It’s not an easy question to answer! I would like to suggest that we are what we eat, see and hear. We are more than a simple machine of bone and flesh. We are one whole great big interdependent living system of cells made from earth and water fuelled by magic sparks of sunlight. We are the sum of all our ancestors and influenced by all the stories we have heard. We are also the result of the choices we make.
We are what we eat
From a practical point of view, the food and drink we consume provides all the building blocks our bodies need to grow. If we eat food that has travelled from New Zealand we have bits of New Zealand water, soil and sunlight in us. We have the option of being truly home-grown by only eating locally grown produce, or being at one with the planet by eating produce from all over the world. Our shops provide us with almost anything we want to eat from almost anywhere. Whatever we choose has a noticeable effect on the landscape around us. Sadly, we no longer see the effects of many of the consumer choices we make because many of the goods are produced far away, with ‘hidden’ consequences. For example; ecosystems in and around some beautiful lakes in Kenya’s rift valley are being dramatically altered by the all year round demand and supply for cut flowers in British supermarkets and florists. We get to see the beautiful flowers here, but we don’t get to see the lack of worker’s rights, the harmful effects of pesticides and fertilisers on humans and wildlife, the carbon dioxide emitted in transport or the pollution of water sources above and below ground - time to grow more flowers at home I think!
Talking of things produced far away; sunlight, which plants convert into an energy form we can assimilate, travels about 150 million kilometres. Without that sunlight there would be no collection of cells called ‘a human’ feeding off different collections of cells called ‘plants’ and ‘animals’, whose life processes are also fuelled by sun energy. As the Cuban proverb says:
“When the sun rises, it rises for everyone”.
We are the sum total of our ancestors
Every physical thing, from a gas to a stone, has atoms in it. These atoms may last with, or change state through, time. Some scientists will tell us that we are all likely to have at least one atom inside us that was once inside a woolly mammoth. Within every cell of our bodies is a hereditary material, DNA, which gives blueprints for the way a cell looks and works. How it looks and works depends on how it has survived the course of time and place. We are history. We are the legacy of the experience of our ancestors. We have been and continue to be influenced by the patterns of the physical world around us.
We are body, mind and spirit
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
As the quote above from John Muir suggests, we are all part of nature. Nature existing within and all around us. We are of the land, made from it and our bodies will return to it. So it was hard, yet also rather exciting, for me to accept that I am also spirit. The problem was that although I believed we all have a spiritual part to ourselves I had had, until then, no proof. I am, like so many people in the industrialised west, a product of an education system based on a utilitarian worldview, wherein all of nature is a spiritless source of resources to be exploited for financial reward. Leaving school during the late 80’s, studying environmental sciences at university and travelling extensively during the 90’s, I found there are many other worldviews and spiritual traditions. The ones that appeal to me most are the more nature based animistic and spiritual beliefs held by the likes of Taoists and hunter-gatherers. Several experiences with plants and animals have clearly shown me that flora and fauna are alive with spirits (more on this later in the wild first aid chapter) as well as Adenosine Tri Phosphate (the chemical considered by biologists as the energy currency of life). Yet it wasn’t until I went on a wilderness philosophy course that I realised for myself I am spirit too.
During the weekend course, we practised expanding our awareness by watching, listening and meditating in Nature. As our minds became calmer and our bodies relaxed, we saw more and more of the comings and goings of nature around us, and within us. One of the exercises involved sending our ‘mind’s eye’ out of our bodies, to travel a short way into the landscape, look at something, and then return. We then had to walk and locate the sight we had seen with our mind’s eyes. In other words, we were to travel in spirit to look at something and then to go in the physical to find it. This was the kind of activity I found very challenging, as I wanted to visually see with my mind’s eye in techni-colour. What I would normally receive was aching eyeballs, and full volume mind babble. However, I was giving my all to the activities and challenges of the weekend. I did my best to follow the instruction. Within the meditation, I dutifully intended my spirit to travel in the direction I had chosen, while still being unsure I actually had a spirit. A moment later, in my minds eye I saw a small bright blue shape, roughly triangular, against a light, browny-orange background. I intended my spirit to return, and momentarily felt my body shake, ever so slightly, as I turned my awareness to my breath and the beating of my heart.
Getting to my feet I walked off in the direction I had sent my spirit. Topping a rise, I looked out into a larch plantation with a sea of bluebells underfoot. Last year’s larch needles made a fine, warm and light, browny-orange carpet! I felt momentarily amazed, then suddenly daunted. The prospect of locating the one place I had seen with my mind’s eye was completely overwhelming. There were so many bluebells!
‘Follow your heart’ – the teachers’ words came silently back to me...
It was then I remembered that the blue I had seen was different to the purplish-blue of the bluebells. It was more of a bright cobalt blue. I breathed deeply and set off a bit further, trying to follow a feeling of ‘the right way to go’. After about twenty paces I stopped, dumbfounded, because there lying on a bed of larch needles, was a small, triangular piece of bright blue rubber balloon! (From that moment I realised I am more than a mind and a body; l am spirit too). I also know that if we are all to get on in this world we need be tolerant of different spiritual beliefs and have an understanding of the cultural contexts in which we have been brought up. One person’s view of the world is not necessarily shared by everyone else.
We are what we have been told
Entering the world of myth and creation stories we get a glimpse of the time before time; a magical and dreamlike time inhabited by many different spirits and beings, Gods and Goddesses. Creation myths are a part of all human societies on this planet, often explaining how things came to be, setting examples of ‘how to behave’ and ‘what happens if?’. Myths and stories are very powerful and have been used by those who wield power to influence others. I feel it is true to say that how we see the world and everything in it depends a lot on the stories we hear as we grow. Stories have power or medicine (borrowing a native American term) and can turn us into all kinds of people.
This modern story and the suggested accompanying activity “blobsters” will help people to see that whatever religion, race or creed we are, we are all made from the earth and things that grow or live on the earth.
Once upon a time Mama Africa was sitting all alone in the plains, dreaming and breathing, dreaming and breathing. There were no animals then, no insects buzzing around. No creepies crawling. No lions roaring (this is a good moment to involve your listeners and ask them to suggest animals to which you can add a verb)… As the sun warmed the earth and the rains watered the land all kinds of plants grew up around Mama Africa. She gazed at them in wonder.
One day Mama Africa pushed her strong hands down into the friendly earth and felt around. She felt something cool, moist and squidgy. When she pulled her hands back out she had some clay in them. She loved the clay and made all kinds of shapes from it. Into the clay she stuck different shaped parts from the plants around her…seeds, buds, branches and twigs. Onto the clay she pressed all kinds of colours and patterns from the plants and rocks.
After she had finished each creation, she put it in the sun to dry. When they were all dry, Mama Africa gave each of them a name and breathed on them. The clay figures came to life and went off to live amongst the plants, walking on the land, flying through blue skies and digging burrows into the earth. And that’s how it came to be that all the animals and people came to live in Africa and some say, deep in the rainforest she is still there, making new creatures every day.
Marsh marigold flower against a dark pool
I love my world - paper free version
The 'must have' nature connection guidebook now in an online course format now with extra PDF download. See previews below.
Full of stories, games, activities and skills to help us all care for the planet we call home.