Thursday 4 November 2021

52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth (reissued): 1 - Epazote

High Desert, Arizona on the border with Mexico, where some of the book takes place
High Desert, Arizona on the border with Mexico, one of the book's main territories

Twenty years ago I had a dream that changed the course of my life utterly.  It was about a weed that grows along the waysides in Mexico, a plant I had never met. Ten years later I wrote a book called 
52 Flowers That Shook My World where it heralds the encounters and medicine stories behind a radical departure from everything I had once known. Today, in celebration of the the book becoming available in PDF format, here is its first flower.

Notting Hill, London 1990 

That night I had a dream. I was walking through a green land and an Indian woman came up to me and put some herbs in my hand. I have been having dreams about plants since I returned from Mexico. Men and women are appearing silently from nowhere and giving me sage tea to drink, or instructing me to plant bulbs, or I find myself walking through fields of wheat and maize and seeing how their growing patterns have been disturbed. This dream was unusual, however, in that this native woman spoke the names out loud: one was liquorice root and the other had a name I did not recognise, epazote. 

In the dreams I know about the cornfields but I do not know about the herbs. I particularly do not know about this herb called epazote. That night I got up and sat at my writing table and looked at my hands. I have the familiar corn in my right, but in my left, I hold a plant I do not know. It is a stranger. 

I am in my flat alone in the middle of the night, holding this strange herb from a dream. I am surrounded by everything I know: shelves of books, thousands of them, line the walls of this kitchen study. In the adjacent living room the treasures of a thirty-something life sit in the darkness: pottery bowls from markets, pearwood chairs from auctions, a long handcrafted table where people meet, an Indian mattress where people sometimes sleep. I could pick up every object in this room and tell you its story: who was there when I found it, what it means, how it defines me; how this jacket came from Paris, the paella pan from Madrid, the blue meshed larder from Athens, this stone from a certain beach in Wales, these cow bones from the New Mexican desert. I could tell you all the recipes that I cook in these earthenware dishes, with my junkstore utensils that lie in a drawer, in my alchemical workplace of words and cooking pots, my rooms with a certain atmosphere many people love to come to, even more than being with me. Charlotte’s for supper, with its table and familiar objects, with its rough panelling, its windows without curtains, where you can hear the occasional sound of a bus passing, or a drunk reeling down the road. With its inspirational physical style. 

In this moment I feel all the attention that I and others have placed on these objects dwelling in these rooms. I feel the way I move about them, write about them, handle them is becoming more important than my own living being, and something in me shudders. 

I realise that my being is about something else that is not dependent on these objects. Life is not about things that others or I can handle. These objects are a replacement for a relationship with life. But nothing replaces that relationship, not really. It is a comfort, as a child is comforted in the night by a toy. But it is not the real thing. This plant I do not know yet is telling me this. It is having a certain effect as I sit and contemplate it. Everything I am surrounded by has become imbued with a different feeling, has become less secure in this moment. It as if these objects no longer have anything to do with me. They are losing their hold, unhooking themselves, as I hold this strange herb in my left hand. 

The entrance of the stranger on the solar path is the pivotal point, the point when it begins. The stranger is something about which you know nothing, that you allow into your life. Sometimes this is a person and sometimes a new idea. But whatever form the stranger takes, it comes like a strange attractor and breaks the limit cycle of our lives, like a philosopher’s stone that begins the strange alchemy of our souls. Our worlds are normally so circumscribed that we automatically do everything to keep this stranger out. We are programmed to defend ourselves, like genetically modified plants, to deport any visiting outsider as an undesirable alien, in order that we continue to conduct our affairs in the same small way, without questioning their validity. 

But sometimes we let the stranger in anyway. Sometimes by accident, and sometimes fired up by an ancient curiosity, our native love of secrets and mysteries, our desire for keys and clues and signs. Our souls lie in wait for such a moment, the moment when our consciousness starts to ask questions and rouses us out of bed to look at our hands. 

What has awoken me this night from my sleep is the memory of Mexico. This first germinating seed is a wild plant known as Mexican wormseed. Epazote is not a grand plant; in fact it is a common weed that flourishes by any highway, ditch or vacant lot from Sonora to Chiapas. Its name derives from the Nahuatl word for skunk, due to its unmistakable pungent aroma. It is a member of the goosefoot family, a whole tribe of flourishing weeds like tumbleweed and fat hen, all with small flowers and nourishing rich green leaves (beetroot, good king henry, spinach are all goosefoots). However, epazote’s power lies not in its leaves but in its rank and bitter seeds, which are a formidable anti-parasitic and vermifuge. It was once cultivated throughout the world as a cure against the ravages of hookworm. It has been used for centuries in Mexican cooking to flavour and act as a digestive aid in beans. In fact, once you have tasted its strange and musty scent, you can’t cook beans without it. 

