dreams. But you only find these clues if you don’t get stuck in the realms of suffering. The dimension of the Earth is not difficult because it is physical but because of a human limbo realm, the world of shades, that seals it in a greenish glow and makes it hard for us to leave. There are myriad stuck places, astral realms, underground stations, full of beings who have spent their lives conducting the big bands of the Underworld, impresarios of side-shows, the sweepers of the corridors. Hordes of people that are kept in limbo in these underworld cities that enmesh you in their intrigues. But if you want to get out of the wheel of karma, out of the zone of fragments, you have to be smart and not get waylaid.

If you start helping in the Underworld it means you are not doing your own proper burial. Proper burial means you have to bury your mother with honour, you have to atone for your father’s sins. You have to bury your former life at the proper depth, give up the illusions held by your righteous ego. You have to shed your snakeskins, and collect all the fragments of yourself jettisoned in the realms of time. And then when you have finished your tasks, you have to dance, be light, merry, be in life. You can never really talk to the dead in these places because the dead do not listen. They do not care for you. What I wanted to do was speak with the ancestors who know how to be whole, I didn’t want to live like a ghost, a fragment, a zombie with a seal light around me. I wanted to go home.


The kist

In the town we wait in the hot afternoons in our apartment, naked, watching the muslin curtain billow in and out in the desert wind. Everything grows quiet at these times. In these intense temperatures, you grow to love the water, climb long distances over rocks to find hidden waterfalls, swim in the mountain pools with little garter snakes, wake early at sunrise to visit the cool canyons full of morning glory and cardinal flowers. It is a state of expectancy you savour, never knowing what might demand your sudden attention, except that when it does, you recognise the moment.

In the desert hotel the Queen of the Night lived in a pot and grew long arms that spread over the painted floorboards of Carmen’s room. On the night of her blooming Greta, Mark and I met and lit small candles there, beneath her six great flower heads, and held three of them in our laps, inhaling the immense fragrance. We talked about flowers. Greta was a herbalist and sometimes stayed downstairs in Peter’s studio where we had met her one day as she was hacking up ocotillo roots. Mostly however we sat in silence. The windows of the hotel room were covered in wire, so no moths could come and visit the plant. But the Queen had other visitors: her fragrance wafted all the way down the dark corridor and entered into the kitchen where there was a party going on for a poetry reading that was happening in town. 

People came and went out of the room. Mark licked the nectar that dripped from a milkweed flower that hung above the Queen of the Night. Look, he said, it tastes just like honey. Come and try. Nobody did. Some people fled the room, some stood awkwardly and asked awkward questions: Why were we holding a vigil? Why does the plant only flower for one night? But when the poet came into the room, she took up position by the open window and, laughing, told us a story about the Mayan goddess who held a competition to see who had the most beautiful vagina in the universe (it was won by a human woman, helped by a hummingbird who gave her some feathers). ‘I’m going to paint the goddess in the underpass one day,’ she said. ‘This town needs her.’

For a whole evening we sat in the room with the flowers. The poet entered the room and visited the Queen of the Night. She was a lovely poet and the world needs her. It needs the goddess’s beautiful vagina. It needs the fragrance of an insignificant plant that puts everything into something beautiful, even though it only lasts one night. 

Under the stars of a beautiful night in America the poets came to the pomegranate town, the dreamers and the visionaries. Some of them still lived here: they were quieter than they used to be but they still lived here. They came for the dark blue dreaming stone that lives in the hills among the veins of gold and copper. They came for a different sound that sang out on the edge of the Roman Empire. 

The Mayan people sometimes call the United States the Land of the Dead but it’s not just the dead that live here. There is life everywhere if you look, and beauty and kindness. These small things do not count in the world that only counts money, but they count for everything in the Underworld. I know this because when I have been down on my luck, it is the small acts of beauty and kindness that have made everything worthwhile.

It is what stops the world being destroyed.

The poets store up the best of these things. It’s not just the words they are doing this with. It’s their lives, as they move through this world, through time, a transformative force they carry having been into the Underworld and back. It’s the spirit in which they do things, the way that the poet entered that room like a moth and pollinated the flower. It was the dance we all did holding the huge flowers in our laps. In the room this vibration glowed and filled us with an encounter that would last the whole of our lives.

At midnight we left the room. We found the kitchen deserted. There were bowls of chips and empty glasses and a desolate feeling that parties have when they are ended. The night wind blew through the screen door. We kissed each other goodbye and went out, going our separate ways. And when the sun rose the Queen of the Night closed her petals quietly in the desert hotel. 


Thursday, 17 September 2020

Tufton Street: Fiery Words Under a Police Helicopter

 On 2nd September I joined 19 other rebel writers to call to account the lobbyists and climate deniers who direct government policy outside their Westminster office. Here is a piece about that event and the role of writers-as-challengers to their conjuring of dangerous fictions. 


The next revolution – World War III – will be waged inside your head. It will be a guerrilla information war fought not in the sky or on the streets, not in the forests or even around scarce resources of the earth, but in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, on TV and in ‘cyberspace’. It will be a dirty, no-holds-barred propaganda war of competing world-views and alternative visions of the future.

Marshall McLuhan – Culture is Our Business, 1970

It is raining softly in Tufton Street and I am sitting in a doorway, at the feet of five police officers, listening to voices calling to account the neo-liberal lobbyists who convene at number 55. Long ago I came to this street to play with my childhood friend Gaye. Her father was a Conservative MP, as was my uncle who also lived here, beside these steps that by the end of this evening will be covered in fake blood.

This is not a story of nostalgia.

The Times columnist David Aaronovitch once asserted that no one in the privileged classes ever descends the social scale willingly. Except writers. Writers are by the nature of their trade rebels – rebelling against the past and its hostilities that hold us all ransom, breaking convention, the rigidity of the status quo, so that entropy does not set in and life can flourish. Their loyalty is not to their upbringing, but to their art.

Writing is how a velvet-collared turncoat came to be standing on this ensemble platform, decades later, with a quote by Marshall McLuhan up her sleeve about the future that now feels like the present.

