Inspired by my recent wild-camping experiences on the Wessex Ridgeway, I consider how can we live a more soulful, sustainable life.
How can we live a more soulful, sustainable life? This is perhaps the most important question to address in the present age. Certainly, it is one that I find myself dwelling upon – an undertow to my days as I get caught up in the endless (and often vexating and trivial) ‘to do’ list of life. It is so easy to become enmired in Maya, or Samsara – the illusion of the world, and forget why we are really here. I see this ‘illusion’ not as some do: a world of matter to be rejected, denying corporeality, the body, and this good Earth — but as the surface of things. To be fully alive is to live deeply and fully – to be awake in the moment, to be present in one’s body, in one’s life. To revel in the bountiful sensorium of it all, its vivid, messy actuality. To be grounded and real. And by doing so, tapping into the ‘immanent moment’ (as I termed it in one of my poetry collections) and to realise how every embodied experience on this Earth has many levels, and can be an opportunity to awaken consciousness – to pierce beyond the veil of things (like the Arthurian fool-knight, Perceval/Parsifal, who ‘pierces the veil’ with his pure heart and cleansed perceptions and achieves the Holy Grail). To see things as they truly are: ‘infinite’, as Blake puts it, exhorting a cleansing of the doors of perception. Or as William Stafford expresses it in his poem, ‘Bi-focal’:
So, the world happens twice— once what we see it as; second it legends itself deep, the way it is.
Sometimes we have to go down into the mud to see the stars, and so it was the week I spent walking the Wessex Ridgeway, a 127 mile long-distance footpath, which runs from Marlborough in Wiltshire to Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. As this runs by my back-door I’ve been considering walking it for a while — it sat there expectantly, like a dog with a lead in its mouth, ready for walkies. I liked the idea of walking to the sea from my doorstep – and after the most challenging academic year in living memory I, like Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, heard the call of the ‘Grey Havens’. I wanted to change my skyline. The clean line of the chalk downs of Wiltshire are soothing, but there is nothing like seeing the horizon where the sea meets the sky to get a perspective on things. And so, with a full pack on my back, I set off. Carrying one’s home on one’s back certainly makes one feel snail-like, and that was pretty much the pace at times — especially on the uphill sections (which in Dorset were quite frequent). Yet slowing down, and noticing the details is part of the experience of exploring the world at walking pace
The highlight of my week of walking was the day I woke up at dawn in a peaceful flower meadow, and walked all day to finally arrive (with a lot of huffing and puffing up its steep flanks) to a spectacular hillfort, where I also wild-camped, watching the sunset as I savoured my simple but satisfying camp meal. Although I was at one of the highest spots on the south coast, there was not a breath of wind. It was pleasantly mild, and I had the most peaceful night’s sleep, feeling like a king to be sleeping in such a place by myself. That night I had a vivid dream, which was sufficiently stirring to wake me up and make me write it down. I dreamt of being part of an Iron Age tribe, no doubt influenced by sleeping in a hillfort (before turning in, I walked the impressive ramparts with their commanding view, and got a strong sense of what it must have felt like to have dwelled there, to call such a place ‘home’, and to wish to defend it – and your loved ones within – to your dying breath). Faced with the prospect of moving yet again (such is the life of the modern academic), thoughts of home have been at the forefront of my mind. And, having been carrying my humble little home all week, it was perhaps not surprising that my vision upon the hill related to notions of home, community, and belonging. The details of it seem less relevant than the messages I received from it, which I summarise below.
The importance of community – a reciprocal ‘ecosystem’, an entangled, resilient, co-supportive network.
The importance of leadership – of stepping into your power, drawing upon the authority of experience and self-reflexive insight. Creating and guiding, not controlling and censuring. This could manifest, for example, by running a space for the sharing of wisdom and mutual empowerment.
The importance of embodied ‘beingness’ – listening to the body, listening to the earth. Rejoicing in tactile, sensual, human touch.
The importance of living an ethical life, and showing the courage of one’s convictions – of ‘stepping up’, of speaking truth to power. Of being unafraid of being seen, heard, known for what one believes, what one knows is a ‘core truth’ – beyond the playacting, and posturing of much of modern life, the neurotic concern for status, approval, and ‘fitting in’.
The importance of place – of being ‘rooted’ in where you live, making a commitment to your community and digging in. Of belonging. And this is the essence of my phrase, ‘belly to the earth’ – an act of vulnerability and connection. Are you able to live somewhere so intimately, so lightly, that it is as though you are literally sleeping on the ground like a small child laying on Mother Earth? (try it – lay down on the grass, and feel the earth beneath you as you breathe upon it: simultaneously held and holding).
I awoke at dawn, and with a precious mug of tea (the last of my water) watched the full orb of the sun break free of its pall of cloud. Feeling shiveringly alive, I quickly struck camp and set off on my way, keen to not forget my dream on the hill. How to manifest it felt less important at that moment than bringing it down from the heights and sharing it. Perhaps it will inspire you to consider how you can live with your ‘belly to the earth’?
‘There’s some freaky stuff happening out there at the moment, right? It’s like God has dropped acid and the world is having a bad trip. But you know what? I think it’s a good thing. There’s too many of us fuckers. Let’s cut the wheat from the chaff. Less mouths to feed. I’m all for climate chaos. Bring it on! It’s like when school closes because of the bad weather. Everyone gets to have fun. Sledding. Snowball fights. No fucking school run. Let the kids play, that’s what I say! Ring up if you agree or disagree on the Spleen-line now.’
Chapter 16: Moss-Eater
Ava Rivet entered the shabby reception of the Gimli rural municipality police station, took a look at the ten things that needed attending too – from signage and security, to the state of the house plants – and filed them under ‘to do’, that is – when she had twenty seven hours in the day. That morning she’d already fed her horse, her husband and her kids (insisting sleepy, grumpy Aron ate something; preparing Juniper’s oatmeal just so), made their lunches and got them all dressed, before managing to eat some granola and prepare a flask of soup for herself. Leaving Aron with strict instructions about a delivery she was expecting (even though she knew he’d probably go back to bed and forget about it) she had dropped Juniper off at the Elementary, and negotiated the school run traffic and roadworks on fifth avenue, before finally pulling into the police station forecourt.
‘Morning, chief,’ called desk sergeant Wilming, a slab of a man who could have been carved from the same wood as the counter.
‘Anything?’ asked Rivet, inspecting the report he handed her.
‘Quiet night,’ Wilming yawned. ‘A couple of drunks in the tank, sleeping it off. A false alarm from our favourite loopy pensioner, Mrs Moon, who heard “strange noises in her yard”. Insisted we sent an officer over. Can play you the call if you like. Sounded like cats going at it. Said we send someone over in the morning if there was any damage.’
Dumping her bag in her office, Ava poured herself a cup of joe from the filter machine. Looked at the stack of admin in her intray. The photo of her husband and kids on vacation in Florida. Her pride and joy palomino, next to it. ‘Good old Mrs Moon. We can rely on her for some entertainment.’ She turned on her computer, and nonchalantly leafed through the papers on her desk while it booted up.
A knock on her door made her look up. Wilming stood there, like an Easter Island giant squeezed awkwardly into a human space. He held a printout.
‘Oh, there was one report came in this morning. Farmer over at Blackrocks. Savaged livestock.’ He handed her the details.
‘Right, I’ll swing by once I’ve cleared some of the drift here.’ She sat down and took another sip. ‘Cheers, Wil. Clare’ll be in in a mo. Go home, get some beauty sleep. You need it.’
Ava drove onto the Blackrocks farm – one of the most isolated small-holdings in the area, at the butt-end of a bumpy, windy track, which made her grateful for a light breakfast. Dominated by Black Rock, a bare knuckle of crag thrusting out of the pines, the farm – a main house, out-buildings, a barn, and several vehicles in states of dilapidation – was not a wealthy one. Old man Franklin, who lived there, was a loner type. Lord knows how he made a living out here, let alone kept sane. Some thought he didn’t really manage the latter. But Ava, when she bumped into him at the store, buying his supplies had figured as simply the quiet type, one of the old school backwoodsmen who seemed to be a dying breed these days. One of those who found contentment, alone in nature. She could relate to that, in the increasingly rare instances when she could get out on Ghost and head for the trails. The solitude she savoured then only made her love her family more. The huskies in their pen went crazy as she killed the engine and stepped out of the patrol car. They growled and snarled at her, yanking the chains taut as piano wire as she walked by them to the porch.
‘Don’t mind them. They’re spooked, is all.’
Ava turned to see Franklin there, in his coveralls and baseball cap, thick checkered shirt telling of the chill in the air. The old man had weathered many a winter and looked it – face cracked and ruddy as a redwood – but even he could feel it. The Icelandic volcano had brought winter early to Manitoba – the sky an iron grey pall, which only let through a thin gruel of light.
‘Morning, sir. Came by as soon as I could.
”Preciate it, Sheriff. Best to see it while it’s fresh. Recky we’re gonna get some dustin’ pretty soon. This way.’
The old farmer led Rivet around to the back fields, a sweep of pasture cleared from the mountainside by sheer hard work.
The whole flock of sheep were savaged, their mutilated corpses strewn across the threadbare grass.
‘Breaks my heart twainwise to see it. Reared some of these gals by hand mysel’. After this … I just don’t know.’
Ava knelt by one and used a stick to lift up the twisted limbs. ‘What you think did it? Wolverines?’
Franklin shrugged, spat in to the mud. ‘The bad weather might’ve driven down a pack of wolves. But this isn’t their style. The sheep are hardly touched. They weren’t killed for food. Just for the hell of it.’
He shook his head. ‘Look at the lacerations around the throat. Whatever did this had a serious rack of claws or fangs.’
Ava stood up, scratched the back of her neck. ‘Beats me. Such waste…’ They both stared at it, hoping it would start to make some sense.
The wind-turbine creaked in the icy breeze.
‘I’ll take some shots. Send them to the specialist. See what they make of them. Do you need help with the clear up?’
Franklin shook his head.
Ava didn’t like the look of resignation in his eyes. She started to take photos on her phone. ‘We’ll send someone over in a couple of days. See how you’re getting on. By then we may have some answers.’
‘There ain’t no sense to things, Sheriff. Shit just happens, and keeps on happenin’. That cussed Rock stares down at I, don’t give a damn. Put everything I’ve got into this place. When I first came here it was scrubland nobody wanted. When I bought it folks laughed. Thought I was pissing in the wind.’ The dead field filled his vision. ‘Maybe they were right.’ He turned to her. ‘Don’t tell your dreams to the mountain, sheriff.’
Ava brooded on Franklin’s words as she drove back down the track. It was hard living by the lakes, for sure. It took a certain kind of bloody-mindedness to survive, a mania, even, to thrive. To get to where she was, a Métis in an area with strong First Nations and Icelandic communities, she’d had to make all kinds of sacrifices. But she was as stubborn as her beloved Ghost. Once she set her mind to something that was that. She’d chew at her bit until it was through.
