Back in 1992 Clarissa Pinkola Estés published ‘Women Who Run With the Wolves’, a book that would transfix American culture, spending two years on the New York Times bestseller list. Her book is a call to recover the wild within us in the face of the deadening impact on our inner psyches of the economism that has overtaken western civilisation—the transformation of everything into a consumer good that can be priced and traded, from clothing and manufactured goods to tourist experiences and packaged wilderness adventures, even to human and sexual relationships, especially those mediated by information technology.
It’s not by accident that the pristine wilderness of our planet disappears as the understanding of our own inner wild natures fade. (Estés, C.P, 1992:1)
In 2007, Jay Griffith also answered this call of the wild. In her book, ‘Wild An Elemental Journey’, she writes in language that is poetic and raw, part travelogue, part memoir—reflections that draw on feminism, sociology, theology, religion, ecology and geopolitics to explore what wildness means. Her journey takes her to the wilds of the Amazon where, guided by a shaman, in a vision quest she experiences herself as a panther, prowling the streets of Oxford where she studied. In shape shifting form, she reports she found herself roaring: “a ferocious roar of wild and perfect contempt. I felt an untetherable rage at the Bodleian which houses with such care all the dry knowledge of years, while the Amazon burns… roaring in disgust at how my culture can know so little for knowing so much.” Quoting Eichel-Dolmatoff, Griffith notes:
Associated not only with wild weather but with a quintessential wildness itself, the jaguar is an outsider and for the Indian the jaguar embodies raw nature in her most uncontrolled and aggressive sense… the jaguar tolerates no fixed pattern, no order. It is truly wild, free, untrammelled (Griffith, J, 2007:101).
While studying for my MA in science and technology studies, I had begun to read the feminist critiques of the ‘masculinity of science’, replete with Bacon’s metaphors of ‘raping the Earth’ and rendering her secrets to the ‘male’ gaze of scientific reason. Carolyn Merchant’s ‘Death of Nature: Women Ecology and the Scientific Revolution’ (1980) documents the way the rise of modern science and the economic needs of preindustrial capitalism in the 16th and 17th centuries shifted the ‘normative image’ of that world from one of a living organism to that of a ‘dead’ machine to be read through the abstract language of mathematics. The wild archetype rages against this vision.
The Christian theologian, Thomas Berry, in his ‘Dream of the Earth’ reminds us that the natural world is subject as well as object. It is the maternal source of our being as earthlings and the life-giving nourishment of our physical, emotional, aesthetic, moral and religious experience. He calls us to a new vision as we recognise that our true fulfilment can only be found in our intimacy with the larger Earth community. This is what the Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn calls, our inter-being. For the Earth community is a wilderness community that will not be bargained with… for when other living species are violated so extensively, the human itself is imperilled as we lose our capacity for experiencing the numinous quality of every earthly reality (Berry, T, 1988: 2). More than ever we need to regain our capacity to listen to what the Earth is telling us.
As Paul Kingsnorth notes in his ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’:
The popular faith in science and technology has drained away to be replaced by a widespread, if often, unspoken, fear. From biotechnology to geoengineering, from Reaper drones to internet surveillance, the democratic promise of technology has been transmuted into an authoritarian threat. Meanwhile the vision of science-fuelled progress has done as much damage as it has offered improvement. With the climate changing, with the sixth mass extinction well under way, with the ocean swimming in our industrial refuse, with our own chemical backwash in our breast milk and bloodstreams, it’s a harder world for techno-optimists to find a voice (Kingsnorth, P, 2017:12).
As a sociologist of technological innovation, I was once a sort of techno-optimist. I was thrilled by the way digital technologies might open up new ways of working and communicating across the world, about the insights of complexity theory and quantum mechanics—that seemingly solid atoms are only interactions among particles that themselves may be merely patterns of probabilities, none of which can be observed objectively because observation requires interaction with the observed. The world was once again magical.
All this accorded with what I was learning through my own spiritual journey in Tibetan Buddhism and the inner experiential realisation of the essentially open (empty) nature of reality in its indivisible union with appearing phenomena in an endless dance of interdependence. The magic is that although ordinary perception tricks us into thinking the world we apprehend through our sense faculties is ‘real’ and separate from us, it is possible to find a dimension of awareness that sees through this illusion, and that directly apprehends the interplay. And that out of this comes a profound sense of compassionate inter-being with the natural world.
