Reclaiming Wildness

"Only if we drop conventions and find the wild within can we hope to forge a genuine relationship with the wild Earth that has birthed us."

- Bill Plotkin

When Plotkin (above) refers to the wild within, he is positing that each of us has an indigenous self at the core of our being that longs for intimacy with the wild Earth that has birthed each of us into being. Could this be the case for you? This is a question that has intrigued author and seeker, Paul Kingsworth.

Kingsworth’s Breakthrough

Kingsworth had a breakthrough in his quest for Earth intimacy when he was being guided by four members of the Lani tribe through the forested highlands of Western New Guinea. Describing that time, Kingsworth wrote:  

The mountain ridge was covered in deep, old rainforest... This forest, to the Lani [people] was home. In the forest they hunted, gathered food, built their homes, lived.

As we reached the top of the ridge, a break in the trees opened up and we saw miles of unbroken green mountains rolling away before us to the horizon. It was a breathtaking sight. As I watched, our four guides lined up along the ridge and, facing the mountains, they sang. They sang a song to the forest… It was a song of thanks; a song of belonging.

To the Lani, I learned later, the forest … was a great being and to live as part of it was to be in a constant exchange with it. And so they sang to it; sometimes, it sang back.

When [modern Western] minds experience this kind of thing, they are never quite sure what to do with it... To modern people, the world we walk through is not an animal, a being, a living presence; it is a machine, and our task is to learn how it works, the better to use it for our own human, ends…

That the world is a machine is one story; that the world is alive and aware is another. The later story has probably been taken for granted by the majority of human societies throughout history. The former (Earth as machine) has really taken root only in our… industrial Western culture... The result of it—climate change, mass extinction, factory farming, the usual litany of horrors—should be enough to make us wonder if this story is badly constructed, badly told—or just plain wrong

But all is not lost. Indeed, as we awaken, we can choose to create a story of Relationship, as the Lani People have done, by seeing the world as a living presence… a great being that we are in constant exchange with. Ultimately, the story that we choose to align with will impact, not just our individual lives, but the future of the biosphere, for better or worse.

Glimpse of Papua New Guinea’s Rugged Central Highlands - Photo by Flash Parker

It would be easy to rush ahead to the next paragraph but, instead, why not pause to give yourself time to reflect on Kingsworth’s words. One way to do this is to open to experiencing, deep within your bones, that you are a living part of Earth… that, in this very moment, you are Earth breathing… That just as you live within Earth, Earth lives within you…

Listening to the More-Than-Human World

Since our emergence, as a species, hundreds thousands of years ago, we have relied on a multitude of wild-plant medicines. For example, our indigenous ancestors discovered plant remedies for ailments including diabetes, skin rashes, high blood pressure, respiratory infections, multiple sclerosis, headaches, depression, dementia, anxiety and more.

But how did our forbearers know which plants had healing properties? After all, some plants are toxic and many, as far as we know, have no healing powers whatsoever; and, in the case of those with healing properties, how did our ancestors know which parts of the plant—e.g., roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits—possessed healing potential?

As strange as it may sound, plant medicine healers living today in the wilds of Madagascar (off the coast of Africa) choose plant species with curative properties by listening to the plants themselves! Specifically, they enter the forest, while thinking about a particular person’s ailment, and then wander about, with an open mind, until a plant catches their attention and declares itself as the proper remedy.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, shamans in the Amazon rainforest of Peru, screen potential plant remedies by crumbling leaves from candidate plants and rubbing the crushed leaves on their face and forehead. Then, they sit in the forest in a receptive state, with their eyes closed, giving careful attention to any insights or intuitions that surface.

Describing this approach, physician, Larry Dossey, writes: “This is all about respect for living things… Humbly asking the green powers to manifest in our life, and placing ourselves in a position to hear plants when they speak. When the world is approached in this way, the plants come out to greet us. They announce themselves and tell us how they can help.” I grant you that, from a Western mindset, this sounds wacko, but consider that our potential for awakening occurs to the degree that we are willing to expand our consciousness by opening our hearts and minds to the unknown.

Communicating With the Wild Other

Have you ever been in conversation with a wild being? Do you think that such a thing is possible? If you are not sure, take in these words from ecologist and philosopher, David Abrams:

Even when simply addressing a maple tree, or a boulder-strewn hillside, you can be sure… that there are sensate presences out and about that are affected by the sound and the scent and perhaps even the sight of your gestured intent, whether they be squirrels, or a swarm of termites chewing its way through the resonant hollow of a fallen trunk; whether a small, silent bat flapping erratically through the night air, or the airborne insects that the bat is hunting, or even the impressionable air itself, absorbing your chemical exhalations and registering in waves the sonorous timbre of your voice. And so your speaking is heard, or felt or sensed…

I first communicated with a wild other in the still of night, at a time when I was grieving the wounded state of the world. It wasn’t planned. One minute I was gingerly feeling my way along a forest path; and, in the next, I was on my knees in front of a towering Douglas fir tree, asking for permission to approach. Sensing that I was welcome, I stepped forward, and reached my arms part way around her trunk, while placing my cheek on her moss-covered bark. And there I remained… for I don’t know how long… viscerally connected to the wild world beyond my skin. It was a homecoming of sorts for I knew, in that moment, that I was embedded within something,  both sacred and timeless.

Since that time I have had other body-expanding encounters in the wild. Once it was a toad that I spoke to under a crimson evening sky in the Badlands of North Dakota; another time it was a porcupine I followed along a stream in the Appalachians; and just now, on this brisk fall afternoon, I am witness to life’s generative cycles, as tree leaves tumble to the ground.

Earth as our Larger Body

As we each develop our capacity to connect with the wild Earth that sustains us, a day may come when we will know, deep within our bones, that Earth is, literally, our larger body. When that happens, we may feel compelled to protect Earth with our very bodies, just as she protects and shelters us.

In fact, this is what happened in India when women of the Chipko Movement resolved to protect the forests of their homeland from loggers. They did this by, literally, tying themselves to the trees. When the loggers came to cut the trees, the women were there to announce: “If you wish to cut down the trees, your chainsaws will have to go through our bodies… We are born in the forest, we live with the forest, and we will die for the forest.”

Upshot: The women of the Chipko Movement were able to stand up to the loggers because they had forged a visceral relationship with the wild Earth that had birthed them into being.  

"I confess that I do hug trees in my backyard and any place else where I happen to meet impressive ones. I hum beside creeks, hoot back at owls, lick rocks, smell flowers, rub my hands over the grain in wood. I’m well aware that such behavior makes me seem weird in the eyes of people who’ve become disconnected from the earth. But in the long evolutionary perspective, they’re the anomaly. Our bodies were made for this glorious planet, tuned to its every sound and shape."

- Scott Russell Sanders

Bonus Video: Being Awestruck

When was the last time you were awestruck—your mind blown wide open—by an encounter with wild nature?  What would this even look like?  Check out this video for an example…
Might it be that your ability to be awestruck is a measure of your innate wildness?

"My home place became alive to me. Indeed, I was 'somewhere!'"

- Cassy Correa, Steppingstone #15 Guide

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