A Red Thread: My Journey Through The Rites of Uncivilization 2011

photo by Bridget McKenzie

All this was a long time ago, I remember, 
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
~ T. S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi

What follows is a very personal and in many ways quite abstract response to being at Uncivilization this year. It strikes a very different note to other reactions that I’ve read, but then this year I felt myself walking an often solitary path that had much to do with finding myself in odd places outside the general flow of events for purposes that I don’t yet or fully understand – if indeed there is anything to understand. Given more time I would have doubtless written otherwise and possibly even managed some jokes, but wanted to catch the flavour of the experience before life sweeps it onward, as is its wont.

Four basic things will happen in a ritual, if it’s a good one.

First, showing up with intent – a decision that might well get made outside the dominion of the conscious mind.

Second, breakdown. Any expectations brought in will be shattered, confounded; the old shell left in fragments of fear, dislocation, grief, insignificance.

Third, reconnection. Cohesions arise from the blackened ashes, broken pieces begin to slot back together in new alignments.

Last, the journey back to normal life, which demands – if the work of the ritual is to be fulfilled – the processing and reintegration of whatever painful illuminations participating in the ritual has drawn down.

If you were at Uncivilization this weekend just gone, whether witting or not you were part of a ritual – a very real and very powerful one. A ritual that stretched its presence and implications right through and beyond the more obviously ritualistic moments: gathering around the fire to hear Tom Hirons tell the tale of Ivashko Medvhedko (upon which skin-shuddering magic I stumbled about halfway through), following the call of the piper into the dark forest as the mysteries of Liminal unfolded, singing together in a haunting refrain as the festival drew to its close.

Some participants were working to hold and move the energies and spaces of this ritual in time-honoured traditions (including the routine alchemy of event organisation), while others took a bold attitude of radical improvisation, feeling a push to let conjure something beyond the ken of what traditions hand forward. Some knew just enough to not fully know what they were unleashing; some sensed just enough to behave in the manner of very small children let loose with a box of matches. Some felt a crackle pass through them but had no name to lend it; some stepped into their walk-on parts oblivious and without missing a beat. Some passed an enjoyable weekend of learning and sharing and discovering the company of like-minded others, and some, I’m sure, are still trying to work out what hit them.

All of us, regardless of what we brought with us or thought we were doing there, of whether at the end we called time by labelling our participation or the festival itself success or failure or something more equivocal, were conduits for something greater. Greater than the gestalt of human festivity and honest companionship, greater than any inherited or re-learned capacity to engage as equals with the powers of the next-to-wild place where we had gathered: of the chalk and the copper beech groves and the early morning magpies and the towering montbretia. Something precious, and also dangerous, to the extent that we were invoking something out of our back pockets; only part-knowing, as an impromptu collective, what we were about. And in moments it drew close to us – sometimes you know it when the fine hairs on your human body stand erect – the sacred mystery, the breath upon which the universe turns.

It touched me as I was taking part in the chorus of Liminal on the Saturday night, already transformed by uncharacteristic clothes, face paint and a lantern in the dark into somebody other than I think I am, processing through the woods and coming to the last punctuation place: a naked man curled foetal around an illuminated deer skeleton scattered with rose petals, then suddenly the clearing beneath the beeches opened out and came alive in a scatter of flickering lights, its silence swallowing our footsteps and our words.

Although I’d tried to come to Uncivilization with my mind open, still the expectations crowded in, all ready to be broken and exceeded.  Advance plans to forage and take writing workshops were overtaken by other necessities, my sense of timing was chronically misaligned, doors that I fully expected to open stayed stonily closed, and others that intimated distraction quietly asked to be avoided. All this stranding left me bang on cue to step into other roles that were wanted of me: to lend ears and hands under the radar, to be with the power of council and find a home for my grief, to listen for tightly guarded silences, to learn truly for myself how vital the gift of a story can be.

To carry a red thread, a connection trailing from place to place. Worn outside for the eye to see and dropped upon the ground; carried alone on the inside and gifted to the ground.


10 thoughts on “A Red Thread: My Journey Through The Rites of Uncivilization 2011

  1. Excellent.

    Also, you’ve mirrored thoughts I was having about severance/threshold/incorporation in terms of the experience of such a festival. Next time, perhaps we’ll make these explicit, rather than observed after the event.

    I don’t know of any other festival-like event I’ve been to that has inspired so much reflective response from its attendants. This is something in itself to wonder about!

