Monday, 26 January 2015

The Krunchy Kitchen

2014 was a raw year.  It began with dandelion flower beer in Spring. A gentle fizz of golden heads. In June I 'uncooked' a meal with the Happy Mondays Community Kitchen crew. We rubbed kale, filled Vietnamese lettuce 'tacos', blended almond cream, talked alchemy, wellbeing and social fermentation. The long table buzzed. Everyone wanted to do the raw thing. At our autumn Transition Free Press meeting, we had a major honey high on a summertime mead Alexis made from redcurrants and roses. Mark gave his first raw food demos at Simon's shop: sunflower seed cheese, cauliflower tabbouleh and courgetti with home-grown pesto. Then he started fermenting for real: kimchi, kraut, kvass and all manner of krunchy transformative things in jars. I'll let him tell his lively story here. Here's my rather more sober take for Future Perfect, a new storytelling project going global this year. Feel the fizz! 

Fermenting Change 

We must reclaim our food. Food is much more than simply nourishment. It embodies a complex web of relationships. It is a huge part of the context in which we exist. Reclaiming our food means actively involving ourselves in this web.” (from ‘A Cultural Revivalist Manifesto’ - Sandor Ellix Katz)

The ancient culinary craft of fermentation is bubbling back up. Revived in workshops, discussed in on-line forums, taught in community kitchens and shared in mead circles, fermentation has become one of the many ‘reskilling’ projects taking place in grassroots cultures from Europe to the US in response to economic and environmental drivers. 
Extracting nutrition via the bacteria and yeasts that live on the surfaces of food sources has traditionally enabled people all over the world  to make use of seasonal abundance for leaner times. And crucially in times of climate change without the use of fossil fuels. 

“To ferment your food,” declares food journalist, Michael Pollan, “ Is to lodge an eloquent protest – of the senses – against the homogenisation of flavours and food experiences. It’s a way of engaging with the world... a declaration of independence.” 

Because this revival is not just learning how to prep and preserve cabbage: it’s also a way for people to get their hands (literally) on another social narrative and activate a different relationship with life. It runs counter to an industrialised and passive consumer lifestyle “now rolling like a great undifferentiated lawn across the globe”. Fermentation requires time and intuition and participation in a transformative process where no two sauerkrauts will turn out the same. And it can bring people together in practical and surprising ways. 

In England members of Transition Plymouth, part of the worldwide Transition movement, meet regularly over their kitchen tables to chop vegetables: “Dried, tinned, bottled, cooked, irradiated, pasteurised, supermarket fare is predominantly dead food- deliberately made in order to ‘protect’ our health and enhance shelf life,” explains Colin Trier, one of the group's activists. “Our fermentation workshops have served many purposes: to reintroduce us to making our own live foods; bringing us together as a community exchanging recipes and skills; seeking out and sharing local sources of supply; and developing resilience through home preservation of much more than jam."  

A fermenting revivalist

Some of this revival is due to the bold maverick moves of Sandor Ellix Katz, a self-taught fermenter based in rural Tennessee, whose on-line demonstrations and guide books have grabbed the imaginations of cooks and homesteaders everywhere. In his latest book, the encyclopaedic Art of Fermentation, he documents fermentation practices around the world, capturing the voices of modern and indigenous voices as he goes, discussing everything from molecular biology to cultural history, from philosophy to health benefits.
Before refrigeration came into our houses and global supply chains most of our winter stores were salted, pickled and dried. Many of those strong compelling flavours found in European delicatessens come via fermentation: coffee, chocolate, cheese, salami, olives. Likewise the mainstays of Oriental cuisine – soy, miso and tempeh - and the whole of the world’s drinks cabinet, from African palm wine to English cider.

If you were wary of venturing into this unknown territory alone, you could not hope for a more enthralling guide than Sandor: “My advice is to reject the cult of expertise. Do not be afraid. You can do it yourself.” There is no recorded case, he assures us, of poisoning from fermented vegetables.

Because fermentation is not just another culinary fashion. In the same way baking bread or growing vegetables helps decouple us from the industrial food system, remembering these skills puts the art of production back into our own hands and brings back the meaning and joy of eating into everyday life.

Who could not be excited by the prospect of making herbal elixirs from raw honey and wild fruit, or discovering how to make South Indian dosa pancakes, or turning a garden glut of beans and beets into a colourful row of shiny bottles? The act of fermenting not only makes us aware of the living microbial world that underpins all life, but connect us to thousands of years of human hands-on knowledge and ingenuity. 

Sharing the heritage

 Fermentation is above all a creative process. Eva Bakkeslett, artist and ‘gentle activist’ from north Norway teaches ‘Living Culture’ workshops that inspire people to reconnect with the traditional skills of making kefir, yoghurt and sourdough bread:
I explore fermentation in my art practice because it reveals how a living cultural process works and shows the key ingredients we need to cultivate sustainable cultures for the future: time, conditions (warmth), nurturing and sharing, good quality materials and a touch of magic. It makes us aware that living on Earth entails a seamless sharing between species and makes it hard to define the self as an isolated entity. (from How to Be a Cultural Activist for Playing for Time)
 Eva works with heirloom microbial communities from all over the world: a yoghurt culture originating from Eastern Europe and cultivated for over 100 years in a small Jewish café in New York to an old Russian sourdough from England’s real bread campaigner, Andrew Whitley, to a kefir from the Caucasus, originally made in leather bags hung by the entrance of a house, so everyone passing would give it a knock to keep it going.

Her workshops are not just about food: they are places for social fermentation, where conversations and new perspectives can emerge and the generous, self-organising nature of sharing cultures, skills, knowledge and stories can thrive.   

A healthy practice  

Fermenting as a preservation technique has evolved, like our digestion, over thousands of years. Today one of its main attractions is a way to maintain and restore good health, often impaired by a fast, factory-processed diet. Full of enzymes and beneficial flora (some appearing in different times during the process) ferments help heal the gut wall, and see off harmful invaders. The intestine, as Katz reminds us, is the largest part of the immune system in the body. 

“Fermented foods tick all the boxes,” says London Transitioner and health writer, Gill Jacobs. “They are traditional foods, underpinned by the wisdom that comes from being passed down over time. They also run counter to our modern fixation with ‘germs’ and foods that are sterilised to help shelf life but not our bodies.” 

Where to start with ferments? Gill suggests one of the easiest is beetroot kvass,  an excellent blood tonic and liver cleanser. All you need is a large jar into which you pour 2 litres of filtered water. Add 3 medium sized organic beetroots, peeled and chopped, together with 1 tablespoon of sea salt, and a ¼ cup of whey (or you can omit the whey and double the salt). Leave out for two to three days. Transfer the strained liquid to the fridge. Start each day with a 4 oz glass.

Reclaiming these cultures is beneficial both for people and the planet as refrigeration, the modern fossil-fuelled source of preservation, intensifies. In China, where fermentation has its ancestral roots, industrial refrigeration is transforming a diverse vernacular food culture into the supermarket and distributor hub model that dominates global markets. 

This is not good news for climate change. Cooling is already responsible for 15 percent of all electricity consumption worldwide, and leaks of chemical refrigerants are a major source of greenhouse-gas pollution. If current trends in refrigerant use continue, experts predict that hydro fluorocarbons will be responsible for almost half of all global emissions by 2050.
Time to get out the pickle jar! 

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is published by Chelsea Green

Images: dandelion flowers ready for beer making (Mark Watson); klass on kimchi making with Sandor Ellix Katz (Wild Fermentation); Eva Bakkeslett's workshop on making viili in Finland; Mark's red cabbage and pear kimchi and fermented pumpkin; Now rub your kale! Norman's stall, Southwold (MW)

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Seven Coats

Happy New Year everyone! In this first doorway month I will be looking back at some of the work and events that took place down our lane and elsewhere in 2014. Today, as the Dark Mountain editorial team are shaping the upcoming Spring Journal, I am posting my story from our Autumn Issue 6. Why am I wearing a brown anorak in this pic? Find out below....
From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below
I am taking off my red coat. In its pockets are seeds, rosehips, bus tickets, notes from meeetings. The coat has mud on its woollen sleeves where I have dug festival ditches and community gardens, stains where I have poured tea in church halls and slept in protest tents, where I have chopped wood in my garden, a badge on each lapel that says ‘we are the 99%’ and another that declares freedom for Palestine. We can turn the ship around, I have been writing these last six years, we can do it ourselves. We can repair, resolve, remember, restore, re-imagine the world we see before us falling apart.

I stand in the corridor, with the six coats upon their pegs, lined up like so many books on a library shelf: my life laid out in sequence. I wanted to write how it is when you leave the coat on a hook, pulled by a line that was written five thousand years ago.

I wanted to tell you about the first yellow coat, as I walked beside my mother down Queensway, London, how it determines all the others. It’s made of primrose Harris Tweed, signalling that I come from a certain class of beings who live this city. This is my first moment of consciousness. I am me! I declare and in this moment break away from her.

My mother walks onward past the sawdust floors of butchers and the cool leafy interiors of grocers. It is the end of the 50s. I am a small light in a darkened city. This feeling I realise does not come from my mother, or my father who is working in the law courts of the city, defending small murderers and thieves. I know, even though I do not yet have the words, that this existential moment is stronger, more alluring, more meaningful than anything I am surrounded by.

To be free, to awaken, to be your true self, to know the secrets of life you have to let go first of your mother’s hand. To live is to know how to die. But when you have died, you also need to know how to be reborn. And to recognise that moment when it comes.

When Innana tricked her father Enki of the Me that conferred on her the powers of her office the greatest she held was the gift of discernment.

FASHION My adult coat was not always red, or second hand. Once it was tangerine and new and caught the eye of my friend Alexander in Rome.

“Why have you got the hook outside of your coat?” he asked.
“It’s a fashion detail,” I said. “It means the coat is by Jean-Paul Gaultier. It’s his signature."

Alexander laughs. We are on the Spanish steps and my friend the seminarian, quizzes me with all the force of his Jesuit education, I don’t tell him this is the most expensive coat I will ever buy, or why that deep orange embroidered frockcoat was the only colour and shape to be wearing that season. Or that why in spite of all my learning that I am writing about men who design beautiful things.

“Who is he?” he said.

The question you have no answer for, that holds you to account, is what shifts everything.

CLOAK Once the coat was a grey cloak with a scarlet lining with my name stitched is its collar: blue to signify my house, Ridley named after the Christian saint. Inside its deep inner pocket there is a battered copy of Ulysses. a book I will silently devour, while the rest of the chapel will pray to a god who was spent three days in ‘Hell’ before rising to the sky realms. The institution has taught me to sing psalms, recite Shakespearean metre, pronounce French verse, and in moments of disobedience, read Joycean prose without a full stop.

I have learned from these texts that the true power in writing lies not in clever argument, but in listening: but only from the last do I learn its greatest trick of all, which is to break the rules.

FUR When I was twenty, I broke the rules of all my class and education and went to Belfast to be with my first love and he gave me a coat made of soft grey rabbit skins. He had worn it when he was in a rock band. We stood on the Ards pennisula and watched a hundred swans land on the black sea. It was the middle of the 1970s, and all my encounters were ventures in uncharted territory. From my lovers I discovered how it is live in the industrial north, in South Bronx, to be a Jew, to be ashamed of
poverty, to be a policeman, to be sent to the madhouse, to prison, to fight with god - subjects never mentioned in my father’s house.

“How come you are hero in everything you write?” asked the man I did not sleep with.

I did not know. I was experiencing life by proxy.

BROWN When I go on the road to experience life for real, I will wear a honey brown car coat that once had a belt when it swung in the Dover Street shop alongside cedar drawers of soft silky shirts from Tibet. My sister gave it to me one freezing winter’s night in New York and afterwards we went out like furry twins to catch a cab and to eat Moroccan and drink large glasses of pinot grigio.

The alpaca coat will serve as a blanket in the cold mountain nights in the Andes and Sierra Madre. I don’t fly anymore, or eat in restaurants. When I think of New York now I remember the tramp on Broadway who told you: you have something golden in there in your brain, y’all take care of it, you understan’?

BLACK “I like to see you smiling there,” said my father as he lay dying. and the summer storm raged outside the hospital window. In my hand I was holding a raven feather, now buttonholed in a small black frockcoat I found in a thrift store on our last road trip to Utah.

I wanted to tell you, how it was when we arrived in Zion Canyon that spring, how it was when my father’s spirit roared into the night, the stories held within the fabric of each of these coats, but each time I go there I run out of words and a small quiff of terror runs through my veins.

I am standing in this corridor, facing the coats and realise they are no longer my store of material: not these childhood nostalgias, these bildungsroman, these young rebellious love stories, these glossy magazine articles, these poems about birds and ancestors, treatises on plant medicine, not even the latest narratives about collaboration and downshift.

What next now that everything is written, now there are no hooks left?

The Line

In the introduction to her retelling of the Innana cycle Diana Wolkstein writes of her first encounter with the Sumerian scholar, Samuel Noah Kramer. Kramer had been working with the 5000 year old inscriptions for 50 years, a cycle of myths and hymns she will describe as “tender, erotic, shocking, and compassionate - the world’s first love story that was recorded and written down.”

From the Great Above she set her mind to the Great Below.

“What exactly does mind mean?” she asked.
“Ear,” Kramer said.
“Yes, the word for ear and wisdom in Sumerian are the same, but mind is what is meant.”
“But - could I say ‘ear’?”
“Well you could.”
“Is it opened her ear or set her ear?”
“Set. Set her ear, like a donkey that sets its ear to a particular sound.”

As Kramer spoke, Wolkstein recalls, a shiver ran through her.

”When taken literally, the text itself announces the story’s direction. From the Great Above the goddess opened (set) her ear, her receptor for wisdom, to the Great Below.”’

‘The Descent of Innana’ is the fourth and final myth in the quartet, and the four together are understood to be the cycle of a complete human being – specifically a female being. This final part records how the Queen of Heaven and Earth goes into the Underworld, where she is killed by its Queen, her sister Erishkeigel, and then is restored to life.

Innana has to go through seven gates before she gets to her dark sister’s throne room. At each gate she has to give up one of her Me, the attributes of civilisation, from her crown to her breechcloth - all seven seats of her physical and material power. She enters the kur, the Underworld, to know the secrets of rebirth housed there, which are not the physical attributes of the middle earth but belong entirely in another dimension.

You shiver, because you know you can’t follow the words of her myth in your mind. You follow her track the way dancers hand down their choreography through time: by imitation.


