Sunday 29 September 2013

ARCHIVE: we don't need no education

What a difference a year makes! Last Autumn I was writing posts once or twice a week, deeply embedded in the Transition movement. The summer was cold and dark, noisy with jubilee and sporting glory. But as I head down to the sea on lovely day in a quieter year, I realise some things don't change, and nor does my loyalty or my creative attention to them. Here is one of the last blogs I wrote for the Social Reporting Project on a week focused on education. Extraordinary how new directions emerge in your writing before you have even thought about them . . .
"But Mr Biddlecombe what is god?" It's 1972, Felixstowe, Suffolk. I'm wearing a gym slip several inches too short according to the music mistress (Du Cann there are male members of the orchestra!) and I've just discovered existentialism. Julia Weatherly and I are the only atheists in a religious school and we have found our intellectual edge. Rev Biddlecombe runs the chapel where I sing in the choir and is attempting to teach us theology. I am giving him a hard time because that's what you do when you are fifteen and running up against authority and the big questions in life.

I know he won't be able to answer, and that no teacher can. The question is not there in search of an answer, it is there to challenge the boundaries of a prescribed world.We live in a world governed by education - a small mean god we worship, even without realising our faith. It schools us in the rational mind and teaches us to look at the earth through the heartless and acquisitive eyes of Empire. Depending on what kind of house we are born into we go to school to be shaped by the requirements of our hierarchical culture: to be turned into obedient factory or cannon fodder, to fill in forms, or to arrogantly rule the world.

But no matter what school we attend, all of us are programmed to see life in geometric squares, truth as scientific facts, the earth as property, our nation's history as the rightful conquest of Western civilisation. We are taught that control of the mind is always more important than real-life experience. Some of us are broken by our establishments - bullied, humiliated and made miserable, labelled as difficult or deficient in some way. Some of us become haughty and power-hungry. 

Howevwe some of us find ways to thwart the hold this god has on our imagination and our liberty. When I am fifteen I devour philosophy and literature in the bathrooms at night and start to keep a journal. I have decided to become a writer, which means I will be the one in the room asking awkward questions, bringing the mythos into play, challenging conformity at every turn. I am learning no one will ever love me for it - but I'm going to do it anyway. If only to hold open a door.


"But the sea is also beautiful!" It's 2012, Stowmarket, Suffolk. I am sitting at question time at the What if . . . the sea keeps rising? event, chaired by Andrew Simms from nef. Everyone on the panel has given a slick and scientific low-down on climate change and the way it will alter our coastlines as the Arctic melts and the waters cover the earth. The sentence floats uneasily among the rigid facts and figures, among the agricultural tools of the c14th barn, signalling another route we could take - except that The Problem about Transition has just risen among the sea of heads. The Problem at question time is usually three-fold: 1) Transition is too middle class 2) what are you going to do about population? and 3) where are all the young people and We Have to Take Transition into the Schools!

I am no longer fifteen. I have learned to bite my tongue and not take the bait. I've been working within the
Transition movement for four years now and know all these "questions" are memes, manifestations of the annoying defense system of the left-brain, and none of the people who utter them intend to act on their words, or indeed join an initiative.

The Transition model is big on education. Its tools and ingredients favour an academic approach: measurement, graphs, stats, mindmaps, flipcharts, trainings. In 2009 the UEA published a survey about Transition Norwich (from its mailing list) that received more attention than anything the actual Tranistioners were doing on the ground. Students and researchers have often observed our grassroots activity, as if they were in charge or separated from the meetings and projects, like anthropologists making notes on an interesting rainforest tribe. In spite of our emphasis on reskilling, learning practical stuff and giving it value, the abstract theories of the mind world are considered superior to physical experience, and for sure anything that smacks of creativity or the unquantifiable stuff of the right hemisphere.

