Yesterday I guided another group into connection with a local conservation area close to where I currently live, in Baton Rouge. I offer these groups on a gift economy basis, but the reality is that I set them up for myself as much as for other people. I get to practice the skills I have learned in Outdoor Education, but more importantly I get to practice being myself around others. It’s been a hard road for me to accept just how ‘strange’ a person I am, deeply introverted and intuitive, highly sensitive, and with a New Age edge that gives me an interest in fringe subjects and the way seemingly disparate ideas are related. I truly feel like I can have a conversation with anyone about anything, because I can find a way to relate it back to something that excites me, even if the person doesn’t understand the connection.
In any case, I don’t seek to be a leader in this or any other group, I seek fellowship, and I am very nourished by the process and the sharing. Oftentimes a group can have immense insight that on my own I wouldn’t have access to.
Yesterday we started our session with a sit spot in a mixed hardwood tree area of, among others, sweetgum, oak, and pine. The forest seemed to be inviting our sensual participation in an ongoing happening, as we heard acorns falling like heavy raindrops all around us, saw spider webs shimmering everywhere in a game of hide-and-seek with the light, got distracted by worms wriggling in the undergrowth and leaned down to look at deer tracks leading off-trail into the brushes. We also heard a plethora of birds call back and forth to each other in a mesmerising musical web of communication that spread across the forest.
We then walked on until we came across an area of very tall cultivated Asian bamboo forest. I am not sure who planted it or why, though together we wagered some guesses. There’s something very peaceful about a bamboo grove, especially in this case as native birds do not prefer it; a quiet spot in an otherwise loud and active forest. Bamboo is also an important symbol in Buddhism and is planted in temples, so I thought overall it was a good spot for some meditation.
As we entered into the emptiness of meditation, I felt the senses becoming sharpened like a blade, until what seemed like the whole of myself was walking on the edge of that blade. Coming out of meditation, the body disappeared to leave in its place a broad, luminous view of the elegant bamboo stalks, swaying in the breeze.
I encouraged the group, from this beginner’s mind, to ask questions about the world around them without expecting answers. During sharing, someone wondered about how the native trees feel about the foreign bamboo forest. I had the exact same question, and so together we inquired about it, based on what we’ve read and observed about trees. We now know trees can communicate through their roots, a whole world of underground communication taking place by way of symbiotic mycorrhizal networks. Particularly older, parent trees take care of younger ones, warning them of dangers and providing them with nutrients. Contrary to the old scientific ideas of competition, trees have been shown to be interdependent, forming cooperative behaviours with each other and even with other species. So how do the native trees, that have lived on this land between two rivers for many years, experience the patch of bamboo? We looked at some bamboo that had been knocked down in the wind, and noticed very shallow roots. Perhaps they experience them as an absence, as a void of silence in the forest, I said.
I don’t know about the rest of the group, but even as I said this I felt my heart sinking. I felt as if, somehow, I had made a mistake. The kind of insights I want to encourage in people are both transcendent and immanent, firmly rooted in the soil, as well as reaching upwards for the light of the sun. These times call for a deepening of our relationship with the Earth, and here I was, perhaps encouraging people to bypass, to transcend, to lose themselves in the void.
In my journey the transcendent movement has been very important, but the guidance has always been adamant about my reclamation and integration of the body, the sensual, the dark and the earthly in any form of spirituality, education, philosophy and presence I employ and encourage. Rejecting our bodies in favour of an essence, whether that is a floating mind or a disembodied spirit is a mistake. We see the evidence of that mistake of separation in the issues of the world around us today. As the mental health field could do with more grounding in the body and in the ecological problems of our time, so does the environmental movement need to become more bodymind-focused and trauma-informed.
I also became aware that this artificial environment created by the cultivated bamboo enabled me to use a practice not rooted in the local land-based culture. It brought to the forefront my concern that I am foreign myself, and therefore ill-suited to act as guide in a place where I am also merely a guest.
These musings really affected me, and I felt my confidence and hope deflate. Luckily the forest had beforehand instructed me to allow it to speak through the participants by doing some environmental art by the water’s edge, and though I was crestfallen by what I perceived as a moment of educational failure, my own artwork now vied for my attention, looking up at me from the forest ground with a single acorn eye. It had an odd shape made of sticks, and made me feel unsettled at first. Sitting by a murky, algae-covered lake in the swamp, I stared at it and it stared at me. Suddenly I heard something plop and swim away, leaving a trail of bubbles. I realised this wood and leaf thing my hands had made was a fish-like creature, its tail and fins now unmistakable. As I had instructed the group to do, I asked what its message was, and it told me that it took courage for the first creatures to leave water for land. “Look at me, out here writhing and heaving”, it said. “Me climbing out led to you. What will you do to be an ancestor that leads to a different form of life?”.
Ego humbled, I heard the re-direction. At closing, I felt vulnerable as I shared my process, and invited others to share theirs. I heard beautiful messages from the earth being given to each participant individually: “find joy in the ordinary”, “slow down”, “celebrate diversity”, “re-connect to yourself”, “have courage”.
Yes, there will be another group. Yes, in these times of evolution, we have no choice but to take risks, listen to place, and keep learning.