Monday 19 September 2011

Coming to Meet – Communications - Transition Themes Week #8

Today is the start of the national Social Reporting Project – an experiment in Transition communications that is set to run throughout the autumn. Yesterday I wrote an editor’s introduction on our new blog on the Transition Network site and each day over the next fortnight each of the 12 bloggers taking part will introduce themselves and their initiatives. Thereafter we have guest editors who will write on a chosen topic and set the theme for the following weeks. Peter Lipman (chair of the Network) is kicking off October, writing on The Big Picture, Sophy Banks (Transition Training) November, with a post on Inner Transition.

Before the project began I wanted to meet as many of the Social Reporters as I could. So during September I’ve had long conversations with people on the phone and jumped on a lot of trains. Some of our communications are about practical things to do with uploading copy, deadlines, word count and all the technical stuff you need to know about writing a blog. But mostly it was to connect with the individuals taking part and the places where they live.

What is your initiative like?

What struck me, as I met everyone in the West, in their local cafes and around their kitchen tables, as I spoke with Teen about community woodlands in the Highlands of Scotland and set up a meeting with Jo at the community plant nursery in Finsbury Park, was that even though the language of Transition and the national culture is a shared thing, the places in which we do Transition are very different. The territory shapes it entirely. Not just whether you are in a market town or bio-region or city, but what makes up the configuration of that settlement, the land that surrounds it, the feel of a place, the history of its neighbourhoods, the spirit that inhabits the streets and hills.

How, for example, the experience of conflict in Northern Ireland has created a conflict-free initiative in Omagh, how the political history of the North has formed strong livelihoods (and anti-cuts) projects and connections with other progressive groups in Lancaster, how the campaign to prevent a third runway provided the strong community backing for Transition Heathrow. How for example Ann in Wales can buy community compost for her market garden with no difficulty, but Rachel in Dursley struggles with neighbours to set up a composting scheme on her new estate. How Jay who comes from San Francisco sees the very English town of Totnes, and how Kerry, moving from an established initiative in Norwich experiences a new Transition University in Glasgow.

All these subtle differences, flavours and diversity are what an editorial platform can provide space and time for. On a blog you can feedback experiences that are impossible to express in a meeting. You can celebrate events and the people you work alongside with in a way the slickest marketing can never do. In a world addicted to busyness the ability to look back and value what we all do is often missing. Pressure from “real world” commitments can push our efforts out of sight, even though many of us feel that the big issues of peak oil and climate change, building connections and relocalising our communities are the most pressing things we need to engage in.

Our intent behind the Project is to provide a friendly and intelligent space for this reflection and appraisal, where we can pay attention to all things great and small, from the greatest metaphysical questions to the humblest vegetable on the allotment. And also a place where we can meet as Transition communicators, even though we might not know each other. To link up and show the pattern of Transition culture across the country - what it looks like, sounds like, feels like. All those invisible connections that make us a resilient people. What the future might hold if we can walk down the mountain together.

Communications feedback is also the principle behind these Transition Themes Weeks we began last year on This Low Carbon Life. As Social Reporters everyone writes as themselves, but they also write on behalf of their initiatives. During these theme weeks, we write on behalf of our groups, giving a glimpse of what is happening around the city for those who might not otherwise know.

So here are the participants in our Eighth (and a half) Week: Simeon on the Economics and Livelihoods’ community exercise, Chris on the run-up to the Magdalen Street Celebration, Elena on the harvest at Norwich FarmShare, Jo on raw food in the Low Carbon Cookbook and Jon on Norwich Community Bees’ first colony. Next week our Outreach section will also feature Andrew Boswell on the Northern Distributor Road campaign and Jeremy Bartlett on a new Urban Green Spaces project. All welcome!

From Transition Themes Week #8

Photos: Ann Owen's market garden in Wales; Jay at Totnes station; Rachel blogging in the kitchen (with cats); Ann (left) at the co-operative market stall in Machynlleth

Saturday 10 September 2011

This is the House Transition Built

What is the house? Is it a dream we hold, a fairy palace, a shelter from the storm, perched on a hill, overlooking the sea, somewhere down a farm track or a long drive edged with lime trees? Or is it a nightmare, the haunted house, the house of childhood secrets we fear to reenter, the slum and the council estate we long to escape from, the little boxes on the hillside we are loathe to see?

