Late one night last August, on the chalk downlands of southern England, Paul Kingsnorth stood in a field beside an old-growth forest, two yurts and a composting toilet. Kingsnorth is 41, tall, slim and energetic, with sweeping brown hair and a sparse beard. He wears rimless glasses and a silver stud in his ear, and he talks with great ardor, often apologizing for having said too much or for having said it too strongly.
On this occasion, Kingsnorth was silent. It was the final night of Uncivilization, an outdoor festival run by the Dark Mountain Project, a loose network of ecologically minded artists and writers, and he was standing with several dozen others waiting for the festival’s midnight ritual to begin. Kingsnorth, a founder of the group, had already taken part in several sessions that day, including one on contemporary nature writing; a panel about the iniquities of mainstream psychiatric care; and a reading from his most recent book, “The Wake,” a novel set in the 11th century and written in a “shadow language” — a mash-up of Old and modern English. He had also helped his two young children assemble a train set while trying to encapsulate his views on climate change and environmental degradation in what Kingsnorth describes as an era of global disruption. The “human machine,” as he sometimes puts it, has grown to such a size that breakdown is inevitable. What, then, do we do?
In the clearing, above a pyre, someone had erected a tall wicker sculpture in the shape of a tree, with dense gnarls and hanging hoops. Four men in masks knelt at the sculpture’s base, at cardinal compass points. When midnight struck, a fifth man, his head shaved smooth and wearing a kimono, began to walk slowly around them. As he passed the masked figures, each ignited a yellow flare, until finally, his circuit complete, the bald man set the sculpture on fire. For a couple of minutes, it was quiet. Then as the wicker blazed, a soft chant passed through the crowd, the words only gradually becoming clear: “We are gathered. We are gathered. We are gathered.”
After that came disorder. A man wearing a stag mask bounded into the clearing and shouted: “Come! Let’s play!” The crowd broke up. Some headed for bed. A majority headed for the woods, to a makeshift stage that had been blocked off with hay bales and covered by an enormous nylon parachute. There they danced, sang, laughed, barked, growled, hooted, mooed, bleated and meowed, forming a kind of atavistic, improvisatory choir. Deep into the night, you could hear them from your tent, shifting every few minutes from sound to sound, animal to animal and mood to mood.
The next morning over breakfast, Dougie Strang, a Scottish artist and performer who is on Dark Mountain’s steering committee, asked if I’d been there. When he left, at 3 a.m., he said, people were writhing in the mud and singing, in harmony, the children’s song “Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” (“If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise.”) “Wasn’t it amazing?” he said, grinning. “It really went mental. I think we actually achieved uncivilization.”