Singing to trees and Indigenous wisdom: the UK festival aiming to prevent ecological collapse

By Phoebe Weston – The Guardian – Mar 30, 2023

The explorer and documentary maker Bruce Parry pushed his penis inside his body on his 2005 BBC show Tribe in an effort to be accepted by the Kombai people in New Guinea, before turning white and having to lie down. He would do whatever it took to assimilate, including taking hallucinogenic drugs, drinking blood and running naked across the backs of a row of cattle.

Now he is focusing his energies closer to home. He is using the knowledge he gained from Indigenous societies around the world to encourage people in the UK to form stronger communities that can take meaningful action to halt ecological destruction.

“I’m not a romantic person about tribal people – I’ve seen dark shit going down,” says Parry, speaking to a crowd of 100 people at Primal Gathering, a “regenerative” festival held at 42 Acres estate in Somerset earlier this month.

Explorer and documentary maker Bruce Parry speaking in a session at Primal Gathering.
Explorer and documentary maker Bruce Parry speaking in a session at Primal Gathering. Photograph: Ana Torres/Courtesy of Primal Gathering

Primal Gathering has held five retreats in Portugal, and this is the first in the UK. As well as a temporary population of about 140 participants, the land is home to deer, otter, beavers and hares. With the first days of spring dawning, the birds are swooning at each other and frisky frogs are delighting in waterlogged paths. There’s mud everywhere.

The idea is that people come on to the land, improve it and connect with it on a spiritual or emotional level. The organisation describes itself as “an environmentally, socially, and psychologically regenerative culture design consultancy”. People rationally understand the climate crisis, it argues, but they do not act on it – many no longer trust institutions and politics, and the retreat is an opportunity to create communities that can engender action.

We are planting 1,000 sea buckthorn trees and inoculating 120 logs with mushrooms in return for squatting on the land (although I am sleeping in a rather nice bijou houseboat). Parry is speaking in a converted barn full of fairy lights, plants, flags and soft places to sit. He is here to talk about the beauty of anarchism, and his experience of living with the Penan people in Borneo, whom he sees as a model for egalitarian society as they have no hierarchy. He went back after filming Tribe to make his own show about them, and now promotes their lifestyle elsewhere.

“I’ve seen the destruction that has been caused by the way we live our lives. We have no fucking clue about that because it’s all over the hill. But I’ve been there, and I’ve seen it, and it’s real and it’s coming home to roost,” Parry says.

Dance and yoga sessions replaced coffee as a means of waking up each morning of the festival.
Dance and yoga sessions replace coffee as a means of waking up each morning. Photograph: Ana Torres/Courtesy of Primal Gathering

“For me, there’s no question that behaviour change is the only thing that is actually going to solve this … We’re all hypocrites, just being British on a daily basis. Compared to my friends who are nomadic hunter gatherers in the forest, it’s untenable.”

I also meet a 14-year-old with three knives and a catapult in her pocket, a professional play fighter (flown in from Portugal to lead a class) and one of the UK’s most influential environment lawyers, Farhana Yamin. There are no narcotics or stimulants, not even coffee, because it interferes with how we feel our body, we’re told.

Someone gives me a couple of vials of a mushroom called lion’s mane, which is said to increase focus and concentration. Dance and yoga wake other people up each morning. The workshops include “authentic relating” and a flute circle.

The festival also makes use of local indigenous wisdom, in the form of a practising Druid, Chris Park, who with a folk musician, Sam Lee, leads walking in a figure of eight between two trees in silence. We then sing to an oak, which is called the “grandmother tree” (apparently 500 years old), asking for guidance and inspiration. I look around and try to catch someone’s eye, wondering if anyone else finds this a bit surreal. It appears I am surrounded by converts.

“Welcome, you benevolent beings,” we are told by the event organisers. There are breathing exercises and we hear from people who are “constantly learning from the Indigenous” (few of whom any of us have actually met, I presume). Cries of “we love you” randomly erupt from the crowd. Buzzwords are honesty, service, self-initiative, setting the intention, and authenticity.

Paul Powlesland, co-founder of Lawyers for Nature during a workshop.
Paul Powlesland, co-founder of Lawyers for Nature, during a workshop. Photograph: Ana Torres/Courtesy of Primal Gathering

Despite my cynicism, many people tell me how important this event is. The climate crisis is the “elephant in the room”, one tells me. “I can’t tell you how much this festival means to me,” says another. Many seem motivated out of grief and loss of a loved one. Mistrust stretches into other areas of life – many talk of their dislike of Covid vaccines and lockdowns.

Paul Powlesland, a barrister and co-founder of Lawyers for Nature, has taken part in dozens of these events over the past decade, which he said helped change him from being vice-chair of the Conservative Association at Cambridge University to a nature activist.

“I’m a fundamentally changed person, and not one event did that but all that osmosis of the different events over the past 15 years,” he says. “I’m pretty certain a lot of people at this event will have a transformation – maybe a subtle one – in how they live their life and how they relate to nature.”

Me and My Parklet story - Dr Lynne Friedli, Islington, Mayton Street , London The local children help out with gardening on their way to school in the mornings

He is here to encourage people to become guardians of their local nature, as he is doing on the River Roding , where he lives in London. His message is that individuals can do more than big organisations if they profoundly love their local area.

He talks to the audience about activism and leads a tree identification walk. “I think this event is more than the sum of its parts – there is something about being here for four or five days, all the different things one on top of the other, influencing you,” he says. “It works through you, and changes you.”

Powlesland says these events are necessary but not enough to bring people together to tackle ecological collapse because only people with free time and a certain amount of money are able to attend (most are here for six days, which if you are camping is normally £350, including all meals, though many qualify for a reduction in the price).

Sessions at the festival included play fighting, ‘authentic relating’, tree identification and a flute circle.
Sessions at the festival include play fighting, ‘authentic relating’, tree identification and a flute circle. Photograph: Ana Torres/Courtesy of Primal Gathering

Similarly, he says, the tree planting that happens today won’t make a big difference – it’s what they do after they leave the festival that counts: connection must lead to action. “If the spiritual element is not allied to actual restoration, it can sound really wanky,” he says.

Yamin is an international climate lawyer who worked on the Paris agreement, advised world leaders for 30 years, coordinated the creation of Extinction Rebellion, and is pushing for more community engagement with the climate crisis. Yamin says we have created international agreements to address ecological collapse, but we need to get ordinary people onboard.

We need to create what she calls “communities of practice”, and she believes events like this festival are essential because they create new types of experimental community engagement. “They are tackling systemic injustice in ways that are compelling and unifying … That’s a big paradigm shift. We are moving away from the age of rock stars and individuals who create history, or big inventions, to recognising that actually a lot of collaborative work goes on before a breakthrough happens.”

Festival-goers sing to the ‘grandmother tree’.
Festival-goers sing to the ‘grandmother tree’. Photograph: Ana Torres/Courtesy of Primal Gathering

What is happening is a new experiment that could lead to behavioural spillover that does have positive impact, says Yamin. She describes new economies being based on “care, compassion and kindness”, as opposed to “production and extraction”.

Some of the language rolled out at the festival sounds like a trope – the word “authentic” is used too much. I struggle to take communicating with trees seriously. But countless communities will need to form to tackle the climate crisis, and this is one that will probably create ripples of action in its own way.

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