Descent and Re-Connection

I’d been living in West Wales for a while and had just made friends with a visionary earth-dweller called Emerald. One day she invited me to visit her. Her home was a little round mud hut on about sixty acres of land that she was holding open as a sanctuary for both nature and humans, a healing and sacred re-wilding project for both land and spirit. It was located in a hidden valley at the foot of a holy mountain on the rugged and beautiful North Pembrokeshire coast, not far from where I’d been living for a few years. A soon as I’d met her and experienced the land she was working with I knew I’d found exactly what I’d been longing for—a truly radical alternative, an elemental way of life lived with deepest care for the Earth as a living being and with the intention for profound re-integration of humans and nature into harmonious reciprocal relationship. Half of her land was covered with lush, almost impenetrable woods, some of the few surviving pockets of temperate rainforest in the UK. The other was unimproved grassland with masses of wildflowers, and patches of trees seeding out from the woods and the wild hedges. A few working horses and goats grazed the meadows, a dozen or so chickens strayed about through a young orchard, and there was a large, circular vegetable and herb garden in a rather jungly but very healthy and productive state.

Her hut was the wildest and most organic house I’d ever seen, like something from out of a children’s story. It was sited in the woods near the edge of the meadows and nestled almost invisibly amongst the trees. It had the gentlest, most natural presence I’d ever met in a built structure.  I later learned that it was made of straw bales covered with earthen plaster, built on a wooden platform, with a reciprocal frame green roof on top. It had a few windows set into the muddy walls and some blankets for a door. It was entirely off-grid in the most elemental sense of that term, not in the way of solar panels, gas bottles and piped spring water, but in a completely pre-industrial way: no electricity, no plumbing, cooking and heating done with wood fire, water carried from the nearby spring-fed stream, compost loo in the woods. Energetically it felt totally clean and clear. I was moved almost to tears.

I soon asked if I could move onto the land and build something similar to live in in the same way, immersed in wild nature, without electricity, technology, or fossil fuels. I was told I was welcome, for the purpose of deep healing and conscious evolution. It was clear that at no level was this going to be a holiday or an avoidance of personal responsibility, but an intense and challenging quest—which was entirely what I wanted. I was an opening, I felt, created by my deep longing to live as simply and lightly as possible upon the Earth, to re-enter into harmonious relationship with the the land and it’s more-than-human creatures, to re-align with nature’s primordial wisdom. I had long sought to connect with the land as my teacher, to open to its healing power, to re-attune to its natural rhythms and let it re-shape me into someone who could be its friend. Here was my chance.

As soon as I could organise it I arrived on the land, with a few tools, simple clothes, basic cooking gear, and some books. It was early springtime. Building a hut would take some time so initially my shelter was a open-sided teepee fashioned out of a huge sheet of old canvas Emerald lent me and some birch poles I cut from the woods, pitched on the woodland floor just next to a mossy stream. It looked like a floating wizard’s hat in the wilderness. This was where I slept and cooked my meals on an open fire and kept somewhat dry when it rained for the first six months of what would be a very steep and long descent into natural simplicity and deep re-connection with the Earth as a wise and loving sentient being.

The intention wasn’t to attempt to return to a pre-historic way of life—I knew I didn’t have the skills or physical capacity for that—but to tread a path as close to the wild edge as I could handle. I did, however, aim to step quite fully out of modernity, unplug from the technological matrix and immerse as deeply as I could in the wild tide of elemental existence. I didn’t know what this would look like or what to expect from this journey. All I knew is that I had to plunge into a life lived very close to the earth.

At that time of year the woods were fresh and everywhere bursting back into life and leaf after the winter’s long sleep. Every day there was something new to see or touch or smell. I spent a lot of time listening to the birds and insects and to the sweet music of the stream, sitting and feeling into the pulse of the place or slowly exploring my new surroundings and getting to know my wild neighbours—a myriad of stony, mossy, rooted, leafy, flowering, furred, feathered and faery denizens of this jungly paradise. It was a delicious time as my senses awoke from their half-slumber and my bodymind dropped into a milieu that made complete sense to it at a primordial level and which it had long been hungry for. The sense of welcome was palpable. It was clear to me that the woods were happy that I was there. It felt like a profound homecoming.

