Thursday, July 17, 2014

Muscle over Mind



Daemon: benevolent or benign nature spirits, beings of the same nature as both mortals and gods, similar to ghosts,chthonic heroes, spirit guides.

Greetings folks! I'm still here but haven't written anything in a while or been doing much in the way of online connecting generally. In fact I've been busy doing other things, mainly digging.

My days at the moment tend to involve digging out about half a ton of soil from the basement of our house, carrying it by bucket to a trailer and then driving it to our woodland where I unload it to build up various earthworks on the land, including a terrace for a polytunnel, a retaining wall for a large pond and another terrace. I then spend a couple of hours hacking up clay and rocks with a pick axe to deepen said pond and then return home to pick children up from school, make dinner and make sure they do their homework.

Usually, by the time they are in bed, I'm too shattered to do anything other than read.

I lost my part-time Danish translation job a couple of months back, which was what was keeping us afloat financially. As a direct result of this I found myself considering the unwelcome prospect of having to rejoin the so-called 'real world' and applying for a job at a newspaper. After much rationalisation I decided to go for it. On the day of the interview, which was for a chief reporter position, I found myself unable to don the required suit. I haven't worn my suit for many a year (it only sees light at funerals) and so instead I wore a casual shirt and jeans. It felt more comfortable. At the interview, which took place in a fairly large office in Truro, I found myself putting on the old act and talking in the acronyms and codewords that must necessarily accompany any discussion of journalism/marketing in the internet age (PPC campaigns, click-through ratios, Adwords etc), how to make stories 'viral' and how to drive traffic to sites via 'social media marketing'. As I waffled on I saw my daemon rise above me and stand there with his arms crossed, shaking his head slowly in disapproval at the sad spectacle before him. When I got home I felt sick.

Later that day the editor called to say that I didn't get the job. Something about me not having the requisite legal training meaning I would be a liability to the business if they employed me (I had pleaded that 'common sense' had always worked in the past, but these days it is not a valid excuse). When I'd finished whooping for joy I came to the sober realisation that this was the real thing: I was unemployable. I had applied for a number of menial jobs too, but was turned down for being 'too educated'. So this was it: make or break with my wits alone.

And that's why I've decided to go 'all in' with being a mushroom-growing, wood coppicing, herb-producing, permaculture-practicing, charcoal-burning woodlander.

Luckily for us my wife had managed to get a job as a community care worker at about the same time as I lost my job. It's one of those touted new jobs where you have no rights and get screwed at every level (she has worked 19 hours out of the last 24 for minimum wage and she has to pay the company money if she quits within the first year).

So what it all means is that I'm now the house-husband/manual labourer and that I've given myself a couple of years working flat-out at the woodland to try and make a business of it. I do get some government support, so it's quite an easy deal really, and we still manage to live lives on the level of, say, a lesser Egyptian pharaoh—on about a third of the average national wage for the UK. We also have a lot of fruit and veg growing, so food is nutritious and fresh from the back yard.

So please forgive the silence for a while. I have had a number of writing ideas gestating in my mind as I've been working. I was lucky enough to bag John Michael Greer to myself for an evening when he was over visiting the UK last month and discussed a few ideas over pints of bitter in a Glastonbury beer garden. So, I have a number of science fiction stories ready for writing this winter, with the first 'taster' one being published in 'Beyond Oil 3' (which you can read a draught of here). Before then I'll be aiming to finish my 'peak oil' book which has been on the back burner for a while.

This last one is going to include a lot of stuff that I have been reading recently in terms of Gaian thinking and perceptions. It's what my daemon says I should be doing with my time instead of playing at being a hack-drone in a corporate war zone.

So, that's it for now. The weather is hot and sultry here and they say it will hail golf balls tomorrow. Happy days.

p.s. I apologise for not responding to comments on my last post.

p.p.s. That's not me in the picture at the top.


Friday, June 6, 2014

Communities that Abide Kindle Version



I received my author copies of Communities that Abide yesterday. A few people on this side of the pond have asked how they can get hold of a copy but unfortunately the physical book was only available in the US and has indeed sold out.

However, fear not, the Kindle version is now available for download and is very reasonably priced.

Communities that Abide is a collection of articles put together by Dmitry Orlov and deals with concrete examples of peoples and communities that have demonstrated resilience. It's an eclectic mix of subject matter, with various articles including one about the emergent phenomenon of 'Sea Gypsies', courtesy of Ray Jason, a memoir of a lifeboat community courtesy of Albert Bates and some very useful information on how to deal with medical emergencies and health in the absence of a 'real' doctor courtesy of practising professional James Truong. There's even a section on (small scale) communism and the Kindle edition has a bonus chapter by allopathic practitioner Peter Gray.

My chapter, entitled Resilience in the face of Genocide, illustrates the time I spent in the southeast Asian nation of Laos—the most bombed country in history—and looks at the way tribal and village communities are evading the Chinese investment juggernaut. It's written in a half-travelogue, half-polemic format, and I detail narrowly avoiding being blown up by a bomb and undergoing an exorcism.

If you are in the UK/Europe you can order your copy here.

US readers can get hold of their copy here.

If you buy it and read it, please feel free to leave a review so that it receives more prominence.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Shooting the Breeze




You can hear me talking with Ibrahim Nour from the Doomstead Diner by following the link below. In it we talk about our general state of malaise and my decision to move back to the UK.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Black and White Swan



A couple of years ago I found myself driving through the industrial wastelands that make up the nexus between Belgium, Holland and Germany. The flat landscape rolled by under a heavy grey sky as I towed a trailer filled with our furniture from one part of Europe to another. I had passed through this area on several occasions before, and it was always my least favourite part of the journey due to the sheer dispiriting glumness of the scenery. It’s a landscape of business parks, factories and factory farms, truck stops and power stations. Rivers are corseted by concrete and horizons are cluttered with the droopy spider webs of power lines. Just to the north lies Rotterdam, Europe’s largest container port and, until recently, the world’s busiest, and to the south is Maastricht, famed as the place where the EU was birthed but nowadays a place where they are developing synthetic meat grown in test tubes. We are, of course, within the magnetic range of Brussels itself and the motorways around it buzz with high powered people driving high powered cars. 

From space this region is lit up with a particular intensity. It’s one of the most densely populated and industrialised places on Earth, marking it out as an economic power house. But down at ground level, apart from the occasional bird in the sky, the only other life forms visible in this landscape were some peculiarly muscular cows that stood around dociley in fields besides the motorways. Until I saw the swan. I was queuing up with all the other cars and lorries to pay a tunnel toll when I glanced out of the window and saw it lying in a concrete drainage culvert. It was an adult, perfectly white and immaculate but for a black scorch mark on one of its wings. Above it were the high voltage cables that had ended its life. 

For some reason, whenever I think of the the EU I think of that electrocuted swan lying there on the concrete. No doubt, later on, a municipal sanitation operative would have come along with a machine and taken away the dead swan along with the fast food cartons, cigarette butts and bottles of urine that truckers routinely toss out of windows across Europe.

I have been thinking about that black and white swan again recently with all the brouhaha about the latest European elections. There’s been a lot of talk about shocks and landslides and earthquakes, not least here in the UK where the anti-EU UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) managed to get around a third of the vote from people who could be bothered to turn off their televisions for fifteen minutes, making them the clear winners. Elsewhere across Europe there were more ‘extremist’ wins, including the Front National (FN) in France and the Danish People’s Party (DPP) in Denmark—although to be fair they have been a force for a long time. Across the board, in country after country, voters elected to deliver a blow to the established parties. People, it seems, are pissed off.