I don’t know exactly what I am going to say in these few minutes but I do want to say why it matters that writers rebel, not only as individuals, but together – as we are here on this night in post-lockdown London: 20 of us holding scripts and books in our hands, reading poetry and fiery statements out loud with a police helicopter whirling above our heads. Who else can challenge the dangerous fiction, constructed behind these doors, and change the plot mid-sentence?

It’s an old story, the story of Empire, and thousands of writers have deconstructed its twisted plots through history, even in the trenches and the gulags, even, as Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria wrote, in the face of certain execution. We know what we see: a story of domination repeated through centuries and continents. The question now is: how do we unstory it?

Writers – those true to their archaic function to hold people within the wild psyche of the Earth, true to what John Berger called the fraternal future – step outside conformity as a strategic act. Because they know the story of their time is not just theirs and they do not tell it just for themselves. This ‘powerdown’ enables them to listen and speak out on behalf of those without voices, for the creatures and the trees and all those who maintain and suffer the charade of civilisation in silence.

‘If you know yourself and do not know the enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer defeat’, quoted Paul Hilder from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. A key reason the climate deniers and Brexit propagandists of Tufton Street broadcast a violent and hostile narrative is so they won’t suffer defeat. They have been trained in their dark nurseries to quash all feeling and fuel their will to victory – and they will sow every kind of confusion, blame and division among the ‘ruled’ in order to maintain the upper hand.

What can writers demonstrate in the face of this, in the face of a world falling apart?

We are keeping our eyes open and do not swerve our gaze. We are not distracted by fake news, or intimidated by the bullish rhetoric of a comms-directed government. We know the difference between the myths that underpin life on Earth, and the fantasies that manipulate it. Words are our business after all.

We have long memories. We remember what it means to be human, beyond our economic function as a consumer or voter. We have the wild world as our ally and our ancestors stand behind us.

We can bring space and time into the small panic rooms the powerful command, and open the door. Like a warrior band outwitting the invader, we know this geography of heartbreak. We know the mountains and the forests and all the hiding places. Imagination is our finest tool and our attention is fearless. We have already travelled to the Underworld and back. We are in the long game and will prevail. In a fragmented time, we can cohere; in a culture of covering up, we will reveal. Our task is to remind people that they are not alone in their struggle.

When we speak of power, we mean the capacity to undergo change, to transform dark materials into beauty. The powerful cling to their bastions and buildings, their loyalty to form, and refuse to change their dragonish behaviours. But in a time of upheaval, no amount of authoritarian rule will prevent the consequences of destroying the vast and complex dimensions of Earth, anymore than it can control a tiny anarchic virus.

Their storyline is simple: we are the conquerors and we are in charge. We are more powerful than you and deserve your sacrifice. Our lust for power and riches has no end and we will defend the right to rule you with all the might and violence we can muster. You can find this ‘law’ inscribed in stone in ancient Assyria and Babylon, rejected by the Gnostics in the early Christian era, challenged by every slave uprising, peasant revolt and citizen rebellion through time. We can hear this voice in our own heads, inflamed by the headlines and opinions of media, and have learned when to hold our tongues. ‘If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.’

Sometimes barbarians who do not worship the city gods surprise us. In 1947, a poet writes the line, ‘I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK’, observing the decline of Empire, sensing the fleetness of reindeer hooves on the Northern rim. (W.H.Auden, ‘The Fall of Rome’.) In 2020 the unimportant clerks of flu-infected cities say: we don’t want to come back to work, and the story of civilisation falters irrevocably. Tonight in Westminster the tourists have stayed away, the posters of the theatres have disappeared.

The show is coming to an end. We’re writing the final act.

You can watch the Writers Rebel Tufton event here.

 

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Sitting with the Trouble

The Saint and the Oystercatcher by Kate Walters
Sit with me: I am in a circle in the back room of a small pub in North Oxford, under the shelter of a giant copper beech. Spring is unfurling its leaves. A man is talking. His name is Edward and he is the oldest person in the room, the unofficial guardian of the ancient common land of Port Meadow. Edward is describing how at ‘rainbow gatherings’ people sit in council to come to a unified conclusion about how to proceed, how it differs from our combative democratic process.

‘What happens if they don’t all agree?’ I ask, rather defensively.
There was a pause.
‘They wait until they do,’ he smiled. ‘Sometimes it takes days.’

I am not in my usual territory. Yesterday I found a notice on a lamppost that invited people to meet and discuss ways to prevent the building of hundreds of new houses alongside the leafy canal and its wastelands. Join in! declared the notice and my curiosity got the better of me. I don’t know this yet but I am about to shift position, from being an individual seeker on the road to being a community activist, rooted in place, a move that will define my life for the next fifteen years.


Sitting with the trouble and waiting for a solution to emerge however is something I do know. I know it from being a writer, and from working with medicine plants and dreams. I have been sitting with this essay, this subject, since the goat willows went into bloom and now the elder and dog roses are at their height. I wanted to write something useful in these times of lockdown and uncertainty, to share practices from those years that might help others navigate this unknown territory. I’ve been sitting with this title, staring at the blank screen, or the pages of a blue notebook, as the cherry blossom drifts around this Suffolk garden. I used to be able to write as soon as my fingers touched a keyboard. Sentences would tumble beautifully out of nowhere. Now they don’t. Sometimes in my life, when words stopped coming, it signalled a move of position. So, even though I don’t like to admit it, I know something inside me is trying to shift. I can only wait and watch the spring.


There is a scene in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Kean where the famous 19th century actor faces an existential crisis but he cannot find the right way to deal with it. As he stomps around the stage, he strikes different poses and each time finds himself in another Shakespearean character: Hamlet, Lear, Richard III. All of them from plays in which he starred. He can’t get to the man because the actor is in the way.

When things shift you throw off the costumes, nervous that perhaps there is nothing beside the roles you have identified with all your life. You start new paragraphs but they all sound dead and disjointed. You wince at the sound of your own voice. In the absence of the script you know by heart, questions come in you don’t want to face: who are you, what is your value, what are you doing here? Do people care what you think? Are you even a writer at all?