This is not to knock learning here. But to bring attention to the limits of a logos-biased world and to question the effectiveness of such a model. Our ability to look at reality is severely hampered by our education. Our institutionalisation makes us obedient and perverse in ways that hamper our ability to act decisively. Trained to be commanded, we are waiting to be told what to do (mostly by people we are taught to think of as our responsible "superiors"). We think that if children understand climate change, everything will be sorted and we won't have to change ourselves. We don't see that the mindset that enables governments and corporations to engineer reality, the systems that makes people disassociated, hostile to one another, controlling, scornful of life, have its roots in the classroom and playground. 

We don't see that this system will resist the kinds of changes we really need to make, because it is designed to uphold the industrialised world (as Charles Eisenstein points out). I have taken Transition into schools (to give classes on Reconnection with Nature and Peak Oil in Norwich and honeybees in Bungay) and was shocked by its soul-destroying architecture and atmosphere of repression. The children were raucous, lively, friendly and also disturbing. They got Peak Oil and creation myths and pollination in a trice, and listened more-or-less quietly to the tales about the future Transition Cambridge brought with them, and happily tuned in to the spirit of the beehive. Then the bell went, and so probably did everything we said. Theatre and stories are for fun. Back to the curriculum tomorrow!


The sea is also beautiful, and I am still a non-believer. It's the end of the summer and the newspapers are full of smug-looking schoolboys jumping into the air with their triple A results. I am not going back to school, but I can feel the season turning. Geese are coming in from Siberia in the mornings, and the evening light is turning tawny. Everywhere the fields lie bare and gold after the harvests. Floating in the deep swell, I can feel the temperature of the water dip. After six weeks the Social Reporters are returning from their summer break to a full-on autumn term. We're genning up for the Conference, looking ahead, filling in the rota. This is my last postcard from the Sunrise Coast.

No one taught me to love this old North Sea. It was there all the time when I was reading Sartre in the small hours at my boarding school, and now it is here: still mysterious, moving, unquantifiable. No one taught me to love the moon that shone through the bathroom window as I turned the pages, or my friends sleeping in the dormitory, or the feeling of being able to write about my own life, to make meaning of everything, to be autonomous and not bow down to authority.

I don't remember those lessons I learned during the day - cosines, dates, or Latin declensions. But I do remember this sea. How it changes every day, the light, its mood, the shape of the waves. How it feels when you are there, immersed in the elements, alone with the wind and sky, or alongside your fellows, as the cormorant or the seal pass by. And it feels to me that the greatest lesson we ever learn comes directly from the planet we are now trying to "save", and that if we held our love of this place and all its creatures as the basis for all our knowledge, how differently the world would look. How differently we would speak with one other, with our initiatives, with all our relations.

Images: still from The Belles of St Trinians; harvest fields outside Bungay; Plants for Bees class at Bungay Primary School, 2011; Peak Oil class at Catton Grove, 2010; still from Kes; on Aldeburgh beach, 2011

Friday 20 September 2013

52 FLOWERS: 32 Box

As we head towards the autumn equinox, geese flying overhead, damsons falling in the lanes, I thought I'd post a piece about the treasures of winter. It's hard to give up the light and warmth of summer, all those mornings on the dunes, the flowers and creatures. But there are rich days ahead for creators, whose best work comes out of the slow and deep places. And sometimes it's good to be reminded. 

This unpublished story is from the Tree Dialogues chapter in 52 Flowers That Shook My World, one of  three evergreen trees, alongside the holly trees of Holywell Churchyard in Oxford and a 1000 year old holm oak in the South of France. 
Gorges du Verdon, France, 2000. Sometimes you wait and you don’t know what you are waiting for. You go and sit with a tree and wait. Something does take place but it is not always what you might want or expect.

We live in a world that does not know the art of waiting. Impatient, on a deadline, we live according to clocks and calendars. But to know how to wait is to know how to be linked with the earth, with the time of the earth, with the season, with your own season, which is not the time of the city. This is the time of the wild places when we observe and watch and listen, when we do not know what we are waiting for.

