Nurturing a deeper, more interactive connection with nature is essential for the Earth’s wellbeing and our own, says Jini Reddy, as she spends a week in Devon learning from indigenous traditions
I head off into the woods before dawn breaks. My footsteps are light, my thoughts ethereal, swirling. I turn inward to feel my way. There are only shadows to guide me, the crackle of branches, the soil underfoot. I have withdrawn in pursuit of stillness, communion, hope, a desire to shed the whirring of my rational mind.
There is much in the natural world that to me feels mysterious and potent. Lately, the call to enter into a deeper union with it has grown more insistent. It’s no longer enough to go for scenic walks, or marvel at wildlife sightings. I crave a conversation with nature; on nature’s terms, not just my own human-centric ones.
I yearn to connect with that force, the energy or intelligence, which animates the physical world. This belief, in the sacredness of the Earth, is one that is shared by diverse cultures throughout history. It’s one that we in industrialised societies have become divorced from, to devastating effect – as evidenced by the climate and economic crises of our time, though the tide is turning.
As Thomas Berry writes in the book Spiritual Ecology: “There is a single issue before us: survival. Not merely physical survival, but survival in a world of fulfilment, survival in a living world, where the violets bloom in the springtime, where stars shine down in all their mystery, survival in a world of meaning.”
“To live in harmony with nature means interacting with it – observing, listening, learning, giving, receiving. It means honouring the vast pyramid of life that has existed over time, and our place in it.”
How does one begin to cultivate the conditions for this deep aliveness to happen? Indigenous peoples who live close to the land believe that to live in harmony with nature means interacting with it – observing, listening, learning, giving, receiving. It means honouring the vast pyramid of life that has existed over time, and our place in it, and from recognising that every element of the Earth shares the same life force.
Recently I attended an extraordinary course at Schumacher College in Devon entitled The Call of the Magician. It delved into the ways we, as individuals, might enter into a more sacred relationship with nature and in so doing reconnect with our vulnerability, our humanity, our reverence for the living Earth.
This wasn’t a cerebral transmitting of knowledge, but about feeling through our senses, our emotions, our intuition. For this to happen we needed to be open to suspending the logic of the mind for a logic that dwells in the heart. And we were.
The week was led by Colin Campbell, from Botswana. The son of a renowned anthropologist father and a healer mother, as a child he learned from the traditional San people and at the age of 11 was called to being trained and initiated as a traditional doctor and healer. UK-born Earth educator Lucy Hinton joined him and Manari Ushigua Kaji, the leader of the Sapara nation in the Ecuadorian rainforest – a people on the brink of extinction thanks to the impact of oil drilling, was a guest.
The magician of the title refers to those who are adept at mediating between the human and the natural world. But the week showed me that it’s possible for each of us to enter into a state of inter-being with nature, with intent, and in so doing reduce the separation that we perceive, wrongly, to exist between outer and inner nature. Lucy likened this liminal space to a place “where the sea meets the land”, a sacred zone where everything that happens is potentially significant. And as she pointed out, we don’t necessarily have to believe in something rationally in order to experiment with it.
In the indigenous way of seeing the world, withdrawal into the wild, the sharing of stories, prayer, sacred ritual, dance and song are all vital to inviting in a more dynamic relationship with nature and all that that encompasses: the greater self, the spirit, the ancestors, and the unseen world.
“The challenge before us is to shift from conservation of the Earth to a conversation with the Earth. I crave a conversation with nature, on nature’s terms, not just my own human-centric ones.”
They are difficult concepts for many of us to grasp because they’re vast and often alien to our own cherished beliefs. But every practice was simply an invitation to experience the universe from a fresh perspective.
And so we did. We created a shrine to nature in a woodland glade. We sat, crammed under a tarpaulin, singing around fire-heated rocks topped with medicinal herbs doused in water. The steam allowed the plant based medicines – wild-harvested from traditional lands and prepared with the utmost rigour and care and intent – to cleanse and strengthen us.
On my retreat into the woods, I found myself by an uprooted tree. Can you imagine the force that must be required to uproot a tree that has stood for aeons, calm and deeply embedded in the soil? Nature is wild and not always kind to its own. Imagine what that must feel like; the trauma. I felt that forsaken tree’s grief as a tangible and palpable thing. I wanted to be bear witness to it. I also saw reflected in its uprootedness, my own feelings of dislocation.
That morning I flitted between dark forest and sun-soaked meadows, between resting in stillness and plumbing emotional depths. I gained the tiniest sense of the communion Manari Ushigua Kaji experiences daily in the Amazon. His people, known for the art of dreaming, see themselves as deeply connected to all plants, animals, birds, insects and the Earth. He told us magical tales, stories of the natural world that held us captivated and reminded us of the vastness, mystery and magnificence of nature.
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And what of the people who attended my course? They came from all corners of the globe; many worked in roles that require responsibility and leadership and time spent far, far from nature’s embrace. Collectively, we were grounded in the ‘real’ world, but open to grappling with the question of how to bring life truly back into our experience, and what it really means to be human.
This, I believe is the challenge before us: to shift from conservation of the Earth to a conversation with the Earth. “We open the window, and hope the breeze enters,” said our tutor. My experience thus far tells me that there is richness beyond measure when this happens. I will keep opening those windows, to see where the breeze leads me.
Reviving our connection with the Earth
A growing number of individuals, organisations and even governments are placing the living Earth and all that it encompasses at the heart of their work.
Schumacher College offers transformative courses for sustainable living, while also in Devon, educational organisation Embercombe helps people to discover their own potential as leaders through engagement with the land. The Gaia Foundation in London, co-founded by ecological pioneers Edward Posey OBE and Liz Hosken, works in partnership with leaders, elders and networks in indigenous communities in the Amazon and Africa to empower them to revive traditions, advocate for their rights, and protect and gain recognition for sacred sites and their custodians; Polly Higgins, barrister and chairwoman of the Eradicating Ecocide Global Initiative advocates for a sole client: the Earth; the Bolivian government has passed the world’s first law granting nature equal rights to humans; in 2012, Benin passed a national law recognising sacred forests and the need for communities to protect and act as custodians to them; and in the US the Pachamama Alliance seeks to weave together and disseminate indigenous and modern worldviews.
Schumacher College is launching a new programme of short courses and events for 2015. As part of this, Call of the Magician course leaders Colin Campbell and Lucy Hinton will co-run a three-week intensive course called Drawing on Indigenous Wisdom from 16 March – 2 April.
The college is also embarking on a £7 million fundraising drive to further develop their programmes, campuses and to support their bursary programme. If you’d like to make a donation, you can here.