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Into the Deep - Part 2
This is the second instalment of the series that began a fortnight ago with The Ruined Church. What I’m doing in these posts doesn’t feel like mapping a fixed landscape; rather – to borrow a term fromit’s an unfolding. Or, as in last week’s post, it’s reaching for the next hold on the rock face.
In the old streets around the cathedral and along the Fyris river, there are buildings that bear the marks of tools, skilled hands and the labour of strong arms and backs. I remember walking through these streets with new eyes, after a few weeks working alongside a master carpenter: even the bare beginnings of an apprenticeship were enough to shift my attention, to set me looking for the process behind the pattern, the making reflected in the made.
You don’t have to walk far in any direction in today’s Uppsala to enter a different kind of streetscape, one familiar from growing cities around the world, where the low-rise buildings might have been 3D-printed or generated as the background to a video game. The forms and angles have been laid out on a screen, the surfaces and components fabricated elsewhere, the pieces fitted together on site. Little of what you see in these zones has been shaped by the dialogue between body, mind and matter, the weave of applied intelligence, that making once required.
I was staying on the edge of one of these zones, in a riverboat that had been made over into a cheap hotel. A cabin with bunks so tiny, I’d hit both ends if I stretched out straight. A tiny desk in front of the window and a view over the water. A good place to escape to, in the last days of work on a book.
I’d written the first draft longhand in notebooks. There’s a flow that comes from the movement of the arm; when you pause and wait, it’s like waiting for a twitch on the line, and when you change your mind, it leaves traces. There’s no copy and paste, no way to delete a line and make it as though it had never been. Each morning, I’d type the previous day’s pages into my laptop, editing as I went. Two months like this, going at it day after day, only stopping one weekend in two, and the draft went off to the publisher. They liked it, so they sent it back with comments, asking me to make the edits in a Word file with tracked changes, and this is where things nearly went astray. I worked for the next three weeks, trying to pick up on their suggestions and requests, but I could not get back under the skin of the text. Finally I told my editor, I’m going to start over with an empty document and type the whole thing into it, from start to end, rewriting as I go.
So that’s where I was when I came to the boat, with a week to go before the finished manuscript was due. In two days in that cabin, I got through 30,000 words. Each morning I would read aloud what I’d typed the day before, to catch the flaws I’d missed on the page.
As late as that in the process, as deep in the work, and working at that pace – well, you can imagine, it takes you to a strange edge of yourself. This may go some way to explain my state, on the second night, when I took a break and set off through the 3D-printed streets, following the rumour of a takeaway with the best Indian food in Sweden. I had my headphones on, to keep a seal between myself and the Saturday-night world around me; in my ears, a conversation between the storytellerand a man named Mark Vernon, formerly an Anglican priest, now a psychotherapist and writer.
They go straight into the depth of things, these two, speaking of the Mundus Imaginalis, the ‘imaginal’ world which exceeds our individual imaginations. I’d heard Martin talk about much of this before. But then, about fifteen minutes in, the conversation takes a turn. ‘I think something’s gone wrong with Christianity,’ Vernon says. ‘Where are you at on all that?’ And in what follows, Martin speaks for the first time about the sequence of experiences that had led him, unexpectedly, back across the threshold of a church, though into a very different form of Christianity to the evangelicalism he grew up around.
It was true, what they said about that takeaway. I found it on the ground floor of an older apartment building, looking like any local pizza shop in any neighbourhood in Sweden. But inside they had a second menu and a kitchen out the back – and the thali I ordered would have held its own on Brick Lane or Rusholme’s Curry Mile.
There were a few barstools along the window. I sat and ate, my headphones still in place, with Shaw and Vernon for companions on the phone propped up in front of me. I’ve known Martin a long time, seen him in front of all kinds of audiences, sat with him around the kitchen table and shared the long drives between gigs. I’ve known him in good times and in heavy weather – but watching that video, there was a boyish lightness to him, a joy brimming in the eyes, the like of which I’d hardly seen before. How could I feel anything but joy for the man?
