There is a growing interest in something loosely termed ‘pilgrimage’. This is unexpected: the Christian community has not promoted it, yet it seems to be happening organically. This is not to say that it is happening accidentally, though the natural world is full of ‘accidents’ that eventually have huge consequences. Consider the accident 20 years ago when two African cattle egrets were blown into southern England, where now many thousands of them breed. It is said that evolution proceeds through random mutation, whose outcomes occasionally happen to be better adapted to a changing environment; and so this new line thrives. Another way of telling this story is that change happens over time in response to a deep connectedness between individuals and their world; a process articulated in this process of becoming, one based in relationship, and therefore far from ‘accidental’. It is no accident that the question of separation is rising up everywhere, demanding an answer from all of us.
At a car boot sale recently a young man selling small statuettes of angels, Hindu deities and some weather-worn fairies, asked me whether I identified as ‘a separate being’. No one had ever asked me such a question, nor had I thought of putting it to others. Yet it is a great question, implying as it does ‘separate from what?’. It made me ask myself ‘where do I feel my boundary to be; where does my sense of self end and “everything else” begin?’, if the gap between the two tells of the degree of felt-separateness. These metaphors embody our sense of identity as somehow related to space and to borders, but the real separation arises in our mind and our imagination, for we have inherited in the West a template of profound separation: of divine from human, of atheists from humanists and Christians, of consecrated land from the unconsecrated – which in turn has licensed the vandalism that is intensive farming. We have separated mind from matter, thinking from feeling, brain from heart, and friend from foe in ways that underpin our culture’s basic assumptions and belief systems: materialism, objectivity, rationalism, national identity.
Every generation likes to believe its time is pivotal; that its decisions will lay the ground for all the centuries to come. But humankind is experiencing a new kind of tension. People experience themselves more acutely than ever before as isolated individuals. It is a time when scientists concur with mystics that my wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of all life forms, of all that lives and breathes. Indeed our culture is awakening to the fact that everything is connected to everything else, that everything goes somewhere, that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’. We live in an age when there is no escaping that our individual actions have far-reaching consequences for planetary health, that my health influences your health and global health. We know too that Gaia’s vast interconnecting cycles of earth, water, air and warmth stabilise the oceans and the atmosphere. Human health and planetary health are inseparable, joined physically, emotionally, spiritually. Now it’s personal: each breath affects the balance of carbon and oxygen across the entire planetary system.
In the past, many cultures have so denuded the land and the bounty within it that they became unsustainable. In his fine book Collapse, Jared Diamond names the Maya, the Anasazi, the Easter Islanders and other examples. But our generation is facing (or failing to face) circumstances no other generation has encountered. The same human generated problems that collapsed ancient societies are still very much alive – deforestation and habitat destruction, soil fertility and water management problems, overpopulation. But add to the list human-made climate change, toxins building up in the environment and energy shortages, all of them threatening to disrupt the planetary ecosystem as they rampage through a globalising culture. We hear that this human-created apocalypse – the Anthropocene Age – might affect us but not until tomorrow, always tomorrow; it sits just over the horizon. But really it is here right now. It is happening, unfolding now. This is indeed a pivotal time.
An abundance of research tells us that time spent ‘in nature’ lowers blood pressure, increases our sense of wellbeing, and boosts our immune system; that city dwellers who live near green space have better health. All well and good: we humans walk out into woods and hills and come back feeling better about being humans. But this one-way view of our relationship with the other-than human world misses the point. For there is no science to suggest that rather than merely ‘ take the waters’ like Victorians at a spa, we should give something in return. Instead we wander home declaring how much better we feel, then turn up for work next morning so the whole process of depletion can begin again, in a society where for many of us, living is exhausting.
It seems to me an error to be using green-time as if it were like taking a pill: a lost opportunity to do this without letting it change the way we relate to the natural world. It is surely time for health professionals to create a revolution in the way we think about what has been called ‘the nature fix’, for it will be in making this shift that the great healing has to begin. By acting as though trees were the new benzodiazepine, we only mire ourselves further in our illusion of being separated from what it is that sustains us. Trees are not benzodiazepines, neither are the mountains corticosteroids, nor the rivers SSRIs. To use the natural world prescriptively means we continue to grab what we need while remaining oblivious to what is being offered to us. It is strange that we should look to something to fix us, which we are in the process of breaking and destroying. Because we, who in increasing numbers are taking to the remaining wild places, are responding to a crisis of our own creation.
The next step
We are responding to a planet that is in crisis because we are in crisis; a crisis that will only deepen if our relationship with the planet remains broken as we are broken.
Pilgrimages are times when knots can be untied and new bonds formed, times when perhaps we walk towards a state of being forgiven, or of being able to forgive. And at best I find I eventually walk into a state of gratitude, of grace. Then, in pilgrimage I am taking part in something I am not set apart from. I do not understand the biorhythmic force of these states of being nor how they might be healing me on a personal and physical level. But since the healing I feel isn’t due to having taken something in as though it were a pill, I have to ask, ‘why this is happening in this place and how this is happening to me?’
Can only some of us hear this voice? It would appear more and more of us feel compelled to listen out for it, for we are being drawn towards an inner place of deep disquiet, of sacred unease, a place where we are lost, and the way ahead is truly uncertain. Yet here and only here may we re-find our bearings. The temptation is to hang on to the old map, but the mapthat furnished us with the directions that brought us here won’t show us where we need to go.
- Diamond J (2005) Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive. London: Penguin