Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Divesting for Beginners

This summer I have taken some time 'off' to focus on two writing projects. One is a book about the mythos of return in times of collapse. The other is a performance/ presentation called 'Divesting for Beginners'. Based on a story I wrote for Dark Mountain called The Seven Coats, it is having its first showing at the Festival of the Dark in Reading on 7th September.

The Festival is set around the solar stations of the annual growing cycle during 2017. At the Spring Equinox, I took part in an ensemble performance called The Night Breathes Us In as the Cailleach-as-Heron in among the reeds of the river Thames. As we head up to the Autumn Equinox, I'll be in a different guise: among the mythical reeds of the Tigris and the Euphrates, celebrating a key moment in the ancient world, as the year goes into 'fall' and tips towards the dark.

Here's the central question of the piece: what connects a 4000-year-old myth and the modern fossil fuel industry?

One answer would be place: the country now known as Iraq, once ancient Sumer, birthplace of the world's first Fertile Crescent civilisation. Another would be dimension: both these stories happen underground. The myth follows the descent of Innana, Queen of Heaven and Earth, as she steps into the kur, the Underworld, in search of her sister Erishkigel; the fossil fuel is crude oil, that bubbles up from beneath the desert floor and now runs in (mostly invisible) pipelines across the world; the power that fuels every aspect of modern life and is a principle driver of climate change and all the Hadean crises it brings in its wake.

The piece follows Innana as she goes through the seven gates of the 'Great Below'; and also the track as I begin my own 'divestment', the shedding of a high consumerist culture. At each gate we have to leave an aspect of our upperworld power behind. It's a fairytale turned upside down, a widdershins Cinderella story.

But it is also a physical and imaginative encounter with the planet and the transformative forces that Innana forgoes her Upperworld privilege and authority to secure. I forgo my place in a city-based world to discover a relationship with the Earth, and with a self that has been suffocated for years, and is now waiting in the dark with the clock ticking. From this position the only way open is to follow Innana's path and divest from those destructive powers. How do we do that as ordinary people, in our everyday lives, in our actions, in our hearts, as individuals and together?

Here's another question: how do we get off the hook? What kind of people do we need to become for the future to happen?


For a long time now I've been trying to find a creative form that could encapsulate the urgent, extraordinary task of powerdown. When I joined the Transition movement with my fellow performer Mark Watson in 2008, our key wake up moment happened watching a film about climate change; when we realised - along with everyone else in the room - that everything that powers our culture is normally kept hidden from sight. Known as the 'End of Suburbia moment' (after the documentary), it was a consciousness-breaking second in which you saw that oil was in everything: from your toothbrush to the clothes you wore, from the food you ate to every trip you took in the car, the train, the plane.

For many of us however the task of enabling our communities to engage in 'Energy Descent' proved overwhelming. Not only did we lack the heft required to relocalise our local economies, but also the ability to dismantle the belief systems that prevent people perceiving the 'wicked problem' we are in, let alone doing anything about it.

What endured was held in the singular idea of powerdown - the reliquishment of our energy-dependant lifestyle. Divestment is usually understood in the shape of climate activist campaigns that pressure institutions - trades unions, universities, local councils - to take their financial investments out of Big Oil and put them into alternative ventures. But this is not the only kind of divestment that can change the culture we live in. In the winter of 2009/10 Mark and I were part of a group in Norwich who cut their annual carbon footprint by half (to four tonnes) and logged the radical effects on every aspect of our lives. It changed everything we did. We did not look back.

When Mika Minio-Paluello, who co-wrote The Oil Road, began the 11-year odyssey along the trans-European pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the city of London, she said she knew was in the long game. People in the divestment business don't give up easily. It's because they see something is awry and won't stop until it gets back into alignment. Innana doesn't stop until she goes through the seventh gate. Even though our original Transition initiatives fell apart, the movers and shakers within them carried on: protesting against the old, building the new. I never turned the central heating back on or went to supermarkets again. We weren't going to unsee what we had seen.

If you look at the nature of indigenous dissent around oil, from the forest lawyers of Ecuador to the 'water protectors' of North Dakota, you see people who have been in the long game for a very long time. They live on the wrecking edge of our civilisation, and do not benefit from its riches. Yet, because their allegiance is to the Earth, rather than a conquistador Empire, their actions are backed not only by their culture but also by the planet itself. These kinds of connection, these roots, are something we, as modern city people, have had to forge for ourselves.

Entering the kur

The Seven Coats starts on the day when I stop being a community activist and find myself unable to write the Transition story anymore. When I realise we cannot 'reset' our civilisation because its shiny stories of ascent are holding us in their spell. No matter how many articles I might write about the new narrative, how I might pile them up with scary data or joyful community projects, something was trapping us in an unkind grip. Something wasn't getting through.

Divesting for Beginners takes the form of a performance, or set of instructions, as the actions of powerdown are more a series of moves, of changes of heart and direction, than a linear story. The piece is a voyage through practices that Mark and I developed in order to communicate with the Earth, ourselves and with others. It follows our tracks from the New Mexico desert to the East Anglian waterlands, engaging in what Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilisation called the dramaturgical, changing roles and positions in order to fully understand life. It's a short performance with interventions (and tea!) to spark a discussion with the listeners of this tale about how we can collectively curb our appetites and transform an extractive culture.

Because one thing is clear: something has to happen inside at a deep inner level to make any kind of effective change on the outside. These existential wake up moments once came at the mysteries or initiations, which provided a core encounter with the forces of life. They happened in caves and kivas, in the dark, at key times of the year, like the Eleusinian Mysteries at this equinox, and often at adolescence.

This descent however is for the grown-ups. Innana is no ingenue: she is both lover and mother, who in her youth outwitted the god of Wisdom and procured the Me (attributes of civilisation) she wears at the outset of the tale. She knows however that some part of her essence is missing, some depth, some meaning without which she is not whole within herself, or for her people. Innana goes to find that part buried beneath the walls of the new civilisation of Sumer. She can hear her dark sister bellowing, and knows somehow she is responsible for her wrath and suffering. When Innana finds her, Erishkigel puts her bright sister's naked body on a hook.

One of the reasons we find it hard to face the facts about collapse and climate change is because there are so few imaginary or real life stories about powerdown. There are plenty of success-through-adversity stories, hero stories, princess stories. You could say there is success in the Innana story, as she is rescued by her back-up team and is restored to the Upperworld. But it is her downward path that grabs us now as we hear sounds of lamentation all around us for which we are accountable. Because here is a figure who deliberately divests herself of power, not knowing either the territory she enters, or the outcome of her passage. And somewhere in the bones of ourselves we know this is a key to our future: we don't know the outcome of the play. Or whether back up will arrive. We go in anyway. Something is pulling us. It's time.