When I was young I learned about waiting in a Mediterranean port. “Why are we waiting?” I asked nervously, as we sat on our suitcases on the hot quay at Piraeus, Athens. “The boat is not here yet,” said Andy. “It’s late.” I said, exasperated in the heat. “We are in Greece,” he said simply. “The boat comes when it comes.”

We waited all afternoon.
The Mediterranean has a different sense of time from other places. It is like the evergreen trees that grow here, that guard the hillsides and the tombs of those who have gone before, whose leaves never fall. It is slow, sombre, sure. When you wait in the Mediterranean things come to you, slowly, surely, at a certain pace. In the quiet atmosphere of the deep long afternoons, when everyone in the village sleeps, a mythic resonance is awakened inside you, in your bones.Your attention is held in the same way the round well in the courtyard holds rainwater, and you begin to listen to the wind outside the door, that drags the light across the inky sea and sings through the pines. It is an ancient wind that blows, and you listen to it, to its voices, what feelings it brings, as it scrapes the leaves across the terraces of deserted villas, as it whistles through the ruined walls, through the empty stone fireplace, through the olive trees, through the cypress and the bay, through the mountain passes, as it blows through time, remembering you.

That day we waited for the boat to the island, I saw everything: I watched the olive-coloured faces of the passengers, saw how they tied their belongings with rope, regarded the light on the sea, the changing shadows. I tasted the dry bread that everyone takes on sea voyages, and the small oranges, and inhaled the scent of fish and salt and oil. And I remembered it always. This is the kind of waiting and observing you need when you sit by a tree. This is the kind of attention that can listen to the wind that knows about time because it has always been here.

It is not the time of siesta now but deep winter. There is snow on the mountains all around and a chill in the air when the sun disappears from the valley by early afternoon. Mediterranean winters can be sombre, melancholic, Saturnine in their mood. It can rain for weeks. Though the weather is cloudy I have decided to walk out. There are wild pigs grunting in the oak forests as I walk up the ancient path of Hercules, leaving the little mountain hamlet behind me, the wooden houses with their comforting smell of woodsmoke, where the people from the city came to live years ago, to keep something alive, something mysterious that belongs to this land, earning their keep in the summer season when the outside world comes to visit the gorge below and the river known as the green dragon.

I walk up the path that is flinty, ice-crusted, stopping every few yards to visit the wild hellebores that grow in huge array under the trees, les pieds de griffons. I am so intrigued by these green winter flowers I lose track of time. Suddenly I look up and find myself surrounded by the austere cold mountains and a misty rain. I am alone. I have the certain presentiment that comes with being in the wilderness, of the Other, a sense that I am not really alone. The granite peaks loom high above me, their cliff faces staring down. There is an enormous presence in wild places you rarely contact in ordinary life. It’s exciting and unnerving at the same time, and instinctively you seek out a safe spot. I must find a box tree, I say to myself in the dripping silence, to steady my nerves.

The little box trees are everywhere, in conical shapes, the size of human beings. Justice de Druid! declared Cyril when I said I wanted to speak with them. But they don’t feel like judges to me, or priests. They feel like guardians. I seek one out amongst the other trees on the sloping wood. I clamber up the woody hillside for about twenty minutes and then I sit down on a dry floor.

Under the tree you wait in attendance for something to happen. This is not the kind of waiting when you wait for the phone to ring, on the edge of your seat, waiting and hoping, based on success or failure, or the gratification of desire. But a different kind of waiting in which you allow that which you do not yet know to make itself known to you. I am waiting here to seek the spirit of this place, to know it somehow, and know it will come slowly, like the growth of these small trees. 

I realise I am in a waiting place in my life, between two states. I have no home.  I came here to France to find a home but I know I will not find it here. Something in me has walked away from the village, to step out beyond the reach of human life to know this.  I wanted to speak with the box trees on the edge of the town but my feet kept walking.

