the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door
the yearning to begin again together
animals keen inside the parliament of the world
the people in the room the people in the street the people
hold everything dear
It’s December and from Sophy’s kitchen table I can watch the sun as it appears above the dark curve of the Devon hills. It’s Day Three of a convergence known as Deep Dive, an exploration into ‘Deep Adaptation’ sparked by the emergence of Extinction Rebellion. Sophy is one of the organisers and I’m asking her about the intent for gathering.
It’s a beautiful morning, just before the winter solstice, and tonight I will face my death, looking into the face of an eagle. I don’t know this yet. You might say not knowing is the MO for all explorations – except that having an intent gives you a thread to guide you there and back. You can go into a territory to see what is there, or you can go into the territory to find something you and the world cannot live without.
That’s a different journey.
This winter I took a break from editing to write about the role of mythos in times of collapse, a book based on the four tasks of Psyche, and a performance based on a piece called The Red Thread. It’s a reworking of the myth of the Labyrinth at Knossos, where the labyrinth is not a prison but a dancing floor. Where the young men and women from the city are not sacrificed to feed the Minotaur incarcerated at its centre, but instead encounter an initiatory force that will reveal the mystery of life and death in the darkness of an underground chamber.
Two things I know about entering the core: intent is what keeps you from being blown apart at a solstice moment, as the seeds burst their jackets underground, as life quickens amongst the dead, and the dead parts of you fall away into the earth. The second is that artists and writers are the ones who can hand you the thread.
In progressive circles there has been an urgent call-out for a new story, now that climate change and species extinction have taken all the happy endings away and the wicked stepmothers and magicians have taken over the castle. ‘Creatives’ have been challenged to come up with a positive narrative that will break the spell of neo-liberal economics and get us out of the maze. Writers however are reluctant evangelists and propaganda-makers: they flourish in the territory of the existential, where their ancient skills of travelling into other dimensions are highly prized.
Because it’s not the storyline, the fabula, we should be looking at here. Writers – those who guide us in the non-linear worlds of the imagination – are more interested in the sujet, (the plot in Russian formalism) which is to say the way of telling the story. Although it looks like the story – this and that happened in linear time – is the point of everything, its real function is to be a container for a structural non-linear refit, once known as metamorphosis. The story is the sugar that holds our attention and the sujet is the medicine. The difficulty is for us as modern people is to look at what the sujet is demanding of us as a people, without everyone splitting off into their own personal narratives.
There were words spilling everywhere around the room; on giant pieces of paper and small blackboards, altars and tables, we tabled our Deep Adaptation R words (Resilience, Relinquishment, Restoration), shared our thoughts on breakdown and extinction, our imagined stories about the future. We looked at how to swerve past blocks of denial, how to wail and rage inside a ‘grief mandala’, exchanged experiences in ‘open space’ and mapping sessions, hosted an open ‘mic’ and a ritual in the dark at the brink of the year. When it felt like everything was going horribly wrong, we held a constellation and danced to Le Freak by Chic. Occasionally I filled up the tea urns and trundled a wheelbarrow full of tealights around the winter garden and breathed in the wet winter air.
In a council meeting we spoke for the beings who were not in the room. Choosing from a collection of photographs and objects each person stepped into places and situations we did not know: we spoke from the deserts of Africa, the cotton fields of India, the streets of the East End of London, as ancient women and small children, as refugees facing floods and forest fires and war, as sharks and rocks and maize plants that have fed a whole continent of people for millennia. The walls of the hall buckled open.
The Encounter demands we let the outside in. We want to run away to the hills, back to the safety of our small room, our meditation chamber. But the threshing breaks you open to liberate the seed you hold inside you for the future and throws the chaff of your life into the wind. If you are from an urbanised, industrial culture, this process winnows pretty much everything you have been told matters. At the same time everything that has been left out – which is the living breathing earth, the sun and all the cosmos, all the invisible people and skeletons hidden in your family’s and culture’s closets – rushes in. Afterwards you are assailed by dreams, by memories, by bodily dysfunctions, you feel you are losing your grip, your friends look at you askance. For some this is a moment from which they reel, for others months, or years.