And is it any wonder? Day after day we are told by a compliant media that the economy is in great shape—that we’ve never had it so good. And yet day after day more and more people find themselves unable to pay their rent, put food on the table or get a job that pays more than subsistence wages. Even if you manage to get a job, you’ll more than likely be put on a zero hours contract, meaning that you are officially employed but will be unable to claim benefits should your manager decide to put you on one hour a week. Many thousands, if not millions, have tried to escape this new form of slavery and have been forced to declare themselves as self-employed. But being self-employed offers even less of a safety net than a zero hours contract, even though it is good news for the politicians who can crow on about a ‘nation of entrepreneurs’ and falling unemployment statistics. 

Anyway, for me, the fascinating thing about this latest election was the way the British media (mis)handled UKIP. The two mainstream media news sources that I read most regularly are the Guardian, which likes to see itself as progressive and attempts to squeeze most news stories through the prism of gender politics, and the Telegraph, which is properly right-wing nasty and sounds like a crazed and drunken homophobic uncle forced to attend a gay wedding on a wind farm. I sometimes read the amusingly-named Independent, if I haven’t anything better to do, and occasionally torment myself by looking at the BBC, whose main objective seems to be to bore you to death. If I watch TV news, it’ll be on Channel 4, which sometimes has some interesting documentaries.

And here’s the amusing thing, every single one of these MSM news sources tried to bring down UKIP, with disastrous results. Just look back at any of the stories published a week or two ago about UKIP or its leader Nigel Farage and you can get your UKIP bingo cards out. The cards feature the following words: racist, fruitcake, sham, anti-gay, xenophobic, fiasco, coward, gaffe, anti-immigrant and farce. It became quickly obvious that the MSM right across the spectrum (with the exception of the populist tabloids such as the Mail and the Sun) were out to get UKIP, which represented a threat to their respective constituencies, and had decided to work as a pack to bring this maverick down. No stone was left unturned to dig up dirt on Nigel Farage, UKIP or and of his merry band of followers, including a dotty Greek billionaire who believed that humankind would perish because women were allowed to wear trousers. Comments sections were flung wide open underneath online articles and much rabid hatred ensued, with ‘fascist’ being the most over-used word.

The thing was, every time such an attack took place, it looked more and more like our Fourth Estate was trying to protect the established powers that be, and the mask slipped just a little bit further. And every time it did so, a few more people concluded that if the media were so anti UKIP then UKIP might just be the party for them. Which begs the question, what is the point of having a media if all it does is amplify the status quo?

Now, at this point, some people might think that I’m a UKIP supporter. I’ll put your mind at rest and reveal that I voted for the Green Party—the only party that offers even an iota of a chance at making our predicament a little less painful. But the same media machine that accidentally propelled UKIP to a win was able to crush the Greens into the dust, as they always do, by never mentioning them. If they ever do get a mention we are effectively told that the Greens are not a serious party because they don’t embrace limitless capitalism. And they only have a single issue, which is, er, everything that's important.

And so the polite, sandal wearing, permaculture-practicing Greens were once again trounced (although not the one I voted for, who was elected to the European Parliament) and the beery, loud mouthed ‘normal blokes’ UKIP were propelled to victory.

There has been plenty of wailing, but I feel strangely reassured by the result. Democracy seems to be working, for once. I hope I don't lose any friends for saying this, but I have to say what I believe in. I don’t think it does any good screaming ‘fascist’ at people who voted for UKIP or accusing them of being ‘racists’ for wanting to limit the number of people coming into the UK. To do so is immensely disrespectful of people who have to put up with real fascists and dictators and who live in fear of being dragged from their beds in the middle of the night and disappearing without a sound—a fate that happens to thousands of people around the world every year.

So, I’m not for UKIP, but I am all in favour of calling in the EU and examining what exactly it is that we’re signing up for. I know why a lot of people hate UKIP, and it has more to do with hating the types of people who vote for them than the actual party. Comparisons with Hitler are not particularly useful as anyone with even a scant knowledge of history will know that fascism doesn’t flourish easily on British soil (it prefers continental Europe—one of the reasons I moved back here). The Greens should learn a thing from UKIP and be the ‘nice’ anti EU party, such as Italy’s 5 Star Movement has done.

I haven’t always been against the EU because, like most people, I bought the idea that it was all about peace and stability. More importantly, in the minds of most, it was all about not having to visit a bureau de change when you went on holiday. And I’ve always been utterly European. I’ve lived in five different European countries and speak several of its languages. My family spans three countries and I don’t think I could live on any other continent. 

When I was doing my gap year at university in 1992 I worked for the the Treasury in Westminster. I had to write my economics dissertation that year and my tutor suggested I write about monetary union in Europe. The Treasury library was more than happy to order me a load of books (at the taxpayer’s expense) detailing the ‘inevitability’ of full monetary union, and my tutor suggested that he’d give me a good mark no matter how badly I’d written it ‘As long as you conclude the inevitability of full monetary union,’. I did and he did.

Ever since then we’ve been swept along on a railroad of propaganda and fake ‘choices’. The EU does not want member states to hold referendums on important matters as was so clearly demonstrated early on with the Danish referendum where they voted ‘no’ (and the subsequent referendum where they were more or less ordered to vote ‘yes’) and the later enlargement treaties. In fact, it is acting more and more like a federal dictatorship. As far as I’m aware, nobody in the mainstream media has focussed on the fact that the EU effectively got rid of two democratically-elected heads of state (in Greece and Italy) and installed technocratic puppets to enact austerity. The patient and tolerant people in Spain, Portugal and Greece are putting up with the kind of grinding austerity without end that people in northern Europe probably wouldn’t be able to bear (although we’ll soon have to). And I’m still waiting for the media outrage over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between itself and the US which would effectively hand over control of democratic rights to transnational corporations.

That last one bears repeating. The EU and the US are currently trying to impose a trade deal on us in the name of growth that would take away our basic democratic rights. Monsanto will be able to sue your government if they decide to ban roundup. Big pharma will be able to take your country to court if it tries to protect children’s health by, say, reducing the availability of sugary drinks. 

Is that the kind of brave new world that we want? It makes my head spin that progressives and people on the left still see the EU as a benign entity that is somehow a force for good. It might have been once, but to think that it still is is to place blind faith in the idea that power does not somehow beget more power. And yet even when it was regarded as ‘benign’ by ‘pro-Europeans’ it was still enacting the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy—possibly two of the most environmentally destructive and famine-inducing policies in world history. We Europeans enjoyed swimming in milk lakes and climbing grain mountains while people in Africa starved as a result and the seas were emptied of marine life.

I, for one, enjoyed the early years of the EU. I remember the joy of getting my first red European passport, and the thrill of passing through an open border without having to show that passport. I also took great delight in seeing some of our home-grown predators have their wings clipped by the EU and seeing victims of power abuse find redemption in the European Court of Human Rights. I proudly called myself a European and fervently hoped that Britain would also adopt the euro currency. You could hop on a sleek train in London and get off in a short time later in Paris. It all seemed so modern and progressive. 

There were, of course, some people shouting ‘danger!’ from the rooftops—but I didn’t listen to them. These people got lumped in with the xenophobes, the Little Englanders and the crusty British cargo culters who wore navy blazers and swilled scotch in country golf clubs. 

