This summer the haze from the wildfires in Canada descended where I live, turning the oaks and box elders at the far end of the farmer’s field into gray-green ghosts. Our corner of West Virginia rarely experiences such tentacles of climate change, but during these days of the hottest global temperatures on record we have had an acrid taste of what much of the rest of the planet undergoes all the time. We were enveloped by the murk that is everywhere, that cannot be evaporated, captured, or sent away, no matter how intensely, how fervently we try; no matter how urgently we cry out to science, technology, and concerned authorities everywhere. Trapped by what we cannot seem to change, we’ve tipped inexorably toward the continual smothering of the world we have always known.
Around a decade ago, I first heard the term "dark ecology", coined by Paul Kingsnorth, who along with Dougald Hine started the Dark Mountain Project in England in 2009. As Paul used it, “dark ecology” was both a defiant affirmation of our living planet and a lover’s lament. He observed human techno-culture rolling relentlessly on over the wild Earth and asked, "Is it possible to see the future as dark and darkening further; to reject false hope and desperate pseudo-optimism without collapsing into despair?"
The answer to this question, I have come to believe, is “yes”, but it will take ferocious courage and love and a willingness to be undone by all we do not know.
For many years our family lived with the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community on 1500 acres of protected mountain forest. One misty winter morning around this same “Dark Mountain” time, I took a walk with the community’s dog, Erin, through the woods of Rolling Ridge.
I walked while Erin inscribed wide, fast arcs through the forest. Along the floor, fallen trees and branches lay black and contorted, jumbled and heaped in places, scattered chaotically in others. The leaves, sodden and brown, slushed under my feet. Overhead, the twisted twigs and branches of the maples and oaks crossed and re-crossed against the mist's filmy veil. Everything was damp. The wild winter woods were fascinating, not lovely. We were surely drawn into them by something other than beauty. A line from Jane Hirshfield’s short poem “Hope and Love” came to me: “I know that hope is the hardest love we carry”.
An icy rain had fallen in the night, and the leaves of the mountain laurel and the delicate branches of the dogwoods held tiny, frozen droplets, like tears. I heard a distant rustling, louder and louder in the hushed woods, and in a minute two deer burst leaping and alive through the trees, white tails flashing, with Erin speeding behind.
I turned onto Niles Cabin trail, which meanders past an old stone chimney, all that was left of a homestead. The chimney was a towering presence yards away in the mist, standing like a gray sentinel guarding the lives who once farmed these acres. I made my way toward the ponds. When I came to the crossroads where the unmarked trail to Krishna Brook turns off, I paused. It was my custom when walking with Erin to wait at every crossroads for something to appear. Sure enough, after some time, Erin came trotting wolf-like out of the woods, and again having located me and our direction, shot off once more.
We followed the power line toward the Retreat House and then took the path back to our cluster of community homes. Just after crossing Deer Spring Creek the air came alive with the whirring of wings and a rustling, crackling sound like dry bones rising. Hundreds of small, dark gray birds wheeled and swarmed overhead, descending like a net over the trees. Then, in response to an unseen command, they rose in a cloud, swirled again, descended, swirled, descended, making their way toward the top of the ridge. The air was filled with thousands of wings, whirling as one, passing overhead with a unified mind, like a single creature. Even Erin stopped and stared.
It seemed to me then that one could experience the land and its wild creatures as something other than a tragedy-in-waiting. It is a place of agency, drenched with story and layered with worlds that I know next to nothing about. It is riddled with portals and thresholds which beckon and entice and frighten; and with crossroads where if one waits for a minute things happen and choices are made to travel down unmarked paths. It is filled with wild ones who are deeply alive and connected, in ways I will never fathom. It is replete with more-than-human presences, with ancestors, with those yet-to-be-born. On a misty winter morning it was possible to wander and sense these vital and mysterious worlds, worlds that reverberate with the eternal.
I think this is what the author, philosopher, activist, and director of the Emergence Network Bayo Akomolafe is referring to when he says of the time we are in,
We have a very sterilized sense of power, and that power is losing its powerfulness. We need other places of power…The times are urgent, let us be slowed down by the beings that exceed us. The times are urgent, let us be defeated by things that we cannot understand. The times are urgent, let us defract our ways of knowing. The times are urgent, let us be released from the traps of the things we already know.
In October I intend to be part of leading a retreat at Rolling Ridge about experiencing this strange hope beyond hope, this antidote to the desperate optimism, the despair that so chafed Paul Kingsnorth. It is a hope rooted in love and an embryonic recognition of our entanglements with many worlds, perhaps especially the wild and the more than human. These are worlds that move with the dance of reciprocity, that flow, shift, and continually begin again, and within which the human is but one small being among many. For me, the idea for a retreat like this comes out of years spent walking the woods with a suspicion that our work in this time lies way upstream and has to do with fierce love and a letting go of knowing and of the need to know, and as the storyteller Martin Shaw would say, to learn instead to navigate mystery.
I don’t know, but it may be possible then to slow down, to stop trying so hard to save the world for ourselves, for our children, for all the creatures of this planet, and instead take their hands and the hands of our ancestors, and the hands of our great great grandchildren and walk into the mist-filled woods, taking the unmarked path together, making the path by walking it.
Image Credits: Collage "Waking Up" by Doug Van Houten