Sarah’s Story: The Camino to COP Part One – ‘Gathering’ by Sarah McDonald
Tomorrow, on Thursday 9th September, I’m going to start walking to Glasgow. I will go to the Cathedral in the centre of Bristol, with my banners and my boots, my blister plasters and my rapid flow tests. The curate will give a blessing. We will set off. I will gather in person with people I’ve only met in the ether, over these weeks and weeks of planning. We will gather, friends and strangers, and pray and panic and walk.
We are making a pilgrimage to the Twenty-Sixth Conference of the Parties to the 1994 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Known as COP26, this meeting is seen by some as the last best hope we have to prevent global catastrophe due to climate change.
I’m completely terrified. There are tears in my eyes. My hands want to wrap and squeeze around each other. My belly is locked. It’s hard – really hard – to find the next breath. It’s not so much the reality of climate change that scares me so. We’ve all been living with that one for a while. What’s terrifying is the possibility that I could be part of a change. That I might make a difference. Because if I might, then I might not. If I might be able to, then I can fail too.
This, on reflection, is progress. Only five days ago I was trying to persuade myself, and my MP and a room full of people, that walking a very long way could be a constructive response to the climate and ecological emergency. I must have done my work well. Now I believe it in my bones.
My heart always knew it was called to this path, this Camino. I said “yes” without the tiniest sliver of thought, when a friend messaged, said she was organising a walk to COP26, would I like to be involved? “Yes. I’ll organise a leg from Bristol”. And somehow, miraculously, here we are, starting off tomorrow.
So why might walking a very long way be an effective response to the climate and ecological emergency? Yes, we will meet and talk with people along the way. Yes, we will be demonstrating our commitment and passion and determination. Yes, we will be building networks. But none of that is really the point. Or rather, these outcomes are too much on the surface. There is something deeper happening. A shift taking place at a level that I’m struggling to make conscious.
At the COP conference, there will be lots of talk about numbers. The emphasis, likely enough, will be on data. How much carbon is emitted or sequestered over what time frame? Based on what evidence? How much change is needed where, in what timeframe? How much money was paid by whom, for what? This way of thinking about the world is necessary and powerful. It’s very familiar. So familiar that it can be almost impossible to believe other ways of thinking are effective, or even exist. Just certain races, genders, nationalities, sexualities, are privileged, so are certain ways of thinking. Just as certain people, races, genders, nationalities, sexualities, are oppressed, certain ways of thinking are also oppressed. I know that’s a big statement. And I’m just going to leave it hanging there, unsupported by data of any kind, for you to make of what you will. Other ways of thinking about the world are available.
Going for a very long walk empowers some of these other ways of thinking. Ways of thinking based on relationships, that see us as a part of not separate to everything we perceive. Ways of perceiving the world that allow for mystery, for the unknown, and the unexpected. Ways of understanding cause and effect that make no sense to the rational mind. Walking, I find my mind is gradually soothed and lulled, like a baby rocked by the rhythm of movement, awake but quiet; alert, but calm. As I come into this state my senses wake up and the world comes alive around me. I start to see everything infused with life. The pattern of light through those leaves. The ripple of movement through that blade of grass. The hum of that particular bee taking off from this specific pink and purple foxglove flower. Walking a very long way we let go of control and open ourselves to the unknown. We turn in a hopeful direction, keep putting one foot in front of the other and what happens, happens. Walking we come into a relationship. Persisting mile after mile, day after day, walking in the world, through towns, and across A roads, gradually this different way of perceiving the world moves out of the specialised meditative state that we might practice and into the every day. A different way of thinking is empowered.
As a One Spirit graduate and now tutor, I’m familiar with the idea that the world is perhaps not quite as it seems. But how many times have you, like me, caught a glimpse of another way of being and had it dismissed? I can hear the voices in my head – “That’s all very well, Sarah, but….” That is what they say. “But it won’t pay the bills.” “But no one else thinks like that.” “But you do have to be practical.” “But there’s no evidence.” And I feel how effective those voices – and other, harsher ones – have been at suppressing how much I can live from a non-data-based way of viewing the world. The dominant perception of the world and how it works is killing us, quite fast now. We need to understand differently if we want to survive. And those different ways of understanding – indigenous, feminist, relational, ecological, communal, intuitive, creative – have been oppressed. It’s hard to believe that going for a very long walk, or meditating, or knitting a blanket, or growing tomatoes, or practicing Healing, can be of any use. After all, you do have to be practical….
I am going on a very long walk to strengthen within myself the conviction that this other way of being works. That it’s real. That it’s effective. I’ve read the spiritual laws – as above, so below, as within, so without – I believe it, but in a slightly abstract way that isn’t powerful enough yet for me to fully live it. This is a training walk. Training in community, in a relationship, in opening to mystery, in making transformation real.
The Camino, for me, is about empowering an oppressed way of being, in the hope and faith that other kinds of knowing ask other questions and recognise other answers. That other kinds of knowing will give rise to other kinds of solutions and open a way beyond the crisis we are now in. I want to empower that knowing in myself and in the world so that change becomes possible. It’s a different task than the one I thought I was taking on when I stepped into sacred activism. It carries more hope and it asks for more commitment.
I’ll keep you posted!
For more information, visit https://caminotocop.com/