A personal journey and a collective human necessity.
The call of the wild.
I’ve known since childhood that my true sense of ‘place’ is not tied to a geographical location, but to being part of the wild. I felt it in my bones, when, aged 10, I was released into the woods on my first Scouts orienteering course; a calling so compelling I had no choice but to respond; through decades of wilderness sport and mastering my craft as a navigator of landscape. When physical prowess and the ability to traverse the land at high speed started to decline the connection only grew stronger; slowing down opened my sensory apparatus to the potent sense of belonging, of being enfolded.
But at some point in my 30’s the tasks of making a living, mothering, partnering and daughtering in our modern fast-paced society overwhelmed and numbed me. I joined the ‘busy-ness as usual world’ and jogged along on my hamster wheel in blind ignorance for some 10 years.
And then, about 5 years ago, something nudged me awake again. Maybe it was brought on by the reflection that the loss of a parent induces. Maybe it was a mid-life crisis (a phenomenon which, if we are going to have any hope of rising to the challenges of our times, we need to stop disparaging and start welcoming in as the threshold of elderhood!)
My gut knew it – clenching up whenever I said yes to another piece of work that paid the bills but felt meaningless.
My heart knew it–in the sinking feeling arising every time I watched eyes glaze over as I attempted to articulate this crisis of belonging to fellow humans so numbed they couldn’t ‘get’ it.
My feet knew too– they kept walking me out of the house, despite my head trying to persuade me to stay in and DO more stuff.
So finally – after much resistance – I started to give in.
My feet walked me, not to the enclosure of the woods so familiar from my younger years, but to wide open spaces. I needed to be in places where there were huge skies and more fresh, life-giving air. And yet, however deeply I inhaled it couldn’t reach the depths of my longing. I started sleeping outdoors – hopping on my bike after work and pedalling off with a bivvy bag in search of belonging. The more I tried to immerse myself in nature, the more I could’t find it. Perhaps my voracious consumption of authors like George Monbiot and Isabella Tree was fuelling my awakening to our disconnection. And Robin Wall Kimmerer, Charles Eisenstein and Bill Plotkin were slowly facilitating the lifting of a lid on the hundreds, if not thousands, of years of grief so deeply embedded in my ancestral DNA: an unfathomable loss of our place in the web of life from which we originate.
So, as my 50th birthday approached and physical decline got in the way of plan A (an attempt on one of the great rounds of the Lakeland peaks) and plan B appealed less and less (a conventional lavish party) I decided a more fitting marking of the occasion might be a vision quest; a traditional rite of passage practiced by indigenous peoples for millennia.
A rite of passage
The inspiration for my quest came mostly from a deep resonance with Bill Plotkin’s work and his nature-based map of the evolution of human consciousness. In his map, adolescence is a stage characterised by developing skills and competing for status whereas adulthood brings mastery of our chosen craft and a clear sense of our unique contribution to the Earth community.
Viewed through this lens, how many ‘adults’ in modern society can actually be said to have matured beyond adolescence? Our post-industrial society and its obsession with productivity, technology, growth, improvement, independence, and bettering ourselves at the expense of the natural world keeps us all stuck jostling to prove how clever we are. The enduring societal changes we so desperately need to address our social, economic and ecological crises will only happen when we evolve into authentic adulthood. And what that requires is a society that facilitates each of us finding our confident, grounded place in the community, bringing our unique and valuable gifts to the world and releasing ourselves in full trust into interdependence.
Plotkin refers to the developmental transition from psychological adolescence to true adulthood as ‘Soul Initiation.’ It is not a bright and shiny journey of enlightenment. Certainly, it involves an opening up to greater heights and connecting with spirit. But it also involves descending into dark places. A descent akin to that which Joseph Campbell described as the Dark Night of the Soul. In our modern-day world of distractions we find so many ways of avoiding these places.
One of the many practices supporting this long soul initiation process in the pan-cultural heritage of nature-based initiatory passages is the vision fast; several days of solo contemplation, fasting and ceremony in the wild. The vision fast marks the completion of one stage of life, crossing the threshold of the unknown, and returning to the world reborn. It involves stepping into the unknown and going to the edge in search of soul. It is not a test of endurance or of suffering. In many traditions the vision seeker stays within a few metres of their chosen place for the duration. The stillness, darkness and holding embrace of the natural world facilitating the arising of insight or a vision of the future self.
Was I ready to descend to soul? To leave behind my former adolescent identity and take my place as a fully-fledged adult in our earth community?
In preparation for my quest I took a medicine walk a month or so before. I had no concerns about endurance, survival skills, being alone, or being without distractions. As a regular meditator the concept of prolonged hours of sitting was hugely appealing. But the fasting was a whole new experience that I felt I needed to prepare for. So, one fine day in August, I set out at sunrise to wander the hills and woods of County Durham. No plan, no objective, no food, but plenty of water. And what became clear was that the lack of food was actually quite pleasant (how often is food just as another form of distraction?) but the lack of NATURE was startling. No matter how far I wandered I couldn’t find this thing I was looking for. Where WAS nature? Not in the planted woods with their monocultures of tree species introduced by man. Not in the pastures crowded with grazing domesticated ungulates. Not in the ploughed fields stinking of chemicals spread by farmers. The soil was dull, cracked, leached of goodness and devoid of the teaming insect life departed for elsewhere. Not even in the wide-open expanses of moor and grassland – the barren landscapes populated only by the most resilient opportunists able to cling on when human activity has eradicated all else.
This was somewhat unsettling and not what I had expected at all. How would it be on the longer quest? Would I wander despondently for 3 days in search of ‘nature’ in one of England’s most revered ‘natural’ landscapes? I certainly wasn’t seeking a weekend of gaiety and mirth; I’d have stayed at home and had a party for that; but would it be a 3-day journey of utter despair? Was I prepared for what I might meet in the soul’s still, dark place?
Planning for the quest I hoped to travel as light as possible. A sleeping bag and tarp, a few extra layers, a water carrier, a journal and pencil. No phone, no watch, no books or distractions. But the weather forecast was for rain and I was heading into the mountains. The small pack became a larger one as I reluctantly packed extra clothes and survival gear. Was all this really necessary? And then there were the voices of friends and family. Would I be safe? What would happen if I got hurt? How would I survive for 3 days without food? Would I fall off the edge of the earth or get attacked by wild beasts? One by one they projected their fears on to me, so deeply rooted in our story of separation and disconnection from nature. And with each ‘Be Careful!’ the backpack got heavier.
In the days before I set out I found myself in a frenzy of tasks I didn’t need to do; worrying about minutiae, packing, re-packing and getting increasingly irritable with those around me. It was as if my ego knew what it was in for and was doing its utmost to resist. When I finally got on the train to start my journey, I dozed off within a few minutes. It felt as if I could sleep for a hundred years. Was this the ego’s final attempt to protect itself from the inevitable surrender ahead? Maybe we could just sleep it away?
The struggle between ego and soul had begun.
I had chosen a dear friend’s home in a remote Lakeland valley as my starting and finishing point. We ate together in the evening; my last meal for 3 days. And we finalised plans for collecting water and emergency / safety procedures. In the morning I would rise with the sun and slip out to take my place in nature. Already words were becoming inadequate. Our hug as we said goodnight was infused with soulful meaning. The language of the journey ahead was not to be found in any dictionary.
Sleep was fitful until sunrise came at last. As I pulled on my boots and stepped out the door I crossed a threshold into the space – time continuum of the sacred. A world defined not by humans but imbued with the spirit of nature. Waves of relief washed over me. Within just a few minutes tears were pouring down my cheeks. And within a mile I found myself sitting on a rock overcome with grief. I sobbed for most of the morning.
A Place of Power: The great stand off
Traditionally vision fasters wander until they discover their ‘place of power’ – the place where inner and outer worlds become one and where they dwell for the duration of the fast. I had an image of my place – high up but sheltered and with a view. A wild and open place where I could lie my body down and be held by both earth and sky. Spotting a gully between 2 rocky spurs, I felt called to climb it. An experienced mountain runner, I am used to skipping up this sort of terrain. Lightweight fell shoes allow you to feel and respond to the terrain through your soles, but in these walking boots I’d reluctantly worn to appease the ‘what happens if you break your ankle?’ it felt like my legs were dragging giant clods of concrete up the mountain. And with every metre I climbed the backpack got heavier. The weight of all the fears I’d packed for friends and family trying to topple me backwards. What irony that equipment I’d brought to apparently keep me safe might be the very thing that caused me to tumble hundreds of feet down the mountain. What lethal power lies in the complex psychological defences we humans have built to try and keep ourselves “safe”?
