Wednesday 18 December 2013

52 FLOWERS: 25 agave

This is a story originally written for the Speaking Bush section of 52 Flowers That Shook My World. The section revolves around a series of plant essences made in the Arizona desert between 2000 -2001. It begins on the night we are about to leave for Mexico, where we will find ourselves waiting in a small town called San Miguel de Allende.

Four people are walking silently up the track with two dogs following behind. It is dusk and a full moon is rising as the light drains from the sky. We stumble over small red rocks and cacti, as we make our way towards the gully. When we arrive in front of the agave with its vast candelabra of flowers, there is an awkwardness in our silence I can’t quite fathom.

It is the end of Indian summer. These giant lilies now command the slopes with their tall stalks and ornate flower heads. Agaves are sometimes known as the century plant because they flower only once in their long lives. They build up reserves for this great event over years. The plant becomes like an artichoke with a heart full of ever-increasing sweetness, waiting for the right time. 

Then one day this heart bursts forth: a huge green pole shoots into the sky, branching into fifteen or more arms and unfurling gold honey-scented flowers beloved by hummingbirds, moths and long-nosed bats. Once the flowering is over the plant dies back: its cycle complete. Deep into the desert you can find ancient roasting pits where hearts of agave were once cooked and fed a whole tribe. You can use everything,  Fransciso once told me about his chief medicine plant: the leaves, the flowers, the root. You can even use its needles for acupuncture and to sew clothes. And use the agave fibre for thread.

The agave points towards the sky on the hillside, like the needle of a compass, directing our gaze towards the bony face of the moon. Here at the beginning, I think, and now at the end. I remember the plant on the red hill above the town, how it had anchored me, so I could chart my own position in a rocky time. It was the first plant to make itself known that summer, the first to come in a dream: its straight spire stem fusing with my back bone, pulsing with energy. I'm feeling the co-ordinates shift once more, as we prepare to leave. 

We stare upward into the flowers, the moon comes over the hill.  There is a stillness around us in the twilight, on the dark hill, but an unspoken turmoil inside.

I don’t make an essence with the agave flowers that night, but I do have a dream: in the dream a voice tells me:

It is important that the agave is the mother.


In Mexico, the agave or maguey has been used for centuries, not as a food but as a drink. The well of the plant, its heart, is filled with a sweet nectar known as aguamiel or honeywater. This is the foundation of pulque, the fermented drink that intoxicated the ancient tribes of Mesoamerica. When the European conquistadors overran the Aztec and Mayan empires, they brought to this once sacred drink their refined and barbarian arts: the beer-like pulque was distilled into the more potent mescal and tequila. Tequila became the national drink of Mexico. By the twentieth century this liquid silver and gold began to flow across its borders and found its way into the sophisticated quarters of every modern city. Now thousands of wild agaves are harvested each year to fuel not just the domestic cantinas, but all the cocktail bars of the world.

The goddess of the maguey is known as Mayahuel. Unlike most Aztec gods she is beneficent. She is so beneficent to humanity, providing them with rope, thread, paper, needles, food, soap, medicine, building materials and alcohol, she has four hundred breasts. Like most Aztec gods, this is a double-edged gift.


When we arrive at the town of San Miguel de Allende, everything looks the same. The old colonial buildings in their colours of rose and terracotta, ochre and acquamarine, their garden walls tumbled with bourgonvillea, the wonky cobbled streets, the shady square where people gather at dusk. Seven years ago it was a lively bohemian hang-out for long-distance travellers and American exiles. On the first morning we walk past the courtyard where we once lived. The gate is open and we peer in at the great tree that shaded the apartment block with its curly grilled windows and balconies. There is an old man there wandering about vaguely in baggy trousers:

“Can I help you?” he says, blearily. The place feels depressing, stagnant, unloved.
“I don’t think so, Mark,” I whisper fiercely, “Let’s go.”

Everything looks the same but it is not the same. Something has changed. Something I don’t understand yet. We go to the square where the urracas are gathering, like starlings in a European city, to roost for the night. Urracas are myna birds: they have oil-slick feathers and a wicked gleam in their orange eyes. And they like to talk. They have got so much to say to one another at the end of the day they take at least two hours to settle down within the thick shiny foliage of the trees. 

This is the time when the people of San Miguel also like to gather in the square - to talk, exchange news, before departing home for the night. The small bright-painted taco stands do a brisk trade. We go to sit below the trees and an American woman comes and sits beside us. And talks. She has got a big theory about the financial situation of the world which she wants to share. The non-stop talking is amusing at first but then it starts to be annoying. I like listening to the birds, but I don’t like being talked at by another human being as though I am not actually there.

Later we go to the bar where Mark had first met Robert and ordered him to join us in a play, and we drink our first tequila. A margarita, stone-cold, salt-rimmed, doused with the juice of tiny sweet-sour Mexican limes. It is shocking after so many dry months in the desert and runs like fire in our veins. We start to talk in that animated way you do after drinking tequila, or any distilled drink. But when the initial effect wears off, I feel an edge in the night creep in I had never felt before: an edge of darkness.

Walking back to the hotel, past the square where the birds are now quiet and sleeping, I realise I am in a different time. It is longer the time of singing with Ellen in our courtyard, of reading our books out loud in the café, of taking part in plays and workshops, of our great voyages to the mountains to take peyote, walking with Robert up the cobbled street, arm in arm, seeing women in men’s bodies and men in women’s, catching turquoise taxis with Julianne and Susie to the mineral baths outside the town. It is no longer the time of going to neighbourhood markets and coming back to my small kitchen to cook up great feasts, perfumed by chocolate and coriander, to lie down in the stormy afternoons, watching the turtle doves in the great pepper tree. 