Once I had tasted Mexico, I could not do without Mexico either. Its strange and bitter flavours. When I had travelled there with Mark that spring I had gone without any references. It was unexpected, something I had not calculated for. ‘No one I knew knew Mexico,’ as I would write later in a book about this journey. Mexico did not exist in my library or my internal world, so its presence could act on my being absolutely. And absolutely it did. This did not just mean the unusual physical senses of the place: the scent of tuberose, the colours of the painted walls, the long bus rides through valleys of glow-worms, a hot turquoise sea – but also things of a deeper, more cosmic level. It meant taking hallucinogenic mushrooms that tore my consciousness open in the Mayan rainforest, and now, as I am looking at my hands, it means Carlos Castaneda and the warrior’s path, a path of heart that goes through the desert. A certain desert of thorns and cactus. 

When you start the solar journey, you hunt for ways to begin. If you are a writer, you start with books, and of all the many books I was reading at this time, it was Castaneda’s account of his apprenticeship with the Yacqui seer don Juan in Mexico that spoke most urgently to me. While others I knew were fascinated by the book’s description of power and the control of dreams, I was absorbed by its meticulous description of the energetic acts of the warrior, those strategic steps of the will that enabled one to live with fluidity in the world: the assuming of responsibility, the letting go of self-pity and self-importance, encountering the mysterious presence of twilight and the concept of impeccability. 

The other ‘new-age’ works I looked at during this time had very little to do with impeccability. They concerned themselves with important gods and goddesses, family psychology and wounded healers, archetypes and temples. They belonged to the bourgeois city parlours I recognised from my novel-reading days. But Castaneda’s books were talking about something that did not originate in the city. The writer-anthropologist had left the city of Los Angeles in the early sixties in search of a plant called peyote that grew out in the desert chaparral that lay between Arizona and Mexico. There was something clear and autonomous and mysterious in his quest that resonated with my own being. His journey reminded me of the deliberate life I had come across in the works of Sartre when I was young. Don Juan’s teachings spoke of a rigorous and affectionate relationship between man and earth that was both sparing and tender, that lived quite beyond this indulgent, acquisitive, objectifying world I lived and worked in. Because everything he spoke of worked within the framework of death. 

Most of all Mexico meant death. Death is your advisor, don Juan advises Carlos Castaneda. We are all beings who are going to die. Every act you make as a warrior is your last act on earth, so you don’t have time for petty moods or failures. You don’t waste your time. 

I had not considered death before, my death. Death is something you don’t think about in the eternal shopping world of London or Los Angeles, but in Mexico death looks at you directly in the eye, rattling its smiling skeleton in the face of your artificial parasitic life, whose currency is inflated ten times its actual value. At a certain point, if you care about life, you turn to face death. You let go of the world you have been involved in constructing and start to work for the spirit of things. You realise you are not going to be on this earth forever and certain strategic moves need to be made if you want to experience this mysterious place while you are here. 

In Palenque that spring I had realised my life in the world meant nothing. It wasn’t worth a handful of beans. In the annihilating force of the mushrooms, I could hold on to nothing of this existence, not even my name. So I let them go. And what was left in its place was a relationship to life that now demanded my full attention, linked both with my own heart and with the mysterious man whose destiny now appeared inextricably bound up with my own. Mark. 

One day shortly after this epazote dream, I picked up the telephone. ‘Mark, Let’s go to Mexico for six months,’ I said. ‘We can write a book together.’ 

‘Oh, yes!’ he said. ‘But what about your flat?’ 

There was a pause. 

‘I’m going to sell it,’ I said. ‘I’m going to sell everything I own.’ 

When I left London I was thirty-five. The age when you let go of the corn you have been sowing in your right hand, and take up what destiny has given you in your left. When Death appears at your door, when the mysterious woman with her wand of wormseed comes to you and suggests you face another direction entirely. When you let go of everything you know and walk toward the sun, towards an unknown horizon.

You can order 52 Flowers That Shook My World from The Dark Mountain Project online shop here. Unpublished chapters are also posted on this site. You can read them here.

Saturday 25 September 2021

When the Bones of our Ancestors Speak to Us: A Fugitive Conversation with Bayo Akomolafe

Earlier this year I interviewed the postactivist philosopher Bayo Akomolafe for Dark Mountain: Issue 19, our spring collection of art and writing on death, loss and renewal.  I had just completed his innovative online course We Will Dance with Mountains which has just begun again this month. 

I am preparing to leave a house I have lived in for 18 years. A gathering of starlings loop and swerve overhead in the falling light, and in the distance you can hear the grind and thump of the sugar beet harvesters in the winter-flooded fields. For the last two  months, as we pack up, I have been focused on a task with four strangers from different places and ports of origin (Manchester, Holland, Nigeria, Germany, Jamaica and London): to consider the fate and future inscribed in the bones of an unknown slave woman, unearthed from a burial site in the Port of Rio de Janeiro in 1996. 

The archaeologists named her Bakhita (after the Sudanese slave turned Catholic saint) and all we know of her life is that she did not survive the Atlantic crossing to work in the sugar cane fields of Brazil alongside an estimated five million of her compatriots from West Africa. Our task is to rebuild the slave ship, set by the philosopher, writer and ‘recovering psychologist’, Bayo Akomolafe, as part of an online course he has been spearheading called We Will Dance With Mountains.

I wanted to speak with Bayo because this issue’s contemplation of death and dying also revolves around change; how, in times of fall, we allow a known world to collapse and reform from within. In no other modern thinker have I come across such a dynamic approach to undertaking that radical act of consciousness, embedded as it is in the startling imagery of the transatlantic slave trade.

