Thursday 24 December 2015

Paris Plan B - the untold story

At the end of November I went to France and Sweden. It was my first trip to Europe for 15 years. The first week I spent in Paris during the opening of the COP21 negotiations and then travelled overland to Stockholm to give a series of workshops and talks based on the work of Dark Mountain. More on that next year. Meanwhile here is a short blog I originally wrote for Bella Caledonia about those heady first days. 

The last time I filed from Paris I was covering the Spring Collections. It is a long way from where I am now perched on a high stool in the lounge of a reconfigured hostel by the Gare du Nord discussing Why the Message Doesn’t Get Across with a sociologist called Jean-Baptiste.

However this is a report about COP21 that did not make the headlines, nor even the small print, when, for two weeks in December, 1000s of activists, campaigners and grassroots communicators converged on the capital to disseminate their messages of defiance, hope and renewal, in spite of a heavily-policed clampdown on gatherings and demonstrations.

 ‘Refresh the climate, rewrite the story’ 

I have never seen so many people online in one room before – blogging, tweeting, texting, emailing, Skyping, videoing  –  and it is only 7am. 600 of us are having breakfast in the co-working space of the alternative media hub of Place to B. We know we can’t just fix the climate by twiddling with the temperature dial as 195 world leaders are now doing at Le Bourget. We know we need to address its deeper causes; a debt-bound economic system, the myth of progress and our millennia-long separation from wild nature on which we depend for everything.

The millions of grassroots responses around the planet are too small and undramatic to fit into the dominant mainstream narrative. Nevertheless we are busy sharing them across tables – stories about restoring soil, challenging fracking, bearing witness from communities under fire and under water. None of us are here just for ourselves. We are speaking on behalf of organisations and networks which have brought us together in a way that no conventional social meeting or workplace could ever do.
The first thing you notice is that everything connects. The second that there is no hostility. 

'What I am waiting for is sincerity’, says Jeremy from the BBC, as we discuss how the story we are here to rewrite looks more like a global communications system, firing on all cylinders. What I am waiting for is a way to frame my convincing argument, my pitch. But I can’t. Because when push comes to shove what really matters is something that bears no relation to a newspaper opinion, and it’s a hard to describe how it feels when suddenly you don’t have to fight the person you are talking with anymore.

When you realise you are not on your own. 

Boulevard Voltaire

10,000 people are holding hands along Boulevard Voltaire. Angels flex their wings, a stream of bicycles flies past, a brass band plays; a newt-headed man from the occupation at La Zad gives an interview to a citoyenne with a video camera. Vans of riot police wait in side streets for the clashes that will come later in a flower-strewn Place de la Republique. I join the human chain between a row of Tibetan men, one of whom hands me a badge saying ‘The Third Pole’, and feel strangely at home.

Afterwards I step back into the calm cobbled back streets of a Sunday Paris. You could think nothing had changed if you look at the cafes and shops and knobbly plane trees. You could think that nothing had changed when the gods at Le Bourget congratulate themselves on coming to a historic agreement.

It may appear to be the same but it isn’t the same behind the facade. The Tibetan plateau, the biggest reservoir of fresh water outside the Arctic and Antarctica, is warming at twice the global rate. We have been living as if our fossi-fuelled lifestyles have no consequences, but the consequences are now blowing back towards us. Some of us are no longer looking at hemlines.

Rue de Dunkerque

I could report on the Climate Games, the People’s Assembly, the Global Village of Alternatives, the documentary Demain, or any number of the workshops, talks or actions that are taking place on the edge of the official negotiations, but I have decided to stay here in the Place to B’s Creative Factory, where I work with an opera singer, two dancers, a novelist, an anthropologist and a cartoonist amongst others to create projects that explore ways to Dismantle the Buying Imperative. 

There is a challenge we all face with this rewrite. We are embedded in a culture of market fundamentalism, just as we are in the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change. A capitalist economy is our default common ground, no matter how connected we are to ‘nature’. It is hard to communicate without feeling the pressure to convince and propagandise in a way that goes against our craft. It is hard not to sound like an ad.

Scientists plea for their terrifying data to be rendered into an acceptable narrative for people to ‘get’. We know we need a story that holds a ‘radical dreaming’ and touches the hearts of people, and that climate change is a symptom of a cause that corporate media cannot admit. Industrial civilisation has brought the living systems on which we depend to a breaking point - systems that do not operate according to our 21st technology, 18th century reason, nor our 4000 BC sense of godlike control.

In the COP21 deal there are blue sky pledges but no mention of how carbon reduction might be achieved on the ground in a world where everything we consume  is made possible by oil. The obvious ‘solution’ to powerdown our whole way of life was never on the table. At the COP21 ‘fringe’ however it is clear we need to do exactly that and undergo what some call decroissance (degrowth). To walk in the opposite direction of Empire.

This story is made up of humble things: of cargo bikes and community orchards, of handmade bread and local assemblies, big picture vision, small everyday actions, a tale of sharing and restoration and sincerity and many other things besides. It doesn’t fit into a hash tag. It takes time to listen to. It challenges all the assumptions we were taught by our parents and teachers, and most avowedly, by our governments. There is no happy ending.

But there is a door to the future we can open that doesn’t depend on a mythical technology, that recognises, unlike the agreement, the rights of indigenous peoples, the forests, the oceans, all creatures: a culture that not only engages in letting go of its addiction to energy, but also in dismantling its powerbase from within, divesting its sense of entitlement, of superiority over all species, its extractive ego, its will to conquer, its baseline hostility.

On the walls of the bar there are small messages written by 1000s of individuals to everyone in Paris. They are written on bunting (from Scotland) and coloured ribbons (from USA). The people were asked: 

'What do you love and never hope to lose to climate change?'