Reaching the two-lane blacktop, she drummed her fingers on the wheel, and, on a hunch, decided to head over to Mrs Moon’s place.
The house was at the end of a thin chain of properties that backed onto the fields. At one time it would have been a very desirable house in a ‘picturesque location’, but the current resident, renowned for her eccentricity, had filled the yard with kitsch Christian iconography – inflatable Virgin Marys, neon Jesuses, garish crucifixes and Bible quotes blinking on and off like road signs, a full-sized fibre glass nativity scene, and a scale model of Noah’s Ark, balanced on a garden rockery Mount Ararat. Mrs Moon stood on the doorstep, awaiting Ava’s arrival. She wore a sou’wester, white cardigan, a prim blouse with a buttoned-up lace collar, waders, and oven gloves.
‘Good Morning, Mrs Moon.’
‘Sheriff Rivet. Just in time.’
‘Just in time, why?’
Mrs Moon looked up in the broiling sky. ‘The end is near. Plain as day. The Good Lord is sending his rag-mop to wipe clean the filthy world. About time too! Your feet.’
After scraping her boots, Ava was shown through to the rear of the house. Newspaper lined the floor. ‘Have you had a flood recently?’
‘No, silly piggy! But it’s coming. I am ready for Him.’ A light filled her eyes.
Ava felt a bit awkward, standing in the passageway. ‘So, you report a disturbance in the night?’
‘Oh, yes. The Devil, he moves amongst us.’
‘What exactly did you hear?’
Mrs Moon’s face contorted with loathing. ‘It was the voice of the Lord of Flies himself, whispering his poison in the night. At first I thought it was the local cats, going at it, and I had my night-bucket ready to throw over them. But when I opened the window the most foul odour assailed my senses. The stench of pure evil. Saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over, I cast my night-soil into the shadows. There was a hullabaloo and the thing took off faster than a cat on a griddle.’
Ava took out her notebook, while giving Mrs Moon a sceptical look. ‘And what time was this…?’
‘The witching hour, of course.’
‘Any sign of disturbance out there?’
‘Come and see for yourself.’
Ava was shown through to the yard. The Stations of the Cross that had been recreated there were smashed to smithereens.
‘Satan’s hoof-prints are all over this.’
Ava gave the damage an appraising look. ‘Someone’s had a party out here, for sure. Have you got any neighbours who you don’t get on with, Mrs Moon?’
‘All of them. Oh, they all hate me. Think me crazy. But I think they’re crazy. I’m prepared for the Deluge! They’re not! They wallow in sin and risk their souls to eternal damnation, taking drugs, fornicating, watching that poison and filth…’
‘Right. But, no problems lately?’
‘This isn’t their handiwork, Sheriff! The Devil is coming for them. Mark my words…’
‘Okay. I’ll see if we can spare someone to come over and help clear this up, Mrs Moon. We’ll look into it. Thank you.’
‘Beware, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse approach!’
‘I’ll bear that in mind. Take care, Mrs Moon.’
Ava left the Moon property and decided to work her way along the lane, checking in on the neighbours, just in case they had witnessed anything. Whatever it was had really gone to town. She walked around the side of the yard and came to the large hole in the fence. Something had smashed through it like it was balsa wood. The trail through the undergrowth was as plain as day. The tracks were unfamiliar to Ava. Not wolverine, wolf or bear. Almost humanoid, but with long thin feet and distinct claws. She took a couple of photos, laying her pencil by the side for scale. The prints were at least a foot long. And sunk deep in the mud. Whatever it was at least two hundred and fifty pounds. Maybe more. She radioed in her position to the station; then she followed the trail.
The destruction led through the yards of several properties. She met anxious home-owners clearing up the mess, patching up the fences, raking up broken detritus. In one garden there was spore, reeking to high heaven. She made a mental note to collect a sample on the way back, but didn’t fancy carrying it with her.
Finally, the houses thinned out and she reached a scrappy no-man’s land where a well-known user had his shack. It was a beaten-up old place that only someone off of their head on heroin would find amenable. Ava had known ‘Junkie Jon’, as he was known in town, since he had been a lad, when he had been part of the Runestone Cowboys entourage – one of Eddy’s pals. But whileas the Redcrow lad had kept on the right side of the law, more or less, except for a few high-jinks, the unfortunate Jon had slid down the slippery slope of drug abuse like it was a helter skelter. He had received help from the drop-in centre, but relapsed with pathological frequency. The cleaner he got, the more catastrophically he fell back. If he hadn’t been more harm to himself than anyone else, he wouldn’t have been tolerated for so long. But they only had so many resources, so much time, and there was always too much to do.
The trail ended at the shack. The place was in such a state it was hard to tell if the whirlwind had passed through here or not. The outside, patched up with bare MDF and old doors, was sprayed with anarchist symbols, pentagrams, dicks, needles, skulls, and a barely legible scrawl: The Road of Excess leads to … The Palace of Wisdom a Shit Heap.
Ava called out. ‘Hey, Jon? You in there? It’s Sheriff Rivet. Don’t worry. You’re not in trouble. I’m just checking in. There’s been some local break-ins and damage.’
The loose corrugated roof rattled; a smashed window slammed back and forth, teased by a devil of wind.
‘Okay. I’m coming in.’
Ava unclipped her service pistol and slid it out. Holding it poised before her, she kicked open the door and swung inside.
It was the stench that hit her first. A combination of squalid living conditions, the iron tang of offal, and emptied bowels.
Covering her mouth and nose with her scarf, she ventured deep. At the far end, amid the junkie detritus, hanging upside down from a beam, ankle bone impaled on a rusty nail, was what remained of Jon. One leg had been gnawed down to a stump, from which jutted a thigh bone. Of his torso, only the vertebrae and ribs, raw red and tangled with gore, remained. As the corpse turned the other half of the face was revealed – ripped down to the skull.
Ava stepped back and tried not to gag.
What the Hell had done this?
Heart beating, she carefully checked the rest of the property, then called in.
Going back outside, Ava gulped down the icy air.
Round the back of the shack she saw the bloody trail led off into a dark wall of trees, restlessly shuffling themselves in the wind.
When Ava pulled into the station, she was concerned to see a number of pick-ups parked any which way in the carpark. She recognised a few – local farmers, forestry workers and property maintenance guys, ordinary folks, scraping by.
She was still shaken up by what she had seen. Corpses no longer bothered her – but this one was different. It hadn’t just been mutilated; it looked gnawed. There had been a couple of nasty bear attacks in her time, and she’d seen all the grim photos in the training – the stuff they didn’t show in that Grizzly Man film. But a half-eaten human being, for real … not something Ava had come across before – fortunately. A strong coffee would help. Normally one of Wilming’s donut would too, but the thought of anything at the moment was out of the question.
As soon as she walked in the door, she was assailed by anxious citizens, demanding her to act. ‘There’s something bad out there, Sheriff, what are you going to do about it? … We need to form a possé, hunt the critter out … Rivet! I have a livelihood to earn! … I’ve got kids who play out in the bush! It’s not safe! … What are you doing to protect us?’
A couple of officers were doing their best to pacify the anxious citizens.
She pushed her way to the counter, where Clare was firefighting. When she saw Ava, the receptionist rolled her eyes at the commotion.
‘When did this shit-storm break?’
Clare, a well-preserved middle-aged mother of two with Queen Crimson shellaced nails, wore large, cherry-red rimmed glasses and a vanilla gillet over a mustard-yellow sweater. ‘Mrs Moon called in to the radio station. Old Foghorn got hold of it and has been whipping up the panic.’
Ava hit the counter with her fist, ‘That fucker Fredricksson !’
GIMLI XYZ’s notorious shockjock was the bad odour of Ava’s day that didn’t go away. He loved nothing better than stirring up the shit. If there wasn’t a problem, he would make one. Parking. Recycling schemes. Taxes. Fishing restrictions. Incursions on liberty, in his eyes. The interfering state. Preventing good, honest Gimlungar just getting on with the business of living, or enjoying their hard-won leisure. Now he was turning a problem into a crisis. Freaking out half the town – turning them into scared, trigger-happy citizens. The last thing she needed.
Taking a deep breath, she banged her fist on the counter until the hubbub died down. She stood on the staircase, looking across the anxious faces. ‘Okay! Listen up everybody. I’ve been to check the damaged properties. It ain’t nice for the folks concerned, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s certainly ain’t whatever hogwash Foghorn has been coming out with. We’re looking at possibly a rogue grizzly…’
Sounds of alarm drowned her out until she waved for calm.
‘But we’re onto this okay! A professional hunter will be despatched. Return to your homes. Secure your properties. Be vigilant and report anything unusual, but there is no need to be alarmed. This stuff happens round here. We deal with it. We get on with life. So, quit your girly whining and scram! I’ve got a job to do!’
Reluctantly the crowd started to disperse, but in the car lot she saw some of the men converse. She knew the sort. Hunter types. They would load up with rifles and head into the bush. All she needed, a bunch of trigger-happy preppers, blasting away at anything that moved out there. But she couldn’t stop them. Didn’t have the manpower. All she could hope for is that they headed up the wrong creek. But she had to track the thing down and deal with it before it found another victim. Next time it might not go for the weakest of the pack.
Sitting down with a sigh in her office, her gaze flicked to the photos of her kids. The answer machine was flashing its light at her: 27 messages. On an impulse, she punched through to Clare. ‘Hold the calls for a moment.’ She speed-dialled home. Drummed the desk. ‘C’mon, c’mon…’ Finally, it was picked up. Fumbling. A yawn. ‘Hey, Aron. Thank goodness. Are you okay there?’
‘Whatsupp, Mom? Checking in on me?’
‘Yes, I am. Just wanted to make sure you were safe, that’s all.’
‘I was working on my assignment; your delivery hasn’t been yet…’
‘Sure, whatever. Doesn’t matter. Can you just do me a favour? Check all the doors and windows. Keep ’em locked. And your phone charged. Any noises out back, call me straight away, y’hear?’
‘Mom, what gives? You turned Winona on me? What’s with this paranoid shit?’
‘Hey, language! Do you hear me!’
A sigh. ‘Sure. Doors. Windows. Cell.’
‘Thanks. I’ll get us pizza tonight – your favourite. I love you. Bye.’
She breathed out. Then thought of her daughter. Maybe she could take her out of school early today? No. That would set a bad example. Cause panic. She had to remain calm. The strong one. And she had to deal with it. The buck stopped with her. She called her husband. Got an earful when he finally picked up. ‘I know. I know. But it’s important. Can you do me a big favour and pick up Juniper this afternoon? It’s all hitting the fan here. You may have heard. But nothing to worry about. Except … I know. The children. Aron’s fine. But get her home safe. I’ll get back when I can. Love you, hon.’
