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Uncivilisation and Dark Mountain Anthology 3

I never wrote the blog post I promised after last year’s Uncivilisation festival. It took some processing and was a much deeper, more emotional experience than I’d expected.  In the end I left it too long and lost that strong emotional impact in favour of watching and cutting the footage- which largely emphasised the factual and editorial.

Better late than never, the results of last year’s footage have been edited by Vivi Stamatatos and are ready for viewing:

I think it’s a good snapshot of what the festival and accompanying movement is about, though it does leave out the strand of neo-primitivist art and spirituality, discussed below.

Now it’s 2 weeks after the 2012 festival and I’ve just read the third Dark Mountain anthology produced by the same team. The combination of the festival and the book provoked many responses in me, both positive and critical. It’s a long post, but if you like to read, you probably won’t mind.

Firstly, the tiny size of the festival is fantastic for meeting people and the urgency of the issues involved means you dive straight into deep conversations and debates with strangers at the drop of a hat. It’s totally fine to sit yourself down at a group of people and join in the conversation without introducing yourself. It’s dizzying at times- I know some people who live their lives like this but I’ve never been one of them. I’d like to be.

We did shoot footage at this year’s festival but rather than the sessions and organisers this consisted of interviews with two attendees. We met lots of other people, both wonderful and perturbing, and hopefully became more plugged into this network of people. All are in their way working diligently against denial.

In contrast to last year’s festival with its factual sessions on ‘collapsonomics’ and economic bubbles, there was little in the sessions that dealt with the likely shape and detail of the problems we might face. Instead there was a strand reflecting on the lessons of the 90s road protests and lots of spiritual and creative workshops focusing on reconnecting with ‘the wild’. I enjoyed those, and loved the tales of the road protests as I have friends who were there and speak of it as a huge watershed in their view of the world and in British activism. But I did find last year’s combination of debate on the empirical and political issues of today and the more spiritual ‘re-wilding’ very refreshing and well balanced. This year’s emphasis seemed a bit nebulous and fluffy. Apparently last year’s controversies caused some tension and forced people into ‘entrenched positions’ which was unhelpful. I was raised in an argumentative family, though, so I like that sort of thing.  I’d rather thrash things out and then heal rifts with communal rituals afterwards than smother tensions before they arise.

As far as the art and music, again I was torn. There was some very beautiful art by Rima Staines with a wonderful wood-smoked and folk feel to it. Also a combination of paintings and poems called ‘The Fixing of Things’ that recalled the ripping apart and re-merging of natural structures and patterns- storms, wood-grain, stars, mud. The absolute highlight of the festival was the storytelling session by Martin Shaw, a broad bearded man like a dearly beloved uncle, full of exuberant love for his art. He made us laugh, sigh and cry tears of pain and healing joy with his vivid characters and tales that celebrated freedom, love and the wild in us all. Some great acoustic musicians played too, though the ‘Brythonic’ folk band Wod reminded me of the bit in the Mighty Boosh where Vince and Howard make an ill-judged effort to bring Medieval music to the hipsters of East London. The special circle dances they held a workshop to teach were strangely monotonous and the music very repetitive. Having seen my friend Red Vic orchestrate 1,000 very drunk people into a complex barn dance with no practice whatsoever, I felt more could have been achieved. If this is the future of music I will spend the rest of my life weeping for amps, synths and drum machines.

Having said that, there was a magical moment during the dance, when into the firelight stepped several masked figures- a deer man, a tall white figure with a curved beak and walking cane, and a woman with a face. The mask was just slightly more stylized than a ‘real’ face and expertly crafted. As the firelight flickered over it and showed grief, then innocence, then compassion, I experienced a deep shudder of unreality.

These moments that connect me to the sacred place of art and spectacle in ancient times, and remind me how little is needed in terms of resources to touch and transport an audience, are what grab and hold me about the Dark Mountain approach to art.

The third Dark Mountain anthology is a gorgeous piece of work, and features many of the visual artists and writers from the festival. It’s very well balanced in its combination of essays, poems, stories and colour prints. Its balance in terms of theory, reportage, dream, memory, beauty, hope, rage and sadness is stunningly well judged. It’s less well balanced in its inclusiveness.

I’ve heard women attending the festival complain of its macho bias before, and I’d previously shelved those concerns because the movement was so inspiring to me in other ways. Also because although it was chiefly young white men running it, they seemed like awfully nice and intelligent men with great ideas and lots of talent. I do reach a point with my feminism that it can stop me from enjoying the plethora of wonderful things that men make and do because I’m always screaming inside ‘where are the women?’ And that gets very tiring. So I switch it off. I have to do this quite often to enjoy some of my favourite art. I’m used to it.

