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On not writing alone – and introducing some nearby Substackers
I’m on holiday this month, so this post is coming to you by time travel from the recent past. I’ll be back at my desk in August. Until then, enjoy reading! — DH
When I left Dark Mountain in 2019, I threw myself into writing. On my first working day, I started on what grew into a 13,000-word essay about learning to be an immigrant in Sweden. All autumn, I kept going at that pace, relishing the freedom from organisational responsibilities that meant I could just sit at my desk for the first half of each day and focus on putting experiences and thoughts into words, sentences and paragraphs, structures of meaning.
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Yet after half a year of this, something was missing. If the practical side of publishing Dark Mountain was a stress I didn’t miss, the compensation for it had been the brilliant gang of editors and writers that I got to work alongside, and the closeness that can come from working together against a deadline. Not to mention those moments when you get to look back together and take the measure of what you’ve achieved. I missed this so much, I actually wrote a report reflecting on my own output over that first half year – an echo of the kind of document I would previously have written to share with the editorial team – and circulated it to a handful of bemused friends and fellow writers. It was a lonely time, then, though it would have been lonelier still were it not for my writing buddy, Robin Black, an editor of unusual skill.
Writing is a solitary practice. These words I send you may be the fruit of all kinds of conversations and friendships, yet – as my family can attest – it’s best to leave me in peace while I’m trying to line them up into sentences. And still, loneliness is rarely good for writers.
I’m thinking as I tell you this of Brian Eno’s idea of scenius, the collective genius of scenes. That we do our best work when we find a few others who see the world from a similarly strange angle and, if we’re lucky, this can set off a virtuous spiral. Most of the praise you get in your life isn’t worth much, and most of the criticism is a distraction, but where scenius is at work, this changes: the praise you give each other is clear-sighted and grounded in mutual respect, the criticism is not a vehicle for psychological game-playing or a consequence of misplaced expectations, and through all of this, you lift each other up. I’ve had glimpses of this experience in a few seasons of my life, and whatever merit my work may have, I owe much of it to those settings.
After my half year of writing my way into loneliness, I stumbled back into the kind of company I needed. From Ed Gillespie’s invitation to start The Great Humbling, to the Clarity for Teachers course with Charlie Davies, to relaunching our school online, the spring of 2020 brought me into a renewed weave of friendships and collaborations, even as the wider world was thrown into social distancing and what was for many a time of enforced isolation.
I thought of this when I read’s solstice letter. He describes a ‘nagging sense of fear and uncertainty’ that had dogged him before the trip to Patmos, and how the Black Elephant gathering helped him shake this off. ‘I’d forgotten how really powerful intentional gatherings of people can be,’ he writes. This chimed with what I saw among many of our fellow participants, and I realise that my own experience ran at a slightly different angle, mainly because I’ve been lucky in finding the crews and helping to create the contexts in which I’m sustained by an ongoing weave of conversation and collaboration.
I am tracing these lines here, though, because of the connection to the platform on which I’m writing to you. My experience of Substack – so far, at least – is of a space in which writers benefit from our relationships to each other and to readers, in a way that makes this strange undertaking of putting words together less lonely. It doesn’t exactly have the intensity of scenius, it’s more like being part of a neighbourhood. And this happens, not least, in the way that we find our way around, visiting with each other, introducing our readers to writers with whom we find ourselves at home, or those who trouble our thinking in ways worth staying with.
And saying this, I realise that it’s time I introduced you to a few more of those who make up the neighbourhood of this little corner of Substack.
Let’s start with three friends who have been part of the wider weave in which I’ve been working over the past three years.
If you watched the livestream of the event I did in Leeds during the At Work in the Ruins tour, then you’ve had a taste of’s way of holding space and bringing conversations alive. She’s one of those artists whose work is infused with generosity. For years she’s been writing a newsletter, , which comes out in the early hours of Sunday morning:
I love scheduling it for 4am, to accompany the new parents and the night owls. I love sending it on Sundays: a day traditionally involving newspapers and mugs of tea, in my childhood home. I love receiving replies, comments, posts and messages with thoughts, resonances, recommendations and stories.
