Wildness, inside and out

I crunch through shingle towards the waves under a sky blackened with starlings, heaving and parting in their synchronized dance. My chest strains with a longing to abandon myself to this world.

It is this longing that is calling me out of my home and onto a train to Brighton most weekends this winter. Every evening at dusk, starlings are gathering in their liquid mass above the remnants of West Pier before swooping down to the rafters to roost.

For me, wildness is both this untamed nature and the human experience our encounter with it provokes.

There is much that could be said about how little, if any, of the world these days is actually untamed. Human hands have touched most of it. But this feeling of wildness is alive in me now, and it doesn’t want to be abstracted, dissected or solved.

It wants to be felt, and acted on.

I pick up my pace – everything in me craning towards the cacophony of whirling birds.  Reaching the water’s edge I stop abruptly and look down: I’m not feathered nor finned, I am land-bound.

The wild flings me to my knees and from my upturned face flow salty tears and pillow talk. The water and words sweep upwards in gusts to swirl with black beings until, with the last glimmer of light, the birds drop like stones and disappear among the corroded remains.

Experiences like this have convinced me to lead my workshops in the wildest places available. Maybe they have been visited by countless people but mostly our intervention has been sensitive. Wildness, in these places, is easier to spot.

In a neglected wood, an oak’s branches twist and turn and lie where they fall. Moss grows thick and deep. A myriad of creatures move in. And we are lured in too – drawn off the mud path to run our hand over cushiony greenness, duck under silk bridges and meet the brown eyes, just for an instant, between the trees.

Spending time in places where life is allowed to unfold – whether it’s a forgotten forest or starling-filled skies – our human minds and bodies too can release. Enchanted, our self-consciousness recedes like the tide and we are free to respond spontaneously to the world around us.

So seek out the wild for yourself. Leave behind manicured parks and seafront deckchairs; head for the entangled wood and sea-carved crag. These places will reverberate in the dark chambers of your body calling up your inherent wildness.




Why is nature so compelling?

People are drawn to nature. This won’t be news to you. City dwellers pine for the countryside, TV watchers gobble up wildlife documentaries like whales sifting through  krill. But what is it about nature that is so compelling?

I’m fascinated by this question. Answers from many a late-night conversation include: because we come from the forest and want to get back there; because nature is beautiful and people need beauty; because it doesn’t demand anything from us; because it’s been made into a consumer product like everything else in our messed up culture.

Like ruby red cherries hanging just out of reach, I find all these explanations irresistible.

Let’s start with the poet and teacher, David Whyte. He says: “We go into the natural world because we want an intuition of rested simplicity where we feel it might be possible just to be yourself.”

Nature does this so well. In Whyte’s poem ‘ Everything is Waiting for You’ he writes: “All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves.” And likewise plants. A birch tree is just as it is; it doesn’t imagine what it would be like to be an oak or how it would be to live out its life in an open field rather than this dense wood.

Invierno en Andalucia – Emilio Sanchez-Perrier

This ability to imagine alternative scenarios is a uniquely human competency. But with it comes disappointment.

We think it should be different somehow. That we have got it wrong somewhere. That we shouldn’t feel sad, that if we do things a certain way we’ll feel happy and life will go smoothly from now on. But doesn’t nature show us the reality all the time? I mean right now looking out over my laptop and into the garden, I can see the neighbour’s cat taunting a frog near the pond while the overhanging hazel reveals its new lemony green leaves. It’s all there in front of our eyes: birth, death and everything in between. All the time. Over and over again.

So what does ‘being yourself’ mean to us humans?  It can mean the same as it does for the birch tree: being just as we are.

When we stop trying to be something we are not, we can rest in the simplicity of being how we actually are. And that feels like a relief, a massive unburdening. We can take our kaleidoscope of human emotions – our doubt, our anger, our loneliness, our joy, our grief, our excitement, our jealousy, our numbness – into the woods, onto the mountain top, down to the river and just let them be as they are, witnessed without judgement by the plants and animals that surrounds us. Nature can be the container that holds us in all our complexity. It’s perhaps this experience of unconditional acceptance that we so long for.

Psychotherapist, Steve Thorp, certainly thinks so: “Nature meets an internal want in the psyche. Like a baby who turns to her parents to comfort her, we reach out to nature for the deep embrace we know we were born to have.”

And the best thing about it is that we don’t necessarily have to do anything to feel this embrace. Just turn off the forest path and begin to pick your way through the tangle of trees. Let your thoughts flutter down to your mind’s leaf litter and your senses guide you gently to whatever awaits…


A mountain exploration of self and other

It takes me a moment to identify the splintering sound: the foot-long icicle I just passed warmed by the afternoon sun and now crashing to the ground. I make a mental note not to choose a high cave to sleep in tonight.

These aren’t the green fields of home. It’s dusty underfoot and scratchy at calf level. I come across a low ledge carved out of the ridge. Just enough room for my body, and a fire. I slide in to try it out. The view across the valley is panoramic with the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees on the horizon. I spot the retreat centre, the only human habitation in the valley below, and feel comforted.  


ecodharma 2

Looking back towards ‘my’ ridge


I’ve never camped out alone before under the stars, let alone on a mountain. Never built a fire.  Not on any day of any year, let alone on New Year’s Eve.  But I’ve had a vision you see, a waking image of a woman strongly built, thick grey-black hair standing rooted on a rocky outcrop high over a valley, staff in hand and Bernese dog by her side. It was just a flash in my mind’s eye but it felt like she was me and the longing that was born in that moment is now old and familiar. This wild sleep out is way overdue.

I go over the symptoms of hypothermia in my head. What did he say? You won’t be able to tie your shoelaces. But what if they don’t need tying?

