Marching on London with Extinction Rebellion

Thomas Bunstead on the Pilgrimage from East Sussex to London

One conversation went from a discussion of Bolaño’s bad teeth to our being guardians of the water. My fellow pilgrim’s name was Jeff—beautiful, silver-haired Jeff—and his plan was to stop at each of the natural springs the group was due to pass over the ten days and bless them. He had identified 22 such springs on the route into London, and the blessing would involve a few words and the sprinkling-in of tobacco leaves. Tobacco, he told me, is an absorbent, that’s why shamans of the North American nations use it as a poultice to draw toxins out of cuts and infections, and why it can also hold within it the energy of a prayer. Drop it in, the Mother does the rest! To him the real reason we were walking was time: he had a theory about the calendar, or maybe linear time itself, being out of kilter with the real turning of the year. A hoodwinking of some kind, possibly to do with the coming of the Romans—I never got to find out. Jeff was summoned to the front of the 50-strong group to read a map, or I had to focus on carrying my three- or five-year-old up a steep or muddy bit of track, or keep the peace between them and other children. The way of all conversations the day we joined in on the Earth March from Peacehaven in East Sussex to London. The group’s destination, like that of others taking part in the London-bound treks from points across the country, being the Extinction Rebellion protests of April 2019.

It’s what Greta said, isn’t it? There’s no hope, you don’t fucking deserve any hope. You get hope through action now, and that’s the only way you’re gonna get any hope, and otherwise no one deserves any, and you won’t get it.   –Clare Farrell, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion

Coming out of Waspbourne Woods near the start: this early welling, a feeling I could only associate with grief I have experienced. I saw those at the head of the group skirting the edge of a tilled field, hawthorns blossoming white beyond them as another fast cloud occluded or let through the sun. Some snowdrops but not yet bluebells. Sheep and cows barrel-bellied but not yet lambs or calves. I was thinking about where the group was headed, picturing its progress over the ten days to come as if on the online maps that had been consulted ahead of our departure. Then this, a down-drag at throat and upper chest, loss-of-a-loved-one like; then, nearly tears. The coming-out, perhaps, but not the getting-rid of—the being-with, I later decided—certain thoughts and sensations. The being-with-it, the moving-forwards of my body while it is in my thoughts, and my body moving forwards as part of a loose procession of other human bodies and like minds. It, meaning the horror of uncertainty for the girls, dreams of social breakdown, something not unlike the greyscale world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, tinged by any number of books and films depicting post-apocalypse, The Drowned World, Blade Runner, Mad Max, the sillier the more real. In a place, in a place in my panic-body, where the girls and my partner are at the mercy of marauders currently plundering the earth, myself.

We’re playing—maybe—for being able to slow it down to the point where it doesn’t make civilizations impossible.   –Bill McKibben

Working at my laptop in the preceding months, my mid-afternoon dips had most of the time seen me turn to Twitter. Dissolution/aggravation. Too few laughs and far too many. Threads/voidings, links to stories on climate breakdown and species extinction, graphics of the shipping lane already made possible through the Arctic, helpless vehemence of comments below the line, your outrage monetized, shriveled rent-a-gob nutsacks taking cheap shots or trolls coming up out of truthy shadows, chanting and banners and dis/obedience, protesters pictured glued to bad buildings (but never pictured: the ungluing). And now to be walking, same thoughts and images but walking, on a cool cloud-scudding morning, 70 miles from London.

First of all, the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide has not been equalled for 4 million years (Pliocene), and future warming will lead to states unknown for 15 million years. The extinction of biodiversity is taking place with a suddenness matched only by five other episodes in the entire 4.5 billion years of life on Earth. The last extinction, which did away with the dinosaurs among others, goes back 65 million years and has left stratigraphic markers of the clearest kind. –The Shock of the Anthropocene, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, translated by David Fernbach

The party of pilgrims grew and diminished, some joining at our lunch stop near Danehill and others peeling off with promises to catch up with us at one of the protest sites: Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Parliament Square, or Waterloo Bridge. For those of us bringing our children, ten miles in a day was a lot. The line of walkers gradually elongated; those wishing to stretch their legs would go on ahead to a natural stopping point, a meeting of paths or the crest of a hill, and wait for others to catch up. There would then be a pause to allow us to take on drinks and trail snacks, and we’d all move on together.

Talk of the weather is so emotional now, the charge in the meeting of eyes so great.