It is a different time because I am different. But it is a different time for the town too. We left years ago, but something else has also gone.


Walking by is a move you make on the solar path. It was perhaps the first one I ever took. 

Before I knew Mexico and had just met Mark, he came by my London flat one day and said: Who’s Helen? 
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“There is a spirit here,” he said in that nonchalant way he had when talking about metaphysical things. “Quite naughty,” he added and looked across to an old oak desk, secreted in the corner of the room.
“I don’t know anybody called Helen,” I said.

I fell silent, imagining ghosts. I didn’t like the idea of my flat being haunted. I looked at the desk and it was at that point I realised he was talking about my grandmother.

“What is she doing here?” I asked.
“Perhaps you should answer that question yourself,” he replied.

We leave our spirits in places sometimes, and sometimes we need them back. Sometimes our spirits long to return to a place, but do not know how to proceed. The desk belonged to my maternal grandmother, who had been born in Lancashire and lived her married life on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Who was this person, outside my small child’s memory of her? I caught a train North to find out. 

I went to the house where she had once lived, which I had never seen. I stood in front of this ordinary suburban house and looked into its neat garden. That’s when I knew what to do. I walked into the town and booked a room in the inn, and spent all day up on the moors. I needed to get in touch with something, I wasn’t sure what. I just knew I had to walk the territory my grandmother had once walked.

It was windy and grey up on the moor, but within its wide open expanse I felt at home. It was as if something unwound in me. I lay down in the springy folds of the heather, drank water from a dark brook, gazed up into the sky, felt immersed in the elements, my head full of sky and air. It felt good to be out of the city. I walked for hours in all directions. I did not meet anyone. As I walked around the land, in all that space, I thought about the person who shared my name, whom I hardly knew. When I returned to London the next day, something had shifted. Helen had gone.

After that I took to walking by places that had once held me in their arms: the country cottages of my childhood, boarding school classrooms, basement flats I had shared, terraced houses where ex-lovers still lived. I walked past them deliberately, but without a plan, sometimes pausing to look at the new painted door, or a familiar tree now in bloom. I took note of whatever feelings or thoughts arose, a detail my eyes caught, the sharp inner recollection as it surfaced. Most of these walking by sessions were uneventful. Sometimes I felt troubled as I stood there, or had dreams. Often I wept for no apparent reason, and afterwards felt clear. Whatever happened during the visits, there was always a feeling of release afterwards, of old nostalgias dropping away. What remained was the spirit of things. The essence of places and time.

My naughty grandmother sat in her Shropshire bungalow in a Bohemian black turtleneck, teaching my cousins to smoke cigarettes. She played Liszt on the piano, painted watercolours and invented a host of imaginary ailments, so that you knew never to ask how are you? on the telephone, or the talking would never stop. She called herself Helen, but her real name was Charlotte Ellen. Ellen was a maid’s name, she said. After she died, she led me back to the wild places, to the wide expanse of moorland under the Northern sky where her spirit had once roamed free. That was a different grandmother.

You walk by: something goes, but something else remains.

The second margarita is served in a hotel by the municipal gardens where English-speaking films are sometimes shown. Tonight there is a documentary directed by the artist, Julian Schnabel, about the Cuban poet, Reinaldo Arenas, called Before Night Falls. It is a story about a man who loved nature and freedom and, like many radical poets, fell foul of the petty bourgeois nationalists and their repressive regime that followed the revolution. Arenas survived the horror of the Havana gaol by writing letters on behalf of his fellow prisoners, and later escaped to live and die in poverty in New York from AIDS.

All the way through the film an American couple are talking behind us, their voices grating and sharp in the darkness, interrupting the film:
“Shhh!” I tell them. At first politely, and then annoyed. “Be quiet”! I say loudly and glare at them.

Eventually the couple leave, but the atmosphere is jangled afterwards: an edge of darkness before night falls. On our way back to the hotel Mark and I stop by the square and drink hot chocolate and thick maize pancakes, known as gorditas. The Mexican women sit in front of their napkin-covered baskets with flowers in their shiny dark hair, smiling.  It feels good to be out in the open air.

Mexico is not a light place. Its long history of conquest, inquisition, genocide and revolution, are as dark as any modern nation’s. There were dark things in the gringo quarters too when I lived here. There were paedophiles, alcoholics, failed Hollywood movie stars, disturbed Vietnam vets, bankrupts, drug addicts. Seven years ago, I didn’t notice them. These dark things were covered over by our singing in the cafes and our theatrical performances. By the self-absorption in our writing and travelling. But they were also covered over by something else. San Miguel was a stronghold in those days for new age spirituality. While the Mexican townspeople gathered in the ornate turquoise churches, the gringo community came together in spiritual gatherings, ecumenical services, discussion groups for 'lightworkers'. Amongst the congregations were healers, bodyworkers, horse whisperers, edge dancers, leaders of drumming circles, new men and women who ran with wolves. A lot of adventurous metaphysical work went on behind these colonial walls. Some of these things I took part in. This was before I had come to my own conclusions about the new age among the red geraniums in Santa Fe.

In 1993 the American Dream was not just about materialism, it was the spiritual dream of the world. Most seekers at that time believed that America, with its exploratory, future-looking spirituality and native tribal heritage, would lead the way in a quiet revolution of consciousness. But seven years later, as I walk by, there are no longer notices for these paradigm-shifting events. The meetings are not happening. Some of the people we knew then still lived in these coloured houses with their orange trees and tiled fountains, but they are talking in a different way. The preacher who once spoke luminously about god is talking about land rights. The owner of the café where we once sang and gave readings is talking about the prostitutes in Cuba. The dress shop owner who looked after our cat is talking about witchcraft and dangerous neighbours. No one is talking about poetry anymore.

