Last night, as the sun set, I wandered into the woods. Dosed up with Valerian and on barely any sleep (third hangover of the year, too soon after the second) I was already hazy, and I became totally and utterly conscious of how terrible my eyes were.
In the dark of the evening, as everything turns into greys and blues, everything seems to dance. When I stopped walking to take stock, the sound wrapped around me. Tiny titters of birds, bleating lambs far away, owls some closer. But closer, there were the snaps of twigs, the rustle of leaves, the shifting undergrowth and mulch. Footsteps not mine. Movement all around.
And me in the middle, vaguely terrified, and unable to tell what movement was my eyes playing tricks, and what was the forest itself.
It was incredible. Not least when I understood, as my sense reached their limits, that this was all playing around me, but I was nowhere near the centre. All around me was life that cared not for me. I was barely a part of it, even as I felt connected to it. This swirl of noise, the clatter of life, slowly going it’s own way.
I was not in the middle. The world was. I was just a tiny thought, drifting across the surface.
This was the evening after Uncivilisation 2011, the second ‘festival’ of the Dark Mountain Project. It was the first time it started to feel really uncivilised, and was an incredibly intense experience. Not quite has scary as returning to the city, and feeling some of those sensations again, only related to the thing I’m supposed to be used to. The swirl of noise and the clatter of life, amplified and drowned out all at once, but I’ll get to that. Maybe.
Basically, it was a weekend for creative types interested in the manifesto of the Dark Mountain, to get together and talk. There was a lot of great talk. There was a lot of fascinating stories and people. There was so much going on in a very small space, often seemingly rushing towards you like the ground as you fall.
My brain is genuinely aching. Though my heart is swollen.
I didn’t really expect it to be like this. I was expecting to hear politics and get fired up. I was hoping to learn and grow and solidify.
Instead, I just feel like I have been put in contact with a part of me that has been missing.
This is also good.
I’m not going to talk too much about the speakers and the talks, or even the bands. I’m sure other people will post much more eloquent responses and critiques of what was said. I don’t remember many huge bombshells in the actual programme. Nobody has many answers about what to do next apart from look after yourself, pay attention, listen to stories, tell your stories, and learn how to live with less.
Possibly the simplest and most obviously true statement of the weekend was something along the lines of ’get better at enjoying non-material things, because if you want to be happy, those are going to be the only things you can rely on’.
In shorter, if everything runs out, make sure you’ve got something that can’t run out to make your heart sing.
That wasn’t actually shorter, was it.
I’m not good at brevity right now, maybe. I’ve got a lot of listening to try and take in and and process. At some point I think a lot of things in my brain are going to pop, in various different ways.
The weekend clicked for me about five times, after initially seeming like something utterly contradictory and so somewhat failed. When people who are talking about the end of the world get angry and self righteous about a cafe only having jacket potatoes left, it makes you wonder. Dougald, one of the organisers, noted that someone on twitter had described the festival as ‘luddites with iPhones’, he was aware of the irony. Smari pointed out earlier (quite probably joking, but still quite probably right), the people who were prepared were probably somewhere else, being prepared. This was not a place to learn how to prepare for the apocalypse. This was a place to talk.
Which seemed kind of pointless.
Until. Well. Until it started to feel right. Until I realised that this wasn’t necessarily about building bunkers, it was about building soul, heart, spirit or something like it. There are many sorts of preparedness.
The ‘What next’ talk helped, particularly when Paul Kingsnorth (the other founder) noted that the festival had kind of started out as a place to get writers together.
Once you start thinking of it as a writer’s workshop at the end of the universe, it kind of made sense.
But before that, it really clicked, as I got in touch with exactly the sort of hippy I am.
People call me a hippy all the time, and sometimes I get annoyed, but mostly because I don’t know what it means. I acknowledge that I don’t help myself by wearing skirts and long hair and liking flowers, but, well, it still seems like a derogatory term. Something ineffectual. I guess this could be historiographical. During one conversation, Vinay noted that the cultural revolution died because all the clever people died in the first years of battle, leaving nobody to lead that side in the war.
So; failed and idealistic revolutionary? Possibly not that far off. But there are other trappings.
This weekend, for me, was actually a deeply spiritual experience. Despite me not having any clear definition of what that is. The biggest learnings were not about people (though the campfire was one of the most supportive singsongs I’ve ever taken part in. I’ve never sung solo acappella in front of strangers before, and I felt happy to do it and to fail. Thanks to that fire. If you’re reading this, you know who you are.)
