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Exploring ecology and spirituality

A quick visceral pull just below the navel was my initial response to a field of study and experience called Ecology and Spirituality. An attraction, intrigue, mystique and inner gaze that left me pensive for days. Pensive not only with a strange yearning, and with a small internal war too. My critical ‘how-do-students-get-jobs-with-this-kind-of-degree’ questioning started having a party. Curiosity wove its spell, and in a time of a deep and contemplative sabbatical, I accepted the role of facilitator offered by Schumacher College for their very first MA in Ecology and Spirituality, in partnership with the University of Wales, Trinity St David.

A four-month journey, in a role at the College that may well be under-estimated. It’s a kind of ‘buckle up for the ride’ role. From total invisibility ensuring a quiet and beautiful physical space, to creating a holding environment for teachers and students in tectonic upheavals as we peruse all that we imagined precious, to participating in a creative learning collaborative pioneering a manifestation of the heartbeat of the College. All held in the Elmhirst centre, home to the beginnings of the radical project that is Dartington, and Schumacher College. Radical comes from the word ‘radix’, meaning roots. I love that etymology and this became a journey that has impacted on the roots of all aspects of who I sometimes imagine I am.

And, in a way, my guess is this rumbustious flow might somehow mirror the topic. It’s not for the faint-hearted, for sure. The core module, Ecology and Spirituality, began forming a raft for the river. I am loathe to use words like ‘foundation’, which provides an image of stability, certainty and security. Rafting, on the hand, demands a kind of raw courage, presence, humour and engagement which is often gritty and not always elegant. An immersion combining practice, rigorous academic pursuit and experience which is a lively cocktail, acknowledging fully Stacy Alaimo’s words that “the Anthropocene is no time to set things straight”. In the world as it is, perhaps safety is not a reliable outcome to claim to be able to deliver.

Moving through modules with titles like “Ecological Self”, “Indigeny Today” and “Sacred Activism” had turbulences that had us holding on for dear life, along with calm reflections emerging from textured conversations that rapidly became part of the everyday. The scaffolding provided by the community within the College, the amazing food, and the exquisite settings of the forest, River Dart, Dartington gardens, a 2000 year old yew tree reminding us of our infancy all are as much teachers as the human-teachers. A living vibrant example of falling in love with a place.

What kept me intrigued constantly was the extraordinary participants that this course attracted, students and teachers alike. It is likely one of only a handful of places in the world that draws this kind of network.

There is a sense of search. A couple of the students had engineering backgrounds - ‘but this is not enough for the world as it is becoming’. Someone else had immersed herself in work in the Amazon, with local indigenous people, and wanted to understand better the underpinning ways of being, knowing and doing that have almost disappeared over the last 400 years. And why. Yet another was immersed in writing a book, and was searching for a ‘framework’ that could guide her geographical travelling. All had a sure-footedness in complexity, and knew intuitively that the futures they were creating were going to be fortified by being able to read patterns, connect and make distinctions in the hard ethical questions that face us as a species.

Technical solutions, conflicts where there are powerful and vested interests at play, massive inequities between people may, counterintuitively, be best dealt with by those who have equipped themselves to ask radical questions about what it means to be connected in a frayed world. Where there is no grand narrative to believe and unfold. But where the fragments, shards and awkwardnesses, particularly in the stories of ecology and the sacred, may be what’s required for emergence, different learning and imaginations which change the game. And not only able to ask questions about being connected, or articulate this academically and intellectually, but to actually be connected. Much more subtle, much rarer and much more powerful.

As resident teacher in a collaboration in Ecology and Spirituality, and academic convenor for the Ecological Self, my role has morphed into the dream of participating with Andy, Tilley, Colin, Stephan and many others in a further iteration of this emerging field of study.

In particular, I am intrigued in creating an ‘ecological self’. Both my own, and the module of the same title. Crafting, rafting, falling off, figuring out and experiencing even wisps of the mysterious moments when oneness is all there is.


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