You hold on to these spiritual dreams for a long time, hoping one day they will come true. You hold on to the idea of an 'American' future as beneficent and evolutionary, but that does not mean the idea is real. You held on to the idea of your grandmother, when she was someone else entirely. She lived in a house which was silent, unknown to you. But that did not mean she was not there. 

In the Mexican town where the gringos live, something is wearing thin and the talking is not covering it up. A skull is showing through. Underneath the suburbia of my grandmother’s life, the bones of a landscape were appearing: granite, shale, gneiss, basalt, flint.

Above our heads, the full moon rises over the rooves of the town in a clear and endless sky. “I call it the summer of death,” said the American teacher who used to sing with Mark in this cafe. We were on our way to have supper in a house where Mark once lodged,

Before there was talk of paintings and spirit in this house, now there is talk of lawsuits and property,  about a young man dying. The kitchen feels enclosed and full of shadows. It is not personal this moment: it feels bigger than that, as if this once-bright lifestyle had become endarkened, was downgrading, fragmenting. On hills above the town the gringos who were once Bohemians are building villas, with maid-service and swimming pools. But down in the square the dream is not holding. I sip my third margarita out of a sticky blue glass and find myself unable to speak. When I wake up the next day, I feel stiff and poisoned and decide not to drink tequila anymore.


It’s important that the agave is the mother means the agave needs to flower. Without the flower life does not continue. The moth does not arrive in the night to drink its copious nectar; it is not pollinated, it does not set seed. The agave does not flower when its heart is ripped out to make tequila.

Agave is a terrifying plant to consider in Mexico. Its thorns were once used to prick the skins of sacrificial victims - known as flowers because of the blood that spurted from their chests when their hearts were ripped out. As these cultures degenerated and the rites in their city temples grew more frenzied and mad, priests demanded thousands of the people’s hearts be given to satisfy the insatiable lust of their god, Huitzilopochtli, There could no more brutal and literal expression of the 'spiritual' price civilisations exact from the human heart. You could be deceived by the temple statues of sorrowing saviours and dancing devas in other countries, but when you look at the carvings of Mexican gods with their spiky and horrifying faces it is impossible to gloss over their barbarity. Even the abundant Mayahuel is hard to look at with her four hundred breasts.

What is not hard to look at are the real flowers of Mexico. For in late September there are flowers everywhere: morning glories tumble down the walls in midnight blue, sky blue, scarlet and magenta; lion’s ears, wild tobacco and trumpet vines spring exuberantly between the cracks of every building; sunflowers and devil’s claw overtake every vacant lot. A vase of fragrant tuberose permeates our rooms in the old hotel. We talk about our dreams on a balcony under a poinsettia tree, and spend each day walking by, without a plan. Mark collects coral beans from the street and puts them in his pocket, takes photographs of prickly poppy and castor oil plants. I step across carpets of wild dahlia, zinnias, and marigolds on my way to the mineral baths. In the cool courtyard of the bellas artes school I sit with my notebooks, surrounded by monstera leaves and bamboo. 

We are released into endless balmy afternoons: from the hard martial grip of the American desert into the warm and bountiful arms of Venus.

On one of these afternoons I go to a lecture on cosmic time at the library. It takes place in a room where an artist is quietly at work painting a mural of Quetzelcoatl, the feathered-serpent of the morning star who was banished from the Mesoamerican pantheon, because he had no taste for sacrifice. The Aztecs and the Maya are famous for their intricate calendars of cosmic time which revolve around the axis of Venus. When the conquistadors came they forced everyone to live their lives according to linear time – the time of the clock – rather than original or ancestral time, thus making their rigorous balancing of past and present unnecessary. 'Now' became this monodimensonal moment, rather than a 'now' in which all time and all dimensions are held. 

In linear time there are no cosmic consequences. But in Mexican culture, the lecturer informed us, the creation does not begin with birth but with death. Life comes from the bones of the ancestors. There are always consequences. When someone in the audience asks the lecturer about the ancestors he looks nervous and starts to backtrack. It is all right to talk about ancestors as if education has got them under control, filed under history and mythology, but not as if they were still here. Not as if they were real. The conquest destroyed them, he repeated, several times.

But we all knew, even though we could not say this to each other, that the conquest had done nothing of the sort. We were in Mexico after all, not the United States.

We get nervous because at some point the agave has to flower. At some point you have to pay. At some point the ancestors say the past is not in balance with the present and if you don’t do something about it, they will. All ancient peoples know this and make the balance in their own ways, whatever the conquest says.

In 1993 I did not go to fiestas, but in 2001 I do. The patron saint of the town, San Miguel, the archangel Michael, slayer of dragons, is celebrating his victory at the end of September. The gate leading to his church is covered with marigolds and tonight great rockets will be thrown into the air and bonfires burned in his honour. By early morning the streets are lined with people, craning their necks, up and down the stony hills, as the procession winds about the town. 

Down the street it comes: a band of musicians and floats, and suddenly you see scores of men and women, dancing with feathers like the rays of the sun coming from their heads, led by enormous puppets with large and small heads that seem familiar, but why I cannot say. It is a parade of all parades. As the procession goes by everyone breaks out cheering in a wild jubilation. Huge smiling beings, hoisted on great poles above our heads, bob above us. They are dancing with each other, in coloured skirts, horn-headed, whirling, sometimes diving into the crowd, leading the great snake of rainbow-coloured, feathered people through the streets. 

