Friday 2 September 2011

Coming Round The Dark Mountain Part 2: the Shaman and the Village

“If Transition is the village, Dark Mountain is the shaman.”
(Patrick Andrews)

I’m having a conversation with Vinay Gupta, designer of the Hexayurt and SCIM and a consultant on State Failure solutions. It's just after our Where Do We Go Now session at the Uncivilisation Festival where Vinay had suggested that Dark Mountain was the literary wing of Transition and naturally speaks to people in the movement,"certainly those who are more restless". I was intrigued as to how he brought these two strands together and we’re having a jam with Patrick Andrews from River Simple and a young man who is listening on the edge from Transition Reading:

“Transition relies on consensus,” he points out. “Dark Mountain is something you can visit, Transition is something you live.”

Afterwards I talk with my fellow Transitioner about Living Without A Fridge and we laugh about the trials and tribulations of cooking seasonally and eating a lot of cabbage.

Image by Jim Clarkson
There are a lot of Transitioners at Uncivilisation from all over Britain, from Reading, Hereford, New Forest, Brixton and Wales. There’s all the intensity of a Transition debate here but without the concerns of the Village, worrying about whether “the community” is going to come to your event, or understand you, or fund you. No battle with the Council, no struggle to get Other People to do stuff. No psychology or sitting around in a circle talking about your feelings. Everyone understands you. Peak oil and climate change and financial collapse are a given and I’m experiencing a fluency amongst the Dark Mountaineers where I often feel tongue-tied in Transition, based as it is in academic discourse and science, in practical skills I don’t have. Everyone I meet at Uncivilisation is an individual with a collective story to tell: a poet from Scotland, a professional forager, the captain of a Greenpeace ship, a designer of hydrogen cars, a researcher into Luddite history. It’s the café I wanted to walk into ever since I first read about existentialism when I was 16.

Sitting around the fire, listening to these stories I realise that where Dark Mountain differs fundamentally from Transition is in its language. The Shaman knows all about creativity and the earth and the way one is a direct link to the other. He doesn’t do data or flip charts or use corporate terms like brand or income streams or talk about people being off-message. He is a right-brain intellectual, sees existentially in time and space and lives with death at his shoulder. None of his subjects are discussed inside the Village, which is maybe why later when I interview Dougald Hine, (co-creator of Dark Mountain) we talk about taboos and how Uncivilisation is a place where those taboos are deliberately lifted and everything is allowed. He calls that space “sacred”, which is a difficult word hedged as it is with religious beliefs and spiritual fantasy. I’m not sure what I would call it, except when you’re in it you know it. It’s like stepping out of the house and finding yourself in the forest and a man is stomping around in the dark wearing deer antlers. Suddenly all the petty stuff disappears.

I remembered then what Nick Osborne from Transition Glastonbury had said at this year’s conference about the need in groups for someone to break the tyranny of the status quo discussion and allow us all to go deeper, how we are all trapped in talking about the world in superficial and conventional ways, even though it is falling about our ears (as Mark mentioned in his post this week on Tea Parties). It seemed that what Transition needed then was the Shaman to come round the Dark Mountain and break all those polite society taboos, to bring the whiff of the ancient aboriginal earth into those airless meeting rooms, to transmit a sense of deep time, of our rough lineage, of wild trees, of the ease and intimacy of talking about Big Subjects, without being heartless, idealistic, or controlling the outcome.

And maybe conversely what Transition can bring to the poet outside in the storm is the warmth of ordinary life. The gifts from our low-carbon kitchens and gardens. The ability to laugh about our shared enterprise. The stability you get from working steadily towards a clearly delineated goal with an organised network and structure. Having lived on the edge for over a decade I know the value of engaging in Transition: of making those efforts to become part of a neighbourhood, to communicate explicitly with everyone you meet, of not being stuck inside your inner dramas and instead learning to think and act (and write) as a social being. To hold out for change and the possibility of people waking up in time. And perhaps most of all knowing you are connected to hundreds of initiatives struggling with the same difficulties. In a word, belonging.

The problem with the shaman thing is that no-one really wants to be in that lonely position. It sounds glamorous but the reality is hard. To fine-tune the psyche of the tribe (as Mircea Eliade once defined their function) means you live at the edge of the village and everyone is scared of you and you spend your life battling with the demons of the human heart, a kind of go-between between the void and the people sitting comfortably around the fire. To live in the Village is to be stuck in the minutiae of the village and its repetitious events and tasks. You are cut off from the big narrative, you have little opportunity to talk at a deep level or connect with the wind and the dark ocean. You live in a known world and you long for all the immensity and connection the unknown world can bring. What keeps you within its parameters is the thought of suffering and being alone. Of putting yourself on the line.

One of the key fringe conversations at Uncivilisation was between people in both these very distinctive movements as we recognised their common ground. We have all had our End of Suburbia moment and know that our caterpillar civilisation has to dissolve before the butterfly can emerge. And just as Transition can’t do activism and campaign work in the way one-issue groups can, yet is able provide a stable base and communications bridge, it can have a similarly friendly and creative relationship with the dreamers on Dark Mountain. We all live on the brink of a collapsing world constructed by magicians and city architects. Our major task is to see the illusion of this high-carbon life together and create a new narrative rooted in reality. We can’t do that without each other. We need to transform and belong everywhere - inside and outside. To get to a future beyond oil, beyond ecological and financial breakdown, we all have to be shamans.

And we all have live in the Village.

Cernunnos from the performance of Liminal by Douglas Strang; Illustration by Jim Clarkson of Jim Design for Amelia's Magzine; scyther; Wild Trees from Red Thread: My Journey Through the Rites of Uncivilisation 2011 20 by Cat Lupton; poets from Edinburgh and Dublin; plan for the future on marquee wall; trailer for film Forgotten Bird of Paradise by Dominic Brown; Paul Kingsnorth at the Farewell.


  1. Fascinating couple of posts, lively and really thought-provoking. I've never heard of the Dark Mountain before but will now find out more. I share your discomfort about the language often used in Transition. The challenge is to find fresh ways to reach out, help people wake up and see, keep it simple and urgent, as it needs to be.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences of the Dark Mountain event Charlotte. It sounds like a fun, educational and inspiring time was had.
    I totally agree that we all need each other, whatever walk of life we are coming from, living in or heading towards. All of our experiences and feelings are valid and worthy. They are our own sacred truths. All we need to do is recognise our truths, first in ourselves and then in each other.
    We are the shamans we desire. We are the villagers we need. When we know this truth and share it by living it, the village, the country and planet will thrive :)

  3. A brilliant couple of posts, thanks Charlotte.
    & very helpful as I'm rummaging around (researching? rather too grand a word) the Network to find ways in which artists are involving themselves in Transition, for an "Arts in Transition" workshop at the Schumacher Conference in Bristol 8/9th Oct
    If anyone know of what works,or doesn't, I'd appreciate hearing about it- or even better, come along to the Conference.

  4. Hi Charlotte! Stumbling across this post again, this afternoon, I couldn't help notice the aptness of the presence in your conversation of the person from Transition Reading - the literary wing of the Transition movement, indeed! ;-)