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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Monday, June 20, 2005

Otters and Oak Trees.

OK, this is another lengthy wodge of oldish stuff, but it does vaguely connect with 'Heart of Darkness' theme. It was written in 2001 and published in Chaos International 25 in 2002. It is an 'urban/ rural' essay sparked off by me seeing an otter in January 2001. Despite living in the countryside near rivers for about half my life, I had never seen an otter 'in the flesh' before. Within a few days, all access to the countryside was banned to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease. I can still recall the stench of half-burnt sheep and cattle which used to drift over the town from the funeral pyres - and the convoys of trucks guarded by soldiers carrying the slaughtered animals to be burnt or buried. Tres apolcalyptique...

Otters and Oak trees
Alistair Livingston

The text starts here. The situation out of which its being constructed is at once familiar and strange. Familiar, since I am sitting only a hundred yards or so from the house I was brought up in. Strange since my past contributions to CI have all been written in London and informed by an urban perspective. My local radio station is no longer a pirate station pumping out house music from a nearby tower block, but West Sound FM broadcasting from the Loreburn Shopping Centre in Dumfries, the 'Queen of the South'. [of Scotland]. Rather than a glimpse of a heron over Hackney Marshes, I can watch otters and even an osprey fishing in the river, a short walk away over the fields.

Can chaos be found in such a 'quintessentially rural' environment? Yes, if you can wait around for long enough. The rock which underlies the local landscape was formed on the floor of an ocean 700 million years ago. 450 million years ago it got very dramatic and chaotic as millions of tons of molten granite erupted. Huge chunks can still be found with names like Mullwarchar and Criffel, local hills. I haven't climbed Mullwarchar yet, but I have climbed its neighbours, some of which are getting on for 3000 feet high. Hardly the Alps, but big enough. Not many people either.

It used to be quite shock to my system, to spend a week camping in the hills and see no-one and then pack up and find myself waiting for a tube at Euston station later the same day. The two worlds did not seem to connect, a shift in reality occurring somewhere around Carnforth as the train from Carlisle dropped down towards Lancaster. Each world in itself making sense, but only in isolation , only so long as the mental boundaries between 'here' and 'there' could be maintained. And now London has become an unreal city, the 18 years I spent there symbolised by a couple of boxes of punk singles and fading fanzines.

I dug out all my old copies of CI the other day to photocopy the articles I had written in them for a friend. The energy with which I had enthusiastically written them still remained, but I wondered what purpose they served. Did I add anything to the Chaos Current by writing them? Or were they just absorbed by the city of dreadful night?

The thought was inspired by reading the first piece I wrote back in CI 3 after a trip to Glastonbury Festival. I remembered sitting under an oak tree above the Green Fields, looking down on the huge, pulsing, sprawling chaotic mass of the main festival at night. The music from the main stage was a distant roar, flares and fireworks rose up occasionally, generators pounded, powering strings of flickering lights. Smoke rose from hundreds of campfires. It was awesome, as if, as I described, a spaceship had landed in the fields around Worthy Farm.

I was there as a 'performer' in the Earth Mysteries Field. That meant arriving during the week, when the whole festival site was still recognisable as a farm. A farm not unlike those I have once more become familiar with in Scotland. Given that most of the site crew were local 'Glastafarians', indigenous hippies, the atmosphere was relaxed and laid back. [Man]. But as the trickle of festival goers became a torrent, the whole process of industrial evolution was played out at high speed. The farm became a city overnight.

Given that I had only just [1986], via an exchange of mags with Joel Biroco, become aware of 'chaos magick', I am sure that my understanding of 'chaos' was influenced by this experience, this glimpse of the city as a totality, of full on techno-culture. At the same time it has always struck me as puzzling that although both emerged in the late seventies, chaos and punk remained separate currents. Or at least none of the punk magicians I encountered were aware of chaos magick at the time. Bob Short of Blood and Roses was a Thelemite when he was doing his magic in the squatted Old Street Fire Station or in Campbell Buildings.
But then if one reads through the back issues of CI, chaos has always been a much more ordered system than punk. Most punks were young teenagers with little interest in the complex messages and metaphors people like Jamie Reid managed to smuggle into popular culture. What intelligence punk had was swiftly overwhelmed once it became tabloid fodder. And yet as I am discovering as the parent of a teenager, aspects of punk are still there to be re-invented by another generation, from musical styles, simplistic lyrics and cut-up art-work. An image from US group Amen's cd insert shows the Hollywood sign placed on top of a pile of corpses. Very punk.

In contrast, chaos magick seems almost too controlled, too formal, too structured.

Terminal identity speaks with the voices of repressed desire and repressed anxiety about terminal culture. In postmodern science fiction, a pervasive parallel population comprised of genetically engineered wetware wonders, electrically addicted buttonheads, fragmented posthuman enclaves and terminal cyborgs has arisen to embody our new, and inescapable, state of being. Terminal identity negotiates a complex trajectory between the forces of instrumental reason and the abandon of a sacrificial excess. The texts promise and even produce a transcendence which is also always a surrender. Bukatman/ Terminal Identity/ 1993/ 329.

