Diving into deep time: a Dartmoor journey into the origins of life

Plunging into ‘deep time’ using stories of ancient landscapes and a culinary journey too, a retreat next month will explore the origins of the Earth. Positive News finds out more from Andy Raingold, co-founder of nature connection social enterprise Change in Nature

Why did you think ‘deep time’ was an interesting theme for a retreat?

Our lives are filled with human snapshots of time, made up of days, deadlines and to-do lists. Rarely do we take a step back to comprehend the timescales of our species, our home planet or our universe. This dive into deep time is a unique opportunity to pop our little day-to-day bubbles and embody much deeper perspectives, insights and contemplations.

I have just come back from Namibia where I was working with the Khwe ethnic group, who count themselves as the descendants of the world’s first peoples, known collectively today as the San. For perhaps 200,000 years, their ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in a land as vast as an ocean. I was nothing more than a small speck in a limitless landscape in the sense of both time and place; a tiny, fragile, insignificant expression of life. It was humbling to experience this perspective and prompted profound changes in my perspective of life.

Rarely do we take a step back to comprehend the timescales of our species, our home planet or our universe

Dr Richard Irvine from the University of Cambridge says: “Deep time is not purely an abstraction to be calculated, but a phenomenal experience to be encountered in the field.”

This retreat is about actually experiencing and embodying the concept of deep time and the mysteries of our planet, rather than trying to get our heads around it.

How will you help participants tap into the process of travelling back in time?

On arrival, participants will hand in their phones, time devices and any other ties that anchor them to the present. Then we wave goodbye to our modern mindsets and go back in time with fable and folklore around an open fire. Through story, visualisation and opening up our senses, we travel to an age eons before the first homo sapiens walked the Earth.

At the heart of the weekend, we will undertake a ‘deep time walk’ of 2.8 miles across the ancient lands of Dartmoor, with Dr Stephan Harding of Schumacher College telling the history of our living Earth. This takes you from when our planet was born 4.6 billion years ago up to the present day, with each metre walked representing 1 million years.

Only on the very last step do we experience human civilisation. The final few millimetres represent modern industrial society with all its rich innovations and planetary impacts. Just like my experience in Africa, this shifts our perspective, liberates us from our narrow human-centric mindsets and opens us up to the wonder of the unfathomable majesty of it all.

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What role will nature play in the weekend? Why Dartmoor?

Dartmoor is the perfect setting for this immersive exploration of deep time. It’s rugged, scenic, with wide expanses and panoramic views that immediately evokes a sense of place with no limits. And it’s a land alive with stories and myths, from the Neolithic people who built standing stones and circles, many of which still remain today, right through to 300m years ago, when Dartmoor was made up entirely of granite, formed from magma exuded from the Earth’s crust. There was no soil, no grass, no trees – just rock. When you are sitting on top of a tor, originally formed around this time, and surrounded by wild ponies, you really get that sense of our deep geological and evolutionary past.

Andy Raingold is co-founder of nature connection social enterprise Change in Nature. Image: Change in Nature

How does the weekend link to what your organisation, Change in Nature, is doing more fundamentally? Why is there such a need for your sort of work at the moment?

The Deep Time Dive, like all of our events, is all about having an extraordinary, immersive experience in the wild. It takes a lot of planning these days to get out into pristine natural settings without any distractions. The norm seems to be a glamping weekend where you end up in a country pub. Change in Nature is about fostering much deeper experiences in the natural world, which ignite a sense of awe, wonder, inspiration, community and lots of laughter.

Through story, visualisation and opening up our senses, we travel to an age eons before the first homo sapiens walked on this Earth

A full digital detox is a big part of that. We provide a much-needed break from constant screens, interruptions and numbing chatter. By removing distractions and opening up our senses to nature, we can experience the joys of real apples, real blackberries and real tweeting!

As with the majority of our retreats, the Deep Time Dive is collaborative endeavour – in this case with Dr Stephan Harding, the originator of the deep time walk concept. Each of our programmes covers a different theme, spanning the worlds of business, arts, leadership and sustainability. Other collaborators include Jonathon Porritt, Tony Juniper, Jamie Catto.

How do your retreats balance fun and seriousness?

A lot of people who come on our programmes are looking for some kind of retreat but don’t fancy sitting earnestly in the lotus position all day. They want to enjoy themselves and, at the same time, discover more about themselves and the world around them.

The weekend will include an ‘evolutionary banquet’ from creative chef Mama Xanadu. Image: Change in Nature

All of our retreats combine deep contemplation with a hearty dose of magic and celebration. The Deep Time Dive, for example, will culminate with an evolutionary banquet crafted by creative chef Mama Xanadu. Dishes will be designed to take you on a culinary odyssey through the evolution of our planet. We will journey from the Big Bang, photosynthesis and cell division, to the metamorphosis of insects, and progression of species to the final arrival of homo sapiens and with them the crafts of hunting, gathering, fire and tools – all washed down with amoeba cocktails and plenty of algae bubbles. It is an immersive experience, like Secret Cinema or Punch Drunk, fusing stories, art, creativity and theatre.

We see nature as a unique space for taking people on rich imaginative adventures – making our experiences so much more than your standard yoga retreat or bushcraft weekend. At the same time, there are plenty of opportunities for meditation, movement and solo reflection.

By removing distractions and opening up our senses to nature, we can experience the joys of real apples, real blackberries and real tweeting!

You’ve been on your own ‘leave the city’ journey. How do your own experiences help keep your projects relevant and accessible?

For over seven years, I was the executive director of an influential pressure group in Westminster, working with CEOs, government ministers and ‘thought leaders’ to drive action for a more sustainable world. My co-founder, Chloe Revill, worked for the UK Foreign Office and is currently a freelance consultant on international climate change diplomacy. In many ways, we have been on similar journeys to become nature-experience facilitators. We are not bushcraft survivalists or hardcore expedition leaders. Rather, we feel that we can relate to the challenges many people face in highly stressed, high stakes working environments and seek to provide the perfect antidote: extraordinary experiences in nature that help you refresh, reflect and reconnect.

The Deep Time Dive retreat takes place from 21–23 July at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Dartmoor National Park. It is run by Change in Nature, a social enterprise that works to help reconnect people with nature.

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