For the next couple of hours she sorted out the body. Returned to the scene with forensics and the clean-up squad. Fortunately, nobody had discovered the grisly remains except for a couple of wolverines. The area was sealed off. Somebody bagged the scat. Inevitably the gawkers came, but she had her deputies Emil and Wichiwa ensure nobody crossed the line. She sat in her patrol car, and finished off the essential paperwork. Her comms set crackled to life. She listened to the message with gritted teeth.
‘Roger. Over and out… Damn!’ she hit the dashboard.
Ava looked at herself in the rearview.
‘You can do this. You can do this.’
She got the rifle from the trunk, cartridges, a pair of bins, and a flask of soup.
Her deputies looked at her with incredulity. ‘Sheriff…?’ said Wichiwa.
‘State can’t send a hunter until tomorrow. I’m going to take a look while the trail is still fresh. I’ll call in every hour. If I miss one, then send for back up. Don’t let anyone follow me. Hold the fort.’
And she walked behind the shack, following the tracks into the trees.
It started to snow.
The trail was easy enough to follow through the pines even as the tracks began to disappear beneath the fresh fall – branches were snapped back, snow displaced, but more than anything there was the reek, lingering in the frozen air. It had a sickly sweet putrefying quality to it – the noisome burn of a compost heap, writhing in maggots – mixed disconcertingly with a heady musk, a powerful male tang like you got from a buck moose. The long, raking marks either side of the footprints worried Ava the most – were they its hands? Sometimes she came across them slashing the trunk of a tree grabbed in passing – brushwood shredded off like so many bristles to a razor.
The snow was falling in thick flakes now, flurries swirling before her, making it harder to see. She constantly scanned the ranks of trees, which climbed higher into the rough hills of the wild country – a vast wilderness that spread for hundreds of miles into the interior. Looking at her watch, Ava reckoned she had six hours of daylight, tops. No more than three hours in, then she’d have to turn back.
She stopped to do her coat up properly, glad of its fur-lined hood, and her Columbia Thermarator gloves – a present from her husband.
Perhaps the creature was nocturnal and had retreated to its lair. If she didn’t catch it now, by nightfall it would be on the prowl again. What it was, and what had driven it to the edge of Gimli, she couldn’t figure.
But somewhere up there, in one of the caves that riddled the hillside, it was sleeping off its feast. It had forsaken Franklin’s flock for Junkie Jon. Clearly had a taste for human flesh. She shuddered.
Bracing herself for the slog, she was about to set off when a twig snap made her level her rifle at the undergrowth.
Something was making its way through the trees to her, something large and dark.
Trying to steady the barrel, she held her ground. Waited. If the thing was flesh and blood then it could be killed.
But if it wasn’t…?
She didn’t get to find out, for emerging from the trees, holding up his hands, was elderly First Nations man, dressed in a thick lumberjack shirt, trapper hat, jeans, and carrying a light pack, rifle slung over his shoulder.
With a sigh of relief she recognised him. ‘Is that you, Running Bear?’
The old man shrugged. ‘Last time I looked.’
‘What you doing up here?’
‘Fancied a stroll. Nice weather for it.’
She laughed at this, and, taking off her glove, shook his hand.
‘Figured if I made enough noise, you wouldn’t shoot me. Looks like you’re ready to kill something with that thing.’
Ava lifted the barrel up skywards. ‘There’s something mean out here. It’s killed someone in town. You’re not safe.’
The old man looked at her with an amused twinkle in his eye. ‘I’ve been hunting in these hills since you were still in diapers, Ava Rivet. I’m on the same trail as you. Figured something needed to be done.’
She went to protest, but the old man looked more than competent. She’d heard of his prowess out in the bush. He was a bit of a local legend. A bit of back-up could come in handy. Finally, she nodded. ‘Okay then. What are we tracking here exactly?’
Running Bear looked up into the hills. ‘Something bad.’ And he set off.
Ava went to protest, but simply had to follow before she lost him in the white noise of the blizzard.
Running Bear set a relentless pace. Ava developed a stitch, keeping up with him. After a solid hour of climbing they reach a line of crags jutting out to form ledges beneath which could be found shelter. They rested up a while in one, first checking the shadows carefully. The tracks had been obliterated but the stench had got stronger. ‘We’re not far now, but must save our strength,’ said the old man, squatting down and getting out his pipe. He stuffed it with a thumb of tobacco and, striking a long, wax-covered, match on the rock, passed the flame over it. He held it up. ‘To all my relations,’ he uttered, before taking it into his mouth. ‘Ah.’ He breathed out the pungent smoke.
Ava gratefully sat down on a rock and pulled out her flask. She offered some to her guide – for now he surely was the expert – but he shook his head.
‘Smoke soup is the best.’
Pouring herself a cup, she cradled its welcome warmth. She scanned the white forest, not looking forward to the trek back.
‘You said it was something bad. What do you mean?’
The old man looked mournfully out at the blizzard. ‘There is a crack in the world. And it’s letting through bad things through. This … false winter. It’s all part of it. My bones know it.’
Ava took a sip. Frowned. ‘But what exactly are we up against here? Some intel here would really help.’
‘Nothing the rational mind could grasp…’
She waited, shifted uncomfortably in her thick coat, suddenly feeling hot.
He gave her a piercing look. ‘Do you believe in legends, Sheriff?’
‘Now is not the time for fairy tales, sir.’
‘That’s our problem. We shut the imagination out, and with it the world of the spirits, the ancestors. Cut off from our roots, is it no wonder the tree topples?’
Ava finished her soup and put the cup back on the flask. ‘You’re talking in riddles now. Give it to me straight, sir. We don’t have a lot of time.’
‘Wendigo,’ he hissed, the sound carrying into the back of the cave and echoing back in diminishing whispers.
‘You have the blood in you, Sheriff. You should know. Many of our people, up and down this land, have legends of it. I have heard many tales. But I have not come across one until this day.’
‘Wendigo? Come on, I thought that was just a boogerman to scare kids.’
‘Wind-walker, moss-eater, it appears when there is evil in men’s hearts, to draw them away. Madden them, with the call of the wild. Murder. Greed. The destruction of nature. It feeds on these. We have brought this doom upon ourselves. It is our judgement.’
‘So … you think it’s a good thing?’ She looked shocked, incredulous.
‘I have family. I want to protect them, just like you with your’s, sheriff.’ He got up. ‘Are you coming? If we don’t stop it now, it will kill again tonight. And it may be one of your kin it gets.’ Shouldering his pack and picking up his rifle, the old man headed out into the snow.
The reek led them down a steep-sided gulley, gouged out by a tumbling waterfall at the far end, which sent white-maned rapids thundering over the jumble of rocks. The going was slippery and they had to take it very carefully, to avoid not falling into the icy flow. Ava noted how their prey was very light on foot, despite its size. ‘Looks like it skipped over these like a fricking mountain goat,’ she observed, as she negotiated the next boulder.
The old man signalled for her to be silent.
Beyond the waterfall a dark opening could be discerned. Either side, Running Bear pointed out a narrow, slippery ledge leading to it. He pointed to one for himself, and Ava for the other.
Then he set off, descending to a shelf over which the water fan-tailed out. Scrambling over the drier rocks, he made his way to the other side of the waterfall.
Cursing silently to herself, Ava pulled her rifle off her shoulder and approached her side.
She thought of her kids, her husband, her horse, and hoped she would see them again. The waterfall thundered on her right, soaking her with spray. She made her way between its curtain and the rock to where the cave mouth gaped.
Running Bear was crouched there, rifle aimed into the dark.
The stench here was almost unbearable. Only the waterfalls constant cloud of vapour stopped her from gagging.
The darkness seemed to have a presence to it, as though she could reach out and touch it. She had to use all of her will to push through the invisible barrier that seemed to be before her. All her senses were screaming run. But she had to ignore them; she had to go the other way, further in, into the dark.
They could hear it now, its heavy breathing a rusty saw through bone.
Suddenly the sound stopped.
Even above the thunder of the waterfall Ava could hear the pounding of her heart.
Then, a low growling – like a volcano, building in power until the sound became movement, shaking the very walls of the cave.
The thing leapt towards them and all Ava saw was a flash of long, pale limbs; long white fingers with too many joints as though it had spiders for hands – nails like icicles, still red with the gore of its victim. It was all ribs and maw, a child’s nightmare sketch of hunger. Eyes like whirlpools peering out from a wrinkled, flaccid face – its skin like an ill-fitting suit, except for a grotesquely swollen belly.
They fired in unison, blasting away shot after shot into the dark – the flashes lighting up the monster as it twisted and convulsed, spurting hot pink blood.
Then finally, it stopped moving.
Just the sound of her heavy breathing in the dark. Even the waterfall was drowned out, as the blood roared around her body.
She was still alive.
‘Running Bear, are you…?’ she called into the dark.
There was the scratch of a match on rock, and a single, yellow bulb of flame lit up his stoic features. He passed the match over his pipe.
He took a long draw of the smoke.
‘A thing like that … never thought I’d see in all my days.’ He shook his head, lost in the wonder of it. ‘These are lean times, and then some.’ Finally, he noticed Ava standing there, trembling. ‘Sit. Catch your breath. You done well, Sheriff. You done well. Your kin are safe. Gimli is safe. For now.’
He looked at the limp form. ‘Who knows what the dark will throw at us next?’
This great nation was built on oil. Over the last few years previous administrations have tried their best to dismantle the industries that have made our country the greatest, wealthiest, most powerful, on Earth. But no more! During his hugely successful campaign President Koil promised to reinvest in fossil fuels and he has delivered, for he is a man of his word. Over fifty billion dollars has been invested in oil, coal and gas since he returned to office. Our great president has personally overseen the launch of state-of-the-art oil rigs; the reopening of car plants, coal mines, and new extraction methods. His programme has created new jobs, new homes, new wealth. It has got this nation on its feet. America is working. The wheels of industry turn once more. The President always keeps his promises. Koil for America. Koil for oil.
Chapter 3: The Choice
Eddy awoke, shivering and damp. The ferry ploughed its way through the white caps, creating a see-saw motion which made him queasy. His travelling companion was nowhere to be seen, and for a second the unsettling thought crossed his mind – that he had dreamed her into being. And yet, her bag was still next to his in their temporary ‘nest’. He picked it up, and slinging his own over his shoulder, made a quick reccy of the deck.
It was early morning. Dawn was a red smear in the east. The chilly fog, bitter on the tongue, dissipated the sunlight in a thin veil. Seagulls keened noisily overhead, skirling about the funnels, which belched their grey smoke into the air.