But after reading several stories in which troubled men find a deeper connection to woodland spirits, dead badgers and mountainsides than their female partners, I started to feel uneasy. Though a few great women writers are featured in the anthology, a theme emerged through several of the fiction pieces of a shadowy female figure smelling of chemical perfumes who represents ‘normality’, ‘civilisation’, numb consumer comfort and everything Dark Mountain stands against. The male protagonist rails against, preaches to or simply deserts this woman without a word, to embrace the wild alone.

If you’ve read Alex Scarrow’s ‘Last Light’ books you’ll know they’re basically pulp horror, dystopian sci fi with a Peak Oil twist. At the start of the first book the protagonist’s wife is about to leave him because he talks too much about Peak Oil and embarrasses her at dinner parties. By the end of the novel the Peak Oil crash has decimated the world she knew and after a tooth and nail struggle across feral England she’s ready to fall back into his arms, wailing apologies. You get the impression this is a private fantasy of Scarrow’s and that possibly Mrs Scarrow is no longer returning his calls. (To be fair though, the second part involves a renewables-powered matriarchy on an oil rig run by the same woman after her husband sacrifices himself for his family in a hand to hand battle. Great stuff if you like that sort of thing).

The Peak Oil forums Sam joined in 2008 are full of men who’ve become geeks on the subject complaining about their wives’ stubborn refusal to uproot their lives. One of the men we interviewed at the festival said his recent marriage breakup was partly caused by his obsession with preparing for the breakdown of civilisation. He’s keeping a place for her at the rural ‘doomstead’ he’s building, in case she ever needs it.

All this is just to say that this field of interest is, like many others, very male dominated. And that can result in the Dark Mountaineers and friends seeing themselves as lonely pioneers, out on the clifftop leading the way, dragging us recalcitrant girls along behind, like as not whining that there’s no power for our hairdryers. Though there is much that is compassionate and good in this movement, this posturing should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

There is also a fetishisation of physical labour and the toughness of withstanding the elements. I’d agree that as more of us need to grow food, and ecological conditions become more erratic, we will all need to become reacquainted with the elements and stretch the capacities of our own bodies. We do need to get in touch with the ecology that we rely on in every possible way. Our alienation from it has caused such irreversible devastation. In that case though, where does the Dark Mountain movement begin to address how we take care of the growing elderly population, and others who are unable to take on this kind of physical challenge? While the Dark Mountaineers are encountering stags in the wilderness, who will look after their elderly mums or disabled children? Or maybe that won’t be such a problem. A few attendees at the festival spoke with casual bluster of ‘die-offs’, and how the key to survival will lie in managing to sit those out until it’s safe to emerge and reconnect with the resourceful few who made it. One man in his 70s joked nervously about ‘killing off all the oldies’ for fuel. Ha ha.

My friend Zoe Young led a session called ‘Bright Valleys’ at last year’s Uncivilisation that I was too involved in to shoot properly. I filmed some of it but it was so full of emotion and deep personal moments that it seemed wrong to use the footage (at least just yet)- especially as there was nobody to film me. When it was my time to share my feelings of fear, shame and grief over the impending loss of the ways of life I know and my part in the damage done, I sobbed my heart out.

Part of Zoe’s point in this session was that come what may in the outside world, the essentials of home and hearth remain the same. The food must be prepared, the fire lit, the children cared for, friendships and loves nurtured. Globally and historically the bulk of this work has fallen to women, and changes less between eras than the range of economically viable careers. From her work on witchhunts among tribal peoples, Zoe said that often when hard times come, the men find it harder to cope because their identity is bound up in going out into the world to provide. This could apply equally to career women whose identities are not also rooted in something more durable. When the particular role they play loses its relevance, they can enter a tailspin of panic and violence.

Women are also often scapegoated in hard times, bearing the brunt of poverty in the developing world, and the harsh end of the cuts in the UK.  Witchhunts are not just for so called ‘primitive’ societies. So the alienated way women are portrayed in several of the stories in DM3, and in many of the other ‘survivalist’ and ‘collapse’ narratives out there is a source of disquiet to me. I missed Zoe’s session at this year’s festival as I felt it helped to process and allay the fear some of the other sessions stirred up.

