I take a favourite walk through the open meadows and wood pastures around the village where I have spent much of the last year in Sanabria, Spain, close to the northeast corner of Portugal. The thick thatch of the meadow beneath my feet crunches, an odd sensation as this land should be damp by now with a fresh flush of growth after the first autumn rains. The crunch is yet another reminder of the continuing drought. I walk past the dew pond that was full and teeming with life this time last year. Now it is completely dry with the evidence that wild boar enjoyed a wallow before the mud dried up.
This part of Spain lies on the cusp between the wet northwest and the dry central plains. The altitude here is 1000m with 2000m peaks just 20km to the north. Winters here should be cold and snowy, but last winter there was nothing blue-sky through November, December and January.
In the face of drought, this landscape is fairly resilient, being made up of a mosaic of permanent pasture, wood pasture, oak woods, pine plantation and heathland. The pastures are still managed under a traditional system, where cattle mob graze through the winter, then sheep do the same though the summer. Consequently, the soils are complex and deep as are the meadow swards.
The cattle are moved with electric fencing, but left to fend for themselves when it comes to their wild predator, the wolves. Their herd instinct and horns help protect them, as does the abundance of wild prey, so thankfully last winter no calves were taken. The sheep on the other hand, which are brought up for the summer from dryer lands to the south, are always shepherded and accompanied by a large pack of Spanish Mastiff guardian dogs. At night they corralled within the local chestnut orchards, which are protected with deer fencing.
Despite the resilience of this land, thanks to this management, I can’t help wondering what will happen if we have another year like the last. In early August, forest rangers were moving as many trout as they could from tributaries into the main Tera river, before they died in stagnating pools as the streams dried up.
This, the district of Zamora, saw 60,000 hectares of land burn between two fires within less than a month in June and July. These have been acknowledged as Spain’s worst wildfires in history. The fires burnt 29 times the land area of the volcanic eruption in La Palma, making up 73% of all land burnt across Spain this year. My neighbours and I held our breath as the first fire made its way towards us, only to have the wind change and save us from the flames.
I went to visit the aftermath of that fire in early July. It was the strangest experience walking through the oak woods of the Sierra de Culebra around Villardeciervos. It was as if the life had been sucked out of the world, rendering the landscape into sepia hues. The leaves on the oak trees were still entirely intact and soft to the touch, but instead of being green they are now a dull grey.
Highly experienced firefighters were flummoxed by the behaviour of these fires. “We knew how fire’s behaved until this year,” one forest fire veteran told me. Erratic winds within the fire made it impossible for them to predict which direction the fire would go, moment to moment. Then there were strange phenomena like lightning storms within the blaze.
One thing I can say for sure is I have never met a Spanish climate change denier. Everyone from every class talks of it as a norm that we are living with, because, well, we are. Fires like these are deadly and fast moving because the landscape is a tinderbox and extreme hot weather seems to always be accompanied by strong winds.
I have often wondered in the last few months why it is only now, with this intense, direct experience of climate change, that the impact, psychologically and emotionally, is far more profound than I have experienced before.
Perhaps this is because I have spent much of the last year immersed in the wild nature of this place. Walking in the landscape and watching the wildlife, the birds, the red and roe deer, the wolves and wild boar. I have been learning about and getting to know these wild others and to understand their fragilities.
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I head north, armed with a map of Iberian Wolf distribution, a pair of binoculars, my old dog Henry, and my even-older but still-going-strong Salewa tent.
I drive through the Rio Douro Natural Park, which runs along Portugal’s northeastern border. My park4night app shows a camping spot, right beside the river. The Douro is a mighty beast which, for some distance, makes up the boarder with Spain. When I meet it, it is snaking it’s way through a deep gorge, and the road likewise, snakes along beside it. On this, the Portuguese side, there are olives, vineyards and citrus orchards. The Spanish side on the opposite bank is mostly wild, with a few cattle grazing the scrubby forest.
I arrive at the site on the app to find a beautifully manicured park, and a bar, jutting out over the river. It’s a delightfully warm day but this place is almost entirely deserted. Covid, I think. I study the lovely green lawns, no doubt sprinklers will go off here in the dead of night. This might be a good place for camper vans, but it’s no good for a tent.
I’m anxious to find a place to camp so after a late lunch in the park, I take a walk down the dirt track beside the river. Half a kilometre later, the verge beside the water widens to accommodate 7 large Poplar Trees. Beneath them is a perfect spot for a tent with an enchanting view across to the wild hills of Spain. This place is also however, very solitary. As long as I set up camp at night fall, I think, not many people will see me, and I should be safe enough. Best make it only one night though.
An exotic sounding bird calls from the canopy, a rich song which would be more at home in the tropics. I take out my binoculars and try and find it amongst the quaking leaves, but to no avail. From the recesses of my mind it comes to me that this is the song of the Golden Oriole, a beautiful summer migrant. As I look up once more a streak of yellow darts from the tree tops, off down the river.
I fetch the car and set up camp as day fades to night. The almost full moon is just rising above the hills on the other side of the river. All becomes still as the last of the sunlight fades. The only sounds are the occasional fish jumping, and the clatter of bat wings, as they fly about over-head. I sit for a longtime beside the water, under the light of the moon. It is healing something in me this trip, being out here with my wilder kin.
The following morning the rising sun fills my tent with a delicious warmth. A Black Kite is working it’s way back and forth along the bank. Chaffinches and Sparrows chatter in the branches above my head. A Fox barks on the opposite bank and I can hear the Golden Oriole in the canopy tops once more.