Box is a slow growing tree and has the hardest and heaviest timber in Europe. Its pale colour and durability is highly prized by craftsmen who use it for precise work, for measuring tools, mathematical instruments, chessmen. Everything that requires measure and strategy.  I know I have come here to measure myself, to sense the structure of my  life. That it’s time for a strategic move. These are hard times for the soul, winter times, the times of crafting, enduring, of defining, of going to the places that are furthest away from your familiar self, from the comfort of houses. Times when things make their entrance when you least expect them.

As I sit down by the tree my nervousness goes and I feel at home, even in the rain that has now started to fall more heavily. The tree, in the manner of many trees, seems to have taken the coldness of the afternoon away. I think about the box trees in Oxford, how they are carved into the shapes of mythical beasts, griffins and dragons. How when I was a child I had loved its strange musty scent as I explored the geometric hedges in formal gardens, how I had always felt at home in their company. I have never sat with a wild box tree before.

As I sit musing, something in my body jolts and I jump to attention: there is a man sitting by another box tree further down the slope! For some reason this sight has sent me into a panic and my heart begins beating like a drum. I am not normally afraid of men, it is just that the sight is so incongruous. I felt sure I was alone. Who is this man? Not moving or making a sound, I look at him. He is about 30 yards away with his back turned but I can see his profile. He has a small beard and wiry body. Oh, it’s Cyril! I think to myself. But no, Cyril is in Nice. And I feel sure I would have noticed anyone else coming along the path or as I had climbed the slope.

I wait for a long time for the man to move or make a sound but none comes. I think about whether I should make my presence known in some way. Why would you do that? I think. It’s only a man. But something in me knows that it is not just a man and I am acting in this strange way because my body has registered that something Other is going on, even if my mind hasn’t. It’s then I realise that when I move slightly to the left the man becomes a piece of wood. It’s an optical illusion! Of course. But then my body jerks me back into the place where I can see that it is in fact a man. Only not a man I can meet. He is a man from a different time.  

Our bodies know things our minds do not because, like the mountains, they are ancient. They were formed thousands of years ago, and they resonate to the wind, to the winter, to the world of the box tree. They are archaic and they love the archaic world because they were built for it. Our feet love to walk the icy path, our ears respond to the sound of the wild pigs, our hands instinctively seek out firewood, our tongues lap mountain water. When we quiet our modern minds, and we listen with our bodies, our archaic bodies that come alive in the wild places, we can touch the mystery of time, the mystery that is held in this earth.

In the wilderness, where the ancient wind blows through the gold-glinted leaves of the box tree, where the green river roars, where the mountains in their mineral fastness face you, time is held in a different way, in a deep way you cannot ever know in the city or in your safe room at night. If you keep still, are quiet in these wild places, not afraid, let your body instruct you, you can contact the archaic knowledge of this world. You can find it in this place and you can find it in yourself. You can know you are connected to life in ways you cannot speak of and do not need to because in that moment you have become part of life’s extraordinary measure, its strategic move. You can know that the faun-like man is as you are, sitting in a certain way by a box tree, and you are meeting across the vast spaces of time.

Did you once sit here and see me in the future? I ask. But the man does not reply. He does not need to. We are in this mysterious present moment together. When I know that I stop asking questions. The box has shifted us into the same moment. It was time to be there, to know I was not alone, in this hard time, in this hard time for the earth, and then it was time to go.

I never solved the mystery of how this happened. Mysteries are not there for that. I knew that there had been people before, who had lived in these valleys, and that somehow they were still here, although in a different time, and that they too had held out in the hard times. High in the caves, with their seer eyes, they saw into a future, in which I was sitting under the same tree, where they had once sat. They saw that life would continue.

In the Western world people talk of the faraway places where the archaic life is still preserved, of Africa and Australia, but they rarely refer to their own ancestors, to the people who lived in Europe for thousands of years, who left their mysterious marks on rock and stone. Not the documented tribes of Celts or Saxons but other earlier people. These other people did not just live here in France, they were in England too, in Ireland, in deep time.

