How rarely we experience the truly meaningful; the peak experiences of inspired creativity or altruistic ideals that leave us feeling fulfilled and connected to the rest of life. It is no surprise that rates of clinical depression in Americans are ten times what they were prior to 1950? For many people, the “modern life” is a condition of alienation, loneliness, and unarticulated rage. We put no trespassing signs on our land and then upon our own souls.
The twentieth-century psychologist and philosopher R.D. Laing wrote, “Our behavior is a function of our experience. We act according to the way we see things. If our experience is destroyed, our behavior will be destructive. If our experience is destroyed, we have lost our own selves.”
How and where do we get another story for ourselves? How do we find again that real experience that might restore ourselves? Today, what are the deeds of great men and women?
The story is here in our direct experience of the land. Thankfully, all we need is already at hand if we can only be strong enough, wise enough, to see it under our feet. The deeds of great men and women are the small, daily acts that preserve our human relationship with the rest of life. From the cities to suburbs to small towns, people are re-asserting their need to be connected again, to find more fulfillment in their lives, to restore beauty and to take responsibility.
Looking to the land for our health and meaning is not a nostalgic retreat from the insistent realities of our day. In fact, for most of us, there never has been a golden age when our ancestors lived in perfect ecological health. Most of human life over the last ten thousand years has not been a healthy integration with the land. Looking to the land does not mean going backward, as some would insist, but is the act of going forward differently by taking advantage of the best things our culture has to offer and the best things that the earth has to offer. We are seeking to create a thoroughly new relationship with the land that fully reflects our modern lives. It is the act of confronting life and making real choices about what sustains and what diminishes us.
For some, looking to the land might mean planting a vegetable plot on a city lot. For another it will mean supporting an open space bond referendum in her town. For others, it might mean spending more time with their families hiking and camping. And for someone else, looking to the land might be a quiet act of civil disobedience: simply saying “not me” to the culture that wants us to work, to buy, to conform. Looking to the land is going forward to that new future where we know where our food comes from, where we each take responsibility for creating more health in the world, where we re-assert that our character and our joy come from our relationships to the people and creatures around us. Looking to the land, no matter where one lives, is the personal act of returning to the values that the land has always taught: resilience, continuity, reliability, honesty, patience, tolerance, diversity, awe, connectivity, beauty, and love. Living by those values brings us back to the land, no matter where we live. Returning to them is our challenge, from our hearts and our bodies, to what this world would otherwise have us be.
Losing our connections to the land is not an “environmental” issue. It is first and foremost a human issue. We lose not just our respect for wild creatures; we lose the very wildness that is inside of us. We untether ourselves from the world of life, and we forget just how small an animal we really are. We sacrifice that part of ourselves that is rooted deeply in humility, fairness, and respect. Theologian Thomas Berry writes, “the forest can only become so many board feet of lumber when a certain part of the human mind goes dead. Humans couldn’t kill the forest unless there was something already dead in the human intelligence, the human sensitivity, the human emotions. It’s a killing of an inner experience.”
The inner experience is our wildness. It is our ability to be truly self-willed, allowing the forces of a more-than-human world to shape the highest aspirations for our humanity. It is our ability to lead a unique life driven by our sense of compassion and fairness, our desire to belong, and our knowledge of being part of a story more important than ourselves. Our wildness is our ability to make moral decisions in an immoral world. Our wildness is our capacity to think and act in terms of relationship, kinship, and equity. Our wildness is our originality, our diversity, and our sensuality.
And our wildness is buried deep within us, buried deep in our language. Going back to our words helps us to see that we all once knew these truths. For example, to remember is to “connect physically with a place.” To educate is “to be present.” To respect is “to look again.” To seduce is “to lead away.” And apocalypse is the act of lifting a veil, to see the world as it truly is.
The extinction of this full range of human experience has led the acclaimed Canadian writer and naturalist, John Livingston, to suggest that human beings have become domesticated “with no sense of ecological or interspecies social place,” akin to our cats, our dogs, our cows and sheep.
In many ways, we are increasingly domesticated, featureless, and homogenized. And this happened to us because we first did it to the land. Our growing disconnection from the land means far more than the loss of the beautiful places and ways of life that we are unable or unwilling to carry with us. It means more than the arrogance of our humanism. It is a death by alienation.
Is this evolution or is this extinction?