Monday 10 December 2018

Disappearing Acts

We are living in an age of loss: the sixth mass extinction. Following this year's shocking report that the planet has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years, and the 2018 Remembrance Day for Lost Species, I wrote this piece on art and disappearance for Dark Mountain's 'The Vanishing' section. Here we look not only to extinction – the deaths of entire species – but to the quieter extirpations and losses that are steadily stripping our world of its complexity and beauty. How do we, as writers and artists, stay human during such times? .

What does it mean to disappear? It's a cold night and I am shivering outside the Café de Paris in London. I'm standing behind Trevor, hoping that his TV producer status will get me in, when Karen Binns, doorkeeper to this hippest of '90s dance nights, lets me through. It's over for you, she laughs, which in her Brooklyn back-to-front street talk, means it's happening for me. As it turns out it was prophetic both ways. Because the last time I saw her was at a family gathering a year later, as I was about to leave the city.

She's out of here, she announced to the chattering table. Everyone just carried on talking.
It's two minutes to twelve, she said.

What does any of this have to do with extinction you might ask? Bear with me. To know how to deal with disappearance, you have to know about your own. To know that when you go, there is a world of difference between being ignored and being seen.

For a few weeks now. I've been wondering what to write about extinction. Does the world need another elegant essay on nature in peril, another rant about palm oil deforestation? Is there a way to look at the disappearance of species without descending into melancholy and apocalyptic data? Could I get that annoying wistfulness out of my voice, avoid the righteous tragic tone of the activist, or repeat the litany of scientific facts about ecological catastrophe which you and I already know?

The Witch of St Kilda by Kaite Tume,
embroidery on linen from 'Extinct Icons
and Ritual Burials' (Issue 13)
I am not a biologist, or a conservationist, an undercover agent on the front line of wildlife destruction, but I have witnessed The Vanishing in my own way: I have stood by my window overlooking a ragged Suffolk garden and marshland for over a decade now and seen the insects disappear, the old hawthorns and ashes cut down, how the thrush and little owl no longer call from the hedge, how the green woodpecker no longer comes to forage for ants, the hedgehog to sleep in the woodpile, or the hares and lapwings appear in the fields. Each departure has registered in my body, in a place it is hard to name, like listening to an orchestra with the wind section missing.

Loss of species is one of the key strands within the work of Dark Mountain: from Nick Hunt's story Loss Soup (in Issue 1) to Michael Cipra's Who  Cries for the Archduke? (in Issue 13), from Feral Theatre's performance about the Tasmanian tiger to Andreas Kornwall's 'Life Cairn for Lost Species'. But perhaps its most significant act has been the curation of a space in which writers and artists, readers and participants can communicate this collapse without fighting their corner: we all know something is going down. That the clock stands before midnight.

That if a vanishing is required it is our civilisation's story of human centrality.


'Extinction Cabinet' by Nicholas Kahn
& Richard Selesnick. From ‘Truppe Fledermaus:
100 Stories of the Drowning World' (Issue 9)


You are supposed to feel grief, but grief is not what I feel when I hear a chainsaw outside, or read about Icelandic fishermen killing a blue whale. I do not mourn non-violently when I hear about the Chinese trading jaguar teeth, rhino horns and pangolin scales, or the British slaughtering mountain hares and golden eagles (in order to slaughter more grouse), or Maltese and Cypriot hunters killing millions of migrating songbirds - all those men with knives and guns and axes proving their 'masculinity' (and the women who stand by them and beget their children). In spite of knowing better, I find myself shouting, It's over for you! - and not in the way Karen Binns once meant it.

When the fury subsides, or I return home having argued with the tree cutters, what is left is a retraction, a lessening in the core of my self, countered by a refusal to feel dispirited, or to fuel the darkness of our civilisation, to let the Empire take my heart. But I do not grieve. Grief takes you inward to your own bereavement, to project the loss of small edens or family upon a beleaguered Earth. There is a power in grief, as all writers, particularly those who write about nature, know (where would Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk have been without her dead father, or Robert Macfarlane's Wild Places without Roger Deakin?). Absence has as strong a pull as presence. Your capacity to see straight and communicate directly with the non-human world however is impaired. Our great sorrow is not what the Earth wants from us, any more than a dying person ever wants our tears. They want you to show it mattered they were here. It's not about us after all. Human beings are not becoming extinct.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species; Memorial to
the Passenger Pigeon by Emily Laurens,
Photo Keely Clark: (Issue 7)
Once the fury subsides, I stand in front of the window with a conflicted heart. You have to temper that anger into words and keep beholding the beauty of the world that is still here. You know it's not the whole story. You know that for each terrible action against life, for all the numbness and indifference of millions, there are thousands who are standing up for the wild things, defying hunts, investigating the trade of shark fins and elephant tusks, defending the redwoods and the common lands, restoring the Californian condor and the African deserts.

I see I am left with a nervousness, a nervousness that senses the decline in some part of the web, a weakening in the links between insect and bird, plankton and fish, between plant and the human imagination. And so I act in whatever way I can to bridge the gap: I put my hand on the severed trunk of the tree; I carry the dead otter from the road and bury her in the marsh; I write in defence of the feeding grounds for the red-listed curlew on neighbouring AONB farmland now threatened with extraction. But most of all I try to find out how to shift our logger-headed perception, our ways of seeing and imagining the world from where we all stand, seemingly stuck in a parasitic culture that refuses to become symbiotic.

In many ways artists fulfil the function of the old medicine people and storytellers: they keep the bridge open to the living Earth and show how we can give back to a planet that has given us everything we know. Their act is to see and not falter, to reflect what is happening and speak to those inchoate places inside us. It is not an easy position to hold, because destruction is not easy to watch. But through their work we can look without turning away, because they themselves faced the disappearance and did not escape in their minds, or give in to rage or powerlessness. They bore witness and let the walls that separate us from the fate of the planet fall down inside them.

We follow their track.


When the world shifts and we don't notice, something happens: we move away from what is known as the ancestral or original instruction, our way of keeping the Earth intact. We don't notice that hills that were once forested become bare scrubland, or that it's become normal to see a handful of butterflies when only a decade ago there were hundreds. The writer, George Monbiot's response to this 'shifting baseline syndrome' in his book Feral  was to imagine a reinvigorated Earth and foster a culture of rewilding, the restoration of territories in which wild animals and plants could thrive again and flourish.

So what if, instead of drifting with the tide, we resist it? What happens if we remember how it was at one time and refuse to forget? That we hold what is and was dear in our neighbourhoods in connection with the forests and oceans everywhere?

David Ellingsen is a Canadian artist whose photographic work centres on the loss of the natural world and the reintegration of the 'intricate relationships between land, ocean, flora, fauna and atmosphere ... back into our technological, urbanised culture'. His sharp graphic eye ranges from observing the changing sky over a year, to the body of an orca cut up on the British Columbian shore. to a juxtapostion of a human skull filled with the skulls of other creatures. 'At The Edge of the Answer No 2' (see above) was the opening image in our latest issue TERRA, from his series Solastagia.

The Last Stand by David Ellingsen

Installation 3, Lance-tooth Crosscut Saw by David Ellingsen.
Western Red Cedar, Pigment ink on cotton rag

'This project, The Last Stand, was photographed on my family’s land here in Canada – in fact it was my great grandfather and great uncle who cut down these very trees over 80 years ago. The vast old growth forests of British Columbia have mostly vanished, with only 1% remaining, a situation reflected in the great forests around the globe. Disappearance and loss are a consistent theme running through my work and I remain compelled by an unrelenting, creative urgency as the ecological crisis deepens. In fact, after decades of warning from our civilisations’ brightest minds, I feel it my duty to do so.

It is my hope that creative work which encourages emotional connection with the issues and engagement with the grieving process (that rightfully accompanies this diminishment of life) will help us move through the seemingly ‘frozen’ state our civilisation is in and into a period of rapid acceptance and mobilisation to repair what we still can.' DE


There is a point at which you get 'woke'. It is a terrifying moment, as the cocooned world you knew cracks open. But it is also a moment of kinship - not only with our fellow creatures, but with our ancestors who left depictions of this relationship on the walls of Neolithic caves, or shards of ancient Pueblo pottery.

The current intellectual discussion about ecosystems and carbon emissions speaks to our rational minds but does not connect with our physical, kinetic intelligence, our creaturehood, the places where we feel kin with the rest of life. For that we need physical encounter in order to engage and act.