I take out my phone and study the maps of Wolf distribution on the Iberian peninsula. I’m supposedly in Wolf country already, but I can’t imagine Wolves here, amongst all these farms. The wildness of the Spanish bank looks much more hopeful. I sit contemplating the view across the water, wondering what to do with the day, I should really pack up and move on.
Henry, my dog, has Cushing’s syndrome. His body over produces cortisol due to a tumour in the brain. I have little choice in the heat of summer, but to slow down to his pace. Like a wolf pack, travel at the pace of the slowest member of the family. At times this is frustrating, but mostly it is an immense teacher. I have to stop, and be still more.
Sensing Henry’s need of it, I decided to take a rest day. I’ve found this beautiful place after all, but I still don’t seem to have dropped out of my everyday ‘doing’ mode. I don’t feel completely here, in the moment. I watch this unsettledness within me. I notice (much like a predator does when hunting), that I am looking intently out at the world. So I try something once taught to me, and switch to taking-the-world-in, through a lens of wonder, awe and curiosity.
I am astonished by the immediacy of the effect. I quickly feel calmer, more present and content to be still. I also start seeing more. I turn and look up at the crag behind me. I can see tell-tale signs of raptors, their bright white guano splattered on the lichen covered granite. I train my binoculars and find Griffon Vultures. One, two, no four, lazing in the morning sun, one with wings outstretched. Later, one by one they take off onto the thermals and drift upwards in figures of eight.
House Martins and Cliff Martins fly back and forth beneath the cliffs, and Bee Eaters fly somewhere high above me, evident by their chattering calls. A bright red fresh-water crab ambles out from under a rock near the water’s edge, and a large green lizard suns itself in the ashes of a fire.
So much of life is spent on the move looking for the next event horizon, but when we stop, it seems we become the event horizon. Life gathers around, animals and birds get used to our presence and treat us like we belong. When we take the world in through the lens of an innocent child, we go from being threatening, to being part of the world, and these close encounters become the norm.
Amongst this peace and tranquillity, the human world does it’s damnedest to create disturbance. A man in a council vehicle and a fire truck turn up to burn tree roots and branches, piled up in the siding behind my camp. I’m more than a little alarmed by this, seeing how many forest fires Portugal experiences each year. As the fire rages into an inferno with 4-5 metre high flames, the fire brigade folks spray water to calm it down. They’re all of the opinion that it’s perfectly safe. But no doubt so are the people who end up causing wild fires!
After he’s finished telling me his life story about living in Canada and ending up here, I asked the man from the council about Wolves. “There aren’t any here,” he says, “but over there maybe.” He gestures towards the other side of the river. There’s a feeding station however, just 5 kilometres up the hill from here. A place where lynx and vultures come to feed.”
“What! Really?” I get super excited at this prospect. The Iberian Lynx is the most endangered wild cat in the world, existing only in fragments of habitat, mostly hunting reserves. We agree that he, the man from the council, will come back at 6.30 so we can go there together. He tells me his name but I promptly forget because he tells me 3 names. Now all I now know is that he’s one of the three wise kings. I google it, oh yes, Gaspar, Belchlor and Baltazar.
Gaspar arrives promptly, in a beat-up old, red, seat. Once I’m in the car however, I realise that he’s drunk. I’m unimpressed and consequently quiet as we drive. He wants to know what’s wrong, but I don’t wish to say while he is driving me up this steep winding road. Then he casually informs me that he’d got it wrong. There are no lynx here, just vultures. Great, I think. Oh well, let’s get this over with and try and stay alive.
The feeding station is a none event, however we carry on a little further to a view point. Drunk or not, I am grateful to Gaspar for showing me this place. The views up and down the Douro are spectacular. What from my camping site feels like an intimate corner of the river, is suddenly thrown into a much greater context.
To our left, the old Spanish lookout post from times of contraband traffic is dwarfed by the dam and electrical installation below. The scrubby forest I look out at from camp, is now a fragment of wilderness. A few hills at the edge of the vast Spanish meseta, which stretches as far as the eye can see.
My drunk companion, who is alarmingly wobbly as we walk up onto some craggy rock to see the view, keeps asking ‘do I like it?’ I tell him it’s spectacular, each and every time, which is about every 3 minutes.
While looking down I spot a Black Stork circling below us, it’s brilliant red-pink bill and legs, poking out front and back as it elegantly glides. This is an endangered species here in Portugal, along with the Griffon and Egyptian Vultures. Am I endangered species I wonder? A lone woman with a pair of binoculars, hoping to catch a glimpse of the birds and animals that live here.
Through the binoculars I spot a Griffon Vulture’s nest. There is what looks like a baby bird, huddled within a sparse circle of stick on a ledge. I keep my eyes on it for a while, then the grey lump stretches its featherless wings. My not so wise companion is too drunk to find it through the binoculars. As he tries, an Egyptian Vulture skirts the cliff and away again. Entirely white and black, this is the smallest of the vulture species, and what a friend describes as, beautifully ugly.
Eventually we get back in the car. On the way Gaspar insists on giving me a tour of his town, stopping to say hi to everyone he knows. I feel I might be on parade. He wants to take me to dinner, I want to go home. He dutifully drops me off.
I feel a bit frazzled from the outing with my drunk friend, so I go to the bar on the river and have a drink myself. I end up talking to a girlfriend in the UK on the phone, so I order a second beer. Then after a while the waitress comes over with a third. She says, “The man over there bought you this,” pointing at a rotund middle aged gentleman who looks like he might push paper around for a living. “He’s a councillor,” she informs me with a smile that says, ‘you’re in luck’. It’s always slightly strange being bought a beer by someone you’ve not met. Unsettling in my situation, a single woman, camping wild. Refusing it does nothing to alter the odds of risk, so I drink the beer and leave, thanking the man as I pass.
