The High Water Mark

Have spent far too much of this week pondering a fresh wave of reactions to Uncivilization posted last weekend – the two week high water mark. There was Dire Mountain, the blog of the festival’s angry man whom several attendees have mentioned, and I have very little memory of, despite evidence pointing to the fact that we were at several of the same workshops. He didn’t like Uncivilized because it didn’t do what it said on the tin; I’m not the person to try prising that open with him.

More thoughtful, open to engagement reaction from Leaving Babylon – a blog new to me which I’m looking forward to catching up with. Her feeling was that the event should have uncivilized itself, by not having a formal structure of invited speakers talking to audiences, and should instead have gone with an open space, spontaneously co-created model.

Trying to lift up these reactions and look beneath the words, feel between the lines for the attitude. What makes me uneasy in them, where my reaction differs, is that I find them boiling down to a requirement that Uncivilization ought to fit one particular template, the one with which the writer feels most comfortable and aligned. This finds echoes in the to-ing and fro-ing debates and arguments around what the Dark Mountaineers more broadly ought to be doing (forming movements, not ‘giving up’, junking the arty nonsense, etc, etc.)

Fortunately, the Dark Mountain project is an altogether more awkward and contrary proposition – a ‘strange beast’ sitting ‘uncomfortably on a line between different worlds’ (as its founders have recently put it). An alternative to telling it what it ought to be, is to attend to what it is. Attending as both observing, paying close attention, suspending judgement for a spell; and tending, helping the project grow and unfold. Which includes confronting its weaknesses for sure, but without ceasing to honour what might be of value in its very awkwardness, its discomforts and uncertainties; without ‘making it better’ by ignoring or chopping off the bits that you personally don’t happen to like.

I keep on coming back to wondering whether the experiences that I found so magical and transforming about Uncivilization, happened because of, not in spite of, all the things that were chaotic and annoying, neither fish-nor-fowlish, and way out of its depth about it. Magic happens in strange, liminal spaces; where you never quite get what you want but somehow wind up with exactly what you need; where in order to shift, truly shift, a degree of involuntary dislodging from your comfort zone is necessary; but not so much upset that you shut down and run for the hills in the opposite direction. (While allowing that some attendees clearly were upset / disappointed and did run for the hills in the opposite direction. Which is perfectly fine: they did what they needed to for that moment.) What was so special about Uncivilization was that it haphazardly banged elements of a traditional ‘civilized’ literary festival against a volunteered creative fringe against a buzz of completely spontaneous on-the-spot happenings, and made sparks. Take any one of those elements out of the equation, and you’d not have had its unique fire.

The one who pulls it all together and back home is Dave Pollard (another terrific blog I’ve just unearthed), reminding that while activists and healers have their work to do in confronting and dealing with the probable realities of collapse, so do artists, in showing without dissimulation the contours and gulfs of those realities. And Dark Mountain is a place where they can gather, gain strength in conversation, and carry on.

By interesting coincidence, last week I met up with an old friend over on a whirlwind visit, and we were talking about creativity. One of her baselines for understanding her own creativity – as a graphic designer, web project manager, single mum and all-purpose maven – is ‘the ability to keep dealing with chaos.’

With which, I’m going back to England next week for the summer solstice and assorted catchings up, picking up my wandering notebook and camera and scattered ends of unfinished poems, and heading back into that making tangle for a while. Feeling grounded, pondering place, feeling a little less exposed around the heart region – until it gets dug over deeper again.


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