Last weekend , I was at one of my favourite places — an old Mill House in Devon that is being slowly and painstakingly converted into a ecologically inspired creative retreat. It’s a green and magical environment, surrounded by water that always seems to threaten to encroach — an apt analogy, perhaps, to the climate state we find ourselves in.
Selgars Mill is run by Sarah Jewell and her partner, Ben, with help, support and love from a whole bunch of other inspiring people — ranging from members of the London choir, Songlines, that she ran for over 20 years, to herbalists, ecologists and friends who somehow find the place and stay for a while.
It’s the sort of place that should, and does, inspire. It’s not only the artful combination of wilderness and permaculture that Sarah and Ben have created, but the events that happen there: this past weekend it was Pete Lawrence’s visionary Campfire Convention Trailblazer’s weekend; in the recent past it’s been the meeting place for the Soulmakers and Unpsychology community that I and others have been involved in, and, of course, it has the spiritual home of Sarah’s Songlines Choir, where they’ve held their amazing retreats.
Trailblazers and Soulmakers are connected, I think, in spirit and in practice. Both see creativity and art as inherent in activism; both are concerned with sustaining joy and nourishment — even in these troubled times; both work by bringing together small communities of like-minded people who are committed to the Earth and to humanity in a loving, positive and radical way.
It is paradoxical, perhaps, that these soulful comings-together, take place explicitly against the backdrop of the biggest crises that face us — the climate breakdown, political collapse and the massive threat of surveillance capitalism. Many of the people who come to Selgars Mill are engaged in some way or other with these — often as activists — and, last weekend, some had come fresh from the frontlines of the recent Extinction Rebellion actions in London and worldwide.
So, as well as joy, inspiration and community, there was exhaustion, burnout and despair not too far below the surface, and some of us there at the Mill — perhaps all of us — needed care and recovery. The shadows are looming over our culture and civilisation, and shadows from outside always find their way into our psyche and wellbeing. For many years, those in the Climate Psychology Alliance and other places, have talked about Climate anxiety, denial, despair and grief, yet it is only recently, as the Climate debate hots up, and the evidence for Climate breakdown becomes unequivocal, that these shadows are being acknowledged more widely.
And yet, there is still a fight on our hands. Or if not that, a need for acceptance and, to use Jem Bendell’s phrase, ‘deep adaption’.
It occured to me, when I was returning home from this inspirational place that, in times of trouble, there is a need for sanctuary and healing for those who are expending their energy and putting their minds and bodies on the line. This has always been true, and no more so than now; a time when we might possibly be in the death throes of our culture.
I really hesitate to use military language in the context of the Climate Emergency: it is after all the mindsets of conflict, war, colonisation, exploitation and disconnection that have got us into the mess we are in — but sometimes it seems unavoidable.
Mobilisation. On the Front Line. Sacrifice. This is what the activists in Extinction Rebellion have committed themselves to. And like soldiers returning shell-shocked from the front line of war, there will be a need for these people to be cared for and to spend some time in recuperation and recovery in places like Selgars Mill; to be supported, helped and soothed by healers, artists, musicians, as well as therapists such as those from the Climate Psychology Alliance.
You may think that the comparison is over the top. This is not a war, you may complain, and a bunch of activists lying down in the road or gluing themselves to buildings, are not soldiers. However, this viewpoint itself emerges from a lack of recognition of the magnitude of the situation. And, if the mindsets and priorities of politicians and industrialists globally do not shift drastically, we will be approaching a situation that increasingly resembles wartime — and may surpass it in the human and non-human cost that climate breakdown will cause.
So when people, like those who gathered at Selgars Mill on a weekend in early June, face this emergency with courage, they ARE on the front-line. The situation is likely to get more and more challenging — and we should remember that these are not people with military training and resilience, but ordinary people from ordinary towns and villages — grannies, mums with children, school children — who feel they have no choice but to travel to the city and lie down in the road — regardless of the consequences. Friendly, supportive police officers were a godsend this time, of course, but this is not guaranteed as things get more difficult. We know what authority, when challenged, is prepared to do to protect its interests and, what it calls, the rule of law.
So, I am wondering if new online and physical communities like the Campfire Convention and others popping up around the place might be the places where activists and others can meet and talk, without the intrusions and surveillance of ‘big data’; places for planning and creativity, where art, psychology, activism and ecology can meet and find synergy.
And I wonder whether places like Selgars Mill will be where people need to come to recover, connect, sing and receive therapy — places of sanctuary and convalescence, where they can make sense of what they are experiencing and putting themselves through as the world we all took for granted is crumbling.
And I also wonder whether these new ‘kindlings’ might, as Pete Lawrence hopes they will, grow into campfires of comfort and community — new templates for how we might live together in the troubled times ahead.
Maybe I am overly optimistic — even naive. Yet, I still have hope that we humans can salvage something from the wreckage — or even stave off the worst effects of the looming crisis. And this won’t come from machines that suck carbon out of the sky, but through new ways of meeting each other, talking with each other, organising ourselves and living on the Earth: sitting around our campfires, as we have always done, and singing joyfully to the sky.
Steve Thorp is a writer and therapist living and working in Pembrokeshire. He is also co-editor of Unpsychology Magazine. Much of his work is concerned with the psychological implications of climate breakdown, and he is part of the Climate Psychology Alliance. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org