This week the house is a practical place, a building in Transition, in cities and villages where property is valued more than people and everyone is assessed by their address and the colour of paint on their front door. As the Government is poised to relax planning laws that will make it easier for developers to tarmac the green fields of England, while the Green Deal gets pushed back and low-income city dwellers pushed out of the smarter neighbourhoods, our relationship with the House is changing.

No longer a place of exclusivity and security, it has become a liability. The economic downturn and soaring energy prices have made our homes the highest financial burden most of us carry. And, as we come awake to peak oil and climate change, also a burden on our conscience. To change our relationship with the environment we need not only to consume less we need a different attitude to the shelters we build and inhabit. Including those in our imaginations.

How can we create an aesthetic of downshift in a culture of aspiration?

I once spent my working days visiting people’s swanky apartments and villas for magazines like World of Interiors. I styled photographic shoots of heritage chintz curtains and designer chairs and unwittingly upheld the aesthetics of Empire. I had grown up in London’s Bayswater district in a Victorian white-fronted house, serviced by a crew of professional builders, carpenters, interior decorators, window cleaners and dailies. And yet I always longed to live in simple vernacular spaces - artist’s studios, rough Greek interiors, thatched cottages. When I sold my city flat and went travelling I got to live in a series of palm-leaf cabanas, wood cabins, yurts and adobe roundhouses and eventually settled in a cottage that resembled the one in the Kent marshes I had loved as a child. It doesn’t belong to me and yet it feels like home.

So when it came to my turn on the blog this week I wanted to look at two Transitioners’ houses that reflected this personal and contemporary downshift: a retrofitted house in Norwich owned by Stefi, one of the movers and shakers behind the Magdalen Street Celebration and the innovative Café Conversations, and a straw bale house, designed and built by John Preston and Carol Hunter from Transition Downham Market and Villages.

Transition has its foundation in permaculture and natural building. The upcoming The Transition Companion was inspired by the seminal text on environmental architecture, A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. Many Transitioners dream of cobhouses and passive houses set amongst forest gardens and friendly communities. And yet we live within old walls, constricted by planning laws, by expensive green technology and by a lack of skills in the basic arts of living. How do people work with those constrictions and yet make steps to live within their principles? I stepped out of my door to find out:

House on the edge of Mousehold Heath

Brought up in an airy 1930s suburban house in Los Angeles and having just returned from India Stefi stepped into her 1900 NR3 terrace two-up two-downer and wanted immediately to bring space and light into its narrow and dark British dimensions (it is 9 foot wide). She was influenced by two streams, she said. One was an aesthetic made of the space and light she inherited from her native California and the simplicity she found living in an Indian one-room dwelling open to the elements. The second stream to do with ecological living and energy reduction.

Inside the rooms have wooden floorboards and bare plastered walls and simple furniture ("primarily sourced from the rich pickings of Magdalen Street's dozen or more charity and antique shops! So the embodied carbon is very low"). Light has been introduced by opening up a skylight in the kitchen, making a glass front door and a device known as a solar tunnel which amplifies and bounces light into the recesses of the dark back bedroom.

“The sun tunnel costs £200 to buy, £150 to have fitted. but could be done DIY - it's an easier fit than a roof window. Even situated on a north facing roof, there is no longer any need to put on the lights in the room during the day. You need to figure out a way to shade it on summer evenings or you'll have daylight coming in until 11 pm and again at 4 am!"

Meanwhile the double-glazed K glass fronted door (£150) and large window bring both light and solar passive heat to the front room, along with its underfloor insulation (£600). The woodburner in the “winter” back room uses wood from her pollarded sycamore tree:

“While warming the rooms, I also warm water and put it in a thermos for the next morning's tea (just needs a few degrees heat up in the kettle). I can also pre-cook pulses and rice for a super-fast finish off in the pressure cooker.”

Her energy bills have fallen dramatically as a result of these steps. Inspired by Chris Hull’s model she has also installed a rainwater loo outside and is presently constructing a Japanese-style handbasin where the grey water feeds into the cistern, meaning there will be enough water in the drought times without having to use mains water. Further into the narrow, immensely long garden rainwater feeds the pond and this summer at her birthday party people brought succulents for a new sedum roof.

