September 2019

Emerson College Alumni/ae Gathering, August 2019

Photo above: Ruskin House was just being finished when I first arrived as a student at Emerson College in 1975. 

by Richard Chomko

More than a hundred former students and faculty, some from as far away as New Zealand and Australia, converged on Forest Row early last month for a four-day reunion at Emerson College, one of the first adult education and Waldorf teacher training institutions in the English-speaking world. 

Emerson College was founded by Francis Edmunds, who had been a high school teacher at the Michael Hall Rudolf Steiner School. The college welcomed its first students in the early 1960s. In 1967 Emerson College moved from war-time huts on the Michael Hall campus to its present location on the Pixton House estate near the village of Forest Row. 

During its heyday in the later decades of the last century, the student population ranged from 200 to 250, with 100 or more students in the full-time, year-long Foundation Studies program; the rest were distributed among courses in Waldorf education and biodynamic agriculture as well as in programs in the arts of painting, sculpture, eurythmy, and Bothmer gymnastics. Photo below of gathering attendees in the style of Emerson College group photos from the past. Pixton house is still there in the backround, but the shrubberies have grown quite a bit in the last 40 years.

Other anthroposophical trainings, such as at the Social Development Centre; at the Tobias School of Painting; at the Peredur School of Eurythmy, Speech, and Drama; and at the Christian Community Seminary, were also located in Forest Row with varying degrees of relationship with Emerson College.

Many of the first and subsequent generations of teachers at the Toronto Waldorf School (TWS) — and probably across the whole English-speaking world — did their Waldorf teacher education at Emerson College. At TWS these include Diana (Lawrence) Hughes, Aedsgaard and Elisabeth Koekebakker (now Yetman), Helga and Gerhard Rudolph, Dorothy and Ray Haller, Duncan Alderson, Gary Kobran, Jan Patterson, Elena Murchison, Patti Wolfe, Greg Scott, Leed Jackson, Warren Cohen, and Debbie McAlister.

Here at the Rudolf Steiner Centre Toronto, Emerson College alumni/ae have included Diana Hughes, Jan Patterson, Reg Down, and Warren Cohen. Other locals who have either studied at Emerson, or been associated in other ways with the college, include: Heidi Krause, Anne Yetman, Phyllis McCarthy, Timothy and Sabine Cox, Alex Murchison, Lori Patterson, Trevor and Jantje Holmes, Luciana Baptista-Cohen, Heidi Vukovich, Kate Kennedy, Mary-Jane Little, and Chris Hassell. Apologies to anyone I might have missed.

The college has graduated some 7,000 students, many of whom came from far-flung corners of the world, places like Brazil, Mexico, Romania, South Africa, New Zealand, India and Australia. Many came from the United States and western Europe. A common theme among the students who returned for the gathering was that their experience at Emerson College was the best time of their life, a pivotal and transformative experience.

Emerson College’s Near Death Experience

But by 2010, after the death of the founders and esteemed elders — people like Francis Edmunds, John Davy, William Mann, and Adam Bittleston — and the declining numbers of students due to competition from more local training institutes, difficulties with the government over student visas, and internal issues, the trustees of the college concluded that, rather than continue running large monthly deficits, the only responsible option was to close the college. 

But just a few hours before things were to be handed over to the receivers, a last minute initiative from alumnus Robert Lord and a small group of friends saved Emerson College from closing, with an infusion of money and a new strategy of running short courses, renting out the facilities to other spiritual groups, reducing operating costs, and liquidating some property. 

Initially this was achieved in part through selling off pieces of the asset base but it has now evolved into inviting people to buy residential flats in a “living and learning community”, which can then be resold only to other members of the community. Parts of Pixton House are to be converted to residential apartments under this program. Steve Briault, Director of Development at Emerson College, presents a brief history of recent decades in the photo below:

The college is no longer running a deficit but the trustees feel that they are not out of the woods yet. While the college has not closed, as was once widely rumoured, neither is its future secure. One factor is the school’s obligations to a group pension fund for retired colleagues. Emerson College is no longer running year-long programs in Foundation Studies, Waldorf education, or biodynamic agriculture, it is focusing on short courses.

