In August, 2006, four colleagues from different lands and diverse backgrounds hoisted their backpacks and hiked into the wild mountain backcountry of Norway to spend ten days honing their audacious insights in conversation with the rivers and the forests, and to formally inaugurate the international Alliance for Wild Ethics.
Although they practice in different realms, all four were committed to a new form of human solidarity with the Earth. Each had already been working for many years in his respective culture to enliven a deeply felt sense of place among the human populace, to revitalize face-to-face communities, and to transform collective ways of imagining and of interacting with the living land. And all four were fathers of young children.
Dr. Stephan Harding, a biologist and close collaborator with planetary scientist James Lovelock (founder of the Gaia Hypothesis), was taking these days off from teaching and directing the graduate program at Schumacher College, the renowned ecological center in England. Dr. Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian eco-psychologist and associate of the visionary Jungian analyst James Hillman, was taking a break from his ongoing teachings within the business community, where he was working to transform the basic economic instincts that structure contemporary life. Dr. Per Ingvar Haukeland, Norwegian ecophilosopher and longtime collaborator and co-author with Arne Naess (the founder of deep ecology), joined the group on a hiatus from his work helping to revitalize small, rural communities by bringing a keen ecological and entrepreneurial savvy to traditional crafts and place-based practices. Dr. David Abram, an ecologist, philosopher, and performance artist from the American southwest, arrived in Norway fresh from visiting and teaching with comrades at a Tibetan monastery in the French Alps, the last stop on a lecture tour of Europe.
These four friends, all dedicated to the animate Earth in its outrageous cultural and biotic diversity, came together at the heart of the northern wilderness in order to pool their insights regarding the dangerous situation in which our species now finds itself, and to consolidate their deepest intuitions regarding the crucial work of cultural metamorphosis.
What are the collective practices necessary to ease the destructive impact that civilization currently exerts upon other species and upon the biosphere as a whole? What clear changes in cultural values – ethical, aesthetic, and economic – must unfold in order for such practices to spread? What are the deep cultural taboos that stand in the way of such changes?
They camped at first in a forested realm of jagged, moss-covered boulders, hiking off by day to follow the tracks of other animals, climbing slopes thick with spiraling ferns to visit waterfalls and to stare down mountains, returning at dusk to gaze the mists rising from the pond. They watched spiders weaving their webs, and circumambulated icy tarns, fell under the spell of sap-fragrant trees and danced with rushing rivers.
David is drawn into conversation with a river
Perception, they all agreed, is a primary factor in our long human estrangement from the breathing earth; civilization is clearly informed by age-old habits of seeing that steadily isolate the human perceiver from the world that he or she perceives. And language, too, is a major player, for many contemporary ways of speaking serve to stifle the instinctive reciprocity between the sensing body and the sensuous earth. But surely: aren’t there other ways of speaking, and thinking, that can encourage – and even enhance — the nuanced engagement of the human senses in the sensuous surroundings?
Steadily consulting the other animals they met, as well as the mountains and the lichen-encrusted rocks, the four brothers considered such questions together, posing perceptual exercises for one another, pondering the prospects for a new way of experiencing the living land. They listened close to the many-voiced silence of the forest, practicing new ways of seeing, and of speaking, that might – given the mysterious pleasure such practices bring – spread like a benevolent contagion through the human population.
If a new mythos, a new modality of the sacred is struggling to be born at this difficult moment in the world’s unfolding, then what is its shape?
For their last four nights they camped in an immense wooded valley at the juncture of five smaller valleys — a land long known to be frequented by trolls. The forest here was uncommonly robust and healthy, a fact that communicated itself to their senses by the multiple old and dead trees still standing among their younger progeny. The air of that place was infused with a wild intelligence that gusted down from the high passes and drifted up from the bogs.
Finally the brothers made their way down from the mountain valleys, stopping to spend the night at an eight-hundred-year-old still-thriving organic farm, where they stayed up late trading stories with members of the same family that had held the farm all those centuries. They took final notes on their conversations and then slept among farm tools and bear skins under a roof sprouting with grass. They were ready. It was time to release a new magic into the world — to unleash a new intellectual and spiritual movement, a new kind of human presence within the biosphere.