Thursday, 1 December 2016

Telling the New Stories

I wrote most of what follows several weeks ago, originally as part of my post about Jeanette Winterson and the importance of reading, This Strange Agency of the Soul. Yet I decided that post was becoming too long and unwieldy. There were things in it that were of great importance, but that I wasn’t yet ready to say. Now, after some further thought, I think I am ready. Though all this can ever be is incomplete.

Jeanette Winterson has written: ‘I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society’ (1). I fancy this says a lot about the collective psychological state of our culture, which seems to be getting uglier and more insane by the day (though beauty still shines out, if you know where to look). She goes on to say:

If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artefacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us. Art is not a little bit of evolution that late-twentieth-century city dwellers can safely do without. Strictly, art does not belong to our evolutionary pattern at all. It has no biological necessity. Time taken up with it was time lost to hunting, gathering, mating, exploring, building, surviving, thriving. Odd then, that when routine physical threats to ourselves and our kind are no longer a reality, we say we have no time for art.

Paleolithic cave paintings, Sierra Madrona, Ciudad, Spain (Wikimedia Commons)
If we say that art, all art is not longer relevant to our lives, then we might at least risk the question ‘What has happened to our lives?’ The usual question, ‘What has happened to art?’ is too easy an escape route. (2)

What has happened to our lives?

Humans tell stories. It is one of the things that we cannot help but do, in order to make sense of the world; and those stories, whether we are aware of it or not, actually create the world, influencing the ways in which we live, and even how we think, perceive and relate to the world. Yet, something has gone terribly wrong, for we are teetering on the edge of global destruction—climate change, mass species loss, never-ending violence, political and corporate corruption and greed, and so on and so on. Therefore, it seems fair to say that at some point in the past, something went awry with our stories.

The founders of The Dark Mountain Project, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, have written that we have been ‘led to this point by the stories we have told ourselves—above all, by the story of civilisation’ (3)—namely, by the myths of progress, of our separation from nature, and of human centrality and supremacy. We are destroying the Earth, yet many people seem to think it is our destiny, as humans, to do so, because they believe in these ‘myths’.

The word ‘myth’, in this context, means a widely held but false belief or idea. It is not used in the sense that Alan Garner means when he describes myth as ‘a complex of story that, for various reasons, human beings see as demonstrations of the inner cause of the universe and of human life’ (4). Those myths are quite a different thing, necessary and valuable. Indeed, those myths provide us with a fertile soil from which our new stories can be grown. 

Thus, we need to start telling new stories. Stories that (re)connect us with the wild world once more, make us part of nature, humbly enmeshed with all other beings. After all, the words human, humble, and humus are etymologically related. We are literally creatures of the earth, and must show deference to Nature.

Kingsnorth and Hine say, 

writers, artists, poets and storytellers of all kinds have a critical role to play. Creativity remains the most uncontrollable of human forces: without it, the project of civilisation is inconceivable, yet no part of life remains so untamed and undomesticated. Words and images can change minds, hearts, even the course of history. (5)

So, if we change the stories we are telling, we can change the world. Art can truly be that powerful.

This is one of the reasons why I write as I do, about the subjects I do. I want to write myself back into relationship with the natural world. For if I begin with the imagination, writing of rabbit-girls and bird-women, green-thumbed gardeners and wise old women, then perhaps all that weedy wildness will begin to spill over into my everyday life. At the very least, I want to change my world. 

It is why I read as I do too. Mainstream books, for the most part, do not interest me. I want wildness, myth, magic, beauty; writing that challenges, that inspires. I don’t just want entertainment; I want to step outside of time, be shown alternative ways to live and be (including nonhuman ways), and to nourish my soul in the process. As Ursula Le Guin puts it, ‘I want to recognise something I never saw before’ (6), for transfiguring visions to leap off the page and into my heart.

And maybe art doesn’t just nourish our souls. Maybe it nourishes Earth’s soul too (after all, we are all small parts of that larger, encompassing soul). All the more reason to read (widely and wildly), to make art, and to daydream, because these untamed, timeless activities are a rebellion against the forces of civilisation that sneer at stories, at art, at dreams, soul and Spirit, and that have brought us to the brink of extinction. ‘The soul, after all, is our inner wildness’ (7), the complement to the outer wildness of nature, and we need both to survive. Therefore we must be mindful to feed our souls well.

So let’s read and write, paint and sculpt, sing and dance. Let’s uncivilise our souls, and tell the new stories that will create the new world we so sorely need. We might just save everything in the process.

The two photos above (with a little creative editing from me) are pages from the most recent Dark Mountain book, Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics, showing billboard art by Robert Montgomery. You can see more of his work here:

1. Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Vintage: London, 1995, p. 5
2. ibid, pp. 20–21
3. Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, 2009, p. 10—you can read the whole thing here:
4. Alan Garner, The Voice That Thunders: Essays and Lectures, The Harvill Press: London, 1997, p. 27
5. Kingsnorth & Hine, pp. 10–11
6. Ursula Le Guin, The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination, Shambhala: Boston, 2004, p. 268
7. Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and the Psyche, New World Library: Novato, California, 2003, p. 15


  1. This is such a wonderful post! You have genuinely inspired me, and I thank you deeply for it.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. I was a little apprehensive about posting it, so I'm glad it has inspired you.

  2. This was an amazing post, I´m so glad you posted it.
    Art saves lives. Art saves.

  3. i agree with you .very interesting and inspirational writing from you dear.
    thank you .


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