The dreaming practice

Before I joined that circle in Oxford and began to campaign for the neighbourhood’s wild and feral spaces, I worked with dreams, exploring them using a method called the five levels. The practice is simple. You tell the dream to your dreaming partner, asking the questions: what does this say about my daily life, my biographical life, my self on the social level, on the mythological level and from the perspective of the Earth? You tell the dream out loud. The visitor to the dream listens and can ask questions but only to prompt the dreamer to go deeper into the dream. Not as an inquirer, but as a fellow explorer. As you do the territory opens out between you; you discover its language, its topography, its mood. Something catches your eye, you both look at it and it opens up like a flower. It could be an object, a detail, or a feeling. Mostly though it is a position. Mostly it is a position where you are stuck or held against your will.

The visitor keeps asking: why are you stuck in the jaws of that alligator? I can’t move, you reply. Except that now you can, now you are outside the dream, as well as in it. You are no longer six years old. You can open your mouth, where in the dream you could not. Dreams, you have learned, flee from analysis. Given time however, as you weather their difficulty and speak what you feel out loud, they reveal everything. Agency is returned.

Even though we were stuck in the ‘nightmare of history’, we realised if you placed attention on the underlying darkness of our collective lives, we could learn to free ourselves and the world. Each dream is carefully shaped to fit everyone’s personal legacies, and yet all of them at some point reveal a small child, the heart, stuck in the jaws of an alligator, needing your liberating gaze. Our lives are pivoted around these events and replayed over time. You want to know why you are trapped, what the alligator means, but you learn to quieten the mind’s inquiry. You’re waiting for another kind of intelligence to kick in. What matters is making the move from a stuck place into a fluid open one. Sitting within the dream means waiting until that move is clear, and then making it. The feeling is what invites the dream to reveal itself.

There was a point in dreaming practice with others where the dialogue often became stuck: the moment when your perception needed to shift from the biographical level to the collective level. People could explore the mythological and the Earth level, but when they were invited to see themselves as a social being, as one of the collective, they closed down. When I became a community activist, I realised that even though people were talking about community, they were talking from an individual position, from a small me, rather than a collective we. The circles we held were not about coming to a conclusion in a group but about listening to a series of individuals being paid attention to by others, sometimes for the first time. Invisibly, we were surrounded by alligators and terrified children. We were set on changing the world, the food systems, the energy systems, our governance, but no one was dealing with those snapping jaws. They were not even seen.

To come to a conclusion means you need time and commitment. If there is intention that you are doing something together, you can weather the storm that comes when people who sit in a circle in council decide to do something that is contrary to the status quo. This is not difficult in the sense of organisation, of making actions, even of getting on with several prickly strangers who think they have a better idea than you. What is difficult is negotiating with the invisible forces our culture has no ways of naming. Even though these threats of violence are felt palpably in the room, even though we know in our minds about the nightmare - our long history of servitude, the rulers who hold our hearts in their claws - we find it difficult to admit their influence on our human lives. We lack the language and the techne to deal with their dragonish behaviors, especially when they come out of our mouths in argument. When terror stalks the room and the children who might tell us what is happening fall silent.

Even when we sought advice on how to deal with the fall outs and ‘storming’ that befall all grassroots groups when the start-up honeymoon period ends, we were told to go to psychologists or conflict resolution experts, as if these divisions were a personal defect, rather than an encounter with the shadow forces of civilisation. But from the practice I knew that to withstand the push back from the conventional world, the feudal hierarchies that still rule the world within and without us, another kind of contract was needed.

Then one day I stumbled upon two books I had loved as a child: one of English fairy tales and another of Greek and Roman myths. In these old familiar texts, I found the lexicon I was looking for. And, as if my life were a dreaming practice itself, I found myself moving from the social to the mythological level.

The boy with the strange haircut

The boy is not a god but a daemon. But when he enters the room, the winds of heaven blow through your house, throwing your desk papers into the air. Startled, you look outside the window and feel the enclosing walls around you. You find yourself in time’s prison. He crosses your path at strategic points, a young man with a lock of hair over his forehead, interrupting a line made by the old timelord Chronos with his relentless ticking clock and calendars. You stop, and time opens up, revealing past, present and future all at once. Suddenly you realise you can take a different direction.

Like all daemons, embodiments of the human condition, Kairos, the force of destiny arrives in a moment of crisis, unexpected. His moment of appearance is quick and you have to seize him by the forelock. If you hesitate, the time for that split-second all-moments-now encounter will be gone. You will lunge to grab him from behind, but your hands will slide down the back of his smooth shaven neck. You will fall back into linear time.

Afterwards you have to make time to realise what has happened and integrate that all-at-once time into everyday life. When the pandemic interrupted our Chronos-ruled civilisation, the official story of progress, by which we have measured our worth, was revealed to bear false promise, and although the forces of empire rally to continue to broadcast its all-powerful narrative, although these mortgaged walls still hold us, we now know there is a place outside this house of history and a road that leads to nowhere we have gone before, yet feels like home.

When the merry-go-round stops

Last summer behind the pier in Southwold one rainy afternoon, I heard a familiar tune and found myself following it. It was the sound of a merry-go-round, the old fashioned kind with gaily-painted horses and curly Victorian lettering. Two children in anoraks were riding the coloured wooden creatures, as they went up and down, as their parents called out to them and waved. The fairground hand scowled bitterly at the rain and his lack of customers.

I watched entranced for a moment, pretending it was merrier than it was. The song had pulled me somewhere wistful. A sadness washed over me. It sounded like an old Nina Rota film score, or the kind of plangent accordion music you used to hear in Paris, and maybe still can. Loss. Times I had and wouldn’t find again. A tear fell down my cheek.

Why are you crying, for no reason? I asked myself sharply. As if a force pushed me away, I turned and headed swiftly home. Something inside me had shuddered. The song was taking me into a dead end, into a timeless realm where everything keeps going round in a circle.

When Childe Roland goes widdershins into Elfland to rescue his sister, Burd Helen, he is given his father’s sword and instructions not to eat or drink anything there. If you speak to anyone you need to cut off their heads. When the boy asks the way to the Dark Tower from two herdsmen and a henwife, he cuts their head off – and in some versions, Burd Helen’s as well – and breaks the elven spell. In the old Scottish tales if you were lured by music under the fairyhill you were warned not to tarry, for you would never return to Earth. You had to leave a nail in the door of the hillside, so you might break out of the dancing ring and find your way back again.

