Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Reflections at R50 - Resurgence’s 50th Birthday Celebration: ‘One Earth, One Humanity, One Future’

22 September
I have a feeling the coming days will be an important marker for the environmental movement as well as an historic occasion for Resurgence and the many communities that are coming together around the themes of ‘One Earth, One Humanity, One Future’ for ‘R50’ - its 50th Birthday celebrations at Worcester College, Oxford. Satish Kumar is currently still Editor in Chief - the longest serving Editor of any publication in the UK. He will be handing over to the new editor Greg Neale at the end of the event and moving to a more supporting role. Satish is actually the main reason that all of these hundreds of people are gathered together, many of whom have accepted invitations to speak or attend specifically to wish him a Happy 80th Birthday year. People’s affection for him is palpable and genuine, their respect for him as a teacher and activist is a privilege to witness. Resurgence is a unique magazine dedicated to the environment, activism, social justice, arts and ethical living. Vandana Shiva the environmental activist says, “it joins what is interconnected. It is the most important magazine available.”

Resurgence Banner, Photo: Fern Smith

R50 brings so many incredible speakers, writers and activists from all over the world together. I'm due to chair a session tomorrow with three leading artist/activists two of whom I know well and have influenced me directly. I have just finished walking for three months round Wales and then four days along the River Thames in company with many other ‘pilgrims’ to be here in Oxford at this moment. It feels in fact, that I've walked my whole life to be here in this very place...

My partner Phil Ralph joins me in Oxford too since this event also marks the official launch of Emergence’s crowdfunded documentary on Satish Kumar, 'Being an Earth Pilgrim' which took us two years from inception to production to make. I've a sense this is going to be a pivotal few days in both our lives.

The opening session was a powerful and moving statement of intent, indictment of our current world order, call to action and vision of possible futures. It included contributions from Jonathan Bate, JamesSainsbury, Vandana Shiva, Satish Kumar, Prince Charles (on video) and David Puttnam. I scribbled a raft of notes throughout. These words taken from the speakers above are a radical prĂ©cis of the first two hour welcome session…

Awe, wonder and the resurgence of the human spirit,
This is true wellbeing and wealth.
We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.
But what is the role of the messenger?
In this theatre of life it’s reserved only for God/s and Angels to be lookers on.
What we resist is the destruction of the earth and human society
It's a battle worth fighting...

23 September
Breakfast at Worcester College in the beautifully impressive vaulted dining room. I wasn't up to eating much and deliberately avoided any caffeine to not trip my nerves into overdrive. I was chairing a session on arts and climate change at 11.30 and was determined not to shake and rattle my way through it!

Good friend Lucy Neal author of the brilliant book ‘Playing For Time: making art as if the world mattered’, was breakfasting with us. She was due to speak along with Peter Gingold of Tipping Point and Alice Sharpe of Invisible Dust at the session I was chairing. I'd prepared and over-prepared, which is always my way. At 11.30, we were all present in the Nash Room, the smaller of the two spaces at R50 and were ready to go…Peter reflected on the past eleven years of Tipping Point’s existence highlighting the many artworks relating to climate change that it has commissioned or inspired. Lucy spoke about her conviction that celebratory community events can act as powerful catalysts for change and Alice shared projects she’d commissioned such as High WaterLine Bristol, where residents chalked 20miles of pavements to highlight flooding. I felt privileged to be introducing these three amazing people and holding space for the conversation that was to follow. People really got a tangible sense with specific examples of the incredible role that artists have played and are playing, in documenting and responding to climate change and issues of social, ecological and economic justice WHILST ALSO helping us imagine and build the possibility of a more life-sustaining future. I had a giddy celebratory feeling after. My body tired with relief. The work of these three people is inspiring and ongoing, I urge you to have a look at their work by following the embedded links above.

Peter Gingold, Lucy Neal, Fern Smith & Alice Sharp, Photo: Alice Sharpe

After my session, I had a chance to really be at the event wholeheartedly to listen, absorb and be moved…There were so many speakers, so many choices. You couldn't see everyone especially as two sessions ran simultaneously throughout the event. You had to make difficult choices…It was an amazing line-up and you can see the whole programme here. I heard Caroline Lucas, now returned as joint-leader of the Green party, speak with calm authority and clarity describing a new political progressive alliance, "Where we have common ground we need to work together for the common good". Tim Smit from the Eden Project, spoke next - half stand-up, half sooth-sayer, "humans were in love with the natural world until they fell in love with themselves". This was only a flavour of the incredible sessions to come.

It was a beautiful warm day, with the ancient and stunning grounds of Worcester College to stroll in. Good vibrations were in the air - many meetings, talks, minds and hearts opening. Vandana Shiva, the great Indian activist, and RowanWilliams, Archbishop of Canterbury were the most incredible double bill imaginable - powerful words delivered from the heart. I knew I was slowly filling up to my limit. When Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall appeared for a  conversation with Satish, I had to disappear outside to decompress and just walk amongst the great old trees with Lucy, catching up on a summer's news. Off and out of the Worcester College grounds later into the city centre and a little Italian restaurant with Phil, Lucy and her husband Simon - our great saviour and Director of Photography for the Satish Kumar DVD - who'd just turned up for the launch. Warm company, stories swapped and making ready for tomorrow's 'grand launch' after breakfast. September slipping by. Into Autumn and onwards to the turning and the darker days to come. Till then, still blackberries to pick, dahlias to admire and sitting ducks to enjoy.

Simon Maggs & Fern Smith, Photo: Phil Ralph

24 September
Up and ready for breakfast in the great hall. I played Lucy's husband, our Satish cameraman, Simon at 5aside chess. Twenty minutes or so of manoeuvres and pawn ponderings. We prepared ourselves for maybe speaking/maybe not about our DVD in Satish's session this morning. You never know till the last minute with Satish what might happen. We’re OK with that, we are called ‘Emergence’ after all. The most likely outcome was what happened - he spoke, briefly mentioned the DVD, then played our short trailer. Here it is...

It was a proud movement. Satish is definitely behind it and clearly delighted with it which is as much as we could have asked.

Phil Ralph, Fern Smith, Satish Kumar, Jane Davidson & Simon Maggs, Photo: Roy Riley

Charles Eisenstein spoke as the other half of Satish's session. Calm, authentic and a great wordsmith. He spoke of the "conversion of nature into numbers" and the myth and problem of the "separate self". We could have listened to him all day but it was not to be. A short break, and then the brilliant BruceLipton, author of The Biology of Belief. He talked about epigenetics and the new human consciousness. It was a delivered at a breakneck fast delivery to fit in in the allotted time - we were all racing to keep up with his impeccable logic and lightning fast mind. Evolution was going to save us. The future is a story of unity and not separate units. All of us are potentially the individual cells of a new super-organism.  If you've not come across his work before do check him out. Remarkable stuff. Madeleine Bunting then spoke about identity and place, "where is your spot? What is the place which holds your sense of self and community?" I'd got her book. Had it now for a good few years, and now after hearing her speak, I'm finally committed to reading it. Lunch in the sun, on the grass under the great, old Worcester College trees.

25 September
We - Phil, Lucy and I - sat on the usually deserted 'top-table' for breakfast in the great Hogwarts-like hall at Worcester College. The only other Breakfasters on our table (at the other end) being Bill McKibben, George Monbiot and George Marshall. What a power trinity! We cleared our rooms for the 10am get-out and made ready for the morning session... I'd read Bill McKibben's last book 'Oil and Honey' and knew he was probably the top world heavyweight climate writer and activist. Older and taller than I imagined, his voice was like the voice of the deep earth. What a force – not over-bearing or hectoring but speaking with a rationality, stillness and quiet knowing that feels like it could power the earth for centuries: "Getting arrested isn't the end of the world. The end of the world is the end of the world".  What a line. What a notion. Certainly not one to pull punches or soften blows but a deeply humane, thoughtful and compassionate individual. Words that really rung true and moved the heart and mind: "The planet is well outside its comfort zone. We need to be outside our comfort zone." He spoke about himself as being quite an introvert and preferring a life as a solitary writer than an activist and leader of the international climate movement, 350degrees.org. To follow him - an unenviable task but done beautifully - was Paula Byrne, another writer. She spoke about the power of poetry being the only thing strong enough to help us as we stare into the abyss of grief, depression or overwhelm. Poetry - "the best words, in the best order" said Coleridge. "Poetry like wilderness is something that can break us out of the enchantment of consumerism" responded Bill M in the Q and A. Here's to the language of the soil and of the soul and praise be to the poets for writing it.

