This is my story of becoming an apprentice to a living landscape. I moved from Mexico City to northern California earlier this year, and have been experimenting daily with new ways to converse with, to experience and be experienced, by non-human forms of life. It’s been a journey into an ecology of mind — a tale where the human psyche and imagination blossom and branch through entanglements with a planetary intelligence.
I am fascinated by the ways that human psychology meets and is formed by landscape. As such, this story is the first part of a series that explores how our synapses pattern through relation and reverence, and the remarkable necessity for human culture to co-evolve with an animate, beyond-human world.
My personal story follows this brief introduction that lays the ground for what’s to come. It’s part eco-philosophy, part poetry, part manifesto for all the human stories that emerge from wild wisdom.
“We won’t get any story worth hearing until we witness a culture broken open by its own consequence.”
These words, by the great mythologist and storyteller Martin Shaw, engraved themselves in my memory since the first time I laid eyes on them. I knew them to be a compass that pointed toward something essential. Something I needed to learn. They fluttered like the tufted titmouse songbirds I admire every sunrise on my balcony, catching me off guard, indicating a new way of contemplating something precious, a note of original trenchant song in an ocean of static sound.
Something is happening these days. We are witnessing, locked down at home, drawn to the ingeniously orchestrated flicker of our screens, a culture and a worldview quivering at the seams, our kitsungi unable to hold gold for much longer. I won’t speak here to the many interpretations of what a virus is showing us or acting on behalf of.
I will instead wonder: How does a culture break open? How does it surrender itself to all the stories that already exist painted across the land and within our cells? I care about breaking a culture open because I want to participate in stories that are worth hearing. A story worth getting up every day to tell, joining in the chorus with all the waking delighting things of the world.
Today everyone seems to have an opinion about the emergence of “humanity’s new story”. Often taking place in well-meaning conversations, I find myself frustrated by the tendency to focus on human-centric narratives — devised by humans, through human ingenuity, to save humans, with us at the centre of the tale yet again.
However, when I picture a new human story, and that of a culture broken open, images of all non-human things flood in to my mind. Wildness breaks in. I see all the creatures and beings of the world making their way through broken shells and our tatters marching right into the human story, bringing us long forgotten expressions of life as ancient as the stars. Not new stories, but very, very, very old ones.
Is this what Martin Shaw could have meant? A human culture shattering, broken open by the consequence of climate breakdown, giving way to the necessary and ever-present entanglements with the beyond-human world? Of an impoverished human spirit that will no longer ignore the world that it inhabits?
Our human ecology of mind, our neuronal patterning, our intelligences and imagination, all emerged from an inherent and inescapable interconnection with planetary ecology of mind. Forgetful of this co-evolution, numbed to our actual co-dependence, we live in a world made by humans for humans with the lives of non-humans as simple base materials. Inputs. Resources on a balance sheet. Of instrumental use. And yet — we never left this vast intelligence. We are still living in it, within a planetary community of life, even if our artifices intend us to forget.
The human psyche unfolded over millennia, developing, germinating, intertwining within a larger planetary psyche, a planetary Gaian intelligence, that was the compass and map we drew upon for survival, the tinder wood for our fires and dew on our lips. Our Homo sapien brains, our neuronal pathways, jolted and fused and tenderly sprouted new branches every time our eyes scanned the complexity of a living world, trying to make sense of its miraculous expressions, our bodies learning how to live by sensing the minutest details of topographies, foraging, tracking, hunting. Worshiping. We were nomadic, and as we moved through landscape, we became landscape and landscape became us.
What does the Sixth Mass Extinction, the robotization and outsourcing of our senses and the destruction of the last primeval forests portend for the psyche of generations to come?
If the richness of human imagination is dependent on and emerges from the richness of a biodiverse landscape, then the disappearance of that landscape is a loss of all the ways we can read and understand ourselves and all of life through it.
The stories are being lost too. And stories matter. Stories build and destroy civilizations. They are the dark matter that fills the space between what we believe and what we do; the grey matter that branches in our psyche and leads us towards both great beauty and great insanity.
Yet — our stories, our mythos, our language, our creations, our dreams, are not uniquely ours. They did not originate in human thought separate from nature. Going a step further, I will say that our stories are those of the Earth dreaming us, and storying through us.
We need to seriously consider what will happen to our psychological health when we can’t inhabit and learn from an ecosystem in health. When we lose whatever wild wisdom and animal memory we have left. No virtual world can ever replace the mystery, let alone the embodied feeling in our nervous systems and brains, of what happens as we co-evolve with landscape.
The Hopi word for the wild, tumqua, means “hard to approach, hard to get hold of”. The wild requires of us to engage in earnest, as apprentices, humbled, empty bundles to be filled with curiosity. It is slippery, devious, mischievous, unforgiving, prolific, sentient, and indeed, initially hard to approach. We have to earn our keep.
Pretty words, sure, but what was I doing about it?
