I recently watched a TED Talk by Brené Brown on the Power of Vulnerability. Obviously, her context was that of relating to, or connecting with, people, but it had me thinking about how fear prevents us connecting our environment.
When I was very young, it was still relatively safe for me to be able to spend time in the veld behind our house, west of Johannesburg in South Africa. I remember the walk cutting across a corner to the shops and my friend’s house. I used to ramble off the path examining the great variety of veld flowers and grasses, some of which I never saw again after a few more years of veld fires.
It became less safe to ramble alone as the years went by, but it was something I still did, defiantly and against all advice, when we lived in the Cape before moving to Australia. It took work – on myself, overcoming fear, practising being alert, carrying a stick – to take those walks on lonely stretches of beach or in the Silvermine Nature Reserve. I didn’t once meet anyone other than a ranger, but that doesn’t make the danger less real – less real than happening on an aggressive and deadly adder in the path, which didn’t occur either.
When I made my first tentative excursions into local reserve areas here in Sydney, I was, initially nervous. Although far from those forested areas notorious for disappearing hikers later turning up murdered, I still wasn’t “safe”, merely safer than I might have been taking the same walk in South Africa –and now the list of potentially deadly creatures was even longer, after all we all know Australia is out to kill us one way or another (or so we like to tease the tourists).
The trouble was that taking those first tentative walks alone, fearfully, hindered my connection to the environment. I was on high alert, jumpy, not knowing what was between the trees, or, on a searing hot day, I felt as if the whole forest might burst into flame around me at any second. When it’s a season for big golden orb weavers, one starts wondering how long before one walks into one of those webs – one that isn’t just above head height – to find oneself face to face with the Aussie equivalent of Shelob. As one faces age old primal fears every story one was told as a child hovers in the background: don’t go out into the woods – there’s a wolf, a wicked witch, you’ll get lost, there’s a bear, there’s a gnome who will grant you a wish you’ll regret…
This is the junction where nature seems to become the physical embodiment of our own hidden and subconscious selves – the realm of emotions, dark thoughts and fears, our own inner wildness, that which defies complete knowing and control; that which we’ve been taught to batten down, hide, lock up and don’t let out. Follow the suppression far enough and you’ll reach the point where death is driven from our collective consciousness, hidden away in grim hospitals or on distant battlefields, or in some other land of starving children – little more than pictures in a brochure disturbing the glass-like surface of our lives – with a request for money.
Fear keeps us in our cities where we create different sorts of jungles and forests, the sort that tell us a story of our dominance and control of all that is wild and free. It’s a strange trade, because in the end we have been so focussed on the story of fear and danger and death, we’ve forgotten that those forests, those wild and natural places are intimately bound up with our physical survival, let alone our psychological and spiritual. It is no coincidence that mental health involves being able to listen to one’s emotions before they turn into monsters, that threaten to devour us in their desperation for our attention.
I confronted my fear. I learnt that I was safer than I first felt. I put it in perspective. It was in feeling safer that I was able to start to listen, feel and watch, turning my walks into slow meanderings that let the forest seep into me. As I relaxed, I became one with the forest – breathing in the special damp leaf eucalyptus smell, feeling it work its therapy on me in that oxygen-rich way.
I became conscious of how I was spreading myself in the forest too – skin cells, loose hairs, a scrape that left a smidgeon of blood, …the forest and I were swapping the microbiota of our existence as I got dirt under my fingernails, splinters from a rough-barked tree or paused to shift a leaf to see a bird or flower. The better I got to know the place and its denizens, the more I felt connected to this part of my environment.
Yes, vulnerability is part of it. I may get bitten by mosquitoes and one of them may carry disease. I may find a poisonous snake in my path, or I may stumble and break a bone. Such is the very nature of being alive – truly alive. There is always risk, and it’s only in being prepared to take that risk that we can connect with the environment, with our own inner selves and with each other.