The Great Barrier reef
My country, Syria
Kindness between strangers.

Here’s mine:

The sound of a robin singing in midwinter.

Images: Fossil free action at the Louvre (Andrea Hejlskov) Kristian Buus) for Climate Games; one of 600 Brandalism posters posted on bus stops around Paris.

Saturday 5 December 2015

Dancing the Cailleach

Carrying the Fire, Samhain, Rannoch Moor, 2015 

 Last month on the road to Holt in Norfolk a man came across a deer as he was speeding homeward. It was a fully pregnant doe. The man did an unprecented thing: he slit open the belly of the dead creature and delivered a live fawn.
I am holding a copy of the Eastern Daily Press where the story has just made the front page, in spite of all the terrors and hostilities clamouring for attention. The tiny fawn looks calmly outward, suckling on a bottle of milk, held in the large tattooed hands of the man.

When asked what made him stop that morning he said: 'It is perhaps something you will never come across again in your lifetime and I am just thankful that I knew what to do.'

The instructions were simple. Catch the 16:21 train from Glasgow to Fort William. Get out at Corrour and follow the stag.

Some part of us knows that beneath the noise and strife of the modern world, beyond the headlines, there is a deep place where our presence on the Earth is not for nothing. That when we come across it on an empty road at dawn we will know what to do. For thousands of years our negotiation with life was understood in terms of our relationship with the horned beasts we once lived alongside, and a mythical being, sometimes known as the Mistress of the Deer. In Scotland, and particularly in this part of the Highlands, she is known as the Cailleach (pronounced Call-y-ack). Samhain – All Souls, Day of the Dead and Halloween – is the time when the Cailleach, Queen of Winter, takes over the mantle of Earth from Bridget, the bright one, in a similar way the Oak cedes to the Holly at the summer solstice in England.  

The instructions were simple. 'You’re going to be the Cailleach' said Dougie, 'and dance to a piped lament on the moor.' '
It will be dark then,' I said.  
'Yes,' he said. 'Very dark. And maybe raining'.

So that was it how it was when we set out on a moonless wet night: Jack (the Stag), Wilf (the Wolf), Dougie and I on 30 October to walk the track toward Corrour station. I will bring up the rear, Dougie said. Martha (the Cook) remained at the hostel to hold the hearth. I was left on the hillside with instructions to light the fire (rags soaked in citronella) and start the music (in a box hidden by the rock) and do my thing.

I don’t really know what I am going to do of course. I have a red velvet dress on and a furry cape and a large fashion hat I have wreathed in birch twigs and barn owl's wings. A midge veil is covering my face - not that there are any midges at this time of year, though there are roving and rutting stags. One is out there. We have just seen him. He was massive and did not move away when Jack flashed his torch. I have done some challenging gigs in my time, but this has to be the mother of all of them.

ctf hostel
Carrying the Fire is a series of events created by artist and Dark Mountain curator Dougie Strang. So far there have been three, all set at Wiston Lodge on the Scottish borders. They have been small gatherings, for about 60 people, shaped in a similar way to the Uncivilisation Festivals – workshops, music, performance, discussion and of course a storytelling fire. This year's was a departure. It was for a smaller group (20) built around the festival of Samhain and located deep in the heathery heart of Rannoch Moor. We would be based at a wooden hostel, once the boathouse of the shooting lodge, beside Loch Ossian (Osh-een) at the foot of Beinn a’ Bhric, the Cailleach's mountain. The nearest road is 18 miles away.

The structure for the event was woven around three mythic stories embedded in this territory, which Dougie would tell over the weekend: on arrival beside the crackling stove with mugs of cocoa, by the Samhain fire, and on the platform of the highest station in Britain as we departed. On Saturday we would be taken by Neil Harvey (of Wild Journeys) up the mountain trails to do a 'Whakapapa' - a walking exchange between pairs of people, sharing our lifestories and geographies. On Sunday I would lead a workshop based on the Earth Dialogue and send folk out into the hills on their own. They would come back and relate what they experieced to each other in groups of four and then draw a collective dream map.

Like all Carrying the Fire events the fire would be a focal space where people sing and tell stories and pass round a bottle of malt. This part is mapped out. What we don't know is that Gavin will also pass quartz rocks around, so we can make sparks in the dark; that Ben and Darla and Tamsin will teach us a Georgian song taught to them by Ivan who used a giant staff to protect orphaned children; or that Jonny will read a passage about the last wolf making her trek across the snow fields of the north where the swans sleep. And out of the darkness a skein of whooper swans will fly over the loch, calling.  

The instructions were simple. You go out and stand in the land, you come back and relate what happened. What you say, what you do with what you know, is the thing that the Earth waits for. Your gift. What is that story? You forgot it. Ah. Here is a hint.

Arrive in the dark.
Follow the stag.
Wait for the people to come round the hill.

ctf 5-walking-gavin
When Jack comes round the corner his flambard has gone out. Luckily I can see a tiny infrared beam from his head torch. I leap into action -- light fire, switch on music -- and begin to sway, arms moving about like antlers and birch trees in the wind, boots anchored on the slippery rocky slope. I can't see or hear anything through the veil. I don't know whether anyone is there, or whether they have gone past. I keep dancing until I hear people howling and laughing in the distance. They have discovered Wilf! I gather everything up and go to find him. I feel exultant. '

You looked about ten foot tall!' exclaims everyone, when we walk back in (without costumes). 'And then you would disappear! And reappear. It was scary. It was magical!'
'Is dance your practice?' asks another. 'You were so rooted! '
No.' I laugh, 'but I do love to dance'. (I didn't like to say I couldn't move my feet in their massive boots on that rock in case I fell over).  

