The Dark Mountain Festival 2010–13
The Uncivilisation festival was the annual gathering for the Dark Mountain Project between 2010 and 2013. The first festival took place in late spring at the Llangollen Pavilion in Wales, while the following three were held in high summer at the Sustainability Centre, near Petersfield in Hampshire. As well as providing a platform for talks, performances and workshops, the festivals were meeting places where the ideas behind the project could be discussed and experiences shared around a fire and under the stars.
These were village-scale events with 300 to 400 participants. Most people camped in fields and we did our best to source the food and drink from local producers.
Here’s Paul Kingsnorth introducing the third gathering in 2012:
It will be a good opportunity for a coming-together of like-minded souls at a time when much of what Dark Mountain began talking about two or three years back is beginning to play itself out on the world’s stage. Talk of collapse, contraction, radical change and the overturning of certainties no longer seems like fringe stuff: it seems increasingly central to life here in the overdeveloped world, as it has been elsewhere for so much longer.
What do we do with that knowledge? Answering that question is what this weekend is about.
The festival came about because Michael Hughes, who was working for the Llangollen Pavilion, approached the founders of Dark Mountain to host an event there. A wide range of speakers, musicians, artists and performers were invited with the idea of creating an ‘unfestival’, advertised as an antidote to the Hay literary festival (happening the same weekend at the other end of Offa’s Dyke). It was a huge mix of sessions and events, showcasing the wild diversity of Dark Mountain in this initial phase.
There was also a pre-festival camp held over the week beforehand in the grounds of the pavilion, where the emphasis was on sharing skills, ideas and practical wisdom.
The festival attracted 400 people, with a mixture of performances, debates and arguments. The participants included Alastair McIntosh, George Monbiot, Jay Griffiths and Penny Rimbaud. The Saturday programme went under the heading ‘What do you do, after you stop pretending?’, while on Sunday the focus shifted to the search for ‘New Stories’, including a writers’ discussion on the failures of literature to tell the stories of a collapsing world.
The music came from Get Cape Wear Cape Fly, Chris Wood, Chris T-T, Marmaduke Dando’s Powerdown and Will Hodgkinson’s Ballad of Britain; there was outsider art and photography installations; a theatre, a bookshop and a mysterious poetry caravan; a Dark Mountain cinema; and practical workshops on topics ranging from ‘collapsonomics’ to foraging for wild food.
This first festival was a chaotic experiment, but one which sowed the seeds for many of the live events, talks and courses that would manifest during the decade that followed. Many of those who would become the core team behind Dark Mountain together met for the first time in Llangollen.
‘A politics worth fighting for’ by Benjamin Morris.
In its second year, Uncivilisation shifted location, leaving the square space of a hall and going out into the woods and permaculture gardens of the Sustainability Centre. The main speakers and bands played in a marquee, surrounded by a cluster of stalls, tipis, an outdoor bar and a pair of campfires. A large yurt hosted some of the workshops and Ben Law’s ‘woodland classroom’ housed writing and storytelling sessions, as well as the evening’s Power Down performances.
Among the themes taken up in the 2011 event was the 200th anniversary of the Luddites, celebrated by revisiting the history of the rebellion and exploring the stories we tell ourselves today about work and technology.
The speakers and sessions included: Benny Wenda from the Free West Papua Campaign; the poets Mario Petrucci, Melanie Challenger, Em Strang and Adrienne Odasso; Vinay Gupta on parallel infrastructures for an uncertain future; land-based strategies with coppicer, straw-bale builder and drystone waller Hywel Lewis. One session that passed into legend was the Collapsonomics Panel on the Saturday morning in the main tent, whose speakers included a disillusioned ex-banker from Ireland, a Russian prison reformer, an Icelandic hacker and a security activist providing support to movements in the Arab Spring.
There were also wild food foraging expeditions with Andy Hamilton and Fergus Drennan; writing workshops with authors including Nick Hunt; a demonstration of the scythe with Paul Kingsnorth, and a walk and talk, exploring the idea of pilgrimage with Adam Weymouth.