“This helps insulate the outhouse, improves the view over the garden, preserves the tar roof which would otherwise slowly breakdown under UV exposure. It also adds to the biodiversity of the long terraced garden, which borders on Mousehold heath and hosts many of its flora and fauna.”

The undercover materials include a recycled woollen blanket and a quality pond liner. Some things you just can't skimp on.

House in the Quarry

I met John and Carol at the Greenpeace Fair where they had just finished a set on the cycle-powered stage. John and Carol sing a sharp-witted contemporary slack rock as The John Preston Tribute Band. They are also about to finish building a straw bale house after five years hard labour. The last layers of the cob floor are being laid this week and with luck (and warm weather) they are finally moving out of their caravan and into the studio with its wood-fired stove, living roof and hand-made, hand-plastered walls, surrounded by a permaculture garden.

The derelict land John bought was in an old chalk quarry that housed a neglected but mature walnut orchard. Originally they designed and planned to build a house and a studio but soon learned that more space means more time and more money.

"Where this fits with Transition is that all these are learnable skills," John told me as we riff about busting through the mystique of the professional builder and not living in house “where the woman is trapped in a kitchen and a stupid room dominated by a TV set.”

“Oh, I thought you were a builder,” I say, dead impressed, it has to be said, by anything to do with DIY.

“I have an O level in Woodwork and Technical drawing, “ he corrects me, “And a degree in Music. I’m a music therapist. I didn't even have any interest in DIY before this misadventure.. Building is all about confidence and getting intimate with the materials. You can learn to lay bricks in a straight line, but you just won’t do it as fast as a bricklayer."

The skills to do with constructing your own house are many, not least dealing with planning permission and building regulations, along with learning about U-values and how to make your own paint (lime, borax, casein, natural pigments). What has stood them in good stead is instinct and persistence. For example where other houses built on this historical backfill of chalk have brought in massive machinery to build expensive high-impact concrete piles as foundation, John and Carol put in a simple low-impact trench (for £1500). They took a risk it would pass the geological tests.

“It’s scary building because you have to spend money. And you have to undo things if you want lovely results.”

"And you don't have the same level of energy when you are in your early 50s," added Carol ruefully and laughed.

John and Carol have deliberately worked alongside people who were prepared to teach them – from green build designers to plumbers. (“The work will show you the way” as one Polish builder told them). Everything in the house has been installed with peak oil and carbon emissions in mind, which is how we ended up sitting in the rain discussing oil-based insulation materials and sourcing ecologically-sound door frames from Estonia, while everyone else was in the tea tent eating cake. Ah, Transition!

Straw bale under construction at Stokes Ferry; hand-made paints on plaster; Stefi's house; rainwater system; skylit kitchen; sedum roof; the Studio almost complete; building the walls; laying the cob floor; talking green build at the Greenpeace Fair.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Putting Ourselves on the Line

By Charlotte Du Cann

This column is usually reflective of world events. We talk about the big subjects – Libya, the London riots, nuclear fallout in Japan, global peak oil and environmental degradation - but we also record the stories we come across as citizen journalists, as activists and writers within an international progressive culture.

We do this is because amongst the constant chatter of daily news and the distraction of entertainment the smaller and more radical stories are not told or given proper focus. Because we don’t see them or read about them, because they are not highlighted and given weight by professional commentators people think these stories do not exist. Or they don’t matter.

Whereas in fact they are key.

Today I want to highlight three of these stories you might not read about in the mainstream media. Because as every storyteller knows, it’s the listeners that make the story come alive. It’s paying attention to what is being said and making connections that makes the subjects of these stories enter the consciousness of the collective and change the course of history.

On the Dark Mountain
I am at the Uncivilisation Festival on the Hamphire downs. It’s the last event of the weekend. Jay Griffiths, author of Wild, is introducing Benny Wenda An independence leader from West Papua. Like most people in Britian I know nothing about the genocide in West Papua (though I did once watch a three hour documentary on East Timor and the Western media by Noam Chomsky). We have just watched a film made in this country that has been occupied since 1962. Benny Wenda in a headdress of bird feathers sings his Cry for Help, a song for the 250 tribes now being exterminated by the Indonesian armed forces, as Rio Tinto and BP ravage his ancestral mountain. He sings for the earth, for the soil, for the birds of paradise we are all losing.

