“Ecocide demands a response. That response is too important to be left to politicians, economists, conceptual thinkers, number crunchers; too all-pervasive to be left to activists or campaigners. Artists are needed.”
Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto
by Paul Kingsnorth
For several years now I’ve been telling people that Paul Kingsnorth is my celebrity crush. This is kind of a personal joke because Kingsnorth is the anti-celebrity. He’s largely famous for writing The Wake (2014), a novel about the Norman Conquest written in a made-up dialect of Old English (It’s brilliant) and for co-authoring a pamphlet, Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto (spelled with an ‘s’ because he’s British).
The manifesto hit a nerve with people like me who wake up in the dead of night fretting that our globalized, consumer-oriented, resource-intensive, technological way of living is leading us right over a cliff. Enough people read it so that it evolved into something called the Dark Mountain Project, an artistic response to an age of ecological collapse and social unravelling.
I know Kingsnorth sounds like a bit of a downer but when I first encountered his writing in the pages of Orion Magazine it wasn’t his overt pessimism that struck me but his unshaken idealism, his willingness to stare straight into the maw of future dystopia and still live with integrity, asking “what, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time?”
When I found out that Kingsnorth, who lives in rural Ireland, was going to be in North America giving a workshop called “Stories from the Cliff’s Edge” at a Unitarian-run camp in rural Massachusetts—well, what I actually said to myself was, it’s too bad that’s happening 2,000 miles away. But then I bought a plane ticket and rented a car to head out into the dark green deciduous forests of the mysterious East. Chalk it up to what Unitarians call “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
What was I looking for? Probably not responsibility for 1,300 pounds of CO2 generated by my flight; or the scenic highway I drove on named “The Mohawk Trail” in honor of historical cultural genocide; or the trailhead warnings in Massachusetts forests about a plague of tick-borne Lyme disease that is a consequence of warming climate. All around me, reminders that Kingsnorth is not kidding when he says, “This is not a problem to be solved. It’s a problem to be lived with.”
At camp, our first workshop was scheduled for after dinner. We earnestly joined hands in a circle before our meal to sing, “‘Tis a Gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free… “ I spotted Kingsnorth, slim, bearded and bespectacled with a pale English complexion and a flop of dark hair. He had his arms folded across his chest and he was not singing. I pegged him for a shy intellectual.
After dessert (apple crisp!) about 30 of us sat in a circle and Kingsnorth began by reading the poem “Rearmament” by Robinson Jeffers, from which the Dark Mountain Project takes its name :
…The beauty of modern
Man is not in the persons but in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.
Then he recited a litany of human impacts on the Earth—climate change, deforestation, ocean acidification, soil erosion, extinction:“In 250 years we’ve wrecked everything,” he said, “Not because we are human, but because we have catastrophically bad stories. The central belief in the West is we will reach transcendence in this life if we can get it right technologically and politically. It doesn’t work.”
Then he summoned demons: “Let’s get Trump out of the way. Where did this monster come from?”
After some discussion we formed small groups to talk about stories that don’t work, stories we no longer believe. This was surprisingly hard because we kept proposing fixes to make the stories work.
The next day after lunch Kingsnorth asked us to go hug a tree. Literally. He wanted us to try writing from a non-human perspective.
I raised my hand and asked if he actually hears plants speak and he turned pink and denied that he does, but one or two other people in the group kind of nodded. As for myself, I’m pretty sure I hear trees because what they say seems unlike anything I would say. I chose a rock for this experiment in inter-entity communication and it said, “I hold memories in crystals and structures. I feed trees my memories.”
At our next session Kingsnorth asked if it was okay to change the agenda. He had just been at the Great Mother and New Father Conference on the Mythopoetic Imagination and wanted to tell us a fairy tale. “I’ve never done this before,” he said apologetically. “I won’t be as good as a real storyteller,” and he told a story about a queen who wanted a child, but the magic she used caused her to give birth to fraternal twins; a perfect baby and a black snake. It reminded me of the Bears Ears rally in Salt Lake City last May where the white activist speakers aimed to rile up the crowd while Native Americans structured their speeches around stories and songs.
By the third day we were finally getting to know one another and there was a lot more laughter. We went into the woods again, seeking an image for a story. I conjured an imaginary bear. Then I thought, “the forest wants a bear.” There wasn’t any bear, but I made my hands into claws and turned myself plump and fierce to dance a bear dance. I could hear the trees laughing, “That human doesn’t know anything. She thinks she’s a bear!” When I shared this adventure with the group they wanted to dance too, so we danced the forest together.
And finally, dancing, I knew why I wanted to meet Kingsnorth so badly. He’s the reason I started writing poetry again, because he reminded me that political activism can be part of the story that doesn’t work. In the face of climate change, Kingsnorth suggests paying close attention to non-human consciousness to inform a changed story. Not in the way scientists turn close attention into data, but uncivilized, turning communication with the non-human world into poetry, stories and songs; as the manifesto says: “Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.”
This shift in perspective clarifies things. Here in Utah the fight for Bears Ears is a confrontation between a dysfunctional story that turns everything into money and a much older story about how the land has a voice.
Before we parted ways I gave Kingsnorth the book that I brought to read on the airplane, “Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears.” It’s a nonfiction story about cultures surviving an apocalypse imposed by the false stories of civilization. I hope he likes it.
Amy Brunvand is a librarian at the University of Utah and Catalyst’s dance and Environews writer