DSC_0383Samhain is a door. It is a door to the ancestors, and this is what we are doing up here, connecting with the ancestor that lives in our bones, out in the wild places. The Cailleach is the ancestor creator of these high places. Out of her creel she once tossed big stones that became the peaks that now tower above the golden deer grass and shiny lochans of the valley floor. She brings the cold sharp winds of winter, commands the weather and wildness. Her face is blue and sometimes veiled like the mist. In the spring she washes her plaid in the Corryvreckan whirlpool between Jura and Scarba, and then she turns into a rock.

We walk over this springy rocky rainsoaked moor, sprinkled with the flowers of heather and milkwort like a fading summer dress. I pocket the last of the year's bilberries and bearberries and Martha shows me some fragrant crackly leaves from a plant I haven't seen in years, bog myrtle, also known as sweet gale, and says she will make a tea from them all. A tea that will have the bitter taste of farewell.  

ctf 17-samhain-map-gavinSamhain is a door. Sometimes you need a set and a setting, a space, permission to do things differently: to dig deep, to sit alone, to dance in the night with a veil over your head. You don't know what will happen except something will happen. A small thing that makes sense of everything. That expectancy, that sharpness, that not-knowing is part of its territory.

I could tell you about the people who came, and the laughing around the tables as the feast of venison and pumpkin was served, or the sight of twenty pairs of boots hanging from the rafters, or the drama of crossing the stream, or how my Whakapapa companion, 18 minutes into his 20 minute story, told me that something dark happened on the mountain when his friend slipped and fell to his death. There were always hills and mountains, he said, that came at a pivotal point, that changed the direction of everything. The Dales, Mont Blanc, Glencoe. How that all our lifechanging territories and encounters that we recount on our return make some kind of collective pattern: woods which were torn down for houses, a tsunami in Sri Lanka that nearly drowned a family, a broken road in Iceland that snapped a connection between people, housing estates in Britain where art and writing reforged them.

I could tell you how how I woke to find Venus and a sickle moon in a clear sky and swam into the cold waters of the loch. How I watched the sun creep downwards from the peaks, turning the dun hillsides gold, the mountains like beasts crounching, attentive, so alive I could almost touch them. How the star Sirius rose over the mountain, as it has always risen over the mountain, heralding winter.

ctf deerskin
When Donald of the Brown Eyes hunts his last deer he slits open the belly and finds a ball of wool. It is the beginning of sheep herding in the Highlands and a domesticated relationship with the creatures. In modern Scotland deer are killed on the road, deer are shot by blood-hungry elites and deer (and sheep) chew every last tree standing. When the wolves and the Cailleach roamed on these mountains and the people met around the fire everything was held in balance. Something of that balance, what is sometimes called medicine, is contained in these old stories and in, we are hoping, this event.

Carrying the Fire's name is taken in part from the dystopic novel, The Road, where the father explains to his son that the purpose of being human is 'to carry the fire' and that if that spirit is lost the art of being human is also lost. The Cailleach is not human: she is a mythic being that lives deep in our bones and sinews, the parts of us that resonate with stones and wild weather. She reminds us of human beings' original bargain with Earth. Sometimes we need a reminder that she is still there, so we can carry the fire, come what may. So, in spite of living in a 24/7 world, we can mark time; in spite of living in a world where we are told we do not belong, we can make ourselves at home.

I took eight stones out of the loch and laid them on Jack's deer pelt. Here is a medicine wheel, I said: the blue stones represent the Earth cross and red stones represent the sun cross. The eight work like doors, marking gateways you go through. In the Americas the medicine wheel is about space and the directions that bring different challenges and riches. The north is where the ancestors live.

'The wheel of these British islands however is all about time. The stones mark a clock on which you can measure the time of the year and your own time and the time we are all in now – which is a time of breakdown and decay. What old forms need to go and what ancient roots need to hold fast in this time? What are we all doing here together at this moment with the ancestor mountain behind us and the lake of the bard before us?'

Everyone leaves and goes out on the pathways toward the hillsides. Some crouch down beside the loch or the roots of the birch trees at the back of the hostel. Some walk out of sight. I go out and sit on a rock striped with white quartz, and sing a chant to the mountain: it is a song that comes from the Andes, that comes from the Sierra Madre, that come from a sky island known as the Place of Many Springs. No one taught me that song.

beinn a bhric
Sometimes you contact something from the dark peaty layer, as Dougie calls the Cailleach's territory, that bursts through the dimensions, through time and space. It calls you to attention: the part of you that knows what to do when you find a dead deer on the roadway. You can deliver the fawn, you can do your thing in the dark and the rain. You can remember. Remembering can take you away from the light of the fire and the kitchen, and yet in the dark you feel you belong, you matter, in a way no culture, no family, no work, no political ideology, can ever make you feel. I am not sure I can take you there with words. I can show you the stones. I can dance. Everything else you walk yourself:

'It was not a psychological or therapeutic setting', wrote Caroline Ross, afterwards,
but a deeply connected almost mythic space.  As I have only seen properly described in the words of Riddley Walker, or perhaps the books of Ursula K LeGuin, People are not the only people there. Land, rocks, mountains and lakes, beings and heroes of the past, forces and gods are at the fireside too...
...if you showed me a far-off society where Samhain was celebrated as we did at Carrying the Fire, I would go into exile from this country to live there with those good people and become part of that culture. Ceremony, gathering together and marking the passage of the year and of our lives are so lost in the wider human culture in Britain from which I am mostly alienated, and manage to evade by living moored beside a tiny island in the middle of a river.
My heart was at home over Samhain, and through unparalleled good fortune, I was at home both culturally and geographically. People are made refugees every day and must leave their hearths for uncertain futures. Even within this country, Britons are displaced from the beneficial aspects of their culture and nature, by the market, homelessness, delusion and a thousand other causes.