Bayo works in intense metaphor, using metaphysical infrastructure to enable us to perceive how we are kept trapped by civilisation and how we might liberate ourselves from its invisible manacles. The building blocks of his lexicon include the slave ship (with three decks of colonisers, slaves, and Earth resources); the plantation, where we are set to work; and the fugitive who escapes the capture of both. Sanctuary is a gathering place where fugitives might flock and find other ways of being together.

Charlotte Du Cann: In the Bakhita Project, we have been meeting in the transformative space of sanctuary to consider the ancestral consequences of the colonial slave trade. Do you feel our legacies can ever be resolved?

Bayo Akomolafe: The legacies of the slave ship are yet-to-come. Modernity captures the slave ship in the same way it captures black bodies, white bodies, all kinds of bodies, and allots them prescribed ways of behaving and responding to crisis events, like the idea of racial injustice and climate chaos. It looks at the white body and says you are the enemy, and to black and brown bodies it says you are the victim here. Sanctuary is this emergent space which might be tethered to a post-modernist escape from modernity. 

The slave ship was an instrument of oppression and capture, an instrument of horror, but when I lean into my traditions, when I listen to the tale of the trickster Èṣù and the tricksters of other cultures, such as Pan or Loki, the boundaries of what is supposedly horrific and evil, it is also shape-shifting. It is moving, productive, generative, and escapes our modern gaze. Our elders are asking us to look at the slave ship, not as a thing that is gone and done with but as a thing that is energetically present, right now.

We are all in a slave ship: capitalism is a form of slave-shipping and we are captured here, ontologically incarcerated – master and slave. The very architecture of the slave ship is hinted at in the ways we perform hierarchy and order bodies on a scale of worthiness – with the other-than-human world being below black bodies.

So, you might say that the invitation to rebuild the slave ship is to revisit the conditions of our incarceration, to look around us, to look again, and to see that these boundaries are never still, always movable. So I don’t want to make the legacies of the slave ship  OK. I want to make it sensuous, inviting, I want the wall to be porous, olfactory, membranous, I want it to be exposed and open, experimental, diffracting one thing into another. This is how new things are born. 

I refuse to categorise artifacts of history as evil or good, because we do away with a lot of resources when we stabilise these things in those ways. When we name their colours too soon. So, to step into a space that is as troublesome as the slave ship is the trickster’s way, to play with trouble, and that might help us to transform.

CDC  This book’s theme is centered on death, dying and change. Is that collective space of sanctuary also where things can die and provide energy, or compost, for transformation?

BA  We think of death too strictly I think, as this absolute terminal point. I am interested in spaces in culture, for gatherings, where we touch the traces of our unbecoming and notice where we are falling apart. Where we reimagine death not as something down the line, but a paradigm, a thick now, an immanent field of loss and creativity that is entangled with what we rudely tease out as ‘life’. Modernity is about putting things together neatly, proliferating still images, being coherent, noble, independent. Consider what might be produced if, instead of thinking of death strictly as a firm line or an isolated event, we find ways to experiment with how we are already falling away, and how, for example, your identity is dying, how you are nomadic, diasporic, constantly moving, even when the habits of my perceiving you compel me to see you as a white woman. If we had  practices to notice the ways where our names, our bodies are changing and giving way to something else. How we are actually ghosts.1

I think dying well is about becoming with our traces and learning to touch the traces of our falling away. In a literal sense, I am leaving my cells here and there, I am less or more than I was a few minutes ago. Maybe a practice like this is the urgency of the hour. This is what I mean by fugitive exile, about leaving the plantation which reproduces images and instead helping us to see we are beyond static images. We are not as photographic as we think we are. We are abroad in ways that escape the ‘Man’, the head of the pyramid, of the capitalist structure. And that is the invitation of a constellation, of processional relational ontologies.

CDC  Your teaching of ways of being and becoming in many ways echoes one of the principles of Dark Mountain’s Uncivilisation: taking that Man out of the centre and letting life be in the centre. You have called it ‘a constellation of fugitive technologies that allows us to meet the world differently’. Could you name a few of those that most urgently need paying attention to?

BA  By fugitive technologies, I refer to sites of encounter where we might be met by the world in return, where we might learn to listen and cultivate humility in the face of a world that exceeds us, a world that never receded to the background of human ascension, even when we pretend that it did. And it is very difficult to talk out of context about what this constellation of practices might mean for different communities, which is why I have hesitated to frame making sanctuary as a universal, ahistorical process that I can plant anywhere I want.  

Someone told me that poetry doesn't appeal to this moment and that we need facts. And I countered by saying: poetry is the spirituality of fact. Facts vibrate at the speed of mystery and poets are attuned to that, that facts are not as stable as you think. When people hear about fugitive technologies, they say: well, here is a practice that if I do, I might be saved. Here is a product, let’s call it ‘racial healing system’, here is an app for emancipation, here is an idea, a concept that is already neatly packaged. The very presence of the word fugitive dismantles that. The fugitive is a figure that is constantly moving, so I am not talking about the arrival state, the Coca-Cola at the end of the factory line. I am talking about the methods of dis/inquiry; I call it dis/inquiry to remove ourselves from the centre of the inquiry. The inquiry is how to get lost. The question of the fugitive is how do I lose my way? How do I lose this plantation? How do we get as far away as possible? So, these technologies I speak of are not fixed products one can scale up; they are cartographies of lostness, rehearsals in losing one’s way in order to meet the world anew.

