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