Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling

Photographer and writer Joan Sullivan reviews a pair of books – non-fiction, fiction – that embrace the unknown, helping us navigate our collective uncertainty and explore what it means to be human in a time of Anthropocene unravelling.


2,460 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


And so, on a most inauspicious date — 24th June 2022 — the day when millions of women lost control of their own bodies, I sit down to write my first book review ever. I stare blankly at the screen; come back tomorrow, it tells me. But the numbness would continue for several more days, as the US “supreme” court went on a week-long rampage, bludgeoning Indigenous sovereignty and our fundamental rights to a livable planet.

I am thinking of Ursula Le Guin. Four years before her death in 2018, she said “I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society… We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries – the realists of a larger reality.”

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2021
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series ‘Becoming River’ © 2021
“An abstract photo from the ongoing series ‘Becoming River’ that explores, in a phenomenological way, my eco-anxiety about the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River in eastern Quebec, Canada.”

This is a review of two very different books by two very different writers, both of whom are currently co-directors of the Dark Mountain Project. Charlotte Du Cann has pulled together some of her finest essays into one volume; Nick Hunt presents his début collection of short fiction. A daunting challenge for my first attempt at writing a book review. But nothing as daunting as learning how to embrace the humility of the unknown, which for me is the luminous thread that connects these two important works.

Both writers explore the existential question of what it means to be human in a time of unravelling. Both writers propose transformative journeys in time and space that, if we remain open, have the potential to radically shift our perception of this living, breathing planet and — most essentially — our shared space within it.

Finding transformation in the underworld

“I am not sure I can take you there with words,” writes Du Cann towards the end of her book. “I can show you the stones. I can dance. Everything else you walk yourself.”

In After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, Du Cann peels back the layers – in characteristically non-chronological order — of her decades-long descent to re-entangle herself with a sentient Earth. She reveals the doubts, the joys, the humility, the rapture, the patience, and the dogged discipline required to un-civilize oneself in our fossil-fueled, frequent-flyer, fast-fashion societies. It is “a grinding process in which you lose or die to your tough conditioned husk and discover the germ within.”

‘After Ithaca’ – cover art: ‘On the Edge of This Immensity’, Meryl McMaster © 2022 merylmcmaster.com/

The faint of heart need not apply. “The rebirth we seek does not happen without our descent… Venus, the embodiment of love, beauty and a fair fight, steps into the arena to bring new life. She doesn’t do that by chanting a new mantra or changing her shopping habits, she does that by grabbing you by the throat and pulling you towards everything you have so far refused to see or hear.”

Boom! This is Du Cann at her very best, a moment of dazzling clarity: she hands us the mirror, asking the hard questions, shaking us out of our collective sleepwalk. To guide those of us who have not yet begun the “hard, hard task” of relinquishing the “self-obsessed material life we grasp and cling to,” Du Cann shares examples from her own non-linear passage of transformation through the prism of Psyche’s four initiation tasks – assigned by the goddess Venus, the jealous mother of Psyche’s divine lover, Eros. To earn back the love of the “winged boy she has lost”, the mortal Psyche must undergo radical change by embarking upon a perilous journey to the Underworld, without a script or roadmap or even a guarantee that she will ever find her way back. But she does, in spades, thanks to the unexpected help she receives from — and this is key — the most unassuming of allies: an army of ants, some river reeds, an eagle. As Du Cann explains, pivotal transformation can only take place in the Underworld “because change needs to happen at a deep inner level to make any kind of effective change on the outside.”

One of my many ‘Aha!’ moments reading Du Cann’s After Ithaca came from this passage: “Change is not something you tell governments or other people to do; you have to undergo change [yourself] to make space for the world to enter.” She expounds:

We wield great terms above our heads like axes – social justice, transformation, shift of consciousness, power of community – ready to split enemy heads apart with their force… but we are still asleep, reacting, neglecting… we lament deforestation whilst sitting on teak chairs…

As a species we appear to be as stupid, cruel and greedy as ever. Our technology has evolved but we are less vigorous, less alive, more timid, more pursued by ghosts and the trauma of history through generations, at a standstill where we feel responsible for everything and nothing at all;

Nothing transforms if we are the same people inside… if we haven’t found a way to dismantle the belief systems that keep us trapped in the cycles of history. If we haven’t dealt with our insatiable desire for power and attention…

We need a rigorous practice that will break us open. A shock that will push us in another direction.

Rebirth.

After Ithaca humbly suggests a path forward. This brutally honest book is all about transformation and resurrection: undergoing collective change; “reforging ourselves” in alchemical spaces of conversation and gathering; making ourselves more vulnerable by honouring the great mystery. It’s time to deconstruct the dominion stories we’ve inherited — and embraced — throughout the millennia about the self-anointed privileges of one species among many. The arrogance of naming itself ‘wise’! It’s time to question the bright shiny lie that sapiens alone can bend nature to its will without consequences.

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2022
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series ‘Becoming River’ © 2022
“Temperature anomaly: an historically hot month of May followed by an historically cold month of June caused havoc for farmers in this rural region of Quebec along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River.”

We are standing at the threshold between what was and what’s next, between despair and hope. Deep in our bones, we acknowledge that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner, and there is only one way out: transform, or die. Our task: to develop a collective consciousness to enmesh ourselves, once again, with our more-than-human kin.

Facing the unravelling

Nick Hunt’s collection of short fiction, Loss Soup and Other Stories, explores the same themes of time, despair and collective uncertainty as Du Cann’s After Ithaca. But while Du Cann employs a more-or-less traditional narrative arc as we follow her real-life transformational journey, Hunt creates disorienting storyscapes with nebulous beginnings and unfinished endings. We feel seasick, suspended in time somewhere between 16th century Mexico and a dystopic future that appears, disconcertingly, to have already arrived.

Loss Soup – cover art: ‘Herd (not seen)’, detail. Daro Montag © 2022

Each of the 14 stories in this slender volume explores what it means to bear witness to collapse. Hunt’s characters are fragile, vulnerable, unsure of which way to turn or whom to believe. There is very little dialogue between them, a reflection of social unravelling.

Loss Soup is not just about loss, but unimaginable loss: of memory, of words, of identity, of places saturated with meaning. Of species, both real and mythic. One nameless character chooses to lose himself in the middle of a vast ocean, drifting aimlessly in a plastic vortex: “He came here to go nowhere.” In the not-too-distant future, both he and his yacht will be subsumed by the great Pacific garbage patch, “a convenient vanishing zone for lost, unwanted things.” His well-stocked coffers of wine, crisps and Cadbury will not last forever.

Welcome to the Anthropocene. Nick Hunt’s fiction brings us as close as we can possibly get — viscerally, phenomenologically — to grasping the ambiguity of this liminal moment, in ways that non-fiction never could. “I try to think of what I’ve forgotten, but there’s no way to catch hold of it. Just a feeling of unease, somewhere between guilt and loss, that contracts and expands when I breathe, pushing up against me.”

Several of these stories left me feeling squeamish. I squirmed in my chair, looking around for an easy way out. But Hunt holds us skillfully in these uncomfortable landscapes, coaxing us to linger a bit longer with the ambivalence. Our instinct is to flee, to return to the soma of our Instagram-perfect world. But something deep inside has already shifted: we choose to stay, to face the unravelling. Such is the power of fiction, to reveal the cracks in the veneer, the hidden spaces with multiple layers of meaning. This is the well from which we must draw.

Finding paths through collective uncertainty 

Loss Soup reminds us that there have always been and will always be periods of radical uncertainty and impermanence. “Time does not flow in a straight line but turns inside repeating wheels, so that everything that has happened is still happening. Nothing has ever stopped. It never will.” If sapiens are as wise as we think we are, we will turn to the past for clues about navigating crisis, dysfunction, collapse. When seen through the lens of liminality, these recurring cataclysmic periods can be interpreted, in retrospect, as transformative: everything that gets swept up in the chaos will be transported and changed. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

The dawn of the Anthropocene is yet another liminal moment, a bridge between two possible worlds, two ways of being. Destination unknown. While the outcome indeed looks bleak, it has yet to be written. “We will be wanting the voices of writers,” prophesized Le Guin, “who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society.” The voices of writers Nick Hunt and Charlotte Du Cann bring much-needed clarity and insight to this existential moment.