Divesting for Beginners, a powerdown story will take place on 7th September in Reading (venue tba) as part of Dazzle, an immersive micro-festival exploring community,  imagination and ideas. Further details from Festival of the Dark.

Images: Wearing the red coat in the blackthorn tunnel (photo: Mark Watson); construction of the Central European Oil pipeline from Genoa to Ingolstadt, 1961; Bearers from The Night Breathes Us In at Reading station, Spring Equinox (photo: Georgia Wingfield-Hayes); Mark shaking up the elements in 'Raw and Wild' demonstation, Bungay (photo:  Josiah Meldrum).

Friday, 19 May 2017

The Uneasy Chair

'How do you prepare yourself to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?'
Annie Dillard The Writing Life

The sea glitters like a mirror, the hedgerows are bursting into flower, the garden is running wild and it's time to get out there... but first a dispatch from the Lane!

Lately I've had my head down devising new creative works (book and performance) and working at the Dark Mountain depot, with a brief appearance as a heron and deep time instructor in Reading alongside my friend and co-curator Dougie Strang and his Spring Equinox ensemble. Somewhere along the way, probably with a notebook on the island of Portland (see above) I got the idea about a new teaching practice called The Uneasy Chair. Well, I say it's new but in fact I've been talking about it for a long time now. It's underpinned two Arvon courses I've run with Lucy Neal on writing collaboratively in difficult times, as well as grassroots media skill-share. You could say my whole life has been about sitting, or avoiding sitting, on this chair which is the paradox position all writers have to put themselves in in order to file good copy. You don't want to sit there of course, but you don't get the story if you don't.

Mostly you are so busy negotiating the chair you forget the deal you made when you fist made that move. Writers don't learn to write at school or university. They teach themselves from the words of dead writers who went before them. Writers devour books when they are young, and learn their trade 'on the job'. I learned to write as a young journalist with the clock ticking behind me. I realised a deadline and a word count are the best guidelines you can hope for in a topsy-turvy life and that sometimes the most unlikely people will pass you an unforgettable tip out of the blue.

And then one day you find yourself doing the same, editing pencil in hand, recommending rigour as the way to go. Or you find yourself, as I do now, with a lot of editorial experience and tricks up your sleeve, but you're no longer in that features dept. You haven't been for decades in fact, and the culture of blogging has left you metaphorically marooned in a submarine from a Tarkovsky movie, cut off from real time encounters and exchange which are the stuff of all good non-fiction work, your own voiceover echoing off the metal walls.

The Uneasy Chair is not really about teaching people to be professional writers, which god knows can be a tough and soulless way to earn your living in these days of spin and self-marketing. It is about writing as an existential practice, as a way of perceiving the world and your place in it, about putting your feet on the Earth and a crooked thing straight, about collaboration and time and imagination, and many other things besides.

Oh, and not forgetting the deal you make as a creator, which has everything to do with giving back and not much to do with having a quiet life.
The Bearers rehearsing The Night Breathes Us In, Reading, Spring Equinox

Now as the summer advances I'm keeping this practice in mind as I head out to a couple of events you might like to know about. The first one is at The Fire in the Mountain festival  in Wales with fellow Mountaineers (Dougie, Steve, Nick and Ava) where we are holding two experimental sessions within the Dark Mountain frame: 'Cafe Apocalypse - The Conversation at the End of the World' where we will discuss the latest anthology and what happens when we stop pretending everything is fine and 'Testements of Deep Time', a collaborative workshop exploring the ‘deep time’ underlying our moment-to-moment existence in industrial civilisation (with performance, song, storytelling and more).

The second is a weekend class in writing (creative non-fiction) and editing, organised by my old friend from Transition days, the musician and permaculturist Carol Hunter. She was keen to set up a practical intensive that was affordable and based in our heartland of East Anglia. So here is the low-down.

Reimagining the Future: A Writing-for-Life exploration

Do our words matter? Can the act of writing redirect the course of our lives? By activating our imaginations and speaking out, can we change the cultural stories and myths by which we live, individually and collectively?

This creative non-fiction weekend course is for all those looking to discover some key tools for navigating rocky times, from making meaning and broadening our collaboration skills, to laying down some tracks to restore the world and co-create a different kind of future.

During the course of the weekend we will explore how to listen to different voices (human and non-human), how to work with real life material, how to find our own 'medicine story', and how to sustain a writing practice in times of urgency. The weekend will include writing 'tech share' and exercises, myth telling and story-sharing, and combine group work around the fire, by the river and under trees and stars, with time for individual contemplation and writing.

Suitable for all writers who want to develop their craft, changemakers, artists, activists, designers and community workers. Bring your brilliance and your swimming costume!

Venue: The Grange, Gt Cressingham, Norfolk IP25 6NL 
Time: Friday 21st July 5pm to Sunday 23rd July 4pm
Cost: £150, including organic vegetarian food and accommodation.  
Booking: to register email
Further info: Carol Hunter

Meanwhile here is the front cover of a paperback anthology I've been co-editing for US publishers Chelsea Green with the Dark Mountain editorial crew (Nick, Dougald and Paul). Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times  is a potent mix of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artworks from ten of the Dark Mountain issues, The collection will be available from mid-August.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Interview: Uncolonising the Imagination

A different drum: Martin Shaw elling the Siberian tale of 'The Crow King and the Red Bead Woman' at Base Camp, Embercombe [Photo: Warren Draper]

Here is the orginal conversation I held with the mythologist Martin Shaw for the latest Dark Mountain journal #11. We ran a shortened version for a DM blog series on the 'mythos we live by' in March, asking six writers who work with story to explore what a mythological response to an age of converging crises might look like. Follow us as we traverse a territory that includes underworld metis, praise-giving and the dynamic skill of storytelling. Oh, and a dragon of course...

‘The thing about Finnish is that it’s not linear, it’s orbital,’ said the ticket collector on the 10:35 train to Leeds. ‘The language comes from the land. You have to find the object in the sentence and then everything else around it will make sense.’ 

We sat open-mouthed, as he then changed linguistic tracks and recited a verse from a Sami poem where an old woman is singing out to the dark forest. 

What you have to remember is that, in both these languages, the word for art and knowledge is the same… the train to Hebden Bridge will depart from Platform 12.’ 