At one point, just before Plawhatch Farm, some of those at the head, impatient after a steep, muddy section we’d had to toil up with the children, shot off almost as soon as we arrived (oh the days of being able to walk at your own adult pace!), and this prompted grumbles from everyone else, talk of un-solidarity and a “me first” attitude: We won’t save the planet that way, I heard somebody say. Apart from me and my family, and one other couple accompanied by their three boys, and a single mum with her son, the group was what I would think of as young and old—the pre-thirties and the post-fifties. It was the generation of my friends and peers, I realized, the ones at work that day, who were under-represented. It did not seem enough to say they just didn’t have the time, that their limited annual leave had to be stored up for proper holidays—and this also seemed about all there was to say.

The mismatch between the extremely dangerous state of the earth and my own feeble endeavours seems mockingly large.  –Anne Karpf

Not long before, I had given up reading a book, not through distraction or boredom but out of a kind of overwhelmment or dismay. In Timesong: Searching for Doggerland, Julia Blackburn attempts to “understand the distant mystery of a way of life that is so different to anything I have known”—meaning the life of peoples who inhabited the area of land celebrated as a prehistoric North Sea Atlantis, a place that once connected what we know as Great Britain to Holland and the rest of mainland Europe. Via interviews with stratigraphers and archaeologists, anthropological accounts of peoples still living as hunter-gatherers in the 20th century, and the work done by the linguists Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd on the “animistic” beliefs of the southern African |Xam people, Blackburn goes back to life thousands and tens of thousands of years ago, previous to and at the shocking onsets of past shifts in climate. Without explicitly setting out to do so, the book gives suggestions of what the planet might look like during or after climate catastrophe. The unease this had produced, a thinness at throat and belly, plus onslaughts of imaginings that were as real as memories to me, had been combining to obstruct sleep or wake me gasping from it.

One of the things Blackburn looks back to is the Laacher See volcanic eruption in western Germany 13,000 years ago:

Over 700,000 square kilometers of land were affected by the fallout . . . and the eruption column reached heights of some 40 kilometers, which means that on clear days it was visible throughout the land mass of Europe. The area lying at what is called “the eruptive center” was covered by volcanic deposits 50 meters thick, but a much wider area was affected by deposits that destroyed all vegetation and all the life that went with that vegetation . . . After the initial darkness, the air remained thick and murky for months or even years: ash clouds drifting and settling like dust before rising and drifting again. Ash in the hair, ash filling the mouth with its gritty taste, ash contaminating the water, covering the grasses on which animals graze, affecting trees and bushes, flowers and fruit, insects and birds. Lightning storms in seasons when such storms could not be expected, with lurid sunsets, loud noises and heavy, pendulous curtains of what are called mammatus clouds . . . Far away from the epicenter, birds are falling from the sky, animals are dead or dying or trying to flee in a panic and the bands of hunters who have come to Doggerland to explore the newly rich marches and waterways must escape, but they do not know where to escape to.

One of the sources for the information on Laacher See is Felix Riede from the Past Disaster Science team at the University of Arhus, who contends that such catastrophes are likely to happen again in Europe in the next three or four decades. When Blackburn asks him what he means by “likely,” he smiles a “broad and amiable smile.” “One hundred per cent,” he says: “Such disasters are the natural consequences of lifting the weight of ice from the land.”

Of the attitude to climate catastrophe, it is not from unwillingness, not selfishness, but rather a self-protective inability to face the obscenity of trauma.

A buzzard startled in a field near Wych Cross, taking off from among clumps of grass. How struggling and ungainly the sloshing of its heavy wings until it gets above the bank of trees and finds its thermal and is suddenly soaring, relieved. A sense of the weight of sinew, bone and feather in that span, that slight back-arch and strong scoop, strong enough when rigid to keep to the air for hours.

It was funny, April in England, with all of its associated stirrings. We could never decide whether it was colder than it should have been or warmer. Over the day there was rain, of course, and a chill to backpack-sweaty back and neck when clouds came in, but at other times the kind of sun and heat that seemed straight out of August, or another country, a holiday resort, perhaps. Talk of the weather is so emotional now, the charge in the meeting of eyes so great during this favorite pastime of those of us inhabiting these changeable British isles, this favorite way—until now—of deflecting emotion, or of extirpating it altogether.

