Does it ever feel as if the only news you ever hear is bad news? That all the bad aspects of human nature are in charge and there’s nothing you can do about it apart from suffer in silence and pray for some kind of miracle? If so, you’re not alone. Depression and chronic anxiety are now so much a part of modern life that they have come to be regarded as almost inevitable. Poor physical and mental health stalks much of the world in much the same way that the world’s ecosystems are showing signs of depression and ill health.
And it’s about to get much worse.
It seems the climatic and biophysical systems that sustain human life may now be entering into a period of rapid change that is likely to surprise us with its velocity. Recent reports of sudden spikes in average surface temperatures have stunned climate scientists, and only a couple of weeks ago the temperature in parts of Greenland was over 35 degrees higher than it should have been for early spring. Last year great fires spread across Indonesia and the boreal forest biome, turning the air grey with ash and smoke for hundreds of miles and even attracting the attention of mainstream media organisations. Closer to home sperm whales have been washing up dead on the beaches of England, their stomachs filled with plastic, and our government is rushing to allow fracking to take place at any cost, and damn the consequences. Did I mention ocean acidification, the nuclear pollution and mass die-offs in the Pacific, or the melting Himalayan glaciers?
One could go on and on in the same vein – perhaps mentioning that around half of all wildlife has been wiped out in the last four decades – but what good would it do? Facing up to the awfulness of our predicament is simply too painful for most people to contemplate, and so is it any wonder they choose instead to zone out and numb themselves with alcohol and TV box sets? Such a strategy ensures a kind of personal mental safe space, even if it dooms the biosphere in the process. But it’s certainly preferable to looking the beast in the eye, which can lead to depression or feelings of nihilism and hopelessness. Yet what’s a sensitive person to do as everything they hold dear about life on this precious blue marble spinning in space is senselessly destroyed around them?
That was a question that had been going round in my head for some time and was answered, in a roundabout way, by a dream. In it I found myself looking down from some lofty pinnacle on a town or city spread across the landscape below. From this vantage point I could see a kind of toxic miasma from which I felt a strong urge to walk away. There was an urgent feeling, too, as if the very mountains wanted to speak to speak to me about some important matter, and that I had better listen up. When I awoke I was puzzled and unsettled by this dream. All day long I felt a strong urge to head off to those mountains, knowing full well that doing so was impossible. Not only did I have no money for such an
adventure, I also had the weight of commitments tying me down. And so I placed this strange yearning on the pile of other such unfulfilled wants and got on with my life.
And then, as if by complete fluke, an email arrived. I was to travel to Denmark a few weeks later and would then have two full weeks to kick my heels before my paid-for ticket brought me back home again to Cornwall. All of a sudden it was as if a path had opened up before me and I gazed at my map of Scandinavia, trying to calculate how long it would take to reach those snowy white mountains in the frozen north. And that’s how I found myself standing in Copenhagen’s main city plaza one day in early summer. I had on a backpack, a pair of walking boots and no idea what I was doing. There was a vague plan to walk into Sweden and to somehow get up to the Arctic Circle, where I felt sure my conversation with the mountains could continue, but other than that the only other thing I had was a gnawing sense of unease bordering on fear.
The fear was real and palpable. Forty-something dads are not supposed to grow beards and disappear off into the wilderness in search of talking mountains. A sense of disapproval followed me around. ‘Are you, er, all right?’ asked a concerned friend. The breaking of petty taboos aside, I wanted to find out for myself if there was some talisman to banish the despair that crawls around the basement of the aware mind and I considered the best way to do this was to simply set out in search of it. That the culture of our modern technological and materialistic civilisation was both suicidal and insane was a given, but intuition suggested the tantalising prospect of a connection to something more intelligent if you looked in the right place. And perhaps something more intelligent than us would have an answer.
But just where was the right place? Most religions would say that it’s either inside you, or else in some numinous realm, such as heaven. Well, wherever it was, I felt that immersing myself in Nature might do the trick of coaxing it out of hiding. This raised a wider question, namely: why are we so afraid to break free of the norms imposed on us by society? It has been said that we each live our lives within a gilded cage, but the only way to see the invisible bars of this cage is to reach out and touch them. And then there’s cultural opprobrium to deal with: setting out on foot for two weeks with no plan and mobile phone is most people’s definition of insanity.