It was clear that neither of them had come to the conversation expecting to speak about these things. Martin has told the story elsewhere since, but going back to that first telling, here’s what strikes me.
First, the heart labour of vigil that preceded his unsought encounter with ‘the mossy face of Christ’: 101 days of going out to sit at the same spot, the duration chosen because it calls for a fidelity that must outlast whatever feeling set the process in motion. He goes out there with a commitment – to listen for anything the land might have to say.
Then, on the last night, there’s this Old Testament light show, lasting a matter of seconds, as though the Northern Lights come down to the ground to meet him. A friend squinted at the description – sounds like a UFO encounter story, he observed – but listening to Martin tell it, his point is not to lay a claim as to what this phenomenon may have been. It’s that decades of leading and going through wilderness vigils had taught him to attend to whatever happens within the vessel of such a process, whatever shows up. Could be an animal, a distant sound, a change in the weather. What matters is to inhabit the world as a place that is woven through with meaning and capable of having messages, a few of which might even be for us.
Back from the forest, at the end of that last night’s vigil, nine words come to him on the edge of sleep: Inhabit the Time and Genesis of Your Original Home. If words are your craft, then you know how to turn a phrase, but you know too that the best stuff comes from somewhere else. There are thoughts that only come because you took yourself to that particular place, stayed still and breathed its air for long enough. There’s a kind of conversation in which visions take shape: you catch sight of things which would never have come into view, if you hadn’t set aside the to-do list to linger drinking tea all morning with that particular friend. And there are words that arrive in your imagination like a guest, a wild god coming to the door. It’s likesays, however mad it sounds, it’s better for the sanity to think of your best work as coming from somewhere else – from someone else – where your task is just to show up, ready to receive, to keep showing up, and to tend the relationship with this wild other, the one who brings gifts, in whatever form that takes.
So there I am, listening to Martin’s story for the first time, drifting back towards the river now, hardly noticing what’s around me – until something pulls me up short. I turn and look and slip the headphones off. I’m standing by a grid of metal fencing that runs along the side of a huge building site. A whole city block has been levelled, ready for the next wave of redevelopment. Except that, in the middle of the site, one house has been left standing, with rubble on all sides. A house a child might draw, with ochre walls and a red-tiled roof. And on the roof and everywhere around, across the expanse of rubble, there are hundreds and hundreds of jackdaws, flapping and hopping, the air loud with their chatter, filling the wasteland in every direction, all the way to the fence where I stand and behold it all. And what can I call this scene, at just this moment in my life, if not a wonder?
It was a few weeks later that I stumbled on the essay. ‘Strange friends on a Dark Mountain?’ it was called. The author’s name, Charles Foster, was familiar. We’d published some great pieces of his over the years in Dark Mountain, though I’d barely met him, just a passing encounter at the launch of an early issue. And now, in this essay which I found while looking for something else, he gave me a frame for the question I’d been carrying.
What to tell you about Charles? He writes books that no one else could write: funny, heartfelt, philosophical books about how it is to be an animal, human or otherwise. He’s also a fellow of an Oxford college, a scholar whose interests take him cross-country through other people’s fields, and it is from this vantage point that he wants to report back, as a writer for whom the Dark Mountain manifesto had been formative, on something that he thinks we have been missing.
He has no quarrel with the overall case we made in the manifesto: that we find ourselves in a time of unravelling; that the environmental movement has struggled to articulate either the depth or the nature of the trouble that the world is in; that this trouble has much to do with the deep cultural myths that shape our societies and that these same myths make it hard to see or to name clearly what is at stake.
Where he has become uneasy, Charles explains, is with the way we draw the line between ‘friends and enemies’.1 Put simply, he reckons Dark Mountain has more friends than we realise. ‘It’s all very flattering,’ he writes, to picture ourselves as ‘the Chosen Few’. And looking back through the manifesto, I can see the passages that lean into this self-image: ‘If you want to be loved,’ we declare, ‘it might be best not to get involved, for the world, at least for a time, will resolutely refuse to listen.’ There’s a temptation that can hit some of us, at thirty or thirty-five, the ages Paul and I were when we met: you picture yourself as the summiteer in the Caspar David Friedrich painting, lonely and farsighted. Anticipating rejection, you claim it as a badge of pride. ‘One day, they’ll all see,’ you say.