One thing I knew for sure was that a conversation with Martin would not be straightforward. That although we would be speaking in English, a language hewn from a mix of many cultures, his stories come unexpected, feathered, leaved, rain-wet and roaring, from a collective language that has no borders. Mythologist and writer, he has been telling his wild alchemical tales to Dark Mountaineers for years now, in his books, his teaching (at the Westcountry School of Myth and Storytelling ) and most strikingly at our annual events - and from all these emerge a depth, a heart, a clarity, a connectedness, that you cannot not find in modern cynical end-of-the-world narratives. 

I have a notebook page open on the topics in order but of course they get mixed up, as his answers jump like roe deer out of the thicket and twist like a shoal of lapwings in a darkening sky. You gaze in wonder at the shape and movement of it all and then you laugh, realising you are already there, right in the thick of it.  

Here is a question that I hold like a ticket to the North in my hand: how can the act of telling and listening to a story liberate us from our disconnected, data-driven perception of the world and shift our attention towards what Iain McGilchrist calls the vast universe of the ‘right hemisphere’? How can myths give us a language, a technology, to navigate a time when dragons and ugly sisters rule, in a culture now broken open by consequence?

When you pay attention to the archaic stories that Martin relates, you realise they are not there to reflect the power and glory of an empire, to provide escape or entertainment at the end of a hard-working day. They exist as a reminder of our place and meaning on the Earth; a reminder of what we have to undergo to become truly human, with a culture where art is the same as knowledge.

Where in order to find the answer to that question you must sit, like a hare in a field, listening to the landscape all around you, and wait for the object to reveal itself.

CDC: Martin, at Base Camp you said: ‘The radical power of story is to open us up to our uncolonised imagination.’ How is the telling of a myth part of that?

MS: The thing that distinguishes oral storytelling from, say, modern novels or theatre, is that the listener has to do an awful lot of work. Good storytelling is a skeletal activity and what is happening in a room is a hundred people are leaning forward, because their imagination is having to work very hard to conjure flesh out of the wider story. Even listening to stories is not a passive experience. You are meeting the energy of the teller and the images within the story, so the energy is triangulate.

CDC: Do you think mythology plays a particular role now in a world which is becoming increasingly fragmented and meaningless?

MS: Yes, myth has something direct to say. Many of the stories we need now arrived perfectly on time about 5,000 years ago. Old mythologies contain not only stories about our place on the Earth, but have the Earth speaking through them, what the Islamic scholar Henry Corbin termed the mundus imaginalis –  where the human imagination is open to what David Abram describes as the more-than-human world.  So with myth, you are working not just with imagination but with the imaginal, what many aboriginal cultures would call the Dreamtime. In other words, as we turn ideas around in our head, we’re not just thinking but we are getting thought.

What does it mean to get thought?

For the last 20 years I’ve been taking people out into very wild parts of Britain, and for four days and nights they are absolutely alone, and often towards the end of that time, the participant will touch the edge of that experience. It’s very hard to talk about the imaginal in conventional language. The most fitting language to address it is poetry or imagery or mythology. If the language is too psychological it reduces the mystery. It makes the mysteries containable and safe.

I’m tired of tame language addressing wild things. We seem to be frantically creating handrails in and out of desperately mysterious situations. And so to come back to the question: myth is a robust and ancient way of addressing a multiplicity of consciousnesses that abide in and around the Earth.

What is so powerful about an uncolonised imagination, a mythic intelligence, is that it connotes but does not denote. It doesn’t tell you what it is. Its images have a radiance that reveals different things to whoever is beholding them. In storytelling, I know that when I say even something as definite as a crow that is in the room, we are all seeing 30 different crows. It is important that I don’t hit a PowerPoint presentation, and say this is the crow we’re talking about. Everyone’s imagination is being stirred, where they are remembering and catching a glimpse of crows in their lives before that.

CDC: So storytelling and myth also have a relationship with time?

MS: Yes, and memory. Stories with weight to them have what C.G. Jung terms ‘the lament of the dead’, which in our frenetic culture we can no longer have time to hear. Most indigenous cultures will tell you that this world belongs to the dead, that’s where we’re headed. So mythology for me involves a conversation with the dead, with what you might call ancestors.

Whatever we are facing now we need to have a root system embedded in weather patterns, the presences of animals, our dreams, and the ones who came before us. Myth is insistent that when there is a crisis, genius lives on the margins not the centre. If we are constantly using the language of politics to combat the language of politics at some point the soul grows weary and turns its head away because we are not allowing it into the conversation, and by denying soul we are ignoring what the Mexicans call the river beneath the river. We’re not listening to the thoughts of the world. We’re only listening to our own neurosis and our own anxiety.

CDC: Much of your work calls for a return to bush soul and for us to remember. Do you feel these myths are resurfacing so we can relearn our ancestor training that has been shut down for a very long time?

MS: I would say: if you don’t have ancestors you have ghosts. At the moment many of us are so impoverished and lacking in a cultural root system that what is around us are not ancestors supporting us but ghosts depleting us. So one of the things we could do is to reach out to stories, to practices – such as working on the land or a good art form – that require skills, diligence, a willingness to be bored and to lose our addiction to constant excitement. Myth and story put you into the presence of the old ones who have told the story before you.

When I’ve been with the Lakota Sioux or other Native American groups, I’ve seen that rather than telling stories from beginning to end like a Western narrative with a wedding at some point, they can enter the story wherever they want, like walking into a stream, and at that moment an image or scene in the story gets told and that is the story. It’s just that glimpse that gets into the lion’s blood of your imagination.

So I would say don’t worry about the whole of the story. Look for the moment  that speaks directly to you. Because like an acupuncture point, that is your entry point into the great stream of the story. You don’t need to dam the thing off at the beginning and the end. It’s more promiscuous than that, there are buddings everywhere.

CDC: When you told the story of the ‘The Crow King and the Red Bead Woman’ at Base Camp there were certain points where people were feeling very moved and in tears. What is that upwelling of sudden feeling in us all when we hear the story being told like that?

MS: One answer would be that this is a moment where we collectively experience what William Blake used to call ‘a pinprick of the eternal’ or the anthropologist Victor Turner ‘communitas’, where often through grief there is a kind of permission given in the room to feel something deeply in public. These days that’s quite rare. We tend to grieve and emote away from other people. But that’s not the way traditionally it’s done.

