Roots to Renewal

Season Two, Episode Three: Cornelius Pietzner on his Time at the Goetheanum, the Camphill Movement, and the Beauty of Stewardship without Ownership

November 03, 2022 Hawthorne Valley / Cornelius Pietzner Season 2 Episode 3
Roots to Renewal
Season Two, Episode Three: Cornelius Pietzner on his Time at the Goetheanum, the Camphill Movement, and the Beauty of Stewardship without Ownership
Show Notes Transcript

Sponsored by Tierra Farm; Music by Aaron Dessner

In this episode Martin Ping, Hawthorne Valley’s Executive Director, welcomes Cornelius Pietzner, who served as the Director of Camphill Communities of North America, and whose father Carlo brought the Camphill movement to the US, including founding Camphill Copake. Hawthorne Valley’s origin story is closely tied to Camphill Copake as our Waldorf school was, in part, founded to accommodate the children of the Camphill Copake community. Children from nearby Camphill communities have been students at Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School ever since. 

Cornelius currently serves as Senior Advisor to a number of organizations, and was Managing Director and on the Board of Mind & Life Europe as Vice Chairman and Treasurer until 2021. Cornelius is also CEO of Alterra Impact Finance, an impact investment, management and advisory firm in Switzerland with private equity investments in a number of European companies. Additionally, he served as Chief Financial Officer on the Executive Board at the Goetheanum, General Anthroposophical Society in Switzerland from 2002 to 2011. 

Thanks for listening to Hawthorne Valley’s Roots to Renewal podcast. We are an association comprised of a variety of interconnected initiatives that work collectively to meet our mission. You can learn more about our work by visiting our website at

Hawthorne Valley is a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization, and we rely on the generosity of people like you to make our work a reality. Please consider making a donation to support us today. If you’d like to help us in other ways, please help us spread the word about this podcast by sharing it with your friends, and leaving us a rating and review.

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Heather Gibbons (00:14):

Hello. We're so happy you've tuned in to Hawthorne Valley's 50th Anniversary Podcast, Roots to Renewal. I'm the Producer and Hawthorne Valley's Marketing Director Heather Gibbons. If you're a regular listener, by now you know that we started this adventure more than a year ago as a way to help celebrate this important milestone and share our story through conversations with friends, both near and far, who dedicate their lives to meeting the ecological, social and spiritual needs of our time. 

In this episode, Martin Ping, Hawthorne Valley's Executive Director, welcomes Cornelius Pietzner, who served as the Director of Camphill Communities of North America and whose father, Carlo, brought the Camphill movement to the US, including founding Camphill Copake. Hawthorne Valley's origin story is closely tied to Camphill Copake as our Waldorf School was, in part, founded to accommodate the children of the Camphill Copake community. Children from nearby Camphill communities have been students at Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School ever since.

Cornelius currently serves as Senior Advisor to a number of organizations and was Managing Director and on the board of Mind and Life Europe as Vice Chairman and Treasurer until 2021. Cornelius is also CEO of Alterra Impact Finance, an impact investment, management, and advisory firm in Switzerland with private equity investments in a number of European companies. Additionally, he served as Chief Financial Officer on the Executive Board at the Goetheanum General Anthroposophical Society in Switzerland from 2002 to 2011. Our heartfelt thanks to Tierra Farm, a family owned manufacturer and distributor of organic dried fruits and nuts that puts the people they serve and the planet we share before all else, for their continued generous support of this podcast. Learn more at

Martin Ping (02:08):

Good afternoon, Cornelius. It is great to see you on my screen. Always better to see you in person, but that only seems to happen a couple times a year. You are right now in Dornach, Switzerland?

Cornelius Pietzner (02:19):

I am in Dornach, Switzerland. Exactly.

Martin Ping (02:21):

You have a long history with Dornach. You were working there for about a decade in the two thousands, is that correct?