Making sanctuary is a gathering place, a village of these technologies. The Bakhita Project is premised on post-qualitative/post-anthropocentric research, decentring the anthropological figure as the central researcher and storyteller and learning to listen to the world. What might that do to us? The idea of becoming lost is to become otherwise by virtue of encounters with the more-than-human world. This is not research that is intended for us to be better, or to get back to business, to our shiny ivory towers.

I might ask, right now, for the purposes of our conversation: how is Charlotte learning to trace her ghostliness, the legacies made in her name? What are the recipes for your undoing? How are you noticing the extraordinary that is packed within the ordinary? How are you sharing these recipes of your undoing around you so that we form a politics of mutual undoing?

So, my sister, it has to do with dis/inquiry, the methodologies of exile.

CDC  You talk about a state of betweenness, finding the cracks, a state that is neither inclusive nor exclusive. Is this engaged with by oneself or with others or both?

BA   I am very wary of individual journeys of salvation or emancipation, of personal enlightenment workshops. I am not sure what the ‘individual’ is anyway anymore, when we find microbial communities living in our guts, and viruses living within bacteria. Post-humanist processes are always involved. Even if you deem it fit to focus on yourself as a separate entity, you would need physical resources to do that. Thought is not always as internal as cognitive scientists would have us believe. I feel it is environmental and ecological and that you are pulling on outside resources, even as you turn to your navel.

The basis of a fugitive politics-to-come always involves an irreducible collective of bodies, humans and more-than-humans, even when a single ‘individual’ is in focus. I am interested in framing a project that does not privilege humans as the starting point, how bodies are forced to think by the environment, by happenings in the world. So for me the instigator of thought isn’t human. A virus has forced India to rethink education. Because of the pandemic we are forced to go in a different direction. 

I think making sanctuary is gathering those who have been disarticulated by cracks in the environment to work with those cracks, rather than patching them up and returning to normal. Are things awkward for you? You don’t know how to proceed with work? You have existential questions with politics? If you feel that despair, you are not alone. Let’s gather here and instead of trying to run away and fix the problem, let’s move away from those solutionisms and stay with the trouble with our dis/inquiry. Let’s do research which might be ecologically framed and culturally framed as katabasis. Going under and finding ways to go deep into the ground and honour ancestors, to listen beyond ourselves. We can call it individual or collective work, or human and non-human. But I just feel nothing is as isolated as we think it is. Sanctuary is making space for the world to exist.

CDC  I feel civilisation has held us in a fixed grip for thousands of years, beyond even those centuries of the transatlantic slave trade, and when you consider this and the fact that slavery still exists widely in the world, you ask yourself the bigger question: why have human beings been slaves, or commanded them, for so long?

BA   I’m very shy about responding to why questions! The standard official explanation for what happened over 400 years to black bodies is that it was due to (human) evil or wickedness. I understand the legacies of such responses, but it does not feel generative for me. It’s a conversation-stopper and doesn’t do anything except label people, and might perpetuate the dynamics of the slave ship that feels so horrific to the imagination. 

But if we consider that things are assemblages, acting upon other assemblages, suddenly there’s somewhere to go that does not necessarily terminate prematurely at a moral judgment. When I touch the assemblage of the transatlantic slave trade that features heavily in my work, if you look at the ingredients that made it possible – the Catholic enterprise of rationality that emerged from the Enlightenment, its ideologies and philosophies; sugar cane and its metabolism within human white European bodies; the climate that drove people away from chilly Europe to the sunny Caribbean – and how assembling the pieces together and noticing how those ingredients interacted together became the conditions for slavery, it might free us and liberate us in ways that go beyond just answering why.

It helps to ask: if sugar was an active non-human agent in the proliferation of that economy, that arrangement of master and slave, then what kind of moves can we make today to make sure that doesn’t happen? Then we talk beyond just active legislation, or healing people of their evil. We talk about meeting sugar cane, the idea that we are framed in unmasterable fields and forces that go beyond the liberal humanist project. 

We need to create rituals of humility to know we are not masters of ourselves. Just framing it as something beyond us, without belittling accountability. Framing it as something that is more than human. That is what I am interested in as ‘postactivism’.

CDC  It could be said that Dark Mountain was founded as a postactivist project, in that the art and writing it hosts is created by sitting with the trouble rather than fighting it. How do you define postactivism and how do you see it as a force within culture?

BA  It’s a pervasive myth that we are independent thinkers, that I think my thoughts, Charlotte thinks her thoughts, and that there are as many thoughts as there are people on the planet and that we all have our separate thoughts, that we act from some volitional force or agency that comes from within. 