Sometimes if you sit on hills and moors, or an ancient burial ground, under beech or elder trees, their presences will resonate through time. And sometimes on a lucky day, a slow day, unexpectedly, like me, you might see them. These men are not speaking of justice de Druid or of sacrifice or war. They are the keepers of life; they are speaking of stars, and sun, of plant, and river and tree. They are speaking like me, like an ancient wind that blows through the house, through the box hedge, remembering you. 

52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth is published by Two Ravens Press (£9.99).  For further info contact

Images: seaholly and butterflies and box leaves, Suffolk, August 2013; the Gorges du Verdon and the mountains outside Chasteuil, France, December 2000 (Mark Watson)

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Dreaming of Uncivilisation

I will wait for a dream, I said to myself, as I went to meetings, swept the stage, ferried boxes of books, chopped vegetables, stacked the fire, and drank a glass of cider called Heart of Hampshire at the end of the day. I was giving a workshop called Rewilding the Self – The Earth Dreaming Bank. I had no idea what I was going to say. Every time I tried to prepare the session in between the cracks of the programme,  the words slipped out of my hands.

This was the fourth and last Uncivilisation Festival, held on a warm, rainy and windy weekend in mid-August amid the beech trees of the Sustainability Centre. It was the third time I had pitched my small tent on this grassy meadow beside sweet marjoram and blackberry and my fellow explorers on the Dark Mountain. Each time I found myself in a different position. At the first as a reporter, writing a story for the Independent and for a collective Transition blog, at the second as a writer, reading out loud from my book about flowers, at the third as a co-curator of the literary stage.  

Each year I found myself at an edge. I'll think of the questions during the interview, I’ll notice a plant, I’ll have a dream, and then I’ll know what to do. Some things you learn when you play close to the edge. It’s not comfortable, you can make a fool of yourself. But unexpected riffs burst out and harmonies happen between you that would not otherwise be allowed in a tightly orchestrated world. 

The dream came on the first night. It was of a large snake in a wooden box holding a green turtle in its jaws. When I looked at the turtle my instinct was to save the creature from certain death. Then something stopped me. Instead of stepping in, I stepped back. I saw that the snake was a grass snake and the turtle was held horizontally, rather than head-first. It’s shell was sparkling. The snake appeared too large and energetic for the frame in which it was held.

Something felt as though it needed to break out.


We arrived very slowly in Kev’s yellow campervan. On the way we stopped at a little stream for lunch and sat under a giant alder tree. There were four of us from Dark Marshes Norwich (because there are no mountains in East Anglia). All of us are working for the festival: Jeppe co-hosting a seminar on Time Culture, Mark giving a Plant Medicine Walk, and Kevin stewarding the gate. We had formed our small collective two years ago and in that time had discussed everything from dreams to climate change to putting on a small event in Chapefield Gardens. Our journey was poignant because this was not only the last festival, it was the last time we would be together as a local band of mountaineers. 

How can I describe a festival when there are 77 sessions in the programme, where I am co-curating a stage and giving a performance I haven’t prepared, and so can only go to a few? How can I say how it feels, sitting by a stream on a summer’s day with people you hardly know and yet you feel you know more deeply and more urgently than people you were born amongst? Where you can sit, at home in each other’s company, without the agitation of the world demanding you explain and justify who you are. 

It feels impossible: as if I had to run in all directions and split myself into a thousand pieces, as if I had to stop time. But I don’t: I go and sweep the Woodland Stage and sit in the children’s yurt in front of an empty notebook and draw the dream with a borrowed pen.

Breaking out of the box

The writer keeps the door open, so the world doesn’t close down. In 1993 Rachel Dutton and Rob Olds stepped out into the wilderness, with only their learned tracking skills to survive. They left their art and city life behind. Suzi Gablik (who interviewed them) stepped away from the conventional art world and risked her reputation, arguing for a Reenchantment of Art. Fern Smith, who is playing Rachel Dutton in a reenactment of their seminal interview in Doin' Dirt Time, has just left the theatre she founded 25 years ago and is stepping into the unknown. The play discusses a return to the roots of creativity, how writers and artists lead the collective in the direction they need to go. 

