Christian would love this...
Following on from walking in Lewes, with naturalist Steve Homewood (who learnt how to interact with Nature from his grandad, who'd lived in the Congo jungle with pygmies for nearly three years - it's a great story), I started to see animals in a different light. Steve had told me (succinctly):
‘Noise shouldn’t come from you, it should come to you.’
‘Don’t just hear things… really listen.'
‘Don’t just look at things… see them and understand what’s going on.’
This was really immersing yourself in Nature's activities - using your senses to work out what was going on. Animals were something to study. To lose yourself in their world.
A few days later I go on a walk with School of the Wild (an 'experimental nature school' based in Brighton) to connect with Nature, again, but with a different focus. The workshop, 'Becoming Animal', is led by Alistair Duncan who (the blurb says) has a 'keen interest in our psychological and sensory connection to the land'. His aim is to get our group to "drop out of neo-cortex thinking and reconnect with what the body does instinctively" - in short, tapping into what our mammalian body is capable of sensing. We would be experiencing this in woodland within Stanmer Park, just outside of Brighton (pictures below show our progress from the village of Stanmer to the woodland).
So, rather than observing an animal as a naturalist would, I was to become an animal. "Why do you want to do that?" asked my husband, who was to be on child-wrangling duty while I went and played in the woods. Well, I'd been given a book by my dad - Being A Beast by Charles Foster - and it was intriguing. In the 'Earth' section (woods), Charles takes his 8-yr old son, Tom, off into the Welsh woods on a hill-side to 'become' a badger for the summer. They live in an underground sett, adapt their body clocks to nocturnal snufflings, eat earthworms ('tastes of slime and the land'), crawl along tracks in the woods and doze in the sunshine.
We obviously weren't going to those extremes in the three/four hours allotted to 'Becoming Animal', but I wanted to see what I'd experience.
As we enter the woodland, Alistair reminds us that we are now walking into an existing community, a home: we should ‘dial down’ to connect into that environment and be aware of the sacredness of the magical woodland - be at one with it.
This sets the mood nicely, as the group stops chattering and we take time to look about us and open up our senses to the existence of life outside of us. Walking through a grove of sycamores (see below), you can hear them whisper gently.
Now ‘dialled down’, we can start on the process of becoming more ‘sense-aware’ which involves moving, seeing and hearing in a more instinctive way. Once settled into the beech woods (see below), Alistair takes us through some visualisation and breathing exercises to bring us to a ‘basal state’ to ground us, reducing our stress/emotions (I won’t reveal everything - go on the workshop!). At this point, my head feels very light, spaced-out, while my body is heavy and rooted to the damp, beech-tree mulch beneath our feet.
Then come the ‘tuning in’ exercises:
So, off we go, newly 'sense-aware' and following our instincts. We explore for ten minutes. Personally, it is a strange experience as I begin to feel like a fox - I know, a label - but moving so slowly I feel stealthy. I can feel the undulations in the ground, become aware of the shadows in the dappled wood, become startled by sudden bird sounds and bike riders crashing through on the cycle track, can feel the wind direction and see the wind moving through the connected trees. I am one with the environment in a way I’ve never experienced. When Alistair blows the cow-horn ‘bugle’ for us to regroup, it breaks the revere and I laugh at its incongruity.
I suddenly feel tired - in fact, many of us start to yawn. I suppose we are using ‘muscles’ in our brains so under-used that they are exhausted.
As we have tea, brewed from ground ivy (see left) which Nigel Berman (the ‘curator’ of natural workshops/founder of 'School of the Wild') picked en-route, talk turns to the writings of cultural ecologist/ecopsychologist David Abram. David’s books, The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, had blown Alistair’s mind when he was trapped in the corporate world and their insights propelled him to seek voluntary redundancy and explore the human bond with Nature. The books are now on my reading to-do list.
The next stage of the workshop moves us to a clearing in the woods where Alistair constructed a circle of logs a few years ago. Here he tells us of the final part of our animal experience - being blindfolded. With Nigel as my ‘guardian angel’, to ensure I don't fall down a hole or get knocked over by cyclists, I am given ten minutes to experience moving in the wood without sight. My goodness. You slow down. You become aware of warmth from the sun. You notice the sloping ground. You can ‘feel’ the presence of a tree in front of your body. The smells. I even begin to ‘see’ the wood on the inside of my black felt blindfold. When I come to a barrier on the ground, my instinct is to drop down and feel what is there. I take up a handful of leaves, or a snatch of moss, to smell (see below). Inhaling the damp earthiness of my surroundings. It is an incredible experience.
(Alistair pictured below, in background, with a blindfolded me. Nigel's image.)
Being ‘guardian angel’ to blind-folded Nigel is interesting purely because he’s never been able to take part in this exercise because he's usually ‘in charge’. The way he manoeuvres his way through the obstacles of tree trunks, branches and rotting logs is a joy to watch.
The final exercise sees us all ‘dumped’, still blind-folded, at a distance from Alistair and as he plays tunes intermittently on a tin whistle we have to navigate our way to him. With this focus, the senses become attuned to noise, much like an animal hunting moving prey - the peaceful exploratory movement of earlier is replaced by sharpened reflexes. It sets me on edge, back to the stealth mode I experienced during the initial exercise.
On the walk back down to Stanmer village, the sun warms us after the chill of the wood and chatter breaks out among the group. We are back to our reality. But 'Becoming Animal’ certainly opens a door in my brain and driving home I keep the radio switched off and use my peripheral vision to check the wing mirrors - I’m going to keep experimenting with my newly-unearthed animal senses.
Nurtured by Nature: Connect / Explore / Flourish / Disperse.