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Rewilding the soul

Dan Papworth

If you want to meet God, says Dan Papworth, try going outside into nature, where our prayers need fewer words.


We went to the woods. It wasn't late, not even 3pm, but grey clouds brought a wintry gloom and we encountered no one on the road. Autumn had come late again and the fallen November leaves retained a crisp freshness, a warm mosaic that quietly received the misty rain. It is not a wild wood, this place by Hatherley Brook, surviving in the corner created by Willersey Road and the railway, although I sense something wild there.

The hard packed ground beneath the trees testifies to frequent use by humans and management by the local authority. It is a place with no name, as far as I can tell. I want to call it 'Athelai', the medieval name for the area, literally 'hawthorn-clearing', from which the district name of Hatherley derives. It is not a large space, but big enough, I think, to warrant a name. Our naming of places and things - in this case our failure to - says far more about our priorities than it does about the places themselves. To many this would simply be 'waste ground', as if such a thing is possible.



Growing up in North London such places were my first experience of nature, something that in this country is generally limited to 'reserves'. As I grew they became favourite playgrounds to be sought out and explored. Around the age of eleven, with one or two others, I donned wellies and old clothes and sloshed along the Yeading Brook, crawling under bridges, peering into water outflows and delighting in the sparse wildlife that occasionally showed itself. I dreamt of seeing otters and of journeying across the UK without using roads at all. As a campaigning teenager I wrote to the Council to try to prevent a local woodland from being built upon, and I still believe we need these 'in-between' places, and that they are too small and too few. Like prayer they seem all too often to be squeezed to the edges. Indeed they are often defined as 'marginal', on the periphery.

For the past few years prayer has become an experience I can only describe as 'spacious'. Where at first there were many words now there is silence, a silence of unknowing, even of myself. Instinct rather than pragmatism takes me outside in winter, when most other people seem to be dreaming of sunshine in other places.

Standing beneath the swaying branches in that cold hour of the sun's setting my spirit was moved to prayer but my mind was robbed of words. A prayer of being, of presence. The wind, deep breath of the earth, gusted in the treetops, causing them to sway darkly against the cold afternoon sky, graceful, calming, but not altogether safe, not bound to be kind. Time passed. Birds, solitary or in small family groups, streaked above the canopy. The light faded.

My companion, not yet two years old, also listened, was also still. Whoever thinks children have no attention span should try this. I don't think he needs me to tell him how to pray. He comes alive outside and is completely at home, not yet schooled enough to love the woods and hate the traffic, to know why we must tread softly and be awake and alert for signs of grace.



'God made us in his image...male and female', so we are told in the first chapters of Genesis1. In recent times this sentence has, quite rightly, been a rallying cry for change in how women and men work together. In the past the suggestion that Eve was brought forth not only after Adam but also from him2 has provided proof-enough text for theologians wanting to establish a male hierarchy.

But who has questioned the notion of hierarchy itself? There seems to have been an assumption that it is implicit in creation. So we speak about 'orders' in the natural world, not least because the theory of evolution implies an order, and increasing complexity. As we begin to revise our thinking about particular, human, hierarchies, is it not also time to look at the whole concept of hierarchy? There was a time when theologians were preoccupied with the 'pecking order' of the Trinity: 'is the Son subordinate to the Father?' and so on. Even a cursory reading of Scripture shows this to be an irrelevance to God. Where love abounds there is no need for domination.



And yet domination has been the principle way in which we have looked at, and related to, the created world. There are some who have sought to lay the blame for this at the Church's door3, but the reality has been that the rise of capitalism has driven the machine of human 'progress'. In a relatively short time humans discovered, and then developed, the means of mass production (which is mass consumption), and the standard of living improved vastly and rapidly. Today we enjoy wealth unimaginable to former generations, as wealth has traditionally been assessed. But we have also gained awareness, and it this that requires us to think again.

I remember being told as a child that God made humanity alone in the divine image, but somehow the word 'alone' had crept in where it doesn't appear in the text. Is it really necessary? Are we so insecure that we need to insist upon our uniqueness, our separation from 'the rest' of creation? It's an idea not explicit anywhere in Scripture. But we are one expression of the immense variety of nature, or to put it another way, we are made in nature's image, in the image of life. Looked at in this way the cosmos can also be said to be made in the image of God, and we as a significant part of it have a particular honour, not in exclusivity but through our God-given awareness.