Folk tales told well have the power to be tacit ritual. In other words they have the strength to put their arms around the whole room and create a container that for an hour you can cook in the images of the story. You can allow yourself, bidden or unbidden, to be provoked by the images. And somehow it is safe to go deep within it.

It’s really also to do with the skill of the teller. You might be an accomplished storyteller technically but if you haven’t lived through some of the travails of the story, there will be a gap between the telling of the tale and what actually transpires. When those feelings happen in the room you know the storyteller is synched up to this story: she’s not saying it’s her story, but she has moved through the dark wood. She knows what it is like to carry precious red beads in her mouth. She knows what it’s like to be ignored and left for dead. She knows what it’s like to discern the difference between a seduction and a courtship.

When you see somebody effectively trying to tell the truth, it seems to have a deep, profound effect. So I think it’s partially to do with the way a room is held, the feeling that you’re in the presence of something ancient, which these stories are, and a readiness in the listener to allow themselves to just be carried by the power of the thing.

CDC: Are these complex Siberian myths ones that you’re focusing on at the moment, or do you have many myths that you’re working with at a time?

MS: I work with a wide variety of myths. Over the years, I have told a lot of stories that have come out of the Gaelic or Arthurian world, or European fairy tales, Russian fairy tales and Siberian folk tales. When you go into Siberia, you’re not really in the same terrain as the Russian fairy tales any more. There’s a different quality to them. You are dealing with stories that carry a lot less of a European influence in them and more of the kind of nutritional complexity that you find in Native American or Inuit stories. 

One of the ways you notice it is that their stories end in unexpected places. They do not follow the  kind of climactic Western narrative that we’re used to now. 

I read a lot of stories for example from India or from Africa or from South America, but I don’t feel equipped to tell them. When I’m working with people who are training as storytellers, one of the things I say is find out what kind of weather patterns live within you, find out what kind of animal you are, find out what your ecosystems are. Because some stories you will find yourself naturally attracted to, and others you can simply respect and admire.

For example, in a lot of Scandinavian or Icelandic stories, a formal, incantatory, memorised way of telling the story really suits it and is encouraged. But because I’m so improvisational as a teller, because I have such a long-standing interest in wild things, one of the wildest things I think you can do is to go on without a script. So that is why lots of unexpected things tend to erupt when I’m telling. There’ll always be a beginning and a middle and an end. But how we get there each time can be slightly different.

The sense of the story is what you as a teller bring that day. You’re watching how the audience is responding, you’re seeing their eye contact, the moments where they are leaning forward, when they’re pulling back. And that to some extent tunes the telling of the story. Also you have the story tapping you on the shoulder all the way through, and saying ‘Ah, ah, ah… I really want you to slow down now, and describe in detail the yurt of the old woman.’ And so I follow the direction of the story itself, but also what’s happening in the room.

CDC: You wrote once, in your book Scatterlings I think, that we were not sure what story we were in as a culture. If there were a story that could speak of our present situation, that held in its talons, if you like, or in its heart, a feeling for regeneration or return, for making sense, for bringing together, for waking us up, what might that be?

MS: I do have a story. It’s called the ‘The Lindwurm’. It’s a story that suggests that you and I have an exiled, slightly older sister or brother, who was hurled out the window the night they were born, and has sat brooding in a forest for many, many years, and has now returned.

And somehow contained in the psychic nerve endings of this story, I feel is a lot of information about what we’re living through both ecologically and politically right now.

CDC: It has an active female protagonist who transforms everything, is that correct?

MS: Oh yes. Without the ingenuity of a young woman working in tandem with an old woman (who’s really a spirit of an oak tree) we are going to be incinerated by the furious returning sibling, who devours everything that comes into its grip. It takes the ingenuity of the young woman, with the advice of the older woman, to not just defeat the serpent, but to free the serpent. That’s what’s so beautiful about it. The days of conventional hero myths are not serving us. What is being called for now culturally is a word you find often in Ancient Greece: metis. Metis is a kind of divine cunning in service to wisdom.

We can’t be naïve in times like this, because we are in the presence of underworld forces that will do one of two things: they will either educate us, or annihilate us. And in fairy tales whenever the movement is down – and the movement culturally is down right now – you have to get underworld smart, have underworld intelligence, underworld metis. I have a strong feeling that a lot of what wants to emerge through many ancient stories is a kind of wily, tough, ingenious and romantic force that needs to come forward at this point in time.

CDC: Mythology often has what I call the Princess Problem. You know where there is a passive, beautiful young female being, and then the man, the hero, appears and does the noble thing. So I’m always alert to stories where there can be a female protagonist to balance out all the hero action and worship that got us into this fine pickle in the first place.

MS: I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes when I’m telling ancient stories though I become aware that people in the audience are almost auditioning the stories for some contemporary concern. And while I’m sympathetic to the concerns of the time, the story itself is a living, powerful, breathing ancient being. It radiates its strange, troublesome intelligence out into the hearts and minds of everyone there and does its work.

But there are stories that are explicitly about the resurgence of a feminine that is not defined by what the troubadours call ‘the far-distant lady’. So you’re not the lady in the tower, where some young man is singing madrigals to you day and night; you are up-close, wild, occasionally brilliant, filled with opinions, big gnashing teeth, appetite, desire, with hooves that have trodden the ground of the underworld.

snowy-tower-book-coverMy book Snowy Tower looks at the Grail story of the knight Parzival,  which superficially could be seen to be about a young man becoming an older man. But underpinning that story is his relationship with powerful, potent, active females, the most extraordinary of which is a being called Kundrie. Kundrie has tusks. She has breasts that lactate deadly nightshade; she has eyebrows so long she has to plait and tuck them behind her ears; she has the snout of a boar and the ears of a lion. But she speaks three languages, and (I rather love this detail) she has a hat from Paris. And most importantly she is the one who, often in a fairly harsh manner, pushes Parzival in the directions he needs to go to be in the presence of the Grail again.

So those stories are there. When I see people chopping up, cutting and pasting ancient stories to make a new story with a very active female character that has been taken out of three other stories, what we get is a mythic image, but we don’t get a myth.

Now mythic is something that can be created in the imagination of a Jeannette Winterson or a Tolkien. But myth itself is connected to time and space. It has to pass through many mouths and many communities, until it takes on the kind of weight that means it’s authentically a myth.

So my challenge for anybody is to regard themselves as a kind of a mythological scholar in training. And to go out and to look through the old anthologies, get a library card, and try and collect these stories that are waiting to say something vital about the nature of our times.