My construction of chaos magick was of it as a path, a trajectory into and beyond 'terminal identity', a magick of post-modernity which swooped and dived with William Gibson's fictional characters through cyberspace as a metaphor for the Otherworlds of industrial culture. Terminal identity the black hole at the centre of the spectacle of modernity, a text like this smeared out along the event horizon in the pursuit of transcendental surrender...

The danger always being the erosion of meaning, the collapse into incoherence, the onset of terminal chaos. No risk, no gain. Taken to such extremes, the limits of language and instrumental reason allow the deconstruction of 'magick'. Such deconstruction is essential if we are ever to leave the eighteenth century, the Age of Reason and so grasp the transformation of the world brought about in the nineteenth century by a combination of technology and romanticism. Isambard Kingdom Brunel- now there was a magician!
Coming up to the edge now. Do I dare to drink another cup of coffee and carry on into the abyss of eternal night? Or do I call it a day and go to bed now? The illusion that somewhere just beyond the moment of now lies 'the truth'. A concise summation of chaos magick perhaps. Some key insight which you, dear reader, will slap your thighs to and say "By Jove, I think he's got it.". But it never comes, or rather when it does it is not quite the expected answer.

Early this year, before foot and mouth disease denied access to all land, I walked out to the river along an old railway line. I'd been trying to decide if I wanted to write a continuation of my 'Bhakti as Bondage' [CI 11] article as part of an 'Organic Sex: Natural Bondage' project. Interesting as writing about sex is, it seemed a distraction from more practical work such as a 'food and biodiversity' project which I was also working on.
The remains of a bridge give access to a small island on the river. At the far end is a bird-observation hide. It was very cold and not very comfortable. I sipped some medicinal red wine and watch the river roll black and powerful before me. Then I spotted an unusual bird. But it was not a bird. It was an otter. Almost entranced, I watched the otter swim and dive powerfully for 15 minutes or so. Even after it had finally vanished I remained entranced, watching ripples and eddies in the river, mistaking each in turn for the otter.

I had never seen an otter before. Its fortuitous appearance as a memory of the land from a time before her forests had been felled by farmers was magical. It was a powerful symbol of a world which exists independently of human culture, of human existence even. Of a world more interesting to me now than that of Fetish Times or even, dare I say it, of Chaos International.

If I was to aspire to pretension, I could even construct a shamanic metaphor. The river in flood carrying all before it, with its dancing pattern of ripples and eddies represents chaotic reality, the tantric flow of events and phenomena, ever pouring forth from the womb of the goddess as space and time. Yet within that powerful current, the otter swam and dived as in a placid pool, able to swim upstream as easily as downstream. It cared nothing for me, unaware of my watching presence, yet by appearing as it did at that time and in that place it spoke to me and answered my half-formed question.

Posed in another form, the question arises again on the front cover of the September 2001 issue of Classic Rock. "Black Magic" is its theme and the usual suspects get their 15 minutes of exposure. Well Crowley does. Several times. No mention of chaos magic, nor Psychic TV though. Not even the merest hint of Diamanda Gala [spell check] nor Coil. Although apparently Slipknot have taken to using a satanic goat symbol. Smelly things billy goats. I once helped take a female Anglo-Nubian goat to be 'serviced' by a billy. The transport was a Mini Traveller estate car. The journey back was made with all windows open.

Does it matter that popular culture endlessly regurgitates the psychic equivalent of junk food? Isn't that what it is for? Well, yes, but... popular culture can be fun. Ever since reading Dick Hebdidge's Subculture: The Meaning of Style [a post-modern critique of punk] 20 years ago and discovering that a safety pin and a black plastic bin liner could be used to symbolically annihilate dominant cultural reality, I have paid more attention to the semiotics of everyday life. I still have kicking around a book 'Decoding Advertising' by a female academic whose name I forget. Part of her argument, illustrated by numerous images drawn from adverts, is the use of 'magic' in advertising.

Her use of 'magic' is anthropological, but then anthropological constructions of magic are based historically on a mass of fieldwork carried out amongst people still living in pre-industrial, pre-secular rationality based colonial cultures. Popular culture exists to attract us to the 'buy, buy ,buy the damnation of your soul' messages embedded in it. Or as a pop song by Maya put it rather directly, "If you buy this record, your life will be better.". [Yes, I did buy the record, and it did make my life marginally better.]. Popular culture is a form of magic.

"Oh no it isn't.", I hear you respond. OK then, lets go back to basics. I believe, but stand to be corrected, that 'chaos magic' was originally called 'results magic'. The aim was to cut away the crap and get down to the core elements of a magic which worked, which got results. Nothing was taken for Granted [Typhonian pun], everything was to be challenged. Unfortunately by 1978 I suggest it was a bit late. Just as Marxism failed to realise that the working class had already been mobilised by capitalism, thus precluding any actual revolution, so results magic failed to realise that magic had already been mobilised by spectacular society. Not as a freemasonic style conspiracy, but as a Darwinian process of survival of the cleverest marketing strategies. The Conservatives won the 1979 election using a 'Labour isn't working' campaign designed by the Saatchi brothers and a dole queue of actors. It was a con and a trick, but isn't the Trickster the earliest image of the magician? The point is it worked. It got a result.

