What is it with the wild? A dialogue between Sophie Christophy and Max Hope

 Authors: Sophie Christophy & Max Hope. This piece of writing was originally published here on Write On Changemakers

Sophie Christophy and Max Hope love being outdoors and connecting with wild places but are curious about whether their experiences of ‘the wild’ and ‘nature’ are the same. Sophie is a feminist and children’s rights activist, an unschooling parent and Co-Founder of The Cabin and The Lodge, two self-directed and consent-based settings for home educated children. Max is Director of Rewilding Education, co-facilitator of Call of The Wild and co-lead at The Lodge. They are activists and partners in work and in life. In this exchange of emails, they explore the overall theme of ‘what is it with the wild’? and debate what it means to feel deeply connected to nature. 

This dialogue follows on from two previous ones: the first on Rewilding and Unschooling and the second on Creating Radical Changes in Education.

Sophie:

Max, at the end of our last piece of writing, we were exploring the question of where we put ourselves in the process of change and activated work. In part of it I mention the “self-healing through nature-based experiences” aspect of your work. You make reference to the Mary Oliver quote and question: “how will I use my one wild and precious life?”, and in our first piece of writing together we dove into the query of whether rewilding and deschooling (and then unschooling) are theoretically and experientially comparable.

I can’t help but think of the phrase ‘going out into nature’ – words we often say, often in moments where there is a need for relief – and how that idea shows up in our work and lives. I’m interested in what this means to you, because it is such a strong inspiration and constant theme. Why do we care about this? What does it mean to and for you, for us? It’s easy to say the words, but what is the story behind them for you? How is it defined, significant? Can you maybe tell me how this all began for you?

Max:

Let’s start with language. Nature. Going into nature. Nature connection. What does it really mean? I’m going to come clean here. Although I am surrounded by folk who use the term ‘nature’ and ‘nature connection’, and I sometimes use it myself, I don’t like these phrases very much. I far prefer talking about the wild. That’s my language. The wild. Rewilding. The wilderness.

What even is ‘nature connection’? I do like the distinction between ‘nature contact and ‘nature connection’. Going outside and walking up a hill whilst wearing headphones and looking at the ground is an example of nature contact. We are with it and yet not in it. We are not really engaged, not connected. Nature connection is deeper than this. It is about seeing, hearing, paying attention, caring, being impacted, and so on.

Having a relationship with the wild implies reciprocity. It is not a one-way relationship. It’s not about using the wild as a resource and taking, taking, taking. It’s not simply about saying ‘being in the wild makes me feel better and so I’ll do more of it.’ I mean, it’s great if being in the wild makes me feel better, of course, but what does the wild get out of this? How can I have a relationship, a real relationship, with birds and animals and rocks and the sea and the sky and the elements? What does this mean?

I have been lucky to have had some profound experiences in the wild. I remember lying on the earth one night, as part of a wilderness solo, and hearing the earth breathing. I have shouted for the wind and the elements and asked them for help in lighting my impossible-to-light fire and watching in amazement as the flames burst to life. I have slept next to a river (yes, the beautiful River Dart) and waited as the water connected directly with my soul.  Crazy huh? Must be my imagination playing tricks on me. Must be the influence of tiredness or illegal substances. No. Really, no. I have come to know and see and believe that I am a part of the wild, a small part of a deeply interconnected ecosystem. This is not a cognitive or intellectual realisation. It is a felt sense, an embodied experience. It’s real and it’s important, to me anyway.

I find it so hard to explain. I get the sense that some folk know what I am talking about. They know. They feel it too. They have a yearning, a deep desire, a longing, a longing to be part of the wild. Other do not. They might enjoy being outdoors, going to the seaside, walking in the countryside, but not in the same way. These folk enjoy the outdoors, but they enjoy lots of other things too. For me, this is about finding the place where my soul can be still, where my mind can settle, where I can zoom out and find a different perspective. I go into the wild when I need solitude, when I need support, when I need to find myself. My inner compass is strongest in the wild. I can hear myself. I can tune into my soul.

What is the wild like for you Sophie? How do you feel when you are in the wild?