The lockdown was that nail in the door, it was the quick boy at the crossroads, the sword that can cut us away from the enchantments we are trapped in: the nostalgias of nations, of lost times of Blitz spirit and suburban post-war paradises, when victory was assured, when our status as superior human beings shone with an Olympian light. You could dismiss the merry-go-round as a mere glamour or entertainment, but that would be to ignore the power of the music’s spell, the desire to be somewhere apart from this present moment, away from the tedium and threats of an industrialised life. It would be to forget the manufacturers of fairground rides and their scowling mechanics. Those who warp time and take it out of the realm of the heart.

In this pause, alongside the death and suffering the pandemic brought, there was also the possibility that Kairos awakens. For months the borders to our neverlands of celebrities and stars, of parties and festivals, theatres and concerts, of cruises and holidays in the sun, were closed. Instead, partners and families spent time together and had to make their own amusement, while the pressure to be somewhere else at all times disappeared. The time of the heart, where all things can be considered, replaced the rush of 24/7 culture where nothing can be. Our fellow workers became the people we cared about, we heard birdsong as if for the first time. Goats and deer and sheep roamed through the empty streets. On laptops and phones, we realised we were all ordinary people in ordinary rooms, sharing the same crisis. As politicians still strove to divide and conquer us, to push their nation’s illustrious story ahead of everyone else’s, we still felt for the people we did not know on the other side of the world. We still longed for mountains when we could not climb them, enjoyed the quietness of a spring without traffic, and the blue untrammelled sky.

As everything is rushed to return to ‘normal’, you feel pushed to get back on schedule again but something in you hesitates. Something in you has stopped. Once where there had been a great noise now there is a kind of silence.

In my community activism years, I was part of a small theatre group in Norwich. One day, rehearsing for an Earth Day performance, we picked different futures out of a hat and improvised who we were and what had happened between 2010 and 2110. Some of the futures were already mapped -- the dystopian, the techno-fixed - but some were not. Mine was Unknown Quantity. When I took the stage I found myself saying: one day people just stopped and started to do something completely different.

For thousands of years the merry-go-round of civilisation has whirled ceaselessly - the wheel of fortune, the wheel of karma, the wheels of commerce and capitalism. It whirls generations round in a frenzy of speed, music and colour. It seems like everything happens at that funfair: everything fashionable, interesting, important. Relinquish the wheel, advises the Buddha. Don’t linger in fairyland, warn the ancestors. It’s all an illusion. But no one takes any notice. The pace of our lives is tempered by that glittering speed. We are compelled to go faster, bigger, buy more houses, more clothes, more holidays, more movies, more machines, more cake. If we step off the ledge for one moment we can’t wait for our next turn on that great production line.

The world is made of that speed and that drive. The drive of the will to succeed, to overcome, to conquer. The force runs rampage over the globe, through all our lives like Alexander. We drink to keep up with it, always late, on a perpetual deadline. 24/7. We cut corners, skip facts, betray our friends, forget the green world outside the window. We are restless, never satisfied, never sure what we want, looking over our shoulder for the powerful people, to be invited to the right party, to wear the perfect suit, to walk with the gods. We fight time and nature with that drive, with our passionate intensity, our desire to escape into all the fun and fantasy of the fair.

We are holding that drive, that inhuman artificial energy, in our bodies and sometimes those bodies, those minds, break down.

Sometimes Kairos crosses our path and we real human beings break through. A moment when we align ourselves with everything else on Earth and powerdown. The drive stops suddenly, the way going to night-clubs once stopped when you were young. You wake up and you can’t do it anymore. It’s not that you decided to. It just happened: it happens because something else has begun to go on in your house, in the neighbourhood, something our unkind minds and ruthless wills had not considered. A harmonious way of doing things, of engaging in the world, that affects our inner and outer lives in ways we never imagined. Focusing on the small things of daily life and the kindness that can exist between people. Remembering what really matters about being alive on the planet.

The uneasy chair

There is a writing class I teach called The Uneasy Chair. The Uneasy Chair is not about becoming a professional writer, but about writing as an existential practice, as a way of perceiving the world and your place in it, about putting your feet on the Earth and a crooked thing straight, involving collaboration and time and imagination. You could say my whole life has been about sitting, or avoiding sitting, in this chair, which is the paradox position all writers have to put themselves in in order to find their true material. You don't want to sit there of course, but you don't get the story if you don't. This is the dual position where you sit in the chair and experience everything going down in the room, and also stand behind the chair, directing and making sense of what you-in-the-chair are experiencing. All chair, and you lose the plot, all observer, and you lose the reader.

The lockdown interrupted our lives like a koan and discombobulated time. We still hold its hermetic effects within us, even as the doors open, as children run out to play around the deserted fountains and broad walks of European cities. It has begun a process past seekers might recognise as alchemy, not of the individual soul, but of the collective. We live in small spaces, like battery hens, but feel more connected to the people and planet outside than ever before, to the birds and the mountains showing their snowy faces for the first time in decades. The more we are held tight in our crucibles, the more our imagination reaches out, the more we remember, the more we reach out to touch others in our longing. The paradox of the hermitage and monk’s cell. Of not moving and yet moving.

The old gods and governments of course, do not want us to sit with the trouble, to consider this paradox, to reach out to our fellows in what Jeremy Rifkin calls the shift towards an empathic civilisation, where we become biospheric, in tune with the planet and all its denizens. When the individualist ‘psychological’ dynamic of the 20th century cedes to the ‘dramaturgical’ age of the 21st, and we are able to step into another's shoes and feel their joy and suffering because we have not denied our own.

Even if these controllers of our destinies, push us back towards the factory lines and depots and the merry-go-round cranks up for its summer season, we have stepped into those pivotal roles already, seeing ourselves as players within a global plague tragedy, whose small scenes are enacted each day on screen in our kitchen-sink theatres. The chorus and spear carriers, all who have been standing in the wings, have taken the stage. We cheered them from the balconies.

Once you have seen, you cannot unsee. Once you have sat with the trouble and withstood the drive that forces you out of your heart, out of that uneasy chair, you do not rush to ride the carousel again. You can see what lies outside the door. You remember how it feels not to be alone, even when you were alone.

