It’s a message I’ve heard many times over the past ten years, probably the most common and certainly the most moving response that we get from readers. It’s also an experience which those of us at the heart of Dark Mountain can recognise, because we found each other through a common hunger for what this project gave us: the slow rolling conversations, the encounters with beauty and shadows, the space for acknowledging darkness and despair, the joy of discovering writers who name things we had felt but never worded, the moments where all the words fall away.
Over the years, we’ve held gatherings of different shapes and sizes, places where this hunger can be met and where there’s room to be together in ways more vulnerable than keys and screens, or even ink on paper, tend to allow. Early on, we used to run an annual festival in one corner of the British Isles, but as the word spread further, it got stranger to devote half the year to an event that drew people from uncomfortably long distances. Later, friends in various corners of the world took on the role of hosting their own gatherings, events that called on an association with Dark Mountain, but had names and spirits of their own.
It’s hard work putting on a festival; a lot like organising a wedding, in fact. In our SANCTUM issue a couple of years ago, I wrote about the thought that a wedding is a special version of something else, the weekly service, a gathering modest enough that it can be woven into the rhythms of life, rather than months of build up and everyone exhausted at the end. Maybe we need fewer weddings, I suggested.
The analogy needs handling with care – we’re not in the game of starting a new religion – but I’ve wondered over time whether there is a way that we could offer a little help to readers and friends of Dark Mountain who want to find each other and connect in the places where they find themselves, to foster a way of getting together that doesn’t involve long journeys or lots of preparations. When we raised funding to create a new online home for this project, I talked about this idea, and the response suggested there is a hunger for it.
So today, we are launching the first stage of an experiment, and in a nod to Timothy Leary, we’re calling it Find The Others. It’s a corner of the Dark Mountain site for anyone who wants to meet up with other readers and friends of this project in their particular corner of the world.
How we see this working
- The photo at the top of this piece is of the Dark Marshes group in East Anglia, back in 2013, meeting in the home of one of its members.
- In Sheffield, Raven Nielsen started the Dark Mountain Thing, which meets once a month on a Saturday morning at a local cafe: they bring a few Dark Mountain books to have on the table, so it’s easy to spot them if it’s your first time.
- When I lived in London, I used to host a meet-up on a Wednesday night on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall, the kind of indoor public space that you can use for free without any sense that you have to spend money to be welcome.
There are different ways to do this – and part of Find The Others will involve us sharing stories of what people are learning along the way.
With most of the groups we’ve seen or been part of, it seems like it starts when two or three of you come together because you’ve found something in Dark Mountain that feels like it matters. You pick a regular or semi-regular time and place, a sociable space in which to meet. You send the word out informally and keep the preparations simple enough that it doesn’t feel like the stakes are too high.
It shouldn’t feel like work, or like stress, or like it’s a big deal whether anyone else shows up apart from the two or three of you. And it doesn’t have to last forever: Dark Marshes ran for a couple of years, then people’s lives took them in other directions and the group came to an end, but three of its members would go on to become part of the team that now runs Dark Mountain.
When we were working on the new website last year, we had a lot of discussions about how to help readers find and connect with each other. One thing we were clear about was that we wanted to focus on ways of getting together face-to-face: there’s no shortage of online spaces of discussion and debate, and there’s room for that in the comments here, but there are kinds of conversation that are more likely to flourish if a few of us can get in the same room.
For a while, we looked at working with a service like Meetup.com that has spent years building online tools for organising local groups. But that felt like raising the stakes: we’d end up putting a load of work into setting up a single system for local Dark Mountain meet-ups, then sit there nervously waiting to see if anyone actually wanted to use it. Besides, talking with people who had experience of running local groups, we realised that each group finds the tools that works for it, whether that’s an email list or a blog or a Facebook group.
So what we came up with is this: from now on, we will have a corner of this site with listings and links for existing local meet-ups, along with local contacts, readers who have told us they are interested in finding others in their area to get something going. One of our team, Ava Osbiston (who first got involved with Dark Mountain through that Dark Marshes group) will be the support and contact person for this part of our work. And Ava will also be editing an occasional series where we share stories of what’s going on around this network.
Will it work? The honest answer is we don’t know. It depends on the strength of the desire there is among our readers and friends for this kind of local network – and on whether the approach we’re taking turns out to be helpful. My hope is that, for those of you who feel ‘Yes, this is something I need in my life’, we can help you find those one or two others nearby who can form the starting point for a local group, and then help others find their way to you over time.