Cornelius Pietzner (02:28):

Correct. I was asked to join the Executive Council at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, where I am now, which is the worldwide headquarters, if you like, of the General Anthroposophical Society. The Goetheanum, itself is, um, building that originally there were two Goetheanum, buildings named after Goethe. The first one was, uh, directly designed by Rudolf Steiner, the initiator of anthroposophy, which burned. It was, um, largely made of wood. It was a magnificent architectural feat, uh, that building, uh, quite phenomenal, um, not only for the time but also for architectural students even today. And then there was a second, uh, Goetheanum, um, building that was erected after the first one was burnt in 1922, 1923 at the turn of the year, uh, which was made not out of wood, but out of poured concrete. And it was one of the first, if not the first, very large building that was made with these curved forms. It was really also pioneer work. Rudolf Steiner himself was not, uh, able to see the full completion of the building because he died, uh, at the relatively young age of 64. That building, which is like a campus with 13 other ancillary buildings around it that house the School of Spiritual Science and its different departments, that is where I worked for, for those years. And I, uh, the Executive Council is the leading body. It's like the Board of Directors and and equivalent of the Board of Directors, where I was basically the CFO or the finance person responsible for the operating budget and for building renovations and a variety of other things in, in my portfolio. In addition to, you know, uh, the leadership of the Anthroposophical Society worldwide. If you look at the Anthroposophical Society, it's um, an association; it's a Swiss association, which means it has members and it's actually governed by the membership. The members are what, in Switzerland, they call the highest organ—the decision making body. And they affirm or confirm the Executive Board or the Board of Directors. And, uh, the society itself has now just under 50,000 members worldwide, but it has tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of more people who are engaged with and connected to anthroposophy and are inspired by one of the fields of activity rising out of anthroposophy, whether it be Waldorf education, biodynamic agriculture, anthroposophically extended medicine or the arts. Again, the anthroposophical work as the spiritual movement is not only confined to contemplative practices and self development, but it's a form of spirituality that is engaged with development changes in the world from a holistic, spiritual, scientific point of view. And from that point of view there, you know, how many tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of parents who have benefited, who are interested in Waldorf education; farmers who are looking for a more holistic, fundamental way of working with the land and with the soil; people wanting to work with business and economy finance in different ways. On the one hand, it's a very democratic, um, and I think modern, uh, approach and structure. On the other hand, it's not without its problems.

Martin Ping (05:43):


Cornelius Pietzner (05:43):

And um, just to give you a little example, of course, as you know, Switzerland is a very expensive country. Um, the annual meetings where these, where the primary strategic and financial decisions are made are held at the Goetheanum in Switzerland. And it's not possible, and it hasn't been possible for members, let's say from New Zealand or from Australia or from Africa, or even from the United States or from Hawthorne Valley, uh, to participate in those meetings unless it's a special occasion. So there has been a kind of a, a waiting, if you like, of the kind of German-speaking, uh, members in regard to how the, I wouldn't say how the society is run, but certainly their presence is felt disproportionate to, to maybe the, you know, the, the voices and the needs of members, um, in more outlying areas. That has been in the past, you know, a significant issue certainly with technology and efforts that the Goetheanum is making today, um, to include others, um, in the voting process and the assimilation process. Some, some positive steps, at least in my view, are being made, being made in that direction. That is to allow the participation of all of those almost 50,000 members should they so wish.

Martin Ping (07:02):

Such a picture for the difficulty of managing and governing at almost any level and scale where relationships are involved. And you could look at our country here, and it feels sometimes so large and ungovernable when you think about all the different microcosms of culture and that's just one country. And then you think about how to scale that globally. I can really appreciate what you've just shared as being such a challenge. How do all of those voices get heard? And, and something emerges out of that that is future bearing?

Cornelius Pietzner (07:38):

These projects are ongoing, it's never a finished work of art. It's always dynamic. It's never static. At least in my experience, large international not-for-profit organization is a question. You know, and I could name half a dozen that have these kind of governance organizational challenges so that that one official, uh, headquarter, if you like, doesn't, um, overwhelm the needs of, um, of outlying say country chapters or country organizations. And as, as I said, that's always a question of dialogue, a question of tolerance, of empathy, of understanding, of communication, above all, one can only say that one continues to work on it. And with the, with the, uh, hope and with the intention to make it better and better.

