Coming down from the mountain #2

The long awaited

Before it slips too far out the back door of my memory I’d better do a brief report back from the ‘final’ Uncivilisation Festival as organised by members of the Dark Mountain Project (the founders say it’s just the end of the ‘official’ festival as an annual event because they want to focus more on publishing the writing and other works, but others are free to organise their own events under the same banner). I missed the first one in Wales, but have attended the subsequent three at the Sustainability Centre in East Meon, Hampshire. All three have been slightly strange experiences in different ways, but over all very satisfying and good for my general mental wellbeing. The effect of it wears off in time after returning to the lowlands, but while it lasts there’s a feeling of serenity, magnanimity and generosity towards others, and a sense of having finally been listened to with the certain darker portions of the psyche brought to light and acknowledged instead of forever being suppressed and attacked – both by others and by the dominant Self. All this seemed to happen regardless of how much speaking I actually did…

One of the big selling points of the festival has been this thing of creating the space & time, as well as a particular kind of psychological opening for a certain kind of conversation to take place – a kind of talking it’s more or less impossible to find anywhere else. So the important stuff doesn’t really happen in all the scheduled events so much as in the incidental conversations that happen over lunch or by the fire or inside a hexayurt at two in the morning. While this always sounded good to me in theory, in reality it led to a ridiculously high expectation which was bound to end in frustration. Dammit, I’m a shy guy who has been routinely damaged by attempting to engage others in Deep&Meaningful conversations in the past only to be misinterpreted or rebuffed by denial, existential freakouts or personal attacks. I have responded by keeping most of that shit underground until the foundations of a solid relationship have been built, interpersonal ties have settled in and there’s enough trust to feel secure enough to embark on that Difficult Journey. Since there’s never enough time to do that in modern living I have mostly responded by keeping that shit underground. And then I expect to have the ability to blast all those barriers wide open, with no preparation or any kind of ‘halfway house’, for just one weekend among near total strangers? WTF, of course that’s not going to work!

What has happened has come in fits and starts, and the beginnings of relationships that get built on slightly via email and very occasional meetups thenafter. It’s good stuff though. Not exactly life-changing (or world-changing) in a big way, but important baby-steps nonetheless. So without further ado…

This year’s lesson was Humility. The weather kicked my ass in a big way. I was trying to be all primitive with my tarp and groundsheet (I tried making pegs out of broken twigs but they wouldn’t go in the ground until a neighbouring woman lent me her tent-peg mallet) and it was more or less okay for the Friday night, but the rain through Saturday crept in and puddled in a few places making it impossible to sleep, even fully clothed. I tried my damndest of course, even with a sore throat and a cough coming on, but gave up at about 1am with water starting to squelch around my knees. Such an idiot… I eventually got my damp stuff together and wandered to the main building of the centre, intending to sleep on a bench or something, but a guy there told me there was a fire at the woodland stage cob-walled building and I was less likely to get disturbed there in the morning. So that’s what I did, finding Chris T-T and a few others wrapping up a fireside jam. I played some L.Cohen and other songs on the travel guitar while attempting to dry my sleeping bag out on the back of a couple of chairs (moderately successful) and eventually got an okay night’s sleep  on a rather hard bench next to the fireplace. Later I heard Martin Shaw talk about his arrival that same night and his awe at the deep mists that were supposed to represent female sexual arousal or something in Chinese mythology and how there was always something to learn from the weather; something to appreciate. What a bastard…

So what things did I go to?

Friday night I watched a bit of the music in the woodland stage. The Songlines Choir made some pretty awesome sounds and had a good attitude and rapport. Marmaduke Dando’s set was relentlessly depressing but in quite a beautiful way and he holds himself and grabs your attention quite well. The folks playing homemade instruments did some interesting things and some rather limp neo-folk. Then Tom Hirons fireside tale went on for ages but was awesomely well-told and well-accompanied by Rima Staines as usual. Unfortunately my body wouldn’t allow me to stay right through to the end. Probably something to do with being up since 5.40am and working all day despite my boss originally telling me I could have the day off. Grrr…

Saturday I woke up with enough time for porridge and tea, then went to the intro talk and the next one in the main marquee ‘The Death of Nature Writing’, which was okay as far as I remember. The main point: there should be no ‘nature writing’, just ‘writing’ because everything is ‘nature’ so don’t try to parcel it off as marginal interest. I made some point in the Q&A about making editorial space for lengthy pieces because soundbites and twitter posts aren’t adequate for effectively challenging the manufactured ‘common sense’ of the status quo, which requires detailed, in-depth debunking and then regular recapitulation in order to neutralise its toxic effects. Felt a bit weird mentioning Noam Chomsky to that crowd, but I used his ‘brevity favours propaganda’ spiel as an example [quote now in comment thread].