But these are not the insights that the nexus of science and business celebrates. Rather science and its adaption into technologies are converted into ever more sophisticated weapons of mass destruction and surveillance, an ever-growing array of consumer goods and generation of waste by-products that deplete and pollute the Earth. We have a so-called knowledge economy that has turned universities into corporations, that produces more and more information pollution, which is destroying journalism and the traditional role of the Fourth Estate in the functioning of liberal democracies, rather than providing genuine insight, analysis and wisdom.
When nature is empty of spirit, forests and trees become merely timber, something to be measured in metrics, valued only for its profitability, rather than for its being, its beauty or even its part in the larger ecosystem. The voices of the forest become silent. The ocean becomes merely a vessel for growing fish for harvesting or a means by which we humans can transport ourselves from one continent to another. Meanwhile as we perfect the art of factory fish trawling that empties the oceans, the oceans are increasingly choked with plastic waste. The detritus of the economic god of consumption and convenience now stares back at us in mountains of plastic garbage washing up on formerly pristine beaches and entering back into our bodies through the pollution of the food chain by micro-plastics. 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year, with 5 trillion pieces of microplastic in the ocean. By the end of the century on these trends, humans are likely to be ingesting 780,00 microplastics. We are literally conveniencing ourselves to death.
Back in 1990, just before Estés wrote her book about the wild woman archetype, I was going through my own spiritual crisis that woke me up to my own wild inner self. I was diagnosed with a carcinoma in my cervix and was rushed to hospital for a cone biopsy to remove the cancerous cells. As I sat with my bleeding body, wracked with the added pain of my partner leaving me right at the same time, I asked my body what it was trying to tell me. I cannot tell you how my body spoke to me, but it was clear to me that the message was: “Just as the cervix is that which must open to give birth to the new, even if it is painful; so your way of relating to your world must open to give birth to your inner feminine energies, which have been suppressed by your reliance on your analytical intellect.” With the help of my neighbour and her pottery studio, I began to make fertility sculptures to put around my house and in my garden. I still have that first figure of a woman, the body crafted from a wok, lying on her back, breasts on the rim, brilliant pick flowers growing from her belly. It was the perfect counterpoint ‘language’—working with my hands in earth’s flesh, shaping symbolic forms and consigning them to the alchemy of the kiln’s fires. She greets me each day, perched on a table on my deck as I look out into the garden from my couch in front of a warm winter’s fire—the mountains and gorges of the Blue Mountains visible in the distance, as birds flutter among the trees and worms wriggle through the earth.
The First Nation cultures of Polynesia, Melanesia, Aboriginal Australia and Native Americans are based on a world-view of immanence that sees spirit and transformative power embodied in the natural world. For Aboriginal people their relationship to country is as intimate as to their human kin. When my friend Shaun Brown talks of visiting his country, he talks movingly of taking off his shoes in reverence to feel his contact with his grandmother country and he absorbs its regenerative energy into his spirit. Aboriginal people do not value their country because of its economic value in terms of mineral rights or agricultural potential or even as aesthetic landscape. They value it for its spiritual importance, because it is imbued with the ancestral Law of their people, what we have come to call the Dreaming, remembered in a web of songlines that crisscross Australia.
In Tibetan Buddhism, this world-view of inter-being with the natural world, of mountain gods and sacred rivers, is married with philosophical enquiries into epistemology and ontology that directly challenge the materialist objectifying rationalism of the Western worldview. Even though Tibetan Buddhism and many of the First Nation cultures were patriarchal socially (authority vested in men), they nevertheless were permeated with a celebration of the ‘feminine’ as archetype of life-giving fecundity, the generative principle of the natural world. It is this archetypal energy, not a dualistic opposition of patriarchy (rule by men) versus matriarchy (rule by women) that is being called forth in the idea of ‘wild women’.
She comes to us through sound as well through vision; through sights of great beauty; through music, which vibrates the sternum, excites the heart; it comes through the drum, the whistle, the call and the cry. It comes through the written and the spoken word. Sometimes a word, a sentence or a poem or a story is so resonant, so right, it causes us to remember at least for an instant, what substance we are really made from, and where is our true home. These transient ‘tastes of the wild’ come during the mystique of inspiration… (Estés, C.P. 1992:6)
I have got to know this feminine archetypal energy through the idea of the Dakini (Tib. Khandro), who breaks through our conditioned mind-body to awaken us, through all sorts of circumstances and events—when things fall apart and the truth of impermanence impresses itself upon us. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dakini is celebrated in the life and times of Yeshe Tsogyal, a great female practitioner of the 8th century. On an innermost secret level, ‘she’ is experienced as formless wisdom awareness, the Great Mother, Prajnaparamita (Tib. Yum Chenmo), and the great protector against the corruption of this awareness through conceptual fabrication is Ekadzati, the fearsome dancing Dakini of non-duality.
