Friday 15 September 2017

Under the Volcano

Last week the new Dark Mountain collection, Walking on Lava - Selected Works for Uncivilised Times was published. We held a great launch at Juju's Bar at the Old Truman's Brewery, Brick Lane where I put on my not-quite-famous red coat and read from The Seven Coats, alongside five contributors and fellow editors, Nick and Dougald. This is a piece I wrote for openDemocracy to introduce the book and the project.

On a mountain in Wales in the teeming rain, we sit in a yurt packed with people, the five of us, on hay bales, dressed in black suits and bowler hats. One of us has a pack of cards up his sleeve, another an African folktale, another a guitar and a song by Nick Drake from the 1970s. I have oak leaves in my hatband to signify an instruction circa 600 BC from the Sibyl who once guarded the door to the Underworld in the Campi  Flegrei outside Naples. A link to the pre-patriarchal ‘uncivilised’ world, she guides a lineage of poets to the territory under the volcano where all deep transformations take place: Virgil, Dante, T.S, Eliot, Mary Shelley, Sylvia Plath. Denied immortal youth by the autocratic god Apollo, her desiccated body kept in a jar, only her voice is still left for us to follow.

Dougie stands up and invites the audience to take part in a demonstration of two figures from the ancient world: one is Chronos, the inexorable march of linear time; the other a young man with a lock of hair over his forehead, who intervenes and interrupts him. His name is Kairos, and sometimes ‘Possibility’.

We’re giving a performance called ‘Testaments of Deep Time’ to introduce the work of The Dark Mountain Project - itself an intervention into the linear narrative of ecological and social calamity  As the rational world attempts to control the dominant narrative against its Hadean consequences, cracks have begun to appear. Through those cracks, archaic, indigenous knowledge, hidden for safekeeping against Roman and other empires, slips through; fleeting glimpses of another future reveals itself. Some of this is stored in the literary project we have all stumbled upon in similar ways, in tents on mountains, around fires, in the inner caldera of ourselves.

This encounter, we know, is what changes everything.


Walking on Lava takes its title from the manifesto which spearheaded the Dark Mountain Project in 2009. Written to challenge the contemporary lack of response by culture makers to ecological overshoot in the aftermath of the financial crisis, it was called simply Uncivilisation. 

Many people picked up this gauntlet recognising it, not as a challenge to a duel, but an invitation to explore a territory yet unmapped. It has led to collaborations with writers, musicians and artists, which, alongside the books and weekly blogs, has generated five festivals, a year-long theatre workshop in Sweden, teaching encounters in the mountains of Spain and moors of the West Country, performances built around the celebrations of the solar year by the river Thames and the ancestral wilderness of Scotland, as well as this kind of curated space in Wales, where the 24/7 broadcast of progress can be switched off and other voices apart from the mainstream can be heard.

Of course, grassroots Earth-defending organisations and progressive movements can claim these alternative platforms also, but what singles out Dark Mountain, what can grab people’s attention in a rain-soaked yurt, is that it is 1) a creative response to prevailing crises and 2) lacks an evangelical agenda to fix them. The maniesto can act as a frame, but there is no drive to act in the space that frame creates. There is no pressure to shut down power stations or convince your neighbour to stop flying, or your community to reduce its carbon emissions. In other words, it provides a space that has space and time in it, the opportunity to look at things differently, and for other slower realisations to occur - for interactions, connections, deep thought, as reader, listener or contributor.

‘Are you against environmental activism?’ I was asked recently by a television researcher. ‘No,’ I said ‘We’re not against anything. It’s a conversation not an argument. We’re a creative network.’
 If this manifesto has travelled further than we imagined, one explanation is that it has helped people to get their bearings in a world where the thin, shiny surface of prosperity has cracked. Trying to make sense of our own experience it seems that we put words to a feeling that others shared... a feeling that there is no way through the mess we find ourselves that doesn’t involve facing the darkness, and being honest about the scale of the unravelling that is under way, and the uncertainty as to where it will end. A feeling that it is time to look down. 
(Dougald Hine from the Introduction to the 2014 edition of Uncivilisation).
This rallying point, the agreement to look down, to acknowledge we sit on a crater’s edge rather than a firm foundation, creates not only a different literature, but a very different feeling towards that literature and those who write it. If there is one shared response to the contacts made by people towards the Project it is the sense of relief and comradeship in a world where a possible eruption to the status quo is  manifestly denied.

However there is no mantra or belief system to take refuge in here. Dark Mountain is a collective work-in-progress, initiated by ‘recovering journalists’, disillusioned by the green movement and its mice-like approaches toward change. It doesn’t offer a road map for a sustainable future. It can offer you a place by the fire, an opportunity to dig beneath the distracting surface of industrial late capitalism, to produce work that asks the question: how can we reclaim the voice and body of ourselves, suppressed by civilisation for millennia?  The deadline is never far away.

