Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Heart is Another Country

I have been writing a column called 'Life in Transition' for the magazine EarthLines since 2012. During these years, as one season has shifted into another, I have looked at the challenges that face an industrialised people in search of a wilder, kinder, more authentic way of being on the planet. This is my last column You can see all posts under the EarthLines label).

“Can we speak with you for a moment?” asked the girl with blond hair sitting at the table outside the Betsey Trotwood. It’s midwinter and we have just been at a Dark Mountain launch at the literature house Free Word in Clerkenwell. “We loved the way you started your talk about being a know-it-all journalist in London when you were 35. We’re 35!”

I looked at them, two young city women, smart, sassy, with sharp tailoring and a curiousity that would never be satisfied by the whirling world of Farringdon Road. I realised I was talking to myself 25 years ago. “You have to go!” I laughed. “You won’t regret it.”

25 years ago I had interviewed a Native American activist called Dennis Banks. He was running to Russia with a band of young warriors to deliver a message of peace. I had persuaded the news desk it was a good story.

“Why are you running?” I asked him.
“I run to remind the world the eagle is still the eagle and the owl is still the owl.” he told me.
"Does the world want to know?” I asked.
He looked at me, French designer jacket, Japanese tape recorder, London attitude.

"It doesn’t matter who gets the message.” he replied. “What matters is that the message is delivered." "Well," I said. "Thousands of people will read this tomorrow."

But the fact was they didn’t. Because the story was never published (the photographer didn’t get a good picture). But I got the message anyway. Six months later I was on the road to Mexico.

At some point all our empires end. The ones that hold dominion inside us, the corporate machine that strides the Earth, the parts we play to keep it going. The encounter seemed a small thing at the time. But it wasn’t. It changed my whole world. 


There is a small hexagonal space in the Natural History museum in Oxford in the rocks and minerals department. When you step inside it is totally dark, except for the glow emanating from several crystalline chunks in a psychedelic host of colours. And there is a switch. When you flick it something extraordinary happens: a totally different set of colours lights up. The minerals emit fluoresecent light according to the wave lengths of UV light they are exposed to. The switch changes the frequency.

In the Free Word theatre I am showcasing 30 images from the two recent Dark Mountain volumes. What is this man in a suit doing on a raft on a Swedish lake? I am asking the audience. Why is this woman’s face covered in a mask made from heritage wheat? 

The images are modern but they are also archaic, rough, made from riverwood, roadkill and storm debris. They show us glaciers in Pataonia and broken glass in Walthamstow, the rain on a cherry tree in a gale on the Ligurian coast and a red door leading to a curious house in the Hampshire woods. They are paying attention in places where we do not, stopping the world so we can see inside its workings, so we can see what lies outside the city walls.

Art is like a strange attractor, I said, that breaks a limit cycle and brings chaos into play. When it comes to climate change we can talk about sustainability and resilience and finding A New Narrative. We discuss environmental and social justice – but still we are at the same table moving pieces on a chessboard in a losing game. The new story turns out to be just the old story only with different vocab. Sometimes though the barbarians come to the city and appear on the edge of our civilised lives with a message.

Sometimes that barbarian is you.


To see the Earth in new colours we have to divest ourselves of the world that is set to ruin it. When the Transition movement was launched its blueprint for energy descent created over a thousand initiatives worldwide and provided an intervention for communities stuck in the rigidity of the status quo. It gave people a chance to meet within an ecological frame for the future. However its essentially pragmatic nature meant those changes were only discussed in terms of our behaviours and attitude. What was not addressed was the inner divestment of an old world, or how we could create the kind of culture that could be stronger and more beautiful than the one built and maintained by fossil fuels.

In 1990 my life changed direction when I met a Native American activist. What I learned from Dennis Banks in that small encounter was that unless I had a land to belong to I would not have a message worth delivering. To find that territory I had to become a different kind of person, operating on another wavelength. When I later chanced upon a lecture about aboriginal dreamtime, I found that the mystery of life on Earth can be found in our ordinary dreams. When I met a road protester called Heather in Oxford, I discovered that the medicine of plants can be found in the weeds that grow outside your door, that there is living consciousness in every tree and flower.

In 2008 I found myself in a theatre with a small band of 30 people watching a film about peak oil. And afterwards, contrary to my expectation, I joined in the lively debate about life at the end of Empire. We will build the lifeboat together, we declared. It was the day I joined Transition. In Transition I got smart about the industrial-military complex and realised that the future was not just about me: it had to be about us. Breaking our individual silos was perhaps the most radical move any of us could make.

Each of these encounters blew the dimensions of my small world open. Each time I met someone who sparked something alight in me. But how do we flick the switch in the dark room as a collective? How do we change the frequency so that the low hostile hum of Empire is turned off and different parts of ourselves are lighted up?

How do we open to these encounters in a shrinking world? How can we move the conversation away from the game on the table to feel the currents of the underworld below our feet, to hear the spirit birds above our heads, when we are boxed in by language, by class, by prejudice, by untempered inner forces, when only the lucky and the rich hold the microphone and most of us feel dumbstruck? 

jumping the fire 

This year we jumped over the fire to welcome the new year in. Lucy sent us a bottle of vodka, three small glasses and some instructions. I built a firepit where Lucy’s caravan had once stood. The caravan has been a crucible for a book Lucy and I have been working on for the last two years. It’s called Playing for Time - Making Art as if The World Mattered. 

The book details the work of 58 artists who convene under the umbrella of ‘transitional arts practice’. This is not the art you might find in galleries or theatres, but art that takes place in bandstands, libraries, beaches, burial grounds, mountain tops and community gardens. Collective and collaborative projects that help us break out and change lanes; that can, for example, bring a whole valley of people together in Cornwall, or track the nectar and pollen-bearing plants in a neighbourhood in London, that can curate a museum of waters from across the globe, or a rhythm to be played by people across continents, like Chinese whispers.

What does living ‘as if the world mattered’ mean? It is hard to read about the ocean and its million mile gyres of rubbish and not turn away. It is hard to read about the corporate gulag system in America, where people are paid $1 a day for their labour and not hate. It is hard to refuse the plastic bag, to not give any part of yourself to the industrial-military complex, to remember in each small move that empathy and kindness matter.

It was hard to stay here at first and not run away, and yet this is what our hearts told us when we listened: Make yourself at home. It was hard to eat seasonally, to turn off the heating. Live in time. Yet now I don’t want to leave, I don’t care if I have to wait another six months to taste tomatoes or strawberries. I don’t want winter to be summer anymore. Today the chard and radicchio shine all colours in the frost. I walk down the lane with a dead elm balanced on my shoulder. Ice cracks under my feet and moonlight bounces off the distant sea like a golden mirror.

What makes divestment bearable is the attention the artist and writer show with their practice and their celebration. How these things forge depth in a shallow time, how they wrest meaning and value in a culture governed by the dollar and the drone. They open the door to the worlds that shift under and beyond the table. They create spaces for other things to happen. For the switch to go on inside. For the people to still be the people.

We sat for a long time around the fire, elm and hawthorn twigs snapping in the dark. The fireworks of the town seemed to be happening in another dimension. We heard a deer bark, geese honk from the marsh. The stars turned overhead. When you jump at midnight, Lucy said, you shout: I give you my yellow paleness, and then back again: I take your fiery red. Then you drink a glass of vodka. When you are jumping, the people stamp their feet and cheer, and you can think of your brethren in Kabul doing the same.

I stamp my feet on the earth and laugh, as Mark leaps over the fire. From the oak trees down the lane the owls call out:

We give you our fiery red. 
Playing for Time – Making Art as if the World Mattered by Lucy Neal is published by Oberon Books. I will be speaking with fellow editor Steve Wheeler about the Dark Mountain Project at 2 Degrees Festival on 3 June. Do come! The latest collection of Dark Mountain writing and art is available here. 

Images: Calling out with Ansuman Biswas/Red Earth by Charlotte McPherson in Playing for Time; Anima by Daniel Mack (Dark Mountain 6); crocus from Honeyscribe by Amy Shelton (in PFT); storytelling by Tom Hirons at the last Uncivilisation Festival, 2013.

