At the Edge of History | The Lindisfarne Tapes

An illuminated page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Source: The British Library


On a rocky outcropping off the northeastern coast of England, the monastery of Lindisfarne once stood as an outpost of religious, philosophic, and intellectual study against the “dark” times of early medieval Europe.  With Northumberland to its back and the expanse of the North Sea before it, the island and its monastic inhabitants stood on the eastern edge of the English world, stewarding the accumulated learning of previous ages so they would not be lost to human memory.

Inspired by the foresight and dogged determination of these medieval monks, in 1972 William Irwin Thompson founded the Lindisfarne Association to gather together bold scientists, scholars, artists, and contemplatives to “think together at the edge of history” to describe the elements of a future planetary culture in the face of the dark political, cultural, and environmental crises of the twentieth century.

For Thompson it was key to understand:

…The limit to the ego, and since civilization is the ego of human culture, the limit to civilization.  If we are going to experience the death of the ego, then we are also collectively going to experience the death of civilization.  But out of that death and transformation will come a new incarnation, a new polity unimaginable in terms of our industrial civilization: a harmony of nature and culture, ecology and consciousness…   (Lindisfarne Letter Number 9: Poetry and Prophecy)

To facilitate this transformation of culture, Lindisfarne Association brought together varied thinkers, known as “fellows,” to share insights from their fields with other fellows.  E. F. Schumacher, Hazel Henderson, John Todd, Wendell Berry, Murray Bookchin, Michaela Walsh, Gregory Bateson, Arthur Zajonc, Wes Jackson, and Elise Boulding were just a few of this hand-picked group.

First Lindisfarne Conference at Fish Cove in Southampton, NY, Summer, 1974, on “Planetary Culture and the New Image of Humanity,”. Left to Right: Stewart Brand, Harry Hollins, William Irwin Thompson, E. F. Schumacher. Source: William Irwin Thompson

The discussions were captured on tape, then edited by Chris Bamford the brilliant head of Lindisfarne Press, and finally methodically catalogued and preserved by Lindisfarne staff member Will Marsh. Two full sets of the tapes were given to the care of the Schumacher Center’s Library when Lindisfarne Press closed its Great Barrington, Massachusetts office in the 1990s.

Tapes deteriorate over time.  In 2013 at the recommendation of Jodie Evans, William Irwin Thompson granted the Schumacher Center the right to convert the tapes to digital form and to post them online where they could be searched by topic and speaker – a permanent resource for the future.

Topics covered by the Lindisfarne Tapes include such gems as:

  • Nancy Jack Todd on the role of women in cultural change;
  • Nechung Rimpoche, The Grand Lama of Nechung Monastary, on the development of compassion based on the Buddhist path of enlightenment;
  • Hazel Henderson on sweeping away the conceptual wreckage of the receding industrial age;
  • Wendell Berry on the link between the deterioration of language and present moral, ecological, and social ills; and
  • David Ehrenfeld on the teachings of stewardship implicit in Judaism as it relates to an ethic of land management for the present.

Over the past two years researchers have increasingly turned their attention to the stores of material held in the Schumacher Center’s archives.  They comment that historians are only now recognizing the impact of the thinking of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s on current social, environmental, and cultural movements.  The Schumacher Center’s Library is a treasure trove for such study. What were germs of new thinking in the Lindisfarne tapes, for instance, are now blossoming into maturity.

William Irwin Thompson passed away last month, but his prescience in identifying our modern era as a moment in which humanity must consciously steer itself towards a higher cultural form if it is to avoid the darkness of social and environmental collapse is perhaps only more relevant than in 1972.

We are pleased to share this collection with you.

Wishing All Good Health,

John Gagnon

Librarian and Archivist

Schumacher Center for a New Economics