What escapes that analysis is that we are connected in very sticky ways. We actually think territorially, ecologically, we run, we hide, we look at people like us and we congregate together. And patterns and sticky formulas are at work that are occluded when we think of ourselves as individual activists. I bring that up because when we talk about activism today, it seems activism is colluding conspiratorially with the world it is trying to change. The way we tend to see it in the ‘developing world’, in the Global South, is that the very solutions passed down to us only deepen the problem we want to get rid of, so we tend to be stuck in a cycle of repeatability. The IMF comes down and says here is a structural readjustment programme, here is austerity, something to help your people, let’s buy laptops for African children, so they can learn. And the laptops come and introduce new problems of their own. 

I read somewhere that the ‘West’ exports psychological and pathological categories. As a clinical psychologist I have gone into villages in Nigeria and been told: you are the expert, tell me what’s wrong with me. What they were in fact saying was that since I was trained in Western psychology, I was superior to them, and their own indigenous experiments with being and becoming were discardable. The solution of my discipline and my expertise was supposed to cancel out the problem. It was just an allopathic response that compressed the problems and left the sickness intact. 

I think activism is as materially complicit in the problems we are trying to solve, and as entangled as anything else. Postactivism is not a superior, spiritual way of responding. It is not saying here is a stream of thinking and acting, a way of behaving that will guarantee you utopia or a place of arrival. Postactivism is a democratising of responsivity. It’s saying we have been stuck on a highway of responding but there are other ways that are not tethered to this highway, where we can investigate and which might lead to another kind of transformation. 

So postactivism is in alliance with a different theory of change. We have thought change is what humans do. We are burdened with the idea of change, and feel we need to change the world. Posthumanism comes into the picture and tells us humans are not central to the world, we have never been central to the world, we did not create the world. We are always immersed in a field of differential becomings, what Deleuze would call ‘transcendental materialism’. We are not stable things. We are diffracted, porous and transcorporeal. 

Postactivism is based on posthumanism. It is my way of saying that change is not human, it is not our work. We can only ally and build stronger coalitions for change with the world around us (and not just with humans). Postactivism is the opening to this. It is about cracks and faultlines and fissures. It is like a hungry teenager, who asks: what can we do with this crack? How might this help us to build a partnership with this alien over there, in order to ask complex and new questions about the world we are in? It is not about solutions, though solutions are welcome. It is about wonder, building new alliances for becoming different. Touching the material body of activism and allowing it to shudder.

CDC  You said at the beginning of your course you deliberately pivoted its enquiry not within the United States, but in Africa. What was the reasoning behind this?

BA  Empires colonise conversations about change. They capture conversations that might redeem it from what you call the holding station, and then take these conversations and put them in the family way. Soon the ways we speak about decolonisation and racial justice, which might otherwise ring true for other people and cultures and lead to new sites of shared power, become about how do we appeal to the powers that be, or use certain languages or phrases to signal I am woke, or woke enough.  Soon, the nuances and complexities of navigating a difficult world are reduced to a few codes, a few linguistic choices, which Empire selects, and which others must adhere to in order to be righteous. So it becomes very territorial. 

I am looking for conversations that are fugitive, that escape, that grant themselves permission to do what they want to do, and do not look towards the plantation, saying can you allow me to be seen? The fugitive does not want to be seen. And America is the most visible trope. 

As such, I did this decentring for me, and to let our brothers and sisters in America know that they are not central to the world. You are not carrying the burden of change, you don’t have to change us. The boundaries of America are not the boundaries of the world, you are just a small aspect of what is happening. That should be liberating. So I think I am being hospitable when I say it is not about you.

CDC  What often happens regarding any conversation about race, or slavery or emancipation, is that it centres on the United States and thus limits our imagination and allows people to say in Europe, for example, well it didn’t happen here, it happened in the colonies. As a result we don’t get to look at this properly. So having the pivot of inquiry in Africa allows other kinds of knowing and awareness to happen. Which wouldn’t have happened within a North American frame – it would have become stuck in what you call the ethical monoculture, a Christian duality of right and wrong.

BA  I don’t think the pivot is even in Africa. It’s off the coast of Africa, maybe somewhere off the Bight of Benin, in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s definitely in the waters, where things are rippling and diffracting. That’s the site of the course, where there is no land yet.

The kings in Africa also sold the slaves; we also sold our brothers and sisters into slavery. That is one part of the conversation we need to have – not that I am trying to create an equal culpability situation here. We are entangled in this as well.

CDC  I sometimes find writers shy away from metaphysics or the work of transformation while those who are focused on consciousness work resist putting it into a creative or physical form, holding their knowing in a kind of abstract cloud. I feel everything needs to be spoken out loud, or danced, or cooked, earthed in some kind of way to be effective, to let these approaches become entangled as you say. Do you ever feel hemmed into a role of spiritual teacher?

BA  I think people use me, as you use the future or food or a pen. The people that I sometimes work with use me as a magical Negro (laughs) because of the way I appear and because of my experiences as a black person. There is often a sense of ‘just listen to what Bayo says’ which could be patronising. I don’t want to be trapped there, into being a spiritual guru. I like to have a conversation, pose questions of my own. This is not a transmission from some ancestor, or angel, or alien, but a diffracted meeting of each other in the middle. 

