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I wanted to respond to Dougald’s comment on an earlier post.

Here’s his contribution followed by my response:

Your “streams of DNA” reminded me of this, one of the texts I hold closest to my heart, from John Berger’s ‘And our faces, my heart, brief as photos’:

When I open my wallet
to show my papers
pay money
or check the time of a train
I look at your face.

The flower’s pollen
is older than the mountains
Aravis is young
as mountains go.

The flower’s ovules
will be seeding still
when Aravis then aged
is no more than a hill.

The flower in the heart’s
wallet, the force
of what lives us
outliving the mountain.

And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.

Tim Healey read that for us in Oxford, last Friday night, at the launch of the Dark Mountain Project. Thinking about our project and your post, I wonder – is it hubris to talk about our generation, after 10,000 years, as being capable of a “global revolution”, a turning-over of the relationships of domination into something more like the wasp and the fig tree? Why should we be able to change a direction set for hundreds of lifetimes? (Chris TT, one of our other performers, warned us of the example of the artilleryman in ‘The War of the Worlds’, who claims to be building a new civilisation underground, but has only dug a twelve-foot hole to hide in.)


I am dying

I made my bed

Now it’s me or the wallpaper

I’m digging my own grave

Tunneling out of this prison

Like the scarab

In a pyramid of dung

Waiting for the coming

I live in the cist

Under the tumulus

I’m digging a womb to lie in

I’m kissing the soft soil

I’m eating hair and nails

I’m making a space in moist flesh

To lay my children

Who will emerge with gossamer wings

In the upper air I brush

with an iridescent scale

Two molecules of chaos

And in a new world

A storm is gathering

From the cumulus

Of slow black tons

Comes the flood

And my first spark

13 Comments leave one →
  1. trine permalink
    24/07/2009 7:43 pm

    ive just got off the train,and it the first time in a week ive looked at your offerings,”next…….show your papers”,…tickets please?

    while i was away my thoughts came round to authority.
    Ive been to York for a week of archeology,digging in the dirt.
    Until this week ive never understood why archeologists get excited and they really do, about dirt….

    i was bought up to ‘where theres muck theres money’

    musaeums get given artifacts, which are broke,and in need,of preservation,is something of the theme of your blogs,how we are endangering,and impoverishing, by failing to realise, the importance of pre serving the Earth,which calls for connection,some form of association,some familiarity.

    Understanding of our personal connection to the Earth,calls for awareness.
    ..”pay money,or check the time of the train, connect to time tables”……40 days and 40 nights,connection time to timeless momemts.And being.

    The week was,much surprisingly,an adventure in meaning.

    We explored earth based objects for meaning,and that brought them alive, no longer items of history, they became meaning full, scources, spirited.

    • 24/07/2009 9:54 pm

      Welcome back trine. I’m glad you’ve had an enjoyable week.
      Museums full of glass cases are ok, but how much more spirit something has that you find yourself. How much more meaningful is something that you lift out of the dirt around you.
      We already live in the greatest museum of all. It’s all around us.

      • Tom Stephenson permalink
        24/07/2009 10:36 pm

        Oh come on – we don’t live in a museum – that is why there is a separate category for those buildings, and a separate category for things put in them. Call them ‘found objects’ if you want to be an artist.

        • 25/07/2009 9:06 am

          Dear Tom,
          Now you’ve confused me. A few days ago I thought you were arguing against museums.

          You were singing the praises of objects that were ‘ignored, unloved and un-curated. The Saxon Church in Bradford on Avon, The London Stone – smaller objects tucked away in the backs of our Grandparents cupboards’

          You were lamenting the damage caused by do-gooding conservators to ‘the London Titians, The Westbury White Horse, all the medieval church paintings which were removed in an act of piety by the early Victorians, etc.’

          Have you changed your mind, or have I got a bit muddled?