Back at camp, a candle lite, the moon blazing down, I start to figure out what to eat. It’s late and I’m really hungry. It’s another magical, still night and I’m happy with the moon and Henry for company. Then I stop what I’m doing. I can hear the sound of a vehicle coming down the track. There are no houses down here, and no through road. I instinctively blow out the candle and get into the tent and get Henry in with me and hold him tight, hoping he understands not to make a noise. I don’t even have time to close the tent door, so I huddle out of sight, and reach out for my machete.
The pickup passes, slowly. Then it stops 50 metres away and turns around. My heart pounds with fear. What the hell will I do if it stops? It passes slowly once more, then 50 metres back up the track, it turns around again. My heart is in my mouth now. Who is this, and what do they want? It passes slowly a third time then goes further, a few minutes away. I stay stock still not knowing what else to do. Then it passes one final time before disappearing into the night.
Was it that man who bought me the beer? Or some other guy in the bar? Whatever, whoever, it doesn’t matter, because I’m raging. More than afraid I am furious. Furious that it is so difficult for a woman to feel free and safe at the same time. I feel myself transforming into a witch. Angry words pour from my mouth. “If whoever that was dares to come back, he’d better be afraid, because I have a machete and will be happy to use it.” Like a woman possessed, a vicious wild cat, I overflow with fury. But I’m frightened too. Too frightened to move in fact, I don’t eat any dinner, I don’t even move from where I am. Eventually I fall asleep, machete in hand, hungry and exhausted.
The following morning Gaspar comes to check on the remains of yesterday’s fire. He is with a colleague and I am glad to see his familiar, friendly face. To break the ice after yesterday, I show him the Black Stork in the bird book.
“No, we didn’t see that,” he says.
“We did,” I say, “but you were to drunk to see it.” I say the last bit quietly in English to save him embarrassment in front of his colleague.
“No!” he insists, “I wasn’t drunk! Well, maybe a little.”
They leave and I pack. On the way out I stop at the bar to use the toilets. Gaspar is there, watering the lawns. The water has gathered in a puddle, and a dozen House Martins busily collect the mud to make their nests. Gaspar starts with an apology, he’s evidently very embarrassed about yesterday. He tells me he’s so sorry, it was his friends fault. That they had a drink because a colleague died recently, and the funeral is tomorrow.
I feel glad that Gaspar has the chance to save face. I’m guessing he’s an alcoholic, but he’s a good, kind-hearted man. We shake hands, and say goodbye until next time. Sometimes you just know good people when you meet them.
There have been occasions in my life when I have found myself in a discussion (usually with the academics) about whether instinct is a real phenomena. To me, the idea that it is not is absurd. The world on many occasions hasn’t just sent me felt instincts, but has actually spoken directly to me.
Cultivating a relationship with this inner knowing, which is one and the same as an intimate connection with the world around us, is essential; not just to keep safe from danger but in order to grow into a soul-lead life. To stop listening solely to the social-conditioned mind, we must cultivate this ability to listen, through our bodies to Gaia, Mystery – the vast collective intelligence of the world around us.
This journey in search of Wolves is, in part, the seeking of this wilder way of being. What can I learn from Wolf? What does she know about how to be in the world, that I am yet to understand?
A series of writing about a long realised dream to go and live… where the wolves are.
2. Why Wolves
I am commonly asked: “why wolves?” A question that I don’t find particularly easy to answer because it always opens a door into a different sense of reality that I, perhaps wrongly, assume most other people will not understand. Maybe I’m afraid they will think I’m woo woo, for on the other side of that door, myth, mystery and magic, merge with what our scientistic society calls ‘normal’. However I know I’m not alone in my fascination for this animal. There is something, in particular for women it seems, that draws us to the wolf. Maybe because in her we sense our wild other, one we long to know, but have few social narratives that might lead us down a path of such knowing.
I’m not sure when my fascination with wolves began, but I know when it got serious. I found myself writing a performance piece called Wolf Tales: a Shepherdess in the 1300’s, knowing where the wolf has her cubs, goes and watches them as they grow. The 1300’s was highly significant for the English wolf for by the end of that century they were gone, just 100 years after King Edward I order their extermination. One of the last wolf legends (there are a few), occurred not far from where I used to live in the Lake District in the far northwest of England, at Humphrey Head on Morecambe Bay. The wolf, hunted down was cornered on this headland and killed.
What else died with those last wolves? What died in us? What are we unable to know of ourselves now that they are gone? All this, if you let it, eventually gets under your skin, or at least it did mine. Those 10 years I spent in the Lake District, a stunning beautiful place, were nonetheless lived in the knowledge of those absent: wolf, wild boar, beaver, and if we go even further back in history elk, bear and lynx, and that’s just some of the bigger mammals. These absences haunt me and bring to mind the words of Chief Seattle:
“If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man, all things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth”
A great loneliness of spirit is what I felt living there, despite the beautiful landscape, and I started to wonder, perhaps the place that is wild enough for the wolf will be wild enough for me. I lived those years in the Lake District in the town of Ulverston – Wolf Town. Ulfr, being Norse for wolf, Ulfarr a Norse name meaning Wolf Warrior. My dear friends, who I spent this summer with on their small holding in Portugal, also previously lived in the Lakes, in the village of Ulpha in the beautiful Duddon Valley. The ghosts of wolves and a wilder time in history indicated all around. Although these clues too, get slowly irradiated. I love maps and recall finding an ‘Eagle crag’ on an old map of the Lake District that is no longer marked on the new. Is this because no eagles fly these skies anymore, let alone have a crag where they always nest?
