Returning to the quiet intelligence of nature

How can we move towards a society that feels more human, natural and less dependent on money, considers Lucy Purdy, as she spends a week in Devon exploring ‘wild economics’

The day before I left for university – car piled high and mind agitated with excitement – I went walking. The Shropshire fields and trees among which I’d spent 18 years appeared burnished by the late September sun as I traced familiar routes in worn boots I’d left unpacked on account of their bumpkin unfashionableness.

I sat at the top of a hill I’d climbed dozens of times before and said goodbye to the landscape of my childhood, remembering climbing trees, jumping between hay bales; searching for tiny fish as I sunk my jam jar into the cold water of the nearby stream, tongue curled in concentration.

The moment felt intimate and important – as if the countryside felt warm towards me and glad to see me before I left, to wish me well.

From that moment I rushed into ‘real life’, becoming a student, employee, consumer, a member of this heady, incomprehensible beast we call society. I find myself now in London with a mortgage and too many possessions, part of a seething mass that often feels as confusing as it does exhilarating.

The moment on the hill ten years ago has become one I return to at times of crisis or change – a soothing reminder of feeling loved and supported and ready to face whatever joys and challenges lay ahead. The author Robert Macfarlane writes about this comforting connection with nature in his book The Old Ways, describing the “landscapes we bear with us in absentia, retreated to most often when we are most removed from them.”

I was reminded again of this connection recently on the Wild Economics course at Schumacher College in Devon. The course explored the philosophies and practice of gift- and nature-based economics and was led by wild food forager Fergus Drennan, and Mark Boyle, author of The Moneyless Manifesto, who lived for three years without money.

The week brought flashes of clarity. One came while on a Deep Time Walk with the college’s resident ecologist Stephan Harding, when we paced 4.5 kilometres (one for each of the Earth’s billion years) along the Devonshire coast path, learning about the expansiveness of ecological time. Peering into a rock pool, the mind-boggling improbability of life’s very existence was striking, as was a sense that we’ve all known each other, and the planet, since we were part of the same ancient slime that first coated it.

Lucidity came too around the fact that we’re not really selfish beings, working against each other to snatch scarce resources, but that we’re one and part of the same thing. It made me really question the illusion that a society constructed so overwhelmingly around money is the only way of doing things. After all, it’s something that has come about in such a relatively recent chunk of history.

“We share an urgent desire to find ways of being human, which aren’t dependent on money”

What about the possibility that money only exists in this way because we choose to believe in it and allow it to control us so absolutely? And that we share – despite our wounds, fears and masks – an urgent and poignant desire to find ways of being human, which aren’t dependent on money?

As my childhood connection with nature fulfils and informs me years later and miles away, there are some things we just know, but which we ignore. Earth, knowledge and humanness lie within us, itching to be released. And the competition and endless persuasions that can become bound up with money too often take us away from this.

It’s the kind of conversation that can feel difficult to slip into over dinner, even with the people you love most. Clarity in what to believe can feel impossible in a world where so many influences act upon us. The week with the Wild Economists taught me that fresh thinking can start as simply as giving a gift; whether it be emotional support, spare food or time towards your community, giving in whatever way feels natural will have a positive domino effect.

We need to see interactions as opportunities to help and give, to be citizens rather than consumers, and to place more trust in intuition than just rationality. We need to steel ourselves against the potential hurt that lurks in the gap between the cold familiarity of transactions and the dizzying thrill of giving without knowing what will come of it.

All around, individuals and organisations are springing up in response to this, people reacting to the world being at a point of ecological collapse, of social and political unravelling. Many cultural responses now reflect rather than deny the fact that our lives cannot be happily lived if we continue to feign satisfaction with what George Monbiot calls “the petty liberties of consumerism.”

For me, answers have been found in consciously stepping out of the madness and returning to the quiet intelligence of nature, something I knew as a child, but which was outshouted and misplaced along the way. My week at Schumacher helped give me the knowledge – not groundbreaking, but deeply felt and personal – that we need to shape economic systems around things which feel right and natural to us. In ways that add fertility to our local communities and to the Earth: around nature and around love.