“Who are they, Mark?” I ask.
“They are the ancestors!” he replies and laughs. 

And it seemed to me in that moment as if we had not laughed for a very long time indeed.

52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth is published by Two Ravens Press (£9.99).  For further info contact

Images: agave flower stem in Southern Arizona (CDC); Mayahuel  from the Códice Borbónico (1530s Spanish calendar and outline of life in the New World (wikicommons); graveyard at Heptonstall, Yorkshire (CDC);Mexican sunflowers in the street in San Miguel de Allende (Mark Watson);marigold-studded Cathedral gate for the feast of St Michael, San Miguel de Allende (MW)

Wednesday 4 December 2013

seeing through a glass darkly - notes towards an aesthetic of uncivilisation

Laurence Edwards with Creek Man in the Suffolk marshes
Those people were some kind of solution ('Waiting for the Barbarians', CF Cavafy)
I'm exploring a territory I have not stepped into before. Maybe none of us have yet. I am not sure if aesthetic is the right word for it, but it's the one that comes to me as I begin a new role as the arts editor for the next Dark Mountain collection, as the editorial crew sift through the material for a fifth volume in a fifth uncivilised year.

Capitalism Hill by Lucca Benney
 Images form an intrinsic part of the Dark Mountain anthologies - photographs, paintings, drawing and illustration appear in all of them. The books themselves are beautifully and deliberately constructed; handsome hardbacks with covers the colour of damsons and field maple leaves. A physical thing you wouldn't want to throw away. But what about the look and feel of the Dark Mountain Project that extends beyond its text? Is there an aesthetic we share as writers and artists, makers and thinkers? And if so how can we best showcase it within the pages of a book?

The Visitors by Rima Staines
The team (that's Paul Kingsnorth, Dougald Hine, Nick Hunt, Adrienne Odasso and myself) are now looking for new visual work for Dark Mountain 5 and 6, so this post is an invitation to contribute as well as an exploration. I wanted to talk about aesthetics in a wider context, because, even though I have long rejected the words that once earned me a good living in the city - style, design, fashion, taste - I know the look of things, their shape and form, are as important a part of a new narrative as words. The fact that civilisation holds us so tightly in its unkind embrace is not only because it controls what some call 'industrialised storytelling', but also because it manufactures the images that powerfully and unconsciously distract and misinform us, keep us endlessly looking at the shiny surfaces of what we feel is our cultural reality.

I want to ask: what are the arts of uncivilisation? What happens outside the gallery and the multiplex, what are the barbarian images that might liberate our vision, that bring us home? If we live in a culture that is separated from and in control of what is seen, how can we make an unofficial art created within experience to include dimensions our ordinary attention might miss?

 Behavioural scientists observe that change happens slowly and deliberately over time but artists know it happens in a split second: a chink in the door, a wild unexpected moment that appears before you and for no reason you change lanes. A flash of quicksilver that can transform the dark materials of a whole culture.

When I walked through the trees at the Uncivilisation Festival past sticks arranged in a circle on the ground, people in animal masks, slates hanging from the boughs of a tree, I recognised something that made sense of a long journey I had once made.

A coyote on a television looking across a valley, a hare leaping inside a poem, Rima Staines' Weed Wife covered in flowers on a sheet of oak, Dougie Strang's Charnel House for Roadkill, like an archaic Tardis on the steps of the Glasgow Art Gallery.

Charnel House by Dougie Strang
Charnel House by Dougie Strang (left) door detail (right) under the arches

uncivilising the eye

 I have to tell you a story about the journey. Because that's where this exploration begins. Late '80s,walking down Bond Street, my eye is caught by a room full of vast chunks of stone and a pale suit hanging on the wall - an Anthony D'Offay exhibition of Joseph Beuys' The End of the Twentieth Century. The stones are hewn from basalt, a stone that will form Beuys' perhaps most famous work, the planting of 7,000 oaks in the city of Kassel in Germany.

The suit is made of felt, the material the artist was wrapped in by nomads when his Luftwaffe plane crashed in the snowy wastes of Crimea. Felt and fat saved his life, but they also transformed his life. They became the materials that defined his art. On a video Beuys is telling the world: in the future everyman will be king.

 I could say this was the moment I walked out of galleries and stopped writing copy about Bond Street. Because shortly afterwards I left the city whose high culture I had been steeped in for 35 years. The change happens quickly but it sometimes takes years to thrive in the world without those beautiful clever things that shielded and once defined you.

Cairn 1
Cairn for Lost Species by Andreas Kornwall; Walk of 7 Cairns by Richard Long
Roland Barthes in his elegant deconstruction of the bourgeois mindset, Mythologies, laments how hard it is to forge a culture unbound from a market economy. He points to a painting of a Dutch interior where a wealthy burgher sits surrounded by his possessions. His library, bolts of cloths, furniture. Shipped from all round the world, the goods set a pattern for material desire that has become the stuff of Sunday colour supplements ever since.

This is the art of civilisation. Globalised goods, fetishisation, possession. This is mine, all mine! Houses, horses, naked women, rich and poor, the painter who paints the canvas and the canvas itself. And even when art has rebelled against the pattern in a hundred dexterous and avant-garde moves the painting (or sculpture, or drawing) is still possessed. It is still property, a commodity in the minds and hands of those who could buy it - once the Church and then the collector and the State museum.