The stated purpose of Dark Mountain’s third anthology is the ‘search for a home’. A couple of the Uncivilisation sessions also touched on founder Paul Kingsnorth’s belief that a strong ‘connection to place’ and ‘belonging to a landscape’ is a good way to a simpler life. The word ‘indigenous’ was used, which sparked off quite a discussion, as nobody wanted to sound like a BNP member. It was meant in the sense of being connected to the land and invested in its well being as much as your own- wherever you choose to make your home. But it’s not hard to see how those ideas could (and do) inform an exclusionary, fascistic narrative in other contexts. In many of the pieces in DM3 and the Unciv sessions, I got an elusive sense of where a home beyond collapse might be found, for me, for Sam and for our family. In the stories of the lonely men and their woodland spirits, though I found beauty, I found no home for me.

These seeds of disquiet don’t extend to a rejection of the group/movement/idea. It’s still the best place to share my much greater disquiet over where our culture is headed and how we might deal with it- on both practical and creative levels. As last year’s interview with the founders makes clear, it’s an ongoing search for meaning and mythologies, not a set of statements or imperatives. I’d recommend seeking out the books and attending next year’s festival. It’s always an eye opener, and the conversations, singing and sharing around the fire are worth the trip on their own.

www.dark-mountain.net

@darkmtn

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Discussion

11 thoughts on “Uncivilisation and Dark Mountain Anthology 3

  1. Thanks for this. I am one of the few women on the PO forum that Sam is on and I find the macho survivalist narrative to be a complete turn off, luckily there are alternative voices on the forum.

    Society is individualistic, selfish and discriminatory and this is why, in part, we are in the current situation. We clearly need an antidote to the ways we have been doing things so middle class white men going off on their own into the woods to forage, hunt and commune, probably won’t be the answer.

    I think many of the men in these movements feel alienated from themselves and lack meaning in their lives. Then they project this onto ‘consumerist society’ or whatever, eagerly await the end of the world (which they all think they’ll survive) and hope that their lives are better after ‘reset’.

    In fact probably the best preparation is a good sense of community and finding value in the important acts of living (as you mention) raising families and growing food, looking after those around you and communal activities.

    Posted by Ruby | September 8, 2012, 2:44 pm
    • Thanks Ruby, I’m glad this touched a chord with you. I hate to generalise but this thread you/I speak of does perturb me and I’m glad I’m not the only one! All the best and I’d love to hear from you on your own strategies for the future.

      Posted by naomisurvive | September 9, 2012, 7:35 pm
      • Thanks Naomi. I tend to read and ingest the ideas of the more ‘enlightened’ end of the PO spectrum-Sharon Astyk, Ran Pieur, Dmitry Orlov, Kathy Malone etc. Strategy wise I’m concentrating on community building and gaining as many skills as possible, which are going well; plus my family completely understands the situation and all family decisions are taken bearing this knowledge in mind. I love what you and Sam are doing and look forward to reading of your exploits.

        Posted by Ruby | September 9, 2012, 10:12 pm
  2. Thanks for this really thoughtful post, Naomi. It’s really useful to mull over.

    I hope DM does not come across as ‘macho’; bearing in mind that macho and male are not the same thing. There is certainly a bit of an ‘Iron John’ element to some of what happens at the festival, but I don’t think this is a problem myself, as long as it is balanced with other elements. I see the festival as a place where all sorts of tides come together, and mix and flow. It’s a valid stream, as long as it does not become an overwhelming one.

    In terms of gender balance: we did work quite hard to make sure this was reasonable this year, and there were a lot of women running the festival this time around – as opposed to three men, which it was the first year. For example, the woodland stage was curated by two women, and 90% of their programming was female (plenty of it fiery!) I’m tempted next year by a female space, and also by a male space – we’ve had offers – as long as they lead to harmony and not tension; or least to honest, productive tension! I think these are vital issues to explore, but of course we have to be careful to explore them in a way which is welcoming and thoughtful rather than antagonistic. You do a great job of that here. Others have done a less good job in the past, which has led to some problems. But I think there’s a lot of potential for the future. I’m very open to suggestions as to what you think might improve things next time around.

    I think you’re right that next year we need more of an injection of the right-brain debates that were slightly lacking this year. We’ll get onto that. Do make some suggestions about subject matter if you’d like to. Always excited by new ideas.

    Thanks again for engaging. Hope to see you next year if not before. And good luck as ever with the film.