This month, she’s brought her newsletter to Substack, and she’s one of those people who I know is going to bring life to the neighbourhood, whether she’s writing about tiny everyday observations, thinkers and artists whose work sets her mind on fire, or the reckoning with limits that goes with ‘living in a chronically ill body’:
I’m hoping to be more connected, but I also want to loudly encourage connection between my readers. I’m a space-maker: A host. I don’t want to build a shiny new complex and give you all passes; I want to meet in the forest and let our roots chat to one another. Maybe light a fire, toast marshmallows and sip a little whisky.
Also in Leeds that night in February, we had the joy of starting the evening with a live performance by, singing his feral hymn, Home, one of the songs that became the soundtrack to my tour. After seven years as one of the presenters of Nomad podcast, searching for ‘signs of hope in this post-Christendom wilderness’, David recently laid down his responsibilities there and I’m curious to see what he will be doing next. Here he is, introducing his Substack, with a reflection on the rhythm of the biblical Jubilee:
In the law of Moses, every seventh year the land would go unfarmed. It would be a year of stores and foraging. “Eat what the land yields during its Sabbath.” This is good agricultural practice because soil needs to rest to stay fertile. Most manage this by crop-rotation so there's no break in the food system. The rash idea of year's farming ceasefire does something else. It cultivates a sort of messianic memory of some ancestral time before the agricultural humans, when food was a free gift of the biosphere and was not taken by force at the end of a plough. One year in seven to dilute the total rule of the food system. One year in seven to wander through it all as creatures in a wild garden. One year in seven to re-member.
Continuing on a theological bent, though in a slightly different key, I want to introduce you toand her recently launched Substack, . Elizabeth is one of the friends I made through screens and cameras during the Covid time, where we got to know each other so well that it was hard to believe we hadn’t met in the flesh. That has since been put right, and on my last two visits to London, I’ve stayed in the household where she and her family are part of a small community of radical hospitality.
In her writing, she is looking for practical wisdom within the tradition which has been her home, convinced that it has lessons worth sharing with those who do not stand in that tradition:
Christianity, this strange and polyphonic song, is my mother tongue. It offers me a narrative scaffolding for my seeking. My relationship with it is complex and evolving, but I am ever more convinced that the practices and ideas I find in it are a rich source of wisdom about what human beings are like and how we actually thrive. My lived experience of it is a million miles from the dull or outright hateful public narratives around it, and I’d like to balance that a tiny bit.
My hunch is that these ideas and practices can be helpful, comforting and interesting for those who have no interest in religion, and no idea what they think about the divine. This tradition has thought a lot about the end of the world, about how it is possible to grow up into love even, perhaps especially, when facing instability and adversity. My hope is to break some of this centuries-honed thinking out of the confines of the churches and offer it more widely. I have found in it humanising wisdom which can steady our souls, and the world needs more of that right now, where ever it comes from.
My next recommendation might seem a little absurd. I mean, surely you all know– and no doubt many of you already read . I’ve written about our shared background as co-founders of Dark Mountain often enough. Does he need an introduction from me? Yet I want to give him one, for a couple of reasons.
First, because he has just completed the two-year arc of his Machine series, and I want to salute that journey and where it has taken him. You can find your way around the whole series here – but this is a glimpse of where he gets to in his final post, The Raindance:
I have come to the end now, and here is what I think: that the age of the Machine is not after all a hopeless time. Actually, it is the time we were born for. We can’t leave it, so we have to fully inhabit it. We have to understand it, challenge it, resist it, subvert it. If we can see what it is, we have a duty to speak the words to those who do not yet see, all the while struggling to remain human.
As the post reaches a conclusion, it becomes a song, a call to perform ‘a raindance on the astroturf’:
Raindance to call down the Spirit upon them and us. Raindance to defy the Machine. Raindance to remember your ancestors. Raindance to offer up prayers to your home. Raindance to the forest and the prairie and the meadow. Raindance to reclaim your stories.
This is the defiant, paradoxical note that calls us beyond nostalgia and the longing for what is lost, strong as the pull of these feelings may be. As the series has gone on, as I’ve watched the thoughtful dialogue across difference that often goes on in the comments and the way this feeds into Paul’s writing, I’ve felt a deepening respect for his ability to speak to audiences coming from different political backgrounds, to articulate tendencies in his own thinking and then call those tendencies into question.