In Britain there are almost no truly wild landscapes. Everywhere belongs to someone and is affected by human 'management'. There was a time, though, when we were the ones who lived 'in between', making a clearing in trees that stretched as far as the eye could see, even if we found a vantage point on a hilltop or climbed one to help us choose our direction. Surrounded by life we took it for granted. The world was limitless and we were so few. But we had this advantage, and have it still: that we are 'super-cooperators' 4, able both to imagine and to plan, enlisting the work of many individuals to a shared cause.

So now we have to do something never done before. We have to intentionally change the paradigm in which we live, first because we know about paradigms and how powerful they are, second because we know our present paradigm is taking us at a frighteningly rapid pace towards a global catastrophe that could result in the deaths of millions.



'Be still'. It is an extraordinary command. Nothing in nature is still, although some things, like continents, the growth of trees and the digestive tracts of three-toed sloths, move more imperceptibly. Whatever stillness we can achieve is only partial. Like so many aspects of the divine, what we know, what we can know, is limited. And yet stillness is an experience available to us, as it is to every living animal. It is associated with alertness, and listening.

Consider a gazelle, grazing at the edge of the herd. There is a tiny movement several metres away. Its head comes up in an instant, every sense alive. The movement, or noise, was slight, little more than an irregularity in the air. The gazelle felt it, as much as seeing or hearing. Now its body knows stillness, as every personal movement is set aside to allow the senses to do their work. Only the beating heart, whose task of distributing vital adrenaline, retains priority.

In the camouflage of the gently swaying grass the lioness is also still. She has come to this point painfully slowly, belly to the ground. She too is feeling as much as seeing, hearing, smelling the herd and those at its edges. The wide pads of her feet reduce the vibration of her footfall to almost nothing. Through them she can sense the movement of the animal she is hunting. For both of these creatures, the hunted and the hunter, everything depends upon their ability to be still, and to move. Could this be the stillness, and the movement, to which we are called5?



Be still and know. When we go 'into nature' (when are we ever out of it?) beyond the safe confines of our structures, by which I mean more than buildings, we open ourselves to rediscover this capacity within ourselves. For too long we have thought it meant only to sit, or to kneel, in a room. Those who have explored this way have indeed discovered a deep inner peacefulness, and a challenge to face the self. But as creatures of the earth we do not exist in isolation. The solitary cell is an illusion. Without the green plants outside it the room would be devoid of life. Encountering our fellow creatures, animal, vegetable and mineral also confronts us with ourselves, and draws us towards a deeper communion, a deeper trust.

Perhaps alone of all creatures we have been able to invent a category which we call 'synthetic', 'unnatural' or, more crudely, 'man-made'. It is a bizarre ability. If you can bear it, try switching on a television at peak viewing time. How 'natural' are the colours you see? Why are the presenters shouting? Consider straight lines, something you almost never see in nature (even light is bent by gravitational fields), but which are so useful to us. We have imposed them everywhere, and even incorporated them into our language, referring to something as 'true' if it is straight. We live in structures that attempt - and often fail - to keep 'nature' out. As a new homeowner I have been impressed and dismayed in equal measure by the way water in particular manages to penetrate and do damage, and I wonder why it is that we have made an enemy of something that is almost impossible to defeat. It is time to grasp the nettle of our own creative power and accept that 'synthetic' is all too often another way of saying 'unhealthy', out of balance.



For too long we have lived within a story in which human beings are something separate from, and somewordhow above, nature. The time has come for a personal and collective 'rewilding' that enables us to locate ourselves properly within God's creation, and live in harmony and balance as part of it.

If we are to be those who affirm that God made us both of nature and in nature6, that nature is our home, and not just a pet project or some kind of responsibility, we need to recover a sense of the wild. There are instincts that lie within us that lie dormant but which can be revived7. We need to nurture, in ourselves and our children, the awareness that we rely completely on the rest of nature for our lives. We need to retain the deep self-knowledge that has developed through the reflections of millennia, the ancient wisdom accrued by many cultures, and a vast body of knowledge about natural phenomena, including other species, compiled in the past several generations.

