The Sustainable Food Trust’s Harmony in Food and Farming conference held at Llandovery College in West Wales, 10 & 11 July, 2017, was a true success, full of interesting and inspirational talks around the issues affecting our current food and farming systems. From the circular economy, to the act of eating, architecture, music, education and diet, discussions extended beyond the sessions themselves to the dining table, where participants and speakers enjoyed a diverse array of local farm produce cooked by Barny Haughton of the Square Food Foundation and a complement of talented young chefs.

One of the themes explored during the conference was spirituality, and the connections it has with science in relation to the Harmony Principles. In a session entitled Science and Spirituality, pilgrimage, meditation, chant and gratitude were explored in a discussion which offered insight into alternative visions of the planet, universe and the human mind and the ways in which this might open us up to a more sustainable means of living in unison with nature.

After Yuri Gagarin’s return to Earth following his ground-breaking space voyage in 1961, what seemed to have impacted him most was not the vastness of the universe itself, but the view of planet Earth within it. Witnessing Earth from the skies, as a perfect sphere – one of trillions in the cosmos – appeared to leave a lasting impression, one that for the majority, can only be found in the imagination. This experience is known as the ‘overview effect’ – the sense of interconnectedness felt when seeing Earth at a distance. From such a vantage, borders become blurred and the earth – its land, oceans and weather patterns – appears as a whole. The phrase was coined in 1987 by author and space explorer Frank White in his book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution as a “cognitive shift in awareness” linked to “the experience of seeing first-hand the reality that the Earth is in space”. This lasting impression is also said to expose the fragility of the Earth – after a voyage into space, NASA astronaut Ron Garan began to describe the planet as a “fragile oasis”.

During the Harmony in Food and Farming conference, Professor Nicolas Campion of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, described how there are “no politics” in space, and that when one looks upon the earth from such a distance, both its oneness and fragility become clear. Adding to the discussion on science and spirituality, biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake began by explaining that as humans we have been brought up with the idea that we are conscious beings, and that the planet, as well as the rest of the cosmos, is unconscious. This, he argued, is the standard default position that we have grown up with in the West – an idea which has influenced our attitudes towards nature and the planet. In contrast to this notion, Sheldrake suggested that those with a ‘spiritual’ understanding of the world – more specifically, those who believe in a ‘God’ – see the relationship between humans and the natural world somewhat differently. This is due to the idea of the sky as a place in which God exists. “The sky,” Sheldrake explained, “is the arena in which all life takes place.” Because of this, the human mind is more connected to the vastness that is the cosmos, and rather than being disconnected with ‘what’s out there’, spiritual thinkers are aware of the powerful relationship between humans and the planet. In a dissection of The Lord’s Prayer, Sheldrake pointed to the importance of this spiritual way of thinking in terms of sustainable food production. “Give us this day our daily bread” – a sure signalling of the importance of a food system which is able to feed the planet, both humans and the soil, forever.

Building upon Sheldrake’s description of the sky and the cosmos as ‘conscious’ arenas, Bishop of California Marc Andrus called the “nothingness” between life and death that most of imagine, “a mistake.” “We have equated the idea of the world, with the Earth. But in fact, the world contains the earth and much more…The problem affecting us as humans,” he argues, “is that we are dominated by the idea of the universe as a machine. And what happens to machines? They break down.” We are, thus, disconnected from the idea that our lives affect the greater functioning of the planet, and that we are capable of generating positive change. Perhaps for some this mechanical, unconscious understanding of the planet makes it easier to deal with the destruction we have reaped upon it. How then, in the context of sustainable living, are we to encounter and speak to this vast, ‘nothingness’? Andrus called for a “re-animation” of the space between life and death, a “re-connection” of our own lives with the life of the planet, such that we begin to care about what the world “tells us”. Prayer, according to both Andrus and Sheldrake, in many ways already embodies this empty space with the belief that there is something greater out there.

The act of pilgrimage too offers a link between our own spiritual journey and the land. On the second day of the conference, a group of thirty participants visited the sacred site of a former Cistercian monastery which was of immense importance to Wales during the Middle Ages. The Cistercians chose this place to worship and contemplate God because of its solitude and isolation, nestled in a valley surrounded by rolling hills. The Cistercian order required the monks to provide for themselves, and they were thus involved in building, farming, lead mining and quarrying, as well as woodland and water management. The Strata Florida Research Project, directed by Professor David Austin, who led the group tour of the site, aims to “increase our knowledge of the site’s long-term history and of its place in the landscape”. Simultaneously, a set of beautiful listed farm buildings adjacent to the monastery are being restored. Among the participants visiting Strata Florida were Guy Hayward and Will Parsons of the British Pilgrimage Trust. Their contributions to the conference included a pilgrimage walk from the source of the river Towy to the Llandovery College campus, spanning the two days preceding the conference. Upon their visit to Strata Florida, Guy and Will deposited a sample of water from the source of the Towy into a sacred well at the monastery. The ritual included a group song and the atmosphere, despite the rain, was one of tranquillity and, more importantly, harmony.

In his book, Harmony, A New Way of Looking at Our World, The Prince of Wales shares his insights about the timeless laws and principles which permeate everything around and within us. An understanding of these principles, he argues, will enable us to make better sense of the world in which we find ourselves. Speaking at the opening plenary session of the conference, The Prince asked us to look at “what can be gained from the study of the systemic web of life”, asking the audience, “How might this grammar of harmony better serve a more sustainable approach to food production and farming?” It is with this in mind that spirituality, in all its forms, can offer one approach to re-connecting ourselves with this ‘web of life’ in order to address the climatic, ecological and public health challenges of our time.

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