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The Ancient Owl, or How I Became Reluctant God of the Eco-freaks

Oh fuck off, don’t look at me like that!

I never asked for this. Okay, maybe I asked for some of it, but not... not this! Bluebell is scrubbing between my toes with a ragged old cloth. It tickles but I’m too tense to flinch. Her eyes are fixed on my cracked and calloused toes like she’s a watchmaker working on her masterpiece – like her life depends on it. Maybe she believes it really does.

I used to like chatting with Bluebell during this little daily ritual, but she’s been silent this past week. I have Bog Myrtle to thank for that. Another one of his new rules. His tightening restrictions. His commandments. Thou shalt not speak to the Ancient Owl. Thou shalt not meet eyes with the Ancient Owl. Do you know how fucking lonely the world gets without eye contact?

That’s the least of my problems though. There are more worrying developments to consider. Thou shalt not wander without permission. Thou shalt not contact the old-world. Things are getting a little – how should I say? Culty? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that my cult turned out culty, but every cultist in history probably hoped theirs would buck the trend, right? The road to mass suicide is paved with good intentions. I shouldn’t think like that. We're not that bad. Not yet.

I’m sure you’d like to know how we ended up here, and I’d love to fill you in, but honestly, I have very little idea what the fuck is going on. I can tell you how it started at least. I was a writer – not a very good one, but I had a following. I wrote novels about the end of the world: ecological catastrophe, nature reclaiming the city; sci-fi stuff basically. I was one of the finest plagiarists the great literary nation of Scotland had ever produced. Perhaps even the very best, although it’s hard to tell, because the best of us go undetected by definition.

It was a strange time, the thirties, when I wrote the bulk of my best-sellers. An era of self-flagellation and despair. Smarter people than me had started to realise that we were long past the point of no return. The oceans were so clogged with Coke bottles and condoms that you couldn’t even eat the fish from them anymore. Citrus fruits just refused to grow: first lemons, then limes, then oranges. The range of exotic produce in the supermarket dwindled rapidly as the countries of origin were plunged into civil war, or their farms were drowned under rising oceans. It’s the greatest joke of history that we never really believed disaster was possible until the avocados disappeared from Sainsbury’s shelves.

Everyone sensed they held a share of the blame. Every single one of us was a natural disaster in and of ourselves. There was no such thing as an ethical life any more, if any ever really existed. The public wanted to be named and shamed – spat on and accused. They wanted to read novels about how awful mankind was, and how the great and powerful earth would bounce back and take its revenge. A new wave of writers like me were happy to oblige.

Truth be told I was never particularly into the eco scene. I was just a standard garden-variety misfit (scientific name: Cuntus Misanthropis). The plain and simple truth behind all my posthumanist preaching was that I just never really got along with people. That’s why in my writing I did away with them, tortured them, obliterated them into piles of ash and fertile goop and gave their cities to the deer and house cats. I’ve always liked cats. You know where you stand with a cat.

For some reason, the well-to-do literati loved it. All you need to do is tell them they’re a bunch of base, ignorant, fuckwitted, deluded, unethical cunts and they’ll call you a genius. Better yet: the coarser you say it, the greater your genius. How stark! How honest! How authentic! And that, my friends, is how you become a bestselling author.

That’s not the question you’re interested in though, is it? You want to know how a bestselling author becomes a cult leader. That part was pretty simple, so much so that I barely realised it was happening. I was approached by Bog Myrtle – Brian, at the time – and invited to a retreat up north. Radical ecologists, assorted intellectuals, concerned citizens – anyone who could afford a ticket, really. We were to form a thinktank about how to live well in a rapidly depleting world. The money they offered me was pretty good, and truth be told things were getting a bit tense in the city. They say that every society is always only three missed meals away from anarchy. Little did they know that Britain had been so pampered for so long, it was only our previously plentiful supply of pomegranates and pineapples keeping us from filling the streets with blood.