Finally reaching the top I stepped onto a wide open spur beneath the main ridge. I clambered over a tussocky knoll and time stopped.
THERE was my place.
A little tarn set in a hollow with huge views to North, East and South. At one end, a mossy flattened area nestled in rocky outcrops was just big enough for a tarp and a bivvy bag. Despite the wind rustling the grasses, the water was completely still; the tarn was a perfect mirror for the sky.
I flung the backpack down by a rock and lay my body down to rest on the springy bed of moss. Sleep overcame me almost immediately. The struggle up the mountain had been exhausting. I don’t know how many hours I lay there gazing at the clouds, drifting in and out of sleep, but at some point I struck up my first conversation with a vibrantly beautiful green mossy mound that became a close companion during my time at Mirror Tarn.
In dialogue with Mossy Mound I realised that along with all the projections in my backpack I’d also been carrying an assumption that finding my ‘place of power’ necessitated a physical ordeal. To get to it had to require super-human effort.
But who, exactly, was writing these rules?
The stand-off with the backpack – as we each eyed the other from a distance – lasted well into the evening. I was done with carrying the weight of all these limiting assumptions, projections, stories. I was done with the backpack.
Eventually, though, as light faded, I had to admit that I did want the sleeping bag and the woolly hat it was holding for me. I relented a bit….but it was still not welcome under the tarp!
Reflections at Mirror Tarn
For the days I spent at Mirror Tarn I journaled, meditated, moved a few metres every so often to gaze at the sky in a different direction and conversed with my moss, rock and lichen companions. I sang a little, laughed a little and danced a little. I cried a lot. And drifted in and out of sleep. I drank about 5 litres of water each day. Without the clock to tether me to habitual eating patterns hunger simply didn’t present itself.
The stillness was pervasive – in the mirror like water, in the immovable rocks, in the timeless majesty of the mountains, in my quietened mind, in my heart. Bill Plotkin talks about soul as our ecological niche – the place where we belong in nature. My soul was at peace in its place.
And in my many conversations with my non-human companions the recurring theme was power, place and connection. Where the words came from I do not know, but in an almost ceremonial exchange at the sacred temple of Mirror Tarn, I found myself announcing that I had come to return and give thanks for the power and resources I had loaned from Earth. Gifts patiently bestowed so I could strive and jostle to hone my skills, assert my place, win medals, win contracts, win hearts. Power over. The journey ahead, I said, does not require physical power nor does it demand resources. What I am stepping into is a different sort of power – harnessed in communion with the majesty of all life. An immense power, unmeasurable with conventional scientific instruments, for which I am a conduit. It is inviting me to take my place calmly, with grace, ease, wisdom and patience – just as the rocks and lichen and the passing of eons. Power with.
From this place of contemplation, I looked back back on my ‘adolescence’ in the sport of orienteering and it suddenly became very clear that the craft I’d become expert in – with map and compass in wild terrain – was, of course, an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Who was I to think I could ‘master’ the navigation of nature’s boundless mysteries? The phrase “The map is not the terrain” took on a whole new meaning….
And whilst the fasting didn’t bring on hunger, it did slowly facilitate the weakening of my attachment to physical power. With energy stores low I found myself not striding through the terrain but moving in flow with it.
The return – and becoming
On the final morning I rose at dawn. A reverential silence and a shroud of mist enveloped the whole landscape. I packed the rucksack, said my farewells to Mossy Mound and Mirror Tarn and turned 180 degrees away from the direction I’d come. I turned my back on the descent of that treacherous gully. The ‘ease-y’ route beckoned into the future. And as I peacefully strolled along I found myself pondering….If I relinquish my physical power Who AM I?
Who am I becoming?
The answer that arose, suddenly seemed so blindingly obvious. It lay all around and in the name I was given at birth: Heather.
For 3 days I’d been lovingly hosted, held and cared for by heather-clad moorland. A landscape of wild beauty that so many Britons cherish. And a landscape that has come into being as a result of ecological degradation. Heather is a shrub that has colonisesd the barren tracts and acidic soils left behind by the human driven demise of the great wildwoods that once covered our uplands.
Heather: Wiry, hardy, tough, resilient, ablaze with vibrant colour even in the harshest conditions. A former identity characterised by striving and exhaustion.
heather: Wiry, hardy, tough, resilient, ablaze with vibrant colour even in the harshest conditions. A beacon of hope in an almost broken world.
