Monday 20 August 2012

Dark Mountain Project - In search of a new narrative

It started with a conversation that became a manifesto that became a book that became a festival that became a movement. Three years on the Dark Mountain Project is still hard to define. It is both a cultural response to a collapsing world, and a network of people who gather to makes sense of that collapse. At its core is a shared recognition that the stories we have inherited are are no longer making sense of our lives, and a new narrative for the times we are living in needs to be forged.

The Project was founded by former journalists, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, and has not just inspired fellow writers and thinkers, but has also brought together performers, poets, musicians, artists, craftsmen and activists. The work and the conversations that shape and inform this cultural movement are as many-layered and diverse in their expression as a rainforest, or an ocean. The annual arts and music festival on the Hampshire Downs in August includes a Funeral for A Lost Species in the woods, a celebration of the art of protest, storytelling around the fire, workshops on scything and foraging, a children’s council, as well as poetry readings, discussions and performances. This diversity is deliberate: we live in a monoculture of Empire, which holds a firm grip on our imaginations and our perception of the world. It is hard to see or feel or think outside the illusion it maintains of the supremacy of Western civilisation, with its high-profile shows, power games and technology.

Dark Mountain however is about facing the reality of the matter, how we proceed towards the future with integrity and intelligence, no matter what the storm brings. It allows the space and time in which to discover a creative common ground, as well as our common allegiance with the living, breathing earth and all its creatures. At the heart of the project is a deep reconnection with the planet and a recognition that we need to shift away from a dissociated, mental worldview to reengage with life on a practical and imaginative level. A shift away of what some might call the domination of a heartless left-hemisphere attention, to include the the all-encompassing feeling attention of the right.
Perhaps what defines Dark Mountain most is that it provides a space in which those perceptions can happen: an allowance of uncertainty.

That space is hard to write about because it is not easily found in an objective world where human beings are seen to be in control of the environment, in lessening degrees of sustainability or social justice; but within a more subjective relationship with our home planet, where a connection with creaturehood, ancestral form and language inform our actions and our attitude. Here is Akshay Ahuja on the Dark Mountain blog reviewing the collection I’m with the Bears: Short Stories on a Damaged Planet:

“There is real sorrow, though, and for something specific — a lost language, the Ferrarese dialect, and all of the parts of the natural world that it named, like hares, which went extinct during the Crisis.
The ruins of a language are heart-wrenching,’ the narrator writes. ‘Every word that dies out is a house that gives up, sags and sinks, becomes buried in the sand.
An acute sense of loss is one of the markers of Uncivilisation, a loss of the things we love that define us as human beings, namely our kinship with the natural world, our ability to make beauty and sense of our lives, our connectivity. It’s a loss that leads not to guilt or powerlessness however, but to questions that challenge the writer and philosopher in all of us.

What if fiction itself is no longer the form that brings meaning? What if the building blocks of our stories — the hero, the battle, the family, the house — are no longer its true foundation? What if the form itself has to change to accommodate the shift towards a different kind of world? What if our stories no longer aspire towards happy endings or conquering the peak, but on finding our way down the mountain in the dark? In many ways the Dark Mountain collections (the third is published on September 15) reflect this. There are stories and essay, myths and poems, discourse, meditation, interviews, photographs, paintings, journeys, journalism; its contributors include known writers — John Michael Greer, Naomi Klein, Jay Griffiths, John Rember, Melanie Challenger, Adrienne Odasso — as well as many new and unknown voices. What they share is an urgency, a sense of belonging in a time of dislocation:
We came to this issue of Dark Mountain with a question, how do we begin to find our way home? When our stories have failed us and our maps have led us astray, how do we get our bearings? And what remnants might we find of the meaning and security for which a human home, if we are lucky, might stand? (Introduction to Dark Mountain Issue 3)
In a world divided into stats and graphs, straight lines and pixel squares, Dark Mountain speaks in the cycles and circles of earth, at home in wild uncharted places, in silence, in the woods, on the farm, around the fire, and equally fluent in a city intelligence. Rooted, fierce, unafraid to ask difficult questions or enter a dialogue, it is most of all real about the places we live in:
Global campaigning for an abstract “environment” does not appear to work. What does work is engaging with nature on a human scale. Perhaps the best rejoinder to those who believe the world is a giant spreadsheet is an engagement with its messy, everyday complexity. A kind of vernacular environmentalism; an engagement not with “the environment”, but with environments as we experience them in lived reality.
This would be a good time to step back, to get our hands dirty and our feet wet, to smell the rain when it comes and get a feel for where we are on this Earth and what, at the root of it all, we can still usefully do. — Paul Kingsnorth (The Guardian, August 1, 2012)


On a personal level, having focused my attention on the Transition movement for four years, the Uncivilisation Festival opened a door I had forgotten was there. Dark Mountain shares an awareness of social and ecological crisis with many environmental campaigns and social movements, but it approaches this “information” entirely differently. Progressive groups can bring communities together, but their scientific, political and sometimes corporate language, cannot get to the heart of what it means to be alive in human form at this time, to express what might be called the existential: my place in this world. They don’t link with the deep and rainbow-coloured fabric of the world, its dreaming and song lines, or the lineage of poets and artists who have held out for another kind of living together on the earth. For Dark Mountain is not the nature writing of Empire, the polite observations of vicars and academics: its participants meet in the commons, celebrate the rough and radical moves of Diggers and Luddites, the anti-road protesters of the ’90s and the freedom fighting of many indigenous people, all of whom who stand up for themselves and their ancestral forests and mountains against the murderous Machine.