But has the EU now ironically become a threat to Europeans themselves? An optimist would say that it brings people together, promotes growth and acts as a bulwark against other superpowers. But step outside the mainstream media for a moment and you might equally conclude that it has transformed into a morally bankrupt powerhouse of rapacious capitalism—an engine for keeping northern Europe economically afloat at the expense of the southern Europeans. Remember, Mario Draghi pledged to do ‘whatever it takes’ to keep the euro currency from imploding, even if that means toppling democratically elected leaders, pumping billions of euros into bankrupt financial institutions and selling voters to corporate interests for a fistful of dollars. Just what kind of democracy is this?

If Greece, for example, were allowed to leave the euro and bring back the drachma its problems would evaporate almost overnight. Its new (old) currency would be correctly valued by the markets, making its exports much more competitive. Tourists would flock there to get a good value holiday, people would buy Greek products again and, equally importantly, Greeks would feel like they were in charge of their own affairs once more and would not feel compelled to support parties like the Golden Dawn. But, of course, the ECB will not allow that to happen. The euro must not be compromised in any way, shape or form. And so the Greeks get poorer, are forced to sell their beaches and national treasures just to pay the interest on their unpayable loans, and the Germans retain their ability to earn money from China and the media says things like ‘the worst is over’ and ‘the crisis has been resolved’. And the anger and frustration spreads and grows like a cancer.

So people have voted UKIP, FN and DPP out of frustration at not being listened to. These things happen with predicable regularity when the economic conditions turn sour. Charismatic leaders attempt to scapegoat minorities and make all sorts of promises, even if they aren’t able to deliver on them. People are fed up with the usual bunch of clowns harping on about economic recovery and change, egged on by their media lapdogs, and promising nothing more than business as usual while enriching their pals at their expense. And now, in the European Parliament, we have an unholy rabble of people who want to expand the EU standing next to people who want to destroy the EU as well as the usual environmentalists, conservatives, communists and socialists. Talk about an odd mix. 

So what do all these ‘political earthquakes’ add up to? Could it be the first faint rumble of the beginning of the end for the grand European project? Was the EU just a freak expansion of power straddling the pinnacle of the age of cheap oil? Will people rise up and claim back their democratic sovereignty before it is too late to do so? We can only hope so because if the EU carries on much longer in its present configuration it can only end in one thing, and that was the very thing its creation was supposed to prevent. 


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How much is too much?



I've been doing rather a lot of manual labour recently—digging out a basement, digging out a pond and using the spoil from both to build a foundation for the poly tunnel on a sloping field. As I'm sure most of you know, doing work such as this is a great way to ponder things over: the body is occupied so the mind is free to roam. As such there are often thoughts drifting through my head that I try to file away mentally under the category 'Possible blog topics'. Often, however, they are merely questions for which I have no answer.

One such thought occurred to me last week as I attempted to dig over a patch of turf and turn it into a small area for planting vegetables. Labouring away with a mattock, I first had to break the sod, then turn it over and break it up some more with a few more vigorous hacks. Then I had to bend over and pull out the various bits of grass and weeds before moving onto the next bit. When it was all done I had to break up the large clumps of soil and dig little trenches for the seedlings to sit in, and finally I had to put rabbit-proof fence around it and lay a slug trap (a plastic milk bottle, half full of beer, set into the soil). It was quite an effort, but by the end of six or so hours I had a nice patch of turned earth in which to plant some sweetcorn, peas, beans and turnips.

While I was doing this, in the next field over, a man turned up with a tractor. It wasn't a quaint old-style tractor that you might see on a picture of an old farm—no, this was one of those giant modern ones that looks like an SUV on steroids. Indeed, it was so large that it was wider than the country lane leading to the field—which was only ever meant to be wide enough for two horses to pass—and I later saw that it had driven there with one wheel on the verge, leaving a trail of crushed wildflowers in the process. In a quarter of the time it took me to dig my little patch by hand, the tractor went over the entire 10 or so acres in the neighbouring field, turning and tilling the soil until it was a fine crumbly mixture, and then planting many thousands of potatoes in it.

Which got me thinking: how much energy is too much energy? From the perspective of the agribusiness that owns the land adjacent to mine, their method is obviously seen as the most efficient. After all, they no doubt have fleets of tractors, easy-flowing credit and lakes of pesticides to throw at the 'problem' of getting the land to yield a saleable commodity. My method, by contrast, is highly inefficient. For all the physical energy I put in, I'll probably get back about the same amount in terms of calories—assuming the birds, rabbits and slugs don't jump into the middle of my equation and eat my produce first.  In energy return terms, my method probably comes in at 1:1 or slightly less (although it would be higher if I were planting potatoes or other starchy crops).

But that wouldn't be taking into account all the other factors that, in my opinion, make the low-tech human-powered method the more sustainable. Here are some of the things that I count as benefits, but which would not show up on the balance sheet of the agribusiness 'farming' the next field:

- I am not disturbing the soil too much. More and more research is showing that deep ploughing by machinery is ruining the structure and the content of soil. It takes years—decades even—for soil to find a healthy balance, and by violently disturbing it every few months we destroy the immensely complex communities of organisms that make soil soil rather than dirt. [Taking this further, when my poly tunnel is up I'll be experimenting with no-dig gardening, in which the soil is hardly disturbed at all.]

- I am not killing too many earth worms. Worms are our soily allies. They turn decaying matter into worm casts, which is highly enriching for soil and plants. There are inevitably a few casualties even when digging by hand, but this is nothing in comparison to the millions that must be sliced in half by the tractor blades next door. And no, cutting a worm in half does not make two worms - it makes two halves of a dead one.

- I am getting exercise. No need to join a gym when you spend the day digging!

- It costs me almost nothing (I already own the land, the tools and the seeds) - which is very helpful as I have recently lost the only means of paid employment I had and every penny counts.

- I am fostering a deeper sense of my place in this particular ecosystem. Instead of seeing the land as something I can bludgeon into submission with chemicals and machines, I get to see it as it really is: a community of organisms working together to create the whole. I am but one organism within that rich community, and by working slowly and deliberately my mind has time to adjust to this reality rather than be shielded from it.

- The food will nourish me and my family far more than the chemically-raised mono crop being grown in the field next to me. My food is grown from organic heritage seeds, will be eaten fresh and won't be packaged. The distance it will travel before it is eaten will be negligible.

- I am being part of the human community in the area. By working the land and growing food and fuel I will be able to swap it with others, or even give them some if they need it. By contrast, the agribusiness does nothing but take. None of the local people even know who is driving the tractors, who owns the business or where the money goes to. It certainly doesn't end up in the local area.

I'm sure we could all think of other benefits, but the point is that 'efficiency' is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to growing food. In essence, I managed to dig enough ground to grow some healthy and nutritious food for me and my family, and during the same time the man driving the tractor—probably earning minimum wage—earned enough to buy a few Big Macs (and the company he was working for probably earned a few thousand pounds to pay in dividends to shareholders or purchase some more distressed land from yet another broke farmer). I could summarise as:

Agribusiness: How many costs can we externalise so that the land earns the business maximum profits?
Me: How much money can the land save me, and how many other intangibles can it earn both for me and it?

In a nutshell, the agri-business is exploiting what remains of any integrity the land has at the expense of its longer term viability. By wrecking the soil structure, dousing it with chemicals and growing four crops per year (one crop of daffodils, two crops of potatoes and one crop of cabbages last year) the soil has been reduced to little more than a medium for absorbing chemicals and keeping plants upright in. What's more, the field is being ploughed in the wrong direction, with the tractor driving up and down the contours rather than across them, meaning that every time there is a heavy burst of rain the local roads and streams are turned bright red with soil being washed away. This soon finds its way into the sea, and I saw a large bloom of red in the sea back in March as the soil was washed away.