Sophie:

I’m going to write in response to two of the things that you mentioned: language, and your last question. Language is important, and at the same time, I also hear myself saying “I don’t care about language”. I think this is because there’s two things going on at the same time for me: one is a desire to clearly express myself and be understood, and the other is a desire for a better shared language to start with – one that doesn’t require to mop up the mess and expend energy on clarifying difficulties in understanding caused by our patriarchal, coloniser belief system constructed language starting point – our shared language is so problematic from the start that it’s hard to communicate when you are speaking from a place that is trying to exist out of that culture. And then it gets fatiguing to even bother trying to get on the same page and understand each other, which is where the “I don’t care about language” thing. I care about feeling and communication, but wrestling with the inadequate expression and depth of the English language and dominant culture feels like a waste of my energy.

My definitions of nature and wild, just so it’s clear what I mean in using those words:

Nature: true essence

Wild: undomesticated, untamed spaces and experiences

What is the wild like for me? How do I feel in the wild? I think that really depends. I don’t have a romanticised view of the wild. I understand it as a space of life and death. I know the feeling that you speak of, the sense of interconnectivity, of being part of an energetic system, an eco system, grounded and bigger than just our selves. I know the sixth sense of feeling intimately connected to shall we say, plant and land nature – feeling connection to and kinship with trees, earth, moss and lichen. Wanting to feel aligned with the birds, and animals, and have a sense of understanding and rhythm with them – to learn from experiences and witnessings.

I also know the feeling of loss and death, and near misses, that I also associate with the wild. The most extreme until now probably having been the experience of giving birth – that for sure was my wildest experience to date. I wanted it to be unmedicated, as ‘medically’ unassisted as possible, I knew strongly on some level that it was important to the transition to feel every aspect of that process and be present for it, as part of my own transformation and initiation to motherhood. I trusted I was held in it. It was also the closest I have ever felt to my own oblivion, the most extreme and intense physical experience, something that felt ‘to hell and back’, that took me to edges I didn’t know existed. Some people do die in that process – is there anything wilder than that? Nothing is the same after that. And maybe in other ways, being caught in a huge storm where you feel and think that you might die, could be equally personally catalystic. But maybe not just a storm, what about the ‘wild’ experience of a separation, an intense grief. But also, nearly drowning in the sea, or feeling lost somewhere and not knowing if you will be found or can find your way?

What do you think about these different edges of wild? The potential for holding and feeling of connection, but also the near death and the breaking down?

Max:

Is there anything wilder than the experience of giving birth? Wow, What a question. Although I have never given birth myself, as you know, I am sure you are right. The way you describe it is so visceral, elemental, connected, at one with the universe. And yes, so life and death. Mothers die. Babies die. Just like they do in the wild. As humans, we believe that we have got to a stage where we can control everything, control life and death, medicalise and intervene in every process but of course, we can’t. I wonder whether the process of giving birth connects you to your own nature, your own wild? And does it make you feel connected to all the other species, especially mammals, that also share this visceral life-or-death experience?

Your story has also taken me down a different train of thought, and that is about women and their wildness. It hadn’t occurred to me until a couple of years ago when someone told me that they thought a ‘wild man’ was to be celebrated and yet a ‘wild woman’ was to be feared. What they meant, I think, is that wild women are characterised by a particular energy: an undomesticated, untamed, dare I say uncontrollable one. Taming wild women, controlling the wildness within women, is therefore a function of patriarchy. Wild women are colonised, their bodies are controlled, their experiences are diminished or belittled. From the moment that girls are born – or more accurately, from the moment that they are allocated a gender with a set of social expectations about passivity, gentleness, nurture, kindness, care – they are tamed. And yet childbirth, as you describe, is not always controllable, not always containable. Wild women burst forth.

I fear I haven’t answered your questions. Your writing was not just about birth. You also mentioned other ‘extreme’ human experiences that might bring us closer to our wildness. Drowning. Feeling lost. Possibly having a near-fatal accident. Being stranded somewhere overnight without food and with no certainty of rescue. The authentic feeling of being in a life-or-death situation. I haven’t had any of these. I mean, I continually get lost, as you know, and it can at times feel as if I will never find my way back, but I think that somewhere, even in my panicked state, I do know that I will survive. It’s not really life or death.