And the second part of that challenge, the most crucial part of the research, will be your individual expression of that story. It doesn’t have to be an oral storytelling. It could be something you write down, or paint. You could craft a boat from an image within the story. But one way or another you need to let the story have its way with you.
CC: Ah yes, so that it becomes creative and externalised rather than inward and psychological. Talking of Parzival, there’s a line in Scatterlings where you ask, in respect to medieval culture: 'What replaces the chivalric viewpoint and creates anchoring for humans?’ There are not many myths that consider a band of people working together, except perhaps Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In terms of the future, it’s clear we can’t be held in an individualist story, but one that brings community into it, or a bigger relationship. And I wondered if you had any thoughts about that?
MS: It’s as if they are folk memories of times when we were living in much more closely knit relationships, both with each other and the Earth; where at some point the leader, the king or the queen, has to marry the wild for the health of the land. But you’re right, not only should we accept that we need other people around us collectively, working and banging into each other with our ideas, our feelings and our passions; but also that myth says that within you is a multiplicity of intelligences, who all want different things from you.  

In many tribal stories and indigenous tales, there is an implicit understanding that what we call psyche or soul does not live in a person, but that we live within the psyche or the soul. And the tribe, collectively, respond to and develop their lives through that awareness, which is usually a very ordinary experience. It’s not a question of belief, it’s a question of experience. However, in the West, we have had such a different fate over the last few hundred years that there is now a collective amnesia to the idea that we have a soul at all – whether there’s a soul inside us, or that we dwell within one.

So when someone talks about the individual journey of someone in the West, they’re having to make that journey because they do not have around them the cultural certainties that a tribal group would have, to affirm that yes, we are living within this wider thing, the mundus imaginalis, the soul of the world, and your dreams and your opinions are connected to waterfalls and jaguars and lightning storms.

It is a lonelier place for us to be because what is surrounding us does not confirm an Earth-centred consciousness. So that’s why I think the individual has been such a pronounced thing in myth and story over the last few hundred years. But if we cannot get back to a more collectively understood relationship with psyche, with Earth, with matter, with trees and rocks and wolves and bears, with our neighbours, then we will be caught in an enormous malfunction.

CDC: This brings me to a question I’ve wanted to ask about the wild setting for such psyche and soul, as you have described it. When so many of us are living in cities and urban areas, in depleted and industrialised landscapes, how can we recover our relationship with wild things and reconnect with that world?

MS: It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot from people who are reading my books and are living in Detroit or Birmingham or Prestatyn. Initially my response is ‘don’t be size-ist’. Twenty years ago I was living in southeast London, and it was a great consolation for me that William Blake had found a lot of what he needed, as a human and a thinker, in London. He could kneel down and see a little grey thistle and he knew it was a smiling little man waving at him.  

It was a way of not just seeing but beholding things. And when I lived in cities I would pay particular attention to what we rather naïvely call weeds. Or I would go out to a small park next to the video shop in Brockley, where there was a rather dejected-looking rowan tree. And I would spend an enormous amount of time just attending to this rowan. There’s a lovely line by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, where he says something like ‘the Earth seeks to be admired by you’. 

So if you do nothing else, admire the thing. Learn to give it praise. Learn to speak its 12 secret names. You hear about the Inuit having all these different names for snow. Well, I thought, what are the 12 secret names of those old-growth oaks that I see down near Greenwich docks? My advice really is what the Hindus call the ‘joyful participation in the sorrows of the world’. You have to get amongst the cities. You have to glean what you can, praise what you can, raise up what you can. I used to bemoan the fact that I didn’t have 400 acres of prime old-growth forest on my back door, until I realised that this was just a surly child in me – one of these mythic characters I was talking about.

So, I told myself: ‘you’re going to go out and become a praise-maker. You’re going to go out and praise and be generous to things.’

You asked a question about chivalry or gallantry earlier on, and when I was a little kid, one of my favourite books was called The Book of Chivalry, and I got my mum to make me a little cape. And I would wander around, constantly throwing this cape over puddles – it’s very embarrassing...

CDC: Oh, that’s sweet!

MS: But I now realise I was right. I wasn’t throwing  capes over puddles to maintain a patriarchal system of domination over women, I just wanted to behave in a beautiful and good manner to the Earth and its inhabitants. In the face of 1980s Thatcher’s Britain that was my response – to get my little cape out. And I realise now in my mid-40s that absolutely nothing has changed in me.

CDC: Your cape is still on the back of the door, Martin?

MS: Yes, it absolutely is. Anybody with a cape gets into the School of Myth!  

So, what I’m saying really is: soul doesn’t end with a tree or a stream. If you’re interested in animism, everything is alive. So how is a city alive? There’s a wonderful storyteller and mythologist called Michael Meade, who grew up in New York. And he has a great description of being a kid on the subway. And every time he went up the stairs of the underground, he was in a different district of New York with a radically different ethnicity. So he goes up one set of stairs and it’s Little Italy; he goes up another it’s China; he goes up another it’s Poland. And he said: I realised that the city itself was teeming with its mythologies, that over a couple of decades, those two cultures of the Poles and the Irish would inexorably start to weave parts of their lives together, and this third thing would happen.

My attention has been on the diminishing tracts of wilderness in Great Britain. But it can’t stop there for many of us, because that’s simply not the environment we are living in.

CDC: I wanted to ask you finally about breaking enchantment, about breaking the spell, which is a predicament in so many fairy stories. Many of the illusions that we’ve been brought up with are now being cracked open. Do you feel that the myths contain insights that we might reach out for, not as a handrail but as a tiller, so we might steer our way through these choppy waters ahead?

MS: First of all, I would say again that the word enchantment, which ironically is often used about hearing a myth or a story, is the opposite of what’s actually taking place. A story like ‘The Red Bead Woman’ and its effect on a room is not an enchantment, it’s a waking up…

CDC: A disenchantment…

MS: Yes, if you’ve done your job well as a storyteller, your story itself has a magical sensibility to ward off enchantment and to raise up. Secondly, people often prefer to dismiss myths, saying: it’s not true. But a way to think about myth is as something that never was and always is. Or as a beautiful lie that tells a much deeper truth. But one way or another when we lose our mythic sensibility, the powers in this world that may not wish us well have a greater purchase on us, a greater hold.

I notice that several times a day I go into what you could call a mild trance state. I’m not talking about ouija boards here! I’m just talking about falling under the influence of advertising, or various politically engineered neuroses that might be floating around. But I recognise I have come into a kind of enchantment. And the way I recognise it is that I feel less than grounded. I feel I’m not in the realm of imagination, I’m in the realm of fantasy. So the imaginal is not present; the Earth as a lived, breathing, thinking being is not present. What’s happening is I’m simply fretting – to use my mother’s language – I’m spinning my wheels. And so actually I think stories have a capacity to wake us up.