As I slowly got used to living elementally I began to build my somewhat less makeshift dwelling, delighting in the naturalness of creating simple shelter from natural things in such a beautiful place. The site I chose, and which chose me, was a wild glade between two mossy-banked streams, just above the place where they met and mingled into one. The open space of the glade was covered mainly in bilberry bushes and sparse bracken, with a couple of small holly and rowan trees growing. It was surrounded by large gnarled oaks, more holly and rowan, hazel, ash and birch trees. The light filtering through the canopy was vibrantly green and the air was rich with woodland sounds and scents. There was a palpable magic in the air, a diffuse sentience present, the sense of elves whispering just out of earshot.

The building work felt like a collaboration between myself and this pervasive sentience. The more I opened up to the guidance and inspiration of the woods the smoother the work went. If I needed a certain sized piece of wood, and I remembered to ask the woods for help in finding it, I was more often than not taken straight to the piece I needed. If I forgot to ask it would often take me half a morning to find the right piece (although I did enjoy every minute of the time I spent ambling through the jungly woods in search of timber!), and when I’d found it and silently asked permission to cut it the answer was often a ‘no’!

I took the utmost care to be as respectful of the woods as I could while sourcing materials and building, doing my best to ask whenever I was cutting wood and to generally disturb the place as little as possible, aware that everywhere here was already someone’s home—literally under every stone a microcosm, every inch of ground a world teeming with life. For example, I gently removed as many plants as I could from the site before building, and kept them alive until the roof was done and I could transplant them up on top into the sunlight. This kind of thing made the work slow but wonderfully connected. It allowed me to remain open to the sentience of the place, to gain a little trust from the fairies, and to not close down because of guilt for transgressing the subtle bounds of interspecies decency. At the same time I didn’t give myself too hard a time for taking what I needed in terms ion materials and space to create my simple shelter. Every creature needs a home, and as long as I acted with consideration and moderation I felt supported by the local community and free to delight in the process of creation.

Alongside the peace and wellbeing, the newfound sense of connection and belonging I was experiencing, however, it was also a very challenging time. There were, of course, plenty of physical challenges. Naturally I encountered quite a lot of simple discomfort while acclimatising to such an elemental existence, divest of almost all the comforts and conveniences I’d grown up with. The relentless ‘chop wood carry water’ side of things took some getting used to. As did the damp and smoky conditions inside my ‘wizard’s hat’ teepee. Fortunately I received a lot of guidance and support from Emerald, otherwise I don’t don’t think I would have survived the transition. But still the experience was mine to live and endure. Living without electricity was a constant process of surrender to the natural rhythms of light and dark. Learning to cook entirely on fire was a long and often frustrating process. Bathing in the stream and drying off by the fire was intense, especially when it was windy.

But by far the main challenges were psychological. I was shocked by the strength of some of the resistance that arose in me as my suburban self rebelled at the absence of almost everything it was used to. This resistance started to appear in an intense way when my unconscious mind realised that I wasn’t just on a long wilderness camping holiday—this was permanent! This jungle was my home now and this elemental way of life was my ‘normality’. I had nowhere else to go back to. It was quite a scary realisation. At that point things started to get strange.

The endless natural shapes and textures of the tangly woods, the constant sound of birdsong, fluttering leaves, buzzing insects and singing water, the complex panorama of wild living beings, the relentless contact with the moving air and the ever-changing sky, the everywhere-uneven ground—such complete sensory immersion in a non-human, un-technologically mediated environment was as overwhelming as it was wondrously delightful. My deep, culturally constructed sense of separateness form nature could not survive in such wild conditions, and, although this erosion of separation was exactly what I was there for, I was unprepared for the often excruciating intensity of the process.

I realised too late that I was not only adopting a new and radical way of life but shedding an old identity, one deeply enmeshed with and thoroughly conditioned by the modern world. This process was something like a death to that part of me which had been born into and shaped by the culture of consumerism and separation from nature. Really it was very shocking. Sometimes it felt like falling or jumping off a cliff. Sometimes it felt like being torn apart. When it was really bad it felt like being torn apart while falling off a cliff! One or two times I thought I might go completely mad, sitting there after dark beside a fire with the night all around me and my whole relationship to life transforming within me as the deeply held beliefs that were my cultural inheritance slowly and painfully dissolved in the heat of my relentless exposure to nature in the raw. But, again with Emerald’s guidance and support, I managed to hold it together through the worst of the disorientation. And at other times it wasn’t nearly so bad. Often it all merely felt like putting down a lot of heavy and superfluous baggage I’d somehow grown attached to, and sometimes it even felt as pleasant as taking off some old clothes and relaxing into a warm bath. There are many styles of dying.