Amy Shelton image 2
Honeyscribe - lightbox installation by Amy Shelton
 What do art and aesthetics look like within the frame of collapse? What does photography look like that is not alienated from its subject? How do we love the world in a time of extinction? I look at my own collapse in order to see what that might mean. Because although I was educated in the dominant culture, there were strains of an uncivilised aesthetic that ran counter to everything I was taught, flowing dangerously beneath the surface like the river Styx. I wrote about the one perfect gleaming designer chair but my eye was always caught by rougher stuff that felt it had content and not just form. Like a linguist in search of a lost language, I would sometimes stumble upon its broken vocabulary.

A circle of driftwood in Derek Jarman's garden, a spiral of stones on a table at Kettle's Yard, a path that led through the tundra, walked by Richard Long.

These were the creative salvage years in London where makers like Tom Binns conjured 'unjewelry' from keys he found in the Thames foreshore or seaglass from his native Donegal; where welders like Tom Dixon made furniture from scrap metal. Post-punk warehouse years before corporate style had taken hold, when the original cut of your coat, or tribal marking distinguished you. There were chinks everywhere if you looked.

Fish mural. Cayton Bay, Scarborough by Phlegm
One of those chinks I went through in Bond Street and found myself in Mexico. To liberate yourself from the mindset, you sometimes have to leave the city that bore you, or crash into another territory entirely.

In Mexico I did not go to museums or churches. I watched market squares and mountains, the colours and the vernacular of places. Later I looked at plants and at dreams. For six years I stopped writing and taking photographs, took out a notebook and studied living forms and the shapes of my imagination. I was uncivilising my eyes: shifting my attention, away from an aesthetic moulded by the hard lines of Balenciaga and Mondrian and Diane Arbus. I learned not to be enticed by the siren images, the fairy world of haute couture and Hollywood.

Blossfeld's Monkshood
I learned to wait in the long American afternoons, for the slow and deep and resonant thing to appear.  

Architectural details in Karl Blossfeld studies of seeds and leaf; Eliot Porter's portraits of the boojams and elephant gums in the desert landscape of Baja California.

It was as if I had never paid attention before to the world. These glimpses became the main track: images that were archaic and aboriginal, that spoke of trees and elements and beasts and weather, that linked the people to the dreaming of the planet. The rough beauty of the woodcut, the mythic fairytale, rock and cave painting, the shapes that follow the contours of the earth. The art that invites us to engage and remember, rather than possess and to forget. To ask questions rather than feel superior with our great knowledge of paintings and history.

Although I did not go to exhbitions in these years, I met artists. I met scultors and painters who lived in Bogota and the Arizona desert. I met the Slovenian peformance artist, Marko Modic, on his way back north from Tierra del Fuego where he had travelled alone with a dog and a camera. Marko was an extreme caver and mountaineer and he brought that wildness and strangeness into every room he entered. And that's when I realised that the buying and showing was not the true function of art. It was the practice of the artist themselves: their capacity to live against the grain, the shape they made, the line they took.

corn dolly
Corn dolly by Anne-Marie Culhand
  From them I learned that the ancestors do not look like the gods. That barbarians do not speak in perfect prose. All artists wait for Prometheus to arrive with his firebrand to lighten a darkened world. The best of them know that time is a gift, not a curse, and that waiting is part of the art. That all paths lead inevitably away from Rome.

The artist is the one who can find the chink in the door and allow us to push it open. In a fixed and atrophied world they act as strange attractors bringing chaos and freedom and new life. Their work and their practice break dimensions in time and space, throw wild seeds into monocultures. In a disconnected world they bring connection. And sometimes they bring us back.

Following the track of the coyote

High Tide Watermark by Laurence Lord
There is a moment of return and that too comes as a surprise. I am in the Museum of East Anglian Life, at an event called What if . . . . the seas keep rising? As the director of nef and a woman advisor from Natural England talk about climate change and what this might mean to the marshlands and coastline of Suffolk, there is a photograph on the wall that has transfixed me. It's by the sculptor, Laurence Edwards. Two men with long poles are taking clay giants on a raft down the river Ore. These are the Creek Men, the beings of these waterlands that have emerged from the landscape, from the artist's imagination and from his hands. I can't stop looking at that image. Like an anchor among a babble of voices that I will not remember, it was an image of belonging that made sense of everything.

I realise now what grabbed me was something that Mexico taught me years ago. At some point the ancestors return and reclaim the earth. All civilisations which ignore their original blueprint live out the consequences of that defection. And whether you understand 'the ancestors' as the primordial forces that govern this planet, or a part of yourself that makes sense of everything, to which you are loyal in spite of your upbringing, they are always here: we just have to see and feel them. Make space for them in paper and stone, in a corner of our tidy lives. In that journey I understood that artists are the ones that remember the tracks those ancestors made in the beginning. Those shapes and colours appear in dreams and on canvas, and artists follow them, in the cities and on the seashore, walking across the land, reminding all of us who watch them of the way back. And when the rational world seems to make less and less sense, becomes more and more incoherent, so it is that the artists come with their intelligence and their wit, their delicate brushstrokes, the rivermud under their fingernails, their mask and their surprise to push the door.

It is my hope as the new 'curator' of the Dark Mountain pages dedicated to visual content, that we will be able to publish some of those uncivilised shapes and colours, lines and images. We are now open for submsissions for original work (paintings, drawing, photography) for the next two volumes (Dark Mountain 5 and 6). We are also actively seeking to commission illustrators for some of the stories and poetry, as well as strong images from the four Uncivilisaition Festivals 2010-2013. Please look at the submission guidelines for details and send submissions to Deadline is 2 January.