The Myth and the Story

The myth is not the story. The story is extrinsic. I walk out, fight dragons, lose myself in the forest. I return, get married, live in a castle, inherit the kingdom. I do this, then I do this, then I do this, then I hang up my coat on the back of the door and tell you a story. You listen to my tale, gripped by adventure. It fits into the ordinary world we know. Our lives are built around these stories with their happy or sad endings. We are rewarded or punished, the good triumph, the bad die, or do a far, far better thing and suffer both fates.

But the myth is not this. It demands we open our ears to another wavelength. It is a complex, non-linear, and runs alongside the story of our middle earth lives, with its clawed feet in the underworld and its beaky head in the sky realms. It doesn’t fit what we see around us. It lives in caves and out in the desert wind, and sometimes looms up in the city darkness and tells us to take care of something inside us that we cannot see with our everyday eyes.

When the story loses its sense, the myth emerges like the bones beneath the soil. It promises something that makes sense beyond the endings we predict, yet leaves us puzzled by its inscriptions on stone and clay, with its bird heads, its masks and painted bodies. With the goddess who rides on the back of a lion, who is conquered and then transformed.

The myth is intrinsic. It works from the inside out, looping back on itself and lives in all time. In myths, like our dreams, there are savage things that don’t make sense. You cut off heads of people who seem to be giving you direction, or asking for help. You eat the things you should not, and open the box you should not. You are married to your father and your brother and your son. You are a strange heroine. Discernment is your greatest gift. Curiosity and a thirst for knowledge pulls you where angels fear to go.

Angels don’t lose their clothes, and in the Underworld you lose everything. The clothes are least of it.

I am standing naked, before the hook and my sister’s wrath. The myth will kill me and put my body on the hook for three days, which is the statutory amount of time a soul stays in the Underworld before it returns to the sky realm. My ascent will involve complicated deals with sky fathers and loyal servants, betrayals and praise, and someone I love who will take my place. Nobody goes into the underworld and returns. Except you who breaks the rules.

The ways of the Underworld are perfect. The ways of Heaven are perfect.I am imperfect and incomplete. Like all earth creatures I bring change by undergoing change. As a people we can change the law, but only through our own journey which demands we give everything away that up to that point has conferred power upon us.

Civilisation tell us we should be stay still, be perfect and never change. It gives us coloured coats to wear and says by these outer forms you shall be known. But this is not the life that illuminates our being. You go into the Underworld to find that out the hard way. It takes off the layers one by one, peels them, all your worldly colours, until you stand stripped in the strange twilight of the underworld, infused by its lamps of asphodel.

Mostly you go to meet your sister, whom you have been told, is furious with you. Somewhere buried in this myth from Sumer is a key about the future. And for weeks now I have been waiting for it to appear. The first known piece of writing was written by a woman in 3200BC in praise of this being – who was not a mother goddess, but embodied the morning and evening star, and her myth of descent is the first of the ‘mysteries’ to emerge from the city cultures we call civilisation.

It is hard to imagine a world shaped by such a descent, because we live in a world framed by monotheistic gods, who sacrifice their sons to war and Empire, and sentence their daughters to servitude. You have to go beyond millennia of saints and masters and sages into the strife-torn deserts of modern Iraq to find where Innana first held sway, before she became by association, the whore of Babylon, her alchemical moves reduced to a strip tease of coloured veils, performed for a bored tourist in Istanbul.

Embedded in her myth is a way to go beyond civilisation’s impasse. Because the life ordered by the Underworld is not the life ordered by Empire: it has another structure and practice entirely. As modern people we like to hold the myth philosophically, culturally, psychologically at arm’s length. What we fear is to walk in its tracks, lose control over our lives. We do not like to question our existence at every turn. So we toy with the mythos in our minds, at the end of our typing fingers.

Erishkeigel, we say, is our shadow, and become small professors in the arts of deities and griffins. This means that, we say, with our breasts puffed up like chickens. It’s about numbers, and cycles of planting and growing, the seven planets, seven colours of the rainbow, seven chakras. Innana is a fragment from the matriarchal era. She is Venus who appears as the morning star, disappears under the earth, and reappears in the evening.

But information is not the myth. Myths are enacted, dramaturgical, protean, existential. You allow the myth to be played out through your being, suffer its effects consciously. The meaning and the expansion it brings happens inside of you, wordlessly. When you stand by the hook, you are scriptless. Libraries disappear, all your smart lingo of Eng Lit and fashion and philosophy. You are in the place without words. The words take you here and then abandon you.

Writers are born with the kind of memory that calls them to go through the gates of the kur. They remember, not just for themselves, but on behalf of the people: we have to undergo change, or we are not people and the Earth is not the Earth. When we make our moves the edifices tumble down, the institutions crack, illusions dissolve like mist.

It comes to me in this moment is that I have run out of the storyline. I don’t know the ending to my own story, or that of anyone around me. And maybe this life isn’t a story anymore. Maybe it’s something else. The future stands before me like an empty quarter, like the desert road, edged with sunflowers, like the twilight in the garden after the rain. I take a deep breath. I am here, I say and step forward.

The hook holds what you most fear, which in my case is meaninglessness. The void hits you like a mallet and you tremble. You break apart like a seed pod. Collapse happens inwardly and suddenly.

At the moment Innana is killed by her sister, Erishkeigel begins her labour. When her servant, Ninshubar goes to heaven to ask Innana’s fathers for help. the first two refuse. Then the third, Enki the god of wisdom, creates two beings made from the clay under his fingernails who slip into the Underworld unnoticed and assist Erishkeigel give birth by sympathising with her pain and glorifying her greatness.

Oh, oh, oh my inside, oh, oh, my outside!

Innana goes into the Underworld because she knows her sister has something more powerful than any of her Me. That’s what pulls her, that’s what pulls us, thousands of years later, caught by the first line. We are hooked on that moment.

Some of us have been so hooked on that moment we forgot what we went down there to find in the first place.

Leaving the City Inside

The story of civilisation tells us we will be rewarded if we toe the line: but though some may receive a moment of glory, or own a fine house or dine on meals that slip extravagantly past our lips, none of this will give us kinship with the beasts, or our fellows, or return us whence we came. None will tell us what we need to undergo to become real people – which is to say people who value life on Earth.

The myth tells you if you give everything to life, the Earth will give you everything your heart desires: which if we are writers, means knowledge is given to us – a lineage that stretches back through time, to this moment when our words were first inscribed in clay. That is why we go to the Underworld and face the hook, even at the risk of losing those words that have kept us safe all these years. All those poems and articles, adjectives, and smart lines. All those narratives.

The writer is the one who remembers the myth and keeps telling it to the people. Nothing happens for the better unless we let go and change our forms.

The ways of the Underworld are perfect Innana. Do not question them.

What is hard for our duality-driven minds to comprehend is that Innana and Erishkeigel are the same being, that to turn the ship around we have to follow her mythic track. Rebirth takes place in the Underworld, and in order to reclaim, remember, re-imagine, we have enter its domain.

And we absolutely don’t want to go down there. We want to stay in our cosy colour supplement lives and cling to our ideas of happy families and romantic love, our knowledge of buildings and history, our Shakespearean quotations. We long to keep our shirts perfectly ironed in cedar drawers, to repeat the epithets that fall from the lips of holy men in robes.

Who am I without these coats of class and institution?
Who am I without my work?
Who am I without my new found community?