The project called 'Rewilding' is intricately linked to this. We are intimately connected to our environment. If we are to change then we must bring about change, and allow this change to change us. Rewilding is the latest in a series of steps that I have observed in the past decade. Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall's TV series A Cook on the Wild Side and his better-known follow-up River Cottage came at a time when people were just beginning to realise how separated they had become. Mark Boyle's Moneyless Man project is another step. Although Mark's starting point was living without money he ended up living in touch with nature too. These things are connected.

Of course there have been pioneers of this way of thinking - naturalists such as Roger Deakin and Richard Mabey, as well as journalists like David Attenborough - who have pointed us to the natural world for decades now. But I sense we are seeing a far more popular movement arising, one that ought to tear us away from the profit-driven culture of capitalism towards a greater humanity, a greater wholeness. After all, what do we make this money for, if it is not for life?



But the reality is that most of us are bound by important relationships, obligations and therefore limited time. Little and often is where we have to begin.

Is there a place where you go? For some it is a hilltop, for others a wood. It can be a nearby park or garden, where wildness is kept at bay but can still be seen, pushing upwards where others have failed to look. I was privileged for two years in my twenties that I lived at Lee Abbey in Devon. As a member of the community there I had a half hour every day for contemplation and would invariably walk briskly to 'Upper Jenny's', as it is known, where a flat rock provided a seat and a view across the estuary.

It was not long before a half hour was insufficient, and I would touch the granite with my hands, and feel the branches of trees on the way back down the hill, wanting to be connected to it and to stay. I remember one occasion the words came to me 'Treasure it. It will not be yours for ever.' Towards the end of my time there, preparing myself to leave, I said to God from my heart; 'When you judge the earth, judge me here, for here I am myself'. It was only later that I discovered that the high rock overlooking the sea is also a place within me.



To go outside in this time in human history is a spiritual act and, like most spiritual acts it requires a discipline. If you have ever tried to develop a regular prayer life you will know that the biggest obstacle is getting started. You will also know the tremendous gift of finding others who want to pray with you. I have no doubt that the Spirit of God is calling forth a new community of those who go outside together to meet with God, to be transformed and to bring about transformation.

On Ash Wednesday 2012 a group called Operation Noah released a declaration8 that I believe is a template for how Christians are to go forward at this time. It speaks about our relationship to God, the poorest communities in the world, future generations and other species (I would include non-living 'creatures' here too, such as the rocks, the streams and so on). The 'Ash Wednesday Declaration' gives us seven actions to apply in our lives:

1. Find joy in Creation
2. Listen
3. Repent
4. Take responsibility
5. Seek Justice
6. Love our neighbours
7. Act with hope.

I believe we, as human beings, have all we need to bring about significant, positive change, reversing the damage we are doing to the climate and living in a healthier, happier and more sustainable way. But it begins with you who are hearing this call. It is a call to rediscover the God-given one-ness, communion, we have with Creation, which we have for too long thought of as 'other'.

So go outside. Go now. Don't delay.


This article is an edited essay from Earthed: Christian perspectives on nature connection, ed. Bruce Stanley and Steve Hollinghurst (Mystic Christ Press, 2014) www.



1 Genesis 1:27

2 Genesis 2:21-23

3 Lyn White's much-cited lecture, 'The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis', delivered on 26 December 1966, proved to be a rallying cry for those who wanted to distance themselves from responsibility as well as from Christian faith.

4 See Howard Rheingold, Netsmart (MIT Press, 2012), pp.148-9

5 A friend is fond of the following saying: 'At the appointed time I shall move quickly'. I have not yet managed to find the source of this important piece of wisdom.

6 It is significant that the Genesis account speaks of nature created through God's Word, but of humanity being created out of the 'dust of the earth'.

7 Eg Howard Rheingold suggests that reading may have begun with an ability to 'make use of deeply embedded perceptual mechanisms that probably evolved in order to track predators and prey by deciphering their footprints'. Netsmart, p.59