Justine Huxley digests the experience of a recent retreat and reflects on the revolution of understanding in plant and animal consciousness, asking where it might lead humanity.
“I’m done with sustainability. What’s needed is a mad, passionate love affair with Earth!” These were the words with which indigenous elder, Pat McCabe, started our recent retreat, ‘Communion with the Wild’. They echo inside me, as I prepare the garden for the sky rocketing temperatures expected today, filling up the bird bath and the foxes’ water bowls, scattering mealworm for the blackbirds who are foraging on the dried up lawn with increasing desperation. My heart still reverberates with gratitude for our time together in France – for the wonder of being with land that has been cared for with awareness of its sacred essence. And for the joy of being together with friends from all around the world for whom that love affair is truly alive.
Born from a desire to share the wisdom of elders such as Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Sicelo Mbatha and Jaqueline Freeman who have been so transformational in our own journeys, the retreat opened with a focus on connecting with land and landscape; and travelled through the plant kingdom; the insect and invertebrate world; bird and animal nations and lastly the whole web of life including the stars.
The hidden gem of La Jarrie, a beautiful corner of Earth in Normandy – and the love and devotion that has been poured into it – was what made this retreat possible, offering a new dreaming of this path to communion. There are meadows, paddocks, orchards, woods, and wetlands bordering a fast-flowing river. The stewards of this mini-Eden have grown a permaculture garden bursting with luscious vegetables – chard, squash, beans, juicy cucumbers, and the first baby aubergines, just visible like purple jewels hiding behind broad green leaves. Aside from this, they have interfered very little – just walking with love, listening, letting nature do what humans call ‘rewilding’ – in other words just giving her space to be herself, refraining from imposing an agenda, from colonising as humans have done for so long. As a result, everything is thriving and there are many non-human beings to come into relationship with. Birds and insects are abundant. The delicate blonde grasses, stirring continuously in the breeze, are home to multitudes of grasshoppers and crickets. Butterflies chase each other through the gardens, while a community of honeybees acclimatise to their newly built hive and surroundings. The dawn chorus is loud and glorious, and the nights are alive with the calls of owls, the swooping of playful bats and a million stars.
Pat McCabe tasks the group with learning about Owl Nation and tuning in to their qualities. Auspiciously, the day before we arrive, a Little Owl makes her presence known, and returns every day in the hours before dusk, occupying her position atop the barn roof, watchful and still. Shy deer make delicate pathways through the forest. Mythical wild boar remain steadfastly invisible, their presence detected only through distant rustlings and the black spoor they leave behind. There are coypu digging tunnels into the banks of the river, friends with kingfishers and the stunning black and turquoise damselflies who dart and hover. The river is a powerful presence, with many faces and moods. One day sleek and peaceful, a ribbon of green light moving slowly between shady trees. On other days, in other seasons, swollen and fast moving, a churning race of white water daring you to enter her and survive to tell the tale.
There are also animals who live closer to people. Three characterful pigs who trot after you, ears flapping, noses snuffling up against you hopefully enquiring about the possibility of kitchen scraps. Their eyes teach the medicine of friendliness. Three donkeys, rescued on route to the abattoir, stand together under the apple trees. They silently teach the medicine of harmony – how to simply be. Hang out with them for a while and their gentle energy will empty your mind of thoughts and show you how little you need to be content. Then there is Rex, the happiest dog alive. Rescued from a high rise flat where he was muzzled all day, Rex arrived at La Jarrie and decided he’d won the lottery. He will teach you the medicine of joy. That every single thing – from splashing noisily into the river to curling up next to a canine friend and rival in matching dog beds – is quite simply The Best Thing Ever.
This was the natural wealth our mentors could work with. Jaqueline Freeman, author of Song of Increase, drew us into the intricate and sophisticated world of honeybee consciousness. Her teachings, partly transmitted by the bees themselves, shine like prophecy, far ahead of their time. This is knowledge that may only be fully understood in an alternative civilisation a hundred years hence. Charlotte du Cann, author of 52 Flowers that Shook My World, guided us through a trio of powerful practices designed to connect us to plant consciousness. As people dispersed to lie beneath rose bushes dripping with pink blooms, dialogue with festivals of purple clover, and climb down rocky banks to converse with white and yellow yarrow – a sweet silence fell. Everyone was immersed in their own world of deep listening and tender communion. Sicelo Mbatha, a wilderness guide with a compelling sense of instinct and intuition, shared how his best friend had been eaten by a crocodile in front of his eyes, and how after years of grief and trauma, reconciling with the crocodile community had transformed these terrifying beasts into his protectors. When asked what keeps him safe in the wild he said, “It’s walking in peace and connection with all animals and plants. I am as fragile as a butterfly. I can so easily become prey. But peace is more powerful than firearms. Cleanse your heart with peaceful energy, humble yourself, and then magic will happen.”