If sapiens manages to save itself – along with millions of other species with whom we share this blue planet – it will be because of a profound shift in collective consciousness, not scientific facts or statistics. We could start by shifting our thinking about the Anthropocene as an opportunity to expand our ideas of what is possible, to embody it as an unquenchable thirst to break free from the chains of fossilized ways of thinking.

Unravelling: showing one of Joan Sullivan's photos in the series "Becoming River", 2022
Joan Sullivan: Untitled, from the series “Becoming River” © 2021
“An abstract photo from the ongoing series ‘Becoming River’ that explores, in a phenomenological way, my eco-anxiety about the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River in eastern Quebec, Canada.”

Throughout After Ithaca, Du Cann refers frequently to her favorite metaphor: the metamorphosis of the butterfly, which emerges only after the caterpillar has dissolved. Life begins anew out of death and darkness, as it always has and always will. Navigating the apocalypse may feel like the end of the world. But the dark is where everything is born.


Find out more

After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, by Charlotte Du Cann (2022) and Loss Soup and Other Stories, by Nick Hunt (2022) are both published by Greenbank Books, an imprint of Sumeru, and are available from the Dark Mountain shop.

The Dark Mountain Project is many things and has taken many forms, including the original manifesto written amidst the global financial catastrophe of 2008 and the ongoing ecological crisis. “Faced with this unravelling, the manifesto calls us to question the stories our societies like to tell about the world and our place within it: the myth of progress, the myth of human separation from nature, the myth of civilisation. And it claims a particular role for storytellers and culturemakers in a time when the stories we live by have become untenable.”

Charlotte Du Cann and Nick Hunt are co-directors of the Dark Mountain Project. After working as a journalist, Charlotte spent a decade travelling, mostly in the Americas, before settling in Suffolk to write a series of books about mythos and reconnecting with the Earth, starting with 52 Flowers That Shook My WorldNick’s books include Walking the Woods and the Water, Where the Wild Winds Are, The Parakeeting of London: An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology, and Outlandish. You can see Charlotte and Nick discuss the role of writing in times of unravelling and loss in this May 2022 Earth Talk event (in it, Nick describes the process that artist Daro Montag used to make the sculptures shown in the cover of Loss Soup). You can read excerpts from Where the Wild Winds Are in a series of Nick’s posts here at ClimateCultures.

The three photographs of Joan’s we’ve used in this post are from her series ‘Becoming River’. Joan explains that “all images in this series were created ‘in-camera’ using ICM (Intentional Camera Movement), with minor adjustments to contrast and clarity in Lightroom. No images were manipulated in Photoshop.” Of the middle photograph, on temperature anomaly, Joan adds: “I use ICM to express my eco-anxiety about our collective indifference to the climate crisis.”

You can learn about Joan’s life and work in photography on the climate crisis and energy transition in The liminal space between what was and what’s next (January 2022), episode 96 in the Conscient podcast series from Claude Schryer. And she writes regular posts for the Artists & Climate Change blog.

Watch Ursula Le Guin’s short acceptance speech when she received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.

Read Australian climate scientist Joëlle Gergis on ecological loss from climate breakdown in The great unravelling: ‘I never thought I’d live to see the horror of planetary collapse’. In this wide-ranging article for The Guardian (14/1//20), she says: “As we live through this growing instability, it’s becoming harder to maintain a sense of professional detachment from the work that I do. Given that humanity is facing an existential threat of planetary proportions, surely it is rational to react with despair, anger, grief and frustration. To fail to emotionally respond to a level of destruction that will be felt throughout the ages feels like sociopathic disregard for all life on Earth.
Perhaps part of the answer lies in TS Eliot’s observation that ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’. To shy away from difficult emotions is a very natural part of the human condition. We are afraid to have the tough conversations that connect us with the darker shades of human emotion.”

Joan Sullivan

Joan Sullivan

A photographer, writer and farmer who focuses on climate change and whose abstract, phenomenological approach to photography expresses her ecoanxiety and gives voice to the nonhuman.