Current short or part-time courses include topics such as: clowning, holistic baby and child care, storytelling, discovery program (intro to anthroposophy), renewal through art, biography, sculpture, painting, gardening, and biodynamics as a solution for climate change. Ashley Ramsden (shown in photo below), leads the School of Storytelling at Emerson College:

There is also a small childcare facility, Robin’s Nest, located on the campus based in a yurt and located among the trees. The college’s Tablehurst Farm has been spun off as its own independent entity. The farm continues to flourish and provides the college with much of its food. There is also a farm store and café on the campus with a raw milk vending machine.

Can You Ever Really Go Back?

During my last days at Emerson College in June 1976, Roswitha Spence told me, apropos of nothing, that I’d never be able to go back to Emerson College, because what I had experienced there was the particular constellation of people in my year and they would never be together like that again. 

I’ve pondered that thought on and off over the years and it came up again in connection with the idea of going to an alumni/ae reunion that would be for all years of students and faculty from, as it turned out,1962 through 2016.

But what I’ve come to realize in the course of the reunion is that the experience of Emerson College is actually not so tied to that particular constellation of students. Rather, there’s something about the quality of community that has been cultivated at Emerson College that transcends the particular students in any one year.

And it’s that quality of community, even more so than the content that was taught, important though that was, that was the defining experience of Emerson College – to see and feel and experience that such a quality of community was possible and could be sustained. It has inspired me, and no doubt others as well, to try to recreate that quality of community in other social settings.

In his welcoming address on Tuesday night, trustee chair, James Dyson, noted that the cultivation of community had been one of Francis Edmunds’ founding intentions for Emerson College. Perhaps that’s where it came from.

Why I Came to the Reunion

Although I registered early in a rush of excitement that such a thing as an Emerson College reunion was really being planned, as the time drew nearer and I hadn’t yet bought my plane tickets I began to have doubts. 

Was it really worth it to spend so much money and endure the vicissitudes of travel, for a few short days at Emerson College, even if my year there had been such a pivotal experience in my life? 

The wild card in the equation was the possibility of meeting people I would likely otherwise never cross paths with. What new turn of destiny might arise from such meetings? Somehow I realized that I had to go.

It was at Ian Trousdell’s presentation on his continuation of John Wilkes’ flowform work on Thursday that I realized why I had needed to come to this reunion. It was deeply inspiring to hear how Ian was working to commercialize John Wilkes’ flowform water treatment systems and get this life-enhancing technology out to people all across the world. Photo below is of some of the participants in Ian's workshop. Ian is in the red shirt:

Flowforms enhance water’s life-giving qualities by making it flow repeatedly in a lemniscate figure-eight pattern. Natural streams and rivers tend to flow in a meandering way and the lemniscate is a further enhancement of that tendency.

It seems that Ian has developed and collected a lot of solid science to document the many beneficial effects of this flow-surface technology. As part of this effort, Ian has engaged researchers in Sweden to work on testing the benefits of flowform water, and that project is financed by grants from a charitable foundation in Germany. 

Not everyone, however, was thrilled with all this science. According to Ian, after one particular radish-growing trial, he was confronted with some grumpy elemental beings from the control group planting, who complained that they had not been given the best water and that people were laughing at their radishes, which didn’t look as good as the test batch of radishes which had benefitted from the flowform-treated water.

Quantum Effects

In the language of quantum physics, flowform treatment improves the quantum coherence of the water and imparts to it a fractal structure, all of which benefits humans and other life forms exposed to the water itself, or the water vapors from flowforms, or even just the sound of the water moving through the flowforms. All this science means that Ian’s company will be able to make solid health claims backed by scientific studies.

Although I studied path curve geometry with Laurence Edwards as related to pine cones, tree buds, and the human heart, I never realized that this geometry was also the basis of flowforms. It was the English mathematician George Adams who, under the guidance of Rudolf Steiner, originally developed the path curve geometry, on which flowforms are based. 