The sculptor Stephen Melton brings a visceral attention to the fate of the natural world at our hands: to native sharks mutilated for their fins (see above in 'Thanet Fish') to the illegal pet trade to the destruction of the Indonesian rainforest, with carved and often entwined and adorned figures of animals, birds and fish.

Dreamland by Stephen Melton

Dreamland by Stephen Melton. Work in progress that contains the forms of lost or disappeared creatures including orangutans, hedgehog, killer whale, rhino, cane toad, polar bear, sperm whale, tiger, sea turtles, coral, giant anteater, orange bellied parrot, carrier pigeon, pangolin and moths, Below: detail with bat.

'We live in such a visual world today; a world in which we are bombarded by images through digital and social media. Often, if the image hasn’t been constructed using the "click-bait" brief, it is often overlooked.

Sometimes I choose to work with an aesthetic that is beautiful, familiar and fun, which can be seen in my current work in progress ‘Dreamland’ – an intricately cast carousel in bronze. However, I then subvert the aesthetic by presenting my concerns about social behaviour and our attitudes towards our natural world.

I hope that using beauty to attract the audience will then engage them in the visual paradox the work presents. Using global fonts, the headlines of our most prominent socio-ecological problems today adorn the whole structure, in a similar manner of the carousels of the past. Hand-carved and subsequently cast skeletons of animals weave around the attraction, in an ominous manner. Each species has been chosen because of their current fragile existence due to humanity's impact on the world.

Like sheep, many of us follow unquestionably patterns of human behaviour without any understanding of the consequences, repeating mistakes of our past. A decaying ride that we are unable to alight.' SM


In 2001, the UK filmmaker Nick Brandt went to Kenya and began a photographic odyssey: to capture on film the disappearing great fauna of southern Kenya. The elephants stand as giant billboards in a broken landscape, under a flyover in the 2014 series Inherit The Dust; in This Empty World – his latest book to be released next February – they are juxtaposed amongst the industrial infrastructure, machines and human presence that threaten them on all sides.

Elephants (killed at a rate of 100 a day for their ivory), lions, giraffes and hyenas, are all photographed with a medium lens camera, as black and white portraits, closeup, still, without drama, or special effects.

'What I am interested in is showing the animals simply in the state of Being,' he writes in the first of his trilogy of books, On This Earth. 'In the state of Being before they are no longer are. Before, in the wild at least, they cease to exist. This world is under terrible threat, all of it caused by us. To me, every creature, human or non-human, has an equal right to live, and this feeling, this belief that every animal and I are equal, affects me every time I frame an animal in my camera. The photos are my elegy to these beautiful creatures, to this wrenchingly beautiful world that is steadily, tragically vanishing before our eyes.'

Ranger with Tusks of Elephant Killed at the Hands of Man by Nick Brandt

Ranger with Tusks of Elephant Killed at the Hands of Man, Ambrosselli, 2011 by Nick Brandt
'I find it hard to imagine the living elephant that possessed these tusks. I’ve never seen elephants with tusks anything like this size, and now, I never will. They are all gone, dead, mostly killed by man.  Even with one part of each tusk embedded in his skull, this elephant would still surely have had to lift his monumental head to prevent them from dragging like excavators through the earth.

The elephant was killed by poachers in Tsavo in southern Kenya in 2004. His tusks were stored in Kenya Wildlife Service’s ivory strongroom. In July 2011, they permitted me to borrow these and many other tusks of killed elephants for the ranger series.

This photo features one of 200 rangers employed by Big Life Foundation, the nonprofit organisation that I co-founded with conservationist Richard Bonham in 2010 to help protect and preserve the wild animals of a critically important 1.6m acre area of East Africa.

Photographed on medium format black and white film, I waited several days for the normal clear blue skies to disappear, waiting for the right sombre cloud cover to take the photos.' NB


One of the main reasons people don't want to see, to wake up, is to feel the emptiness that the violence of civilisation leaves behind. We live in a world that promises freedom from suffering with its tinsel politics and cheap distractions. But you never get a relationship with the living Earth that way, the feeling that you are connected. The relationship with the Earth - whichever way you learn to love it - through a land, creature, plant, or ocean - is a relationship that never falters and will never, unlike civilisation, let you down.

However, there is a bargain you make when you forge that relationship, an ancient bargain human beings have made over millennia. Our allegiance goes both ways.

Dark Mountain Issue 7 featured Silent Spring by Chris Jordan and Rebecca Clark (detail above, see full picture here) which depicts 183,000 birds, the estimated number of birds that die in the United States every day from exposure to agricultural pesticides. It forms part of his series Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait which looks at consumer culture through the austere lens of statistics. However, the photographer is most well known for his close-up portraits of dead albatross chicks on the remote island of Midway in the Pacific Ocean, their stomachs full of discarded plastic.

The recent documentary about his experiences is a searing gaze at the extraordinary beauty of a bird and its fate as it encounters the debris of our fossil-fuelled world.

Albatross by Chris Jordan

Chris Jordan's ALBATROSS film trailer from chris jordan photographic arts on Vimeo.

'The biologists here are finding that the birds all have plastic inside them. Each time I opened one up was like a gallery of horrors. But I believe in facing the dark realities of our time, summoning the courage to not turn away. Not as an exercise in pain, or punishment, or to make us feel bad about ourselves, but because in this act of witnessing a door opens.

'The most difficult thing to bear, for me, was what I knew but they couldn't know about why they were dying. In this experience, the true nature of grief revealed itself. I saw that grief is not the same as sadness or despair. Grief is the same as love. Grief is a felt experience of love for something we're losing, or have lost. When we surrender to grief it carries us down to our deepest connection with life.

I didn't know I could care about an albatross.' CJ

Thursday 1 November 2018


Last month in a rainswept and flooded Cumbria we launched Dark Mountain: Issue 14 - TERRA into the world, a co-production between three editors - Nick Hunt, Nancy Campbell and myself - three 'scouts' from different regions and over 60 writers and artists. It's  a travel edition collection that looks at journeys, place and belonging in times of diaspora and descent. You can read the introduction and several extracts from TERRA over on the Dark Mountain website, meanwhile here is a piece I wrote for the book on giving up flying and a life on the road, and a return to my 'native' land.

It is hard to know that this magic carpet exists and that one will no longer fly on it.
– Jean Cocteau (Opium)

‘The way these people are living is not what I had in mind’
– Sun Father, Zuni creation myth

I’m sitting under the peepal tree in the deer park in Sarnath. Dark-tuniced Tibetan students, white-clad nuns, orange-robed monks, many-coloured tourists move around the tree, and contemplate the statues of the Buddha and his five disciples with their piled-up Aryan locks. It was here the Buddha delivered his first teaching. His words are carved in slabs of stone in different gold-scripted languages. The inscription reads that after declaring the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, the devas in all the invisible circles above the Earth shook with fear.

Nirvana is sometimes translated as a ‘return to the shining void’ or ‘extinction’, in the sense of blowing out a flame, no longer fuelling the fire. By ending the anguish and desires of the ego, the Buddha’s path to extinction introduced death into the eternal world of the devas. It meant their realms would cease to exist, because human beings would not be clothing and feeding them any more. If people could liberate themselves from the wheel of karma, the devas’ shows would come to an end. They would lose all their hiding places.

Afterwards I go to Varanasi, leaving the calm of Sarnath for the crowded streets of India’s oldest city. Rachel told me: ‘If you don’t go now, you will never go.’ It is 2006 and I have just received the last of the inheritance from my dead father. I don’t know it yet but a whole way of life is about to come to an end.

In Varanasi I get out of the tuk-tuk and walk towards the river. Suddenly the narrow street opens out to the vast opal-coloured stretch of the Ganges – the pitted ochre buildings of the teeming ghats and the emptiness of the shore on the further side. It is shining in the morning light and the light suffuses everything. ‘Here I am!’ I say, half to myself, half to the river and feel, in that moment, complete.

‘You are thinking too much,’ says a tall young man behind me. ‘A man will approach,’ Rachel instructed. ‘Go with him.’ I smile and agree to follow his guided path, down the steps, towards the burning ghats, to his friend the astrologer, up to the towers where he points out the view down the river with its steps full of devotees, boats, bullocks, monkeys and the morning.

