A week of Transition Tales started out with Sandra White wondering if she is in the landscape or was a real part of it herself. Sandra tells the tale of a course that took place at Emerson College in Forest Row.
Often, when anticipating meeting a new group of people, I wonder how we will all introduce ourselves. When the moment comes, it is noticeable how many of us do so in terms of our work, family, where we come from, and perhaps our most passionate hobbies; depending upon the setting and each individual, there might be a quality of perhaps jokey self-promotion or self-deprecation attached to any elements. Nearing the School of Storytelling at Emerson College, Forest Row in April for a week of ‘Transition Tales’, I wondered again. Fat chance!
“I want to describe myself
like a landscape that I studied
closely for a long, long time,
like a word I finally understood,
like the pitcher of water I use every day,
like the face of my mother,
like a ship
that carried me
through the wildest storm of all.”
With these opening words, quoting Rilke from his Book of Hours, Ashley Ramsden invited each of us to think of ourselves “as a landscape”.
Next, we pinned pieces of paper on our backs and picked up some pastels, milled around and, in a succession of random pairings, invited each person we met to step behind our backs and draw one element of our landscape. I quickly found myself saying, “Hello, I’m Sandra. Please will you draw me a multi-faceted mountain?” My “thank you!” was heartfelt even without the image in front of me and I was eager to learn my partner’s name, hear his element and draw, before moving on to meet someone else’s face, their name, their back and their emerging landscape … Only when all our elements were drawn did we help each other to unpin our drawings and pair up with a stranger to sit, look at them together and start talking.
As a population in general, how often do we think of ourselves as “landscapes”? How often do we even think of “the” landscape?
As an ecopsychologist, I’ve become used to thinking in terms of “inner” and “outer” landscapes, but not “myself as landscape”. As “Earth creature”, yes, but never “landscape”.
This opening, this way of structuring the first threshold, took me to the heart of my being, where I am both most deeply myself and my most open. There, I could share my desires, my fears, my despairs, my hopes and, crucially, hear those of others, receiving them as gifts and freely giving mine. As I normally move through the dominant system, (where “behind our backs” holds such powerful, negative associations), slowly, slowly trying and, if I’m honest, often struggling to build deep and safe connection with people very different from me, I find it difficult to remain in that state – I know this is one of my most important tasks.
This thinking of myself as “landscape” brought me to personal connection with new qualities. I already know that I can be strong. But rock-and-granite-mountain-strong? Enduring EVERYTHING until time brings the end of this form and transformation into another? Witnessing the vast scale of life and time? Consistently loyal? Solidly multi-faceted? Rooted far back in time? Invisibly rooted deep down in the Earth? Huge? Shaping local systems? Of course not – such inflated ideas!
And yet, and yet …
John Seed has movingly described what might be thought of as his epiphany during an early action to protect his local rainforests in New South Wales, Australia:
“I knew then that I was no longer acting on behalf of myself or my human ideas, but on behalf of the Earth . . . on behalf of my larger self, that I was literally part of the rainforest defending herself.”¹
From this moment, he went on to found and build the international campaign to protect the rainforests which has been instrumental in changing our understanding of our world.
How can we make this level of experience and understanding available to more and more people? ‘Transition Tales’ provided a voyage through Gary Chapman’s “The Five Languages of Love”:
Words of Affirmation
Acts of Service
Moving skilfully between inside and outside, meeting ‘the other’ in new ways, providing doses of ‘brain food’, drawing upon group members’ skills and expertise, and learning from Forest Row’s own Transition Town journey, the week built steadily upon the opening, foundation experience, constantly challenging us with new perspectives. The core focus, in so many ways, was our nature as individuals inextricably part of a larger whole, upon whose resources we can draw, at a moment in time which is itself but a moment in the larger sweep of time.
In icy rain, we walked up the hill behind Emerson to view our landscape and hear its history; we explored astrological perspectives and also the properties of crystals – which we gave as gifts to areas in the grounds of Emerson which felt depleted and then, unexpectedly received a crystal as a gift; we helped the local biodynamic farm to clear a path of hewn branches after their coppicing; we serenaded a sow with “Bella Mama”; with the support of colleagues assuming the roles of Angels and Witnesses, we faced the worst and the best of what the future may hold; we co-created the three layers of the world according to the Inca peoples’ traditions in our long, closing, Pachamama ritual; and we touched, we moved like fish through water, we sang and danced, we praised, we talked and we listened to each other with our heads, hearts and guts.
I am aware that I am scarcely doing justice to the richness and power of each of these and other elements, nor to my colleagues who brought and participated in them. A particular highlight for me was an exercise with canes, where a circle of people each placed one end of a cane on the body of a person in the centre, holding its other end lightly with the tip of a finger and then, as the person moved to music, maintained the contact with them through the cane. This gave me a new, embodied experience of being part of a larger organism and needing to be sensitive to all its other parts as much as to the centre in order to maintain both my place within it and its whole integrity.
Many of us had come wanting stories we can tell back home, stories to inspire passion and creativity, to inform, to provoke, and to nourish our souls as we undertake the challenging work of changing mindsets and shifting our paradigm in practical ways. I, for one, was not disappointed.
I came away with three questions:
The first, posed by a colleague, is how can the Transition Town movement, with its emphasis on localisation, address our responsibilities to the ‘developing world’ which will be thrown deeper into poverty if we quickly stop using imported goods?
Second, as a corollary to that, how is the movement here preparing itself for influxes of refugees if we as a world are not able to prevent a global temperature rise of more than 2º?
And, third, how to bridge to people whose minds work in very different ways from mine, who validly desire different outcomes from those I desire, and who deeply believe in the rightness of the prevailing system despite the destruction it is causing? I frequently witness how terrifying the ‘irrational’ and also the Earth itself can be for so many people. And we know how terrible it can be to face one’s own destructiveness. I see this work as reaching out my hand with a loving invitation and offering support to gradually to face and meet that which is terrifying or which draws out contempt – slowly and gently, at this time of monumental urgency!! I have often known times of collapse, not being able to bear this particular, painful tension.
Thanks to ‘Transition Tales’ … I now have new, deeper access to the resources of Mountain … and Radiant Sun … and Raining Cloud … and Flowing River and Cascading Waterfall … and Grazing Sheep …
¹ Seed, John “To hear Within Ourselves the Sound of the Earth Crying” in Seed, J., Macy, J., Fleming P., Naess A. (eds.) Thinking Like A Mountain (New Society Publishers 1988) p. 6