One fine day

I have sat with this essay since the lockdown began, as if trapped in its very title. It wouldn’t move, the door would not open and the sentences did not tie up. Then I remembered how it is when you visit a plant or a place and try to discern its dreaming, You can’t do that until the visit is over, when you look back with what the writer about history and myth, Roberto Calasso calls, the douceur of time. I was still in the chair, experiencing what it felt like to undergo the uncertainty I had been writing about from behind it for a decade. Then today a scene came back to me and I realised that the door was already ajar. Because there is a third position in the uneasy chair teaching that can make writing protean, which is to say, connected to life beyond your self. I call it the eagle’s position, where you fly up and perceive those small moves you make in your practice and see how they affect the fabric of the world.

Follow me: I am cycling one early May morning across the harbour bridge, over the river flowing seawards, towards the sleeping village of Walberswick. Along the ridge path towards the marshes, barley fields either side of me, and the sea dark blue in the distance, listening out for nightingales in their thorny gorse fastness, singing up the dawn. I am walking towards the sea, through the wavy reeds, toward the sun rising and the light glancing off the water like a mirror. I am running into the bone-cold salty waves, into the light. There is space all around and singing, immense blue sky, horizon. I open my arms and breathe deep.

I am imagining the people I know in lockdown in London, dreaming of the wide spaces of Montana, of swimming places they cannot go, the lidos and lakes, of the artist who stood in the crematorium alone with her dead husband, without mourners or celebration, of the sick women who struggle to recover, of all the people I don’t know in places where I once loved to go - in Venice, in New York, in the city of Guayaquil by the Pacific ocean. I am remembering how it has been down at the harbour for the past months without visitors, with only the local people walking along the river, towards the bluebell woods in the evenings, the fishermen and boatmen working in a landscape you have only seen in an 18th century painting, standing in the deserted town streets, like a 1970’s sci-fi novel by John Wyndham. How everyone has been greeting each other and waving in the lanes, how a part of us doesn’t want this present moment to end.

I wish I had learned when I was in those gnarly grassroots meetings that what really matters is not how we deal with power or find reparation (which we never could) but how to be able bring this space of light and air into those constricted spaces. Because exposed to this sunlight and fresh air, in this sense of expanded time and connection, the invisible forms that have governed our every move for aeons have no power over us. We thought for years our enthusiasm, our well-meaning natures, would be able to bring a different future into play but we forgot the will that drives the ancient machinery forward, that fuels the whirligig culture: our unconscious snarling dragonish selves. Our hearts were not strong enough on their own. We needed our free wills to make that move.

There is a deal you make with life. We made it a long time ago with the beasts and the plants, only our civilisations buried it in sand to further their own interests. For a long time I was not sure how we could remember this deal together. I was waiting for the perfect group, the right time, the right place. And then I realised it didn’t matter. Because I was already in contact with the people. They were just not on the beach standing beside me.

What I wanted to say in those classes and councils and never could, was that we endure the uneasy chair, the exigencies of the crucible, to remember this deal. How this remembering can cohere the fragmentation of the collective we see and feel all around us - its broken heart, its confused mind, its twisted and enraged will. We do it to remember what was embedded in those ancient stories, once called Original Instruction, the right way to engage with earthly life. We do it to liberate our fellows, trapped in the small places. We do it for the luminous planet that hosts us. So we can finally all find our way home.



I'll be teaching a second round of Coming Back to Earth, an online/outside 'compass' course with Nigel Bearman of School of the Wild at the end of the month. Do join us in a shared exploration of the lockdown times and the keys they can give for life in the future. Mapping, discussion and encounter. Booking and details here.


IMAGE: The Saint and the Oystercatcher by Kate Walters Book page and pen This work was made during one of three artist residencies I had on the Isle of Iona. I was researching St. Brigid and the oystercatcher which came to protect her. I was also beginning to practise a process of tuning into my body in a deep way, and using it to help me sense things around me, in the great beauty and clarity of Iona. Originally published in Dark Mountain: Issue 16 - REFUGE

Kate Walters is based in Trewarveneth Studios, Cornwall and published by Guillemot Press. Time spent in wild places – Shetland, Orkney, Italian national parks and the Hebrides – inform her painting and her writing. Most recently she has been working on a poetry pamphlet with Mat Osmond in response to a dream of an ancient sacred feminine force, The Black Madonna’s Song. katewalters.co.uk

Friday, 20 March 2020

Outbreak

As human societies find themselves gripped in the claws of a pandemic, we encounter a cultural crisis which the Dark Mountain Project has been documenting for over a decade. This long form essay written for the online publication explores a myth of regeneration that might make sense of our predicament.


 
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

– W.H Auden The Fall of Rome


'Where is the fracture point?’ asked the interviewer. We are in the black ‘Rebel’ tent at the Byline Festival on the edge of the Ashdown Forest on the hottest day of last year. The subject under discussion is, ‘Where Does It Fall Apart? How Our Civilisation Will Disintegrate’, and the panellists are Rupert Read (political spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion), Nafeez Ahmed (writer of the documentary The Crisis of Civilization) and David Wallace-Wells (author of The Uninhabitable Earth).

Anita McNaught, ex-Middle East correspondent and no stranger to the collapse of nations, leans forward and keeps pressing the question. Will it be oil, or water? Will it be political, agricultural, financial, biospheric, spiritual? In systemic collapse the break can occur anywhere and affect everything at once. No one is able to predict where or when it will come. Except that one day, it will.

In a year where biblical calamities have rained down upon the world – as floods, bush fires and locust storms– this fracture has not emerged in the highly stressed natural world but from within a globalised human society. After ignoring the cries of Cassandra for decades, the horse has finally entered the gates of the cities, releasing billions of tiny invisible lifeforms that are no respecters of age, gender, wealth, position or race.

The fracture point is what many of us have been searching for in these last years. Because, as every storyteller knows, the crack reveals everything that needs to be told: the flaw in the character that can bring down whole kingdoms, the chink in the prison wall that speaks of liberty, the wake up call to a cruel fairytale that has enthralled you and generations before you. And maybe the crack is, as Buckminster Fuller once described, the moment the chick, struggling for space as its food runs out, catches a glimpse of blue sky beyond the shell – and not apocalypse at all.