Consumed by a desire to come into direct relation with what I knew to be true, and, in all honesty, getting weary of my own hypocrisy, I moved home to live as close to wild land as possible. I have been living into self-experimentation, learning from a direct relationship with my immediate ecosystem, becoming an apprentice to living beings. Praying for them to claim me, to dream through me. For their consanguinity to seep through my synapses, rehydrating desiccated rivers, waking up my dormant psyche.
This first chapter is the beginning of that story, a few months in.
My barn having burned to the ground
I can now see the moon
– Mizuta Mazahide
Spring. The sky takes a long-awaited exhale. Deep within the earth, parched and crumbling pockets of air soak up thick raindrops like a sponge. Bacterial communities hum in delight, giddy with hydration. Ripples form on the creek and grow into roving bubbles, exploratory entities snuffed out when the next fat plump tells them it’s their time to go.
I inhale the landscape. A sprig of roadside rosemary rolls oily between my thumb and forefinger, satin eloquence, whiffs of sticky sweet sagebrush lingering in my nostrils, the nibbled freshness of hierba buena leaves between my teeth. I pass a bay tree on my right but keep going, saving the papery firmness of its leaves to be crumpled into pungent halves and quarters upon my return, ready for tonight’s soup. Quivering grasses. Clumps of ladybugs thick like fists. White-starred flowers leap from Indian lettuces like dancers by my feet, nature’s stop motion art whirling out of green saucers. Further up the hill, modest lilac bonnets of wild peas cunningly distract from the plant’s creeping vines as it works itself foxy and unseen up the forest’s stalks and stems, fixing nitrogen, sewing an ecosystem.
The landscape inhales me. A prolonged in-breath, months wide, each dawn a new trail, each crepuscular wandering a new seeing. Beings unfold. They tug at my hair while I gaze down transfixed at pygmy forests of clover, wild lily and parsley. I let them in. Branded upon my left thumb, a rite of passage — the faint trace of poison oak.
I learn their names as they learn mine, stepping forward one by one, invisible just a few hours before on the very same path, as if I was to understand that this is how they choose to be seen, prudent, watchful, coquettish. I feel unequipped, bumbling, awkward, ignorant. I yearn for a training I never had. An initiation that didn’t exist in my modern Swiss upbringing. An earth wisdom incomparable to acceleration and dissection.
I greet and sketch and taste and more than anything — I slow down. I listen. I pay my respects, sitting in mute conversation, knowing this land as a moving edible landscape of medicinal percipience, a woody family, a teeming ocean of sensitivity, a glint of silver sun among cadmium clouds. I purr quiet prayers among sunset groves, fumbling for words, surprised by the sudden burst of something distinctly sylvan pouring from my tongue.
Spring. A pallet of every conceivable color flourishes on the tip of nature’s brush. Humans call them wildflowers. They have hundreds of secret languages. Giant trilliums conversing in mottled cuneiform characters, mysterious hieroglyphs daubed mauve on thick leaves; morning glories announce the day in soft trumpets, while beside them, fiercely blazing Indian paintbrushes stand in companies, readying for the day ahead, their claret petals warmed with the new wine of the year.
In ravines, the dazzling poppies that graced California with the nickname Land of Fire drink sunshine from golden cups. Lupine hearkens to her namesake, her purple wolf claws scraping at the sky. The absurdly named white ramping fury, its petals like black tipped worms, chatters with ingenious Hendersoni shooting stars, both proud of their sultry forms, somewhere caught between maroon dart and birds of paradise.
My imagination blossoms with the discovery of every new being; every new relation enriches what it means to be human.
The stories flood in.
A million budding questions linger on my lips. Why only half the maple tree is covered with feathery moss. How a soft twig managed to perfectly pierce the center a leaf held aloft in the air. How a vine curled itself impossibly around a huckleberry tree and the tree absorbed it like an amorous lover. How the tiny mohawked titmice that live in the apple tree on my porch get the courage to defend their turf so fiercely, every morning attacking the gigantic, muscly squirrels that come for its food supply. I grin, giving new meaning to the term pecking order. I am aware of giving human characteristics to distinctly non-human beings, and wonder where this may be permitted. Dazzling irises in purple speckled gowns watch all this ruckus unfurl with quiet stately charm, holding a sylvan court on the forest floor.
Every element of the landscape begins to weave into my own story of coming to place. I feel my senses and animal nature expanding. Crow, woodpecker, honeybee, coyote, newt, granite, acorn, fire, alabaster glow, sagebrush and my own salty tears. All have their place here in this ecology of nature’s psyche.
I begin to understand what it really could mean to become an intelligence of the world, an extension of a living landscape, my synapses and soul patterning through relation and reverence.
WRITTEN BY: Alexa Firmenich
Co-Founder of Atlas Unbound // Journeys into the Wild, Systems Thinking & Regeneration, Weaving Stories and Paradigms // www.alexafirmenich.com