It is a sign of hope that a “retreat walk” is being organized through the Appalachian Trail this spring, from New York state to Washington DC called “Life, Liberty, and the Path of Happiness.” The monks and nuns from Plum Village who are initiating it, are known for smiling, singing, and connecting in a deep way with the earth. People who have spent time with them know that they make togetherness into a high art; they have ways of giving people a direct experience of interconnectedness and include the earth as an equal member of the community.
This walk is clearly answering a call to re-enliven the connection with the earth. The aspect of earth that they connect with is multi-dimensional. In family systems constellations they would call “Terra Firma” the part of earth that is unaffected by historical events happening on the surface. Hovering above Terra Firma is a geo-political layer, where we live most often, that carries the resonance of ownership, historical, and human events that happened there. For the land in the US, there can be a lot of static when trying to connect with Terra Firma due to ingrained habits and because connecting any deeper is an impulse that has been actively repressed in our culture.
In places where rituals have been practiced for centuries and layers of intention have been built up over Terra Firm, people say that Terra Firma is more accessible and that they can feel a different quality of aliveness in the land. In Iceland for example, which was just out of reach of the Crusades, nature mysticism was not violently suppressed as it was across most of Europe. More than half of the people in Iceland today believe that elves exist! There have even been recent cases there where plans for highway construction was diverted, out of respect for fairy dwellings and invisible pathways which are well-known to be routes tread by nature spirits.
The next time we visit Iceland, our fist stop will be the Elfschool, a museum in Reykjavík that educates people about the elves and hidden people of Iceland. This may seem simply folksy and cute (and it is!), but there is more to it than that. There is a transformative power in storytelling, and stories of elves and nature spirits form part of the connective tissue to a place in the pscyhe of all Americans with European ancestry. They are ultimately our stories too. All indigenous cultures once knew nature as an animate being. Mother Nature does not work alone; she has millions of children that surround us every day, living with us, in us, among us, and enable human life to be possible.
In places where nature mysticism has not been lost, we can find pathways that open other options for how humans and the earth can be in relationship. It does not need to be seen as a given that nature is just inert matter. As humans we do not need to look at the earth as a shopping list, an inventory of what can be sold, and what will give us the quickest hit for our most immediate problems. Most of humanity has had an altogether different relationship with the earth. In places where people are tending regularly to their relationship with nature, giving thanks to the land, acknowledging that the plants, animals, and minerals are as alive as we are, the land responds in kind. The humans live with a deeper sense of abundance, the land provides the food and the medicine needed; even the weather cooperates.
We are inspired by so many writers hard at work correcting the dominant way of relating to the earth. The writer David Abram will make you ecstatic for the soft animal of your being; Martin Shaw will make you want to spend a year walking the trails around your home, however un-glamorous they may seem when you began; Derrick Jensen will hit you in the gut with just how out of whack the “Man over Nature” worldview is.
And then there are many people in the US working quietly to do repair work on behalf of Mother nature. The Druid’s Garden draws on the spiritual cosmologies that were squashed in the same era as reverence for nature was squashed. They take obvious delight in revitalizing their relationship with the earth, going to places where they feel the land could particularly use some love and attention, like a quarry near their home in Pennsylvania, or an area where forests have been clearcut, and finding ways to offer companionship and healing. A core practice they recommend to begin, is simply going to a place in nature with no cell phone, no agenda, and just sitting there, listening, and watching what happens. They recommends an initial commitment of only ten minutes every week and promise that nature itself will provide instructions on what to do next.
So if you can, jump at the chance to go on this “retreat hike” down the Appalachian Trail. You will not go as a lone atom, but as an organism, most likely giggling like these monks, and in quiet witnessing of the extraordinariness of this earth. This is most definitely the first step.