I am thinking about the growing interest in creating (or recreating) extreme experiences in the wild. Vision Quests. Rites of passage adventures. Trekking up Mount Everest. Camping out amongst wild animals. Some of these are designed in such a way as to take the human experience to an edge, with fasting, sleep deprivation, deliberate severance from routines and day-to-day resources, all with the intention of intensifying the experience of nature and bringing us closer to our wild selves. I wonder if these experiences are trying to take us closer to the life-or-death experiences that you mention. I have chosen to sign up for some of these experiences. I have done Vision Quests. I have done solos in the wild. I have camped out in Alaska amongst wolves and bears and lynx. I can attest that my senses were heightened. I did feel more connected to the wild world and to myself. These were powerful, transformational experiences. They give me something different, some visceral, that everyday life does not.

I’ll end for now. So much to say. So many questions. I invite you to go down any of the paths I have been exploring here, but if you do want a particular question, I would be curious to know your thoughts about wildness, gender, and patriarchy?

Sophie:

I’m so happy that this writing has taken this turn. It feels really good and juicy, and to the point, which I love. I’m going to reply to the question “whether the process of giving birth connects you to your own nature, your own wild? And does it make you feel connected to all the other species, especially mammals?” Yes, is my answer. It felt very animal, and very wild in the sense that it fragmented all that is culture and containing of our deepest energy. Giving birth felt very animal to me, and it felt very sacred at the same time. It felt deep and important in that it reached all the edges and went beyond. I felt forever blown apart and changed. My body also felt very animal, all of the things, the fluids, the fur, the skin, the membranes, the breastfeeding, I was like an animal mama with my animal baby.

And yes, your question about wildness, gender and patriarchy. Patriarchy is a process of control, dismembering and dominance. Just look at what happened when patriarchal colonisers encountered indigenous community and culture – they sought to sterilise and destroy it in equal measure. Patriarchy is a violent fuck up, as is its false notion of a gender binary and binary gender based socialisation. Boys are tamed out of their wildness of heart and care, out of a large amount of their emotional range and experience. Out of their bodies and boundaries too I think to allow them to receive and deliver violence. Out of their own feminine leaning energy. Girls are socialised out of their strength, confidence, leadership, loudness, bodies and boundaries too. All are conditioned to please and achieve through domination or withdrawal. The impact of patriarchy goes on and on. Wild women are feared, for sure. Wild men are rare, maybe, adding to their allure, perhaps because of the hint that they might be both strong and emotionally connected too. Unless by wild men it is meant violent men, but that is surely something other than what we mean here. I don’t know how many truly wild men and women there are, given the culture we marinate in and contexts accessible to us to meaningfully explore this. It’s a tough path back to wildness and nature.

I wanted to write also about something else that you mentioned, this idea that you shared that you haven’t been in a life or death situation, in an ‘extreme’ human experience. And I want to ask you, was it not like that when you came out? Didn’t that feel like a tightrope of life and death, the risk of telling? We can feel the risk of death in different ways. Feeling rejected, that you don’t belong, that you aren’t approved of, or ‘ok’, that need to belong, to be loved, that being threatened can feel like a life or death situation – I think that’s why people stay closeted to a certain extent, there’s a fear that to come out would be tantamount to dying. Or causing the death of the person that other people think you are, and not wanting to do that. Do you think that coming out counts as a wild experience, like the ones we are talking about here? There are some many ways to come out in a patriarchal culture. I think it’s all pretty wild to cross those lines, but what do you think?

Max:

Is ‘coming out’ a wild experience? Hum. I’ve never thought about it in that way. My coming out happened a long long time ago – over 30 years ago – which was way before I thought much about wildness. Or, I should say, my initial coming out, my first coming out, my most important coming out, the one to myself and to those closest to me. Coming out is not a one-off experience in our world, as you know. But let me think back to that time.

