Sunday 17 July 2011

Dark Mountain

THERE'S A SOUND that comes from the hedgerows in July: a green sound, a great cacophony of young birds with new wings, shouting their proud freedoms over the million wonderful brown rustlings underneath; it's a warm song of summer beginning in earnest, and it sings to our hearts of adventure under the long-eveninged skies. Hedgerows and waysides have always sung to me like this, in their beautiful chords of the season. As a tiny child I keenly peered into the holes made by Who-Knows-Whats and thrilled at the knotwork sorcery of roots. On the verges grew a wild library for me: weeds and truant grasses thrived unnoticed and yet held in their pages stories I was sure were important and ancient and wise. I have never stopped loving those roadsides that flash by beyond car windows, those mighty green kingdoms of undergrowth bordering our highways and byways. And I have always suspected that the feeling conjured in me by an old old hedgerow, gripping the centuries-old earth banks as I walk alongside it, is somehow a key: a heart-sign, deep beneath words in me, calling me to follow.

The congregations of the waysides have always drawn me too: those outcasts and travellers, peddlers, hobbledehoys, lunatics and vagabonds who make their art in the ditches and say their truths to all who pass by. I've long felt this edge-territory home: I make camp behind the road signs, draw faces in the dust where the sparrows bathe, and I watch. And I wonder about them all travelling so fast past... Where are they going? Who are they travelling with? What would we talk about if they stopped for a pee?
Have you ever had your head turned by the wonderful incongruous sight of a Gypsy wagon parked up on a roundabout as you drove by, a horse grazing on verge grass, and a man lighting a fire in the middle of this green island-in-the-tarmac as the unceasing slick of traffic roars on? That's the feeling I'm talking about - the leap in your chest, the feeling of being eye-witness to a still-possible dream, the joy of knowing it.

These are strange times: many many people have stopped really believing in dreams, or at best have packaged them up in a sickly little dollshouse called whimsy. We have been told a fairly grim tale: a grey snake of a tale that eats its own tail to form the 9-to-5 hamster wheel of progress. There's always a but just after a wild thought, a rote-learned reason for not being able to live the life you really wanted, and civilisation put it there.
Yet still there's a truth within us that yearns and hammers at the insides of our chests when we spy something from that other place, that other time and it recognises us in turn. And the ones who paint the poems which cause our inner truths to hammer like this are the artists, the wild ones, the glorious nutters - we all recognise them. Fondest of all perhaps, we recognise Earth's own green poem ringing in tune with our heart-harp-strings.

And these, these are the tunes I hear coming from the pipe of that colourful-coated traveller there in my painting. The tune he plays is in the key of hedgerow and yearning, it is the colour of love and oak leaves, and its words are older and more familiar than the cries we ourselves made as babies.

I'm not a joiner of groups or a follower of isms. I don't like ideologies or the fences they put up. But I was utterly taken recently by a manifesto written by the excellent steersmen of something called the Dark Mountain Project. And not long after I found myself nodding in utter agreement with their words, they asked me to paint the front cover of their second book!

I've struggled somewhat to describe succinctly what exactly the Dark Mountain Project is when people have asked, but I hope that what I've written above conjures something of the spark in me that it feels akin to.
Their flag flies for something they call Uncivilisation (what better thing to fly your flag for?!) - a kind of steep brambly path towards some sort of wild and old truth which we are invited to head for as the citadels of civilisation crumble around us. The thing is, they say, in removing ourselves from nature (as if we were not part of  it), we have forgotten the importance of stories, though they are being woven around us second by second in the advertisement-saturated fast-paced life of now. We are all constantly telling ourselves stories about How Things Are; these stories are tweaked and upheld and strive to keep us feeling safe. But their threads are coming loose and we're beginning to see the face of the Storyteller beyond the woodsmoke. He's reminding us of the old stories, the ones that thrummed in us and in the earth, the ones that were true, and not just sleeping pills to keep the economy "growing".

