“Internally we call it the ‘phone book’”
Emergence is a California-based magazine that explores “ecology, spirituality and culture”. A juicy 394 pages long, the content is divided into four sections; ‘Language’, ‘Food’, ‘Apocalypse’ and ‘Trees’. Contributions are long-form and often experimental. A poem about the tree that survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima is printed on tracing paper, so that it looks like the rings in a slice of bark. In another of my favourite pieces, the ecological historian Bathsheba Demuth explores the imposition of Soviet ideology on the indigenous Chukchi people.
Over Zoom, executive editor Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee talks about the intentions behind the issue, and the place of spirituality in the natural world.
It’s a big tome of an issue!
Internally, we call it the “phone book”, because it’s as thick as a phone book. It got a little out of hand.
Can we start there? Why did it get out of hand?
Well, our first volume was also quite beastly: 300 pages. That was intentional. Emergence is an annual publication so we want to make sure it’s substantive. It includes content that we publish online each year, redesigned into a print experience. This issue explores the themes of language, food, apocalypse, and trees. The pandemic upended our plans a little bit because the actual apocalypse came three months before our apocalypse issue was meant to come out.
It was clear we had to expand the stories in Emergence to respond to the apocalyptic situation we all found ourselves in. So we put a call out to our writers and artists to pitch stories from around the world. We originally planned to have this issue distributed by Autumn 2020. But we needed to take more time.
The ecological historian Bathsheba Demuth has a great piece in the issue about why we are so drawn to narratives of the apocalypse. How did that piece come about?
Bathsheba’s piece was actually commissioned before the pandemic. Most of our essays are long-form and require on-location reporting, so we were coming up with ideas long before the pandemic. Bathsheba is a historian and an environmental writer based mostly in the arctic. In the piece she looks at the Chukchi Peninsula in East Russia as a way of exploring how societies crumble. The piece only became more poignant after the pandemic, because it made you realise how fragile cultures and societies are. What can change.
Demuth also discusses the way we are drawn to apocalyptic narratives. Why do you think we like stories about the end of the world?
It’s in all the great stories of our time, from the bible, to the Greek myths. But the ‘apocalypse’ for so many people was just something you see in Hollywood movies. And I think if we keep telling stories that present the apocalypse as some sort of end of the world scenario then people will tire of them. The pandemic showed us the apocalypse is right here, and it isn’t just a health crisis. It’s an ongoing experience, and many peoples have been experiencing it for a lot longer than we have. Indigenous peoples in America have been experiencing a genocidal apocalypse since 1492. For enslaved people in America, the apocalyptic experience began in 1619. The awakening of racial injustice that swept the world last summer was also fuelled by the pandemic. It wasn’t just fuelled by the killing of George Floyd. People started thinking: I’m living in an apocalyptic reality, and everything can change.
Emergence has an unabashed focus on spirituality woven into its strapline. What is the significance of spirituality to your project?
Spirituality is one of those dangerous terms that can mean literally anything under the sun. Emergence’s desire to include the spiritual isn’t to talk about personal growth or one’s own personal yearnings to find deeper meaning through yoga or meditation. It’s about putting the spiritual in the collective, and the natural world. There’s a spiritual crisis that’s at the heart of our ecological, social, and political crisis.