Building my little hut in the midst of this intense process felt deeply symbolic. In dream psychology the house is the symbol of the self. Here I was dying to my old sense of self as a product of modern culture and being reshaped by immersion in a more primordial milieu while building a home with natural things harvested largely from the woods around and shaped to integrate as harmoniously as possible into its environment. It couldn’t have been a more complete outer manifestation of an inner journey!

Anyway, the building itself took about six months to get to the stage where I was able to move in. I made the hut small and circular, like Emerald’s, and similarly set upon a raised wooden platform to keep it dry underneath. The structure was a wooden frame made from poles and branches harvested from the woods around. Between the poles I in-filled with straw for insulation, which I covered with clay-and- horse-dung plaster. I put in as many windows as I could fit (one of the few industrially made ingredients I gratefully incorporated into the hut), to allow in as much green-filtered light and as many woodland sights as possible. My door was made of wool-felt blankets, which let in the continuous flow of music from the stream and all the other sounds of the woods while keeping out the cold. On top of everything sat a shaggy green roof over the edge of which ivy and honeysuckle soon tumbled and trailed towards the woodland floor. In no time at all the hut had blended almost entirely into the woods around it, its earthy-textured organic contours flowing along with the mood of the place.

The space inside the hut was lovely, both earthy and light, cosy and open to the woods around. It was big enough for my basic needs and only that. It had a beautiful moulded clay hearth shaped quite like a lovely round belly, which warmed the space easily, cast beautiful dancing light into the night’s darkness, and upon which I cooked my meals. I made a woollen futon mattress out of 25 chunky Jacobs fleeces which rolled out at night to make a very soft and warm bed and away in the day to leave enough space before the hearth to do yoga, write, cook, make things, read, sit with company.

It was an epic challenge to create this woodland home, a creative act of profound transformative energy. I was so immersed in the process while it was happening that I didn’t really think much about it in an objective way, but after the hut was finished and I had more time to reflect on what had just happened it became clear to me what a massive thing it was. But really this was just the start of my journey, although I didn’t know it then. Anyway after the hut was finished my everyday life became much smoother, while still being close to the wild edge. Having a cosy place to be warm and dry was wonderful. Having a hearth with a chimney to take the smoke away was luxury. Being able to warm up the inside space before having a bath outside so that I could come in and dry off in comfort was delicious. So many little things were easier, although still very closely connected to the elements.

I was living entirely without electricity or fossil fuels. I drew water for drinking, cooking and washing from a clear spring-fed stream. I cooked on fire, with wood that I cut by hand using axe and bowsaw. I had no car, no bank account, no utilities or phone-line or internet connection. I did’t have an email address, a flushing toilet, life-insurance or any kind of gadgets whatsoever. I was outdoors most of the day, at work and at rest, and much of the time I went barefoot.

Through sustained exposure to the primary formative influences of elements and place, free from the distortions of electromagnetic fields and culturally constructed reality, I gradually experienced a renewed vibrancy of connection to my natural environment and to myself as a human animal, an organic spiritual being.

I lived immersed in the natural world, among the rocks and streams, the animals, plants and trees who are at home in the open space of Earth’s embrace. I was in near-constant relationship with the land, the weather, the seasons, sun, moon, stars and the web of life. I rarely traveled outside the environs of the mountain at whose feet I lived, and was feeling my sense of rootedness and belonging on the earth grow stronger with each season. As I acclimatised to the local weather patterns of the mountain, opened to its natural rhythms and made friends with the ‘genii loci’, I gradually attuned to the subtle energetics of the place and felt myself becoming a part of it.

I still visited the local wholefood shop to buy basic foodstuffs, but in many ways I lived to a large extent as our ancestors lived for the vast majority of human existence, as indigenous peoples still live, and as do all other beings on this blue-green jewel of a planet: in intimacy with the Earth. As this intimacy deepened I experienced a renewal of my sense of the sacredness of life and a natural re-awakening of the seed of the divine in my own heart.