The Dark Mountain fellows cheer the outsiders too, of course - they call for them in fact - to come and climb this mountain, and to bring their stories, their paintings, their poetry to the fireside - so that we can find the old paths again. What I really like about Dark Mountain is that it's not a Way to be prescribed, it's perhaps something more like a language: mutable with time and tongue, adaptable to the speaker. And I like too that they uphold beauty as something important. Their books are an attempt to gather writing that speaks to this realness in us, the truth that recognises that things these days are not quite as we are being told, the truth that offers something different and beautiful.
Their books contain poetry, thought, essays, interviews, recipes, art, stories, histories, futures, all beautifully written. I was honoured to be asked to paint the skin of this endeavour. It's an important and resonant thing, and I urge you to buy a copy for yourself. It also coincides with and celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Luddite rebellion. Throughout the book, there's a focus on an honest acceptance of death, and a hopeful forward-looking, there's earthiness and lyricism. And who could not cheer on a project that promises to write with dirt under its fingernails?

Dark Mountain pages...

And so to my painting... here on a piece of scrap wood found in a skip I have painted a kind of Pied Piper - a figure and a story which have long lured me - but which also felt apt, as he too, boundary walker and soul-stirrer-music-maker, was heading for the mountains.... He plays an aulos - or diaulos - a double-piped flute from ancient Greece, often depicted being played by the god Pan, or other satyrs. It is a reeded instrument said to sound similar to the bagpipes (as one of the pipes would have played the drone, the other the tune). I gave my traveller a split pipe to hint at the dual nature of things, the alpha/omega, yin/yang wheel, without being too specific. He pipes up a tune for a gathering crowd of misfits who appear to be preparing for a journey. As always in my paintings, these folk are the odd ones. Amongst them are old and young, happy and weary, there's a cockerel, a handcart, conjoined twins of different races, and a certain hound. And the keen eyed will spot the one who was left behind in the original Pied Piper tale, who for me stands for something important too, here he's a misfit amongst misfits...

Their gold coloured road takes them past trees and wooden huts to unknown mountains under a skyful of three pale green wild birds. I was inspired partly in the design of this by Russian lacquer work painting, where warm-coloured figures and scenes are scattered on a black background.
There's debate as to where the children went after they disappeared into the mountain, but for me the Pied Piper is not such a malevolent character as he's painted. His multi-coloured outfit hints at his membership of the motley band of trickster-fools who have danced across boundaries throughout the ages poking at entropy and stagnation with their wit and word-sticks. Perhaps the children and the rats got to see beyond the next bend in the road, and to learn by heart the map-song that the Piper played to them.

If you'd like to come and hear a little of the Dark Mountain tune, they are holding an Uncivilisation Festival in August at the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire. There'll be talks by many of the Dark Mountain writers - Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine (the co-founders of the project) as well as wonderful poets/thinkers/writers/doers from the five corners of the map. I'm particularly looking forward to hearing Jay Griffiths (author of the incredible Wild, who has an extract from her forthcoming novel of Frida Kahlo's life in this Dark Mountain book.) Also... my Tom will be doing a most wonderful telling of an Old Russian Folk Tale on the Friday night of the festival - Ivashko Medvedko - Little Ivan, Bear-Child, (he's written a beautiful introduction to this here) and apparently I'm going to be there too, in a mask, illuminating his words with my accordion.... I'm proud and excited and a bit nervous.
We'll be selling our wares for the weekend from our canvas emporium and I'll bring this painting to show; I don't think it's for sale at the moment, though soon there'll be proper nice prints of it available.

But I shall leave you now under the green leaf of your day with this parting gift - a piece of genius poem-music that is for me the most eloquent description of the kind of feeling I find in the hedgerows of this land. It is my Piper's melody and, I think, something like the Dark Mountaineers' battle-cry; in it hums the echo of that oldest tune of all that stirs the bold...

It is an epic poem by bard musician Robin Williamson - Five Denials on Merlin's Grave - set to music in an intoxicating fourteen minute paean to this island of ours, to the magic and story woven through it and under it and by it, and it thrills my heart in a powerful and unique way. I found a second hand copy of the annotated printed poem published in the year I was born. Please, please sit for a while, and listen to this on headphones, or good speakers - it will send tears of remembering down your cheeks, and loose an impossible beauty in your heart.

Uncivilisation Festival

* italicized words in the last two paragraphs are Robin Williamson's.