Polly Higgins: the woman who dares to be great

What does it take to achieve the seemingly impossible? Jini Reddy spends a weekend at Hawkwood College with Polly Higgins, the woman campaigning for a law against ecosystem destruction, and discovers what makes the ‘Earth lawyer’ tick

Things I didn’t know about ‘Earth lawyer’ and leader of the Eradicate Ecocide initiative, Polly Higgins: she exudes enough energy to power up a stadium. She has, literally, howled at the moon. She practises body dowsing and has prophetic visions. Oh, and she was expelled from her Jesuit school for punching the art teacher.

There is something about someone so fêted and effective in public life – Higgins has been hailed as one of the world’s top ten visionaries by the Ecologist for her work advocating a law of ecocide – displaying such a disarming gentleness and humanity and a real openness to the mysteries of the universe, that makes you sit up and take notice. Could there be a more qualified candidate to lead a three-day course entitled Dare to be Great?

Or a more fitting venue? Hawkwood College, a sustainably managed estate in the countryside outside Stroud in Gloucestershire, with caring staff, gardens, woodland, a natural spring, a community farm, home-cooked food and an award-winning ecological water treatment system, certainly has its heart in the right place.

On the first evening, Polly bounds into the lounge, all hugs, mega-watt charm and warmth. We are 24 – the workshop is sold out – including a biodynamic gardener, a medical herbalist, a mum who practises Feng Shui, a Brazilian graduate of the ecology education centre Schumacher College, a carer, and people who aren’t too sure why they’re there. Oh, and three-quarters of us are female (and why is that, I wonder?).

Over the course of the three-day workshop, we dive into the big question: what does daring to be great mean to each of us? The answers are compelling: greatness, it seems, encompasses humanity, vision, authenticity, connection, radical trust and courage.

It becomes clear that this is a journey that Polly Higgins is on, every bit as much as we all are. How do we consciously co-create – in other words, deliberately choose to attract the experiences we want into our lives? What are the tools we can use to let go of patterns of negative self-harm? How do we choose a more meaningful, empowered way of engaging with this world? How do we seed change?

“Higgins displays such a disarming gentleness and humanity and a real openness to the mysteries of the universe, that makes you sit up and take notice”

The answers can’t be bottled, but we are given guidance on a process that invites us to migrate from the logic of our minds to the innate wisdom, and greatness, of our hearts.

Change, says Polly, occurs when we speak out on behalf of others, and when we are brave enough to say “this does not feel right to me.” Equally, it happens when we recognise what triggers us into reactive, unhelpful behaviours, so that we can let go of them and begin healing the wounds we each carry. “Everything is a mirror. Your inner state of being can create huge ripples across the world.”

Similarly, she believes that setting intent, particularly when voiced aloud, is a powerful act of faith; one that is rewarded by moments of synchronistic good fortune that can’t be explained in a rational way. The language we use in doing so is significant: keep it positive and for the highest good.

Feeling lost and uncertain is a valid starting point to greatness too: “When we step into the unknown, we create a space for something new to come in, and what comes in is wisdom. Try asking ‘what next’, listen, and begin to have a deeper conversation with yourself,” she says. The answers, she assures us, may appear as a vision, a glimmer of inspiration, the spark of an idea – or a fully formed one – a gut instinct. But trust and they will surely come.

The exercises we do around these questions are visceral and fun. Everything is enlivened by Polly’s levity: we literally take a giant step into greatness; with imaginary scissors, we physically cut away that which holds us back. “The less emotional baggage you carry, the more people will want to listen to you,” she says.

We walk barefoot on the muddy fields to connect to the Earth and amplify our creativity. We stand in the gardens and, aloud, speak of our intention to let go of specific issues that dog us. We do this many times over, using our voices to break cycles of harm. We pair up and share our dreams. We practice gratitude. We dance too – movement is cleansing – and Polly gives us a marvellous mini-tutorial in the art of hugging.

She likens the Ecocide law campaign to abolitionism, the US civil rights movement, and the anti-apartheid movement. All of these were thought to be impossible dreams, but those who she calls “innovators,” people like William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela, believed in them. They created momentum, then came a tipping point, the majority adopted the idea and the inconceivable became reality.

“When we put out a message, we may perceive it’s not been heard, but it has been seeded. Change happens subliminally. When we create bridges, a larger narrative can emerge.” she says. “Daring to be great means daring to believe the impossible can become possible.”