Have you ever noticed what happens when you really listen to another person or to a creature rustling in the brush at night or the wind moving in the trees, listen without reacting or even the intention to respond, listen without being influenced by long-held images and memories or firmly held positions, listen instead with a beginners mind and the ears of a child hearing a bedtime story?…Not too long ago, before our ears became accustomed to an increasing barrage of stimulation, many people knew how to listen attentively from a state of stillness, for example, while tracking an animal or hearing the approach of rain – or sitting in Council with a group of similar intentioned peers. When we are graced with that kind of listening and devoted to its practice, our ability to be empathic grows, we enter a world of spontaneous self-discovery and ultimately come to recognize our inseparable connection to all forms of life
Jack Zimmerman and Virginia Coyle, Council, (1990, p. 1).
Can you hear it? The flow of the river, the wind rustling in the trees. What was the last conversation you had with the natural world? What wisdom did the wild share with you? If you share your story, it would be an honour to listen, because I too am fed by the stories you share. I see myself in both you and in the wild landscapes. We are all connected.
Facilitating space for deep listening in the natural world has shaped every dimension of my life. I am particularly grateful that the practice has found a way to weave itself into my professional world as well, whether this consists in guiding wilderness programs or incorporating nature therapy into one-on-one work in my counselling practice. It is the practice of nature connection that allows me to continue to show up with awe and wonderment with each person I am blessed to cross paths with and encounter.
I invite you to hear my story. A story about how I have come to believe that listening to the natural world, and also bearing witness to one’s stories in the natural world, are among the most transformative experiences that we two-legged beings can partake in.
Nearly ten years ago I completed a counselling internship at a therapeutic wilderness program on northern Vancouver Island. An important element of this program was the ‘solo,’ where youth participants would spend 24-48 hours alone on the land. When the youth returned from their solo, the staff (and sometimes family) would celebrate their return and gather in circle to hear their story. Common threads in these stories included: deep nature connection, contemplations around one’s life and relationships, contemplations around who one is/has been in their life, and stories which usually included some form of a message from nature. The messages and their meaning were unique to the soloist, and they came in all forms, from the small and mighty ant, to the stoic black bear, and beyond. I watched youth return empowered by having completed something that was challenging, different from their day-to-day experiences and deeply personal. I was captured by the mystery and creativity that the solo invited; it was unlike anything I had experienced in my study of change and transformation.
Intrigued to learn more about how I could use solo experiences in nature as a contemporary rite of passage to serve both my own evolution and that of others, I attended training at the School of Lost Borders in California. The School of Lost Borders (SOLB), was founded by Meredith Little and the late Steven Foster, who already had been offering nature-based rite of passage programming since the 1970’s. During my first training with SOLB I was struck by the pan-cultural, humble, and dogma-free approach of my guides. “The guide was not the great teacher or where the wisdom was. The guide was the one to keep people safe, the one to create simple structure to drop the initiates [soloists] into, and to be there when they returned. The true wisdom was in the land” (Little Foster, 2018, p. 43).
My own four days and four nights alone on the land opened a door into wisdom and mystery which I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams. During my solo time I met my ancestors. I took broken relationships out on to the land and made good on social karma. I forgave those who have hurt me and asked forgiveness for those I hurt. I enacted powerful ceremony that allowed me to reclaim the true essence of who I am so that I can show up more fully for my community and the people I love. During my first solo and the solos’ since, I have wept deeply; I have felt fear in my bones; and I have been humbled by creatures large and small. I have felt a deep reverence for the sun, the stars, and the dirt beneath my toes. Most profoundly, I have understood at the deepest level, that I am loved and deeply interconnected within nature’s web of life. Despite the ways that contemporary society might try to convince me otherwise, I am not and will never be separate from the natural world.
My connection to land based ceremony is now an integral part of who I am and it is no surprise that I continue to return to the School of Lost Borders both as a soloist and as an assistant guide. I stay connected to other like-minded guides performing this work in Washington state, and through the Wilderness Guides Council. In fact it was at a Wilderness Guides gathering five years ago where my mentor and colleague, Scott Lawrance, and I committed to bring this work more fully into our local community.
