Dark Mountain: Conspiring in the destruction of everything greens value
We’ve just got back (late last night) from Uncivilisation 2012, the annual festival of the Dark Mountain movement. And before we return to abnormal life at Abrazo House, I want to record my impressions of the weekend. But to start with I should probably explain why we went there in the first place.
I first heard of Dark Mountain a couple of years ago and got the impression that it was a good and necessary thing: a movement of people making an honest effort to respond to the ecological crisis, in art, writing, and music. I got hold of a copy of the first volume of the annual Dark Mountain anthology, and found it unusually interesting, all the more so because, rather than languishing in total obscurity, it seemed to have kicked up a bit of a reaction. When George Monbiot writes an article in the Guardian accusing Dark Mountain’s founders of “conspiring in the destruction of everything greens value”, you have to suspect they might be onto something.
Last autumn I had few weeks free from working on the house, thanks to a combination of a mild cold, bad weather and a cowboy builder who did a runner. It was a rare window of opportunity to do some writing. At the same time two events called my attention back to Bilbao: the permanent ETA ceasefire, and the approval of the new Master Plan for Zorrozaurre, incorporating some elements of the “eco-barrio” design which we had fought for as residents of the area. This was a sort of landmark, and so I decided to write an essay (”Beyond Z.”) about Zorrozaurre for the third Dark Mountain book. I was delighted when the editors agreed to publish it, together with a poem (”On our way to the revolution”) about the Indignados movement in Bilbao. We were planning to come to England for a few weeks in August and it seemed like the Uncivilisation festival would be a fun weekend for the whole family and a chance to connect with some of the people in, on, or behind the Dark Mountain. All of what follows should be taken with a pinch of salt, as the experience of just one festival-goer out of 300, and any criticisms are offered in a constructive sense.
Pride and Prejudice and Ecowarriors?
We drove down from the Midlands along the A34, through the area of the Newbury road protests — appropriately, since one of the themes of the Festival was to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the road protest movement. There was absolutely nothing to indicate that we were passing the site of some of the biggest battles to take place on English soil in recent history. (Someone ought to put up a commemorative billboard, or would that be just too ironic?) We decided not to visit Jane Austen’s house, which wasn’t far from our route – partly for reasons of time but mostly because of the odd cultural dissonance. “Pride and Prejudice and Ecowarriors”, anyone?
The festival was taking place at the Sustainability Centre, a lovely wooded site, tranquil and beautiful, definitely a great location for a festival. It’s also the home of a natural burial site, and of Permaculture magazine who have published a couple of articles about Zorrozaurre in the past, so I was hoping to meet the editors in person — though that didn’t happen since the office was closed over the weekend.
I didn’t really come with many expectations of what the festival would be like. It was the first we had ever gone to as a family, and my first since a traumatic trip to Glastonbury almost 20 years ago. I suppose I hoped it would be wild, strange and inspiring, and in many ways it was. Though as the organisers themselves pointed out, in a pleasing irony, it was also extremely “civilised” in the sense of being polite, tidy, clean, and respectful. The main marquee was a particularly English touch alongside the yurts and tipis. At one point the organisers had to make a call out for volunteers to help clean the trees where some children had been painting them (well, you would, wouldn’t you, if someone left paint in the woods?)
That was one of the installations made by the Mearcstapa collective on the fringes of the festival; others included the strange and wild mythological creatures wandering the site, which were also very polite and civilised. I particularly liked the read-aloud space in the forest, and I would have loved to have spent more time there, reading poems and stories. In fact, a lot more of the festival’s activities could have been taken into the woods, with tarps in case of rain. In the event we had blazing sun, which was lovely, but meant the tents got very hot inside; under the trees the temperature was ideal.
Civilisation is three days deep
One of the things that struck me throughout the weekend was the shortage of time. The festival proper lasted just under two days (from 7pm on the Friday to 4pm on the Sunday), and there were just so many different activities going on that I ended up feeling rushed, and got the feeling that I had missed quite a lot. Case in point: the discussion of Deep Time which had to be cut short after 20 minutes because everyone had to go to other events. A performer who runs wilderness retreats said that he takes people out into the wilds for solitary 4-day fasts, because it takes three days to shed the layers of defense that we build up: our civilisation is “three days deep”. It seemed to me that there was a lot of potential for things to happen at the festival that didn’t have time to flower; an extra day would have made a big difference.
As for the events themselves, there were some truly marvellous and inspiring ones, which I will take away with me. There was a lot of performance, maybe too much performance, and the boundaries between performer and audience were slow to break down – though by Sunday a couple of performance poets did gatecrash the Dark Mountain Writers stage, which was enjoyable and refreshing. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay very late at the campfire on either the Friday or Saturday nights (having kids will do that to you), but I heard that there were some amazing impromptu things going on there – I did manage to watch the energetic spiral dance, with the Horned Man as one of the dancers.
One of the stories told at the festival was about a village where everyone was a performer, nobody was just an audience member – except for the protagonist, a boy with no song. It seemed to me that that was the kind of festival Dark Mountain was aspiring to be: emphatically this was not meant to be a consumer experience. And things were developing in that direction, but didn’t go far enough; it seemed like the audience (”we”, the collective protagonist) had not yet been able to find their song. There were also some attempts at discussion of Dark Mountain and where it’s going; but they seemed to struggle with too many people and too little time. In the “Rise and Root” session, most people seemed to be making statements instead of questions.
My own question – which I didn’t put especially well at the time – was really about finding my way from clock time, not into the vertigo of deep time, but into the embrace of mythic time; finding my way into a culture or a tribe that respects the earth. I think that I found a small part of the answer through Dark Mountain and Uncivilisation 2012.
The morning before we set off for the Uncivilisation festival, I woke early and wrote the following poem, which I also read on the writer’s stage. It’s something I have been tossing around for years, ever since the last time I visited my late grandfather’s house in Sowton village, near Exeter. We were taking tea and on the table was a jar of honey bearing the legend: “All English honey will crystallise in time”. I knew I had to work this into a poem somehow, but it never seemed to come out. Finally it came to me that all the words were already there.
All English honey
In time, all English honey
In time, all English honey: in time.
All English, time will crystallise:
in honey, in honey.
All English, time will crystallise in honey.
In English all will crystallise:
all time, all honey.
In English all will crystallise, in time.
All English time, all honey, time
all English time, all honey, in time.
All honey time in English
will crystallise, in honey time.
All honey time
in honey time
in honey time
In honey time
will time all time
all honey English crystallise will time.
all honey will,
in time all English honey will.
All English honey will crystallise in time.