Deepen Your Ecological Perception

by Rebecca Wildbear

The first time I was invited to speak to nature in my late twenties, I walked into the oak-hickory forest near the Blue Ridge Mountains, skeptical but eager. A former Outward Bound guide and a Wilderness Therapist, I loved nature and preferred being there to anywhere. I biked and backpacked, kayaked and rock climbed, always longing to be closer in some way, but I didn’t know how. It had never occurred to me that I could have a real conversation.

A squirrel began barking almost immediately. I felt surprised and captivated. The sound grew louder and closer. When I finally looked up, I saw a squirrel only ten feet from my head, looking straight into my eyes and barking loudly. I had witnessed squirrels bark before, but never one like this. He was persistent and emphatic. He barked while maintaining eye contact for a long time. Then he began to move up and down the tree and along several branches, still barking, before returning to the place where we first encountered one another. Again, he looked into my eyes. He seemed neither upset nor injured. It seemed clear this squirrel was tirelessly trying to communicate something, but I felt dense to his message.

I was participating in a Soulcraft Intensive, my first Animas Valley Institute program, and the guides had urged us to wander in nature alone and listen for who wants to speak with us. Soulcraft[1] springs from nature-based cultures, eco-depth-psychology, the poetic tradition, and wilderness rites of passage; it offers a contemporary path to soul discovery.

He must be talking to someone else, I concluded, but I looked around the forest, and there were no other squirrels or animals in site. He moved closer, looked into my eyes, and continued his sequence for more than an hour. I thanked the squirrel, feeling elated to have had this intimate connection even if its meaning was still mysterious.

Our deepest place of belonging is nature. Most young children instinctively sense this connection. They are enchanted by the flutter of hummingbird wings, the colors of wildflowers, and the sounds of a rushing river—until they’re separated from nature, placed behind walls, and removed from the sounds of leaves blowing in the wind and the smell of rain falling on meadows.

We reside within Earth; she’s our home and our greatest teacher. Re-attuning our perception—our sensing, feeling, and imagination—so that we’re able to listen to the Earth is imperative to the wellness of both humans and all of life. Author and activist Chellis Glendinning believes our “original trauma” is the horror of the domination paradigm in Western civilization that has systematically removed our lives from participation in the natural world, a psychic displacement or homelessness.[2] What if the anxieties and mood disorders of the DSM-V[3] are symptoms of this greater illness? What would our treatment be then?

Although I’d witnessed people grow and heal in the wilderness in my roles as guide and therapist, I’d intuited in my heart that even this connection wasn’t deep enough. Nature was still merely a backdrop for human healing. Indigenous nature-based peoples know a deeper way. When I read “conversations across the species border” on an Animas brochure, I knew I had to participate.

A couple weeks after returning home, I walked on the farm where I lived in West Virginia at dusk. Across the small pond, a red fox appeared. He stared at me, and then he too began barking.  His bark was different from the squirrel’s, more shrill and piercing. He looked at me and barked for a long time before turning to continue his walk. “What were the squirrel and red fox saying?” I asked in an email to my Animas group. Lauren, my Animas guide, responded, “Perhaps they were noticing and welcoming your presence in the wild world?”

Whatever was happening, it was evoking aliveness and connection. As I remember the squirrel and red fox, I experience Mary Oliver’s words in Wild Geese. I feel the wild world offering itself to my imagination, calling out to me “harsh and exciting,” as if to announce my “place in the family of things.”

Replant Ourselves in Nature

It’s vital we realize that Earth and all its creatures are fully alive; to be healthy ourselves we must attend to our relationship with the Earth community. A “re-enchantment with the Earth as a living reality” is needed to stop the destruction humans are imposing. What we experience as alive and sacred, we naturally want to protect.[4] We can’t be healed separately from the planet, because the human soul exists within the world soul.[5]

Our wholeness comes from rooting in the rhythms and cycles of nature. When tending the health of a damaged ecosystem, we improve the soil quality and plant native species, rather than eliminating invasive species. Likewise, we tend the health of our psyches, not by getting rid of pathology, but by cultivating the “native species” within ourselves. Bill Plotkin’s Nature-Based Map of the Human Psyche offers a pathway to cultivate wholeness by replanting ourselves in the natural world; this occurs through allowing nature to be our primary guide.[6]

When we’re whole, we feel both Earth’s magnificence and her destruction, because we’re no longer separate. This awakening is urgent. “We belong to this world…[and] of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.”[7] Our ecological crisis is sourced in our species’ “collective perceptual disorder,”[8] a “collective myopia”[9] that has missed the basic reality of our innate connection to Earth, perhaps originating from “the historical and conceptual split between ‘in-here’ and ‘out-there’”[10] between self and world.

We become whole not only for ourselves, but also to strengthen our capacity to protect and serve our world. Protecting nature means resisting the dominant culture, industrial civilization, a way of life fueled by the perpetual exploitation of peoples and lands in a futile addiction to an unsustainable lifestyle. A strong resistance is one that is multi-faceted; a foundational ingredient is rooting the depths of our psyches in a genuine perception of the Earth as a living and breathing being with whom we can commune and listen.

We must let it direct us. “Nature is an incomparable guide if you know how to follow her.”[11] Laura Sewall offers five practices to cultivate ecological perception:

  • Learn to attend. With mindful awareness, we get out of our heads, and become open, receptive, and reverent to the forms, textures, and colors of nature.
  • Perceive the relationship between things. We look at the interface where everything meets everything else and see the Earth through “love eyes.”
  • Develop perceptual flexibility. We feel how human time interacts with the pace of Earth’s processes and grasp time scales beyond that of a human lifetime.
  • Re-perceive depth. We recognize that we are within and wholly dependent on the vaster body of Earth, living in a communion similar to that of a lover.
  • Receive images from Earth through the imaginal self, through body and psyche, like a force of nature entering us. We become co-creative.[12]

Most of us received messages in grade school that imagination isn’t real—that we must put it away like an outgrown toy. Yet nature-based peoples have always experienced imagination as a way to listen and commune with the world. Strengthening our imagination returns us to our primal roots; it’s an avenue to our aliveness. The deepest layer of this realm isn’t under our control, but bubbles up from some mysterious place deep down.[13] It’s not created from our minds, but has its own intelligence. Rather than trying to interpret it, we allow it to guide us; we partner with it in the process of co-creating the world.

Six months after my encounter with the squirrel and red fox, I quit my job, moved out west, and participated in an Animas Quest, a ceremony to be alone in conversation with the land for three days and nights while fasting. Nature was my greatest love, and I put my life on the altar and asked how I might serve. My question, however, was met either with silence or a simple response: “You’re not ready.”

I felt weakest on the third day of the fast. I’d just hiked back up the steep trail after placing a rock on the stone pile to signal I was okay. Every few feet, I had to stop. My heart beat so rapidly it scared me, reminding me of when I’d been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of twenty-one. The two lymph nodes in front of my heart had grown a nine-centimeter tumor. Chemotherapy and radiation had been the prescription, and I was told there was a thirty-three percent chance it would work. It was then that I first learned to let go of my plans and truly listen.

Feeling unsteady from the hike, I sat on a large rock that had invited me to a high perch with its glimmer from across the red rock canyon. It comforted me. “What is my purpose?” I asked, more softly this time, directing my question to the juniper and pinyon trees covering the canyon.

“Brave Heart,” a nearby pinyon pine whispered. I felt disarmed.

“No, that’s a movie.” My response was rapid, but too late to stop the mysterious flood of memories, images, and emotions that ensued, including both moments I had been a brave heart, inciting tear-filled awe, and moments I’d turned away afraid, breaking my heart in utter disappointment. Some memories highlighted my courage to speak the truth and others were of times when I’d silenced my own voice.