Poster for Dark Mountain 3
Images and artists: Laurence Edwards with Creek Man, Butley Creek, Suffolk; Capitalism Hill by Lucca Benney for the documentary, Crisis of Civilisation; The Visitors by Rima Staines; Cayton Bay, Scarbourough by Phlegm; Honeyscribe by Amy Shelton; Corn dolly by Anne-Marie Culhane; Cairn for Lost Species by Andreas Kornevall (Book 4); Walk of Seven Cairns by Richard Long; High Water Mark by Laurence Lord (Book 2); poster for Dark Mountain 3 launch - cover art by Matthias Jones, design by Andy Garside 

Article originally published by Dark Mountain Project

Monday 25 November 2013

ARCHIVE - Confessions of a Class Traitor

In November 2009 I joined a collective column on the Eastern Daily Press called the One World Column, alongside a crew of progressive thinkers and writers from Norwich. Our main topics were centered on social justice, globalisation, peacemaking, human rights and the environment. I was asked to cover the Transition movement and sustainable food systems. The column was axed when a new editor took charge, but continued as a blog. This was a post written as the nation took to the streets to protest against the cuts to public services in 2011.

Where you are going is overwhelmingly dependant on where you are from. Just before the last election OWC columnist Lee Marsden wrote a perspicacious analysis of public school education and the class system. If the Labour government had hidden their Etonian and Oxbridge advantages, it was clear the next millionaire cabinet were going to flaunt them. We were entering a very different political period. A moment of turbulence in which we were all about to be thrown out of our comfortable seats.

During the last 30 years as the global finanical credit bubble swelled, many people in Britain improved their material lives. Everyone it appeared was able to buy houses and go on holiday. Shopping became a national pastime. In 1998, in a shocking report on poverty and prostitution, Dark Heart, the Guardian journalist Nick Davies looked at the hidden cost of that improvement, the demolition of the working class and the creation of an invisible underclass, a quarter of the population who served as scapegoats for the rest, and most particularly the governing elite.

We imagine that class has disappeared from modern consumer society, but of course it hasn’t. It operates insidiously as a signalling sysem, through language and behaviours, to establish who we are and where we figure in the pecking order: the people who take charge or who obey, those who bask in the limelight, or act out the collective shadow. In spite of what we do in our adult lives we are strictly labelled according to our childhood circumstances and education.

“Daddy, what class are we?” “We’re professional class,” replied my father, once a lawyer. “If anyone asks you tell them you are a professional.” I’m standing outside his old chambers on the Victoria Embankment and a group of socialist lawyers are gathering under a banner in wigs and gowns to protest against the cutting of the court services. It’s March 26 and thousands of workers, students, unemployed and sympathetic protesters are massing beside the Thames. I’m talking with Gurkas, London fireman, librarians from Manchester, engineers from Birmingham, student nurses, actors and coastguards. There’s a strong feeling of solidarity in the crowd I haven’t experienced for a very long time.

My father was born (illegally) in the Inns of Court and spent his whole life behind these gates, defending the innocent and the guilty, pornographers, murderers and fraudsters. During the day he battled against censorship, at night he told me stories about the woods and birds from his rural childhood on the Sussex Downs and about the protagonists of the French revolution. The liberation of Paris obsessed him. Allons citroyens!

We are made of the stories we are told. Sometimes we are told them in order to live them out. And sometimes we are born to end them - not just our personal narratives but the ones we tell ourselves as a culture, as a people. The most enduring story we are taught is that some people are better than others. Better fit to rule, better fit to live in splendour, more intelligent, more evolved. I was raised to believe that “lower” class people were poor because they were stupid and when workers went on strike they were holding the country to ransom. But this wasn’t the story my life followed.

At the age of 19 I found myself living in the slumlands of Birmingham with working class students from the North, who unlike me, had struggled hard to get here. It was the mid-1970s and all our world-views were being challenged. In the red-light district of Balsall Heath amongst the immigrant sweat-shops, I learned about Diggers and Levellers, studied Chomsky and socio-linguistics, stood by ASLEF workers and against the National Front, and when I faced a police charge realised I was in a country that bore no relation to the one I had been brought up in.

Those years changed everything. At the age of 35 I sold everything I owned and went on the road, compelled, like many of my contempories in the 90s, to reconnect with the earth and with people in a way that broke with our conventional upbringings. Today I’m about to march past the offices where I once had a successful career as magazine journalist. Fortnum and Masons, where I used to meet my grandfather for tea, is about to be filled with the tax-dodger protesters from UKUncut. It’s another England. I’m no longer inside those gates.

Like many people I'm struggling to co-create a new narrative, one of equality and fairness - not just for myself among the crowd in Hyde Park and the millions dependant on the welfare state, but also for the invisible people of the global South, on whose natural resources and slave labour the global North depend. In order to write a new story I need to deconstruct a very old one.

The coalition government are made up of the kind of people I was brought up amongst: proud, ritualistic, acquisitive, obsessed by form, terrified of losing face, with a horror of the masses, all fellow feeling having been ruthlessly bullied out of them. In order to hold its superior position, the ancien regime needs to continually push others down. The more equality and fairness exerts its pressure within the collective, the harder they push. They are, as George Orwell points out in his peerless study of class, Road to Wigan Pier, terrified of losing control and falling. In this they are as much at the mercy of this heartless system as anyone else.

In order to deconstruct a story you have to know what it’s made of. The institution of class is ancient, stemming from the Aryan caste system, established in India thousands of years ago and upheld by the powerful few within all Empires from Assyrian overlords to corporate CEOs. It works its restrictions through all our lives, born high or low. The barriers between us are kept in place by hatreds, by humiliation, by blame, by revenge, terror, hostility and mostly by ignorance. In 1975 in Birmingham Mel Foster railed at me. An ex-miner, he had gone through Trades Union college to study for a degree and was cracking under the strain. Like many of his working class peers he was loathe to betray his origins by becoming educated and thus middle class. "You have destroyed the Hull fishing fleet and all our livlihoods!" he yelled.