We are all on this slave ship. You might be on the upper deck but we are all in this holding station that pegs our bodies in place. The gift of this paradigm of diffraction, or this idea that things lose their edges, this relational ontology, is that it allows us to meet each other. As I said earlier, activism can become very industrial. The way we think about transformation is very categorical. You are an artist, you do artist stuff; you are a dancer, you dance into oblivion; you write about this and that, and it becomes an industry in itself, and modernity is quite happy with that. It’s not scandalised about you doing your work.

CDC  Mostly, it doesn't take any notice of it, Bayo!

BA  It doesn’t care, so long as you stay in your place. What scandalises modernity is when things spill. And facilitating spillage is good work. Diffraction allows me to read  myth, through quantum dynamics, through performativity. When we see things through each other, that is when the new has a chance to emerge. So that is what we need to learn today, to become citizens of diffraction, to become fugitives.

CDC  One aspect of the sanctuary which really grabbed me is that the site of transformation is where the real power is, where the change can happen, rather than  dominating forces of civilisation which activism is always trying to defuse or stop or take over from. It explained to me why writers have always had a very bad deal, because they bring that to the fore, that change is always possible in any moment, the fact you can change, or that you are porous, or that something can come out of nothing, or that the immanent god you spoke of is always becoming, is always creating within us. Which is why writers are silenced and flung into gaol, because they are trying to stop that change from disrupting the fixed control of Empire.

BA  In this quest to be seen, to be noticed, which in the Deleuzio-Guattarian literature might be indexed as the politics of recognition, can be found  a different power that isn’t tethered to being seen. There is historical precedent for this. When the slaves were crammed into a tight space, they tried to escape. There are accounts of their efforts to take over the ship and wrest power away from the captain, but the ships themselves were designed to keep them at bay; certain structures would demarcate where the non-citizens were, and those who needed rehabilitation and those who were embodiments of purity. 

The slave ship worked against them. It’s almost as if their efforts to escape only enforced the trade, it made it stronger, because the slavers could get together and say, ‘why don’t we make the space smaller, dehumanise them further?’ To keep their property busy and sellable, they even invented practices like ‘dancing the slave’. The slavers did this both for entertainment and to keep these appropriated bodies economically viable.

The beautiful tradition of capoeira, the dance encoded with martial arts, which is famous in Brazil, could not have happened without the boot of the oppressor on the necks of the slave. The limbo dance is the slave trying to navigate the structure of the slave ship. And I can give many more examples of how oppression became the alchemy for transformation. How disarticulated bodies became portals for other ways of being: in dance, music, rituals, ways of interacting with the world, religions, spiritual systems. 

This is why the elders said Èṣù the trickster, travelled with them. The trickster works in places you do not expect generativity. You expect death and dismal silence, but there life springs. So to go back to our original conversation about death and dying, modernity has framed death and dying as eternal silence. But through the eyes of the glitch, the eyes of the trickster, death is an invitation, a lively vocation to recreate, reformulate and use our porous skins, our disarticulated bodies, to become different.

Bayo Akomolafe is one of the keynote speakers for the upcoming Borrowed Time summit on death, dying and change, hosted by on 31st October 2021

Dark Mountain: Issue 19 is available from the online shop here

Sunday 27 June 2021

Relearning the Language of a Lost World

'Sentience' by Meryl McMaster (from Issue 16 - REFUGE)

This is an article I wrote for Noema magazine in the spring. It forms the basis of a new online course I am running with fellow Dark Mountaineers this September, to explore how we may reweave our place back into the fabric of a sentient Earth. Do join us!


Last May, as the first lockdown came, I found myself taking part in an online discussion about a theatre production called The Encounter by Simon McBurney and the Complicité company. Inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu, the one-man performance follows the real-life track of Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, who becomes lost in the Brazilian rainforest while searching for the Mayoruna people. The encounter plunges him into another world, in which he has to navigate with a different consciousness, as the tribe retreat deep into the forest to escape its destruction.

On the panel the indigenous filmmaker Takumã Kuikuro of having to adopt ‘two minds’, a double consciousness, to both maintain his own culture, and deal with the modern world that was encroaching on his people’s way of life.   

We need to do this the other way round, I responded. We need to develop a consciousness to re-entangle ourselves in the sentient Earth, as McIntyre was challenged to do in the forest. Because it feels the only way we can deal with the devastation our civilisation continues to wreak is to radically change how we perceive the natural world and our place within it.

But how do we go about this? Is it even possible? Can we like the Mayoruna find a ritual that enables us to start again?

In the 1990s, I went on a journey, like thousands of other seekers, in search of another language. I went to South America, whose culture was still threaded with hawks and flowers and wild rivers, unlike the urban, alienated tongue of my native Britain. It was there I realised I was not in another country to find a more Earth-based story to live by but to deconstruct one I had unknowingly inherited. And it wasn’t a journey that took me to a place of clarity and understanding I could carry home in a suitcase. It took me off track entirely.

I never went back to my fashionable city life. The travelling was the beginning of another kind of return altogether.

In his ground-breaking work, The Master and His Emissary’ the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist explores the very different kinds of perception orchestrated by the two hemispheres of the brain. The attention of the left focuses on detail, the right perceives the whole picture. The left hemisphere deals with the abstract and prefers mechanisms to living things, where the right hemisphere has a more flexible and immediate relationship with the physical world. To see the complexity of the Earth, to make complex, consensus decisions means you need to use the focus of the left hemisphere in tandem with the wide-ranging implications perceived by the right.