*

The crack comes when you least expect it and turns your safe world upside down: the moment when, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I found a copy of the psychologist Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child and my host yelled at me for not sharing her chocolate ice cream and neglecting her needs. I had just seen a documentary about the AIM activist Leonard Peltier and the Wounded Knee siege of 1973, and looking back now these three things appear synonymous: the bulemic woman whose family had escaped Auschwitz, a disputed murder on an indigenous massacre site, the children whose lives were torn apart by inherited violence.

It was late at 36 to have found out that our true selves are not related to the role we have played within our family or culture. It is late to find out that human beings are not meant to live in denial of the barbarism that underpins every civilisation. Most of all it is late to learn how to weather these encounters with reality and replenish the Earth we have so long taken for granted. To find out, as fear now grips the world, how to hold the line and not fall apart.

In a time when the story falters, the golden story of human promise and progress, the myth reveals itself, like broken bones in a midden. For the last decade I have been unearthing these remains to see what they can tell us about our ancestral obligations. 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 linear worlds; Inanna who takes us down through the seven gates of the kur or Underworld; Wayland who waits, hamstrung, slowly crafting swan wings that will allow him to escape captivity; Ariadne who shows us the labyrinth is not a prison for a beast but a dancing floor.

But as the world falters, one myth stands steadily and quietly in the wings. Not an epic tale of gods but the 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. Having resisted every warning and admonishment to transform and change our ways, we are now, as a collective, being forced into a cocoon ourselves, in lockdowns and self-isolation, to do the work we should have done generations ago.

KITCHEN

Psyche has to undergo change to earn the love of the winged boy she has lost. This love is not given freely, even to the most beautiful girl in the world. The mystery of metamorphosis lives underground, in the dark, and to learn the deal we have with life, to be symbiotic with the Earth, rather than a parasite on its bounty, we have to undertake that journey into the place some call the Underworld.

The love story of Psyche and Eros lies at the heart of The Golden Ass, a novel written by Apuleius in 2AD at the end of the Roman Empire, and inside this metamorphic tale, like the final Russian doll inside its layers, you find the four tasks the girl is set by Eros’ mother, the goddess Venus

Tasks are the stuff of a female initiatory process, sometimes called kitchen work, because the changes they demand take place amongst the ashes and pots and pans. Male initiatory quests depart on shining horses that head into the forest; female initiations bow our heads, cut off our hands, put a cape of rushes or moss around our shoulders. We are forced to take off our princess dresses and challenged to sweep the floor before sundown. Either way, everyone goes downstairs.

The first task Psyche is set is to sort a vast pile of grains and pulses. These are the seeds that have sustained civilisations for millennia: chickpea, lentil, poppy. Psyche is a foolish girl. She is beautiful but she knows nothing. We are the most technologically advanced culture in history but we know nothing about obligation or relationship with anything apart from ourselves. I have been a food editor in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world but known nothing about industrial farming or the seeds that now grow outside my window: wheat, barley, field bean.

These myths from the ancient world ran alongside civilisations for thousands of years. Like the ancient pueblo culture of the South West, they housed a spiritual relationship with the corn and pulses that sustained them. And with a tiny flower seed that reminds us how we must go underground, and die to the husks of our former lives, before we discover the kernel of life inside.

*

In 2009 panic has derailed the Transition conference at the Seale Hayne Agricultural College in Devon. We are used to reading peak oil and carbon emission graphs, we know we are embedded in a fragile agricultural and supply system that is entirely dependent on fossil fuel, that most of the crops grown in the subsidised, soil-wrecked fields are for biofuel or livestock feed. But Nicole Foss has just introduced the spectre of ‘losing your property’ and the monstrous consequences of debt in a heartless market economy. Vinny the Kneecapper will be at your door!

The first fracture point will most likely be breadbasket failure, declares Jem Bendell eight years later, as his paper on Deep Adaptation has a similar seismic effect within the academic world. We can no longer turn our fossil-fuelled Titanic civilisation around and fend off ecological and social catastrophe but need to adapt. We have to learn ‘how to best prepare for the inevitable and navigate our climate tragedy’.

Resilience is the first of the first three R’s of Bendell’s curriculum – the ability of communities and ecosystems to bounce back after drastic events, such as floods, fire, war, or pestilence. In Transition we have given up flying, supermarkets, palm oil, fish, chocolate. I have written 400 blogs on the culture of downshift and my kitchen hosts a row of fermenting jars and oddly shaped loaves. But I am not sure that these small measures alone will help any of us thrive when the reality of collapse knocks on our doors.

*

In each of the four tasks Psyche is helped by a small voice that speaks to her as she despairs of completing them. My sisters can help you, a kindly ant whispers in her ear, and the colony sort the seeds. A swaying reed offers her advice, an eagle battles dragons on her behalf. When Venus gives her a box to take to Persephone, Queen of the Dead and bring it back unopened, a stone tower tells her how to undertake the perilous journey.

We are not going to break out of our collective dilemma if we cannot hear the voices of non-human creatures outside the door, and humbly accept their help. If, as it is assumed, this pandemic is a result of the woeful treatment of wild animals (60% of new human diseases are zoonotic), we have a lot of reckoning to face. It is hard for human beings, who have for generations never learned to say thank you to the planet that has hosted us all our lives, where it has never crossed our minds we had to honour life and give back, nor that we had soul work to do, legacies and tasks that we hold like a small kist in our hands, when we are born.

It would be easy in this moment to say ‘we told you so’ (for indeed many writers, activists, visionaries, scientists have done so for decades, not least Dark Mountain’s prophetic manifesto), but hindsight is not useful here. What matters is not a hostile response but a clarity of mind and heart that recognises what may or may not happen at this time. The powerdown years have taught us how to put our feet on the ground and hold fast when the rage and grief and terror of aeons rocks the room. Most of all they have put the myths of regeneration into our hands, to give a purpose and nobility to our flawed endeavours.

In 2011 there was a story about the butterfly that went around the Occupy tents in the cities. When it first enters its cocoon and begins to dissolve everything it knows about its consuming life, the old caterpillar forms rise up to defeat the imago that is beginning to shape itself, its wings and new colours. So it falls back into the soup. but then it begins to rise again and this time the imaginal cells that hold the blueprint of the butterfly link up and hold the line: the butterfly becomes stronger and eventually breaks out to become a pollinator of the world.