          • Tom Stephenson permalink
            25/07/2009 10:25 am

            No, I haven’t changed my mind, Ansuman, but the museums that I love are the ones that have vast quantities of archived material which has been pretty much forgotten, once each object has been assigned a catalogue number. Objects found – which although highly meaningful, important or just plain beautiful – that don’t find their way into museums for preservation, can end up being called antiques or antiquities if they are materially valuable (or considered so by the market), or ‘found objects’ if they come under the scrutiny of an artist like you, who puts them before us for our consideration.

            The value of forgotten or uncared for artifacts does not diminish simply because they have been forgotten, in my opinion. We still mourn the loss of the great library of Alexandria, despite that – like the British Library – only a small percentage of the books within it would have been consulted at any given time of it’s life. Magical museums are collections put together for their own sake by people who are humble enough to recognise that they do not fully understand the value of the amassed objects, and probably never will in their own lifetime – a sort of microcosm for the outside world where these objects came from, and where we continue to struggle to understand the value and meaning of them.

            The old analogy of the rocking-horse to represent the different approaches between conservation and restoration (if you make the rotten, wooden rocking-horse strong enough to be ridden by a child again, that is restoration – if you halt the decay of the wood and stabalise further deterioration, that is conservation) does not make allowance for the old horse up in the attic where it has not seen the light of day for generations, and how can it? The sledge ‘Rosebud’ was the most meaningful thing to Citizen Kane at the end of his long and eventful life.

            • 25/07/2009 5:56 pm

              Ok, you haven’t changed your mind. You were just talking about something completely different.
              So what exactly is it that you object to in the content of my previous reply to trine’s ‘adventure in meaning’?

              Is it not the case that a certain kind of open awareness can find value, importance, beauty and meaning in the hidden treasures all around us?

              And is it not the case that the personal effort made in developing that kind of awareness makes the reward far more satisfying than any pre-packaged, institutionalised experience?

              And is it not the case that the more one develops that awareness in every moment the more meaningless it becomes to hoard and collect things?

              It’s great that you love the museums you say you do. I see nothing wrong in that. I too find them fascinating for the same reason that I love car boot sales and second hand book shops.

              Nowhere have I suggested that the value of anything diminishes simply because it has been forgotten. On the contrary I am presenting an opportunity here to appreciate many of those things which our forgetfulness may cause to slip away forever.

              And can you mourn the loss of something you never knew you had? All your examples of cultural artefacts are drawn from your own limited education. Can you possibly know what great and beautiful libraries have been lost that were treasured by Tasmanian Aborigines, or the inhabitants of Creswell Crags, or honey bees, or a coral reef?

              You portray the act of collecting as one of carefree innocence and touching humility. In fact nothing is collected without a very strong reason. And collectors have been prepared to lie, steal and kill to get what they want. Why would anyone collect anything without attributing some sort of value to it? Even people who never throw anything away and die trapped by their own rubbish have a very good reason for keeping it. It may be fear or greed or arrogance.

              Perhaps any kind of collection is a kind of theft. What is really mine? It used to be very fashionable for schoolboys to collect birds’ eggs. The hunter who shoots an animal for his own sustenance gives thanks for the spirit of the bird whose life he takes in order to prolong his own. Do we really similarly honour the objects we collect for freak shows, zoos, curiosity cabinets and the mantelpieces of completists?

              Even if we attribute some noble scientific aim we should remember, lest our science becomes a religion, that our particular version of science is a recent cultural phenomenon, not some absolute truth. A more holistic science might study complex systems intact and in situ, rather than tearing them apart. Perhaps any dissection should be done on myself first. Who gives me the right to interfere with other peoples and other creatures and experiment on them? Is God on my side?

              I’m not sure I understand the relevance of your example of the rocking horse. Restoration and conservation are two approaches towards something to which we have already assigned some value. They bear no relation to the horse which no-one values.

              ‘Rosebud’ was precisely a purely personal object with deep emotional significance to no one but Kane. No one else within the story ever fathoms its meaning, and we see the sledge being destroyed as worthless junk after his death. But far more tragic than the destruction of a wooden toy is that Kane’s inner child, his emotion, valueless to anyone else, dies with him.

              In my opinion the most important act of curation anyone and everyone can be involved in is the restoration and conservation of this sensitivity to love. It has nothing to do with any particular object but it relates to every object in the world. It is precisely the opposite of possessiveness.

              In the case of Charles Foster Kane his feeling of love was associated with his mother who loved him so much she made the sacrifice of sending him away. Kane grows up to amass tremendous power. He wields social influence, runs an empire that determines what people think, and controls all his relationships to the extent that he is eventually surrounded only by servants. He builds an estate named after Kublai Khan’s fabled city of opulence . Here’s an extract from the overblown newsreel at the beginning of the film:

              ‘One hundred thousand trees, twenty thousand tons of marble are the ingredients of Xanadu’s mountain. Contents of Xanadu’s palace: paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palace – a collection of everything so big it can never be catalogued or appraised; enough for ten museums; the loot of the world. Xanadu’s livestock: the fowl of the air, the fish of the sea, the beast of the field and jungle. Two of each; the biggest private zoo since Noah. Like the Pharaohs, Xanadu’s landlord leaves many stones to mark his grave.’

              Ultimately Kane is trapped in this magnificent hermitage. All these riches are meaningless because the most important thing cannot be held in them. The thing that comes closest is an object of no value to anyone else. It’s the sledge he had when his mother sent him away. The point is that Kane was never able to properly ‘curate’ his own emotion. He stored it away in a vault and turned his attention to manipulating and mastering objects in the world around him. But the most important thing is always in our hearts.

              It seems to me that before trying to rearrange the world it is wisest to acknowledge our own pain and sorrow in the face of loss. None of the objects we gather around us can ever assuage that. On the contrary our activity will tend to spread this sorrow around because it will be based on ignorance of the fundamental fact.

              Paradoxically, by facing up to suffering in oneself the pain and tension dissolves and the amazing, ceaseless flow of the world reveals itself. We are then continuously surrounded by untold riches, beauty and understanding.
              That is why I say we already live in the greatest museum of all. It’s all around us.

              • Tom Stephenson permalink
                25/07/2009 8:12 pm

                Well, it’s difficult to change the subject in this context, isn’t it? I initially objected to the notion that the world around us was a museum – it isn’t, it is the world around us. In the same way that the science of Astronomy could be accurately described as the study of everything (and that’s a lot!) which is not the planet Earth, everything outside museums could be called ‘living’. I suppose that you are advocating an objectivity or detachment to enhance our appreciation of it, but I have to say that your assumption that most of us outside of the tower have difficulty in attaining that detachment without undergoing the rigorous procedures that you sometimes employ, somewhat patronising. This is what I meant when I talked about ‘spiritual arrogance’ in a different thread.

                I don’t think you can compare the mentality of collectors and hoarders with the way that museum collections are gathered, other than they quite often stem from an obsession with certain types of objects. If the collector is a reasonably balanced person, there is no reason why a semi-harmless collecting obsession should get in the way of a detached and appreciative outlook on the world in general, and there is no reason why the spiritual life of a collector should be any more blighted than a non-collector, assuming that they have not taken vows to rid themselves of all worldly possessions, is there? You do not die trapped by your own rubbish, no matter how greedy you were in life! It is the surviving beneficiaries who are trapped by it, whether they are relatives or museums, and it is they who struggle under the weight of all the White Elephants left to them by the acquisitive deceased. You can’t take it with you. Most collectors only use the monetary value of their objects of choice to justify their collection, and the responsible ones see themselves as temporary custodians… ring any bells?

                Can we mourn the loss of something we never had? Yes of course we can, if you truly believe that we – as fragments of a larger, single conscience – cannot help but acknowledge it’s previous existence.

                Yes, I used the wrong word when I described the original gatherers of most museum collections. I said ‘humble’ when I should have said ‘arrogant’, but thank God for arrogant people. Due to a misinterpretation of the Christian scriptures, they are an undervalued asset these days, despite my moaning about spiritual arrogance. I was rather hoping that you would treat me as one of those ugly little devils that blighted the self-enforced desert existence of St. Jerome in the famous paintings.