But, in any case, why should the tractor driver care if the soil is washed away? He is probably a migrant worker and is being paid by the job, so the quicker he can get it done the better. He will move onto a new job in a different area the next day and there is no obvious reason for him to care about the damage being done to the land. He's just doing his job, right? Who can we locals complain to about the soil that is being washed away if it is not 'our' soil and we don't know which companies are responsible for this act of vandalism?

Yet all of this damage is possible because of cheap fossil fuels. Oil to turn into pesticides, gas to turn into fertiliser, oil to build and fuel the tractors, oil to transport and process the produce far and wide and oil to keep the economic model ticking over and provide a basis for leveraged debt-based growth to occur in order that giant agribusiness conglomerations can claim that this is the only efficient way of growing food.

So, the question remains, how much energy is too much energy and at what point does too much cheap energy begin to kill us?



Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Calamity in the UK



A question arose in my mind earlier when I was reading the summary of a new report with the catchy title "Sustainability and place: How emerging mega-trends of the 21st century will affect humans and nature at the landscape level". This report basically takes a stab at where, and where is not, likely to be a good place to live ... in the US. It's an interesting read for doomsters, and it takes account of factors such as sea level rise, drought and social unrest.

I'd love to see a similar study done for Europe. As long-time readers will know, it's something of a hobby of mine to hazard guesses about which places are going to be hit harder than others. My own guess is that the UK—a country I have voluntarily chosen to move back to after 13 years away—is going to be hit pretty hard. This is, after all, the country where the news headlines on the eve of the biggest East-West confrontation of the century featured the shocking news that Prince Harry was seen twerking at a wedding in Memphis 'surrounded by southern belles'.

How are people going to react to news that could be said to have a more relevant bearing on them? Such as 'Britain to run out of petrol next Wednesday' or 'Fires and lynchings in City of London rage for a fourth night'.

I certainly don't want to be around any of the giant conurbations stuffed to the gunwales with disaffected, radicalised, unemployed youths when the food trucks stop rolling, the sewage systems back up and the taps run dry. I know that the current government is trying to avoid such a scenario by welcoming anyone with money into the country so that they can help inflate a number of bubbles for people to look at and pretend they are wealthy, but I'm not at all sure that such a strategy can last forever. Bear in mind that there are about 65 million people living here (in the early days of the British empire, that figure was five million, which explains all the stately homes), and the whole shebang is funded on exponentially growing debt—something that neither the right or the left will admit to. All this is going on while the political/financial elites are selling off everything that isn't nailed down and robbing future generations of a stable future.

What's more, it's hard not to notice that a lot of people hate each other. I mean REALLY hate. All you have to do is show a picture of UKIP leader Nigel Farage or Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson to an audience of liberals and you'll spark off a Two Minutes Hate. By the same token, show a picture of a wind turbine or a badger to an audience of right-wingers and you'd better get your umbrella out or face being drenched with bile. Have we always been like this?



And then there's the self-hate thing. Does any other nation hate itself as much as the English do? Just read the comments below any politics/finance/society article in the Guardian or Telegraph or any of the other usual suspects and you'll see what I mean. If 'we' are not wailing about how everything is being ruined, then we are wailing about everyone else ruining everything for us. Perhaps it just comes with the territory.

Luckily I live about as far away from all this as possible without falling into the sea, and all the fuss about the Prince Harries and Jeremy Clarksons seem a long, long way from here. I'm not a nationalist, a royalist, a jihadist or any other ist and I'm pretty comfortable being a white bloke, even though I have occasionally been told that this is something to be ashamed of. Furthermore, and happily for me, I live in Cornwall, whose people were only last week granted National Minority status, causing much jubilation among Cornish folk and much non-plussed 'so whats?' from resident emmets. This is seen by some as a first step towards a regional assembly, followed by autonomy and eventual nationhood (Cornwall being one of the Celtic nations, the others being Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Brittany).

"But that can't be so!" wailed a good many English, who look down on their Cornish cousins. "Don't you know that Cornwall is dirt poor and can only survive by having us buy up all their quaint cottages for holiday homes?" they say.

Yep, it's true. To an extent. Cornwall is officially one of the poorest places in the whole of Europe (ranking alongside Lithuania), with London being the wealthiest. But it hasn't always been that way—go back to the Bronze Age and this was one of the richest areas to be found anywhere. The source of those riches arose from tin, which was traded with the Greeks to make bronze for their weapons. Furthermore, the land was enriched by the application of seaweed something that is not in short supply here—making it quite a fertile bit of land. Could it be that way again? It's mild climate makes it the best place for growing things ... not least hemp, which was a prime product back in the days when it was legal. What about those mines that tunnel everywhere underneath the land? They are unprofitable in the age of oil, but what about after the age of oil? And the shipping possibilities? There is already one sail-powered cargo boat operating between Cornwall and the Caribbean - there may be more in years to come. It's intriguing to think of what could be.

Anyway, getting back to that report, one of the conclusions was that if you want to avoid the worst effects of the collapse into scarcity-industrialism the best thing you can do is move to somewhere that is already used to missing out on the technologically obsessed turbo charged capitalist euphoria that is so fashionable these days. These areas tend to have rich land that has yet to be concreted over, and the locals are already expert in getting by with whatever resources they have to hand because they've been led to fend for themselves. Indeed most of the people I count as friends these days have good honest dirt under their fingernails, brew their own cider and probably don't even know what a twerking prince looks like. So pick your area wisely.


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On a positive note, I'm happy to say that I've spent the last three weeks wallowing in stories of genocide, viewing films of villages being bombed and seeing images of children with their limbs blown off—all so that you don't have to. The result is a chapter about the US Secret War In Laos for Dmitry Orlov's forthcoming book entitled Communities that Abide. The book will be released in June and is available for pre-order by following this link - and there is a limited print run so get your order in now before it sells out!




Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Saga and the Bog People


A post peak piece of speculative fiction.

***

I, Saga Axelsdottir, disgraced scholar of Continuity and daughter of master silver skinner Axel Flink, have a confession to make. This is my story and I swear by Woden that any falsehoods in its retelling are the product of a dimming memory wrought by the erosion of time rather than by any mischief. My chief concern with the recounting of this tale is to assuage the hidden ones and apologise for the ill luck I have brought down on my family by my selfish actions. Gods know it will not be long before I join my beloved Bran, who lies in the barrow a thousand miles from his homeland awaiting the day when I join him to make the last journey together.

Yes, this story shall go with me to the grave. The hidden ones have no interest in the earthly deceits of pride and ego and it serves nobody to make my confession public. As I finish committing this shameful confession to paper I will seal it in a bonded metal flask and offer it to the hidden ones as I cast it into the sea from the cliffs of the Nordcap. Thus, as any adept of Continuity knows, my story will float along the currents of time and space like a seed upon the wind, and shall only come to rest in the minds of those whom the gods see fit to read it. Thus, by the waning light of this oil lamp, I offer my shame to the hidden folk and pray that whatever fury its telling invokes will be swift and merciful.