Wanting to do something physical, I decided not to go to Gathering Night (‘A vivid imagining of how it might have been to live during the Mesolithic period’) author, Margaret Elphinstone’s talk and do wiry Brazilian, Jorge Goia’s capoeira-based ‘Games you can’t play alone’. Good fun and nice building trust with others in fall&catch style games. A couple of women fell through at or just after my point in the circle (one stands in the middle while the others support and spin them round the perimeter) because I was trying to avoid touching their breasts and couldn’t get decent purchase anywhere else. Managed to drop in on Elphinstone by the end of her talk, where my friend Nick was giving her the third degree over something-or-other. Bought her book and got her to sign it as well as getting a few leads off her for info on the Mesolithic and Hunter-Gatherer life in Britain. Seemed like a nice lady, eager to talk and enthuse even when hungry for lunch.

I stuck around for a few minutes of the ‘Taking it Home’ discussion on where now for DM, but soon decided to go to the construction of the Life Cairn in the woods. ‘What does it mean to be alive in the midst of the sixth mass extinction?’ Obviously I had to be there. It was raining and there were only a small handful of us, but we went ahead with the ritual of naming extinct species from Andreas Kornevall’s little scraps of paper. I didn’t know most of them, so it felt slightly alienated until we started talking a little about the lives of these creatures, where they were from, how they were killed off, how they affected the ecology around them while they were alive and what effects their disappearance caused. It was quite poignant and solemn in the end, with the bell ringing after each naming and several glugs of mead in a wooden Saami spoon that got passed around. Mead was supposed to represent the tears of the Earth Goddess (Freya?) or something in various Norse cultures. Definitely a valuable thing to do. I didn’t realise the Galapagos giant tortoise was totally extinct. I asked what it meant to mourn the passing of species with whom us civilised humans have no ecologic relationship with, but I wasn’t really expecting an answer and didn’t really get one other than an acknowledgement that it was a good question. It was more a statement of exasperation anyway. By the twisted values of civilisation the extinction rate is actually a measure of success as more land comes under sole cultivation for the human demand and the biologic wealth swells in the storehouses, stolen from the others who must now starve to death.

I went on Fergus Drennan’s wild food walk, which was good although he recapped a lot of what I saw him talk about two years previously in exactly the same spot. I told him I’d send some money to support his proposed ‘Wild Food Year‘, which looks like it could turn up some really interesting things.

Next, more humility as Naeem Akram put us through our paces and basically told us that everything about how we stand, move, walk and run is wrong and has been fucked up by shoes and other aspects of civilised living. We went for a barefoot run in the rain and I learned that landing on the balls of the feet, as I’ve been teaching myself to do for the last couple of years in an attempt to do away with the damaging heel-strike, might not be appropriate for walking and jogging (although perhaps for sprinting) as it can seize up the calf muscle and disallow the full rocking flex of the ankle joint. Seems like flat-foot landing is the order of the day, with a reduced stride length trying to keep the legs under the torso and keeping the big toe pointing forwards to keep the knee in line. Big project… Also we were all humiliated by his core strength / connective tissue exercise of lifting the whole body while face down with only the hands and toes touching the ground. He was able to lift himself bodily a good distance off the ground, while the rest of us strained and folded up at our weak points. So that’s something to work on… Damn you Naeem – I though I was good at this stuff!

The Arcadia talk was all right. Marmaduke introduced it with a reading from Kevin Tucker’s preface to the Against Civilization book edited by John Zerzan. A few people in the audience objected to the generalised ‘romanticisation’ of the primitive lifestyle which they clearly felt was more ‘nasty, brutish and short’, although they didn’t supply any contradictory evidence. My contribution was to point out the high rates of defection from early European settlements in the Americas to their native tribal neighbours – it got to the stage where they had to outlaw & punish it harshly, but whites continued to leave and never come back, even leaving wives, husbands and children behind. Clearly they knew what was good for them. I felt the urge to butt in on a few more exchanges, but held my tongue for fear of monopolising the discussion. I wish in hindsight that I’d shared more of my understanding of the spread of agriculture through Europe and its arrival in Britain, though. The discussion would have benefited from being pinned down to the specifics of this island rather than dealing in nebulous terms of civilised vs. primitive. Who were the uncivilised native people in this country? Are they still here in any form? What can we learn from them? How can we ‘go native’ ourselves without their living example to consult and emulate?