Bill McKibben, Photo: Fern Smith

The end of the Resurgence event was drawing near. More chances to meet and talk with lovely people and walk the beautiful grounds of Worcester College by the lake, past the sleepy ducks, through the orchard and under the weeping willows. A final session with George Monbiot and others with the tough task of bringing it all together. As he spoke, the rain rose to a crescendo finale - it really was like the voice of the gods. A number of times, he just had to shout from the podium, though amplified, to be heard over the thundering downpour. It was awesome - total theatre. "We are surrounded by a socially constructed silence. That's how we can live with the injustices of today...Our task is to live as if viewed from the future." It felt like nothing more could be said, then Scilla Ellsworthy, three times nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize said it, and so much more. When asked by people what they could do in response to the crisis we are living through, she immediately responded, "What breaks your heart? What skill or passion do you have which aligns with this? Do that...”

Satish spoke next, to whoops, whistles and rapturous applause - stepping down as editor of Resurgence and handing over to Greg Neale, for hopefully another fifty years. R50 drew slowly to a close with more content than we really knew what to do with. Ideas, conversations and connections that couldn't possibly all be followed up in one lifetime. I was pleased I managed to tell Bill McKibben as he was leaving that his now famous quote, "Where are all the goddamn operas?" has motivated so many artists including myself into action. It was the inspiration behind Emergence's report to the Arts Council of Wales, ‘CultureShift’ in 2014.

I know for sure that I did walk to Oxford, walked Wales before that and walked my entire life before that for 52 years to arrive where I needed to be, at ‘One Earth, One Humanity, One Future’ Resurgence’s 50th Birthday Party.  I was in the right place. The only place I could be in, feeling what I feel and knowing what I know. Now at home, a week later, how to integrate all this and to respond creatively and effectively? Onwards from here for me and for Emergence. Wherewards? Whatwards? With whom? A new day and a new moon is coming. I trust I shall find my way…

Fern Smith is an artist and creative director of Emergence www.emergence-uk.org.

She is co-director of the Emergence documentary, 'Being an Earth Pilgrim' a six hour landmark documentary series about internationally renowned peace activist Satish Kumar available now from the Resurgence Shop. All proceeds go to Resurgence.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

R50: Walking our Talk with Satish Kumar

Fifty people were invited to walk fifty miles with Satish Kumar to mark his 80th birthday and celebrate fifty years of Resurgence Magazine. I was lucky enough to be one of them… Satish, for those who don’t know is a former Jain monk and one of the world’s great peace activists who most definitely walks his talk in the world as founder of The Small School, editor of Resurgence & Ecologist Magazine and one of the guiding lights and founders at Schumacher College in Devon.  Satish has made many significant pilgrimages throughout his life and the plan to celebrate his birthday and Resurgence’s 50th by walking came to him during the filming of Emergence’s documentary series ‘Being an Earth Pilgrim’ last year.

Photo of Satish Kumar, Ruth Davey 

There and then he committed to walking from the source of the Thames, along the river and into Oxford arriving in time for ‘R50,’ a major celebratory conference with speakers and participants attending from all over the world to be held at Worcester College in Oxford. He would not walk alone but with anyone wanting to walk with him. This was a significant event for the all reasons listed above and also for me personally, it marked a formal completion to a very significant three month walk - my ‘Grail Quest’, my ‘Fools Errand’ around Wales I’d begun earlier in the year on 17th June...

18th September
The Resurgence 50th anniversary walk official meeting point was at the New Inn Hotel, Lechlade-on-Thames. Thirty-six of us - all issued with a candle and a bright orange, 'One Earth, One Humanity, One Future' T-shirts and name tabards stood in a circle for the official welcome and route briefing. A few words from Satish and then we were off. The Badgers - Keith and Debbie were the first I met - they'd given a generous contribution to our crowdfund campaign last year to make Emergence’s landmark documentary series, ‘Being an Earth Pilgrim’ on Satish Kumar which we were due to launch at the forthcoming R50 celebratory gathering later in the week at our destination, Oxford. The Badgers were over from Australia to do the walk and attend the Oxford event. He told me about his epiphany of a walk - four and a half months from John O'Groats to Lands End, him and Debbie walking together. Before the walk he’d been a successful accountant and businessman. He said, returning from the walk, going home and opening his closet with all his clothes and non-essential stuff had completely derailed him. Something happened in his body which rebelled against a return to 'business as usual' he thought he was having a breakdown and then spent months after trying to understand what was going on. Someone gave him Satish's book 'NoDestination' to read, he took a trip to Schumacher College and then and there started remaking his life building on new values he didn't even know he had. He's writing a book about it now, on his third draft.