So I went along, and for a few days I gave some speeches, led some discussions, went on hikes across barren crags and muddy beaches and listened to wild-haired naturalists tell us which plants could be eaten raw, which should be boiled into tea. There was a genius to it: trap a bunch of well-off Southerners in the Highlands, tell them they’re the spiritual antidote to a sick age, then proceed to milk every penny you can from them. At £100 a pop, Gorse led meditation workshops on ‘Ecological Presentism and Applied Biomindfulness’. Basically, they sat naked on piles of moss, in the imitation of Indian yogi, and listened to what the trees had to say to them. Pretentious cunt? Yes. But he was no idiot – he drew the biggest crowds besides me that week. He must have made a fortune! Not that it matters now, since he renounced his material wealth, like all the others.

So that was the middle class' great solution to the end of the world: to retreat into a series of craft projects and rambles. The five-grand ticket included all activities, room, board, and – of course – moral indulgence; absolution from your plastic packaged life of sin. Despite all the nonsense I actually quite enjoyed those first weeks. It had been a while since I had an audience of that size hanging on my every word. The lodges were quite nice too – on the shores of Loch Errochty. Isolated, but that was the point. Sometimes I wonder if Bog Myrtle planned for it to end up this way all along.

That was about the time that the riots started kicking off in Glasgow – Manchester – London – near enough everywhere at one point or another over that September. They blamed it on the students going back to university; angry, unchecked, realising that they had drawn the short straw in the generational lottery and would spend their lives wading through the piles of shit we were leaving behind for them. Most attendees left for home, but a lot of us didn’t fancy the idea of getting our head bashed in by some seventeen-year-old in an ‘Anonymous’ mask. Instead we gathered around the battered old radio and listened to news reports, tutting to each other about the sickness of the world and the end of human society as we knew it. What was originally a two-week retreat became a month, became two, became three. I think we’re up to the twenty-third now.

It only took about eight months for us to renounce our old names and pick new ones from the MacLaughlin’s Guidebook to Scottish Highland Flora. Then after another two or three weeks we cut the power lines. The orgies were quick to follow. I guess darkness and boredom have that effect. Then hey-presto: suddenly you’re runting away alongside forty folk in a fire-lit lodge, cumming into Wood Sedge and Thistle and Bracken to the beat of some drug addled accountant battering away on his souvenir-stand Navajo drum, and you realise that you, my friend, are now in a cult.

Thing have calmed down in the outside world for now, but we're already too far down our path to care. So here we are still, no longer tutting about the sickness of the world but prophesising about the cure. That’s progress, right? Maybe? As leader, I should probably have a stronger opinion on the matter. How am I supposed to guide my flock if I don’t even know what direction to head in?

I know what you’re thinking, by the way: boo-fucking-hoo, the poor cult leader doesn’t know what lies to tell the people who scrub his feet and suck his cock. But this is no breeze for me either, trust me. Leading a cult is work! Nowhere near as fun as it looks, I promise. I never even put myself forward for the role in the first place – I didn’t even want it! My ascendency just kind of... happened. And better me than some psycho, right!?

What I mean to say is, every cult needs a messiah, so why not me? I was the keynote speaker at the event, after all. I even had my own pre-written holy texts. In fact, one of my most popular novels was about a quasi-religious eco-commune growing out of the ruins of a string of natural disasters. That rambling little paperback provided a ready-made template for our new lifestyles, and made me the de-facto subsistence farming expert among a tribe of white-collar cosmopolitans who’d spent their whole working lives in offices, likely never imagining they’d ever need to research the proper procedure for shovelling their own shit into planters filled with potatoes. That’s why they raised me up and named me the Ancient Owl.

It’s a daft name, I know. I guess the logic is that owls are supposed to be wise. And ‘ancient’? They must have felt it wouldn’t hold the proper gravitas if they just called me the Owl. I suppose I agree with them on that one.

You know, I’ve never really figured out if it’s just a ceremonial title – like Grand Wizard – or if they mean something more literal by it. To be honest I don’t know the half of what Bog Myrtle and his gang are teaching them down by the loch anymore. I just give my speeches and let them get on with it. I’m their prophet, not their headmaster.

Bluebell is heading back down there now. I wish she’d stay. I wish I could ask her what she thinks – probe her mentality to see if we really are past the point of no return. I would kill for her to turn around and give me an ironic little smile, just a momentary look, enough to say ‘This is all a bit silly isn’t it?’. No such luck. For a second, through the closing door, I catch sight of the amber sunset reflecting off the surface of the loch.