It was very surreal going from this kind of questioning to a talk by a heritage wheat farmer whose name I forget [update: his name is John Letts]. He spent the first quarter of an hour or so talking about the origins of agriculture and the domestication of wheat, airing out a lot of the usual theories and some new ones I’d not heard. He was aware of the health defects recorded in the archeology and of the ‘Diseases of Civilisation’ which were unheard of before the advent of large-scale grain consumption, and even spoke about Weston A. Price and the paleo diet, which I think he said he had tried himself (!) When pressed he admitted that he thought wheat should form only a small portion of the over all diet and not the major staple, both for health reasons and for the sake of the environment. I tried to ask about the long term sustainability of wheat farming – whether growing the plant year after year in a monocrop depletes the nutrients in the soil beyond possible replenishment – but I think my question got a bit garbled by the sound of rain hitting the parachute above our heads (plus I was getting very croaky with my sore throat) and he didn’t come up with a direct answer. Loads of interesting info though, like the prevalence of sourdough bread in medieval times; that peasants ate mostly rye with the wheat being reserved for the lords and monks or for festive occasions; that ergotism was rife but the souring process killed it off, although the ‘St. Anthony’s fire’ of the LSD-like ergot poisoning came when the peasants were given wheat bread, risen with yeast; that wheat actually doesn’t like too much nitrogen, which causes it to grow too tall and fall over (though this is good for growing thatch – a more lucrative crop for farmers to cultivate than the grain these days) – modern wheats have been bred for shortness so they don’t suffer in the same way from being drenched with petrol-based nitrates. He was also very knowledgeable about the seed-saving regulations and the predatory behaviour of Monsanto and others in trying to hook farmers and gardeners on their ‘terminator seed’ GM crops. Some really ugly stuff happening there. Also, he described industrial breadmaking as basically a recipe for widescale gluten intolerance and increased virulence in the other wheat allergies. They actually produce gluten separately and add it to the flour to make it rise quickly and conform to the fluffy texture the supermarkets have come to require. It’s all deeply fucked – see this article for example. Anyway, I had more respect for the man than I thought I would. Also I’m coming to realise that I eat a whole lot of bread and don’t seem to be able to replace it with anything else, so maybe I ought to find the best way to rewild my relationship with wheat and show some respect to the plant which, for better or worse, has gone some considerable way to making me what I am. The medieval practices certainly have a lot to recommend them in contrast to the modern techniques in fields, factories and kitchens.

I can’t remember what happened after that. There was more rain, I think, and I made dinner in a dark tent on my stove. My lighter was wet so I took the gas stove to the firepit and was about to try and light it directly from the flames when the intelligent part of me issued a cautionary alarm and I lit it with a smoldering twig instead. Got chatting to a nice young couple (I think) from near Sheffield (I think) and got them to try one of the whole acorns I had in my lentil stew after they expressed an interest. So I got to impart some of my Useful Knowledge to at least two people, and it sounded like they were keen to try out the leaching process this Autumn.

Saw some of the Uncivilised Stand-up, which was pretty rubbish although the room was in a good mood so it didn’t matter that much. I mean, not planning your act is fine, but if you’re going to bill yourself as a comedian you should at least be able to come up with a few jokes rather than sitting there like a plum and trying to get the audience to do your work for you. Anyway…

I missed the midnight ritual, which I’m told was ecstatic for some. I bet I would have hated it, just playing along with the usual phoney self-persuasion. At least the people howling in the woods for hours on end provided a welcome distraction while I was trying to fall asleep in my soggy sleeping bag (!)

Sunday was better, mostly because of the weather. I went to Steve’s ‘Full Circle’ session which relaxed a lot of mental tensions for me in a nice meditative way. My shoulders also felt better for the full-circle group massage! It followed the same pattern as the capoeira-style session in that you do the exercise and then sit down and talk about your experiences. Lots of interesting stuff came out which probably won’t sound as interesting here.

Martin Shaw’s talk was as brilliant as last year’s, what with terrific praise poems about women and breasts and a wonderful recounting of an East-European folk tale which seemed to have to do with female initiation into adulthood. Many moments of hilarity, especially when he breaks style and uses modern idioms. I failed to do as instructed and retell the story to somebody, human or otherwise, within seven days. I hope the punishment isn’t too severe…