George Adams then turned to John Wilkes, a sculptor, to help realize these ideas in a practical form, incorporating the results of the flow research of Theodor Schwenk, author of the book, “Sensitive Chaos”. As a result of this three-way collaboration, the first flowforms were developed in the early 1970s by John Wilkes after George Adams’ death in 1961, and the first large-scale installation was then built at Jarna, Sweden, to treat wastewater.

Ian had studied sculpture with John Wilkes at Emerson College for several years, starting in 1975, and then, before John died, he asked Ian to take over his work with flowforms. Photo below is of the water research bulding at Emerson College, with a small flowform out front.

Ever since I was a student in the Foundation Year in 1975 I had been living with the question of how anthroposophy could be applied to the realms of modern technology. Certainly agriculture, education, and the arts are important but so much of the modern world is increasingly technological, and I wondered, “How could spiritual science could be applied in that realm?” And now I see that this flowform technology is one beautiful example of just such an application of spiritual scientific insight to a technological process. 

Note: There is a small flowform installed at the entrance to the Rudolf Steiner Centre Toronto and there is a bench nearby where you can sit and listen to the sound of the water moving through the forms.

Like Emil Molt, but in China

Ian’s distributor for flowforms in China is a man who, when he was a factory owner some years ago, decided to create a school for the children of his workers. His wife looked around to see what form of education would be the best and she settled on Waldorf. So he started a Waldorf school for his employees’ children. Definite historical echoes there of Emil Molt and his Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory, where the first Waldorf school opened 100 years ago in 1919.

After a while this man sold his factory and focused more on the school, which he moved to a village setting and expanded to include other students. This school has now grown to fill a 7-storey building.

Ian had tried shopping his business plans around to investors in the west, but found that, inevitably, the fact that western water-technology experts could not understand how flowforms work was a stumbling block to any involvement. On the other hand, in China, it seems people recognize the flowform technology as echoing their traditional spirituality of the Tao.

Back from the Colonies

It was interesting to see that the farther-away former colonies of New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa were better represented at the reunion than Canada, with several people from each place. There was even one woman there who was a descendent of the aboriginal people of Tasmania, a people who, according to James Morris’ “Pax Britannica” trilogy, had been entirely wiped out by the British.

One of the early class teachers from the Toronto Waldorf School, Diana Hughes, had attended Emerson College during the last year in the huts at Michael Hall and the first year at Pixton house (current location) 1966-68. She asked me to remember her to anyone from that era who would be there at the reunion. And there were quite a few people still around from those early days, including Dede Bark, Jonathan Stedall, Margaret Shillan, and a woman from Colorado named Thesa. Graham Rickett was there from the class of 1962. There were six alumni from my year, 1975-76, including Ian Trousdell and Ashley Ramsden, who now leads the School of Storytelling. Photo below is of Thesa, showing her young friends around the water research building after the gathering:

Another student from that year was John Moore. John was originally from Ohio, but worked for many years as a Waldorf teacher in Bern, Switzerland. John told us that he was perhaps the only person at the gathering to have met Rudolf Steiner. He recounted how one day a man came to his school in Bern to deliver heating oil. This man’s name was Steiner. John asked for his first name, and when he learned it was Rudolf, John said he would like to introduce him to some people at the school. But the man said he had to stay with his work, pumping oil from the truck.

The Benefits of Arriving Early

My wife, Elisabeth, and I arrived for the reunion one day early. This gave me an opportunity to meet with Linda and Ellie in the reception office, and share with them the now-historical photos I had brought to add to the photo exhibit for the gathering. I was glad to see that many of the 16x20 prints I had made for the college back in 1978 were still around. Arriving early also gave us a chance to meet a few other early arrivals and college regulars in a more relaxed fashion.

The first people we encountered were not even there for the reunion. Although Kjersti Hauger (right in photo below) was a former student, she was just visiting with her husband Sandro and their children, Maya and Sebastian, both of whom had been “in the baby basket” during their mom’s time at Emerson College from 1997-99. 

