Inspired living

How to rewild your soul

Woman river walking spirit

Credit: iStock

When world-renowned change agent George Monbiot stepped calmly onto the TED stage in Edinburgh in 2013 and began to talk, a ripple spread through the audience. However, rather than the wave of shock that usually accompanies his hard-hitting climate forecasts, it was instead a stirring of inspiration, a warm current of hope, an imaginative wonder at the possibilities that his story offered. In an entirely different kind of environmental report card, Monbiot explained how the simple act of reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the US, after an absence of over 70 years, set off a “trophic cascade” of changes that transformed the entire ecosystem to an extent that was unanticipated by even the scientists involved.

Only those who love nature, and connect with their own innate wildness, will create and caretake wild landscapes.

Deer started avoiding certain parts of the park, and immediately those places started to regenerate. Bare valley sides quickly became forests of aspen and willow and cottonwood. The number of songbirds, of migratory birds, increased greatly, as did beavers, the dams they built providing habitats for otters, muskrats, ducks, fish, reptiles and amphibians. The wolves killed coyotes and, as a result, rabbits and mice numbers began to rise, which meant more hawks, weasels, foxes and badgers. Ravens, bald eagles and bears came down to feed on the carrion. And so on down the line until the river itself, eased of erosion pressures, changed its very shape, creating pools and riffle sections where micro-life could thrive.

“Rewilding” was the name Monbiot gave this process of mass restoration of ecosystems, the future of conservation. The rewilding of Yellowstone went viral across social media platforms, blogs and digital highways. After a long dry spell, conservation was back in the headlines. While fantastic purely for its radical simplicity, there was another reason the story garnered so much interest. Instead of fencing humans out of nature to protect it, Monbiot’s vision put humans firmly back in the centre of the equation, as hinted in his opening words.

“When I was a young man I spent six years on wild adventures as an investigative journalist in some of the most bewitching parts of the world,” he said. “I felt more alive than I have ever done since. When I came home I felt the scope of my existence gradually diminishing, until loading the dishwasher seemed like an interesting challenge. I was scratching at the walls of life, trying to find a wider space beyond. I was, I believe, ecologically bored.”

Rather than excluding humans, Monbiot’s rewilding also speaks of the need to address the over-domestication of our modern minds. Only those who love nature, and connect with their own innate wildness, will create and caretake wild landscapes. Rewilding of the land, it seems, also requires a rewilding of the human soul.

Reawaken, reconnect, revision  

It is a cause psychotherapist and freelance outdoor educator Lee Trew dedicated his life to after a series of “rewilding” experiences as a young man. One of the first was a bushcraft workshop at the Glastonbury music festival in the UK.

“When the instructor told us we were going to learn to make string I thought ‘cool’. I then watched him walk through the crowd to a patch of stinging nettle. Within minutes he had stripped it and woven it into a strong cord. It was awesome,” says London-born Trew.

Back at home, Trew planted out his Garden with nettle and began searching out more opportunities for nature connection. At a Forest School Camp, Trew found himself sitting in a circle of smiling people around a fire and, for the first time in his life, realised there was another way to live than the narrow life hitherto mapped out for him; that healthy human and wild environments were possible. His ongoing training in indigenous bushcraft and nature awareness culminated in a year-long wilderness journey, an experience which, Trew says, “rendered me utterly unfit for office work”.

Emigrating to Australia, Trew founded BluegumBushcraft, supporting mainly young people to experience a deeper connection with themselves, the Earth and the community they create during the ReWild programs.

“Many kids, especially boys, are bored and struggling at school. We’ve had kids come with multiple disorder labels: autism and ADHD. Time and again, over the days we see an awakening, a reigniting of this spark of life and joy. Suddenly the world is full of adventure.”

“We expect that the sky is going to be our ceiling, that the sounds we hear will be those of nature, but we get quite a different experience. ... It’s quite unnatural to be living the way we do.”

Much broader than just survival skills, Trew sees rewilding as a “massive movement taking place in every level of the human environment”, a revolution to reawaken our instincts, to reconnect with the intelligence of the body and heart and, in doing so, revision the global story we’re collectively telling. It’s a big vision, and one that starts with a hawk-eye view of human history.

“We were all once wild,” says Trew, “only starting to farm 10,000 years ago, compared to hunting and gathering for between 200,000 and 300,000 years. Part of rewilding is recognising that in our genes, our bodies and bones, we come into the world with certain expectations.

“We expect that the sky is going to be our ceiling, that the sounds we hear will be those of nature, but we get quite a different experience. Knowing this, some of the issues we face can be seen as a response to the simple fact that it’s quite unnatural to be living the way we do.”

Pointing to the current popularity of the paleo and 5:2 diets as signs of a swing back to the lifestyle our bodies are programmed for, Trew says that rather than returning to living in the bush, rewilding is an invitation to ask ourselves how we’re designed to live and in what conditions we thrive. According to Trew, just like in Yellowstone, we too can reinvigorate a “wild natural state of being” by repopulating our internal landscape with another kind of top-order predator.