At the ashram of Kali, we sit in the shade of a mango tree and smoke hemp flowers.
‘When I saw you, I was dazzled! How beautiful,’ he whispers, and runs his hand up my back, as if I were a horse. ‘You are tired and I am a young man. You need some of my Shiva power.’

‘No, I don’t,’ I said, and laughed.

I might have gone with him in another time, for the adventure, to have lain in Kali’s rose garden in Shiva’s city. But something is coming to an end. The boy said, I will take you out onto the Ganges and sing to you. We took the boat into the middle of the river, and as he rowed towards the empty shore, his face grew suddenly sulky and dark, like all men who do not get what they desire. The City of Light hovered before me. The most beautiful city in the world. The shining hub of the wheel where all things began, and where all things come to an end.

Here I am, I thought. A great humming arose from the ancient city, three thousand years of human karma coming to an end, as the boat drifted past the shore on the further side. For years I had wanted to come to Varanasi. And here it was. Everything I had ever dreamed of. And then it was time to go home.

You will dream of me, the boy said, as we parted company on the bank. I smiled and wished him well, because I knew I would not. I would not even remember his name.

When we fly over London, the buildings below the plane appear grey and oppressive. No one smiles at the train station. It is silent, cold, hostile. My head fills with antagonistic thoughts. But wheeling our suitcases down the lane, the night wind stirs the ash and oak trees above us, I can smell the spring, the feel of the ground beneath my feet, a force pulling me towards the earth.

‘Almost there Charlie,’ says Mark.


How did this begin? Lying in a hot leafy hut, frogs croaking in the Peruvian rainforest, a certain line comes to me: My circus life unclawed me.

I am ‘on location’ with a fashion team and the two models have gone on strike because they feel (as African-Americans) they are being exploited by the ‘indigenous is hip this season’ story. The German photographer is arguing with them. He is not pleased with our abundant backdrop. Selva is too green, he says. Tonight we drank a strange alluring brew the lodge owner had made and swam naked in the Amazon, heedless of piranha, crocodile and electric eel, and watched a slim boat go out and point its prows to the full moon. I am writing another line in my notebook that is not a caption:

Tonight there are no dreams because there are no dreamers.

I went to South America by mistake: Eric Newby was supposed to cover the story but he had fallen ill and so I went to Lima as the replacement travel writer. After that I was sent to New Mexico with the team and wrote a story about beans and adobe and Georgia O’Keefe – and somehow, between the forest and desert and mountains, those big spaces got inside me. Afterwards I could not fit back into my box-shaped London life.

When I left the city I found out how plants can open up your imagination in a way no book can ever do, how mountains can speak to you in your dreams. I encountered people I would never have met in the bars and offices of my own country. People who were learning about the indigenous spirit of things, who tussled with their nation’s karma, who walked an ancestral path in their own way.

Though we longed to be the people who could love the Earth with song and dance, with feather and prayer, we were not born those people. We had work to do in the places we least wanted to go. Turtle Island, Madre Tierra, Pachamama, pushed us all out like birds from the nest, into an unmapped territory that felt like a kind of Antarctica. Go back to where you came from, they said, and deal with your shit.

What I hadn’t realised was that the people in the canoe in the rainforest that night were on their way to an ayahuasca ceremony, and that when the planet makes contact with you and shows you its inner splendour it demands something in return that you are not sure you know how to give. That when Georgia O’Keefe said ‘New Mexico will itch you for the rest of your life’, she wasn’t talking about holidays.


How did it stop?

‘Your carbon debt is massive,’ said Josiah. I am writing about a low-carbon group that has decided to cut its personal emissions by half the national average, which in 2008 is eight tonnes. Last night we gathered around the kitchen table with our transport bills. I can just about make the target if I use the car for short journeys but taking a plane anywhere blows it completely. We are eight people who have read the data, we know the facts about climate change. We know we are among the five per cent of the world who have stepped on a plane and that one return flight to New York would take up one of those four tonnes and then some. Across the sky, contrails from 100,000 planes leach out carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, lead and black carbon into the atmosphere each day and we know that no amount of creative accounting can reverse the planetary feedback loops that say what goes around comes around.

And yet in spite of this the dissonance is palpable in the room, as the prospect of NO HOLIDAYS ANYWHERE INTERESTING OR SUNNY is veering into view. When you realise that even travelling to that small island in the inky Aegean would take four days by train and boat. Even if you did have the money which, this being the kali yuga, you no longer do.

My carbon debt is massive. I have touched down in La Paz and New York, in Tokyo, Kingston, Santiago de Chile, Kauai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sydney, Delhi – but now in a small town in East Anglia I am learning to love the patterns of neighbourhood, of reed bed and market square, to build a culture of sharing and humble return. We meet to unpick our fossil-fuelled lives and find ourselves at the place that stops all our endeavours – a realm that hovers on every magazine page and screen, luring us into its world of turquoise seas and swimming pools, of white tablecloths and limousines. Come, fly here, a voice whispers in our ear.

I don’t know about Buddhism but I know all about devas. I am someone who used to drag huge Globe-trotter suitcases full of fairy frocks across the planet, I know what devas like to eat and what sparkly places they like to go, and exactly what it takes to blow out that flame. I know that illusions are the last thing you give up when you are up against it: your special moment, your little winter break, that romantic destination. What would life be without these treats?

It is the flying and not just the flying. It is the technology of flight, the ease, the speed, that fits the pace and dominion of the capitalist pleasuredome. But it is also the ancient illusion that we can treat the world like a plaything, as if we have a right to reward ourselves for our slavery to GDP with a visit to the market at Marrakesh, or a trek in Nepal, a quick trip to Iceland, or Bali, or Florida. A never-never land culture without ethical or spiritual constraint.

Industrialisation has made us restless and dissatisfied. We live in terror of missing out and finding ourselves in the wrong hotel. We want all our journeys to be outer ones, full of leisure and luxury; none of us wants to go inside, unlock the Pandora’s box of our small histories and suffer. We would rather sacrifice any number of wild creatures or trees than extinct our adolescent selves, let whole kingdoms of fish and people fall, so long as we can keep holding that boarding pass in our hands, our sense of entitlement, our five per cent exceptionalism, our trophy holiday.

The reality is we don’t want to land.


In the backrooms of England some of us despair: we have become no-fly-zone outcasts, enemies of promise. The initiative that had once cut its teeth on radical energy descent has settled into a cosy community haven, where you can hold conversations about carbon reduction and still fly to Copenhagen for the day to go swimming.

The taboo-breaking marks us as ‘the difficult people’ in the room, the people who ask awkward questions. Sometimes we are unable even to ask the question, an invisible force preventing us from opening our mouths.

Silently we face our friends who justify ‘love miles’ (he was dying, she was getting married); artists who justify exhibitions (I have to share my work); climate scientists who justify conferences (I have to exchange ideas); yoga princesses who justify retreats (I have to be with my guru) in a civilisation where governments can hold conversations about emissions targets and still keep building runways and not taxing aviation fuel (we have to serve the economy). We did the offsetting, the flyers chorus, absolving themselves in the way medieval sinners once paid for indulgences. We’re not good like you.

Sometimes I want to say very loudly: YOU ARE ASLEEP AND YOU NEED SOME OF MY KALI POWERDOWN, and stick out my very long red tongue.


Rachel no longer stays in the room on Dr Jain’s roof terrace that overlooks the deer park in Sarnath, among the drying sheets and pots of holy basil. She lives in a small wood on the edge of the neighbouring market town and runs her own guesthouse. I remembered the story she once told us about her friends who lived on an ancient pilgrimage route in India. The path ran by a river she said and it was the most beautiful setting you could imagine, full of trees and flowers and birds. One year however her friends moved to an ugly industrial city. ‘How could you leave?’ she asked them. ‘Our work is here,’ they replied simply. ‘This place needs us.’

Last summer our paths crossed after many years, and the three of us had an intense conversation in the way we used to when we could all afford to travel the world. She told me in India there are five ages, that begin with our youth and end with the time of ‘Going into the Forest’. ‘What happens before old age?’ I asked her. ‘Preparing to Go into the Forest,’ she said and we laughed.