When you stand on the edge of the society you have been taught is everything, and plunge into an unknown territory, you feel you know everything in parts of your self you did not know existed. That’s a paradox. The interview which starts the literary programme is, I realise, as sit in the audience on a wooden bench, a form which makes sense of everything. If we don’t ask key questions of each other, we won’t find any answers. When she gave all her artworks away, Dutton tells Gablik, her life became her art, and that the real function of the artist is to host and gather the people.

The reason I’m telling you this dream, I say, is that if you have a dream you have to tell it. That’s why we began a speaking practice in Byron Bay, Australia. The snake comes into our dreams to quicken us. We have to keep moving and changing, so we don’t atrophy and crystallise. So life does not shut down. In a dream when you are stuck, you need to move, and how you move is to feel. Once these moves were the work of everyone in the tribe. We went into the caves and we went into the forest and up the mountain to learn the language of ourselves: our true names. Now we have to teach ourselves. The knowledge is still out there in the bush, in ourselves, at this festival. We just have to ask the question, take the time.
Civilisation tells us to keep still, calm down, go to sleep, don’t move, obey, control, as it holds us in its talons. Uncivilisation unleashes us, opens our mouths. 

I am a snake on a hill

I am a badger in a sett, waiting backstage in the darkness of Dougie Strang’s live installation. Charnel House for Roadkill, wearing a dark jacket, a striped mask on my head. I am quiet and still, listening to my own breathing. Outside in the dusk people are talking, but I cannot hear what they are saying. Someone comes in and shuts the door. There is scuffling and whispering behind the curtain. I do not want to think about badgers, what their imminent extermination means. The tiny hut in the woods feels like a confessional. A notice instructs all who enter the door to go through the curtain, sit down and put on the mask beside them. When they do they encounter another badger opposite them, looking at them in the semi-darkness.

The man and the child  look at the bones of a badger, fox and hare that lie in illuminated glass cases before them. The father coaxes him to look at me. I peer through my eyeholes at the humans, who are nervous in my unexpected presence. The father raises his hand, I raise my paw, mirroring his move. The boy runs out of the room.

I am a stone on a cairn,
remembering my friend Adrienne from the Sussex downs, how it felt when she died that a whole species was lost to the world. The cairn is to commemorate extinct creatures, and stands just below the woodland stage and the green burial ground.

In this place you feel the circle is complete, that there is nothing missing. At the same time you know this joyful moment of gathering won’t last. I knew the moment of meeting Adrienne again wouldn’t last. I knew it in my bones. I put a piece of chalk on the cairn. We all face extinction, I said. How can we live knowing that? She told me: it’s the pure art of being alive in every moment. Do not close the door.

I am a human among other humans coming back to the Hearth, organised by the Mearcstapa crew. Once they were invisible creatures in headdresses, in the performance of Liminal, disguised as stag, dragon, wolf, hare, appearing in the spaces between events. This year they are my companions. We laugh and sing and cook around this table and this fire. Morten, Jeppe's friend from Denmark, shows us how to stuff courgettes that taste like manna after two days' working behind the scenes. The hearth is one of the lynchpins of the festival - hubs and places of convergence around which the festival weaves its dreaming coat. Three stages, two tipis, two yurts, several outdoor spaces  – all of them created and held by different curators.

I am a curator standing by the door, feeding the fire at the Woodland Stage, watching a sea of faces by candlelight and a man from Australia singing.

We’re howling in the mountains
Burning bones
Firing off flares
Calling you home*

Tracking the dream
The key to dreaming is speaking, feeling and remembering. You need the skills of a tracker to do this. The artist-who-was-once an-artist tells the critic-who-was-once- a-critic that tracking requires a certain kind of seeing: one that can both survey a whole forest, and perceive tiny signs of changes in the bush. Tracking dreams is a matter of attention. Civilisation is held together by attention, to an agreed way of seeing reality, bathed in the artificial glow of street lights and computer screens. You could see Uncivilisation individualistically, as just another festival – recognise the familiar elements of tent, solar shower, street food, workshop, music and yoga practice. Or you could see it in another light entirely, as a way a whole group of people configure a change of direction.