But the deer are still here, and so are the mountains, and the wind, and there is still enough wood to make a fire. There are people who can still remember the stories that makes sense of everything, and the movements that are the shape of antlers or a tree moving in the wind. And if on a winter's day in the Highlands you hear a raven croak behind you, the Cailleach will still be there to show you her misty face that is sometimes blue.


Way out
Images by Gavin MacGregor, Sarah Thomas, Jonny Harris and Charlotte Du Cann.  

Charlotte Du Cann is an editor/art editor and distributor for Dark Mountain books. This weekend she is taking part in a series of DM workshops and talks, curated by co-founder Dougald Hine in Sweden. This month's will be based on her story about the Underworld The Seven Coats (Issue 6). 

Keep an eye out for next year's Carrying the Fire/Dark Mountain gathering. Details to be announced next year.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Portrait of an edition

For the last three weeks the Dark Mountain blog has published extracts from the latest journal, Issue 8 on TechnĂȘ.. Here is my post on some of the portraits featured in its densly illustrated pages.

Mann by Robert Leaver
 Dark Mountain issue 8 is our most visual book yet. Its pages are interwoven with paintings, photographs, architectural drawings, craftwork guidelines and illustrations. Alongside the eerily smooth lines of the technological world sits the rough beauty of maker culture; the ugliness of high-frequency transmitters on South London rooftops juxtaposed with a reconstructed iron-age smelter in Scotland, or a serried row of billhooks in a tool library in Cumbria.

In celebration of this edition here are seven glimpses into the collection and the stories that can shift our attention away from the trance of the mechanical sphere and back into physical and meaningful reality.

* * *
One of the original critiques of technology comes from the French philosopher Jacques Ellul. In an interview with Jan van Boeckel, Never mind where, so long as it's fast, he tells the young film makers who are recording him:
Existence in a society that has become a system finds the senses useless precisely because of the very instruments designed for their extension. One is prevented from touching and embracing reality. Further, one is programmed for interactive communication; one’s whole being is sucked into the system. It is this radical subversion of sensation that humiliates and then replaces perception.
7. Ellul_image Rerun productions A
Jacques Ellul on la technique: 'We are surrounded by objects which are, it is true, efficient but they are absolutely pointless. A work of art, on the other hand, has meaning in various ways or it calls up in me a feeling or an emotion whereby my life acquires sense. That is not the case with a technological product. We have the obligation to rediscover certain fundamental truths which have disappeared because of technology. We can also call these truths values, important, actual values, which ensure that people experience their lives as having meaning. Documentary still @Rerun Productions
The book charts some of the everyday fundamental things our hands can still touch and remember, from making sourdough bread to hanging out washing on a windy day. It shows too how artists can take ordinary materials and rework them, thereby reconnecting people with the living systems of which they are made: ink made from oak galls, deer parchment painted with birch smoke, mead made from wild leaves and raw honey.

Here the attentive hand of the furniture maker and artist Wycliffe Stutchbury pieces together slices of discarded trees and fenceposts for one of his giant 'woodpaintings', in an interview by choreographer Clare Whistler called Heartwood:

Clare Whistler -Wycliffe
In the Studio: ‘Wood is the paint, the tiles are the brushes. I don’t colour, stain or manipulate the material, which allows the making of something to happen. I want the restriction of the form to keep it simple. I don’t want to distract the viewer from the colour, the texture and the landscape.’ Photo by Clare Whistler
One of the main questions discussed in the book centres on time. Technology promises to 'save time'. What happens when a faster, more efficient machine takes over the human task of engaging with the world? What relationship with the fabric of things is lost, with our creativity, with each other?

In the photo essay The Walnut Project, photographer Manuela Boeckle documents villagers in the Perigord region in France cracking their local 'Corne' walnuts for oil: nuts that are too hard and too small to be processed on an industrial scale: 

11 Manuela Boekle.6 cracking session in March
The elderly neighbours (‘les dames denoisillenses’) gather around Leni‘s kitchen table to process the nuts. The nuts are placed on a tile, cracked with the boxwood hammer and de-shelled (denoisillage). The women chat, sing in Occitan (the local dialect and the language of the troubadours), listen to the sounds, or are simply immersed in an activity they have known since childhood. Photo by Manuela Boeckle
In The Craft of Slow Time, photographer Rob Fraser travels out to the edgelands of Tibet, Ladakh and elsewhere in search of people who still work with a deep connection to the land. Using a plate glass camera, a technology that has not changed for 100 years, requires him to engage with the subjects of his portraits and listen to their stories.
You can’t set up a large format camera, on its tripod, and stand there with a bright red cape over your head without first getting to know the people you’re going to shoot... The process of photography is also a process of kinship, talking, finding common ground.
It's a long way from the digital clicking of a selfie generation:

6 Samburu warriors, Kenya low res
Samburu warriors, northern Kenya. '(We) made camp by a small lake when these three men wandered past, herding their goats. Their weapons, handcrafted out of local hardwood, are used to ward off predators keen on taking the odd stray goat. The pastoral skills needed to tend and protect a herd and derive food from their milk, blood and meat, are learned over many years.' Photo by Rob Fraser
But working on the edge also happens within highly-industrialied countries. Between the book's essays, interviews and life stories, you can catch glimpes of baskets woven in the woods of Northern England, or the plan for a 'yurpee' constructed in the high desert of Arizona, or brief meditations on a pocket knife or geologist's pick. On the edge of the Atlantic singer-songwriter Catrina Davies gets to grips with tech and (almost) off-grid living in My Tin Shed Technosphere:

23 Catrina Davies - Records low res(1 of 4)
'My shed is made from the sliced flesh of old trees. I furnished it with old trees of my own. My family of musical instruments, my several hundred books, my footstool that’s as old as me with my name carved onto it. One day these old trees will sink back into the earth and be born again as worms, or blackbirds, or roses, or tall Scots pines, or hunchbacked hawthorn, or wild, stunted apples with burnt brown leaves and supernatural blinding blossom.'
Somewhere embedded in the material is a way to regain the meaning and freedom that technology robs from us. So long as we can place our (real) hands on it. In A Quiet Industry, writer and voyager Sarah Thomas steers a project to catalogue the old agricultural tools belonging to Walter Lloyd. In her record she notes:
We are living through a unique time in our history where these specificities of place, language, skill and purpose are being lost to a homogenised and dislocated ‘being’ and ‘doing’ in the world, as we have largely relinquished responsibility for our existences to people and systems we have never met or held in our hands.
x Sarah Thomas_Walter's Tools_Charcoal
Charcoal burners making music: : When the fair weather came in summer, outdoor workshops in toolhandle making and blacksmithing aided in the restoration process. Some of the newly restored tools were used in a series of workshops in scything and haymaking, charcoal burning and willow basket making.' Photo by John Ashton
Dark Mountain issue 8 ends with one of the clearest insights into the limits of technology: unlike living things it is stuck in a closed system. In Love & Entropy, artists Horne & Draper chart the collapsing buildings of their native Doncaster:

19 Warren Draper_Blackboardr
The Sum of All Knowledge: 'We are literally surrounded by the material ghosts of obsolete technology. We cannot call them ‘corpses’ as they have not yet mastered death... until we have created – or technology itself evolves – some form of techno-soil then our technological masterpieces will ever more quickly become little more than memento mori; reminding us that entropy awaits the linear world.' Photo by Warren Draper

Top image: Mann by Robert Leaver: 'The mannequin strikes me as calm and knowing and when I place him in nature I feel as though he is a visitor from the future. He knows things here and now are headed in the wrong direction. His silence is eloquent and somehow soothing. He is an opaque scarecrow, a strangely graceful witness. Ishmael made white by the whale of what will be.' 

There’s more where this came from in Dark Mountain issue 8: TechnĂȘ. To get a copy of the book, or subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Dark Mountain mead

Today is publication day for the long awaited Dark Mountain Issue 8 - our first themed book and paperback. Titled Techne it is a wide-ranging collection of essays, reflections and maker guides on all aspects of technology and tools.Tonight we launch at the /i’klectik/ studios in Lambeth where I am giving a slideshow of some of the artworks and photographs in this densely illustrated volume, and Mark is giving a demo on how to make a wild autumn mead. As well as co-editing the book I have written two of its pieces. Here is the first, a short practical one (the second Wayland and the Futuremakers will come later). 

This is a mead made for a talk about Dark Mountain at the 2 Degrees Festival at Toynbee Studios, Whitechapel, last June. My fellow editor Steve Wheeler and I had been invited to present our talk without any technology or power, as part of a ‘de-industrialising‘ workshop called ‘Breakdown breakdown’, organised by the artist and activist Brett Bloom. I took a jar of mead along as part of the performance.

Honey and water infused by botanicals make the simplest, most off-grid, hands-on, archaic, indigenous drink you can find anywhere. You can conjure mead elixirs from any fruit or leaves or roots, depending on your intent or sense of adventure. Fragrant elderflowers, bitter dandelion roots, birch bark, hawthorn berries; the mead circles of rural Tennessee, according to master fermenter Sandor Ellix Katz, make them with just about with anything. Ours had a fruity theme: conference pear, lemon balm, apple mint, lime blossom honey. The key ingredient in mead is raw honey. The honey has to be non-pasteurised, so it contains the wild yeasts that make fermentation happen.
Midway through the presentation, just after Steve had whirled about the circle of people, reading from his Dark Mountain piece, Ragnanok, about modern warrior training in Sweden, I passed the mead around to see if anyone could guess what it was. No one did, although a girl from Finland did say it reminded her of something her people made with raisins. 

‘Well, if you remember your Nordic mythology,’ I said, ‘you’ll know that when Odin and his sky warriors weren’t preparing for the Last Battle, they were drinking mead!’

The first time I encountered mead, I was investigating plant medicine in Oxford. One night, after drinking a cup, I dreamed my head was covered in bees. It was intense. The second time was at an editorial meeting in London. Six of us had been running a newspaper against the odds and were closing shop after three years. We sat in a circle, feeling The End drawing nigh, when the managing editor exclaimed, ‘Let’s have some mead!’ and brandished a Kilner jar containing an elixir of rose petals, redcurrants and windfallen cherry plums. Five minutes later we were all falling about laughing. I thought I was going to burst with happiness. 

‘It might be the end of the world as we know it,’ I declared to the audience. ‘but at least we can have a good time! 

1 handful each of mint and lemon balm leaves, or seasonal edible flowers and leaves
500ml of pure spring water (local if possible)
1 pear (organic), chopped (or any unsprayed seasonal wild or garden fruit
½ jar of raw honey (small local producers rarely process their honey)
1litre Kilner jar

METHOD: Pick a good handful of lemon balm and mint leaves from a garden or unpolluted location, and make them into a strong tea with some of the water (just off the boil).  Let it cool. Dissolve the honey with some of the cooled tea in the Kilner jar, then add all the rest of the ingredients, plus several fresh lemon balm leaves.