The fact is we have all taken the red pill, we all know the boat is leaking and the captain lied. We know the stats about climate change and acidified oceans and decapitated mountains. The news that the numbers of kittiwakes on St Kilda have plummeted or the ancient trees of Sheffield have been felled pains us. We don’t numb out that pain, nor do we indulge it, in the see-saw of hope and despair.

We know the Earth is not an abstract concept of environment or ‘nature’ and requires a very different relationship, one that wrests the material of life out of the hands of the ‘quants’ and economists and gives it due respect. The question we face is always: what do you do when you know, when you allow yourself to see and feel what is shut out by that broadcast? Because you can’t keep writing conventional love stories and detective novels, or hoping Hollywood will get in touch once you know.

What kind of literature and art does this awareness produce?  A diverse body of work that does not fit neatly into a monocultural, corporate bookshelf or gallery wall. Inspired by the inhumanist poetry of Robinson Jeffers, its voices do not come out of a narcissistic and alienated highbrow culture, discussed by the chattering classes of Boston or London, but from a library of stones, from the desert and forest hermitage, from conversations around convivial fires.

The space is existentialist, ringed as it is by urgent questions about what kind of human being can be so numb, so dumb in the face of catastrophe; its tone elegiac, rather than trimphant. In many ways it returns the artist and writer to their original function, as the people who push the edge and keep the door of possibility open. People who embody and stand by their words, for whom those fiery brimstone fields are home.

It's in this spirit that we have created this collection is drawn from the first ten hardback journal as a showcase introduction to the Project. Following their shape it is made of work of contrasting voices and genres – poetry, flash fiction, essays, artworks, photography, interviews – and structured around the manifesto’s,Eight Principles of Uncivilisation.’

Here in these pages is Robert Leaver walking along Broadway in New York on his hands and knees; here is Christos Galanis shooting a thrift store copy of the Iliad in the New Mexico desert; here is Emily Laurens sweeping the brown sands of the Welsh peninsula in honour of the disappeared passenger pigeon and the millions of species now going extinct. Testimony, encounter, protest art and praise song of a different kind.

I imagine the people I have seen on Broadway, and maybe the world over, feeling a weight on their backs, in their hearts and souls. Maybe this weight is the burden on modern life, the burden on being conscious in a world gone mad. Crawling seemed to be a way to maybe show compassion or solidarity, to make a metaphor of this collective burden we all share. Instead of crawling I could have curled up in a foetal position in perfectly chosen locations. But this crawl was never about surrendering. I went down and kept moving, kept pressing on as so many humans are doing every day. The idea has always been to keep on, to get through this journey, to make it home safe and sound.
(Robert Leaver – Crawling Home).

What happens when you get bitten by a squirrel, or when you return to your homeland now crawling with bulldozers and fracking trucks? When the story you were told by your teachers and parents is broken, when the Earth makes contact with you, you may stumble upon art with a different kind of attention: a feral stew of roots and road killed pheasant in the highlands of Scotland, a dreaming woman carrying a horse in her womb in Cornwall, a meditation on graphite in the winter-wet Cumbrian hills.

In this collection, we  invite you to a few places the Project has visited in these last eight years, to encounter some of the material that has fleshed out the principles on which the book is based: to whisk you in your imaginations to the mountains of Bolivia, to the tribal areas of India, to the coast of Greenland, to walk you through the Mahabharata, through a history of the future, to 18th century England, to medieval Florence to the Younger Dryas.

Kairos, daemon of opportunity, had a shaved head, meaning that you had to grasp the opportunity that faced you, for once the light-footed one had disappeared the chance to see in all-at-once-time had gone also. In the long count of civilisations, stretching from the early city-states of Sumer towards the modern global metropolises, there are only so many opportunities to sense the volcano that rumbles beneath us. Rarely do we find the way to the cave where the Sibyl sits, or pay heed to those who struggle to return from the darkness of the Stygian lake.

We live, as Marshall McLuhan once noted, in a third world war of narratives, of competing controlled ways of perceiving the world – all of them hostile to people and planet. In the quiet, in the depths, in the wild places, in the struggle of our hearts, those who always kept a true link to the wider, wilder world, writers and artists, are forging another story. It is our hope and our intention in these pages to show how some of that new collective tale unfolds itself. 

Walking on Lava – Selected Works for Uncivilised Times (Chelsea Green) has been edited by Charlotte Du Cann, Dougald Hine, Nick Hunt and Paul Kingsnorth.

Images: Cover of Walking on Lava. ‘Where from? Where to?’ Mount Patterson from the Wakupit Range, Alberta, Canada by Garrett Hupe; Extinction Cabinet’ by Richard Kahn and Nicholas Selesnick from ‘Truppe Fledermaus: 100 Stories from a Drowned World’; writer and artist Robert Leaver in his performance ‘Crawling Home’ in New York. Photo by Larrey Fessenden.

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