                You seem to know a great deal about the film ‘Citizen Kane’ – I hope you didn’t Google it up! (All I can remember is the beginning and the end..) I agree with pretty much all you say about it. I also agree that we are surrounded by untold riches and beauty. I’ve met quite a few mystics over the years, some with quite astounding powers to play certain cosmic tricks (I was once launched into outer space by a Tantric alcoholic ringing a small hand-bell), but I see no need for cheap miracles when we are surrounded by them on a day to day basis. It’s quite easy to overload though – too much detail – and that way leads to madness.

                • 26/07/2009 1:26 pm

                  I’m not sure which painting of St. Jerome you mean. I’ve seen him with skulls and lions reading his Bible. But I’m happy to treat you like an ugly little devil if that’s what turns you on. Shall we agree on a safe word?

                  Your slavishly literal interpretation of ‘museum’ seems a little disingenuous. Perfectly appropriate for a devil of course.
                  I always think about Jorge Luis Borges on the subject of the world as a museum. Many of his stories deal with a similar idea. The infinite library, the one-to-one correspondence of a country and its map, the boy with the perfect memory, etc.

                  As for Astronomy, don’t get me started. I do have a beef about that too. Of course Astronomy is interpreted by modern science in the way that you describe. But it never started like that. The study of the heavens was always intimately connected with the place of the observer. We in our supercilious modern way have chosen to sneer at Astrology and worship Astronomy. I think we’re holding the telescope the wrong way round. Only with the crisis of quantum mechanics are we beginning to once again understand how deeply the observer is implicated in the system being observed.

                  I have a favourite observation which I always wheel out about the difference between the Russian and American Space programmes. The American strapped Astronauts to their fireworks and the Russians had Cosmonauts. Etymologically Astro-nauts navigate the stars, which are all a very long way away. Cosmo-nauts, on the other hand, navigate the cosmos, which is right here.

                  That subtle distinction makes for quite a different way of doing things, the Americans for instance spent millions of dollars inventing a ‘space pen’ which had a special pumping ink dispenser housed in a pressurised, precision engineered cylinder, so it could write at any angle and in zero gravity.
                  The Russians took a pencil.

                  Apologies if my robust analysis of the problem comes across as spiritual arrogance. I am in no way suggesting that my austerities should be practiced by everyone. Indeed I’m well aware of the dangers and difficulties of displaying what is essentially a private practice. I’d much rather have the time to myself to meditate properly. On the other hand I feel a social duty and I enjoy dialogue. That’s why I’m treading this razor wire between hermit and artist. This is an experiment. If you don’t like it ignore me.

                  I’m also aware, incidentally, of my status as an exotic brown man in this imperial treasury. I’m a circus act just like the bearded lady or the fakir lying on the bed of nails or a plaster cast of T. Rex. The pictures of Trucanini remind me of my own family albums.

                  Trapped in a cage here, far from patronising, I perform for my patrons. I am quite aware of the ambiguous relations of power I’m caught in. What I will inveigh against, however, is the lazy, greedy and pig-ignorant way we as a species and a civilization continue to treat the world around us. This is not my assumption or opinion but a matter of blindingly obvious fact. And I don’t count myself apart from this species or this civilization. I’m either part of the problem or part of the solution.
                  But it’s probably too late now even for wild eyed prophets of doom. I should be working on my ark.

                  Actually many people do die trapped by their own rubbish, even if we leave aside for the moment metaphorical clutter, or the fact that obesity is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide. Check out the story of poor Mr Stewart who had to be exhumed by divers.

                  I beg to differ with you about the difference between hoarders and ‘semi-harmless collectors’. My schoolboy egg collector was a relatively benign example. The Lady’s slipper orchid no longer exists in this country precisely because it looks so pretty in a vase. Do I need to go into the number of species we have hunted out of existence for the sake of taxidermy? Or the venal crimes committed by the Thieves of Baghdad?