What this misses, Charles insists, is how far the arguments we were making in the manifesto are already being won. We had taken aim at the myths of progress and of human separation from nature? Well, these are increasingly recognised in the fields he moves between as ‘historiographical naivety’ and ‘scientific silliness’. Those who cling to them are ‘strident reductionists in internet chat rooms’ and ‘secular liberals [who] do all the right things for all the wrong reasons.’
And then his essay lifts beyond witty polemic, becoming something closer to a credo, a scattergun list of the friends we may not know we have:
The ones who think that Mind is not just inside human skulls; that souls (whatever they are) are likely to be more enduring than thoughts or nation states; that altruism is not just reciprocal altruism, kin selection, or group selection; that kindness, however stupid, is more stern and urgent an imperative than breathing; that children know more than bankers, poets more than actuaries, and Dionysius more than Apollo; that time is a funny medium, in which we are not truly at home; that the boundaries of beings are porous; that nothing important can be measured; that old books are better than new ones; that killing things is morally serious and requires strenuous justification; that it is not inevitable that there should be something instead of nothing, and that the only response to the fact that there is something, and to the kind of thing that the something is, should be open-mouthed wonder; and, generally, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in all the philosophies in all the university libraries in all the world.
‘Uncomfortable as it may be,’ he concludes, ‘our friends are the religious.’
And that’s the bit that really struck me, reading it last summer – because this essay had been published in the spring of 2019, a full year before strange things began to happen among my Dark Mountain friends, including the public conversion or homecoming to Christianity of Paul Kingsnorth and Martin Shaw. In hindsight, Charles’s conclusion looked prophetic, as though he had caught sight of what was coming before any of us, and maybe he had. Yet there was another way of reading it, I saw, tracing a path back, parts of which he could not have known, to recognise how deep within the beginnings of Dark Mountain this entanglement with religion really went.
Paul and I were writing backwards and forwards, in the summer of 2020, when he mentioned these unexpected experiences he had begun to have with Christianity. I couldn’t have guessed then how far it would take him, but it pricked my curiosity, because I had been on a journey of my own that spring.
As part of a course I was taking with my old friend Charlie Davies, I’d undertaken to write a commentary on a thousand-year-old Buddhist teaching text. And so, for 42 days – through what turned out to be the weeks in which half the world went into lockdown – I would start each morning by sitting with a verse from this text, listen to Charlie’s reflection on it, then wait and see what rose up in me, and put it into writing. Sometimes this took half an hour, sometimes the greater part of my day. And one of the things that happened, that caught me by surprise, was that my responses began to draw on the language of the hymns I grew up singing and the verses of scripture that were woven through the world of my childhood. Travelling with this text from another tradition, grateful for the ways it made me think and listen, I was noticing the places where the attitudes encoded in it were alien to me – and this set in motion a reckoning with the faith into which I was born, how far it had formed me, the ways in which it continued to inform the person I grew up to be and the things I had been doing with my life. Sometimes it happens this way, the strangeness of the other becomes a mirror in which we catch sight of ourselves.
This wasn’t a Pentecost moment, I had no desire to throw open the shutters and proclaim a newfound religious identity. It was something quiet and obvious and unfolding. A soft breath blowing on the embers of an old fire, where there might have been no more than ashes. I spoke about it with a couple of trusted friends. Mostly, I was content to wait and watch.
So that’s where I was when I caught wind of what was happening for Paul. And I’ll admit, among the reactions his news stirred, there was a touch of envy: I envied him the discovery of Christianity as something radical and unfamiliar, this far on in the journey of a life, an experience so different to my own.
