The poet and essayist on pre-history, Clayton Eshleman, who died early in 2021, spent more than three decades studying Ice Age cave art in south-west France. From his research he developed a distinctive thesis, published in Juniper Fuse (which combines myth, cave drawing images, leaps of imagination, poetry, evolutionary psychology and theories of pre-history). This mytho-poetic theory is that the modern mind began when humans separated ourselves from animals. And he goes on to trace how the repression of the animal within leads, by tiny but certain increments, to the repression of animals without.
The problem of separateness
For Eshleman our extraordinary consciousness and evolotion is both gift and curse. With it we have achieved so much, but this includes an increasing sense of superiority and being ‘above’ and ‘beyond’ the rest of nature. So much so that Eshleman speculates that over millennia what was once a rich sense of underworld has risen to become a Dantean Hell that has surfaced in events like the Shoah or Hiroshima or the mass extinction event taking place right now.
As species disappear the Upper Palaeolithic becomes more vivd. As living animals disappear, the first outlines become more clear, not as reflections of a day world, but as the primal outlines of psyche, the shaping of the Underworld, the point at which Hades was an animal. The ‘new wilderness’ is the spectral realm created by the going out of the animal life and the coming in, in our time, of these primary outlines. Our tragedy is to search further and further back for a common non-racial trunk in which the animal is not separated out of the human, while we destroy the turf on which we actually stand.
Clayton Eshleman, Juniper Fuse
The beings who were our ancestors are at once totally other and completely familiar. They shared with us the needs for shelter, to mark ourselves in time , the needs for ritual and sacrament and story. Like us they had a powerful need to make and leave marks—from handprints to complex images of animals that flicker into film-like life when the light of a torch moves over them. Like us they were story-makers, but their stories were more intimately connected with an awareness of the animate world. They may have started the process of humanity not seeing ourselves as part of nature, but this separation was centuries in the making. The land still sang, the stones had tales, the line between animal and human was still fluid.
When I walk in the local forest, the place is alive with life — plants, trees, insects and birds the most obvious, but evidence of small mammals when I look, the lizards scurrying across the path and the frogs singing if it’s the right season. It’s a surviving piece of ancient woodland. Once vast tracts of central Brittany were forested and the forest of Paimpont, known as the mythical Brocéliande where Arthurian legends abound, joined with the Huelgoat forest, which has its own Arthurian claims as well as impressive ice age boulders and caverns like the ‘Devil’s Grotto’ and the ‘Chaos Mill’.
The place feels like it has been and will be here forever, but the truth is that it’s seen great changes in the past and will again. This year there have been wildfires in the Paimpont forest and, not far from the Huelgoat forest, on the local moorland. Elsewhere in Brittany, flooding is more pressing than fire with coastal flooding events predicted to increase by a factor of more than 100 by the end of the century. Earlier this year, on a quiet day a sudden enormous wave swept away four members of a family of six on an evening stroll along the seafront.
The climate crisis isn’t a thing of the future. We’re in its midst and yet governments and vested interests are still doing little or nothing to make the changes that people like Rachel Carson have been calling for since the early 60s. It is a constant partner and so many of today’s dramas will be lost in a vaster landscape of primal change.
As we watch ourselves tearing apart the ground of our being, the earth itself, how do we regain a consciousness of connectivity to all life? How do we tell stories that are not about going backwards but that carry the hope of this moment?
Choosing different stories
The consciousness of our ancestors may have contained the seeds of our sense of alienation from nature, but the sense of place as alive and sacred didn’t vanish overnight and it still hasn’t vanised completely.
Writers and artists in particular, as well as people like botanists, mycologists, herbalists… still have the opportunity to tell stories of our relationship to the land. There is still the chance to witness to our connection to all life—to every plant and animal, to the rythms of seasons. We can still choose to walk about the world with our senses open. And we can do so in towns and cities as well as in forests and coast lands.
It’s true that wherever we look we will find and have to witness to the wastelands that surround us—the increasing build up of plastic on land and sea, the toxins we’re breathing in… But it’s also true that the earth is extraordinary and alive with possibilities even in the darkest of times. There are fungi that can clear an oil spill better than any chemical solution and bacteria that can eat the plastics choking our seas, in addition to the extraordinary abundance and flexibility of plant and animal life. There are always different stories that can be told.
Choice without overwhelm
And we do this best when we are not in a place of overwhelm. Staying unstressed in a crazy world isn’t always easy but panicked, struggling humans are not most likely to imagine different futures. And two of the ways we can avoid overwhelm (at least as much of the time as possible) are through collaboration and taking the time to nurture our inner lives and bodies.
A recent blog by Rowan Fortune talked about avoiding overwhelm in relation to political activism, after thinking:
… about those political activities that inspire me, and those that dispirit me. Those that enthuse me with a sense of open possibility, and those that close off the future.
Rowan asks how we make choices in how we invest our limited resources in pursuing a good politics. Choice is of the essence. If we convince ourselves that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and it’s up to each of us to single-handedly ‘do something’, we’ll soon be burnt out.
We start to make these choices better, Rowan goes on, when we acknowledge our deep connectivity. It’s not that we are merely allies of nature, but that we are nature. Mere ally-ship is an example of:
… dualistic thinking; it sees the agent of change as external to the problem. When we think monistically, we see that this split is false. We cannot change society without changing ourselves, as socially constituted beings.
And when we do this, we start to look for others to collaborate with in changes that inspire rather than drain us.
Going inwards to connect
Collaboration isn’t the opposite of nurturing ourselves. To oppose these two necessities is just another way of thinking dualistically. Well nourished, well rested humans, who take time to care for their bodies and inner lives, don’t feel overwhelm on the same scale as exhausted, frazzled, malnourished and immobile people.
We need time to go inwards. We need time to sleep and dream. We need time for our art and the rituals that nourish us. And then we can move outward to find others who also know they need this time as well as ways to connect. And sometimes there may be activities that do both at once.
Walking in the forest is one of my ways of simultaneously going inward and connecting deeply. I find myself moving between the deep awareness of the trees and birds and extraordinay life I’m immersed in and an interior landscape. Sometimes I try to focus on nothing but the sky and leaves, the sound of the wind, the skitter of life in the undergrowth. And in enchanted moments I’ll feel the sense of separation disolve. The inner world and outer worlds merge.
There is no golden age to return to, but we can make it part of our practice to find those spaces that remind us that we belong to the land as much as to ourselves; spaces that remind us that all life is sacred. And when we do, some days we’ll find our dreams and daydreams coalesce with the sense of the numinous in the land that is alive in every cell. Whatever is in our future, we will pass through it more alive and hopeful when we bring together our inner and outer connections.
The work that needs to be done is enormous and collaborating is vital, but it has to come from the certainty that the deepest need of these times is to understand that we are all part of the same animate world. Following Rowan’s chain of thought—we are not mere allies of the Earth, but of it—on the same journey. We have to learn the language of nature again. We have to linger and listen with every sense to the earth and to our dreams and stories. We have to tell the stories in which we are not not the masters of the universe, stories in which the world is not just an endless resource to be exploited. And we have to find new myths and stories that are not only about Apocalypse and doom, that recognise the terrible facts of the climate crisis without propogating only despair.
Perhaps we’ll find those stories in our dreams. Perhaps we’ll find them walking in a forest or in a city park or in a garden… If we are fortunate, we’ll find them together—together with plants and animals as well as other humans.