On summer solstice night, following an ancient Celtic tradition, we harvested clay from the riverbed, kneaded it together with ashes from the solstice fire, fashioned the mud into amulets decorated with seeds and grasses, baked them in the sun and then placed them like magic stones in between the flowering shrubs we planted together for the pollinators, as a charm for future abundance. We talked to the stars, and because to love nature in the time of the Great Dying means to be daily acquainted with grief, we built a cairn of rocks under an oak tree as a ritual to honour the hundred thousand species being lost to extinction every year. As we huddled together, tears rolling down our cheeks, the Earth met our grief with a sudden blast of driving wind and rain.
For seven short days, we tasted a different way to be – in community with each other and in kinship with every element of the natural world. We saw how quickly and how generously Earth responds when we offer our full attention, honouring Her sentience, Her many voices. How She becomes a felt presence, showing up when we show up, whispering secrets when we listen. Despite the millennia of human abuse, despite the precipice of destruction we stand upon, She still comes – like a distant hum that you don’t notice until you grow quiet and cease your busyness, a song that reminds us of what used to be and maybe still can be again.
In the words of Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, “We may have clear-cut many of the ancient forests, poisoned the meadows where birds and wildflowers flourished, but the patterns of kinship remain in our DNA, our ancestral memories. We never really became separate from the earth under our feet, whatever we may have been taught. And so this way of thinking and being is still present, like the pathway we need to rediscover.”
We are, as Robin Wall Kimmerer names, “in the midst of a revolution” as science begins to document the wealth of intelligence and communication that exists in the animal and plant kingdoms. YouTube is also a treasure trove of moments captured by ordinary people which illustrate for the whole world the complex emotional lives of animals, their ability to ‘talk’, ask for help, experience love, grieve for losses, and form friendships across species. Millions of stories shatter the insanely limited view of animal consciousness propagated by the colonial agenda. Whether it’s the Raven Diaries demonstrating how ravens love to play tricks, the pregnant woman who swam with a pod of dolphins ‘singing’ to her unborn child, the duck that pulls the trouser leg of a passerby until he spots the grate her ducklings have fallen through, the sheep who adopts an orphaned rhino, the octopus that speaks his gratitude by laying a single expressive tentacle across the foot of the human who saved her, the dog that takes himself to the park and back on the bus, unaccompanied, or the cows that surround a farmer threatened by an aggressive bull and escort him to the gate unharmed. Digital technology has liberated a global outpouring of storytelling around animals’ relational capacity that ought to be enough to change everything overnight. Together with the explosion of new scientific evidence soon society will have no choice but to recognise the personhood and rights of all creatures. Could you slaughter a cow that had saved your life? Imprison a bird who’d shown you his sense of humour?
For me, learning more subtle forms of animal communication from great masters like Anna Braytenbach, was revelatory. I remember walking around, my mind blown to pieces, saying to myself over and over things like: “I just had a conversation with a spider! An actual conversation!!!! With an actual spider!” It took the best part of three years to integrate the ever-expanding epiphany that this universe is infinitely more magical than I’d thought. Like the person brought up to be an atheist, conditioned to think there is no such thing as an afterlife who is then visited by a relative from the other side. After the shock has worn off…do you pretend it didn’t happen? Do you relegate it to the box in your brain marked ‘Unexplainable Things’? Or do you have the courage to replace everything you believed with an entirely new worldview – and then have the integrity to live by what you now know is true?
