The Voice of Dark Mountain

By guest blogger, Margaret Elphinstone, with an introduction by conference convener, Stephanie Mines.


Margaret Elphinstone is one of Scotland’s greatest novelists. She belongs to a collective called Dark Mountain where writers explore some of the most agonizing aspects of climate change, such as species extinction. I first met Margaret at Moniach Mhor, a writing retreat center in the Scottish Highlands. She and I share an experience of the arts as the singular container big enough for the emotional amplitude generated by climate change. Because I know of her skill, compassion and muse-like gifts I invited Margaret to lead a writing workshop at CCC19. Like Margaret, CCC19 is dedicated to developing an inclusive and beloved global community that speaks its truth. We cannot turn away out of fear. Darkness deserves as much reverence as hope. This guest post by Margaret is a preview of her stirring voice and guidance.


Mourning and celebration are the emotional and spiritual requirements missing from the climate change debate. Acknowledging robust scientific evidence is vital, but thereafter we tend to fall back on binary tropes and the confrontational politics of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘good’ and ‘bad’. We are witnessing large scale species extinction and environmental destruction, and possibly facing our own self-inflicted end. We need to be able to mourn what we are losing and celebrate what we have.

This is where we need the arts. Dark Mountain encourages artists in all genres as they celebrate other beings, as well as human crafts and life ways, and mourn what we are losing. At one Dark Mountain event we climbed Tinto Hill in the Scottish Borders, each of us carrying a stone, each stone labelled with the name of a recently extinct species and, in turn, we each read out the name and added our stone to the mourning cairn. This small ritual changed the way we saw things; we mourned those spirits which had gone out of the world, in a way we had been unable to do before. We needed to do that, in order to understand and respond.

Our society is future-oriented and materialistic. We sacrifice much of our present in the hope of a very problematic ‘better’ future. We could be entering the End Times. No wonder denial and obsessive pursuit of material growth prevail. Whatever happens next, living through these times requires us to break out of obsolete ideologies that cannot help us now and see things from a different point of view. It’s in this present moment, the here and now in which I write and the here and now in which you read, that we are actually alive. In that living moment, emotional and spiritual change becomes possible. In making and responding to art, we wake up to a different way of doing things. Dark Mountain is about finding ways to see things differently, and then act differently.

Acting differently may begin as a small, silent turning, but if it indicates a change of direction it is profound. There’s a danger that the climate change movement (coming, as it does, from within an outworn ideology) can replicate the system it seeks to change, producing a new set of experts, politicians and celebrities trampling their carbon foot prints across the world. The here and now is local and specific, and this is typical of the Dark Mountain project. What changes in my village today may change in yours tomorrow, and what children learn in one day, in one woodland, may change all children’s lives forever. Poems, stories, tunes, pictures, capture the moment, and that’s how they speak to us about life.

Environmental concerns have influenced much of my writing, especially my most recent novel, The Gathering Night. At Dark Mountain events I have led writing workshops to encourage people to explore their fears and joys as they view their changing world. We need emotional and spiritual strength to live through these times. This is something every one of us can do working together.

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