When Innana returns to the Great Above the person who has not mourned her departure is made to take her place. Her consort, the shepherd Dumuzi, who is also Tammuz and Adonis and Dionysus, and all dying and resurrecting ivy-wreathed gods of the ancient world, and further down the line, the sacrificed man on a cross who does not remember her name. Whose books tell us we don’t have to go there, because he did it all for us.

The rebirth we seek does not happen without our descent. The world becomes flatter, uglier and unkinder, determined by the unconscious mass, the untempered leader, the foolish woman, the words that do not set their ear to the Great Below. Venus, the embodiment of love, beauty and a fair fight, steps into the arena to bring new life. She doesn’t do that by chanting a new mantra or changing her shopping habits, she does that by grabbing you by the throat and pulling you towards everything you have so far refused to see or hear. She takes you towards the unspoken, the missing information in every transaction, each time you have jumped the consequence and refused to hear the beast or child cry out, your sister trapped in a factory a thousand leagues away.

The unconscious snarls back, rages and rants, complains, resents our every intrusion. It is not polite, or reasonable, or forgiving. You have to withstand its every humiliation: inside yourself and outside amongst the people you love and fear.We think to know the facts is enough, that good behaviour is enough, that to write of our wounds and sorrows is enough. But it is not enough.

To let go of earthly power is a real thing. To be conscious within the realms of unconsciousness, is a real thing. To face your raging sister, to move out of the cycle of history, to liberate yourself from your line, to have empathy for the man, for the child, for the tree, for the fish and the barbarian, these are a real things. Not to give up, even when you have given up and the world has turned its back on you.

To die before you die is the core tenet of all the mystery cycles that emerged in the early city states before the father gods took command. It has been a task undertaken by writers in the civilisations that followed - content that we labour conveniently in the Underworld as volunteers and substitutes to carry their shadow and suffer on their behalf.

But Innana’s myth does not end there.


It is the moment I hang up the red coat. The moment I expect the hook and find none.

I am on the beach on a warm blue July morning. There is one day a year like this, and today it is here. The sea shimmers and stretches out before us at low tide, and the breeze carries the dusty scent of marram and sea holly. In the sea the currents move around the sandbar, this way and that, and tumble me into the foam. Every time I put my feet down the sand moves too and small fish who lived buried in the seabed. Everything is moving. I am laughing, tossed by the waves. This is how it is on the tip of the future, as you look at the sun on the horizon, as you look at the empty page and don’t know what to write anymore.

I wanted to tell you what that is like when you have done your time in the Underworld, the moment that delivers you into a vast unmapped space, and frees you from the past that has been howling and pawing your coat it seems for centuries. I wanted to say how it was all worth it, though I am left naked on a beach, bookless, featherless, empty-pocketed. Because at this moment I want to be nowhere else but here with the future unwritten before me. Because the golden feeling I had in the core of my self when I was two years old is still with me at 58, and keeping loyal to that awakeness is what I steer by more than anything I see falling apart around me, and I know I am not alone in that. And mostly because I remember what my sister told me before I left the city:

“You have been the anchor, you have kept this house together, you have absolved our father’s guilt, buried our mother with honour, held our hand, listened to us, grieved with us, written our story - now it is my turn.”

I put my feet on the firm wet sand, on the shoreline, on this beautiful day. We are here, I say.

Images: brown anorak, birch, tumulus, winter solstice 2014 (Mark Watson); embroidered coat from Soft Armour by Monique Besten (Dark Mountain 6); honey-coloured coat, Real de Catorce, Mexico 1999 (MW); seal depicting Inanna, Iraq; Feeding the Fire From Below by Kate Walters (DM6) Poppy Capsule by Deanne Belinoff; Urban Weed Apothecary by Sophie Mason; Anima by Daniel Mack (DM6) entering the sea, high summer 2014; Inanna - Queen of Heaven and Earth by Diana Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer (Harper & Row). Dark Mountain Issue 6 is available via the DM website.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Gift of the Heart

Last week I received an email from Andrea Hejlskov, a Danish writer who lives in the wild woods in Värmland, Sweden. She had read my last post and wanted to ask about the shifts I discussed. Would I contribute to a a series she was running this month about gifts on her own blog? Here is the result of our conversation. Normally acting as the Interviewer, it's a rare and wonderful thing to be asked questions, to be able to reappraise where you stand in the river of your own life. I first came across Andrea's work through a great post she wrote for Dark Mountain about living offgrid. Her book about her experiences will be published by Two Ravens Press next year.

What happened to you? Who are you now in relation to who you were when you first became an activist? Is that deep urge gone?

When I first joined the Transition movement I took part in the Transition 2.0 initiative in Norwich, where small intentional community and neighbourhood groups decided to cut their individual annual carbon emissions to four tonnes (the UK average is 9 tonnes). We measured and shared our home energy, transport and food consumption and held deep discussions about personal carbon reduction around each others’ kitchen tables.

I changed almost everything I did on a household level that year (2009/10), including switching off the central heating, sharing a car and only wearing second-hand clothes. I took part in reskilling sessions, building a community garden and helped set up ‘Give and Take Days’ where everyone could exchange goods for free and tons of rubbish could be diverted from landfill.

These are things everyone can do – but it’s far far easier to act if you are in a group and your actions are framed within an intelligent appraisal of planetary drivers such as climate change and resource depletion. For many of us Transition supplied that initial frame and network. However once you have acted on the information, you find you also need to act very differently in your ‘real’ life. In short your work and all your relationships need to embed those changes.

My trade is in communications, so I put my experiences with my fellow Transitioners into print and pictures. The Norwich ‘Circles’ provided the material for a community blog (This Low Carbon Life) in which our stories could be shared and stored. Subsequently these became a national blog (The Social Reporting Project) and then the newspaper, Transition Free Press.

The urge to change and transform is very strong in me. I stand by the changes I made in those Transition years and the social frame in which they happened. However the cliché “you can’t change the world with the same mindset that created it” means that just altering your behaviours and engaging in your local community is not enough. Transition and other progressive movements work principally on an extrinsic mind/body axis, from what some people call a ‘left hemisphere’ perspective. For real change to happen we also need to include the feeling/spirit axis and shift our values intrinsically. We need to allow the right hemisphere to influence our walk through the world. The heart is the only part of us that can hold and cohere these different aspects of ourselves.

So in answer to your question: I guess my deep urge now lies within exploring and documenting this shift of axis. It requires a different language and a different way of interacting with people. In my own life this has meant moving my focus from Transition towards the work Dark Mountain do. Essentially away from the pragmatic towards the creative.

What are you feelings about change now?

I feel our human blueprint is to undergo change through time. We are natural transformers in the same way mushrooms or bacteria activate and change other substances by their presence. All archaic and indigenous cultures celebrate these processes through their art and song and spiritual practice. We live however in a civilisation that prevents these kind of change from happening. People in industrialised culture are trained to be workers and consumers and act according to ‘fairytales’ told them by their education and media. We have become functions in an artificial system, not natural symbionts with the Earth.

So change always upsets the ‘stability’ of this known world. It exposes the reality underneath the dysfunctional narratives of our civilisation. Most people don’t want to look at the full implications of what they do every day without thinking. Not because they are mean, but because they instinctively fear the consequences. When you let go of that unnatural cramped position you have been holding for years, there is a lot of pain and anger and bewilderment to deal with and very little to guide you. Changing your shopping habits is the least of it.