Martin Ping (08:22):

Something just coming to mind rather randomly, but I'm thinking about the organization Slow Food. I remember in 2010 or 2012, I was invited over to Italy to their international gathering that they hold every two years. What really struck me was the sea of humanity that seemed like everybody was represented there. And part of that was because the central organization of, of Slow Food International made a concerted effort to make the funding available for people, especially from the global south, to participate in the gathering. And that was such a rich and rewarding experience for me, probably cause I was tired from jet lag and everything. I was already feeling quite vulnerable emotionally, but coming into this large hall and just witnessing so many people from so many places wearing their clothing from where they came from, and then walking around for days, seeing the food and everything, it was, it was really quite beautiful. I, I don't know I've ever experienced anything, on that scale, quite like it.

Cornelius Pietzner (09:29):

If we act globally, we want to think globally and we want our hearts to be global, and our relationships to be global and how to do that in an appropriate, modern way and from an organizational point of view is, I think is not a, not, not an easy question.

Martin Ping (09:45):

Hawthorne Valley's podcast is in some way reflecting on our 50 years here in Columbia County. And as I understand that the founders chose this particular farm, in large part, because of its proximity to Camphill Copake. And I know that you have quite a relationship to Camphill Copake and thus to Hawthorne Valley. And I, I was wondering if you could speak to, uh, both Camphill Copake and then Camphill movement in general.

Cornelius Pietzner (10:14):

Congratulations on the 50 years. Um, it's a wonderful landmark. It's, it's really great. And, um, you know, to see again that an institution and um, a family of institutions or initiatives that are contained within the Hawthorne Valley Association have been able to develop and thrive and grow and evolve over the years and decades is really not only fantastic, it's really important. You know, I think as an as, as an example for others. I hope that, in another 50 years, Martin, not you and I will have a chance to talk, but our kids or grandkids will be able to talk about what has happened over the next 50 years, the coming 50 years. Because that's, that's so important, you know, um, in the trajectory of a, of organizational life, a living organism, as you so well know, there are always ups and downs and, and crises and difficult points and sometimes even, you know, really existential ones. Nevertheless, to maintain a thread, you know, a core, and not only an outer core, but an inner core, a spiritual core that feeds, you know, the outer life, I think is, um, you know, is really a question for the future. How does one do that? How does one keep a flame alive as things get settled down as when as organizations get older? I have a long relationship with Camphill because I was born in Camphill. I had no choice in the matter. I mean, outwardly speaking spiritually, speaking naturally, you know, I probably chose where I wanted to land. And where I did land was in Camphill, uh, Glencraig, outside of Belfast, Northern Ireland. My father was Carlo Pietzner, a member of a youth group around Dr. Karl König, who was the founder of the Camphill movement. And he was a refugee from Vienna. Dr. König was, he was a Jewish pediatrician, a humanitarian, and he had a small group around him that were studying anthroposophy. And this group was uh, you know, varied individualities studying medicine, art, like my father, he was an art student. That group disbanded in 1938 with the Anschluss and Dr. König through the support of Dr. Ita Wegman, who was a very, very close associate and a colleague of Rudolf Steiner's and was had built a clinic in Arlesheim, Switzerland right next to Dornach, where Dr. König also worked. Dr. Ita Wegman supported Dr. König to flee and he ended up—cutting a long and dramatic story quite short—he ended up in Scotland, which is where Camphill was founded officially in 1940. And, uh, my father was part of that founding group coming just a year or two later and was sent shortly afterwards to Northern Ireland because the work of Camphill was expanding. I mean, it was an anomaly at the time, a complete anomaly. And perhaps, interestingly, the