Once upon a time, in the mountains of the Himalayas, when an old man was about to die, he beckoned his son to come closer. As the son drew near, the old man whispered, ‘son, I have only one piece of advice for you, sweeten your madua before you eat it’. Soonafter the man passed away, leaving the son slightly confused with his last message. Trying to follow the instructions, the son tried to eat madua with different sweet additions like gud, honey and sugar. Years went by and the son forgot about his father’s curious message. One day he went to the forest to collect firewood. He worked hard and by the time his chores were over, it was evening and he was very tired and hungry. He realised that he had brought along a few stale maduarotis tied in a cloth. With relief and gratitude, he opened the cloth and started eating the rotis. He was stunned. For never had madua tasted sweeter, taking him back to the words of his dying father. Now he finally understood what the old man had been trying to tell him. To really be able to taste the sweetness in your food, you need to be really hungry. To be really hungry, you need to have really worked.
Hirma Devi Sumtiyal, who is known to many in the village Sarmoli in Munsiari as Thul-Aam or ‘Elder mother’, told me this story. But she had not made it up. She had heard it during one of the countless Aan Katha sessions. Aan Katha sessions, where often the elders teased and challenged the younger people with riddles and puzzle-stories, would start in the evening on snowy winter days and continue late into the night. Or they used to. In the present age of ubiquitous televisions and smart-phones, families and societies have found other ways of entertaining and educating themselves.
All corners of India reverbrate with different forms of storytelling, orally passing tales from one generation to another from time immemorial. There is a richness in their diversity of form (which may be songs, couplets, riddles or long prose) and content (romantic, funny, sad, practical, simply amusing, adventurous or even propagandist). In my own homeland of Punjab, my mother recollects summer nights of storytelling by her parents and grandparents, which was done only when the children promised to give a hungaara i.e. say ‘hmmm’ at regular intervals to indicate that they are listening.
Stories have always had an important place in human history. According to Yuval Noah Harari, author of the book Sapiens, ‘Any large scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination’. According to Harari religion, nationalism, and even belief in justice and human rights, are all on account of our ability to believe in fiction. Following his logic, it seems that in some ways wars, invasions, conversions, even political elections, are actually about a clash of stories – who can weave the most captivating, enthralling, bewitching tale that would make us want to believe in them.
In the meetha madua story that I began with, the food will be tastier if you have worked, making work as a reward unto itself. In that way, stories reflect how we rationalise life to ourselves. Stories can also reflect our value systems. In another mountain village, in Ladakh, I was told that people feel obliged to welcome wayfarers into their house and offer them shelter for the night. ‘Hospitality is a way of life. If a person is too possesive about their house, they will become a tortoise in their next life. Because a tortoise carries its house upon its back,’ said Tsering Angmo of Gangles village.
Stories can reveal to us connections. For instance, in the creation story of Santals, an indigenous people of India, the Earth rests on a tortoise. Oceans apart, in the North American story of Anishinaabeg, a turtle volunteers to have the Earth placed on its back. Such similarities could indicate either common origins of the tribe, or commonalities in the historic incidences that were recorded in form of story. In fact, there are many who assert that myths are a method of storing memories. It is said that Aboriginal Australian storytelling records sea-level rise taking place between 7,000 and 18,000 years ago. That story was passed orally to the present over 300 generations of people.
Stories can also be just about wit and pleasure. For instance the paradoxical one-lined story that grandmothers in villages of Maharashtra tell their grandchildren mischieviously when they are nagging them for a story – ‘Once upon a time, there was an old lady who died when she was a child’.
But it seems like in our present times, we are losing systems that wove and passed on these stories, and even the tongues that held them. In the last five decades, over 220 languages have gone extinct from India. In Australia more than 100 Aboriginal languages have died since white settlement and 75% of the remaining are critically endangered. I know that many people would say that it is an acceptable loss, an inevitable part of ‘evolution’.
But in our hearts surely we understand enough about ecology to realise the flaw in that argument. For isn’t there a link between the forces endangering wildlife and our environment, and the forces threatening our diversity of cultures and languages? At the root of both is perhaps our rush towards economic growth and development, fast transforming and redefining our ‘needs’, social networks, landscapes, and livelihoods. Our coping mechanism to this unprecedented pace of change has been to take refuge in homogenity and conformity, to let our folk stories echo in their own silences. In a kitchen colonised with wheat and rice, in an evening now colonised with television’s blaring noises, what happens to the likes of Hirma Devi, holding on to not just the aan kathas but also her small cloth bags filled with madua and old spices?
Imagine stories that have survived for centuries being lost in a generation or two. In many communities, what we retain at present is just the left-over warmth of embers of a flame already spent. Just fragments of stories, strings of words, holding fading memories slowly ebbing away to oblivion as bridges of communication between one generation and the next burn off to ground. It is a spiral of losses, losses of not just words, phrases, stories, languages but losses of ways of being, ways of thinking, ways of expressing, ways of knowing, ways of making sense of the world. In a world where there is no space left for diversity, we will be stripped of our most elemental tools. Will we be able to feel whole as persons, or will our sense of incompleteness intensify, taking with us everywhere we go a nagging feeling at the back of our mind that we are part of an incomplete jigsaw, that we are witnesses to an unfinished sky? Or perhaps, we will return from this juncture of loss, our need for stories and our need for diversity getting the better of us. Perhaps we will pick up what remains of the old and refashion it to make new stories for our time, taking once more the effort to look up, look around, look within, and converse. If someone was to study us a hundred or a thousand years from now, what would they say were the defining myths of this century? How are our stories evolving? What are our beliefs?
I am not romanticising the idea of stories. I know that like most other mediums, stories can be used by the powerful against the weak, to perpetuate victimisation. Yet the capacity of evil does not make the medium and the entirety of its content evil. I feel that in a land of diversity of cultures and landscapes, there is much wisdom and truth for us to learn from these oral mediums that were localised yet widespread, captivating imaginations and inspiring the passing on of strings of words over hundreds of generations. Getting a deeper understanding of our possible pasts may help us think of different, perhaps even better, possibilities for a future.
The day before I come to the Clearing I’m in a car crash. I’m sitting in a traffic jam when another car slams into mine, stoving in my rear bumper and giving my friend whiplash. For almost four hours the following morning – which I wanted to spend packing supplies for my week off grid – I’m on the phone to insurance companies and filling in online forms. My car’s a write-off, apparently. I try telling them it’s fine apart from a dented rear end, but they want to take it away for scrap. They say it’s not worth fixing.
The timing’s perfect, actually. It’s a great example of the stupid culture the Clearing was built to move beyond. This experiment is an insurance policy – or part of one, at least – against the larger, longer crash that awaits us all, when the whiplash will be global.
I arrive six hours later than planned, my car written-off but roadworthy – it should be a contradiction in terms – arriving at Compton Verney just ahead of darkness. Amber is leaning on the gate. She’s lit the woodburning stove and put the chickens to bed. The structure is beautifully simple, containing only what it needs, but enriched by twenty-seven weeks of the things that people have offered to it: small repairs and beautifications, improvements, adornments, ornaments, artworks, tools, implements, paintings, books, sculptures. Someone has whittled an oar out of wood. Someone else has built arms for a chair that didn’t have them. There’s a jar of homemade elderberry syrup and a single chicken’s egg. There’s a feather quill and ink made from charcoal. It smells of woodsmoke, sawdust, wax. As soon as I step inside the dome I feel myself, very slowly, starting to breathe out.
Amber tells me what I need to know and then leaves me to work out the rest for myself. I pull up a chair and sit outside, on the deck over the lake, and let my buzzing urban mind catch up with my body.
