Essay: The Life Cairn
Published in Dark Mountain Book 4 ©Andreas Kornevall When I think of our naturalness, the wild self in the world, I see an empty pelt hanging over a farmer’s fence. Under the artificial light of civilisation, our shadows have grown deep: the sixth mass extinction, climate change, overpopulation. As the world’s rainforests and species diminish like the snows in spring, many I meet are finding themselves in an existential depression. The nihilism found in our consumption, and our appetite for violence, are pathologies which have arisen to fill a void left by an absence. Our emotional response to what is happening with the world and the larger collapse of our climate has not yet begun; the river of tears is dammed for now. I fear those tears for the following generations. In response to these fears and reflections, I recently founded (with Rev. Peter Owen Jones) the Life Cairn, a memorial for extinct species and a place to express our shared ecological grief. I could not – I do not – accept how it is possible for politicians, spiritual and secular leaders and ‘opinion formers’, to be quiet as the last shots rung out and a species was lost after millions of years of evolutionary life. No wreath, no flowers, not even a song was offered as remembrance. There was only science and silence when the Yangtze River Dolphin was lost: her obituary was the static sound of radio waves and a tick on an IUCN Red List. The Life Cairn is today a vulnerable pile of stones on Mount Caburn, East Sussex. It has occasionally been vandalised, and some people want it removed. The seed of the memorial was born when an old man cried openly for the Earth at a gathering I attended. He showed everyone the emotional truth of what it meant to be alive within a world where the wild spirit is a fugitive. Pablo Neruda’s words. ‘I know the Earth and I am sad’ had come true for us, and we were all moved by this outpouring of grief. Since we have piled our stones there we have experienced, paradoxically, a feeling of hope: the Cairn has witnessed poetry readings, outbursts of song, silent meditations and spontaneous dancing. It offers insight into how important ceremony and grief can be. We are retaliating against the Hag, the Queen of Death; when we face her, we remove the sustenance she feeds from – our forgetfulness. Groups and school classes sometimes come up to the Life Cairn with me, and I have stood there many times talking, or sometimes shouting, about the 55,000 species going extinct every year and how we would need a crane to lift the list if we printed it on paper. But not many passers-by seem to listen either at the Life Cairn or in the wider world. In my research I came across the ancient Greek concept of Logos. Logos is the objective, evidence-based, impersonal way of viewing ‘reality’: the language of the philosopher and the natural scientist. Logos is the peer-reviewed essay, the laboratory analysis, the bookkeeping. Modern Western culture, which has developed along a direct line from ancient Greece, today presents Logos as the supreme, and often the only, viable way of seeing and describing reality; a reality which must be calculated and quantified before it can be said to exist. This is the language of science: the language which gives us those lists of extinct creatures. When listening to a radio programme a year ago about the disappearance of butterflies in the southeast of England I heard precisely this cold, factual, detached presentation. Twenty-five percent of the butterflies have disappeared; now on to the news. The fear of expressing the meaning of that loss openly meant that no one needed to truly grasp the problem. I have found the language of logos to be insufficient to bring about deep understanding or real connection. Some other way of understanding and describing our predicament is needed. Looking further afield, I discovered the counterpart to Logos: what the Greeks called Mythos. Mythos is the subjective, the personal, the embodied way of seeing and understanding the world. It is the art, the oral story, the poetry. Mythos speaks of eagles carrying golden keys, and of the Earth being created in seven days; it speaks of Gods riding over the rainbow bridge. Mythos doesn’t only see the sun, but an entire golden chariot driven by Fair Sol (Norse sun Goddess) riding across the sky. Her horses are called Scorching Heat and Early Dawn, and she rises from the gates of the East. Mythos and logos are two entirely distinct ways of conceptualising reality. It is important not to confuse them, or to imagine that one can defeat the other. If you do this, you get what we might call the Richard Dawkins Effect: suddenly poetic and mythological language is taken as literal truth and someone demands evidence for the existence of the eagle that carries the golden key; does it fly through Manchester or Philadelphia? As a side thought, I wonder if this is why religious fundamentalism can be seen as a modern phenomenon: it too filters Mythos through Logos’s terms and conditions. The alchemical laboratory and the spilled ink of the poet lived side by side in ancient Greece: Mythos and logos were both seen as necessary and legitimate ways of understanding. Christopher Hitchens and the Baptist preacher could have tea together in Athens. Both understood that their languages had a different purpose, none were seen as truer than the other, and great insight (and culture) arose from both views. Next time I took a class with me up to the Life Cairn, I thought I would see if a greater insight would come from Mythos than logos. So instead of reading lists of names or talking about extinction in scientific terms, I told fairytales and engaged with our old mythologies. I told stories about how the extinct animals once had dreams; how one transformed into Princess and a River Dolphin; how they quarreled with Emperors and much more. As a result, the children seemed to gain something precious: their own inner realisation of what was happening. The effect on them was clear. And that effect has begun to spread further afield. We gathered at the Life Cairn last year when we heard the news about the death of ‘Lonesome George’, the last Pinta Island tortoise of the Galapagos Islands. To our astonishment, inspired by the idea of the Life Cairn memorial, the Galapagos park authority and others built a Life Cairn on the islands in memory of Lonesome George. After their ceremony we received a letter from a member of the Galapagos governing council: ‘We the people who live in Galapagos have had the need to grieve for Lonesome George, and this ceremony has helped us to fulfill that need. We will have a special responsibility as guardians of the Life Cairn, together with the National Park. Even if the official support of the park is important, the Life Cairn belongs to all people who want to be part of it. Anyone contributing a stone does so as a committed human being rather than in his or her official role.’ Now thousands of tourists will come face to face with their own emotional selves when laying a stone in remembrance for Lonesome George. They will have a moment to reflect on its meaning from a different place. I am sure that for many it will be for the first time. The tourists of the 19th century came to the Galapagos Islands with feathered pens and bottles of rum, and plucked all the knowledge they could from the Giant Tortoise. These creatures helped them in their understanding of evolution. The irony is that we have lost track of how to act upon this knowledge: the eyes of the Giant Tortoise of La Pinta Island are forever closed. The philosopher David Abram’, in his book The Spell of the Sensuous, suggests that we owe the other animals a debt for our ability to read and write. He suggests that our ability to read abstract words and figures, as you are doing now, may have evolved from our ability to read the tracks of other creatures. If Abrams’ theory is correct, then there would be no Holy Bible, no Sutra and no Darwin without the bear, the wolf, and the deer writing their own poetic verse across the land for us to read. He suggests that we developed writing by adding their tracks and symbols to our cave walls. Buried under the soil there are still echoes of this old world; the old stories that connected us to the land are still there. But our Cartesian and Christian heritage has been denying nature consciousness; we have been denying her soul. There are now over three thousand stones lying in a heap on Mount Caburn. If you pass by, please add another. Or better: begin your own Life Cairn where you live, as a point of awareness, a guiding light on this dark mountain.