Towards the rear of the deck, overlooking the stern, he found her – her tall, slim figure a dark outline against the pale mist. As he approached he heard her speaking – a strange guttural tongue – to herself, to the sea:
Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan, siþas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum earfoðhwile oft þrowade, bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe,
gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela, atol yþa gewealc…
The lonely sound seemed to echo the bleak vista; the haranguing gulls; the tang of brine. Eddy sensed a deep longing and loneliness in her words which echoed his own emptiness – something he had never been able to articulate or even acknowledge until now.
Sensing his presence, Fenja stopped mid-sentence. She turned and he saw the glister of tears in her eyes.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.’ He ventured closer. ‘It was … beautiful – weird, but beautiful.’
She scowled at him and went to light a cigarette, covering her lighter with the flap of her jacket.
‘What did it mean?’
Fenja took a drag of her cigarette and scanned the skein of wave-patterns unravelling from the wake of the ship.
‘It’s just an old poem…’ she shrugged dismissively.
‘Please, I’d like to know.’
Fenja gave him an appraising look, and then exhaled a wraith of smoke. She continued, shifting into English: ‘…atol yþa gewealc … the terrible tossing of the waves, where the anxious night-watch often took me, at the ship’s prow, when it tossed near the cliffs. Fettered by cold, were my feet, bound by frost, in cold clasps, where then cares seethed; hot about my heart – a hunger tears from within the sea-weary soul.’
‘Wow, that’s pretty awesome. What language is that?’
‘An old one, spoken by seafarers who crossed this Whale’s Road, as we do – to Britain.’
‘Far out, Fen. Were you a literature major or something?’
She looked at him scornfully.
‘Mm, shall I get us a coffee?’
‘Frappacino, right? Brrr. It’s chilly enough for me. I need something hot! Seeya in a mo.’
Fenja watched him go. Then turned back to the waves, she continued, a little contemptuously:
‘That man knows not, to whom on earth fairest falls, how I, care-wretched, ice-cold sea dwelt on in winter along the exile-tracks, bereaved both of friend and of kin, behung with rime-crystals. Hail showers flew. I heard nothing there but the sea’s sounding, ice-cold wave.’
Fenja didn’t seem very talkative after that, although Eddy was full of excitement at their crossing. They were making progress, albeit painfully slowly. After twelve hours the gloomy coast of Britain appeared and by then Eddy was glad to see it. The sea seemed to put his companion into a strange mood. He was looking forward to being back on dry land – with two wheels under him and the road stretching ahead. He’d been checking out the route on his phone, and just before they docked, he approached his impromptu passenger with a suggestion. She scanned the dreary docks of Hull with cold eyes. It didn’t look promising.
‘Well, this is the parting of the ways…’
‘Listen, I have a suggestion to make.’
She turned to look at him – stiffening.
‘No, nothing improper. I know you’re not the kinda gal to try it on with…’
She narrowed her eyes to slits of ice.
‘Not that that wouldn’t be nice…’
She glared at him.
‘But what I wanted to say was – how about I give you a lift to Liverpool. That’s where the ferry leaves for Man, doesn’t it? Where your big powwow is?’
Fenja sucked on her cigarette, scanning the docks. ‘Very well.’
‘Cool!’ Eddy went to high-five her. ‘Looks like we’ve got a deal.’
Fenja stubbed the cigarette off on his palm. The flesh sizzled, reeked.
‘Ow!’ Eddy looked at the burnt hole in his hand in disbelief. ‘Jeezus!’
‘But keep your hands to yourself!’
She slinked off, as the tannoy announced disembarkation.
They got out of Hull as quickly as possible, taking the York road – when it soon became apparent the motorway was gridlocked. It was early evening and the plan was to get at least as far as that city before they stopped for food. The ride to Liverpool would take roughly two hours twenty, but Eddy was determined to make the most of it. There was something about Fenja that … fascinated him. Yes, his hand still smarted – making gripping the handlebar uncomfortable – but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d been drawn to something bad for him, as Siggy, his sister, would no doubt point out. There were a dozen messages from her on his phone, and half a dozen from his Mom, but he held off answering them. They could wait.
He had a hot one on his hands.
Eddy’s first impressions of Britain weren’t promising. The hinterland of Hull was, frankly, depressing. None of the charming quaintness he’d come to expect from cheesy movies. Red double deckers and postboxes, old-fashioned ‘bobbies’ on the beat, Big Ben and Olde Worlde pubs serving warm beer. It wasn’t even raining! It just looked drab – worn out suburbs and Legoland shopping centres, dismal high streets lined with empty units and big shed industrial estates. The countryside wasn’t much better … it seemed threadbare somehow. Of the picturesque villages and rolling, verdant hills he saw little evidence. Not so much the Shire, as just ‘shite’, as he overheard a local say when they stopped for directions – laughing coarsely. The people around here seemed, well, just odd. Hard-looking, unwelcoming faces like the grizzled coast-line: stern cliffs lashed by bitter seas.
At one point, pausing at a black-and-white striped pedestrian crossing, Eddy smiled as he saw an obese bald man in a tattered dress pushing an empty pram across – excruciatingly slowly. He tapped his fingers impatiently on his handlebars – until halfway across the bald man turned and shouted: ‘The voices in the sky told me it’s not safe for you to ride your bike.’ Eddy laughed about this with Fenja, but it rattled him a little – especially his passenger’s sober response. ‘He’s probably right.’
‘Come off it! Do you listen to voices in the sky?’
Fenja nodded. ‘You would be foolish not to.’
Right. Eddy had had his belly-full of such bullshit from both his grandfathers: incomprehensible Icelandic sagas from Gunnar (may his liver rest in peace); hokey Medicine Way shit from Running Bear. He’d grown up with it. Ever since busting out of High School, he had done his damnedest to avoid all of that hocus pocus. The only medicine he needed was rock and roll, a cold beer and a hot babe.
At York they stopped for fish and chips: they had to try them, Eddy had insisted. They sat by the castle ruins, watching the lads and lasses out on the town in t-shirts and mini-skirts. Eddy was impressed by the brevity of attire the local girls wore, or rather didn’t, considering how parky it was (according to one of the lads, brassing it out bravely, pint in hand). Fenja jabbed at her fish it suspiciously with the wooden fork.
‘Boy, they’re pretty hot around here. Alot of blondes – they look a bit like you. But not as …’
He remembered the cigarette butt, and held back. ‘How’s the fish.’
‘Better than these chips. I could only manage half of them.’ He belched.
Fenja didn’t react.
‘How about we go for a beer?’
‘How about we go?’
‘Hang on – you’re not doing all the driving. It’s a long ride after a long trip. What’s the rush?’
‘Why would I want to spend a moment longer with you than I have to?’
‘Hey, and I like your company too, Fen. You’re a barrel of laughs. You need to lighten up.’ He threw the rest of the chips in the bin. ‘I’m going for a beer. You can walk to Liverpool if you like, or come for one to wash down this English grease.’
On the way to the nearest pub they passed a visitor centre. Fenja froze outside and gazed through the glass at the display – a Viking longship.
Eddy whistled. ‘That’s was one helluva boat! Look at the dragon-head!’
Fenja started to recite something, but Eddy couldn’t catch it.
The glass doors of the admissions area suddenly slid open and Fenja walked straight inside. ‘Hey!’ Eddy went to follow her. ‘You can’t go in there! It’s clo—’ The glass doors slid shut in his face. He banged on them, but Fenja had walked inside the museum, out of sight.
He paced up and down for a bit, wondering what to do – then decided a beer would help.
Fenja found him in a local pub, sipping gingerly on a pint of dark English ale.
‘Did you have fun?’
‘My people…’ Her eyes were full of light. She seemed happy.
‘They didn’t catch you then?’
‘My people!’ she called out, grabbing his pint and raising it in toast, then she set to downing it in one, before Eddy could stop her.
‘Hey, buy your own!’
When she finished she slammed down the glass and smacked her lips, wiping the froth with the back of her hand. A ripple of applause and a few cheers went up around the bar. A loud track kicked in on the juke-box. She started dancing, to wolf whistles – pulling Eddy up off his feet. He was a bit embarrassed at first, but was soon caught up in her enthusiasm. It was good to see her let go – and boy, did she let go! She started to dance wilder and wilder – grinding and gyrating amongst the men, who began clapping and stamping.
Suddenly, from the other side of the bar Eddy could see policemen in their distinctive black and Nor’man-shaped helmets. The landlord pointed over to Fenja.
‘Quick, we’ve got to get out of here!’ Eddy grabbed hold of the dancer’s hand and pulled her towards the door. Laughing, she danced out into the street.
The police tried to barge their way through the beefy clientèle but the drinkers barred their way, knocking over stools.
‘Come on!’ Eddy ran, and Fenja sprinted beside him – as easily as a deer. They raced around the corner, out of sight of the pub and headed down a narrow side-lane in the general direction of the bike. It paid off – they appeared right next to it. Eddy unlocked it, and chucked Fenja a helmet. ‘Get on!’ He gunned the engine and they roared off, Fenja singing behind him.
They stopped a safe distance outside the city, pulling over on a layby along a country road. The sun was low in the sky – briefly showing its face beneath the lid of clouds. Pulling off their helmets, they both laughed with relief. They had got away!
‘What did you do back there to raise the heat?’
‘Oh, just a little sight-seeing.’
Eddy raised an eyebrow. ‘What is it with you and electronics? You seem able to affect them…’
‘Oh, nothing. It must be my natural … magnetism!’
‘You’re telling me. You had those guys lapping out of your hands in the pub. You’re … quite a dancer.’
‘And so were you…’ She pulled him closer. ‘You have a wild side too, Mister Redcrow.’ She pressed against him. She held him there for a minute – groin against groin. He could feel the heat of her loins.
‘Damn, I need a slash. Hold it right there!’
Fenja laughed and let him go. When he came back she was on the back of the bike, helmet on.
‘Let’s go, Redcrow!’
Arms folded, he looked at her in disbelief. She was pulling the strings alright! He shook his head. On a whim, saluted.
‘Are you sure you don’t want me to wait with you?’
They were standing outside the ferry terminal at Liverpool. It was dark.
‘No, you go on. You have brought me so far.’
‘Well … look after yourself.’ He shuffled awkwardly. She handed him back the spare helmet.
Fenja pulled him to her and planted a hot kiss upon his lips. She lingered there and something crackled between them.
For a moment, Eddy looked at her – her elfin face close to his. Then, settling into it, he closed his eyes.
There was a flash and crack – and an image streaked across his mind’s eye like a sigil of lightning. An intricate knot of sharp lines – three interlocking triangles – scolded into his mind like a brand.
And far off, inside, reverberating through his whole body – the sound of thunder.
Eddy started shaking. His limbs … wouldn’t stop shuddering. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know—‘
She placed her finger upon his lips, then turned on her heels and walked away.
Eddy shook his head, tried to recover. ‘Wait! Will I see you again?’
She paused and looked back briefly. ‘If the Norns will it.’
And she was gone.
