Stories For A Doomed Planet: The Environmental Fiction of Paul Kingsnorth
Paul Kingsnorth’s debut novel, The Wake, was an unlikely addition to the 2014 Man Booker longlist. Unlikely because no publisher had been willing to touch it. The Wake was the first—and to date still the only—crowdfunded novel ever to make the Booker list.
Set in the year 1066, The Wake is written in an imaginary language—Kingsnorth calls it a ‘shadow tongue’—which strips from modern English all the words of French or Latin origin and replaces them with alternatives derived from Old English, the language spoken in England before the Norman Conquest. It sounds like this:
when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time. a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc.
Truthfully, for the first few pages, until you get your ear in, it’s a little confusing. There comes a moment, however, when you slip beneath the forbidding surface of Kingsnorth’s shadow tongue and enter into its dark, earthy music. Wielding this music, Kingsnorth is able to reconstruct the way the first English folk inhabited their communities, their history and above all their landscape. To the novel’s narrator, Buccmaster, birds are shrieking, dramatic apparitions in a silent sky. He remembers a time when eels bred so thickly in the unfished corners of the Fens that you could almost walk on their backs.
That time has gone, and Buccmaster must endure still more loss. William the Conqueror has arrived, packing some potent new military technology. The free English are to be deprived of their lands and returned to serfdom. There will be new taxes and brutal repression. England is taking another step towards modernity.
Kingsnorth creates from the Norman Conquest a kind of origin myth for modern Britain, and by extension for the modern world order which Britain has done so much to shape. An afterword to The Wake notes that in twenty-first century England 70% of the land is still owned by 1% of the population—the most unequal distribution in the world except for Brazil, and a legacy, in all likelihood, of the Norman Conquest. In turn, few historical forces have contributed as much to present-day global inequality as the British Empire. The onset of this extreme inequality, however, is not Kingsnorth—or Buccmaster’s—greatest regret. The Wake aches with grief for the loss of an unencumbered and non-destructive relationship with the natural world. Ultimately Buccmaster can do nothing to resist the Normans. He simply takes to the woods, becoming a ‘grene man,’ and from there he circles ever closer to the landscape of his childhood and of his heart, in the Fens.
If this story sounds grave, devoid of hope, well, it’s meant to. Kingsnorth is the co-founder and director of The Dark Mountain Project, ‘a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.’ The Project’s manifesto is bleak and steely. Civilisation as we know it is doomed, and it deserves to be. One day we’re going to need stories that explain how we destroyed ourselves, and which show us how to survive the next difficult phase of human history. On that day, the Project will be there, with its archive of ‘uncivilised’ stories, poems, music and art.
In Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, a collection of his non-fiction writing, Kingsnorth recounts how he came to the despairing conclusions that inform his fiction. The novelist writes beautifully about the awe and wonder he has experienced in rare corners of unspoiled nature. You feel his blood beating:
On the water a great flock of gulls was bobbing, moving on the slow current, sometimes taking off in pairs or singly, circling, coming down again. They were cawing and curling and calling in the sun. I crouched down and began sifting the muddy sand through my fingers. Tiny crustaceans skipped and crawled through the water. I looked up as a gull careened overhead, screaming.
And I had the strangest feeling, then. I felt like I was part of something very much bigger than myself. I didn’t think it, I felt it, and the feeling came entirely unbidden. I felt this place, this edgeland, this world of wing and water—I felt how it was working. I felt the clockwork of it, the movement, felt the blood of it flowing in the salt sea and in the movement of the gulls and in the sand and the riverflow.
As a student, Kingsnorth began to channel this passionate feeling into political activism:
I am nineteen years old. It is around midnight and I am on the summit of a low, chalk down, the last of the long chain that winds its way through the crowded, peopled, fractious south country…
This is Twyford Down, a hilltop east of Winchester. There is something powerful about this place; something ancient and unanswering. Soon it is to be destroyed: a six-lane motorway will be driven through it in a deep chalk cutting. It is vital that this should happen in order to reduce the journey time between London and Southampton by a full thirteen minutes. The people up here have made it their home in a doomed attempt to stop this from happening.
It was as a writer—of non-fiction—that Kingsnorth made his mark in politics. One No, Many Yeses charts the worldwide efforts of activists to resist the destruction wrought by global capitalism, while Real England decries the decimation of Kingsnorth’s own native culture and landscape by mass agriculture and corporate monopolies. Each book is exhaustively researched, passionate, original—and weary. The battle is being lost on all fronts.
The decision to turn to fiction wasn’t entirely willed. Kingsnorth has told interviewers that he didn’t create the character of Buccmaster. Rather, Buccmaster came to him, ‘invaded’ him like a Norman, and demanded that Kingsnorth tell his story. It’s tempting to speculate that Buccmaster is a version of Kingsnorth who was born when the author gave up, when his youthful idealism finally collapsed into despair. Buccmaster is bitter, angry, unstable. He can no longer bear the company of people, their rules and customs. He prefers the wind and water. True law, he declares, is written in ‘leaf of treow not leaf of boc.’
In Beast, Kingsnorth’s second novel, Buccmaster creeps still closer to his creator. Beast’s protagonist is one Edward Buckmaster, and like his Anglo-Saxon namesake and his creator (who lives now on a farm in rural Ireland) Buckmaster has taken himself off into the wilderness. He is sick of a time and a place which he can barely bring himself to talk about, but which we recognise in glimpses:
I walked the streets, I sat on the couches, I passed through the sliding doors, I talked but never listened, I sold but I never gave away.
When Buckmaster has a terrible accident, alone in his shack, it unhinges him entirely, or it jolts him into a more physical mode of being—or perhaps it does both. His punctuation slips away, his memory is patchy, he finds he can no longer find his way back to the nearest human settlement and he begins to suspect that this patch of wilderness is home to a huge wild cat. He diligently tracks this beast, but it’s clear to us, if it isn’t clear to Buckmaster, that of the two of them the cat is the more likely predator.
In Beast, to seek unity with the wilderness is simultaneously a kind of spiritual wisdom and a dangerous delusion. Buckmaster is a hermit in the desert, a Beowulfish hero locked in lonely combat with an inhuman monster. He is also mad. He has abandoned his family and his chances of survival appear small. This doubleness is best understood alongside the similar doubleness of The Wake, in which Buccmaster’s effort to turn back the historical clock is both heroic and futile. Together the two novels map out the impossibility of being Paul Kingsnorth, a human being who would prefer to side with the wilderness against humanity, with natural time against manmade history.
This impossibility is the mirror image of our own. We are members of a civilisation which believes in technological progress while our technology irrevocably destroys the basis of our existence. At a moment when the heroes vs. zombies climax of Game of Thrones is the most popular story about climate change, Kingsnorth’s writing offers an alternative which is both complex to the point of paradox and heartbreakingly simple.