The Place Where We’re Held: Thoughts on the Setting for Uncivilization 2012

Montbretia at the Sustainability Centre, photographed by Allie K Stewart, August 2012

August 2011, early morning. I’m at the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire at the second Uncivilization festival, rapt by a swaying bank of montbretia.  These fiery flowers are old friends, but there’s a vitality, a gleeful shimmering in their presence here that is much less familiar; a sparkle I’ve only met in two or three other places in the world. Most recently, in the Ökowerk nature preserve and learning centre, a repurposed waterworks near the Teufelsee in Berlin. Like the Sustainability Centre, Ökowerk is run through respect for its natural ecosystems, and so allows parts of its land to flourish wildly, meaning that the plants, creatures, soil and stones are largely left alone to manage themselves, and to teach human visitors something of what wildness is.

Thoughtfully-tended gardens can be places of vibrant plant energy as well, but I’ve found that the particular kicked-back exuberance crackling in that montbretia arises in large swathes of land under human guardianship, where wildness is broadly allowed and maintained. “Really? You mean we can? WHHHEEEEEEE!!” A zest that has something to do with a permission granted by humans that is more commonly denied, and so is different from the character of wildernesses where the impositions of humans don’t matter as much – or not so intimately.

 Sigh for Thought Leaves wish-tree, created by Allie K. Stewart and Daniela Othieno for Uncivilization 2012, photograph by Cat Lupton

In the last couple of days, many people have been sharing, and voicing deep sadness prompted by, a short article published in the Guardian about the work of musician and naturalist Bernie Krause. He has spent 40 years travelling and recording the natural sounds of Earth, and incidentally supplying stark testimony to the effects of habitat destruction and the erosion of biodiversity upon the once-dense and intricate soundscapes of the more-than-human world.

What really haunted me about the article was listening to the embedded ‘after’ recording of a meadow in California’s Sierra Nevada which had been logged. It sounded fine. There were plenty of birds singing, still a feeling of delight and cohesiveness. It was a sound you could get along with and believe nothing important was missing from it. The ‘before’ recording lets you hear, assuming you have ears for it,  what you don’t even know you’re missing. A patterning in depth, a responsive inner harmonic,  which doesn’t translate into something as straightforward as ‘more, and more different, bird songs and other natural sounds’.

This is what’s terrifying: what you put up with and get along with because it basically seems okay, and you’ve barely or never known anything different; even though you perpetually sense that it’s flat and muted and vaguely disappointing. “Is that all there is to Nature, then?” Or, as Rachel Carson writes in Silent Spring (with thanks to Earthlines magazine for the timely sharing):

“Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

Light Leaves open-invitation photo-installation, created by Cat Lupton, Bridget and Brian McKenzie for Uncivilization 2012, photograph by Cat Lupton 

Uncivilization 2012. This year, without amplification, with the work and play of curating and setting up the event shared out among a larger community of Dark Mountaineers, the festival seems to kick back and relax, to know of a sudden what it’s about and what’s drawing people back to it time after time. My experience is different this year because I’m part of this community, a member of Mearcstapa, so as well as arriving a few days before the main festival, to help dress the site and improvise doings around the Fool’s licence we’ve been granted, I’ve had opportunities earlier in the year to visit the Sustainability Centre, to discuss plans and explore the site more fully, seeking out spots for installations and impromptu happenings. To see the place stripped bare and holding its breath over a snowy late January weekend, to visit around midsummer and catch glimpses of the Centre’s everyday work with local children and adults with learning disabilities, as the wild life of the place dances green all around them.

During the festival, I keep drawing back from the swirling human centres of engagement to walk in the woods and pathways of the site, to pause with the trees, the flint and chalk pile, the meadows, to do a round of qi gong or just sit and reflect. Many of my fellow festival-goers are doing the same, seeking or reaffirming our connections with this remarkable wild alive place where we find ourselves, but there’s a kind of unspoken protocol that it’s something we each do alone. Some people choose to walk with companions, but otherwise we don’t engage each other with more than a smile when our paths through the woods happen to cross.