I had a few rules for my adventure. The first rule was that there were to be no electronic gadgets other than my SLR camera. Being constantly distracted by pointless messages and flashes of heavily masticated information, I reasoned, would not be conducive to focusing on communications from the non-human world. And so I left my phone at home. Secondly, I was to set out with an open mind. Having been raised a non-theist, like most people from my class and background I had always considered the scientific objective reality explanation of the universe to be the most logical. However, a dawning – if somewhat fuzzy – sense of a wider reality had suggested itself in recent years and I felt as ready as I ever would to engage with it. Lastly, I was to go wherever fate seemed to be suggesting I go, and wild camp wherever possible.
My journey started badly. On the first day I was thrown out of a shopping centre – ostensibly for looking like a tramp – and then my first night camping in a small forest beneath the flight path of planes landing at Copenhagen Airport almost saw me arrested for vagrancy by an aggressive park ranger. Being a hermit in suburbia is not easy, I discovered, even if I was only a part-time hermit. For company and stimulation I had brought with me two books. The first was Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Aurelius, a late-stage Roman emperor, was know as a Stoic philosopher and, as such, seemed to be the perfect companion for my doomer-ish quest. The second book, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, was written by the American author Bill Plotkin. This book had been recommended to me and it was tossed into my backpack almost as an afterthought or in case I finished Meditations too quickly. As it turned out, both books influenced and shaped my journey more than I could possibly have imagined, and at times it felt as if I had these two wise souls skipping along beside me and egging me on with words of encouragement as I walked the soggy trails of Denmark and Sweden.
In the case of Soulcraft, the magical effect was immediate. Strange things began to happen. On my first evening, feeling somewhat despondent and wondering whether I should call the whole thing quits, I sat on a log and began to read. The book, it turned out, was about Plotkin’s own journey into the mysteries of Nature and how its radical message transformed him. As I read in rapt attention he finished the first section of the book explaining how his first soul quest vision had been of a caterpillar building itself a chrysalis. The meaning of this was clear, he stated; it represented a transformation from one form of being to another. Look out for your own caterpillar, was his message. I put the book down to reflect on the uncanny similarity of how he had felt at the time to how I now felt and was immediately confronted – to my complete astonishment – by a very large caterpillar staring right at me. It was on a long stalk of grass and illuminated in a shaft of evening sunlight. It was huge – almost six inches long – and it seemed to be waving its legs at me as if to say ‘Hello – over here!’ To say that I almost fell off my log in surprise would be an understatement, and yet this was just the first of several freakish happenings involving living creatures to occur on my journey. When I had recovered sufficiently to be able to reflect on it I took the caterpillar to be a harbinger for my descent into the realm of uncivilisation. ‘Walk this way,’ he seemed to be saying. ‘If you dare.’
Later, I travelled to a small national park, enduring the wettest spell of weather in recent Swedish history. Large parts of the country became flooded, and I myself became completely sodden – only my books, which I kept in a plastic bag – remained dry. By day I would hike the forest trails, sometimes meditating or sleeping beneath the trees, and in the evening I would return to my tiny waterlogged tent and read Plotkin and Aurelius until I fell asleep. With the passing of each day I felt as if I were falling deeper into a profound mystery, and that these two writers – one alive and one long dead – were my guides. I began to be afraid. But then, as Marcus Aurelius pointed out, ‘It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.’
Bill Plotkin talked of spirit animals and of plants that could communicate with you, if you knew how to listen. In one section of his book he gives a detailed explanation of how to talk with trees. Talk with trees? Surely this is some form of madness, I tutted inwardly, before reminding myself once again that madness already reigns in the world and that we sorely need to find new ways to relate if we are to wriggle out of our Faustian pact. And so I tried his approach. In The Path to Odin’s Lake I wrote:
I walked out along the plateau on the southern side of the gorge and stepped off the path into an area I had not explored before. I wanted to get lost. Not seriously lost, but lost enough that I could not find my bearings. I figured that this mental state of low-level anxiety would help suppress the controlling ego part of my mind which is said to be inconducive to the reception of messages from the plant world in a similar way that sitting beside a screaming toddler is inconducive to focusing on hushed Gregorian chanting. To further heighten the senses I abstained from eating anything for the day and headed out at dusk.
