Tuesday 27 September 2016

R50: Walking our Talk with Satish Kumar

Fifty people were invited to walk fifty miles with Satish Kumar to mark his 80th birthday and celebrate fifty years of Resurgence Magazine. I was lucky enough to be one of them… Satish, for those who don’t know is a former Jain monk and one of the world’s great peace activists who most definitely walks his talk in the world as founder of The Small School, editor of Resurgence & Ecologist Magazine and one of the guiding lights and founders at Schumacher College in Devon.  Satish has made many significant pilgrimages throughout his life and the plan to celebrate his birthday and Resurgence’s 50th by walking came to him during the filming of Emergence’s documentary series ‘Being an Earth Pilgrim’ last year.

Photo of Satish Kumar, Ruth Davey 

There and then he committed to walking from the source of the Thames, along the river and into Oxford arriving in time for ‘R50,’ a major celebratory conference with speakers and participants attending from all over the world to be held at Worcester College in Oxford. He would not walk alone but with anyone wanting to walk with him. This was a significant event for the all reasons listed above and also for me personally, it marked a formal completion to a very significant three month walk - my ‘Grail Quest’, my ‘Fools Errand’ around Wales I’d begun earlier in the year on 17th June...

18th September
The Resurgence 50th anniversary walk official meeting point was at the New Inn Hotel, Lechlade-on-Thames. Thirty-six of us - all issued with a candle and a bright orange, 'One Earth, One Humanity, One Future' T-shirts and name tabards stood in a circle for the official welcome and route briefing. A few words from Satish and then we were off. The Badgers - Keith and Debbie were the first I met - they'd given a generous contribution to our crowdfund campaign last year to make Emergence’s landmark documentary series, ‘Being an Earth Pilgrim’ on Satish Kumar which we were due to launch at the forthcoming R50 celebratory gathering later in the week at our destination, Oxford. The Badgers were over from Australia to do the walk and attend the Oxford event. He told me about his epiphany of a walk - four and a half months from John O'Groats to Lands End, him and Debbie walking together. Before the walk he’d been a successful accountant and businessman. He said, returning from the walk, going home and opening his closet with all his clothes and non-essential stuff had completely derailed him. Something happened in his body which rebelled against a return to 'business as usual' he thought he was having a breakdown and then spent months after trying to understand what was going on. Someone gave him Satish's book 'NoDestination' to read, he took a trip to Schumacher College and then and there started remaking his life building on new values he didn't even know he had. He's writing a book about it now, on his third draft.

R50 Walkers, photo Debby Badger

Going into silence between conversations was a balm to the senses. Conversation, however rich, pulls me out of my senses and into my head. The walk was facilitated so we had opportunities to talk but also chance to look at the river, the trees, the sky, still the mind and deeply connect to the places we were moving through. Then a walk and talk with Muchti, Satish and his wife June Mitchell’s son, one of the first students to go to ‘The Small School' in Hartland Devon, started by Satish for primary and secondary age kids. Muchti, a brilliant mind with a big heart was a carpenter and scientist who'd built his own boat, developed the Resurgence Carbon Calculator and now ran the company 'Cosy Homes' developing new ways of reducing the carbon footprint of old and listed housing stock - practical, down to earth and passionate.

At lunchtime Satish talked to us about the spirit of pilgrimage, "a tourist expects, whereas a pilgrim accepts". The day was more talk than walk, but walk we did - six and a half miles to The Swan Inn, Radcot. On arrival, our group dispersed to our various campsites and B&B's for the evening to digest the day and prepare for the following.

Reflections on the Thames, photo Fern Smith
19th September
Our second day was cool and damp from the start. Soft, light rain came in just before noon and stayed for the duration. Our group was a little changed, a few new and a few missing from yesterday. The Thames was broader, seemingly more present and certainly wider than yesterday, gentle khaki green without a ripple. The conversations seemed more spacious, less frenetic (or was it just that I’d relaxed?), everything settling into a deeper rhythm. I spoke with Susie, psychiatrist turned psychotherapist who'd worked a lifetime in the NHS, then Claire a volunteer now facilitator at Schumacher College about alchemy and seagulls, Ying a Chinese student just finishing the economics masters at Schumacher on the I Ching, Vision Quests and the greening of China. She mentioned a phrase from one of her teachers that resonated strongly: "We are not here to save the world we are here to serve the mystery". I wanted to get a T-shirt printed with that one on.

Fewer stops today as the drizzle kept coming. Abundant and ever-present blackberries that we snacked on constantly. Wet feet tramping through wet grass by early afternoon. Still, the rain was gentle and no chill wind drove us onward. We arrived at 'The Rose Revived' our final stop of the day to copious cups of tea bought by Satish and began the long slow dry out. Someone thought me a gardener or farmer for the dark dirt under my fingernails. They were mistaken, it was from eating a chocolate muffin earlier…

We had arrived at our halfway point along the Thames path on our pilgrimage to Oxford. Our merry band drying out wet shoes in preparation for the third day of our walk tomorrow. This country feels unknown and alien to me. I have not even looked at a map as we were following copious way markers and our walk producer and facilitator Rosalind Turner. No towns or other markers, only the river to remind me this is the sacred Thames, the river I grew up in the shadow of half a century ago. TS Eliot's words from his ‘Four Quartets’ have been circling round my head these past two days..."Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song. Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long." Shantih, Shantih, Shantih.