Since our agreement, Scott and I have offered a wilderness solo opportunity each year on a quiet mountain on Salt Spring Island, the traditional Indigenous territory of the Coast Salish peoples. Scott and I return each summer to the mountain where we are greeted by the dancing arbutus trees and wise barred owl. We set up our camp in anticipation; ready to meet the folks with whom we have been exchanging emails over the past year. I can say whole-heartedly that I love each and every soloist who has shown up to our programs. When they return from their own four days and four nights on the land, we sit in circle to hear their stories. Hearing and bearing witness to their stories is an absolute privilege.
What I have observed in my time bearing witness to the stories of soloists is that spending intentional time in nature brings forth the most crucial essence of who we are as humans. It excavates our deepest truths. On the land we are stripped away, there is no hiding. Soloists are prepared for this experience because the structure of this particular practice encourages self-generated ceremony. Self-generated ceremony includes symbolic actions to mark beginnings, endings or experiences in one’s life, for example, breaking or weaving together objects, praying, singing or any action that a person is intuitively called to do.
I admit, articulating what actually happens ‘out there’ is challenging, as ultimately it is all thoroughly enigmatic. Which is why I devoured the recently published book, A Love Story by Meredith Little Foster, where she so precisely captured the magic of this work with her words. “We could see that there was this dance happening between the land and the individual, as well as the greater ‘mystery’. We began to see the relationship between the land itself and how it is constantly evoking thoughts and feelings and understandings in us” (2018, p. 42). Indeed, the stories move like a dance and the thoughts and feelings evoked for soloists are often an unforeseen and striking conduit for one’s own healing and transformation.
Some of the most powerful stories I have heard include people speaking the pain of their ancestors, whether that pain arises from religious persecution, colonial violence, or other forms of oppression. I have heard people claim the truth of who they are despite what it might mean for them to go against the grain of the status quo. Powerful stories often include a tremendous amount of grief. I met a woman who brought deep grief to the land after the tragic and incomprehensible death of a young person. While she was on the land, the young person came to her and said the words she needed to hear. The soloist herself said that it did not matter where the words came from (her mind or the person’s spirit), what mattered was that this was the experience she needed for her healing. The land can hold all of us, our tenderness, shame, regret, love, loss, resilience, guilt, despair, joy, euphoria – it all has a place.
Soloing on the land, despite the term, extends far beyond the time alone with oneself. “Rite of passage in the wilderness enables people to find their story again and to bring its meaning back into their lives” (Little and Foster, 1996, p. 3). During one’s time on the land, one’s gifts can be claimed. In being clear about what one can offer, they can show up fully for the people. Through the sharing of the wilderness story with a trusted community, the soloist is able to further confirm these gifts through the witnessing and honouring of the circle.
I believe we need to take our stories to the land, because the land is bigger than ourselves and it can hold the wholeness of who we are. We become nourished by the solace nature provides. Through this nourishment, the land opens us up so that we may hear the stories from our past and from our future. When we share our stories with those who listen deeply we are able to achieve a deep intimacy. The storyteller is witnessed and the listener becomes nourished. We need to hear stories so that we can hear our own story in another, if for no other reason then to build a fiercely empathic society. With this fierce empathy we can not only protect one another, we can protect our planet, because what we love we will protect.
Authors note: It would feel inauthentic to complete without acknowledging that at the time of writing this article, earth and its inhabitants are gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic. My prayers are with every family in mourning right now and may each soul that has passed be at peace. I believe deeply that the natural world can hold our grief, may we take our tears to the rivers and may we feel our feet upon the earth. I also acknowledge that this pandemic has brought about a kind of respite for our shared planet, I hold hope for how we might use this experience to inform our collective actions moving forward.
Foster S. & Little M. (1996). Wilderness Vision Questing and the Four Shields of Human Nature. Wilderness Leadership Distinguished Lectureship, University of Idaho Wilderness Research Centre (16), i-vii, 1-23.
Little Foster, M. (2018). The School of Lost Borders, A Love Story. Big Pine, CA: Lost Borders Press.
Zimmerman J. & Coyle V. (1990). Council. Dartmoor, UK: Regeneration Press.
Tara Souch is a registered clinical counsellor and wilderness guide. She lives and works on the west coast of Vancouver Island on the traditional Indigenous territory of the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples.