Eighteen months ago, I spent four days and four nights alone in a very old wood in Devon, in the West of England. I took a tarpaulin and a sleeping bag, a lot of water and no food, and I sat in a small area of woodland, on a stone escarpment, overlooking the rolling forest. It was a contemporary version of a very old experience – an initiation, a vision quest – which many cultures on Earth have practised for as long, probably, as there have been people.
Even at the time, I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing there. I had come looking for answers to questions I didn’t yet know how to formulate. Perhaps I still don’t know, perhaps I never will. I just felt a pull: I knew that this was something I needed to do. I didn’t really expect anything to happen, and in one sense, nothing did. There were no great revelations, no magical experiences, no blinding lights, no clear answers. But in another sense, a lot happened. Things which seemed small at the time seem bigger in retrospect. Animals, birds, winds and weather patterns appeared at moments which seem now to be perhaps significant. One evening, I sat on the escarpment looking down over the great, old, seemingly empty forest and I heard music where no music should have been. There was nothing and nobody there which could have been creating it, but it was music for sure. It sounded like pipes. I have no explanation.
Strange things happen when you go out searching.
After four days I walked back down into the valley, tired and hungry, where a small camp was being held by a group of guides for the half-dozen of us who’d been out in the woods going through this experience. We all told our stories, and then we came back home. We were warned, at this stage, that the trickiest part of this experience was not the four-day fast, but the return. That sitting out there with no food and little sleep for days was easy compared to going back out into the world and explaining to people what we had been doing, and making sense of the experience of being tossed around by the wild world in some strange green embrace.
This turned out to be true. Most people I know don’t quite understand why I would have done this, and I find it hard to explain. Mostly, I don’t explain. But in my own small experience here, as in the old folk and fairy tales from pre-modern societies, as in the old indigenous wisdom traditions, it is the case that coming down from the mountain is sometimes more of a challenge than going up it. You need to climb the mountain to get some perspective on your life and on the world you live in. But you can’t stay up there forever. Eventually, you need to return to the village and bring back what you have learned, even if you don’t quite know how to put it into words.
I tell this story now because one of the results of that experience, one of the things I have learned, is that it is time now for me to step back from my work with the Dark Mountain Project, which I helped to found. It’s time for me to come down off of this mountain and see what I can do with what I found up on the slopes.
It’s been a long, strange journey.
Ten years ago this month, I announced on my then-blog that I was ‘resigning’ from the media. The landscape of ‘news’ and ‘features’ journalism that I had been working for, fitfully and increasingly reluctantly as a freelance journalist, didn’t seem to be telling any of the stories that mattered. That was the summer my father died; death tends to bring life into clear focus, and it became clear to me that I had to stop doing something I no longer believed in. From now on, I decided, I was a writer, not a journalist.
I decided something else too: I wanted to start a new publication, which would hunt down the stories, and the ways of telling them, that I wasn’t seeing anywhere in the so-called ‘mainstream’. As I wrote at the time, I wanted to start:
… A new publication: not a magazine, exactly, not quite a journal either, but something between the two and somewhere else as well. A publication which will match the beauty of its writing with the beauty of its design. A publication whose mission will be to reclaim beauty and truth in writing, but without sounding too pompous about it. A publication which will reject both celebrity culture and consumer society with equal vehemence. A publication which will celebrate our true place in nature in prose, poetry and art; which will hunt down ancient truths for modern consumption.
That was the vision. I even had a name for it: the Dark Mountain Project.
Beyond that, things were less clear. Quite what this thing would be – what it would look like, what it would contain, who would write for it, how it would be published, where the money would come from, what shape it would all take – I didn’t know. What I did know was that I couldn’t do it alone, so I asked, in that same blog post, for ‘collaborators; fellow writers and artists who see a space out there for something deeply, darkly unfashionable and defiant, and who would like to help make it happen.’
Big things often start from small beginnings.
Two years later I found myself standing on a makeshift stage in the back room of a pub on the River Thames with a man who had responded to that call, and together we launched into the world a little red pamphlet we had called Uncivilisation. Dougald Hine and I were both disillusioned journalists and confused environmentalists, whose answers to the problems we had seen around us in our society seemed somehow not good enough anymore. The notion of ‘answers’, in fact, seemed increasingly to be part of the problem.
And we were writers too, aspiring artists. We had a stumbling intuition that the role of creativity, of stories, images and myths, of the mystery underlying our small existences, had some role to play in negotiating the strange falling apart of the society we were living in. Inspired by the Modernist manifestos that had appeared a century or so earlier, at another time of turmoil and change, we wanted to start some kind of literary movement. We weren’t sure what it would look like, or what it would quite do, or how we could do it, but we knew we wanted to encourage a certain type of writing and art: the kind that would try to engage truthfully with what it was like to live through an age of climate change, extinction, ecological and social collapse. We wanted to know what words, images, dreams, poetry could do to help us as humans on the path ahead.
Eight years on, our little pamphlet has gone to a lot of strange and unexpected places. It has inspired writers, academics, activists, playwrights, scientists, musicians. It has led to an ongoing publishing project, to public events, festivals, films, plays, albums, academic theses. We have helped, in our way, to do something which I still haven’t quite seen done anywhere else: to curate a school of writing and art which engages with the really big question of our time: how can we live as humans in a world which humans are destroying?
At times this work has overwhelmed me; it has often taken up every waking hour and some sleeping hours too. Everyone who has been involved in running Dark Mountain knows this feeling. We started with nothing, never quite really knowing exactly where this thing would go, and we had to invent everything from scratch. I have had to learn, over the last eight years, how to run a business, how to start and grow a small but expanding publishing house, how to run a festival, how not to run a festival, how to deal with unexpected and sudden financial crises, how to handle the media when you’re promoting something that even you find it difficult to explain. Most of these I have not learned very well. Others around the core of the project have shared this steep learning curve with me, and have had their own to contend with.