This desire to go and live where the wolves are grew out of an experience I had when I took part in a contemporary journey of initiation in 2017. A year long foray into the psychic realm of the underworld, guided by Bill Plotkin and some of the team from the Animas Valley Institute in Colorado. This was a year in which my perception of reality changed, expanded, awoke to wonder, awe and a knowing of the world as alive, animate; all which is manifest in material reality, consciousness. A knowing held by all indigenous animistic societies. In our modern world the word pan-psychic seeks to describe this aliveness. An aliveness which modern science, quantum physics aside, has so far sort to deny.
Our Western culture entrains us to look out at the world as if an outsider, but there is the possibility to know the world from within, as a felt, sensed experience. In my own experience this knowing makes life more real than our receive perception will allow – it being limited to what is measurable.
Personally I spent years in the wastelands of doubt, as I slowly broke free of the all knowing scientist and was able to allow space for curiosity, for not knowing, and the possibility of the unexplainable being an acceptable part of reality.
But that’s not to say the scientist in me is dead. No, she just had to move aside and make space for other windows of knowing to exist. The scientist is still very much alive, and through that window more aspects of wolf are known. Wolf as healer of land: for wolf changes the behaviour of herbivores, who, no longer able to blithely graze anywhere, act more cautiously. This allow trees to recover in areas where ambush would be easy, such as riparian fringes. So wolves change the entire ecology of the landscape, just like beavers, they bring back a far greater diversity of life. Without these ecosystem engineers we continue to deny to potential of the land to restore life’s abundance.
Part of the year-long soul initiation was a vision fast. Four days and nights alone with no food, just water. On the fourth day I had various waking dreams and visions. Wolf, bear, horse, eagle, owl and snake variously appeared, some with messages, others it seemed in simple solidarity. It was not long after that, that the idea took hold, that I’d like to live in a place where all those beings other live. So here I am, in search of wolves and a wilder place to call home.
A series of writing about a long realised dream to go and live… where the wolves are.
Enchanted by a Goddess
Soon after the highest point on the road from Seia to Covilha, where the road starts its long steep decent down the east side of the Serra de Estrela mountains, I see her. The Serra de Estrela natural park is home to Portugal’s highest peak at 1993m. The park takes up 1% of the national land mass according to Jacinto Diamantino who I’d spoken to in the park office in Seia, seeking information about wolves.
The road is the sort motor bikers love, smooth deep curves through steep rocky ravines, with the ubiquitous pull-off to take in the views: some down into the deep valleys, others out onto the vastness of Spain’s central meseta – the great high plain of Castilla la Mancha, stretching off as far as the eye can see.
As I round another bend, a mountain rescue team is coming down to the road, carrying someone on a stretcher. They look relaxed, it must be a practice. The whole team comprises of strapping young men, not a woman in sight. I round another bend and there, in another pull-off are all their official vehicles and behind them, in the rock face, a carving of a woman. The Virgin Mary perhaps. Instantly captivated, I pull in at the last moment.
As I walk back to where she is in view, the mountain rescuers arrive at their vehicles and the debrief starts. Tourists like myself variously stop, get out of their cars, take a pictures and drive on. I do the same, but then, well, I can’t just drive on, this place has a certain magic that needs to be explored.
I make my way down the stoney path to the stream below. The little valley is bounded by rocky outcrops, some of which form towers, like upended garlic breads, the slices slightly offset from each other, but not quite enough for them to topple.
My feet welcome the cool clear water of the stream in the heat of the late spring sun. I look up at Mary, she looks down benevolently, as if she is beckoning me to come visit her. I’ve never particularly been into Christian shrines, but here it’s just her, as if a Goddess in her own right.
Steep steps carved into the rock take me to the base of the shire, where offerings are scattered on a broad rock shelf. Red plastic candle pots long burn out, plastic flowers and rocks from the surrounding landscape, many of which have hair bands looped around them. I take the one out of my own hair and put it around an otherwise unadulterated rock.
I try to say a prayer, but am unaccustomed and besides, my attention is drawn by the valley which curves up and away amongst the stacks of granite and cushion grasses that grow next to the tiny stream. This valley has a timeless sacred quality.
I should have asked Mary for good fortune on this trip, my search for wolf country here in Portugal. There are a few wolves here in the Serra de Estrela, but only on the north side of the mountains. They comprise the mostly southerly extent of the Portuguese wolf population, which amounts to only 300 or so animals. There are no breeding populations in the park, because the wolves have retreated following their main food source, sheep. Jacinto said the distribution of wolves here is sparse, that I will have to go to the far northeast of Portugal to find healthy populations in Montezinho Natural Park. I ask Jacinto if it is possible to hear wolves, as I know that seeing them is difficult.
“July and August are the best times for hearing them,” he says. “We go out to the place where we know they are and call them, and if they are there, they will often call back.” He shows me photos in a book on Iberian Wildlife, “here is my ex-colleague Fransisco calling the wolves” he says pointing at a photo of a bearded man with his hands cupped to his mouth,“ he has moved to Montezinho to be where the wolves are.”
I ask Jacinto if is possible to tell the difference between a wolf track and dog tracks, I know from doing a week long wolf tracking program in Washington state a few years back, that they can be very difficult.