Satish by Sacred River Thames. Photo, Debby Badger

20th September
We gathered in a circle holding lighted candles by The Thames, around forty of us now, still in our orange 'One Earth, One Humanity, One Future' T-shirts. They were getting slightly grubbier and we with them. Satish spoke to us about the five elements - earth, wind, fire, water and the fifth - IMAGINATION. This really struck me - imagination being an element...the one that weaves the other four together. This felt radical and deeply important. I'd never heard him say this before... And I thought after the time I've spent listening to him in conversation during the making of our DVD documentary series for twelve hours, that I'd heard it all. I tucked this new revelation away like a squirrel burying an Autumn acorn. We walked past numerous locks and weirs, the Thames curving and widening as the day went on.

There were still so many people on the walk I'd still not had the chance to speak to. I discovered by chance that one of the walkers was Sandra, who'd I'd first met in India, from Australia - we'd done Satish's Gandhi & Globalisation course together which also featured the incredible Vandana Shiva, in 2011. We had a lot to catch up on…

 Photo, Fern Smith

Autumn is most definitely in the air, sloes on the trees as well as bright red hips and haws. We single filed it in silence along the river, all of us stretched out over perhaps half a mile. After lunch Satish spoke about spiritual ecology. Lovely to see his son Muchti on his left and His wife June on his right. All of us sitting on the grass, completing the circle with a multitude of tiny frogs jumping around before us. "Non violence is not just a tactic but a way of life". After, a chance to speak with Rosalind the walk organiser as we walked together, she'd worked with Satish over the past eight years on his Earth Pilgrim courses, we shared stories of organising walks and walkers, "like herding cats", my parter Phil would say. Mid-afternoon a few of us jumped into the Thames and had a glorious swim in its green reedy waters, one patient swan looking steadily on at our activities. A walk and talk with Satish after, initially talking about DVD practicalities for the forthcoming conference and then sharing thoughts and receiving welcome advice about Emergence’s future. Much to reflect on. Much to consider.

Eleanor & Fern with Satish, photo Sandra de Poi

We arrived at the Eynsham, almost eight miles beyond our start that morning in Newbridge around 5.30pm. A cuppa or pint at the pub before various departures and then goodbyes til tomorrow. My good friend Will Tooby and I walked the mile to our overnight accommodation, The Swan in Shifford. Friendly, clean, basic. A small, sleepy village, well-heeled and leafy. A curry at the lovely local Bay Leaf and chat to the staff about our walk and Satish, doing our bit to spread the word about the 'R50' walk. Homeward to our pub and a sad and slightly menacing encounter with a smashed and shouting Slav. We tried in a quiet way to neither aggress nor be cowed by him. A sad and complex end to a rich and beautiful day. Worlds collide at this time - the very best of times, the very worst of times.

21st September
Our last days’ gathering place was at The Talbot Inn, Eynsham in readiness for a morning of walking the eight miles into the Oxford. We stood in a circle, lit our candles, dedicating this walk again to the five elements. We paired up and conversations flowed like water. "Be like water" says Satish, quoting The Dao, "water always adapts to the shape of its container. Flow like water. Water has the power to wear down stones and is so soft you can bathe your eyes with it..." Had the most head spinning conversation with Julie Richardson who runs the Economics for Transition Masters at Schumacher College, "the meaning of life is a life of meaning". We spoke about connections between the unmanifest and the manifest. Things so on the edge of our consciousness and central to our deepest passion - her an alchemist of economy and Chinese medicine, me following my way sharing how Emergence has been leading me to things out of my yen, comfort zone and control. The conversation could have continued a lifetime or two. Possibly a project to be hatched. Definitely a deeper connection with a fellow traveler.

Then yet another 'life changing' conversation with William, known fondly to many as Captain W - the former house manager of Schumacher College for the past 27 years. I spoke, rather than he, about my recent three month Walk round Wales (my ‘Grail Quest’ and ‘Fools Errand’) - some insights, something in the talking and something in the power of being listened to. The secrets of my Grail Quest are there still to be discovered. I still don't know what happened but all the elements of an alchemical transformation were and are present and beginning to manifest. I felt a little like a raving crazy but he quoted Jason Bourne when I apologised for talking so much. "It's O.K, I find it relaxing".

A sense that time was running out on us for all our not-yet-had conversations, those we wanted to continue and those we'd not even started. I walked with Francisco, a young and vibrant Costa Rican just finished his Masters at Schumacher, his newly formed trinity for living, "Have fun, be kind and make history".

Satish speaks outside Oxfam, Oxford. Photo, Fern Smith

We dipped our hands in the sacred River Thames as we started to see the city of Oxford approaching. More snippets of conversation and moments to savour as we walked along roadsides, over bridges, and gradually more built-up areas until we arrived at Broad Street, Oxford and Oxfam where Satish was due to give a short talk on the pavement outside. This was the first ever Oxfam shop opened in 1942. He reminded us it was International Peace Day today the 21st September. We gathered round in our four day old, a little grubby now, R50 T-shirts enjoying these last moments of being part of a merry band of pilgrims. We crossed the road into the shockingly beautiful grounds of Balliol College for tea and biscuits and some hellos to new people, goodbyes to some walkers not attending the forthcoming conference, contact swaps and photo moments. Our walk now over. The R50 Resurgence conference still to begin. I could leave now, with another lifetime of inspiration and information to digest but it's only Hasta la Vista til tomorrow...where the Great Transition/New Story/Grand Turning of the 'One Earth, One Humanity, One Future' is gearing up to begin...

(this story is to be continued)

Fern Smith is an artist and creative director of Emergence www.emergence-uk.org.
She is co-director of the Emergence documentary, 'Being an Earth Pilgrim' a six hour landmark documentary series about internationally renowned peace activist Satish Kumar available now from the Resurgence Shop. All proceeds go to Resurgence.