I arrived one balmy day in mid-July to start a week’s retreat at Schumacher College. I am rather embarrassed to admit I had not heard of Schumacher until a few months before, when a fortuitous meeting with its inspired founder Satish Kumar led me to sign up.
The college is set on the historic Dartington Estate in the South Hams in Devon, a gorgeous setting which features a spectacular forest which would become central to our retreat. The college offers a range of short courses as well as ecology-centred postgraduate and horticulture programmes to help people from all walks of life develop a deep, participatory relationship with nature.
With the rather lofty title of The Power of Ritual and the Poetry of Surrender, I had little idea of what the course would involve, so this was a genuine case of trust and surrender. I should have guessed from the packing list that it would involve a fair bit of time outdoors. I don’t even like camping, yet, within a couple of days, I found myself undertaking a solo night vigil in the forest – something that would have been unthinkable a week before.
Retreats are my favourite type of holiday, and are usually focused on yoga or detox, with five star as my default positioning. But this turned out to be the ultimate retreat. No yoga, no pampering, no five stars but, instead, an intense connection with nature and self.
Accommodation is monastic, with tiny, single rooms and shared bathrooms, but it is all spotlessly clean. They grow all their own vegetables, and these are served in abundance as vegetarian meals which were the most delicious I have ever tasted. Each day there is 30 minutes of well organised community service, where we helped to clear up after meals, cook or work in the gardens.
The small class setting and experiential learning aim to provide practical skills and strategic thinking to face the multiple challenges of the future of our planet. Highlights were the sessions with the founder, Satish Kumar, a former monk who walked around the world for peace in the 1970s and is the long-standing editor of Resurgence magazine. Way ahead of his time, he’s now in his 80s, but has more energy than most people half his age. He focused particularly on one solution for change – how we need to lead much simpler lives. It’s described beautifully in his latest book, Elegant Simplicity.
The specifics of the course remain private to our tight group of 18 participants of all ages and of multiple nationalities. Suffice to say, it was profound and life changing to each of us in different ways. I came away with a much deeper appreciation that we are totally interconnected to our natural world, and that without this innate understanding, it is difficult to appreciate the scale of crisis now facing us. Several times each day, I now feel humanity viewing the planet as an unlimited resource with little regard for consequence. It has forced me and in turn try and influence my family, friends and colleagues to understand this connection, and with no more excuses, to make many drastic changes to live more sustainably.
So for many of us who are trying to make sense of this ecological crisis, maybe a good place to start is by gaining a deeper sense of ourselves and how we fit into the natural world. As such, I would encourage exploring a Schumacher course as a proactive step. You will find answers that will surprise you. Stop feeling depressed about what is happening to our planet, and go to Schumacher and get inspired for change and the part you can play.