There are things to do. Many things – small things, but important. I must feed the stove. I must make my bed. I must light candles. I must cook. I must order my supplies. I must see what books are on the shelf. I must make an inventory of the foodstuffs others have left. A busy evening lies ahead, filled with necessary tasks, but it’s a different species of busyness from this morning’s work. Instead of quoting my policy reference number for the sixteenth time, I must boil some water for food. Instead of being put on hold, I must put myself on hold.
The borders of the lake turn dark. Bats flicker in the sky. The water is extremely still. There is nothing blacker than the blackness of yew trees at night.
I wake to a clear autumn day and a slick of brown oak leaves has covered the outside decking. The chickens whitter curiously at my new face peering through the wire. Released from the coop, they rush forth to scratch around their world. By the time I’ve returned from fetching water they are far down the shore, exploring the offerings of the night. I boil water in the Kelly kettle and when it bubbles over, popping the cork lid from its mouth, they rush back in a state of high excitement. Four eggs are waiting for me in the snugness of the coop.
‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘Don’t peck that, it’s hot.’ ‘Don’t go in there, that’s my house.’ Less than one day here, I’m already talking to the chickens.
I eat their eggs by the lake and gaze across at the grand stone mansion on the facing shore. The house and the dome seem to stare at each other, one through tall imposing windows and one through triangular plastic panes, as if they are sizing each other up. The house seems very far away, a symbol from another world, absurdly obsolete. Glass and steel skyscrapers will appear like that some day. When you look with certain eyes, they already do.
After an hour of sitting and watching, I’m seized by a sudden frenzy of small reorganisations. The dome, filled with seven months of leavings from past caretakers, suddenly feels cluttered, confused. I have a desire to simplify, to make the space my own. I move the oak leaves off the table. I sweep away carefully placed acorns. I clear a space on the shelf to line up the books I’ve brought. I put my tomatoes in a bowl. I wipe away old cobwebs. When I’ve finished, the changes I’ve made would be meaningless to anyone else, but they mean a lot to me.
Being here, I’m starting to see, is not a passive experience. It’s an active engagement with place, a negotiation of the point where I end and the dome begins. Already, when this work is done, that point feels clearer.
Wood is the afternoon’s job. First I carry the big unseasoned logs from the pile under the yew and chop them into smaller logs. Then I chop those into smaller logs. Then I stack those in the shed and move the seasoned ones to the dome, tessellated behind the stove, and split some sticks for kindling. The air smells sweet with chopping. It’s a steady procession of wood getting smaller and smaller in size from one position to the next, whose ultimate and inevitable destination is the fire. Then it will get smaller still, ending up as nothing.
‘Prometheus stole fire from the gods,’ says an old lady casually when she comes to look around. But stealing fire is the easy part. Keeping it fed is harder.
There seems no rhythm to the day. It is oddly jointed. Rather than doing one thing at a time I seem to be doing many things, constantly interrupting one task in order to start another. I sit down intending to write and find myself in the vegetable patch, wondering where the chickens are. I start to boil water for coffee and realise I’m cutting wood again, or sweeping dead leaves from the door, or standing up reading a book in the centre of the room. I chop half an onion for a meal but before I chop the other half I go for a walk around the lake to see what the Clearing looks like from the other side.
It looks like exactly the kind of place I’d want to walk around the lake to explore if I were standing here not knowing what it was. It looks like an improbable dream. On the way back I find watercress, and pick some for my meal.
I can’t find the chickens at dusk, and search anxiously through the grounds. Then I remember what Amber said – they will put themselves to bed – and that’s exactly what they’ve done. They are perched trustfully in their coop, waiting for me to close the door so they will be safe from the black of night. I shut them in, then go to the dome to do the same thing to myself.
The morning brings waves to the lake. The water is black-grey. Wind rushes through the trees in long rhythmic blasts, a deeper noise in the oaks and sharper in the willows. The chickens haven’t laid any eggs and I notice the straw in their coop is filthy, so once they are out pecking around I sweep it out for the compost. I take a large amount of pleasure in laying a bed of new, clean straw, scattered with dry leaves, imagining the pleasure they will have when it is cosy. Half an hour later I return and two eggs have been laid.
