Book review: Walking On Lava: Selected Works For Uncivilised Times

In 2009, two English writers, Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth, launched what they now describe as 'a tiny initiative in the back room of a pub to about 40 slightly confused people'. That initiative was The Dark Mountain Project, and its purpose '“ broadly speaking '“ was to encourage writers and artists to engage fully with what, by any objective measure, is the most pressing issue of our time, namely the destructive impact of human civilisation on the natural systems that support it. The project was launched with a 20-page 'Dark Mountain Manifesto', which calls for a new 'Uncivilised' art and, in particular, 'Uncivilised' writing to challenge the myths of never-ending growth and progress on which our consumer society depends.

Dark Mountain Project co-founder Paul Kingsnorth
Dark Mountain Project co-founder Paul Kingsnorth

Nearly a decade later, the project has grown impressively: online, it has become a truly global network of writers and thinkers, all bringing different perspectives to the great intellectual challenge first laid down by Hine and Kingsnorth, while in the physical world it has manifested itself in both a series of talks and events in the UK and further afield and in the publication of a series of Dark Mountain books, full of the latest Uncivilised writing. Walking On Lava, published this month, offers a selection of the best of these essays, stories and poems, punctuated by a smattering of Uncivilised art works, and whether you agree with everything in the “Dark Mountain Manifesto” or not (it’s reproduced in full at the beginning) you will almost certainly find something here that subtly or perhaps not-so-subtly alters the way you think about the world.

Not everything in Walking On Lava makes for easy reading. Cincinnati-based Akshay Ahuja’s essay “Strange Children,” for example, about possible interpretations of birth stories in the Mahabharata, is the literary equivalent of hardcore muesli – you’re sure it must be doing you good on some level, but it’s a bit of a slog all the same. Warren Draper’s essay on the Luddites, however, turns a little-taught chapter of British history, dimly remembered if at all, into a scintillating tale of defiance in the face of overwhelming odds – “a battle to save independent, self-sufficient ways of life from destruction and to prevent the industrial machine from enslaving people”. As Draper tells it, all the subsequent battles fought during the Industrial Revolution – over better wages, better living conditions, the right to form unions – were merely instances of haggling over the terms of surrender after the real battle had already been lost.

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Other non-fiction highlights include anthropologist Carla Stang’s essay on the belief systems of the Mehinaku Indians of Brazil and how their (admittedly pretty out-there) beliefs might be of practical use to us if we would only stop and try to understand them; and Dougald Hine’s meditation on the unknowability of the future, inspired by a Moscow pavilion dedicated to the glorious future of Soviet space exploration that has now rather ignominiously been turned into a garden centre.

Powerful as some of the essays are, however, it tends to be the short stories that make the deepest impression. Particularly noteworthy are Sylvia V Linsteadt’s wonderfully gnomic “Osiris” and Steve Wheeler’s “The Song of Ea”, which is perhaps the closest anyone has yet come to successfully fictionalising our current predicament.

*Walking On Lava: Selected Works For Uncivilised Times, Eds. Charlotte DuCann, Dougald Hine, Nick Hunt and Paul Kingsnorth, Chelsea Green Publishing, £14.99