If we consider wildness as an internal process, as you have described earlier, as a return to self, a return to our own true essence or nature, as a connection to authenticity, then yes, accepting myself as queer and then choosing to tell others about this was indeed a part of returning to my wild self. For me, denying this would have forced me to live a deeply inauthentic life. I couldn’t – or chose not to – do this. Coming out was about my own alignment.

But is it life or death, an extreme human experience? What if we look at it though this framing of wildness, like surviving a storm or getting lost in the wilderness? Yes, I guess it is in a metaphorical sense although I don’t want to exaggerate my own experience. Many LGBTQ+ people face a real danger in coming out. They are disowned and diminished, and they face physical, emotional and sexual violence. They are murdered. This really is life or death. It was not like that for me, and even in my darker moments and most disturbing fantasies, I did not envisage an actual threat to my life. I knew I would be OK. I knew I would survive. And I did. But the fear of what might happen was real. The fear of being cut off, shut out, of being a disappointment, of not living up to expectations, of losing family and friends. The fear was real. And some of those fears did play out, yes. And so, I think it is probably right to say that it was an extreme experience. An unsettling, life-shattering, life-changing experience.

How can the wild – the external wild – help us with these experiences? When people choose to go on a Vision Quest, it is often framed as having three stages – severance, the quest, and the return. The first stage is a deliberate separation from the things that tether us to our everyday lives. This includes identities, societal expectations, gendered roles, family dynamics and so on. A death – or a death of a particular aspect of the self – might be a welcome outcome of a quest. This includes gender identities. I have heard stories of people who have gone out on quest with one name and gender identity and returned with new ones. That’s powerful. The fact that they go through this transition alone, cut off from other humans, whilst held in a wild space, is significant here. The wild can hold us and be with us in many ways. The wild does not have the same expectations as our selves, our families, our communities and so on. The wild just lets us be.

I am reading a book about gender identities, and it contains this short poem:

In a forest

With snow

Down a path.

I ask,

‘If a person is alone in a forest

Do they have a gender?’

(Mina Tolu in Non Binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities).

For me, having an LGBTQ+ identity leads to interesting questions when I am in the wild. Do I belong here? Can I see my experiences mirrored in nature? What can the wild tell me about myself and the way I live my life? What can it tell me about human constructions of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and so on?

Sophie. I would love you to tell me more about what you think in relation to these questions?

Sophie:

I would love to start by adding more to what you have said about death. I’ve said before, that I feel like I’ve “died a thousand times”. These haven’t been physical deaths, but deaths and ending of sorts. My experience of death in this way, is when you feel and let everything shatter around yourself, radically let go, in order to do what needs to be done, what you can feel inside is the right thing to do. Even when this is against the dominant culture. Even when this should be a recipe for shame and rejection. Even when this feels like entering an unknown and unforecast existence. 

This might sound dramatic, but I’m not talking about big moves necessarily. I’m talking about small and silent deaths, and more obvious and visible ones. The experience of “stepping out alone” can feel like a death in a world where we mostly try to belong and conform to one extent or another in order to be safe. Now that I use tarot cards and other divination tools, and am keenly aware of my own intuition and spiritual connection, I can understand these deaths and their purpose in that context, in their necessity. Being in and feeling connection to nature and it’s cycles, also normalises this as part of life- in fact, not accepting and being embracing of death and change seems unnatural and counter intuitive when you can witness the cycles, rhythms and movement around you.

The snake that sheds its skin. The creature that transforms from caterpillar to butterfly, with a melted stage in the middle. The cycle of deciduous trees that gradually emerge, are lush and bear flower and fruit, then turn to brown, wither and shed to rot back into the ground. The waves, and movement of the tide, rushing in, rushing out, being high, being low, being still, being in storm. 

A bodily death is inevitable to us all, but there are many other deaths to experience on the course of a life time, and many accompany a path of self-liberation and rewilding when you live in a culture with a violent history of patriarchy, coloniality, disconnected from all that is and instead based on fearful coercive and controlling power over dynamics.

