Monday 27 August 2012

postcard from the woods - uncivilisation festival 2012

For we are all,
We are all,
We are all the children of,
We are all the sons of,
A brilliantly coloured flower,
A flaming flower.
And there is no one,
There is no one,
Who regrets what we are.

(Huichol Peyote Song from Pharmako Gnosis by Dale Pendell, 2005)

How can we become people who regret nothing and whom no one regrets? How can we find the new narrative about ourselves and the earth that Charles Eisenstein calls "the new story of self and the new story of the people"? Was it always there and we have forgotten it, or is it here now inside us, waiting to be cracked open like an acorn, to rise and take root?

I am at the Uncivilisation Festival in the Hampshire woods on the downs of England, giving a writing workshop based on my book, 52 Flowers That Shook My World. I am standing in at the last minute for a poet who couldn't make it, and as I walked through the dark wood last night, the warm wind shifting through the trees, I thought: what are the medicines the plants have taught me that I can now give?

One thing peyote showed us: we are not what we thought we were. We are more. We are not defined by class, or family or work, we are creatures of the sun and wind and the mythos of many lands, and no tranformation of the world, no transition, can truly take place until we become different kinds of people. And how do we do that surrounded as we are by the city world, its buildings, its harsh statistical language, its abstractions and globalised mindset?

You have to change the territory in which you move and speak, in which you come to different conclusions. You have to go into the woods and encounter the wild. The wild is not an escape from reality, it is a liberation into reality, out of the illusion of civilisation. For we are more than we think we are. We are kin with all creatures, all clouds, all rivers. We move and breathe and create part of the world's dreaming, the verbs and adjectives of its language.

This is one of the precedents for the Dark Mountain Project and for this festival, which over an intense August weekend gives 300 people a glimpse of what the future might feel like once we shed our conditioning, and start to tell our stories around the fire. Once we loosen the shackles of our identity and let the trees in.

There are several words for human being I said, in other cultures. The Okanagen word is land dreaming capacity. It is our function, if you like, to name the world, to make stories, weave fabrics, to dance and to sing. It is how the earth sees itself in our reflection. Another is winklil which is a Mayan word for vibrating root. The human being comes into the fabric of the earth with a certain sound or frequency, which resonates and harmonises with other beings. When rooted, it is our music that keeps the world in harmony.

You only have to think of the kinds of sounds cities make, or politicians or motorways to know the world's discordance. Out of time, out of place. It is our work as writers, I suggested, to name the physical and imaginative world beautifully, to root ourselves and get us all back in tune.

Breaking the acorn

The first writing exercise is to find the seed within and the right conditions in which to germinate.

I am holding my hands open and in my right, I hold practical seeds from my Transition garden: chickpeas, broad beans, sunflower seeds; in my left, two dreaming seeds, both from the desert in Arizona, a bearberry and a scarlet coral bean. The first is a traditional medicine for the kidneys, the second a tool for divination. Everything in our culture suppresses the germination of these seeds. Everything at Uncivilisation encourages it - practical worshops on scything, imaginative storyteling about Siberian shamans and the loss of the Caspian tiger. If you are a plant, I said, what kind of plant would that be? In which territory do you flourish?

At the Festival everyone is camping in the meadow. We meet around fires, listen to poetry and music in this woodland theatre, we debate in tipis and yurts, walk through tree and leaf galleries and performances under the starry skies. Last year when I stumbled upon Uncivilisation I felt I had come home. Lover of Transition as I am, there are parts it does not reach, where Dark Mountain speaks directly - language and creativity, mythos and earth. I realise that my roots lie deep within its territory, and that though I am happy working in the community kitchens and workaday comms and events of Transition, here I can be myself: here I can tell the medicine stories I learned and be heard in a certain attention.

Attention is what I am looking for this year - not the attention for the performer ego, but the set and setting in which to receive and transmit vital communications between ourselves as a network. Last year the festival had a very different feel, and I was a different person. It was just after the London riots and there were many talks about collapse and a lot of urgent political and intellectual debate. This year everything is acoustic and seemingly more mellow, more art and psychology than economic discussion. I am familiar now with the language of Dark Mountain (partly because I distribute the three books and help out with publicity). So I walk from event to event in search of the story. Not the journalism story which I wrote last year, or even the one I just wrote about Dark Mountain for the activist magazine STIR, but a story of a breaking kind. Like medicine, you don't know what you are looking for; you just know when you happen across it.

"What is the dreaming of Uncivilisation?" I asked everyone at the workshop. You can look at a dream - a night dream or an event or a relationship - on five levels. 1. the everyday level: what is happening over 48 hours 2. on the life level: in terms of your biography, what does your presence here signify in terms of your life? 3. As part of the human collective - what does this festival mean in terms of society? 4. on the mythical level - how does Uncivilisation affect the mythos of the world? 5. on the earth level: as the earth speaking to us. What are these woods telling us, the trees and the hills?