Really, the awesome ritualistic theatre of Liminal, was what bought my heart into action. A small prologue, a procession through a series of unneverving dreamlike vignettes, and a final ritual, of noise and movement in the depths of a candlelit forest. Through that, I felt centred and connected to all of life, all of the world. Like had taken part in some kind of bonding ceremony. My centre suddenly felt further away from me than usual, but in the right way.
I celebrated by getting drunk, which was almost as stupid as some of the decisions on my cycle out from Petersfield to the campsite, which took five hours instead of one, and almost as fun. (Though it was the cycle that nearly killed me, if it hadn’t been for a spanner and a nice old lady called Anne, I’d probably be dead. Or at least very, very ill.)
The next day I was less engaged, but still picking up fragments, and maybe the odd braingrenade from Vinay. My mind was struggling to keep up with some of the learnings of the night before. Not least a weighty discussion in the almost sacredly intimate space of the hexayurt (which I stumbled drunkenly into at four in the morning).
I think spaces need to be small for real weight to be talked about. A conference or lecture is not a supportive or communal environment, it is a space for hierarchy and showing off. There were problems with some of the spaces, that bought out some odd things in people, and made me shut up and feel alienated. But when things worked, they worked.
And actually, shutting up and listening was what I needed. It wasn’t until everyone one faded back to their real lives and I was left in a quite countryside that I really appreciated that. And that I finally got to listen to what I really needed.
I made a new friend, who fed and nourished me in a number of ways, not least with actual physical real food. I need to get the micro infrastructure for cookery into my camping bike loadout pretty sharpish.
After absorbing some silence sunshine and beauty, we talked about sheep, unicorns and ancestors. Myths and futures and spirits.
The thing is, when you have the space to look at the noisiness of the quieter, less verbal world, you realise that these spirits, while metaphors, are utterly, utterly real.
Our myths and stories are wrapped up together, and they can still be shared around a campfire, and nothing will make you new friends like laughing and sharing them.
We are going to be ancestors. Even if we don’t have children, those around us will. We will tell them stories, and they will tell stories about us. Eventually, that is all we will be. Stories.
After my final commune with nature, the final fire of the weekend was shared with total but beautiful strangers. The chance to bounce around some chatter, to hear our thoughts and stories of the weekend shared and stretched and played with. Repeated and explained from different angles.
With the owls for company.
We were not the centre, we were just part of a stream through eternity. We looked backwards, and we looked forwards, and we saw everything stretching out beyond us.
I think we are tiny. I think we make tiny marks. As a civilisation, we have wreaked huge damage, but still, where it is, life persists. We will, eventually, wash away (barring the definitely real possibility of biotech, nanotech or nuclear catastrophe), and leave a world that will move on without us.
But civilisation is not actually us. Not the deep us, at our core.
Politically, we must make sure we demand the world the world deserves. We must learn how to change our civilisation so it does not destroy everything. This will probably not happen until it’s all gone horribly wrong. This is a tragedy for us.
The world will pick itself up and carry on without us.
We need to do something about this. This weekend was not about finding out what. It was about finding out why.
It was about seeing alternatives and feeling them.
It was restorative to something in my heart. Like a tree was growing there that hasn’t been watered in forever. Finally it is growing again, maybe even bearing fruit.
I still don’t know what to do about civilisation. But I do know I need to distance myself from it. My path seems clearer. Move, slowly and safely away from the horror of it all. Find somewhere I can live a simpler life.
The route will not be simple. I don’t have the wisdom and skills and power of my ancestors. I don’t know how to live off land, and I don’t have land to live off.
But. Well. I need to be out there.
Where the real world is. Living and bustling in it’s own way. I must visit it more regularly and learn how to work with it.
These are musts now, not just idle dreams.
I’m not going to stop talking about the problems. I’m going to continue to try and make the world change. But I am also going to make a tent on a darker mountain.
My spirit belongs with the others. In the darkness.
It’s not easy to see in the dark. This weekend, I practiced opening my eyes wider.
With time. I will work on my eyes.
And my heart.
And my soul.
So I can see deeper into the darkness, and maybe even live there.
This is a first response. It is tired and slightly crazy, for that is where I’m at right this moment.I’m going to use Unstruck this week to explore a few questions that came up over the weekend. This is technically breaking the rules, but that’s what they’re for, right?