As this seed slowly grew, and as I cleared away the debris of my suburban identity, I found myself becoming more naturally peaceful inside, more content simply to be. Analysing my physical needs with a refreshing clarity I found them to be few and beautiful: clean air and pure, living water; wholesome food; simple clothing; a small amount of renewable fuel from the woods I lived in; humble, soul-nurturing shelter; and close human relationships unmediated by technology. Beyond these primitive luxuries I needed very little else. Indeed, everything else felt increasingly like an obstruction to what truly nourished my wellbeing and joy. The simplicity I was living in felt like anything but a hardship. It was an enormous, magical gift.

From this place, I became more open to the vast beauty of the natural world. Little things like the shapes of leaves and the textures of bark began to delight me in new ways. Bigger things like the splendour of dawn, dusk and the ever-changing sky began to fill me with awe. With new eyes I enjoyed the everyday miracles of light, darkness, fire and the stars, the infinite shades and shapes of beauty present everywhere throughout nature. I could spend hours silently gazing at the sea, listening to birdsong, marvelling at the sparking dew, bathing in the scent of warm earth… The natural world became incredible rich with endlessly renewed wonders. I felt these great gifts to be an unlimited wealth that is our birthright as human beings, an exuberant abundance the value of which is incalculable! The simpler and more earthed my life became, the more I was able to open to these great gifts, the more moved by them I was.

Further, I found that the more time I spent immersed in the natural world as part of it, the more apparent the living presence of trees, plants, birds and other animals became to me. The inner aliveness of these beings, their primordial sentience, the fascinating self-effulgence that shines through their myriad forms and textures, colours and sounds and scents, and their awareness of me as I move among them, was a growing delight in my life. It felt like an inner armour that had shielded my own awareness from experiencing theirs was gradually being eroded. I was increasingly experiencing their sentience as naturally as I do that of other human beings. As I did so, the world became that much more alive and more magical.

More magical still was that, as the armouring of my consciousness got thinner and thinner and my sensitivity increased, I opened even further to the aliveness of the world around me and began to perceive the sentience also of non-living beings: rocks, water, the very air I breathed and the space I moved through awoke and began to sing. It was as if the native tales from before the great disenchantment were coming back to life. Everything shimmered and throbbed with energy and intelligence.

And sometimes, when I was really tuned in I felt this profusion of natural beauty and intelligences resolved into one magical field of conscious awareness, a harmonious whole through which a deeper presence moved. In these times I found myself dropping into relationship with what felt like the consciousness of the Earth itself. In these transformative encounters I experienced the Earth as a vastly wise and loving being, overflowing with a creativity and generosity beyond my ability to comprehend. And I experienced this conscious being to be aware of me too, deeply concerned with my wellbeing at every single moment, holding me in love and existence through every breath I took and each beat of my heart.

Here, in this relationship to the Earth, I felt more at home than I’d ever felt before. The sense of connection and belonging was incredible, the sense of acceptance and security was immense. My invisible roots, my energetic connection to the very ground of my being, which I had only dimly been aware of previously as something withered and brittle, began to feel strengthened and alive as my longed-for relationship with the living Earth was rekindled. It felt like I’d dropped beneath the cultural matrix and extracted myself not only from the ways of being that are destroying our Earth, but more importantly from the state of being that has created them: the state of separation.

Primitive Luxury

On Embracing Natural Simplicity

Maybe it’s a strange choice, in these days of fabulous luxury, to embrace an elemental way of life close to the earth. Surely only a lunatic would choose to abandon modernity’s comforts and conveniences in favour of a life steeped in nature’s raw juices, right?

It might be fun to camp out in the wilds for a week’s break from the city, or it could be inspiring to go on a ten-day shamanic wilderness quest for a slightly deeper natural experience; but why would anyone choose to live full-time without electricity, gadgetry and the whole heavenly host of goods and services designed to make life easier, smoother, more satisfying?

Simplicity? We’ve just spent thousands of years emerging from that irksome state. Why return?

It’s a fair question. Most of us prefer ease and pleasure to hardship and pain, and there’s clearly nothing wrong with that. But I question the narrative that equates simplicity with hardship, and luxury with wellbeing. My hunch has always been that the opposite is in fact the case, and I’ve made some radical life-choices based on the belief that a simple life close to nature is more deeply nourishing and conducive to wellbeing than anything the modern world has to offer.