Radical change is far more demanding than either modern spirituality or community activism make space for, partly because there are feedback loops to cope with. There is no way to jump this suffering but there are a lot of ways of making it easier to bear. Sharing them with fellow Transitioners is one way. Turning them into creative material is another. However we have to weather this process because we need to become a different people, people who can live in synch with the Earth and each other. That’s an outer and an inner thing. It’s personal and it’s planetary. And it is also political.

One of the reasons Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything says institutions deny climate change is because they know that you can’t act on climate without radically altering the whole system, without acting on capitalism, without bringing in social and environmental justice.

That’s the same for individuals. When you change one thing, you end up changing everything. The systems are interlocked.

How do you celebrate Christmas? What does this season mean to you? What happens to you around Christmas? What do you wish for it to be? Do you have New Year's resolutions?

I don’t think I’ve ever made a resolution! I gave up Christmas in my 20s (way too much family arguing!) and went travelling with my friends instead. I never looked back. However I do celebrate the winter solstice. In the Celtic tradition there was a time either side of the solstice called the Halcyon Days, after the mythic kingfisher who builds her nest at this time. And so I keep those 14 days as free as possible and tune into the world outside my door: the weather and light, the frost and trees, to keep an ear out for the moment the birds start to sing again. I usually do most of the pruning of the apple trees and hedges at this time (by hand!) and so am outside in all weathers. I love the winter twilight, chopping the firewood, watching the stars come out. It’s easy to forget those things when you are indoors or working.

We (that’s with my partner and colleague Mark Watson) mark all the eight stations of the year, the solstices and equinoxes and feast days. We light a new fire at night and watch the sun rise the next morning from under the neighbourhood oak. or by the sea. Usually I go for a long walk through the land, or visit our local tumuli. It’s about paying a certain attention at these times. They are all doors that usher in another season and make sense of the relationship between the sun and the Earth that plays out in the growing year and in the larger cycles of life. They help keep us on track and rooted in time and place.
I know you lost heart as an activist. Is your heart back? What makes your heart pound now?

My heart is no longer the way it once was when I was fully immersed in a creative project or at the start of my involvement with the Transition movement, which is to say full of excitement and enthusiasm. But the heart needs to undergo radical change too. It needs to become the central governing intelligence of our lives and not be limited to the things we normally associate with it, such as passion or romantic love or inspiration.

My practice as a community activist in the last 6 years has been a social practice. This opens you in ways that you do not expect. You can’t really live a conveniently personal life once you have accessed your community self, because you are not separate from the people you live among. Here in England there is a lot of hardship and inequality and a desire to escape. Like everywhere else the land is being badly treated and we are the inheritors of a bloody history. We bear the scars of these things, and only a big medicine will turn that around.

So I find I can still celebrate the small joys of life – the light on the sea, the taste of food, daily interchanges with people and creatures – but looking at the state of the planet with true eyes needs our very adult attention. I don’t think we know what that really means yet. When I look around me I see a lot of childish and adolescent behaviour, but not much depth and integrity or fairness. So that’s what I am trying to bring into everything I do. The heart desires equality of exchange. It is exacting in these matters. You need to get back as much as you give. Making those demands for yourself, for the people, for the land, requires you to be a tough negotiator in a hostile culture that is used to giving nothing in return.

I think the heart changes its function as you get older (I am 58). So it doesn’t pound in the way you felt it pound when you loved the boy in the next room, or the words you once wrote for a glossy magazine. One day you wake up and realise that not only can you not go to nightclubs any more, you can’t keep flying to other countries either, or eating fish, or thinking you are special, and that’s a sobering thing.

Our civilised lives are off kilter and we are not at home or in time. The sober heart straightens this out from the inside and changes the way you walk through the world. It teaches you to make yourself at home and how to live in time. So perhaps it would be fair to say a pounding heart, an excited, upbeat heart, the kinds of feeling and kinship I originally felt when I joined my Transition initiatives, do not create the best state with which to face the future. You have to meet it on its own terms. And that’s not been done before by a post-industrialised people.

For me the people who know how to live with that kind of challenge, with uncertainty, who can provide beauty and depth and meaning, who can regenerate and remember the world, are my fellow artists and writers.

Creativity is the best gift we can give – and the best any of us can receive”.


Images: illustration from Andrea Hejlskov’s book Og Den Store Flugt by Danish artist Signe Kjær; Sustainable Bungay Give and Take Day crew, 2010; holding russet apple grafts for community orchard from This Low Carbon Life; Waylands Smithy, Oxfordshire; reading Dark Mountain 4; Winter solstice sun, Suffolk (all photographs by Mark Watson)

Friday, 14 November 2014

where do we go from here?

"I am taking off my red coat. In its pockets are seeds, rosehips, bus tickets, notes from meetings. The coat has mud on its woollen sleeves where I have dug festival ditches and community gardens, stains where I have poured tea in church halls and slept in protest tents, where I have chopped wood in my garden, a badge on each lapel that says ‘we are the 99%’ and another that declares freedom for Palestine. We can turn the ship around, I have been writing these last six years, we can do it ourselves. We can repair, resolve, remember, restore, re-imagine the world we see before us falling apart.
(The Seven Coats, Dark Mountain: Issue 6)
For some time now I've been wondering where to go. Where do my words belong, in which direction do my feet need to walk? It seems like a long time, but maybe it isn't. Maybe it's the absence of something crucial that has made it feel so long. If writing can be defined as the excitement of stringing sentences together and putting them down on a page, then I could describe this state as 'writer's block'. The sentences did come sometimes, but they soon fizzled out and could not cohere beyond a paragraph. I would feel deflated, and no longer connected to what the words were saying. It felt as if my material had run out.

When I stumbled upon the Transition movement six years ago I found I had a vast treasure store of words at my fingertips, and I spent 2008-13 sharing them in over 400 posts and newspaper and magazine columns. There seemed no end of things to say to about powerdown: about giving up central heating and radicalising my store cupboard. About working in groups and searching for a new narrative. But after a while the collaborative writing projects I created began to run aground, and I found myself losing heart. As we used to say, the EROEI just didn't stack up anymore.

I thought at the beginning I was in Tranisition for the long haul. I thought it would shape my life and that I would make a livelihood from it and forge some deep and lasting connections with fellow activists. Then I realised my engagement was a transition in itself. It was a territory that needed to be encountered and navigated, like an ocean voyage, and my outpourings and photographs were its captain's log. Once I had understood the need to frame what I saw within the planetary ecological and economic drivers, from a social perspective (no longer stuck in a little individualist cocoon), I could move on.

I had a lot to be grateful for: immersing myself in community activism broke my own disenfranchisement, it broke my silence, it gave me a rough education and skills in areas I knew nothing about, from global finance to splitting my own firewood. But by 2013 I was coming up against certain limits. Some of these limits were in my fellow Transitioners, unwilling to forgo their conventionality, or face collective demons - which made working in groups very difficult. Some were to do with the governance of Transition itself, of having an organising network where all the funding and authorial voice is concentrated in one small place.

The main limit however was to do with writing, my trade. In 2012 at the national Transition Network Conference there was a moment when I realised my love affair with the movement was coming to an end: I was standing with my fellow 'social reporter' Teen (also an ex-journalist) in an imaginary High Street of the Future. Everyone in the Battersea Arts Centre was busy building shops and enterprises out of cardboard boxes along its chalk-etched pavements. Our printing house was the first to finish and we needed to find some custom. So I went to the Job Centre.