All of this has been exhausting, frustrating, inspiring and fascinating in equal measure. Over the years, we have inevitably engaged in politics, argument, sometimes even fights. Our work invites it. If you base your new initiative on the notion that the society around you is falling apart, that maybe it deserves to fall apart, and that most of the ‘solutions’ proposed to prevent this are inadequate or beside the point, you can expect people to throw rocks at you. You should expect the rocks, and not complain about them. Still, if there is one thing I would change, looking back, it would probably be to spend less time dodging the rocks, or throwing them back again. Despite what some people thought, and maybe continue to think, Dark Mountain has never been a political project. Its central purpose was never to ‘change the world’, least of all to ‘save the world’. Rather, the state of our planet, our society, our culture, our minds – this great dying, of species, systems, stories – is the backdrop to the work we set out to do.
What was that work? The answer would have been the same in that Oxford pub as it is now, eight years on: to create and curate writing and art appropriate to the moment we are in. To promote and promulgate what we called, what we still call, ‘uncivilised’ writing and art: work which steps outside our bubble of human narcissism, and which engages with the ecological crisis – which is, at root, really a human cultural crisis. To curate a cultural response to the times we live in.
I tend to use the word curate a lot these days, I’ve noticed. Back when we launched the project, I think I used to use the word create instead, because then I thought our challenge was to make this kind of ‘uncivilised’ work happen. This turned out to be misguided. This work was already happening, all around the world, with or without a label. The planet, it turns out, is packed with writers and artists dissatisfied with the state of things, unhappy with both the civilised story and the standard responses to it from the acceptable dissidents. We didn’t, it turned out, need to tell anyone what to do. We just needed to create a space in which they could do it, and give them some pointers: a framework, perhaps, for their explorations.
It’s interesting to me, looking back, to see how the world, and the debate, has shifted since we started. The claims we made in that manifesto all those years ago – that the human Machine is hitting a wall, that the wall cannot be avoided, and that engaging with that reality is a creative as well as a political or economic duty – seemed edgy and unusual when we made them. They seem less so now. Articles with titles like ‘The Case Against Civilisation’ made regular appearances on this blog in the early days, and would usually see us attacked as ‘doomers’ or ‘nihilists’ by angry denizens of the cult of Progress. These days, such essays can be found in the glossy pages of the New Yorker. Eight more years of failed treaties, of rising emissions, of expanding human numbers, of plastic in the oceans, of species slipping away, have made the reality clearer to us all. In another eight years, it will be clearer again.
None of the vaunted ‘solutions’ to this predicament, from nuclear fission to colonising Mars to top-down ‘new stories’ developed by worthy intellectuals, shows any sign of shifting the Machine from its designated course. Here we are. What do we see? I see, I suppose, the same thing I saw back then: a riddle without an answer. I hope that the work we have all done here, up on this mountain, has helped to make things clearer; to provide some insight, some guidance, some help – hopefully, too, some beauty.
But I don’t know what more I can add, myself, now. I have said and written everything I can say and write. I have argued everything I can argue. I have done everything I came to do. So this post is an announcement and a valediction; a farewell. I’m stepping back now from my role as one of the directors of the project I helped to found. I leave this strange, messy, contradictory, wonderful, necessary thing I helped to birth in the hands of a group of people who I know will steer it onwards in new directions. There comes a point in any organisation when a founder, with his or her particular vision, has to step back to give new people and ideas some space to breathe. It’s time to do that now; to leave this thing to move on without me, and with my blessing.
I can’t pretend I don’t have mixed feelings about this. Dark Mountain has been a major part of my life for the last decade. But we ignore the inner voice at our peril. There is a time for everything, including endings. There is some bend in the road ahead, and I have to walk around it. I don’t know what I will see around the corner. But it is, it seems, time for me to come down from the mountain. I will miss it. But it will always be there, on the horizon, rising over the lights of the city, older than the lights.
This project began, appropriately I suppose, with the words of a poet – Robinson Jeffers, whose work, when I discovered it in 2007, thrilled me with what seemed a stark and sharp voice, from half a century back, warning of what was to come. Jeffers’ poem Rearmament provided me with the inspiration to name this project. So it was with some excitement, and a sense of having come full circle, that I recently accepted an invitation to speak at Jeffers’ self-built stone home on the Californian cliffs, Tor House. I ended that talk – which you can listen to here if you’re so inclined – by quoting what Jeffers said in 1941 in a packed speech to the US Library of Congress.
I’ll end this piece, and my own journey on the dark mountain, with the same voice which began it. I will steal Jeffers’ words and use them as the epitaph for my work here, because they say what I want to say. And I will remember that over all of these words, over all of the human words and beyond them, speaks the voice of the mountain itself: the stone, the streams, the low cloud, the cry of the hawks. The great Earth, entire of itself, moving and listening, making its way and ours. Life, still churning, and all of the rivers flowing on.
I have heard myself called a pessimist, and perhaps I have written some words of ill omen in my books … and perhaps I have spoken tonight some words of ill omen – but they are not words of despair. If we conjecture the decline and fall of this civilisation, it is because we hope for a better one. We are a tough race, we human beings; we have lived through an ice age and many ages of barbarism; we can live through this age of civilisation; and when at length it wears out and crumbles under us, we can “plot our agony of resurrection” and make a new age. Our business is to live. To live through… anything. And to keep alive, through everything, our ideal values, of freedom and courage, and mercy and tolerance.
Image: Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine launching Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain manifesto, in Oxford, summer 2009.