‘Deep Ecology’ in the Himalayan regions: Guidelines and Reflections on ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ Forests

mussourie forest

‘the branches of your intelligence grow new leaves in the wind of this listening…’ Rumi (‘Mathnavi’)

‘Through deep experience, deep questioning, and deep commitment emerges deep ecology’… Arne Naess

‘If one is keen in their balance, they will that what they speak and do is what they create’… Cloud Spencer Eaglebear

Deep Ecology in the Himalayas:

In a world that seems to be rapidly escalating in environmental crisis and life-threatening pandemics, it seems vital to offer some positive and alternative approaches that can be of tangible help – no matter where we live in the world. We may not all be able to act directly on the larger global and macro levels but we can initiate changes in our own lives, no matter how simple.

Even in the midst of  urban chaos,  it can just be about reconnecting with nature and attuning to the beauty and wonder still all around us.  When we allow ourselves this connection, we  have a chance to feel and  to re-experience who we really are at the core – an integral part of a magnificent web of life. This natural world still beckons and calls us despite all our self-destruction and bids us heal by returning to balance.

While there may seem to be far more urgent and ‘practical’ concerns that pull and compel us away from our deeper core and the natural essence of our life-existence, the simple truth is that by creating the stillness and space of nature, we find not only the strength and will to live but also to feel the joy of being truly alive. Recovering this authentic connection to nature and ourselves, we could then engage with the complex challenges of our world in ways that come, individually as persons,  or as part of larger communities.

Not Easy To Access Wilderness:

However, accessing natural places of pure wilderness, forests, seas, and mountains, may not always be easy or possible. We seem to have become locked into our urban realities without any release on the horizon.

As I write this page – a few years hence  in mid 2020 – we are indeed in the midst of a severe environmental crisis and a pandemic that has taken  thousands upon thousands of lives across the world. Beyond our urban disasters, forests and natural places are under dire strain from destruction and wildlife threatened to extinction. It would be an understatement of the hour to say that our own destiny, as humans, is at a crisis-point and has proven to be in fact interlaced and connected with our fellow species on the planet. It is in fact now a matter of our survival to learn the terrible lessons from the ‘pandemic’ and take care of our planet. The future has knocked on our doors and compels us to listen.

In this grave moment, it seems vital to offer alternative perspectives on the ‘pandemic’ and ‘climate change’ crises than those prevalent in popular media. One such approach is of ‘Deep Ecology’ – a distinct bio-philosophical approach to ecology  which expresses the need for a paradigm shift world-wide and a renewal of what indigenous peoples across the planet have maintained all along – humans are, and always will be, an integral part of a much larger web of life that sustains each species equally across borders, nations, continents, oceans, and natural spaces. This larger ecosphere we inhabit has a life of its own, a sovereignty, and power, which needs to be acknowledged and grasped experientially.

Origins of ‘Deep Ecology’ in Settler United States:

Aldo Leopold and a dying wolf:

Fierce Green Fire

To engage with Deep Ecology, it is perhaps meaningful to recount how Arne Naess came to formulate his own understandings of the natural world and its connection to human societies. In his early readings in the bitter-cold mountains of wild Norway,  Naess came across a book by Aldo Leopold, a wildlife manager in western United States in the 1920’s titled ‘A Sandy County Almanac’.

Life Transforming Encounter:

In this book, Leopold recounts a life-transforming moment when he could see through to the genuine power and magnificence of the natural world. When he came to grasp in all his senses how alive an eco-system can be and what power it can exert. He was on a mission to exterminate wolves across the northwestern United States, a mission sanctioned by the federal government. In the company of hunters, he was tracking a pack of wolves when he saw an old wolf by a lake in the shadow of a mountain and shot her dead. Looking into her dying eyes, he was astonished to see a power that seemed in synchrony with everything around it – the lake, its fish, the trees, and the majestic mountain overlooking.

‘Thinking Like a Mountain:

He writes in a chapter entitled Thinking Like a Mountain that: “there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

The question is: what could Leopold have seen in the eyes of the dying wolf that gave him certitude of a knowledge greater and more compelling than the rationale of hunters? How could a mountain disagree or agree with anything? One can see that Leopold experienced an understanding that went beyond the limited goals of his companion hunters – meat for human consumption.

