Drumming in the Stories

co-founded the Dark Mountain Project in 2009, and was one of the project’s directors until stepping back in 2017. His books include the Man Booker-longlisted novel The Wake and his collection of Dark Mountain essays Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.
Everyone will have their own feelings on what the high, and low, points were of last weekend’s Dark Mountain festival – our third annual Uncivilisation event and in my view our best yet. For me, one of the greatest pleasures was the opportunity to actually enjoy the thing; to wander the site, meet and talk to people, sit back and listen to music with a beer in the woods. This project has reached a stage now where its work rests on many shoulders, rather than on just two or three, and the improvement is plain to see. Speaking purely selfishly, I’m grateful to have the time now to actually experience things, rather than simply (attempt to) run them.

But there was a clear high point of the festival too, for me, and it was Martin Shaw‘s storytelling and mythmaking session on the Saturday afternoon. Martin is someone I met only a few months ago, in a Devon pub, but I already feel that the connections between his work and ours are going to prove fruitful. Martin is director of the Westcountry School of Myth and Story, a storyteller and a man with a fascinating history. He and I will be collaborating this winter on a writing and mythmaking workshop on the wilds of Dartmoor. More on that here soon.

One of the necessary – the vital – aspects of Dark Mountain’s work, and one which we need to explore further, is the gulf in this culture between mythos and logos; between a way of seeing the world that expresses itself in stories and a way of seeing that expresses itself in measurements. In our culture, the balance between the two has got badly out of kilter. This gulf was discussed again and again, independently, over the weekend, in many sessions and discussions, by, for example, Andy Letcher, Martin Palmer and Jay Griffiths and doubtless many others I missed, and was alluded to and touched on much more widely. I see at least part of what we do as an attempt to restore some dignity and some authority to mythos; to take it seriously as a way of seeing that goes beyond whimsy or ‘romance.’ To understand that without it we are lost; as we may already be.

Martin Shaw’s session was simple in one way. He talked about the importance of myth and story, then he told three stories. But that doesn’t do any kind of justice to what happened when he told them. There are a lot of storytellers around, as there are a lot of writers, but you know when you have come across one who touches on something in the depths. I took something away from Martin’s session; something which I took away, in fact, from the whole festival. I don’t know what it was, quite, but it’s not an intellectual impression; it’s a physical feeling. Right now, I don’t feel like the same person I was before the weekend began. I feel like I haven’t touched down again, and I feel like I don’t want to.

And this is what it was always supposed to be about.

For the first time since we wrote our manifesto, I feel that Dark Mountain has done, and done well, what we intended to do: summon the stories. It’s a beginning, not an end, and it’s nothing I can prove. This is only my experience. But I feel that our third festival has sent trails out into the world which will lead … who knows where? It doesn’t matter. Martin Shaw began his stories by playing a large drum, balanced on his lap. We had to ‘drum in the stories’ together, he said; ‘this isn’t theatre, this is real.’ I feel, oddly, as if the weekend itself has drummed in a strange tribe of stories, and they haven’t yet left. They haven’t left me, anyway.

Other reports are beginning to come in on the weekend, and if we’re alerted to more we will feature them here. For now, here is a nice piece of reflection from Bridget McKenzie on the weekend; and here is Robert Alcock offering his take (nice use of the provocative headline!) Here are Jody Boehnert’s thoughts on the relationship (or not) between stories and activism. Here is an excellent piece on the wider aims of the project, by Charlotte DuCann, which sums Dark Mountain up better than I have ever managed to do. Here is Charlotte’s take on the festival. And here is a wonderful pallete of photographs from Bridget McKenzie, which give a great visual impression of the weekend.

We’re keen to hear the thoughts of those who attended, so please leave a comment here if you have any perspectives, suggestions or views of your own. They don’t have to be complimentary! We’d like to hear as many views as possible about what worked and what didn’t. What should there be more or less of next year, and what was missing? Because there will be a next year. I’ve already filled a sheet of paper with ideas. I’d like to hear yours too.

Thank you again to everyone who made it happen.

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