Alone in my hall – my temple, I suppose I should call it. What a state it’s in. Just a short while ago it was a typical modern holiday bungalow, then they knocked down the partition walls and tore out all the amenities. Now it resembles someone’s half-remembered approximation of an old Viking longhall, complete with a fire pit and a smoke hole crudely bashed through the roof. The wooden beams around it are heavily rotted. It looks like the whole thing might come collapsing down any minute. Whose bright idea was that, exactly? Probably the same idiot who ripped out the gas stove and left the pipes exposed.

They'll fill this miserable, sodden space soon, and they'll be expecting me to have something profound prepared for them. Daft bastards. It's nothing new, when you really think about it. People have always wanted to believe artists have something important to tell them. They want us to possess some special sensitivity that lets us tune into the secret airwaves upon which messages of sublime affirmation are broadcast. They want someone out there to have some idea what the fuck is going on. Better to believe in your own deafness rather than really listen to the silence, right? That’s why they don’t want to read your work, they want to read into it. I’ve fielded enough moronic questions at book festival Q&As to know what I’m talking about. It’s funny, really – imagine someone searching for affirmation among the heaps of dross I produced!

In the end, what it comes down to is that everyone’s looking for someone to tell them what to believe, right? They used to look to the clergy for a hotline to God, then technology promised them a highway to Godhood, now they think I’m the herald of Gaia. God is dead, long live God (here’s hoping, anyway). These aren’t stupid people either. Bog Myrtle was in marketing. Bluebell was a psychologist. Bracken was a computer science PhD candidate at St Andrews, I’m told. I guess worship is as natural a part of human life as eating and shitting. Is it really any more harmful worshipping me, in the end?

Oh fuck off, don’t look at me like that!

That returns me to my present dilemma: tonight’s sermon. I think my subjects are beginning to sense that I’m nearly totally out of ideas. I’ve started repeating myself like a DJ who only brought a half-dozen records to his gig. I can feel my control of the dancefloor slipping. My audience will be shuffling into the hall barefoot in about half an hour and I have not a single word prepared. Perfect timing for a bout of writer’s block.

I’ve put in a decent enough performance as their leader up until now: a patchwork of bullshit cobbled together from old movies and books about a variety of mystics and other assorted nutjobs. It’s all about presenting the familiar image of the prophet – the shaman – the wise master, rather than producing anything original, and did I mention I was once the king of plagiarism? Not so much anymore, unfortunately. These days I stall and stutter. Whenever I do, Bog Myrtle gives me that intense look, that venomous stare of his that says 'Don’t you dare fuck this up'. It’s the look that makes my balls crawl up inside me, because it reminds me that I might well end up burned alive in a wicker man before this is all done.

I guess I could just adlib some standard bullshit about visions from Mother Earth, although that’s always a touch heavy-handed, and I’ve done it about five times this past fortnight. My repertoire is exhausted, my stores are dry, my... my... for fuck sake! I can’t even come up with a third idiom, never mind an entire sermon! What the fuck am I gonna do?

I run my fingers over the patterns on my seat – my throne: an old Ikea dining chair carved with crude pictograms copied from a book about prehistoric art. Just one fresh idea, that’s all I need. For once in my life I just need to generate one simple little fresh idea. Proper writers do it all the time. They come up with six original ideas before breakfast, for Christ’s sake. Can it really be so fucking hard?

Heather is coming in to dress me. With my robes draped over her outstretched arms, she skirts silently around the perimeter of the room, on the edge of the shadows. They’re meant to look natural and rough-spun, but I caught Bog Myrtle snipping the label off them the day they were presented to me: Made in China, 25% Cotton 75% Polyester. Fake robes for a fake messiah. From a Gandalf the Grey Halloween costume, I reckon. I wish they’d kept the pointy hat.

She slips them over my head then goes and stands silently by the door. Maybe tonight, since he’s all out of ideas, the fake messiah could tell the truth for once. I could tell them that this has all gone too far, and that I’m just some out-of-his-depth fuckwit with nothing to offer them. That they should go home to whatever families and jobs they have left before it all boils over.