Wilderness and Wildlife – Not for Consumption: Living Value

He saw living value and presence – a magnificence that could not be rendered as utilitarian purpose. He saw that an entire eco-system lives in each being and its wholeness can neither be broken or fragmented by a hunter’s bullet. In that moment, he had become one with the entire eco-system and entered into it. This was a presence that had its own life, its own pathway, its own working quite distinct from any projection of inertness from mechanist material perspectives.

After this pivotal event, Leopold went on to formulate a new way of looking at the natural world. He writes: ” humans are plain members of a biotic community” adding that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Naess could see that such spontaneous moments of awareness and recognition come from a far deeper place than one is accustomed to. Rather than discrete thoughts, an experience such as above is more like a gestalt, a pattern, a web, and an eruption that – in a moment – dissolves the structures of conditioned responses and illuminates. In a flash of recognition, one grasps the deeper interconnectedness of all seeming ‘things’ – objects can be seen, as it were, constellations or crystallizations  in a vibrating web of relationships.

When such an experience happens – and it can’t be predicted – one can understand or grasp a wider sense of ‘self’ or beingness. It is charged or saturated with life-energy and can be profoundly real. In ancient Indian wisdom traditions, such a breakthrough with full feeling and sense of meaning is how genuine knowledge arises and philosophical systems are not cerebral exercises in abstract logic but direct experiences. Through such understandings, when they arise, a sense of connection is perceptible and empathy awakens. It is in fact, according to Naess, the real significance of Gandhi’s  approach to nonviolence. Our well being is the well being of the natural world and the web of life we are a part of.

For Naess, each living being, microbe to human is in a trajectory of expansion and when one can see that we are fellow-travellers rather than ‘owners’ of the planet, respect for the environment becomes easier. Our sense of identity expands as intersubjectivity.

With this brief introduction, one can engage with Deep Ecology in a way that could take us home to ourselves.

Smith, Mick (2014). “Deep Ecology: What is Said and (to be) Done?”The Trumpeter30 (2): 141–156.

Drengson, Alan; Devall, Bill; Schroll, Mark A. (2011). “The Deep Ecology Movement: Origins, Development, and Future Prospects (Toward a Transpersonal Ecosophy)”. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies30 (1–2): 101–117.

Arne Naess and ‘Deep Ecology’

Arne Naess

Arne Naess (1912-2009) was an environmentalist and philosopher who coined the phrase ‘Deep Ecology’ in early 1970’s. Deep Ecology is a set of views on the natural world that distinguishes itself from most popular environmentalist thinkings – its cardinal principle is that ‘nature’ is not to be viewed as at service of humans, ‘secondary’, or for manipulation – it has its own sovereignty and autonomy that needs to be maintained. This is so for the well-being of all beings – humans included.

In 1972 at a conference in Bucharest, Naess outlined his understanding of how cultures world-wide had understood relationships to natural environments differently from each other. Contemporary environmentalist movements in the US were then largely influenced by Rachel Carson and tended more towards a ‘palliative’ approach to human interference in the natural world. This included methods of ‘recycling’, minimising effects of industry, etc. Naess saw the value of these but went further. He outlined views from cultures like ancient Indian with Jain and Buddhist traditions as well as from Vedic times. He also presented views from indigeneous cultures worldwide including native American and Polynesian. The threads running through these indicated a ‘deeper’ paradigm – of unconditional sovereignty of the natural world and value.

This implied a ‘shift’ in our assumptions and unconscious patterns of conduct. It was a critique of values and methods of the industrial economy. The long-range deep approach, according to Naess, involves redesigning our whole systems based on values and methods that truly preserve the ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems. One just can’t go on exploiting the natural world with simplistic palliative approaches. Rather, a deeper transformation is needed in value-systems and ways of life. Without it, we will destroy the diversity and beauty of the world and its ability to support human cultures.

Respect for Bio-Diversity, Multi-Ethnicity, Cross-culturalism:

Inherent in Naess’s critique of industrial societies, is a recognition of the value of bio-diversity and multi-ethnicities across cultures and spaces. The richer natural eco-systems become through cycles of ‘succession’ and interplay, the greater the quality of human lives as well which also thrive through diversities and multiplicities. Rather than look at the earth as a source for ‘raw materials’ to feed inflated needs for consumptions, economies would be better served by focusing on enhancing the quality of life everywhere.

