A voice from the wilderness guides network reflects on her work, and on whether it is the nature of things that we stay within our tribes, offering ideas on how to meet, learn and even enjoy one another’s company.
There are different tribes within the ecology movement and within each tribe there are differences again. There are those who work to understand the connections between beings in the natural world in great detail. Others work to improve the wellbeing of humans by helping them rebuild a relationship with the natural world by taking them out into it, physically or through the imagination. Yet others work to improve our methods of agriculture, for example through the development of permaculture, and for others there is a belief in the need for social action to protect the natural world from the greater excesses of humans. For myself, I am badly informed but also eager to learn more about the work being done in conservation.
Wild vision, imagination and story
One of my tribes is the network of wilderness guides in the UK, and it is loosely about this group and its relationship to others that I write. We don’t study the patterns of the natural world but rather the behaviour and beliefs of humans within it. We explore what effects a deepening of our relationship with the natural world can have on us; and how our attitudes are changed by even short forays onto the land.
Our work is not so much about objective study as subjective experience or perhaps even cooperative enquiry. We consider ourselves as guides who lead others into an experience of ‘wildness’ both outer and inner. We encourage imagination, exploration of emotional and physical responses. We develop the art of storytelling and encourage participants to recount their experiences in the form of story. Our attempts at scientific ordering and qualifying and quantifying are generally of secondary importance to us. We do not search for the absolute truth but try to honour each person’s truth. Personal experience is primary. We are interested in how a person responds through vision, through dreams, using metaphor. We attempt to relate their encounters with a tree, an animal, a wind, a sunrise, to mythology and seek to enrich their individual story by matching it with myth, legend and poetry.
If we choose them carefully, traditional stories can illustrate how close is our relationship to the natural world. A Guatemalan story, The Disobedience of the Daughter of the Sun, intertwines the wild disturbances felt by a girl moving through adolescence with the changes of the seasons. The girl falls in love, falls out with her parents, runs away with her lover. There are storms and huge crashes within her system as her child self is cracked open so that a new more adult version of herself can emerge. This is reflected by the weather – the dry season comes to an abrupt end with thunder and lightning and great storms of rain, which are reflected by the weeping of the boy when he finds his lover dead upon the beach. When the girl returns to life she is no longer what she was but the bird that heralds the arrival of summer in those lands. So it is understood that the seasonal weather of the earth is a manifestation of the same energy as the storms that rock the adolescent girl. The two do more than mirror one another; rather they express the same surges of energy and change that happen in different time frames to different parts of creation. The one reflects the other. All are part of the whole while each is also unique; and so the great grand interconnected patterning of life is illustrated in the telling of a simple love story.
The wild in the human, the human in the wild
The word ecopsychology can be translated as the study of the home of the soul. We believe that humans are intimately connected with the natural world and can receive deep healing through spending time alone on the land. Practitioners, or guides as we often call ourselves, learn to trust the role that nature plays in this – that a flower will push up its head, a bird fly by, a toad hop out of its damp hiding place at a meaningful moment and that this moment just needs to be observed and noticed.
So much for what we have in common, but just like any tribe we also comprise a wide range of practitioners: some take people out to sit alone for days and nights on Scottish hillsides or west country moors. Others offer a walk in the park. Some explore the practice of therapy in rural settings; others teach how to work with the soil or with animals. Some work with people recovering from the trauma of war, others take out businessmen or social workers, dancers or mothers, teenagers or people with mental health problems.
So my tribe is trying to reawaken humans to help them remember their place in the natural order of things; to remember that they are not observers of the natural world but embedded deep inside it. Our experience tells us that this will increase their psychological wellbeing.
Perhaps my tribe can be of service to other tribes like conservationists as we heal and educate people, as we change language and concepts, so that we might get to a point where the majority stop viewing the land merely as a commodity and in terms of financial gain or loss.
We trust that people still know within themselves that we are part of nature, that we are made of the earth as are all other living beings. So when we hear First Nations peoples of the Americas referring to the rest of nature as ‘all our relations’ this does not mean our aunts and uncles, nor is it some romantic fantasy. It is a reminder to ourselves that we are made of the same stuff and are subject to trophic cascades like the trees, ants, crows etc. Our work is not trying to teach something new but rather remind people of what we already know in our bones, literally as well as figuratively.
Rites of passage
The far edge of wilderness guides’ practices for others is probably the vision quest. From times before recorded history, people have gone out alone into the wilderness to seek vision. Probably the most famous of these was Jesus of Nazareth who spent forty days and nights in the wilderness being tempted by the devil.