But enough of this self-pity for, in truth, I cannot complain about the life that I have lived. Although I am an old woman now, barely able to fetch water, I was once young and full of the zest of life. The fourth of six, I was born to Axel Flink and Frida Fridasdottir on a small farm on the rocky western shores of our beloved Numark. Three of my siblings never found souls to inhabit their tiny bodies, but I thrived and my parents became convinced that I was destined for things greater than the daughter of a silver skinner could ordinarily expect. Some of my earliest memories were of going out on my father’s boat with him, watching his strong arms as he hauled in another wriggling gasping silverskin beneath the light summer skies. My father was the light of my life. Although his station in life was a lowly one he had an education of a sort and was a collector of tales and myths from the past. To indulge his passion he kept a small library of books below decks on his boat that he would read and re-read on long voyages. He had amassed the books by trade and, putting in at some new foreign port, he always sought out any local book sellers to add to his collection. He had an affinity with the sea and people spoke of his uncanny ability to know where the rare and elusive silverskins were hiding in the murky depths, and it must have been true because his fame spread across the Numark and everyone called him Axel Fisk. 

But his passions lay with books rather than silverskins and I, wrapped in seal furs on the deck, listened to his tales of the old world as he read them out slowly and meticulously in his soft voice, his eyes glinting with wisdom and love as he did so. In this way, while other children had to settle for tales of dragons and giants, I was raised on the no-less-remarkable tales of people flying through the skies in giant winged ships and birthing Sol's babies which got loose and burned down whole cities. At the end of every tale he would close the book, lean in close to me and say “And that, my dearest Saga, is truer than true.” My favourite story was the one about the the time when they flew all the way to Møn and gazed into the faces of the hidden folk. The Møn folk, so my father said, had giant milky eyes so that they could look down on us and all the men who looked at them lost their minds and turned back into children. The Møn folk, in turn, punished us for our impudence, and in their fury caused both Møn and Sol to hover closer to Jord, causing all sorts of cataclysms for us mortals. Water boiled up from the seas, flooding the land in some parts, while in other parts Sol scorched the peoples and the forests leaving nothing but yellow dust and white ashes where once there had been forests and houses. And then there was the Great Shudder and the story of how the ocean ate up our land and most of people on it in one great hungry gulp. 

So the story goes anyway. Whether my father really believed this or not I’ll never know, but my mother chided him for filling my head with such stories. No good would come of these half-baked stories of the onder folk, she reckoned. Because that’s what we called them in my language—the onde, or evil—ones, who had broken into the realm of the Møn people and cursed all of our race with their wickedness. We’ll likely never know if these things actually happened, and perhaps it is not for us to question, but one thing we know to be true is that this glorious land of ours, the Numark, was bestowed on us by the old gods who came to our rescue just in time. It was to here that our ancestors were led away from the chaos of the world and offered a new start. That much is historical certainty and it was the honour and privilege of the Guild of Continuity to research new proofs of this.

I paid no attention to the concerns of my mother but perhaps if I had done so I would not be sitting here now, scribbling this shameful note in the half-dark and preparing to cast its message upon the winds of space and time. Nevertheless, my mother soon changed her tune when a message arrived from Nuukobenhavn stating that sisters from the Order of the Kendt would be coming to our village in the spring and they wanted to meet with ‘the renowned Axel Fisk and his remarkable daughter’. I was barely eight years old at the time yet word seemed to have travelled that I could read and write not just in our own tongue and the dialects of the three tribes of the Numark, but that I had learned the ancient language of Ingelsk and had read a full half of my father’s library. 

The day they arrived the whole village had been cleaned up in preparation. Houses were painted a fresh white, gardens were weeded and laid out with fresh strips of seaweed, and even the silver skinners were persuaded to clear up their tangled nets which had been sitting in huge piles by the shore for as long as anyone could remember. The village was expecting some kind of huge entourage, but in the event only three Sisters turned up that day, riding on white horses and wearing the robes of the Order. They moved into specially-scrubbed rooms at Ib’s Krog, the only hostelry in the village, and stayed for over a week. During that time I was taken into their care and my mind and soul were examined under intense scrutiny. I was subjected to stresses, both emotional and physical, and my tolerance was sorely tested. The Sisters made notes as they went along, communicating with each other in their language which sounded so peculiar to me back then. Their tone was flat  and sometimes harsh, and I felt they were not agreeable people and longed to be back with my parents.

At the end of the week I was returned to my parents. Despite my best efforts and the hopes of everyone I was not deemed worthy to enter the Order and the Sisters left the village without so much as a farewell. My mother was angry, but not as angry as Ib, the innkeeper, who demanded 200 crowns from my father to pay for the Sisters’ unpaid bill. My father refused to pay it but eventually the local magistrate ordered him to settle half of it and he had to put his books aside that summer and venture out into the deeper and more dangerous waters to catch enough silverskins to erase the debt. By the end of September most of the money had been repaid but we had barely any heating fuel for the long winter ahead. So busy had my father been trying to pay off the innkeeper that he had had no time to cut the peat down in the Black Marshes. He struck a deal with a travelling fuel man, but the price was high and the man would only deliver when he had been paid. 

I begged him not to go, but my father said he could catch enough silverskins to pay off both the innkeeper and the fuel man if he ventured out to the seas beyond Disko. To do so was risky at the best of times because of the violent storms and treacherous seas that beset the area, but the other silver skinners reassured me that if anyone could make a successful voyage there it was my father. Of course, I never saw him again, and my mother blamed me for the rest of her days. Ib Storlik, the innkeeper, still demanded his money, and he watched us without feeling as we shivered in the darkness, alone with our sorrows for the whole winter. Others were kinder towards us, for my father was a good man and had been held in high esteem. The local catchers’ guild paid off our debts and brought us a little hvaloil to light our lamps and cook our meagre supply of food. We didn’t starve or freeze, but when the spring melt came and Sol returned to her skies I had lost another member of my family for my youngest brother had coughed himself to sleep over the solstice, never to awaken. 

In truth, I blamed myself for all that had happened, and I missed my father with his sparkling eyes and his soft tones more than I could ever tell anyone. My mother was steadfast in her blame. After we had laid our poor little Ivan to rest in the icy cave at the edge of the sea she turned to me and clipped me across the face with the back of her had. “See what misery you have brought to this family,” she screamed at me in front of the crowd of mourners. Afterwards as everyone filed away and the tears froze to my cheeks I walked out onto the ice, heading towards the same dark horizon to which my father had ventured three months before. The icy winds tormented me as I struggled through the snow to my destiny, and it was not long before my skins froze solid and it became a labour just to put one foot in front of the other. I fell to my knees and said a prayer to the old gods, imploring them to give me a swift end. Let the ice crack and swallow me up, I begged. Yet it wasn’t a god who answered me but my own father, brought alive from his watery grave to stand before me glowing with love and wisdom that seemed not of this world. “Father,” I tried to say, but no sound came out that could be heard above the howl of the winds. He knelt down and caressed my frozen hair with his strong weather-beaten hands and then leaned forward and whispered something in my ear. In that moment warmth and happiness flooded my soul and I knew that there was nothing to worry about any longer. And as the darkness engulfed me I sank into eternity with half a smile on my frozen face.

But eternity was not to last. Ib Storlik, who had been lurking in the background at the funeral, had seen me walk out onto the ice and followed me. It was he who scooped up my inert body in his arms and pulled me on his sledge back to our village. Everyone had been looking for me but the cold had forced the search parties back inside for the night. Ib Storlik told them he had found a hungry white bear standing over me, and had had to fight it off with only a hunting stick and his quick wits to save me. Nobody have ever seen a white bear before, but they were said to appear in times of great sorrow, and most seemed to believe him.