How you can get involved
Dark Mountain isn’t easy to sum up. It doesn’t have a twelve-step plan or a mission statement. There’s a manifesto, but it was never intended to be the kind of thing you sign up to: it was a starting point, a first attempt to word the territory in which Paul and I crossed paths. This project has meant different things to different people, though that’s not to say it means whatever anyone wants it to.
The form asks you tell us a bit about how you found your way to Dark Mountain, because if you’re interested in being listed as a local contact for other readers, we’d like to have a sense that you’re familiar with our books. And we want to be comfortable that you’re not approaching this as a platform for promoting your own theories or political projects. I hope that makes sense.
We don’t have a template, or an ambition to build an empire of Dark Mountain outposts. We’d rather contribute to an ecology. So if you start meeting up around a table, maybe reading and discussing something from one of our recent books, and then you get inspired to do something a bit bigger – putting on an event with an audience, for example – at that point, we’d encourage you to find a name of your own for what you’re doing, to ground it in the landscape and the spirit of where you are.
If this Find The Others thing is going to take, then it will be because between us we find a balance between common sense and trust, suppleness and sense of humour. As we go along, we may well write up some ground rules – but for now, let’s take this post as a reference point, an indication of what this is and what it isn’t.
There’s a kindness in spaces like that, a cultivation of hospitable habits of being human together, that we’re likely to need in the years ahead
And who knows – perhaps we’ll find there’s more that we can do, that we can connect local groups of readers to Dark Mountain-friendly venues, or create touring possibilities for writers and artists and performers connected to this project. There’s a need for close-to-the-ground cultural infrastructure, like the folk clubs that grew up around Britain in a few years around the early 1960s or the network of small comedy clubs like the one where I used to help out on the door in my late twenties. There’s a kindness in spaces like that, a cultivation of hospitable habits of being human together, that we’re likely to need in the years ahead, so it would gladden me greatly if it turned out that the community of those to whom Dark Mountain matters were to have a role in creating such spaces.
Meanwhile, as I enter my last three months as part of the Dark Mountain team, I’m glad to have helped get this rolling before I go – and gladder to be leaving this side of the project in Ava’s enthusiastic hands.
Who are the others, anyway?
It’s a good question to ask. It sent me back to the famous quote from Timothy Leary, one of the gurus of the 1960s counterculture. Here’s the full version:
Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the ‘normal people’ as they go about their automatic existences. For every time you say club passwords like ‘Have a nice day’ and ‘Weather’s awful today, eh?’, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like ‘Tell me something that makes you cry’ or ‘What do you think deja vu is for?’ Face it, you even want to talk to that girl in the elevator. But what if that girl in the elevator (and the balding man who walks past your cubicle at work) are thinking the same thing? Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others.
Every now and then, I’ve heard someone use the word ‘countercultural’ when they talk about Dark Mountain, and if I’m honest it tends to make me bristle. I’m allergic to anything that sounds too much like ‘us’ against ‘them’, because my experience has always been that the world is queerer than such ways of thinking allow for, and that the good stuff only starts to happen when the boundary between worlds is crossed. With those early festivals we held, what I loved was the unexpectedness of the juxtapositions: you’d meet a wider and stranger mixture of people than in a scene where everyone shares a subcultural identity.
But rereading Leary’s words, it strikes me there’s a twist in the middle. He starts by drawing the usual line – between us, the strange ones, and them, ‘the normal people’ – and let’s be honest, haven’t we all had times in our lives when we felt that gulf? But then as you read on, something else happens. The sense of possibility spreads to unlikely figures – ‘that girl in the elevator’ or ‘the balding man who walks past your cubicle’ – and suddenly ‘everyone’ is implicated. What if, whisper it, there are no normal people? What if normality is a Potemkin village?
Well, the tie-dye counterculture with which Leary is associated seems a long way off from the murkier palette of this uneasy century. The taboos are different today and the future casts a different kind of shadow. Even conversations about the weather have a darker resonance. But the need for spaces where other kinds of conversation can happen seems real enough, for all that.
What do I do next?
If you’re in the British Isles and you’re interested in starting a local group, then Ava, Raven and I will be organising a small gathering in South Yorkshire in the middle of May, a chance to get together and share ideas. If you want to know more about that, then make sure you fill out the form and we’ll be in touch.
And if you’ve got questions or suggestions about any of this, then leave a comment here and Ava or I will get back to you, or write to us at [email protected].