He knew nothing about London. I knew nothing about Hull, but I did know I had a legacy, A crooked inheritance I had to put straight. We all have that legacy. And in this the working class is no more exempt than any other section of society, for it too has its whipping boys - the unemployed, the migrant, the homeless Orwell once walked amongst. Everything in our consumer society is a product of the exploitation of our fellow human beings, from the child slaves of the African cocoa plantations to the Chinese IT factory worker. None of us has impunity.

To break out of our historical mould we can’t identify with the class we were brought up in, hold on to our positions as victims or conquerors, as righteous Conservatives, as ideologially pure Socialists, we have to let go of them and come together in a new and fluid way. We have to see the world from a common perspective. Because, if we don’t, the corporate elite will push us all down as far as we can go. We will lose everything our ancestors fought for so hard - all our freedoms, all our public services. If we separate and attack each other, we play into their hands. United, we can exert a force that could change how we live on this planet as a people forever.

Part of that unifying future story, that radical shift, is that we have to listen to each other’s stories. We have to know what it’s like to be in other people shoes whoever they are, and when we understand begin to act from within a deep frame of change. And this is why I am telling you mine. I fell and failed. I quit my position, my house, my job. Contrary to the cautionary tales was told I did not die in destitution as my great-grandmother did in a workhouse on the Isle of Wight. I found that people are kind and fair and intelligent everywhere you go, so long as you don’t give way to your hatred or rage or self-pity, or close down from fear. What matters is that you give that natural empathy and desire for liberation a chance. History does not need to repeat itself. The French revolution, like all revolutions that followed in its wake, ended in the Terror and the brutal reinstatement of another kind of hierarchy. We don’t need another revolution. We don’t need class war. We need to evolve.

Complete list of OneWorldColumn posts (18) from Avatar to bio-tech

Photos: March for the Alternative, Victoria Embankment, March 2011; looking outside the door, Kent, 1958; Dark Heart: The Shocking Truth behind Hidden Britain by Nick Davies; coming together to discuss civil liberties and economic system, Transition Norwich, Aladdin's Cafe, Magdalen Street, Norwich, April, 2011.

Monday 4 November 2013

ARCHIVE: Darkling Thrush

Some things you can't capture in a photograph in a time of fall: the scent of woodsmoke, the perfume of a quince, the sound of the sea roaring in the darkness, a sky with bright constellations, the knowledge that once this was the time of the reed, now sere in the marshes, which was gathered to thatch the rooves of houses. A time of shelter from the storm and of waiting.

It was a windy week: our tent blew down, our garden haven, and so I knew late autumn had arrived. I put my hand on the glass roof at 2am and felt the coming of ice. We ran into the darkness and fetched all the tender plants into the house. It's the bletting time: a time you wait for the hips and sloes and medlars to begin their sweet collapse. It's a time you wait inside as dusk comes and are sometimes surprised by the sound of a bird singing.

I found this young thrush in the road. He was still warm, without a mark on him. Newminted from a spring nest in a summer hedgerow. I held him for a moment and laid him under a blackthorn full of sloes. Two long-tailed tits came and danced around us.

That's something else you can't photograph. The pain in your heart when something is gone. A beautiful singer who won't sing his mistle song, his great joyful sound in a time of elegy and loss in the woods when Winter's dregs made desolate/The weakening eye of day. In a land where thrushes are fast disappearing. In a world that is fast losing its songbirds and its poets. On a day when you struggle to pick up the camera and go into the lane and photograph the colours and shapes of those things you write . . . . and yet you go. Because something inside you won't stop loving the world, no matter what weather comes. It's a covenant we made with the earth a long time ago.

Bird in the hand; rosehips in the lane; Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy. Post originally written on This Low Carbon Life Nov 2011

Wednesday 23 October 2013

EARTHLINES: Rewilding the Future

As the autumn issue of Earthlines (no 7) is about to appear, I am republishing my summer Life in Transition column, written in late Spring. Strange how my focus is entirely on gathering and storing fruit whereas this copy was written as the blossom was in full sway. The pictures are taken from a year of wellbeing walks I helped organise and lead around Bungay (to be mapped this November).

I’m reading George Monbiot’s Feral, flicking the pages and following his description of kayak trips over  seas full of jellyfish and rough waves. I’m reading it in one sitting under the apple trees in a day of rare sunshine, occasionally pausing, eyes closed to listen to the sounds all around me. It’s late May and the bittern is booming in the marsh, goldfinches chattering on the wire down the lane. Young jackdaws  squabbling in the chimney, almost ready for flight. Just above my head a crew of bees are working the apple blossom.  

Five years ago this apple tree fell over in a big wind and, inspired by Richard Mabey’s talk on Beechcombings, instead of cutting it for firewood, I left it to do its own thing. Now it has regenerated itself and become a small apple collective. Five years ago I would not be aware of the presence of these bees, or made the connection between their presence and the fruit that will appear this autumn.  I would not have treasured its apples, or gone around the neighbourhood, foraging  for other varieties,  or learned how to make cider from my neighbour. I would not have been grateful the sound of the now-rare cuckoo flying overhead, or the sunlight on this day, the land held in a haze of golden light, the sea a vibrant blue strip in the distance.

It’s a different time and requires a different sensibility - a mix of old knowledge, new awareness, and some  bold and unprecedented moves in uneasy waters. Not least in our own minds. 