When, a while later, I picked up on what was happening for Martin, it was stranger, because we had much more in common. It’s something we’d talked about, on the long drives between gigs, the autumn we toured together in Sweden: how aware we both were of the influence of growing up around churches, seeing our dads stand up on Sunday morning in front of a room full of people we knew. It's going to do things to you, that kind of childhood, though there’s more than one way it can go. For both of us, there was an awareness of continuity, knowing that what we did when we stood up in front of rooms full of people had a good deal to do with what we had seen our fathers doing. For that reason, it was unsettling to me to see him born again, in a way that Paul’s conversion hadn’t been.
I’ll admit, all this left me stuck for a while. Not painfully stuck, I had plenty of good things to be getting on with. But as these men who were dear to me wrote so eloquently of their newfound faith, I found I had few words for my own experience or the path on which it was taking me.
I’m not stuck now – that’s why you’re reading this – but the story of how I came unstuck must wait for another day. Meanwhile, it’s the paths that lay behind us that I want to trace a little further.
When the SANCTUM issue of Dark Mountain started to land on readers’ doormats in the autumn of 2017, I remember a mail from an irate subscriber. We’d get these in the inbox, now and then, someone who wanted to spell out why they were cancelling their subscription. Some of our early readers had been drawn to the project because we called our manifesto Uncivilisation and you could find passages in it that seemed to chime with the tear-it-all-down school of ‘anti-civ’ anarchism. This subscriber was one of those, it seemed – and a special issue on the theme of ‘the sacred’ which led off with an essay from a prison chaplain had been the final straw. He was rude about everything from the cover art onwards, but what made me smile was his damning sign-off, delivered with such certainty: you’d never have published this religious crap if Kingsnorth was still around.
Because yes, this was our first new book since Paul had left the team, but if there was one thing I knew even then, it was that the work that was calling him – the call that had led him to hand on his editorial responsibilities – would lead deeper into an exploration of the sacred. If this was obvious to me from things he’d said over the years, it should have been plain enough to anyone reading Dark Mountain. Look at ‘The Black Chamber’, Paul’s essay for Issue 5, which opened with a pair of epigraphs, the first from St Bernard of Clairvaux, the second, Orwell’s one-line summary of Ulysses: ‘Here is life without God. Just look at it!’
What readers had less cause to know was that theology had been in the mix from the very start of our collaboration. The first thing I ever wrote to Paul, after he’d floated an idea for a ‘deeply, darkly unfashionable and defiant’ new publication, was a mail with the subject line ‘what things look like from here’. In it, I sketched out the space within which my thoughts had been wandering, to see if the overlap was great enough to do something together. Midway through, the mail becomes a list of the voices I’d been listening to in those years: at the top of the list are Ivan Illich, John Berger and Alan Garner, the three men of my grandfathers’ generation whose words I’d learned to steer by; there follows a strange mix of others, including the anthropologist Hugh Brody and the journalist Jeremy Seabrook; Derrick Jensen is there, so score one for the anti-civ folks; and then there’s ‘the Radical Orthodox theologians around John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock’. Despite the differences between these writers and the things they would surely disagree on, my thirty-year-old self had found gleanings between their lines, clues to the ground in which I wanted to work. Paul wrote back with a list of his own – his had more poets on it and more women – and this was how our conversation began.
To be honest, I don’t remember having much more to say about Radical Orthodox theology in the years that followed, but its presence within that first attempt to frame the field of what became Dark Mountain seems significant, and not only because two of the writers most strongly associated with the project would go on to become powerful voices for a kind of Wild Orthodoxy.2 I used to say that Dark Mountain was a place you came when the story you’d been living in started to fail, a space where you could speak your doubts or darknesses, without feeling alone, without feeling judged, and without a rush to action or to answers. What you put into words in a space like that can change you. Among the stories I’ve heard about changes that happened, there’s someone for whom writing for Dark Mountain was a threshold on the journey from scientific atheist to leader of a national church – and someone else for whom it was the first step in turning aside from a path which would have led to becoming the head of a theological college.