For me, what nature can do for us, and this is coming back to the questions at the end of your last writing, is open up that space for questioning, for difference, for the crack in the door. In nature we can see diversity and difference, we can see changes, cycles, rotting, rebirth. We can see options. We can see all kinds of behaviours and non-verbal expression. We can slow down and find ourselves in the mess of it all. And perhaps from there, we can look back at the rest (our lives, the dominant culture etc), and decide what it is we want to do with that. What do we keep, what has to go. The wild doesn’t tell us what to do or how to live. But it can create the space for us to hear those questions for ourselves, and look around us, and see that there are options. It can potentially still our nervous systems enough, for a little while, to move out of personal coping, defence strategies and survival behaviours, and into something more grounded, free, centred, and connected. Maybe we can actually hear ourselves. And if we can hold onto something of that when we return to ‘life’, we’re in a more powerful place to accept and even initiate change, for ‘death’, for our own liberation, for an ecosystemic experience. 

What is it that you find most difficult to hold on to, when you return from the wild? 

Max:

The wild has everything. When I allow myself the time and space to slow down and pay attention, it is easy to see life and death, gentleness and ferocity, nurture and destructiveness, and everything in between. What I see, most of all, is all beings – animals, plants, mosses, birds, soil, wind, rivers, seas etc – just getting on and doing their thing. They do not seem overly preoccupied with what anyone or anything else is doing. Although they operate as part of an interconnected ecosystem, they do not seem to worry about the bigger picture. They are just living, existing, surviving, thriving, living, dying and so on.

When I am in the wild, I slow down, and I can see myself in this same way. One small being, just doing my thing, doing my best, operating as part of an interconnected ecosystem. Living and dying. Surviving. Thriving. I can feel myself letting go of many everyday preoccupations and allowing myself to still my mind and body. My nervous system calms down. I can hear myself, I can feel my own internal compass, I can become grounded. It is a deeply nurturing and calming experience.

This is where it gets hard, and this is where I come back to your specific question. As I return from these experiences in the wild, whether they have lasted for a day or a week or longer, I can become overwhelmed by noise. I don’t mean the traffic noise and the sounds of human voices. I mean the noise that accompanies the lives of many of us. The noise of emails, of text messages, of people. The noise that is associated with a routine and a job and a family and friendships. The demands that are put on me and that I put on myself. The expectations that I have internalised about what it means to be a good person, a sibling, a child, a colleague, a friend, a lover, a partner and so on. All of that. Do birds and animals do that? Do they feel that pressure? The louder it gets, the harder it is to keep hold of myself. In my view, human beings have developed a way of being and of living that is very complicated. We are socialised to think, feel, and behave in particular ways and it is exhausting. For me, anyway. To try and peel back some of those layers – as you are so good at doing Sophie – is a continual process and it is hard work. In the wild, the caterpillar metamorphosises into a butterfly in the way you have described above, but with humans, this does not feel like a linear process. It is back and forth, one step forward and two steps back, slowly edging towards a more authentic and truer expression of ourselves.

The wild helps me to come back to myself.

Returning from the wild presents a challenge in keeping hold of myself, of being able to hear my soul calling to me.

My question for you, Sophie, runs the risk of anthropomorphising the wild world, but I am going to ask it anyway. Can you see yourself in the wild, and in particular, is there a creature or plant or other being that you feel a particular resonance with?

Sophie:

I loved reading that Max, and I’d love to answer your question! Yes I can see myself in the wild. I think I am the wild and so I can see myself all over the place! I think I see myself, and I also see difference to myself, and actually it’s in those spaces of contrast that I find the wild deeply helpful as it opens a question and a challenge. For example, when I see a fern growing out of a rocky wall, seemingly with no soil or traditional place to grow from, I see myself, my own resilience and ability to grow out of what looks like nothing, almost a mystery to the onlooker to understand: how does she do that? A beautiful mystery that must be being nourished and meeting it’s needs somehow. Then when I see the snail, and how it moves along at its slower pace, tracing this line, slowly along the surface, I think “Wow, I could be like that snail”. I could slow down, let everything fall away, go slow, leave a slippery glistening trail, let myself be led and inspired by that snail. And that helps me learn how I can be with myself in different ways and give myself the things that I need that don’t necessarily come to or occur to me in my usual way of being.

