Sharing the Fire, Thistledown Farm, Vancouver Island, August 2015
On a dark summer night in late August 2015, while forest fires raged throughout the Pacific northwest, I sat on the soft, sun-scorched grass of a meadow on Vancouver Island. I was there to receive messages. When I first sat down I could barely see, but gradually my eyes adjusted. I watched a looming, totemic figure off to my right, another in the meadow’s centre, and a ghostly smudge drifting along the fence-line by the woods. I wasn’t alone.
This rainforest land had lost its rain. Lighting a fire of any kind outdoors had been banned, and though the island’s forests hadn’t caught fire, yet, one spark from a piece of farm equipment had recently started a blaze here, while another leapt up from a cigarette butt dropped in the wrong place, inciting a manhunt for the hapless flicker caught on a CTV. Everywhere there was talk of fire, of the smoke from the US that could been seen for hundreds of miles.
I volunteer for the Red Cross as a nurse … and I have been deployed as eastern Washington is almost burnt up. I do not know my fate for the event but I suspect it will be with a different group of friends…
It was fire that brought me here, but a different kind: the bonfire, campfire, hearth fire that would warm, inspire, nourish and unite us during this weekend, as fire has for people throughout the ages. Fire, largely missing from our modern lives, helps make possible community. Story. Conversation with Spirit. Above all it was visionary fire that called us together, for a weekend where we’d make space for that ancestral way of living, remember our wilder and intuitively wiser selves, hold the planet and each other in our palms, as one participant put it, and find guidance for our lives today.
In the meadow, I waited for messages. This was an Earth Dialogue, a practice pioneered by Dark Mountain worker and writer . It’s a way of altering one’s habitual perception, moving from seeing the earth as static landscape to tuning into it as a dynamic, communicative web of being. Earth Dialogues are, of course, always happening. But in our noisy human world they’re a murmur if not completely muted. The meadow with its frog pond, the black woods and mountains invisible to the west — everything passing through and living within this territory tonight pushed against my senses, yet my mind struggled to quiet down. I’d initiated the dialogue, but didn’t really know what I was doing. Simply getting here had involved so much effort that, like the cook who loses their appetite, I wondered if I’d be capable of listening.
Sharing the Fire, the first Dark Mountain-themed event in Canada, had emerged from two years of dreaming and planning after I attended the 2013 Uncivilisation Festival and started talking to my writer friend Patricia Robertson about holding an event here. Inspired by the series in Scotland created by Dark Mountain curator Dougie Strang (also co-creator of the 2016 Dark Mountain Gathering Basecamp: Embercombe) we reached out to others who knew of the Dark Mountain Project or had been published in the anthologies. We formed a five-person team, a star with one point in Ontario, two in the Yukon and two in British Columbia. We made our wish and it came true: the farm on Vancouver Island was offered, and people signed up before we even had a programme.
Sitting in the dark meadow, I placed my palms on the cracked earth and thought about our first paid-up, fully committed participant, a writer and nurse in Washington. When he’d withdrawn, I felt something begin to slide; things were not going to go as I’d imagined.
Hello Ms. English. It has been brought to our attention that an event entitled Sharing the Fire: An Uncivilized [sic] Gathering (program attached) is scheduled to take place this coming Friday – Sunday, August 28-30, 2015 at Thistledown Farm (2689 Cedar Road, located in RDN Electoral Area ‘A’). … Unfortunately, I must inform you that the event as described and advertised is not a lawful use according to the zoning of the property, and if the event proceeds may result in enforcement action being taken against the property owner.
I’d first come to Victoria, BC, about two hours south of Thistledown Farm. As I finalised our programme and sorted out grocery buying and digested the distressing news of the fire ban, wondering what we’d actually do for those long dark evenings, my inbox began to fill up with messages: from the local District Authority and their lawyer, informing me in oblique bureaucratese that our event was — inexplicably — illegal; from our indignant hosts and their lawyer; and from my bewildered co-organisers, a few of whom I’d still not even met. Our event had gone political, at least locally.
Some tense exchanges clarified that both camping and public gathering were being disputed. No fire, no camping — no event. Things seemed about to fall apart, yet our hosts, skilled in the political arts and possessing a great deal of perspective, thought it would be a shame for bureaucratic ‘puffery’ to intrude. What you’re doing, and the meaning you bring by working together and sharing your ideas and insights is important to us all … They issued a press release, Writers & Artists Not Welcome, says Region. ‘Farhrenheit 451′ alive and well in the Regional District of Nanaimo, which was picked up by and discussed widely over . Then they told us to leave our camping equipment at home. If that was the issue with bylaw officials, all 15 of us would be their guests for the weekend, staying in their home in their beds. Which is what we did.
It’s not so easy to step out and away, to recall the old fire. We’re supposed to be distracted: by responsibilities, by money, spectacle, violence. When forest fires rage, when people get angry or start to come together, authorities want to maintain control. Control is its own loop, drawing ever tighter in these times. It spins into your head, puts fear in your heart.