The principle of bio-diversity is in fact crucial to Naess’s views on ecology. It comes from the understanding of ecology as a system of rich interrelationships between elements of a natural community. It is how plants, living beings in a forest or natural context relate to each other and create a whole ecosystem. Ecology is also about these multiple energies and ways in which living entities cooperate with each other to generate more complex structures. This occurs through giving way to each other in waves of ‘succession’. This ability to transform through trans-fusion creates richness and resilience of life. In principle, succession leads to a ‘climax community’ which is self-sustaining through internalized cycles of  interaction. The health of such interconnected systems can be then seriously impaired when they are torn apart and uprooted or destroyed through human interference.

It is of vital importance then that we begin to understand our responsibility as co-participants in the eco-systems around us and act in synchrony with these rather than dissonance. For Naess, it was of extreme value to learn from living indigeneous communities how to participate in an ‘ecosphere’ – each specific part of the earth has its own systems depending on the natural conditions and their lessons are critical for us to observe and to learn from.

He formulated an eight-tier platform that simply and effectively lays down ‘Deep Ecology’.

The eight-tier platform

  1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
  2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
  3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital human needs.
  4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
  5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
  6. Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
  7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.
  8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.

Næss, Arne (1989). Ecology, community and lifestyle: outline of an ecosophy Translated by D. Rothenberg. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Effects of Deep Ecological Experiences:

When one has an experience of connectedness to a living, breathing and intelligent ecosphere it can lead to deeper examinations of some of the fundamental premises of contemporary societies and cultures. This in turn can enable possibilities of new paradigms and methods that help in manifesting authentic changes around us.

alone with gods

Releasing the Power of Agency:

To allow for change to happen – both internally and outside in the world – a sense of unhindered agency can be invaluable. If the experience of connection to the natural world has been real and authentic, then the power of the entire ecosphere is active and functional in that person who has experienced it.  It can lead to genuine action and to transformation on many levels and synchronistically. This is key – without genuine active changes implemented on a personal level – as a change in lifestyle or choices – and on a more communal level, deep ecology can remain an abstraction. Experiences, when they happen, in fact already trigger deeper neural pathways in our brains and alter how we think and feel. Self-awareness of these inner changes is vital to manifesting external changes. It can lead further towards a questioning of the deeper origins of our collective crisis of pandemics and of climate change.

In questioning society, one understands its underlying assumptions from an ecological point of view. One can find that a deep-rooted anthropocentrism  has damaged our natural world for centuries of time – as if one had the right to do so! Undoing these assumptions is vital to rebirth and renewal of new ways of living.

‘Ecosophical’ Spiritual Traditions of the Indian sub-continent:

In the Indian subcontinent, there are rich legacies of understanding the natural world and the human place in it. It would be wise to tap these and empower them with genuine and fresh recognitions and imaginings. The spiritual traditions of ‘Jainism’, ‘Buddhism’, Upanishadic teachings, Shakti worship, Shaivism  are infused with awareness of the sacred in nature and outright reverence for it. Similarly, shamanic traditions of Central America and North America – indeed, the world over – carry powerful understandings of nature and of codes for humans in living harmoniously with an ecosphere. Spiritualities here tend to be deeply grounded in the physical and natural worlds and carry recognitions of ‘ecospheres’ which are seen as infused with cosmic power and intelligence. Reverence for each living being in this larger web is a result of understanding that the whole is reflected here – we are not fragments of some quantitative mass but reflections of an unbroken largeness.

Call of the Wild:

My own journey to the stunning emerald forests outside of Mussoorie in Uttarkhand, India, came a few years ago when I felt called to leave my life in Denmark.  The year was 2016 and a move to the himalayan regions  seemed urgent and compelling beyond reason.

The circumstances involved were tragic on a personal level. Both my parents had passed away and the forest they had lived in for forty some years was in danger of being sold to a real-estate consortium. Mussoorie was a world away from Denmark and I had little idea of what I could do or how effective I could be in the circumstances.