During a traditional three-year retreat in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that I undertook between 2006 and 2009, in memory of the myriad ways the Dakini had appeared in my life, I wrote this poem to Yeshe Tsogyal:
You called to me long before I recognised your voice.
Looking back I see your hidden hand in my yearning quest for meaning,
My troubled youth, the disappointments and adventures,
The dreams and visions that awoke my inner nature.
Until finally I found you, the precious voice of the dharma,
Reverberating from Oddiyana and Tibet into the chaos of the modern world.
Many times you sought to awaken me from my prison
Of the conceptualising mind,
My female energies hidden from my view.
Finally you sent the mamos into the very cells of the gateway to my womb
Where they shook me with their wrath:
‘Woman, give birth to your female energies
Or this disturbance of your cells will spread.
If you do not heed us, you will die. Give birth to your Dakini!’
My love abandoned me for another woman.
I sat with my bleeding body and felt my world fall apart.
Then the Naga King appeared in a dream vision,
Roaring up my channels, releasing waves of energy
That shook me to my bones.
As I watched the dawn break over the rolling waves of the ocean
The dakinis sang to me with Pandaravasini’s fiery sun,
The glistening blue surge of Mamaki, brushed by the wind of Samayatara
To form white foam that frolicked in the sunlight.
Their voices sang: ‘Put away your books and intellect. Find a new voice.
Make fertility sculptures with Buddhalochana, the flesh of Mother Earth.
Mould sensuous forms that celebrate a woman’s body!
Back in 1990, after making my fertility sculptures, including a male lingam, I turned my attention to an installation of raku fired ceramic masks—a homage to Ekadzati from the Local Guardians: eagle sky-like mind, garrulous cockatoo mind, and the instinctual reptilian mind of lizard. This now marks the entrance to my house. Here you see my young granddaughter digging in the terrace above to make her fairy garden. This installation is a reminder to me of the importance of the Dakini principle, the dynamic quality of non-dual awareness. It is the antidote to the conceptual elaboration that pits one view against another, one group’s ideological preferences as the ‘truth’ against another’s as ‘fake news’, as information pollution threatens our sanity with the same virulence as plastic waste in our oceans.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the Dakini, although represented iconographically as female, is beyond gender. In the tantric methods of spiritual realisation both male and female practitioners learn how to embody the Dakini as the inner experience of dynamic awareness, and in the energetic pathways of their bodies, which is mirrored in the pure nature of the elements that comprise our world—earth, wind, fire, water and air. It is these experiential rituals that have their various forms in the pre-industrial societies of the First Nation’s peoples that have provided the mytho-poetic language to experience our inter-being with the natural world. It is this that we must recover and it can only be done through the creative arts—through song, dance, music, sculpture, painting, film, sound—for these are the forms of human communication that open us up to knowing beyond the prosaic.
This is the project with which the Wild Mountain Collective seeks to engage in myriads of creative forms, so that we might all celebrate the ‘wild’ within ourselves in communion with the natural world. We do this in fellowship with groups like the Dark Mountain Project in the UK, the work of Paul Kingsnorth and his colleagues, to environmental philosophers like Freya Mathews in Australia, Dave Abram and his Alliance for Wild Ethics in the US, landscape artists like John Wolseley and the great Aboriginal and Torres Strait artists who have found a way to make their culture visible to we whitefellas. We are part of a gathering zeitgeist, uniting First Nations peoples, artists, writers, poets, philosophers and thinkers from across the world, as we look into the face of the emerging Anthropocene.
In this time when certain forces are pushing for well funded courses at university that triumph the achievements of Western civilisation in the face of our increasingly multicultural nation and world, Paul Kingsnorth and Douglas Hine of the Dark Mountain Project leave us with a manifesto for uncivilisation. Here are its Eight Principles, which accord with the sensibility that informs the Wild Mountain Collective.
Dark Mountain Manifesto
- We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.
- We reject the faith that holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.
- We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories that underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.
- We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.
- Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will re-engage with the non-human world.
- We will celebrate writing and art that is grounded in a sense of place and of time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.
- We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.
- The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we shall find the hope beyond hope, the paths that lead to the unknown world ahead of us.
Paul Kingsnorth and Douglas Hine, 2009