initiative of Camphill was really to, you know, create a social environment where people who were completely ostracized out of society would be welcomed and also seen for their spiritual integrity. And certainly a group, um, of, of such people were those with developmental disabilities. And so they built community from the ground up, living together, working together in a very intensive manner, not really knowing what they were doing, 'cause no one had done that before. Over time people recognized that this was rather worthwhile and interesting. And so Camphill began to receive some support and began to grow and develop. And that's why my father was sent to Northern Ireland, uh, where I and my brother and sister were born, and then was sent later on to the United States to build up the work with a group of coworkers in your neighborhood. And that was in 1961. And my family arrived, uh, on a boat in, uh, New York Harbor. Then we went to the Sunny Valley Farm, which was a farm that was owned by a lady that was then donated to Camphill. And the work began in September 17th, 1961. And that grew in Camphill Village Copake, New York has been the flagship camp, uh, Camphill, uh, community in North America. Since then, I spent the first couple of months there. And then very quickly my mother and the three of us moved down to Pennsylvania to Beaver, not to Beaver Run, but to, uh, a rented home from, um, Mabel Pew Myrin, she was an heiress of the Sun Oil Company. And, uh, she had, uh, met us a farm. And in 1963, Beaver Run was, uh, was was started. And my mother was Director there and my father was kind of Director at Copake and, but responsible for Camphill in North America. So I spent most of my, my childhood in Beaver Run in Pennsylvania, but the very first few months in, in Copake. So I grew up in Camphill and um, of course, as a teenager and then later on felt I'd paid my dues. You know, you know, enough of this community, living enough of these funny people and people from all over the world and people who can't dress themselves or can't speak properly. And enough of being teased at school. I went to a very nice Waldorf school, you can guess which, but I won't name it here, where I was heavily teased for living on, I don't know, "living on a funny farm". That's what they called it, "living on a funny farm". So I don't know if I suffered, you know, long term psychological damage. I don't think so, in the end. But when I left school, I figured, okay, never, I'm not coming back to Camphill—I paid my due. As destiny would have it, at some point I did, I did come back. I was str— I was wrestling, maybe even struggling with, with, um, a couple of existential questions. There were three questions that were growing in my, in my soul at the time. One reason was I was interested in money, not necessarily in having it, but, and trying to understand it. And I had, um, started a small youth group together with others, and we had set up a fund. We were all in colleges and universities in different parts of the country. We set up a fund where we would put in what we could and then we would take out what we needed. And that was a very interesting experience for us. It didn't work for a couple of good reasons, in the end, but there was a lot of goodwill there. And I wanted to find a different way of working with money and a different way of understanding money. Second thing was I was also interested in community and particularly trying to understand esoteric community or, uh, the inner aspect of community life: what would be needed for, um, for an aggregation of people to understand themselves and experience themselves as a community of people? So that question was long on me. And the third question was, you know, I was never, um, religious in an orthodox manner, but I would say, but I had a deep yearning and longing to have a deeper understanding of the, what I would just call the Christ force today. What that meant, how you could experience that, um, you know, without having a, you know, a soul pole, Damascus kind of an experience or some other, uh, you know, ecstatic sort of experience. What it meant to develop a relationship to Christ from a more occult or more hidden, more esoteric level. So those were three questions that were kind of living within me as a young person. And I, I had this suspicion that I would learn about these questions. I could learn, I might learn about these questions in Camphill.