At first they thought I was dead. They laid me out on a bed and warm oils were rubbed into my skin as the gods were implored to be merciful. The colour slowly returned to me and I opened my eyes the following day. I was fed spiced seal soup and the hot blood of musk oxen yet it was three days before I was well enough to stand again, and for once my mother looked happy. She hugged me tight and told me I was forgiven and that it was she who was to blame for everything. I felt her tears as she clutched me to her, and for the first time in months I sensed that the worst of our ordeal might be over. I turned to her and was about to tell her that I had seen Father and that he was dead but that everything would be alright. I was about to tell her all this but instinct warned me against doing so. I wrestled with my feelings—it didn’t feel right to keep such a secret inside me. In any case I was straining to remember the words he had whispered to me as I lay dying on the ice. But the words were gone and only the feeling of the words remained. I wiped a tear away from my mother’s cheek and said “Things will get better for us from now on. I promise.”

And they did. The spring brought a change in our fortunes in the form of another message, again from Nuukobenhavn. The report made by the Sisters had been passed onto the Royal Akademy. Although I may not be Kendt material, the message informed, the Akademy was willing to provide me with a scholarship and train me in the ways of Continuity. Everyone was thrilled for me and for the village. It would bring prestige to have raised an Akademy student, and as the icicles melted in the spring thaw a great party was organised to celebrate my scholarship. The messenger also carried a disbursement to cover the Sisters’ stay—something that nobody had expected, least of all the innkeeper who, seeking to bolster his new-found popularity, publicly gave a portion of it to my mother to cover her loss.

Within weeks a group of masons and carpenters arrived bearing the Dronning’s coat of arms and work was begun on my school. It was to be situated on a bluff overlooking the village, and the area was cleared of trees and bushes before work could begin. It took the men only two months to construct the pod from stone and wood, and when they were finished it was outfitted with a desk, a bed and other sparse items of furniture. The pod took the form of a stone bunker, eight sided and with a single window facing south. When the workmen had finished the teknik crew arrived on a boat from Nuukobenhavn and their valuable cargo was transported to the schooling pod on a flat-bed carriage pulled by two large work horses. The ether-gram was a large brass machine, brand new from the workshops of Island, the smoky isle. It was encased in brass metal, and the numerous dials and switches on its gleaming face unnerved me. How would I, a silver skinner’s daughter, ever learn to operate such an instrument? Finally, when the equipment had been fitted, all that remained was for the schooling pod to be sanctified by an Akademy-sanctioned priest in the name of Woden, the god of knowledge who had sacrificed his eyes in order to achieve wisdom. 

My enrolment was sanctified by an Akademy acolyte, who then stayed with me for those first few months, tutoring me in the ways of operating the ether-gram and establishing the disciplined routine I would follow for the next eight years of my life. After she left I was on my own. I lived in the school pod and the small garden surrounding it, receiving visitors only once a week. To begin with, food was prepared for me and left at the door, but over time, as my learning progressed, I grew and prepared some of it myself, and a weekly parcel of sea veg and salted meats—seal, silver skin and swine—was delivered. From my school pod I could look down on the village below and, lifting my eyes a little, gaze out across the vast sea with its white-topped waves. In this way I eased my loneliness, imagining my father out there beyond the horizon. Closing my eyes and opening my senses to the ether worlds, a warm feeling would seep into my body and it was as if my father’s ghost illuminated me from within. He would speak to me, urging me to study hard, and it was in this way that I began to learn that this acceptance by the Akademy was his gift to me.

Of course, I was not alone. The ether-gram was always on and it was through this that I communicated with and learned from the Akademy Masters. Each morning, after I had risen, performed ablutions and ceremony and eaten my morning food, the ether-gram would come alive and the voice of my Master would fill the learning pod. I never knew his true-life name, just to call him Master was enough, but he was a continuous thread running through the fabric of my education. The voice was sometimes soft and warm, but sometimes stern and chiding and as the years rolled by it became, to my ears at least, wiser and more wearied. Perhaps I was a trying student.

Although Continuity was my allotted subject for mastery, there were other spheres I had to contemplate along the way. In this way my mind wrestled with the mental abstractions of numerology and the sciences of kemi, systemiks and fysic. The Seven Books were delivered to me at the end of my first year and it was to these weighty folios that I would refer for the rest of my training, sometimes being made to learn entire chapters by heart to recite to my Master, who always claimed he could see if I was cheating and looking at the page. The life sciences were more enjoyable to me as they involved growing plants in the garden, and studying the ways they interacted, but the lessons I relished most of all were the Continuity studies. I devoured old texts and learned to read five or six of the old languages, pleading with my Master to send more books and pestering him endlessly with queries so that he sometimes became irate at my persistent questioning. So much of the old world seemed rich in magic to me, and I wanted to know so much about it. 

Over the years I grew into an astute, if somewhat hasty, young woman. By the age of seventeen I was ready to leave the schooling pod, as well as the village where I had grown up. In the intervening years my mother had remarried and the innkeeper had passed onto the great beyond having drunk too much akvavvit and inadvisedly brawled with a harpoon man over a card game. And so I went to finish off my studies at the Akademy in Nuukobenhavn, being allotted a small room within the mighty stone walls of that citadel of learning.

As a novice I was regularly called away to participate in exploratory digs with the Akademy, although my role was usually a lowly one. At first the digs were local to Nuukobenhavn. Mostly they involved mapping and examining the first settlements, laid down by the early arrivers following the Great Shudder. The buildings, or what remained of them, were usually of poor construction and were made of materials such as metal and composite stone-like materials, as well as a powdery white substance which had not fared well in the harsh climate of the Numark. These ruins were sad places and we often found the white bones of their inhabitants mingled with the crushed remains of their dwellings.  Artefacts from this period were plentiful and it was often my duty to carefully prise them from the compacted soils and wrap them carefully in soft skins, making notes as I did so. Usually it was everyday objects that I uncovered; cooking pans, cheaply-made jewellery and moulded toys made from plastic. I remember the first time I set eyes on a plastic toy—an odd abstraction of a human figure with over-sized eyes and pink skin. It was a child’s doll, and I wrapped it reverently for delivery to archivers, but not before making several sketches of it in my note book. 

I seemed to have a knack for finding such oddities—perhaps I had inherited my father’s capability for knowing where things are hidden—and soon I was being asked to go further afield and help with digs on forgotten islands and Woden-forsaken strands. Over three years I ventured across the sea to the smoky isle of Island and helped uncover ancient weapons left over from a battle site of the War of Seventy Summers. Many of them were in good preserve and they were cleaned, documented and delivered to the Dronning’s technical academics—the tekniks—with a view to possible re-creation. If it were possible to remake such a weapon it would be of great use in securing the Numark against the bandits and pirates which plagued the seas, and of even better use in pacifying the massed hordes of some of the less civilised lands to the south which seemed to be in a constant state of rebellion against the stewardship of the beloved Dronning Queen Ingrid the Fair.  

But it was neither the plastic toys nor the powerful metal guns that secured my ability as a finder of antiquities. Instead, it was an object of far greater power—something that generations of Continuity antiquarians had been searching for but had never found—which should by rights have secured my reputation.

I had not long since graduated from the Akademy and had been initiated into the Guild of Continuity when my chance came. Barely 22 years old, I was to head out across the vast ocean with a salvage team to investigate a site on the Scotian isle they called Long Cloud. By studying a number of old maps and wading through some of the ancient texts left by my father, I had concluded that a particular area on Long Cloud was likely to be rich in finds. A scout was sent out and returned saying the area was promising, and I began to secure support and funds for my proposed mission. When permission was granted and funding approved I could scarcely sleep at night for the anticipation. We were to leave three months hence.