The weekend opened with Phil Minton and a Feral Choir recruited from the early arrivals at the festival site…
Download the full programme from Uncivilisation 2011.
‘Apocalypse? Now We’re Talking’ by Charlotte Du Cann (The Independent)
'You can expect the same mixture of the serious and the playful, of stimulation for the mind and the soul; a space to reflect on difficult questions, to be uplifted by powerful music, and to find friends to learn from and laugh with.'
— Paul Kingsnorth
‘Uncivilisation is what we are currently living through – the crumbling of myths and the formation of others. In this way the festival took me to the Outer Hebrides, through economic collapse in Iceland to civil unrest in Tottenham, on a sinking sail boat across the channel, and to the songlines of West Papua. I now think of it as a giant watercourse, a flood of stories, thoughts, ideas and reflections, and we were all contributory streams gathering pace as we went down towards the ocean.’ — Jeppe Graugaard, The Pattern Which Connects
Two changes shaped the third Uncivilisation festival: firstly, we got rid of the microphones and loudspeakers. Everything, including the music, was unamplified. The atmosphere became more intimate, the gap between performers and audience less distinct.
Secondly, the centralised curation of the festival gave way to a set of different stages, hosted by different teams. During the daytime, there were three stages focusing on everything from writing to storytelling, art to analysis. On Friday and Saturday night, the Power Down music stages were directed by Marmaduke Dando and Chris T-T.
Among the highlights of Uncivilisation 2012 were: a celebration and commemoration of the British road protest movement, and its legacy of creative radicalism and connection to ‘place’; Feral Theatre’s performance about the extinction of the Caspian Tiger; ‘Light Leaves’, a photographic installation in the woods; fireside storytelling and rites of passage work with Tom Hirons and Rima Staines; plus a ‘free space’ in which anyone could present their work.
This was also the year that the mythologist and storyteller Martin Shaw entered the Dark Mountain stage; Andy Letcher, of Wod, led the whole festival in a Brythonic dance, and the troupe behind 2011’s Liminal returned with a series of mysterious, unscheduled interventions.
‘Art, Protest and Walking the Boundaries’ by Dougie Strang (Dark Mountain)
‘Drumming in the Stories’ by Paul Kingsnorth (Dark Mountain)
‘Dispatch from the Wild Frontiers of Uncivilisation’ by Ed Lake (Aeon magaazine)
‘A Movement or a Stillness?’ by Bridget Mackenzie (Learning Planet)
Photo notebook by Andy Broomfield
'There will be poetry about climate change, biodiversity loss, hedge funds, speciesism, wild places, wild mind, folklore, myth, interdependent relationships, extinction, farming and gender politics' — Em Strang, curator of the literary stage
Uncivilisation was defined as much by what happened at its edges as on its stages: practical outdoor workshops, from sheep hurdles to foraging, alongside mysterious appearances. In 2012 the troupe known as Mearcstapa, a crew of shamanic animals, lurked in welcome in the fields and around the nighttime fires. In 2013 The Rewilding Academy took us barefoot running and slow walking. Here Mark Watson introduces the medicinal properties of the wildflowers that flourish on this downland site.
The fourth and final festival offered a rich menu of over 70 sessions spread across three stages, including a full programme for children. Large informal discussions, such as Rise and Root, alternated with more formal presentations, as when Jennifer Sahn (editor of Orion magazine) spoke about the end of nature writing, and novelist Margaret Elphinstone discussed The Gathering Night, her novel set during the Mesolithic. Dougald Hine held a session on the work of Ivan Illich, while Mark Boyle introduced his ideas on Wild Economics.
Meanwhile, away under the pines lurked the sight of a strange and beguiling Charnel House for Roadkill – and Ansuman Biswas had filled a yurt with an extraordinary array of unfamiliar musical instruments, emerging periodically to sound one of them across the site.
