In the Age of Fire: Dark Mountain issue 15

The fifteenth issue of Dark Mountain gathers voices from across the globe who are experiencing the shock of a new state of emergency living in this ‘age of fire’. They speak of what it feels like to be alive in these times, what stories can guide our path through the flames, and what might arise from their ashes.

I was privileged to be one of the editors for the book as well as a contributor. You can read my piece ‘Power Lines’ below. It’s set in the Marshwood Vale in Dorset, of course.

I recommend reading the other pieces as well – particularly Dougald Hine’s ‘After We Stop Pretending’ about Extinction Rebellion. He says: ‘those whose willingness to act endures the longest are not the activists who are motivated by outcome, who need to be given hope and to believe in their chances of success, but the ones who are motivated by doing the right thing. It’s the first time I can remember seeing a call to action which explicitly invites people to go into despair… Roger speaks about “the dark night of the soul”, the need to move through the darkness rather than avoid it. This is a call to rebellion that is framed in the language and draws on the traditions of mysticism.’

You can buy Dark Mountain 15: In the Age of Fire online here.

POWER LINES by Sara Hudston

A foggy morning, early. Seen from above, the Marshwood Vale is a bowl filled with shifting heaps of whipped meringue. The haze hides hedges, trees and lanes. Only the pylons poke through, looped together with high-voltage cable, stomping westwards across Dorset into Devon. A spur zings up to Hinkley Point, where the nuclear reactor squats on the pink-grey mud of the Bristol Channel.

Under the mist blanket, down in the Vale, I walk in luminous vapour, shot through by the new-risen sun. A man died here one morning in the mid-1960s, one of the crew building the power lines. He fell from a high girder and broke his neck.

My dog bounds over wet grass, following a ragged hedgeline of over-grown field maple, blackthorn and hazel. He’s scenting deer tracks in the dew. I stump behind, conscious of the hard, bone-breaking clay under-foot. It’s been a long drought and the pasture is lumpy and unyielding, rebutting my boots.

We’re going to the pond. It stayed full all through the dry summer, fed by a seeping spring below. The sides are steep and shady, fenced with barbed wire and sheep netting. Mature oak and ash trees grow down to the edge, their roots deep in black loam. It’s not a place for children to play.

The autumn sun is rising directly behind the pond trees, projecting misty beams through their branches, creating an orb of light. I can see this globe in three-dimensions, nestling in the twigs and sending out fiery rainbows as it shifts and dazzles. It’s there. Not a hallucination, not something you need to use make-believe to see.

‘Ah,’ thinks my brain, neurons firing, ‘beautiful. Look how the sunlight refracting through suspended water droplets in the mist has created a marvellous illusion, a natural hologram.’

And then I’m not exactly sure what to do next. I have identified and explained the spectacle, I’ve appreciated its beauty for a few moments and now, to be completely honest, it’s getting a bit boring. So I open up the camera app on my phone and take some photos. Perhaps I can capture the experience. Then I can post it on Instagram! I’m behaving like those 18th-century tourists who went all the way to the Lake District and stood with their backs to the mountains so they could view the scenery nicely framed in tinted hand-mirrors.

I feel mildly ashamed and tell myself that photos will document the sight and help me remember – as if the thing itself were somehow not memorable enough.

The photos, of course, are hopeless. They don’t show the 3D effect, the glistening, nuclear power of the sun projecting itself and burning up the mist. It’s merely some trees and a smallish blob of light. I have documented what I saw and rationalised its causes. What more is there?

‘A tree filled with angels’

As a child, the poet William Blake saw ‘a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough with stars.’ Evidence of a strong imagination, possibly mental instability; why not a plain account of what was there in front of him? He saw angels and the face of God because he cherished his inner vision. At the age of nine he was already weaving powerful legends. If I shared Blake’s cosmology, his inner sense of meaning, might I have seen something similarly remarkable?

What would others have seen? People have lived in this part of Dorset for thousands of years. There was a Roman garrison at Waddon Hill and perhaps a shrine where the church now stands. Before the Romans came, Iron Age Celts built forts here on the borderland between the Durotriges and Dumnonii tribes. They practised elaborate burials, interring individuals with bronze hand mirrors engraved with flowing patterns, coiling like river currents. A thousand or so years earlier still, someone dropped and lost a polished stone axe head a couple of fields away from where I am standing. Then it was a damp, woodland wilderness. Further back again, Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers left scatterings of carefully worked flint tools.

These people bequeathed evidence of a fertile, symbolic life. Looking through their eyes, perhaps they would have seen more than I did. They could have observed the same thing as me and anchored it to a wider meaning. How feeble and washed out my response was in comparison to the past – when people lived as part of Nature, in tune with its wonders!

‘We are out of tune’

But I’m kidding myself if I think that. My melancholia is not new. It’s part of a grieving that has been going on for 200 years or more. Blake was born and grew up in London, aware of its ‘marks of weakness, marks of woe.’ And I’m not the first to stand ‘on this pleasant lea,’ and wish for ‘glimpses that would make me less forlorn’. In his sonnet ‘The World Is Too Much With Us’ William Wordsworth, the man who loved daffodils, lamented his lack of response to the living world: ‘For this, for everything, we are out of tune;/It moves us not.’