We are living in a time when we need symbolic intelligence, not just sign language. We are being fed signs, and signs that frighten us, and then paralyse us, and then colonise us. And imagination, through myth, wants to give you symbols to raise you up.

A story is not just an allegory, or a metaphorical point. It’s a love affair, and one of the most wonderful ways of breaking the trance states being put on us at this point in time, is to figure out what you love. Figure out what you’re going to defend. And develop the metis, develop the artfulness, to bring it out into the world.

Images: A different drum: Martin Shaw telling the Yakut tale of 'The Crow King and the Red Bead Woman'at Base Camp, Embercombe, Devon [Photo: Warren Draper]; cover of  'Snowy Tower'.

Martin Shaw is a writer, mythologist and teacher. He has recently co-designed (with anthropologist Carla Stang) the upcoming MA in myth and ecology at Schumacher college, as well as being the creator of the oral tradition course at Stanford University and the author of A Branch from the Lightning Tree, Snowy Tower and Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Reveal

A story I wrote for the 2016 series on the Dark Mountain blog where seven different writers have been  stepping outside the bubble of instant opinion to reflect on the wider significance of a turbulent year. 

‘I used to care but things have changed’ – Bob Dylan

‘The dead lie in layers beneath us,’ said Tony Dias, ‘and influence all our actions.’ We were in a schoolroom in Ry in northern Denmark, and I was teaching a class about deep time. The students were sitting in a circle, each taking up position in the calendar of the year, discussing how each station affected them. It is the end of October and the writer and philosopher is sitting in the position of the ancestors, also known as Samhain or Halloween. I am at winter solstice. We are holding a conversation about the end of things, which makes sense as people who met through Dark Mountain and as the oldest people in the room. I talk about restoration and composting the past and he talks about the oceans, how oil has come out of an anaerobic process, so doesn’t break down and feed life. ‘It is a zombie fuel,’ he says.

Afterwards we will  climb into canoes and silently cross the lake to the woods where the class will fan out and encounter the wild spaces on their own. The copper leaves of the beech trees will shower down on our endeavour to connect with the living, breathing planet.  A lot of the students will have problems getting beyond the whirl of their technology-driven minds.

‘Everything is hitting against that zenith of the summer solstice and resisting the fall,’ remarks Tony. ‘The  violence and destruction happens, so everyone can jump the process and begin again.’

For the last two weeks I have switched off the computer, and tried to look back at this tumultuous year from the perspective of where I live, a small lane in East Anglia on the edge of England. Most of my working and social life is done via this machine, so when I go offline the world and its headlines vanish. The physical place comes closer, and with it a depth of perception that all the buzzy discussion about politics and celebrity, about money, about the end of globalisation, never allow in. You get a sense of the mood of the times.

One thing is clear: you can’t skip the fall, no matter how much you try.


The growing year came and went down the lane. The machines thundered past our windows, wresting commodities of peas, sugar beet, maize and wheat from the clay. The hawthorns and wild roses put on a beautiful show in the hedgerows, though the cold spring meant many of the growers’ roadside stalls would be closed by September. On May morning Mark, Josiah and I went to a tiny meadow of frosted green-winged orchids, marooned in an industrial prairie of barley. When the sun rose a hare bounded past and the skylarks sang above us. We realised that none of us could call ourselves community activists anymore. Our attention was on other things, but the place still connected us, in ways we had no words for.

The lane is one of a series of lanes behind the village church, skirting reed beds and broads that were shaped by the Ice Age 12,000 years ago. It houses a few indigenous Suffolk families who have lived here for generations, but mostly well-off incomers who live in converted barns and cottages and have a penchant for lacquered willow fencing. This year the suburbanisation continues its mission creep, replacing bird-singing scrub with ponies and crunchy driveways. Delivery trucks chew up the verges. The outdoor lights flare a ghoulish green into the night, on the once elegant Queen Anne facade of the big house on the corner, now owned by a multi-millionaire clothing entrepreneur from Jamaica. The field opposite our house, known as Hare Field, has been enclosed with a rabbit-proof fence, so now we look at meshed wire where once we caught sight of the wild creatures bounding past. The big ash trees have begun to die back.

It is not what it was when we came. It has devolved, said Mark.

I don’t like to think about that much and keep my eyes up into the sky, tracking the geese coming in from Siberia, the fly past of jackdaws at dawn, the light which reflects amber and gold on the trunks of the oaks as the sun goes down. But I can’t not look. The lane is part of brutal Britain, the rabbit-proof fence is all fences in Europe that keep out the unwanted, the pesticide-wrecked soil, every industrialised arable field in the world, the felled and dying trees, all forests killed to maintain our zombie lifestyle.

And he is right. It was more beautiful. There were more creatures – hedgehogs and stoats and hares. You could hear nightingales singing in May. Butterflies once covered the buddleia in August. David Moyse, the village’s history man and steeple keeper, would wave to us as we cycled by and give us green tomatoes for chutney. It was wilder, more country, sweeter.

It was still feudal though. You still had to deal with a frequency loaded with ancient snobbery and hostility. Us, the landowners with our gamekeepers and huge cars and you, renters, with your second-hand boots and pesky questions about RoundUp. Some things don’t change. Some things haven’t changed in England for a thousand years or more.

There was a period in the community activist years when there was a kind of bridge with some of the people in the lane, where I could be enthusiastic about non-threatening subjects like give and take days and community gardens and share jars of foraged damson jam, so long as I didn’t push the climate change, fossil fuel dependence thing, or talk about factory farming or flying. So long as I could say how calm and blue the sea was this year, the best swimming year in a decade, and not mention the sandy cliffs at Easton Bavents that continued to fall into the waves.

But in 2016 that bridge fell down. What do you do? had became a conversational mine-field:

‘Oh, an editor, how interesting, and what’s the Dark Mountain Project?’
‘We’re a network of artists and writers looking at social and environmental collapse...’

Not a great opener over the canapés and Chardonnay.

Which is why I can’t really tell you what is being discussed this season down the lane. I have to  travel elsewhere to have those conversations.