Unplugging quite fully from the matrix I’ve let go of my car and driving licence, bank accounts, utilities, phone-line and internet connection. I don’t have an email address, a flushing toilet, life-insurance or any electrical devices. I don’t possess any keys, require any passwords or have any batteries to keep charged.

My dwelling is a tiny roundhut deep in the woods between two mossy streams. I built it by hand using very basic tools and natural materials. Inside it is warm, dry, light and big enough to do yoga in. I cook food and heat my space with fire, with wood that I cut by hand using axe and bowsaw with prayers of thanks to the trees. I draw water for drinking, cooking and washing from a clear, spring-fed stream that flows just outside my felt-blanket door. I am outdoors most of the day, at work and at rest, and much of the year I go barefoot.

Immersed in the natural world, held in the Earth’s embrace, at home among the rocks and streams, the animals, plants and trees, I am in near-constant relationship with the elements, the seasons, sun, moon, stars and the web of life.

My world is abundant in natural beauty, peace, slow growth and quiet joys. In this place I find that contentment is wealth, and the simplicity within which to enjoy the elemental wonders of this infinitely precious Earth-walk is my greatest luxury. In this way I am, as Thoreau put it, rich in proportion to the number of things I can afford to let alone.

But of course, living elementally—especially in cool, rainy Britain—also has its awkward side.

My life involves much that most moderns would find challenging, much that civilisation has, for thousands of years, been striving to iron out of human experience: plenty of exposure to the capricious weather; cold, mud, daily chopping of wood and carrying of water. And yet I find that actually my feet of earth are of perfect weight to give balance to my wings of thought. I wouldn’t exchange one for the other. In so doing I would lose the value of both.

More awkward are the psychological factors of choosing radical simplicity: deep in the woods there very few distractions from the clamouring mind or the biting shadows of the heart. Modernity has created a vast media to shield us from these unwelcome companions. Without its protection I am exposed to the disturbing contents of my own psyche in a way that can often be acutely uncomfortable.

Even more onerous still is to encounter some very deep fears, those fears that are at the root the mysterious millennia-old campaign to subdue and control our natural environment. I don’t have names for these fears, but they are tremendously strong. Just look at what they have done to our Paradise Earth! Coming face to face with one on a dark night is really quite shocking!

It’s scary in the woods, as most fairy tales will tell you!

But one soon adjusts to the physical challenges, and personally I prefer to face as many of the painful contents of my psyche as I can. Better out than in. Moreover, it’s not as if the modern world is without its chores, irritations, even terrors.

On balance, I’m not sure that living elementally is actually any more inconvenient or scary than life in suburbia. It’s only the nature of the irritants and horrors that are different. And at least in the woods these irritants aren’t toxic, nor am I adding to the horrors through my participation in an insidiously destructive culture.

So I find I’m willing to step out of the matrix of human-centred technological involvements and to re-inhabit a largely more-than-human web of relationships. What I gain most by this step are a renewal of my deep sense of belonging on the Earth and a restoration of my felt connection to the circle of life: the natural matrix of human existence. I believe these two priceless gifts are much more valuable than any of the comforts and luxuries I let go of in choosing to live as I do. They are also worth the journey through the shadows of the psyche this choice entails.

Many would say that my choices are too extreme, almost fanatical. Maybe they are. But only by contrast with the everyday extremism that passes for ‘normality’. Viewed in the context of the whole span of human existence, and in relation to the lives of all other beings on this planet, my lifestyle isn’t actually very extreme at all. In fact, I’m better off than most: I have a cosy shelter, enough clothes, plenty of wholesome food to eat and warm friendships unmediated by technology. Beyond these basic needs I find I need little else. In fact, most other things only get in the way of my that which makes me truly happy.

However, mine is not a way of life that I imagine many people will consider particularly appealing any time soon. Things might have to get a lot more uncomfortable in suburbia before serious amounts of us are willing to grasp the nettle and imbibe the healing properties of its sting.

 

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The bones of this piece were written with pen on paper by the dawn’s light one morning during my years in the jungle. Emerging from retreat has been interesting, but I can already hear the devas calling me back in again…

Blessed Darkness

All is well.
It’s only normality that is dying.

The matrix is broken,
Its stories are bankrupt,
The ink of all contracts runs off the page.

Never mind.
The rivers will clear.
The land will recover.
And the stars that we fold inside our mountain songs
Will guide our way through the blessed darkness.