Peter retired as Professor of Action Research at the University of Bath in 2009 and is now Emeritus Professor. His major contribution was to the development of participative approaches to action research in the human sciences and in management, approaches variously referred to as “co-operative inquiry”, “participatory action research”, and “action science” or “action inquiry”. In these forms of experiential action research all those involved in the inquiry process are co-researchers, contributing both to the thinking that forms the research endeavour and to the action that is its subject. He has published widely on co-operative inquiry and action research and has co-edited the Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. Peter was also a founding faculty member of the MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice, a pioneering programme designed to address issues of sustainability and justice in business, drawing on action research approaches; and led action research projects including Lowcarbonworks, and inquiry into the adoption of low carbon technologies in industry.
Since retiring Peter has focussed less on action research and more on “nature writing for an ecology in crisis.” While he values the ‘bright green’ work of creating more sustainable institutions and economic systems, he believes the root of the sustainability problem is that modern humans are dangerously anthropocentric; somewhere in the development of civilization, we started to see ourselves as separate from, rather than part of, the community of life on Earth. Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published in 2014. This narrative non-fiction book, uses the device of a travel story – a single-handed sailing voyage in the yacht Coral to the west coast of Ireland in April and June 2011 – to explore the nature of the human relationship with the ecology of the Earth. He is also co-editing a collection of responses to the challenge of the Great Turning.
Tell us a little bit about the genesis of this book, what made you want to write it?
I wanted to write a book that treated serious questions about sustainability within an entertaining travel narrative, a book that was not just for the committed ‘greenies’ but for a wider audience. I had finished an academic career in which I explored issues of sustainability through teaching and research. I also wanted to reinvent myself, post retirement, as a writer of creative non-fiction; the books origins were as the final manuscript for the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.
As well as a good description of the basics of sailing, for anyone who doesn’t know about it, it is also a deep inner journey. How did you go about blending the two? Did you write a travelogue first or was it an organic process?
It all went together, starting with conversations with my friend Gwen, who came with me the first week, as we talked together about the sea, how we experienced its colours and moods, especially at night. Then, sailing on alone, with no distractions, I found myself getting deeper into a reflective space, experience the sea and the coast as much as presences in my world as objective things.
You quote from many, obviously influential, works in the book, who would you say has had the greatest influence on your thinking?
Thomas Berry, who was a priest and a cultural historian, showed me how to link a scientific understanding of the earth and the universe with a spiritual one. I only met him once, but he was extremely influential, and in many ways this book is a homage to him
I felt it was a very rich experience, reading the book, there is a lot packed in there, how was the writing process – did you create a lot more and cut it down?
A huge amount of editorial process goes into a well-produced book. My tutors, my writing buddies, my agent and Vala editors all helped me see what was necessary and what needed to go. For example, a lot of theory went. My tutor at Bath Spa said I could only use the ideas that I usually carry around in my head, which stopped it getting too academic. A whole chapter toward the end of the book was cut. But the essence was the same throughout
You deliberately set out to have a conversation with the “more than human” world – do you think it’s possible to do this in daily life as well?
Of course... but not all the time. One of the things I am most pleased to discover is that the world so often opens to something wider and beyond the everyday. There are continual tiny moments where there is sacredness in the ordinary. The thing is to notice them, stay with them, savour them, rather than rush onto the next task
I like that you have a few self-reflective moments about trying to force things like itineraries to conform when things like weather and tides are not at our beck and call. I know you explore this more in the book but can you just expand a little here on why you think we all have this tension within us?
Somewhere in the development of civilization, Western people started to see themselves as separate from the natural world in which we evolved and of which we are a part. This leads us to attempt to dominate the natural world, to see ourselves as against nature. So we build bigger and more powerful technologies of control, which work for a while, but then come back to bite is. Climate change arises as a result of our cleverness in harnessing fossil fuels. But it is going to bite hard, as we can see already from the flooding and extreme weather we have been having. In a little boat you have to learn to go with the wind and tides.
Do you feel that a new chapter of your life has now started, post-pilgrimage?
I am a privileged person. I lead a happy and comfortable life. But underneath, what dominates my thoughts is the environment catastrophe to which we are so quickly heading. Not a day passes without my reflecting on this with a sense of dread. My continual question is, how should we respond? Of course there are lots of practical things that must be done by individuals, organizations and governments and international policy. But we must also learn to fall in love with the world again, engage with its beauty, or we won't have the spiritual energy to make the changes we need. So I continue to explore and write about the same kind of questions; that is my contribution, slight though its effects may be.
What’s next? Are you going to write more books?
Last summer I sailed my yacht Coral all the way round the west coast of Ireland to Scotland, blogging as I went (onthewesternedge.wordpress.com). I am working on another book, taking the same questions deeper. I am also deeply involved with the Vala Publishing Cooperative (www.valapublishers.coop) working to publish 'books from a better world'. We have some great and I think important books due out later this year.
Have you any more pilgrimages planned?
This summer I am taking Coral round the west coast of Scotland as part of my next book. I am also interested in the notion of everyday life as pilgrimage. Can we take the idea of pilgrimage, which is originally as a religious idea, and applying to our relationship to our world?
In one sentence was is your best piece of advice for new writers?
Write something, even little, as near to everyday as you can. Don't edit or change things, let the writing flow out. Go back later and see how it all fits together. Then edit ruthlessly.
Bristol Book Blog Review
Part travelogue, part inner journey, part deep thought on our place in the world. Peter Reason's book is a delight to read, redolent of the sea which infuses each page. He has thought long and hard and deep on the relationship between human and environment and it is this that shines through in the writing. As well as a brief description of the art of sailing, including the nautical naming conventions, which can be confusing to the landlubber (like me) Reason goes on to describe the outer journey he is taking in an effort to reconnect with the wild. This takes the form of sailing round the Irish coast, partly with a companion, partly alone. Drawing in many influential thinkers into his narrative he explores how we have become out of tune with the wider "more than human" world and discusses his meditations upon why this is so and what it is possible to do about it, at a personal level. Pilgrimages are usually religious experiences but this goes far beyond any "spiritual journey" in the normal sense of the word, being as it is a reconnection with the wider world, rather than any one god or spirit.
Overall - intense, thoughtful, meditative this is a book that you'll want to read and reflect upon, and probably read again