Before setting off on our voyage we prayed to the hidden ones to deliver us from the brigands which roamed the seas intent on robbery and mayhem, and to keep us from straying off-course into the Sickening Lands, where death comes invisibly. We prayed to Saekonungar, the protector of sailers and explorers, to keep away the great storms which could lift a cargo ship clean out of the seas and smash it onto rocks ten leagues distant, and we prayed that we would return safe to the Numark after venturing to the cruel and godless lands of the south where bloodshed and mayhem stole the place of civility and law. To this end a cow was brought and a kendt priestess pulled a dagger across its throat at the bow of our ship. Its blood was smeared onto the oak timbers of the foredeck, and its gouged eyes were taken to the top of the mast so as to better see danger from afar.

The Visund was one of the largest ships in the Dronning’s mercantile navy. She was both sturdy and stealthy, rigged for twelve sails and had a crew of some eighty sailors. In normal service she carried a cargo of grain, wine and pounded metals up from the southern lands and returned with exotic items such as furs, liquors and salted silver skins for the nobles of the various countries we deemed friendly. Often there were weapons, too—still warm from the Islandic smiths and ready to help our allies in the southern lands maintain the peace. At least that’s what I thought then, for what else was I to believe? There was an engine too, in case of becalming or swarm attacks, or in case the ship needed to outrace a tempest, and the heavy logs stacked neatly in the hold acted as ballast to keep the ship steady. Our small band of antiquarians was to be accompanied by a task force of 30 soldiers who would be on hand to ensure the Scotians yielded up any finds without fuss. Also with us were four other sister ships, as it was always safer to travel as part of a convoy than alone.

We slipped out of the fjord under the midnight sun on an outgoing tide. I stood on the deck and watched Numark, the peaceful and prosperous land of my birth, slip by and eventually disappear over the bright horizon. I need not have worried about the voyage, it passed peacefully enough, with only one sighting of another ship. It soon fled when we hoisted Dronning Ingrid the Fair’s blood-red battle flag and fired off a sonic boom in its direction. The summer weather was mostly calm, with the sea only broiling once as we rounded the Orks, and we put into harbour at Cloud Island on the twelfth day, having stopped at the smoky isle of Island to take on board a cargo of heavy arms. It was a chilly and misty morning as we were brought ashore in a fleet of rowing boats and I stepped onto soil for the first time in my life that was not a part of the Numark Empire. A group of locals had gathered to watch us arrive, and I had never set eyes on a more wretched bunch of people—although I was later to see worse. Clothed in tatters and with matted and lice-ridden hair, the Scotian islanders gawped and stared as our smartly uniformed soldiers carried a gleaming ether-gram aloft on a shoulder borne platform. And when the horses arrived on the transporter, fully liveried in polished brassware, one of the Scotian children rushed forward with a view to touching one. Perhaps these people had never seen such marvellous beasts before, but the child’s reward for his impudence was a sharp butt on the head from a soldier’s rifle, and he scampered whimpering back to the folds of his mother’s dress with a look of accusation and hurt on his face.

By evening we had set up camp a few hours’ walk inland and the ships set sail once more and disappeared from our sight. A meeting was called for the next day with the local headman, who went by the name of Grunwal and rather grandly called himself the Pryminister of Scotia. I found the landscape pleasing and went for a short walk away from the camp at sunset. A soldier followed me and ordered me back to camp, warning me about the bad things that could happen to a young woman in a place such as this. I obeyed, but my curiosity of the foreign had been awoken, and although I could scarcely have known it then perhaps this was the moment that the seed was sown to travel to wherever the four winds would take me. If so, that lonely evening stroll through the heather as Sol sank low over the western sea was the first step on a journey that would take me from the wild islands of the Britons and beyond to the parched deserts of Afrika and even the mysterious and Loki-begotten badlands of the Merikas. 

But I am getting ahead of myself. No doubt these tales may one day be told by whoever inherits my diaries but as I sit here on this wild and dark evening it is this tale which must be told before the ink or the lamp oil runs dry, whichever comes first. Grunwal turned out to be a thick set man with human finger bones tied by ribbons into his knotted beard. Negotiations were conducted between himself and Stein Erikkson, a top-ranking diplomat sent on behalf of the Dronning and the Akademy. It was important for us to be the first to get hold of any ancient technology left by the onder folk, as we were the only ones with a chance of breaking into its secret codes and harnessing whatever powers it hid. These same powers, used so unwisely by the onder folk, would be safe in our hands we told ourselves, guided as were were by the infinite wisdom of Woden. Grunwal knew our game and was trying to extract the best price from us, even though we had discovered nothing yet. His manner was crude and his look threatening, but he was no match for the might of the Numark Empire and by late afternoon he led us at the point of a bayonet to a site where he said ‘something interesting’ lurked below the boggy peat.

Two volunteer soldiers were sent down into the bog attached to ropes where they wallowed and dived, with no small degree of complaining. On the second day they located something ‘hard and large’, and the rest of the evening was spent attaching ropes to it. The next day four of our strongest horses sweated and strained to extract the buried object while the rest of us dug feverishly with picks and shovels, flinging the peat, rocks and soil aside. What I saw on that warm late evening still rests in my memory as though it happened only yesterday as, after two full days of heaving and digging, there came a loud sucking sound and the black peaty slime yielded up its treasure.

It was a vehicle. Long and sleek and, by the looks of it, the right way up. Its front portion was crushed, as though from some sudden collision, and as it sat there on the grassy bank with black water draining slowly from its metallic innards the horror of what appeared next will stay with me until my dying day. For there, slowly and by degrees, appeared the heads, then faces and then bodies of four onder folk—blackened and tarnished as if they had been boiled in a vat of tar—but otherwise entirely preserved and looking ready to draw breath and feel Sol’s warm rays on their skins once more. Some of the Scotians who had gathered to watch yelped in fear as the faces appeared and fell wailing to the ground making representations to their god in the east. We antiquarians stood there slack jawed, stunned to the possibilities of what we had just unearthed.

As leader of the group I pulled myself together and stepped towards the vehicle, pausing to pull up a tuft of grass with which to wipe away some of the black peat which obscured the rear windows. There were more gasps as it became clear that the two smaller old worlders were in fact children, one boy and one girl, sitting in an upright position as if they had been patiently awaiting this moment down the centuries.

The next day, as soon as Sol had risen in her sky, we set to work examining the find. Soldiers were stationed around to keep the Scotians away, and we antiquarians conducted our work as diligently as the situation would allow. The four bodies were pulled from the vehicle and laid out on the ground. This was no easy job in the case of the two adults, whose size and girth were of a proportion that nobody present had ever before witnessed. We agreed giddily that bodies of such immense proportions could only have belonged to high status ancients, perhaps wealthy merchants or even nobles.

Some of the soldiers touched their foreheads and made the sign of the Jord mother Yggdrasil to protect them from evil spirits and any lingering black magic. The two children and the woman were perfectly preserved, but the male, who seemed to have been steering the carriage, had a large gash on the head which was the likely cause of his demise. Objects from within the vehicle were gathered and stored, and excitedly we grammed the Akademy in Nuukobenhavn that very evening and reported the find. Photo imprints were taken, as well as detailed drawings and castings of the bodies. Grunwal, sensing that he had sold the discovery too cheap, made trouble with the soldiers and shouted demands for more money at us.