I lived out of a suitcase for ten years. I gave up many things to be on that road – a house, a family, a career, some kind of reputation – and I regret none of it. I got to see the Earth in all of her loveliness. I went to break out of a restricted city life that hemmed in my real self like a Victorian dress. After I broke the stays I became like a lover who could never have enough of wide open spaces, of the pepper trees leaning towards the red sand of the Elqui valley (the boys riding horseback down the street), or the roar of the Pacific at Mazatlán, bus stations on a tropical morning, the volcano rising above the hot spring, hummingbird and cactus. It was in these places, those borrowed houses, I could empty myself, bring a silence and a space that had been full of ghosts and other people’s words.

But at some point you have to be in relationship, you have to settle down and give up your interesting freewheeling life. You don’t want to, but it is time, your time and the times you live in, the payback time, when all our small karmas come to roost and that joystick is no longer in our hands. To love a country that is Not-Home with all its breathtaking geography and sweet fruit costs nothing; to love this polluted, crowded island with all the responsibility of descent on your shoulders costs everything.

So you go home. And home is not a place you want to go, or that you like even. Here I am on the east coast of a country I spent a lifetime getting away from and have not moved for 16 years. In the seatown there are 1400 houses and only 500 of them are lived in: the rest serve wealthy weekenders who pay nothing for the roads or cash-strapped libraries, or the feudal history of place that weighs down invisibly on those who inhabit the region. The visitors are having a ‘Southwold’ experience with local beer and fish and chips, and £100,000 beach huts. A perfect backdrop. No strings attached. A hideaway where you can step out of the door and feel free.

Except you learn, when you come home and live in a place, that nothing is free. Some person, some bird, some plant, some insect is paying for that weekend, that fortnight, with their lives, and now that person is you. Yes you, renter, with your second-hand coat and low-income lifestyle, who cares for you anyway?

Nothing has ever said you belong here, or anywhere you have found yourself. You were always the wrong class, the wrong gender, too white, too privileged. You went to the wrong university, didn’t write enough books, wrote too many of the wrong sort. Never knew the right people, or maybe you did once, but then you missed the party and it was the wrong time. It’s always the wrong time. At some point you realise it’s not about belonging, it’s about being at home in your own skin, on this Earth, wherever you land, and deciding to pay the debt, your family’s debt, your culture’s debt, stretching back through the centuries. The buck stops here, you say. I’m not going anywhere.


‘We could go to la Casa de los Azulejos,’ said Mark, as we both in that moment find ourselves in a dark-panelled dining room surrounded by businessmen in suits and chattering families. It was where we liked to go for breakfast in Mexico City in our travelling years. There are white tablecloths and waitresses with paper wings the colour of sugared almonds flying past with trays of huevos rancheros and pan dulce. A glass of maracuyá juice sits on the table in front of me and for one moment time stands still. Outside the blue sky arches above the Alameda, above the the megalopolis, stretching out towards the Sierra Madre, backbone of America, towards the forests of glowworms and jaguars, towards the ever-moving oceans of the world.

‘Ah, yes,’ I say. ‘But after breakfast, what would we do?’

Images: above 'Shrine at Varanasi' by Juhi Saklani from her story Rooted about defending the street trees of India. Left: A pocketbook for troubled times: Dark Mountain Issue 14 - TERRA is available from the online shop for £19.99; the London launch will take place at The Baldwin Gallery on 22nd November. Do come!

Sunday 12 August 2018

Letter to Mr. Gurdjieff

Last week the upcoming Dark Mountain: Issue 14 on place and belonging went to Bracketpress to be typeset and designed. After months of forging its pages and the new sparkly website, I am finally posting an essay I wrote for the spring journal, set in the Wyre Forest in the depths of the winter solstice (in very different weather!).

‘I teach that when it rains the pavements get wet.’
Dear Mr. Gurdjieff – I don’t know why exactly I am writing to you today in the stillness of midwinter, except the sound of your name came, like a train whistle, pulling me into the kitchen where I first heard it:


I am standing on a Navajo rug looking at one of Peter’s paintings, tens of thousands of coloured dots on a long vertical canvas, and behind me, Carmen is lighting a Mexican votive candle as she did each evening on her return from Cochise County Library.

‘Gurdjieff taught we were bombarded by the influences of the planets, pulled in all directions by cosmic forces inside ourselves, and we needed to be able to handle them.’

And now, here in this darkness in an English forest, years later, watching the sparks of a midwinter fire fly up into the canopy, dressed in a black overcoat and a hat covered in oak leaves, I felt an urgent desire to recall everything I knew about you.

I wasn’t interested in your complex cosmic system then, but I liked Carmen’s stories about you: how you would send your students into restaurants and instruct them to leave without paying, how you gleefully went about stepping on everyone’s corns. I liked that you drank and made everyone else drink and cook and dance. ‘Everything in the Universe is material!’ you said about your worldly practice, a method of self-transformation in ordinary life, made famous by the mathematician and thinker, P.D. Ouspensky, as The Fourth Way. Carmen was part of a Gurdjieff group that had been running in the hills above Tucson for years: she played your compositions on her grand piano in the old miner’s hotel, and tried to dance your sacred steps, until she twisted her knee and had to stop.

‘I am too rigid!’ she would wail and didn’t sound too pleased about the  metaphor. On the Day of the Dead she would bake three small cakes, pan de los muertos, for her Three Gs: you, George her old mentor, and God. She wasn’t pleased with any of you either and battled with all of your pronouncements and demands for a spiritual life. Sometimes I would find her pushing a broom with an intense look in her eyes. ‘I am focused on the task,’ she would say. I raised my eyebrows. I was not into gurus, and still am not into gurus, or temples, or being a follower of anything or anyone. Sometimes I’ve avoided the transmission – or thought I have – in my own annoyance with humans grovelling at the feet of great holy masters and their emissaries.

When we returned from America at the turn of the millennium, we found ourselves without direction in a place where we knew no-one, and during that first winter we stoked up the fire each evening with elm and birch wood and read the whole of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. It was a long book, over a thousand pages. Mark read out loud, I listened, the fire roared in the grate.

‘We have to make ourselves at home’, I said. ‘We have to start again.’

Being Effort is required.

You see, even though that was 15 years ago and I no longer have your books, I can remember the language, its strange and yet familiar terms, how they helped us do what seemed impossible at the time. Here by another fire, in the dead of winter, I felt I needed to make an account.Only this time it’s not personal. Perhaps it never was – I just didn’t see it at the time, wrapped up in my own seeming exile and grief. It had felt like the end of the world.

Bobbin-kandelnost – the force that exists in the three centres ofthinking, feeling and moving within the self; that acts like a coiledspring and can lose momentum and run out by overuse (see also‘Die like Dog’).
You wrote that three-brained beings don’t want to wake up to the terror of the situation, the realisation we are all asleep and stuck in automatic behaviours, our minds and personalities all over the place, reacting to outside events and never coming from within. The book, the ‘First Series’ of your All and Everything trilogy, opens with a description of a bellringer in a town, who curses the populace each morning as he climbs out of bed, so that their curses would deflect away from his work in the belltower. No one wants to wake up, get out of bed, do the thing they are supposed to do, to be a live conscious being in a difficult time. Fewer still want to ring that bell.

You wrote your masterpiece in the twenties, as the world rocked towards the Depression. You had arrived in Paris with the mass psychosis of the Russian revolution at your heels. People may say, with the clarity and dispassion of historians: well, it wasn’t so hard then to be awake, there was less to consider planetarily speaking. But it is always hard, the burning issues of the day are always the burning issues of the day, whether the spectre of another war in Europe or a climate catastrophe. You can be awake to that moment in the way poets in the trenches and gulags were awake, you can sacrifice yourself nobly to a cause to change the destiny of people, or you can be awake and not comply with the orders to stay asleep. You can embody an intrinsic inner move that can break the machine.

There is a moment in the Tales that struck me: you are sitting in the Paris cafe, where you are writing in several notebooks, dressed in a vanilla-coloured overcoat and a red fez. There is a bottle of brandy on the table and you are surrounded by the clatter of cups and knives and forks to hone your  mentation, your absolute focus on the matter at hand, as you turn your Saturnian face, with its drooping moustache, towards a woman greeting a group of friends. You suddenly see this scene at the table played over and over through time, through every civilisation and city, and still here the same petty relationships, the rivalries, the posturings of society, the things that take up the minds and hearts of people and no progress made at all, in spite of everything that has been said over and over again by poets, by mystics, by philosophers, by you.