To navigate the wild world, and to navigate the realms of the imagination means you can’t stay in the tight blinkered form society has trained you to live in. You need to break out and move in all directions in space and time: up into the realm of sky, into the underworld, from the left to the right hemisphere of the brain, back into the past, forward into the future. Writers learn by their art to make these shifts. They know it is not enough to experience phenomena, what you see in the dark has to be brought into the light and articulated, grounded in our everyday lives. That’s the work. It is our function as creative beings to give words to everything we see.

For ten years we sat, the two of us, in hotel rooms, under mesquite trees, on uneasy chairs in the in-between times, tracking our dreams and speaking them out loud. It was at once a clearance of the inherited dross of history we held inside us, and another a reconnection with a luminous, all-communicating earth. We called our dialogues a practice and collated our findings in a trilogy called The Earth Dreaming Bank.  

You can look at the dream, I said, from five levels: from your daily and personal life, as a member of the collective, from the mythos and as a communication from the earth. The people who came to the workshop introduced themselves, as animal and territories where they felt at home. How many of those animals and places are wild, I asked? How many of you live in those places that feel like home?

One thing with tracking a dream, I said: if you pay attention, the detail you focus on gets deeper. It opens up and reveals its inner workings. One thing you don’t know is that a grass snake was the last animal I picked up on the road before I came here, as we were headed for a swim in the Waveney River. Most “roadkill” snakes you pick up with a stick, because they are poisionous, but the grass snake you can hold in your hands. If I had laid an animal in Dougie’s charnel house it would have been this wild snake from the East Anglian water meadows.

The last time I saw the turtle was in a forest pool outside Byron Bay, Australia, just as the dreaming practice was beginning in 1998. The snake and turtle were bringing those times and places together, I realised, as I stood on the stage. When you speak the dream, people can see it with you. It opens like a flower. I saw that the turtleshell was made of emerald. That’s a mythic stone for communicators, a philosopher’s stone for transformers and medicine people.

Somewhere in that festival there was a subtle alchemy happening. You couldn’t see it until you stepped back from all that whirlwind activity, until you got out of the saving-the-earth drama we are all hemmed in by. I couldn’t see it until I connected those times and places.

Writers bridge time by placing events in a circle, rather than a straight line. That’s when you realise, whatever you are doing now has happened before and it’s time to make your liberating move. Time and transformation are the deep mysteries of the earth, which is why the Empire hates the changing nature of the breathing planet, and all who follow its wild contours. It wants to keep its ancient timeless grip on life.

Our move was to let it all go. 


What is the fabric that holds us together and yet not bind us? A culture we share that runs barefoot and forages for roots, that gives out its knowledge freely, that remembers the history of the tribe, and the invisible names of ancestors and animals. It sounds like forty men in a tipi singing in harmony, a cowrie shell booming in the darkness calling us to attend. A culture that howls and weeps and laughs, and holds the people’s attention around a fire at midnight. That sometimes puts horns on its head and hangs from a tree like a bird with a broken wing, speaking prophecy.

Mostly it’s a culture at a crossroads, caught in a paradox: because it knows nothing in its reasoning mind, and yet knows everything in its heart and bones and sinews, of how things need to be. Knows that at this point not to give your gift, your words, your song, your presence in the space, feels like a betrayal. A culture that does not disappear into its mind or become mute in the face of everything falling apart, including the story of the person you once were. A culture that puts itself on the line and does not go to sleep, though the lullaby of Empire entices us to forget ourselves at every turn.
The festival ended because the very form of festival entices us – like a fairy realm - to forget ourselves in time. We need to know what time we are in. And now is not the time for parties – no matter how much we enjoy them and each other. It is time for something else.