Where Waters and Fictions Meet

Writer and curator Mary Woodbury shares eight novels about water where fact and fiction mingle, tied by imagination, to reveal important truths about our shifting relationships with this vital and lively agent in an era of climate crisis.


1,700 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes


According to UN Water, an organization of international parties working on water issues, water is the primary medium through which we will face the effects of climate change. Warming temperatures in oceans means that species not capable of adapting will migrate or die out, which harshly affects ocean ecosystems. Water has become more scarce globally. Meanwhile, extreme weather patterns that cause droughts, floods, wildfires, increase in air temperatures, and other conditions point to low-income communities being affected the worst by health and food insecurity, political instability, the increase of changing disease environments, and altered snow and ice patterns—things that are already happening all around the world.

While facts are something we can and should pay attention to as we follow scientific integrity, models, and reports, another mode of telling the story about water has been alive forever: churned, spoken, and written by authors who dream up fictional stories related to our past, present, and future world. Where fact and fiction mingle like this is an area of reflection and speculation, tied by imagination. These tales of water ripple out once the pebble sinks in. The intersectionality of diverse water fiction results in reader empathy, learning, inspiration, and shared commonalities around the world. Local dignity comes alive against a backdrop of planetary crises.

Here are eight such stories.

Land-Water-Sky (Ndè-Tı-Yat’a) by Katłıà

About water: cover of Land-Water-Sky novelA debut novel by Dene author Katłıà, this story imagines the very beginnings of water, land, and sky—from time immemorial—and is set in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The author draws upon legendary characters, including spirits, beasts, a shapeshifter known as Nąą́hgą, and humans who have heard and passed down the narratives.

Because the novel starts long ago, a pristine natural landscape fills its pages, including fresh and clean water, which was abundant before the colonization of lands and people. Told in a lineage of short stories, the novel also fast-forwards to the near future, where a group of teenagers is haunted by past inter-generational trauma. Land-Water-Sky reminds us of our connection to water as well as of the dignity of Indigenous people who still uphold and respect these entities.

Oil on Water by Helon Habila

About water: cover of Oil on Water novelThe novel is set in the Niger Delta, which consists of nine states in southern Nigeria, fed by the Niger River, on the banks of the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean. This area has three major deltas (western, central, and eastern) and is home to one of the highest density-packed populations in the world, around thirty million. Oil on Water reminds of us of how water and oil do not mix. Rich oil barons settle in the delta and take what they want, ruining local people’s homes, water, land, flora, and fauna. Two journalists, Rufus and his boss Zaq, travel to the delta to report on the kidnapping of a British oil executive’s wife. The journalists try to capture the story, not just of the mystery but of the people living there. 

The author stated that the novel was based upon the Niger Delta uprisings. Because the water surrounding the delta has been traditionally so integral to the people, and then is stolen, Oil on Water is a story of tragedy and loss, so riveting as to cause heartbreak.

A Diary in the Age of Water by Nina Munteanu

About water: cover of A Diary in the Age of Water novelThe author is a Canadian ecologist and is deeply knowledgeable about water in all its forms. A Diary in the Age of Water is a lyrical polemic about the future of our water. Engaging, educational, and flowing, like water on the page, the story follows a fictional memoir about a limnologist dealing with unjust politics at work and in the world, dwindling water, her independent and headstrong daughter, her own aging, and the mystery of a strange girl.

This is the definitive novel about all things water. Each chapter starts with a fact related to water, which gets drawn out to a metaphor happening within the chapter. Written in the style of a diary, the story is personable. Munteanu communicates well as a scientist and breaks down complex ideas and information into understandable prose. By the time you’re finished, you’ll know more about water than ever before.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

About water: cover of The Water Knife novelThis novel, set in the Southwestern United States, is also fiction, but it seems inspired by actualities in a what-if-we-continued-this-way scenario. Climate change continues to produce drought and wildfires, which dangerously deplete water supplies. Set in the near future, the novel has Angel Velasquez, working for his boss Catherine Case and acting as a ‘water knife,’ a person who controls water supplies and sabotages competitors. Other characters, Lucy and Maria, join the suspenseful thriller in a desperate search for water.

