Coming to my senses

I’m between two bookends of a late summer of change, a transition that is accelerating at the end of a slow build up over two years. It’s a transition into maturity, which also involves some letting go. The two bookends are these. The last Uncivilisation Festival of the Dark Mountain Project and, next week, Up Close to Nature with Trees for Life. The long slow build up has been precipitated by three critical things: a changing funding climate for Flow’s main sector, arts and heritage; a traumatic upheaval relating to my parents and wider family; my daughter refusing to go to secondary school. Behind this is my even slower emergent recognition over thirty years of the fact that ‘we are nature’ and yet that we are destroying it. These factors were causing me a lot of stress and I was starting to be aware that I didn’t feel buzzy emotions like I used to. I wasn’t feeling much except an accelerated heart rate and a plunging cramping stomach. As a solace I was using social media far too much. Note I am using the past tense as this will change. One thing helping this change is a 30 day Rewild Your Life challenge, spending at least 30 minutes unplugged in nature each day. I’m taking photos to record my getting close up to nature, which will intensify next week when I’m on a conservation course with Alan Watson Featherstone.

I mostly want to talk about the effect on me of the Uncivilisation Festival. In a way, it was a culmination of a cumulative effect after attending all four festivals. I’ve also connected with people I’ve met through Dark Mountain and attended other events such as a poetry course with Em Strang and Susan Richardson. This led me to start writing poetry (and songs) which I share on my new Graftage site. (I was really happy to win third prize in the first poetry competition ever entered, run by ONCA Gallery in Brighton, ONCA being One Network for Conservation and the Arts.)

This story has too many diversions but I’ll try to be concise from here. Daniela Othieno has written about how Dark Mountain/Uncivilisation is an experiment in sense-making and re-languaging the world “as if the molecular structure of our sense making  is being dissolved and put back together in a slightly different pattern”. Charlotte du Cann writes beautifully of ‘tracking the dream’, how we do this in our wider lives and how all the moments we experience in the Uncivilisation Festival intensify and illuminate this. She says “it was a culture where we were not pretending we know what to do”. Dark Mountain and its festivals have been criticised for being doomy, or unthinkingly hippy, but the actual experience for most is much more generative of both ideas and hope. We find people there who are willing to tread paths of uncertainty, because they realise that there will be no certainty in future. But with that willingness comes fear and exhaustion, and it offers deep succour to find others that feel the same.

The memorable moments for me included: the fireside moonlit story by Tom Hirons, doing Chi Gong with Steve Wheeler, the Liturgy of Loss (writing and ritually performing songs of loss) with Nick Hunt, Tree Story by Persephone Pearl/Feral Theatre,


Ansuman Biswas in his hermit’s tent full of sonic experiments and ancient instruments,


the music of In Gowan’s Ring (B’ee pictured below with his handmade guitar, and the Charnel House)


and General Assembly (Matt Wicking), Dougie Strang’s badger story and Charnel House.


I also delivered two sessions, one was an exploration of mychorrizae and mutuality between plants.


The other was with Catherine Lupton, women weaving objects to represent the narrative of their lives. IMGP3145

Also, the extraordinary Saturday evening ritual will go down in legend, which involved the burning of a willow figure and at least 100 people improvising song really quite harmoniously but also wildly, for quite some time, in the dark.


Lastly, or of most lasting significance for me was the VisionQuest session led by Tom Hirons. It was only a taster of the ‘proper’ four day process, being on your own with no food. I liked that Tom was so down to earth and practical in his guidance. The heart of the session was some time spent alone in the wood, doing one of three transitional exercises related to either release, conclusion or sustaining. I chose to think on my transition to mature adulthood, being without parents, and what I needed to keep on going. We were asked to think in turn about our belly, heart and head and to invite an animal into each. We would ask what it could give to sustain us and what it needed to sustain itself in return.

I found this very powerful. I now have a shelf of objects in my workspace to remind me of the three parts of myself: A whale representing my physical life which needs a clearing of obstacles, cleanliness of intake, and a functioning chain of life; A bear representing my emotional life which needs to be in a favourable place (woods) and to consolidate rather than flit; A swallow which represents my intellectual life which needs free air space to fly and be creative.

So, a big thank you to Tom and to all my Dark Mountain friends for this inspiration and I look forward to more mountaineering beyond this last festival.

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