The Dark Mountain

I have not stopped pretending. I’ve not joined the winding caravan to the valley beneath Dark Mountain – nor descended from her peak, confident as rock and ocean. Yet I sort of agree with the eight principles of the Dark Mountain Manifesto, copied below. Sort of? What kind of proposition is that? Well, sort of is what’s missing from the manifesto.


“We must unhumanise our views a little, and become confident as the rock and ocean that we were made from.”

I’ve started badly by disliking the quotation – confidence is the problem, not the solution. I’ll consult the principles one at a time.

1.We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.

My “sort of agree” finds disagreement in that there is insufficient guilt at our personal contributions to that unravelling. I agree with the first two sentences. But facing reality honestly doesn’t have the healing power of contrition and reparation. We have a social problem. I distrust presented honesty. It proposes personal achievement – achieved integrity – superiority – hubris.

2.We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.

It’s true that technological and political solutions which maintain or “green” current ways of living are futile. We must change how we live. However, the tools we’ll need do present a “set of problems”. Reductionist and holistic thinking are both essential parts of all settlements and of all thinking. We’ll need to be very busy with very many problems. Solving particular problems in particular ways is a delightful thing. We love our garden sheds.

3.We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths

I agree.

4.We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.

We also weave lies, political illusions, excuses, pedestals, messianic visions, false incantations… Cultures emerge and narratives follow. Where narratives emerge and cultures follow has been evident in the failures of communism, fascism, capitalism – in the myths of economic growth and progress.

Meanwhile, real footsteps meet surprise, pain, delight, comedy and tragedy. We can tell the tale of the footstep only after the step has been taken, weaving moral spirit into both right step and wrong step. (We will take both) We can weave tales of inheritance and ancestry, but we must collide with reality – finding surprise, delight, bruised shins and punctured egos – to find reality – and before beginning to weave with it.

6.We will celebrate writing and art which is grounded in a sense of place and of time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.

Pure brutalist, scapegoat fascism

7.We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.

Once, I attended a Dark Mountain gathering and met none with metaphorical fingernail dirt. I found theory and ideology. True, I met musicians of a skill that could only be built by hard work, but for the rest, the above (principle 7) has provoked me to react that I found lost souls, without skills to impart. How fulfilling (for lost souls) to find that elemental, cut-stone words might build fields and towns of resilient culture! Druidic catalysts – word on stone make primal citizens of dark mountaineers. But faced, first with stone, and then with words, I reckon that ordinary, frail, diffident, curious, doubtful, convivial Everyman might find better solutions to both dressing stone and discussing the work than a proudly elemental dark mountaineer.

8.The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.

Agree – because it contains the word unknown, which connects to another, doubt and also to the phrase, sort of… In that unknown, a culture may emerge, where three anciently-embedded words have been tentatively saved as seed and then re-sown. Landing by chance on both fertile and stony ground, they are faith, hope and charity.


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2 Responses to The Dark Mountain

  1. Dougald Hine says:

    Dear Patrick,

    Thanks for pointing me towards this. It may sound strange, since you invited me to ‘demolish’ you, but I find this kind of engagement with the manifesto a more heartening experience than any blanket enthusiasm. It feels like a starting point for a convivial conversation, even if we might want to take each other to task over a few things, here and there. Doing all this through keyboards and screens is a poor substitute for that conversation, but let’s have a go…

    Before I come around to some of the specific points you make, I want to bring in a couple of things written later, that add some context to the manifesto. In the editorial to the first book, Paul and I wrote:

    ‘Writing a manifesto is like speaking through a megaphone. Your voice sounds different; you find yourself coming out with slogans that might be out of place in ordinary conversation. The language you use, the way that you use it – everything is amplified. It needs to be, or you don’t get heard.’

    The cost of that amplification (and I was thinking of Illich’s comments on the loudspeaker in Silence is a Commons, while writing those lines) is a loss of subtlety, conviviality and provisionality. How could I disagree with your suggestion that ‘sort of’ ought to be appended to those strident statements of ours? I can only add that it ought to be appended to almost any use of language! I doubt if I’ll write another manifesto – it’s not my natural way of using language – but in this case, I think the megaphone did something useful, which brings me to the second afterthought I wanted to quote, from my introduction to the 2014 edition:

    ‘If you were to ask either of us, five years on, whether we stand by what we wrote in this manifesto, I suspect our answers would be similar. We stand by it, not as a stockade to be defended, but as a first attempt to say something, to work out how to say something, the fuller significance of which we are still discovering in the company of a growing gang of friends and collaborators, most of whom would never have met if we hadn’t been brave enough, or foolish enough, to commit these words to print.’

    So, with all that in mind, I won’t try to take up everything you’ve said here – and there are places where I only ‘sort of’ agree with the way we phrased things eight years ago – but there are also a few points where I want to suggest another way of looking at things.