The Saturday night included an anarchic stand-up comedy set, while the more serious moments of the weekend included Andreas Kornevall leading us in the creation of a Life Cairn in memory of extinct species around the world. The teepees hosted a men’s choir workshop and wild women’s weaving sessions (stories and textiles); Martin Shaw returned with his drum and Siberian tales; Paul Kingsnorth gave the first ever reading from his novel The Wake, and two energetic evenings of music and song were held by firelight and candles on the woodland stage. An informal Sunday night ceilidh with Matt Wicking and others was a fitting end to the last in this run of festivals.
The website of the last Uncivilisation festival can still be found online.
My Pick of the Festival by Paul Kingsnorth (Dark Mountain).
The Snake in the Box by Charlotte Du Cann (Dark Mountain).
How Very Uncivilised by Raven Nielsen (Disobedient Child).
Review by Tom Jeffries (Wild Culture).
A Farewell to Uncivilisation
Dougald Hine looks back on four years of the Dark Mountain festival in an essay for Dark Mountain: Issue 5.
The skies opened and all the waters in them fell at once. It was a rain so hard I remember the weight of it on my shoulders, so loud you had to shout to have a chance of being heard. Yet, uncommonly for England in summer, it was not a miserable rain. There was something triumphant about it.
Perhaps because we all knew we would soon be in vehicles, heading back to the sheltered lives we had come from. Perhaps because we had already endured a weekend of hard showers, woodland mists and other watery intrusions. But also because it felt somehow like a seal of approval, a full-throated elemental roar in answer to the voices raised here in the past three days, the past four years, at the last moment of the fourth and last Uncivilisation festival.
Insist too hard on the significance of a poetic coincidence and you will make people uncomfortable. Better to recount such moments as jokes the world seemed to join in with than as some kind of revelation, but my experience of those four festivals includes several of them. The first came that first year, before we had found the site in the Meon valley that became our home, when several hundred people gathered in Llangollen, unsure what to expect. The landscape was darker, wild and splendid, but the venue itself was a converted sports hall. We had never organised anything like this, and our hosts were used to organising comedy nights and concerts for local audiences who bought their tickets, sat in their seats, enjoyed the show, applauded and went home. We were unprepared for the logistics of a festival and unprepared for the ways in which a festival comes alive. There were a hundred things wrong: plastic beer in plastic cups, a campsite too long a walk from the venue, a main hall where rows of seats faced a stage where speakers could barely see for the dazzle of the theatre lighting. Yet somehow, in spite of it all, this became a place where magic could happen.
The moment it happened for me, that year, was on the Sunday, as Jay Griffiths spoke about the shapeshifting power of language only for gremlins to take hold of the sound system so completely that the technicians could barely coax a murmur from it. After a couple of minutes of confusion, the room reassembled, people sitting in circles around Jay on the stage and on the floor. And there, the spell was broken, the face-off between speakers and spoken-to giving way to a shape as old as stories.
From there on in, the memories seem to dance with each other, as we found ways to open the circle and let others step in, until I am not sure which of the things I remember happened to me and which I only heard about. The wild figures in the fields, on the edge of sight. The late night tellings that bewitched us around the fire. The daylight stories of loss and pride, still fresh and urgent on the tellers’ faces. The music that picked up at the place where words ran out. The rhythm of rain on the roof of a marquee. Thirty people penned inside a square of rope to reenact the memory of a Russian prison cell. The sharpening of a scythe. Laughter and fooling and horns and antlers. At the end of everything, a singer’s voice going up into the night.
