Have you learnt about any animals or other creatures lately? Or is that just a distant memory of school days? Do you remember learning about bees? What if, instead of learning about bees, you learnt bees?
I’d best explain. It’s easy to learn about bees. You can hear about their life cycle, how they dance to communicate, how and why they make the honey we love so much and so forth. However, there is a small problem with that little word, “about”. Yes, it’s true we use the word to gather up a collection of features concerning the subject. However, it also means “in the area around”, which seems to imply never quite getting to the thing, itself.
Here’s another illustration: I am currently a nurse by profession. Another nurse may hand over a patient to me, and tell me about the patient. I will learn what the patient’s name and birthdate are, as identifiers. I will be told what procedure the patient might be having in the event of surgery, what allergies the patient has and any other important medical details. Now I know all about my patient, but I do not know my patient. I do not know my patient’s character, life experiences, fears, passions or dreams. The reality is until a nurse knows his or her patient as a fellow human being, (barring the exceptional few) the nurse-patient relationship will be rather impersonal. We tend to equate “impersonal” with “lacking warmth”, “uncaring”.
As long as traditional teaching methods keep us focussing on the “about” that we are required to regurgitate in exams and essays, we will never care very much for our subject. Imagine if we were taught “bee-ness” or “tree-ness” or “eagle-ness” instead, learning to use our imaginations to delve deeply into what it might feel like to be that bee buzzing from flower to flower. Imagine sensing what a bee might sense – the large, looming shadow of a human nearby, creating distortions in the air, sounds experienced at different vibrations and awareness of potential danger in the possibility of a spider lurking under the petals.
Development of this sort of imaginative awareness of other creatures is the beginning of broadening empathy and creating a network of caring. If we can teach ourselves, our friends and our children, to use their imaginations in this way, I believe we can strengthen our network of care for our planet immeasurably. This will inevitably include care of our fellow human beings, as we strengthen our ability to imagine walking in another’s shoes and thus learn people, as well as bees, trees and other animals.
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.
There are three particular trees across the road from me in the park area. I have given them names of sorts. There is the Dragon tree – an old rough eucalypt, with stringy bark, and blood red sap, that defies identification. It hides a myriad spiders and beetles in the dark and dusty nooks and crannies of its base. It doesn’t look beautiful in the usual way. It’s liable to make people think of dark things in the night that bite, and they will probably warn their children away from it.
Then there is the Grandmother Tree – a lemon gum. She is huge, her bark shiny white at the right time, but currently a sort of dusky pink, as we are nearing the end of bark fall. My arms would not even go half way round her old trunk, and she stretches high and always had cockatoos,
lorikeets or rosellas nesting in one or other hole.
Lastly, there’s the Vision tree, which has eyes in its trunk. I did find out what it was called but I’ve forgotten. It doesn’t matter. Perhaps you will recognise it from the picture. I like to sit with my back to it and imagine it helps me find my way through difficulties.
I paid a visit to these trees while out walking, yesterday, and as I did so, I considered the nature of feeling connected to environment. To be perfectly honest, I actually stood with my hand on each tree and asked them to help me figure this connection thing out, and no, I’m not crazy. I’m just imaginative and creative.
The realm of connection – feeling connected to others – starts in infancy before we have language. Connection is about feelings, emotions, and sensory cues – touch, sight, sound, taste, smell and intuition. None of these things require a language of words. Instead they require art, creativity – the things our subconscious brain loves. Oh yes – words become helpful once we grow, as the acquisition of language allows us to build images or pictures with words and bridge the gap or guard the gate between our conscious and sub-conscious awareness.
I suggested, in my last post, that the very beginning of feeling connected to environment was “noticing”. Now I will suggest that the next step involves the senses – not just noticing, but seeing – taking in, pausing for a moment.
Listen actively to the birds. If you listen carefully you will begin to notice more clearly the many nuances to their chatter, and you will start to appreciate that you are hearing complex language, not just mindless twittering.
When you notice a tree, let the artistry of it sink in. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a naturally growing tree (un-hacked by humans) that isn’t artistic in the way it arranges itself.
If you have the time and inclination, you may like to try a Taoist tree meditation.
Oh – and on the subject of being aware of and connected to the environment, today is the longest day in the southern hemisphere, so I wish you all a wonderful Alban Hefin.