The wind gives trouble to the stove. Its vacuum suffocates the fire and drags smoke back down the flue to burst in thick puffs through the vent, filling the inside of the dome with a grey, choking cloud. The smoke alarms start to blare. I shut them off but they start again. I fan the flames in the grate but the wind extinguishes them once more, driving another gritty cloud into the room. I can hardly see the walls. Eventually the fire takes and equilibrium is restored – the chimney drawing as it should and the smoke-demon expelled. The grey cloud slowly dissipates, turning blue in the light and wafting out the door.
My clothes and hair reek of smoke. My eyes are red and itchy. A visitor comes to look around. ‘It smells like the Iron Age in here,’ he says approvingly.
The smoke is gone by the time that Caroline comes to join me here. The dome’s population doubles. Now I’m in Amber’s role of showing her where everything is, how everything works, what everything does, why everything is here. It gives me a sense of proprietorship but also one of letting go, a gratifying push and pull between owning and sharing.
Despite the clouds and threat of rain we build a fire and cook thick slabs of marrow on the grill. Food tastes better here. The chickens are magnetised. They take clumsy leaps at the flames to peck the sizzling vegetable until we banish them to their pen. They appear unbothered. Later, when the rain hasn’t come, we sit on the deck and watch the light leaching from the sky. Caroline finds a fishing rod made from a willow branch, baits its hook with chorizo and casts out the line. No fish bite. We are glad of this. A heron skims the water.
Our world has shrunk quickly here. Even crossing the woods to the car park comes as an unpleasant shock – getting into my car and driving half an hour on motorways feels positively insane. After roundabouts and ring roads I find myself in a suburban cul-de-sac in Coventry, a displaced hermit reeking of rain and stale woodsmoke. I am here to visit my granddad’s girlfriend in her old people’s home. She turned ninety-six this year. My hands are the colour of bark. My hair smells like a bonfire. Kitty doesn’t seem to mind. She reminisces about my granddad with tears in her eyes and flirts with me outrageously. Occasionally she calls me Steve. Three hours later I leave, dazed from the overheated room, having consumed quantities of biscuits and weak cups of tea, and have the reassuring sense that I am returning home. On the drive I suddenly realise I should have taken Kitty too. An afternoon surrounded by trees and chickens and the rush of wind would have been better for her soul. It would have lodged in her memory like a peculiar dream.
Under the reddening sky, Caroline is fishing. She has swapped chorizo for worms. Still the fish don’t bite.
When darkness falls the dome becomes a hemisphere of candlelight. Fields of stars are visible in the blackness through the panes. I hope that if I reach ninety-six I’m somewhere like this, not somewhere like that. If not, at least the world allows me to be here now.
It’s all still a very long way from a sustainable future, of course. Our drinking water doesn’t come from the lake but from the taps in the gleaming facilities next to the visitors’ centre. The lake is full of Weil’s disease, and health and safety came down on that like they came down on the compost toilet and the coracle someone built, now sadly decommissioned. Half our food comes from packets and tins. We’ve picked a handful of tomatoes and runner beans from the vegetable patch, but that harvest’s over now. We’ve failed to catch a single fish (perhaps we willed ourselves to fail). We’ve cooked over embers in the cob oven, on the woodburning stove and in the drizzling dark over an open fire, but we’ve also brought a mini gas stove, which is definitely cheating. There’s a solar panel to charge a phone, and wifi drifts intermittently from the mansion over the lake. Occasionally a visitor likes to remind us of these shortcomings: ‘You wouldn’t have that in the apocalypse, would you?’ ‘You’d be lucky to find yourselves here when the world falls apart, with loads of firewood and a lake all to yourselves.’
It’s true. We would. But that isn’t the point. The Clearing isn’t an arrival, but one point on the dimly glimpsed and obstacle-strewn descent ahead – not a perfected vision of the future, but a place with a slightly clearer view. It’s a negotiation between the world as it is and the world as it might be – an attempt to articulate something we may not have the language for yet. It’s the start of the story, and that’s enough for now.
