Friday 28 December 2012

Holding This Book in My Hands

Mourid Barghouti, the Palestinian poet, once said that a writer’s task in a world ruled by tyranny and abstractions, is to praise the real and the ordinary. The people in the room, the earth outside your door, the things you hold beloved in your hands. I’m remembering those words as I wrap this Dark Mountain anthology in its brown paper jacket and head out down the frosty lane towards the post office.

This is not how most reviews begin: on a cottage floor in East Anglia, with masking tape. Mostly they are written with the world held at arm’s length, by critics in glass towers. But this is not an ordinary book, and we do not live in ordinary times. This annual collection of essays, reviews, encounters, poems, stories and pictures is, even before you even open it, a beautifully crafted object: its cover the colour of damsons, sketched with a range of peaks on the isle of Skye that look like the interior workings of the human mind. Inside your eyes scan photographs of leaves and drawings of hares. The index presents the contents under intriguing titles: on road kill, on endings, on tools, on history, on creatures.
Already you are engaged on a physical and imaginative journey.

To take the pieces out and view them separately would reveal the individuals who wrote them, but reading them together gives a true sense of what the Dark Mountain Project is about: the collective intelligence of a people waking up and writing as if everything in life mattered. A work of naming then, and sometimes of farewell, charting the vanishing times we witness. And a response to the book’s core question: how do we begin to find our way home?

Central to the book is the essay by Paul Kingsnorth on Dark Ecology and the premise that life does not revolve around human civilisation, but around the planetary systems of which we are part. Kingsnorth co-founded the Dark Mountain Project with Dougald Hine in 2009 with the publication of a manifesto called Uncivilisation. Now in its fourth year, the Project is waymarked by an annual anthology and an arts and literature festival, held on the downs in Hampshire. This year it has expanded into a series of book launches in the UK (Liverpool. Edinburgh, Brighton and London), as well as literary workshops in the wilds of Dartmoor and the Scottish Highlands.

The book begins with the death of badgers and ends with the disappearance of house spirits in an unnamed valley. In between you can listen in to conversations held in London and New York and the forests of Chile and follow poets who track the wild dimensions like small shamans. Some voices are well known, some unknown; all of them worthy of invitation:
Sometimes a wild god comes to the table
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver
His voice makes vinegar from wine

(Tom Hirons)

Attention to the physical and humble is everywhere: Paul Kingsnorth swings a scythe, Matt Szabo bends like a peasant, the Iraqi artist, Rashad Selim resurrects dead pianos, Dougald Hine and Sajay Samuel discuss the vernacular in culture (“home-made, home-brewed, home-spun”), Caspar Henderson investigates the barely imagined beings of the deep sea. Ian Hill holds a graphite pencil in his hands and follows the trajectory of the mineral through history, from the Cumbrian hillside to the European battlefield. Robert Alcock witnesses a neighbourhood under siege in Bilbao and hopes the kingfishers will return to the post-industrial port that has become his home. John Rember, professor of literature, surveys his class in snowy Idaho and knows, though they do not, that the glamorous ski slopes he once flew down without a care will no longer be their rightful inheritance.

What we have in common is a sense of time and a loss of illusion. Unusually, for a movement that recognises we live in times of unravelling, it creates a literature that feels extraordinarily secure. This is a consequence of facing reality and being rooted in place. Because, when you talk with people who recognise radical change is underfoot, it’s a radically different dialogue to the one where you think civilisation is going to continue, as you have been educated to believe it will and should. The conversation is not there to rush in to fix a broken world, but to discover what we hold in our hands: tools in our sheds, ancestral memory, kinship round a fire, language, imagination, the austere beauty of a rainwashed land. Where we sit, where we have sat, it seems, for centuries, remembering the past, recording the present and imagining another future.
Things will have consequences and in the heart of hearts of thinking people, I believe they know things are going wrong, although they may not be able to articulate it.
(Doug Tompkins)

This book does what people, constrained in an old system, sometimes cannot. It asks questions and invents new ways to approach an unspoken subject. It recognises that our base camp is the planet we live on, the wild places we treasure in the heart of ourselves, the neighbourhood of beings we live amongst. Creating a new narrative from this brings the possibility of redemption: the regeneration of a land and a people. That possibility has a powerful allure, the feeling you have when the bird returns to the river, and the soil regains life, and it has attracted many of us to connect with Dark Mountain’s network of writers, thinkers, activists and artists, and start up gatherings in our home places. Abstractions and ideals cannot do this, only a restorative relationship with the earth can bring us home.

The resilience of all living systems depends on their diversity and ability to communicate with the whole of themselves. You can see this at play in this book, the way the pieces work, like mycorrhizal fungi, in an underground communications network, On the woodland stage at Uncvilisation this year we stood, eight contributors who had never met, and as we read out our poems and prose they formed a composite story, without our even trying.