When I see a big strong oak tree, old as hundreds of years, that has been here forever, thick of trunk with deep roots strongly anchored in the earth and strong branches that can with stand any storm, staying strong and true and centred in its treeness, I think: yes, I am an oak tree, strong in the face of it all, an anchor for the eco-system around me, able to withstand the hurly and burly of the elements and time and the human made world, certain and secure. But then, when I see it’s thinner branches, and leaves, waving in the breeze, a sense of swaying and flexibility, a movement, response and softening to the wind and changes around it, it reminds that as well as being strong and anchored and secure, I can be an oak and also find some of that movement, that flexibility, that ‘give’, which ultimately is what helps the tree to endure and truly be strong over time. How both are needed in order to continue.

I guess in the wild I look for sameness and resonance, and difference and therefore opportunity to learn. Where can I see myself and feel connected and affirmed in my own nature and wildness, where can I see difference and potential and opportunity that might otherwise not be in my awareness as an option and possibility to explore, experiment with and potentially grow into.

The creatures in the wild that I am most drawn to are the most quirky and unusual (and perhaps often misunderstood): snails, bats, shrews, rats, woodlice, moles, frogs, sea horses and leafy sea dragons for example. The scrappy creatures that are funny and amazing and different, with special talents and intriguing ways of being. I love marsupials and platypuses in Australia – I have links to Australia and I think since childhood a connection to those animals that has formed some of my experience of wild life. I love them because they’ve survived with their quirks seemingly against the odds, and they strike me as creative and inspiring. I like possums and koalas and echidnas – animals with pouches! I breast-fed and put my babies in a pouch, so it’s no wonder really that I feel an affinity with these creatures. I’m grateful for the animals that remind us all that there’s lots of ways to look and be, so many different definitions of ‘cute’ and ways to exist in the world beyond the traditional, mainstream perspective.

How about you? What do you see of yourself in the wild?

Max:

I am drawn to the wolf. The symbolism of the wolf and the actual wolf. Wolf as the ultimate representation of the wild. Wolf as the domesticated dog gone feral (or is it the other way round?). But do I see myself in the wolf? Am I the wolf? The answer is no.

Much as I would love to see myself in the totem animals, the wolf and the bear and the lynx, the lion and the tiger and the whale, I have accepted that I am not these beings. I am a part of the ecosystem, along with everything else, but I am small. I do my thing in my own way, working hard to survive and thrive, but often I am unseen. When I had this realisation, whilst sleeping on the ground under some towering trees, I initially felt some sadness, but quite quickly this feeling was transformed into relief. As human beings, we are often burdened with a pressure of needing to ‘make an impact’ or ‘change the world’ and I have spent a lot of time worrying about whether my impact was enough, whether I really could change the world. Now, we could debate for hours about what impact I might or might not have had during my time on this earth, but for me, the acceptance that I was only a small being and operated as part of an interconnected system was significant. Pressure off. Ego in check. Focus on the here-and-now rather than the legacy that might be left behind. A tiny being. A blink of an eye. One gust of wind. A worker bee. One garden bird. A single fish. All important, of their own way, but only because every being is important. That is where I see myself.

Having said that, I picture a flock of birds where one is flying slightly differently, a school of fish where one looks as if it is carving out its own route, a cluster of trees in which one is standing apart from the rest. I see myself in non-conformity, in not fitting in. I see myself in beings which are surviving and thriving in unexpected ways. Queer ducks. Gender-bending clown fish. I see myself in the nature stories which are unreported and invisible and must be sought out.  Stories which are hidden within the dominant discourse of male dominance and survival of the fittest. Stories which are deliberately ignored by those who can only see the world through their own patriarchal lens. These beings are out there, in their thousands, and I see myself as one of them. The wild is diverse and if we want to see ourselves in the wild, we can find ourselves in that diversity. We just have to look more closely. We just have to pay attention.

Sophie, you started this piece by citing Mary Oliver, who asks “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Poem: A Summer Day).

In the same poem, she also says:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

And here, Sophie, is my question to you … but one for another day and another piece of writing. What for you, is a prayer?

Answers on a postcard, please.

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