I am reading Feral intensely today, because it questions a lot of assumptions about nature and has engaged my attention in the way scientific and literary books have been unable to for a long time now. It is making me rethink the land within a depth of time and see its received aesthetic  in terms of governmental policy, but most of all because it brings a totally new dimension into focus a rewilded country for the future.  

We live in a time of loss and control. Over half of the wild things on these islands are now in decline, corporations have made the world’s seeds, lands and water their private property and no one seems to know how to respond to the increasingly alarming messages about the biosphere  .At times  it is easy to lose heart, or to feel as hemmed in as those fledgling birds in the chimney. The book talks big spaces, deep time, and makes room for something else to happen. It makes suggestions that spark an imagination dulled by too many facts and figures:  bringing the extinct creatures back into the hinterland,  making  the rivers  plentiful again, describes how it once was when the North Sea was pristine and clear and could be again.  

To be alive you have to make moves that go against the flow. You have to fight for wildness and freedom in a civilised world. But most of all you have awaken  the imagination, let your mind take flight into blue air: breaking out of what is perceived as normal, and widen our knowledge, seeing in deep time, archaic time, Palaeolithic time, and start building a culture around renewal  and getting back on track. All those Re words. Remember, regeneration, rewild. 


Working with the fabric 
If you live a life governed by heart, you live in a different world than the one if you live governed by the rational mind. They are different universes. Something that the heart can feel and intuit has a currency and an agency that the rational doesn’t even recognise. It doesn’t even know what you are talking about. 
I am talking with fellow Dark Mountaineer, Jeppe Graugaard about working with the fabric of the world. It’s like an invisible matrix that informs everything that happens in this visible world. Writers and artists understand this fabric, even though they might not describe it in this way. When people make a strategic act with a good intent it has a power and an agency that we cannot see, but affects the whole picture. It echoes in all places, like a hologram, or a homeopathic dose in the body. It’s tiny move - a small trip in a kayak, a conversation by a fire -.but it speaks to the whole world. Everything is contained in that event when it is communicated. The rational tick-boxing ’left-hemisphere’ mind doesn’t understand these kinds of acts – instinctively distrusts them, fearing its own loss of control. Their meaning and value come directly from a creative’ right hemisphere intelligence that is almost impossible to articulate or commodify. Somewhere however we understand it. We get a feeling for it in the core of ourselves, in our bones. Somewhere we trust this feeling with our lives.  

That’s why when I sit down with Jeppe and we talk about time and dreaming and the old myths, I know it matters; why introducing the wolf and the lynx into the mountains, and letting trees regenerate themselves is key. Because these counter-intuitive acts can speak directly to the heart, and a people who have heart are capable of extraordinary things. The heart can turn everything around. Everyone knows that inside themselves. People light up when love and belonging is around. Imagine what that can do with a whole planet. The reason we have to imagine large wild things and do small strategic acts, is because we have got as far as facts and information can take us.  

And now something else, sometimes creative, has to kick in. 

Rewild the body, rewild the mind 
I am leading a walk around the castle in Bungay. It is the second Wellbeing walk in a series we’re running this summer, mapping the town and all its green spaces.  We are threading our way through the Garden Market, past the Punch and Judy show, past the historical ruins,  exploring  alleyways, backstreets and river paths  with fresh eyes. I say I am leading but in fact in front of me there are two small boys running ahead and I am following their track. Suddenly they disappear. Come back now! calls their father. That’s someone’s garden.  They jump out of a lilac hedge, laughing: 

It’s not someone’s garden, corrects the elder brother. “It’s a hedge.  

We have become  a cautious people and  this does us no favours, nor the planet. I like to follow the feisty writer as he go fishing miles out to sea, I like to kick stones with Reuben and Tristram and climb trees, to talk about the deep North with Jeppe at the tail of winter, because these stories are not on the agenda, and yet are embedded in the fabric of life. I know we need to live the opposite of micro-managed life. We need to burst open like flowers,  leave home at dawn walk through the dark, trespass and reclaim our fields, connect with people on the wrong side of the tracks. Encounter the wild creature, stand up in front of strangers and share our story. Listen. Eat nettles and blackberries. build fires, sleep in rain, swim in wild places. Let ourselves go feral.   

So having followed the Transition ethos of relocalisation and community resilience in these five years I realise what I have really been doing within its well-managed civic remit is fostering a culture that cherishes all these  wayward,  earth-loving  actions.  Paying attention to things that civilisation has scant time for, or has forgotten in its pursuit of power. I have come to see that return and regeneration - of soil, neighbourhoods, people, places - is the wild card in the pack, the card all of us have up our sleeves.  

Because a mindset that only understand the value of life including our own  - insofar as it makes money for the economy, that only understands water and plants as commodities, comes from a civilisation that has already outplayed itself. One that has run out of storylines.  And that a culture governed  by  good intention, that springs from  the vast savannah of our imagination, from the deep ocean of our memory,  from our ancestral  beings,  held intact by a long lineage of dreamers, poets and activists, indigenous wherever we live, will never run out, can constantly renew itself, because it holds the  future of the earth in its heart. 

Gazing into the long water reeds of the River Waveney on a bridge with ten people on a Spring day is a good place to start - bringing our feral imagination into play and loving where we really are. Bird by bird, flower by flower,  stream by stream, human being by human being. Truly, wildly, deeply.

Cover of new EarthLines; fruits of foraging along the Waveney (October); on the bridge to Falcon Meadow (April); en route to the Queen Head, Earsham (October); evening primrose behind Castle Meadow (July); collecting cherries on Bath Hills (August); on the bridge to Earsham (May).