What connects us and makes us resilient in the face of collapse, are the things you cannot ordinarily measure or see.

Dark Mountain 3 gives a glimpse of them.

Dark Mountain 3, £12.99 is available to order from the Dark Mountain Project 

Tuesday 25 December 2012

Strategic Thinking or the Library at the End of the World

I knew, as soon as the Man in Seat 61 (c) got on at Colchester, that it was a Sign.

I have been away for a week, he told his fellow commuter, and no more was said between them. It's the influenza season, where public places are a maelstrom of invisible bugs and viruses, waiting to wreak their pesky havoc on the lumbering forms who haven't stepped up their immune systems with echinacea and oranges.

Three days later I found myself in bed unable to get back on the train to London, or even to go outside, and now, dear reader, still horizontal and faced with the awesome prospect of having to write about Strategic Thinking, I fear I am not up to the task. So please bear with me. I will write this introduction to the Building section  (on the Social Reporting Project series about The Transition Companion) as soon as I can.

You may be wondering why I have a photograph of Mark Bee, leader of Suffolk County Council (with various members of Sustainable Bungay peering quizzically at him) here and why I am including a trailer for the new documentary, Chasing Ice (see end of post). But it will make sense. I promise you, by Thursday at the latest.

Some people say the world is coming to an end on Friday. Well maybe not literally, but some tear in the fabric that brings about a collapse in our civilisation. However it plays out it is the end of a long, long cycle of time, mapped out by a people whose own high city culture tumbled into ruin in the forests of the Yucatan.

Sometimes I feel ancient, as though I have seen it all before, and sometimes I feel like a being from the future, starting again with an entirely new bluepint. Sometimes, when I listen to people talk, I think we have learned nothing, in spite of all the books and buildings and all our thinking. But that, as they say, is another story . . .

Part Two: Perseverance Furthers
Transition groups aim ultimately to catalyse the localisation of their local economy. They strive to move from running small community projects to thinking and acting much bigger. New skills and ways of thinking will lead Transition initiatives to become social enterprises, such as becoming developers, banks, energy companies and so on. (Intro to the Building Section of The Transition Companion)
 The main purpose of this Ingredient is to glean knowledge about a local region and what it would take to relocalise the supply systems - the food economy, for example, or energy or transport. It requires undertaking research and amass data that most initiatives would not know how to access, or why. One of the example Rob Hopkins uses to illustrate what is meant by Strategic Thinking is the Food Chapter for the Resilience Plan for Norwich.

Which is why here I am almost at the end of 2012, looking back at a cold day in January in the Baptist church on Boltolph Steet, four years ago where 17 of us - a farmer, a miller, several bakers, wholefood shopkeepers, the TN Oats, Beans and Bread group, Professor Martin Wolfe of the Organic Research Institute (researching wheat that can thrive in eco-systems undergoing climate change) and Andrew Whitley of The Village Bakery and author of Bread Matters - are meeting to discuss Resilient Bread. It’s a project aiming to create a sustainable supply of bread for Norwich, using locally milled flour from English wheat, grown on Norfolk farms. One of the components of the Plan that also includes a CSA and a market garden in a local school.
The ingredients for real bread are simple - flour, water, salt, yeast. Bringing a resilient local loaf into Norwich is more complex. The mega-distribution system of the big three industrial bakeries have trucks perpetually on the road travelling 200 miles transporting ready-sliced to the city’s 122,000 inhabitants daily. They are roaring across East Anglia from Stevenage, London and Enfield. To feed Norwich sustainably would require 30 tonnes of wheat and several local mills. On the agenda that day in January were questions about the supply chain: quantity of flour, storage and transportation of grain, the price of a loaf, the feasibility of setting up and maintaining an electric mill in the city, the packaging and marketing of the loaves.

East Anglia has arable land for growing the wheat but few working mills. The first challenge for the project is to find a mill in the city to grind the corn. The nearest wind or water mills are 25-30 miles away. The other is the quality of the wheat. The gluten content of bread is a key consideration in baking. Wheat has a very high gluten content (between 12-15 per cent) which gives the dough its extraordinary elasticity and ability to be moulded into the hundreds of shapes in which we have historically consumed it. Artisan bakers in England have been using commercial Canadian flour for decades because its exceptionally high gluten levels makes the light and fluffy white loaf we have got used to. The lower gluten content of our native wheat is compensated for by the industrialised "Chorleywood process".

“No one is going to buy a bad bloomer”, said one of the bakers rather gloomily; “You could call it ciabatta,” another quipped, and there was a long discussion as to how we were going to get over the fact that life was unpredictable and that white and fluffy was not the future. It felt it was going to take some time for all of us to get used to the idea.