In this time of global division where the barriers between us seem to be growing, what would happen if our collective understanding of the natural world was to metamorphose in this fashion? If we were to really get it – that what we call ‘family’ is so much vaster and more glorious than we thought? If we were to recognise and welcome the many different forms of more-than-human intelligence around us and know that every being has their place and their role in the great web of life? Not just their function in the ecosystem but their archetypal essence. Could we co-dream our future? Could we knit together the human and the more than human worlds in an entirely new way? What would that be like, really? Would we tumble into such deep belonging that the word ‘lonely’ would fall out of the dictionary from disuse? Perhaps such an expansion of relationship could also become a portal into peace, helping us own our fundamental need for connection. We wouldn’t be able to buy the jacket with the arctic fox fur collar – or the T-shirt made by child labour. We might even welcome the refugees arriving on our shores as we honour the first swallow – another species making a vast migration in order to feed themselves, part of the never-ending movement and pattern of a dynamic living planet.
As we in Europe have our first foretaste of the Great Scorching to come, we sense how much more will be lost. I’m reminded of the 1980s film, The Deer Hunter. A steel worker from Pennsylvania shoots deer with his friends as a weekend hobby. Returning from Vietnam, where he experienced unspeakable trauma, he finds he can no longer kill the stag and lowers his gun. As a teenager, it seemed crazy to me that he had to go through so much horror to learn something so simple. Now, with increasing age and many failures behind me, I know that’s what us humans are like. We are slow learners. And so collectively as we enter into an era of profound suffering, perhaps only this can teach us the sanctity of life. When we gather around a loved one who faces death, there is a grace that comes in the eleventh hour, healing the whole family system. Perhaps there will be grace here too, making suffering a gateway to our salvation.
It’s five thirty a.m., and I’m lying on the baked ground in the woods on top of the hill, and this is what’s in my heart. We’re here early because by seven it will already be too hot for my shaggy-coated friend who risks heat stroke or burnt paws from the melting pavements. We are both looking up through the leaves of the maple trees at the azure sky patterned with wispy, high altitude clouds. It’s so easy to flip between modes of seeing – one moment my mind is just absently wandering in consensus reality, the next I’m suddenly present with the sentience of the non-human beings around me, the stones, the trees, the hum of insects, the clouds and the pale moon still visible in the sky. I feel them acknowledge me in return and all creation dancing with a subtly different dimension of aliveness.
Shakespeare said, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”.
And who would not want to live in a world where everything was kin?
Acknowledgements: With deep gratitude to Sharon Brittain and Gordon Sherret the generous and amazing stewards of La Jarrie Farm in Normandy and co-hosts of the Communion with the Wild retreat. A respectful bow to our mentors, Pat McCabe Woman Stands Shining; Jaqueline Freeman; Charlotte du Cann; Sicelo Mbatha; Bridget Pitt and Tiokasin Ghosthorse. A huge thank you to Lisa Woods for all her hard work and to Urike Pahl for her beautiful contribution. Thanks also to St Ethelburga’s Centre and Ioannis Papapanagioutou. Lastly, much gratitude also to Sandra White and John Duncan for making it possible for me to travel.
Dr Justine Huxley: Formerly CEO, Justine was responsible for guiding St Ethelburga’s strategy and mission to sit at the intersection bewteen climate and peace. Justine is now Senior Consultant, seeking new partnerships and opportunities to collaborate. Her twin passions are building inner/community resilience for climate breakdown, and working with others to help humanity awaken to a new understanding of kinship with all life. She has a Ph.D in psychology and a diploma in integrative counselling. Her first book, Generation Y, Spirituality and Social Change is a reflection of seven years of work with the younger generation. You can read more about her resilience work here: Lighthouse in a Storm. If you’re interested in bringing eithe resilience or kinship with all life to your community they can easily be successfully adapted for different contexts. Learn more. firstname.lastname@example.org
Formerly CEO for eight years, Justine has been responsible for guiding St Ethelburga’s strategy and mission to sit at the intersection between climate and peace. Justine is now Senior Consultant, seeking new partnerships and opportunities to collaborate. She leads on the programme Lighthouse in a Storm, and continues to innovate new projects in resilience and spiritual ecology. Her twin passions are building inner/community resilience for climate breakdown, and how humanity can awaken to a new understanding of kinship with all life. She has a Ph.D in psychology and a diploma in integrative counselling. Her first book, Generation Y, Spirituality and Social Change is a reflection of seven years of work with the younger generation at St Ethelburga’s.