Eddy crashed in a backpackers. He was wiped out and slept like a dog – snoring loudly – much to the annoyance of his fellow dorm-mates. The man below kept kicking his bunk, trying to make him shut up. The pounding became thunder in his dream. He was chasing Fenja across a rocky plateau where rock pools bubbled and steamed. Above, a sky dark with storm cloud. With each flash of lightning he caught a brief glimpse of the sigil from Fenja’s kiss. It seemed to whisper to him, something he couldn’t quite catch in a strange language. Just on the cusp of hearing it a heavy kick from below woke him up – he sat upright in his bunk, body clammy, breathing heavily.
For a moment, in the dark, he wasn’t sure where he was.
Then the smell of socks, of body odour, brought him back.
Sighing, he flopped back onto the mattress and was soon fast asleep.
He rose late and missed breakfast. The bunk-kicker was gone. The dorm empty except for his belongings, which he checked. Nothing missing. After freshening up, he grabbed a coffee and a snack from the vending machine and decided to check his emails.
There were about a hundred from his sister.
Sighing, he clicked on Whatsapp. Typed ‘S’. It would be about eight over there – if he was lucky, he’d catch his sister before she went to work.
Finally, she answered.
‘Eddy, is that you, you dirtbag? Christ, where have you been? We’ve been worried sick!’ Her voice was a little distorted. Not a great connection, but it’ll have to do.
In the background he could her hear the sounds of the kitchen. The TV. Voices.
‘Wait a minute.’ She turned down the breakfast show. ‘Mom! Dad! Give me some space here. It’s Eddy! I know… I will … Just let me talk to him for now, okay! Sheesh!’
‘Sounds like all is well…’
‘Now you listen up, Eddy!’
‘Uh-oh, it’s that tone,’ he groaned. ‘Tsunami warning.’
‘Damn right. You’re way out of line. Not returning our messages. Letting us worry. We’ve been following the news and it looks like a real shit-storm over there in Euro-land. When we heard that Candy got back, we didn’t know what to think. I managed to collar her at Tergesen’s. She said you had split up. She didn’t have anything nice to say about you. You’ve blown it, little brother. You really are one tremendous fuck-up.’
‘Oh, here we go again.’
‘Yes, again and again – until you …’
‘Get a life, I know the drill.’ Eddy had heard this a thousand times before. ‘“When are you going to get a proper job? When are you going to settle down?’”
‘Eddy, you can’t be a teenager forever! Most of us grow up. You waste your talents in part-time jobs…’
‘It supports my music career…’
‘Music career? An axe-man in a pub rock band. The Runestone Cowboys…? How are you ever going to be taken seriously with a name like that? As far as I can see you guys just play for beers and kicks. As long as you can ride your little bikes and squeeze a few little chicks, you’re happy.’
‘Yep, that about sums it up. Simple needs: the secret of happiness. When was the last time you were happy, sizzers?’
‘How dare you! I love my life. Mom, we’re leaving in five!’
‘You were always the smart one – you’ve got a degree in history. First one in our family to graduate.’
‘The only one, by the looks of things.’
‘And what you’re doing with it? A clerk in a bookstore.’
‘Hey! You know how hard it is to get a job with a History degree? Anyway, Mister Forbes’ List – don’t lecture me on career choices!’
‘Ah, it’s just like old times. Absent makes the heart grow fonder, hey?’
‘I’m … sorry. But I … care for you, you dumb ass. Don’t waste your life away.’
‘Jeez, big sis. I luv ya too.’
‘Then listen up, you big lunk. There’s a job going at the local garage – they need a bike mechanic. I got chatting to Bill when I took the old jalopey in for its MOT. I said you’re pretty good with the tinkering. He told me you should give him a call. ASAP. Otherwise, someone else’ll get it.’
Eddy looked out at the street. The traffic. The pedestrians. Everyone rushing somewhere. What was he doing with his life? Where was he going? Did he really want to be a part-time rocker forever? The aftershow parties were good – but … what about his band? There never seemed to be enough time to organise themselves. They played the same old bars, going round in circles.
‘Well, thanks, sis – my career advisor!’
‘Don’t mention it, jerk. Call Bill, and come home.’
Eddy let out a sigh. ‘Okay, will do. Tell Mom I’ve booked a flight from Aberdeen, Scotland. I’m heading up there now. I should be back in a couple of days.’
‘She’ll be relieved. You take care, bro. Love.’
‘Love you too, sizzers. And … thanks. You’re a pain in the butt, but you mean well.’
‘Ring Bill! And get your red arse back here! No excuses!’
‘Not even a volcanic eruption!’
‘That’s nothing compared to your big sister’s temper!’
Eddy laughed. ‘Give my love to Mom, Pops and Grandpa. See you soon.’
Eddy rode. He had a big grin on his face. Rock music blasted through his earbuds as he revved the bike along the long road North. The northern English landscape was craggy and bleak, jagged fells looming out of the mist beyond the thin ribbon of road – which seemed vulnerable, as though its fate depended on the whim of angry gods, brooding from the mountain fastnesses.
Yet Eddy felt for the first time in a long while that his fate, perhaps, was in his own hands. The freedom of the road fostered that illusion – and he made the most of it while he could, for he knew, the further north he went to narrower his options would become.
Yet he had little choice, it seemed.
Aberdeen was the only airport still open and allowing flights to the US and Canada – for now, although who knows how long that situation would last? How many of his fellow countrymen were making their way their right now? Eddy took some consolation from the fact his bike allowed him to make swift progress. The travel chaos had infiltrated Britain like a virus, as they had discovered on making landfall – but it was with a warm feeling he reflected back on his brief time with Fenja. She was out of this world, that gal – so utterly other that it blew his mind! There was an aura about here – a fearless freedom, trouble, headfuckery weirdness, whatever – but Eddy found it intoxicating. He was hooked, and going cold turkey seemed less and less appealing.
Eddy pulled over at the brow of the hill. He had reached the English-Scottish border – the bare hills stretched into the grey distant: a kingdom of wind turbines and forestry plantations. He was expecting something more impressive. Border control. Heavy security. Instead, there was just a snack-trailer, portaloo and a sign, covered in stickers and graffiti, saying ‘Welcome to Scotland.’ It was hardly the Tex-Mex crossing.
Eddy looked at the long road ahead – two hundred miles to go to Aberdeen. He could make it by late evening, and catch the first flight in the morning. He’d managed to reserve a seat before he left Italy. He was one of the lucky ones. But then he contemplated a night in an airport terminal, the long flight. The prospect of a real job when he got back… He’d spoken to Bill earlier and he seemed keen for him to start as soon as he got back.
Eddy chewed things over as he devoured a roll, sitting outside the roadside café in his leathers. He’d come so far… A few more hours and he’d be home. His holiday would all be over. What a fuck up it had been!
Well, not quite.
He circled the butt-burn on his palm, smiling fondly. That kiss! And there was the dream. The sigil. Her strange songs. Her dancing. Her way of making things go haywire. That woman had magic!
Then his sister’s nagging came back to him, and beyond that, the chorus of disapproval of his Mom, Sitting Cloud; his father, Magnus; and his grandfather, Running Bear – buzzing in his mind like the midges of Manitoba. All telling him to: sort himself; eat well; man up; or, follow the good Red Road.
Eddy closed his palm, curling it into a fist.
He got onto his bike, fired it up, and turned it back – to the South – shooting off down the road.
Overhead, the glowering skies flashed with a sigil of lightning.
This novel feels eerily relevant even though it was published in 2000. Boyle tragic-comic novel imagines the world in 2025 – one of perpetual Climate Chaos, Biblical deluges, mass extinctions, resource stress, and an endemic breakdown of civilisation. Yet despite this bleak (and all too plausible) scenario, Boyle somehow manages to import some black humour into the situation. The central protagonist is the colourfully named Tyrone O’Shaughnessey Tierwater (mirroring the author’s own Celtic nomenclature), a septuagenarian environmental activist turned glorified zoo keeper for a Mick Jagger-esque super-rich rock star, who has a wish to preserve the unloved species of the planet – the hyenas and other scavengers – within the compounds of his West Coast estate. We find Tierwater drolefully eking out his autumnal years, obsessed with his failing body and lack of sex life, when the arrival of his ex, the deadliest of species, Andrea – a formidable, and still attractive powerhouse – and an annoying tag along, April Wind, who wishes to write the story of Tierwater’s daughter, Sierra: a heroine of the protest movement. The narrative bifurcates at this point – between the dramatic present, told in first person, and the vivid flashbacks, related in close third person. The vignettes from the more reckless, seemingly resource plentiful past, provide an ironic counterpoint; and the accounts of Tierwater’s increasingly reckless direct actions offer a poignant thumb-in-the-dyke to the consequences of a world past tipping point, where the floodwaters rise and no Noah is going to save the animals. The monkeywrenching is comically related, and Boyle’s book consciously picks up the baton of Edward Abbey’s 70’s classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang – updating it with millennial sensibilities. Boyle’s book is filled with brilliantly rendered characters and a vividly-realised, convincingly researched world. Even in the chaotic cascade of it all, one still comes away with a crazy sense of hope, but one tempered by the reality checks of the severity of what we face, and the fallibility of those who must deal with it: the Augean Stables of it all. Time to get out the shovels.
This article was written as a commission for the Doggerland journal – to make it more web-friendly, I will serialize it here in digestible extracts. It’s initial title was ‘Prepping for the Art-apocalypse: creative survival in the Age of Austerity’ but I decided that just fed into the current Neoliberalist, survival-of-the-fittest, paradigm and its predilection for ‘disaster-porn’. I want to offer a more positive approach, although the question I started it with still stands:
In an era of philistine-funding cuts in the arts, corporate-controlled channels of consumerism, and a fear-fuelled conservatism in commissioning and programming, what strategies are available to us to foster artistic survival?
Welcome to the Smeuse-House
The whole is made up of holes. We stitch together our rags and tatters and make something out of nothing. Slowly the picture emerges. Metonymically, to the arrhythmia of the new fin de siècle. Fragments are offered. And we make of them what we will, piecing together a narrative of (all)sorts. The future archivist looks back and sees the crumb-trail, the pioneering projects, the unseen visionaries, the coteries and communities, the salvage-culture sculptors, apocalypso bands, escape artists of an imploding neoliberalism. Those who have found the gap in the hedge and wriggled through. Houdinis of Bewilderland, the artists and poets who wander amongst the ruins of the failed project of civilisation and etch broken songs onto singed codices.
This article was commissioned by Doggerland. An alternative version is available in print form in their latest issue, along with other thought-provoking contributions. Check it out. Available from: http://www.doggerland.info/doggershop
Keep in touch with Doggerland – an inspiring initiative by & for radical artists and writers.