When I considered myself sufficiently lost I began to look around for a likely tree to communicate with. Beech trees may all look fairly alike when seen in the aggregate, but when you are up close to them and trying to decide which one might look friendly enough to talk with then they all begin to look very different. Some of them seemed to have faces. There were long, grimacing faces with bulging features, Pinocchio noses, Picasso eyes and ghastly mouths like something from an Edvard Munch painting; and there were faces that looked altogether more benign, if somewhat misshapen and ugly. I tried to put prejudices aside – after all, I reasoned, perhaps I seemed equally gruesome to them.
Nevertheless, as I moved between the trees I attempted to get a feeling for each of, gauging whether any caused a particular sensation within me. I didn’t want to talk to an unfriendly tree – after all, if one is truly open-minded about the possibility that they may be as intelligent as we are, that they possess characters traits, talents and foibles, then one must not discount the possibility that some of them may be bastards.
It wasn’t too long before I saw a friendly-looking tree. It was a medium sized one, probably about the same age as myself. I had discounted talking with any of the truly immense trees with their huge trunks and their gnarled roots. Perhaps I was intimidated by their size. In any case, I went up to this particular tree and introduced myself. It felt a bit strange talking to a tree, but there were no people around in this off-the-track part of the forest, so why should I feel embarrassed? I was not naive enough to expect a pair of woody eyes to flick open and for the tree to start talking to me like one of Tolkein’s ents, nevertheless I talked in a spirit of openness. I told it who I was, where I came from and what was important to me. Bill Plotkin states that trees are not interested in names or other types of human categorisation, so I outlined myself in terms of the heart. This is not as easy as it sounds, given how used we are to describing ourselves in terms that would look okay on a CV. Trying to describe yourself in terms that you think a non-human plant organism will understand is a useful way of evaluating your place in the biophysical world.
After a while I had run out of things to say so I sat down at the base of the tree and rummaged in my bag. I had brought a gift for it, as was advised by Plotkin – in this case a very large and very red rosehip from a bush near the campsite. There were no rose bushes in the deep forest because of the lack of light, so I figured it might make a reasonable gift. I placed the hip in a bole formed by the tree’s roots that looked a bit like a natural shrine. After I had done this I sat and waited. I waited for about twenty minutes or so and then shifted position so that I sat with my back against the trunk. I meditated for a bit to try and clear my mind of unwanted background noise.
One thing that I was aware of was that trees could be much more leisurely with their communication than we humans. In Soulcraft Bill Plotkin describes one of his wilderness soul questers talking to a desert tree for several days, asking how it managed to survive in such an arid place. The tree had remained silent and seemingly aloof for the whole time. Eventually the seeker became exasperated and started shouting at it, upon which the tree bellowed back ‘Deep roots!’ The inquisitor was bowled over in shock.
But I didn’t have several days to spend waiting, so my hopes of pulling off an inter-species conversation weren’t awfully high. Nevertheless, I persisted and carried on talking. I talked about my own bit of woodland in Cornwall, describing the various trees to be found there and talking about how I was planting many more with each passing year. As I was doing so I felt an almost imperceptible change of something in the air. It felt as if the tree were actually listening to me. ‘Go on,’ it seemed to say when I paused. The hairs on my arms stood on end.
And so I carried on, talking about the land and the trees, and how I had come to be in this forest and that soon I would be leaving it again, probably never to return. I repeated various points several times, trying to tune into the feelings I was getting back from the tree. I had probably been there for about an hour by this stage and was wondering whether I was just imagining things. I wanted to know if this was the case or not and so I asked the tree to give me a sign that it was listening to me. I awaited a response, somewhat fearfully.
Fearfully? Fearfully because if it’s true that plants and trees are sentient beings with an advanced state of intelligence then the terrible things we humans are doing to them in forests around the world just got even more terrible. Indeed, I myself was no stranger to chainsaws, having cut down about two hundred trees the previous winter in my woodland for coppice. So I gulped and waited for a response. And there it was. Thud. I looked down at the ground. There, beside my foot, was a large nut cupule. I picked it and examined it. There were four nuts there, healthy and ripe.
I was astonished. All morning I had been looking for beech seeds to take back with me, but despite the millions of husks lying around on the forest floor they had all been empty, no doubt eaten by birds and rodents. This was the first one I had seen with actual seeds in it. I looked up at the tree and thanked it. I would take the seeds back home and germinate them, and within a couple of years I hoped they would be good strong seedlings growing in my woodland. ‘Good,’ the tree seemed to say. I bade it farewell and walked back to the path, which didn’t take too long to find, clutching the seeds in my hand.
