‘Performance’ is the wrong word. Liminal was a promenade experience (the first devised by long-time Dark Mountaineer Dougie Strang, who has since convened remarkable ceremonies, testaments and spectacles in Devon, Glasgow, Edinburgh and, most recently, on an island on the River Thames). A crowd of people walked together in the dark under the black branches of the trees, and encountered the strange, the off-kilter, and the unexpected: a group of figures moved mechanically, repetitively, while intoning fragments of proverb and folk-rhyme; a naked figure lay in a pit surrounded by animal bones; a dark, antlered shape snorted in the bushes, the dark and the woods keeping us from catching more of it than quick, partial glimpses.
It was this last that let me know there was something worth pursuing here. Even knowing that it was part of a performance, the darkness lent power to the figure in the bushes. Without a clear sightline, it could not be pinned down by the conscious mind, not reduced to the comfortable categories we like the objects of our perceptions to inhabit. Old evolutionary patterns awoke in people’s hearts – fear, alertness, confrontation, and a sudden sense of the surrounding dark as a thing of weight, a blanket of unknowing that fundamentally altered our relationship to the world around us.
It is easy to understand such things intellectually, and not to be changed by them, but the actual experience is one of transfiguration – of the world around us, and of our own sense of self. To be in a wood with a large beast snorting in the undergrowth only feet away, with every sensory faculty reaching out into the darkness, is in many ways the opposite of what we experience in the day-world of our civilised lives. It is to be taken out of the artificial aquarium of our heads and to be flung out into the living world.
Other experiences followed. In 2012, the strange figures of the Mearcstapa roamed the festival site and road leading to it, emerging from the treeline and disappearing again, pushing against the boundaries of the normal. Such things are not always to everyone’s tastes, of course. In his not-entirely-glowing review of the festival that year for Aeon magazine, Ed Lake reported his horrified text to his wife at home: ‘Directed to the car park by someone literally in a Wicker Man mask’.
In 2013, I (‘head shaved smooth and wearing a kimono’, as the New York Times memorably described me) literally strode round a burning wicker tree as flares firing off at the four points of the compass, and told the story of our gathering:
And the trees welcomed the people
Blown here on the far winds of the storm
From North, from South, from East, from West,
From foxhole and culvert,
From dogleg and ragwort,
For four seasons of the Earth,
To stand in this burning moment,
Here, on this spinning ball,
Here, on this scrap of chalk,
Here, in this ragged grove,
Here, by these tangled dreams.
May the burning of the old be the rebirth of the new.
I can claim no credit for the remarkable, and very strange, spontaneous events that followed, continuing into the small hours. I led a workshop the next day, and an older gentleman remarked that he had somehow, uncharacteristically, lost his watch during the night, as if in a symbolic manifestation of his stepping outside the ‘clock-time’ of everyday reality. Even stranger, he said, was that he found it right next to him in the tent when he woke up the next morning.
At times we have referred to these events as ‘rituals’. The word entices some people and alienates others. Many recognise that ritual was a form of cultural and social technology that served particular, and vital, purposes for human societies, and that its absence from our own is just one more factor in the dysfunctionality of our way of life. But others associate the word with the realm of religion, and all the entanglements of hierarchy, misogyny, superstition, deception and coercion that are undeniably bound up with that realm.
In the past, I have talked about ‘playing’ with the language and form of ritual; clearly, we could not go back to experiencing ritual as it was within the framework of a shared religious sensibility (nor would we want to, some would say), so perhaps we would need to adopt a more anarchic, combinatorial sensibility to explore it. I did not mean, however, that we should treat ritual simply as raw material for an aesthetic game – something by which to produce an artistic ‘spectacle’, but not to engage with in any deeper, more visceral sense. By requiring our communal presence, our physical engagement with movement, sound, speech, and matter, ritual is something that takes us out of our heads and reinstates us in the world. To play with such a powerful technology is necessarily to be playing with fire.
The invocation I spoke around that fire four years ago was not intended to be ‘mere’ poetry; but nor was I pretending to spiritual knowledge – that my words would invoke some specific, hidden, super-material force – I did not have. I spoke, simply, from that place between; from intuition; from a faith that a sincere heart, channelled by an artful mind, can sometimes make Something Happen.
This is, after all, what invocation means – it is to treat the world outside our heads as if it might be equally meaningful as the contents of our own psyche; as if it might have something to say back to us. The philosophers and metaphysicians can keep themselves busy arguing the precise ontological status of the world’s reply; but, as with any relationship, it is often more valuable simply to listen to what is being said.
This might serve, too, as a rough definition of ‘the sacred’ amongst this ragged band we call Dark Mountain, with all our disparate beliefs and perspectives: to attend to the sacred is to believe that there is something meaningful outside the machinations of our own minds; that the world may be greater than our understanding of it; it is to believe that, with a bit of luck, there might still be a chance for Something to Happen.
Editing, writing in and, now, presenting to the world Dark Mountain: Issue 12 (SANCTUM) has been, in a way, my coming-out as one of these beings. I admit it: I think the reality we are immersed in, and from which we are so often separated from by our thoughts and abstractions, might really be real. Not only do I think Something might Happen, I think it is already Happening right now.
When the time came to hold a physical gathering of people to launch this book, it was clear that we would need to do things a little differently. Dark Mountain book launches have always played somewhat ‘outside the box’, but we wanted to take this a little further. So we have arranged a launch this Saturday with a few differences.
Rather than simply holding an evening event – a brief window of exposure with little time to connect – we decided to take a whole day, running a workshop on art, the sacred and ecology for those who wanted to explore these issues collaboratively and in greater depth. SANCTUM’s lead artist and Art Editor, Thomas Keyes, will be joining me on to lead a hands-on afternoon of discussion, nature connection and collective creation.
We did not want our launch to take place somewhere without poetry or character, so we booked the ancient timbered space of the Upper Gatehouse at Dartington Hall in Devon. In the same way, we did not want our launch to be separated entirely from the outside world, that open realm of darkness, wind and life that moved something in me during the experience of Liminal. So we will be hosting a promenade experience of our own at 6pm, using the beautiful grounds of Dartington Hall as a setting for something that will, hopefully, help to bring participants out of their heads and into that other space in which more interesting things can happen.
After this, it would not seem right to ask people to simply sit indoors passively while passages from the book are read out at them. So we have a programme unlike anything we’ve done before – music and interactive theatrical performance mixing with readings and conversation. And, making a virtue from a necessity – as so many of our contributors are based elsewhere in the world – we will have audio and video from contributors interspersed with the live event.
Alas, I still cannot pretend to have magic powers. We cannot claim that our programme next Saturday will teach you the deep secrets of being, give you a transcendent experience of the divine, or awaken you to the timeless peace underlying all things. But to make a whole book about the sacred, to ask a group of people to join together in its creation, giving freely of their time and art, is itself a kind of ritual act. And to gather together to celebrate its existence, to join sincere hearts to mindful craft, to share food and music and words together is a ritual of another sort. We hope those of you who can join us on Saturday will do so.
Join us for the official launch of Dark Mountain: Issue 12 (SANCTUM) at Dartington Hall on 9 December 2017. Expect an afternoon of workshops and an evening of wildness. Places are limited, so make sure to book your ticket.
You can order a copy of Issue 12 from our online shop for £18.99 – or for a special rate of £9.99, if you take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain.