Dark Mountain

I’m back home from a summer break in Scotland, part of which I spent in Eshieshields, a small estate in Annandale hidden amongst lush woodland and populated by red squirrels and hares.  My friends Em and Dougs live there in a tied cottage, raising their children, tending the land, keeping chickens and practising their art and writing.  There’s something magical about the place: the big white house, in Scottish baronial tradition, has a tower which rises against the landscape.  The outbuildings have been converted into a space for gatherings, teaching and performance.  It was here, on the first day of my visit, that the barn was transformed into a stage for storytelling.

The story came from Russian folklore – that of Ivashko Medevko  – a tale of strength, moral courage and journeying through the underworld, told by wordsmith Tom Hirons and artist Rima Staines.  They painted their own cloth backdrop, lit the woodburner and placed candles strategically around the room.  It became a sacred space.  In the darkness, the words spoken by Tom and the music woven into the narrative by Rima’s accordion playing silenced the audience.  We were enticed into the story: travelling with the protagonist Ivan the Bear child, adventuring with him, facing the dark horrors of his antagonist, the witch Baba Yaga.  For an hour, we were held in the thrall of words and music, narrative and imagination.  The children in the audience barely moved.

We think of storytelling as an old-fashioned thing, perhaps, something belonging to a long gone era.  But the ability of words to transform, and our search for interpretations of the story that are meaningful to us, are still as powerful today as in the days before technology and electronic entertainment.  Tom and Rima, like my friends Em and Dougs, belong to a group called Dark Mountain: a collective of people who believe that, in these times of a crumbling post-Enlightenment society and ecological uncertainty, art and literature can help us rediscover our way.  ‘With stories, with art, with symbols and layers of meaning we stalk those elusive aspects of reality that go undreamed of in our philosophy. The storyteller weaves the mysterious into the fabric of life, lacing it with the comic, the tragic, the obscene, making safe paths through dangerous territory’ (Dark Mountain manifesto).

This stands in contrast to the stories, over the centuries, which we have told ourselves about ‘our genius, our indestructibility, our manifest destiny as a chosen species.’  As humans, the Dark Mountain project believes, storytelling of this kind has led us to achieve what we have achieved, and led the planet to the brink of ecological crisis.  ‘The two are intimately linked. We believe they must decoupled if anything is to remain.’

So the moral responsibility of artists and storytellers, creative and philosophers, they believe, is to embrace art as activism.  This isn’t a rejection of humanity but an acceptance, an affirmation of what it means to be human: ‘to accept the world for what it is and to make our home here, rather than dreaming of relocating to the stars, or existing in a Man-forged bubble and pretending to ourselves that there is nothing outside it to which we have any connection at all’ (Manifesto).

Tom and Rima’s performance at Elshieshields was precisely this kind of re-storying. It told of human flaws and strengths, of love and courage and commitment.  For me, it did what it set out to do: weave a tiny piece of magic into the fabric of the everyday, allowing me to pause, take stock and reflect on what it means to be alive.