After that I um’ed and ah’ed for a bit over whether to stick around for Shaw’s discussion or to go to the Deep Green Resistance discussion in the tee-pee. I listened to him start, but it wasn’t ringing my bells so I eventually plucked up the courage to walk into the tee-pee in my perfect attire of green raincoat, green&white checked shirt, jeans and big brown walking boots and black&green bandanna holding the hair out of my face. There were only three young guys (including the one leading the talk) in there to start with but we were eventually joined by a pair of older folk and a couple of young women. The atmosphere was surprisingly pleasant, with much of the usual DGR spiel (have a look on youtube for some talks by Aric McBay, Lierre Keith or Derrick Jensen to get the general picture) being met with understanding nods and positive discussion. The guy kept using the phrase ‘destruction of property’ which made me tense until I prompted him to explain that this wasn’t the goal in itself and it wasn’t intended to be indisciminate. I guess my reaction was on the behalf of your average Briton who actually has a little bit of property which they’ve managed to wrestle off the powers-that-be and into which a lot of their life work has been invested (I know, weird, because I don’t have anything like that myself). There was a fear-response from the older guy who insisted on telling us about this supposed new government weapon of radio towers triangulating to blow up certain areas, but couldn’t tell us why he thought this was relevant. A bit of acrimony surfaced over a misunderstanding about the relative values of taking down civilisation vs. building something that will survive its collapse and provide a home for people afterward. Withdrawal vs. combative engagement, that kind of polarity. The younger women tried to laugh it off by talking about planting radical cabbages. I spoke to the representative afterwards about the fear response, which he told me was very common. We agreed that this was probably what lay behind Alistair McIntosh’s outbursts against DGR and possibly Paul Kingsnorth’s comparing them to Anders Breivik a short while after (although he has come around a little since then). This will probably change as people find they have less & less to lose. I for one don’t give a shit about drones, internet surveillance (howya doing, all you NSA operatives?) or newfangled crowd-control weapons. The state will do what it always does – what’s new there? We, however, are responsible for our own actions, be they creative or destructive. Past a certain point I think you have to operate from the understanding that this agency is primary and everything else is reactive and secondary. You do what you have to do and others either support you in that work or they don’t, that’s all. Still, getting down to talking about how this works in practice scares the pants off me, and talking to the older lady afterwards made me realise just how far off this kind of action is for me personally. I could tell that so many things were in place and ready to go for her through a long career in activism that weren’t at all sussed out in me. An emotional readiness is necessary which, I think, has to come through a great deal of pain and grief. I bought the DGR book, which is turning into a great, albeit stark and horrifying read. Also there’s now a UK-based group who have a website here [see cautionary note in comments before you do anything hasty].

Mark Boyle’s talk was pretty cool. A very down to earth guy who also name-checked Jensen and Endgame, along with a good many others. His discussion about a wild economy was priceless: (paraphrasing) A bird doesn’t think it’s doing an environmentally responsible action by shitting on the ground. It just shits on the ground. We need to get (back) to the place where we can act like any other species and do helpful, ecologically beneficial things just because it feels like the obvious thing to do.

The final farewell with the rain tipping down on our gathering will be an enduring and fond memory, although for me the winning reaction was still one of ‘I need to get somewhere dry, fast’ rather than anything more spiritually transcendent. I caught up afterwards with most of the people I’d met and come to know a bit over the years, said some goodbyes, drank and shared some nettle beer, felt all fuzzy and empathic and soon enough it was time to pack my still rather damp things in time for the last shuttle bus back to the train station. I’m glad I managed to catch Paul Kingsnorth and say thanks for organising the festivals and starting the whole project, and that personally it had been ‘something of a lifeline’ for me in the dreary commuter-belt landscape of Tory-blue Surrey. I think that’s pretty true. It’s all well and good reading these books from far-out types in the US, but there’s a real need to connect this to something real in your own country, wherever you are. I can’t afford to move to Portland, Oregon, so I’m beyond grateful that we’re finally whipping up something similar in our own neighbourhoods. Long may it continue, in whatever new forms it may take.

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7 Responses to “Coming down from the mountain #2”

  1. Vanessa Says:

    Enjoying a long-overdue catch-up on your blog Ian; have especially appreciated this and the previous post. No coherent thoughts emerging yet, except an urge to thank you for your ongoing focussed and fascinating analyses of significant things.

    Feeling a little sad that I missed the final Unciv. I had been vacillating for some weeks: wanted to bring family but they were reluctant, and along the way the motivation dissipated. A shame not to have the chance to see you and others, but good to get glimpses and hints of some of it from your writing. It sounds like you had a rather raw and earthy experience. I hope the cold didn’t take hold and all’s well :).
    V

  2. Ian M Says:

    Hi Vanessa, good to hear from you and likewise sorry to miss you at Unciv. Would be good to catch up at some point but not sure when/where/how… Raw and earthy indeed. Watery too! The cold didn’t last more than a few days but I had a rather raw and earthy cough for slightly over a week ;)

    Hope you’re well too and do share any thoughts that pop up as & when.

    best,
    I

  3. leavergirl Says:

    Thank you! Seems like this year the accounts are not so forthcoming. Thank you for all the details! Hope you are all dried out.