R50 Walkers, photo Debby Badger

Going into silence between conversations was a balm to the senses. Conversation, however rich, pulls me out of my senses and into my head. The walk was facilitated so we had opportunities to talk but also chance to look at the river, the trees, the sky, still the mind and deeply connect to the places we were moving through. Then a walk and talk with Muchti, Satish and his wife June Mitchell’s son, one of the first students to go to ‘The Small School' in Hartland Devon, started by Satish for primary and secondary age kids. Muchti, a brilliant mind with a big heart was a carpenter and scientist who'd built his own boat, developed the Resurgence Carbon Calculator and now ran the company 'Cosy Homes' developing new ways of reducing the carbon footprint of old and listed housing stock - practical, down to earth and passionate.

At lunchtime Satish talked to us about the spirit of pilgrimage, "a tourist expects, whereas a pilgrim accepts". The day was more talk than walk, but walk we did - six and a half miles to The Swan Inn, Radcot. On arrival, our group dispersed to our various campsites and B&B's for the evening to digest the day and prepare for the following.

Reflections on the Thames, photo Fern Smith
19th September
Our second day was cool and damp from the start. Soft, light rain came in just before noon and stayed for the duration. Our group was a little changed, a few new and a few missing from yesterday. The Thames was broader, seemingly more present and certainly wider than yesterday, gentle khaki green without a ripple. The conversations seemed more spacious, less frenetic (or was it just that I’d relaxed?), everything settling into a deeper rhythm. I spoke with Susie, psychiatrist turned psychotherapist who'd worked a lifetime in the NHS, then Claire a volunteer now facilitator at Schumacher College about alchemy and seagulls, Ying a Chinese student just finishing the economics masters at Schumacher on the I Ching, Vision Quests and the greening of China. She mentioned a phrase from one of her teachers that resonated strongly: "We are not here to save the world we are here to serve the mystery". I wanted to get a T-shirt printed with that one on.

Fewer stops today as the drizzle kept coming. Abundant and ever-present blackberries that we snacked on constantly. Wet feet tramping through wet grass by early afternoon. Still, the rain was gentle and no chill wind drove us onward. We arrived at 'The Rose Revived' our final stop of the day to copious cups of tea bought by Satish and began the long slow dry out. Someone thought me a gardener or farmer for the dark dirt under my fingernails. They were mistaken, it was from eating a chocolate muffin earlier…

We had arrived at our halfway point along the Thames path on our pilgrimage to Oxford. Our merry band drying out wet shoes in preparation for the third day of our walk tomorrow. This country feels unknown and alien to me. I have not even looked at a map as we were following copious way markers and our walk producer and facilitator Rosalind Turner. No towns or other markers, only the river to remind me this is the sacred Thames, the river I grew up in the shadow of half a century ago. TS Eliot's words from his ‘Four Quartets’ have been circling round my head these past two days..."Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song. Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long." Shantih, Shantih, Shantih.

Satish by Sacred River Thames. Photo, Debby Badger

20th September
We gathered in a circle holding lighted candles by The Thames, around forty of us now, still in our orange 'One Earth, One Humanity, One Future' T-shirts. They were getting slightly grubbier and we with them. Satish spoke to us about the five elements - earth, wind, fire, water and the fifth - IMAGINATION. This really struck me - imagination being an element...the one that weaves the other four together. This felt radical and deeply important. I'd never heard him say this before... And I thought after the time I've spent listening to him in conversation during the making of our DVD documentary series for twelve hours, that I'd heard it all. I tucked this new revelation away like a squirrel burying an Autumn acorn. We walked past numerous locks and weirs, the Thames curving and widening as the day went on.

There were still so many people on the walk I'd still not had the chance to speak to. I discovered by chance that one of the walkers was Sandra, who'd I'd first met in India, from Australia - we'd done Satish's Gandhi & Globalisation course together which also featured the incredible Vandana Shiva, in 2011. We had a lot to catch up on…

 Photo, Fern Smith

Autumn is most definitely in the air, sloes on the trees as well as bright red hips and haws. We single filed it in silence along the river, all of us stretched out over perhaps half a mile. After lunch Satish spoke about spiritual ecology. Lovely to see his son Muchti on his left and His wife June on his right. All of us sitting on the grass, completing the circle with a multitude of tiny frogs jumping around before us. "Non violence is not just a tactic but a way of life". After, a chance to speak with Rosalind the walk organiser as we walked together, she'd worked with Satish over the past eight years on his Earth Pilgrim courses, we shared stories of organising walks and walkers, "like herding cats", my parter Phil would say. Mid-afternoon a few of us jumped into the Thames and had a glorious swim in its green reedy waters, one patient swan looking steadily on at our activities. A walk and talk with Satish after, initially talking about DVD practicalities for the forthcoming conference and then sharing thoughts and receiving welcome advice about Emergence’s future. Much to reflect on. Much to consider.