I tell myself to get a grip and prioritize collecting wood. There are dry logs and sticks everywhere and I soon reckon I’ve collected enough for a few hours of burning.  And a big bundle of gorse twigs that I have been told make perfect tinder.

Back at my camping spot, the gorse catches immediately and the flames soar. I stretch out my arms in a futile embrace. The responsibility not to burn down the whole mountainside feels all of a sudden, immense. As quickly as it flares up, it subsides and I too flop down. I feed the fire as I chant a Buddhist mantra. It is supposed to increase fearlessness but the longer I chant it for the more aware I become of just how terrified I am. The reddening sky only deepens my fear. As I wait for the temperature to drop, I put on every item of clothing I have.

The more I put on, the more scared I feel. The more scared I feel the more I put on. When is the temperature going to drop? On with the woolly hat and two pairs of gloves. What the hell is that noise? I wind the scarf tightly round my neck covering my ears. I notice the fear rising and with it my body temperature. I feel sweat bead on my chest. I am way too uncomfortable to sleep. I have no choice but to take off some layers.

First the hat, the breeze blows through strands of my hair and cools my scalp and my hot cheeks.  I can hear sounds clearly not muffled now, nearby rustling in the pitch dark. I stick my nose out of my sleeping bag and sniff wood smoke and stale goat pee. The more I let in the world, the more my fear subsides, the more the boundary softens between me and everything else. There is no ‘out there’ to fear anymore and with this growing familiarity I start to feel like I belong. Slowly, my body and mind  release like a fern uncurling its new fronds and I slip into silky sleep.

I like to imagine what a circling vulture might have seen that night: a human lying below the mountain ridge blue sleeping bag unzipped, face to the stars with limbs akimbo and tiny creatures picking their way across her loose hair.  And as the vulture climbs higher on the thermals, its orange eyes scan the squat box and oak trees that litter the mountainside and the wild boar snuffling about for their next meal. The choughs roosting in rock holes on the cliff above me. And other wild campers in this valley and the next, each with their own story to tell back at base in the morning.

The birth of earthwhisperer

It’s March 2012. I’m in an old fisherman’s cottage on a remote peninsula: Lamb’s Head in Kerry, Ireland.

Something needs to give. I’ve just left my office job – said goodbye to air con and neat desk rows. I want to be out there somewhere helping others experience the depth of connection I feel with the natural world.

But I’m stuck. Thoughts like “you don’t know anything!” plague my mind. I sit on an old sofa watching movie after movie, biting my nails, fidgeting.

Walking on the Head every day, I’m tormented. My conflict mirrored by heavy awkward strides. Today, I am nestled in a craggy dip, shielded from the wind as I look out at the scene below.


My gaze settles on the space in the centre of the photo, between two rocky outcrops. The sea swells as though inhaling deeply and water pours through the gap. It draws me in and in and in.

The more I look at this process, the more I see. I see that in this calm sea when water encounters a solid mass it always finds a way past. It cleaves round the rocks, staying close and meeting again on the other side. Or it pushes up and over their bulk smoothing their rough surfaces over millenia.

This ceaseless motion of the Atlantic sets my heart pounding. I can feel a commitment to forge ahead with my own vision begin to take root. A torrent of self-belief washes through me.

As I carry on looking, I realise that the actual water passing between the rocks at any given time is propelled through by the momentum of the vast ocean. It couldn’t be any other way. Ditto. I sense – not ‘think’ but sense from deep within me – that I too am not alone in my endeavours; there is a vastness holding me. The truth of this makes my eyes well up with relief and gratitude.

I thank the water and the rocks for their revelations and head back to the cottage, my steps now smooth and purposeful. Once through the door, ‘Earthwhisperer’ pours out of me onto huge paper sheets: colourful mind maps full of ideas and plans for offering ways to connect with our beautiful world.


As we immerse ourselves ever deeper into the nature that surrounds us, our surface thoughts loosen and the intuition that dwells in the body begins to awaken and guide us. It is this that leads us into a dynamic dance with our surroundings, where other beings – be they water, rock, earth-born creature – may reveal gifts rich with symbolic meaning for us.

Aerial encounters at Rainham

Rainham Marshes – a RSPB nature reserve on the Thames estuary. I have never been there. In fact, the image of a flat watery landscape with distant wading birds doesn’t hold much appeal. But it is easily accessible from my East London habitat and I am longing for the wild on this short afternoon.

The sun is shining unencumbered and the air is still and cold. I cycle the last few miles along the Thames feasting on the contrasts of industry monoliths and wide river, smelly strewn waste and gull-rich piers. There is something enlivening about this urban borderland.

Thames estuary

I drop down from the river wall into the reserve, a vast stretch of marsh flanked by the Thames and the thrumming A13. People in khaki are dotted about everywhere, wielding giant lensed cameras, binoculars and tripods. A new species for me.

I turn to look in the direction of someone’s telescope and am transfixed by a short-eared owl gliding and swooping over the marsh. As I watch it hunt, my muscles twitch and flex in resonance. I wonder if this intense awareness is how the shapeshifters of indigineous cultures begin their transformations…

owl in flight

Mostly I approach life with a grasping mentality. I’m looking to accumulate as many pleasurable experiences as I can and the natural world is one of my go-to treasure chests. Yet, the encounter with the owl is so satisfying that I relax deeply and decide that any more good stuff this afternoon would be a bonus.

I slow my steps. No agenda, just a willingness to be with whatever presents itself. I soak up the soundscape of hundreds of lapwings and starlings whirling in the huge skies. Esconsed in the reedbeds, I call back my own song in homage.

Dusk ushers in and the cold deepens. A kestrel hovers suspended above me, the sun glowing red through its fanned tail feathers. It’s time to go home.