This is my story of becoming apprentice to a landscape. This year my home moved from the pulsing throngs of Mexico City life to a northern Californian forest, and here I’ve been experimenting with new ways to experience and be experienced by the living world. It’s been a journey into an ecology of mind — a tale where my human psyche and imagination blossom and branch in entanglements with earthly intelligences, praying for them to claim me, to dream through me.
How is human psychology shaped by a landscape? This story is the first part of a series that explores how our synapses pattern through relation and reverence, and the remarkable necessity for human culture to co-evolve with an animate world.
It’s part eco-philosophy, part poetry, part manifesto for all the stories that emerge from wild wisdom.
“We won’t get any story worth hearing until we witness a culture broken open by its own consequence.”
These words written by the mythologist and storyteller Martin Shaw leap off the pages of the book held in my lap, fluttering like the titmouse songbirds I admire every sunrise in the apple tree. The phrase indicates a new way of contemplating something precious. A note of trenchant song.
Our culture has already been broken open, torn at the seams — choose your crisis, choose your catastrophe. We are witnessing, locked down at home, drawn to the ingeniously orchestrated flicker of our screens, a culture and a worldview quivering at the seams. Our kitsungi is unable to hold gold for much longer.
I sit here frustrated by anthropocentric narratives — that human ingenuity will save the day once again. Like Martin Shaw, I want to participate in stories that are “worth hearing” and for me these stories transcend the human.
When I picture a new story, when I picture a culture broken open, wildness floods into my mind. I swim in ancient and living creatures of the world who make their way through the broken shells of civilization tatters right into the human story, carrying with them long forgotten expressions of life as primordial as the stars.
Not new stories, but very, very old ones.
My barn having burned to the ground
I can now see the moon
- Mizuta Mazahide
Spring. The sky takes a long-awaited exhale. Deep within the earth, parched pockets of air soak up thick raindrops like a sponge. Bacterial communities hum in delight, giddy with hydration. Ripples form on the creek and grow into roving bubbles, exploratory entities snuffed out when the next fat plump lands on their skin.
I inhale the landscape. A sprig of roadside rosemary rolls oily between my thumb and forefinger, satin eloquence, whiffs of sticky sweet sagebrush lingering in my nostrils, the nibbled freshness of hierba buena leaves between my teeth. I pass a bay tree on my right but keep going, saving the papery firmness of its leaves to be crumpled into pungent halves and quarters upon my return, ready for tonight’s soup. Quivering grasses. Clumps of ladybugs thick like fists. At my feet, white-starred flowers leap from Indian lettuces like dancers, nature’s stop-motion art whirling green saucers. Further up the hill, modest lilac bonnets of wild peas cunningly distract from creeping vines as it works itself foxy and unseen up the forest’s stalks and stems, fixing nitrogen, sewing an ecosystem.
The landscape inhales me. A prolonged in-breath, months wide, each dawn a new trail, each crepuscular wandering a new seeing. Beings unfold. They tug at my hair while I gaze down transfixed at pygmy forests of clover, wild lily and parsley. I let them in. Branded upon my left thumb, a rite of passage — the faint trace of poison oak.
I learn their names as they learn mine, stepping forward one by one, invisible just a few hours before on the very same path, as if I was to understand that this is how they choose to be seen, prudent, watchful, coquettish. I feel unequipped, bumbling, awkward, ignorant. I yearn for a training I never had. An initiation that didn’t exist in my European upbringing. An earth wisdom incomparable to acceleration and dissection.
I greet and sketch and taste and more than anything — I slow down. I listen. I pay my respects, sitting in mute conversation, knowing this land as a moving edible landscape of medicinal percipience, a woody family, a teeming ocean of sensitivity, a glint of silver sun among cadmium clouds. I purr quiet prayers among sunset groves, fumbling for words, surprised by the sudden burst of something distinctly sylvan pouring from my tongue.
A pallet of every conceivable color flourishes on the tip of nature’s brush. Humans call them wildflowers. They have hundreds of secret languages. Trilliums converse in mottled cuneiform characters, mysterious mauve hieroglyphs daubed on thick leaves; morning glories announce the day with their trumpets, while beside them, fiercely blazing Indian paintbrushes stand in companies, readying for the day ahead, their claret petals warmed with the new wine of the year.
In ravines, the dazzling poppies that graced California with the nickname the “Land of Fire” drink sunshine from their golden cups. Lupine hearkens to her namesake, purple wolf claws scraping at the sky. The absurdly named white ramping fury, petals like black tipped worms, chatters with Hendersoni shooting stars, both proud of their sultry forms, somewhere caught between a maroon dart and a bird of paradise.
My imagination blossoms with the discovery of every new being; every new relation enriches what it means to be human. The stories flood in.
A million budding questions linger on my lips. Why is only half the maple tree covered with feathery moss? How did this soft twig perfectly pierce the center a leaf? How did this vine curl itself impossibly around a huckleberry tree and the tree absorb as an amorous lover? I sit in wonder at how the tiny mohawked titmice on my porch summon the courage to defend their turf so fiercely, every morning attacking the gigantic muscly squirrels that slink in to steal at their food supply. I grin, giving new meaning to the term pecking order. Dazzling irises in purple speckled gowns watch all this ruckus unfurl with quiet stately charm, holding a sylvan court on the forest floor.
Every element of the landscape begins to weave into my own story. I feel my senses and animal nature expanding. Crow, woodpecker, honeybee, coyote, newt, granite, acorn, fire, alabaster glow, sagebrush and my own salty tears. All have their place here in this ecology.
I begin to understand what it could mean to become the intelligence of the world, an extension of a living landscape, synapses and soul patterning through relation and reverence.
Our human psyche unfolded over millennia, developing, germinating, intertwining with a living world that was the compass and map we drew upon for survival, the tinder for our fires and the dew on our lips. Our Homo sapien brains, our neuronal pathways, jolted and fused and tenderly sprouted new branches every time our eyes scanned the complexity of a living world, trying to make sense of its miraculous expressions, our bodies learning how to live by sensing the minutest details of topographies, foraging, tracking, hunting. Worshiping. We were nomadic, and as we moved through landscape, we became landscape and landscape became us.
If the richness of human imagination is dependent on and emerges from the richness of a biodiverse landscape, then today’s exponential disappearance of that landscape and its residents is also an exponential loss of all the ways we can read and understand ourselves and all of life through them. New generations will have a distinctly impoverished baseline from which to know the world from.
Forgetful of this co-evolution, numbed to our actual co-dependence, today millions of people live in a world made by humans for humans with the lives of non-humans as mere base materials. And yet — we never left this vast intelligence, even if our artifices make us forget.
Simply said — the stories are being lost and the stories matter. Stories build and destroy civilizations. They are the dark matter that fills the space between what we believe and what we do; the grey zone that leads us towards great beauty or great insanity.
Our stories, our mythos, our language, our creations, our dreams, are not uniquely ours. They did not originate in human thought separate from nature. Going a step further, I will say that our stories are those of the Earth dreaming us, and storying through us. One mind, compromised of all the minds that share this planet, a collective psyche moving and dreaming through us.
The Hopi word for the wild, tumqua, means “hard to approach, hard to get hold of”. The wild requires of us to engage in earnest, as apprentices, humbled, empty bundles to be filled with curiosity. It is slippery, devious, mischievous, unforgiving, prolific, sentient, and indeed, initially hard to approach. We have to earn our keep.