Here I am today in Colchester in early November meeting Christian Brett for the first time. For three years we’ve worked together shaping and producing the Dark Mountain books via the telephone, long conversations between a tower block in Rochdale and a tied cottage in East Anglia. He is setting up an installation called ‘The Sound of Stones in the Glasshouse’, a work he conceived with the artist Gee Vaucher whose ‘Introspective’ is about to open at the town’s modern art gallery. It’s a bold, uncompromising work: a glasshouse made of panels engraved with the names of every intervention the US military has made in the last 100 years. Around the walls are excerpts of presidential inaugural speeches talking about freedom and democracy and the numbers of the dead caused by wars on their watch. In the centre of the glasshouse a video of soldiers emerging out of a trench plays on a loop, and a patch of bare earth.

We go for lunch and talk and it feels the same as it does on the phone, except we’re not looking at computer screens, we’re looking at each other. The rain falls down on the capital of Roman Britain, now a nexus for the modern Armed Forces. The show was opening on the 11th.

If you are an artist, or a writer, you have to see differently from the conventional world that appears to own and control everything. You have to look outside the echo chambers, beyond the burning issues of the day, beyond the headlines, into something deeper, more intrinsic, not bound in time. You have to see what Sebald once called the 'Rings of Saturn', as he walked down the Suffolk coastline, the machine of history that crushes us in its talons.

‘Have you got Mr Trump in the wings?’ I ask.
‘We have them both ready,’ he replies.



In the space of a year two people I used to be close to took their own lives. What struck me when I remembered them wasn’t to do with their brilliance as editors and designers, or their long struggles with mental illness. It was about their presence and their intensity, a certain kind of intimacy you rarely experience with people. It felt as if their spirits had burned out of control, like a forest fire, and no-one knew how to deal with the blaze. It felt that whenever you leave out what you most love about people,  our deep feeling natures, what used to be called the soul,  something always crashes. It crashes in individuals and in collectives and in nations. The spirit of this trauma lives in all of us by virtue of being born into the system. No one escapes that, not the rich, not the poor, not the powerful, nor the meek. The question we face as Rome falls is: how can we speak with each other and get out of the cycle?

When I switch off the machine and the headlines recede, I realise we are not in a political crisis; we are in a spiritual crisis, an existential crisis. We don’t know what it means to be human anymore. We have lost contact with the meaning of time, our presence here. How can we be human in a collapsing world? How can I be female outside the patriarchy? How can I matter in a community where I am one of the unnecessariat, the precariat, part of the low-income, left behind, just about managing, tax credited, zero-contract gig economy?

When I switch off the machine, I step out into the lane and walk into the twilight. You can feel everything more closely in the dark, especially the trees, your senses open up, your feet feel the ground, the wind coming from the south. Venus outshines the glow of the brewery distribution centre on the horizon. That’s when I realise that to this place, I matter. My presence, my intense engagement matters. To the dead, to the ancestors I matter. To consciousness, to the fabric of life I matter. We matter. That is no small thing.

What we need is a new social contract.


In the spiritual years – I guess that was mostly the '90s – I slept in moon lodges and dreamed of medicine people and Cathars and Indian gods, and I sang and danced alongside a band of fellow seekers moving through the great landscapes of the Americas. We were searching for a deeper relationship with the world and our ‘hard yoga for the earth’, as Gary Snyder once described it, pushed us into some very difficult corners, not least among ourselves. We spent a lot of time dealing with the karma of our families and connecting with indigenous medicine plants. We all thought, foolishly, that the collective shift of consciousness we yearned for would somehow just happen.  We were coming from the future and had been born into the past. We thought we could travel forever and live in bamboo huts on the sides of sacred mountains, but history or destiny dragged us back to our home countries. The ancestors told us: those who caused the problem have to deal with it. And then they disappeared.

The problem, we knew, wasn’t going to have a neat solution, like a mindfulness class you could do every Tuesday.  I am another yourself was not a mantra: it meant going through all the files your cultural history threw at you, being treated like an exile, losing most of your dignity and your spending power, and then having to start over again. Few of us wanted to go through the emotional mangle that would make us human. Most of us resisted the fall in our own ways and stalled.

When we said we were looking for a new narrative, we meant we were looking for a new language. At some point we knew the theory would have to become practice. We were waiting for something to move.



'Strange attractors' are so called because they make a particular shape in phase space which radically alters the dynamics of a system, sometimes called the shape of uncertainty. Strange attractors allow chaos to break up rigid forms and create new ones. Civilisations by their design are fixed systems living within vast non-linear systems. Fatal attractions are their undoing.

Strange attractors, as we might have noticed in 2016, don’t always look like the pleasing butterfly shapes you see in chaos theory manuals. They have bad haircuts and bad attitude and send shockwaves through social media. Their chief characteristic is that they hold all the missing information, so when they exert their influence they challenge the order that is dependant on certain things kept out of the picture.
In 2016 a lot of missing people suddenly appeared in the picture that had excluded them for aeons and did the only thing that the Establishment allowed them to do: they voted. For decades the dispossessed of North America’s Rust Belt and England’s factory towns have held the collective shadow of the classes above them, so the multicultural hi-tech uberfolk of the metropolis could shop and tweet and travel with impunity.

In 2016 a lot of those '90s words like transformation and chaos became a way to look at the string of political events that had crashed the world views of the privileged. The shadow had reeled into the open. Nigredo is the first stage of alchemy, bringing to light the dark materia that needs to be transformed. The nigredo is a scary moment. You have to know how to negotiate it. When the hidden rage of millions is unleashed – generations of people humiliated, derided, told they are worthless and have no future – you have to hold fast to your humanity. Here be dragons. You can’t be righteous and float above this scary territory, because that fury is in you and me. No-one in the system escapes its hostility. You can refuse to carry the shadow of your culture, only if you have dealt with it yourself, only if you are not still blaming mummy and daddy and your first boyfriend and that prick in HR who doesn’t recognise your true value. Only the system wins in the system.

Nigredo is all about the reveal. When the US election result is announced it feels less scary than 2008 when everyone was whooping with joy and hope about the future. Trump entered stage right, the pantomime villain, the bad cop, to loud hisses from the gallery, but the exiting good cop with his suave saviour style had been less easy to discern. However, as the Glasshouse reminds us, all cops are cops when it comes to ‘full spectrum dominance’. The Empire is the Empire whatever country you now live in. We are all Romans and all slaves.