Although Sandro was studying at Peredur, he and Kjersti had met at Emerson. The third woman in the photo below is Inez, Sebastian’s girlfriend. Kersti now runs a Waldorf school in Norway. Emerson College weddings were quite a thing back in the day. Typically there would be six or seven of them in a year.

We also met Ene Silvia Sarv and her granddaughter Triinu (photo below). Ene had studied Waldorf education at Emerson College in the early 1990s and had then returned to her native Estonia to train Waldorf teachers from Eastern Europe and Russia during the time of the fall of communism and the opening up of the Eastern bloc. Triinu had attended a Waldorf school in Estonia and had in fact just graduated. She plans to go on to study music at university. Triinu was there because her grandmother (Ene) invited her to accompany her to this reunion.

We also met Liz and Kent Smith, currently from South Africa, who were sharing the same student house we were. They are another couple who met at Emerson College. Liz is involved in adult education for Waldorf teaching and eurythmy in Cape Town, and Kent is a builder. After the reunion Kent was off to continue walking the Camino in Spain while Liz stayed with her sister in Forest Row. 

Kent says there are lots of beautiful places to hike in South Africa but nothing shifts things for him on an inner level like walking the Camino. He has been splitting his holidays between volunteering at hostels on the Camino and walking the Camino, for the past seventeen years. Kent told us that the Camino dates back to pre-Christian times.

The three-year Waldorf teacher training program Liz runs in Cape Town has some 75 students and is accredited by the government. As a result of this program, there is a lot more Waldorf education going on in South Africa than there used to be. And the eurythmy school there has such a good reputation that even some German students go there to study. Liz is also connected with a local, NPI-based initiative that Hamo Hammond had helped start in South Africa.

Exploring Tablehurst Farm

While walking through Tablehurst Farm (on which the college is situated) to get to the farm store and cafe, we ran into what looked like a couple of farmers. Chris Stott (on the left in the photo below) graduated from the sculpture program in 2015 and now works at the college as a gardener. And Alex Wright (on the right in the photo), who completed the visual arts course in 2016, now lives on the Emerson College campus and is running two courses this fall at Rudolf Steiner House in London, “Spirit in Action” and “Intro to Anthro”.

End of the Century in 2033?

One of the topics James Dyson raised in his keynote address was regarding what Rudolf Steiner said about the culmination of anthroposophy, when Aristotelians and Platonists were to have come together at the end of the century, and why doesn’t that seem to have happened?

James asked us to consider the possibility that the Rosicrucian calendar Rudolf Steiner was working with was actually not the same calendar that we commonly use, and that looking at the launch date of Steiner’s Calendar of the Soul, in 1912, as offset 33 years from the start of the Michael age in 1879, the “end of the century” in Rosicrucian terms could be still to come. James spoke of the soul calendar as having arisen from a call of Michael.

Another topic James raised, which has a bearing on people finding their way to anthroposophy or not, has to do with what Rudolf Steiner said about Michael’s decision as time spirit to entrust humanity with the cosmic intelligence. That decision was not supported by the other archangels and their non-support resulted in a disordering of karma, making it harder for people connected to those other archangels, to find their way to anthroposophy, which is under the leadership of Michael.

But, as someone else – perhaps it was Tom Ravetz (who is also a trustee) – pointed out later in the gathering, although not everyone will be able to connect with anthroposophy and Michael, Anthroposophia is a servant of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is there for everyone. 

There was also some discussion of the need to recast anthroposophy in a language that is more accessible in these times, and to present it in a more experiential way and with less quoting of Rudolf Steiner. One example of this was mentioned by Michael Evans (right in photo below) in connection with the anthroposophical training for doctors, which was originally developed for Britain but is now being opened to the whole English-speaking world. 

Michael spoke of how much better it is for students to come to their own inner experience of the therapeutic value of various plants through a meditative practice, rather than simply being told what plant is good for what ailment.

