Write up from VINE course at Schumacher College, Dartington 27-28 November 2008


Welcome to a whole new world of animism and intuition, which appealed massively to me and was really a quiet revelation. I guess most thinking people are looking to progress spiritually. We need some sort of alternative to the religion in which we were brought up but have since lost confidence in. I discussed the question of religion with some of the full-time scholars at the communal mealtimes and realised what a novice I am in that line of thinking. This kind of human interaction, unplanned and yet personally illuminating, followed each other quickly at this place of intense learning and genuine alternative thought, which is what Schumacher College is. However, it would take longer than a two-day course to get the best from this remarkable college. If it were not for the course fees and loss of earnings (which would deter anyone but the most serious mid-life student) I would love to go back and do a longer course. Maybe two weeks this summer on ‘Sacred Activism’ would fulfil some of my needs?


It would also take more than two days for me to relax and get back into student mode. At one point there was a lull in proceedings when perhaps I was meant to be washing up, or maybe meditating. I signed the local petition against a planning application which was threatening the ambience of the college itself - with a lorry-depot of all things. The college staff had suggested some sensible alternative sites and arrangements which would also be far better for the local community – they can be practical people as well as thinkers.


Then I became worried about what to do for the next 45 minutes – this never happens in normal life when every hour is spoken for. I’d already walked round the beautiful grounds of the main Dartington College the previous day after I arrived early. One course participant suggested reading (what, in the morning?), so I found myself in the wonderfully calm library reading a book on philosophy.


I guess we could all do with a slow down, a detox through the vegetarian food, less drink, more sleep, working in the organic wooded garden. Back at home, a de-cluttering of gathered artefacts, a sorting out and jettisoning of too much stored information, a freeing up of one’s mind itself. How much do we need those things! 


Later I read Stephan Harding’s book Animate Earth which explains his approach to a kind of new animism, along with a much more detailed treatment of Gaia and the intricate web of interacting feedback mechanisms which give us the stable climate and atmosphere which allow life at all on this earth. A recent TV documentary on space focussed on planet searchers, in particular one poor professor in America who has spent more or less his entire life in a fruitless search for radio signals from advanced civilisations elsewhere in the universe. Yet elsewhere in the programme the unique and wonderful character of Gaia was explained by a biologist (though of course they never used the Gaia name). But no, surprisingly, it is not easy to find the conditions of Earth replicated on planets elsewhere, but that does not stop agencies spending enormous sums searching for those places light years hence, if they exist at all. It is a pity we could not turn all our scientists attentions to looking after the earth that we do have.


The main point of the short (and inexpensive) course for VINE members was to develop a personal ecosophy, and we did this, or at least started on the journey towards doing so. The book has since amplified the lectures. Useful group exercises were held exploring our own ‘ultimate norms’, or identifying our own personal ‘Gaian places’. Thus we now follow the ‘deep ecology’ approach through a ‘personal ecosophy’. This stance puts us broadly within a movement (with a built-in responsibility to take some actions), but we do not call ourselves ‘deep ecologists’. Ecosophy is a guide to thinking and living, and makes us aware of options for change.


The principles of the ecosophy approach are held within the Deep Ecology Platform, outlined in the short article ‘What is Deep Ecology’ by Harding, and discussed in more detail in his book Animate Earth. Stephan readily acknowledges the influence of the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in his own life and work, and so now he has passed on some of those thoughts to VINE members. The search for a personal ecosophy involves processes of deep experience, deep questioning and deep commitment, which in turn lead to potential actions. Now that the VINE participants (some, many, most – I’m not sure!) are part of the deep ecology movement, what we do with that knowledge and thinking is now up to each of us.…


Peter Quelch


Author: Peter Quelch