“Yes, it is possible” says Jacinto, “just think, a wolf is a hunter, and a dog is not.”
“Ah, yes, their gait is different!” I say, remembering what I’d learnt.
“Exactly, the wolf moves in a different way, with purpose, and this is how we tell them from a dog.”
Next I will head to visit Faia Brava nature reserve in the Vale de Coâ, a few hours north of here, in the heart of wine country. The Vale de Coâ is an area of archeological significance due to extensive rock art in the valley. It is also a region now under the management of the Rewilding Europe Network. One of the aims of the project is to create a corridor between the wolf populations south of the Douro river, including the Serra de Estrela, with those in the north.
Apart from geographical isolation, the main reason why the wolf populations in the Serra de Estrela are tenuous is the lack of wild prey. That is to say species of deer, all of which have been hunted out in many parts of Portugal. This leaves wild boar, rabbits and… sheep, cows and goats. The loss of which to wolves creates many socio-economic issues and the historic despising of the wolf.
With my ‘regenerative farming’ hat on, I have been researching and writing about the relationship between agriculture and climate, and it has stirred much within me and given cause to hope.
I have long felt confounded by the enormity of the problems of climate change and biodiversity loss. There have been times in my life when I have sunk into dark depths of grief, wondering if I would find my way out again; and only doing so by deepening into a devotional relationship with the natural world, opening to mythic realms and finding purpose by learning to cultivate a soul-led life.
In recent research I have discovered that climate change and biodiversity loss are not actually two separate issues. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, the solution to both, are one and the same. This has brought relief, and allowed light into the dark recesses of my grief.
The more I think about this realisation the more important I believe it to be. Seen separately, climate change is almost exclusively about too much carbon in the atmosphere, and we feel powerless to do anything about it; and biodiversity loss is the inevitable consequence of progress, necessary to feed everyone (at least in agriculture). Both these perspectives are highly disempowering to global citizens, and carry an inherent load of guilt – everything being our fault. Regenerative Agriculture however offers real, concrete hope.
Regenerative Agriculture works with the natural principle that a healthy, intact ecosystem is far more productive than any other system humans have ever come up with.
Intensive agricultural attempts to control natural variables, so instead of relying on natural fertility, soluble inputs are used to feed plants. These inputs, along with herbicides and pesticides kill life. But in a natural system, soil life is what creates fertility.
Perhaps humans are reaching the point where we have enough humility to realise that nature is far wiser than we’ll ever be, and see her as our teacher once more. This shift in mindset is central to regenerative agriculture. The core enquiry always being, how do we increase diversity?
Meat isn’t so bad for the environment after all…
Herbivores are designed to eat living plants, but almost all livestock production uses some concentrated feeds like soya, especially to fatten animals before slaughter. However there is a growing movement of regenerative, 100% pasture-fed meats, where production systems look very different. Costly inputs become a thing of the past, because there is no need for tractors or feed, and because a healthy ecosystem supports healthy animals, medicines are rarely required.
Central to regenerative production are healthy, living soils. The old equation of grass = animals feed, becomes animals = an agent of creating healthy living soils and ecosystems. A healthy, living soil is rich in microorganisms, fungi, etc, which cycle carbon into the soil matrix, turning dusty-dirt, into a spongy, delicious smelling, teaming with life, food factory for plants, which is able to hold huge amounts of water.
Farming healthy living soils is the best solution to climate change, because this process, where life cycles carbon into the soil, is inexhaustible. Soil therefore, is the best long term carbon sink available to us.
But herbivores of late have been demonised for contributing to climate change, due to the methane they produce through their burps and farts. But while intensive production of meat is deeply problematic, as is cutting down rainforest to grow beef, this demonisation ignores the fact that vast areas of the world are naturally grassland, prairies and savannahs. These ecosystems are synonymous with the grazing animals that inhabit them. In these ecosystems herbivores are the great mobile bio-digesters, essential for cycling carbon into the soil.
In wild grassland systems, predators keep herds of grazers bunched together, and moving regularly. This results in the grasses being eaten, trampled, peed and poohed on, and then left to rest. Without this animal impact, especially in dry climates, grasses stay standing up, only able to biodegrade through slow oxidation, which results in areas of bare ground appearing under the plants – the start of desertification.
So while desertification is often caused by mis-management of grazing animals. These same animals are the best tool available to reverse desertification. All that is required is an understanding of herbivores as a tool to rebuild soil carbon, and restore living soils. There are some wonderful examples of people doing this work around the world. The following video from ‘Kiss the Ground’ is a great, brief exploration of this kind of work.
Coming back to climate, hopefully so far this article and the video have helped in the understanding that the soil carbon-sponge is the best way for us to draw-down carbon and restore biodiversity (because a healthy living soil is the foundation of the ecosystem). An abundance of life under-ground = an abundance above ground. Farmers converting to Regen-Ag are astounded by the rapid return of insects and birds to their farms.
Drylands and Reversing Desertification
One of the most important and least talked about effects of land-use on climate, is the travesty of bare-soil. When land is left bare, exposed to the sun, it kills the life in the soil. To keep soils regenerating, plant cover is essential. In cropping systems this is done with the use of cover crops; in livestock systems, this is done by using animal impact, and rest, as tools to take care of land, by mimicking the way predators would move animals in nature.
Bare ground under hot sun acts like a radiator, heating up and re-radiating heat back into the atmosphere. Ground covered with plants will not heat up above 20 degrees centigrade, bare ground, on the other hand, will heat to 60 degrees plus. Re-radiation is exponential in its effect, and an aspect of climate change that should be much higher on the global agenda.
