A Pilgrimage for the Earth
Ever since reading Satish Kumar’s book No Destination, I have always been inspired by pilgrimages. Satish was a Jain monk and then peace activist who, in the tradition of the non-violent marches of Gandhi, walked from his home in India to Moscow, Paris, London and Washington to demand nuclear disarmament. Not only did he have “no destination” but also no money too. It was the ultimate journey in faith, trust and accepting whatever comes. As tends to be case when you let go of pre-conceived plans, fears and anxieties, this was met with endless stories of boundless human kindness and generosity, including being gifted eight pairs of shoes along the way!
When I interviewed Satish recently, he told me “When you are a pilgrim, the arrival is not so important. It’s about making the pilgrimage, step by step. Life is not at the end somewhere… People forget to celebrate life.”
It was in this spirit of slowing down, adventure and celebration that a diverse group of wanderers, ranging in age from 7 to 73, met on the steps of the main square in Stroud at the start of our March for Life. We were blessed by a crowd of smiling faces, a brass band and the local MP. Many of the group would be walking over 100 miles to London to raise awareness of the climate emergency in the proud tradition of protest marches across the British Isles. We were also walking for our dear friend, Polly Higgins, an inspiring lawyer and `campaigner who has dedicated her life to protecting the earth and has recently been diagnosed with cancer (read more about her work in this recent Guardian article).
It was not long before we were immersed in the beauty of the English spring. The human orchestra was replaced by an even more beautiful chorus from the robins, blackbirds and great tits. Everywhere I looked, life was bursting forth; from the seas of wild garlic to the white blossoming blackthorn.
Yet we were all walking with the paradox of our times in our hearts; that we are losing all this beauty at alarming rates. So much that surrounds us is in decline; birds, bees, insects, biodiversity, wildness. Indeed, the scientists tell us that we are living through the sixth mass extinction of species on our planet. It was deeply saddening to reflect that our children might not get to know the incredible richness and diversity that we are so privileged to experience on a sunny April day.
This is the reality of being alive right now. I am often enraptured by awe and wonder at the utter magnificence of it all. At the same time, there is the grief for what we are losing so fast and the fear of what might come just around the corner.
Before leaving on our walk, I spoke to my sister who has just come back from remote northern Kenya for Save the Children. The region has been suffering from drought for many years and, while she was there, the government declared a state of emergency. The lack of water has led to a famine. She spent most of her time photographing malnourished children at a local hospital who were deeply suffering from the effects of our changing climate.
Of course, it is impossible to say that any one event is directly linked to human induced climate change, but the trends are clear. People are dying as a result of the alarming rise in droughts, forest fires, crop failures, floods and extreme weather. This is not something to worry about far off in the future. It is happening now.
And it is predicted to get much worse – not just in distant corners of the world but for all of us. It really is not climate “change” at all but a climate “emergency”. One of the things that really made me realise this was reading a report by Jem Bendell a few months ago which challenges you to reflect on what this actually means for your life. It suggests that our food, energy and financial systems are heading for inevitable collapse – perhaps within the next decade. It makes Brexit seem a complete irrelevance. We need radical action, and we need this now.
While this can often feel overwhelming, I felt really empowered to join others and make a stand. And it warmed the heart to meet so many others that supported us – from the beeping of horns to conversations on footpaths. We met a teacher who had taken her whole class on a climate strike, an animal welfare activist and gardener who promotes vegan diets and the sheriff of Oxford, soon to be the Lord Mayor, who was planning to start a climate fund. And we also met jumping hares, roe deers, goldfinches, red kites, soaring buzzards and hovering skylarks. It felt like the more we were supporting the earth, the more the earth was supporting us.
Perhaps the most touching aspect of the journey was the generosity of others, just like the stories from Satish that I had read about. On our first night camping, a group from Stroud drove to find us and dropped off a feast of vegetable risotto, nourishing salads and energising flapjacks. On our second night at Burford, a Quaker couple opened the doors to their home and seven of us slept on beds and floors. When we arrived at Eynsham the next night, we were put up by the local community and treated to a three course meal. I learned how much joy there is in simplicity and mutual exchange. We received the gifts of food, water and shelter, while our hosts received the gifts of our stories.
My finale for this pilgrimage was a march through the historical streets of Oxford, walking around 50 miles, and leaving my fellow travellers to wander onwards to London. I leave feeling nourished by human community, inspired by those seeking justice, connected to this living earth and opened by timeless spaciousness.
Yet the real pilgrimage has not ended, it is only just starting. There is “no destination”. Every day is a pilgrimage; to experience new adventures, to be open to life’s mysteries and to live in harmony with the natural world.