This is a process people are born to make, as every archaic and indigenous people will tell you. Our caterpillar civilisations do not want us to transform in this way and lose their dominion over our labours, but sometimes the future is more powerful than the old world. Sometimes those old death-into-life myths break into our carefully constructed lives. Clearly most of us will not die from this pandemic, but inside ourselves, in a place that has been locked away for aeons, our souls have quickened. What matters, we realise, is not what we have been told matters. The man with the scythe stands in everyone’s living room. And his presence changes everything.

KUR

No one likes to go down. No one wants to be humble, or to have to ask their neighbour to borrow a ladder. We desire nicely pressed shirts and room service, but instead we get a sharp lesson in foraging for firewood, now the central heating has been turned off. When I endure my own downturn, I have to learn to love the dun colours of East Anglia and no longer yearn for the turquoise cenotes of the Yucatan, or the roar of the Pacific Ocean. This is the world, this is life at the end of Empire, the thing we thought could not happen. I would no longer be a person who could be smart and clever at parties. I will wear a second-hand coat, and work very hard to make myself at home in a country where I no longer have any value. When I speak of the realities of energy descent, people will tell me ‘we will be ascended and powerful in other ways’. No, I reply, we all have to go down.

Dale Pendell, the great plant metaphysician, once wrote that the opium poppy affected the brain in such a way that it enlarged the imagination and brought visions of palaces and cities of splendour. Without the poppy, you were bereft of access to these glittering places and felt their absence keenly. I am bereft of access to places and people I once loved. But I know this loss is part of the payback, the great sobriety, what Bendell has termed the second R of Relinquishment, ‘what we need to let go of that is making the crisis worse’.

The underworld is where you come up against the consequences of your actions, not only as an individual but as a citizen. The decision to give up the attributes of civilisation is a hard, hard task. Not only in the physical world, but in terms of our perceived greatness, our reputation, our sense of agency, our immense privilege that can only come at the cost of violence to the Earth, its creatures and to populations of people we never have to care about.

We hesitate at the banks of the great Styx, where the sterile willow trees lay down their branches, avoiding the baleful eye of Charon. But we hold a box in our hands, two coins in our mouth, and barley cakes to deceive the three-headed hound of Hades.

How much does it cost to know the love of the Earth?

When Psyche opens the box and dies, Eros, the primordial creator of the universe, raises her up. When the year turns, the sun returns, the seeds burst open their casing. The women rise up out of the Underworld. The world starts again.

One answer I have searched for in these years: anyone can fall into the Underworld but who can tell us how to return?

KIVA

You tell us you are looking for a new story for this time of endings – a story with a beginning, a middle and a happy ever after. That goes in a line from A to B. But what if that narrative that gives us direction is not a new but an old one hidden beneath our feet, seemingly broken?’
I am rehearsing for a performance I will give tonight in Frankfurt, Germany, and Julian is rehearsing the pyrotechnics that will close this physical theatre festival. As I walk the steps of an ancient myth from Crete, he is pouring molten fire from a scaffolding tower to the courtyard below. In the kitchen inside this old industrial warehouse, the performers, dancers and acrobats laugh and talk in a dozen languages: a circus troupe at the end of the world.

I chose these myths of rise and fall because they provide a technĂȘ – tools and method and instruction manual – to go beyond the story told by our patriarchal civilisation. They give us a thread so we can find our way out of the labyrinth of our minds and remember the deal we made with the wild oceans and forests of a non-linear planet. These female myths are about tasks, about rigour and courage, and calling for help in times of crisis. The four R’s of Deep Adaptation are tasks, and the third, Restoration, calls for us to repair the fabric of the world.

Beneath our grassroots meeting circles, we began to glimpse the shapes of kivas and longhouses, those archaic circles and spirals left on rocks and barrows. When we held feasts in community halls, sat around the fire in the woods singing together, dug earth together, gathered honey and berries, it felt we were in touch with something deeper and more meaningful than the facts and figures behind climate change. Sometimes a joy ripped through us, as if it were possible to start again.

After the tent universities of the Occupy movement, we spoke differently about finance and hierarchy; after the Extinction Rebellions mainstream political debate included the phrases ‘biodiversity loss’ and ‘climate emergency’. However the challenge of the Underworld means we have to become different human beings and speak a language that connects us with a vast network of beings and our own creative imaginations, that goes beyond the concerns of human settlement.

In 2011 I find myself sitting around an Uncivilisation festival fire under the stars: a man is telling a Russian folktale in a bear mask, a trail of small lights leads us into the woods where a man wearing stag antlers is crashing around the undergrowth and women are speaking in riddles. It is as if all the fairytales I had read as a child have come alive. A crack opens in my heart to let them in.

In the years following this encounter, I find myself standing in front of a circle of river stones, teaching the rhythms of a clock that has been in use for thousands of years. I lead groups of people into the South Downs, into the Cheshire Hills, into a silent forest in Sweden, appear as a heron by the River Thames, as Mistress of the Deer in a Highland moor, at the turns and twists of the solar year. Afterwards we sit around a fire, in the dark, and speak of our dialogues with the Earth. Here in Germany, at the end of winter, we talk of what happens when we bring the creatures and mountains, rivers and valleys into this yurt in the middle of a city. As if they stand behind us. It’s a different conversation.

KITH

‘There is a crow who sits on my shoulder,’ said my lawyer father. ‘It is my conscience.’ And then he stared at his shoes in despair. When he died, the crow came to me. You have to tell me everything I said. About conscience.

The crow sat in the corner of my room in the travelling years when I lived on the edge of small towns in Europe and America. Silently, he observed me write my notebooks. And sometimes I would ask him a question. And he would put his head on one side and peer into the mysterious darkness of the void and declare what great law of conscience he located there.

You have, he said, to deal with the files with your name on and leave the rest.


When we embarked on a dreaming practice in Australia at the turn of the millennium, it was as if all those files had blown open and everything that had been buried from our dark houses and histories came to be redressed: animals faced me in the slaughterhouses, children with metal teeth attacked me, friends and lovers lurched out of the shadows, seeking reparation. It would have been good to sit around a table and come to an understanding, but the Underworld doesn’t work like that. Words and good intentions mean nothing, moves are all that matter.