More recently, the adventure of spending time alone in a wild place, albeit for a shorter time, is being revived. The inspiration for this is far removed from Christianity. While it can be claimed that this ordeal was practiced throughout cultures worldwide, the antecedents for this revival come from the First Peoples of North America and more specifically from the Lakota nation, those whom we used to call Sioux, a term which translates as ‘enemy’.
Their custom was to send young men out alone and naked with just a blanket for protection to discover their calling in life. They would be taken to a designated area that would be surrounded by prayer ties (little pouches of tobacco that had been made, each with its own prayer and strung together). Within this small area the young man must wait for four days and nights through the heat of the sun, rain, thunderstorms, the possible visitation of a bear or snake or of nightmares or terrifying visions, and hopefully a teaching that they could bring down ‘off the mountain’. The aim was to receive a vision that would illuminate the young man’s true purpose in life. With the help of the elders he would decipher the messages he had received maybe through an inner vision, perhaps through an experience with a wild animal or bird.
Even though this is seen as a rite of passage for boys moving into manhood, this practice could be continued throughout a man’s life and men often continued to go out to ’cry for vision’ into old age. And there were many variations on this form. A man might be put into a pit and a buffalo hide drawn over leaving him in total darkness for the duration. Or a boy might be sent wandering for as many as eleven days to find his strength and ability to survive.
Generally these and other ordeals were not asked of women. It was understood that women risked their lives each time they gave birth, thus ensuring the continuation of their people. This was considered offering enough.
Today as many women as men choose to spend three or four days and nights sitting or walking alone on the land, facing the elements, limiting their diet to water. Their experiences of course are far too varied to describe in this short article but it is relevant to compare in a general way the starting points of the two cultures.
Caption: Participants in vision fast training in California prepare for a wilderness immersion experience. Photo: Jenny Archard
When the Native Americans went out on vision quest, embedded within their culture was the understanding that they had the whole of life within them and that they were deeply embedded within the whole of life. Living a hunter-gatherer life they learned how the world around them operated in all its ways and had an understanding of the manifold and subtle connections that held the biosphere together. They understood about the necessity for humans to live in harmony with the natural world. To paraphrase the words of a Penang man, still living the life of a hunter gatherer, in Bruce Parry’s film Tawai: ‘I don’t feel safe with cars for who knows how long they will last. But I do feel safe in the forest, which supplies everything I need, because it will continue until the end of time.’ From that place of trust and respect such people went out onto the hill to call for vision.
We from a modern western culture, on the other hand, go out onto the hill to attempt to regain that perspective; to open ourselves to all other life so that we can regain that lost sense of belonging, of being at home. So that we can relinquish that feeling of fear, or terror that has made us defend and lock ourselves away and build fortification against the natural world, the animals and insects and weathers that threaten our crops and our livelihood. A livelihood that is so closely connected – if things go right – with wealth and possessions and ultimately with ‘power over’ all things.
Among the many layers of teaching in another long and beautiful Guatemalan story called The Toe Bone and the Tooth, is a cautionary tale about agriculture. In it, one of the goddesses of life falls in love with a human and takes him home to her world to marry him. Her mother, who is known as Grandmother Growth, is horrified and does all that she can to get rid of the human. She persuades her husband, Old Man Mountain, to set up various schemes that would kill him but her daughter outwits them. Finally, when the daughter becomes pregnant, the old couple try to kill them both, but fail. Out of this union are born two babies who are taken back to the young man’s village as the first corn. And so agriculture is born. Grandmother Growth who loved all her children, all the many manifestations of life on this earth, knew that this would be disastrous for the delicate balance of life. She understood that humans were too stupid and too selfish and too blind to be married to the gods and thus to gain some of their powers. And how right she was!
Mending, meeting, sharing gifts
So those who work to mend our connection with the land in a more spiritual way understand how much wisdom and teaching can be gained from the study of so-called primitive fables. For example, back in 1994 David Peat wrote Blackfoot Physics to describe how the traditional stories of the Blackfoot peoples are so close to many of the theories emerging in modern science.
We also value the imagination, and understand that we need to develop a strong emotional bond to nature if we are to find the strength to change our ways. The intellect alone is not enough for the majority of people. For many, the journey towards a greater understanding of, and sympathy with the work of conservationists and rewilders will be through the imagination and the emotions rather than the intellect.