Many a night in the months after the quest, this vision awakened me as if asking me to tend my newly de-thawing heart in its unraveling. I’d write poetry at 3 a.m. with tears running down my face, feeling as if a dam had burst and the inner river of my heart and soul and words were finding their way back to life.

Layers of understanding the meaning of “brave heart” unfurled over decades, persuading me that perhaps I was being asked to embody the strength of a warrior and summoning me to hear again the bark of squirrel and red fox as a call to speak out, make a lot of noise, perhaps through guiding or writing.

Restore Animistic Perception

When we listen to the Earth, we may receive the most important instructions of our lives. As Geneen Marie Haughen wrote in “Wild Imagination,” to listen to Earth requires we access our deep imagination; this is a necessary capacity to decolonize the mind and “revive animist perception”—a perception that experiences all things as alive or sentient. For those who experience the world as ensouled, and for whom bear, river, tree, and rock are regarded as intelligent, are more likely to fight against global industrial civilization. Yet it’s difficult to thwart the fragmented narratives that our colonized world urges us to live, and to engage, instead, directly with the natural world and our deep imaginations.[14] Perhaps in part, because this would require us to feel our grief and rage at the ongoing destruction of so many beloved wild places and beings.

One of the oldest belief systems in the world, animism isn’t a religion, but a way of experiencing the world. It suggests that soul or spirit exists not only in humans, but also in animals, plants, rocks, and geographic features such as mountains, oceans, or other entities of nature, including thunder, wind, and stars. Although each culture has different mythologies and rituals, animism is a foundational thread of indigenous peoples around the world.

Being that all humans are the descendants of indigenous peoples somewhere, we all have ancestors who once experienced the world this way. Therefore, it’s in our DNA to open to this way of sensing and perceiving. Bill Plotkin describes three possible ways to be indigenous: culturally (of a particular people or tribe), ecologically (of a particular ecosystem or geographical place), and terrestrially (of Earth).[15] Though only some of us are culturally or ecologically indigenous, we are all terrestrially indigenous. Remembering our relationship with Earth in our flesh and bones is a resource of the greatest significance and potency.

For nearly all of the time humans have been on the planet, regular conversations across the species border were an everyday natural part of life. Sadly, this seems like a strange invitation in our world today; most people have difficulty initiating such a conversation. Perhaps this is because we’ve been taught from a very young age to perceive nature as separate, a life-less object, a commodity. This mistaken perception seems to be at the foundation of our cultural ills.

In The Lost World of the Kalahari, Laurens van der Post writes about living among the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and describes how shocked they were that he couldn’t hear the stars. At first they thought he must be joking or lying. When they realized he really couldn’t hear the stars, they concluded he must be very ill and expressed great sorrow.[16] For the Bushmen knew anyone who can’t hear nature must have the gravest and deadliest sickness of all.

Humanity’s ability to perceive the sentience of Earth is critical to our survival and to all life on Earth. Eco-psychology reinforces insights from naturalists like E. O. Wilson, who suggests that we possess “an innately emotional affiliation with all living organisms,” a biophilia.

Longing to be in conversation with nature can catalyze us. And perhaps the natural world longs for this relationship with us too. Longing is not acquiring, as the vulnerability of failure feels all too possible. Instead, longing incites us into feeling the love-ache of what we really value, and it matures us into becoming and creating that which matters most, like an embodied prayer that lays our life on the altar to serve what we love.

One week after the Quest, I backpacked six miles into a remote and ancient red rock canyon in Arizona; dwellings and petroglyphs were abundant here, marking the lives of those who came before. It was the middle of the night, and I couldn’t sleep. The canyon seemed to be calling me out of my tent, to wander in the dark and be in conversation. I was afraid of the dark—tarantulas, rattle snakes, anything I couldn’t see—but I longed to engage with my surroundings as I had on the Quest. And I wanted to accept the invitation to be a brave heart.

