40 YEARS AN ENVIRONMENTALIST. A WEEKEND TO REIGNITE.
A cathedral of beeches sheltered the site, soaring elephant-grey columns holding aloft the canopy that would be our weekend home. Some discreetly scattered tents had been prepared, others were being assembled by new arrivals. Only the hammering of tent pegs broke the silence that envelops strangers brought together for the first time.
The ice was broken, smashed, by gin and tonic before supper around the fire. Chloe and Andy had arranged for the cooking to be done by a chef well versed with the ways of fire and volunteers from Schumacher College, a Dartington-based group also reconnecting with nature. They lent an atmosphere of gay, easy-going competence to the weekend. Three of them greeted us with the G&T, infused with wild herbs, as we entered the fire-circle. The gathering began with a sparkle.
Our reasons for being there were many. Those living urban lives needed to face the other way and remember what we had left behind. Many were environmental workers, campaigners, activists, writers – dismayed by decades of apparent failure to halt, let alone reverse, destructive trends and policies. Or baffled by indifference among friends. Some faced testing decisions about their future. We needed to share, to re-kindle confidence and re-ignite our determination to move on.
So our talk flowed quickly and easily, with a common purpose. I was struck by how uncomplicated it was to like people. The beauty of our surroundings helped, as did the kindness of the volunteers and ‘staff’. Below the bonding talk there was a need for clarity, love, openness, honesty and letting go. We wanted, also, to learn and be challenged – hence the presence of experts and experienced teachers.
We were reminded of humankind’s recent and brief presence on Earth by Kate Rawles, pacing out the time with our strides, measuring it in rope-length through the heather and bracken. It was less painful, when we were among friends, to learn of such things as the devastating post-war destruction of British wildlife. Jonathan Porritt read aloud, from The Moth Snow Storm by Michael McCarthy, of how car journeys were once – indeed, in my own childhood – interrupted by the need to clean moths and other insects from the windscreen. No more.
We were encouraged to be silent and alone, to explore the impact upon us of these experiences and of just being in such beauty. I thought whimsically of Laurie Lee’s ‘hedges choking with roses fat as cream’ and of ‘sea-green elms dripping with birds and shadows’. Our learning was multi-sensory, emotional and sheer fun - as well as cerebral. Swinging into the void from the branch of a beech tree is a joyous, or terrifying, reconnection with childhood. Kindling a fire, gathering wood and water, feeling the texture of a tree and its ancient mass – these cannot be dismissed as child’s play. They underpin a commitment to the sanctity of our planet’s living and interconnected force.
Ending was painful, not least as we reluctantly collected our now-unloved mobile phones from the security box. The descent from our hill must have been different for each of us. For me it was followed by a curious shock the next day. My wife and I, because she was briefly in a wheelchair, had to brave a giant supermarket near Penzance. Like them all it had been brilliantly designed to drain the economy from the town and common sense from its consumers. The dazzling light, and the seduction of the excess, were too much for me. I was overwhelmed - a proper response; but I wanted to return to the cathedral of beeches.
So, how did the weekend affect me – a dispirited environmentalist who has intermittently watched and joined 40 years of campaigning? Sometimes all I can see is a world in turmoil, relentlessly driving the planet to a point of final exhaustion. Yet this "Reignite" weekend - the shared spirit of optimism, the kindness and love among us all renewed my faith in humanity. I remembered that the skills and the policies to reverse the damage are there; it is a matter of will – and of all of us waking up. And the weekend helped us do just that. We emerged from our reconnection to nature more alive and energised, with renewed determination to give back.
Alastair Sawday, Founder of Sawday's
Change in Nature will be hosting another Reignite programme in 2018 on September 21st - 23rd. For more information, click here.