The break point came right at the end, in our last session about fiction and climate change. We were talking about Western culture's dominant literary form, the novel, how it fails to capture the zeitgeist. How it is stuck with an old social story and cannot speak from viewpoints other than human.

Maybe it’s about rewilding the novel, said Gregory Norminton. Suddenly I realised these acts and discussions did not stop here. This was a rehearsal. The box was a hermetic space in which we came to realise the work of Uncivilisation was complete. Now we could go anywhere. 

Bringing it home

It wasn’t geo-engineering and it wasn’t activism, it was a culture where we’re not pretending we know what to do. It’s two weeks later. Jeppe and Vanessa are about to go to Berlin, and Ava is telling us why she felt more at home at Uncivilisation than among her fellow students. We have gathered in a tiny terraced house in Norwich, not far from where we had our first meeting at a neighbourhood pub. We are drinking a glass of wild liquorice liqueur made by our host from Calabria. The taste is sweet and dark.

What should we take forward for the future from the festival,
I ask everyone in the room. What would you tell people? "There were two elements," said Kev. One was spontaneity, like Viv Gooding’s unprepared stand up. “I haven’t got an act” he had said and people laughed. "No," he said "I really haven’t”. The other was a deepening he experienced at Tom Hirons' Rites of Passage and Steve Thorpe's Unpsychology sessions. “I've never seen shapes and colours inside me before”.

“Everyone cherished it because we knew it was the last one”, said Jeppe as we shared all the different things we had gone to. Wild economics, midnight rituals, mycorrhizal discussions. You don’t need to split yourself into a thousand pieces, because everyone else was there, telling you how it was, all the time.

Did the box break? Yes, the woodland container that held us broke. In a final downpour the show came to an end. We hugged each other goodbye in the street, each of us holding a piece of Dark Mountain in our hearts. Then we scattered like the spores of mushrooms into the night.

You think it’s just a dream that comes to you one rainy dawn in August, but it’s not. It was a communication from the earth that you made an agreement to share. It just needed time, so you could deepen and see the colours and shapes of it. Just enough attention to notice that something else was going on in the woods, just enough perseverance – the kind of perserverance we needed to listen to that long long Lithuanian tale told around the fire - to hold the feeling and then let everything go. When you stepped back and saw the festival from that perspective, all the threads formed a tightly woven cloth, each strand beautifully linked to another. It looked like a map, like some kind of blueprint, of how we could live as real human beings in the future.

We feel on our own as we slip back into our ordinary lives, inside our brick and tile houses, but we are not on our own, so long as we remember how it once was among the tents in the beechwoods. That’s how a network works. It is invisibly connected through the powerful memory of the heart. Everything we experienced is within us, as we inch our way down the mountain, feeling the unknown territory with our bare feet, the roughness of the stone in our hands, moonbeams spiralling through the trees. That’s what I came to say: a people who see in the dark are a people on their way home. 

I’m not sure I told you around the fire when I was dancing, when I was running from place to place, when I was standing outside in the rain, watching your faces, sitting beside you at that stream, but I can say it now. Now I’m not rehearsing.

*The story starts at the end of everything.

Images: snake and turtle in the box (CDC);  big vellow campervan (Jeppe Graugaard); Parachute Stage roof (Bridget McKenzie); Plant Medicine Walk (JG); Charnel House, Leela and the Green Guitar (BM); with fellow curators, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougie Strang (Marmeduke Dando); parachute stage (JG) Farewell (BM); Dark Marshes Norwich; midnight ritual (BM).

Many thanks to all the writers, artists and performers who appeared on the Woodland Stage.To Paul Kingsnorth for introducing (and reading from) The Wake, to Dougald Hine for introducing Dark Mountain 4, to Fern Smith, Philip Ralph, and Sarah Woods for performing Doin' Dirt Time, Alex Fradera and Julia Pohlmann for improvising at the last minute, and to fellow curator, Susan Richardson, for sharing the stage. *Lyrics from Dark Mountain by Matt Wicking.

Blog originally published on Dark Mountain Project as The Snake in the Box