Leave the jar somewhere warmish and visible. Every day take up a wooden spoon and swirl the mixture briskly anti-clockwise and then clockwise. It doesn’t matter if you keep the jar open or closed, but if you close it you need to ‘burp’ the jar every day. It will make a satisfying hiss as the CO2 escapes and froth vigorously. Each day the mead will look different. The colour and fragrance will change. Transformation is happening!

After about 5-7 days it is ready to drink – though you can bottle it once the fermented process is complete and keep it for years. It is particularly delicious mixed with wine, fruit cordial, apple juice and/or sparkling spring water.

 All the ingre- dients in this mead are traditional herbs for relaxing and cheering you up. Contrary to expec- tation, facing the end of the world as we know it can be a cheerful thing, as every attempt to deny the situation, or to keep things going against the odds, disappears. It opens up a space you didn’t think was there. Suddenly you can see what or who was around you all the time, but you were too fraught to notice. 

The alchemical mead jar at the centre of the talk was a kind of metaphor for the Dark Mountain Project. I wanted to show hown if you gather some creative uncivilised ingredients (people) together, they can made a heady, healing and joyful brew. What is happening in that Kilner jar is the magic and medicine of fermentation -  communities of microorganisms working together, exchanging material, creating new forms, making life happen. All the active ingredients in honey are dormant until you mix them with water, and then everything wakes up. The yeasts that live on the surface of leaves and the skins of fruit add to the live action and flavour. The sweet nectar of flowers gathered and processed by millions of bees feeds them, and then us. Rewilding in a jar. 

Sip, share and enjoy!

END NOTE: Since writing this piece I have made fruity and foraged mead elixirs through several summers, beginning with strawberry, rhubarb and rose in June and ending with damsons, crab apple and sea buckthorn berries in September. Instead of making a tea of leaves as in the above recipe, I add more fruit and flowers directly into the honey-infused water. I sieve the fruit usually after a week and keep the mead in the fridge where it continues to ferment, though at a slower pace. Three of the best mixes are wild cherry and meadowsweet, gooseberry and elderflower, and blackcurrant and fennel. A great way to enjoy the top half of the year!

 Images: front cover of Dark Mountain 8 designed by Andy Garside; a late summer mead with cherry plums, rowan berries, yarrow flowers and mallow (Mark Watson); Mark in action at recent Raw Food and Drink demo at Giddens & Thompon's Bungay (photo by Josiah Meldrum)

Thursday 17 September 2015

Mapping Grassroots Britain

Last night watching A Dance to the Music of Time it came to me that for decades now Britain has looked backwards into the past - its form and feel embedded in the hierarchical style of Empire. Whatever happened to creating the future most of us yearn for, a future which benefits everyone, including the environment we all live in? And how would we recognise it when we came across it?

To show that that future has already been seeded and taken root is the aim behind The Grassroots Directory. It was launched last week with this wonderful street map by Laura Barnard. The map is of an imaginary town, village or city neighbourhood made up of many of the innovative community-led, owned and run projects that are now happening all over Britain. In a Guardian piece today I catalogue some of these enterprises that appear like a net of bright sparks across an apparently hostile and corporate-dominated country. 

What distinguishes them is that they bring benefit to the places and people they share, whether orchard, cinema, farm or energy company. These projects are not driven by an individualist desire for power but by collective necessity and ‘cluster under the umbrella of a social and solidarity economy’ as John Thackara writes about so eloquently in his new book How to Thrive in the Next Economy.

They belong to a new mood that is now shifting the country politically and economically and most of all in the hearts of its people. If you know of a project near you do get in touch with us at Details about this sourcebook and its aims can be found at We would love to hear from you.

Sunday 16 August 2015

Holding fire

Last month I travelled up the East Coast to the Scottish Sculture Workshop in Aberdeenshire, where my fellow editor Nick Hunt and I told the story of Dark Mountain around the fire and later gave a workshop on the 8 Principles of Uncivilisation in a field. We were part of the Breakdown Break Down camp where cultural workers, artists and activists were engaged in an 11-day exploration of 'deindustrialising our sense of self'. 

One of the evening talks was by the centre's director, Nuno Sacramento, on taking oil out of our relationships with the land. He was beginning to document different ways of interacting with the surrounding lush terrain with its estate-dominated larch woods and grouse moors and mammoth cattle. He called it the Lumsden Method (after the village where the centre is situated). Already on his list of methodologies was the work of some of the camp's speakers and teachers - from soil sampling and animal communication to land rights and bio-remediation. 

'Have you got a land dreaming?' I asked him. 'It's a way to directly perceive a place with others.' He hadn't. So I resolved to send him a method I used to use years ago. It was called Earth Dialogues.

For a long time now I have been  focused on the social aspects of downshifting, engaged in the methodologies of community activism. Now when I look at the land I see it in terms of geology mythology and history. I see roads and fossil fuel extraction, I see crops and the industrial food system; I see clouds and think of climate change. But I didn't always see like this.

'The land is always political,' said John Jordan at the Breakdown Break Down Workshop in London that preceded the Camp. Steve Wheeler, another of the DM ed team, and I were holding a discussion after our presentation called 'Finding Your Way in the Dark'. A lot of people were getting hot under the collar about the word 'rewilding'. It seemed that social justice and climate activism were being sidelined.

'Sure,' I replied. 'I go out foraging and meet a fence and that tells me the land is someone else's property and straightaway I bump into history and hierarchy. Rewilding is about taking down that fence - literally and metaphorically - and seeing the land and yourself in a different way. 