                  Monetary value is only one part of it. Although where there’s brass there’s muck, to invert trine’s phrase. Like the infamous “molasses to rum to slaves” trade of the eighteenth century, much criminality could never exist without the active complicity of supposedly respectable ‘collectors‘. As well as money, status, ‘Culture’, academic excitement, and Kane-like displacement activity are major drivers.

                  Knowing a lot about ‘Citizen Kane’ is one of the consequences of having been a Drama student once upon a time. At this very University in fact. This is the first time it’s ever been useful. Anyway, that’s quite enough detail from me. As I said in my very first answer to you, I’m already mad.
                  Now I think about it the very institution that has locked me in once threw me out. hmmmm… is that ironic or just sad?

                  • Tom Stephenson permalink
                    26/07/2009 2:15 pm

                    Yep, you’re right – not St. Jerome, but I can’t remember the name of the tormented one. And me – not so much a devil but a devil’s advocate.

                    The crisis caused by quantum mechanics should make you ask yourself if all those bivalves in the cupboard are still there when you close the door. If not, is there any point in destroying them?

                    I sometimes feel a bit guilty about tuning in and watching you (I’m not constantly watching, by the way!), but now I know that you were once a drama student, I don’t feel quite so bad. I had to stop myself from telling you to go back to bed this morning, when you were nodding off on the job. The fact that you are “an exotic brown man” only makes the experience that much more pleasant for me, though I would find a different sort of beauty in you if your hair and beard had gone long and white, like the hermit of popular fable – come back again in 25 years time! (actually, if you are as going mad as you say you are, we may not have to wait that long…)

                    The thieves of Baghdad, the rum, Borges – all of this makes me sad and/or happy, and I take your point about all of them. The Russian space program – that comparison is funny too. I went to the Kennedy Space Centre once (working, NOT visiting Disney World), and the Russian capsule was like something from Jules Verne in comparison to the American ones. Their Kalashnikovs are pretty robust too.

                    Sorry about my slavish attitude to museums – I’m just banging you like a bell, to see how you ring.

                    • 26/07/2009 6:21 pm

                      I know you are.
                      You’re like one of those people who would come and knock on my box just to see what would happen.
                      Did you know I was Schrödinger’s Cat?

                      I have some experience of different space agencies. I’ll always go with the cheap and cheerful one, tied together with string and fuelled by vodka.
                      (Pssst! wanna see a miracle?)

                      PS. I’m the devil. Did you not read this post?

                • Tom Stephenson permalink
                  26/07/2009 1:32 pm

                  P.S. – I ought to say that the artefacts that I am talking about are the ‘inanimate’ ones in the main, not the animals – dead or alive – unless you count human remains from ancient burials. I’m still pretty ambivalent about the exploitation of creatures for research. In the year when we celebrate the work of Darwin, it’s worth remembering that he shot most of his examples – and ate quite a few of them too!

                  • Tom Stephenson permalink
                    26/07/2009 7:01 pm

                    That was a hell of a miracle! I don’t know which was the most miraculous – that you didn’t throw up, or that you managed to keep from smiling. I think I would have done both simultaneously.

  2. 25/07/2009 1:45 am

    I love both of these poems. The physical placement of the words in the second one conjures images of going down into the grave and then crawling (or, as in the poem, flying and combusting) back out.

    It’s this life-death-life cycle that gives me peace when I contemplate extinction. I liken it to a forest fire. In the early stages of forest growth, biodiversity is high. As the forest matures, fewer and fewer species can be counted (of plant, anyway, I don’t know about animal). When a fire wipes out the dead brush and burns off much of the canopy that blocks the forest floor, the ashes fertilize the soil for another cycle of highly diverse species to emerge, and the forest is new again.

    I have a hunch we’re all the same stuff, constantly changing from one form to another. I know this is physically true, but I don’t know about consciousness.

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