The reason plants keep the soil cool isn’t just because they create shade, but also because they transfer heat back out into space through evapotranspiration. Bacteria from plants, go up with that transpired water, and seed clouds to create rain. There are in fact only 3 things that can naturally aggregate atmospheric moisture into clouds and rain. These are: Ice crystals (formed at high altitudes), salt crystals (water from oceans) and bacteria from plants and trees.
Natural ecosystems therefore create their own rain. This healthy cycling of water between planet and atmosphere is an essential part of how the planet is cooled. So addressing desertification using animal impact as a tool, is to my mind the most crucial action that needs to be taken across the world to address the dual monsters of climate change and biodiversity loss. And this is not just in the dry tropics, in climates like Britain too, the best way to sequester carbon into the soil is through well managed grassland.
If land is left bare, dust ends up in the atmosphere. Along with air pollution, these ‘aerosols’ aggregate moisture creating heat hazes. But these aerosols can’t aggregate water sufficiently to create rain, so heat hazes sit over land, heating the climate further. This is the water cycle stuck in motion, and yet another reason land management is essential to address. A stuck water cycle can only heat, not cool the planet.
Finally, I will leave you with a video of Allan Savory, (a man I flew halfway across the world to meet 20+ years ago, because I was so excited by his ideas), talking about the extraordinary work he has been doing reversing desertification, and restoring natural habitats as well as people’s livelihoods in Southern Africa.
Further resources for those interesting:
The work of Walter Jehne, soil microbiologist and expert and explaining this more holistic picture of climate-land dynamics. He has a bunch of videos on youtube.
Wilding by Isabella Tree is a truly inspiring read/listen about the rewilding of the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, UK.
I always believed that I couldn’t give my opinion or assert myself with others because it would cause conflict. That I have no place (perhaps as a woman), to speak out and therefore whenever I did speak out, I did so from a place of resistance and anxiety. This was pretty much always badly received and often did cause conflict. This then drove the belief that I must be a awful person who was always in the wrong. And this, caused me to deeply despise myself.
This despising of self was the engine that drove this vicious cycle, the self despising meaning I could never speak from an empowered stand point and so the cycle begins again. That despising, a land mine within my belly, hidden by a fire blanket of shame.
The only solution available being to bend over backwards to be nice to people and avoiding asserting myself, and if I did, doing so in an apologetic way. Which just leaves one open to abuse and bullying.
I’m telling this story because since uncovering this in myself, I suddenly see the same thing going on for others, especially women. This seems to be the disempowered state that many people live in. But it also means we walk around with a load of suppressed anger at our inability to have a voice.
This cycle of disempowerment has until very recently been my reality. It took a perfect shit storm of consequences for me to be able to see it. It took an extraordinary amount of courage to hold myself in enough awareness for that perfect storm not to sink me. Enough awareness to allow myself to see the shame and then the despising of self that lay below it. And then the self compassion to realise that this is not who I am, but the conditioning that I live by. Conditioning laid down in childhood. A story who’s sell by date is long gone.
In the thick of all this I was lucky enough to have the council of an elder. Who simply said, well, if you speak from a place of resistance within yourself, it will always be resisted by those who receive it and, yes, that will cause conflict. She said that the only way out of this was to find my voice and speak from an empowered place within me. That then people would be happy to accept what I say. My god! Was it really that simple. Could it possibly be true that I wasn’t the monster I thought I was. That I didn’t need to hide under shame anymore?
I have lived my whole life in this vicious cycle of self hate and now for the first time I am starting to experience life after self hate. Before, life felt like a war zone, everyone and every situation a potential trigger to feeling like I was a terrible person. Now a new calmness has arisen, the world isn’t such a terrifying place, the war it seems is over.
Having said that, I’m still finding out how to speak from an empowered place. One thing I am learning is that when anxiety is there, that I speak of that first. To let the other person know, this is scary for me. To allow myself to be vulnerable in that way, for it is only from a place of vulnerability, my elder assures me, that true power can arise.
The self hate and shame, thank goodness has gone. We can, glory be to the goddess, rewrite the conditioned self. This does take skill though, which must be learnt. This, the skill of allowing ourselves to fully be in, embody, the agonising pain of negative self beliefs while holding the knowledge that they are not who we are. In that holding we create a window of possibility because the human body carries a wild intelligence, which if we let it will purify the most deadly of poisons and bring us to the land of true freedom.
I have recently been at the sharp end of someone else’s agenda and it has been extraordinary to see what chaos and conflict we create for ourselves and others when we approach the world in this way.
Have you ever stopped to think about this? I hadn’t. Western culture teaches us to always have an agenda, it teaches us to go and get what we want. It’s an obligation if we are to fulfil the capitalist definition of success. We have some moral structure around this in order to try and negate the fallout it creates, but fallout is inevitable, unavoidable. When we have an agenda, someone or something is inevitably in our way, and it becomes very difficult to treat that person or thing (such as our earth) with our full humanity. When we have an agenda we ‘other’ people, we project and transfer a story onto them and we loose our curiosity about them. This is the ground of conflict. This is the ground of colonialism. This is the ground of oppression.
But do we need to approach our lives with an agenda? Or do our agendas actually prevent us from coming to know who we really are and grow as human beings? I say yes, absolutely!
