This weekend just gone saw the coming and going of Imbolc—the first of the spring festivals in the pagan and druidic calendar. It marks the time of year when snowdrops begin to peek through the frozen ground, when candles are lit in pools of bright, cold water, when wells are dressed, and we renew ourselves for the coming of the year ahead. I don’t always mark the passing of these festivals formally, but I do always like to keep them in mind. To stay in touch with the viscous rhythm of the seasons, which Western society tries so hard to alienate itself from.
This year, as it happened, Imbolc fell on the same weekend as The Telling: an event of post-civilised misrule organised and put on by, amongst others, my friend Warren. And so Dylan and I packed up our bags, and set off for Doncaster to see what this weekend on the cusp of the turning year might bring.
Before I start, however…
What is The Telling?
This one’s actually easier said than done. The Telling is difficult to explain. It’s an event that comes from the knowledge that the world we are living in at the moment is transitory—that the bubble we have made around ourselves will likely burst any time now, and we stand upon the very precipice of catastrophic change. The Telling sees this, and it knows that if we are to survive then the only way that we can do that is by finding new ways to live: By building new communities, telling new stories of the world we live in, learning new skills, and finding ways to form a more healthy relationship with our environment. It is about powered-down storytelling, music, poetry and workshops, it is about resistance, and building alternative spaces. But more than all these things it is about bringing people and ideas together, and seeing what happens in the melting pot.
Where is The Telling?
At the moment, The Telling is in the courtyard of a partially-ruined building in Doncaster which is in the process of being refitted. While the developers slowly try to get the money together to build a centre for the arts and office space, vagrants like us get to make some use of it.
As a place of transition, a ruin is the perfect environment for the suspension of reality-that-is. For the propagation of healthy disbelief which seems to settle over The Telling like the last winter snow. One whole wall of the courtyard is covered in a gigantic mural of archers, balloons and skeletons which is impressive in the day, but even more so in the firelight. It is a space that has one foot in this world, and one foot in another.
On Sunday, when the cleaning up was almost done, I snuck away and spent twenty minutes or so just wandering through the ruined rooms and corridors of the building itself—uncovering its silence and its secrets, and treading lightly on its unlit stairwells.
Keeping the Sacred Fire
It was already growing late by the time that we arrived on Friday, and we didn’t stay for very long. Just long enough to exchange a few words and hugs, and watch one of the short films playing in cellar of the building. However, Just Do It more than managed to put my head right space for what was yet to come. It told the story of a group of climate change activists and their many battles. Battles, amongst other things, to shut down coal-fired power stations, attend the G20 protests in Copenhagen, and reclaim a space just outside Heathrow airport to plant a garden. Their bravery and resourcefulness was warming. More than that: It is almost catalytic.
“If you want to get involved,” says activist Marina Pepper. “Then do it. I started out just making people cups of tea.” As somebody who’s slowly working on making the transition from a traditional way of living into something far more radical, holistic and sustainable, I took her words into my heart as I fell asleep that night, and became determined to carry them on with me.
In this spirit, many cups of tea and bowls of food were made the following day. We started early, and set off with our friend from our overnighting spot in York—returning south to Doncaster. The night before, we’d heard whispered rumours of dancing giants, but I had no idea what to expect. As it turns out, these giants have a long folk tradition throughout Europe, and are tangentially linked to the wicker men I’m more familiar with. This particular pair (called War and Peace) were gifted to the city of Sheffield by Catalonia over twenty years ago. They each weigh around nine stone, are about fifteen feet in height, and the porters carry them on their shoulders for the dance. The dances themselves are incredibly overwhelming to watch—something about the giants’ expressionless, unblinking faces as they draw close to one another is both intensely intimate and utterly inhuman. They literally made the hairs stand up on my neck.
There were several other awesome things going on throughout the day, including a workshop on bread-making and an incredibly successful one on sewing, embroidery and mending. However, most of the rest of my day was spent around the furnace.
The bloomery was set up in one corner of the courtyard by an experimental archaeologist who very patiently explained the process to me and answered all my questions. On the trip down in the morning, my friend had been talking about a radio show she had listened to a week or so before, discussing the amount of energy needed to power a car: “Have you ever tried to push your car down the street?” someone on the show had asked. “Well, imagine pushing it at sixty miles an hour down a motorway to wherever you want to go, and think about just how much energy that might take.” Smelting metal, it turns out, isn’t so very different.
