Base Camp at Embercombe near Dartmoor, UK
by Doug Fogelson
CS: I’m thrilled to share this piece from Chicago artist, Doug Fogelson
When you believe in the dystopian future of climate change and ecocide, even if you support and appreciate the efforts of green movements, it can be hard to find places to discuss such a dark subject. This is when you need to discover Dark Mountain. Their work began almost a decade ago with one of the better manifestos written on the topic and a miscellany of efforts in literary and other creative modes. Now they are still a niche group but have become more widely appreciated with books, a blog, various events, and retreat style gatherings under their belts. And the co-creators Paul Kingsnorth and Dougie Strang have become celebrated authors and thought leaders along the way.
I came to know of Dark Mountain close to its inception, at a time when I was entranced by the written work of Derrick Jensen, particularly Endgame. Jensen is an American radical writer/thinker who brings a well-researched and (to my mind) balanced view on society in the midst of ecocide.When I first found the virtual mountain of darkness I just read online and kept tabs on their work. It was simply good to know they were there. Eventually, however, I subscribed. And when an e-mail popped up inviting subscribers to join a group of 150 Dark Mountaineers at the amazing permaculture site called Embercombe in the southwestern hills of England, I felt called to go find out more. At this point my own work had reached a deeply invested place with regard to sharing stories about the Anthropocene, climate change, and the Sixth Mass Extinction, so it made sense to seek out others with similar troubled, yet kindred souls. With plenty of carbon attached, I found my way to the Exeter St Davids train station and then into a cab that wound its way through the hills and narrow roads leading nicely away from Exeter. Those treacherous country roads, edged with tall hedges and steep banks, ribbon through a landscape like something out of a fairy tale. It wasn’t easy finding the place, which seemed part of the point.
Embercombe is an amazingly well-maintained permaculture farm and center, sited on a large parcel of rolling moorland that contains forest, lake, yurts, biodynamic farming, green woodworking/forge/art making space, meeting areas, fire gathering places, and so forth. It is managed with obvious love and an ethos focused on the generations which will follow “in our footprints,” whatever the global conditions may be. This makes it a perfect setting for a gaggle of calamity heads with hearts heavy from the discourse of a collapsing world. A place and time to process conditions we know to be real in the midst of false narratives that contemporary life and culture are jamming into our brains.
The gathering slowly built up Friday evening as people came rolling in, setting up tents and checking into yurts. We had a group orientation and dinner— everything was very prompt on the timing. There were two simultaneous program events kicking off that evening which made for a hard decision, but I opted to begin my scheduled experiences with a folk duo, Crow Puppets, and storytelling, Tatterdemalion, on a stage built into the side of a vintage 1966 caravan complete with art, puppetry, a gypsy vibe and fashion to match. This proved to be a good choice as the stars came out amid harmonies and tales of a rugged future that shared more with the medieval past than anything in our plastic present.
Saturday we had a large group exercise in listening and getting to know each other at the Centre Fire, an indoor meeting area, followed by a gripping story by Martin Shaw called The Crow King and the Red-Bead Woman. I later heard Paul Kingsnorth speak about his new novel Beast (which is situated in a moor landscape as well), and was captivated by the songs and writings of Catrina Davies, during her session titled Living with Less: Notes and Songs from the Shed. I began to notice something of a trend around regional myth and historical fact, at times focused on themes such as Normans vs. Anglo Saxons, the Green Man, fairies, and such.
After another farm-fueled vegan meal I joined the crowd for the Thylacine Tribute Cabaret from the silly Feral Theatre, followed by more folk music from a duo called Fly Yeti Fly, and finally the music of a bluegrass/country/Celtic variety from the good ole’ boys of the Kestor String Band (featuring a guy from Chicago originally). At this point all manner of dancing started—some with obvious connections to traditions like Irish and other folk dancing. However just as this was getting going properly, adherence to schedule dictated that it be cut short—too short! And the low point of the weekend followed with a heavy-handed performative push to the “procession.” This meant we were sternly herded out only to have to re-enter in strict silence and endure a long performance of chanting and more storytelling followed by the complicated dispersal of odd tasting mead (we were all tightly packed after a full, wet day of much storytelling/folk music/sitting). The party vibe continued to be held at bay at the fire circle afterward with the listening of, yes, another folkish guitar singer and a long story to follow. Many were delighted at the fire that night. However I enjoyed wandering off, looking at the Milky Way above, so clear and mixing with the clouds over the hills near the Atlantic, and even saw a few shooting stars later on.
Sunday’s activities included Walking the Territory featuring Monique Besten (my new buddy) and Nick Hunt, an artist and writer who walk great distances to experience time, history, culture, and the elements. After this session I chose to skip a “Re-wilding the Mind” workshop in favor of just taking my own long walk in the deeper woods on the grounds. I found quite a few more campsites in there, cozy fire circles, some primitive shelters, and a sweet caravan that was parked (perhaps forever) with a harmonious natural homestead built around it. I kept hearing children’s voices and thought it was the wind pushing their sound from the larger tent village, but I later discovered some kids had been exploring a long overgrown gully that ran the length of the woods. It was quite a sight to see these fresh-faced boys emerge from the thick growth, so confident and curious!
Many people were impressed with a session by David Abram in the main hall, but I was already beginning to detach from the program at that point, which raises the question, “if you are no longer interested in the stories Dark Mountain is telling us, and also the stories civilization tells us, then what ARE the stories that might bring meaning and joy to the future?” Of course this is meant rhetorically, as I did really enjoy my time there. It was just great to be present and have the chance to lie on a bed of moor grass, alive and in the moment. I met some very cool people, had more than casual conversations, shared my energy, and received their various gifts in return. I will cherish the memory of skipping an afternoon presentation in favor of chatting with some excellent souls while the rain sprayed just beyond our mugs of warm tea. I highly recommend a visit to www.dark-mountain.net, and perhaps one day I will be lucky to see some of my fellow dystopians in person again.
All Photos by Doug Fogelson.