Returning to break my fast with my friend an immense peace floated in the space around and between us. She commented I was shining in a calm and contented way. But I wasn’t the only thing glowing; everything back in the ‘civilised’ world seemed to take on a new luminescence. And not just the colours, but the vibrancy of the birdsong, the taste of the food, the smell of the coffee, the heat of the shower. Eating together felt a beautiful act of reverence. I was filled with gratitude and appreciation rather than consuming hunger. And reunited with my phone, I felt no desire to switch it on. Another stand-off ensued for several hours until I relented to the call of duty to put my mother’s mind at rest by letting her know I was safe.
And what of the vision?
As the vision quest name implies, there is, traditionally, an intention in going to nature to seek a vision. In indigenous folklore this appears in the form of a guardian spirit – an animal that speaks to the quester and provides a vision (and often a new name) to guide them in fulfilling their soul’s calling.
I came across and collected many symbols of letting go– a cocoon, tufts of molted deer hair, feathers. Symbolic, perhaps, of the identity I was shedding – what I was leaving behind. But I was a little disappointed not to have any profound or significant encounters with beings bearing a message of the future for me. There were plenty of sheep, deer, cattle, birds, insects, caterpillars, butterflies. But none that spoke.
So, as I sat and breakfasted with my friend it never occurred to me to tell her about my surprising meeting with a grey squirrel on my final evening. As I sat watching the sun set it came resolutely hopping along a track, apparently knowing exactly where it was heading. For a few seconds we locked eyes and took each other in…. both almost certainly thinking “What the hell are YOU doing here?”
It was only on the train journey home that it dawned on me how very unusual this was; on a Lake District peak, some 2km and 450m higher than the nearest tree. I looked it up. Squirrels are tree dwellers. What the hell WAS it doing up there? I researched further and found the Westmoreland Red Squirrel organisation asking for sightings. They were delighted to hear from me. Apparently sightings of this sort ,whilst not impossible, are rarely reported and provide valuable information about the grey’s ability to spread. It was the time of year for the young to disperse and find new territory.
Further googling of squirrel symbolism revealed that the travelling squirrel represents the daring adventurer, seeking new territory, carrying no baggage and trusting in abundance (there are always some buried nuts somewhere!). Well yes. In that respect we were kindred spirits on the mountain, for as long as the backpack stayed firmly where I left it.
And the squirrel also stands for playfulness…..was that what I was being called to? To let go of the heaviness of the adolescent backpack and the exertion of power over and to dance in the flow of power with?
So, what’s changed as a result of my birthday quest?
Well, within about 24 hours of returning home, I found myself in what can only be described using psychotherapeutic language, as a huge shadow crash. My ego went into overdrive, the glow dissipated and I was overtaken by compulsive busy-ness.
Life felt emptier than ever.
I wanted to write this piece…and yet the words wouldn’t flow out of my fingers.
I felt blank.
I resorted to checking my phone like never before.
A couple of ‘busy-ness as usual’ work projects numbed me for a while.
And then something inexplicable started to happen.
I started to say no.
And after the first ‘no’, it got easier and then it snowballed.
In the past 4 weeks I have stepped back from countless commitments.
I’ve turned down all future work involving long journeys or air travel.
And whilst I say ‘I’ it actually feels like a force greater than ‘I’ that is making these moves. None of these no’s have been a conscious decision or a choice based on logical thinking.
There is this extraordinary calling in me to make space. To live with more ease.
What I’m making space for I’m not entirely sure, but every ‘no’ is a ‘yes’ to something else. And what I know right now is that creating space and ease feels like the most purposeful way I can contribute to ‘The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible.’
Maybe it has something to do with squirrel-like playfulness…
With deepest gratitude to Vision Quest guide and facilitator, Penny Mavor of Earth Converse and to Ann Hall.
Recommended Further Reading:
- Feral (2013) by George Monbiot
- Wilding (2018) by Isabella Tree
- Braiding Sweetgrass (2013) by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible (2013) by Charles Eisenstein
- Nature and the Human Soul (2008) by Bill Plotkin
- Soulcraft (2003) by Bill Plotkin
- The Trail to the Sacred Mountain: A Vision Fast Handbook For Adults (2009) by Steven Foster & Meredith Little