It became clear that to proceed with any kind of impeccability, to value the world, we need to engage in creating a culture that reflects those sensibilities. And secondly we need to be able to hold the reality of what is happening, what might be called systemic collapse, not just on our own, but in the company of others. To connect, as John Berger once wrote, what has been “institutionally kept separate”.

Three months ago I wrote a blog about Transition, which, though it describes itself an experiment, has a clear road map that you can follow: it is signposted with 87 Ingredients and Tools and has a thousand initiatives around the world, engaged in downshift and relocalisation. You can write about what people in those places are doing with ease. But Dark Mountain is the uncertain path. It sits with a blank slate and it doesn’t know the way forward, or have any intention of rolling out a master plan. It is hard to define, and that is partly the point. We are from a big know-it all culture, and we sit in front of computers like the Wizard of Oz, talking about carbon reduction and supply chains, as if we could get it all sorted and go about our lives as before, just with nicer sources of energy.

But many of us — including activists and Transitioners — are drawn to Dark Mountain because a lot of the stuff we do doesn’t work out the way we would like it to work out, and many of us feel it won’t work out with climate change and peak oil, no matter how positive or right-on we are, and how do you face that? Some people react with a prescribed set of emotions — despair, hope and grief — and explain them in terms of spirituality or psychology. But for most of us, those explanations still form part of the old narrative. Our story is not yet written. We haven’t even found the words, but we might just have found each other. In the woods, around the fire.

If someone were to ask me what kind of cause is sufficient to live for in dark times, the best answer I could give would be: to take responsibility for the survival of something that matters deeply. Whatever that is, your best action might then be to get it out of harm’s way, or to put yourself in harm’s way on its behalf, or anything else your sense of responsibility tells you. — From The Dark Shapes Ahead by Dougald Hine
I’m on the beach with Dark Mountain Norwich, a small regional group that formed after the Festival last year. We have taken the afternoon out of our normal routines to have a picnic by the sea. Here we are sitting among the dunes in attentive stillness, without a plan, allowing whatever arises. We have spent the summer devising a happening in Chapefield Gardens. Now we are focusing on the waterlands of East Anglia and those of everyone’s native lands: the rivers and lakes of Portugal, Denmark and the Austrian Alps. We discuss the way water informs our lives, what memories it brings. In ordinary life there is no time for this discussion, we are way too busy: our attention focused on getting through the day, earning our living, distracted by politics and the 24/7 media circus. We don’t notice what is going on, and discuss it even less. Jeppe tells us how many people he knows are living in a state of anxiety. Stuff that is hard to see when you look at the shiny successful surface of things.

Because life really looks OK when you look at the beach: happy people walking, the sea sparkling, the dog playing in the surf. Only when you push below the surface is something else revealed: the polluted ocean, the oil tankers on the horizon, the dog that depends on the industrial food system, the inner turmoil of the people walking past, the state of their bodies, hearts and minds. The absence of little terns, the disappearance of the cod. That depth, that inquiry, the acknowledgement that those difficulties are there is the place where Dark Mountain starts. It doesn’t rush in with solutions, or go into denial. It starts there, with complexity, with the big picture and the details. What is in front of us every day.

Afterwards we go swimming in the sea, and Kevin, who is from the Norfolk coast, tells me how he comes from a long line of bargees and fishermen, and how he spent summers in his youth out among the sandbars and the driftwood, living wild. We float in the waves, in the immensity of sea and sky, like seal people, like people in their element.

You need to go into the mountains, the writer, Edward Abbey once advised all activists, and remind yourself of what you are doing all this for.

Dark Mountain is that reminder. Earth first.
Dark Mountain books are available from the website here. Dark Mountain issue 3 will be officially launched on September 15 at Mello Mello, Slater Street, Liverpool, 9pm-midnight with a party, featuring musical acts, and writers from the book reading from their work. Uncivilisation Festival takes place 17-19 August at the Sustainability Centre, Petersfield, Hampshire.
Images: Action in the Watermeadows by Adrian Arbib from the book, Solsbury Hill (forward by Paul Kingsnorth and George Monbiot); cover artwork for Dark Mountain Issue 3 by Matt Jones.

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