And this brings me to the second reason I want to take this opportunity to lift up Paul’s work, which is that I’ve not always done him justice as a friend. When we went out into the world with a manifesto, people used to assume that we’d known each other for years. The truth is, we were still getting to know each other. I don’t reckon we’d spent twenty hours in each other’s company before we had George Monbiot telling the world that, if people listened to us, then billions would die. These are strange conditions under which to forge a friendship. Paul carried the greater part of the weight of the project through the chaos of its earliest years and we worked hard together while living far apart. When we did meet in person, more often than not it was with an audience; there were too few chances to just go to the pub for an evening or otherwise let off steam. I think about these things, because I remember how, a few years later, Paul found himself on the end of an online mob, and I didn’t come to his defence. That has been a lasting regret, and one that I’ve not really found the occasion to acknowledge publicly. It doesn’t matter that I might not agree with everything he’d said – as his collaborator and his friend, I owed him more.
What has gladdened me as I’ve followed Paul’s writing on Substack is the sense of a space in which conversation is possible across differences that doesn’t descend into howling feedback loops of indignation. It’s one of the things that drew me to start writing here, because it creates the kind of breathing room in which we can try out ideas and get challenged in ways that invite us to greater depth and subtlety.
Before I wrap up this post, then, I have one more recommendation for you, and this time it’s someone I only know through his writing on here.has just finished a five-and-a-half part series called Spirit(s) of Place, which circles around the concept of ‘Orenda’, introduced to anthropology by J.N.B. Hewitt, who was – as R.G. explains – plucked off the Tuscacora Reservation in 1880 at the age of 21 by the Bureau of Ethnology ‘to translate “native” thinking into “modern” understanding’. The whole series is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by Part 1.5 on A World Without Ambulances and Part 4 on The Orenda of Tobacco.
In an earlier post, R. G. introduced the coinage that he’s chosen as the title for his Substack,, which he also uses to describe the kind of writing he is doing:
Phasmata is a bit of a mystery word: according to the research, there aren't many primary sources that explicitly define it. But phasmata are found throughout the Greek histories: in descriptions of celestial objects, prophecy, dreams, and divine messengers, as well as the more familiar spirits of dead humans—plus some paranormal stuff that defies easy classification.
Phasmata are usually a form of benevolent supernatural intervention: it wasn’t always clear what was doing the intervening, or why, but the outcome was generally helpful. Most importantly, it seems to retain a sense of mystery. Sometimes weird stuff just happens. If there is no conventional explanation—no evidence of gods or sorcery—and the outcome is benign, phasmata could be invoked.
I thought back to this after publishing my last essay, There Are Signs, as it struck me that I’m writing my way into territory that is, let’s say, phasmata-adjacent. And I was intrigued to be named in the list of writers R.G. lists as helping him find his bearings. Primarily a writer of fiction, he explains that, nonetheless:
The writers that inspire me the most these days are not-fiction writers. Folks like Bayo Akomolafe, Dougald Hine, Paul Kingsnorth, Martin Shaw, Tyson Yunkaporta, Rhyd Wildermuth — and, most recently, Caroline Ross —frequently draw from a mythic perspective to write about where we find ourselves in everyday reality.
So firstly, it’s interesting to be at the point where there are writers coming along who will curate a list like this to describe the field of influence in which they are working – and I find myself thinking back to the point, ten or fifteen years ago, when some of us on that list were curating ourselves into a sense of shared endeavour through Dark Mountain. Reading R.G.’s list, there’s a strange sensation of experiencing for myself the kind of generational succession that I’ve studied in other periods. But the reason I mention this is that it also sparked the thought that, for a number of us on that list, there’s an earlier generation who influenced us greatly and who were writing fiction.
So over the next couple of weeks, while I’m on holiday, I’ve set up a mini-series in which I republish a couple of older essays I wrote about the writers of that generation, with the thought that these might be some help to anyone trying to navigate in the territory that R.G. has been sketching out. And in any case, these are pieces that I’m glad to have an occasion to bring into view again, so I hope you will enjoy them.
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Of course, at least one of us on R.G.’s list is also a novelist, so we’re not entirely ‘not-fiction’ writers…