Someone said, one Sunday morning, almost embarrassed, that this was the closest thing they had to going to church. All along, it was there, the awkward presence of something no other language seemed fit for, the wariness of a language that so easily turns to dust on the tongue. Here is one way that I have explained it to myself. A taboo, in the full sense, is something other than a reasonable modern legal prohibition: it is a thing forbidden because it is sacred and it may, under appropriately sacred circumstances, be permitted, even required. Now, the space that we opened together, as participants, was a space in which certain taboos had been lifted: some that are strong in the kinds of society we have grown up in, some that have been stronger still in the kinds of movement many of us have been active in. Not the obvious taboos on physical gratification—most of what they covered is now not prohibited so much as required, in this postmodern economy of desire—but the taboo on darknesses and doubts, on naming our losses, failures, fears, uncertainties and exhaustions. In response to our earliest attempts to articulate what Dark Mountain might be, people we knew—good, dedicated people—would tell us, ‘OK, so you’ve burned out. It happens. But there’s no need to do it in public and encourage others to give up.’ Instead, it seemed, one should find a quiet place to be alone with the disillusionment. Perhaps become an aromatherapist. If I have any clue where the power of Dark Mountain came from—knowing that it came from somewhere other than the two of us who wrote the manifesto—then I would say it came from creating a space in which our darknesses can be spoken to each other. (From here, among much else, we may begin to question why the movements we have been involved in seem accustomed to use people as a kind of fuel.) By the second or third year of the festival, though, I found myself wondering if the sacred nature of taboo might not work both ways. If a group of people creates a space in which taboos are lifted, perhaps this in itself is enough to invoke the forms of experience for which the language of the sacred has often been used?
That is how I have explained it to myself, at least, for now; and if there is any truth in such an explanation, then it bears also on the role of those who take responsibility for creating such a space. We did not know, when we agreed—rather lightly—to that original invitation to host a weekend in Llangollen, that what we were creating was nothing so safe as a programme of talks, workshops and performances. Those elements were there, but they leave out much of what mattered most to those to whom the festival came to matter. The other, harder to name elements, which seem to have something to do with the sacred, call for another order of responsibility. The hard thing is not to create a space in which taboos can be broken, but to do it without people getting broken.
I have been reading stories from the 1960s, counterculture stories, uncomfortable reading, because there are things I want to understand better about the much-mythologised moment in which all that took place. There are plenty of broken taboos in those stories, and no end of broken people. By comparison, we were weekend amateurs, going nowhere near so high or so hard or so fast, but someone who had been through those years and lived to tell the tales told me this festival was the closest he had known to a reawakening of what he knew back then. If so, then here is confirmation that the taboos in which there is power today are of a different kind, for there is more hedonistic excess on a Saturday night in any high street in England than there was in four years of our Uncivilisation.
In the end, I think we learned to carry the responsibility, to hold this kind of space with care, though it took the wisdom of others who joined us at the heart of the festival-making. Nothing in the process of writing prepares you for such work, for a writer’s responsibilities are as bounded as the binding of a book, and the space from which writing comes is a solitary one.
We didn’t set out to start a festival, a festival happened to us. From those who came to it, we learned more about what Dark Mountain might be and what it might mean than we could ever have done at our desks. It felt good to have created it—and it feels good now to have brought it to an end. After all, there are reasons why no one tries to start a publishing operation and an annual festival as part of the same small new non-profit business in the same year. Somehow, we got away with it, although the price was paid in the fraying of our wits, and also in the inevitable carelessnesses—most of them small, but none of them unimportant—that happen when you are always trying to do too much at once. There are also reasons why a journal which is increasingly international, and not exactly enthusiastic about air travel, might not want to spend half its year organising a single event in the south of England.
For the next while, then, we are going to concentrate on doing one thing and doing it with the care it deserves, the thing we thought we were doing in the first place: bringing together books like the one you hold in your hands. We brought Uncivilisation to an end while it still felt like a joy rather than a duty. But the sparks from all those late night campfires carried further and there are friends of Dark Mountain organising events in the Scottish lowlands, the former coalfields of South Yorkshire and no doubt other corners of the world.
When the horns had sounded and the thank you’s and goodbye’s had been shouted through the downpour, a circle of friends sat for a few minutes in the shelter of a yurt. We sat quietly, the silence broken after a few moments, as one after another spoke about what he or she had taken from being part of Uncivilisation. Few of us had met before that first gathering in Llangollen and our stories echoed something I have heard over and over, from people who came every year and from people who came only once. A feeling of being less alone. For all the intensity of the mountain-top moments, what stays with us, what carries us through life, is this, the quiet magic of friendship.