Yet as I sat on the ground, I let the distractions go. I became part of the meadow, like a large mushroom: my intelligence moving underground, connecting with the nervous system of this territory. Frogs were calling, breezes travelling. I saw the others in our group standing still, rooted, but what’s more, I started to feel them. We’d unknowingly formed a large loose circle, some occupying the centre, others the perimeter. In the dark we resembled a standing stone formation, our energies combining, resonating. Know this.
One memory I have that still comes back to mind was the night we stood silently in the field….What I noticed first were glowing white umbrellas hugging the fence line. It was a mental form of rewilding—seeing things that were so familiar again for the first time in a different context....I remember the frogs calling to each other … so common a sound until you reflect that this sound has not changed in countless millennia. Iron age people, bronze age people, people who predate us for 50,000 years or more all sat at night (as we did) and watched these umbrellas glow white and listened to the frogs call just as they did this summer. Just as they will next summer, and the countless thousands of summers after we are all gone. It is a remarkable bond we shared with each other. It is an even more remarkable bond we share with all of humanity past and future. It is a simple bond we share with every living creature on this planet and it humbles me in the extreme. I am glad I was able to share this with all of you. My bond is firmly set. I pray all of yours are too.
Mike had opened our weekend with a beautiful Druidic prayer, honouring the elements and directions. That night as we gathered by the apple trees to talk about our experiences in the Earth Dialogue, we felt drops of rain.
Patricia and I shared an A-frame cabin, grey and bent and embraced by fruit trees and cedars. The windows were thick with spiderwebs and didn’t close, and the full moon flooded in all night while the frogs called and answered. Others bedded down in the hay loft, the new guest cabin, the main house. The dreams we’d asked for, by making space for them in our programme, came to us. Heidi dreamed of a rainbow containing a broad band of unimagined colours, far more than the standard eight hues and glowing with intensity. Ursula dreamed of a very old man climbing down off a dock into an ancient sailboat and pushing off from shore, leaving behind his threadbare knapsack containing a bit of food and some tea for others who might need it, and the dream-story conveyed. This is how it’s done.
In the morning we felt the power of these images: the dimensions of our world that we haven’t yet seen shining gloriously in the rainbow; the old man going out to meet the end of life, surrendering his simple belongings so that others can be nourished. We spoke of our culture’s inability to find meaning in death and its fear of and disconnection from the natural cycles of life and transformation that allow us to become elders of dignity, wisdom and teachings.
The day was windy. As the dreams took us deep into discussions, a storm came. We spoke of extinctions, the modern horror machine that saturates us with apocalyptic terrors. What about counter-extinction stories, Jo suggested, in which we find unlikely allies? Stories of looking to the animal and spirit kingdoms; uncivilised stories of the extinction of the last box store, the last poor woman… We listened to healing stories from Tlingit and Pygmy traditions. The rain pelted the house, took down trees on the island, wiped out power. We spoke of how the language of crisis, such as climate change, pushes us into factions. We got sidetracked, as people do, analysing and worrying and debating. We’re products of our culture, after all — yet story asks us to listen, to enlarge, to feel the whole and to hold it together like the Earth in our palms.
How do you cook in the dark with no power? A Druid always packs a Coleman, we discovered, and smoked wild salmon too. Ursula’s baked beans heated on the stove. The kindest host in the world arrived with Och Aye apple pies, baked in her gas oven. We laughed at how things can come together, the feast appear when you least expect it. This, too, is how it’s done.
What I remember most is a feeling of closeness, connection, warmth, generosity — a longing temporarily fulfilled for community and meaning. It ought to be our common lot — it’s certainly our birthright — but in fact it’s rare. In our small group, everyone mattered, everyone’s skills and contribution were appreciated. Everyone was cherished.
We improvised, as people do when plans and structures fail, you’re told no, that can’t happen, it’s impossible. We sat in circle anyway and the dreams and stories came. Mike told us about becoming part of the elk dance; Ursula about making a coastal canoe journey, months long, to repair the broken relationship between settlers and indigenous peoples. We heard the wild stories of that place because that was where the fire was being shared. Most of us were from elsewhere. How could we ever get a Dark Mountain group together in a place as vast and spread out as Canada, Patricia and I had wondered two years before. You start somewhere and realise you can do this anywhere — though this place, this time, turns out exactly right.
I’d brought some beeswax candles with me, just in case. By Saturday night the fire ban was lifted. Around midnight the sky was clear. We stood in the meadow under a supermoon, skin silvered, eyes lit.
The nurse declined to take his money back when I offered. Seed for the future; a dream to come.
Sharon English has published two collections of short stories, Uncomfortably Numb and Zero Gravity. Her new novel is called What Has Night To Do With Sleep? She lives in Toronto, where she teaches undergraduate creative writing in the University of Toronto’s Writing and Rhetoric Programme.
Images by Heidi Greco and Sharon English. Quotes/texts from Alan Cain, Jackie Moad and Laurie Gourlay, Mike Harding, Heidi Greco, Ursula Vaira, Joanna Lilley, Patricia Robertson.