Our last night. Caroline carves a chess set from a willow pole. I hammer in splints of wood to fix the axe-head that came loose in this afternoon’s round of chopping. After dark we walk in silence on the grey path through the black trees, wondering if we will see a badger. We see three. They are only a stone’s throw from the Clearing, huddled with their noses together as if they are making a secret pact. As we approach they merge with the darkness and are gone.
To find out more about the Clearing (its past and its future), see here.
There was a moment, during the performance of Liminal at Dark Mountain’s Uncivilisation festival in 2011, that I knew we had stumbled upon something of power.
‘Performance’ is the wrong word. Liminal was a promenade experience (the first devised by long-time Dark Mountaineer Dougie Strang, who has since convened remarkable ceremonies, testaments and spectacles in Devon, Glasgow, Edinburgh and, most recently, on an island on the River Thames).A crowd of people walked together in the dark under the black branches of the trees, and encountered the strange, the off-kilter, and the unexpected: a group of figures moved mechanically, repetitively, while intoning fragments of proverb and folk-rhyme; a naked figure lay in a pit surrounded by animal bones; a dark, antlered shape snorted in the bushes, the dark and the woods keeping us from catching more of it than quick, partial glimpses.
It was this last that let me know there was something worth pursuing here. Even knowing that it was part of a performance, the darkness lent power to the figure in the bushes. Without a clear sightline, it could not be pinned down by the conscious mind, not reduced to the comfortable categories we like the objects of our perceptions to inhabit. Old evolutionary patterns awoke in people’s hearts – fear, alertness, confrontation, and a sudden sense of the surrounding dark as a thing of weight, a blanket of unknowing that fundamentally altered our relationship to the world around us.
It is easy to understand such things intellectually, and not to be changed by them, but the actual experience is one of transfiguration – of the world around us, and of our own sense of self. To be in a wood with a large beast snorting in the undergrowth only feet away, with every sensory faculty reaching out into the darkness, is in many ways the opposite of what we experience in the day-world of our civilised lives. It is to be taken out of the artificial aquarium of our heads and to be flung out into the living world.
Other experiences followed. In 2012, the strange figures of the Mearcstapa roamed the festival site and road leading to it, emerging from the treeline and disappearing again, pushing against the boundaries of the normal. Such things are not always to everyone’s tastes, of course. In his not-entirely-glowing review of the festival that year for Aeon magazine, Ed Lake reported his horrified text to his wife at home:‘Directed to the car park by someone literally in a Wicker Man mask’.
In 2013, I (‘head shaved smooth and wearing a kimono’, as the New York Times memorably described me) literally strode round a burning wicker tree as flares firing off at the four points of the compass, and told the story of our gathering:
And the trees welcomed the people Blown here on the far winds of the storm From North, from South, from East, from West, From foxhole and culvert, From dogleg and ragwort, For four seasons of the Earth, To stand in this burning moment, Here, on this spinning ball, Here, on this scrap of chalk, Here, in this ragged grove, Here, by these tangled dreams. May the burning of the old be the rebirth of the new.
I can claim no credit for the remarkable, and very strange, spontaneous events that followed, continuing into the small hours. I led a workshop the next day, and an older gentleman remarked that he had somehow, uncharacteristically, lost his watch during the night, as if in a symbolic manifestation of his stepping outside the ‘clock-time’ of everyday reality. Even stranger, he said, was that he found it right next to him in the tent when he woke up the next morning.
At times we have referred to these events as ‘rituals’. The word entices some people and alienates others. Many recognise that ritual was a form of cultural and social technology that served particular, and vital, purposes for human societies, and that its absence from our own is just one more factor in the dysfunctionality of our way of life. But others associate the word with the realm of religion, and all the entanglements of hierarchy, misogyny, superstition, deception and coercion that are undeniably bound up with that realm.
