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The Earthworm Gathering Part One - New Beginnings

The Earthworm Gathering Part One - New Beginnings

By Alastair Thompson
Photos by Franck Vogel and Alastair Thompson

Scoop's former editor Alastair Thompson recently moved to Europe. In a five part series starting today he recounts the story of an event held at the end of June in the Italian Alps. The event, hosted by the Earthworm Gatherings project, tested a strategy for personal development which Earthworm hopes can be applied to increasing the resilience of people involved in the complex systemic change required to mitigate climate change. In this first part in the series he sets the scene for his personal transformation.

Alastair in the village of Epinel, Cogne, Italy June 30th 2016

"And if there was a war in heaven once, then we who are neither wholly good nor wholly bad, we who consist both of shadow and of light, we sad, wounded creatures standing between earth and heaven, striving to be whole – can, if we are truly human, choose to be among the healers too."

- Lindsay Clarke, Parzival and the stone from heaven, 2001

Setting The Scene

In 2014, finding ourselves with an empty nest, the opportunity for a long delayed overseas experience arose for my wife Wendy and I. Fortunately I was already a British Citizen (by birth) and Wendy was entitled to become one by descent. From August to October 2014 we visited France for our third time in 12 years, and as we departed Paris we made a decision to try make a go of becoming Europeans in the next phase of our lives.

Organising our affairs to make this possible became a 14 month marathon, and then in December 2015 Wendy and I began an adventure which is now barely seven months old.

Moving to the other side of the world involved a couple of months of goodbyes and hellos in NZ, Australia, Singapore, Ireland and France. And although pretty much everything has gone to plan, the uprooting and reestablishment process is inherently rather stressful. I can't begin to imagine how difficult it must be for refugees to relocate themselves by foot with just the possessions they can carry with them.

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs - image Wikipedia


Upon arrival in Bretagne, France I found myself back at the base of the Maslow hierarchy of needs pyramid. My physiological needs were paramount - orientation, keeping warm and food. For several weeks visits to supermarkets were fascinating and quite a lot of time was spent lighting fires to keep warm and walking and driving around my new neighbourhood.

The five part story that begins here relates some significant events in my path towards the higher levels in Maslow's hierarchy. My progression began with a very fortunate introduction from a kind friend in NZ.

Malcolm Rands - "Ecoman" - who I met at TEDx Auckland in 2009 and subsequently had the great privilege of working with as a client of Scoop - thought that my skills and intentions might be aligned to those of an Australian friend of his now based in Switzerland - Scott Poynton.

Following Malcolm's introduction I spoke with Scott a couple of times via Skype, read his book Beyond Certification, and arranged to meet him when I was next in Geneva. In early February we met in person at the offices of the organisation that he founded in 1999 - The Forest Trust- in the town of Nyon on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Scott Poynton

Scott Poynton at Cogne, Italy.

Scott Poynton is a "man of the trees". An environmentalist and forester who is part of a lineage of forest advocates which dates back to at least the beginning of the 20th Century. A boy from the bush who grew up on the outskirts of Melbourne, who was inspired to become a forest scientist after listening to an amazing radio broadcast. Lately he has been developing his skills as writer, blogger and podcaster. A gentle giant, Scott's near constant companion is his dog Finn.

Scott is also the founder of The Forest Trust (a.k.a. TFT) - a charitable environmental organisation which helps its members first understand their values and then helps them to embrace them through their actions and supply chains.

We met in Scott's TFT office which is adorned with several giant reproductions of his friend Michael Leunig's cartoons which inform and inspire his work.

Malcolm Rand's introduction was nothing if not apt and timely . Scott is in the process of moving on from leadership of an organisation he had founded in 1999, and into which he had poured his very essence. Earthworm is the place that he wants to next pour his energy - and to do this he wanted to find someone with online communications experience.

We discussed the state of the world, especially the looming threat of catastrophic Climate Change. "We are presently tracking for six degrees of climate change, a level which will mean the end of large mammals, and we all have the look of large mammals about us," he told me, leaving rather a strong impression. It’s a line he uses fairly often. We also talked about the apparent inability of our current commercial and political structures to respond with the required speed for us to change this trajectory.

On a values and objectives level we clearly had a lot in common. How can one go about speeding the capacity of people and organisations to change at scale?

We then turned to discuss what we are doing. In Scott's case this was TFT and a project which lives within TFT, Earthworm, which is intended to take the ideas developed at TFT - and explained in his book "Beyond Certification" - to the next level. For my part I discussed, our attempts to find a sustainable commercial model for news and some ideas I have been thinking about which I have been calling the #PoeticRevolution.

Again there was significant alignment. Our meeting concluded with a shared intention to work together to see if we could explore methods to accelerate the capacity for life-giving change in human society.

Earthworm & The Role of Ducks In Humanity's Salvation

After leaving Geneva Wendy and I found a stone cottage in Bretagne, and by the middle of March I had nailed the first stage of Maslow's pyramid - food, warmth and orientation.

And I then began work on the next step in the pyramid of human adaption, which included finding something useful to do. The opportunity then presented itself for me to work with Scott and his colleague Julien Troussier on a re-launch of their Earthworm project.

