Community Earth Festival
22 April–8 July 2023
Mark Barber (Esk Valley Camphill Community)
Thoughts from an Esk Valley perspective
When the Community Earth Festival was conceived in late 2021, none of us could have imagined what it would grow into. Indeed, so varied and wide-ranging have been the 40 or so events across the area over the last ten weeks, that it is really very hard to provide a comprehensive review. The best I can do is to offer a few reflections on the handful of events I myself had a connection to.
The launch event took place on 22 April (International Earth Day). The venue was Loftus Club on West Road, Loftus. It brought together community organisations from across the moors and coast, many of which had little or no previous contact with each other.
The whole event felt like a huge gamble. With a dark beat pumping in the adjoining bar, as the locals limbered up for a normal Saturday night, about 200 people assembled in the function room, and began cagily ordering their drinks at the bar. A few large plants brought in for the occasion helped to soften the ambience ever so slightly.
After a few opening words from the Loftus Mayor and the organisers, the mood began to warm as a number of local musicians and choirs made their beautiful contributions. Then came the Glaisdale clog dancers (apparently a throwback to working-class culture in the industrial-age mills of northern England). This was followed by poems from local poet John Roberts in full dialect, speaking from the heart of the local people, their land and their story. It was then the turn of a learning disabled resident of Esk Valley Camphill Community to deliver a poem of her own creation. As she spoke, we could feel the mood shift palpably from good-humoured indulgence to rapt attention. It was one of many incongruous juxtapositions created that evening.
It was only later, as the band played the second or third piece of the ceilidh, and the disparate gaggles of people began to get caught up in the whirl of the dance, that I began to realise that a strange kind of alchemy was beginning to taking place.
And this is what seems to have characterised so many of the events and activities that have taken place since that strange day. We have joined guided walks across the area, offering glimpses into the many-layered secrets contained in our landscape. There have been foraging talks, bio-blitzes, and wildflower identification. We have explored the local coastline, delved into its rockpools, and we have heard the tragic story of the recent dredging of the Tees Estuary, resulting in a colossal marine life die-off.
Local writer, Lydia Gill, led a highly-praised inclusive writing workshop entitled ‘Land of the Witch’, which brought together published writers, members of the public, children and the learning disabled. Meanwhile, another EVCC co-worker, Hans Steenbergen, led a series of workshops and talks with a group of earnest local seed savers.
On a more cerebral level, there have been two public showings of the recent film ‘Riverwoods’, setting out the urgent need to rewild the barren uplands of Scotland. The parallels to our own denuded landscape in the North Yorkshire Moors were lost on no one. This set the scene for a community discussion at Danby at which a panel of experts pondered how we can restore biodiversity and resilience to the Esk Valley and East Cleveland.
And having reeled off this eclectic collection of events, I have still omitted most of them! From the very beginning the Community Earth Festival seems to have taken on a life of its own, becoming something bigger and richer than any of us could have imagined (never mind organised!)
Few people today can still be ignorant of the enormity of the multiple environmental crises we face. And yet, how many of us continue to lead our lives as we always did? Perhaps it all feels just too big, too overwhelming?
However, community has a power that is all its own. When a group of people begin to identify with each other, to root themselves in a landscape, to reckon with the forces that shape it, and to assert a claim to a common future – then we can begin to reclaim our agency, as we begin to face an uncertain future.
One is reminded of Victor Hugo’s famous words: ‘Nothing in the world... is so powerful as an idea whose time has come’.
Marshall Best (Loftus Accord Walking Group)
Thoughts from an East Cleveland perspective
‘Togetherness with purpose in the natural environment’ can usefully express the experience of our joint endeavour as we progress towards the concluding events of the Festival programme.
People, community groups and a nearby school group have all stepped outside their regular routines to participate and inform visitors and observers of their contributions and interest in transitioning to sustainable living, learning and working.
This interest was visible from the opening night at Loftus Club on Saturday 22 April, when a few regulars, watching from a distance, were left in awe by the formidable talents expressed by those communicating through verse, music, song and dance to a large gathering who were absorbing every stimulating minute of the concert.
Word soon spread and it did not take long for comments such as – ‘Why was I not informed about the concert?’ – to reach our ears.
As we progressed through our task days in Westfield Community Woodland we were joined by local residents and volunteers from Guisborough and Northallerton – all keen to contribute.
East Cleveland has a landscape which communicates visually the natural forces of environmental and climate change and the work of people through the ages. During our walks we were able to observe the imprints left by people up to 6,000 years before and marvel at how they used available resources to establish identity and place with a deterministic ambition.
Our parish communities were largely expanded during the Victoria era, which heralded rapid industrial growth, and then through many decades, until a post-industrial state was reached with little connectivity between settlements.
The Community Earth Festival coincides with the delivery of a transformational regeneration for Loftus which, from the outset, was designed to provide a positive integration connecting people from Coast to Moors.
This integration has also drawn the wider community together through our joint endeavour to showcase sustainable living with many examples such as utilising our natural fibres, dyes and processing to make highly desirable and long-lasting clothing, and the turning of green wood into usable furniture, appliances and decorative art forms.
This togetherness has perhaps brought a sufficient number of people towards a view where we could contemplate the development of a pathway to achieve resilience and sustainability in response to our changing climatic conditions.
Our region is the beneficiary of one of the largest singular industrial investments in English history with the creation of over 22,000 new jobs from the Tees to the Dogger Bank, many of which will start within the current decade.
Our network of community groups has experience of working alongside the farming community, National Park Authority, statutory bodies such as DEFRA, Environmental Agency, Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council, Loftus Town Council, and also Charitable groups such as CPRE, Tees Valley Wildlife Trust and East Cleveland Good Neighbours. With our common aim of working in harmony with nature and building resilience, this should provide an excellent platform to secure tailored advice on important area and regional projects and future funding opportunities.