I am looking for the story. Standing with Kevin from our Dark Mountain Norwich group, stewarding the gate, I find a bank of eyebright flowers. This tiny eye-medicine flower is hard to find on the clay and sand soils of East Anglia, and we are on chalk here. Kevin tells me he found gravediggers hacking the chalk yesterday eight foot deep with pickaxes. And it's true: if you go down through the yurts and flowery enclosures you find yourself deep among the yews of the South Downland burial site.

It's easy to arrive at festivals and lose yourself in cameraderie and entertainment, and although this is no way a commercial event the desire to kick-back and have a good time is strong. Who doesn't like to drink cider and laugh and meet strangers who feel like kin? But this lightness does not crack the kernel.

I'm looking for something deeper, a more sober, urgent narrative that resonates with this land. Something more collective that allows death and loss to the party. I have been in Transition for four years now and know that we have to move together, out of individualism, beyond Me and my eternal sorrow and anger. I feel it sometimes: as we move around the fire in a Brythonic dance to the sound of bagpipe and violin, and the creatures of Mearcstapa move out of the darkness in the shapes of raven and wolf, stag and hare. I hear it in the discussion I have with Dougie (who curates the Big Tent stage) as we talk about the Deep Green Resistance, and with Robert who is reading Tennyson's Ulysses out loud in the wood. I stumble into it as I move from a wilderness initiation workshop and find myself amongst the mourners of the burial site and see a glimpse of the bright downland grass. And then I find it, right at the end of the festival, at a reading among the beech trees.

She was our sister, our mother, our lover.

Jim Hindle is reading from his book Nine Miles, a searing and beautifiully-wrought story about the road protesters in the 1990s. A celebration of the protests 20th anniversary is one of the themes of this year's festival and many of the people who have spoken of their experiences are sitting in this circle, the writer Jay Griffiths, the musician Andy Letcher, and the photographer, Adrian Arbib. All around us Tom Hirons, who has organised this talk, has hung slates in commemoration of all the camps that were held to defend the trees and the land from being destroyed in the name of growth and progress. Many of them near the Sustainablity Centre where we are now.

Hindle is quiet and intense as he reads his testimony of those tough and magical winters spent amongst the canopy of ancient oaks. He was a teenager then, and badly broken by the experience, yet the passion for the land is palpably there. It burns, and you can feel it. And I realised then that this was the spirit I was looking for. It was a mood, a warrior mood, that comes once the kernel has been cracked open inside. We are older now. We have lost, our lives have collapsed. Our hearts have been broken open, and now some of us realise they were meant to be, because a broken heart that can remember and reassemble itself burns more fiercely and more powerfully than any other - as every shaman story tells us. What these initiation tales do not tell us, as a future people, is that we do this work of return together. That's our own indigenous medicine story. Now I knew why I had ended my workshop with a passage from Tree Dialogues chapter. Once in these lands we decided everything under the trees. Everything to do with right government. It was not personal, but a matter for the collective.

"Would you do it again?" somebody asked the activist and writer.

"Yes," he said.

"Yes," we all said.

I was remembering the hilltop in Oxfordshire, I was remembering the oakwood of Shotover. I was remembering the people. People I had known who had stood by trees, and people I have never known who had stood by trees. We were all there, waiting, it seemed, for an aeon by the tree in Staverton Thicks.

We are holding out, the oaks said finally.

My heart jumped.

“I am with you,” I said. “I am always holding out.”

I am holding out that our hearts will return. I am holding out that the people of this green land will throw off our dark oppression. I am holding out that even though Mark and I are alone in this oak wood, we will all one day emerge from the underground and meet together. I am holding out that even though we are hidden and often alone, we know in our hearts, in our thousands, we are together. No matter what house we come from, what work we do, where we dwell in the kingdom, we are already united: the men that walk the mountains, the men who swim the wild rivers and seas, the men who sleep in the branches of the trees and burrow among the roots to stop the machines from killing the wildwood; the lion-hearted who speak out loud, who call to account, who bear witness, the oak-seers, the acorn-bearers; the ordinary men of England and merry maids of England, who bring their lightness and beauty and laughter, who stand by the men, who walk beside them, who see them and keep the fire. I am holding out for us all standing here together, as the oaks hold the sky in their branches and their roots hold the earth. We are holding out. We are holding the land sovereign. And with one heart we say:

This planet does not belong to you.

Photographs: woodland walk by Adrian Arbib from Solsbury Hill (forward by Paul Kingsnorth and George Monbiot); Robert reading poetry in the woods; woodland stage at Dark Mountain 3 writers' reading; slate road protest commemoration by Tom Hirons: Pete, Wendy and Paul with their 52 Flowers about to board the bus; Jim Hindle discusses Nine Miles; art installation (CDC); Farewell and Imagine Wolf by kind permission of Bridget McKenzie from This Learning Planet.

Quotations from 52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth (Two Ravens Press)

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