We worked feverishly as long as there was light. And even at night we lit up the site with lanterns and sent as many details as we could back to the Akademy. They responded saying that another team of antiquarians were on the way, these ones more senior than my group. Indeed, they had already set off by fast boat and would be arriving in only a couple of days. This news panicked me. I knew how things worked at the Akademy, and how these seniors would likely take the credit for the work my team was doing, and so I stepped up the pace. 

The number of artefacts we discovered and the state they were in was beyond my dreams. The clothes on the bodies, although similarly stained black, were in perfect condition, as were the time pieces worn by the adults and the horde of objects found stored in flimsy carrying cases in the rear of the vehicle. There was a further major find—the body of a small dog of a breed nobody had ever seen before. But the most intriguing item I found was a small black box, shiny with glass on one side. It had been in the possession of the man with the bashed-in head, clutched tight for the span of eight lifetimes in his cold dead hand. I knew immediately what it was. It was one of the old computers and I had seen them before, but never so well-preserved. Often they were little more than clods of soil containing glass and metal fragments, but this one gleamed in the lamplight and I half fancied that it might still retain its magic. If such an item were delivered intact to the Dronning’s tekniks my fortune and renown would be guaranteed. I tried to prise it out of the old one’s hand but his death grip was too strong and I feared I would damage it. It was late at night and the others had retreated to the warmth of the camp to get some sleep, and the only other people around were two sentries posted nearby. To this day I still don’t know what madness seized me but by the end of that night the man possessed only one hand, the other being wrapped up in skins in the deepest recess of my leather equipment bag.

Perhaps it was this cowardly and stupid act that angered the hidden Scotian spirits of that place because on only the third day of our investigation something began to go alarmingly wrong. I noticed it first on the face of the dead man, whose gash was beginning to weep and ooze fluids. Closer examination revealed it to be writhing with maggots which squirmed free of the wound as I pressed it with my examining blade. 

Others too had noticed that the bodies were beginning to sag, and that the face bones were becoming more pronounced. I didn’t know what to do—ancients were supposed to be just yellowed bones and dust rather than flesh and blood. Furthermore there was astonishment among the team that the left hand of the man had disappeared. I concocted a story that I had seen the shambolic figure of a man hiding in the shadows during my night work, and that I had dozed off only to awake and find the hand gone. Grunwal was of course blamed for this outrage and our soldiers slapped him in irons and tied him to a tree to make him confess. I kept silent.

When the second team arrived three days later the bodies had putrefied and sagged into the ground. White bones poked out through the dark swollen bellies of the adults, and a foul stench hung in the air along with the clouds of black flies. Bo Kepp, the most senior antiquarian in the Akademy was with them, and he was furious with me. Perhaps I had been blinded by inexperience, but it had not occurred to me to place the bodies back into the preserving peat and send out an emergency call for a suitable kemi to be sent from the Numark’s laboratories. He raged at me in front of my team and I hung my head in shame. The next day I was sent back on the returning packet ship while my team stayed to assist the senior antiquarians.

Sure enough, news of my error had reached Nuukobenhavn upon my return and my scholarship was put under review with immediate effect until the seniors decided what to do with me. I travelled back to my own village, a distance that took almost two weeks to complete by third class carriage, and upon my arrival the place seemed smaller and more remote than I had ever remembered it. My mother had moved away to another village in the frozen north, and the schooling pod was abandoned but for the sheep that now called it home. I moved in with my surviving brother, who had grown tall and strong and looked not unlike our father. I was welcome there but some of the other villagers were less friendly for even here news of my folly had reached their ears. “Killed her own father so she could lord it over the rest of us and then waste it all in a foreign land,” some of them whispered. “That’s what you get if you think you’re better than the rest of us,” gossiped the women as they spread the seaweed on the fields. 

When the next season’s Guild of Continuity journal was published a copy of it found its way to me in my village, which seemed so far removed from Nuukobenhavn. Twice as thick as normal, the Antiquarian Blade was full of news about the Scotian find. I read it from one cover to the other but could find no mention of my name. Instead, a photo simile of Bo Kepp was pictured on the cover with the words ‘The Missing Link’ printed large above him. Around his neck he wore a thick gold chain from which dangled the metallic badge of interlinking circles from the front of the onder folks’ chariot. Inside, he explained that it likely symbolised the source of perpetual power that almost lay within the grasp of the Dronning’s tekniks. A mysterious glassy black box that might hold the key to the puzzle had gone missing from the site, the article explained, and was presumed stolen by a local chief. The article went on to assure us that the Dronning’s police were getting closer to extracting a confession out of the Scotians and that it would soon be found. 

I put down the journal and reached in my travel pack to extract what was rightfully mine. Unfurling the soft and clammy skins that wrapped the man’s hand and its treasure from the past I made a vow that if this ancient could hold onto something so tightly for eight lifetimes then I would not let go of my ambitions in the span of only one. I looked out of the window at the sea. For the first time in years I felt as though my father was with me again. His body lay out there in its watery grave, but his spirit was nearby. I broke down and cried like a child. Everything I had dreamed about seemed lost, and I had brought shame down on my family and my father’s good name. The September rains beat against the window panes as the wind whistled around the sharp rocks on the shore. And as I watched the drips roll down the pane I saw my own face reflected back at me in the glass. Behind me stood my father. I gasped and turned to face him. The apparition stood there, glowing in the dim light.

“My child, my dearest Saga,” he said, his voice full with the sweet compassion I remembered from all those years ago. “Do you not remember what I told you on that cold night so long ago?”

I shook my head slowly. “I have tried and tried but it has always been just out of reach father,” I replied, sobbing.

His ghost reached out and touched my shoulder. I felt a warm sensation in the spot where he touched me. “Never stop,” he said. “That’s what I told you. Never give up because the world is full of darkness and evil, yet it will ever remain full of beauty and wonder, and looking at an ending is just another way of looking at a beginning. I stand before you, no more than a spirit with a foot in each world, and yet you still have the blood running through your veins and the air in your chest. You must seize your chance!”

My father’s ghost smiled and began to fade. “But how do I … ?” I stammered, willing him not to leave. “The waves,” he whispered. “The world and all within it passes like the waves.” And then there was silence.

The apparition of my father had disappeared and never appeared to me again in all my long years, although I knew him to be there in the trees, and the sky and the wind that whistles around the sharp rocks by the shore. I knew what I had to do. And that is why a week later I pulled a finger bone from the dead man’s hand and took it to the old priestess who spent her life in devotion to Hlin, our goddess of protection and devotion, living in the cave up above the tree line on the Naarwik Heights. It was she who sanctified it, washing its evil away and threading it onto the necklace I have worn ever since for protection. And it is why I took the rest of the hand and buried it beside the grave of my youngest brother down at the ice cave and and why I walked out onto the frozen sea that winter to drop the crystal box into an ice hole drilled by one of the seal spikers far out on the bay. And it is why I set off the next spring in a silver skinner’s coracle to roam as much of the world as one woman can fit into a lifetime—and why the tomes that now rest under my left hand on this table detailing all that I have discovered are all I bequeath to this world as I go to join my parents, my brothers, my husband and all the hidden ones who surround us. 

And it is why I Saga Axelsdottir, disgraced scholar of Continuity and lowly daughter of a silver skinner, now cast this bottle with my tale onto the seas of time and space, to drift wherever it will. In the name of Woden, may its message wash up on the shores of the minds of those who have one to listen.