“I lead my people with a tear,” he says.

Standing in the Square
I am at the Transition Conference in Liverpool. Last year the financial commentor, Nicole Foss was the breaking news. Her analysis of spiralling house prices in a devolved economic future sent everyone into a crisis. This year the key words are calm, focused, mature. Everyone is discussing collaborative methods of powerdown and community action. On Sunday night however while most people are enjoying an open mic session, activists from Transition Barcelona were showing videos of uprisings that have been taking place in the main square. How thousands of people in response to the financial and political crises of the time met and started to discuss a different way of doing things.

When the police forced the people out of the Plaza Catalunya the spirit of what had taken place went into 23 neighbourhoods in the city. People came together to prevent the police evicting their neighbours (thousands of homes have been repossessed by the banks). Groups went into the countryside and took the news of what was happening which had not been reported by the mass media. Indignados are walking now through Spain, going from village to village telling the story and also to the EU government in Brussels. It is estimated that 10 percent of the country has been involved in this “real democracy” movement.

Against the Wall
I am at home in Suffolk skimming tweetdeck. Lists of tweets flash by like so many newspaper headlines. It’s the holiday season and the feeds are quieter than normal, but here is one story that keeps grabbing my attention. A civil disobedience action now in its last day of action in front of the White House. The heads of the largest environmental organizations are calling for the President to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline, planned to run from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, citing dangers to climate, the risks of disastrous spills and leaks, and the economic damage that comes from continued dependence on fossil fuel.

Over the two-week sit-in 1,252 people have been arrested, including top climate scientists, landowners from Texas and Nebraska, former Obama for America staffers, First Nations leaders from Canada, and individuals including Bill McKibben, former White House official Gus Speth, NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen, actor Daryl Hannah, filmmaker Josh Fox, and author Naomi Klein.

“On an issue as complicated as climate, there will often be disagreements over tactics and goal” said McKibben, one of the organizers of the protests for “But there are some projects so obviously dangerous that they unify everyone, and the Keystone XL pipeline is the best example yet.”

This is not the only action taking place in a nation that seems so rigid and militaristic that protest appears impossible. On the 17th of September, 20,000 nonviolent civilians will swarm Wall Street and set up an indefinite occupation - complete with free kitchens and doctors, tents and communal childcare - until their demand for real democracy is met. Inspired by the radicalism of Tahrir Square and Plaza Cataluna, the aim of #OCCUPYWALLSTREET is to save democracy “from the combined threats of plutocracy, oligarchy and corporatocracy. And with global climate change accelerating, there isn't a moment to lose.”

What connects these stories? We live in an institutionally separated world. Our media is highly selective, fuelled by base and reactive emotions. We are engineered to see news as discrete one-off events, whereas they are intimately connected with the fabric of the world and set within a deep framework of time and Empire.

There is a story about butterflies that is often told amongst people who campaign and put themselves on the line for a very different future. Here it is: when the caterpillar transforms into an imago it enters a state of complete dissolve within the cocoon. As it dissolves imaginal buds which create the new butterfly begin to emerge, which the immune system of the caterpillar violently resists. At the first attempt the buds are defeated. But at their second attempt the buds change their tactic. They are the same discrete units as before, but this time they start to connect with one another. It’s this combined network that holds out against the resistance of the old and brings the new form into being. What links the buds is communication.

That’s why the story goes both ways.

Photos: Forgotten Bird of Paradise, 2009; placard in Barcelona, May 2011; sit-in outside the White House, August 2011; tar sands in Alberta before and after; on-going demonstrations for social justice in Tel-Aviv

New film and discussion evening Little g presents the documentary, The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein on 16 September at the Friends Meeting House, 6pm. All welcome.

Autumn Journal: Foraging for Abundance

Outside there is the most extraordinary sunrise. The sky is crimson pink over the sea, full of long clouds like flames edged with violet. It’s completely still. I've stumbled out of the tent to come upstairs to write and have been mightily distracted from my task. It has been beautiful for the last two days, warm and misty and embracing. After a tough and grey August, September has arrived with all its bright fruit and luminous skies. You can uncurl yourself in such mellow weather and never want the day to end.

