To civilise is to build.
To uncivilise is to destroy?
I may just be tired, but I actually feel very lost. Last year’s Dark Mountain Uncivilisation Festival made me grounded and full hearted, my mind swirling with ideas. This year, the thoughts are still torrential, but my physical form feels adrift.
It’s a scary place to be. But I think that might be part of the point.
There are some things we need to look in the eye, and they are going to be terrifying. The future is real, and it’s not far away.
Someone this weekend bought together a number of statements under the heading ‘why am I here?’ I was reminded of my fear and dread of why questions, and the leaps they ask you to make. It remains my conviction that no ‘why’ question has an answer that isn’t guesswork or an act of faith. Reasons aren’t available, no matter how hard we reason. A why asks a fundamentally different kind of question. We don’t tell people why the sky is blue, we tell people how air bends light. Or we just lie and make up an answer.
Dark Mountain is looking for new whys. Rightly so. Our civilisation is based on a series of misleading myths that are causing us to eat ourselves. The world is falling part, and we are just digging deeper into it. This weekend’s recurring motif was mythology. Stories that can accompany the logos of understanding. Stories that can tell us ‘why’.
Myth is everything that we think we know, anyway. Our memories of our lives are as distorted as our understandings of history. A well told story is what builds our past. That’s how we remember things.
I am intensely conscious that as I write about this weekend, I am going to create my vision of it. Make it again, after the fact. Ignoring the grumpiness and tiredness. Probably unable to go into why I repeatedly lost my voice and felt afraid to speak. I am here to build my own Dark Mountain myth.
But I am tired, and I am worried it will be the wrong one.
It’s the problem with trying to build our own whys. A new myth is untested in the waters of people, open to interpretation and destruction, a story has as many sides as it has listeners. There is no way to know the impact of a new myth. The inventors of the myths of capitalism probably never saw its natural result as the greed of today. Adam Smith’s invisible hand was supposed to stop this kind of thing, not claw into the world, desperately tearing its livelihood to destruction.
We either need to get this right, or we need to work out a new way of myth making, something that allows us to adapt, something that returns us to the now, allows us to be more present in the moment, more aware of the now.
Steve Wheeler, dazzled me a little, drawing links between the slow disease of ‘progress’, the notion of apocalypse, and utopian, teleological world-views. It’s seems so simple to remember that some of our oldest revelations are not simply about the world ending, but about something new and perfect beginning. The book of John of Patmos does not mourn the destruction of the world, but beckons in the kingdom of god. Even Ragnarok ends with two survivors building a new world. Marx pushes towards another utopia, the apparently inevitable conclusion of wave after wave of revolution.
Our apocalypses are our idealisms.
Steve tried to draw us into the now. To stop wanting stuff for the future. To live in a now that would not rely on desires and fears, that could be content with what is.
It’s that thought from last year. To be happy in the future, we’re going to want to be happy with less. There’s a lot of internal work you can do for that.
Tom Hirons pulled me into the woods, and tried to offer a brief taste of extreme wilderness. The taste and feel of the earth on your face, screaming into the ground, whilst hearing a chorus of others doing the same. It is something I will never forget, perhaps the wildest moment of the weekend (apart form my wriggling terror as I forced myself into the dark night’s woods, jumping at every noise). I admire Tom even more after his talk, in which he talked of trying to create a rite of passage without appropriating the culture of other peoples. He is one of many people there this weekend, who I am simply incredibly glad exist, and feel blessed to have even passing contact with.
Speaking of passing contacts, I only spoke to Vinay for about two minutes, and still got an intense snippet of knowhow that I think I need to build on.
Stories are better with a little added noise. That was taught by Tom and Rima on the first night, and Martin Shaw the next day.
And an intense debate about I vs We, sent me into tumults of worry about the nature of consensus, and the ability of people to assume its presence. No community is uniform. Be wary of your words when you speak for others. I am not enough, but I cannot know enough of others to speak for them. That is dangerous personal mythmaking.
But then, there is this desire for community, and I suspect that’s what draws the Dark Mountaineers together. The people that really want to leave civilisation can do it. There is still wildness, and it can be escaped to.
There’s more than that, somewhere. There’s a desire to make change. I hope that’s what it is, anyway. Because this isn’t just about personal reinvention, this is about finding a way to make our society stop killing people, and stop killing the planet. I really hope so. Because beyond that goal, I don’t really see what’s worth it.
I feel like we’re sometimes too far up the pyramid of needs of the world. We haven’t found a way to feed everyone, we haven’t found a way to stop burning and poisoning the actual ground and water and air that gives us everything we have, have ever had, and will ever have. We’re obsessing about self actualisation when there are people dying.
But then, as individuals, we need to focus on our own changes and our own world in order to exemplify, promote and build a new way of thinking. Without doing that thinking (and the acres of self destruction and re-creation that accompany it) we can’t make new things, escape old traps or be new people.
So we must be in the now, whilst remembering the past, and building a future that might be able to work for everyone.
The weekend sometimes feels like time travel, or perhaps, stepping out of time long enough to get the overview, seeing how things once were, are still, and always will be. Changed, different, but built from the same stuff.
That earth, that water, that sky.
When I was there, I thought I saw a common theme. I thought the answer was in building mythologies. Finding old stories that can show us new ways. Finding new stories that can reconnect our future to our past. Building worlds within worlds to teach our world new dances.
