In the hills a few miles outside our village of Birnam is a Camphill community. Here, on the Corbenic estate, 27 adults with learning difficulties live with their carers and a number of volunteers in 50 acres of agricultural land, woodland and hillside. It is a deeply wholesome, peaceful place.
The Camphill movement began in 1939 in a manse outside Aberdeen, founded by a group of Austrian refugees, many of them Jewish, who had fled Vienna where they had previously come together to establish a community based on the anthroposophical teachings of Rudolf Steiner. Since then the movement has grown and grown and today there are Camphill communities all around the world.
Seen from the road, Corbenic is a large, rather ugly house nestled in trees and perched on what looks like a tall cliff above the River Braan. But behind it there are well-tended gardens and farm buildings, modern wood and glass residential units, and a feeling of calm and order and care that finds an echo in the immaculately stacked beehive-shaped logpiles that stand around the grounds like neolithic burial chambers.
There’s a sense of vulnerability too, in the glimpse of a young man carrying a spade and wearing a crash helmet, an awkward sprawl of limbs at the handles of a wheelbarrow, the sounds that emanate from some of the residents as they go about their daily routine, spontaneous vocalisations of otherwise inexpressible emotions. A sense of vulnerability and of the corresponding bedrock of care on which the place is built.
As of last summer, the Corbenic estate has been encircled by a poetry path which I walked for the first time earlier this week. An hour of pure enchantment, it features the work of both local poets and those more widely known, displayed as fragments of paper set in perspex blocks atop coloured posts, or carved on lumps and block of granite, or etched or burned into wood.
The three-kilometre trail leads through varied woodland, out onto the open hillside and down into the gorge along the riverside. At one moment there are long views of wildly beautiful snow-speckled hills, at others one is deep in what feels like ancient moss-covered forest. And at every turn there is another poem to tickle the mind and stir the heart.
The effect is extraordinary. The walk quickly becomes a meditation, and the words and the thoughts they trigger seem to heighten one’s awareness of the beauty of the surroundings, and the loving care that has gone into the maintenance of this remarkable place; a place that is home to people whose very otherness evokes in us a certain tenderness and in some mysterious way seems to connect us so closely back to the natural world and what it has to say to us.
I have often reflected on the fact that many writers, perhaps particularly poets, work or have worked in the general area of mental health. Having walked the Corbenic Poetry Path I believe I have a better understanding of why. It also reinforces my belief in the importance of the relationship between words and place. It is something we constantly refer to on Dark Angels courses, because sense of place is so often absent from what we read in the world of work, yet its power to enrich, by even the most fleeting reference, is so great.
When words and place come together as they do on the Corbenic Poetry Path, the result is nothing short of magic.