Without this working relationship, the untempered unconscious forces within ourselves and our societies run amok. We think we make rational fair decisions, even though it has been proved, particularly in the case of governance, that we are swayed by our unconscious feelings, embedded in and frequently manipulated by the dominating belief system.

McGilchrist argues that, despite its inferior grasp of reality, the left hemisphere is increasingly taking precedence in the modern world, with perilous consequences. So, to become entangled in the world, to regain kinship, our place on the planet, requires a deliberate engagement with the consciousness of the right hemisphere.

The map is not the territory

It is commonly assumed that our connection to the wild world, as Takumã and his people have kept theirs, has been lost and is not possible to regain. However, this is not true. It has just been forgotten and lies deep buried within us.

Every person is born with archaic intelligence embedded in their bones. Though our minds are distracted by numbers, algorithms, facts and data, still our physical beings, stepping into a rainforest, or a mountain path, recognise instinctively these patterns of fur and feather, stone and leaf. We see the moving shapes of clouds and rivers, but we just don’t remember how to communicate with each other about what we experience. 

I went to the deserts of the Americas to remember the ancestral language of belonging and obligation my own culture had tried to erase centuries ago. I investigated the lexicon of plants and the territories of dreams in practices that followed those travels. The encounters with the physical planet and investigation into its language was the key that opened the door.

The main challenge in learning the lexicon of the right hemisphere is ironically the words themselves. The word is god in our left-hemisphere dominated world: treaties, laws, religions of the book, are all constructed of words. If we say something, or write it down, we think it is as good as done in reality, even though our actions and feelings do not match what has been said. The left hemisphere loves to capture and control the world in linear and grandiose language, naming and categorising everything it sees and putting it to use. So even approaching the nonhuman world, by labelling it ‘nonhuman’, you put it into a category of things you can own, like placing a shamanic drum in the glass case of a museum, rather than playing it and travelling to the Otherworlds.

To re engage with the world as kin requires an entirely different approach. It is no good shouting English (or Latin) words at the nonhuman world if you want to hold a dialogue. You have to learn a whole set of skills that have nothing to do with your education. You have to use your whole body and slow down to the pace of your heart. Most of all you have to learn to stop talking in your head, and listen. Let that being in a dream, that flower, come to you and reveal its nature. Humbleness is required, not knowing is required, a shift of attention is required. You are no longer commandeering the world like Alexander, describing, analysing, and putting everything into a spreadsheet. Quite often, you are not going to like what you feel. 

Corporations now ransack the Amazon in search of cures for cancer and other diseases of the modern world, individuals travel seeking heal the traumas behind their addiction and depression, but the vegetalistas, those who work with plants, go to the forest to remain in harmony and communication with it. It is an ongoing relationship they maintain with ritual and story and song. If you ask them: where do you get your knowledge from? They will tell you the plants told them, the animals came, a spirit arrived in a dream.

So, from your own dreams you learn, slowly, that animals speak by their presence, the way they move within a landscape, in relationship. You learn you have affinity with some more than others - birds, whales, snakes - how you feel when you are with them. You learn that plants reveal their intelligence in elegantly framed storyboards and koans. Some are more ‘talkative’ than others. After the practice, you do what human beings have done for aeons in response to this conversation: you sing, dance, paint, find words. You forge a lexicon to remember and share with the world, a bridge that spans between the dimensions of the human, animal and plant kingdoms.

But you also go to meet something else.

Here Be Dragons

In 1969, an anthropology student called Michael Harner began to work with the Conibo tribe in the Peruvian Amazon. To understand us, he was told, you have to take the plant hallucinogen ayahuasca. In the book that was to remind the modern world of the pan-global practice of shamanism, he writes of his first encounter with the ‘vine of death’ where giant reptilian creatures spoke with him from the depths of the back of his brain. The creatures showed him the planet before there was any life and how they came to Earth from the sky to escape their enemy.

‘The creatures then showed me how they had created life on the planet in order to hide within the multitudinous forms and thus disguise their presence. Before me, the magnificence of plant and animal creation and speciation - hundreds of millions of years of activity - took place on a scale and with a vividness impossible to describe. I learned that the dragon-like creatures were thus inside all forms of life, including man. They were the true masters of humanity and the entire planet, they told me. We humans were but the receptacles and servants of these creatures. For this reason they could speak to me from within myself.’ 

‘We are in charge’, they told him, at which Harner relates, everything that was human inside of him rebelled. Afterwards, he tells a wise elder about his experience: ‘They always say that,’ the shaman said.

In a time of colonial reckoning, where movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter challenge the exploitation of human bodies, the urge to re-indigenise ourselves and reconnect with the natural world becomes stronger.

In many ways, the geography we find ourselves in dictates what we have to deal with in order to find this re-entanglement. Each country brings its own challenges. In the New World, indigenous cultures still exist but a reconnection to the land by its settlers brings a heavy historical karma to bear. The Native American myths embedded in the land are not easily understood, and to engage with the mythos of their own motherlands means facing the conditions that forced their or their ancestors’ original emigration.