However the Encounter comes, one thing is clear: change is not something you tell governments or other people to do; you have to undergo change to make space for the world to enter. The 40 or so cultural activists gathered in these school rooms have all been through the wringer one way or another: some have built practices, some have created art or taught, others live in the forest, or at the edges – all of us have accepted that collapse is underway and have a capacity to ‘stay with the trouble’. We’ve been in this room before; when the frequency has gone pear-shaped, when the men talk too loudly or the women cry too much. We know the feedback loop is a key component of all non-linear systems and there are consequences to the actions taken by ourselves, our relations, our nation which we now have an obligation to rectify.
Here is the story we know. The hero kills the bull-headed monster with the help of the princess. She is abandoned, she kills herself, she becomes a constellation. The hero goes round the world killing more monsters, abducting more women, founding cities. We live in the wake of his black-sailed ship.
Here is the story we don’t know and perhaps can find hidden underneath this one. There is no hero or princess or monster. There is a woman who can guide you down into the labyrinth which is not a maze or a prison, but a map. There is a kind of death at its centre, but also a revelation. She wears a skirt like a beehive. She is a dancing mistress (of sorts). Her name is Ariadne.
The bull we have always known – he was the first we painted on the cave wall and fashioned in stone: as aurochs, bison, buffalo. When we stand beside him we can feel him in the dark, his warm breath, his creaturehood, his presence. We don’t want to be anywhere else, even though we are mostly mute, enthralled and also terrified.
After you have been trampled by his hooves and the chaff blown away, you emerge and dance around the circle of the threshing floor, holding the arms of your companions. This was a dance once called geranos, the Dance of the Cranes, that took place each spring on the sacred island of Delos. The hero Theseus had taken the Minoan mysteries and transferred them to the Greek god Apollo, who henceforth would be in charge of prophecy and all female snake-charmers in the ancient Aegean. It is said that the first languages were written using the shape of the birds’ feet: crane, ibis, heron.
The Cretan hieroglyphs however, unlike the Egyptian, were never deciphered. Maybe our fate would have been different if our cultures had not been shaped around the glory-seeking of Athens and funereal gloom of Memphis, but instead we had lavished our attention on young men springing on the backs of bulls, on blue and gold dolphins leaping, and a dance that imitates a foraging honeybee communicating with her sisters.
There is a deal you make with life and this underworld encounter can tell you what that is. It’s a deal we made a long time ago with the beasts and with the plants, only our civilisations buried it in sand to power their own interests.
I’m not sure how we can remember this deal together. The links between us, like many grassroots relationships, are fragile: few people here are dependant on each other in their ordinary lives: we are not related, or beholden in any way. We may rally around a cause but we find it hard to meet on a stage that goes beyond the material and political. We might say ‘ancestors’ shyly in the circle – but we don’t name them. Our metaphysical knowledge is mostly something we have found individually in books, or in moments of deep reflection. And we will need, god knows, more than a poem by Mary Oliver or Rumi to hold the centre and not fragment when push comes to shove, to not lose our hard-won coherence and fly off into some small panic room, prowled by monsters.
We need our dancing feet on the ground.
There is nothing wrong with the conviviality and feasting, with the meetings and demonstrations, or even loving the story and wanting to know how it ends. But only if we know that the feelings these gatherings engender is the sugar, not the medicine, and that the medicine, sour, bitter as it tastes on our tongues, has to be taken and assimilated, or the world will not come into right balance. On a windy corner on the South Bank, after giving a lecture on the gift economy, Charles Eisenstein exhales deeply as we talk, a group of UK Transitioners, eager to share our goodwill stories about powerdown and community:
‘We are playing,’ he says, interrupting our optimistic dialogue. ‘Because we still have a choice. We can still walk away. Nothing will happen until it becomes real.’