After thinking about the application of the ideas that TFT had developed for organisations to individuals for about five years they had in 2015 taken the step of launching a website and holding an initial meeting to test out their ideas on individuals. Now they were ready to take a deeper dive into the ideas in the form of a gathering of people. A story sharing adventure to support people involved in the work of healing the world to connect to their inner ducks. My initial task was to help them create a website to help explain what Earthworm and the gathering was about.

The Homepage (presently on hiatus)


I quickly discovered I had wonderful material to work with.

Earthworm takes its name from the humblest of earth's creatures – creatures which bring life to the soil which brings life to us all. Earthworm’s eat whatever is front of them, digest it and turn it into humus, a source of life in the ground. The word humus shares its origins with a bunch of important related concepts including humanity and humility.

Scott and Julien's work at TFT involves working with some of the largest corporations in the world to help them gain inspiration from and apply values and principles to the way they work. This work often involves the use of art, poetry and images. In Scott's case the work of Australian cartoonist philosopher Michael Leunig has been particularly important. Leunig uses the idea of a duck to explain the concept of a pure and simple core of goodness inside of all of us that just is.

Our Duck, Leunig says can become a great source of both comfort and energy if we cultivate our relationship with it.

In 1989 cartoonist Michael Leunig began an experiment. Asked to produce a weekly carton for Sunday Age (Australia), he remembers wondering, "if newspapers might carry some small spiritual message of consolation as a tiny reparation for the enormous anxiety and distress they can create." A series of cartoons and reflections followed which eventually became the book A Common Prayer.

In the introduction to A Common Prayer Leunig writes that each person has an inner life which can be strengthened by acknowledgement and by giving it a name.

"He may call it the human spirit, he may call it the soul or he may call it God. The particular name is not so very important. The point is that he acknowledges this spiritual dimension. He would be a fool to ignore it, so powerful is its effect on his life, so joyous, so mysterious, so frightening."

At the website you will see how we used earthworms and ducks to commence our search for our first cohort of "faithful diggers". Faithful diggers also come from the work of Michael Leunig. It’s the name that he gives to the: "lone tunnellers whose joy and passion is to dig mysterious tunnels beneath the surface of the earth; who share the soulful purpose of moles and worms; [digging] faithfully in darkness, absorbed and fulfilled."


And thus stories of ducks and earthworms, and the importance of values became the basis of our invitation to eight intrepid and faithful diggers who agreed to join the Earthworm team on Sunday June 26th at the exquisite Plan de la Tour mountain hotel in Cogne Valley of the Italian Alps, hosted by the wonderful Letizia Savin.

The inaugural Earthworm Gathering of Faithful Diggers Begins

The faithful diggers outside Plan de la Tour, Agriturismo.


Ranging in age from 25 to the 50s, with an even gender split our diggers hailed from nine countries. We began arriving at the hotel in the village of Epinel on Sunday June 26th.

And as we arrived we all heard some extraordinary news.

A local young man, named Imer, whose parents owned a restaurant which we were planning to eat at later in the week, had been given the job of picking up two of our number from Milan Airport. However he had suffered a catastrophic accident.

The day before he had decided to climb his favourite mountain, Punta Pousset, which was immediately opposite our hotel. While at the top of the mountain taking pictures he had been struck by lightning. Remarkably, whilst bleeding profusely from his wound he had amazingly managed to run 1800 meters downhill to the valley floor to meet an ambulance to take him to hospital.

Punta Pousset, 2500m, high above us across the Cogne river valley.


With the 2500m high peak looming directly above the hotel the tale seemed somewhat surreal, especially the bit about him running down. However we understood he was now recovering in hospital and someone else has been dispatched to pick up our fellow diggers. An auspicious start.

An Experiment In Duck Whispering - Values, Transparency, Transformation & Verification

Julien Troussier and Scott Poynton, Cogne, June 29, 2016


The four stories that follow in this account are a personal reflection on my experience while participating in the Earthworm "duck whispering" process facilitated by Scott and Julien from the 27th to the 30th of June.

This inaugural Earthworm gathering was a prototyping session, a proof of concept experiment. The methods and content for the Gathering had been tested at TFT labs held with staff and members of The Forest Trust but not in the extended format that we were about to experience.

The ideas behind the programme came from TFT’s "VT-TV" process, which stands for "Values - Transparency - Transformation - Verification" and which you can read about more here.

While I certainly had more knowledge than most of the attendees at the gathering about what was about to happen I still only had an outline.

Two years earlier a version of the format had been presented to a group of French CEOs over a period of six hours in Lyon - and had made a deep impression – but the program had never before delivered over four days to a diverse set of individuals with the intention of connecting with them at a deeply personal level.

The primary objective of our gathering was to evaluate, firstly - whether the duck whispering process which Scott had Julien had designed would work with a group of strangers over a three day period, learning in group sessions. Secondly we wanted to find out if it would help us in the ways expected.

For my part I brought with me 47 years of anxieties, hopes and fears and was rather hopeful that I might find the experience transformative. I set off on the program with high expectations and a commitment to open myself up to the process fully.

And what follows over the next four days is my story of what happened.

(to be continued….)

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 working on a number of projects as an adviser including Earthworm. From 1999 to 2015 he was the editor and general manager of Scoop Independent news a digital news startup which publishes the news website. In 2015 he led a transformation project which vested Scoop in the ownership of the Scoop Foundation for Public Interest Journalism. Alastair welcomes feedback and questions at

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