I wandered to the creek that meandered through the canyon; it formed a large pool near a tall red rock wall; the stars glimmered in the water. Meanwhile, a memory from my Quest arose. I had picked up a heavy rock and tossed it down hard on several rock surfaces repeatedly. I was trying to crack it open, whilst asking nature to help me crack open my heart so that I could feel it fully. Sometimes I felt as if I lived imprisoned behind a protective shell. There were tears to cry and secrets to encounter, but I could not access them. Unsuccessful, I eventually fell over exhausted from my effort.

I tasted the possibility of failure. How would I ever become a brave heart if I couldn’t even feel my heart? I spoke to the rock wall and the creek, the spirits of the ancient ancestors who lived in this canyon and the cottonwoods, to any wild being who was listening.

I spoke of my longing to feel my heart, to free the dam of my emotions and cry, so that I could be a brave heart. When a few tears came, I offered them; they fell and splashed in the water. The wind and water seemed to respond to my words and tears in gusts and ripples. The light of the stars seemed to dance and grow brighter on the water.

I made rhythm with two small rocks, one red and one white, which I left at the edge of the creek. Some of my words later turned into a poem, the first I’d allowed myself to write since high school.

A mysterious ache in my chest keeps me from sleep.

Is this pain ~ heartbreak, longing, or love?

I survived by skipping my feelings.

Sensitivity grown tough.

Let the dam crumble.

Let the river flow free.

Let me cry for the Earth and all its people.

In the morning, I returned to the water. My two rhythm rocks were not on the ground where I had left them. They now sat elegantly atop a rock a few feet off shore, surrounded by water.  Placed underneath them were red and yellow flowers. My heart began racing. How could this be? Who moved my rocks and put flowers underneath them? No other humans had hiked or camped out there since my arrival. I felt as if the canyon and its inhabitants had heard me and were grateful for my presence and words. This felt magical and touched my heart deeply.

This thread of my conversation with water has grown into an unfolding tapestry. Un-damming the waters of my own heart has ushered me into an inexplicable conversation with the ocean and river. The more-than-human world has become my family, my best friend, my muse, and my lover. They guide me to new edges every day.

Co-create & Dismantle with Earth

The rock canyons with whom I have lived see me more deeply than I see myself. Nonhumans are more intelligent and wiser than we are, although most humans believe they’re superior. Humans have a lot to offer, and our greatest contributions are inspired from a relationship with nature. If we can decolonize our minds and our lives by allowing the beings of nature and our deep imagination to be our guides, they may offer us genuine direction and possibilities we’ve never considered.

Surprising and even extraordinary occurrences arise personally, such as my experience with the rocks and flowers in the canyon, and they also exist on a grander scale. Thomas Berry calls them “moments of grace”—the star out of which our solar system was born collapsing in enormous heat, scattering itself as fragments in space; the first living cell, a prokaryotic cell capable of a metabolic process never known previously, involving the energy of the sun, the carbon of the atmosphere, and the hydrogen of the sea; or 2.5 million years ago in northeast Africa when the first humans stood erect.[17] These wondrous transformations certainly don’t lessen our responsibility to engage directly and act politically, but rather they encourage us to open our communication to those who are of greater intelligence, and the guidance, support, and potentialities they offer us.

The Earth community is in dire circumstances. Our old paradigms don’t work—individualism, patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism, human supremacy, and technology won’t save us. If we look at the environmental devastation and the political-economic corruption, there seems to be little hope. Ecological revolution by any means necessary is a moral imperative; we must do what we can to stop industrial civilization from destroying the planet.[18] We must listen closely to the animate natural world and be willing to engage through direct action. We must become visionaries and revolutionaries who tune in, engage, serve, and fight both in deep relationship with and on behalf of Earth.

What we co-create in concert with nature is far more powerful than anything our minds create in isolation.  Through embodying the images that arise from nature and our deep imagination, perhaps we can dismantle and de-construct our pathological, adolescent civilization and co-conceive and remember alongside nature another way of being human in relationship with all of life on Earth.

Converse with Nature ~ an Invitation

Wander in a wild place, away from humans, and see who attracts, repels, or scares you (rock, tree, or wind). Speak aloud to the others as you attend to what’s happening. Introduce yourself out loud and tell the others what you notice about them. Share a deep truth or offer praise. Be curious. Perhaps communicate with song, dance, or movement. Listen with all your senses, intuition, feeling, and imagination. Notice shifts in the world around you as well as in your own perception.

Be surprised. A response may come as a sign, synchronicity, dream image, vision, memory, or kinesthetic or emotional sensation. It may be immediate or delayed, auditory or visual (color, shape, movement). It may be unusual, and you may miss it or talk yourself into believing it was nothing. What’s mysterious is well worth pursuing, being with, and learning from!


Rebecca Wildbear is a river and soul guide who helps people tune in to the mysteries that live within the Earth community, dreams, and their own wild Nature, so they may live a life of creative service. She has been a guide with Animas Valley Institute since 2006 and is author of the forthcoming book, Playing & Praying: Soul Stories to Inspire Personal & Planetary Transformation. 

Image by Doug Van Houten, “A Journey to the Depths of Soul” [Collage]

Upcoming Listening To the Land Program

Rebecca & Doug will offer an Animas Valley Institute program to Deep Green Resistance members and allies, June 26 – 30, 2020, A Wild Mind Intensive for Activists & Revolutionaries: Partnering with Earth & Dreams. We’ll engage in practices to replant ourselves in nature, restore animistic perception, co-create & dismantle with Earth…and more!

See the flyer for full description ~

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57aa148c579fb35739b5a8e0/t/5dc2386072a5cb0a5d29a3f8/1573009507740/AnimasDGRflyerFinal2.pdf

Or register on-line  ~

https://animas.org/event-registration/?ee=364

References

[1] Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing Into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, New World Library, 2003

[2] Chellis Glendinning, My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1994).

[3] Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition.

[4] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York: Random House, 1999).

[5] James Hillman’s essay, “A Psyche the Size of Earth” was published as the foreword to Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind by Theodore Roszak, Mary Gomes, Allen Kanner (New York: Random House, 1995).

[6] Bill Plotkin, Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche, New World Library, 2013

[7] Joanna Macy, www.joannamacy.net.

[8] David Abrams, Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage, 1997

[9] Laura Sewall’s essay “The Skill of Ecological Perception” was published in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind by Theodore Roszak, Mary Gomes, Allen Kanner (New York: Random House, 1995).

[10] Theodore, Rozak, The Voice of the Earth, Phanes Press, 2001

[11] C.G. Jung, Letters, Volume 1:1906-1950, Routledge, 1973

[12] Laura Sewall’s essay “The Skill of Ecological Perception” was published in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind by Theodore Roszak, Mary Gomes, Allen Kanner (New York: Random House, 1995).

[13] E.S. Gallegos, Ph.D, Into Wholeness: The Path of Deep Imagery, Moon Bear Press, 2002.

[14] Geneen Marie Haughen, Wild Imagination, Parabola, May 2019.

[15] Bill Plotkin, Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche, New World Library, 2013.

[16] Laurens van der Post, The Lost World of the Kalahari, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1977.

[17] Thomas, Berry, Moments of Grace, Yes! Magazine, Spring 2000.

[18] Max Wilbert, The Moral Argument For Ecological Revolution, Deep Green Resistance News Service, November 2019.

6 thoughts on “Deepen Your Ecological Perception”

  1. Tweenty-nine years ago and more, I knew a young woman who seemed to live many of the truths in Rebecca’s essay without even knowing it. Consciously unaware of the connection she had with Nature, she had serious problems interacting with the “civilized” world, and had been diagnosed as having a “borderline personality.”

    When we went hiking once and stopped for lunch, a squirrel and a bluejay immediately approached her, and began eating from her hand. Back in the city, I had seen her casually reach through a junkyard fence to pet a barking, snarling pit bull, who licked her hand appreciatively. She repeated this interaction with another guard dog, who had been left in the back of a pickup in 3-point restraints.

    The young woman and I were lovers for some time, and I left her because of her admitted inability to say “no” to other men. She was also bulemic, and had once attempted suicide.

    After reading Rebecca’s insights on reconnecting with Nature, I wonder what the young woman from my past knew that she was unable to tell me, and what doors she might have opened into herself and her world, with someone like Rebecca as a guide.

  2. Great essay. Happy Solstice! A few thoughts:

    “The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost. For none now live who remember it.” (Galadriel at the beginning of the first Lord of the Rings movie.) That statement brought the human damage & destruction to the natural world home to me so much that I probably almost broke my wife’s hand when I grabbed it. It was difficult to fight back tears at that point. The statement didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but it forced me to confront this awful reality more directly and consciously than I normally would because it’s too painful to think about most of the time.

    “Most of us received messages in grade school that imagination isn’t real …” That’s one of the ultimate roots of all problems on Earth. Humans have obsessed on their intellect and ego for thousands of years, to the exclusion of things like imagination, empathy, and wisdom. If humans had not done so, they would not have even used agriculture, let alone started industrial society. And by “humans,” I mean humans generally. Certainly hunter-gatherers are excepted, as they communicate with the natural world literally all the time.

    “In The Lost World of the Kalahari, Laurens van der Post writes about living among the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and describes how shocked they were that he couldn’t hear the stars. At first they thought he must be joking or lying. When they realized he really couldn’t hear the stars, they concluded he must be very ill and expressed great sorrow. For the Bushmen knew anyone who can’t hear nature must have the gravest and deadliest sickness of all.” This is a sane way of looking at the world. To paraphrase R.D. Laing, you can’t make a credible argument that modern humans are sane.

    Non-humans don’t speak human, and we don’t speak their vocal languages either. But spoken languages are only one of many types of communications. My horses and I always understood each other perfectly (sometimes too well!), same with my cats. (Despite my extreme love for animals, I don’t keep domestic animals any longer, many issues with doing so.) My point is the same as that of Rebecca Wildbear: you can communicate with other species by non-intellectual means if you’re open to doing so. Even though I live in an urban area, I still feel at one with the sky, trees, air, squirrels, and birds I encounter on my daily walks to the train and back as soon as I walk outside. and Rebecca is quite correct: I’ve felt these connections since the first time my parents took us out of the city on vacation and I experienced open space instead of just buildings, traffic, and roads (I grew up in Chicago).

    Open yourself up to the real world instead of being restricted to the artificial human one. It’s better for the Earth, better for everything that lives here, and better for you. It’s more like letting go and opening yourself up than making an effort; don’t strain, just let it happen.

  3. Deep thanks Rebecca, your words reach and touch parts of me longing to be more and more awakened in service of the Whole.

    For so long I was spell-bound by our culturally conditioned belief that somehow my Mind alone could come up with the solutions needed in the face of the increasing crises we see unfolding.

    I feel such deep gratitude and relief that finally I am becoming liberated from the stranglehold of the Mind Myth that industrial society both perpetuates, thrives on and is born of …

    I long for more and more of us to wake up to the truths of which you speak – the other-than-human world lives and breathes as the antidote to our cultural crises, if only we humans will surrender deeply enough to hear, feel and perceive their wisdom.

    With Love and appreciation x Claire

  4. Beautiful evocation my wild friend…in synchronicity (which Jung said meant we were on the right path), I am just finishing an article about (re)placing ourselves or what I call place-bonding with its therapeutic (from the Gr. Therapeia meaning “to listen”) and ecologically reciprocities of healing. deep bow, praise for the new year of impossibilities (right in your own backyard). Hil xo

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