We only have people with skills here, I was told tartly, you need to go to the Bank. Teen went outside to  have a cigarette. I went into the lobby to email some recipes for a community meal I was organising. I left a preview copy of a new newspaper in our cardboard office.

That wasn't make believe.

the sentences

I write spurred by an urgency all writers feel: to voice the collective messages you wrest from your individual experience of the world. That urgency comes when you wake up at dawn with sentences spinning like fireworks in the dark, desiring you to put them into a meaningful order. You can't keep those kinds of sentences to yourself. You have to get them down, and then you have to get them into the fabric of the world somehow.

In the era of the Internet writers no longer have to wait for publishers and agents to sign them up. You no longer have to wait for a bored editorial assistant to reply to your 1000th email, telephone call, or book treatment. You can just go and ahead publish your work yourself. By 2009 I had become, like everyone else, a blogger. I was busy creating several Transition-based collaborative blogs to record our low carbon lives in a time of social change. After 14 unpublished years, it was a heady liberation.

But writing on line has a downside. Free words are not the same as words that are printed, paid for and given proper attention by an editor and reading public. Something about the transaction is not right. After three years on a continuous deadline I realised, though I didn't like to admit it, that the messages embedded in the stories were being ignored. They were at best a moment of "beautiful writing" that flitted across the screen and then disappeared.

I realised that no matter how many pieces I wrote, or projects I  co-ordinated, editorial skills were not considered important in this grassroots territory. Everyone can write blogs, so what is the big deal? 'Comms' in a corporate-shaped world is not true editorial, but a hybrid creature lurking somewhere between marketing and HR (and occasionally filed under 'well-being'). When I stood by editorial in these Transition transactions  I started to feel that invisible crushing force normally experienced in real High Street Job Centres or the bowels of US immigration:

You should do writing as a hobby/as a volunteer/in your spare time and get a real job.

"Why should you be paid for something you enjoy?" asked my (retired) neighbour at the community meal last month, as he argued against the Arts Council funding artists and their work.

Something in me rebelled that night. I have been editing a book about artists funded by the Arts Council for the last two years, so have some insight into how most artists earn their money and what they do to secure it. I saw the writing 'limbo' I had been in all these months was in fact some kind of strike. No matter how many stories I had up my sleeve, no matter how many great connections I had made, I couldn't keeping writing about a movement where people didn't care if their media makers earned less than £2 a hour, or where funders were happy to pay 'official' Transition staff decent salaries, but their cultural freelance activists, little or nothing.

After six years I realised my work as a 'citizen editor' was leading nowhere. The sentences no longer came to me at dawn. I hadn't used the camera for over a year. That's when I realised that the bitterness I sometimes expressed was not a sign of failure, or defeat, or envy for the better fortune of others. Like all bitter things it came from a place that was demanding my attention: it came from the heart.

the empty quarter

In the latest Dark Mountain journal I've written a story called The Seven Coats, based on the Sumerian myth of Innana. Unlike the 400 blogs I had written so blithely at dawn this one took weeks to finish. It is, in some ways, about the block.

In the story I stand in front of "the six coats upon their pegs, lined up like so many books on a library shelf: my life laid out in sequence" and consider what it means to let go of all the forms of writing I have known up to then. The seventh scarlet coat is the one that has kept me bright as I documented the bumpy terrain of Transition.

Even though I have been writing since the age of 14 and worked as a journalist in my 20s and 30s, I did once stop writing books and articles for six years and only keep notebooks. I was in those years charting a territory of dreams and plants and found I could no longer write as I had in my working and travelling years. Those sentences just wouldn't form. Every time I wrote I or We I shuddered from the sound of my own authorial voice.

Sometimes it's not a lack of material that stops you writing: but a call to change your position and see another world.

Dark Mountain is a singular territory: it does not argue for sustainability, or feel we can turn the ship around if we change our shopping or voting habits. It doesn't say business can go on as usual either, or insist that all life is brutish and without meaning, or that we cannot as a modern deracinated people find our place on Earth. Even though the writing and art Dark Mountain curates look unswervingly at the collapse of ecological systems, the works themselves cohere. The people who converge around this Project hold together at the edge of a space that has no words. In a harsh and fragmenting civilisation it allows, through its creative prism, a deeper intelligence and connection between us to shine through.

The Seven Coats is about going through the seven doors of the Underworld, to discover this space of upper light and air. At each door Innana is subject to humiliation and told to remove her clothes that represent her wordly powers. A professional ability to write and edit and bring a team of people together, was perhaps the last of my old world capacities I had to forgo. It was a hard and Hadean struggle. "Your self-esteem is tied up with this blog," railed one of my fellow Transitioners, as he tried to oust me from editing the project I had created. "You are a bad writer/ a communist/I don't want to hear you talk about money again!" yelled other comrades-in-arms.

Bitterness is taboo in this world. In the same way the ruling caste will accuse the disenfranchised of envy, without considering their own privilege, writers are often accused of self-pity or ego if they complain about the poor hand they have been dealt. Shame is heaped upon you if you dare to ask for payment for your work. You are supposed to do this for free!

However bitterness is a quality of the shadow heart. The heart demands we make a good deal. It is the superlative judge in all things that matter. The Earth is a complex matrix of exchange, and if our exchanges are not fair, then something is amiss. If you are bitter it is because your heart is telling you have been been tricked in some way.

The deal is not straight for writers or artists in this culture: the culture depends on our ability to see, feed back, transform, delight, inform, question, honour, celebrate and berate the world that is all around us, to transmit a hundred messages that arise from the deep void as colourful sentences at dawn. It depends on our feeling the urgency to create. If we can't tell the real stories of our lives, it means there is no story. And a culture without a story is on its way out.

When I arrived at the Uncivilisation Festival in 2011, I realised there were people who knew the value of words and who knew the story we need to be telling has yet to be written. It was in many ways like coming into harbour after a bad storm. What attracted me was not the "doom-mongering" that the conventional media accuses Dark Mountain of, but the creative project that deliberately holds a certain kind of space. Before a story can come together, space needs to be made to allow its structure and meaning to cohere. There needs to be what the great plant metaphysician, Dale Pendell, calls a Ground State Calibration.

When you hit dry land after a long voyage you need to recalibrate - to find the existential basis for all your following actions that lie deep inside your being. You have to locate the star by which you will navigate the next journey.  If we are really co-creating the future, as Transition and other optimistic narratives assert, I don't want that future world  - by which I mean human society or what we know as civilisation - to be the same one I have been painstakingly critiquing for 40 years only with a different vocabulary, with other More Important people in charge. To be worth working for it has to have certain basic conditions: it has to have real kinship with the Earth and it has to heed the creators who are in the room, each with their names and singular virtues. It has to value the bright words we forge in the darkness of ourselves. No less, no more. Otherwise there is no deal. The story won't get written.

Today I looked at the sea: it was big and rough and the light bounced all over it. It was alive. I was alive. It was a good feeling to be standing there on the edge of England, in November. This is a good place to begin, I thought, as out of nowhere a sentence began to take shape....

