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)

Friday 7 August 2015

Taking a break... postcard from the edge

Dear Everyone, I have been taking a break from blogging for a while. Not that I am on holiday though! Just centred on other activities - slowly crafting Dark Mountain's Issue 8 on tech and tools and prepping the ground for a new grassroots publication (watch this space). And of course wavy sea swimming and plant attention (here after some hefty weeding with Mark at the Bungay Library Community Garden )

I do have a post brewing about some new adventures with Dark Mountain (here in red trousers about to give a talk with Nick Hunt at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop) and some past adventures in land dreaming that I am reworking and updating into a future mix. 

And talking of heady mixes here are some of the latest summer meads we have been making: the end of strawberry, elderflowers and roses (June), the maturation of raspberry, mugwort and other high summer leaves (July); the beginning of redcurrant, spearmint and marjoram flowers, and blackcurrant and fennel flowers with heather honey (August). This last one we drank around the fire at Lughnasa. It was divine! Now bubbling away is wild cherry with meadowsweet, vervain and watermint (that's medicinal!). Mead really shifts your attention and highlights the presence of flowers and insects whereever you go. Kind of puts you off that writing tech too....

Photos by Mark Watson and SSW