Eleanor & Fern with Satish, photo Sandra de Poi

We arrived at the Eynsham, almost eight miles beyond our start that morning in Newbridge around 5.30pm. A cuppa or pint at the pub before various departures and then goodbyes til tomorrow. My good friend Will Tooby and I walked the mile to our overnight accommodation, The Swan in Shifford. Friendly, clean, basic. A small, sleepy village, well-heeled and leafy. A curry at the lovely local Bay Leaf and chat to the staff about our walk and Satish, doing our bit to spread the word about the 'R50' walk. Homeward to our pub and a sad and slightly menacing encounter with a smashed and shouting Slav. We tried in a quiet way to neither aggress nor be cowed by him. A sad and complex end to a rich and beautiful day. Worlds collide at this time - the very best of times, the very worst of times.

21st September
Our last days’ gathering place was at The Talbot Inn, Eynsham in readiness for a morning of walking the eight miles into the Oxford. We stood in a circle, lit our candles, dedicating this walk again to the five elements. We paired up and conversations flowed like water. "Be like water" says Satish, quoting The Dao, "water always adapts to the shape of its container. Flow like water. Water has the power to wear down stones and is so soft you can bathe your eyes with it..." Had the most head spinning conversation with Julie Richardson who runs the Economics for Transition Masters at Schumacher College, "the meaning of life is a life of meaning". We spoke about connections between the unmanifest and the manifest. Things so on the edge of our consciousness and central to our deepest passion - her an alchemist of economy and Chinese medicine, me following my way sharing how Emergence has been leading me to things out of my yen, comfort zone and control. The conversation could have continued a lifetime or two. Possibly a project to be hatched. Definitely a deeper connection with a fellow traveler.

Then yet another 'life changing' conversation with William, known fondly to many as Captain W - the former house manager of Schumacher College for the past 27 years. I spoke, rather than he, about my recent three month Walk round Wales (my ‘Grail Quest’ and ‘Fools Errand’) - some insights, something in the talking and something in the power of being listened to. The secrets of my Grail Quest are there still to be discovered. I still don't know what happened but all the elements of an alchemical transformation were and are present and beginning to manifest. I felt a little like a raving crazy but he quoted Jason Bourne when I apologised for talking so much. "It's O.K, I find it relaxing".

A sense that time was running out on us for all our not-yet-had conversations, those we wanted to continue and those we'd not even started. I walked with Francisco, a young and vibrant Costa Rican just finished his Masters at Schumacher, his newly formed trinity for living, "Have fun, be kind and make history".

Satish speaks outside Oxfam, Oxford. Photo, Fern Smith

We dipped our hands in the sacred River Thames as we started to see the city of Oxford approaching. More snippets of conversation and moments to savour as we walked along roadsides, over bridges, and gradually more built-up areas until we arrived at Broad Street, Oxford and Oxfam where Satish was due to give a short talk on the pavement outside. This was the first ever Oxfam shop opened in 1942. He reminded us it was International Peace Day today the 21st September. We gathered round in our four day old, a little grubby now, R50 T-shirts enjoying these last moments of being part of a merry band of pilgrims. We crossed the road into the shockingly beautiful grounds of Balliol College for tea and biscuits and some hellos to new people, goodbyes to some walkers not attending the forthcoming conference, contact swaps and photo moments. Our walk now over. The R50 Resurgence conference still to begin. I could leave now, with another lifetime of inspiration and information to digest but it's only Hasta la Vista til tomorrow...where the Great Transition/New Story/Grand Turning of the 'One Earth, One Humanity, One Future' is gearing up to begin...

(this story is to be continued)

Fern Smith is an artist and creative director of Emergence www.emergence-uk.org.
She is co-director of the Emergence documentary, 'Being an Earth Pilgrim' a six hour landmark documentary series about internationally renowned peace activist Satish Kumar available now from the Resurgence Shop. All proceeds go to Resurgence.