Something else however began to appear at the edge of our nightmares: giant rays and whales, emus and kangaroos, rocky landscapes of colour and light. An Aboriginal man put his hand through a window and shook mine: We are the action, he said. After our long dialogues, Mark and I would go out into the backcountry, or by the sea and watch the dolphins leap in the waves. One afternoon, by a rainforest pool, a boy fell from a cliff, and I sat on a rock beside him, waiting for the shock to subside. A turtle swam by us and a wind shivered through the gum trees. When I looked up I saw a group of men, women and children standing naked in the water, in harmony with everything around them, and there was a peace and a silence between us that seemed to stretch to infinity. I realised I was looking at the future. The practice was freeing up my mind, so I could see it.

*

I have a book open on my lap. It weighs almost four pounds and is 1000 pages long, a testament to the iniquities of Empire: from the genocides of Africa and Tasmania to the famine in Ireland, from the British slave trade to the European Holocaust. On the left hand page there is a list of the nine Ogoni tribesmen hanged on 10th November 1995. On the right are the names of the Shell executives who allowed the executions of the activists to take place, so they could continue their company’s devastation of the Niger Delta for fossil fuel. All their names have been redacted. Among the nine is the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who wrote:
… the stories I tell must have a different sort of purpose from the artist in the Western world. And it’s not now an ego trip, it is serious, it is politics, it is economics, it’s everything, and art in that instance becomes so meaningful, both to the artist and to the consumers of that art.
This morning, as the world disappears inside its cocoon, it feels impossible to say anything that could count as a message, or speak for the people or a country in the way Saro-Wiwa was able to. But if a writer has an obligation, it is to keep that door to the Underworld open, so the living systems, in which civilisations embed themselves like parasitic worms, do not shut down. And sometimes the way we can do that is to document our own passage through those fracture points, to reveal what powers the world we live in, whether this is George Orwell going into the Yorkshire mines, or Dan Gretton walking to the site of Buchenwald; my own small slide into the kur in times of climate catastrophe.

I thought there were three R’s we needed to learn about for Deep Adaptation. But in 2019 there appeared a fourth, Reconciliation, which inconveniently brings the rest of humanity into our individual restorations, and the thorny territory of social justice.

Reconciliation, writes Bendell, is not only with your death or anger or regret, but
reconciliation between peoples, genders, classes, generations, countries, religions and political persuasions. Because it is time to make our peace. Otherwise, without this inner deep adaptation to climate collapse we risk tearing each other apart and dying hellishly.
The real crisis we face is existential: who we are as human beings, and what our presence means on this planet at this time. Ancestral myths address that crisis, not as a tragedy, but as material, as a moral imperative to put a crooked thing straight. Shifting a paradigm is not an abstract phrase you can wield in a lecture hall or workshop, but something that happens concretely, in the depths of yourself, in your relationships in the real world. How to configure that change is encoded in the ancient myths and fairytales, in our encounters with wildness, in the tracking of dreams, the way the Earth can still speak to us through the jangled frequencies of our minds.

The real crisis we face is existential: who we are as human beings, and what our presence means on this planet at this time. Ancestral myths address that crisis, not as a tragedy, but as material, as a moral imperative to put a crooked thing straight

I thought I would never be reconciled to the dark forces that were revealed in my own life. How could I remedy anything I had witnessed, or read about? ‘Who is it who can walk down these little roads of grief?’ my friend Carmen once asked of the tracks the Apache nation had left behind in their exile. And yet we do, willingly, for this is the task ahead of us. I don’t know if we will make it to any kind of liveable future, but I know it exists on the edge of time. And on a good day, I can see it and I wish it could stay forever.

I wish for so many things as the skies darken. I wish the girls we once were had not had to shoulder that hard legacy from their fathers. I wish that the creatures in Australia had not been burned. I wish that the massacres I am reading about in this book had never happened. I wish my country had not divorced itself from the mainland of Europe, and this plague and decades of hostility had not driven everyone into hiding. I wish I could have reconciled the people who came into my dreams in those years, that we could have sat around that table and found a happy ending. But I have to know that it was enough to speak out their names in the clear morning, under the peeling eucalypt, under the mesquite, under the oak by the curve of the Suffolk barley field.

I did not want to lose my beautiful life but I did. I let it go. I did it to make the world lighter and kinder, to leave a track the way the people have always left tracks for us to follow, in the rocks, in their dialogues with creatures and plants and planets, in their art, in their beauty.

At equinox I will light a fire with the branches of the elm that fell in the winter storm, as the year shifts from the time of the underworld to the light-filled upperworld of spring, as my ancestors have done in these islands, across the world, since we can remember. I will jump over the fire as I did on leap day with Lucy and Mark, in a ceremony we held in a courtyard in Brick Lane, and a hundred people followed in our footsteps, banging drums and saucepans, shouting these words in Persian, in fellowship, with our kith in the East End, in Tehran, in city streets across the world:

Zardi-ye man az to
Sorkhi-ye to az

O fire, I will give you my sickly yellow and I will take your fiery red!

May you have the courage to jump the fire. May you disobey your forefathers and open the box. May all your helpers come in time. May we all sing before the storm as it advances, as Eros approaches us with his great wings. May we have loved this Earth and each other enough for this not to be the end.


IMAGE: The Oil Slick at the BP or Not BP action against BP sponsorship of the Troy exhibition at the British Museum in February ‘Oil is everything that died. Ever. We are the atoms of everything melted and dissolved. We have no compassion. We have no feeling. We take everything in our path. There’s no right. No wrong. But we are also the beating heart. The sap. The visceral body fluid of the earth. They should have left us in the ground… but they didn’t. We are here’. (Photo: Guy Reece from striking faces @strikingfaces)

References

Miller, A. The Drama of the Gifted Child, 1978, Revised and republished by Virago in 1995 as The Drama of Being a Child
Bendell, Professor J. Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, 2018
https://jembendell.com/2019/05/15/deep-adaptation-versions
Pendell, D. Pharmako/Poeia: Plants, Powers, Poisons and Herbcraft, North Atlantic Books, 1995
Gretton D. I You We Them: Journeys Beyond Evil: The Desk Killer in History and Today, Heinemann, 2019