Bored Secretary – the challenge of thwarting the associative mind that goes into the mental filing cabinets for facts or trivia; the pursuit of busyness out of superficiality and lack of rigour.
Most people remember the dramas and the gossip: whether you were or were not the last magus of Europe, or a carpet dealer and charlatan who slept with your students, whether your teaching really did come from the ancient Sarmoung Brotherhood in the Hindukush; or they mention your famous quarrel with Ouspensky, or how Katherine Mansfield died in your care at Le Prieuré, and a string of anecdotes and quotes and photographs of people in white tunics in elegant dance salons.

I am not a storyteller, I told Lucy and the women as they melted into the darkness tonight. I come from a line of engineers and lawyers, I have a forensic mind and love of structure. We have come here to initiate a network that will connect the women and the trees of these islands. It is a bold project. I know what needs to happen won’t take the shape of a narrative that we might already know, that to change really, truly, deeply, we have to let go of all those happy-ever-after stories of romantic love, of reconciliation and redemption. We need a rigorous practice that will break us open. A shock that will push us in another direction.

Your esoteric teachings were all about the musical scale and though I know now how your name should be pronounced (Gurrr-jeff, gruffly like a Russian bear), I cannot pretend to know their intricate meanings, any more than I understood how all those dots related in Peter’s painting. Yet the impression of a cosmic map remained, and one point shone outward  like a star you might recognise in the night sky: there is a stage as you increase your knowledge and practice and ascend the scale, where something has to come in from the outside to boost your inner transformation.

These encounters come but we are not ready for them, or they knock us over, or we forget to make the move. I thought I would never get over my exile from that desert place, from Carmen’s kitchen, from my life on the road – so I put a hand out and found a book and that’s when you came in with your convoluted metaphors, with your rants about tinned food, with your strange vocabulary, part-Armenian, part-English, part-Russian, for a transmission that I was open to without even knowing I was open to it.

I was born six years after you were buried in the Île-de-France, and the circumstances of my arising and my own nature would mean, even if I had been of your time, I would never have come to one of your packed lectures in New York, or danced a sacred dance in a white tunic, even with Carmen playing the piano. But here I am, having worked on self-pity and inner-considering and contending with everyone else’s. We still live in times of mass psychosis. The experts continue to wiseacre. The world is still asleep.

Being-Partkdolg-duty – twin methods of soul-making and waking up: conscious labours (also known as being effort) and intentional-suffering, the greatest of which is the ability to endure the ‘displeasing-manifestations-of-others-towards-yourselves’.
This wood is made up mostly of coppiced oak trees. An industrial forest in the 18th and 19th  centuries, the Wyre sits between the green hills of  Wales and the manufacturing sprawl of the Midlands. Sooty-faced charcoal burners once built great pyres in the clearings and made the charcoal that fuelled the iron forges of Birmingham, the smelters of a revolution that would rock the world. Until the discovery of coal, only the high temperatures of charcoal could melt the metal, and even now it is the favoured fuel of blacksmiths and sword makers.

Now the wood has become a neglected monoculture of oak trees, some streaked black with disease, with no space for them to branch out or for other trees to grow. They are sleeping, the curator said when I arrived, and told me his plans for restoration. Except for the yews. The yews stand there like red-armed sentinels from another time, some of them over 800 years old. When the snows came this winter, herds of deer sheltered underneath the white roof oftheir branches. This morning I stood in their hoofprints and listened to the rain fall quietly around me, listening out for an ancestral tale I might tell around this fire that might spark another kind of revolution.

Charcoal makers lived in the woods in shacks, feared and despised as ‘the devil’s men’. The work was hard and long and dangerous. They built up a pile of logs and covered it with soil and turf. The process took days and sometimes weeks. The gases produced were highly toxic and still are where Charcoal is now made, mostly illegally, for modern barbeques, in the forests of Africa and South America. The work for the women in the forest was also hard, as they stripped the bark from the coppiced trees for the tanning of leather.

The sparks in the fire come from old spruce fence posts and some birch, but mostly felled oak, where they are making space for other things to flourish here. ‘Who are we doing it for?’ asked the curator. For the nature lover who values butterflies, for the runner who likes to run along a straight path, for the forester who likes good long planks for carpenters to work with, for the charities who own it to make it pay its way when the subsidies run out, which they will surely do someday soon?

When you don’t know what to do or what you are doing life for, you build a fire, and you wait for something to spark you alight again. We are in the time of the winter solstice, the day that breaks the circle of the year, between its last outward breath and the first inward pull of air: the place of no breath.

After your first car crash, at the point when Le Prieuré, your school in Fontainebleau, was faltering, you pushed everyone aside and went into the forest and made up a great fire, and for days you sat in front of it. The fire remade you.

How heated do things have to become until we can reforge ourselves,to work the iron in our soul? If we fed the fire all our stories, everything we needed to die to, could we reforge the world into a different shape?

Inner Considering – the act of chewing over incidents which you feel guilty about or wish had been otherwise; to be replaced by outward expression (see also ‘Remorse of Conscience’).
What you need, above all, is the courage to face the terror that feels like annihilation. There are almost no words to describe that feeling because it is happening in a place that no one has working words for: as if you are being crushed by air or engulfed by flames that devour your memory; as if you are being dragged downwards into a pit and a force is sucking all the awareness and sweetness out of you.

When I returned I needed a techne to restore myself. I fed the fire my travelling story: I fed it my capacity to love a certain place on Earth that felt like home, my capacity to love certain people, my companions. These things wouldn’t happen again in my lifetime. Afterwards I found myself in another position, holding the reins of a carriage in my hands.

To get our horse and carriage into shape was core to your teaching. In order to behave like a human being, rather than a machine, we had to gather our wits about us and become fully conscious. The horse was our emotional body, the driver our mind, and the carriage our physical body. Only when these three parts of ourselves were working together could the passenger alight. Not to hail us occasionally like a hackney cab, but to be fully on board.

The techne of consciousness is hard, on-the-edge work. You have to persuade the horse not to bolt at every turn, you have to instruct the driver to have a feel for the horse and the bumpy road ahead. The
carriage needs to be roadworthy, kept in good nick. These three parts of ourselves need to work together. Otherwise we are not able to carry the passenger.

Who is the passenger? It is our conscious awake self, our spirit, our intelligence. The ‘being-I’ who knows what is going on and what we are doing together in this English forest, as the longest night holds us in its embrace and the owls call to each other from the canopy.

In those desert years I had climbed down and worked with the horse. I had become a whisperer of my own feeling being. We are held hostage by our feelings and, like the nervous, imaginative creature who has borne us loyally all these years, remember every blow received, so that when we see a shape we associate it with a dark presence we once knew, we rear up, or we refuse to move. Somehow, we have to unlearn all that fear and trust the driver. The driver has to walk beside the horse, repair her will which has been broken over thousands of years.

I let the horse lead me to regions that were not on the map: to reclaim my heart lost in childhood nightmares, into the forgotten kingdoms of trees and birds and sea to recover my place on Earth.  Most seekers focus on the driver and become too controlling, hampering the horse with bridle and whip; others work on the carriage, becoming obsessed with paint and cogs and springs. But I knew we go nowhere in the land of fire without the horse.

Mr. Self-Love and Mrs. Vanity – self-importance; twin attributes of self-obsession which lock human beings inside themselves and prevent influences both bad and good from entering (to be distinguished from the Self Love of essence which brings freedom– see Life is Only Real Then When I Am).
 The moment of solstice is exact. The pause between the expiration of the year and its great inhalation. There are ancient stories I can tell about this moment, how the oak changes place with the holly tree, the robin with  the wren, how in my country in the east, the men with blackened faces come over the marsh holding firebrands, and the women with hats draped with ivy, who back them playing the music of fife and drum. The dance is slow and heavy, their boots stamping the earth awake, the sticks clash and click like antlers, like flint against flint.

But most of all this is a techne for showing that life can begin again, so  long as we relinquish  everything we know in this moment of no breath, so long as we can admit none of us know what is going to happen or how. The techne comes through the mouths of people you don’t even respect, or a book that falls into your hands in a second-hand store that you open without knowing why.