Now I return, and old fears come back with me. How do we build a right future, built on uncertain ground. How can we decide to teach myths as truths, when we know their truths, and ours, are so malleable, so frangible.
I touched the earth, the ground, and told it I was grateful. I acknowledged that it had built me, fed me, made everything I have ever known. I screamed, giving it my voice. I didn’t feel like I was pouring out. Maybe I was feeding, as it always fed me. It was a connection, nonetheless.
So I did connect. And despite my voicelessness, I found connection to people as well. I am not as good at this as I imagine, or perhaps I have just forgotten some of my people skills, or perhaps I’d thought I was going for my self, and not to connect with people. This is probably the wrong way to go into most things.
I honestly don’t know. I feel more questioned and challenged than solidified.
But this is good.
After the festival ended, many people stayed behind to finish off the beer and have one last fire and gathering. A great atmosphere was suddenly interrupted by a story. Someone had ventured into town and stumbled upon a symbol of civilisation, he suggested we burned it. Another chimed in saying we should tear it apart and burn it piece by piece. Properly excoriate.
Before it got far, some raised a complaint. The ritual interrupted, atmosphere shifting as people try to search for something.
The symbol, you see, was a book. The burning of books is a deep symbol, easily misread and misinterpreted. A reminder of savagery, organised violence. Impromptu rituals, a joke to celebrate the destruction of civilisation, worry of what that destruction is, or means.
The story needs to be told in bits and pieces, with weird disjunctures, because it was a hundred stories.
I for one, felt my mind tumble through them.
The book burned, but not by consensus; the owner took charge. A line was drawn between burning ‘civilisation’ and burning ‘Civilisation, by Kenneth Clarke’. The knowledge inside it was given respect by some, the author disdain by others. The iconography was terrifying. Reminders of oppression. Oppression is still everywhere. This is not safely ironically distant territory.
As I watched the book slowly explode and burst outwards, I wondered. Were we ready to destroy civilisation?
The noise of thought processes around that fire. The arguments and emotions. The fear and the anger and the humour. A real, deep sacred happening. Sacred and scared.
If we are truly to become uncivilised, this is not the only taboo that will need to be put to the flames.
But do we want to build our world on destruction? Is there even a choice?
How to we destroy destruction? How do we consume consumption?
Dangerous symbols make for dangerous ceremonies. It was the first time the festival had felt dangerous. And something was created from that destruction. Every mind focussed and intensified. Not necessarily for the best, but it’s good to shake things up.
A simple act. A simple fire.
It was a terrible and beautiful moment.
I felt like it shouldn’t have happened, but I felt it was needed.
Written down, it probably doesn’t have the power. But in the moment, my gut was wrenched.
What would it really mean to undermine and challenge the very fundaments of our civilisation. To not just nibble at the edges, but cut to the centre.
To burn something up.
Last year, I was reminded of what it was I wanted to protect and connect too. This year, Uncivilisation felt like it was more about facing up to how challenging it will be to change the world, and the self. The things we need to destroy are dear and dangerous. The arguments we need to have are heartfelt and hurtful. There will be pain, if we are to wrench our world into something new. There will be a risk, that we will turn into things we despise even more than our current state.
Dark Mountain remains a very civilised festival, full of very civilised people. It’s hard not to see it as having a taste of that kind of middle class avoidance of privilege that is so common. This was expressed eloquently and emotionally by someone who noted that they wanted to scream, from knowing that in their day to day life, they did not always live what they believe. Trying to connect, from behind a wall of socialisation and comfort, to something more primal, honest and pure than the myths of progress and futurity is painful and difficult. I am aware of how lightly and slowly I am treading that world, kept wrapped and safe in my comfort and my privilege.
Eventually, there are parts of our selves we will have to burn up and cast aside. We need to do it inwards, and then outwards. Our black iron prison will need to be burnt. Watching that happen may feel a lot like tearing hearts out. It is not safe, it will be misunderstood, it could lead us closer to destruction.
We have to be wary of the myths we create. They can make us destroy, they can convince others to destroy. I don’t know how to do this right. I feel paralysed, knowing that the destruction I am living in now is killing, but that any step forward could do the same.
I want to run away and cry tears into the ground. Let it know that I don’t know what to do and how to live any more.
I am cut adrift, my anchors burned off.
Actually, somehow, I feel like something in me has been uncivilised. More than before, I am adrift from my assumptions. I do not feel like I went to the same Dark Mountain as most. Even though I had plenty of (wonderful) company, and was shown some beautiful things, I feel like a scaled a height, was torn apart, and will now fight to put myself together.
This is probably only a first step, still. I think I need to work on this more. Work out where it should take me. Work out where I should take it.
My heart is opened up.
I come back down the mountain, and the world swirls around me as it always has. Will this be enough to make a difference. Will I be able to leave my heart open in this other world, that will not care for me as the community of the fire would? I am worried I will become overexposed again.
It’s scary, but I think that’s the point.
The work to be done, on self, on the world, is scary.
I feel I have walked into a fire. Sunk into the earth. Drowned under the water. Dissolved into the air.
And yet I am still here. In the now.
I do not have a replacement for self, for civilisation.
I do not know what to do next.
Illustration by the incredible Helen. Apologies this is being posted so late. I had a crisis of faith in it.