Over the Easter break Jenni and I spent a week staying in a yurt on an organic smallholding on the Roseland Peninsula, South Cornwall. Cotna, just down from the sleepy village of Gorran Churchtown, is nestled in an L-shaped valley which gave it its original name ‘Crookcorner’. Dave and Sara, the owners, moved in five years ago and have transformed the 14 acres – which now boast a wind-turbine, polytunnels full of leafy veg, free-range chickens, woodland, solar panels, compost loos and a rather lovely straw-bale house. We were first visitors to stay in their yurt, sitting in its own field – separated by its twin by a stream and a line of recently planted willow. With a log burner and lots of homely touches, it was cosy in the evenings. We ate outside alot and enjoyed sunsets, a vast field of stars, a full moon, dawn choruses, and deep peace. At night, the only disturbance was the conversation of owls and the odd visit from Ziggy – the dribbling long-haired cat.
In the daytime we enjoyed some excellent coastal walks (the coastal path could be reached along a charming winding path – 2 miles to Porthmellon). Amid the pasties, pints and piskies, one of the highlights was a walk around the headlands of St Antony and Dodman Point – the latter possibly deriving its name from an old word for dowser or geomancer (a ‘dodman’ was a country name for a snail – it’s horns like the siting poles of the surveyor – perhaps glimpsed in the staves of the Long Man of Wilmington). In the late Eighties, local ‘dodmen’ Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller discover the Michael and Mary Line – a substantial energy ‘pathway’ running up the southwest peninsula diagonally across England – the two alternating streams weaving in and out like a vast landscape caduceus… or the Rainbow Serpent of Albion. They recorded their findings in their New Age classic, The Sun and the Serpent – which even spawned a TV show, so media-trendy all that stuff was at the time. The fickle gaze of fashion moves on – and last year’s ‘cat’s pyjamas’ are sloughed like snake skin.
Yet the old leys and ways remain – just below the surface – waiting for the curious seeker to stumble upon them, like an ancient sword half-buried in a peat-bog. In Cornwall, this ancient magic feels close to the surface still. I’ve felt it every time I’ve visited – and books like The Little Country, an enchanting novel by the bardically-inclined Canadian author Charles de Lint – conjure it up for me from afar.
I dowse these ‘dragon lines’ in my own way, with the dowsing rod of my pen and my imagination – tuning into the genius loci wherever I visit and letting the awen come through me. In 2004 I was commissioned to write a poem for a dance piece by artist Beth Townley – this became my epic praise-song to Albion, Dragon Dance. I have been performing this in situ at locations around the country – north, south, east and west – as my way of giving thanks back to the land that has born and nurtured me. On the last day of our trip (an auspicious Friday 13th) we stopped off at the Hurlers stone circle on a suitably mist-erious Bodmin Moor – here I recited the Cornwall section of the poem: quite a challenge in lashing, freezing rain! We endured this in good humour, before returning gratefully to the shelter of the car.
Here it is…
In the heat of the day,
in the eye of light,
in the land of noon,
where the sea is night.
A land of glittering granite,
sun beat-beating down,
a blacksmith’s hammer on anvil,
melting us with furnace heat.
The silent longevity of fogou and quoit
marking time. Neolithic sundials –
follow their shadow over moor and shore…
Tintagel to Men-an-Tol,
rag-tree temple, Madron’s well.
St Michael’s Mount to St Nectan’s Glen
Zennor to Lamorna, this narrow peninsula –
Twrch Trwyth’s road,
where legend disappeared beneath the waves,
comb and scissors gleaming between bristles,
like church pew mermaid with comb and mirror.
Ageless Mabon snatching success
from the ears of defeat,
before vanishing too … like Arthur … into the mist.
The dying sun journeying beyond, to the sunken land.
Lyonesse of the endless waves, the Fortunate Isles,
of beacon towers, inkdust sand, the semaphor of sails.
Deadly Sillina, adorned with the riches of shipwrecks,
the prayers of fishermen, the tears of fishwives.
Passion fire, soul flame yearning,
in the cauldron love is burning.
The spark on the kindling,
the flint and the tinder,
fire friend, stolen power,
seize the spear of the sun,
Long as the day, shadowbright,
give us your light,
give us your light.
give us your light,
so we may do what is right.
Between the earth and the air,
between the fire and the water,
the spirit waits at the centre,
the spirit waits at the centre.
Dance the dragon,
let the dragon dance me.
Biting the tail of infinity.
from Dragon Dance – Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2004
On Monday, 23rd April – which is of course St George’s Day (as well as The Bard’s birth-and-death day) – I’ll be performing in a show with my fellow members of Fire Springs entitled ‘Spirits of Place’ at the enchanting Hawkwood College (which has its own share of genius loci) on the outskirts of Stroud. We’ll be sharing a selection of stories from Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire – taken from our new collections published by The History Press. Mine isn’t due out until the end of the year, but while in Cornwall I was editing the manuscript and rehearsing the tales – so it felt like I had a little bit of the county with me. It has it’s fair share of dragon tales…
Whatever you think of St George (England’s patron saint – all the way from Cappadocia, Turkey…) why not raise a glass to the dragons of Albion on Monday – may they continue to live on, in legend at least.
On Wednesday I took part in an inspiring event in Frome – the Web of Life Community Art Project, part of the Frome Festival. I travelled down with my fellow performers from Stroud and we navigated our way to the backstreets of the charming Wiltshire town to find the Sun Street Chapel – beautifully transformed by curator and eco-poet Helen Moore and her team of artists and volunteers. In each of the corners was an altar dedicated to four elements and themes based upon The Work That Reconnects of Joanna Macy. The centre piece was a purple coffin decorated with icons of extinct species. The previous Saturday an ‘artistic funeral‘ was held in the town – with a procession in masks up St Catherine’s Hill, which culminated in a service led by Charles in the chapel.
The majority of performers were part of ‘The Rolling Tyger Revue’ – a loose affiliation of poets, musicians and storytellers who take their inspiration from the life and work of the Bard of Lambeth, William Blake. Niall McDevitt introduced the evening with a triptych of Blake songs – accompanied by the ‘Flies’ or ‘Flyettes’ as his impromptu backing vocalists called themselves (John Gibbens and Amorel Weston, who performed later as The Children). Next, John impressed everyone by reciting a small set of poems from memory. Helen Moore followed with an impassioned performance, accompanied at times by her partner, Niall. Jay Ramsay finished off the first half with a similarly heartfelt performance, ably assisted by Herewood Gabriel on flute, djembe and ballaphon – hypnotic and haunting.
After the break I was on – and I decided to throw in a story for contrast – my Garden of Irem tale – a strategy that seemed to pay off. Then I performed my Breaking Light poem – as the focus of the evening (for me) was Awen’s eco-spiritual anthology, ‘Soul of the Earth’. Afterwards, I was able to relax with a glass of wine and listen to Niall’s set; followed by the ever-dazzling Rose Flint; and finishing off with a sublime set from The Children. It was an impressive line-up and the attention to detail in the exhibition was exquisite – the chapel felt re-sanctified, restored as a place of worship dedicated to Mother Earth and all her children.
Just back from three days in Avalon – Scythe Fair today, book launch yesterday and storytelling show on Friday (which was actually in Taunton, but it was called ‘Otherworlds’ so I’m including it!).
Friday afternoon Richard and I made our way down in the sun to Taunton – where we had a gig at the Brewhouse. We compiled an anthology show called ‘Otherworlds’ – I did a couple of stories from hotter climes (Al-Andalus; Yemen) and an Irish myth. Richard did stories from Scotland,
Ireland and ‘the fifth quarter’ – Romney Marsh. The set seemed to complement and flow well – but we could have done with a few more. We were competing with a squaddie dance company in the main auditorium – clearly more to Tauntonian taste (or perhaps it was the footie and the sun). Still the venue was impressive, felt well-received by our small but appreciative audience (‘absolutely brilliant!’) and had an enjoyable jolly. We sank a couple of well-earned beers (‘Wayland Smithy from the White Horse Brewery) when we got back. It was good to be doing some pro-storytelling again (last time was Italy).
Launching The Way of Awen at Cat & Cauldron, Glastonbury
The next day I prepared for my big book launch at the Cat & Cauldron in Glasto that afternoon. I enjoyed riding down to Avalon on my Triumph Legend with a box of books on the back. It promised to be a special night and it didn’t disappoint. We had a decent turn-out at Trevor and Liz’s shop – the launch had been timed to coincide with the OBOD bash in Town Hall. When I launched the companion volume, The Bardic Handbook, four years ago at Gothic Image we had a great turn out – with the late John Michell; Philip Carr-Gom; Ronald Hutton; and Michael Dames turning up (it turned out they were in town for the OBOD bash which I didn’t know was on – afterwards I was invited along – so I organised this one to synchronise).
The Bard and the Druid - Philip Carr-gom pops in to my book launch
Making it feel like full circle was having the first Bard of Glastonbury, Tim Hall, there who kindly played a mini-set, as he had done at my launch in 2006. It created a lovely atmosphere.
Tim Hall plays at my launch, Cat & Cauldron, Glastonbury - with friends Amber & Phil
I introduced the book and read out a small selection of poems, which were well received. There were some good questions and the vibe was good. I left with only a couple of copies of the book – one of which I gave to Ronald Hutton and Ana Adnoch when I bumped into them at the OBOD gathering. It was great to go there afterwards, as a guest – launching a book 20 years in the making deserves a good knees up! Thanks to Philip I also got my friends, Nigel and Karola, in as well. We got ourselves a plate of food and enjoyed the bardic entertainment. Ended up having a dance with my old Dutch friend Eva – who I met on Glastonbury Tor one solstice twenty years ago! Bid farewell to my friend Nigel and staggered back to Amanda’s yurt, which she had kindly offered me for the night. My friend Karola had the short straw – sharing with me – and having to put up with wine-induced snoring but we’re good friends and she didn’t kick me once!
a Legend by the Tor
The next morning, after a much needed full monty (breakfast) and walk up the Tor, I went to the Green Scythe Fair in deepest Zummerset – riding passed scores of bikers on classic bikes out for a blat heading in the other direction, and hamlets with names like Little Gurning, I finally found the site – a campsite called Thorney Lakes near a village called Mulcheney Ham. It was only a fiver to get in – and you got free tea and cake if you came on a bike – I tried my luck but didn’t convince the lady in the tea tent (who had come down on a Bonnie). I bumped into folk and bimbled about, enjoying the ambience. You felt like you were breathing in carbon credits just walking about. It’s a very positive event with lots of green solutions – alternative fuel, food, housing, clothing, education – as well as being relaxed, picturesque (and picaresque) and just the right size. If it had a theme tune it’d be ‘Heavy Horses’ by Jethro Tull. It was very Hardy-esque and felt like something you’d expect to see Gabriel Oak at. There were scything championships – all very serious stuff (involving plenty of liquid preparation). Competitors carefully whetted their blades and assessed the quality of the grass. There were lots of wonderful craft stalls, info tents and music – including my friends Tim Hall and the Architypes (sic), who performed on Sangers fabulous horse-drawn solar-powered stage. There were bands with names like ‘Bag o’ Rats’ – who played ‘psychedelic folk’ to a good-natured crowd mellow on zider. There was plenty of fresh grass cuttings for kids to play with – and it kept them amused for hours (a Battle Royale grass fight; several grass burials took place). The sky had been darkly ominous all afternoon (a bit Bergman-esque with the reapers hanging around – as though waiting for a game of chess with Max Von Sydow). At one point the heavens opened and I found myself standing under a gazebo in a sandpit to stay dry. A rainbow came out soon after. After a suitably drunken delay (a missing cup) the scything champion was announced (4th year in a row) and the MC said the standard was so high he was confident we were now ‘ready for Europe’ – though the World Cup and Olympics might have to wait. I made my way back soon after – glad to get back after a fine weekend away.