Have you ever fallen in love and started fantasising about how the relationship might pan out? Suddenly you find yourself superimposing a story of the future upon that person, entirely without their knowledge or permission. What happens in that moment is our curiosity about that person is eclipsed by our agenda. This might be a subconscious agenda but it is an agenda no less. In that moment we have stopped allowing life to unfold and we have imposed an idea upon it, and this will come to erode the relationship because agendas create controlling behaviours, agendas are our attempt to control life. But life doesn’t want to be controlled. Life in fact when we stop trying to control it becomes the most extraordinary adventure beyond our wildest dreams. But we don’t know this, because we tend to live from our fears and hide behind our agendas, and our fears create plenty of subconscious agendas!
There is much to rail against in ourselves with this, for not having an agenda in the modern world is frowned upon. “What are you going to do with your life?!” But this is all part of the power-over paradigm as Pat MacCabe calls it, that is causing such destruction in our world. We are so engrained in this agenda led paradigm that we never think to stop and ask, what does life want to do with me? We are unable to find the stillness to be curious, even about ourselves, about who we might be, beyond the bounds of our conditioning.
Curiosity is one of the greatest gifts we can offer ourselves, the world and each other, while agendas engrain implicit biases. There are startling examples of this in colonialism. I recently read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe about pre-colonial agriculture in Australia, taken from first settler accounts. It is clear from these accounts that the Aboriginal peoples of Australia had very sophisticated forms of agriculture and the soils were rich and healthy. But despite the evidence in-front of their eyes and in their very own journal writings of grain production, hay stoops, etc, the settlers chose to continue to see these peoples as savage hunter-gatherers.
In my explorations of trying to live a soul-led, rather than mind-led life, I find that curiosity is key. Vision-fast guides Bill Plotkin and Geneen Maria Haugen teach that wandering in the world with wonder, curiosity and awe is of the highest order. This helps us start to experience the world other than through the lenses of the mind. The extraordinary thing is that the world responds in kind, curiosity it seems, invites curiosity. Animals and birds are unthreatened by us when we are once more like the innocent child, full of wonder, and other beings often approach us expressing their curiosity.
From this start point, it has been my experience, that a whole new world unfolds. Another dimension to life opens up. This is because the mind can only interpret the world. Through the mind we can only experience life as an interpretation, like watching a film. However approaching the world from a fully embodied state, as curiosity fosters, brings us back to the ground of primary experience. We are no longer watching the film but we are in it. We then have the possibility to experience life and the world around us with a greater intensity and depth of sensory perception. The intelligence of each and every cell is awoken and the body becomes like a satellite receiver, picking up on the subtle influxes that previously we were not able to perceive.
Like surfing a wave, there is no possibility to control how the wave behaves, only the possibility to catch the wave and ride it. And so it is with life, curiosity is the first step towards letting life live us, rather than us living life. This is a baby step towards a way of being more akin to the indigenous cultures of the world who know/knew how to live in harmony with each other and the planet. They know/knew how to hear the wild other through their bodies and therefore know themselves in the context of their world.
Covid-19 has brought on an existential crisis for some people. These crises, as hard as they are at the time, can be portals to new ways of understanding our place in the world. So I thought I’d share one such experience from few years ago, which brought new freedom and joy to my life.
Six years ago I had the good fortune to go on a wilderness solo in Spain, in the stunning landscape of the Pyrenean foothills of Catalunya. I had recently attended a Sustainability Leadership module at the university, an experiential learning week that had left me rather undone and grappling with what climate change could mean for us and our planet. I stuck with a question that I could not reconcile in myself. Wasn’t I just another burden on the earth?
On my 24 hours alone on that mountainside I decided to face this agonising dilemma head on. I chose a spot on a ridge. To the south the mountain rolled down through dry, stunted oak woodland. To the north, a sheer 100m drop down to a cool, shaded beach and chestnut forest.
I sat on the edge of that cliff and cried. I didn’t know what to do, so I asked a questions and awaited answers. They took their time, but steadily they came, like lightbulbs illuminating within me. The first question, I asked of mother earth, “Should I just throw myself off this cliff and no longer be a burden to you?” Please understand, I had no actual intention of doing this, but it feltincredibly powerful to ask the question on the edge of such a potential. The first answer took me by surprise “You may not be afraid to die but you are afraid to live.” I knew there was truth in this and contemplated this the rest of that day, at the end of which another answer came “All you can do in this life is share your gifts.”
Comforted I went to sleep in my hammock beneath the oak trees. In the morning I awoke to the sun rising over the mountains at the end of the ridge. It was beautiful. And there came another answer as clear as a bell. “You have a choice. Either all life is sacred or no life is sacred. But if you should choose all life to be sacred, then that must include yours, as well all others.” In that moment I had clear sight that the veil between these two options was not just thin, but actually none existent. Whether all life is sacred or not is not an actuality it is a choice, my choice, our choice.
I spent the rest of my time on that mountainside in contemplation of this and a new question that had arisen in me. “If I choose all life to be sacred then what of rocks and water and all things supposedly none living.” In my contemplation I picked up a small rock that lay next to me and look at it closely. To my amazement it was made up of hundreds of tinny fossilised shells. Life, now past, lying still in this rocky form. In that moment the veil between inanimate and animate also faded away. And I could see, if I am to choose life as sacred, I must choose all other things too.
(This piece was written for and originally published at Wilderculture.com – an organisation I work with developing ecosystem-based agriculture.)