This cautionary tale is a reminder that our ecological systems are at stake. Reuters recently stated that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Southwestern US drought is the worst it’s been in a century and is linked to climate change. Yesterday’s science fiction is today’s reality.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

About water: cover of Memory of Water novelMemory of Water is not just about future people’s memory of a time when water was more abundant but of the memory that water has of itself. Water is a main character and shares a significant role in the novel, as meaningful, if not more, than the human characters. This is a strong trait in eco-fiction, a genre of literature that rewilds stories in a way that reminds us that we are part of an ecological web, not above or apart from it.

In the story, a young woman named Noria Kaitio feels guilty for carrying on her father’s tradition of tea master—set in the far future of the Scandinavian Union—when water is scarce enough to be rationed severely. Noria dreams of a Shangri-la type of place, where water is more than just a memory, and sets out to find it. This novel has been adapted to a movie, Veden vartija, which releases in September 2022.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

About water: cover of Fever Dream novelThis surreal, psychological novel follows a woman named Amanda in a fever dream; she has a conversation with a boy named David that, in time, breaks down the mysterious cause of deaths surrounding them. The novel was first published in 2014 and recently was adapted to film and came out on Netflix. In the novel and the film, water plays an important part of the story.

Fever Dream is an example of storytelling in which environment is key to well-being but also in which the human connection, not just to water or the wild but to other humans, is part of the ecosystem. Amanda and her neighbor, David’s mother Carla, are connected by their children; they try to figure out what has gone wrong with David. David and Amanda have a lengthy conversation about what happened to him, but David insists that she must remember all the details of the recent past to truly get it. This haunting, beautiful story takes place in Argentina.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

cover of Lagoon novelScience fiction and fantasy are modes of storytelling that remind us of our connection to the environment around us. A subgenre of African-focused science fiction, called Africanfuturism, imagines worlds set in the continent of Africa. Lagoon is set in Lagos, Nigeria.

In a recent talk that Nnedi had with Arizona State University’s Matt Bell’s creative writing class, students asked about the writing process for the novel. The author stated that she had the idea as a response to what she thought was not a good representation of Africans in the alien invasion movie District 9, set in Johannesburg. She wondered—what if aliens landed in Lagos, a city by the sea? Water is integral to Lagos and to the story of Lagoon. The ocean environment is important, and the author decided to combine a story of aliens with legendary sea creatures in order to tell a more representative story of Africa’s people, myths, culture, and future.

Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

cover of Bangkok Wakes to Rain novelAn epic story, with a large timeline and big cast of characters, the novel is a beautifully written elegy to Bangkok’s collective memory, a fluid piece of place-writing and period pieces, magically woven together and coalescing in the city of Bangkok.

The novel moves around characters connected to each other: including a missionary doctor, a post-WWII society woman, a jazz pianist, and more. The author has spoken of the city of Bangkok as a “low-lying amphibious capital city with extensive networks of waterways, before much of it was contorted from its nature to match humankind’s trivial ambition of capital growth.” Tie that with climate change, which brings sea rise and floods.


Find out more

This article first appeared in Italian in the journal TELLŪS 2-2021 as Otto romanzi ci ricordano del nostro legame fondamentale con l’AcquaEight Novels Remind of us Our Crucial Connection with Water.

While hundreds more fictional stories featuring water exist, these are just eight that Mary has selected to introduce readers to the idea of how fiction and water mingle. To view more such tales, check out Dragonfly.eco, which Mary created and curates and has a database of nearly 1,000 novels, short stories, and other fiction related to our evolving planet, its physical landscapes and natural wonder, and the threats that our ecosystems face. Dragonfly.eco celebrates its tenth anniversary this August.

And you can also read Mary’s previous posts for ClimateCultures, including her two-part History of Eco-fiction.

You can find out more about the eight books from the authors’ or publishers’ sites:

You can read UN Water’s summary on the impacts of climate change on the world’s water systems here.

Mary Woodbury
Mary Woodbury
A fiction writer, researcher and curator of websites exploring ecology in fiction and providing ecoliterature resources for writers.