The Earthworm Gathering Part Three – Meltdown In The Mountains
by Alastair Thompson
Former Scoop Editor Alastair Thompson resumes the story of his experience at the inaugural Earthworm Gathering for Faithful Diggers. In part one Alastair set the scene for a collective story sharing adventure involving 12 people who barely know each other. In part two he related the story behind his creation of a personal coat of arms. In this, part three, Alastair recounts the second day of the gathering. The party of 12 faithful diggers spend a day walking in Italian Alps thinking about how well they live up to the values they believe they hold, and end with a meal of polenta and melted cheese under the stars.
Gran Paradiso National Park – Italy – the venue for day two of our gathering.
Publication Postscript 13th November 2017:An explanation is required for why publication of this story was interrupted in September last year. Short answer: I wasn’t ready till now to tell it. The Earthworm Gathering process recounted in this story was life changing, it shook me up a little and after quickly writing this in the immediate aftermath, I have spent a few months reflecting deeper on the subject matter and reassembling myself.
While I won’t expand on my post-gathering experience at this stage, I may do so in the future. For now I feel it would be better to tell this story as it happened without interruption.
… first a brief recap of the story so far.
“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” – Author C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. Lewis is addressing the grief he experienced over the untimely death of his beloved wife of cancer.
It’s late June 2016, 12 faithful diggers have come together from nine nations to stay in the village of Epinel in the Cogne Valley (in the Italian Alps). We are here to explore our relationship with our “inner duck”. This is the name that Australian philosopher-cartoonist Michael Leunig gives to that part of us – at our core - which is pure and simple and just IS. Some call it the soul.
Our Faithful Diggers’ experiment is being held to discover whether - through a simple process of self-reflection, and an adventure in story telling – a group of people can uncover useful insights into how to become more effective healers in a deaf world. On our first day we diggers heard the story of The Forest Trust, this is the organisation that Earthworm lives within, and then in the afternoon we exercised our internal duck divination skills and came up with a personal coat of arms….
Five diggers in the village of Cogne
Day Two -Transparency
Our agenda on day two of the gathering is transparency. And our objective? To be honest with ourselves about what we are doing in life, and to identify the things holding us back from being the person our direction-finding duck wants us to be. And to begin to tell these stories, to ourselves and to each other. As a visual and sensory aid to this process we will spend our day in the presence of the grandeur of nature.
Cogne and Gran Paradiso National Park
We set off into the park
The day dawned again with clear skies and warm temperatures. After breakfast we drove 10 minutes up the road from Epinel to the tourist village of Cogne, the gateway to Gran Paradiso National Park. While Julien Trousier (one of our earthworm guides) and Catrin purchased us some picnic lunch the rest of us wandered around the village, positioned at the entrance to a glacial valley that leads south-east towards the 4000 meter high peaks of the Gran Paradiso range.
It was a stunning day, the valley we were walking up was gently sloped with towering rock cliffs on either side with seemingly precariously placed boulders and trees. There was talk of seeing wild chamois, but in the end that didn't happen till fairly late in the day.
After a fairly short walk into the park we stopped at some seats in a clearing. We broke into small groups to talk about the day before, with the objective of then reporting back to a group check-in. I settled on a small wooden bridge with two fellow diggers, Catrin and Frank. Some calves came past while we were talking being chased by a cattle dog which didn't seem to have much of a clue about what it was doing.
The view in our group seemed to be that we hadn't been affected quite as much as we had expected we would be by the first day. As each of our trio was engaged at least partly in the business end of proceedings, we then began to critique the exercise a little. For my part I revealed that I was hoping for some magical transformation to take place and noted that this hadn't yet happened.
A group of alpine cattle wander through our discussions
A minor meltdown
Then suddenly I began to feel uncomfortable, wriggling worms appeared in my guts. A familiar feeling had returned, a rising, uncontrollable and unspecified anxiety was taking hold of my mind.
By the time Scott Poynton (the other guide and convenor of the gathering) called us back to the group I was fully in the grip of a feeling I had become familiar with two and a half years earlier, after experiencing a rather spectacular professional disaster. But this time I had no idea where it had come from.
I kept silent about how I was feeling. Back sitting in a circle of the full group, each sub-group reported back from the groups about what had been said. The night before I had felt so elated with my coat of arms and the presentation of it to the group, this had led to perhaps a little too much imbibing of Génépi, a French mountain liqueur which miraculously doesn't seem to lead to headaches. But very suddenly these feelings of confidence and safety had evaporated, and I wondered if it had been the Génépi.