Tully Wakeman (the architect of that plan and then a director of East Anglian Food Link) asked me to write up that meeting and it was the first record I made within the initiative. It kickstarted the kind of reporting I have been doing in in Transition ever since. This tiny pic of me going to a neighbourhood bread baking workshop in Yoxford a month later - by a fellow participant on her phone - was the moment where I realised the potential for writing "citizen journalism", small on the ground stories that could grab people's attention about change.

What happened to the plan? you might ask. Well, Tully left Transition Norwich before the CSA (Norwich FarmShare) reaped its first harvest. A small and handsome electric mill did get bought, but the resilient loaf of Norwich did not get baked (well not commercially anyhow). Great British Beans however, which came out of the same staples project, are launching themselves on to the market in January. The bread we buy at Southwold Market is made with flour grown by the farmer at the original meeting. I look at the fields outside my door and recognise peas, oats, barley, potatoes, where once they meant nothing.

The Building section is about stepping up the enterprise. As a comms person this has meant moving from being a personal blogger in my local initiative, to running a national newspaper (Transition Free Press) as a social enterprise. That's a big undertaking that involves thinking about a crew, discussing pieces with people all around the UK and the world, advertising, social media, crowd-funding. It involves risk and 12 hour shifts. Sometimes I look back fondly at the days when I could just write about what was happening in my neighbourhood, stepping out into the frosty lane with my camera, learning how to bake bread. There was a beauty and a lightness to do with those days. But Building is a bigger move. You can't do Transition for real, and stay where you feel small and cosy.

In fact you can't do anything and stay small. If we had stayed small in Bungay there would be no library. The reason we are looking quizzically at Mr Bee, is because we know that in spite of all his words about Bungay Community Library celebrating its 20th Birthday, Suffolk Country Council were famous for zealously wanting to close libraries down. Only some people from the communities in North Suffolk got together and forced them back. What you don't know about this picture at the top is that Sylvia (just out of shot) and James Hargrave (who took the picture) and several others put hundreds of hours of unpaid work into keeping it open. And still do.

So I'm guessing you are wondering what on earth any of this has got to do with a documentary about glaciers. There is one word: perseverance. None of these enterprises work without a big desire or sense of destiny.

You can't photograph the movement of glaciers, without going to extreme places and suffering. You can't save a library, start a collective blog, or run a community bakery, without the kinds of people who are prepared to put themselves on the line against all odds. Norwich FarmShare would not have happened without Tully who pursued a funding application over two years. It wouldn't have worked either, if it had just stayed as a Plan and other Transitioners hadn’t stepped on board to manifest it. So no matter how brilliantly you understand the ingredient of Strategic Thinking, with its data and analysis, maps and bigger picture thinking. it's the people who will make the blueprints work, who translate them into physical reality.

We live in a culture where we think to have an idea is enough and that anyone can do it. If you can bake bread you can start a bakery, right? This section is where those ideas fall down hard. To relocalise a food supply doesn’t happen by growing vegetables in an allotment, you have to look at the staples and where they grow. Transition teaches us that to really succeed we have to know a lot, put in a lot of unpaid hours, and keep going, for reasons only we know. And most of all have the kind of people on board who know what they are doing. That's not strategy. That's something more like luck.

Thank your lucky stars when you find them. . . .

Post originally posted on Social Reporting Project
Images: Mark Bee and Sustainable Bungay by James Hargrave (the only geek in the village) Local bread in Breakfast with Friends by Mark Watson; Steve Winter of Dozen Bakery, Norwich by Jane Chittenden (Transition Norwich blog)

Saturday 8 December 2012

Coming down the dark mountain

Transition is not a stand-alone movement. In a recent interview for the Transition Free Press Shaun Chamberlin commented that one of its unsung capacities is to connect and cohere other progressive initiatives. This week is an exploration of how some of us do that

Most campaign groups have a single focus, but Transition has many (87 Ingredients and tools for starters) - food and economics, inner work and group dynamics. Instead of putting energy into confronting the business-as-usual mindset of the industrialised world, it puts it into building social and practical infrastructures for a future when that mindset begins to lose its grip on reality. Backed by a network of similar initiatives in cities and towns in the UK and elsewhere it can provide a secure base from which to proceed.

But Transition can sometimes be stodgy and small town in its approach, and lack the radical and activist dynamic to challenge the status quo and the corporate grip on our neighbourhoods. At the Transition Conference three Transition groups discussed their response to threats in their communities by taking a strategic part in local campaigns (NO to Costa, anti-fracking in Wales and Plane Stupid). When I wrote a post in 2011 called lock on it was widely held that Transition should not take part in any activism. But when the local library in Bungay (Suffolk) was threatened with closure we did not hesitate to back the campaign to make sure it stayed open. How could we not: many of our meetings and events were held there and we built the community garden in its courtyard? It was, in many ways, our home.