    You don’t WANT to move to Portland Oregon… ;-) it rains like crazy for half a year. I did Eugene one year… ugh. The rain does wonders for the trees though…

  4. leavergirl Says:

    Another detailed and interesting account here:
    http://charlotteducann.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/dreaming-of-uncivilisation.html

  5. Ian M Says:

    Thanks Vera,

    Yes, a bit strange that people aren’t so talkative this year. Hopefully that’s because they’re all busy organising local chapters and the next events (anybody in Surrey / the South-East give me a shout!) Did you go to the first one in Wales? I remember you writing about it, in fact I think that’s how I came across your site.

    Not so dry unfortunately as it’s been showering on and off all week. Makes a nice change not to have to water the allotment every day though. I wonder if they have fulltime gardeners in PO…

    cheers m’dear
    I

  6. Ian M Says:

    Couple of follow-ups…

    The editors of Media Lens helpfully put up the relevant Chomsky quote about concision & propaganda on their message board:

    Our media here have techniques, which aren’t exactly censorship, but prevent anything from being said. There is a word I learned from the news director for Ted Koppel, the anchor for Nightline, one of ABC’s big news programs. He was once asked in an interview why I am never on. And he had a good answer. He said that one reason is because Chomsky sounds like he’s from Neptune, nobody can understand anything he says. And then he said the other reason is that he lacks concision. What? I had never heard the word before but it is an interesting word. What it means is: you have to talk in some way that can be fitted in between two commercials. So you can say three sentences. If you want to say in three sentences that China is a totalitarian state you can say it, you know. If you want to say something like the U.S. is the biggest terrorist state in the world, they are not going to stop you, but you do sound like you are from Neptune, because you are not given the next five minutes to explain it.

    So you have two choices, to either repeat propaganda, repeat standard doctrine, or sound like you are a lunatic. That’s about the only thing you can do. (On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare, pp. 32-33)

    When was the last time you heard someone on the TV say that on average 200 species were going extinct every day due to the actions of the civilised culture? How about if someone came on and described domesticated man as the foremost invasive species on the planet? Or that capitalism is inherently biocidal and cannot be reformed only dismantled or destroyed? What’s that? – “Oh thanks Ian, that’s fascinating but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Now here’s John-boy with the sports.”

    Reading further in the DGR book it’s occurred to me that maybe writing the above passages (along with this whole blog probably) disqualifies me for any serious underground resistance work, as it’s in the public domain and, I presume despite my attempts to keep all of this relatively anonymous, easily traceable by the authorities to me-in-real-life via a simple IP address check. The important thing is to keep a strict firewall between above-ground and underground operations. As they explain on their website (think twice before clicking that link, or am I being excessively paranoid?):

    In DGR we use these terms to distinguish between different parts of a movement. “Aboveground” refers to those parts of a resistance movement which work in the open and operate more-or-less within the boundaries of the laws of the state. This means that aboveground activism and resistance is usually limited to nonviolence. DGR is an aboveground organization; we are public and don’t try to hide who we are or what we desire, because openness and broad membership is what makes aboveground organizations effective.

    “Underground” or “belowground” refers to those parts of a resistance movement which operate in secret. Generally, these groups use more militant or violent tactics like property destruction and sabotage to achieve their goals. The use of these tactics makes them an open enemy of the state, which makes security and secrecy very important for underground groups. Historically, these groups have a stringent membership process to make sure new recruits are prepared for the psychological and/or physical demands of underground work and are trained in combat and other necessary operations as well as in proper security culture.

    Aboveground security culture is also important in maintaining the effectiveness of aboveground groups.

    DGR is strictly an aboveground organization. We will not answer questions regarding anyone’s personal desire to be in or form an underground. We do not want to be involved in or aware of any underground organizing. We do this for the security of everyone involved with Deep Green Resistance.

    So perhaps I’ve unwittingly committed myself to aboveground work exclusively. It’s a risk in itself, but seems small when compared to the stakes. I’m writing this just in case people intending to do something more militant at some point in the future are tempted to comment on the above paragraphs. Probably you shouldn’t. It really seems like the fascists have got the internet all sown up these days. Do your serious organising face to face with people you know very well. Unless you want to help spread the resistance memes far and wide – in that case by all means pitch in!

  7. Ian M Says:

    Also, I’ve been watching videos of young Grace Petrie on youtube after catching the last part of her song ‘Farewell to Welfare’ at the woodland stage on the Saturday night. Great things happening there…

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