Martin Ping (18:09):

Your questions really strike me, and I have similar questions. And of course, it's no secret that you've been an inspiration and mentor of sorts to me because of your experience. The sincerity with what you approach these questions is really been just always instructive and helpful to me. And so I'm always eager to go deeper into these questions with you. I'm sure most people have heard the term impact investing, but, uh, it could mean a lot of different things to a lot of people. And I'm, I'm curious how you would define impact investing.

Cornelius Pietzner (18:45):

Well, one of the things that I had, you know, I was struggling with early on was what is this issue of metrics, uh, in terms of reporting? How do you, how do you measure, uh, how do you measure your impact? You know, your social impact or your environment, your environmental impact? And, um, to what extent is it purely quantitative? To what extent is it qualitative? And I had a, you know, I had an interesting conversation with, um, someone that we probably both know who's involved in agriculture. This person was telling me that one of the things that is important for him and his business was the revitalization or the vitality of the soil. To what extent is the soil replenished and to what extent it does it become revitalized? That is an issue that takes a long time to discern. One can discern it and one can even measure it over time, but it's not something that you're going to figure out maybe in a year unless something really radical or traumatic happens. Because again, it's a living organism; it has its own time process. You know, in Saksham in Egypt, you know, it's taken how many decades for the, for the regeneration of sand soil to proper humus. I realized then that in that discussion, one would need to have a, a fuller context, a more holistic understanding of evaluation. For me, that term was more important than metrics. What are the elements that you're looking at in terms of the impact? And some of those, you know, you, you, you would really need a longitudinal study on. If you look at a financial balance sheet, it's a snapshot of the finances of an organization, and it'll tell you something, but it won't tell you essentials in my view. Uh, you need to look elsewhere, uh, for that. And so it was the same thing for me in terms of the impact. With microfinance, for example, if you give a lot of women in Africa, small loans for, you know, so they can buy chickens or you know, whatever, that's fine and that's good, but what, what's their life like 10 years down the road, five years down the road? What's with their children? You know, uh, what's the fuller context? That just complexifies the fact just makes it a little bit less easy and maybe we have to settle for less. But I think it's always good to have a broader holistic picture in the, in the background. So for example, I'll just give you two of the, you know, two, mention two companies we, we invested in. One is a company in, in Germany, in Berlin, and Mowgli is its name after The Jungle Book. And they make healthy snacks for kids, not babies, but for kids from ages three to ten. Smoothies, you know, like they have in these satchels or they call them "moothies" because kids between the ages of three and ten start to develop eating habits, lifelong eating habits. They also want to choose what they're going to buy in the supermarket. So if one can begin to move them into good eating habits early on, and all the ingredients are biodynamic; they have a magazine and they take kids out to farms where the food is grown. So, you know, they have, they do a kind of a 360 there. And that for me is impactful both socially and environmentally. Another company, we invested in, for example, in, in Vienna, Austria, is called My Ability Social Enterprises. And the founder, who was a fabulous entrepreneur, is quadriplegic. He had an accident age of, um, 18 diving, you know, diving accident and is in a wheelchair. And, um, the minute he got in a wheelchair, after he got out of the hospital, he realized that people treated him differently. He gives the example when he went into a bank to open a, a bank account and someone was helping him, pushing him, pushing him in the wheelchair. The teller didn't talk to him, but talked with a guy who was pushing the wheelchair, you know, and he just realized that I'm not being seen here, and, and why is this? And realized, and then over time they did this research and realized that 15% of the population in Europe has some form of physical disability, whether it's hearing or seeing or whatever it might be. And these are not only valuable consumers, but they're, it's a valuable workplace component. So they work with large retailers to advise them on, on integrating people with some form of physical disability into their, into the marketplace, into the workplace. And they also have a job platform for people with disabilities, things like that. So that has an immediate impact on people's lives. That's more on the social side rather than on the environmental side, but it's also kind of a societal impact, if you like. So I'm quite comfortable with that kind of an impact. And that's the way I like to think of, um, of impact investing.

Martin Ping (23:23):

However, we put a qualifier in front of the word impact, financial capital is certainly having an impact around the globe. And so it's, it's not so much a matter of, of speed and quantity versus quality, but we, we want to make sure that the work is accelerating a pace to keep up with challenges of our times. You mentioned getting older and happening to a lot of us. I, I read a, a what I found to be an interesting book called, um, Come of Age, The Case for Elderhood in Times of Trouble, which was just provocative in, you know, what is the role of somebody who's getting old, who doesn't want to just be a dust collector. But, and I, I also think how in hearing your story, uh, and some of the examples you just cited, how it's, in some ways it feels like an echo or reflection of your earliest years and the impressions that you must have picked up on growing up in the Camphill movement. And that's always a curiosity to me, maybe because I'm married to an early childhood teacher, but it, I always like to ask people like, what do you, what do you sense or, or, uh, see a arise feel that's arising in you that's maybe reflective of some of your earliest life impressions?

Cornelius Pietzner (24:49):

Well, that's an important question. What I feel now more and more is freer and freer. And what I mean by that is not necessarily the, you know, the, the freedom that one can experience in super sensible thinking, which is a certain kind of freedom that, you know, is well described by Rudolf Steiner in The Philosophy of Freedom, but a freedom in the sense of not being attached as I was younger when I was younger. And when I say not being attached, it doesn't mean a kind of dis-attachment where I don't really care. It means, um, not being so identified with either outcomes or processes that they don't have to be determined in a sense by me, even if I'm in a sense responsible or participating. But I, for me, it's really kind of a feeling of freedom because, uh, I'm, I'm able to, to create as a kind of a, um, a distance, I would say it's a productive distance between me and the things I'm engaged in that I wasn't able to do earlier on. And, and the reason why I mention that in the context of your question, um, as I think about is that, you know, in my early childhood experiences were always that we never owned anything, but we had everything.