'You can see a mountain being exploited for its forests or minerals or tourism. But the mountain also exists in and of itself. It is Mountain in the way you are Human and that's an uncivilised relationship I think Dark Mountain explores.'

The Uncivilisation Principles caused a similar disquiet in the field at Lumsden. However the living systems of the planet are not 'Nature' that exists outside the metropolis for the benefit of tourists or 'privileged people' (as one participant called those of us who live in rural backwaters). Unless we have a relationship with the planet on its own terms, in its own language, through our own planetary beings, we cannot really speak on its behalf. We will only be talking in geo-political terms and pussyfooting around the needs of other human beings (our own 'tribes' or those we deem worthy, depending on our political persuasion). Or we will want to manage everything back to a pristine state of wilderness and so write ourselves (and 7 billion others) out of the story.

Either way this is a human-centric story, told by people looking through civilised eyes. Somewhere along the line you will hit a wall when you try to tell a new collective story that includes the planet and all its elements and beings. We hit that wall in those Breakdown discussion circles. Something needed to break us out of our mental straitjackets. That's when I remembered a small workbook Mark and I put together in 2007. It was in essence a manual of practices that explores what happens when you stop talking from your head and start using other parts of your intelligence to see and communicate with the Earth and each other.

The following 'recipe for action' is a skeleton key to the Earth Dialogue practice. In his talk Nuno poked fun at the nature writing of the 'lone, enraptured male' surveying the world from his mountaintop eyrie. What made me suggest our 'method' was because speaking practices are not individual endeavours. Having an expansive time on your own in nature is not hard if you have the resources and time; perceiving a landscape with others is work. 

The Dialogues were a kind of springboard for that work. 

Earth dialogues

When we travelled to America in the summer of 2000 we took the practice out of the room and started to dialogue under the cool shade of trees. We started to use the techniques we had found working with dreams and plants in order to locate ourselves in time and space. We would get a feel for the certain places we visited and find out what they were communicating to us. 

We had already begun to explore this with others in England. Four or five of us would meet in a place and then go and sit in different positions within it. Later we would regroup and relate out loud the impulses, directions, information and messages we had received. We’d make a tea of the leaves gathered there and put together a collective vision or dream map.

As the millennium turned we travelled to many different places in this spirit of enquiry: an old quarry floor, an ancient coppice, a burial mound surrounded by a circle of beech trees, a city scrubland, an ancestral mountain, a hot spring under the stars. Assisted by our communications with the Earth in our dreams - mountains, seas, animals, birds, flowers, insects and stones - we found we were able to behold a whole geography in 'reality'.

We called this way of seeing perceiving within the field. This meant beholding the planet as a participant, rather than from the separated control position of our minds. The group energetic readouts enabled everyone to speak freely from their hearts about the planet instead of being trapped into talking from any ecological or fix-it mindsets.

The Earth Dialogues allowed us to experience the Earth not as ‘landscape’ or ‘nature’ or ‘the environment’ but as a complex of dimensions, a vast meeting place of many kinds of being in which being human is only one strand. However we also saw that this strand has a vital meaning within this dimensional web that is linked with our native ability to perceive. 

Instead of looking inward to understand a plant medicine or dream, we found ourselves looking outwards, into the composite fabric of life. We were not just receiving information, we were also transmitting. 

Perception we realised was a two-way process.

conditions for an earth dialogue

Earth dialogues are essentially communications between the natural world outside your front door and your own physical beings. You go forth with a small group in a particular attention. You need to be able to include everything you experience and hold many kinds of awareness at once. Unlike the hermetic space of a room, the outside world is full of distractions and invisible interferences. Your head can quickly become full of words that block your view and interrupt your engagement. 

The essential act of an Earth Dialogue therefore is tuning into and physically connecting with the place you are visiting. Perceiving within the field is best understood in terms of transmission and reception. To receive you need to become conscious of your body's ability to perceive, using your senses to become aware of temperature, light, sound, pattern, the direction of the wind and clouds. To transmit you need to become aware of your inner forces and relate them to the outer world: connecting with the air, for example, by breathing in its scent of salt or pine, and breathing out the warmth of your being; connecting your feet with the land, as your toes grip the rock or bare earth; your movement within the water, as you glide with the currents of the river.

To perceive with the body requires adjusting to the tempo of the Earth and the tempo of your heart which go at the same pace - the same wingspeed as the bird in the sky, the same rhythm as the sea wave rolling to the shore, the same stillness of the hill with the sun rising behind it.

In daily life we walk around with the talking heads of our mindsets fully switched on. As a result the Earth is rarely seen, never felt, never lived on. A never-never land you may dimly remember seeing as a child and in your heart privately long for. The Earth Dialogues were all about return, not to childhood but to the place that is always here.

How to frame a dialogue that takes place 'outside' and includes the outside 

1 Tuning into the time and place When you (the group) have arrived at the place you wish to visit, establish the conditions for a dynamic dialogue between everyone taking part. 
Agree upon a time-frame and meeting place for your readouts. 
Fan out.
Find your position within the territory (you may not find this straightaway). A spot where you feel at home. A plant or tree can act as a good anchor.
Greet the land in your own way.
Sit in a state of attentive stillness. Feel your feet and take a few deep breaths.
Connect with your inner core and the beat of your heart. 
Open your consciousness and become aware of the elements of the place and time - the quality of light, the weather, the season, atmosphere of place, the mood of the day. 
Now take note of the various beings that inhabit this place - animals, rocks, trees, plants, other people. You do not need to rush. A period of silence and patience is required for the whole picture to be revealed.
Listen to the sounds, notice how everything is moving - creatures, birds, the wind in the trees, yourself. 
Take note of any subtle feelings and realisations that arise, what ideas and sensations, memories or shifts of perception that come as you sit there, listening, observing, feeling.
Become aware of the correspondence between the elements of this place and your self.
See how everything connects, how this hill is all hills, how this ocean is all oceans.
Remember what you have experienced. 