Sometimes you have stand by the places you love.
Occupying the town square
In Transition Norwich we have stood alongside many like-minded initiatives, from the Campaign for Climate Change to FoodCycle to Zero Carbon Britain. We've taken part in protests from Anti-GM to Norfolk Against the Cuts and published posts by campaigners across the city on our blogs. When the Occupy movement took off last year we took part in the general assemblies held at Hay Hill, where Occupy Norwich was camped for four months.

One of the highlights was a three hour discussion about climate change. Even though this is a principle driver in Transition, most of us have never made time to actually sat down and talk about it. So much of our energy goes into building the infrastructure of an initiative and maintaining it there is rarely any time to discuss these subjects at depth. Sometimes you feel constrained by politeness, by its civic and psychological language. Occupy provided that edge and that conversation : you could go to the camp at any time of day or night and go straight to the deep and urgent stuff and be surprised by the kindness of strangers.

However, I might never have slept on that pavement or gone with my hand-made rocket stove to give a talk about breaking out of the industrial food sysem, had I not been in Transition. Searching for a new narrative makes you bold and able to talk with progressive groups and food initiatives wherever you go. Often people diss Transition for not being strong enough on the environment, for not going into the poorer districts of town, as if the movement has promised to solve the crisis of capitalism with a fairy wand. Mostly however, this is a symptom of a competitive monoculture. We are programmed to reject any new ideas, the way pesticides work on crops (all visiting aliens will be eradicated!) and to allow a new "partnership" narrative to emerge, you have to let your defensiveness slide.

We’re bridge makers that's our job. We join dots and don't get derailed if people tell us the trouble with Transiton is . . . or call us hippy or usual suspects. It’s our business to find the connections between the myriad groups and projects out there and pull us into the same conversation. To really forge the future we need to work as an interconnected system: that means many different groups working in different areas, connected by a communications network. The Project and the Press are part of that network. And so is the group I want to talk about:

"If Transition is the Village then Dark Mountain is the Shaman"
Dark Mountain Project is neither a political campaign, nor a community group. In some ways it is as hard to define as Transition. Stemming out of a manifesto written by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine in 2009, it soon developed into a book, then a festival, then a movement. It is both a cultural response to a collapsing world, and a network of people who gather to make sense of that collapse.

I came to the Mountain last year as part of the Social Reporting Project and wrote a blog based on a conversation around the fire at the Uncivilisation Festival with several Transitioners:
There’s all the intensity of a Transition debate here but without the concerns of the Village, worrying about whether “the community” is going to come to your event, or understand you, or fund you. No battle with the Council, no struggle to get Other People to do stuff. No psychology or sitting around in a circle talking about your feelings. Everyone understands you.
The festival struck a chord deep within me that Transition, for all its complexity, does not reach. It speaks of rain and birds and ancestors and everything I am putting myself on the line for. Organised by writers and thinkers, unswervingly generous about each others' work, the Project forges creative relationships that are hard to find in Transition. When I was offered some press and publicity work this spring it was the first time in years anyone had given me work on the strength of my writing. I’m not an expert, I warned them. That’s OK none of us are, was the reply.

What the two networks have in common is providing a meeting place and platform for people who know that the story our parents told us about our world is not holding; that the socio-economic model we have taken for granted most of our lives is not only precarious, but is socially unjust and environmentally destructive. As a people, hemmed in by denial and illusion on all sides, that meeting place is crucial. As the manifesto states Dark Mountain does not seek solutions, it holds a space so that a different narrative can be created. Not another monoculture but an “uncivilised” culture that is diverse in its expression as an eco-system. To be part of that creative edge is what pulled me: to listen to the stories that people are telling around the fire, on the edge of the forest, in tune with each other, intellectually sharp as a scythe.

This week Dark Mountain Norwich is meeting up for our monthly discussion. We'll take food and our Transition friends from Bristol, Kristin and Sim. We'll sit down and discuss deep time and paradigm shifting around the table, and design an event we hope to hold next year. We are from many places: students from the UEA. from Austria, Denmark and Germany, Ava from Devon, who is researching Dark Mountain and Kev from Norfolk, who took the first video of Transition Norwich way back when the whole thing began in 2008.

The world comes in full circle, that's what you learn, when you connect the dots, when you come down the dark mountain. It's the circle that will make sense of everything, when the old world finds itself at the end of the line.

Captions: holding the biofuels banner with Transition Norwich at The Wave, Speakers Corner, 2009; Deepak Rughani of Biofuel Watch discussing financial systems at Norwich discuss the aftermath of Nicole Foss’s talk; The Tellling, performance inspired by Dark Moountain, Doncaster; Rise and Root frontispiece to Dark Mountain 3 by Rima Staines;

This post first appeared on the Social Reporting project as the introduction to the week on Associated Movements.