In Europe, the links to a land-connected indigenous culture are buried in deep time, their myths turned into children’s tales, or a fanciful spirituality. The wild places are severely compromised by industrialisation and feudal property laws. A kind of amnesia prevails.

Either way the gate that bars most modern industrialised people from access to the nonhuman realms, has to be broken open: whether by encounter, by plant medicine, or iatromantic practice. Our ordinary night dreams can be allies in this rediscovery, but only so long as we understand they are communications from the right hemisphere, part of the world’s dreaming, and not a psychological problem to be sorted by modern medicine.

When you embark on a journey of return, you realise that individual work is only relevant if it takes place within the collective realm. No matter how revolutionary or forward thinking a social movement can be, it will always be at the mercy of the unconscious forces of the collective within which it operates unless it develops a protocol for dealing with them. The dragons are always in the room. The modern group practice of ‘staying with the trouble’ gives the right hemisphere time and attention to voice what is left out of any left-hemisphere conversation, but only if the individuals taking part have undertaken their own inquiry. 

When you work with dreams, you realise no one cares about your righteous thoughts and opinions. Immersed in a kind of violent detective drama, you are always fugitive. To withstand and not be at the mercy of a dream’s force fields you need to learn fast that the ‘language’ these places speak is physical and energetic. What matters is not what you think but how you act: how you move out of stuck places, how you refuse to take an inferior position, how you stand up to the monsters advancing towards you. The act of opening your mouth and voicing out loud your feelings is what liberates you from their dominion.  

In the dualist narrative in which most of our lives are held, one side has always to be the victor and the other defeated. But in the world of consciousness, where nothing is black and white, the monster, the dragon, is also the seat of your energetic power and all of your creativity. A treasure they famously guard with fire and claw.

Trapped in a hostile story of civilisation, we are always conquering monsters when we need to be standing up to them and learning at the entrance of their caves. The ancient myths tell us about the travails of the Underworld, the fairy stories of initiations in the deep forest. All these tales bequeath ‘technologies’ for dealing with these challenging encounters on an individual basis, in order we return and hold that knowledge and experience within the wider world.

But this is not an easy task. The terror that most people feel when opening up to let the ‘nonhuman’ in - the wild world, the mythos, the microbial universes within their own bodies - is the terror constructed by the left hemisphere, so it can maintain control. The dragons rule absolutely in patriarchal monotheistic civilisations, where the human heart and creaturehood exist only to acquiesce to their command. Any step out of line is met with playground bullying and humiliation. You only have to see how the right-wing press and politicians howl with derision at any mention of ‘woke’ culture, so we do not look at the cruelty and extortions of empires, to know how any shift towards a recognition of interdependence is met, both within the self and outside it.

But this does not mean that people are not waking up to the historical injustices meted out to the ‘savages’ of civilisation. This does not mean that people are not defending the creatures or the forests. It does not mean that the more-than-human world is not an ally in any kind of move by human beings towards regeneration.

But at some point, you realise that when you say human beings are not central to life, it means you have to radically reconfigure your position within it beyond words. Not by taking the human out of the picture, but by becoming the kind of human being who is kin with nature, who can speak both the language of a falling Empire and the language of the wild, mythic world it is forever trying to keep in bondage. We have, like Harner over a half a century ago, to stand up to the authoritarian rulers inside us. Loosen our shackles and declare our emancipation.

Entering the sanctuary

At the end of 2020, as countries continued to be ravaged by a pandemic, 800 people tuned into a broadcast by the philosopher and teacher, Bayo Akomolafe. The online course held over three months was in order to ‘make sanctuary together.’ Sanctuary is defined in this context as a space people escape to from the ‘plantation’ of civilisation, where we can discover the ‘technologies of fugitivity.’ A place where we can meet the world differently and re-entangle our bodies and imaginations within a shifting biome.

Akomolafe uses the story of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as the Yoruba mythic  trickster Èṣù, to help us navigate this territory. In doing so, he brings us face to face with our own colonial past and takes us beyond the modern tale of confusion and fragmentation. In a sense, to find out why we are so lost is to understand that the time of fall is also the journey into a collective shadow, and that the myths of indigenous people – those of our own native lands and those of the countries once held under colonial rule - are the ships we need to cross what seems like an unnavigable ocean.

In The Encounter the protagonist crucially loses both his watch and his way. This vulnerability and loss of control over time and space allowed him to meet the forest tribe and witness their ritual return, the burning of their material possessions, everything they have known and loved, in order to start again.

Like Takumã’s people who have had to learn the ways of the modernist world in order to survive it, we too have to learn another language in order to negotiate our hollowed world and remake a place for ourselves within the living web of Earth. But this way means we have, like the tribe, to begin again and let go of what we have held on to. 

Becoming fugitive means losing the story of our place in the plantation, losing our form in a world of hierarchy where form is what counts. This we do not want to do, because we lose what we have worked hard for, we lose status and comfort. But we gain in another way: we gain our own agency and meaning for being here. We gain kinship with the beasts. We gain the ‘kingdom’ of the fairy stories and bring back treasure from the Underworld. And we advance towards the unknown, come what may, because somewhere deep inside us we know, that no amount of worldly prestige or riches can ever match the experience of knowing our true worth as a creature among our fellows on this all-communicating Earth.