Julien then prompted a discussion about what we were planning to do today - about the role of transparency and internal honesty in driving us towards the place where change happens. He spoke about how in TFT's experience it was when organisations experienced discomfort and suffering that they were pushed out of their "known" space to the edge of chaos, to the the place where transformation happened.
I thought for a bit and then raised some courage and decided I would raise the fact that at that very moment I was feeling extremely anxious. So much so that I was suffering. I thought I was ready to jump into that chaos.
The author, shortly after the minor meltdown moment.
I briefly explained to the group that this was due to some events which had occurred over the past two and half years which had left me with a psychological trauma that would sometimes present itself in sudden feelings of intense anxiety and make me double over in pain.
I had been thinking very intently about why I was feeling so bad as the discussion took place, and by now was fairly sure that I understood the source of my anxiety. I felt confused about my quasi-professional status in the group, as both a participant and part of the team. These feelings were possibly exacerbated by some non-specific anxiety about being a stranger in a strange land.
I also felt anxiety about expressing these thoughts in front of my new colleagues - most of whom I had only met in person the day before. One of the diggers asked what I needed to recover. I replied that I needed to feel safe.
With all the empathy, compassion and kind words that followed I broke into tears and one of my new colleagues Theresa gave me a big hug. It helped. And just as suddenly as the wriggling worms had appeared in my guts they suddenly left.
A butterfly to the rescue
A Gran Paradiso papillon
After my minor meltdown Scott read us a passage from an account of the Arthurian legend in which Merlin helps the young Arthur to learn from the animals and insects of the forest by magically transforming him into the creatures so he can learn their lessons.
He then invited us to walk alone for the next hour, to commune with nature and contemplate the things that hold us back from achieving our full potential - and to see if we too could learn from and be healed by the nature that was surrounding us.
Feeling only a little embarrassed about my outburst, I was one of the first to set off. A short way up the path I climbed up the hill to a spot where I could watch the rest of the diggers walk slowly past - I was keen to spend this special time truly alone.
Surrounded by the majesty of the mountains my equilibrium began to return and I made my way back down to the path. The first thing I noticed was the ants which appeared to be everywhere, scuttling about moving small bits of leaves and twigs.
And then a Papillon (butterfly) settled on my hand. I stood still as it licked my palm, probably looking for salt. Back in 2014 my wife and I had had a similar encounter with a butterfly in the Pyrenees which decided to stay on my wife's hand for a good five minutes.
This friendly butterfly brought me back to that magical moment and I paused and thought about the Irish blessing.
And at that moment I felt blessed, and indeed that all of us were being blessed, with this wonderful day of contemplation together, surrounded by ancient cliffs, in a place that has seen humanity come and go for 10s of thousands of years in the company of flowers, trees, ants, papillon and hover-flys.
After the butterfly left I moved on for a bit. And then a
butterfly landed on my face. I imagined it was the same one
that had said hello earlier - following me down the path.
But it is impossible to tell of course. This time the
butterfly let me take a selfie.
A Gran Paradiso hoverfly
I walked on for 40 minutes or so eventually catching up with Scott who was supposed to be maintaining the rear-guard of the party (to stop us getting lost). We walked on together to meet up with the group who had stopped at a bridge and were preparing a picnic while some took a dunk in the mountain stream.
Earthworm training recommences
After eating we moved on to a shady spot in the forest to recommence our discussions. Scott shared a chapter from his as yet unpublished book, a story from his childhood. The story about a pet-lizard is very sad, a tale of childhood innocence and enthusiasm encountering the uglier side of humanity.
Julien then asked us to take 35 minutes of time alone to reflect on a story of our own, one that was hurting us. The plan would be to tell the story to others in small groups and try to transform it from a story that held us back, into one that gave us strength. He likened this process to the ancient practice of alchemy, wherein early scientists tried to make Gold and the philosopher’s stone.
I walked up the track a little and then up the hill to a shady mossy spot. After I settled stories flooded into my mind. But how to choose which one too tell?
The day before I had thought that the story of my brush with The Internet Party and the fallout from that would be a good story to try to exorcise, two and half years after this debacle, the impact of it continued to bring anger and sadness to me in recollection in a way that I find profoundly disempowering. And it was usually recollection of these events that trigged my occasionally recurring anxiety attacks.
Then as I thought over the stories of my life, the death of my father Stephen flashed into my mind. As always happens when I recall his sudden death by heart attack in 2008, and the phone call from my mother that brought me the news I felt a deep sadness.
Stephen was a mountaineer and somewhat mountain like in character, permanent, strong, reliable. According to family stories he had wanted to name me Runge as a child, a name he had taken from a peak in the Swiss Alps that he was particularly fond of. Fortunately my maternal Grandfather contacted my mother and requested that I be named for his brother Alastair instead.