Another important part of the proceedings was the opportunity each morning for all of the participants to take two minutes each to address the whole gathering, to tell everyone who they were and what their initiative is or has been in the years since they left Emerson College. Many of them spoke of how their time at Emerson was a turning point in their life and how they are still deeply involved in work that arose from their studies there. 

Where are the Young People?

On the second night there was a panel discussion, led by filmmaker Jonathan Stedall (middle in photo below), during which Chris Schafer raised the issue that fewer young people seem to be finding their way to anthroposophy these days. He said that, of 42,000 members of the worldwide Anthroposophical Society, only 300 are age 30 or younger. He also mentioned that the number of members has seriously declined in recent decades. It used to be more than 60,000. It seems a lot of older members are dying and not being replaced, especially in Europe.

Later I checked with Jef Saunders on the situation in the Anthroposophical Society in Canada and he said the number of members here has been holding steady at around 500. Now of course Chris did not provide historical comparisons on the number of young members from previous decades, and one could well imagine there are a lot of young people working with anthroposophy in recent times who don’t take the step of becoming members of the Society before they turn 30.

On the third night of the gathering, we were treated to a performance of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” by the Pericles Theatre Company, a local troupe that includes some differently-abled individuals (curtain call photo above). This production has been performed in various venues around England and was enchanting to watch.

Working to Outlaw Eco-cide

Later the same night, “The Little Mermaid” was followed by a talk on the issue of trying to get international law changed to outlaw Eco-cide, large scale environmental degradation analogous to genocide. This was presented by Jojo Mehta, who has taken the project over from Polly Higgins, whom you may have heard about in connection with the idea of outlawing crimes against the earth. 

Jojo and her colleagues have a concrete plan to get their proposal taken up by the international criminal court. Jojo’s talk was very moving, and it was inspiring to hear what she and her colleagues are doing on this front, in the wake of Polly Higgins’ early death. You can read more here:

Workshops by Participants

Much of the program of the gathering consisted of workshops offered by participants. Topics ranged widely: from astronomy, to technology (photo above of tech workshop), to embodied acting, to arts of various kinds. There were also discussion groups (photo below) that met multiple times during the four days and that were intended to help people process together what they were learning and experiencing at the gathering. 

I found the quality of the meals to be very good. They were mostly made with local organic ingredients. As a student at Emerson in the 70s, I was blown away by the excellence of the food. It was the best I’d ever eaten. I particularly enjoyed having my breakfast granola with raw cream from the milk pails outside the kitchen. Although raw milk is no longer on the menu, everything was still impressively excellent, especially when you consider the number of people they are feeding. Photo below is of the Tablehurst Farm cafe. Seating was outside.

Remembering Ursula Koepf

One afternoon there was a burial ceremony and procession for the ashes of Ursula Koepf, who had been a teacher at the college. Her ashes were buried down by the lily pond, near those of her late husband, Herbert Koepf, who taught agriculture at the college when I was there in the 70s. Photo below is of the procession down to the lily pond with Ursula's ashes:

I remember that Ursula taught singing then, something I was not particularly good at. I had heard that this event was planned, and so I made a point of bringing along a passport photo I had taken of Ursula when I was at the college in 1975. Ellie scanned it and printed it large and put it on the piano in the education room where the burial ceremony was held.

James Dyson had opened his keynote address by honouring a long list of “ancestors” who had helped build Emerson College, and helped guide it through the decades, and in the case of Robert Lord, helped rescue it from the brink of oblivion. So there was some awareness throughout the gathering of the many souls who were perhaps still present with us in spirit.

In Conclusion

Reunion planners and college trustees were initially apprehensive about how returning alumni/ae would regard the current state of Emerson College. But the consensus seemed to be that the former students were glad to know that the college was still operating and seemed to have good prospects for the future and a capable team to lead it forward. 

Thanks to reunion organizer Linda Churnside and the Emerson College staff and trustees who all worked together to make this gathering such a resounding success.

Photo above: Emerson College Communications Manager Ellie Kidson presents Alumni/ae Gathering Organizer Linda Churnside with an orchid, as a token of everyone's appreciation, while participants applaud.

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