Ecosophy Reading Group: second meeting

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This week’s meeting focused on two chapters, one from John Newling’s book An Essential Disorientation and one from Lucy Sargisson’s book Fool’s Gold. The Newling chapter is about the disorientation we feel when we enter a new space, and he talks specifically about the disorientation created by works of art. The Sargisson chapter is about intentional communicaties, such as the Findhorn Foundation based in Scotland, and it argues that these communities are attempts to establish a kind of utopia.

Once again the discussions that came out of the texts were really interesting, so I thought I’d draw up a list of interesting points again. These aren’t necessarily well developed thoughts, they’re more like desire lines on a field – a map of my mind’s wanderings and things that piqued my interest during the meeting.

1. Community

The chapter on intentional communities sparked a lot of discussion about the nature of community. As I was reading the chapter I started off thinking that the idea of an intentional community makes a lot of sense. It makes sense for people who agree on how to live to group together into a community. However, as I kept reading it occurred to me that it’s also a question of choice and of who can choose to live in these communities. Sargisson talks about the Tui Community in New Zealand which is based on the remote Wainui Bay, and she mentions the fact that some of the community’s inhabitants have struggled to find work and make ends meet. A lot of people probably don’t have the means, monetary or in some cases they may simply lack access to the ideas, to make the decision to live in an intentional community. It made me wonder how choice shapes community. Are people happier in communities they’ve chosen to live in, or is a sense of belonging more important than choice?

Some in the group asked whether it even makes sense to call a community intention, can you have an unintentional community? 

2. Natural disaster

Some one brought up the point that natural disasters can often create a heightened sense of community. Following disasters the media focuses on looting, but in actual fact people tend to band together and cooperate in order to deal with the effects of the disaster. This reminded me of a particular experience of community when I was on a camping holiday one summer. It rained a lot and one night people’s tents started to flood, so we all gathered in the big central marque on the camp site. Someone made hot chocolate for everyone and another person got out their guitar and started singing cheerful songs. A woman nearby started crying and I don’t think it was because her tent was under water. There was an overwhelming feeling in the marque of community and of having a network of support. I’m not sure I can describe it without sounding too gooey, but it was an incredible feeling of warmth and relief.

3. Urban vs. rural

We talked a lot about the effect that particular places or spaces can have in shaping a community, and the effect of rural versus urban spaces. All of the intentional communities that Sargisson talks about are based in rural, and in some cases very isolated, places and a big part of the life of the community is the land and working the land. But we debated whether rural communities have stronger ties than urban communities. This seems to be the general perception, but is it simply because of close physical proximity and necessity? Someone mentioned the fact that in rural places there often exist gift economies and that this is a way of surviving. Rural places are often seen as utopian and escapist but perhaps that strong sense of community is as much a matter of getting by than anything else.

Someone also mentioned an interesting point about discussions and discourses being centred on urban institutions. That isn’t to say people in rural areas aren’t having important conversations, we just don’t know about them.

4. Place and knowledge

Despite the fact that I found John Newling’s piece confusing and difficult to read, there was one paragraph that I really liked.

Visiting a place for the first time the experience of crossing the threshold can be palpable. Railway stations, airports and bus stations all seem to invite disorientation and uncertainty. We often experience moments of confusion about where we are and how to proceed… Often the new place will be categorised by type as part of the process of orientation. This involves logging a place within known experiences. In some instances the experience can expand or alter the existing parameters of agreement. The village, town or city can become distinct in our experience and make the place a site. Places that become significant because of a particular experience have a period of disorientation followed by new knowledge. We inhabit these places through memories of the place as a site where confusion leads to knowledge.

I’m fascinated by the way in which particular places seem to our imagination, and that the places we feel strongly tied to differ from person to person. I read this quote as an attempt to explain why a particular place so inspires us. When we first go to a new place we try to map it on to places and things we are familiar with, in an attempt to overcome disorientation. But gradually we come to see the places for what it is in its own right and there is new knowledge that comes with this gradual transition. I’m not sure I fully grasp what he means by knowledge, but perhaps a part of it is self-knowledge and that the place teaches us something about ourselves.

As I read this paragraph I thought of Cornwall in particular, I wonder what knowledge I gained from it and what it taught me about myself?

Like I said, these are just half-formed thoughts!

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