Two crucial lessons I’ve learned about English summers: 1) take advantage of the lovely moments and store them up for the long dark months ahead, and 2) don't do this with your mind, do it with your body. The body is intelligent in ways our heads are not. You can look out of the window and say to yourself hmm nice sunrise and go back to the computer two minutes later, but looking at views keeps nothing of value or well-being. You can store the thought of sunrise but not the experience. And when it comes to earth matters experience is what counts. To store up sunlight and warmth you have to go outside, swim, walk, sleep under stars and get in synch with the elements. Taste rain, feel bark, eat fruit.

SAMPHIRE Reading Elena’s post last month about recognising the shift of season with the sound of jays I was shocked to realise that I had hardly been out in the wilds this summer. So I went down to the marsh and there the blue-eyed birds were, hollering in the oaks, the ground full of spilt acorns. The flowers were still there too - angelica and marsh thistle - honeybees gathering nectar and pollen from musk mallow, watermint and bird’s foot trefoil. Later, encouraged by listening to Fergus the Forager at Uncivilisation, I walked home from Southwold along the Blyth, snacking on sharp and salty sea beet leaves and reddening samphire, gathering blackberries, elderberries and damsons for that dark autumn porridge experience at breakfast. The tracks were full of scented sea asters and wormwood and the air with sounds of migration: holidaymakers flocking back to the city, barnacle geese arriving from Siberia.

BLACKBERRY What was striking about Fergus was the way he imparted plant knowledge. He was speaking in words, but most of what he was saying came from his direct physical relationship with the natural world. You could tell by the way he stood alongside the three humble and vigorous plants he chose to talk about – hogweed, nettle, bramble – that he spent his life searching the undergrowth in the wind and the rain, chopping and tasting and experimenting in a field kitchen. He loved the plants for their usefulness, for the way they were constructed, but also for their beauty. "It’s about being creative," he said and handed round a little jar of blackberry stem stars, which he had made from cutting bramble shoots crossways in April when they were still bendy.

HAZEL In between the intellectual debates and discussions at the festival I found a physical workshop outside the Doing Space Yurt called Embodying Uncivilisation, which (as far as I could tell) was all about getting out of your mind and instead walking and talking with your whole body. As soon as you allow your rigid body to become bendy and free, let your eyes take in everything around you, your feet feel the ground beneath you, that introspective unkind thought-realm we spend most of our time in ceases to engage your full attention. Instead you turn your consciousness inside out and start to absorb your natural environment, aware of light, sound, atmosphere, scent . . . those are the things you remember.

Uncivilisation was about sitting by fires, walking through the dark woods, sleeping in the open as much as it was about intellectual exchange. My first conversation was with Martin and Mary Kibble-White about their improvised rocket stove (made from a coffee tin and an heirloom kettle) and the supple hazel branches Martin was collecting for his workshops on hurdle making.

DAMSON Downstairs the kitchen table is full of fruit and the chest of drawers covered in stalks and small brown envelopes full of seeds - dill, parsley, fennel, sunflower. This week we went to Cathy’s to pick apples for the Waveney Greenpeace Fair tomorrow (we’re running the Transition Tea Tent with Nick) and damsons for jam. Cathy runs the Abundance project for Sustainable Bungay, which gathers fruit that people don't want from neighbourhood or garden trees and redsitributes it to those who do. In our neighbouring initiative in Beccles this has become a full-on community project. With us it’s a smaller venture. We have Abundance tables at all our events, giving fruit away at our Happy Mondays and Bungay Bees events, exchanging at our Give and Take Days and Garden Produce Swaps in the Library community garden. All part of the gift culture intrinsic to Transition. In Cathy's small orchard the plum and gage trees were bowed down with fruit. How come, I wondered as I picked the local giants, Norfolk Beefings, our minds are so full of lack and loss and our trees are so full of abundance?