Images: cover of Dark Mountain 6 by Eunah Cho; Transition Town Totnes badge (Emilio Mula) from Transtion Free Press preview issue 2012; connecting the words at the Transition Network Conference 2012 (Laura Whitehead); butterfly shaped strange attractors in phase space; covering an Occupy Norwich assembly (Mark Watson); Feeding the Fiire from Below by Kate Walters (from Dark Mountain 6) light on the sea at Southwold (MW)

Friday, 31 October 2014

ARCHIVE: On an ordinary summer's evening in an ordinary town

This week one of my fellow activists from Sustainable Bungay Nick Watts, left the flatlands of Suffolk for the mountains of Wales. In celebration I helped produce a 'souvenir' issue of our regular newsletter for his farewell party, and it was only when we sat down to chart everything he had done during the last six years that we realised how intrinsic some people are within a Transition Initiative. Here is a blog from our heydays in 2011 that starts and ends with Nick - about downshifting, being ordinary, and the dynamics of working in a group:

"It’s definitely the stick," said Mark as he stood with a piece of wood in his hands. It had been inadvertently donated at Sustainable Bungay's Give and Take Day and suddenly reappeared in our hallway. From the outside it looked like a shiny broom handle but it wasn't: it was a fighting stick belonging to a young man mortified by its disappearance. 

But I guess you’d have to be a warrior to know that.

It’s an ordinary summer's evening in a Transition town. We’re on our way to our monthly core group meeting. First we have to drop off the stick at Kate’s and have some supper with Nick.

“You share your lives in the blogosphere and I’d like to share some of what I do," Nick said as he began to fill a box full of July veg - onions and garlic, fennel, beetroot, fresh eggs and blackcurrant jam. We sat down at the kitchen table and drank some squash wine, ate a delicious bean salad and talked about the financial crisis.

You have to be in Transition to truly appreciate Nick's house – kale and courgettes in the front garden, sorrel around the door, a garage with dried herbs hanging from the ceiling and shelves full of preserves, giant tanks of rainwater, chickens, cupboards and windowsills with kegs of homemade wine, a stack of books on economics. It’s not what it looks like, but what is behind everything you see. What it took to get there. The bare aesthetic of downshift.

Years ago I interviewed a man called Tommy Roberts. I was working for a glossy magazine at the time and the subject of the article was Taste, that indefinable quality that distinguished one person or house from the next.What is Taste? I asked various arbiters of style, fashion designers and editors, owners of grand and important properties. Tommy was once a designer of natty suits in the 60’s when he was known as Mr Freedom but at that time had a shop under Centrepoint full of zany, brightly coloured modern furniture: Taste is the Japanese room with one beautiful vase in the corner, he told me. A lifetime of taking away makes that room. It’s what you don’t have that defines taste.

We live in a have and have-not culture and our value systems are entirely based around possessions. Not just the things those designers were talking about back in the 1980s when materialism and property began its great boom – wallpaper and watches and John Fowler’s "pleasing decay" - but a personal warehouse of business connections, children, communities, garden flowers, Hollywood stars, holiday countries. My special world.

"Well, you’re rich in other ways," said the man at the Financial Instability workshop at the Transition Conference after I had detailed my downshift from The World of Interiors to Sustainable Bungay.
"I really am not rich", I replied.
"You are rich in social relationships", he insisted, frustrated with my density. "In quality time. You are abundant in other ways."
"I have very little", I replied. (which is not strictly true because like most people in this country I have chairs and tables, pots and pans and all manner of basic essentials). 
"What is wrong with nothing? Why do we have to be wealthy at all?"

What I wanted to say was I had spent a lot of time clearing out that room. And I didn’t replace the things I used to own with different things - with people or experiences, or a low-carbon lifestyle - but had learned to love space and time and the freedom that lack of ownership brought.

In downshift less is not more in the way we once understood Japanese style. Less means you take everything you don’t need away, so that what really matters is left. It means you don’t have because having is no longer important. What becomes important is that freedom of movement and living a deliberate life.

It’s an ordinary evening in a Transition town and we’re on our way to our meeting at the Library. But first we have to meet at the pub with the Community Bee Group to celebrate the success of our Beehive Day, and then unload Eloise’s van full of information boards and select some just-picked fruit from the back of Cathy’s car. Cathy runs the Abundance project and swapping our produce and plants - at our meetings, in the Library community garden- has become a way of life. So here we are in the car park with a stack of boards and punnets of cherry-plums and blackberries meeting in a damp summer in a difficult time, swifts whizzing round the roofs, echinacea flowers full of bees.

At the 2011 Transition Network Conference we took part an exercise. We had to imagine a group we longed to be with in the future. I am no good at visioning and all I could think about was the fact I would be 65 in ten years time and how weird that was. And then I realised I don’t long for a group of people because I am already with those people and I had met them three years ago in the theatre down the street from here. And what was difficult to feedback to my fellow Transitioners in the canteen in Liverpool was the fact that it wasn’t the individuals in the initiative that made us matter to one another, the way we are used to people mattering in our lives, as special friends, or heroes, support systems, as possessions and dependencies. My important relationships.

It was the fact that when we met up as a group in these public spaces something happened between us. Something we held in common. We understood implicitly what we were doing and why – sharing stuff, organising events, going through the agenda. When I looked at this working-together in the visioning it looked like an energy field, the kind of energy field you sense when you stand by a hive humming with bees. A hum of warmth and intelligence that allows people to naturally collaborate and make that low-energy downshift happen. When that’s going on you don’t need possessions to compensate for your isolation, to anchor your introverted fantasy world. You don’t need data or climate science to persuade your tricky mind. You just need to tune in and act.

If you passed by Bungay Library tonight you’d notice the lights were on and if you peered in you might see a group of people around a table, eating plums and laughing, one person intently writing notes, one speaking, another occasionally calling order and everyone else paying attention. None of us look as if we are arbiters of taste, or abundant, or full of well-being or anything else the modern world puts a price on or gives value to. We’re obviously not important members of the community with homes-to-die-for, or great jobs or cars. We appear utterly ordinary and so we are. Ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing.

You can’t see the field from the outside, you have to feel it from the inside. You recognise it when you are in it because you are doing it along with everyone else. In fact you can’t be in it unless you are doing it.

That’s the real shift. The move from individualism to group collaboration for the good of the whole is primarily a personal shift, away from ownership and control, into a field of exchange and communication and reciprocity, into give and take. And that’s a whole new lexicon of being. It’s not a replacement of things, it’s a move. A let go and a join in.

Because Transition is not a noun, it’s a verb.

Photos: Sustainable Nick - souvenir issue; with squash wine in Nick's kitchen; rainwater storage; Cathy's Abundance fruit; Nick with harvested herbs.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Holding the world beloved in our hands

My column from the summer edition of EarthLines on the destiny of animals and ourselves 

She is heavy, much heavier than I thought, and stinking. Still I carry her down the road and over the gate to the marsh where she was going. It’s a short way, although it seems to take an age to get there, and all the time Otter images are flashing in my mind: Tarka the Otter, The Ring of Bright Water, animal medicine cards where Otter stands for female energy and playfulness.

But mostly I’m remembering Dougie Strang's installation, Charnel House for Roadkill, where the bones of wild creatures are laid in scarlet-lined caskets. How he found a dead badger on the road one night and drove home with the windows of the car open.