The year is 2012 and the Occupy tents at St Paul’s have been evacuated. London is preparing for the great corporate show of the Olympics. The reality we know from a hundred documentaries about ecological crisis is still hard to see, surrounded as we are by the city’s lavish restaurants and glass towers, African fusion bands and pleasure boats. The Wave demonstration has flowed over the capital’s bridges, to be followed by a decade of climate marches, anti-austerity and student protests, to be held by Extinction Rebellion with their rainbow-coloured flags as it comes to a close. Though it feels like nothing has happened, the allure that has distracted us for aeons is lessening, the maze is losing its hold. As our position becomes more stark, the language that deepens the core begins to appear at the edges. It does not reveal itself in data or statistics, or political rhetoric, or Freudian analysis. It speaks in a language that once crossed every boundary on Earth, that artists and writers remember and still speak, or sing, or move, or show, or paint, if only in fragments.
It’s up to us to recognise them.
Something happens as we sit by a fire and chant for an hour, or we decide to take a step into the darkness of the kur or kiva, when our dancing feet take up the shapes of spirals and lemniscates: something deep and ancient stirs our bone-memory of being here, the ancestors begin to listen, the animals come nearer in our dreams, we are no longer alone. A door opens to the future we did not even know was there. The words vanish. Words are for looking at what happened afterwards and telling. The encounter with life is a full-body immersion and exchange.
And maybe that is why after all the words we wrote on the walls, on blackboards in the classrooms, on flip chart paper, on coloured labels hung on trees, the excitement of all the talking over lunch or tea, what I remember most is stepping into the Land of the Dead with Deepak close behind me. We stood there in the stony alcove, with its boughs and bones, as the night wind blew through the apple orchard, and the small candles guttered. And we looked over to the people by the fire, who seemed to be a long way off, even though you could hear them singing and the fire crackling. Some part of me didn’t want to go back. And then I realised: the ancestors could hear us when we gathered in that spirit.
I chose these myths (or perhaps they chose themselves) in times of increasing restriction because they provide a technê – tools and method and instruction manual – for how to negotiate our place and relationship with the Earth, beyond the story told by our civilisation’s power-possessors and priests. They can help us uncivilise ourselves: break out of the labyrinth of our rational minds and navigate the wild oceans and forests of a non-linear planet. The female myths are about tasks, about rigour and courage, and about calling for and receiving help in times of crisis. The three R’s of Deep Adaptation are tasks, they demand we leave a lot of our identity and cleverness behind, our comfort zones, our egoic insults, the traumas we cling to like antiquated gas masks, long after the war is over.
These ancestral steps help us move dramaturgically into different positions: to realise that our insistence on woundedness is a way of avoiding responsibility and breaking out of our separateness. We are not going to make it on our own. We feel stuck, faced with the impossible, and need to find a way out: a pile of jumbled seeds, a labyrinth of dead ends and false passageways. With the myth in hand, you can make a move: you step into others’ shoes, you alter the role, you go through the door, get yourself off the hook and then the world. The artist teaches the steps, holds the space, takes up the chant, asks the questions. This is the moment when a kindly ant appears, or someone hands you a ball of thread, or a jar of honey, or two beings fashioned from the dirt under the fingernails of a god slip through the keyholes of the Underworld undetected.
Our task is to recognise them.
A Dance Down the Dark Mountain and A Conversation at the End of the World (As We Know It) with Charlotte Du Cann and Dougie Strang takes place at Winterwerft Theatre Festival, Frankfurt am Main on 16th/17th February and at Unfix Festival in Glasgow on 28th/31st March.
Coming Down the Mountain: Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration in a Time of Endings – a five day course with Charlotte Du Cann and Dougald Hine is hosted by Schumacher College, Devon on 6th–10th May.