This alchemical moment has nothing to do with social justice, or environmentalism or any of the grassrootsy stuff I have found myself advocating during last decade. There are initiatives and networks around the world focussing on these worthy things, but none of this transforms anything if we are the same people inside, if we haven’t dealt with our stuff – as we used to say in the '90s –  if we haven’t uncivilised ourselves, made contact with the layers of dead under our feet, in the sky, in the rivers. If we haven’t stood with the Lakota, or with the yew trees, with the rainbow serpent, with the glacier, with the tawny owl. If we haven’t found a way to dismantle the belief systems that keep us trapped in the cycles of history, if we haven’t dealt with our insatiable desire for power and attention and found ways to live more lightly on the planet, we are not going to make it through this stage. And it is a 'we' because, in England at least, we are on a very crowded island and no matter how much we say we don’t like our neighbours, they live next door.


In 2016 I am 60 years old and do not collect my bus pass.

‘In the old days we would be putting our feet up by now Ellen,’ I say, hauling another sack of Issue 10 into the Post Office.
‘Don’t get me started,’ says Ellen.

On my birthday I go in search of foxgloves on Walberswick Common. It has been a peerless year for bluebells and primroses and seakale, the wild flowers I track each year. But foxgloves are nowhere to be seen. I curse as I stumble over burned gorse and birch tree stumps. Bloody management systems! If I had been more attentive I would have remembered that foxglove is a heart medicine and this was the site of a brutal enclosure in 1624 and known as Bloody Marsh. I hear their strangulated voices first, and then I see the group, walking down the old railway track as if they owned the whole planet, and before I know it a fury surges through my chest: why don’t you people fuck off back to London!

‘It wasn’t just me,’ I say when I find Mark again. It’s not just the repressed violence inside ourselves that roars out of our mouth in the nigredo, it is the rage of the dead. We have a task to recognise that. Take notice.

That night I watch moon daisies swaying under the starlight, under the influence of the tiny English liberty cap. The silver sea is breathing in and out, you can taste the salt on the night air. It’s summer solstice and everything is peaking, reaching its ultimate growing moment. The 12-foot hogweed at the end of the garden lifts its giant head to the full moon. Hooligan flower, outlaw flower, shining with light. En-ger-land En-ger-land!

‘What?’ says Mark.
‘Something is revving up!’ I say, laughing.  Something is shifting gear.

I can’t say we felt the shock about the referendum vote to leave Europe in the lane a few days afterwards. Nor about the result of the US election later in the year. No-one spoke about it. People were no more racist than before, nor any less fond of French wine or Danish crime thrillers, or Ravi the baker, or Señor Vila the dentist, or the Polish bus driver whose name we don’t know on the 99 bus to Lowestoft. The white and blue postcard town carried on serving the rich weekenders from the city. The day-trippers kept eating the disappearing cod and chips down by the pier. The small shops, hammered with higher rents and rates, continued to be replaced by chains and boutiques selling high-end sailor tops and children’s clothes manufactured in China. The hospital and the police station remained closed. The Post Office lost its crown status and the staff had to wear corporate-style uniforms and work on Sundays. The delivery drivers looked more and more harassed as they took our boxes of books from the door. The Library held sales to keep open. Nothing was secure.

In May the asparagus, once picked by the women from the surrounding villages, was gathered by bands of young Eastern Europeans. They pick and sort fast and are gone when the season is over, carrying home pay packets that are worth more in their own countries – a scenario that is played out across the flinty vegetable fields of the Eastern seaboard, in Norfolk and Lincolnshire. No one knows where this will end. If you have been to the jobseeker centre recently in Lowestoft you might guess who will be picking asparagus in the future and for whom. No-one will care however if this person is you.


When I boarded the boat train at Harwich I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a moment of homecoming that I never had when I was a traveller, when England was a country I wanted to get away from. The carriage was shabbier than any in IKEA Europe, and air on the platform smelled of winter, of salt and rain and green. The conductor walked down the passageway and three men who were travelling together and drinking beers laughed out loud. No-one had laughed on those Dutch and Danish trains and no-one had made an entrance like that, a deliberate music hall swagger down the aisle, like a rolling English road, like the curve of the Oxfordshire hills, almost, you could say, hobbity. Not of this time, nor of this dimension.

A door that seemed shut in the schoolroom in Denmark suddenly swung open. A joy ripped through me. The mythos was still here!

You can look at nature,  the writer Richard Mabey once wrote, as a tragedy or a comedy. It depends on your point of view. The character of a people is not the same as a society hamstrung by a corporate global economy. As the curtain closes on 2016, it’s worth bearing in mind that the drama changes tack the moment we give up our high tragic roles and become ordinary players. It’s true, comedy is used to paper over the dark things, to make light of serious matters; the Empire has used entertainment to distract people forever. Strictly Britain is not very militaristic, as George Orwell once noted. We’re more interested in theatrics which is why we are such dismal suckers for Punch and Judy politics and royal parades, even as the joke is so often on us. That’s the way to do it!

However comedy is not just about laughing, or poking fun, it is seeing life from a certain perspective, with heart. It gives an agency to situations where tragedy can only offer a solitary death, it reminds us above all that life is an ensemble act that brings affection, even in the hardest times. We are in this show together. Tickets please, ladies and gentlemen.

In spite of everything, I realised I wanted to go home to the lane. Though the Empire will keep telling me I do not belong, I know that I do. And no kind of politics will take that relationship away. I am not going anywhere else. I am not a nationalist, a flag waver, a patriot, I don’t know what ‘British values’ are, I can’t tell you the names of any football players or newscasters or the kinds of questions aspiring UK citizens are tested on. But I can love this place, these marsh birds, these oaks. I can cohere in a fragmenting time, I can remember in a forgetting time. We don’t need a grand vision, another story right now, we need to get through the nigredo, the seismic shaking of the jar, and allow the seeds we hold inside us to break open their coats.

Afterwards will come the albedo, the deep memory of water, and the rubedo, the solarising forces, the warmth and light of the sun. We will unfurl ourselves then. All is good, all is return, all is regeneration in alchemy. We just have to have the stomach for the work. We have to trust that whatever happens in our small lives, whatever move we make to undo the unkindness of centuries will affect the whole picture, that we are not on our own. Everything matters. The ancestors are behind us: all good comedies end in a dance, they say.   


Pictures: ‘Midsummer Eve Bonfire’, after c.1917, by Nikolai Astrup (from Painting Norway at Dulwich Picture Gallery); 'The Stones in the Glasshouse' by Christian Brett and Gee Vaucher (photo: Douglas Atfield/Firstsite’ ); feather at Base Camp, Dark Mountain gathering at Embecombe, Devon (photo: Warren Draper); excerpt from the documentary, Human by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

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