The ‘common sense’ advice I got from friends and family was to agree to sell my parents’ forest estate and return to Denmark. After all, I had lived outside of India for most of my life and I was quite out of touch with the Indian subcontinent – especially navigating issues around property. However,  a series of mysterious dreams about a forest vibrating with green energy and my resulting intuition about these dream-images indicated otherwise. Little did I know that my decision not to sell  and to move to a remote forest in the himalayan belt  to live in it would lead to an astonishing journey filled with adventures and discoveries – something I could never have imagined possible before.

Daily Life inside a Forest:

Making a forest my home – far from a sophisticated  environment like Copenhagen – was quite an initiation. To my urban mind, a himalayan forest carried images of exotic beauty and of stunning vistas.  In fact, I discovered was that these images were nowhere near the inconcievable splendor of this forest. However, living daily in the midst of this came with something else –  simply put, power. Kick-ass power.  This was a world where an inexplicable  force – or forces – was surely  alive and everything here had its own reality. Trees grew into walls and opened stone fences as if human constructions were simply a nuisance to be worked through –  a veneer. Behind these signs of human occupation that was my parents’ forest home and estate – I sensed the presence of something far more mysterious. It a was living and breathing power of inconcievable depth like an ocean that could take itself back at any time.

On beautiful spring Birds flew inside the main living-room – a beautiful airy space jutting out of a cliffside – as if they had little sense of interior or exterior. Spiders could manifest out of thinnest air in the unlikeliest places – beside a computer, inside a beer glass, in a bathroom sink. One night, a leopard knocked on my window and her burning eyes sent a charge of electricity through the room that left both my dogs and I in a trance. The dogs were barking as if possessed for most of the night and next day.

. o  asserted itself in a quietAlthough not without some initial perils – mostly in legal dealings with dubious real-estate developers – I could in time succeed in setting up house. There was a year of strenuous renovation and rebuilding of living spaces and repairing ailing greenhouses but slowly, and with help from a capable residential staff, I could make a home for myself and start afresh.

There was surely a pragmatic and ‘practical’ need to be ‘efficient’ and ‘organised’ in how I ‘managed’ life daily in the forest. Slowly, however, this began to shift and morph into something quite different. The key factor here was ‘presence’. Presence of something larger, silent, breathing, stunning in beauty – the forest itself. Everyday, when I opened the windows of my bedroom, I would see an extraordinary sight – a vast circle of forests set in hills that seemed as timeless as they were real.

The only experience I could compare it with was a time I had spent in Yellowstone Park and in the Tetons out west in the United States. It is impossible to be in Yellowstone and not feel the magnificence of wilderness spaces or be deeply affected by them. Often the impact on the individual is subtle and delicate, like a meditation exercise or a  piece of music. The soul can open from within like a flower and breathe its real beauty. Air gives way to air and open light to light.

Aranyaka Upanishad Forests Ecosystems:

The place we call ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’  is home to a rich variety of  forest trees like ‘deodar’, cedar, pine, chestnut, oak, himalayan rhododendron, fir, spruce, walnut, apple, and dogwood. Since the forests here have been untouched since posterity – the earliest title deeds go back to Emperor Auranzeb – they are at once dense and resilient with highly mixed foliage. The forest bears marks of a timeless and uninterrupted growth – waves upon waves of succession have nourished it so each tree and each plant is the result of hybrid apex and fulfillment.

The forests of ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ are in fact in connected flow to a range extending out for miles towards ‘Dhanolti’ and further on towards Chamba  and towards the ‘Woodstock School’ estates on the other. As such, they form a seamless belt and function as a corridor for migrating wildlife from upstate in Uttarkhand and down to the Gangetic valley forests near Rishikesh.\

 Adjoining the sprawling ‘Woodstock School’  estate, this forest is encircled by trees on all sides. Here, undisturbed since posterity, one can observe the rich interplay between young and old trees in their full cycles of life. Each tree is part of an intricate eco-system that is dynamic and interactive giving way to waves of forests. Some varieties are found only here in these parts – such as the crimson himalayan rhododendron trees that explode into color at spring time. There is also a rich diversity of wild-flowers that bloom in early spring and continue in waves until the end of summer.

‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ is ‘Ithaca’ and ‘Home’ in the forest hills of Mussoorie

sunrise over Mussoorie Ranges

Aranyaka Upanishad Forests Ecosystems:

The place we call ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’  is home to a rich variety of  forest trees like ‘deodar’, cedar, pine, chestnut, oak, himalayan rhododendron, fir, spruce, walnut, apple, and dogwood. Since the forests here have been untouched since posterity – the earliest title deeds go back to Emperor Auranzeb – they are at once dense and resilient with highly mixed foliage. The forest bears marks of a timeless and uninterrupted growth – waves upon waves of succession have nourished it so each tree and each plant is the result of hybrid apex and fulfillment.

in the heart of Mussoorie forests

The forests of ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ are in fact in connected flow to a range extending out for miles towards ‘Dhanolti’ and further on towards Chamba  and towards the ‘Woodstock School’ estates on the other. As such, they form a seamless belt and function as a corridor for migrating wildlife from upstate in Uttarkhand and down to the Gangetic valley forests near Rishikesh.

light on deodars

  Adjoining the sprawling ‘Woodstock School’  estate, this forest is encircled by trees on all sides. Here, undisturbed since posterity, one can observe the rich interplay between young and old trees in their full cycles of life. Each tree is part of an intricate eco-system that is dynamic and interactive giving way to waves of forests. Some varieties are found only here in these parts – such as the crimson himalayan rhododendron trees that explode into color at spring time. There is also a rich diversity of wild-flowers that bloom in early spring and continue in waves until the end of summer.

himalayan rhododendron
corn yellow wild flowers

Each flower seems to carry a special presence and fragrance that local Garhwali folks believe is healing for different ailments. Flower remedies are rather popular in these parts. However, the custom is that there is special time of day for plucking a flower and permission is sought from the flower before doing so. The potency of the flower is then preserved.

Rhododendron flowers are especially used to heal ailments such as anemia, high blood pressure, insomnia and weakness. Rhododendron wine and juice is really delicious to drink. As well, wild roses bloom in lush vines. There are wild poppies, daisies, lilies, orchids and many other wild flowers.

‘Deep Ecology’ and some reflections on the significance of wilderness, land, and nature:

Dhanolti-Mussoorie

It seems that, as humans, we are all settlers on this land we call our earth – raised in cities, rootless, and alienated from the ecosystems we cannot avoid being a part of. We would like to unlearn what we have been taught by a dominant urban culture, and in the process, we want to re-learn joy, connection, and wonder while embracing grief and loss in order to heal. We want to decolonize nature, and in order to do this, we need to build a new relationship with the land.

I  have been guided in my work here at ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ forests by the philosophy of Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher and activist, who founded the ‘Deep Ecology’ movement worldwide.

For Naess, ecology is not just about pragmatic ‘preservation’ of the natural world – it is about a paradigm shift in our collective consciousness regarding the autonomy of nature and natural species and a respect for the biodiversity of life – of which we are an integral part. In other words, change enters deep into the cultural and psychic spaces of how we feel and think – not just how we react to temporary urgencies. Naess’ approach is of a complete egalitarianism of life on earth without priveleging an anthropomorphic perspective or bias. In many ways, deep ecology points back to ancient hindu spiritualities such as Jainism and Patanjali’s yoga of ‘ahimsa’.

What is ‘Ecology’? 

Ecology is the study of the interconnectedness in natural communities. It’s the way different plants, creatures, and forces interact with each other to create the conditions for the whole ecosystem. It is also the way they collaborate to bring about succession, the process by which one ecosystem gives way towards another. Succession is also a process of resiliency, towards more diversity and greater health.

Theoretically, succession eventually reaches a climax community, which is a rich, stable ecosystem that self-perpetuates. However, climax ecosystems are in reality interconnected with systems of healthy disturbances like fire and wind, as well as impacted by human destruction. And so succession is constantly ongoing and all the various stages of succession are present in wild communities.

In our region, the lower Himalayan belt from Uttarkashi to Mussourie in Uttarkhand, India, the climax community is often characterized by the association of ‘deodar’, cedar-pine and fir with rhododendron and oak trees. Can you picture that tall, spacious canopy filtering green sunlight to the soft leaf-littered ground and an understory of pine, oak, Indian beech, chestnut, and dogwood?