    All these words make me doubly sad that our paths didn’t cross even the *once* on the Dark Mountain trails this year. There’s plenty of time and trail yet and I look forward to the time they do.

    Great stuff.

  2. Thanks very much for these insights, Tom.

    Right at the end I was in a conversation with Bembo Davies which began to draw out exactly this point of needing to make the ritual elements of Uncivilization more explicit (a more fully participatory opening, for instance), to help attendees find their ways through the intensity of the experience. My own history of working with the sacred, such as it is, has been a lesson in what goes down when you don’t entirely know what you are doing: very powerful, but also extremely messy. So I ponder from both sides about the pull of experimenting ‘out there’, against the need for appropriate, well-crafted containers for the power of these rites.

    Yes indeed, there will be other stopping points along the trail, and I look forward to finding you by the fire again at one of them.

  3. Cat, yet again you have found such clear and beautiful words, and named experiences that I think many had. As you know, I also often felt carried off in some raging river, all my plans gone to pieces, and irritated about it at first. At some point I surrendered and let the experience be what it wanted to be, and the last few days have been an endless processing of something very profound that happened over the weekend. Yes – the making conscious of some of the deeper stuff as we are experiencing it is a thread we need to follow now, I think that is true. Thank you.

  4. Thank you too Daniela for your kind words and the shared experience. I’ve just been emailing with Bembo Davies about ideas for enhancing the rites of Uncivilization, so there is definitely something in the air to work on for the future.

    1. I’d love a cc on some of those emails if appropriate, Cat – working with those three phases of rites is part of my work and training as a rites of passage guide, so I may have something to offer there (as well as being greatly curious to hear both your and Bembo’s views and insights…)

  5. A lovely piece. I missed Uncivilization but my son was there. You mention ‘ritual’. Perhaps you will enjoy the following entry from the late David Fleming’s Lean Logic:

    Ritual. A performative utterance which makes something happen, points to spiritual depth and complexity, establishes the identity of a community or institution, and gives recognition to the implicit functions and reciprocal obligations which make the fabric of social order.
    The function of ritual is complex, but it centres on the fundamental matter of existence. Institutions – the communities and social inventions that make a society – have an identity problem. Does an institution actually exist, or is it just a collection of people doing something they happen to want to do today? Does a regiment exist? Does a contract exist in any sense other than written good intentions? When you tear up the paper, do you tear up the contract? Although these things exist in law, the same problem applies to the law itself: it is invisible; it can be described – but that is also true of UFOs. In any case, the description can be torn up. What gives such thought-institutions existence is ritual.
    When the market economy, with its networks of exchange, is no longer present to hold society together, the remaining alternative will be a powerfully-affirmed culture. It will be a culture in which people regularly participate as distinct from being present only as spectators. And a regular, participative cultural event in which the essential framework and much of the content remains unchanged is a ritual. Ritual affirms people’s sense of belonging to the community, and it does so in seven ways:
    1. Membership. Taking part in ritual implies belonging. The ritual itself has no practically useful function, so the reasons for being there are to participate at a symbolic level – or simply because you want to. This sense of membership is deepened by dance, once a central expression of the religions, including Christianity. Dance is synchronised, interactive, and requires people to engage with, and sometimes even to touch, each other. It is also middle-voiced; that is, it is neither active nor passive; there is a sense of being willingly swept up in doing something dramatic and beautiful without having to make decisions about it. For the resilient communities of the past, dance was no mere entertainment: it was a key expression of membership.
    And ritual affirms membership also in the sense that it is a hub: it is a reason for regular meeting, for being mutually aware, being in touch, being around to help and cooperate. Unless there is such a regular meeting place, no amount of effort to “love your neighbours” is going work: you won’t know their names; you will scarcely meet them. Communities need to have some reason for getting together. If that reason is a myth, nothing is lost. What matters is the getting-together.
    2. Emotional daring. When a group shares an emotion with you, it is likely that you will be able to feel it with more intensity and insight, or at least with more confidence, than you could feel it on your own. Personal joys and sorrows are placed within the context of collective joys and sorrows: you can feel emotionally uplifted by the exultant music of the Messiah or the great Harvest psalm; strong bonds can be built up in a community that is encountered at such depth.
    A community which not only feels the same emotion as you do, but enhances it, is a community you feel you can trust. And there is an ecstatic quality about being happy among other happy people. It sometimes happens when playing in the snow.
    3. Continuity. Ritual reassures by bringing constancy, with the same music, dance and choreography – the way we do it here – handed down between generations, and evolving slowly, if at all. It is a symbol of continuity, a stable code for the community.
    Although it is not always unchanging, in that ritual may slowly evolve, the tradition of a particular ritual has that continuity; this makes it different from the daily schemes and politics of the moment. Its presence is real, dependable, reassuring; it is there on its own terms; it is something to which the individual can defer. The shaman (priest) in the early religions who changed the ritual or liturgy broke the spell, and would be in trouble, perhaps at risk of his life. The rules and practices confer timeless legitimacy on the community. And this continuity is reflected also in the very slowly-changing nature of dance.
    4. Consciousness of time and events. Ritual is linked to time and natural events, such as the closing down of the day’s activity at dusk: the event is marked; it takes place in the mind as well as in the environment.
    It celebrates the stories and events that made the community, acknowledging seasons and accomplished tasks, renewing members’ awareness of their community’s history, and of the stories and traditions which give it identity. Once, local saints and heroes were remembered; the agricultural year was celebrated; rites of passage (baptism, adulthood, marriage, death) were observed: a young man would be made explicitly conscious of becoming a full member of the community, and of the responsibilities and duties that conferred. Ritual was the performative utterance that turned events into the building blocks of a culture. James Roose-Evans comments on the barely-visible remnant of these rites of passage: “No wonder we undergo identity crises until we die.”
    5. Practice. Ritual requires talent: music, speech, building and decoration, often along with dance, acting and dressmaking, cooking, games, wrestling, organisation and stage-management. These carnival skills – practice – whose effect extends beyond the material product to truthfulness, justice and courage, and the properties of citizenship, are virtues that can be placed at the service of the service of the community.
    6. Meaning. Ritual’s characteristic medium is narrative truth – the poetic truth which raises questions which will demand long reflection. In Lean Logic’s vocabulary, the space in which we think about almost-unanswerable questions is ironic space, inviting a lifetime of exploration and of living with an idea. It is artistic, so it cannot be completely understood; though introduced to it in childhood, participants will not grow out of it. Instead, they will grow into it, discovering its depth throughout their lives, and teaching as they learn, learning as they teach.
    If you reflect for a lifetime on a not-immediately-understandable poem, or on the text of a ritual, you will have the freedom to live by your interpretation of it: nobody tells you what to think: you pull the meaning out of the words. Ritual is a form of pull, and in this sense is a source of freedom.
    7. Locality. Ritual changes the nature of the place a little bit, making it special, because the ritual has happened there: you will think about it in a different way for the rest of your life, like a tree under which you once made love, and which you still pass with musing nostalgia from time to time. Events make places, bring them alive, haunt them or bless them, populate them with the spirit of what happened, so that today’s inhabitants are not alone. Ritual is not just any ritual: it is yours, because this is the ritual which you help to make, with the people you live amongst, in the place where you live.
    The power of the idea of ritual as an effective means of holding people to a particular arrangement was illustrated on a grand scale in the imagination of Plato. In his Republic, goods are shared out amongst all members of the guardian class – an arrangement which would require highly developed altruism and commitment to the common good. But in his “City of the Magnesians”, he went even further: here, goods would be shared amongst all citizens, and the problem was, of course, to find ways of making this exceptionally ambitious and unstable social ethic hold up. His solution to the problem was to design the city’s culture round the ceaseless performance of ritual; every day of the year had its own festival, binding the city together in a rhythmic pattern, integrating the gods into the enterprise; the citizens, as Catherine Pickstock writes, were “strung together on a thread of song and dance.” The performance of ritual constantly renewed the commitment to the fragile ethic of common property. The City of the Magnesians is fiction, but Plato accepted, as a fact of life, that a shared ritual is crucial for the delivery of social cohesion.
    Ritual, though seemingly useless, asserts the legitimacy of the community (or institution or nation) and the authority of its traditions and leadership. The presence of tradition sustains the idea that the community has an identity, permanence and depth. When the community is defined in part in terms of its ritual and tradition, its chances of survival are transformed; it has the courage of its conventions. As the anthropologist Maurice Bloch notes, the ritual locates a particular social order in its setting as “a fact of the nature of the world”. In a non-demoralised society, the sense of legitimacy extends through the social order as a whole. It is a thread of continuity.
    More at http://www.leanlogic.net/

  6. Biff – Thanks so much for sharing David Fleming’s reflections on ritual, which have given me more depths to ponder in thinking about Uncivilization in this light.

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