“Top-order predators such as wolves and big cats are observers; their survival dependent on accurate, sensitive and intimate knowledge of landscape. For us, that means rediscovering our own instinctive awareness.”

It’s a sense awareness borne of the need to survive on the savannahs, a far cry from our city experience where, as creativity and innovation expert Sir Ken Robinson says, our bodies are often just a means of getting our heads to a meeting. However, at its core, Trew says, is a process of reclaiming our “internal sovereignty”.

“A wild person in wild places exists in the flow of the moment — lighting a fire when they’re cold, eating when they’re hungry, sleeping when tired. Part of rewilding is listening and responding to that inner knowing.

“You could bring a wild creature into the city and sit it behind a desk in a suit and tie and it would still follow its instincts. Rewilding is the body and heart waking up and taking over the reins so that we hear and act on our deepest desires.”

Wild minds

Cultivating a “wild mind” is also the mission of American depth psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin. “To have a wild mind is to have a whole mind. People with wild minds are those who have cultivated and embodied their innate human wholeness — the full rainbow spectrum of capacities, talents and sensibilities that constellate our evolutionary birthright,” says Plotkin.

As outlined in his recent book, Wild Mind, Plotkin believes the primary task necessary to turn our society around from life destroying to life enhancing is to reclaim our “original wholeness”, our “indigenous human nature granted to us by nature itself”.

Experiencing his own initial rewilding on a solo winter ascent of an Adirondack peak in 1979, Plotkin says that in order to step more fully into our humanness, we must first cultivate a relationship with the “more-than-human world”.

“It’s time to take another look at ourselves; to re-enliven our sense of what it is to be human, to breathe new life into ancient intuitions of who we are, and to learn again to celebrate, as we once did, our instinctive affinity with the Earth community in which we’re rooted … to rediscover what it means to be human beings in a wildly diverse world of feathered, furred and scaled fellow creatures; flowers and forests; mountains, rivers and oceans; wind, rain and snow; Sun and Moon.”

This worldview is what Sydney-based author, activist and founder of the Rainforest Information Centre John Seed calls “deep ecology”, an approach to facing world problems that brings together “thinking, feeling, spirituality and action”.

“To have a wild mind is to have a whole mind. People with wild minds are those who have cultivated and embodied their innate human wholeness.”

“If we look at indigenous cultures, we may notice that, without exception, rituals affirming and nurturing the sense of interconnectedness between people and nature play a central role in the lives of these societies,” says Seed.

“Deep ecology involves moving beyond the individualism of Western culture toward also seeing ourselves as part of the Earth. This leads to a deeper connection with life, where ecology is not just seen as something ‘out there’ but something we are part of and have a role to play in.”

To facilitate this, Seed brings people together in interactive processes, rituals and meditations that help people “remember” their “entire evolutionary journey”.

Plotkin, too, suggests practices for cultivating a wild mind. Enacted in wild or semi-wild places, they range in scope from tracking, nature observation and vision quest rituals to deep imagery, dreamwork and ecstatic dance.

Into the wild

Author and community educator Maya Ward has forged her own path towards a wildness of being, which she maintains now with regular free-form dancing, gardening and creative writing.

Stepping onto the narrow verandah of her “shemple”, her temple-inspired shack on the banks of the Yarra River in Victoria’s Warburton valley, Ward recounts her rewilding wakeup at age 19. “I was on an overnight hike in the Blue Mountains with friends when one of them sprained an ankle. I ended up camping out in a cave with her for four days until she could walk out.

“Being stuck in one spot with that responsibility changed something. I spent time watching lizards, sitting in the sun, watching. I was feeling that place on its terms in a totally different way. Suddenly, there was a mutuality, a necessity to listen. With that came a sense of depth that I’d never experienced before in nature.”

Years later, Ward embarked on a three-week walk from Melbourne to the source of the Yarra, in a kind of modern-day pilgrimage described in her book The Comfort of Water: “Instead of the usual national park experience of being led through a string of beauty spots, we had to follow the way of the river, the will of the non-human. I learned by listening. Every day, I was humbled by the experience.”

Opening up to the river in this way opened Ward to the “otherness” within. “When I really listened, I had a sense of my soul the size of the world. I am so big, so mysterious and beautiful. That sense of separation between myself and the other fell away. I realised that this is how we’ve been for 99.9 per cent of our human history.”

In the end, rewilding for Ward means waking up to what brings us alive. “Ask yourself, where do you feel most vibrant and alive, what’s beautiful and powerful in your life, and follow that.

“For me, that’s in listening deeply to nature. When you listen to anything with depth you see so much Beauty, and with that comes love. It’s a very warm, rich and delicate experience. I am wild nature learning about itself, and within that is a knowing myself as all of it.”

Rewilding, it seems, is a place defined by as many paths as there are people on them. It’s up to each of us to decide which one beckons. As Monbiot says, “Let nature decide, and nature, by and large, is pretty good at deciding.”


Claire Dunn

Claire Dunn is the author of My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild, available in bookshops and online.