still dumb as stones about whole universes inside

I wrote this post for the Transition Social Reporting project’s book review week on the 12th July 2012. You can see the original here.

I don’t do holidays or holiday reading, although I might feel the need to this year, as our living room is gradually turning into a book and media distribution centre.

dark_mountain_cover_image-22-634x1024_illustration-124x200Over the next month or so all three Dark Mountain Project books (numbering over a thousand) will be delivered here where they will sit (be stacked) in boxes alongside Charlotte’s recently published 52 Flowers That Shook My World (Two Ravens Press, official launch date 1st August) and the Transition Free Press preview edition. Hopefully all these publications will enjoy a happy, but temporary, stay here. Not just because I’m fond of our minimal living room, but I’d like to see them all distributed to more permanent homes and know that they are all being read for the great books they are. Meanwhile I’m happy for them to act as makeshift insulation in our low (and sometimes no)-heating house, even though for that they might have been more effective in the winter.

So for this summer’s transition reading I’m recommending two books and a poem. And I’d like to start with the poem. First a little context:

I’m sitting on a cushion on the ground in the Old City Park of Bisbee, Arizona. The year is either 2000 or 2001, I don’t remember exactly which but early in the millennium. It’s a hot desert evening in early summer and I’m here for a poetry reading. Bisbee was known for its poetry festivals during the 1980s and many writers and artists still lived in and visited this old mining town near the Mexican border. Tonight’s event was a mix of local and visiting poets and a large crowd of fellow cushion-sitters, turning the bare park with its concrete floor and stage into a resonant, magical place.

IMG_4208-200x150At the time I don’t think I appreciated just how invaluable such public spaces are. It’s the past few years in Transition with all our community centre cafes and Give and Take Days, playing field picnics, and library meetings and events which has brought it home to me. Especially at a time when many of these spaces are under threat of closure or privatisation. Sustainable Bungay was key last year in helping to raise awareness and keep the library going until at least 2013 and we helped host a World Book Night with local poets, singers and authors.

What I remember of that evening in Bisbee is Betsy Breault’s poem about time as a female being, and how this being experienced, waited, dressed and even farted! I remember how Betsy intoned ‘Ohhh, Ladyeee Ti-iime at the beginning of each verse, drawing you in to another fascinating aspect of her world. I remember a woman from San Francisco reading a poem about turning her innate laziness into an act of civil disobedience.

The poem that struck me most was one by a local poet and environmental toxics activist called Michael Gregory who had co-founded the original Bisbee Poetry Festival in 1979 . With a rhythm and tone with echoes perhaps of Allen Ginsberg, it was about how on earth we could even have survived up till now (now being the millennium then) with all the ravages of history, empire and

the mess and clutter of life as lived
edited only by turns of the head or shutting
of lids

The poem was long, and it really moved me but I didn’t remember its name, only that in the final verse it asked where Sylvia is and what comes next.

Through the years I would think about this poem on and off, and occasionally type in Michael Gregory and Sylvia (where was she?) and What’s Next into a search engine, but without any luck.

And then last week I found it and read it again. And again. It’s called This Far and it still resonated all these years later, if not more so, with its

Nervous as never before about the failure
of vital organs: kidneys, heart, brain…

the inner workings at ward and precinct levels…

the gales of free market democracy…

but fairly fit otherwise, considering,
though more than a little tired at this stage
of all the lines, excuses and bullshit

– tired of having the public good sold out
to private greed…

tired of consent and consensus manufactured…

[of] headlines that say the majority think
the opposite of what the majority think…

tired of being enthralled to the ruling eye…

I wrote to Michael, who gave me permission to quote freely from This Far (the title of this post is taken from the final stanza). He told me that it will be appearing this year in his collection, Mr America Drives His Car, a very apt title to include in a transition blog post, even though Mr America is not alone in driving his car! So rather than just posting a link to the Occupy Poetry site where I rediscovered Michael’s poem in its entirety, I can actually recommend it in a physical book. And here is Michael’s bio.

The books are, as you’ve probably guessed, Dark Mountain Issue 2 (Issue 3 is due out next month –now why do I know that?) and 52 Flowers That Shook My World. And in case you think by now this is only a shameless plug for works close to my heart (and home), please know that I keep both books nearby at all times and read from them often.

52Flowers-156x240In the case of 52 Flowers, after an intense few months helping to proofread and subedit the manuscript during last winter, I am now discovering the book in and of itself – an extraordinary firsthand account of a ten year exploration of the living territories of the earth and the plants, places and people connected with them.

Beginning in 1990 with a dream of an unknown Mexican plant called Epazote,52 Flowers takes us through England, Mexico and Arizona as the author moves away from a high-energy, high-octane western lifestyle towards a more earth-based life; an energy descent experienced firsthand. With all the joys and difficulties of the journey and always with the plants and trees informing, accompanying, shocking and shaking, this Radical Return to Earth is about going out, letting go, connecting with the earth, leaving one world behind and returning home to quite another.

Dark Mountain Issue 2 is a collection of essays, poetry stories and illustrations on the theme of the ‘end of the world as we know it’. But rather than being apocalyptic or scaremongering and at the same time resisting didacticism or any kind of fix-it approach, the book expresses a diverse cultural response to the multiple collapse scenarios which are currently being played out in our civilisation: environmental, economic and social. A head-on look at the cultural myths and narratives we tell ourselves.

The writers and artists contributing to this book include small farmers in the US, environmental journalists and academics in recovery, and Dartmoor painters. One of my favourite pieces is writing professor John Rember’s Consensus and Other Realities, not least because I relate to being up in the dark early hours of winter grappling with various scenarios not always pleasant.

In this post which is serious and funny at once, Rember revisits ‘dead British psychiatrist’ RD Laing, who said we create false selves ‘to satisfy the demands of family and culture’ and how these false selves alienate us not just from our real self but from nature as well. Rember then looks at the ‘false self’ of technological civilisation and the ‘false story that backs it up’ – the meta-narrative. Considering meta-narratives is a theme that runs throughout the book, whether the writers are talking about language itself or considering the true story of the ‘Luddites’.

For a book that looks at uncertainty and loss on such a large scale and so directly, Dark Mountain Issue 2 does not leave me depressed. Rather the result is liberating, as if energy that’s been bound up in maintaining illusions and pretence can be released and put to other uses.

Dark Mountain is different from Transition in many ways, but there’s one effect on me that both movements have in common: I don’t feel on my own in facing up to systemic collapse.

For me what unites these three works is precisely this ability to look square-on at what we’re up against. And that’s what keeps me fired up to continue my activities in Transition.

Images: Dark Mountain Issue 2, cover by Rima Staines; Bungay Library read-in February 2011; 52 Flowers That Shook My World cover

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