The entire process, as far as I understand it, goes a little bit like this: Long before any of us even got there, Barney (the archaeologist) spent ten hours over several days building the body of the bloomery out of clay, sand and straw. He also acquired the three huge bags of charcoal, pallets and dry wood, and bag of iron ore that would be needed. Historically, for example in 700BC when this style of smelting was first used in Britain, all of these things would have had a massive amount of effort put into gathering and preparing them—from felling the wood, preparing the charcoal and mining the ore, to growing and harvesting the straw and digging out the clay and sand. And all of that had to be done before we could even think about starting to smelt metal.
The actual smelting process had started at some point in the morning when the bloomery was packed with wood to heat it up and dry it out, then the bottom was stopped up and it was filled with charcoal and charges of ore. For about seven hours that day, someone needed to be there to smash the iron ore up with rocks and feed ore and charcoal into the furnace. All the while, someone else needed to be working the bellows—which ad to run right from the moment that the whole process started until the very end.
By the time we were done, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was bloody exhausted. We opened the bloomery up at about seven o’clock that night, and Barney dug through the embers until he recovered a lump of semi-solid red-white, about the size of two fists. Before that metal can be made usable, it would need to be further worked by a blacksmith to remove some of the impurities. When all was said and done, I was assured that we’d probably have about enough metal to make a dagger. And this was on a good day. Apparently, sometimes you put in all that work and energy only to crack the thing open at the end of the day and find nothing at all inside.
The resources invested in the form of materials and manpower left me completely staggered, and unable to avoid one quintessential truth: That the things around us which we take so much for granted require the input of unimaginably huge amounts of energy. That as we run out of all the petrochemicals (and the outsourced oppression of an impoverished and faraway workforce) that has made it possible for us to have these things, more and more of this energy will have to come from us. That sitting around and talking about how to survive the collapse is all well and good, but what it is actually going to mean is getting out there, mining metals, chopping trees, charcoal-burning, bloomery-building and bellows-working, all for little or no return in the way of useable resources. These are the processes of life that we have worked so hard to isolate ourselves from over the past few hundred years, and part of living a post-civilised life must be to re-learn these skills and prepare ourselves to work, work, work for the things that we need to produce.
It isn’t the pretty side of post-civilisation where we all sit around and pontificate ideas. Talking is certainly important, but it cannot be the whole of what we’re doing. The reality will present us with new challenges—particularly in how we form our social groups and distribute our work. It will raise new problems for those who are elderly or differently-abled which we have to work together as a community to solve.
But it isn’t something bleak or horrific that we should shy away from. It is also rewarding, and it puts us back in touch with our own methods of production. It gives us power and control back over our lives and the things that we fill them with. When we pulled that misshapen lump of metal out of the furnace, I could quite literally have hugged everyone within a ten meter radius—and hell, I wasn’t even around for a significant proportion of the work that had to go in to producing it.
I do not have the time or space here to do the rest of the evening any sort of justice. Needless to say that it was all fantastic: From the marine flares and dancing foxes (which later spent ten minutes chasing me around the courtyard) to the reading of the Winterlands that Dylan and I did before the fire, and from the deep roots of myth in the story of Cinderella told by Shona Leigh, to the Mabinogion-inspired musical beauty of Sharron Kraus. I think one of my favourite moments came from the performance by Bellowhead‘s Jon Boden. His Songs from the Floodplain were deliciously post-apocalyptic, but more than that, his soft, acoustic performance of ‘I Want to Dance with Somebody‘ as the kind of song that might just survive the end of the world, and be sung around the tiny campfires of the future, was spellbinding. Maybe it was just the exhaustion and the alcohol, but in that moment I could fully believe that we were seeing some glimpse into the far future—where only fragments of our Age of Oil remain.
The whole point of Imbolc, if there is one, is that it stands for new beginnings. It is a fire festival—one of the most venerated and ancient times of year that has been marked by our ancestors since time immemorial. It is sacred Brigid: A goddess of pure, untempered creation who watches over the forge and the songsmith in equal measure. And amongst the fires dotted around the courtyard where people gathered to warm their hands, in the voices of the poets and the speakers and the singers which rose above the crackling embers, and most especially in the many long hours of work over the furnace, it is easy to believe that she was still right there with us.