Reflections of a Day Volunteer at Embercombe by Jon Stein
The Wednesday Team – Jon Stein on the left with Andrew Davis and Jenny Wilks
In my younger life, Nature never stood a chance: I was too busy dreaming of being a rock star. As a teenager, I spent hours putting together imaginary bands then thinking up names for them. The world, thankfully, was spared most of these, but one or two would later bring me my five minutes of fame.
All that’s a long time ago, but last year I got excited about a new dream group: ‘Jon Stein and the Embers’. I can hear it now: funky grooves, tight rhythm section, knockout singer and a brass section that wouldn’t shame James Brown… But whether we ever get to play or not, I did at least find my Embers – those ‘small pieces of burning or glowing material in a dying fire.’
It began when I came to Embercombe in May 2016 to do the Journey, at the end of which I pledged to return to volunteer. It was only for a day a week (and even then I usually bowed out in the early afternoon), but for someone who lived with Chronic Fatigue for nearly two decades working outside on the land could still be a challenge. But I needn’t have worried: I was well supported by the staff and resident community – so many creative, hard-working and inspiring people!
I was also lucky to have a couple of sympathetic fellow day volunteers: Jenny Wilks, a good friend and neighbour, often accompanied me on the early morning drive from Totnes. She did the Journey in 2011 and was now re-connecting with the land and community. And though she noticed the resident volunteers were mostly half her age and twice as fit, she still found “the collective energy of the community working together infectious and inspiring.” Andrew Davis, with his understated manner and wry humour provided a gentle accompaniment to my mornings and writes his own account of volunteering below.
Over the nearly 8 months I volunteered we had Brexit, the shootings at Orlando, Donald Trump, and many other stories to make the heart sink. But they’re not the things I’ll remember. Instead, I’ll recall walking towards the children’s fire at 8.30am on a Wednesday morning and being greeted by a smile, a nod or a hug. Then working on the land – weeding lettuces or mulching apple trees, or, in November, washing bottles for apple juice. I swept the dining yurt and mopped the bathrooms; I sat enthralled at a lunchtime performance for visiting kids of the story of ‘Stone Soup’; I roasted a hundred beetroot, and met interesting people from all around the world.
Towards the end of my stay, I became aware of Embercombe itself changing. Lots of people coming and going; seemingly endless rounds of job interviews. Sometimes the mood round the fire got a little sombre, and sometimes there were tears. But that was when I saw someone take their neighbour’s hand or put an arm round them, and I realised: this is how people feed one another’s flames.
Writer and scholar, Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written: ‘wind extinguishes a candle and energises a fire…you want to be the fire and wish for the wind.’ This surely is the promise of community: going beyond individual ‘candlehood’ to becoming part of the fire. All around me I saw people making this transition, and there was a sense too that the energy being held and created here was part of a new kind of fire.
The old fire: that destructive, chaotic force symbolizing all the ways the world denies our humanity and trashes the planet – is, I believe, dying (though not without a struggle). The new one is yet to find its form. And Embercombe is showing us what it might look like. The Embers are glowing with heat and light, ready to burst into flame when the moment is right…
Towards the end of my volunteering I got to be ‘the dreamer’ – that unique opportunity Embercombe gives a worker to take time simply to be on the land and to be inspired. I walked in the forest, stood by the lake, and made notes in a book. Finally, these lines came to me:
If ever the light inside grows dim
Remember the Ember that glows within.
Each of us has an ember glowing inside us, though life sometimes distracts us from its promise and potential. At Embercombe I learned how it feels to have that ember fanned into a flame, and then for that flame to join others in the new fire. So even if that rock band I wanted never gets off the ground, I know I’ll always have my Embers!
Jon Stein is currently based in Alozaina in the Malaga province of Spain, where he is working to develop a holistic health project. Follow his blog at www.jonstein.co.uk/blog
Andrew Davis writes:
I didn’t know of Embercombe until I picked up a card up in a local café promoting The Journey. I took this as a sign and made enquiries about volunteering. I had time on my hands after all…
In the summer of 2016, after 25 years of full time employment working for causes I strongly believed in, I was confronted with the ‘challenge’ – or indeed the ‘opportunity’ – of being made redundant. I am not the first person to find myself in this situation, but I never expected it to happen to me and I was ill prepared for the hit to my confidence and self-esteem.
The OED defines ‘redundant’ as ‘not or no longer needed or useful,’ and ‘able to be omitted without loss of meaning or function’. But I felt I could still be useful, and now had the gift of time to explore my meaning or function.
I have now been visiting the magical valley since last September and been struck by the warmth of the welcome and the obvious love and care that people associated with Embercombe have for the place, its people and all it embodies
Embercombe has helped me understand that being ‘made’ redundant is not the same as ‘being’ redundant. I feel useful and certainly not superfluous! If I was to sum up what I have witnessed in my short time at Embercombe it is that people trust each other, even if they don’t know each other well, and that is a value to be treasured and nurtured.
I have also learned is that the search for understanding requires some looking and involves waiting and patience. One needs to be receptive to gifts in unexpected places.
See more of Andrew’s photographs at www.andrewdavis-photography.com