SEA BUCKTHORN Now I’m going down to the sea to have breakfast in the dunes with Mark. The sun is up. Afterwards I’m going to make a tincture from those sea buckthorn berries we gathered yesterday (a very sticky and spiny experience!) for a winter tonic. The handsome wavy-leaved sea buckthorn grows all along this coast, sometimes as a windbreak in coastal gardens, and its orange fruit is sharp and tangy and has a distinctive scent almost like passion fruit. They are a kind of Transition "superfood", packed with minerals and vitamins (15 times the amount of vitamin C in oranges). I say Transition because most of these powerful anti-oxidant berries, like goji from China or blueberries from the States, are high-carbon and expensive to buy. Sea buckthorn has been used for centuries in the East and in Siberia as a medicine (mostly as seed oil for the skin) and it grows here well and, like those other great tonics, beetroot and elderberry, is incredibly cheap. Free in fact. The tea from the leaves and berries is delicious too and they are great sprinkled in a slaw. Check them out!

Collecting Norfolk Beefing apples from Cathy's orchard; scarlet samphire, Walberswick; damson tree, Ditchingham; Fergus Drennan at Uncivilisation; sea buckthorn, Southwold

Friday 2 September 2011

Coming Round The Dark Mountain Part 2: the Shaman and the Village

“If Transition is the village, Dark Mountain is the shaman.”
(Patrick Andrews)

I’m having a conversation with Vinay Gupta, designer of the Hexayurt and SCIM and a consultant on State Failure solutions. It's just after our Where Do We Go Now session at the Uncivilisation Festival where Vinay had suggested that Dark Mountain was the literary wing of Transition and naturally speaks to people in the movement,"certainly those who are more restless". I was intrigued as to how he brought these two strands together and we’re having a jam with Patrick Andrews from River Simple and a young man who is listening on the edge from Transition Reading:

“Transition relies on consensus,” he points out. “Dark Mountain is something you can visit, Transition is something you live.”

Afterwards I talk with my fellow Transitioner about Living Without A Fridge and we laugh about the trials and tribulations of cooking seasonally and eating a lot of cabbage.

There are a lot of Transitioners at Uncivilisation from all over Britain, from Reading, Hereford, New Forest, Brixton and Wales. There’s all the intensity of a Transition debate here but without the concerns of the Village, worrying about whether “the community” is going to come to your event, or understand you, or fund you. No battle with the Council, no struggle to get Other People to do stuff. No psychology or sitting around in a circle talking about your feelings. Everyone understands you. Peak oil and climate change and financial collapse are a given and I’m experiencing a fluency amongst the Dark Mountaineers where I often feel tongue-tied in Transition, based as it is in academic discourse and science, in practical skills I don’t have. Everyone I meet at Uncivilisation is an individual with a collective story to tell: a poet from Scotland, a professional forager, the captain of a Greenpeace ship, a designer of hydrogen cars, a researcher into Luddite history. It’s the café I wanted to walk into ever since I first read about existentialism when I was 16.

Sitting around the fire, listening to these stories I realise that where Dark Mountain differs fundamentally from Transition is in its language. The Shaman knows all about creativity and the earth and the way one is a direct link to the other. He doesn’t do data or flip charts or use corporate terms like brand or income streams or talk about people being off-message. He is a right-brain intellectual, sees existentially in time and space and lives with death at his shoulder. None of his subjects are discussed inside the Village, which is maybe why later when I interview Dougald Hine, (co-creator of Dark Mountain) we talk about taboos and how Uncivilisation is a place where those taboos are deliberately lifted and everything is allowed. He calls that space “sacred”, which is a difficult word hedged as it is with religious beliefs and spiritual fantasy. I’m not sure what I would call it, except when you’re in it you know it. It’s like stepping out of the house and finding yourself in the forest and a man is stomping around in the dark wearing deer antlers. Suddenly all the petty stuff disappears.

I remembered then what Nick Osborne from Transition Glastonbury had said at this year’s conference about the need in groups for someone to break the tyranny of the status quo discussion and allow us all to go deeper, how we are all trapped in talking about the world in superficial and conventional ways, even though it is falling about our ears (as Mark mentioned in his post this week on Tea Parties). It seemed that what Transition needed then was the Shaman to come round the Dark Mountain and break all those polite society taboos, to bring the whiff of the ancient aboriginal earth into those airless meeting rooms, to transmit a sense of deep time, of our rough lineage, of wild trees, of the ease and intimacy of talking about Big Subjects, without being heartless, idealistic, or controlling the outcome.