Or now, as I find myself clicking two sticks of rainforest wood Aurelia gave me that spring night in Oaxaca for a performance we called the Earth Medicine Show. As she drummed and Mark sang, I danced and Julianne told us her heart that had frozen over in the Minneapolis winter had suddenly melted, and afterwards the five of us went out to dinner arm-in-arm to the square. That rooftop performance was our first and our last, and even though we rehearsed and talked about it for years, only now do I understand that it wasn’t the right time for shows. My carriage was robust but the horse was too nervy, the driver prone to flights of fancy. My eye was not on the road.

I don’t like to think that every radical move I’ve made in these years has been caused by outer shocks’. To be inwardly free – the ultimate goal  of Gurjieffian thinking – you have to transform the world’s hostilities and not submit to them. Because I was thrown out of America, because I underwent my own financial katabasis and had to face the reality of the job centre, because I had to suffer, more-or-less consciously, the ‘nullities emitting atmospheres of unendurable vibrations’ telling me I was worthless, knew nothing, or ignoring me entirely, I am here now dancing by the fire.

Self-calming – an act of deception we practice to pretend everything is all right when it is not; false assurances that prevent reality from being perceived.
When I think of you now I see your flat in Paris, where you spent your last years with the curtains drawn. For some reason I imagine it is one of those ateliers, with a crammed larder of jars and sausages swinging from hooks, though it was probably grander than that. You have given up on the world you say and now only teach a small band of women, mostly lesbians, called The Rope. When the Occupation is over you host great dinners and toast the idiots with glasses of vodka. You insist that everyone has to read your work at least three times to understand it.

I don’t know the 17 kinds of idiot you need to be totally awake (what is a round idiot, a square idiot?). It took me a long time to realise that an idiot was not an idiot, but that in different moments of awakening you appear like an idiot to everyone else in the status quo, to your family, to your best friend, to your culture and nation and history, that to be ready for the passenger to hail you is a great and noble task because you are doing it for the forest and the deer, and all who flourish under their branches. That is no small thing.

I have been a compassion idiot, a seeker idiot, a relinquishment idiot, a community activist idiot, a real democracy idiot. At each turn I imagined that if everyone woke up, got conscious, the world would turn around. Even though when I go to the city (which is not often) it looks as though we have become more like automatons than ever, our attention captured by small lit-up screens. And then I remember that this Earth is a chance to start again and, every year, time gives us that possibility, this moment.

In many ways I too have closed my curtains on the world and stocked up my larder. I have spent too much time chasing Mrs. Serious Problem (as you called the demands on you to secure funds) and the book I wanted to write is unfinished. But one thing you learn from being a writer: you are good at waiting, you are good at holding out, you can weather the moment of no breath, knowing that one day the spark will happen, the sentences will tumble out, and that they are only good if the form of their creator is newly-smelted. You wait for a long time, until the fire is hot enough to burn you without consuming you, to suck the moisture and then the oxygen out of you.

You wait for the opportunity, and when it arrives you toast all the idiots you have met whose common presences have helped shaped you, put the reins back into your hands. You look at them across the table, on the other side of the fire, and you raise your glass:

Salut Carmen, salut Peter, salut Aurelia, salut Lucy, salut Mark, salut George Ivanovich!

Kundabuffer – invisible organ that controls perception and turns any encounter with a disturbing reality upside down; a force that prevents you from seeing the truth when the truth would cause you to lose hope; a filter that requires dismantling.
In 1918, women in Britain finally won the right to vote (though only if  you were a householder over the age of 30). In 1918, the young men of Britain did not return to the Forest from the trenches of Flanders. Those who survived went instead to work in the factories of the Black Country. In 1918, your father was shot amongst the throng in the Armenian genocide in your home city of  Alexandrapol, and, posing as a scientist, you left Essentuki with a band of family members, companions and pupils and walked through the Caucasus Mountains. It was the beginning of a long journey west that went through Georgia to Istanbul to Paris.

You wrote that humanity was at a standstill and that ‘from a standstill there is a straight path to downfall and degeneration’, that nothing pointed to our evolution. And 100 years later it seems women are no more emancipated than human beings are more evolved. We have the vote, some of us are kinder to animals and some of us realise the effect of our actions on the living planet – but as a species we appear to be as stupid, cruel and greedy as ever. Our technology has evolved but we are
less vigorous, less alive, more timid, more pursued by ghosts and the trauma of history through generations, at a standstill where we feel responsible for everything and nothing at all; where our key fault is still our passivity and suggestibility – our lack of ability to think for ourselves and to handle those forces that battle for supremacy inside and outside ourselves.

Our buffers allow us to say one thing and do another: we lament deforestation while sitting on teak chairs, lament the state of the ocean whilst eating its disappearing fish, we think we are enlightened because we have read books, and pretend the slave trade is over when it is worse than ever. We’re still stuck in patriarchy, in a dualist Babylonian mindset – the cause, you once said, of all wickedness in the world – and we continue to nurture the ‘artificial, the unreal, and what is foreign, at the cost of the natural, the real, and what is one’s own.’

But maybe a standstill is a place to start from. Maybe if we just stopped here together, sat with the disturbing reality of that fact, something  else would kick in. Maybe if we shifted out of our predilection for stories, away from our desire to grovel at the feet of shiny saviours and patriarchs, our obeisance to the genetic mummy-daddy-baby machine,our longing for the community to love us, to succeed, to be a star, to be left alone – maybe some awakening would happen.

We would need to go against nature and against god as you once said – not against the Great Nature of the glacier and the tiger but our own propensity for passivity and suggestibility; not the solar and cosmic forces but the violent gods we worship and pray to in blind faith, instead of engaging in The Work that would make us function at higher vibratory levels, and thus the world, that would break us out of the prisons of our mind and from all our gaolers. That could allow us to be grander and kinder and more intelligent than these small rooms allow us.

Solioonensius – a time of solar or planetary tension which energises the Earth so people strive for freedom – then turn that striving for freedom into war or revolution, into destruction; a time when old ideas can no longer move the world and new ideas have not yet gained momentum; when certain new directions can be implanted into general culture.
Sometimes I remember what lay outside Carmen’s kitchen and I can feel the blue sky arching forever, and the empty roads that go on forever, the way in late March the flowers of the ocotillo lick the air like the flames of epiphany, and the scent of chaparral permeating the world after the rain. How I used to feel with the women in Mexico, as we sat beside the water, our colours and laughter and fluidity. I remember the space and that feeling of freedom I can never sense in my own country. How this lightness, this liberation, is what we all look for and yet here we are on this crowded island, in this sleeping forest, my muddy lane with its power possessor driveways and toxic runoff from barley fields, threats of development on all sides. Dispossessed, precarious, unnecessary. This is the territory I have to wrestle and contend with after the hope-for-something died in the high deserts of America.

You have to make yourself matter, become an active agent in the fabric of the world. If you are versed in myth and story, in the beauty of the bird and the flower, it is easy to feel at home on the Earth, but being at home amongst your fellow human beings is a task once you forgo the lullabies and cradle songs of Empire, and awake to find a bell rope in your hands.

We wield great terms above our heads like axes – social justice, transformation, shift of consciousness, power of community – ready to split enemy heads apart with their force. But still we are asleep, reacting, neglecting The Work down among the people in the petty shops and tearooms, enduring the unbearable vibrations of the office bully, the personages that control the boardrooms and parliaments.

A network is not a community, I told the women. We stand on miles upon miles of mycelium networks, connecting the forest, nourishing the roots of all beings underground. The community gathers the people together round the fire, it looks inward. The further you are inside it the warmer and more connected you feel. Outside a cold wind blows and you push and jostle to be in the throng.

A network is not concerned with belonging. It is self-directed and interested in the connections it makes. It works outwardly, focused on the matter at hand. The more the network is resonant and alive, the stronger it feels. Living networks depend on living breathing plants and creatures and microbes that are everywhere around us. We are an industrialised, neglected wood – asleep – but there are networks communicating beneath our feet and ancient yews amongst us, and men who make space for other things to happen. And here a band of women unafraid of the dark, standing with the forests, with our sisters of the world, and one of us, remembering you, in the flicker of a fire.

And if time is the great mystery of these islands, of this Earth, we are surely not alone in this moment, in this time of destruction, because if we step into this ancestral moment, in the presence of all beings, all creatures, all trees though time, then this is the moment that things can turn around.

Outside, the Earth waits in the stillness, as glaciers crack and tigers move across the snowline, as the roots of everything are ready to stir in the cycle of the year. Of itself, Great Nature can do nothing to effect our change, except we awaken, open to the spark of the sun inside ourselves. Of itself, the sun can effect nothing, except that we allow it into our physical forms, let it mould our selves anew.