I though the magic would be over with a stack of OU marking facing me Monday morning, but then a call from my friend Helen at midday meant I ended up going on a lovely trip down the river Avon to celebrate her birthday (‘life’s too short,’ she said, and she’s right – carpe deum!). We found a sunny spot to stop for a fabulous picnic. I read out some of my poetry, including ‘Let Love Be Our River’, and on the way back recited some Elizabeth Barratt Browning and Thomas the Rhymer as the ladies rowed (they insisted after us guys had rowed on the way out). It was all very Wind in the Willows. Very relaxing!
As a nation Britain doesn’t cope very well with snow. A few flakes and everything grinds to a halt. We react like headless chickens. My Finnish and Icelandic friends think its rather amusing. Their countries regularly cope with subzero temperatures – sometimes as low as -30 or 40, yet they get by. Humans have for millennia. Our neolithic ancestors coped with such climate better than we can, here in the Twenty First Century, with all our technology – and lack of wisdom. I believe its largely an attitude thing – we get into a ‘chicken little’ state of mind. Of course, cold weather can bring hardship to the weak, the old, the vulnerable. It can make any journey risky. It can have a devastating effect on wildlife (remember to feed the birds!). When you’re freezing in a flat that you can’t afford to heat, or can’t get to the shops to by more food, or haven’t even a roof over your head it’s no laughing matter. Snow can bring tragedy as well as beauty. It gives us unexpected time-off, to play in the snow, to spend with loved ones, to be as children again – but it can prevent us from earning money, from making a living. In a time of Recession many peoples’ incomes are on a knife-edge as it is. A couple of weeks lost work could be the straw that breaks the camels back.
This last week or two I’ve had my nose to the grindstone – marking papers, running my tutor groups, planning the year and attending to the minutiae of life – but at least I can work from home (okay until you have a burst pipe or a power cut – I’ve had both).
Last night I started my new novel writing class – it was scheduled to be held at Bath Central Library from 6pm. I had booked the meeting room. I had 8 students make it. But then the staff at reception informed the library was closing early – all B&NES staff had been told to go home early. This was rather annoying – I had rung earlier in the day and checked: I was informed that a member of staff would be there until the end of our session. I suggested we decamp to the Green Tree, for at least a chat – but then a partner of one of the students kindly offered a spare room. Our workshop was back on! We left the library and made our way through the ‘blizzard’ – it wasn’t even snowing at that point. See what I mean by ‘headless chickens’? The new venue turned out to be the basement of a bookshop – I had run courses there before as it turned out – perfect! The session went well – a good group. I wish them all well on the writer’s journey – they have taken the brave step of embarking on writing a novel, which I liken to walking across antarctic.
On Monday, there was the first meeting of the Imagineers – artists interested in creative responses to the twin challenges of Peak Oil and Climate Change. It came about after a workshop by eco-poet and fellow Bard of Bath, Helen Moore’s workshop of the same name at The Big Transition Bath Event, last autumn at BRLSI. We decided to meet up and share our thoughts and initiatives. All we can do is keep creating. Apathy leads to oblivion.
Smallcombe in the snow - early Jan '10 KM
Here’s my poem – composed on 7th January – inspired by a walk in the snow.
The Sound of Snow
falling on snow.
A deepening silence.
The city is still,
of their incessant freight.
Trees, shuddering in the wind,
exfoliate ice blossom.
There’s probably a word,
in a culture accustomed
and observant of its nuances,
for this kind of snow.
over softer layers –
a cake of ground glass –
impossible to roll
into a snow torso,
like making dough
Churned up by
the moulds of dog noses,
bird feet runes.
like some cheap special effect.
To find a snow-field
unmarked by man –
to be the first
to place one’s foot
on virgin regions.
To make one’s mark
and to know it is
loss of definition.
Not to follow
in the blurred footfalls of others,
but to be the pioneer,
One foot after another
into freshly fallen flakes.
Boot soundlessly slipping
into the place waiting for it.
Walking on angel down.
No one around.
except your own.
Nothing to listen to
the sound of snow
falling on snow.
from The Immanent Moment,
published by Awen
to be launched at Garden of Awen, Chapel Arts Centre, Bath 7 Feb 2010
The-End-of-the-World-as-we-know-it Show - coming to a planet near you
According to the many news stories and articles about Climate Chaos, the future, it seems, has already happened. The carbon in the air will increase by so much, sea levels will rise by this amount, so many species will become extinct, so many hectares of rainforest will be razed to the ground, the Arctic ice-shelf will melt and major cities will be inundated. You can almost hear the doom-mongerers rubbing their hands in glee. Just like in one of those 1950s Sci-Fi movies, which echoed humanities nuclear night terrors, the boffins declare: ‘…climate change is a threat to civilisation as we know it*.’
Something can be learned from those wonderfully garish retro warnings ‘from the future’ – they confirmed a generation’s worst nightmares, but also sold popcorn and made your date hold onto you tighter. Scary movies got you laid. And somehow the human race continued. The world didn’t end, only the Cold War.
Yet in the cold light of our 21st Century dawn, it is undeniable that ‘something is rotten in the State of Denmark’. As McKibben said in Ecologist (Feb ’07): ‘The Something Bad is here’. Reality has become a Spielberg movie. Are we going to procrastinate like the fatally-flawed Prince Hamlet, until the polar bears become extinct – white-furred Ophelias, floating away, drowned in the ice-melt, no place like home?
Are we going to give up? Or are we going to do something about it?
Denial is not a river in Egypt
ignoring the problem won't make it go away...
The publication of the 700 page Stern Report on October 30 2006 stated the cold facts: ‘Business as usual is the economics of genocide.’ It hit the fat cats where it hurt, in their pockets. Basically, it makes quite clear denial is not an option. Stick your head in the sand and it’ll cost more in the long-run. Industry has to act. Going green is now di rigeur – greenwash is this economic cycle’s en vogue colour. Anyone in the market-place with products or services to hawk is now bending over backwards to be seen as green, even if it’s cosmetic green spin. Slap a worthy Fairtrade or Soil Association seal of approval on it and it’ll sell – consumerism with a conscience. Carry on shopping without the world stopping. But a more worrying trend has been noted by George Monbiot, in his Guardian column (30 Oct. ‘06) says: ‘There is one position even more morally culpable than denial. That is to accept that it’s happening and that its results will be catastrophic, but to fail to take the measures needed to prevent it.’ The denialists have become nihilists. Before it was ‘Climate Change is natural – it’s not me, guv,’; to ‘Climate Change is happening, it is my fault – but we’re doomed anyway, so I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing until it all goes tits up’. This is a kind of suicide that dooms us all – eco-cultural suicide bombing in the form of a 4wheel drive and a short-haul habit.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire
The apocalyptic warnings of the 1950s, a culture having atomic kittens, seem to have come true, but in a way unforeseen by Beatnik Cassandras. The classic British doom-movie, Val Guest’s intensely atmospheric 1961 film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, appears, in hindsight, to be the most on the money, and was eerily echoed in real newspaper headlines when both the Stern Report came out (‘The Day That Changed the Climate’, The Independent, 31 October 2006) and then the IPCC report (‘Final Warning’, front page of The Independent, 3 February 2007): life mirroring art mirroring life – because the film is set and filmed in actual Fleet Street offices… In it, the Earth is jolted eleven degrees off-kilter by Russian and American nuclear testing – ‘Cold War’ brinkmanship ironically causing the planet to heat up… Well, we’ve discovered it’ll only take six degrees in the rise of the Global Average Temperature to fry the planet (as recorded in the IPCC report). So perhaps the actual day ‘the Earth caught fire’ could be recorded as being 2 February 2007 – when Climate Chaos became ‘official’, and the denialists had to finally concede that ‘human activity is the probable cause’ of Global Warming. The 2001 IPCC Report was humanity’s yellow card, the latest one is the red.
Six Degrees to Devastation
Most accept that a two degree rise in the Global Average Temperature is now inevitable – and at only 2.4° ‘coral reefs [become] almost extinct’ and a ‘third of all species on the planet face extinction’. But that’s the ‘best case scenario’. According to the IPCC 2007 report, the ‘worst case scenario’ is a global average temperature rise of +6.4°: Most of Life is Exterminated – it would be hard to imagine a worse case scenario:
‘…methane fireballs tear across the sky… Deserts extend almost to the Arctic… “Hypercanes” … circumnavigate the globe, causing flash floods which strip the land of soil. Humanity reduced to a few survivors eking out a living in polar refugees. Most of life has been snuffed out, as temperatures rise higher than for millions of years. (The Independent, 3 Feb. ‘07)
Basically, it seems, humanity is toast. Some would say we had it coming. Tell that to the billions of frightened people out there, to the mothers and babies, to the children staring accusingly at us, the future-killers, from behind their mothers’ skirts. It’s hard being smug when confronted with innocent blood on your hands – a Herod-like Climate Massacre. Don’t drive off in your Chelsea Tractor, looking the other way. No amount of soap will wash your Pilate hands clean.
Smoke and Mirrors
Things are not what they seem
Although George W finally conceded there may be something in the ‘Smoking Exhaust’ theory, his doomed administration came up with a typically dumb-ass solution: let’s build solar mirrors to reflect all of those nasty sunbeams. Then we won’t have to curb our carbon habit. The Dubya solution to the Greenhouse Effect – paint the panes of glass silver. Never mind the tomatoes. Another solution is to scatter microscopic sulphate droplets into the stratosphere to mimic the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption – coming soon to a sky near year: Nuclear Winter: the Final Solution from the Carbon Nazis. The IPCC said such ideas were ‘speculative, uncosted and with potential unknown side-effects’ (The Guardian, 27 Jan. ‘07). It seems they just don’t get it in their reductionist Lego version of reality, playing with life’s building blocks: tamper with one thing and you entertain the possibility of affecting everything else. Haven’t they heard of the Butterfly Effect? Ol’ ‘happy goat’ Dubya sneezes and the world catches cold. Beyond that, it seems just another ludicrous ‘Star Wars’ propaganda ploy. The Sovs fell for that one – will we fall for ‘Space Mirrors’ – beaming atcha from ‘Moonlanding Studios’?