I have only encountered an otter in my imagination before and the reality of its presence is unnerving, forcing me to look, feel and smell the creaturehood in my hands as the cars roar past Hen Reed Beds. The blood and guts, bone and fur. The stench that is partly her own powerful scent and partly the smell of decay. I lay the form gently on the side of the dyke and am shocked by a feeling of cold fury that runs through my hands.

The scent of dead otter stays in my nostrils for days.

mountain lion

Roadkill encounters feature strongly in the Dark Mountain canon, partly because they directly challenge our human-centric view of the earth. There are two stories in the new Spring journal and one of the paintings is made from the hide of a roadkilled roe deer and the smoke of fallen birch trees. “To create an image of themselves in life” as the artist, Thomas Keyes explains.

You feel it is some kind of test. You want to drive past on those empty country roads, but sometimes you have to stop, feel the smoothness of snakes and the prickliness of hedgehogs, notice the unbearable beauty of bird feathers. Hold a dying rabbit against your heart.

Gary Snyder once said that the collective karma in respect to our treatment of animals was massive burden we had to contend with: and if you look at the number of campaigns that call for a halt to hunting, zoos, SeaWorlds, deforestation, mega-farms, abattoirs, fur factories, badger and bear culls, you will see why. We are hell-bent on pushing the animal kingdom out of our dominion – without realising we push out our own humanity at the same time.

In a map showing the weight of animals on the planet, human beings take up a large section, exceeded only by the cattle they raise, and in smaller proportion, pigs, sheep and goats. Elephants occupy a small corner, and tiny dots represent the rest of the wild animal kingdom. The otters weigh less than a feather.

Somehow we can’t look this reckoning in the face. We know this is way out of kilter, but we do not know how to right the balance. Or maybe buried beneath our rational minds, deep in our own creaturehood, our blood and guts and bone, we do but are unwilling to step into the territory.

My friend Cyril once found the skin of a mountain lion in a flea market in Nice. So he bought it and went up into the mountains, and lit a fire for the animal’s spirit. He had prayed and buried the skin under the trees. And we were quiet when we heard his story. Because we had all once lived in places where the wild cats had roamed and heard them roar in the canyons. And deep down inside us we knew that to live where wild things have their place is to live in right relation with the planet.

And it is a hard, hard thing to look at the psychotic and cruel things human beings do to their fellow creatures – and have always done – without turning away and wanting to play with totem animals in our minds, or watch them in nature programmes. Or simply to blank the fact out.

barn owl

I live in agricultural country, big arable fields skirted by reed beds, where most wild animals are considered vermin. Fox, rabbit and deer are all shot at night from military-type vehicles. The suburbanisation of our lane over the last decade has caused a once lively population of hares to disappear from view.

This year the barn owls also vanished. 2013 was a catastrophic year for the owl, even in their stronghold of Suffolk. The harsh weather conditions and increased use of rat poison has reduced their numbers to a mere four thousand pairs.

I had gone to the Big House to have a drink together with our neighbours. The six of us had all converged years ago in defence of this lane against a development, and, although we live in different social spheres there is still a kinship between us. I asked about the owls who had once nested in the oaktree in the drive. Had anyone seen them? No one had. Rat poison is badly affecting their numbers, I said.

“We use rat poison,” admitted the lady of the house. And there was an awkward moment then as everyone - bird lovers all - sipped their small glasses of prosecco. I wanted to be polite, but couldn't. “91 per cent of barn owls are found contaminated with it,” I repeated.

Some days I stand at the window at dusk and look over the pastures to where the owl used to fly, a ghostly presence flitting past in search of voles, mice and young rats, and feel his absence keenly.

I wouldn’t say it was grief, more what the Apache call a 'pain in the heart'. You have to let the ache be because to escape from the feeling would be to join the cognitive dissonance that afflicts the rest of the neighbourhood. You don’t want to rage (though so many times I have) because that blame and hatred fuels the unconscious even more. You need to act, if you can, support the people who fight for owls and foxes and hares. Then you have to remember how it was when they flew over.

One day when the conditions are right, you say, you will come back. As the tawnies call to each other in the oak trees. We are still here, are you, are you?

goat willow

Around the equinox I went to visit the goat willow that grows on East Hill, a small mound overlooking the wide sweep of reed beds outside Walberswick. It is huge tree, perhaps the largest I have ever seen, and we come here each Spring as part of the year’s flower pilgrimages: snowdrop, daffodil, lily-of-the-valley, seakale, sea lavender. I love to lie down beneath its golden branches and listen to the bees gathering pollen. It has a mighty effect on your sense of wellbeing.

This year the tree’s crown had been smashed by the big winter storms and many of its top branches were broken. And yet in spite of the damage, it emanated the same feeling of exuberance and calm. Its spirit was intact.

And I remembered then the goat willow I had sat down beside and wept the year cows and sheep were being slaughtered in their millions across the land. Its trunk had been partially burned by vandals, but still there were catkins about to burst out and buds of intense green. I had gone to the wasteland by Port Meadow to connect with the animals’ spirits and apologise, which was the only thing I felt I could do.

And though my heart was sore, something in the tree’s resilient presence would not let me become overwhelmed. You have to grow your roots, even when your branches are cut. Life does come back, I knew that then. But I also knew we had to not let the destruction continue. And how could we do that as a people in an institutionally heartless world?

In March as part of the No Glory campaign, a speaker from Norwich Stop the War Coalition came to our local library in Bungay and talked about the millions of young men who died in the trenches of France and Flanders during the First World War. It had been organised by a member of our local Transition group. This was not a wellbeing walk, a Give and Take Day, or any of our usual events, nor is the Transition movement political. And yet we gathered in a space so that a history that still caused a collective grief 100 years later could somehow be addressed.

Quietly and slowly several people told of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who had survived the war and yet never spoke of it. Some finally spoke – or sang – as they lay dying, remembering their comrades on those muddy fields. The Great War is a trauma that runs very deep in the English psyche and the loss of whole bands of men from the surrounding villages can still be felt.

I realised then that no matter how many seed swaps we organise, or plant monographs I write, if these things are not done in another spirit, in kindness and with full awareness, they will affect nothing. To restore the wasteland demands more from us than event managing or clever words. It requires the kind of spirit medicine you feel from the goat willow, when you bury an animal with honour. For regeneration the conditions have to be right.

The superficiality of our minds and our unfeeling wills trample easily over the statistics of men and beasts killed in the name of Empire. Our hearts know differently but keep silent, because we have been bullied for aeons not to utter a word. Soldiers famously lost their ability to speak in the face of the horror at Ypres and Passchendale. And still now It is hard to speak out loud about war or factory farming or deforestation, even among our fellows. It is hard to mention rat poison to the people in the Big House. We don't want to look at the industrialisation of the planet, and our implicit agreement in the slaughter. We want to be polite and well-thought of, and for nature to be our solace, our plaything, our quiet Eden.

But to right the balance we have to pick up the otter when we find her on the road and acknowledge that this lithe, female, watery being, whom we have loved in our imaginations all these years, might not love us back in reality.

And we might have to work very very hard to get that relationship back. And we have to do this work because without the otter, badger and lion, without the spirit of the willow trees, without the hearts of young men, we are going nowhere.

Images: Deer bones from Charnel House by Dougie Strang; Following the Roe to Bennachie (birch smoke on deer vellum) by Thomas Keyes. New issue of EarthLines (Autumn/Winter issue) is now on sale.