I guess this is one of the things that join the people in my tribe together. All of our exploration of nature is in relation to humans and our response to it. Our starting point is how it may heal us. We divide over the methods used.
For the ecopsychologists, wilderness guides and others trying to draw on the wisdom in nature, the advances made by ecologists come as a great relief as we try to marry twenty first century concepts with the experiences we gain ‘out on the hill’. We are not trying to live in an archaic culture. We may step out of our cars and put down our phones and tablets for a few days but we take them up again on our return and then the struggle starts. To hear that crows have been observed picking up burning twigs to spread fire, seemingly knowing that much of their insect food will thereby come running out into the open. To read of new ideas about underground mycelial networks and of the information passed along them between plants whose roots they connect. Such scientific advances help us to integrate our beliefs and experiences.
One of the main challenges is for us all to ally with the other tribes in the ecology movement and find ways to tolerate our differences. I remember what I have read about Genghis Khan and how he made welcome priests from many religions to his court. There they were encouraged to debate their different ways of understanding spirit. We may not want to model all of Genghis Khan’s exploits but we could well follow his example in bringing together people with different knowledge and belief systems and encouraging an enriching exchange for all.
For the tribes to meet and really support one another in our journeys, I believe that the same thing has to happen. You may be a scientific ecologist and I may be a spiritual vision quester but maybe if we take time to get to know one another and open ourselves up to one another’s ways, we will find that what we have in common outweighs our differences. We can and indeed need to support one another, and each of us can learn much to enrich our own work.
Last year, I went to the Preston New Road anti-fracking camp at Lammas. I had offered to do a ceremony for them so they invited me to join them. At first it seemed as if we were irrelevant among a group of people who were intent on direct action and spoke a language of social change that was very different from our own. But finally it all came together. We made a barley deer, and people who did not generally pray tied handfuls of barley to a wooden frame we had created rather clumsily out of sticks from the hedgerow. We lifted her up and sang songs and then walked up to the gates in silence and there sang again and offered her to the security guards who accepted her and took her into the site. Nearly every one of those protesters joined in with the ritual. I never learned how alien this must have been for some of them, but we coalesced as a group and had a powerful time. They still remember it, so I am told. And certainly, for myself, I learned a lot about social action and was impressed by the bravery and endurance of people who lay on the tarmac with their arms locked in concrete or jumped onto the cabs of lorries knowing that they would be handcuffed and escorted to police cells when they finally came down again.
Ecopsychologists and those trying to find ways to follow traditional practices like vision quest may have much to contribute to others in the ecology movement. We work with concepts and we work with imagination. We explore language and how it can both limit and expand our understanding of the natural world and our place in it. The great writer on how our language and concepts limit our experience of the natural world is David Abram. In his book Becoming Animal he describes in a poetic and beguiling way how we limit our perceptions of the natural world, and more importantly how we might expand them.
Many of us are passionate about our work. Many of us believe in the importance of the work being developed in our particular tribe. Yet I believe that a common thread that runs through us all is a love for this earth and her plants and animals.
To return to the ancients once more. Among many tribes over millennia, especially those who were nomadic, regular gatherings were held which people travelled long distances to attend. Once a year, or maybe more frequently, peoples who did not catch sight of one another the rest of the time would come together to celebrate, tell stories, and exchange ideas. I believe that we would do well to rebirth this custom. In Britain, the great gatherings customarily took place at Lammas or Lughnasad after the gathering in of the harvest. It was summer still, the weather was warm, the bulk of the great farming work was done. Now was the time to celebrate and drink and dance and enjoy one another’s company and tell tales about how the year had been. This festival was held at the beginning of August. August is still our time for holiday. Wouldn’t it be great if our wide collection of eco tribes gathered in the summer not just among their own kind but across boundaries and belief systems so that we could listen to one another, be cross fertilized, learn new ideas, and have our imaginations stirred by the actions of one another?
Prechtel, Martin (2005) The Disobedience of the Daughter of the Sun. North Atlantic Books
Prechtel, Martin (2006) Saint Benefacio’s Roses North Atlantic Books (contains the story of The Toebone and the Tooth)
Peat, David (2006) Blackfoot Physics. Red Wheel/Weiser
Abram, David (2011) Becoming Animal. Vintage
Annie Spencer is a ceremonialist and workshop leader. She has been running groups and trainings for 30 years and with a background in humanistic psychology and earth-based spiritual traditions, she is skilled at moving between spiritual teachings and the disciplines of psychology. She is the current netkeeper for the Wilderness Guides UK Network