In the past, I have talked about ‘playing’ with the language and form of ritual; clearly, we could not go back to experiencing ritual as it was within the framework of a shared religious sensibility (nor would we want to, some would say), so perhaps we would need to adopt a more anarchic, combinatorial sensibility to explore it. I did not mean, however, that we should treat ritualsimply as raw material for an aesthetic game – something by which to produce an artistic ‘spectacle’, but not to engage with in any deeper, more visceral sense. By requiring our communal presence, our physical engagement with movement, sound, speech, and matter, ritual is something that takes us out of our heads and reinstates us in the world. To play with such a powerful technology is necessarily to be playing with fire.
The invocation I spoke around that fire four years ago was not intended to be ‘mere’ poetry; but nor was I pretending to spiritual knowledge – that my words would invoke some specific, hidden, super-material force – I did not have. I spoke, simply, from that place between; from intuition; from a faith that a sincere heart, channelled by an artful mind, can sometimes make Something Happen.
This is, after all, what invocation means – it is to treat the world outside our heads as if it might be equally meaningful as the contents of our own psyche; as if it might have something to say back to us. The philosophers and metaphysicians can keep themselves busy arguing the precise ontological status of the world’s reply; but, as with any relationship, it is often more valuable simply to listen to what is being said.
This might serve, too, as a rough definition of ‘the sacred’ amongst this ragged band we call Dark Mountain, with all our disparate beliefs and perspectives: to attend to the sacred is to believe that there is something meaningful outside the machinations of our own minds; that the world may be greater than our understanding of it; it is to believe that, with a bit of luck, there might still be a chance for Something to Happen.
Editing, writing in and, now, presenting to the world Dark Mountain: Issue 12 (SANCTUM) has been, in a way, my coming-out as one of these beings. I admit it: I think the reality we are immersed in, and from which we are so often separated from by our thoughts and abstractions, might really be real. Not only do I think Something might Happen, I think it is already Happening right now.
When the time came to hold a physical gathering of people to launch this book, it was clear that we would need to do things a little differently. Dark Mountain book launches have always played somewhat ‘outside the box’, but we wanted to take this a little further. So we have arranged a launch this Saturday with a few differences.
Rather than simply holding an evening event – a brief window of exposure with little time to connect – we decided to take a whole day, running a workshopon art, the sacred and ecology for those who wanted to explore these issues collaboratively and in greater depth. SANCTUM’s lead artist and Art Editor, Thomas Keyes, will be joining me on to lead a hands-on afternoon of discussion, nature connection and collective creation.
We did not want our launch to take place somewhere without poetry or character, so we booked the ancient timbered space of the Upper Gatehouse at Dartington Hall in Devon. In the same way, we did not want our launch to be separated entirely from the outside world, that open realm of darkness, wind and life that moved something in me during the experience of Liminal. So we will be hosting a promenade experience of our own at 6pm, using the beautiful grounds of Dartington Hall as a setting for something that will, hopefully, help to bring participants out of their heads and into that other space in which more interesting things can happen.
After this, it would not seem right to ask people to simply sit indoors passively while passages from the book are read out at them. So we have a programme unlike anything we’ve done before – music and interactive theatrical performance mixing with readings and conversation. And, making a virtue from a necessity – as so many of our contributors are based elsewhere in the world – we will have audio and video from contributors interspersed with the live event.
Alas, I still cannot pretend to have magic powers. We cannot claim that our programme next Saturday will teach you the deep secrets of being, give you a transcendent experience of the divine, or awaken you to the timeless peace underlying all things. But to make a whole book about the sacred, to ask a group of people to join together in its creation, giving freely of their time and art, is itself a kind of ritual act. And to gather together to celebrate its existence, to join sincere hearts to mindful craft, to share food and music and words together is a ritual of another sort. We hope those of you who can join us on Saturday will do so.
Join us for the official launch of Dark Mountain: Issue 12 (SANCTUM) at Dartington Hall on 9 December 2017. Expect an afternoon of workshops and an evening of wildness. Places are limited, so make sure to book your ticket.