Skeletal Dragon (or is it ..) created for Uncivilization 2012, photograph by Cat Lupton

Those of us giving readings, holding workshops, facilitating discussions or telling stories might step out into the land specifically to prepare ourselves: to clear our heads, firm up our plans, ask or wait for guidance from the genii loci. One morning I set out to seek help in this way; with the blind, insistent, slightly backhanded manner in which I do things that I know I need to do but don’t really know how to, so that too much ceremony doesn’t stymie me. What came to me in answer was a profound sensation of letting go and being caught and supported; the understanding that anything I got caught up in feeling egotistically responsible for holding I could let drop through me with the reassurance that the land – this damp woodland earth, these soaring beech trees, and the earth and rocks and trees stretching around the world far beyond them – would catch it, could readily hold it; because this land is far vaster and stronger and much less of an egotist than I am.

In that moment I touched the sense of an experience I’d had the previous day, in the practical part of Tom Hirons’s wilderness rites of passage workshop. Having turned up unsuitably dressed for the muddy option – which is beautifully recounted here – I chose to walk and pray for guidance. Taking a path along the wildflower meadows as far as a fresh, lily-clad grave in the burial ground, stepping out of my sandals to meet hard, painful pathway gravel under my feet, I prayed for as long as I could concentrate, which isn’t that long. To escape the nag of the gravel I walked into a meadow and stood still, then steadily became aware of the dense sound of late summer insect life completely filling the air, around and inside me. I seemed to hear every single bee buzzing among the flowers, every single cricket rasping its legs, every small utterance of every insect I couldn’t even see or lend a name to. An enveloping feeling of richness and fullness came with the sound, and a plane passed overhead so far in the background of my consciousness that it didn’t bother me as it normally would. Then I heard screams, coming from the workshop participants who’d chosen the muddy option, and felt my petty human irritation and judgement rising to yank me out of immersion in the insect soundbath. In the next moment, my annoyances dropped clean through me and stopped mattering: the buzzing, sound-full land caught them and drew them away.

Feral Bunting for Uncivilization 2012, photograph by Cat Lupton

Of course, there are limits to what and how much humans can expect the Earth to catch and hold on their behalf. What I learned, in a limited way, from my local experiences at Uncivilization, is that I could only feel that the Sustainability Centre land was able to catch and support me because I had stepped out and asked for that support. And once you ask the land for something, and mean it – even if reasonable parts of you feel self-conscious and silly, and your manner of asking is slightly backhanded, because you’re trying not to let too much ceremony stymie you – you have created a relationship. That relationship demands at the very least courtesy; that you regard the one you’ve asked as a sentient, reciprocal entity, not simply an inert thing into which you can keep on dumping whatever you can’t be bothered with.

Another part of this is being lucky enough to be on land alive and strong enough to catch and hold a human and her need for help, because it is land respected, land allowed to be wild. Although this isn’t something I’ve tested extensively for myself, it makes hypothetical sense to me that the answers you get back if you ask the land anything will depend not just on the questions asked, but on how that land is; whether it’s been left alone or well-tended or infernally abused. The Sustainability Centre’s nurtured wildness, its native vitality, is the gift that the Centre is to Uncivilization, why it’s a perfect unfolding venue for the Dark Mountain festival. In turn, for me one of the beauties of Uncivilization is that by far the majority of people who come to the festival trust their own wildness enough to honour and reciprocate that gift.

So this place holds all of us, brings us to its edge to taste – even if just for the weekend – that there is more to live in and for than a world which is just not quite fatal.

Campfire at Uncivilization 2012, photograph by Cat Lupton

This year the crackle of the montbretia captivated my friend Allie, who asked to borrow my camera, and caught the beautiful photograph of its fire that sits up at the beginning.

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