The Biodiversity of Culture
Saving the planet means also saving the texture of life (as celebrated in books like Common Ground’s England-in-Particular, Clifford and King, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006). We can’t all be eco-warriors. We should do what we’re best at to prevent cultural mass extinction. Otherwise, what are we fighting to preserve? A planet without human biodiversity?
It may seem redundant or indulgent now to do anything other than join Greenpeace and throw ourselves in the sea in front of whaling vessels and oil tankers, but however inspiring and awareness-raising such direct action is, we can’t all be so intrepid. Some-one has to keep society going – otherwise there won’t be any ‘civilisation’ to save.
So carry on writing poetry, painting, making music, making love, singing in a choir, supporting the school-play or local theatre, creating ‘meaningless acts of art’, morris-dancing, even stamp collecting – for it is the minutiae of life that things are at their most intense. Like the countless bug specialists, fungi specialists, lichen specialists, etc, if we don’t have those with expert knowledge and, yes, even amateur enthusiasm, for such things, then such precious detail will slip through the net.
And if we don’t care, then who will?
Like the Australian Aborigines, each with their Dreamtime animal they and there tribe are responsible for, we are all stewards of the planet, of its exquisite detail. It is a big place, and the level of complexity and abundance is overwhelming, but if we all focus in on one or two things, then we can pretty much just about cover everything. Everyone has their anorak. Perhaps the geek shall inherit the Earth. Super-Anorak may save the day, but of course we have to be holistic – look over our parapet, the ghetto of our particular specialism. Join the dots. See the bigger picture. It’s all about Paying Attention – perhaps that’s what we are here for. Humans are proud to think of themselves as the only (apparently) self-conscious beings on this planet, but perhaps we are here to be conscious of the Earth – and its conscience.
The Last One to Leave, Turn Out the Light
The 1951 SF film When Worlds Collide (a new Spielberg-produced version was released in 2008, merrily cashing in on ‘apocalypse fever’) foreshadowed the Ark mentality worryingly prevalent in contemporary Space scientist circles – who seem to be looking ‘anywhere but here’ to save humanity. This Noah attitude – ‘God’s given us the nod and the wink, so let’s get out of here’ – is perhaps the result of Western Christian hard-wiring: we’re brainwashed from our first day at our State-funded ‘Faith School’ that the End is Nigh, and only the Chosen Few will be saved, whether in an Infidel-free Paradise or WASP Heaven. It’s giving up the ghost. It’s pie-in-the-sky. Salvation is elsewhere, God is elsewhere – the grass is greener on Uranus. And the huge waste of resources, and vast amounts of pollution caused by phallic-symbol rockets going up into Space, penetrating, in a puny way, its ineffable Mystery, doesn’t exactly help things. It’s not re-arranging the deck-chairs on a White Star Liner, it’s dynamiting the hull, puncturing all the life-jackets and hogging all the life-boats. It would be Douglas-Adams-funny, if it wasn’t so deadly serious. The Vogon fleet is on its way, and they are practising their poetry.
Between Venus and Mars
As Adams said, space is big. Very big. It’s a lonely universe out there, as far as we know. We live on the ‘third rock from the sun’, luckily. Our number came up in the ‘Thunderball’ of Creation. An incredible chain of ‘happy accidents’ led to life on Earth being here. We haven’t found any anywhere else, yet – however high the possibility. In an infinite universe all things are possible. But until we find other life-sustaining planets, planets with the essential criteria for life (water being the main one) we live on a knife’s edge: ‘On dead planet’s such as Venus and Mars, CO2 makes up most of the atmosphere, and it would do so here if living things and Earth’s processes did not keep it within bounds’, (Flannery, The Weather Makers, p5) but this delicate balance is in danger of becoming undone by Man’s carbon habit. It seems we need to find a balance between these two extremes: we need compassion and focussed energy, the feminine and the masculine to solve this fix we’re in: a chymical wedding on a grand scale. It is telling that men are obsessed about going to Mars, on a symbolic level. Venus is too hot and toxic of course, but no one talks of missions to the planet of love – it’s what the world needs now, as the song goes, let’s face it, not more aggressive energy.
War of the Worlds
No One Would Believe...
In the face of over-whelming evidence that we have doomed our planet, that positively negative feedback loops are already kicking in, which will spiral out of control even if we do curtail our Carbon-habit, it is all too easy, and perhaps understandable to give up, to think: ‘Ah, sod it – the planet is screwed anyway. Party on, dude!’ But this is not only a risible Clarksonesque attitude (what will the boys with toys do when the oil runs out?) but pathetically defeatist: Texan sandsuckers and their ilk are the true ‘surrender monkeys’!
The other extreme can be found in the New Age movement, where people under pyramidal frames chanting from their yoni chakras await the Mayan apocalypse in 2012: the next millennial enema. ‘It’s all part of the big plan, man. Karmic – like African famine; those AIDs babies. Just ride it out. And buy some decent shades for the end-of-the-world show, as you chase eclipses around the planet, farting greenhouse gases.’
An analogy: imagine if planet Earth was invaded by a belligerent form of extra-terrestrial (bug-eyed aliens with laser beams!). Okay, not an original concept: HG Wells did a pretty good job. But let’s pretend it actually happens. They land; they fry the welcoming committee, consisting of the Dalai Lama, Hilary Clinton, Prince Charles, Robbie Williams and Jordan. Then they start razing cities with their death-ray. The lucky ones make it to the hills, or go underground. Survivalist fantasy time – your chance to grow a beard, wear army fatigues, eat cold beans out of tin, drive a land-rover at high-speed through empty shopping malls, and wield a shotgun like an iron dick. Would you go to them waving a white flag made from your Save the Whale T-shirt, as they strut across the burning fields, like giant angle-poise lamps with bunsen burner eyes, and say: ‘I surrender?’ Only to be turned into fertiliser. Or are you going to fight until the bitter end, until your dying breath? Fight for humanity, for the dream of civilisation, for the achievements of our ancestors, the hope of our children? Are you going to ‘fight them on the beaches’ with everything you’ve got, or are you going to let them win, and watch the whole history of the world go up in flames, and the human race become extinct? I know what I would do, however long I would or wouldn’t survive in such a scenario. In his foreword to Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers (Allen Lane 2005), *Robert Purves, WWF President Australia, says: ‘If we are to win the war on climate change we must all be part of the fight.’
If we fight to preserve from extinction endangered species – because they matter, in terms of the ecosystem they are part of, and because it would be an insult to millions of years to do otherwise (imagine spending a lifetime painting your masterpiece only to have some philistine thug put his DMs through it: now multiply that by many lifetimes, by millennia – are we going to be the thugs of Creation?) – if we agree that all life is sacred, then that includes us. We are part of the biodiversity of this planet and deserve protecting and fighting for as well. Don’t let those ‘alien’ genociders win! Start stock-piling those beans now – maybe not, methane is enough of a problem as it is… Not good in a bunker. Better still, get out of that frigging bunker, and that tyrant-downfall mindset. Do you want to be caught lice-ridden in a rat-hole, when Armageddon comes, by God in his Stars and Stripes boxers, playing Hendrix’s ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ on his Hummer sound system? Do you want to stand trial with Clarkson and his cohorts for crimes against the planet? And have you last moments videoed on someone’s mobile, as you do the gallows’ twitch?
This Island Earth
The future is unwritten. No one can say exactly what is going to happen. Even Flannery admits ‘…science is about hypotheses, not truths, and no one can absolutely know the future,’ (The Weather Makers, p7). Climate Scientists scry into the swirling orb of their climate models like fortune tellers. I do not doubt for one second the rigour of their prognostications: climate science is what is says on the tin: science, not tea-leaf reading.
And yet why should we have such faith in their ability to predict the future – aren’t Sir David King types the modern equivalent of the augurers, reading entrails in front of the Roman Temple, telling us what we want to know, or what the powers-that-be want us to think? Science is modern magic. We have (mostly) complete faith in it. Until its orthodoxy is over-turned by the next paradigm-shift. Received wisdoms are there to be challenged and, when proven false, destroyed. The Flat Earths of the present become the Spheres of tomorrow. The Reds-under-the-bed prove to be in our head. Martians won’t attack after all – although radio-listeners thought they were going to when Orson Wells broadcast his version of War of the Worlds in the Thirties, causing panic. Not that Climate Chaos isn’t genuine. But a Culture of Fear is intentionally disempowering: frightened people are easier to prey on – to go ‘boo!’ too. They jump when you want them to. Y2K, WMDs, Anthrax in the post, Bird Flu, Swine Flu … the bogeyman keeps coming to get you, but does he ever really arrive? Climate Chaos is a fact that won’t go away – but as with terrorism, caused by individuals, cells or states, if we let them scare us, they have won. Let Climate Chaos paralyse you into inaction – like the sleep-paralysis when you awake in the night because of some ‘bump’, too terrified to move – and it has defeated you.
Always remember: the human creature, with its amazing imagination, its ingenuity, its resourcefulness and adaptability, could quite possibly rise to the occasion. Surprise destiny. Not necessarily with a techno-fix, Branson’s £24m miracle carbon-burner or equivalent (carbon credits are modern day ‘indulgences’ – like medieval pilgrims, we can choose to pay a ‘guilt-tax’ to off-set our carbon-sin – the fact remaining, each flight pumps more CO2 into the air and takes the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight. Plant more trees, for sure, but better still – don’t make carbon skid-marks in the sky in the first place. Do you really need that last minute cheap flight to Malaga?) but with a shift of attitude. With an act of collective will, anything is possible. If politicians don’t take the initiative (and I don’t mean jetting to some glacier to ‘find out about Climate Change’ in some spurious ‘hug a husky’ publicity stunt) then we will anyway, with or without them. Eventually the general public will be forced to changed, through lack of oil, dry land, clean water – but, of course, sooner is better. Wait until the flood-waters or climate refugees are at your door and it’ll be too late. Don’t wait for fate to come and find you – go out there and face it. Be bold.
The future is a challenge. Let’s rise to it – a human ‘rising tide’, to counter the tide of indifference. This is what we are here for. It’s up to us. No one else.
The future is in our hands. Make it happen, don’t wait for it to happen.
As Gore and others have suggested, this is a moral choice. And Monbiot emphasises this: ‘Climate change is not just a moral question: it is the moral question of the 21st century.’ Whatever decision we make – even no decision is still a decision – will be on our conscience, and will be remembered by future generations. Flannery concludes his influential book with the home truth: ‘We know enough to act wisely’.
Ignorance is not an excuse anymore
To leave you with Klaatu’s warning from The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise 1951): “Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration…the decision is yours.”