The universe is basically a magical structure and we are all capable of magic. The really useful theories of magic are those which explain why magic tends to work so erratically and why we have such enormous inhibitions about believing in it, making it work, and recognising that it has worked. It is as if the universe has cast a spell upon us to convince us that we are not magicians.
P. J. Carroll: Liber Kaos- First Edition page 149.

Aha. Surely it is not the universe which has cast a spell upon us, but rather that we have, as my friend the otter pointed out, constructed a self-deluding magical universe which is spectacular society. This spectacular society is visible as popular culture. Once upon a time there may have been distinctions between popular and unpopular culture, between artist and artisan, low and high culture, but not no more. The spectacle is a totalisation of myth, and of magic. It is a Groundhog Day, a tape loop sample of 'reality' endlessly repeating the moment of 'bourgeoisie triumphalism' [See post September 11 postscript]

Is there anyway out of here, anyway beyond trancing out to the noise of the machines?

Of course there is, it is the path of the otter. I can trace that path back to its source in the hills, hills I have climbed. I can step outside my front door and see the hills. Once they were part of a post-Ice Age forest. Generations of farmers and warriors stripped them bare or burnt them to drive out rebels. Now they are blanketed with Sitka spruce, 300 square miles or more. A mere fraction of the 10 000 square miles of virgin forest Latvia contains. Latvia and other post Communist Baltic states can sell their timber cheaper than my local forests can produce it. Economic forestry is dead.

The forest is large enough to maintain 30 wolves. The minimum number for a viable wolf pack is 23. 300 wild goats are culled each year, even more red deer. Beavers could survive, as could lynx. Golden eagles and ospreys already do. Brown bears? Not so sure. But if farming begins to fail post foot and mouth disease the available area would increase. The first step is to maximise planting of native trees and other indigenous plant species to restore the habitat. Or will global climate change add chaos to the situation? No-one knows, one theory is it will get colder rather than warmer in Scotland as the Gulf Stream fails.

It is a vision. A dangerous vision, one I keep close to my heart in case it panics the farmers. It is a generation thing, maybe my great-grand children, should such persons exist will see it fulfilled. I nudge it forward step by infinitesimal step. This is one step.

It could be part of the chaos current or equally a sign confirming my distance from it. This text, as with my past contributions, an act of magic in itself, an exploration of possibilities and potentials. As ever I don't know. Maybe I am just an otter swimming and diving in the river of chaos, hunting for a fish to eat. Oh dear, that does sound a bit New Age, doesn't it?

Struggling for closure, to snap my jaws around the salmon of wisdom. How about a local story?
Up at Drumness on the Polmaddy Burn there is a long deep pool beneath a great oak tree. A young fisherman many years ago tried to catch a great salmon which lurked in the pool. After days of fruitless effort he made a spear from the branch of a nearby sapling. He managed to spear the fish, but then he lost it.

Many years later, now an old man, he returned to Drumness one evening. To his amazement he saw a small tree moving over the water of the pool. Hardly believing his eyes, he lay on the bank and managed to grab the tree. It came away in his hand and a huge salmon leapt up into the air before disappearing into the black water. Examining the 'tree' he realised that it was the same spear he had used so many years before, now grown on the salmon's back. He planted the spear which had become a tree in the earth above the pool. The oak tree which can be seen there today is that very tree.

I have camped at Drumness many times, and seen the oak tree which hangs over the deep pool. It is nearly thirty years since my first visit, when I brought back a tiny oak sapling from Drumness. It is still growing now, not far from where I write these words. From myth to reality, from reality to myth. Long after myself and these words are dust, the oak tree will still be growing. And if this age also ends, from that tree a forest may yet return to reclaim the land.

Post 9/11 Postscript

Does the endlessly repeated moment of the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, symbols of 'bourgeoisie truimphalism', imply the death of the spectacle? Does it hasten the end of this age? Only if the will to avenge creates sufficient chaos to choke off the supply of oil. If you want a sound track to any acts of magic inspired by recent events, dig out David Bowie's 1974 album 'Diamond Dogs'.

"And in the death as the last few corpses lay rotting on slimy throughfares...." is how it begins. Terrorism and an oil crisis provoke by an Arab-Israeli war were part of its background. I remember power-cuts and a three-day working week in the UK, miners on strike and reading Orwell's '1984'. Such delicious gothic gloom it is hardly surprising that the Sex Pistols 'No Future' [God save the Queen] became my generation's anthem in 1977.

And yet we survived even the apparent apocalypse of thermo-nuclear global war. Survived to live rather dull and boring lives. So dull and boring that the sight of an otter swimming in a river can become a magical vision. Perhaps that is the point. Real magic, the magic of reality, is not spectacular. It is quite ordinary. As ordinary as a tree growing where a tree did not grow before. Once there was a forest. Then there was a city. A tower falls in the city. What will replace it: a tree or another tower? Today it is a tower, but tomorrow it will be a tree. One day it will be a forest. Such, I suggest, is the nature of chaos.


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