After the fire, I will follow the women back up the track to the barn, as we feel our way with our feet in the dark. Tomorrow we’ll get up at dawn, light the stove and move out into the orchard in silence. We will stand under dripping hazel trees at the edge of the Forest, with the apple trees in front of us and the oaks standing behind us, and pay attention to the moment. Somewhere deep in the forest a deer will wait underneath a yew tree, as she has waited since the Ice Age in these borderlands. The sun will rise, even though we will not see it through the cloud.

The light shifts imperceptibly and a hawk flashes past, its scimitar wings cut the air. We hold our breath.

All images from Dark Mountain: Issue 13: Rock art for cover by Caroline Ross; Stepping Out by Bruce Hooke; The Night You were Reborn into the Eternal Home by Ilyse Krivel.

Dark Mountain: Issue 13 is on sale here. 
Editorial for the issue (and other extracts can be found on on the Dark Mountain website)

Thursday 19 April 2018

Everything That Rises Must Converge

The writer keeps the door open, so the world doesn’t close down ...When you stand on the edge of the society you have been taught is everything, and plunge into an unknown territory, you feel you know everything in parts of your self you did not know existed.  (from Snake in the Box)
'In the future the real function of the artist will to act like a host and to gather the people'. On the leafy woodland stage at the last Uncvilisation Festival, Fern Smith is playing Rachel Dutton,  the artist who walked out into the American wilderness with her husband and collaborator, Rob Olds in 1993. They left their art and city life behind and had only their tracking skills to hand. The critic Suzi Gablik (who interviewed them) stepped away from the conventional art word, arguing for a Reenchantment of Art. In this reenactment of their seminal interview, Doin’ Dirt Time, the trio discuss a return to the roots of creativity, how writers and artists lead the collective in the direction they need to go.

Fern has just left the theatre she founded 25 years ago and is also stepping into the unknown. In 1991 I left a conventional bohemian life as a journalist in London and never went back. Sometimes it feels as if you cannot go anywhere new unless you relinquish everything and swim heroically against the collective current. And yet the challenge to host and gather, raised by the play, has found me in this last decade working in communities, curating events, editing collaborative books and online platforms, showing  people how to write and edit as a team, and most of all finding ways to discuss, outside among the trees or in a teaching circle, what happens when our loyalties are not to the work we have been doing all our lives, or to the social classes we have or we have not been brought up in.

What happens to us as writers when we relinquish our inchoate desire to wage war on a childhood or imperial past, circumstances over which we had no control? Will we find other shards of ourselves buried beneath the drifting sands, tracks we can follow into the uncivilised wilderness?

In a time of fall and fragmentation , if you are wise, you do not look for the powerful Ones with their faraway promises and angry rhetoric. What you find yourself searching for is something real, something coherent, something you can count on – your relationship with the fabric of things, a certain meaning that comes from the natural world, held instinctively in the forms of creatures and plants. And also in a deeper part of ourselves, if we could but find them and give them voice.

What does coherence look and feel like? One thing I have learned, coherence does not emanate from the me-only writer in their cell of solitude. It comes from the writer-within-a-group, in symbiosis with everything around them. The writer who speaks on behalf of others in the human and non-human world. It comes from asking questions on the edge of things and having the courage to wait for the answer. It comes as an invitation to take part that you proffer, even when your conditioning pulls you to hide in your small room, hunched over the keys, playing with sentences like an emperor of a lost kingdom.

Here is the paradox, so clearly outlined in that small play: if we don’t ask key questions of each other, we won’t find any answers.

Writing in a Moment of Fall

This summer I am co-hosting two gatherings around non-fiction writing and editing in times of radical change. At the end of May, a group of us will investigate how we might learn from the honeybee hive, not just about the challenges bee colonies (and we) face, but also about their innate gifts of harmony and co-operation, in order that we might bring those shapes and skills and stores of sweetness into our own creative lives. We will be converging around the apiaries of the Natural Beekeeping Trust in Sussex, guided by their visionary 'curator' Heidi Hermann, and tuning into the world of the honeybee on both practical and inspirational levels.

Flights of Imagination: Writing with the Bees  will be taking place in Forest Hill, Sussex on 25-27 May 2018. This will be the first of such writing courses that explore working with the natural world in different places around Britain (see also Carrying the Fire weekend set in the heart of the Cairngorms this November).

In mid-June I will be teaming up with my friend and colleague, theatremaker Lucy Neal (whose book Playing for Time - Marking Art as if the World Mattered I helped edit in collaboration with 60+ artists). It will be our third course for Arvon teaching the craft of collective and dramaturgical writing. And this year we are delighted to welcome the novelist, editor and columnist, Nikesh Shukla as our midweek guest. Nikesh is the compiler of the groundbreaking book, The Good Immigrant - a collection of voices not often heard in mainstream circles and has just published his third novel, The One Who Wrote Destiny.

Writing to Make Change Happen will be held at Totleigh Barton, Devon on 11th–16th June 2018.

If either of these courses/gatherings sound as if they are for you, please do register your interest by the end of the month and we look forward to meeting and voyaging with you soon!

Image: Still from MAHAPRALAYA: The Great Dissolution by Gustaf Broms; Horse Island Woman by Kate Walters. Both images are from the recently published Dark Mountain Issue 13, a collaboratively edited book of over 60+ writers and artists, looking at 'Being Human in an age of social and ecological collapse'. You can find all details about the book on the Dark Mountain online shop.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Dark Kitchen: Uncivilising the Table

This week I introduced a new Dark  Mountain series that explores food and eating in times of collapse. Follow us during this Lenten month as we travel through different kingdoms and terrains, sharpening our appetites and cooking knives, in the company of artists, filmmakers, writers and activists.


We are looking at a plate. Tiny translucent slices of fish are artfully arranged around its rim. It is 1990 and we are in a Japanese restaurant in downtown Manhattan. 'Who is going first?' we wonder and laugh nervously. I am with Hamilton and Steve. We'll all go at once we decide and put the poisonous raw fugu in our mouths, declaring that a tingling was definitely happening. The dish costs $50.

We are looking at a plate. On it piled in chunky layers are home-baked sourdough bread, crispy seaweed and a poached egg. It is 2017 and we are outside in the lee of the Dorset cliffs, cooking on a camping stove. Everyone wants to go first. I am with Caroline, Jack and Mark and yesterday we cut the bright green fronds from the rocks, as the aquamarine sea swirled about our feet. We declare this is possibly the best breakfast we have ever had and laugh.

This is a story about food and powerdown. It could seem like a personal story except that it is not: it is a social story about how everything changes when you break the illusions your civilisation is wrapped in. In 1990 I am staying in the Algonquin Hotel, covering the US fashion collections, and I know nothing about the industrial food system; in 2017 I am staying in a hut on a beach, talking about Dark Mountain, and I know all its dark secrets. Decades later the Spring collections will still send beige raincoats down the catwalk and the forests of kelp will continue to wave their ancestral arms in the currents of the English channel - but the world I am documenting, like the food I now cook, is radically different.

This is a series called Dark Kitchen: a set of pieces that will look at and question the culture of food in times of fall. It's not a subject Dark Mountain has focused on before, even though writing and cooking share a creative terroir, not least in their ability to bring things to the table, to alchemise raw material into food for the mind, heart and body. Up to now any focus on food has been practical: the Uncivilisation festivals hosted foraging walks, we've published pieces on mead making, bread baking in Australia and a recipe for a very rooty, roadkill pheasant stew; this series aims to bring a writer's and artist's particular attention to food from a Dark Mountain perspective.

Our focus will not be on the labyrinth, the whirlygig of distribution centres and trucks that thunder along our roads, all the data and polemic, but on finding the dancing floor beneath it. Around all our sentences lie the deforested lands, the denuded and poisoned oceans, the lost soil, the vast herds of creatures living and dying invisibly in dark sheds. We know what is going down. Our core question is, once you have railed at the machine that holds us in its palm-oiled maw, what do you do as an artist, as a storytelling human being, knowing that every time you venture out with a shopping basket, you return with blood on your hands?