And maybe conversely what Transition can bring to the poet outside in the storm is the warmth of ordinary life. The gifts from our low-carbon kitchens and gardens. The ability to laugh about our shared enterprise. The stability you get from working steadily towards a clearly delineated goal with an organised network and structure. Having lived on the edge for over a decade I know the value of engaging in Transition: of making those efforts to become part of a neighbourhood, to communicate explicitly with everyone you meet, of not being stuck inside your inner dramas and instead learning to think and act (and write) as a social being. To hold out for change and the possibility of people waking up in time. And perhaps most of all knowing you are connected to hundreds of initiatives struggling with the same difficulties. In a word, belonging.

The problem with the shaman thing is that no-one really wants to be in that lonely position. It sounds glamorous but the reality is hard. To fine-tune the psyche of the tribe (as Mircea Eliade once defined their function) means you live at the edge of the village and everyone is scared of you and you spend your life battling with the demons of the human heart, a kind of go-between between the void and the people sitting comfortably around the fire. To live in the Village is to be stuck in the minutiae of the village and its repetitious events and tasks. You are cut off from the big narrative, you have little opportunity to talk at a deep level or connect with the wind and the dark ocean. You live in a known world and you long for all the immensity and connection the unknown world can bring. What keeps you within its parameters is the thought of suffering and being alone. Of putting yourself on the line.

One of the key fringe conversations at Uncivilisation was between people in both these very distinctive movements as we recognised their common ground. We have all had our End of Suburbia moment and know that our caterpillar civilisation has to dissolve before the butterfly can emerge. And just as Transition can’t do activism and campaign work in the way one-issue groups can, yet is able provide a stable base and communications bridge, it can have a similarly friendly and creative relationship with the dreamers on Dark Mountain. We all live on the brink of a collapsing world constructed by magicians and city architects. Our major task is to see the illusion of this high-carbon life together and create a new narrative rooted in reality. We can’t do that without each other. We need to transform and belong everywhere - inside and outside. To get to a future beyond oil, beyond ecological and financial breakdown, we all have to be shamans.

And we all have live in the Village.

Cernunnos from the performance of Liminal by Douglas Strang; Illustration by Jim Design for Amelia's Magzine; scyther; Wild Trees from Red Thread: My Journey Through the Rites of Uncivilisation 2011 20 by Cat Lupton; poets from Edinburgh and Dublin; plan for the future on marquee wall; trailer for film Forgotten Bird of Paradise by Dominic Brown; Paul Kingsnorth at the Farewell.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Coming Round The Dark Mountain Part 1: Uncivilisation

Last month I went to Uncivilisation, a festival organised by the Dark Mountain project. Below is a report I wrote for The Independent newspaper (writer’s cut). Tomorrow I'll publish Part 2, a personal reflection on the relationship between the Transition and Dark Mountain movements.

“My name is Arthur Doohan and I’m a recovering banker”. We’re at the beginning of the Uncivilisation festival on the leafy South Downs on a sunny August weekend. 300 of us are gathered in a marquee to listen to the Collapsanomics Panel that includes an ex-Wiki Leaks worker from Iceland, a writer and hacker from the United States and a criminal justice specialist, originally from the former USSR.

Uncivilisation is no ordinary summer festival. You can find tents and music and people in sturdy footwear queuing for coffee, but there the similarity stops. People have gathered here not to escape from reality but face it and the Irish banker is opening this session on Living Through the Unfolding Breakdown with an unswerving set and setting.

It’s the second festival organised by the Dark Mountain Project, a literary movement that began two years ago with a manifesto published by two ex-journalists, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. Its two main tenets are that we live in a time of systemic collapse and need to engage with this crisis through narrative and stories, and secondly that we need to look at humanity from a “deep ecological” standpoint, as one among many species on the planet.

Originally the project was set up to create a writers’ journal (now in its second publication), but the manifesto has also inspired singers, craftsmen and artists and it is this mix of earth-based creativity and intellectual discussion that provides the groundbase for the festival. It’s a space that is hard to find in the everyday world. Here, Dougald Hine explains “there is room for reflection and no immediate rush for answers or actions.”

“Two years ago we were called crazy collapsatarians and now people are not saying these things any more. So much we have taken for granted is already breaking down around us. It’s clear we are going to have to get used to living in a different world than we were promised when we were growing up and that people have a deep capacity for adapting and making things work.”