A Bosnian man who’d moved to the USA after the war wrote of all the difficulties he had had in adapting to a new culture. There were things that he just couldn’t understand like why Americans would leave the house with wet hair, when everyone knows that if you go outside with wet hair it gives you encephalitis! My boyfriend tells me this story with a certain level of self deprecation as we walk barefoot on the beach. I’ve been laughing at him for worrying about me getting cold feet after having had the flu. “I think it’s good for me!” I protest, but then he is Spanish, and in Spain it seems you can’t even go to the toilet in the night barefoot and not be told off. God forbid you walk down the street with no shoes, unless you seek disapproving looks from the Señoras that pass by. But then my boyfriend recalls when he was a child many people still could not afford shoes following the Spanish civil war and had to go barefoot.
The reasons we believe what we believe run deep, often so deep in the past we have no access to the original reasons why. The Bollywood director Shekhar Karpur once said “we are the stories we tell ourselves” and indeed societies and cultures are constructed almost entirely upon stories. Of course there are other powerful forces at work, but what the general populous buys into are stories.
For example, why does chemical agriculture remain the dominant food growing method in the world? Well, there are number of commonly held beliefs, stories that are told to uphold this idea. The dominant one being that we have no other option, that we couldn’t possibly produce enough food any other way. I have, until recently, struggled greatly with this narrative. It made me feel I was being elitist wanting to eat organic food and promote organic agriculture in the world. Why should I eat food free of chemicals when millions can’t afford to? And how are we going to feed the world otherwise? But I have always had an instinct that this story we are living by just isn’t true.
Then I met Leontino Balbo, a Brazilian farmer who grows 1/3 of the worlds organic sugar. He has spent 30 years figuring out how to do so without chemicals, without burning the cane and with the help of all the living systems and organisms within nature. As a result his sugar estates now yield 24% more than the surrounding conventionally grown sugar. This alone is impressive, but it is just the start. The health of the water cycle on the land has returned, the streams from the farm run clear into the muddy rivers and new springs and water courses have arisen which have been planted with trees to protect them. Perhaps most exciting of all is the return of biodiversity to the farm.
Meeting Leontino has allowed me to believe in what deep down I already knew, that working with nature not against her, holds the solutions for the big problems facing humanity. And it is here that we might dive a little deeper into the role of stories.
Storytelling is as old as humans themselves, telling each other tales around the fire at night is something humans always did until relatively recent times. But were these just tales told in order to entertain and hold oral histories? Well yes, but I believe they went much further than that. Storyteller Martin Shaw describes ‘myth’ as “the language in which the world thinks.” A strange concept to the modern scientific mind to whom myth has come to mean an untruth. For animist cultures, the idea that myth is the language that lies between all things is not strange at all. For they know how to listen to the subtle influxes that are available to those who are tuned in.
A good friend of mine, a hetro-man, read part 1 of this and wrote to me some thoughts. He wondered whether the word ‘want’, or the sentence ‘what we want’ is not a masculine concept. And that Eastern traditions which speak of being ‘free from want’ is a fundamental quality that the western/modern world has lost.
This is a great point and raises a number of deeper issues. For a start we must discern from where it is want arises. Want of the ego mind is different to want of the soul. Freedom from want of the ego mind is the only way to access want of the soul, which can only arise from being in deep relationship with the soul of the earth. Wantings, yearnings, longings of the soul are what bring us to our true nature and into a role of service to the greater good of humans and the earth. But shifting from an ego-centric life to a soul-centric one, generally requires an initiation. For to bring the ego into the service of the soul in a ego-centric culture is not something that comes easily!
This is where the lack of true elders guiding young folk at the right time on journeys of initiation seriously hinders the maturation of modern humans, who in the words of depth psychologist Bill Plotkin celebrate the Forever 21 fantasy. We seem to have reached the pinnacle of this with the types of leaders we currently have in political roles.
Eastern philosophies speak of being free of want but a common problem with western interpretations of these philosophies, and indeed with Christianity, is that they only focus on half of our spiritual reality, namely the masculine aspect of being. If we look back through the majority of ancient traditions it tends to be a case of mother earth, father sky, indeed it is upon such a basis that the Christian story arises.
The Western appetite for Eastern philosophy is one of seeking a sense of oneness, transcendence from the mind and body. This too is the case in Christianity, in fact you will be hard pressed to find a mainstream religious tradition that does not have this outlook towards the sky, unity, spirit, oneness. This is being helped no less by science, with quantum physics demonstrating how matter is just energy – its all the same thing ultimately.
While I too think this is all wonderful and worthy of exploration, it generally tends ignores the feminine aspect, the earthy aspect, the bodily beingness of life, the uniqueness of each being – the expression of soul.
This feminine aspect of reality is earthy, dark, the ‘unknown’, it encompasses the underworld, the sexual energies, the world experienced through the body. All this has been desecrated by the Christian doctrine, being labelled the source of evil, and so we desecrate the earth itself.
This loss of the feminine from our consciousness has left us deeply confused about what we are supposed to do with sexual energies other than expel them. The underworld and its role as initiator to soul is a totally alien concept to us culturally. The language of the world that only the body can understand has been rendered a fraudulent imposter next to the might of the human mind.
This is life turned on its head! For it is the mind who is the fraudulent imposter, while the language of the body has become lost and confused; male sexuality is seen as more potent than female, despite the greater pleasure being hers; and the underworld label as hell, a place one doesn’t want to go. But it is only by journeying through the dark that we find the holy grail of who we really are, the wanting of our soul.
I like the analogy of a volcano when talking about soul. A volcano is part of the earth, it is impossible in fact to say where the volcano ends and the earth carries on, but it has a beingness, is unique, has a role in the world. And so it is with humans, we are of the earth, each a unique expression of her, each with a longing, a wanting to take our true place in the order of things.