Both Wordsworth and Blake were writing during the industrial revolution. They witnessed the fires of industry (Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’) destroying green land rich in natural life. In their day, the contrast between the country and the city was profound. Some conservationists and ecologists (Colin Tubbs, for example) think that British farmland reached its maximum biodiversity in the late 18th century. Shaped by generations of non-mechanised, non-chemical agricultural practices, the countryside provided niches for large numbers of specialised species.

That biodiversity is lost and we are bereft. After more than two centuries of combustion, our environment is cityscape, frayed edgeland and empty countryside. The emptiness of the countryside is not the same as the sense of remoteness felt in an intact natural ecosystem. Places like the Marshwood Vale are of officially labelled ‘tranquil’ and ‘remote’ by Natural England but they thrum with human activity. You probably won’t see anyone, but you’ll hear distant traffic noise, the electric hum from dairy sheds, a bass rumble of out-of-sight farm machinery, sizzling power lines, the whine of a chainsaw, passenger jets overhead and the occasional tree- shaking crump of low-flying helicopters. At night the big farms are lit up like football practice pitches. Yes, it’s green, yes there are woods, yes there are still many acres of it all, but much of the wildlife is gone, burned out by our deployment of all that buzzing energy – a disturbance that reaches down into the soil itself, scalded with strong chemicals. The farms have never been so crudely productive.

We have done this with no foresight, without paying the least attention to possible consequences. At the beginning, industrialisation made life better for some of us; we lived longer and in more comfort. When evidence emerged about the despoliation we were causing, we refused to believe it. That refusal is part of our dismissal of death. I think that many Western people don’t really believe that they will ever die, even though they know the evidence says they will. Few of us have witnessed a human death. We see it as an event that happens out of sight to foolish or unlucky individuals who let themselves get old or sick.

Two years ago my mother-in-law died. She was in her mid-seventies and had chronic pulmonary disorder, probably caused by years of working in offices and factories where other people smoked, and by living a relatively sedentary, indoor life of locked windows, fumes and furnishings. I visited her in hospital when she was gravely ill. She was in a high dependency unit and the doctors said there was little they could do. Yet there was a scared relief in her eyes when she told me about her emergency admittance.

‘I thought I was a goner in the ambulance!’ she exclaimed.

She spoke as if she’d had a narrow escape but normality had now been restored. Over the next couple of days, she was frightened by her powerlessness but gave no indication she realised that her end was approaching, or was even possible. Her attention was on inessentials. She ticked off one of her sons for not ironing his shirt before he visited. She didn’t want to put her disabled husband to the bother of seeing her – there was plenty of time for that. When I last saw her (and when her husband of more than 50 years finally did visit), she could no longer speak. All her energy was taken in writhing and twisting as she fought to breathe. In the end, her sons had to accept the consultant’s advice to remove her ventilator. She died shortly afterwards. Outwardly, her final hours seemed peaceful as she slept calmly, full of pain-killing morphine, her sons at her bedside. But I am haunted by the thought that she only realised she was dying when she could no longer communicate, and that this understanding, so long repelled and disbelieved, came as a terrible surprise.

‘Lives saved’ never ‘deaths postponed’

Western culture was founded on faith in cures (if only for the soul rather than the body) and the Christian miracle of the resurrection. Few of us now believe in Christianity but we have not lost faith in the promise of endless life. We tend to imagine that science and ‘healthy living’ can avoid death. Medical breakthroughs are always reported in terms of ‘lives saved’, never ‘deaths postponed’. When people cease seeing their own lives as fragile and impermanent, it becomes much harder to believe in the more abstract concept of species death. And however difficult it is to admit that your personal actions contribute to ecocide, it’s even tougher to accept responsibility for the actions of others as well, especially if we decide they are bad people. But unless we accept collective responsibility and act together, nothing can be changed deeply enough to help. I argue that climate change and habitat destruction are not caused only by those bad people over there, that we wrongly imagine are somehow quite different from us good, sensitive types over here. This includes those with great wealth and power who are deliberately working against change even though they know this is an emergency. Any ‘othering’ of them is an evasion of our own nature. As Wendell Berry writes in his essay ‘Think Little’: ‘A protest meeting on the issue of environmental abuse is not a convocation of accusers, it is a convocation of the guilty.’

The British environmental activist Mark Cocker uses the same Berry quote in the final chapter of Our Place. He writes that in ‘the 20th century, the British drained their landscape of wildlife, otherness, meaning, cultural riches and hope.’

Is that why I stand by the pond, looking at a miracle, and wonder what to do? I know how denuded this environment has become. And yet, I have reacted. There is still something there, even in the numbness and grieving. These lines you are reading came out of that moment. They were sparked by the interaction of trees, pond, sunlight and mist.

To respond and to communicate while knowing that we are dying – that has always been the human condition. To honour our elders and those who came before us, even as we know that their time has passed. To understand the tradition we work within, but also to be true to the here and now. To find ways of expressing it so that meaning can be shared and at least a handful of embers passed on. That’s our task.

This piece was first published in Dark Mountain 15. The drawing of an oak tree is by Gary Cook from Shaftesbury. Called ‘Donhead Oak (1588), it’s done in ink, charcoal and watercolour on paper.

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