Martin Ping (26:16):


Cornelius Pietzner (26:18):

It's a kind of a unusual experience, um, uncommon experience. In other words, that one was there, one was living in things, one was doing things, but the houses, I didn't, my parents never owned the houses. They didn't own the cars or whatever. Those, those belonged to the community. Um, but we were able to be stewards. Uh, I mean, I was just a kid, so I didn't think of myself as a steward at the time, but I was in that environment where stewardship was, was living. It was a kind of a DNA, I think a spiritual or soul DNA that I absorbed over time that, you know, it doesn't matter if one owns things, it's a matter of how you take care of things, whether they belong to you or not. And, um, really having my formative years in these communities where, uh, things were there but they weren't owned by one individual or another, I think is something that I am experiencing in a way that has to do with its feeling of being a steward today. And, and not feeling that sense of needing to own things, projects, companies, initiatives, but being supportive. But that's one sliver of a response to this question, perhaps.

Martin Ping (27:43):

It's, it's really a beautiful response. And, uh, calls to mine a quote that I've been really contemplating since one of my colleagues brought it last week at our management meeting, and it's from Simone Weil, and it says, uh, she says, "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity."

Cornelius Pietzner (28:06):


Martin Ping (28:07):

And your, your freedom to attend to the things that you're caring about in the world has been done with so much generosity and love. And I'm so grateful for your generosity today and spending time with us for this conversation.

Cornelius Pietzner (28:24):

Thank you.

Martin Ping (28:26):

And thank you.

Cornelius Pietzner (28:28):

You know, it's interesting. So one, maybe one last, one last thought. I had a conversation also today, uh, with someone where we were talking about initiative, particularly, um, sort of a spiritual phenomena or spiritual initiatives that come in a certain form at a certain time. And, um, you know, this is a Kairos phenomenon and they may then disappear, but they, um, but the spiritual streams, it's like a underground aquifer. You know, they don't, they don't go away. They, they don't dry up necessarily, they just go underground, but they still are flowing. And then they may appear again in a quite different landscape, you know, at another time. Um, but they're still connected. So, you know, what, what has taken place, say with anthroposophy, you know, um, a hundred years ago and in a certain language, in a certain challenge, shall we say, may have gone underground, is to, and that's just one example. And it comes up again, um, as I said, at another, in another landscape. It comes up in places and, uh, with people that may not never hear of anthroposophy, may never visit the Goetheanum, may not even know about it. And it's, I think the same with our initiatives, also our spiritual initiatives, our pri— you know, the ones that we think of as private. And I think this connects to the question that you asked is what, you know, what we experienced is in the formative years and how, um, how do they kind of flow underground in our soul spiritual development and fructify and rejuvenate landscapes at other points in our.. for me, it's a nice thought to, to end the conversation with.

Martin Ping (30:13):

Well, thank you for that. And the conversation is taking a pause and we'll pick it up in April or so when you come to the States. And, uh, I look forward to that, as always.

Cornelius Pietzner (30:27):

Thank you, Martin. Thank you, Heather.

Heather Gibbons (30:43):

If you'd like to learn more about Cornelius' work, visit To learn more about Mind in Life Europe, visit And to learn more about the Camphill movement, visit the Camphill Association's website at Thanks for listening to Hawthorne Valley's Roots to Renewal Podcast. We are an association comprised of a variety of interconnected initiatives that work collectively to meet our mission. You can learn more about our work by visiting our website at Hawthorne Valley is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, and we rely on the generosity of people like you to make our work a reality. Please consider making a donation to support us today. If you'd like to help us in other ways, please help spread the word about this podcast by sharing it with your friends and leaving us a rating and review. Special thanks to our sponsored Tierra Farm who makes this podcast possible. And thank you to Grammy award-winning artist Aaron Dessner for providing our soundtrack. And to Aaron Ping for his editing expertise.