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?’
available from the online shop for £19.99; the London launch will take place at The Baldwin Gallery on 22nd November. Do come!
available from the online shop for £19.99; the London launch will take place at The Baldwin Gallery on 22nd November. Do come!