The forests of Uttarkhand, especially in the north-western belt of Mussourie, are rich in bio-diversity with an estimated 39,00 plants and herbs that have healing potentials and possibilities. There are rare butterflies, birds, and insects that enrich the region through their delicate interactions with the forest trees and plants.

butterfly
mountain hissop flower

 Interdependence in Ecology:

 Besides Arne Naess,  I have also been studying the writings of a late 19th century professor of biology, Henry Chandler Cowles, whose work in the region of Indiana Dunes in the USA is to date considered pioneering. Cowles, while studying the interactions of the land with plant communities, observed that dunes evolved from barren sand near the shores to ridges of pioneer grasses to hills of shrubs and trees and finally to climax forests. The plants that lived on the sand, he discovered, grew in predictable patterns, with marram and sand grasses first, followed by red osier dogwood and sand cherry, then maple, oak and pine.

Others before Henry Cowles had recognized that Indiana Dunes were a dynamic ecosystem, with land forms and microclimates supporting more plant diversity per acre than any other national park in the United States. But where others had only seen hills of sand and an interesting variety of plants, Cowles saw centuries of ecological progress compressed into distinct zones only a few hundred feet apart.

In his publications, Cowles established that plant communities succeed each other, each serving as a foundation for those to come, while simultaneously creating the conditions for its own collapse. This concept of the interrelationship of organisms was revolutionary and it changed the way that people looked at the natural world.

himalayan firn
wild bamboo

It is important to recognize that local and indigenous peoples of the regions that Cowles was working within had long understood the profound realities of successor and interrelational plant communities. The same is true of the forests of Uttarkhand – the local and tribal Garhwali people who live close to forests understand how dynamic eco-systems function like waves of life layered upon each other in delicate fibres of co-existence and succession.

Healing from the Forests

Moving to India from the forests of western Pennsylvannia and of Denmark, I am learning to understand the magic and power of forests here in Uttarkhand. It is my hope to share the beauty of these forests with visitors who would be interested in exploring.

It can seem overwhelming to face our own alienation from the land, but we can begin by celebrating small ways as inroads to start filling the gaping void of urban excess by building meaningful connections and direct experiences.

When we realize for ourselves the ways that healthy plant and tree communities prevent erosion, or how some flycatchers and other small birds can only breed in deep forest, or how the presence of invasive junk trees can actually make wastelands richer, these truths are filled with a passionate and irresistible urgency. They are They are not just abstracted facts to be either memorized or forgotten – they become part of who we are as living creatures in the world.

In realizing a vision for ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ forests, I have been guided by a few pertinent principles that help one in connecting with its pure natural spaces.

Learning to Listen

‘Unexpertness’ of our own conditioned urban minds involves setting aside our own internal pressures to be an ‘expert’ and learning afresh from the forest. Subtly and insiduously, one can have preconcieved notions about a forest and its complex realities and also expectations of what it should ‘offer’ us. The idea of expertness can be a barrier connecting with the land, alienated from our own authentic experience. The opposite of expertness is not ignorance but humility and listening to our own direct experience in nature.

The strength of our relationships, both to each other and to the land, is our capacity for creation. We would like to build relationships as a listening community to forests and breaking from the haze of city lights. There could be nothing more enchanting than a walk through the forests at twilight or watching the stars from a look-out point. We want to find that spirit of enchantment and allow it to enliven ourselves and our communities.

Re-enchantment

himalayan owl

We are all connected to the land and, deep inside of us, that knowledge persists. It rises up in us when we’re out in the scrubby wild meadows that are always pushing back at the city’s edges, or it presses its way into our consciousness, interrupting our routines and reminding us what matters.

And yet, there exists a pervasive riptide that can drag us away from that connection. Society promotes and enforces a way of living that’s quite opposite of being enchanted by the land. This goes a long way towards explaining where we’ve been for the six months since our last post…

We all get swept away sometimes for lots of different reasons. What’s important is to make sure to escape our daily lives, even if just for a half-running  trip to the park on your  lunch-break, to scream and laugh into the wild monsoon rains. Most likely you will find wonderful surprises, like that wild plants and flowers grow from the asphalt there. Or maybe just find time to stand outside the door, face warmed by the sun, observing a bird. Such surprises open our hearts, eloquently reminding us of the amazing beauty and resiliency of the wild. Even when we return to work, the feeling lingers that we are always connected to that great web of life, that we are held by it and cared for.