And boil over it will. Things are changing – expanding. There are more faces in the crowd every week. I’m not sure when we started actively recruiting, and the secrecy around it all seems a bit sinister. Like the other day, there was a new boy, about thirteen. That’s not unusual in itself. Quite a lot of parents are deciding to up-sticks and go low-tech, trying to protect their kids from the modern world and all its absurd new threats: toxic air, food riots, super-chlamydia, VR PTSD – the list is endless. What was weird was that this boy didn’t seem to have arrived with anyone. Are we snatching runaways now? Then there was the woman – one of the newer members, at her first merging. That's what they call the orgies now – not my decision. She was led in while it was in mid-flow. Then after a while... well... best not to dwell on it.

It’s not like I could raise the issue with Bog Myrtle anyway. He’s always short on answers but quick to remind me of my part in the whole affair; my lack of any plausible deniability should it all come crumbling down. It doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence about the direction this whole thing is headed. I’ll admit, I was largely to blame for the initial instigation of the orgies. My bad. Whatever. That’s the life of a messiah: you make one impulsive decision based on the blood rushing through your cock, then suddenly it becomes ritual – doctrine – praxis. If Jesus had been a particularly horny guy, we’d all have been shagging like maniacs in the cathedrals for the past two millennia as well – I guarantee you. What I’m trying to say is that I can't exactly be held accountable for everything that came afterwards.

Oh fuck off, don’t look at me like that!

It’s easy for an outsider to judge. You weren’t here. I’m doing my fucking best! Everyone just sees the glamour and glory of it – the foot scrubbing and the sex – not the exhausting work, not the constant anxiety. A beetle is crawling by my foot. I flick it towards the fire pit with my toe, but it falls short and scuttles off to a corner. I suppose you’re right though. Where does it end? Things can’t keep going on like this forever. I have to stop the loony-bus somewhere, even if it means crashing it into a tree, but honestly, I’m not even sure I have a hand on the wheel anymore.

The solemn, stumbling procession is on its way up the hill, feeling their way through the darkness. You can always hear them coming from the muted yelps of scraped knees and stubbed toes. Time’s running out. Heather will throw the doors open any second now. This is it. There’s nothing else for it. I have to man up and get it done. Break the spell. Demolish the asylum.

I reckon I still have enough influence to set the bulk of them upon Bog Myrtle if he tries to have his grunts drag me off to a bonfire. He once forgot to separate his rubbish into the proper recycling bins! Cast him from this holy place! That'd likely do the trick. Unless they fear him as much as they revere me. Fuck it, I guess we’ll just have to find out.

I grab my gnarled- branch sceptre from the side of my throne. The wooden beak of the owl carving will make it a serviceable enough weapon, if it comes to it.

Shit. Okay. Here they are, coming through the door: my flock, dressed in their Sunday best. Their loose-hanging old-world clothes are symbolically ripped, bracken and heather woven through the frayed holes; improvised imitations of old Celtic patterns drawn across their faces in mud.

The new boy is crying. The new woman is missing. Gaunt and sunken-eyed, they settle down cross-legged around the smouldering firepit – well over two hundred of them now. I want to run away. I want to fly up through that hole in the roof and just fucking disappear.

The air is thick with sweat and smoke. The rustling dies away as the last of them sit down. Bog Myrtle and his posse fill the back wall by the door, their grass garlands and cudgels marking them out as the keepers of the faith – my Swiss Guard – meine Gestapo!

Herr Myrtle glares into my eyes and nods – my signal to begin.

Okay, this is it. Go time. Zero hour. D-Day. I’m putting an end to it all. Fuck you Brian! I’m the fucking Ancient Owl!

“I have – I... I really must... I... What I mean to say, is – is that today I have a fresh revelation to share with you, the magnitude of which leaves me speechless! Mother Earth has communicated to me a vision of a future – ehm... a future wild and glorious and bathed – bathed! – in the light of innocence; a world of tangled undergrowth carpeting the motorways and cul-de-sacs – of creepers clinging to the walls of the highest skyscrapers – a world which only our continuing faith can bring into being!”

What? I can’t – couldn’t...

Oh fuck off! Don’t look at me like that!

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