2 Energetic readouts Return to your chosen place of dialogue.
Relate your findings to each other, taking turns to speak. 
Relate what happened and also any feelings that came up, what was going on around you, your communications with other beings during the time.
Your fellow visitors can then ask questions about your experience.
Listening to others is as key to this process as speaking, as you are forming a composite picture. One person might just report a shift of awareness, another relate a whole story. Note the correspondences between your accounts. Each person holds a part of the map.
When everyone is finished make an agreement to write or draw some kind of creative record and send it to everyone else.
Go out and celebrate together. 

* * *
At Lumsden one of the key post-
meeting places was the sauna built out of old whisky barrels (whisky production is a key local industry, due to the area's unusually pure water). No matter what happened during the day everyone could pile into the dark, scented warmth, or if they were lucky have a Finnish/Estonian 'energy whisk' with leaves of rowan and maple and sometimes nettles (ouch!). Sharing the physical elements of fire, water or earth takes you right into the heart of an Earth Dialogue. The mind is pushed out and you can get close with your fellows.

All Dark Mountain stories are told round a real or metaphorical fire with people listening. All Earth Dialogues happen outdoors with people immersing themselves in the fabric of the planet and then speaking. Or sometimes the other way round.

Here is how it started years ago in New South Wales at the end of our travelling and the beginning of the practice years, where we had rented a bungalow fringed with frangipani trees by the ocean, and met up with Sarah who we had crossed paths with in Colombia.

Tea tree lake

byron bay, australia 1998

We had been focusing on the dreaming practice all morning with Sarah. 'Let’s go to the tea tree lake,' she said. 'There’s something amazing that happens there.' So we walked down to a warm still pool behind the beach, where the roots of the tea tree go deep into the water and stain it red brown. We swam out to the middle. 

  ‘Now,’ said Sarah, ‘you have to dive down as deep as possible, then just let yourself float up. Keep your eyes open and look up. Whatever you do, remember the light!’

We all dived down together. I opened my eyes. Everywhere was dark-brown. Then I looked up and saw a dim golden colour above my head. As I floated up from the dive it got stronger and stronger, until it burst into a shower of diamonds as I surfaced with my two companions and burst into laughter. We were all laughing and splashing water around us. 

Amazing we all agreed. And immediately dived down again.

Nothing really ‘happened’ at the lake. It was an intense experience for a few moments. But in those moments, naked, diving into the brown and golden water, bursting through the surface of the glittering sunlight, we had become different beings. It was as if our modern European histories no longer existed, our city biographies. We were suddenly just three human beings in the middle of their lives, enjoying the Earth together, starting again at a certain point in time. Mark and I were beginning our dreaming practice in this ‘rainbow’ sea town where people from all parts of the world, like Sarah, were gathering to live in a more heart-based way.

The tea tree lake visit was the energetic basis for the practiice we would call the Earth Dialogues, though we didn’t know it at the time. It had the three key components: trees, water and human beings who had been speaking their dreams out loud together. The combination of these three energies provides a matrix for a subtle transformation. The oil of the tea tree has become the world’s most effective natural germicide. It can see off opportunist white fungal growth, in the same way speaking with heart deals with the monologue of the mind.

Swimming in wild water, as we would find found in the years that followed, instantly decrystallises rigid thinking; pettiness and anxiety dissolve in the flow of a river or in the vastness and fluidity of the sea. The dreaming practice, inspired by a lecture on Aboriginal dreamtime, had connected us with our archaic roots - the roots of common humanity - so that we could move forwards. We were feeling our bare feet on the red earth, walking along a track we had not taken before. Except perhaps in a dream. 

Here at the end of the twentieth century in these soft brown waters, infused by the great medicinal tree of Australia, a mind-dominated parasite culture we had held inside ourselves for aeons, was starting to be replaced by another way of life entirely.

We were remembering the Earth for our future.

(from Speaking with the Fire 2007) 

Making fire

When I looked back at this time among the medicine trees, I wrote that Australia was an ancestral place of fire where our old civilised lives could be burned away and we could begin again. It was also the place where we decided it was time to come back to England.

I did not realise then that fire is not just about burning away dross. Nor did I realise how many years it would take me to return to my homeland and find it as rich as the world I had travelled across for almost a decade. But I have found its treasures still lying in the deep places and the seeds of the future buried in the hearts of people. You just have to peel away the layers of history and look at the hills and the windy roads with different eyes. And sometimes with your fellows sitting around a fire.

Here I am with Nick as we introduce ourselves before a great metal fire-dish forged in the workshops behind us, among the foothills of the Grampian Mountains. I am talking about the mythical Saxon smith Wayland whose name-place was the site for one of the first Earth Dialogues Mark and I held in 1999. I am talking about forging the future, and how going into the material and finding its fiery spirit is the only way for humans to really understand their place on the planet which has sheltered us for so long. 

What does this have to do with a swan feather and writing? The answer will be in the next Dark Mountain journal, our first themed issue on technology and tools and now in full swing production. It will be published on 15th October, we will be launching it with readings, songs, performance and conversation at Iklectik Art Lab, Old Paradise Yard, London. Hope to see you there!

Jumping the midsummer fire, Suffolk (Josiah Meldrum); mountain, Vilcabamba, Ecuador (Mark Watson); sauna, Scottish Sculpture Workshop, Aberdeenshire (SSW);  speaking round the fire (SSW)