Re-enchantment is the word that best describes this sort of feeling and action. It’s about curiosity, enthusiasm, play, and a desire to share it all with others. We strive to have our thoughts and actions grow from this re-enchantment, and we think it’s contagious. Because it wants to spread and be shared, re-enchantment is not a retreat. There is not enough wild space left for retreat to be an option, and attempts at personally escaping risk leave the needs of the land and of those most hurt by colonial society for last. We feel an urgency to fight back, to hold the hard truths in our hearts even as we pursue beauty and richness.

Re-enchantment is a sometimes difficult and always ongoing process. We need to take time to heal and nourish the connection to the land that we are all born with. We include the prefix “re-” before “enchantment” to celebrate and emphasize this. Self-repression and alienation from the earth are actively beaten into us through forces like industrial education, mass media, and institutionalization. But we can break the spell by constantly fighting to remember, and to spread our enchantment like wildfire.

For some folks, the weight of daily traumas and repression don’t leave room for much enchantment. Those hurt most by this culture of death are those who perpetrate destruction least and often have the least access to healing creeks and wise old trees. We’ve often come to places where the forest suddenly ends to make way for a giant mansion – it’s a visceral reminder that easy access to healthy wild spaces is directly related to class and social position.

When access to wild space is reserved for the most privileged, what is good for the health of those spaces comes to be defined by the powerful. And when the powerful define what’s good for the land, then it becomes difficult to build a movement for the health of the land that also challenges power systems. Most modern conservation and environmental groups are tragically good examples of this: they embrace the logic of private property, policing, social control, and restricted access to protect pockets of wilderness in ways that are valued by elites. This leads to forests being seen as just another site of recreation and creates social and psychological barriers in addition to the material ones – “hiking” isn’t one of my hobbies, so why should I go to the forest?

It is important to leave our daily lives behind for a magical spell even if it is for an hour or a weekend. One never knows what one would find. Surprises open our hearts, eloquently reminding us of the amazing beauty and resiliency of the wild. Even when we return to work, the feeling lingers that we are connected to the great web of life, that we are held by it and cared for.

web of life

Interconnectivity:

Building relationships is rooted in the idea of radical interconnectivity. We are a part of the natural world, and our health is tied together with those of the creatures, plants, natural systems, and rhythms of the specific places around us. Humans belong to eco-systems, we depend on habitats, we inhabit watersheds – there is no separation between us and the land. In fact, we seem to have forgotten where we came from and where we wish to return in our souls.

What does it mean to have a real relationship with the land? It means we can trust in the authority of our own experience. Building a relationship is a powerful source of knowledge and wisdom especially in a culture that tells us to deny our own agency and to defer to experts. It also requires engagement, actively seeking to deepen our relationships. Trusting the authority of our own experience doesn’t mean we need to be content with what little we have. It is a lifelong journey of learning, unlearning, and play.

yoga retreat

And so we need to open ourselves to joy and humility. An ecological spirituality requires a playful spirit and the humility to let go of the need to know and have answers. Questions and wonders lead to more questions – our senses open to natural rhythms and we notice more details of the world around us. By emphasizing questions over answers, we deepen our relationship with the land without the baggage of being an expert.

Seeking a connection with the land also means listening to its story. The history of a landscape is written on it.

Relationship building is much more than identifying by name. Its about close attention over time.

Deep Listening to the Forest

At ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’, we believe that Its far easier to offer critiques of our post-modern urban environments than to offer a genuine alternative. So, we offer five simple principles for connecting with forests. These are: finding our roots in relationships,  ‘deep listening’, ‘urban ecology’, ‘re-enchanting’, and ‘unexpertness’.

At the core, we believe that each being is an energetic living force who is part of a complex and beautiful web of interrelationships. One can choose to be grounded in this truth, to connect with forests, and let the health of our communities guide our actions.

mists of mussoorie
forest flower walk
forest space