Dark Mountain has been accused of being doomist, romantic and dangerous. But in spite of its talk of ancestral bones and sacred skulls and The End of the World As We Know It the mood of the weekend is ineffably cheery. There’s the kind of goodwill and openness you find when people don’t have to keep up pretences anymore and start to get engaged with Things That Matter. Where death and failure are allowed into the conversation rather than kept at bay, or turned into a therapy session. One thing is clear from the start: we are not here to be entertained or feel good. We are here to talk.

And there is a lot of talking. Intense conversations between geographically-dispersed people, swapping emails and instructions for making nettle curd and hazel hurdles. Dark Mountain is not a campaigning movement, it’s more interested in wielding a scythe than grinding an axe, and though most people here are highly politicised, the discussions round the fire and over the café tables are an exchange of experiences, rather than arguments or power struggles.

You could expect elitism and attitude, but there is none. Since no-one knows what the future holds there are no experts. There are no commercial stalls, no celebrity line up, no expensive technology. The emphasis is on imagination and craft and what we can do with what is at hand. Uncivilisation is primarily a meeting space to share knowledge and spark connections. There are workshops on low-tech skills like foraging and scything, talks about General Ludd, permaculture and mythology, readings of “wild writing”, meetings about off-grid publishing, off-curriculum teaching. People don’t just sit on the grass and watch performers, but are invited to ask questions, feed back ideas - more participants than audience.

“We’re writers with dirt under our fingernails” states the manifesto, and what strikes you is that the new narrative is not some urban dystopia, a tale told by cynical city novelists, it’s directly rooted in the materials of nature. It shares a lineage with English visionaries, dissenters and poets, and yet feels new and modern, planetary, something we are all inventing together.

The festival itself is simply designed: a marquee and woodland space for talks and music, one Doing Space in a yurt, one Free Space for self-organised sessions in a tipi. One bar, two communal fires, three (solar heated) showers. The Sustainability Centre is a suitably poetic venue, an ex-military base, now meadows surrounded by beech trees. It’s small too which gives the maximum opportunity for those key encounters and crucial conversations.

The awareness of being at a historical tipping point is what brings everyone here: writers, activists, philosophers, NGO workers, Transitioners. The faux-hippy chill-out scene you find at most festivals is notably absent. Uncivilisation bears the urgency of the times. No one is wearing fairy wings. Anton Shelapanov, brought up in the shadow of a Siberian gaol and now a resident in Tottenham, gets 15 of us to stand within a roped circle. And then 45 of us. That is what the cells were like in Russia in 1995, he tell us, and talks about the tinderbox conditions in British prisons after the riots. A young writer from South Yorkshire shakes as she tells the story about finding meaning in her community’s experiences after the Miner’s Strike. An independence leader from West Papua sings a song for the 250 tribes now being exterminated by the Indonesian armed forces, as Rio Tinto and BP ravage his ancestral mountain. He sings for the earth, for the soil, for the birds of paradise we are all losing.

“I lead my people with a tear,” he says.

Dark Mountain is about finding the light in the darkness, a new way of proceeding. It seemed the high moments all took place at night: sitting round a fire under the stars as the Russian storyteller emerged from the shadows in a bear mask ringing a bell. Hearing the feral choir laughing and howling in the woods, following a trail of lights through the trees and finding a naked man curled up round a skeleton of a small deer in a performance called Liminal. How shocking these things were and yet so familiar.

The ancestors sing life back into the bones, Sharon Blackie tell us, crofter and publisher of Two Ravens Press in the Outer Hebrides. It’s the beginning of the story of the world. Not a world shaped by politicians or by global corporations, but by storytellers and singers who make us feel at home on the earth.

If Uncivilisation was giving us a glimpse of the future we have everything to meet up for.

Uncivilisation took place at the Sustainability Centre, Hampshire Dark Mountain Journals 1 and 2 can be ordered from

Suitcase with programme and Wild by Jay Griffiths and woodworking tools; Dougald Hine introducing the weekend; Martin Kibble-White teaching hurdle making from hazel; writing and meeting outside the marquee; Woodland Space;
Benny Wenda speaking about West Papua; Liminal in the woods. Photos by CDC and from the Dark Mountain blog.