Friday, 1 May 2015

now you see me

dark mountain visual
It was a month of appearances. Dark Mountain 7 came out (above is its sinewy linocut cover by Stanley Donwood) and was posted around the world. Playing for Time - Making Art as if the World Mattered was launched at Free Word in Clerkenwell and I walked everyone through its colourful blueprint. I went to Southwold Library and talked about being an editor, and I went to a castle in East Sussex and talked about water and memory for Waterweek 2, invited by the artists, Clare Whistler and Charlotte Still. They had read my book 52 Flowers. Here is a short piece I wrote about that talk - an exploration of how our lives are directed in ways we cannot explain with our rational minds but make sense to our common creaturehood and deep inner core. 

Crossing the River

Sometimes you need an intervention to crack open your world and bring about change. On a hot day in July 2007 the artist and activist Amy Sharrocks invites a posse of swimmers to navigate their way across the ponds and pools of London. In 2000 I meet a community artist carrying a baby called Willow, who invites me to join a campaign to save the canal life of Oxford. Two years later I find myself in the filmmaker Derek Jarman’s garden, standing by the mighty cabbage of the shingle, seakale, and know I have to put down my roots by the sea.

Who are we as a body of water? This was the question that began a short 20 minute voyage into the transformative powers of water: how it can affect our imaginations and our sense of being alive in physical form. The people in the room closed their eyes, took a deep breath and plunged into their memories. Connect with a wild watery place, I asked everyone, an ocean, pond or stream where once you felt at home. Then turn to your neighbour and introduce yourself and that body of water.

Water connects us, makes us fluid and free; breaks open the shut down, individualistic silos we are trapped in. Most of all it reminds us that we are human swimming creatures: crossing a busy East End street on a hot July day.

There are three bodies of water in the talk. They describe a life journey that happens outside CVs and official biography. The first is a London river, a deep hidden river that runs under my old neighbourhood, the Westbourne, that later becomes the Fleet, on whose grimy banks I work as a journalist. These are practical rivers, but they are also underworld rivers, the Lethe and the Styx that I have encountered in TS Eliot’s Wasteland. I am a modern city child but already I know the myth of the well maidens and the Fisher King. Already I am aware, though I have no experience, that the land has been poisoned by men who have not honoured the springs, and it is now exacting a price.

A crowd flowed over Westminster Bridge.
I had not thought Death had undone so many.

The second is a river that runs through London but begins in Oxfordshire, the Thames, a river that comes in my mid-life and teaches me everything about medicine plants and how to defend the life that springs up along the waterways: the willows, water rats and boaters who live on its banks, the hemp agrimony flowers that can bring decrystallisation and inspiration to minds and bodies made creaky and rigid by civilisation.
Activism tells us how water is privatised, owned by corporations, poisoned by agribusiness, used to extract gas, as a dumping ground for plastic and the industrialised world. Art shows us that water holds a deeper, more intrinsic value. It shows us why and how we might restore the land by regenerating ourselves. These interventions of art and action surprise us, so that we start to see water no longer as a commodity, but as part of planetary life, and we of it.

The last place was the shoreline I spent a lifetime trying to reach. After 10 years on the road, living in mountains and deserts and dusty towns, I make myself at home on the east coast, anchored in a stormy time by the tap root of  one of the world’s greatest plant detoxifiers. It is here that I see how we can belong again to the Earth, so long as we love the place we are in:
Out to sea there is a sandbar I am told by a diver for treasure. There are seals there. The sandbars appear and disappear. When summer comes you can swim out to them and feel the cross-currents move around your feet. You can feel how everything moves and is fluid, not as it seems. In your imagination you trace sea henges, songlines. The great waves of the full moon race to the shore. like waves of undulating light.You are standing beside all oceans, in Africa, in all time. The white flowers of the seakale dazzle, the larks ascend above you, an exultation of larks. The sea goes in and out, like our breath. We are in the kingdom of the crambe, a selkie people, an island people, a people returned, starting again. Nothing is as you imagine it is.

England, our England.
Next appearance! Will be with fellow Dark Mountain editor Steve Wheeler on Wednesday 3 June for the 2 Degrees Festival at Toynbee Studios. We're taking part in a series of talks as part of a week-long workshop called Breakdown Break Down, curated by the artist and activist Brett Bloom.

Images: cover for Dark Mountain 7 by Stanley Donwood; SWIM. by Amy Sharrocks, photo by Ruth Conyer, London, July 2007; hemp agrimony by the Thames, July 2002 (CDC); entering the sea, Southwold, July 2014