As the round earth rolls…
“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapour is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and island, each in its turn as the round earth rolls” — John Muir
And roll and roll it has since last time I shared my words. A year full of movement and mountains. A year of grief and growth, digging in and turning soil, opening up to the elements, going slowly and seeing what comes. As 2018 draws to a close, what’s taken root? What shoots are emerging?
First and foremost, a sense of urgency about where we humans are at on this great green-blue planet of ours.
In April, I heard Johan Rockström speak at New Frontiers in New Zealand. The former Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre is a humble, earnest, incredibly knowledgeable human. So many of his words stayed with me, but perhaps most of all — “we’ve got ten years”. Ten years to make big, big changes. Ten years to realistically avoid ‘irreversible and abrupt environmental change’ — and the loss of the world we know. Professor Rockström speaks with hope and optimism — firm in his belief we have the intelligence, the creativity and the ability to turn it around. But it was so powerful, so unsettling this realisation that ‘we are the ones we’ve been waiting for’. As so many catastrophic climate-related events this year have shown, the time for complacency is over.
Secondly, that reconfiguring our relationship with time, place and the rest of the living world must be part of the solution. Rebuilding our connection — a sense of intimacy even — with the natural systems that are the bedrock of our lives. Some of this will be practical, experiential — getting out there, getting muddy, slowing down, looking up. Finding ways to connect, build acquaintance, get closer — maybe even fall in love a little. This is what lies at the heart of the work I love to do.
And some of it has a more intellectual dimension. Questioning and finding alternatives for some of the cultural, social and linguistic assumptions we live by. Kate Raworth’s compelling proposition for an alternative economic model in Doughnut Economics, for example. Or the idea of orientating around stories that speak to a ‘longer now’ and ‘bigger we’, as outlined by Alex Evans’ in The Myth Gap. It was fascinating to dig into these concepts at an Enquiry Weekend hosted by friends and Point People colleagues Ella Saltmarshe and Beatrice Pembroke, founders of the Long Time Project. We spoke of Deep Time, the Long Now, cathedral thinking and of our own mortality. Of how we surely need to overcome our pathological addiction to short-termism and stretch our ability to care for what may happen way beyond our personal lifetimes. I loved too Robert McFarlane’s joyful, thoughtful book, Landmarks. About the enchanting, disappearing lexicon of the natural world: “by instrumentalising nature, linguistically and operationally, we have largely stunned the earth out of wonder.”
Another big theme for me this year, was embracing the unknown. Abandoning myself to emergent adventures, large and small — I’ve deepened my comfort with not knowing. Not planning or setting objectives, but just beginning — and seeing what comes. Like the day I got up one morning, packed a bag and went to Wales — with no plan beyond getting a train to the end of the line. Taking each day as it came, going gently and being present to my surroundings built my ability to see and to feel more deeply. To be more alive to synchronicity, serendipity, to the environment and to my instincts. To understand that everything is moving; nothing is predictable and the unexpected will always intervene. There are layers and layers in every moment. Weather, emotion, other people, simple happenstance. Complexity is everywhere. In this, lies the wonder of the world.
For me, exploring outdoors — whether near or far — brings this to life in the most vivid way. To pack a bag is to be prepared, come what may. To do it well, I must imagine not only what is likely, but also what might be. This year, I celebrated my birthday high in the Southern Alps — all the weathers in one day. Shorts and sunscreen, woolly hat and crampons — I needed them all that sunny, icy, sweltering, crazy windy day.
But acquainting ourselves with the natural world is not just about mountains and wilderness. This year I’ve spent much time reflecting on the whole spectrum of ways we can be in relationship with the ‘more-than-human’ world. Where we go, what we do, how we orientate ourselves, how it affects us and ultimately why it matters. With friends and colleagues from across the spectrum of outdoorsiness, I’ve talked about endeavour, joy, playfulness, peace, awe, sensory connection — and simply going slowly — as ways in to caring about the bigger systems that nourish and sustain us. However we do it, it seems to me that — as with our fellow humans — spending time is what builds empathy and connection; a sense of intimacy and understanding.
Writing these words however I sense too the extent to which they reveal the limits of my own social and cultural frame. The continual sense of ‘separation’ that exists in our Western culture between ‘human’ and ‘nature’. The human ‘exceptionalism’ that posits our species apart from the rest. It’s hard to interrogate the things that lie the deepest, to question the very frameworks of our beliefs, our livelihoods and our language. But it feels important to try. To seek acquaintance with lenses on the world that may differ significantly from our own.
In this respect, a significant experience this year was taking part in Te Ohu — People, Land & Kinship— a learning exchange to explore living systems thinking, hosted by the Tūhoe people of Aotearoa New Zealand:
“A hopeful gathering of being and doing, an opening, a beginning — working together to see what we can dream”
— Tāmati Kruger - Chairman, Tūhoe Te Uru Taumatua
I stayed with 20 fellow manuhiri on Tataiāhape Marae in the Tūhoe homeland of Te Urewera — a forested, sparsely populated area in the North Island of New Zealand, far off the usual tourist track. Until 2014 it was a National Park, but now it is one of the few areas of the world to have been granted legal personhood — essentially a place that owns itself. For four days, we shared time, food and conversation with our hosts — considering together questions of home, belonging and connection with the natural world.
Early each morning our dreams were infused with the beautiful, unearthly, pre-dawn karakia — morning incantations that mark the transition from night to day, from spirit to human world. And in the evenings conversation continued late into the night in the name of whakawhanaungatanga — the act of purposefully building relationship. It was a sensuous, rich, remarkable few days. There are so many words in the English language. And yet sometimes, it’s hard to make them fit the shape and colour of what my mind and body has seen, heard, felt and known. Te Ohu was such a time.
It felt like — and it was — only scratching the surface of an entirely other way of seeing and being. But it cracked open in me all sorts of questions around how we, in our culture, relate to the natural world and to each other. For the Tūhoe, for Māori — and for many indigenous cultures around the world — land, water and eco-systems are not things that are separate from humans, things to be owned, dominated and used. We are not apart from and superior to the rest of the natural world, we are situated within it, we are kin. From this perspective follows an entirely different mode of relating — we are of, we belong and we have a responsibility of care. In the Māori language, a word often used is kaitiaki — stewards and guardians — we are each little pieces of a much longer story.
So what’s next? Where to from here? The explorations continue. I am growing a library of ideas, tools and resources for creating connection, for building intimacy with all of the extraordinary world around us. I also continue to grow a brilliant network of people round the world who share this interest, including friends and colleagues at the Point People, Enspiral, the Bio-Leadership Project, Nature Enquiry Weekends and the Extraordinary Adventure Club. Outdoor adventurers, entrepreneurs, educators, coaches, writers, academics, systems thinkers — all people interested in shifting the status quo in some way. In prioritising care over use in terms of how we treat other beings, human and otherwise.
No longer can we keep framing ‘nature’ as a ‘resource’ or mere backdrop for exclusively human endeavour. We will only act to protect, when we begin to care more. For this is not just about ‘sustainability’ — sustaining what is — or striving to do the least harm — but about nurturing, nourishing and enriching at every turn. Feeling ourselves to be fundamentally intertwined with the places in which we exist, and with larger patterns of existence. I call this being more ‘placeful’. More on that in 2019.
In the meantime, here’s to a happy year of increased placefulness for us all.