    On the second principle, then – the target here is not ‘problem-solving’ per se, but a ‘faith’ that our situation can be ‘reduced’ to a set of problems with ‘technological or political “solutions”‘. I don’t think I’d come across John Michael Greer’s distinction between a ‘problem’ and a ‘predicament’ when we wrote this, but I’ve found it a useful way of clarifying this point in the years since. A problem is something that can be fixed and it goes away; a predicament is something that can’t be fixed, so you have to figure out a way of living with it. (I often use the example of mortality – there are those who treat the knowledge that they will die someday as a problem, and make preparations to freeze their bodies or upload their consciousness into machines, but for myself I find it saner to treat it as a predicament.) So, I absolutely see the solving of particular problems as part of what’s called for by the situation in which we find ourselves – the danger is the unexamined belief that reduces our situation to a set of problems that can be solved, without reference to anything beyond technology/politics (or, I’d add, economics).

    On the fourth principle – if I’ve understood rightly, the point you’re making here is one that resonates with the metaphor of stories as maps which comes up elsewhere in the manifesto. You can draw many maps of a given landscape, no single map has a monopoly on the truth, and different maps may draw to our attention different elements within that landscape – but if your map includes a path that leads you off a cliff, you’re going to need wings or an ambulance. Much of the manifesto is taken up with reflection on what happens when the stories that people like to tell in a given time and place are dangerously out of line with the reality in which we find ourselves, when our stories have become (or maybe always were) bad maps, leading us off cliffs. I think the difficulty with this principle, the thing you’ve bruised your shin on, is a weakness in the use of language – ‘reality’ is being applied to two different things, the landscape in which we are navigating and the experience of the navigator. ‘It is through stories that we weave reality’ – when set against stories as ‘entertainment’ – is an affirmation of the power of stories and the impossibility of living without them. The claim here is that reality-as-experienced is always shaped by stories, whether we’re aware of it or not, and can’t be disentangled from them – that we don’t know how to navigate the territory of being human without making use of stories, and that it’s when we tell ourselves that we have outgrown the need for stories that the risk of the story-as-bad-map becomes most dangerous. But I can see that, on its own, the principle could be taken to endorse a different position, ‘reality-as-the-landscape is whatever story I want to tell about it’, which is also likely to lead to people walking off cliff edges!

    On the sixth principle – this is where you seem to be making a massive leap. Yes, I can see the choice of words here has historical echoes that might better have been avoided. But what’s actually being said here? Let me quote a bit from the manifesto where this point is developed further: ‘The big names of contemporary literature are equally at home in the fashionable quarters of London or New York, and their writing reflects the prejudices of the placeless, transnational elite to which they belong.’ This is about writers like Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, to whose lives (let alone their books) extraordinary acres of newsprint have been devoted, and whose opinions are given great weight by the same newspapers. Are you going to tell me that these aren’t the figures who dominate the official version of contemporary literature? Or that their much-publicised opinions don’t reflect the similarity of their life experience to that of the circles around Tony Blair or David Cameron? Then we list the writers who we want to celebrate, including John Berger, Alan Garner, Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver. Given the seriousness with which you’re engaging with the rest of what we wrote, it just seems a bit cheap to reduce this to a smear about fascism.

    On the seventh principle – now, here, on the other hand, I have to give you some ground. (And I’m intrigued as to which event it was you came to…) Living on a smallholding in Ireland, Paul can claim some dirt under his fingernails, and there are a good few folks around the heart of Dark Mountain who make a living as builders, carpenters and gardeners. But I won’t pretend they’re not outnumbered among those who come to such events by those you’re provoked to call the ‘lost souls’.

    Ah, Patrick, this would have been a lot more fun in the flesh, I feel. With keyboards and screens, it’s so easy to lose the spirit of the conversation. But I hope there might be a chance of arriving at a better understanding of where each other are coming from.

    Liked by 2 people

    • bryncocyn says:

      Dougald – Yes, what a lovely conversation it could be – and thank you for the open-hearted and fulsome reply. So much on a page finds contrary positions that are, in truth, but arguments inside one’s parochial head. Words find themselves attached quite inappropriately to real figures in our own parish, while the speaker is out of sight in other, to us, exotic meanings. You must also bear in mind that I don’t get out much.

      Actually the last point to which you gave some ground, is the one, with which I was least comfortable myself! I don’t at all mind lost souls, but I do mind those boasting of dirt under their fingernails. I’ve just come in for lunch after sorting through the potato bins and bagging some spuds for the weekend’s markets. My fingernails are a bit dirty, but nothing to boast about – it’s been a relaxed sort of morning. Without lost souls, we’d not have some of our loveliest music and literature, in which lost souls were found again. I found the souls to whom I must apologise in Llangollen.

      Yes. The sixth principle – we were in different worlds. I transferred my imagination to places where I also imagined people living with their senses of those places – their childhood memories – their culture and their writing about it. I rushed to their defence – to the egalitarian barricades. Did Dark Mountain begin as a place to gather new storytellers? That may explain our displaced meanings, because I fully understand and applaud your list of proper and improper writers and their political affiliation. I see now that you were speaking of placeless literature and not of urban literature. Yet, there’s an arrogance to some ruralist writers – to which I may over-react.

      Problem and predicament – Yes!

      I’m sorry that my response is so short, but it’s a lovely day in the parish of Llannefydd.

      I’ve been delighted to explore those new meanings.


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