Stepping into an old-growth forest is a spiritual experience for me. The perfection of life engulfs me, the unspeakable beauty of it all awes me, the sense of connection I crave finally comes. I know who I am, and who I am is a part of all this. These leafy cathedrals humble and empower me. No wonder our current culture has near destroyed all trace of these sacred groves. They contain far too much power, mystery and magic. A few encounters here would risk people waking up and realizing that the vast majority of our current paradigm is surely deceitful distraction.
I am fascinated by the correspondences between landscape and consciousness. Or put another way, how the state of the land we live on molds our awareness, and how our ways of thinking dictate the state of the land. Take England, one of the most tamed landscapes on Earth. Gone are the howling wolves, the bears and boars, the lynx, beavers and great aurochs. Anything that can’t be domesticated or controlled has been shot to shit. And then take a peek at the English: we’ve come a long way in the last forty years, but I challenge anyone to deny that it still isn’t one of the most emotionally repressed nations around. There are always the eccentric outliers, but most of us won’t have run wild, naked and screaming through the woods, smeared with ochre-earth and possessed by the spirit of wildness, because there is not a trace of wilderness left in us to do so.
A land that has lost its wilderness creates a people who have lost touch with their wild, free-animal selves, shuffling around in their suburbias from supermarket, to dog-shit park, to boxy detached house. Alcohol is needed to release a bit of spirit at the weekend, but everything can be safely buttoned up by the knot-in-the-throat tie on Monday morning. For me the loss of wilderness creates a form of cultural pathology, a sickness of the collective soul. Where do you go to reconnect to the bigger Being, to remember that most of what surrounds us is dysfunctional social construct? How do we wake up from the nightmare if the ancient remembering-posts were cut down centuries ago?
Riane Eisler has developed a theory about the interplay of two basic cultural patterns: Dominator and Partnership. Dominator cultures are based on ranking, with males (usually straight and white) at the top and everyone else (including nature) beneath. And all kept in place with the fear of physical pain and violence, with this pain and violence institutionalized and eroticized into everything from religious images of Jesus nailed on the cross, to Hollywood, to laws that protected a man’s right to abuse his wife and children, or economies that justify endless violence to nature. Partnership cultures are based on cooperation, equality between men and women, a belief that all of life and sexuality is sacred, a celebration of pleasure and a spiritual iconography that includes the cock and cunt, along with the Goddess giving birth, symbolizing life’s extraordinary capacity to renew and regenerate.
There is much evidence that before the Indo-European invasions from the Asian steppes about 5,000 years ago, many of the indigenous European cultures were partnership, showing little evidence of fortifications, weapons or male dominance. Almost certainly these were landscapes of lush abundance, with a mix of hunter/gatherer and small-scale farming. The Asian steppes are now arid, brutal environments, and Eisler postulates that these kinds of environments force Dominator cultures to evolve. But what if these pastoral cultures very quickly turned lush lands into arid semi-deserts? That would suggest that Dominator cultures are a direct consequence of cultures that degrade their ecologies. When Europeans (direct cultural descendants of these Indo-Europeans) got to North America they told stories of natural abundance that now seem unbelievable: skies dark for hours with flocks of birds, waters so fish-full one just had to reach in and pluck… And if the Native American cultures hadn’t been close to wiped out by the introduced European diseases and genocides, wouldn’t they have also found a functioning Partnership culture based on cooperation with land and nature that was considered sacred? A form of culture that reflected the abundance found, and sustained, in the landscape? Yes, there was inter-tribal war and some ranking, but these were cultures that had lived in balance with their landscape for millennia, a balance utterly destroyed within decades of European settlement.
Why am I fascinated by all this? Because right now, most of us reading this are somehow passionately involved in helping birth an unprecedented resurgence of Partnership ideas, often because liberation of sex and sexuality is at the heart of these movements. We may be striving for the return to the Goddess, the push for sex-positive cultures, or communities of diversity, sustainability, freedom, and equal rights: all things that undermine the Dominator imperative of ranking as opposed to linking. And what if landscape, so rarely high on the political or radical agenda, is in fact key to our oppression or liberation. That the celebration of and thriving of human diversity is somehow inextricably linked to the celebration and thriving of all biodiversity? Intrinsic to Empire was imposing European landscapes, trees, plants and animals onto conquered lands. Intrinsic to recovery from empire seems to be the restoration of indigenous beings.
To go a little woo: What if landscape is always a mirror of consciousness? Take Little England, last invaded in 1066. Maybe a bit of rhododendron is running rampant, but considering the thousands of plants that have been introduced, invasive plants are not a big problem there. South Africa: possibly one of the most culturally and spiritually invaded and wounded countries on the planet; here whole landscapes are rapidly disappearing under Australian wattles and the like. And I mean whole landscapes. Or St Helena, the tiny island where I currently work, a speck in the vast South Atlantic Ocean: once covered in exquisite, lush forests of endemic daisy-trees. Discovered in 1502, goats released, settled, logged, bitten off, seas turning black with erosion after storm. By the time Napoleon arrived in 1815, she was a ravaged rock, bristling with 1,000 cannons, an earth-bloody victim of empire, slave-trade and militarism. Today there is less than 1-percent left of the magical daisy forests, half of the endemics are still close to extinction, and the land is either still wrecked or covered in introduced and invasive trees. Wilderness? Barely a trace. And consciousness here? I’ve never experienced so much dis-empowerment, such collective low self esteem. Lovely as many people are here, it feels like a profound manifestation of Dominator culture, in both folk and field.