[D]efensive strategies . . . include: other people are worse than me/it’s all the fault of someone else (blame-shifting); they’ll come up with something (technoptimism); make hay while the sun shines (hedonistic fatalism). Then there’s the view that the earth is so old and large, it can withstand the depredations of puny humans. I’d add another: climate-change fatigue. It’s all too easy to become inured to the warnings—the “yes, yes, I’ve heard it all before” defense. –Anne Karpf

How could your children not be intensely into animals? They have their cuddly toys and their picture books and their carefully curated CBeebies diet of dancing, singing, planet-saving creatures. Forest school is a thing, too: a time to get muddy and inspect insects and learn about trees. But, for the adults, what to do, how to feel, on looking for, say, caterpillars, should you wish to find a few to observe growing, pupating and hatching? They just aren’t around, you notice, not in the same numbers they were during your own childhood. You have a birdtable, positioned outside the kitchen window; breakfast and teatime have become hedge-sparrow appreciation time. But birds need insects to live on, you think, leaving the table to do the washing up before the girls have finished, the “Insectageddon” article you read earlier in the day still on your mind, the strangely quiet woods you have been walking this spring. How to respond when somebody walking beside you points out that our children, when they are our age, won’t have the taste of honey?

Because I was carrying the girls much of the way, it meant not carrying the banner. An over-the-shoulder strap had been constructed for it with a small duct-taped holder cupping the base of the pole. It was 10 by 8 feet, with a denim blue symbol (an hourglass?) on a white background. On country lanes, in petrol station forecourts and pub car parks, and then, I was told, with increasing frequency on the busy streets of south and inner London, people asking what it was, what it meant. A few of us would stop and talk. Not everyone saw it as an hourglass.

A surprising uniformity of response (including once London was entered, I was told), with people genuinely rooting for the group, pleased “someone was doing something”; people in fact all too aware of climate issues and at the same time, in their capacity as consumers misunderstood by and disconnected from the political class, powerless. On we would go. Walking, talking, thinking—thinking, say, of trauma aversion. Thinking of something I had recently read: an interview with a famous English film director who had uncovered, via therapy, a suppressed childhood episode of abuse. And of the attitude to climate catastrophe in related terms: not as unwillingness, not as selfishness, but rather a self-protective inability to face the obscenity of trauma.

What would a right hemisphere-dominated society look like then? The answer to that is: very balanced. Because the right hemisphere understands the need for the left hemisphere.   –Iain McGilchrist, interviewed by Bruce Parry

Walking, talking, remembering the conversation with Carlos in, what, 2005, as we came down after fiesta in Cadaques, sitting at the Cap de Creus as the sun rose over that stretch of Mediterranean. Carlos saying—so clearly, resolutely, mournfully—“El mundo está en nuestros manos”, and my clever responses then, and, before I had children, all my clever, anti-anthropocentric, and essentially misanthropic responses to such statements. I could still scorn the way Carlos cradled his hands, still nitpick over syllogisms in Rachel Carson’s argument about an “obligation to endure.” Walking, long and unlinear leaps of thought. Walking, thinking—thinking, say, of my like for writers who make a show of a lack of knowledge of correct terms. Stephen Thomas, “the pepper thing.” A refusal of mastery-pretense? What would it be to be a nature writer who knew only a few trees? What would it be like to be a tree? Always in the same place. Staying very still. “Unproductive.” A universe. Listening.

Marble Arch, the Tyburn Way side of the Tube station, where we went the following week—where young families were directed to go—was like a small music festival. Small city of tents and flag-making workshops and music, the August-like heat intensified, thickened, in the polluted air of London. Holy London, mother London, the place where you were born: to glimpse the 400 years of public hangings held in the same place, to come along a stretch of Bayswater Road completely clear of traffic! Guys in high-vis jumpsuits, bemused at the entrance to a massive building site brought to a standstill opposite Connaught Place. The look, perhaps imagined, of complicity with staff in the Pret when we went in for water refills—them wishing they could join us? Spotting Jeff at the Oxford Street roadblock and creeping up on him from behind!

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little. –Edmund Burke

Raising children is astonishing: as you feel this intense love and watch them, when they are young, changing so rapidly, you are, at the same time, experiencing that love going away, moving out of reach, a thing going on without you. A thing you can barely help but wish—the terms seem inescapably organic, and to do with increase—to flourish, to thrive.

Maybe the oddest thing is knowing what is to come.   –Timesong

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Brixton Review of Books Issue 6

From Thomas Bunstead’s essay featured in the Brixton Review of Books Issue 6 (Summer 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Thomas Bunstead.

Thomas Bunstead
Thomas Bunstead
Thomas Bunstead is a writer and translator living in East Sussex, England. He has translated some of the leading Spanish-language writers working today, including Agustín Fernández Mallo, Maria Gainza and Enrique Vila-Matas, and his own writing has appeared in >kill author, The Times Literary Supplement and The White Review. In 2018 his novel Semblance was shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Editions Novel Prize. You can find him @thom_bunn





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