    Paul

    Posted by Paul Kingsnorth | September 9, 2012, 7:13 pm
    • Thanks for your reply Paul. I hope you did find it useful because I love the festival and the book, but with a rather conflicted love. Perhaps it’s healthy tension! I didn’t see as much of the woodland stage as I would have liked, so perhaps my post lacked balance as a result.
      I do see a difference between ‘macho’ and ‘male’ and I think the strand I mentioned of man twinned with wilderness (with women only present as an absence or antithesis) leans toward the macho. I know it’s only one strand and take your point about the balance of many strands. I’d just suggest that with a festival/ book/ movement that dares to take on some quite critical and timely responsibilities, inclusiveness should stay at the very forefront- otherwise it risks (through self-selection and default as much as your own conscious or unconscious influence) veering too far towards the lone white male survivalist narrative.
      It might be great to try and get as many men and as many women as possible together in separate spaces for a session or a half day (rather than a space for the entire festival) to figure out something to say or do or present, then to get back together and do a show or sharing of what we want to say to each other. I may think more about details if it seems useful.
      I’d love to be at the festival next year, but if our voyage has gone as planned I should be in Greece instead. Maybe I’ll submit some writing for the next anthology from somewhere along our travels.
      All the best to you,
      Naomi

      Posted by naomisurvive | September 9, 2012, 7:53 pm
      • Thanks Naomi. I’d love to see some writing for the book; either taking up this line of thought, or about your travels. Or both. Or neither. Up to you!

        Did you read the piece in DM book 2 by Charles Hugh Smith which amusingly took down the ‘ lone white male survivalist narrative’? There’s a version of it here:

        http://www.oftwominds.com/blogjun08/survival6-08.html

        I’d have to respectfully disagree that there’s much of this within DM. There is certainly a man-alone-with-nature theme that can pop up, and I do plead guilty on that, a bit. I do hope it doesn’t dominate, and you’re right we need to keep things open on that one. But I would say it’s quite different from the macho US-style survivalism culture. It seems to me more of a stumbling attempt by over-civilised people to find something they’ve lost, though they can’t remember quite where …

        But anyway – I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this; on festival and more widely. Hope you will write something.

        Good luck with the journey – I’m envious.

        Paul

        Posted by Paul Kingsnorth | September 9, 2012, 8:49 pm
      • Hi Paul,
        Yes, survivalism of the ‘stock up, hide and arm yourself’ nature is thankfully scarce- both in DM and in the UK as a whole. I view it as a kind of desperate clinging to the consumerist mentality while anticipating the demise of the civilisation that gave rise to it. Some of the US prepper sites are almost completely dominated with coupon offers on bulk buys of dry goods and ammo. We do have a kind of ‘lone primeval hunter’ strand which is more appealing but with a few of the same issues for me- a shying away from or suspicion of other people, mainly. At least it relies on skill, attunement and endurance rather than material acquisition and hiding out. I loved the piece you linked to, thanks. I look forward to reading DM 1&2. It wasn’t worth buying them before we moved out, we only just have room for DM3 on our tiny boat bookshelf so I’m satisfying my reading addiction with an eReader currently. Not the same, but with my habits we’d be literally buried in books by now.

        Posted by naomisurvive | September 9, 2012, 9:19 pm
  3. Thanks for this really thoughtful post, Naomi. It’s really useful to mull over.

    I hope DM does not come across as ‘macho’; bearing in mind that macho and male are not the same thing. There is certainly a bit of an ‘Iron John’ element to some of what happens at the festival, but I don’t think this is a problem myself, as long as it is balanced with other elements. I see the festival as a place where all sorts of tides come together, and mix and flow. It’s a valid stream, as long as it does not become an overwhelming one.

    In terms of gender balance: we did work quite hard to make sure this was reasonable this year, and there were a lot of women running the festival this time around – as opposed to three men, which it was the first year. For example, the woodland stage was curated by two women, and 90% of their programming was female (plenty of it fiery!) I’m tempted next year by a female space, and also by a male space – we’ve had offers – as long as they lead to harmony and not tension; or least to honest, productive tension! I think these are vital issues to explore, but of course we have to be careful to explore them in a way which is welcoming and thoughtful rather than antagonistic. You do a great job of that here. Others have done a less good job in the past, which has led to some problems. But I think there’s a lot of potential for the future. I’m very open to suggestions as to what you think might improve things next time around.

    I think you’re right that next year we need more of an injection of the right-brain debates that were slightly lacking this year. We’ll get onto that. Do make some suggestions about subject matter if you’d like to. Always excited by new ideas.

    Thanks again for engaging. Hope to see you next year if not before.

    Paul

    Posted by Paul Kingsnorth | September 9, 2012, 7:14 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: An open letter to the Director of the Dark Mountain Project | the clay pit's hearth - October 12, 2012

  2. Pingback: What comes after civilisation? – the wild women versus the wild men | Re-enchanting the Earth - March 24, 2013

  3. Pingback: What comes after civilisation? – the wild women versus the wild men | Singing Over the Bones - October 31, 2015

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