Was I going mad? Quite possibly, I concluded. But perhaps, as the sixth great extinction takes hold, climate chaos picks up pace and people run around cutting off other people’s heads in the name of their god, just perhaps it is the mad ones who are the sane ones in this topsy turvy world.
After I had been in the forest for a week or so I found myself being drawn towards a small but mysterious body of water known locally as Odensjön – or Odin’s Lake. It was there that I experienced a fitting climax to my journey, albeit an unexpected one. I had not intended to write about my journey but I had kept a diary along the way and so when I returned home to England it seemed like the natural thing to write the book I named The Path to Odin’s Lake. When I had finished writing it I realised with some amusement that I had unwittingly set off from beside a statue of my namesake; Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Jason, in Copenhagen City Hall. Jason, of Argonaut fame, is of course well-known for his fearless voyage into the unknown, where he battles monsters and Nature in order to win the Golden Fleece and bring it back to his king. As a myth, it is about mankind’s triumph over Nature, and yet, although I had no such pretensions, here I was some two and a half thousand years later setting out to question the very assumption that man can battle Nature – and win. What if those monsters of the mind were simply Jungian projections; our own fears writ large? What if it was a requirement of civilisation to be haunted by spectres of the psyche; shadowy projections of our own inner demons? That quixotically fighting our hidden demons might one day lead to our own demise…
To even get a feel for the answer to such questions it seems inevitable that we’ll have to plumb the depths of our own darkness. Fear of doing so is an unavoidable element on such a journey, and yet moving forwards is impossible if all we ever do is focus on the light. The process of setting out on that path can have a profound effect on the way one relates to the world, I discovered. It now seems clear to me that as individuals and as a culture we need to advance our level of consciousness and break free of the rotting corpse of industrial civilisation. There can be no techno fixes while we are still governed by a mindset that exploits and dominates and kills. The sad truth is that we have poisoned and disrupted the biosphere to the extent that its life-supporting capabilities are becoming threatened, and maybe – just maybe – we’ve already had the last roll of the dice. If this is true then our final job might simply be to bear witness with good grace to whatever calamites await. Yet to focus on this possibility would be to miss the point and might even make its passing all the more inevitable.
No, our great task now is surely the work of connection and repair. The good news is that in it there is great fulfilment to be had in remediating the damage our industries have done and healing the hurt we have inflicted on ourselves and other life forms. The collective human consciousness may appear to have hit a stumbling block, but at the same time there are many people in many cultures and nations who have already moved on from the old paradigm of individuality and egocentric thinking, and are instead working quietly and using a multitude of different tools and techniques to create a new type of human culture. This reborn culture is deeply ecocentric and recognises implicitly that when we brutalise Nature we brutalise ourselves. It will be impossible for this new paradigm to flourish without the death of the old unfit-for-purpose paradigm, meaning there is much work to be done in making this happen. And yet flourish it will, and every day more and more people hear the call to adventure and take up the challenge in whatever way they feel drawn to. Building a new life-affirming reality is the best way to address the blues caused by the old death-affirming one.
Of course, heading off on a soul-journey isn’t strictly necessary, but if that’s what appeals then the first steps to setting out on such an adventure are relatively easy to do. On my own journey, I simply headed out the door out with an open mind, twinned with a natural born scepticism and enough money to subsist simply for a couple of weeks. I never made it to those fabled mountains I yearned for, and I endured plenty of low-level hardships along the way, but the reward was a deeper connection with the mystical swirling patterns of deep nature in which humanity is embedded. To viscerally realise that everything is intelligent and connected, and that in the greater scheme of things our currently destructive paradigm is a mere ephemeral blip in the evolution of this planet and consciousness in general, is a great thing. After all, we are all consciousness, and consciousness is us. We are all born with the remarkable gift of free will and as such are able to shape our own destinies within the parameters available to us. And being a part of the collective awakening of humanity – free of the shackles of our civilisation’s dogma – is surely the best and most useful way to spend our remaining time on Earth.
Jason Heppenstall is a former journalist and news editor who lived in Denmark for almost a decade. Three years ago he moved with his family to west Cornwall where he works in a woodland making charcoal and growing mushrooms.