Dark Kitchen aims to gather some of the stories about food that go untold at the edge of our civilisation. All civilisations flourish and flounder according to their ability to feed themselves. All of us, as human animals, no matter where we exist, on what social and political map, need to eat to live. Like death, this is a fact of our existence here. How we can we do that sustainably, with kindness, with fairness, is a question many grassroots organisations and activists ask themselves.

One they do not necessarily ask however is: how do we change the story of our lives, built as it is on millions of years of living in hunter/gatherer bodies, thousands of years living in wheat and barley-fed civilisations, in nomadic milk-herding geographies? Food is not a matter of intellectual debate: it is physical and feeling memory, deep time memory, cultural and personal history. It is people and relationships with domestic and wild creatures, conviviality, tradition, hunger, belonging, snobbery. Roast dinners, fish and chips by the sea. It is hunting deer and keeping chickens, curry on a Friday night when you were a student. It is visiting the markets of Morocco, or France, or your gran who cooked the best lemon meringue pie ever.

How do you come up with a new way of interacting with the world that means all that culture stored inside of you and everyone you know, constantly reflected from shiny magazine pages, on TV screens, on your best friend's Instagram, has to go?

Roland Barthes observed in his seminal work Mythologies how the modern left faltered before the sheer power and sexiness of the capitalist advertising industry. How can you match the pull it has on your most basic desire: to eat delicious food, tasting of fat and salt and sweet, ready made without effort, without thinking of where it has come from, a food without consequence, untainted by guilt. Every day feast food, seeped in the lure of luxury, convenience, pleasure, control - the defining signature of a corporate lifestyle.

A humble recipe for vegan nut roast is not going to cut the mustard, any more than modern socialism has been able to counter market fundamentalism. The glamour and snobbery of high culture, and the physical desires and  habits of most people, are too strong. Something else has to pull you more powerfully in another direction: something that has its roots in the land, in a deeper culture that also looks prophetically to the future,  that has intelligence, meaning and ethics and still tastes good.

One thing corporate dining, for all its cheffy fancies and huge glasses of wine, does not have and never will: the relationship with the non-human, with the earth, with the plants and creatures who stand to go down with us if we don't dismantle the labyrinth. This relationship is above all things a matter of the heart. Dark Kitchen is about remembering one of the oldest and simplest stories ever told: a love affair with the fabric of life.


Bread b7w
Where did the shift away from that plate of fugu begin? I read a cookbook by Colin Spencer with a no-holds-barred description of slaughterhouses. I gave up eating meat. I read End of the Line by Charles Clover. I gave up eating fish. I read Eat Your Heart Out, Felicity Lawrence's document about corporate control and the fate of African workers in the glasshouses of Spain and Italy. I gave up buying out-of-season tomatoes. I stopped going to supermarkets. Then I went to a documentary hosted by a local Transition initiative where Derrick Jensen spoke about the agricultural revolution and how it had decimated the wild world. Somewhere a restaurant door slammed shut and an allotment gate clicked open.

In Transition I bumped into everything that the advertising and supermarkets keep in the dark: land grabs, slavery, GM, pesticides decimating insect and bird populations, slurry from pig farms killing the rivers and oceans. I started to look at the barley and beet fields outside my window in a new light and shudder.

In those grassroots community activism years, food growing connected us all: we knew that growing radishes would not change the world but it would radically change our relationships with the earth and with each other. I became a serial food blogger charting the downshifting moves within food production: growing co-ops, box schemes, gleaning networks, apple-pressing weekends, potato days, community bakers, seed swaps, the plight of the honey bees, and the ex-Agriculture minister John Gummer telling us at a farmers' conference on Climate Change and Food Security:
This is the biggest issue agriculture has faced, and unlike the Depression in the 1930s and the Black Death we are not facing this in ignorance. And because we know we are responsible. People don't want to know of course, because once you know it changes you and you are ashamed.
It was a time where people on panels said these kinds of things and prophesied that bio-tech loaves and fishes would feed the 9 billion. It was a time of bringing potatoes to Occupy camps and wild weed salads to low-carbon meetings, of rescuing a whole side of salmon and punnets of strawberries from the Latitude festival recycling bins, cooking Mexican and raw food feasts for community diners. It was a time where The Monitor in the kitchen told me exactly how much power was eking out of the fridge and the kettle. When some women wept and struggled with their Tesco habit, and others implored me not to tell them exactly what their shrimp habit was doing to the seabed or the coastal mangroves of South East Asia.

But something was missing. Everything I wrote had this evangelical tone. We need to reduce our energy use! Get in season! Make your store cupboard resilient! Wake up to the real price of consumerism! I realised neither knowledge nor social justice gives enough heft for people to change tracks. To be in synch with the living systems, to restore the land, to eat beautifully with conscience, to find meaning in an everyday humble meal, an imaginative relationship with the physical world had to be created. Our hearts had to be rekindled by something stronger, more alluring, than any feel-bad information. Something you never thought of before  like seaweed for breakfast on a limestone beach in September.

A short story about beans

Beans 2
I am standing on Dark Mountain's Base Camp stage, holding a handful of field beans. These beans are what this weekend is all about, I am telling the gathering. Field beans have been grown here in Britain since the Iron Age and embody one of the uncivilised principles of the manifesto  being rooted in time and place.

The beans are produced by my friend Josiah, who started a small business in a nearby Suffolk market town with Nick and William five years ago. The beans were all about shortening the supply chain, encouraging farmers to grow a crop that was either given to cattle or sold to the Middle East, and that was nutritious not only for an eat-less-meat-and-dairy-cook-from-scratch culture, but also for the soil that is being rapidly depleted by fossil-fuelled farming.

But most of all the beans were about telling a different story. A Jack in the Beanstalk story about a boy who sells his mother's cow for a handful of beans that totally changes their luck. The beans were followed by peas of many colours, and then quinoa (grown not in Bolivia but in Essex), and now lentils, naked barley and oats, and a host of other grains and pulses, grown with the same kind of attention to place and provenance that has made local craft beers rocket in popularity in the face of corporate brewing. In short, a whole shelf of basic goods that would normally be imported, in fields that would normally host monocultural commodity crops grown for the global market. Last year Hodmedods won BBC Producer of the Year and had to move warehouses, as everyone else began to agree those beans just took you to places that Mr Heinz never could.

One of the successes of the fava bean is that it is a beloved ingredient in the fragrant and spicy cuisines of  the Middle East and other countries. To end each of our Dark Kitchen posts we'll be cooking up a recipe that will capture the flavour of some of the story we're telling, that shows though we may live in more austere restricted times, there need be no limit to our imaginations and flair and generosity. This is a classic North African dish made with fava beans instead of chickpeas and served with quinoa instead of couscous. It can serve two to four people  just add less or more veg.

Seven vegetable tagine

Soak a big handful of fava beans overnight and then cook until soft (approx 40 minutes). Keep to one side. Whole beans keep their shape but split fava is OK too if you don't mind a bit of collapse in your cooking (no need to soak).

Chop one onion and fry gently in olive oil in a largish saucepan. When softened add 2 cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of ras el hanout spice (or a mix of cumin, coriander, mixed spice and chilli pepper) and fresh green chilli if you like it hot. Stir and then add your roughly chopped seven veg which will depend on season: swede, leeks and parsnips in winter for example, courgettes, green pepper and turnips in the summer. You're looking for a strong taste and a chunky texture, so celery and carrots are good. Cabbage however is key and can be added half way through the main cooking so it keeps its form.

Stir in the spicy oil for a minute or two then add 2 tomatoes and a squeeze of tomato puree, or the equivalent in tinned tomatoes, and water to just below the level of the veg. Throw in a handful of sultanas and half a preserved lemon (or a couple of slices and the juice of half a fresh squeezed lemon). Stir, pop on the lid and cook until the veg starts to soften (about 15 minutes). Add the beans for a further five.

Before serving add salt and black pepper to taste, plus a big handful of chopped coriander and/or parsley. Served with quinoa, flavoured with orange zest, cinnamon and toasted sunflower seeds, a bowl of slaw or salad, and some feisty harissa.

Next course:

The Dark Kitchen series will run throughout February, but will continue as an occasional series when the new-look Dark Mountain website is launched in April. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to Thanks all and bon appetit!
Images: Medlars in a Sieve by Food/ Still life photography: Sue Atkinson; loaves from a co-operative oven, Can Piella, Catalonia by Phillip Evans ; a handful of (field) beans by Mark Watson