Many threads pass through the weave of Dark Mountain. No doubt there are plenty of people to whom the project has mattered who would find the particular thread I have been tracing here unfamiliar or unwelcome. This is not a reveal of a hidden agenda, ‘what it was really about all along’. And there isn’t room here to do justice to all the layers of history that make this religious crap in general – and the parts of it involving churches in particular – a source of pain for many. That’s matter for a post or a series of its own.
At the end of the essay where he made that suggestion about Dark Mountain and the religious, Charles Foster comments, ‘I feel less embarrassed about writing this than I would have done five years ago.’ Already in 2019, he’d noticed something shifting, and not just in the circles around our project, but more widely.
I do feel an embarrassment writing about these things; there’s an edge of vulnerability and bewilderment. I’m aware of reaching the borderlands of language, the place where words begin to fail. The borderlands of experience, too.
And yet for a long while now, these borderlands have been calling me. It seems that I need to wonder aloud about the wider shifts taking place around us – and to do that, I need to own where I find myself within this shifting landscape, even if what I have to offer is not as clear-cut as a conversion narrative.
Sometimes the threshold to the Mundus Imaginalis is a grid-metal fence on a building site. That summer’s evening in Uppsala, I walked into an image.
In the past ten days, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve found myself waking in the thin hours of the night. Lying in the 4am dark, that same image has kept me company, and I wonder again over what it enfolds.
The promise of a well-made house that has survived the destruction that surrounds it, I can see how this would gladden the heart – and yet my attention is drawn elsewhere. I find myself out here in the wasteland, listening to the conference of the jackdaws, learning other tongues. There are encounters that happen in the rubble, paths that cross or run together for a while. There are strangers who turn out to be friends.
I reach in my pocket and find a small red card, the kind I use to make notes before beginning a first draft. On it are some words that I copied out from one of those stranger-friends,of . It’s something he wrote in an exchange of letters he had with of :
I believe we must re-story this post-apocalyptic place unsainted and unkinged, everything that once was must pass through that Shakespearean sea-change that Hannah Arendt drew from in her speech on Men in Dark Times. The pearls we dive for, what once were our fathers’ eyes, will not be brought up by priests or warriors but by scavengers.
There we are, I whisper – it’s you, me and the jackdaws, Andrew. And anyone who wants to join us.
Thanks for reading these strange posts of mine. There are other fellow scavengers I could have named as I got to the end of this one, stranger-friends whose company helps me puzzle through the things I’m writing about here. Some of them will no doubt come into future posts – and meanwhile, if that’s you, then thank you.
The next instalment in this series should be along in a couple of weeks. The writing I do for this Substack is becoming increasingly central to my work. My aim is to go on making all my essays freely available, but I’m able to write them because of the support of my paying subscribers. So if you’re in a position to do so, please consider taking out a paid subscription:
It also helps a great deal when readers share these posts through social media, on mailing lists or simply by forwarding the mail to a friend they think will appreciate it. So this is an encouragement to do so, should you feel inspired.
Finally, I wrote a lot about Dark Mountain here and mostly in the past tense, since I handed on my editorial responsibilities in 2019 – so it’s worth underlining that the project is very much alive and in good hands, continuing to publish beautiful, strange books, twice a year, and to host gatherings of various kinds. If you’re new to Dark Mountain, you’ll find a wealth of material to explore in its online edition.
Thanks again for your support, in all the forms it takes.
There are those who would argue that the drawing of this line is the essential move of manifesto-making. Bruno Latour, for example, in his talk to the authors of the Ecomodernist manifesto, where he quotes Carl Schmitt at them, then goes on:
‘If I decide in the end to be an ally of your political movement, I will easily forgive the label you choose and the flag you selected. But I will be convinced only when I have obtained a detailed list of your friends and your enemies. And please don’t tell me that you have no enemies, and that it is all about tracing the obvious and inevitable path of reason and progress — because I know who has drawn that path. It is a providential God, which is not my God.’
Martin was never a part of the Dark Mountain team and he has only written for a couple of our books, but from early on, he felt like a major presence within the cultural field of the project. This was because of the impact of his storytelling at our festivals and courses, but also the influence his work had on Paul and me and many others around Dark Mountain.