My father Stephen Thompson in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, back in the 1960s before I was born.
I realised Stephen would have been very at home in this valley in the Italian Alps, walking and talking about feelings. He might have struggled a little with the feelings, but he was always keen to learn new things, to explore. He loved the edge of chaos and often took the family there.
There is a specific aspect of his death that has troubled me ever since he passed away and I decide that it would be wonderful to turn that from a source of sadness into a source of strength. I do not expect to ever be free from sadness from his loss, nor do I want to be. But it would be nice to be free from my sense of regret and responsibility over his passing.
For the next 30 minutes I took notes about my story and then at 3pm I returned to the meeting place for more instructions.
Sharing our vulnerability
The group then broke into small groups to tell our stories to each other as we walked back down the valley in a leisurely fashon. I went first, I was in the company of Theresa - my new Earthworm colleague - and John (Admiral) Nelson, an old friend and fellow forest saving colleague of Scott who had recently joined the TFT team. All three of us were parents of teenagers and interestingly we had all chosen to tell stories about family matters.
We talked as we walked. I went first and as I told my story and Theresa and John listened silently. Then when I had finished they told me their stories. We reassured each other with our shared experiences and arrived at our next meeting place feeling relaxed and safe.
Over the next 20 minutes the rest of the crew arrived and we sat in a circle and talked about our experiences. Some Chamois were grazing in the adjacent meadow. Some of the party over-shot the meeting place so it was a nice languid time for reflection and story telling.
The Diggers having got to know each other continue with their story sharing.
There was an opportunity to tell our personal stories to the whole group but I didn’t feel like it was necessary in my case. The story had been told and I felt better. We talked about lots of things - some personal, some professional - as we waited for a couple of lost diggers to be found.
One of the stories told in this session was very important to me. A fellow digger had had an unfortunate experience at the end of his training, on the day of his graduation, with a mentor.
The mentor - an illustrious figure in his discipline - had agreed to meet. Eventually after the mentor had finished talking about the amazing work he was doing, the digger asked him if he would express an opinion about the work that he wanted feedback on. The mentor looked through the work and frowned. Prompted again for an opinion the mentor replied that the work was shit. "All of it?" asked the digger. "Yes", replied the mentor. Some time later, after he was presented with his diploma, the mentor shaking his hand at the end of the line remarked, "good luck."
For years the digger had felt angry about what had happened. But eventually his career had taken off and recently he had even been invited by the illustrious member of his profession to work with him. And fairly recently the digger had realised that the terrible mentor had in fact done him a favour. The mentor's criticism had smarted so much, felt so unjust, that it had fuelled the digger's internal desire to prove himself - and in that way had had a positive impact on his life.
My fellow Digger’s story was a light bulb moment for me.
As the light fades a Chamois came to take a look at us.
The story which I had thought I would bring to the gathering for resolution had been resolved through this lesson which came in another digger's story. Looking back at my recent past my efforts to first get Scoop back on its feet, and then fight for its survival, I too had also been motivated very strongly by my internal sense of injustice at what had happened when my life's work had very nearly been trashed by the casual actions of others (albeit in my case triggered by some pretty spectacularly stupid decisions of my own.)
With the benefit of hindsight I think the faithful diggers came together over this very relaxed group conversation in the forest as evening approached. We bonded. And what followed helped too.
A mountain feast
That evening we dined in the national park at a generations old traditional Italian mountain farm.
Situated on a wooded alluvial fan facing north east across the valley we dined on cheese, polenta, vegetables and mushrooms on a table with views of the light fading on the mountains to our north.
Behind us was the milking shed, a long barn in which the small herd of cows were hand milked. Beside this was the cheese making room in which the cheesemaker was busy bringing a batch of cream to the boil in a big cauldron suspended over an open fire.
Cheese making in Gran Paradiso
Our hosts were a family of four with a teenage daughter and son who lived in the chalet adjacent to our table. Following our sumptuous dinner the daughter in the family brought out an accordion and played and sung. Scott and Theresa taught us an Australian bush dance.
Myriam joined our host playing guitar, and the joy and Génépi flowed.
As we left, five of the crew walked back in the dark to where we were staying at Letizia's farm, the final three hundred yards in pitch darkness on a mountain path. We slept well.
The view from our dinner table
Author’s note: Alastair Thompson is a political journalist and entrepreneur from New Zealand who moved to Europe at the end of 2015. He is presently freelancing in Europe and in 2016 worked as an advisor for The Forest Trust's Earthworm project. From 1999 to 2015 he was the editor and general manager of Scoop Independent news the publisher of the Scoop.co.nz news website. Alastair welcomes feedback and questions at email@example.com